We’ve been talking about all kinds of brokenness during this Lenten season. Most of the brokenness has been about things that we cannot control – stuff that just happens to us or is going on out there in that scary world. When I started working on this sermon for some strange reason one of the broken things that first came to my mind was my aging body. I did hear a great line recently about aging. It said, “Don’t worry about getting older; you will still do stupid stuff, just more slowly.”
One thing I’m learning about aging is that it does no good to complain. I am much better off, and so is everyone else, if I embrace my brokenness and celebrate what still works instead of moaning what doesn’t.
And we all know something about broken relationships. I recently read a novel called “The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout, and near end of the book one of the title characters, Jim Burgess is depressed about a whole series of life events including separation from his wife, estrangement from his kids, and loss of his job. He’s hit bottom and says to his brother, Bob: “I don’t even have any family.”
Bob says, “Yes you do. You have a wife who hates you. You have kids who are furious with you, a brother and sister who make you insane, and a nephew who used to be a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”
A prison ministry volunteer from our church told me about an inmate at the correctional facility where he does his ministry. This man has a tattoo over his eyebrow that says “Broken.” Maybe we all need one of those! We are all broken in one way or another because we are fallible human beings who live in a world created by other fallible human beings. That’s just the way it is, and no amount of regret, anger, complaining or wishing it weren’t so will change that. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.”
Today we have heard Mark’s Gospel describe the story of a broken jar, a jar of very expensive ointment. 300 denarii were equal to a whole year’s wages for a worker– think a very large bottle of Chanel #5. This costly ointment was used by an unnamed woman to anoint the head of Jesus shortly before his final trip into Jerusalem. Unlike most brokenness in our lives which we try to avoid at all costs – this one is a voluntary act of a costly sacrifice. There is no crying over spilled ointment here because this jar was not dropped accidentally – the brokenness here was intentional and chosen for a very clear purpose.
We don’t know who this woman is. Like most of the women in Mark’s gospel who are followers of Jesus, her name is unknown. But as the text points out, her actions are remembered for posterity because she, unlike the men who hang out with Jesus all the time, recognizes who Jesus is and does the one thing she can do to honor his Messiahship. She anoints Jesus’ head – an act normally reserved for kings, and as they say, “no good deed goes unpunished.” She is immediately criticized for wasting such a valuable asset that could have been used in more practical ways, like being sold at the silent auction to feed the poor. A few drops of the ointment would have been plenty to anoint Jesus, but she chooses to be extravagant like our God who pours out grace and mercy on all people. So she gives Jesus everything’s she got.
Then comes what is for me the most curious part of this story. Jesus says, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service 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.”
Compassionate Jesus who normally is a chief advocate for the poor seems to be saying, “Forget the poor – you can take care of them anytime you want. This is about me for once.” The context is important here. Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem while the Disciples are still in denial about his impending demise. So Jesus tells them yet again, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Like most of life, this situation is not an Either/Or but a Both/And. We know from the consistency of Jesus teaching and actions throughout his entire ministry that he is not saying we should not feed the poor. That’s a given. It’s depressing but true that we have the poor with us always – that’s part of our broken world that favors the haves over have nots. To suggest we can choose between honoring Jesus and caring for the least of our brothers and sisters is a false dichotomy. In fact, we can’t really do one without the other. Without the love of God to empower us in the face of all the brokenness around us, we burn out like a candle in the wind.
Have you ever felt powerless in the face of someone’s brokenness to know what to do or say? How often do we hesitate or fail to go the funeral home or visit someone recently divorced or suffering from some other brokenness because we feel awkward and don’t know what to do or say. How often do we fail to give to a charitable cause or ministry or volunteer to help because the problems of society and the world seem too overwhelming. It doesn’t mean we don’t care – in fact it feels like we care too much but feel inadequate to do anything that really matters. Because as unfair as it seems, some brokenness just cannot be fixed.
That should not come as news to us – most of us learned that lesson at a very early age from that great philosopher, Mother Goose:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
But we never learn from Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss what to do when we are in one of those hopelessly broken places. Fortunately we don’t need to learn that because we all come hardwired to respond to the pain of others.
