Gestures Made of Love, Lent 5(C) – 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8; Psalm 126

Realistic. Practical. Sensible. Those are words we all like to use to describe ourselves and our churches. We are Christians who believe in an amazing story of death and resurrection, but in the end we have to come back down to earth and live in the real world. Someone has to make sure the budget balances.

This is exactly the attitude of Judas in our gospel story today, the attitude Jesus condemns.

We don’t normally think of ourselves in the same category with Judas. And a great deal of the time, those practical considerations do need to guide our behavior as individuals and communities.

But Jesus profoundly values Mary and her gesture in this gospel. He finds her pouring of fragrant oil over his feet and wiping them with her hair deeply meaningful, and he will not allow this beautiful, intimate moment to be ruined by the mean-spirited practicality of Judas.

What makes Judas even more blameworthy – and even more of a warning to us – is that he overlays his criticism of Mary with a virtuous moral justification. “We could have used that money to serve the poor!” He laments with outward heartfelt piety and inward smug self-righteousness. Have you ever seen this happen at church? Someone takes the moral high ground, not out of love but because it places them in a position to score points on someone else. “I’m more Christian than you are,” is a game that has no winners.

Jesus saw this and Jesus cuts right through Judas’ posturing. In this moment, Mary and her gesture mean more than Judas and his proposed action. That’s hard for us action-oriented Americans to take! All the beautiful gestures in the world won’t get the pledge campaign launched or the nave vacuumed or the food pantry stocked.

Or will they? Why does Jesus value Mary’s extravagant and loving but essentially useless gesture so much? Because the things that inspire us to greatness are often exactly that: useless gestures. Here’s an example of that phenomenon.

In June of 1941, Dmitri Shostakovich was a successful composer and the head of the Leningrad Conservatory’s piano department. He and millions of others were suddenly uprooted by the surprise bombardment of Leningrad by German forces, breaking the non-aggression pact Hitler had signed with Russia and beginning a siege that would last almost two and a half years. Although Shostakovich was evacuated, his heart remained with his besieged city, and he began writing what would become the defining work of his career. His massive Seventh Symphony began to take shape, music that told the story of war and sacrifice and heroism, inspired by and dedicated to Leningrad.

The siege wore on through the terrible winter of 1941. Once the starving residents had eaten all the dogs, cats, and rats in the city, they moved on to leather handbags and suitcases. By January 1942, they were subsisting on wallpaper paste and sawdust. Thousands of frozen, starved bodies littered the streets every day, and the survivors, barely clinging to life, soon no longer had the physical strength to clear the corpses away. The death toll climbed to 1.2 million.

In February, Shostakovich finished the symphony, and it premiered to worldwide acclaim in Moscow, London, and New York. But Shostakovich knew that the true premiere had not happened yet. The Leningrad Symphony, to truly come to life, had to be played in Leningrad.

The sheet music was smuggled into the city across German lines. Leningrad’s premiere orchestra, the Philharmonic, had been evacuated before the siege closed in, and the leftover Radiokom orchestra was all that remained. Of their ranks, 70 had frozen or starved to death in the siege, and only 20 were left alive. And yet, rehearsals began.

The musicians were utterly physically debilitated. They barely had the strength to lift their instruments, and rehearsals, limited to 15 minute intervals, were frequently punctuated by orchestra members fainting from hunger or cold. In fact, they never had the physical strength to play the entire symphony through at once until the actual performance.

In one incredible episode, a percussionist was reported dead, and the conductor, who needed him desperately for the symphony, went to the morgue to check. He saw movement in one stack of corpses, and it was his percussionist, still alive but too weak to protest being carted off with the dead. The conductor rescued him and he went on to play in the performance.

On August 9, 1942, the cobbled together starving orchestra in Leningrad performed the entire Symphony Number 7 for their audience of emaciated but defiant fellow citizens in an epic triumph of the human spirit. This was the exact date Hitler had boasted he would have a victory dinner in the Hotel Astoria to celebrate conquering Leningrad.

