Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Judas is deadly serious in our gospel today. So serious, you can’t help but give him a
hearing. Seems only fair. So bear with me while I try.
The way I see it, Judas wants Mary to quit wasting expensive perfume on the body of Jesus. He also wants Jesus to quit wasting time with Mary. He’d rather the two of them step away from the woman and take care of the poor. But Jesus is unmoved.
If you’ll notice, our narrator is full of insider talk offered up in a pair of parentheses. It’s John’s way of whispering to you in the middle of the story, like kicking you under the table. In theatre, it’s called an aside. Within that pair of parentheses, John whispers what he wants you to know. Judas, he says, is about to betray our Lord. And by the way, don’t be fooled by his concern for the poor – he’s a thief who stole from the common purse.
John lets you in on this information because he wants you to keep an eye on Judas, to watch out for him. Very often, when somebody whispers an aside, they’re telling you something no one else in the story knows. Makes you wonder if Jesus and Mary also know Judas is a thief.
I’m guessing they don’t, but even if they did, it wouldn’t change a thing. Mary would still fill the room with perfume and anoint the feet of Jesus with her hair, and Jesus would still receive her odd ministry.
Though Judas poses no obstacle to their way of seeing, he may well get in our way. You see, the trouble with keeping an eye on Judas is this: you just might miss something beautiful at work in this story.
In the novel A Room with a View, written by E.M. Forster in 1908, a pair of well-behaved elderly sisters go to Italy and stay in a villa with other guests, among them a man and his son (men they’ve only just met). The father and son learn that the sisters love flowers, and one day on a wild impulse, the two men set out to decorate the sisters’ room with violets.
These are characters very much shaped by the Victorian era, so you’d expect the sisters to be offended by the sneaky gift of violets left in their bedroom. But one of them declines to think in that direction and raises a lovely question. “Have you ever noticed,” she asks, “that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time – beautiful?” 
Have you ever wondered whether things that offend you might also be beautiful? Even necessary.
It’s a real shame Judas can’t see the beauty before him in this story. He does his best to shame Mary as wasteful, out of order, excessive, unnecessary – a woman in need of rebuke. Judas is so offended by her ministry to Jesus, he misses something beautiful at work in the heart of this story. And the danger is, in keeping our eye on him – in doing our best to be offended by him, a thief and a traitor – we, too, might miss it.
The heart of this story is Mary’s love for Jesus and what she does with that love. Without hesitation, she tends and prepares the body that will be broken. Surely, her ministry is beautiful. And necessary.
Admittedly, it seems luxurious. She pours expensive nard on the feet of Jesus. Though Judas can name what she spent down to the penny, she didn’t buy it with money from the common purse. She paid for it with money from her own purse, from her own ardent desire to serve Christ. And it’s Jesus who tells us that. Not St. John whispering in an aside, but Jesus who has the last word in this story. “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Women who set out to serve Christ often risk offending the Church itself. There are many who’d rather Jesus kept his distance from them. Mary though keeps her head down in this story. She does what she wants to do, and she knows all she needs to know, and that is this: Jesus needs and receives her ministry.
Brene Brown, an author and teacher, calls herself an expert on shame. A few years ago she wrote a book called Daring Greatly. Clergy spouses in our diocese engaged some its wisdom last weekend. One principle has particular traction with this story. According to Brown, cultures of scarcity – of thinking there’s not enough – create, and rely on, systemic shame, on telling people they aren’t good enough or worthy enough or man enough.
Shame, hear me, is not the seed of our faith. The risen life of Jesus is the seed of our faith. Shame sows fear or drives, a little further, into our hearts the fears already there: the fear of being cast out, the fear of embarrassment, the fear of failure, humiliation, you name it. From time to time, we all suffer undeserved shame because some treacherous part of us – some Judas with us – believes there really isn’t enough love to go around.
There’s a wonderful hymn I learned from my friend Margaret Slingluff. She’s an organist and steward of joy, who taught a church in Alabama to sing this hymn. And cultivating the hope of an unruly joy overcoming shame, I’m going to sing it solo. If you know it, and if you dare, you can join me:
In this very room
there’s quite enough love
for one like you,
And in this very room
there’s quite enough joy
for one like me,
And there’s quite enough hope
and quite enough power
to chase away any gloom,
For Jesus, Lord Jesus …
Is in this very room. .
It’s a sentimental hymn, for sure. Some might even find it embarrassing or in poor taste. But I ask you now: lean into its truth anyway. Allow yourself to believe there is love enough for you and for me, and love enough for everyone, even for people who offend you. And keep an eye out, not for what offends you, but for those wild unruly moments when something beautiful shows up to change your mind about who’s right and who’s wrong or who belongs and who doesn’t.
You receive the love of God every Sunday in Holy Communion, and you also receive that love every day in the rain or in the sun, by day and by night. You don’t come to this altar to learn there’s not enough love to go around anymore than you walk this earth to learn that soul-killing message. You come here to receive love and blessing, and be sent out carrying the seed of God’s love in your life that you may come again with joy shouldering your very own sheaves.