A little boy came home from visiting his elderly neighbor who had recently buried his wife of many years. The lad’s mother was curious what the two of them had done, and so she asked, “Did you play catch with Mr. Benson?” No, said Bradley. Did you help him in his garden? No. Did you watch TV or play checkers? Brad shook his head. “Well, what did you do?” she finally asked in frustration. “Oh, we didn’t do anything. I just sat on the porch and helped him cry.”
We innately know how to care but often our compassion gene gets overridden by our own brokenness, and we need to remember again that childlike, natural way to just be there with and for someone.
The woman with the jar is in one of those situations in Bethany where there’s little she can do for Jesus. His fate is sealed. Jesus’ unconditional love and faithfulness to God will not be compromised even in the face of death on a cross.
The woman at Bethany can’t fix that problem. She is apparently a woman of some means or she would not have a jar of very expensive ointment. But no amount of earthly wealth can stop the wheels of hate and oppression that are about to consume Jesus’ earthly life. But that does not mean there is nothing she can do. She takes what she has available and acts on her recognition of who Jesus is. She honors him while he is living instead of waiting until the funeral.
I listened to a very helpful webinar recently about empathy and compassion that this story illustrates for me. Thupten Jinpa, a colleague of the Dali Lama was talking about the emotional part of our reaction to the brokenness of others. We identify with the pain and suffering of someone else, and we call that empathy. But as Jinpa pointed out, while empathy is necessary and important, we can’t get stuck there or we suffer from empathy burnout. We can feel all the empathy in the world for the kids at Avondale School without adequate heat, or the thousands of Syrian refugees, or the flood victims in Louisiana & Mississippi, or people living in Flint. We can have great empathy and all of us here do, but that empathy needs an outlet. Our emotions have to translate into an action step or they can weigh us down like we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders and in our hearts.
That is especially true in the 24/7 news cycle world we live in. We know about more brokenness in the world than any generation before us has ever known, and it wears us down. We can’t fix all the brokenness, and we have to pray for guidance to know where and how we can respond – with cookies for Kairos, or money for UMCOR, or just crying with someone who needs a friend. Some problems require action to right an injustice or build a handicap ramp or fix meals for the hungry folks at Manna café. Others just need our presence – either physically or spiritually to be with the broken hearted.
My dear mother-in-law is one of the most caring Christian people I know. She’s 98 years old and has been confined to a wheel chair for several years, but her awareness of what’s going on in the world is far better than younger people. We were talking about some big global problem one day or probably more than one, and she asked me, “What can someone like me do?” She is one of the most generous people I know when it comes to charitable giving, and she’s one amazing prayer warrior. She has empathy in spades, but she also puts that empathy into acts of compassion through her giving and prayer.
Compassion is the action step inspired by empathy, and we need both. The woman at Bethany had empathy for Jesus’ plight, but there wasn’t anything she could do to change the situation; so she did the only act of compassion she could think of. She moved from empathy to compassion.
By comparison Jesus’ band of disciples react by criticizing her or in the extreme case where empathy was absent Mark tells us, “ Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.“
What’s the difference? Judas, in arrogant pride thought he knew better than Jesus what needed to be done. Many believe he was bitter and disappointed that Jesus was not the military liberator he expected the Messiah to be. In all fairness to Judas, we don’t know what brokenness he was dealing with that was crying out for compassion, but we do know the woman with the jar came in humility to honor the servant king.
It’s a funny thing about humility and brokenness. Back on Ash Wednesday we read from Psalm 51 which says, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Why would God want us broken-hearted and contrite? Because then God can work with us and mold us like the potter’s clay. But when we are full of ourselves and hiding behind a phony image of ourselves as all-knowing and successful, afraid to let our brokenness and vulnerability show, not even God can get through that wall to reach us with a healing touch.
But when we recognize and admit our own brokenness – when we confess our need for forgiveness, we are broken open to give and receive the compassion and love of God and others. That expensive ointment could do absolutely nothing for Jesus or anyone else sealed up safe and sound in its fancy container. But when the jar was broken open it anointed a Messiah and filled the house with the sweet aroma of loving compassion.
Each of us is a beautiful jar created in the image of God, and inside all of us is the precious ointment of compassion. Don’t hoard that priceless gift. In the name of Christ, break it open and pour God’s love freely on someone’s brokenness. Be extravagant because that precious ointment comes from an eternal source and it will never run out.
Preached March 13, 2016, Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio