Mary's house

I will get to Mary, but first I want to tell you about Babette and Alice.

In a small town in 19th century Denmark lived an old man and his two daughters. The man, whom everybody called the Dean, was the pastor of a small Lutheran church, and he and his daughters led a puritanical life. After the Dean died, the sisters continued his legacy, keeping the church going and faithfully ministering to the poor. Many years later, the aging members of the community were often bickering and rather fond of bringing up past wrongs.

One day, a ragged-looking woman appeared on the sisters’ doorstep with a letter from a friend. He explained that this woman, Babette Hersant, had fled Paris for her life. He hoped that the sisters would be kind enough to take her in as a maid, as she had nowhere else to go, having lost her husband and son in an uprising. Babette assured the sisters that she would work as their maid and cook without pay, and the sisters agreed to the arrangement.

At first, they were wary of their new maid. She spoke only French; she walked the fields and collected wild herbs that she added to their food; and she was Catholic. But as they got accustomed to her, they realized that she was strong and kind, besides being a talented cook who could create culinary miracles with dried cod.

One day, just as the sisters were dreaming of planning a celebration of what would have been their father’s hundredth birthday, Babette found out she had won the lottery in Paris. She asked that they allow her to prepare the meal for the occasion, and the sisters reluctantly agreed. Babette left for several days to purchase everything she needed, and after her return bottles, boxes, and baskets of strange ingredients began arriving at the house.

Then the great day finally came. The guests arrived, they chatted and sang the Dean’s favorite hymns. And they sat down to the meal. Course after course, they ate food they had never tasted before, delicious food, and they drank the finest wine, and around the table, frozen faces began to melt, hardness softened, and the men and women of the congregation began to make amends for their recent bickering and grudges. Arguments were dropped. Past misdeeds were forgiven. They laughed and embraced and sang under the stars.

After the guests had left, the sisters found Babette in the kitchen, surrounded by piles of dirty dishes, pots and pans. They thanked her for the fine meal and for all of her work. Yes, she admitted, she had once been the chef at one of the finest restaurants in Paris, but when the sisters asked about her return to Paris, now that she had money, she told them that she would never go back. The sisters were surprised but also relieved. And then they realized that Babette had spent her entire lottery winnings on this one feast. She had given it all away—and yet something lingered. It was a sweet fragrance, difficult to describe with words, but unforgettable.

Alice worked in the loan department of a big bank. She was good with numbers and she was paid well, but she also drew a lot of satisfaction from knowing that her work allowed local businesses to expand and entrepreneurs to develop new business opportunities. It was a quiet kind of satisfaction, careful and sensible.

She felt different when she was involved in what she called her other job. She worked with a local non-profit whose mission was to address food waste and food insecurity. She was one of many volunteer drivers who collected perfectly good food from restaurants, stores, and other places—food that would otherwise have gone to the dump—and took it to a big kitchen where it was turned into meals for the homeless and the working poor.

So it was not unusual for Alice to stop by a doughnut shop early one Tuesday morning, before she had to be at the office. She picked up seven boxes of doughnuts that hadn’t been sold the previous day; six boxes of sweet deliciousness on the backseat of her Honda, two stacks of three, strapped down with seat belts, and another box on the passenger seat with her hand on it so a sudden red light wouldn’t send things flying forward. At the kitchen where she was headed, the chef would transform this portion of the daily harvest into a fluffy, crusty baked dessert with a vanilla custard, and in just a few hours, volunteers would serve it as part of a nutritious, tasty and beautifully presented lunch to folks in the city who often go hungry.

Alice was happy to contribute in a small way to that daily feast. She was humming on her way to the bank. Circling down into the garage she had a smile on her face, and she was still smiling when she stepped on the elevator that would take her to the twelfth floor. Three more people got in the car when it stopped at the lobby, and one of them, briefcase in one hand, phone in the other, eyes on the screen, suddenly looked up, looked around with big, happy eyes, and said, “It smells like doughnuts in here. I love doughnuts.”

