Monday, March 14, 2016

Extravagant Love

March 13, 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21
John 12:1-8

     Every year when the Southeast Seattle Clergy Association gathered to plan our joint ecumenical worship service for Good Friday, our colleague and friend Jeff Barker always asked if we could sing one of his favorite songs, “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.”  And every year before she retired, another dear colleague Pat Taylor argued that the song is theologically incorrect.  We never walk alone through any trial.  God is always with us.  And Jeff would argue that although that may be true, it sure doesn’t feel like it at the time.  The biblical record indicates that for Jesus, his walk through several trials, beatings, and crucifixion was indeed a lonesome valley.  No one, at least no human walked that path with him.  
     Except that we do have this lovely story from the gospel of John in which six days before the Passover—that would be five days before his death—Jesus ate in the home of his dear friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  Even while they were still celebrating Lazarus’ return to their lives, the storm was gathering around Jesus.  Jesus and his disciples had heard the death threats.  They knew that Herod had people looking for him.  Jesus’ felt fairly certain that this would be his last time in Jerusalem.  He had tried to prepare his disciples for what he expected to happen, but they were in denial.  That’s not so hard to understand.  We have a hard time preparing for death.  It is much more common for family members and friends to continue to press for a cure than to enter the valley with someone who is dying.  Hospice workers have begun to change the dynamics surrounding death, but conscious companioning through the process of dying is still rare.  
    Mary is one of those rare companions.  As the storm darkened around Jesus, she listened to what he was saying.  Maybe it is because her own experience of grief was still so fresh that she was attuned to what was under Jesus’ feeling of impending doom.  Instead of imposing her own wishes, she gently entered his vision of the future.  Setting her own fear aside, she was present to his fear.  She took a pound of very expensive perfume, the kind you would use to anoint a dead body, and knelt down in front of him.  She tenderly bathed his feet with the perfume, and then she did something very unusual.  She wiped his feet with her long hair.  Now this is pure speculation, because the scriptures don’t tell us, but I think there must have been a towel nearby.  I don’t think she wiped his feet with her hair because that’s all she had to use.  I think she wiped his feet with her hair because she wanted the smell of the perfume to cling to her as well.  She told him without words that she believed what he said, that she understood the gravity of the coming days, and that when he caught a whiff of that scent from his own body, he would know that one person was with him.  Scientists tell us that the sense that triggers the most emotionally potent memories is the sense of smell.  Normal hygiene in Jesus’ day would have ensured that the fragrance that filled the room as Mary anointed Jesus’ feet would still have lingered on his skin and in her hair throughout his ordeal.  It would have reminded them both of her spirit’s presence even when he had to walk alone.
     After the perfume is poured out, Jesus quiets the argument among his disciples over the waste of the expensive perfume which could have been sold to benefit the poor, by saying that Mary bought the perfume so that she might keep it for the day of his burial.  An odd thing to say after it is gone.
This does not diminish Jesus’ love for the poor or concern for their well-being.  Jesus himself is poor.  He owns nothing.  He simply will not let Mary’s act of extravagant love be tarnished, nor her acknowledgment of his anticipated death be diverted.  Maybe what he is really saying is that on the day he is buried, the fragrance in her hair will remind her not only of his death, but also of his belief in resurrection.  Just as she was present to him in the only way she could be during his pain and suffering, he will be present to her in her grief.  She is the first disciple to follow the path of the cross.  And in John’s gospel, Mary’s gesture is intended to remind us of the anointing of kings in the history of Israel.  Mary has anointed Jesus as king.  And by anointing the king, Mary has become the first female prophet.  She does not deny Jesus’ vision.  She enters that vision with him in the full love and sadness of her heart.  She knows his agony.  This is extravagant love.
Presence.  It’s the most precious gift we have to give when someone we love enters the valley of the shadow of death.  Acceptance, listening, entering the other’s vision of the future with integrity and love.  Setting aside our own fears to be present to the reality of the other is holy work.  Jan Richardson, in The Painted Prayer Book, writes,
When we see the body of Christ
still broken in this world,
may we meet it with lavish grace
and pour ourselves out
with extravagant love
(the quote on the cover of your bulletin).
We can start with the question, “How can I, or we, support you?”  That’s such a good question.  It does not presuppose anything.  It gives the other person the opportunity to guide the ministry that comes to them so that it will be the most meaningful and least intrusive.  It indicates a desire to be authentically present to the pain of another.  
     And the remembrance of presence—the presence of another’s spirit—is all that we can take with us as we walk our own lonesome valleys.  Author and educator, Parker Palmer, describes a time when he sank into a deep depression.  Well-meaning friends offered advice and tried to cheer him up which only intensified his feeling of isolation.  He writes:
Blessedly, there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way.  One of them was a man who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by late every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet.  He found the only place in my body where I could still experience bodily feeling—and feel connected with the human race.
    He rarely spoke a word, and when he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition.  He would say, “I can sense your struggle today,” or, “It feels like you are getting stronger.”  I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful: They reassured me that I could still be seen by at least on person, life-giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible.  It is almost impossible to put into words what my friend's ministry meant to me.  Perhaps it is enough to say that I now understand the Biblical stories of Jesus and his foot washings at new depth.

    The poet Rilke says, “Love . . .consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.”   That is the kind of love my friend offered.  He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice, but simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey— and the courage to let it be— that I myself needed if I were to endure.
The fragrance of presence lingers in our spirits and reminds us that we are not alone—another person would walk with us if they could.  It is often impossible for those who suffer to know that God is present even in their suffering except through human touch.  Mary could not rescue Jesus, but she could be present to his suffering.  She lavished grace upon him and her extravagant love touched soothed his aching soul.
When we see the body of Christ
still broken in this world,
may we meet it with lavish grace
and pour ourselves out
with extravagant love

May it be so.

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