By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, November 6, 2022
Reading: John 12:1-8
It is a gift to celebrate this Remembrance Day with you for my first time at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. Canadians approach patriotism with a somberness, a sobriety, shall we say. Patriotism in my home, the US, tends more to the brash and bombastic: a difference in our national characters. This week I became a Canadian officially, took an oath to Charles III, and joined y’all as a proud dual citizen. So, the names of the folks engraved on these walls are also my fellow citizens, our stories intertwined.
I’ve enjoyed learning about your service to your country. Jean Kilpatrick, 97 years old and still walking the long way to church, was a member of the Canadian Red Cross Corps Overseas Detachment, assisting in the return of injured service men and women across a very dangerous Atlantic. Lord, give us that sort of courage and pluck once again, thank you ma’am. Bill Smallman at 99 years old is our last living combat veteran of that war, he’ll be listening to us on the radio at 11. He was impossibly young as commander of a corvette in the Atlantic. And he’s lucky to be alive. A storm broke loose the depth charges on his deck. He remembers not being able to find his life jacket in that moment of emergency. Trying to secure those munitions, a massive wave threw the ship, and Bill went flying into the sea, lost for sure. Except the next wave, just as massive, threw him back up onto the deck, to life again. He crashed into a bulkhead, injured, but alive. I asked what he was thinking all that time. He said, “Well it wasn’t the most enjoyable part of the war.” 99 years old, bright-eyed, and still a jokester. Thank you, sir.
I was recently in another church on this hill and their war memorial listed the ages of those who had died: 19, 22, the oldest 31, the youngest 17. They were babies. Their families’ wounds never closed. Patriotism can be proud, sure. But it should always be somber. War is no game, just ask those who served, we join their prayers that it never returns.
As a pastor I appreciate that the greatest generation brought home an ethos of service. They went on to successful careers and families often, but they never lost a sense that you give back to your community without expecting gain in return. Churches like ours ran on such volunteerism for decades and still do. But after that generation we started to lose that ethos. Economics and culture changed, and women no longer stayed at home so often. Families need multiple salaries now. After Korea, Canada didn’t fight again until recently in Afghanistan—I pray the Lord would bless us with veterans from that war as well. In my country, Vietnam remains a painful cultural scar: Canada was wise to sit out. Same as Iraq. But my generation, Gen X, and subsequent ones, have not been asked to volunteer, to risk our lives, to give years to something that would make negligible money with risk of having our names read every year at a service like this. So, volunteering looks like a waste of time, or a financial impossibility. We lost something there. Bill and Jean and others in their generation continue to give of themselves, but they don’t brag about it. That’s not Canadians’ way.
I’ve noticed here at the church nearly every area is starved for volunteers. To teach our children the faith. To greet and usher. To prepare the sanctuary for worship. To serve coffee to friends old and new. To mentor our youth. To sing in our choirs. This is surprising perhaps. With this massive and beautiful building, how could we need . . . anything? Look at all those staff on the bulletin, surely we’re paying them for everything, right? Actually no, our job as staff is to equip all the rest of the saints to serve, not to do all the serving ourselves, that’s not possible or desirable. When you talk to Bill or Jean about their service, they don’t immediately talk of sacrifice. They talk with quiet pride, the best kind. So don’t hear me saying we need y’all to volunteer to run the church though we do, you are the church. Hear me saying offer yourself because you’ll be a happier person, a better disciple of Jesus, and our community—all of us—will be richer for it.
Our biblical story for today is one about pouring oneself out, to the last drop, holding nothing back. Jesus is at a dinner with his dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. That family is grateful that Lazarus has been raised from the dead. I wonder what Lazarus is thinking: hmm, ‘Uh, I was dead the other day, and now I’m alive. Let’s eat.’ Martha is doing her usual thing: working away to serve others, quietly trying not to fume at her sister. Mary, as is her custom, steals the spotlight. She takes an expensive jar of perfume; the sort a family might save for a daughter’s wedding one day. It’s worth a year’s wage. If the average salary in Toronto today is $52,000, imagine perfume worth halfway to six figures. You might use a tiny drop once in a great while, stretch that bottle’s life out as long as you can. Nobody wants to overwhelm people with fragrance, just a tasteful dab, thank you. Mary dumps it all. On his feet. Scripture says, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Like the temple filled with incense. An extravagant, reckless gesture. Not holding anything back, using up the best stuff with no thought of the future. When Jesus goes to his cross, suffering for the sins of the world, his feet smell great.
