This is a sermon by one of my favorite people, Gary Klingsporn, describing the story of one of my favorite women in scripture. With his permission I share the notorious woman with you. The questions he asks at the end are the ones I offer you for reflection. Sorry about the editorial glitches. I tried:-)
“In Memory of Her”
Mark 14:1-11; Psalm 23:5
March 17, 2013
The Rev. Dr. Gary W. Klingsporn
First Congregational Church in Nantucket, MA
Novelist Sue Monk Kidd tells of something a woman once said to her that struck her as odd: Recently on the eve of my birthday a woman said to me with a completely serious face, “When I turn fifty, I want to become notorious.” “Notorious for what?” I asked. This seemed to throw her. “Well, I’m not sure,” she said. “I haven’t gotten that far along with the idea.”

Becoming notorious for the sake of becoming notorious was a peculiar idea to me. Besides that, had she consulted a dictionary for the meaning of notorious? I went home and looked it up. It said: “Notorious—widely but infamously [unfavorably] known or talked about.” I couldn’t see the appeal. But after my conversation with the woman, practically against my will, I began to entertain a thought: What would I want to be notorious for at fifty?”1

Later, we’ll hear how Kidd answers that question for herself. But first, the story of another woman who once became “notorious.” She appears in our reading from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper having dinner one night. It was a room full of men. Dinners like this were for men only. As Simon, Jesus,
and the others were eating and talking, a woman suddenly appeared out of nowhere—unnamed, uninvited, unannounced. She walked into the room carrying an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. She went over to Jesus, broke open the jar, and poured the perfume on his head. In that world it was a sign of love and respect.

But to those gathered at the table with Jesus, it was not a good thing at all. They immediately became angry, saying, “What’s this woman doing here? Why was this ointment wasted this way? This perfume could have been sold for a large sum of money and the money given to the poor.” The writer of Mark’s Gospel doesn’t identify those who protested, but Matthew says it was some of Jesus’ own disciples. They scolded the woman. With righteous indignation they reprimanded her for what she had done. It was an unconscionable extravagance and waste.

They were right about one thing. This was very expensive perfume imported from India. It could have been sold for three hundred denarii—more than a year’s wages for the common worker in that day. Can you imagine pouring your annual income on someone’s head? The money could have been given to the poor, they said. They had a point. After all, hadn’t Jesus often taught about caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless? Hadn’t Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Go, sell all you have, and give it to the poor”? So they saw this woman’s act as a waste of money
that could have done great good elsewhere.

My good friend and colleague David Fisher says he’s heard that discussion in every church he’s been part of. Usually it follows a major expenditure or budget allocation with which some people disagree. Someone says, “We should have given that money to missions.” Or, “We shouldn’t be spending that money on that”—meaning something they don’t favor. This story sets up a tension between what is useful and practical versus what God may call us to do that seems impractical or even wasteful. But that’s a sermon for another day.

Jesus interrupts their complaining with a reply that is powerful and to the point. “Let her alone,” he says. “Why trouble the woman? She has done a beautiful thing for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”

Jesus defends the woman’s extravagance saying, “She has done a beautiful thing, a special thing, for me.” The poor you always have with you, he says, and the obligation to care for them is ongoing and unceasing. That never changes. But this woman has done a
special thing, a timely thing. “She has prepared me for burial.” Whether the woman herself knew or sensed that Jesus was going to die later that week, Jesus interprets her act as preparing him for burial. What she did was a selfless act of love and devotion.

“She has done a beautiful thing” (RSV). The Greek word here for beautiful, kalos, means “good and morally right” as well as “aesthetically pleasing.” What she has done is admirable because it is an aesthetically pleasing act that is soothing, relaxing, and filled with a pleasing fragrance. Her act is also beautiful because it is a good and right act of love.

The woman’s act contrasts sharply with what happens just before and just after this scene in Simon’s house. Just before this, Mark tells us, the chief priests and scribes are looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and to kill him. Just after this, Judas Iscariot goes to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them for a price. Between these two dark scenes of plotting and betrayal Mark places this story of an unnamed woman’s act of love. The beauty of her deed contrasts sharply with the ugliness and hostility around Jesus.2 So Jesus says of her, “She has done a good and beautiful thing to me. She has prepared me for burial”—a reference to his death that was soon to come.

Then Jesus closes this story by saying, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” The rest is history. The story was told. It has been told ever since. And here we are again, two thousand years later, still remembering her. Appearing out of nowhere, unnamed, uninvited, she broke all the rules. She flagrantly crossed the lines of gender, social
custom, and propriety. She did the unexpected, in the minds of some, the unthinkable. “Wasteful” they called it, and it was. “Senseless,” they called it, and it was. “Unorthodox,” and it was. She became notorious, perhaps in every sense of that word.