The symphony played by the starving orchestra – this is essentially a useless gesture. It did not shorten the siege or provide any food or help defeat the Nazi forces. In fact, three musicians in the orchestra died during the rehearsal period, their lives undoubtedly shortened by having exerted themselves physically to play.

But this useless gesture helped a city beaten down almost to death hold on long enough to be liberated. And we have to wonder if Mary’s useless gesture in our gospel story today functioned in the same way. This was Jesus’ farewell dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. He knew he was going to his death, and he knew it would not be an easy death.

Mary would soon face the grief of losing her beloved teacher and friend to an unjust, violent execution. They both had ordeals before them that were on par with or even exceeded what the besieged citizens of Leningrad underwent.

All of us, while perhaps not driven to the extremes that Jesus, Mary, and the Leningraders were, have faced times in our lives where our bodies, minds, and spirits are pushed far beyond what we think we can endure. Sitting by the bedside of a loved one as she slowly succumbs to cancer. Bearing the pain of a spouse with dementia no longer recognizing us. The moment when we hear that our child has been in a terrible car accident. Battling through the pain of a chronic illness or debilitating injury that renders our own bodies deaf to our commands and consumed with pain. These moments when comfort and reason and relief seem like bizarre and foreign concepts happen to all of us. And what gets us through those moments? Is it the moral pontification of Judas, the building up of our virtuous self-image through studiously practical good works?

No. What helps us survive is the useless gesture, the impractical moment, the unfiltered communication of love and joy and hope that we remember with photographic clarity – the first time our baby smiled at us, the look on our spouse’s face when we exchanged our vows, the warm arms of a parent or grandparent around us as a child. These small moments of devotion between people who love each other – these useless gestures – they are what sustain our courage when the chips are down, and that is what we see between Jesus and Mary in the gospel.

Because even the great inspiring moments of life, like the Leningrad performance of the 7th Symphony, are made up of a thousand small actions. The moment that inspired a city to triumph over fascism was built by one violinist raising his violin to his shoulder and mentally begging his trembling fingers to find the notes, by one trumpeter fighting through the lightheadedness that swamped him every time he drew breath deep enough to play, by one percussionist beating out the rhythm that echoed his own heartbeat that everyone else thought was extinguished.

These are gestures made of love. They are the hearts and spirits of musicians giving the feeble strength of their bodies for their city. And as they gave themselves to create the music, in their minds they didn’t see a vast metropolis. They saw the faces of their children, their parents, their wives and husbands.

When Jesus surrendered himself to the authorities, he did not see the broad sweep of the cosmos he was about to die to save. He saw your face.

So ask yourself: have you made an impractical gesture of love today? Have you done something useless that has no other value than to give of yourself to another? Search for that chance to make that useless gesture of love, because somewhere down the road, it may save someone’s life.

Download the sermon for Lent 5C. 

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Priest-in-Charge of the Shared Ministry of St. Luke’s Shelbyville and St. Thomas Franklin. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.  

Love generously, give abundantly, 5 Lent (C) – 2013

March 17, 2013

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

The United States Office of Government Ethics maintains pages and pages of rules related to gift-giving among federal employees. “An employee may never give a gift to the employee’s official superior,” is one such rule. On annual holidays and birthdays, however, an employee is allowed to give his or her superior a gift, so long as it does not have a cash market value of more than $10. Gifts received from outside the office are even more complicated, with anything valued at over $20 deemed unacceptable.

We can imagine that holidays in Executive Branch offices are a little hard to navigate, and probably not a whole lot of fun.

The reasoning behind these types of rules is good, of course. Expensive gifts to one’s boss could be seen as bribes, and the same goes for outside parties trying to influence the interests of government employees. It is an ethics issue, and an important one. But suspicion surrounding generous gifts does not begin and end in bureaucratic offices, and it’s not always for good cause. We seem to suffer from a common cultural wariness where extravagance is concerned. Whether we distrust the impulse behind the gift, or feel somehow at a loss by our own inability to reciprocate, lavishness and generosity can make us uncomfortable.

Today’s reading from John’s gospel tells a story of extravagant giving – giving that made Judas just as uncomfortable as it might make us. Jesus is in the town of Bethany, on his way to Jerusalem for the very last time. He stops to spend the evening with Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead not long before. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters and Jesus’ good friends, are there as well, making dinner, catching up and sharing in fellowship.

We don’t know a whole lot about the conversations that went on around Lazarus’ dinner table that night, but by the time that our story unfolds – the story of the uncomfortable, generous giving – it seems that almost everyone is on the same page. Almost everyone knows what is going to happen next for Jesus, and probably for Lazarus, too.

When Lazarus came back to life and tumbled from his tomb, the word about Jesus spread even farther than it already had. This was Jesus’ most incredible miracle yet – the defeat of death itself – and it caused many people to believe in him. As more began to believe, however, others began to fear. Before Lazarus could even change out of his burial clothes, the Pharisees had begun their plot to have Jesus killed, sure that if they didn’t stop him the Romans would destroy everything that they held dear. The very act of giving life to Lazarus was the catalyst that led Jesus toward death.

Gathered around the dinner table, Lazarus’ family seems to know what is coming. They are about to lose their dear friend. They may even know that Lazarus’ new life is at stake. Having been raised from the dead, he is as much a risk to the status quo as the man who raised him. The time is short and the grief is plentiful as they break bread together in Bethany.

Scarcity and abundance are the twin themes of Lent. In this season we have walked through the wilderness, challenging our reliance on the comfortable and known, replacing old habits with new disciplines. We travel the road toward Jerusalem, week after week, ever mindful of the suffering we will find there. It is a slow, plodding course, and one that we know well. Soon we will stand at the foot of the cross and watch as our Lord breathes his last. Viewed from only one direction, this is a very dark season. And yet, we are always mindful of how the story ends. We walk through the shadow of the Lenten valley knowing that while Jesus’ time on earth is scarce, God’s grace is abundant. Even as we struggle in the wilderness, God is at work making rivers in the desert. Easter is just around every corner.

In today’s gospel, we are treated to two different ways of being in the world; two examples of how one might confront scarcity. This is an old book, but here we learn that people are people throughout time and in all places. The Pharisees – and eventually, the Roman authorities – feel their stronghold threatened, and in the face of loss they choose to tighten their grip. By plotting to kill Jesus, they hope to stop their sense of helplessness in its very tracks by asserting what control they can.

Mary, on the other hand, has a different approach. We don’t know exactly what she is feeling when she slips from the table and kneels at Jesus’ feet with a pound of expensive perfumed oil. However, her silence seems to say something on its own. In gratitude for her brother’s life, in grief for her friend’s life, in total fear for the future, words fail Mary. So, instead of speaking, she lavishes her Lord with an absurdly abundant gift: perfume that would cost as much as a year’s total wages. This is a profuse gesture – sensuous and rich and effusive. John tells us that the whole room filled with fragrance as Mary anointed Jesus. We can imagine the cringing gestures as some disciples – including Judas Iscariot – look away from this woman, lost for words, absorbed in her task, who uses her own hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. It is all just too much.

In this little story, we see that there are at least two ways of dealing with scarcity: we can seek to control what we can, or we can give all we’ve got.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the dinner at Bethany is when Judas finally speaks up. He thinks that Mary is being wasteful, that the money that she spent on the oil would be better spent on the poor. Thank God for John’s little parenthetical reference, where he lets us know that Judas was stealing from the common purse, otherwise we would find ourselves precariously close to nodding our heads in agreement. “Yeah,” we might think. “What a waste! What a silly thing to do! We can find a much more righteous way to use this kind of wealth.” It is not Judas’ criticism that makes this moment uncomfortable for us, but how easily we find ourselves agreeing with history’s greatest turncoat.

Many of us have probably been here before. We have found ourselves uncomfortable in the face of generosity, and criticized it in order to limit its power. We’ve also probably stood alongside Mary. We have allowed ourselves to give to our heart’s content – to lavish our love on someone or something else – only to have our motive mocked or suspiciously picked apart. When this happens once, we rarely want to risk it happening again.

Sometimes our culture – and perhaps our human nature – pressures us to only take measured risks, and of course, in many ways this is wise. But our God is not a God of cost-benefit analyses. No, our God calls us to love without counting the cost. It would be a brave new Lenten discipline to engage the final days of this season as Mary would: to love generously, just because; to meet our impulse to give abundantly, just as our God gives, and embrace it. Knowing what we know about how the story ends and about how God will make rivers in the desert, wouldn’t we rather stand with Mary in the perfumed room than with the Pharisees in their powerful chambers?

 

— The Rev. Elizabeth Easton is the associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Omaha, Neb. A native of Washington State, she graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 2009.

What God’s generosity means in our lives, 5 Lent (C) – 2010

March 21, 2010

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

As we turn our faces now toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we are given this last Sunday in Lent to ponder God’s gift of generosity and what that generosity means in our lives with Him and one another.

We may start by looking at the family of Mary and Martha of Bethany, with their brother Lazarus, as portrayed in today’s reading from John’s gospel. Jesus came to their home and they gave a dinner for him – a fine example of generous hospitality in the context of a small, close-knit Jewish community of the time.

Further on in Chapter Twelve we find that all sorts of people coming to Jerusalem for Passover stop by the house to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and to see Jesus himself. So many people went to visit the Bethany household on this occasion that the Jerusalem authorities who were hunting for Jesus decided to find and arrest Lazarus too, since, we are told, “it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”

The generosity of his friends at Bethany had unintended consequences. More than any other gospel, the Gospel of John is crafted to show how very unwelcome Jesus was among his own Galilean Jewish neighbors, and how he became the focus of suspicion and growing hostility on the part of a small but powerful segment of the Jerusalem leadership. The story today of the dinner at Bethany points us toward the events of Holy Week that will result in Jesus’ crucifixion right in the heart of the annual Passover celebration.

But to return to the dinner itself: In the midst of this meal, Mary of Bethany comes into the dining area with a bottle of expensive oil, the sort that was customarily used to anoint the dead before burial. She pours it lavishly over Jesus’ feet and then dries his feet with her hair. It is a costly gift, a generous gift, one that comes from her head, heart, and soul – quite unasked for, quite unexpected. This is Jesus the Lord of Life, who had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead only weeks before, and Mary treats the Lord of Life as if he were already a dead body.

We do not know how anyone in the house interpreted this extravagant gesture except for Judas. Judas asked the money question: would it not have been better to spend all that money on the poor and needy? Questioning Mary’s generosity in this way was surely valid. Jesus had built much of his reputation on the way he accepted, fed, and healed people who were outside the socio-economic safety zones – men without status in the eyes of the temple and court authorities, widows who were unable to stand on their own two feet, and children who were unable to make choices for themselves.

Jesus’ response to Judas is interesting, therefore. He tells Judas to let Mary be; she had bought the oil for the day of Jesus’ burial. Jesus’ death comes into view on the horizon as he continues, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” The admonition seems gentle, but perhaps there is a note of sharpness and certainly of poignancy.

In the house at Bethany, the poverty of the human Jesus becomes visible. Mary’s extravagant gift of anointing is given to one for whom there was no room at the inn at his birth, for whom there was precious little hospitality given during his lifetime, and for whom, in the end, there will be a borrowed tomb.

The notes of generosity in this gospel reading prompt us to consider our own attitudes toward giving, especially the ways in which we offer ourselves and what used to be called “our substance,” to God.

The God who appears in Isaiah today is the one who gives life to the world, the God of the Exodus, the extraordinary God whom we see across the whole span of scripture. In the words of Walter Brueggemann in his prayer “On Generosity”:

You come giving bread in the wilderness,
You come giving children at the eleventh hour,
You come giving homes to exiles,
You come giving futures to the shut-down,
You come giving Easter joy to the dead.

