"The Real Superhero": Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

"The Real Superhero": Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Apr 07, 2019

Passage:John 12:1-8

Preacher: The Venerable Chris Wrampelmeier

Series: Lent

Category: Love, Discipleship, Servanthood

Keywords: discipleship, faithfulness, lent, love


In John's Gospel, we see Mary of Bethany anoint Jesus with costly oils. How do we respond to such a story? Jesus asks us to serve others, as he serves us.


This last week, my daughter Holly and I went to see the movie “Captain Marvel.” Afterwards, we marveled at how complex the plot lines were, interweaving threads from many other pictures, almost requiring that you see all the films to understand each new one. The next morning, I read an article discussing how skilled the studio is at this task. I can understand why it required so many people to create this movie. The credits at the conclusion seemed to go on for ten minutes.

Even though John did not have the help of thousands like Captain Marvel had, we should be similarly impressed with the complexity of his gospel and how it presents not just a theology, but a story. From the beginning of the gospel, John makes it clear that Jesus is God. Jesus is the Word, God in action. The Word became flesh and lived among us. John tells of Jesus’ ministry and teachings with that narrative supporting John’s declaration of who Jesus is. Our familiarity with the gospel can deprive us of some of its drama.  Maybe today we can look at the story in a way that reawakens its artistry and meaning. If it helps, please see the story as it would play out on the big screen, only this story has the only real superhero.

In today’s reading, the tension is rising to a fever pitch. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Jewish establishment confronts him and resists his message. In a scene worthy of any action feature, Jesus goes to the heart of the establishment, the temple in Jerusalem. He fashions a whip of cords, then drives out all the sheep and cattle, overturns the money changers’ tables, and scatters their coins on the ground. Jesus did not come to make friends with those who were making worship into a business.

On top of this affront to the power of the Jewish leadership, Jesus makes believers of Samaritans, heals the sick—even on the Sabbath, feeds five thousand, and speaks of himself coming down from heaven. His ministry attracts followers. His popularity threatens the established religious authority. Those authorities plot to kill him.

The final straw occurs when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, the event immediately preceding today’s gospel. Those who witnessed Jesus’ calling his friend back to life believe in Jesus, but some report him to the Pharisees. The chief priest and Pharisees see Jesus’ popularity threatening the Romans, whom they fear will destroy the holy places and the Jewish people as a result. The danger to Jesus rises to the point where Jesus no longer walks openly among the Jews.

The Passover nears. Customarily, before the Passover, many who live in the country journey to Jerusalem to purify themselves. As in a Western movie in which the townsfolk expect the hero to ride into town despite the threat from the criminal gang, everyone wonders if Jesus really will show up. The Jewish leadership has spread the word that anyone who sees Jesus needs to report him, so he can be arrested. The leadership’s fear of Jesus is so great, it plans to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus to wipe out any talk of Jesus’ power over death.

The days count down to the Passover, with only six more left. Jesus returns to the house of Lazarus, only a couple miles from Jerusalem. Time and distance are closing in on Jerusalem and Jesus’ destiny there. We are on the eve of the confrontation we know must come between Jesus and those who would try to silence him.

At a dinner, Lazarus’s sister Mary takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes his feet with her hair. In my imaginary movie of this scene, the camera spends several minutes in slow-motion, focusing on each detail, showing Mary’s relationship with Jesus through her actions. Mary cleans the filth on Jesus’ feet, feet in a world in which sandals are footwear, paved roads are few, and animal waste litters the streets and highways. It literally is a dirty world. We see that grime strip away under Mary’s care.

Because foot washing was such an intimate, unclean act, people generally washed their own feet. To show great hospitality, a host might detail a slave to clean his guests’ feet, but the host would not clean those feet himself. Mary’s washing and anointing of Jesus’ feet demonstrates the humility of a servant.

Mary takes perfume that would cost an ordinary person a year’s wages and massages it into Jesus’ feet. The ointment would feel good and fills the house with a wonderful smell, a stark contrast from the smell of the deceased Lazarus present nearby the last time Jesus was at this house.

