Date: April 3, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 543:16-21 and Luke 11:55-12:8
Sermon: A House Full
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
The beautiful book, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, has this dedication: “To the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago”. That’s intriguing, isn’t it. Well, here is the story behind the dedication.
Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, FL. His grandmother had been a slave. He grew up under the strictures of Jim Crow in a town that was run by the Ku Klux Klan. Thurman rose to become one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. He was supremely influential in the life Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When King was recovering from a stab wound in New York City, he had two books with him: The Bible and Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. Thurman wrote 22 books. He served as the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He founded an interfaith church, The Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco in1944. Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, spent a year touring India, Ceylon and Burma on a Pilgrimage of Friendship and met with Mahatma Gandhi. Thurman taught and lectured around the world.
Ebony Magazine called Thurman one of the 50 most important figures in African- American history. In 1953, Life Magazine rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States.
So what about this unnamed man at the train station in Daytona Beach who restored Thurman’s broken dream? When Thurman was young, to get into high school, students had to pass an eighth grade assessment. Schools for Blacks only went up to the seventh grade so that high schools for Blacks would not be needed. The principal of the school in Daytona volunteered to tutor Thurman so that he could pass the eighth grade general knowledge test and go to high school. In addition to the three public high schools in Florida that accepted Blacks, there were several private schools supported by the church for Black students. It was determined that Thurman would attend Florida Baptist Academy of Jacksonville. He would live with a cousin there. Thurman’s family scraped together what he would need.
Here’s what happened according to Thurman:
“When the time came to leave for Jacksonville, I packed a borrowed old trunk with no lock and no handles, roped it securely, said my good-byes, and left for the railway station. When I bought my ticket, the agent refused to check my trunk on my ticket because the regulations stipulated that the check must be attached to the trunk handle, not to a rope. The trunk would have to be sent express but I had no money except for a dollar and a few cents left after I bought my ticket.
“I sat down on the steps of the railway station and cried my heart out. Presently I opened my eyes and saw before me a large pair of work shoes. My eyes crawled upward until I saw the man’s face. He was a black man, dressed in overalls and a denim cap. As he looked down at me he rolled a cigarette and lit it. Then he said, ‘Boy, what in hell are you crying about?’
“And I told him.
“‘If you’re trying to get out of this damn town to get an education, the least I can do is to help you. Come with me,’ he said.
“He took me around to the agent and asked, ‘How much does it take to send this boy’s trunk to Jacksonville?’
“Then he took out his rawhide money bag and counted the money out. When the agent handed him the receipt, he handed it to me. Then, without a word he turned and disappeared down the railroad track. I never saw him again.” [With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, pp. 24-25.]
And so the dedication of his autobiography “To the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago”. Such a lavish act of generosity, of intimacy, can change our lives. If we let it.
The story of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman is well known. Let’s think of some other well known stories associated with Jesus. There is Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish. Jesus changing the water into wine. Jesus healing the servant of the Roman officer. Jesus casting out the demons from the man in the graveyard. Jesus healing Peter’s mother in law. Jesus healing the blind man. Jesus healing the person with leprosy. Jesus healing the man by the pool of Siloam. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus casting the demon out of Mary Magdalene. Jesus stilling the stormy seas. Jesus overseeing the catch of fish. Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Jesus forgiving those who killed him from the cross. I am sure I missed some, but the idea here is that in one story after another, Jesus is helping people. He is doing things for others. He is giving. He is serving.
In the story we heard today, at a dinner with his friends, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and others, Mary, breaks open a jar of nard, worth a year’s pay, maybe about $40,000 today. And she anoints Jesus’ feet with the nard, an aromatic oil. And the amount of nard is so lavish, the perfumed scent fills not just the room but the whole house. The stench of the death of Lazarus a few verses earlier is replaced by the fragrance of devotion and gratitude. And she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, which she has let down for the occasion. Letting down the hair in mixed company was forbidden by social dictates. Being touched by a woman was a violation of the religious law making Jesus ritually unclean. And Mary functions as a religious authority anointing Jesus the way a prophet, a priest, or a king might be anointed by a male religious official. Back in her lane as a woman, Mary anoints Jesus for his burial so near at hand. This is a wild act of intimacy and extravagance. This episode is scandalous in so many ways.
And in the story, Jesus accepts the anointing, the touch of Mary, the lavish gesture. With his death at hand, Jesus doesn’t say, We don’t have time for this, I have work to do before they get me. Gotta go heal some more people and feed some more people and forgive some more people. My time is short. No. He doesn’t reprimand Mary for violating the Law of Moses and making him ritually unclean. Mary, no, not before the Passover, I have to be ritually clean. No. Jesus accepts the gift. He welcomes the love. He relishes the devotion. He receives Mary’s lavish, intimate gesture of extravagant generosity. And there is a house full of the aroma of the oil, full of love, full of loyalty and devotion. Jesus says yes to this gift.
Howard Thurman said yes to the generosity of the random stranger who paid for his trunk. He could have said, Oh no, I can’t let you do that. I can’t accept your charity. I can’t pay you back. I can’t let you. But Thurman accepted the gift.
I would like to invite us to take a few minutes to think about a time when you received a gift of love that changed your life. A time when someone did something for you that you could never explain or repay. A time when you were the recipient of lavish generosity. From a friend, a family member, or a stranger. Think of a time when you were on the receiving end of something lavish that made all the difference. Just think about that for a couple of moments.
I’ve heard about someone who pushed a woman in a wheelchair for the whole Camino de Santiago, over 500 miles. There are people who donate organs to complete strangers. Someone gives an anonymous scholarship to pay for a student to go to college. How have you been the recipient of some kind of random, unexpected, life-changing gift.
Congregation shared stories from their lives.
This story of the anointing of Jesus has so many teachings to offer. One thing we learn from this story is that Jesus says yes to being served, to receiving, to accepting the love of another. In an extravagant, lavish way. And the scent of the nard, the love, fills the house. Jesus shows us that God is seeking to bless us. That life is an amazing gift. That life is filled with awe and wonder and beauty. And we are called to say yes! To allow others to give to us. To receive the gift. To take the house full of blessings.
We are not to let our pride, or our delusions of self-sufficiency, or constructs of fairness, or obsession with independence, or desire to control get in the way of our receiving love and goodness and generosity and blessing from others, from God.
Say yes to love. To the love of Jesus who died out of love for us. To the love of God. To the love and generosity of our sisters and brothers of this precious human family. Say yes. Let the house be filled with love.
May our autobiographies — written, spoken, or just remembered — also be dedicated to those who have restored our broken dreams with their acts of love. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.