The world is full of earthquakes and disasters. Week in and week out our parishes and the charitable agencies around us are bombarded with the real needs of hurting, starving, wounded people in famine and war, flood and hurricane. The poor we have always with us, always with claims on our compassion and generosity.

We do not always make time or use our imaginations for risky, generous offerings, like Mary who poured out an abundance of oil on Jesus’ feet. These are the tokens of a deep-seated generosity in our souls that mirror and honor the generosity of God our Creator, who gives us life by bringing us out of error into truth, our of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

 

— The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York.

Jesus was rich in friends, 5 Lent (C) – 2007

March 25, 2007

Isaiah 43:16-21Psalm 126Philippians 3:4b-14John 12:1-8

Quite a few of us grew up in evangelical churches and were raised on a diet of fiery preaching and gospel hymns. One of the most popular hymns of that genre is “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

Jesus was rich in friends and found great joy in them. Indeed, his choice of friends attracted the criticism of his enemies. In Matthew 11, he was accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners. However, the most significant mention of friendship in the gospels occurs in John 15: “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends.” It is significant that of all the gospels only John remembers that at the Last Supper, Jesus declared his disciples to be not servants but friends. John seems to have been more interested in Jesus’ friendships than the other gospels, and this may be because the author of John was perhaps Jesus’ closest friend – the “beloved disciple.” We usually identify this beloved disciple as John, but in fact, the gospel does not give him a name.

John’s gospel is also unique in giving us two other stories about friends of Jesus. First, John tells us of the close friendship Jesus seems to have enjoyed with Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus. Second, John passes on to us the somewhat disturbing story of Mary’s impulsive gesture of pouring expensive perfumed ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair.

Undoubtedly, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Jesus’ good friends. Jesus was in their home on at least two other occasions. In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are told that a “woman named Martha opened her home to him” and that she had a sister named Mary. Even though Luke does not identify the village as Bethany or tell us that they had a brother named Lazarus, this appears to be the same Martha and Mary of whom John speaks. And of course, Jesus came when Lazarus died and raised him from the dead.

Friendship occupies a middle ground between familial love on one hand, and romantic love on the other. The common interests that help create friendship can make friendship an easier relationship than some of our familial relationships. The passion that brings together lovers can make a romantic relationship easier at the beginning, although this seldom lasts. Friendship is different from kinship in that we choose our friends on the basis of common interests or common experiences. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says that while lovers long to look into each others’ eyes, friends stand side by side looking toward the common interests that drew them together and made them friends in the first place.

In families, we are conscious of our place and the complex relationships created by birth order, parenting, and so on. In romantic relationships, we may also be on our best behavior, hoping and praying that our love is returned by the one we love. In contrast, friends are people with whom we can be ourselves. They are willing to overlook our foibles and even find them endearing.

What are we to make, then, of Mary’s shocking gesture of pouring expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair? Whatever this act meant, it was profoundly disconcerting then and now. John attributes Judas’ discomfort to his greed. In the parallel story in Luke, Simon the Pharisee is embarrassed because of the reputation of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. We may perhaps have similar reactions. Like Judas we may be outraged by the seeming waste of expensive perfume, or like Simon we may be concerned about the apparent impropriety of the gesture. But Jesus took the gesture in stride. It was an unusual gesture of friendship (to say the least!) but apparently that is how he took it. Jesus was so comfortable with himself and with Mary’s friendship that he was able to accept such a profoundly intimate gesture.

In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing truly worthwhile.” The Incarnate Lord has called us friends. In other words, he has invited us into a relationship. If we accept this invitation, our friendship with God in Christ will deepen. It will become intimate. We will be able to do things for God, such as spend an entire night praying at the side of a dying friend. We may even find God calling us to do things that are not only intimate but also dangerous, such as working with the hungry and homeless in a poor country of the Southern Hemisphere. But we will be able to endure the risk and the embarrassment because God has called us friends. And as our intimacy with God grows, it will become a fragrant offering, filling not just our house but the entire world with the perfume of love.

 

— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.