What is My Alabaster Jar?
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

March 17, 2013
Fifth Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21
John 12:1-8

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

This morning’s story occurs in each of the Gospels, albeit differently. In Mark, Matthew and John, it is set in Bethany, the Hebrew word for “house of the poor.” In Mark and Matthew it is in the home of Simon the leper, while in Luke it is in the house of a Pharisee. In John, as we just heard, it the house of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus who, just a chapter ago, was raised from the dead and now sits here at the table with Jesus and the others.

In the other three Gospels, the woman with the alabaster jar is unnamed: “a woman,” “a woman of the city,” and “a sinner.” In John’s Gospel, it is Mary, the sister of Martha.

The protests are voiced differently as well. In Luke, the Pharisee host does not begrudge the cost of the gift. He worries that if Jesus were truly a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this was and that he should not be seen with the likes of her.

In Mark, Matthew and John, the protest is not about the woman, because they have been around Jesus and know that he hangs out with everybody. Instead, it is the cost of the act that is questioned. In Matthew, the disciples are outraged that so much would be spent on this and not to help the poor.

Mark is for once a little more circumspect, “But there were some who said to themselves indignantly…” (I’m not naming any names, but…)

In John, the protester is Judas, and John adds the note that Judas did not say this because he cared for the poor, but kept the purse and stole from it, and so he hated to see such possible profits go elsewhere.

To be honest, I am not sure what to do with John’s little aside about Judas. I think it robs the story of its scandal.

This expensive stuff could have been sold and the money given to the poor. This is the cry of a faithful church whose mission is mission. I am reminded of the little UCC church in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. It is a retirement community for pastors, and the church often has building problems. But they keep spending all their money on mission and benevolences instead of the building.

And yet, in each of these cases Jesus rebukes the protests. The Pharisee worried about what kind of people Jesus hung out with, we’ve got that one and can leave it alone. As my daughter would say, “Who did Jesus eat with?” “Ehhbody!”

But the protests that such extravagance was poured out on Jesus and not spent on the mission to which Jesus called them is worth pondering, as is his rebuke.

In Mark and Matthew, Jesus claims that this is anointing for his burial, alluding to the days ahead. In each case, it is the act which sends Judas off to the chief priests to say that Jesus is not the Messiah and where he can be found.

In Luke, Jesus says that this woman has been forgiven much, and that such an outpouring of love and gratitude is her response to the forgiveness she has received.

In John, it is Mary, Lazarus’ sister. Lazarus who was dead is now alive again. What would she have given for such an impossible thing to be true? And yet it is. And this is her sacrifice of thanksgiving.

The church has always wrestled with this story. When Jesus says we will always have the poor with us, is he saying that nothing can be done, so nothing should be done? Forget the cathedrals and basilicas, our own church has such beautiful stained glass windows and the amazing slate roofs on the steeples. Is God any less worshiped in a pole barn if we lift our hearts in praise?

I am reminded of some recent news from Rome. For the Pope to be a Jesuit is quite something. For him to be a humble man who has worked with the poor in Argentina is yet another. For him to take the name Francis I, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi is astounding. And then for him to declare that he wishes that the church be poor and serve the poor is remarkable. I look forward to seeing is how this plays out.

One of the things to remember is that this story is long before any cathedrals or basilica or pipe organs or stained glass other high ticket church items. This was when people met in homes and catacombs and they read a few letters of Paul and maybe the Gospel of Mark or Matthew, because that was all the New Testament that they had.

We can tell a really good Gospel story because it makes us uncomfortable. I am starting to believe that if it really is good news, it is going to hurt a little bit, even as it heals.

One thing that hurts is the reminder that we live in a world of extravagance. We might not think so, because we call it normal. But when Pham came back from Mexico, when Dennis came back from the Philippines, when Dale and Jan came back from Haiti, we learned again that our normal is a lot more than other people’s normal.

Another thing that hurts about this story is that I keep wanting to side with Judas and the disciples, let this be used to help the poor, and Jesus says we get it wrong. Not because we should take all our money and buy perfume to anoint Jesus. I think that misreads the Gospel.

But what is my sacrifice of thanksgiving? What do I do to mark in my life that God has made a way where there was no way, and the evil that pursued me was swallowed by the waters through which I had just passed on dry land?

How do I give, what do I give, how do I dedicate my time and energy and resources to declare my thankfulness that even though my daughter has only one pulmonary artery, she is just as fussy and grumpy and bullheaded and sweet and loving and sharing and growing like a weed like any other two year old?

How do I express my gratitude that Mira is going to be a big sister?

I know what God has done for me. What is my alabaster jar?

And for each of us, when we got our new chance, when we discovered that God was doing something new, and we could put old stuff behind us and think of it no more, or when we were wondering in our own wilderness and God gave us water to drink? How will we express our gratitude with exuberance and extravagance and audaciousness and wholeheartedness?

For God has done great things.

Thanks be to God.