Mary carries her humbleness to an extreme by using her hair to wipe the nard on Jesus’ feet. The camera in my imaginary movie lingers over Mary’s hair pressed against Jesus’ feet, and we see the nard sticking to and tangling that hair. Women took great pride in their hair, as many still do. Mary takes that pride and sacrifices it to the service of cleaning and restoring these parts of Jesus’ body. That sacrifice is evident in her appearance when she finishes.

Mary gives everything. Mary shows no shame in her complete physical and financial devotion to her Lord, her teacher, the one who brought her brother back to life. Mary’s actions, debasing if she had performed them for anyone else, show her as the true disciple of God. She fulfills the Deuteronomic commandment, the Shema:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Mary’s act anticipates Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet later the same week. While Mary models total love for God, Jesus’s foot washing demonstrates the second great commandment: loving our neighbors as ourselves. As Jesus sets an example for his disciples, Mary sets an example for us.

Judas Iscariot’s words stand in stark contrast to Mary’s actions. Judas berates Mary for using the perfume for the Lord’s benefit and not for charity. Jesus defends Mary, even though she is a woman in this society, even though she has humbled herself in front of all at the dinner. Jesus’ defense should not surprise us. Judas is a thief. As he testified only two chapters earlier in the gospel, Jesus is the gate. Jesus bars the way of the thief. The sheep do not listen to the thief. Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus defends his sheep. He will lay down is life for them.

Jesus’ response adjusts the focus from Mary’s loving care of Jesus to the coming crisis: Jesus’ imminent death. Mary’s anointment of the body with a pound of nard foreshadows the preparation of Jesus’ dead body a few days later with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes. Jesus has almost no time left before his death and his victory over death. Despite his warnings, the disciples fail to realize how little time is left.

While Jesus stars in each scene of the gospel, Mary is the person who intrigues me in our scene. Mary “gets it” in a way that the disciples don’t. No disciple washes or anoints Jesus’ feet at the dinner. No disciple yet gives that complete devotion. Even after the dinner, the disciples fail to understand the significance of such a humbling act until Jesus washes their feet and spells it out for them.

In our community, we see people who show devotion for God by loving one another in a way many others don’t yet. Last Sunday afternoon, a sizeable contingent of St. Andrew’s parishioners and clergy marched with the Amarillo Area Transgender Support Group, other Open and Affirming Congregations of the Texas Panhandle, and many others down 10th Avenue and over to the Potter County Courthouse lawn to celebrate the first International Transgender Day of Visibility. As I walked and listened to the speakers, I was struck by how much courage it took to form an organization based on love and welcoming, particularly loving and welcoming those whom others misunderstand and exclude. I saw God at work when so many others came out to support the transgender community. I saw God at work when car after car honked its support as we marched.

Love for God, shown in caring for others, even strangers, can become such a part of our identity that we may not see the healing we create. At last Wednesday’s Lenten series, the story was told how one person’s recovery from addiction and homelessness began with a visit to our Sunday breakfast. The person initially came downcast and did not mingle with anyone other than her companion. The food brought her back. Gradually, through the camaraderie and love of this community, she felt at home at that meal and saw herself being valued. When she recognized value in herself, she found the reason and strength to start her road to recovery.

We don’t get to have dinner with Jesus, so we can’t mimic Mary’s anointment of his feet. Every day, however, we are presented with opportunities to demonstrate our devotion to God by extending a hand, giving a kind word, lending a sympathetic ear. We are called to serve those who need help the most and may be loved the least. As our Lord had no home but moved from place to place, let us particularly care for the visitors, the outsiders, the aliens. As the Scottish poem states,

I saw a stranger yestreen,

I put food in the eating place,

Drink in the drinking place,

Music in the listening place,

And in the sacred name of the Triune,

He blessed myself and my house,

My cattle and my dear ones,

And the lark said in her song

Often, often, often

Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.


I wish you a contemplative Lent.