April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 5, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:6-16

     From the Gospel according to Matthew, “A woman came to (Jesus) with an alabaster jar of costly ointment, and poured it on his head …” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Typically, on the Sunday of the Passion, I select the story of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple as the basis for the morning sermon. I do so because I find Jesus’ quote from Isaiah 56:7 “My house shall be a house of prayer” to be not only a wonderful introduction to Holy Week, but an important reminder that not only must Holy Cross Church be a place of prayer, we, perhaps now more than ever, need to be people of prayer.

     Nevertheless, this year my time of meditation and study drew me to today’s story of a dinner party where a woman anointed Jesus with a costly ointment. And I find that story timely given all that is transpiring in our communities and world right now as, due to the Corvid-19 pandemic, we have been forced to find new ways to stay connected and to live the gospel imperative to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  

     What transpired at that dinner table in Simon’s house at Bethany, is one of those stories that appears in all four gospels. Now each one tells the story a little differently. John names the perfume as “Nard.” Luke is careful to ensure we know that the woman “was a sinner,” while Matthew and Mark simply focus on the act of anointing and the response of those present. However you choose to read this story, its message is clear: this anointing foretells Jesus’ own burial. And yet, there is an even deeper message here that challenges every believer and it all has to do with the ointment itself.

     Nard, or “Spikenard” as it is more commonly called in the Old Testament, was an outrageously expensive perfume. Harvested from the slopes of the Himalayas and brought to the Middle East, it was used in Egypt and Israel, as well as by the Romans and the Greeks, as a soothing balm. Its pungent aroma was like incense and known to relieve insomnia, aches and pains, and relax the mind in times of deep distress. (We probably could use some right now.) I understand that its smell was so strong that just a few drops would fill an entire house with its scent. Scholars tell us that in today’s terms, a small vial of this ointment would cost $30,000. No wonder some of those present in Bethany saw this act of anointing as wastefully extravagant.  And I guess it could be considered as such for those who only look on the surface. But, no, this act was far more meaningful for the woman, for Jesus, and especially, for us.

See, this woman’s action was and is an affirmation of her perception that the one being anointed will be the one crucified; that the one bathed in this rich perfume is God incarnate, the redeemer of the world. She saw what others present that evening could not yet see. She understood what Jesus had been saying about what will happen in Jerusalem later this week. And so, her action is a model not of extravagant waste, but rather, of extravagant love andinsight as to who Jesus is. Hers is an act of deep devotion – a devotion marked by, of all things, the smell and presence of perfume. And therein lies our challenge on this Passion Sunday.

     For the past few weeks in Lent, we have been challenged to be Christ’s light and reconciling presence in our communities and throughout the world during a time when social contact especially, face to face interaction with people has been widely discouraged and legally restricted. And just as our scripture lessons throughout this Lenten Season have urged us to step forward and speak up for God’s justice and values, in years past, on Passion Sunday using the lesson about Jesus cleansing the temple, we have been urged to be people of prayer. Yet today’s story takes our role as people of prayer that much deeper. It urges us to pray that we will truly be a healing and redeeming fragrance that permeates our communities. A fragrance so rich in God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, unconditional welcome and love that simply by our presence alone, others can see Christ at work and alive in us. So much so, that they desire to know him as we know him: know him as their redeemer and friend.

     Sometime ago, Bishop José McLoughlin preached on this very gospel text and took our role of being a healing and redeeming fragrance in our communities that much further. He urged all of us: clergy and lay persons alike to always remember the words of St. Paul who, in 2 Corinthians 2:14-15, said, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us … and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” Paul goes on to say, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” (emphasis added). We are – our lives are – called to be the aroma, the fragrance, the essence of Christ’s redemption. That is our call. That is our vocation. And that is our challenge in these bizarre days.  

     Friends, as we journey through this holiest of weeks – journey together in completely new ways - may God open our hearts and minds to grasp that he who walks before us forever calls us to not only be people of prayer; to not only be his light and agents of reconciliation through what we think, say and do, but also, by our very presence – whether on the phone, online, on facebook or other social media, to be his very presence. A presence that like perfume is pleasing to the senses and enhances every interaction, every encounter with the extravagant mercy and extravagant love of God today and every day. May this year’s journey together to the Cross be a fragrant time of new birth, rebirth, new life and a commitment to foster God’s grace wherever we may be, wherever we go, not just in Holy Week, but every day of our lives.  Amen.