There was a hint of a blush on Alice’s face when she told everybody on the way up about the joy of helping to convert potential food waste into delicious meals. When she got off on the twelfth floor, she had recruited the doughnut lover to come along on her next food-gleaning round, and she hadn’t even tried. There was a sweet fragrance that lingered in that car, and it wasn’t just the doughnuts; it was something difficult to describe with words, but unforgettable.

John takes us to Bethany, a little town just a couple of miles outside Jerusalem. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived there, and Jesus stayed with them for dinner the day before he entered Jerusalem for the last time. Just a few days earlier, Jesus had miraculously brought life to their house. The sisters had sent him a message to let him know that Lazarus was very ill, and when he arrived, his friend had already been in the tomb for days. Martha told him, “Lord, there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” You know the story. Jesus standing outside the tomb, weeping, and then shouting, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out, not like some White Walker or Zombie, but Lazarus himself, restored to life by the Lord of life.

Jesus came to Bethany six days before the Passover knowing full well that his opponents in the city were making plans to put him to death. He knew that his days were numbered and that this might well be his last meal with his good friends. Martha served the food, Lazarus was one of those at table with him, and no one had noticed that Mary had gone until she came back, holding a small jar in her hands. Without saying a word she knelt and poured the content of the jar on Jesus’ feet, a pound of perfume made of precious oils and exotic spices, and she wiped his feet with her hair. She didn’t say a word. She knelt, she touched, she poured, she lowered her head to caress his skin with her hair, but she didn’t speak.

Judas, it appears, did all the talking. He objected, pointing out that the perfume could have been sold for a lot of money, enough to feed an entire family for a year. It sounded like the voice of moral protest; it sounded like advocacy for the poor – but it smelled rotten, because it didn’t have love in it. It was just ugly noise.

Mary knew Jesus’ hour had come, she knew that death was closing in. She knew what lay ahead for him; she knew that he would hold nothing back; and with lavish extravagance, holding nothing back, she poured out her love and gratitude for the man who embodied the extravagant love of God.

Just a few days later, Jesus would spend the last evening with his disciples in the city. During supper, he would get up, take off his robe, tie a towel around himself, pour water into a basin, wash the disciples’ feet, wipe them with the towel, and he wouldn’t say a word until he got to Peter.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” he would say to them. “I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Mary of Bethany lived that new commandment, even before it was given. Just outside the city where deathly plans were being plotted, her house became a house of prophetic witness to love and life. The stench of death was still a vivid memory there, but what lingered, what infused every room and corner of the house was the sweet scent of love’s extravagance. What lingered was the fragrance of a folk coronation just outside of the city, on the margins of worldly power; the coronation of a king who washes feet; a king who is servant of all; a king in whom the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest; a king who inspires and commands those who follow him to love each other as he has loved them: with abandon.

We don’t do that. Mary did that, but we’re not Mary. We’re not Judas either, but a curious blend of the two. We love in Jesus’ name, but carefully, with a strong sense for what’s practical and sensible and useful and efficient. At home and at church, we craft responsible budgets that make the best use of every cent, so there is no waste.

We’re not Mary who poured out her love, beautifully mirroring the outpouring of love she knew because of Jesus. We’re not Babette who gave herself with humility and breathtaking generosity, creating a banquet with the kingdom shining through.

Perhaps we’re Alice who knows how to calculate carefully before taking a loan proposal to the deal committee. Alice who knows the numbers, and the institutional demands, and the markets, and the margins. Alice who also drives across town with a car full of yesterday’s doughnuts and a big smile on her face, humming.

We know that our giving matters, because the money we give to the church makes ministry possible. We raise funds to pay the bills, to support staff, to buy anthems and flowers, to resource and coordinate education and faith formation, to promote ministries like Room in the Inn, Week of Compassion, Luke 14:12, and more.

But in the end it’s not about the dollars. In the end it's about how we give ourselves, all that we are and all that we have, in grateful response to God’s gift of life and new life in Christ. It’s about the fragrance of giving, that sweet fragrance, difficult to describe with words, but unforgettable. Oh that the whole world would smell like Mary’s house…

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.