Ash Wednesday homily delivered at Woodbury Pres, with transition into prayer of confession.
What was she thinking?
Can’t you just see the disciples sitting there, mouths agape as they watched these proceedings?
The things that must have run through their minds. I mean, they had seen a lot in their days with Jesus: Demons driven out of a man into a herd of pigs, blind people seeing, dead people walking.
On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine they could be surprised anymore.
But on the other…
What could she possibly have been thinking?
Everyone in that room knew that pouring out that ointment – that costly perfume – to anoint Jesus like that…. well that was just a costly, extravagant waste. It was on everyone’s lips. Everyone except Jesus…
His response must have really sent them reeling. Here they were, ready with the right answer at last. Like children sitting up near the chancel during the Children’s Sermon who know the right answer is always God or Jesus, the disciples had heard enough stories and parables to know what the Master would have wanted done with that ointment. Help the poor! Feed, clothe, and care for the least of these. They could do a lot of good with the fair market value of that full jar. And they let the woman know all about it
But when Jesus stepped in, it wasn’t to praise them as star pupils. Instead, Jesus lifted up what the woman had done as a “good service” and said that her deed would be part of the story as the good news was spread through all the world. And the disciples would hear these words ringing in their ears:
“You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
You will not always have me.
“The Son of Man will be handed over and crucified.”
“Don’t tell anyone about this until the Son of Man has been raised from the Dead”
Time and again, Jesus told the disciples the time was coming, that he would no longer be with them. That he was going to die. And yet they just don’t seem to hear it. Or maybe they don’t want to hear it. After all, they’ve laid down all that they held dear, left behind careers and families, walked away from any sense of normalcy in their lives. They’d invested something like three years in learning all that the rabbi had for them. They had come to respect him, trust him, and love him.
It’s a scary thing to hear someone you love talking about their own death, much less predict his own death on the cross. When Jesus brings up the subject, the disciples deny, deflect or just flat ignore it. But there it is, looming in the distance.
I wonder if that is why we are reluctant to discuss this passage as part of the prelude to Jesus’ death. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard this episode used in talks or sermons on stewardship, but they tend to cut out or gloss right over Jesus’ words about this being preparation for his burial.
Interestingly, there had long been conversations amongst rabbis about which was the better service- giving alms to the poor or preparing a body for funeral. Their conclusion was exactly as Jesus described… that you could give to the poor any time, but the respect and honor conveyed in preparing someone you hold dear for burial was a one-time ministry opportunity.
The disciples weren’t completely wrong, but in this moment, the woman had chosen the better service. Matthew seems intent on helping us – and the disciples – hear and see what is coming. The woman and Jesus were both preparing for his death. It seems fitting then, that we consider this passage today on Ash Wednesday, the day when we contemplate our own mortality.
In many ways, our Lenten journey from Bethany to Jerusalem to the Cross feels much darker than the Advent road Bethlehem, a little scarier, a little less safe. The ashes that will mark our foreheads are made from palms used last year to mark the Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The mark of the cross reminds us that those cries of “Hosanna” were followed hard on by voices shouting, “Crucify Him!”
But even as this cross wears away or is washed off, the outline of the cross grows clearer on the horizon. It becomes clearer as we begin to look within, deeing in ourselves the shadow of the disciples, looking for other ways for the Messiah to save and to rule our lives; hearing our own voices in the crowds, sending our King to his death. With each step toward the cross, we feel more fully the weight of our own sins. And when we finally do stand at the foot of the cross – even the empty cross that reminds us that Jesus is alive- we still are not safe.
In life, Jesus was anything but safe. For the disciples, following Jesus wasn’t a matter of watching from afar. They were right in there with him, in the midst of everything. And Jesus challenges those who would walk alongside him today to live the same way:
Not just knowing what God requires, but living it as God intended.
Not simply going through rituals, but worshiping in Spirit and truth.
Seeking true justice, modeling true humility, offering sacrificial love.
When we talk about these tasks as discipleship, it seems pretty decent, clean and orderly. It’s when we talk about taking up the cross that we get a little squeamish. Because try as we might to tame the cross- by wearing it as a pendant or plastering it on tshirts with clever sayings- crucifixion is a scary, ugly, awful, deadly, confusing, scandalous business. But without the cross, there is no grave, no resurrection, no glorious Easter halleluah!
And so we make this Lenten journey every year, not because we are creatures of habit or blind followers of ritual. We need to take this journey each year because it is all too easy to forget that the God who loved you enough to enter the world as a fragile baby is the God who spoke the universe into existence and knit you in your mother’s womb. The same Jesus who walked on water and calmed the storm carried the weight of all our sins to the cross. The same Spirit who lit a fire under the apostles on Pentecost sheds light on the scriptures and enables us – along with believers in every time and place – to proclaim the good news. .
We take the journey to the cross to remember that we are called to bear the cross, not just on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, but in our lives as disciples every day. And every day, we face the reality that we – like the apostles and all the saints who have come before us- don’t ever get completely right. Try as we might, we miss the better answer; we fail to love in that more excellent way. We are after all, only humans.
But for all of our ungainly progress, all of our treks through the wilderness, and even our stubborn refusal to turn from a particularly tempting sin, there is hope. Through confession and repentance, we experience grace and forgiveness, restoration and healing, reconciliation and abiding love.
In a moment, we will enter a time of silent reflection. This is a time for you to consider what barriers there might be between you and God, to name them and lay them before the Lord. This can be an uncomfortable process, even painful. And yet, there is hope.
Listen to these words from the 51st Psalm:
6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
If David, that man after God’s own heart, whose sins bore down on him so heavily that his very bones felt the pain. If David could come to the Lord to confess his sin, trusting that the Lord would restore his joy. If David had that sort of hope….
How much more hope do we have, knowing that we have Jesus as our great high priest sitting at the right hand of God, who endured temptation and carried our sins to the cross?
Let’s go to the Lord in prayer, searching our hearts, confessing our sins.
Have mercy on us, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out our transgressions.
Wash away all our iniquity and cleanse us from our sin. For we know our transgressions, and our sins are always before us.
Do not allow us to hide them, or disguise them in hopes they will not claim us, Instead give us the courage to confront the truth in ourselves.
Hear the words that come to our lips, and send your Spirit to speak those things for which we have no words…