What’s going on here? Jesus’ last name is not Christ. In those days you’d be identified with your village: Jesus of Nazareth. Or by your father: Jesus, son of Joseph, only he wasn’t, and everyone knew that he’s Jesus, son of Mary, with a whiff of scandal. Christ is not a surname, it comes from the Greek Christos, which means anointed one. In Israel three kinds of people were anointed for special work: prophets, priests, and kings. Jesus Christ, we believe is all of these but he’s irregular at each. He differs from the other prophets, he’s not from a proper priestly family, and as a king, well. Kings who end up executed by occupying powers didn’t do a very good job now did they? Anointings properly done should be public occasions, signs of power. When King Charles III is anointed, it’ll be in Westminster Abby by the Archbishop of Canterbury with the world watching, in a liturgy that would have been recognizable to Alfred the Great in the 9th century, with layer upon layer of pomp and power. Jesus Christ is anointed on his feet by a friend at a dinner party with way too much perfume.
And Mary’s hair will smell like her anointed One forever. Mary of Bethany is not one for half measures. Does anybody remember the Archbishop who anointed Queen Elizabeth? Nope. We remember Mary of Bethany today.
Then and now women’s hair is a sign of femininity and beauty. Whole religions insist on the covering of women’s hair some or all the time. That’s what Iran is fighting about right now. Some Orthodox Jewish women to this day take pride that only their husband ever sees their hair down. Mary of Bethany’s hair is not only down, but it’s become a towel. She shows us something important here. Touch can be healing. Touch need not be sexual and should never be abusive. This gesture is in public among friends, and it’s extravagant, again with a whiff of scandal. You can imagine Jesus’ enemies hearing that his anointing as king happened at a dinner party by a woman on her knees wiping with her hair. They would have laughed. That’s okay. Because something is amazing here: Mary shows Jesus how to spend his life entirely, to hold nothing back, to pour himself out on that cross. Remember how later Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and dries them with a towel around his waist? (he didn’t have the hair for it apparently). How he takes on the role of a slave? Well, where did he learn that prophetic gesture? From his friend and disciple Mary of Bethany. She’s the prophet here. Hers is the vivid and unforgettable gesture that shows he is a prophet, a priest, a king (just a little bit of a weird one of each). And maybe most importantly, he’s open to learning from his female disciple: here is how you serve and hold nothing back. It looks outrageous. But it is life.
Friend of mine was a campus minister for decades, Will Willimon, he’s preaching my covenanting service in five weeks, December 11th, please mark your calendars. About once a semester at Duke he’d get a call from an outraged parent. ‘My kid was bound for law school. Now she wants to serve poor children in Honduras. You’ve ruined her! Is this what I paid $60,000 a year for?!’ And Will would have to say, ‘I’m sorry sir, I didn’t ruin her, that’d be Jesus Christ you should call up and yell at.’ Jesus learned that from women like Mary of Bethany. His mother Mary of Nazareth. Those two sisters learned it from being Jewish, from God.
There’s another element to Mary’s service of her king Jesus. She’s anointing him beforehand for his burial. Throughout his life Jesus’ closest friends misunderstand him. If you or I ever don’t understand Jesus, we’re in good company, every disciple he’s ever had is the same. Mary sees something the rest don’t. He’s anointed . . . to die. The cross is not a mistake, it’s the point. To be a prophet or priest or king is normally to be a big deal. A person of power. A success. But not for this anointed one. He’s anointed to go to his grave. Mary doesn’t announce this with a speech, that’s not her way. Her way is to listen very, very closely. And then to make a dramatic gesture. To go get their family’s prized possession and crack it open, not consulting anyone else, and waste it in the best way imaginable. Mary understands what the rest of us don’t. Jesus’ way . . . is straight to death. And not a nice death either. Other gospels say that Mary and some other women (most of whom are also named Mary it seems) anoint his body for burial after his death. In other stories so too does Nicodemus, a secret follower, and Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy admirer. Jesus is not buried by his disciples; they betray too deeply. His body is anointed and buried by women and strangers and secret admirers. Those of us closest to him can’t stand the smell of failure, of defeat, of death. We hide our faces and stay away.
