I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 3rd, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 12:1-8, when Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with precious nard.
Now, I don’t want to alarm anyone inordinately on a Sunday morning, but I have to tell you that the church is crumbling.
I’m actually not making a dire prediction about the future of the institutional church (plenty of others are doing that these days). I mean, quite literally, there are bits of Trinity’s building that are crumbling on the outside that will need a little maintenance. Fr. T.J. and I were walking back from lunch the other week when he noted a spot on the exterior of the nave that needs some repair to the mortar work. Such things are to be expected in a building nearly 160 years old, and don’t worry, the members of the Vestry are keenly aware of the ongoing project list to care for these old stone walls. It is part of our collective labor of love as stewards of this community for future generations.
In every age, as the ones entrusted with the care of the present moment, it is our task to keep an eye out for the cracks in the world around us: the broken bits of buildings and of hearts, the accumulating dust of neglect, the water streaming down in rivulets from leaking roofs and from tear-filled eyes. All of us, both building and people, get a bit tired and careworn eventually. All of us need tending. And so we patch each other up, we put mortar into each others’ broken spots, we carry one another and we carry on. This is our shared responsibility in life, as it always has been.
The tendency towards decay and disorder, whether in church walls or in other human endeavors, has a name derived from science. It is called entropy. The word was coined in the 19th century by the German physicist Rudolf Clausius, who was a leader in the study of thermodynamics. Clausius observed that the energy in heat-powered systems, like steam engines, was not all harnessed; some of it was lost and dispersed, no matter how efficient the system. This unavoidable tendency towards loss and disintegration of energy, he concluded, was the default mode of the material universe. In other words, entropy suggests that when left to their own devices, things tend to fall apart.
The idea of entropy has since been applied to many aspects of human life, not just physics. And intuitively, I think it makes a lot of sense, even in non-scientific terms. Ideological, cultural, and political movements change and decline over time. Relationships, when we don’t invest in them, drift apart. All the seemingly solid markers of fame, prestige, and strength that we might accumulate in our life eventually diminish. And, eventually, each of us will die and, as we were reminded at the outset of this Lenten season, to dust we shall return, to mix with the crumbling stones and the memories of a thousand generations.
Holy Scripture is full of the idea of entropy, even if it doesn’t name it as such—think of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” Or the Psalmist, who says “those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, even those of low estate cannot be trusted. On the scales they are lighter than a breath, all of them together.”
The question is, what do we do with this knowledge? If everything in the universe has a tendency towards disintegration, towards chaos, towards loss, then why bother? Why not let the walls come tumbling down?
This is, essentially, the question that this Gospel passage from John asks us. It is the question that Judas and Mary of Bethany are both faced with in those final days leading up to Jesus’ passion and death, and their diverging responses are instructive for us.
First, there is Judas, who is outraged and offended by Mary’s display of deep devotion—the anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious nard, the intimacy of her hair wound around him in tendrils like branches clinging to the vine. Whether it is out of pure greed or, as I suspect, a whole host of more complicated emotions and motivations, Judas thinks all of this is shameful, wasteful.
I wonder, though, if this is not so much a matter of Judas misunderstanding what’s going on, but in fact understanding all too well what is about to transpire in Jerusalem. Perhaps Judas has taken Jesus’ prediction of his own death seriously. Perhaps Judas has already given up on him. Perhaps he has seen the cracks in the mortar, if you will, and is ready to walk away from the whole thing.
“Why was this perfume not sold…and the money given to the poor?” he asks, but there is bitterness underneath his words, not generosity. They are the words of a man who has given up on dreams, on love, on friendship, because the entropy of the world and the looming failure of Jesus’s mission has caused Judas to retreat into himself, into his own protective self-righteousness, into his own understanding of how things ought to be.
How hard our hearts become when we try to keep them from breaking. And so Judas decides to break Jesus, instead. He decides to tear down the walls rather than wait for them to fall.
If we are honest with ourselves, that same tendency is in each of us. Afraid of loss, we run away. Afraid of vulnerability, we slam the door shut. Afraid of being a fool, we become a cynic, with entropy the only news we have to proclaim to the world.
But then there is Mary of Bethany, who is sometimes conflated with Mary Magdalene, but in this moment we will let her be herself. Mary is not naive in her gift-giving. She, too, knows what is coming. She knows that Jesus is approaching an ending. She knows that the nard is costly, and that anointing her Lord will not prevent the pain or loss that is to come. But she does it anyway. She does it because it is what she can do. She does it because she loves him. She does it because she knows, in a way that Judas does not, that in loving someone, nothing is ever wasted.
Mary, and all of us who would follow in her footsteps, do not deny that death and decay are real. We are not ignoring the fact that things tend to fall apart, that chaos is always at the doorstep. We know that it is. We see the crumbling stones, and we witness the crumbling hopes of too many in every generation. But we show up anyway. We try to mend the cracks anyway, even if we are taken as fools, even if it never seems to amount to very much, because it is what we can do. It is what love requires of us.
What Mary knew–and what Jesus reveals–is that while entropy might be the most pervasive force in the universe, the most powerful force is love. It is only love that will dare to bind up what is broken. It is only love that can gather in what is lost. It is only love that refuses to give up even when things keep going wrong. And no matter how things disintegrate and scatter, no matter how our own lives fall apart, no matter if these walls do keep crumbling down, no matter if the entire universe breaks apart, God will always be bigger than our brokenness. God holds us. God refuses to give up on us.
And so we must do the same. What God has said to us, and what Mary says back to God, we must also say:
I will hold what is broken. I will bless it with my deepest tenderness. I will spend all of my love on the things that are doomed to decay, which is, in fact, everything. And though I may weep, though my heart might break at the seeming futility of love, I know in a way beyond knowing that it will all make sense some day. That it will have been worth it.
It is worth it. That’s the good news.
So if you get a chance this week, take a walk around the church building. You might spot the broken bits I mentioned or the places where the garden needs tending after a long winter. You might notice a crack in the plaster here and there. Our work continues, always. But notice, too, the patches, the repairs, and the additions of those who came before us—the small acts of care by generations of people, some of whom we will never know, but who did what they could even as the walls crumbled in their own time.
And perhaps, like me, you might offer a prayer of thanksgiving for those people–those with the heart of Mary of Bethany–for the sweetness of their offerings, the memory of which still lingers like perfume in the air. Perhaps, like me, you might marvel at the fact that because of them, and because of us still trying our best, despite the entropy of the world, we are still standing, and these stones are still standing, held together by love as much as by mortar.
And perhaps, like me, you will find strength in knowing this: that even if everything else turns to dust, this love will remain. It is the one thing that cannot break. It is the one thing that will never go away.