Apr 5th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Mark 14:3-9
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I remember the conversation well. I was new in my first solo pastorate, on a particular Palm Sunday, when one of the venerable women of the congregation approached me. She was Ruling Elder Mary McClure, a retired school teacher and highly respected in the congregation. She was a dear, though, at first, she scared the daylights out of me and quite a few others. In her estimation, I had failed to convey the triumphant nature of Palm Sunday and had, instead, focused on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. “Don’t you know,” Mary said to me, “that Palm Sunday is the day the whole world knew who Jesus was? It was the greatest day in history!” I was a bit taken back by the comment, as I might have thought of Easter or Christmas for that ultimate honor. I discovered later that Mary was still carrying water for the pastor emeritus of the congregation, who though long dead, was still somewhat in charge - at least for a few congregants.
But, every time Palm Sunday rolls around, I remember Mary McClure. So, in some respects, this sermon is “in remembrance of her.”
Palm Sunday was quite a day, though not for the reason Mary suggested, and maybe not for the reasons we think it to be important. We tend to think of it as a spontaneous display of the crowd embracing Jesus and his mission. We tend to think of it as the beginning of one week that forever changed the world. We tend to think of Palm Sunday as a jubilant, joyful, triumphal entry to a city and a people that was ready to embrace Jesus and hold him dear forever.
In fact, it was none of those things.
There was nothing spontaneous about the entry into Jerusalem. It was well planned. During pilgrim festivals - such as Passover and Sukkoth - people were expected to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate. During such festivals, the Roman governor would make his way from his home on the Mediterranean to Jerusalem - not out of any sense of religious obligation, but simply to remind the people that their existence was at the pleasure of the imperial authority. A grand parade from Caesarea Maritama to Jerusalem was orchestrated, complete with soldiers, drums, flags and all the trappings of power that the empire could assemble. The parade entered Jerusalem from the west.
Entering Jerusalem from the east - from the Mount of Olives - was another parade. It was a pantomime of the other parade - a mockery - a Saturday Night Live version of the empire’s parade. No charging steeds - instead, a donkey. No soldiers in battle garment arrayed. Just people, looking as scruffy and worn as they surely were. No drums or battle horns. Just the voices of people shouting a Hebrew greeting of “hoshianu!” - “hosanna!” - “save us.” It was a planned counter-demonstration to the Empire of Caesar. It was not spontaneous.
And it may not have happened just a few days before Jesus’ execution. The role that branches - palm or otherwise - plays is key. The only time branches of any kind play a significant role is at the fall festival of Sukkoth. The same parades would have taken place at Sukkoth. The branches would be in play. And it places Jesus in Jerusalem for a few months, instead of a few days, before his mission is brought to its tragic end.
And while, for some, the day was a joyful time of celebration, for most, it is entirely possible that the whole thing went unnoticed. Basic everyday living was hard work for the people of the time. Gathering food, fetching water, welcoming out-of-town family and providing for them - these people were not quarantined with a little more time on their hands. Each and every day held more than enough chores and responsibilities to drop everything and attend a parade.
So, while we have exalted Palm Sunday - and in Mary McClure’s case to “the greatest day in history” - let’s keep things in perspective. Jesus is intentionally and deliberately setting up a showdown between the empire of Caesar and the Empire of God.
Then, Mark tells us, Jesus went to Bethany. Bethany is a little town on the Mount of Olives. Jesus’ friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived there. It was a place where Jesus could relax among friends.
We find Jesus at the house of one, Simon the Leper. Who knows how nicknames get started, but - poor Simon - was forever known for a skin condition. We should not be surprised to find Jesus in a questionable place (after all, lepers were among the cast outs of society). Jesus has a tendency to dine and spend time with all sorts of questionable people.
While dinner is going on, and Jesus and Simon and the others are reclining at the table, as was the custom of the day, a woman enters with a jar, breaks the jar open, and pours the ointment from the jar on Jesus’ head. This is a predominantly male space. Men invited men to dinner. Her presence itself is a bit of a scandal. Her actions were completely scandalous.
What is going on here? There are many possibilities.
The most commonly offered explanation is that the woman is anointing Jesus as the new king, as prophets had anointed kinds throughout Israel’s history. The term “messiah,” which we translate “Christ,” literally means “anointed one.” Some suggest that the woman is performing the prophetical function of anointing Jesus as the new king.
Still, there is something treasonous and treacherous about such an action. Only the Emperor had the power of appoint and anoint new leaders and vassal kings. If this woman is anointing Jesus as king, she is anointing him without the agency of Rome. She is committing a crime of significant consequence. She is challenging the Emperor himself and she could be put to death for doing so.
If this is, in fact, what she is doing, she is a courageous and valiant disciple of Jesus Christ. She is risking it all for her Lord. She is staring down the empire of Caesar and daring it to take action against her. This is a gutsy woman. She will not be deterred. “She persists.”
But, as in Jesus’ time and in our time, the preparation of a body for burial - or the making of final arrangements - all too often fell and falls to women. We need only to remember the beginning of the story we will hear again next week, that the women were going to the tomb to prepare the body for burial. The body would be washed and rubbed - or anointed - with oils and ointments - before being wrapped.
Jesus himself recognizes this fact. “She has performed a good service for me...she has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” There is something prescient in her actions. It is as if she knows something that she doesn’t really have any reason to know. Could it be that this woman was a follower of Jesus, traveling the road to Jerusalem with him?
Of course, her actions are met with derision. Some of those at the table erupted at her action - which may have been a reaction to her presence. “Why was this ointment wasted in this way? We could have sold it for a year’s worth of wages! We could have given the money to the poor!” The gospel tells us “they scolded her.” Truth be told, it was probably more like bullied and berated her.
But Jesus takes her side. Jesus confronts her critics. “Leave her alone. She has performed a good service for me.” Professor Warren Carter suggests we should translate the words as “a beautiful work.” She has performed “a beautiful work” for me. Jesus accepts her action - her work - on his behalf. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus accepts the work of other women: Peter’s mother-in-law and the other women who accompany him and provide for him.
And then Jesus says, “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” “In remembrance of her.” The story we know. Her we have forgotten. We don’t even know her name or where she came from. Any information about the person is gone, crumbled to dust and blown away.
Her story is not unique. The church has allowed the stories of millions of women to crumble to dust and blow away. We have the names of many rather insignificant men throughout Christian history. We know what they did or didn’t do. They were depicted in our Sunday School books and pictures.
But of this woman - and so many, many more - we know nothing - even though Jesus said her actions would be told “in remembrance of her.” Her beautiful work - and the beautiful work of millions of women over two millennia - still speak of their faith, though their voices have been silenced. Their actions, though all too often ridiculed and mocked, still speak of their devotion to their Lord and their commitment to his cause.
What beautiful work can we offer? What good service can we offer to our Lord - even during these days of physical distancing and semi-isolation? How can we continue this anonymous woman’s tradition?
These are the questions that always come to those who would follow Jesus. Discipleship requires beautiful work - good service - faithful action. Being a follower of Jesus means emptying ourselves - as Jesus emptied himself - and taking on the role of servants to those who live in need, on the margins, forgotten and alone.
What beautiful work can we offer?
Let that question haunt you a bit. Let it get under your skin and into your heart and mind. Let it instigate and inspire.
What beautiful work can we offer?
May our work reflect her work and may we remember her, for now and evermore.