Of course, we all know now what Jesus does with death on Easter Sunday. He destroys it. But he could only do that, it seems, by suffering it first. Jesus goes straight to hell . . . to liberate the place. Death is still with us, sure. But its days are numbered. Mary sees that before the rest of us do. And she pours out her whole life and livelihood in response.
This sort of service to the end, pouring oneself out to the last drop, is not over. Mary does it and we tell her story forever. Our forebears in the war generation do something similar and we carve their names in stone, read them out loud every year in worship. But you and I have to find a way to do the same, without a war on. Because a career is not enough for a life: even a successful career, and many in here have too many successes to list. A family is not enough. Family is not big enough for a life. Service to others is necessary to make a human life. Not for money, or recognition, or to benefit one’s family, but for neighbours, fellow community members, even if you never know them personally. This is the secret that the war generations knew that the rest of us don’t, maybe because our elders didn’t brag about it, they just lived it.
I’ll give you a powerful example, a story I share with permission. Bill Melvin is a long-time leader here, serves on committees, works behind the scenes in Christian education and elsewhere. He tells me he was taking a grandchild to a community pool one time. He had no expectation that he would be jumped by divine grace.
There was a group of kids also swimming that day, from Bloorview School Authority, all disabled children. Bill had been a success in his work, managing real estate, housing his neighbours. That was good. He had grandchildren too, another success, and that’s still good. But something grabbed hold of Bill that day. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, blinding light, knocked off course by grace. Or in our story it was like Mary, pouring herself out, filling the house with fragrance, wiping with her hair. Bill saw these disabled kids and just knew he had to spend his life with them. He volunteered on the spot, despite having no skills or training working with such unique children. He has spent nearly full-time hours for years volunteering with the children at that school. It makes him a better man. It makes the school a better place. If you ask Bill about this, be careful, I find he tears up easily, it’s lovely. They reward him with awards and certificates, the non-monetary gifts of do-gooder organizations everywhere, and they’re not the point. The point is Bill is a man fully alive, giving himself to others, not for their happiness, but for his. It’s a secret to how to be a human being.
Another example, also with permission: one of my kids had a teacher in Vancouver named Trevor Stokes. He teaches Phys ed and other things, but his real passion is a mini school called Street Front, dedicated to serving Vancouver’s deprived children. He teaches the street kids to run marathons. My son Sam ran along. Something about disciplining your body helps you to discipline your whole life and succeed. And I have to say Stokes is one of the most alive people I know. He has the only real Canadian accent of any of our friends in Vancouver, pure prairie boy from Saskatchewan. And being around him made me want to volunteer too. To work for no money, but just for love, and to be nearer to Jesus’ best friends: the poor, children, those who live on the streets. I don’t know if Stokes is a Christian. If he is, he doesn’t crow about it either. I do know that as a Christian I should be more like Jesus by being more like him.
Another example from the west coast, a teacher named Lesley, a Vietnamese Canadian from a refugee family, at another public secondary school. I interviewed her about how her faith leads her to do her job differently. She said I teach math. But I can’t stop a student from asking, in the middle of trigonometry, “Ma’am, what do you think about death?” She sponsors an Alpha course at her school and Christian students know they can come to her for prayer and support. And do you know who else does? Muslim students, especially young women wrestling with their community’s expectation for them to wear the hijab and their own struggle to fit in in Canada. Being a woman of faith, though a Christian, makes her more accessible to other young women of a different faith seeking wisdom. Because they can tell she loves them.
And none of that is compensated in a paycheck. But it will be remembered in the kingdom.
I tell you Bill’s story, Stokes’ story, Jean’s story, Bill’s story, Mary’s story, Lesley’s story, not because you have to volunteer at church. We do need more volunteers here to teach and greet, to serve and heal, to sing and beautify. But so does every other organization that tries to bless its neighbours, to make our world the new creation God dreams about. Here’s the big point. Making money is a fine thing. One’s own nuclear family is an excellent thing. These can never be neglected. But those are not enough for a life. What is? Giving oneself for others. Not for money or for those who share one’s last name. But for nothing. To neighbours and strangers, especially the most vulnerable.
Now, none of this can replicate or replace Jesus’ sacrifice. He alone is anointed by God. He alone destroys death and liberates hell. But in our own ways, we do have to imitate him. That’s the way to life. Mary does. The greatest generation did. These others do.
What about you? What about me? That’s a question we have to answer with the rest of our lives. Amen