My wife loves that bumper sticker that says, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” I love it too. You see it now on T-shirts, coffee mugs, plaques, and greeting cards. The saying was first used in 1976 in an academic paper by a scholar named Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. It found its way into popular culture, and because of that, in 2007 Ulrich wrote a
book called Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. The book is about how women have shaped history: American women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Harriet Tubman and other African-American women; and women like Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King.3

Well-behaved women rarely make history. When I hear those words I smile to myself and think of this unnamed woman in the Gospels. She broke the rules. I suppose many women who make history are regarded by some as negatively notorious before they are positively celebrated.

Theologian Paul Tillich says this woman’s act was “a holy waste, a waste growing out of the abundance of the heart.” Tillich says that Jesus and the early church regarded it as beautiful because “they knew that without the abundance of the heart nothing great can happen.” “Religion within the limits of reasonableness,” Tillich says, “is a mutilated religion.” “Calculating love is not love at all.”

Jesus affirmed this woman because he saw in her a fullness of heart that was willing to give of itself, to “waste itself” for others without calculating the cost in self-serving ways. Tillich asks, “Are we not in danger of a religious and moral utilitarianism which always asks for the reasonable purpose of something”—what use is this, what good is this, what will it do practically—the same question as that of the disciples in Bethany?4

Holy waste is the way of self-giving love that does not count the cost and does not put pragmatism above the beauty and wonder of love. It is the way of Jesus, the way of the Cross. One way to think about all this is to think about God as the Creator of this beautiful world. God’s creation is filled with the extravagance of God’s creative grace. Day by day there are gorgeous sunrises and spectacular sunsets, whether we see them or not. The tiniest flowering cactus in the desert, the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the sea, the fish and the whales, this magnificent universe of stars and galaxies, the complex,
intricate beauty of the microscopic world.

God’s world is filled with “holy waste.” God wastes beauty on us every day, whether we see it or not. But is it really a waste? No. God seems to enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake. The least we can do is try to be aware, to see and to enjoy God’s creation.5

That leads us back to Sue Monk Kidd who found herself pondering that odd question: What would I want to be notorious for at fifty? Sometime later, gathered with a group of her friends, Kidd read aloud a poem by the poet Mary Oliver. A poem in which Oliver writes about coming to the end of life and wanting to be able to say that she had spent her
life “married to amazement.” The words of the poem are these:

“When it’s over [when death comes], I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”6

When she read those words, Kidd says,“Suddenly something unexpected happened to me. My throat tightened. My eyes filled. I
don’t mean sad tears, but the kind that leak from something brimming.
“I looked at the faces around the room. They seemed beautiful and shining to me. I glanced at the common white lily in a vase and honestly, the sight nearly wiped me out. It was that impertinently gorgeous….I couldn’t think what to name the feeling except amazement at life. It was as if something fell from my eyes and I saw everything just as it is…. “Somehow I’d begun moving through life on automatic pilot, half-seeing, half-here, abducted by the dreaded small stuff.

But that evening, she says, “I resolved the question about what I wished to become notorious for at fifty. Let it be nothing more than harboring a wild amazement at life.”7 Let me become notorious, Kidd says, for having a deep awareness and a wild amazement at this life God has given us and this world in which God has placed us. Let us be
“notorious” for being aware of and amazed at God’s abundant gifts of grace in our lives.

Centuries before the woman anointed Jesus, the psalmist in Psalm 23 spoke of the abundance of God’s gifts in this way: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” It is a picture of God as the gracious host who prepares a feast for us as honored guests.

Even in the presence of our enemies—in the darkness of this world and the things that threaten us—God provides for us. “You prepare a table for me; you anoint my head with oil.” The psalmist uses the image of God anointing our heads with precious oil as honored guests—just like the woman did for Jesus that night at the table. God blesses us
with extravagant love. That love calls us to live a life of love in response to God’s goodness and mercy that pursues us all the days of our lives.

“She has done a beautiful thing for me….Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” She broke the rules. She brought beauty into that room and gave it away. She filled the room with sweet fragrance. Her story calls us to think about what acts of love—small or large, simple or extravagant—God calls us to for those around us.

So the question this morning is this: Who needs your love? I don’t know what there is for you to say or to do for someone. All I know is that there is someone who needs our love. And when we speak and act in love, whether in large or small ways, we never know what a difference that makes. God takes a word spoken, a gift given, a hand extended, and gives it a life and power far beyond what we can imagine.

So who needs your love? Who are you called to be in someone’s life? What are you called to do? It’s not about being notorious. It’s about being faithful.
Notes
1Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd (New York: Guideposts Books, 2006), p. 41.
2Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), pp. 246-48.
3Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., 2007).
4Paul Tillich, “Holy Waste,” in The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955). See
http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=375&C=19.
5For the illustration of God’s “holy waste” in creation I am indebted to Clover Beal in a sermon, “Costly Generosity,” March 11, 2012, Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, Cleveland Heights, OH
(http://www.fhcpresb.org/worship-music/sermon-archives/2012/03/costly-generosity-mark-141-11/).
6Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), pp. 10-11.
7Kidd, Firstlight, pp. 42-43.

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