March 17, 2013
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The story begins so strangely, yet it sounds so offhand: Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Wait. Can we back it up a bit? Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead? Just a little dinner party with a resuscitated corpse. “So, Lazarus, what was death like?”
The 3 siblings - Martha, Mary, and Lazarus - were some of Jesus’ best friends. They lived in the outskirts of Jerusalem, in Bethany. Along with thousands of other pilgrims, Jesus and his disciples were making their way to the holy city in preparation for Passover. So they stayed at their friends’ house for a few days.
Martha was serving the guests, as she does in another story, and Mary was sitting in devotion at the feet of Jesus, as she does in that story, much to Martha’s irritation. And then, as if it weren’t strange enough that Lazarus was sitting around with them, it gets even weirder.
Mary takes out a jar of very costly perfumed oil. Judas, the disciples’ treasurer, quickly calculated the value at 300 denarii. According to most of the first 10 internet entries I googled on the subject - and that makes it a fact - this would be about $6,000. That’s some pricey oil. I assume this means Jesus’ friends were wealthy, and a large house would explain how they could take in the whole group of pilgrims that night.
And then Mary, this dignified woman of means, does something that shocks them all. She takes Jesus’ bare feet in her hands, pours some of the precious oil over them, rubs them, and then wipes them with her hair.
We’ve become so accustomed to this story - and a parallel one in the other gospels that takes place at a dinner with some Pharisees - that it’s lost the element of surprise. But can you imagine it happening at your next dinner party?
Jesus’ disciples are outraged. Supposedly the issue is that the $6,000 could have gone a long way towards helping the poor. But I wonder if the real bone of contention wasn’t about the sheer inappropriateness of her gesture, and Jesus’ lack of reaction to it.
Jesus’ friends probably wished that he would have quietly said to her “Woman, I appreciate the sentiment, but really. This is not the time or place for this sort of thing. Make an appointment through my assistant, and later on, we’ll meet in my office and have a rational conversation about whatever is troubling you.”
Instead, Jesus received what Mary was doing. In that moment everything stopped; time stood still. While others were fidgeting with embarrassment, Jesus opened his heart, looked into her eyes, and received what was offered. It was a holy moment for Mary, a pure moment of love, despair, surrender, God knows what. And Jesus honored it.
Jesus didn’t really know what had brought Mary to this desperate act. Her history was probably a mystery to him, and to everyone else in the room. But unlike the others, he didn’t push her aside and demand an explanation. He didn’t complain about the waste of money.
He created a space for her, trusting that what she was doing would help her move forward in her walk of faith. Perhaps that’s the really shocking thing. Jesus gave her room to do what she needed to do.
Last weekend, the Vestry and clergy were on retreat together and one evening, we were telling bizarre church stories. There were some doozies. Mine was about a time in my first year of ordained ministry. It was at Grace Cathedral, a very formal and massive Gothic church in San Francisco, where I first worked as a priest.
During one of the Eucharists, the service began with some liturgical dancers perched around the altar, where I sat in my stall, next to the director of the dance group. As the procession wound down, a woman walked in front of the high altar and began to take her clothes off. All of them. I turned to the director next to me and asked “Is she one of yours?” She replied “No. Is she one of yours?”
Right about then the poor woman was frozen at the altar, not knowing what to do next. I nodded to the Verger, and he glided over as if this had all been planned, slipped his robe over her shoulders, and gently led her out. Later, we learned she had offered herself to God, and when nothing happened, she became confused.
Now on one level this became for me one of many strange tales of San Francisco’s endearing eccentrics. But over time, I have wondered about that woman. I have thought about her desperate and completely committed act of religious devotion. What led up to it? What was she hoping for? Did God respond to her self-offering?
Because Episcopalians value good order in liturgy above all else, we acted in a way that we would never have in a meeting or coffee hour. We didn’t cry out; we didn’t call the cops. The show went on, and we accepted her, as Jesus had accepted Mary that day in Bethany. And I hope our lack of reactivity served her well.
Those of you who are parents know that sometimes this is the best thing we can do for a child who is throwing a fit. He yells and thrashes about on the floor of the grocery store, demanding that we buy that bag of candy. We’re embarrassed, but if we’ve got our wits about us, we don’t jerk him up by the arm and threaten him with bloody murder. We stroll on, calmly suggesting that if he doesn’t come with us now, he might end up walking home.
Sometimes children need to freak out. But more importantly, they need to know that we aren’t frightened or harmed by it. They need our constancy. It’s like going out into the desert when we’re going through a very hard time. The open land, the sky has a kind of holy indifference to our troubles. It just remains there for us, calm and accepting. This is a a kind of love, for it provides something bigger than our problems, something real and true and spacious. In this expanse of love, God’s grace has room to move, and a little healing happens.
People ask why God seems so indifferent to our need. We go into prayer pleading, questioning, looking for an answer, a sign. Nothing seems to happen. We interpret this as absence. But it’s not. It’s a gift, a gift of loving presence, an infinite Yes. And often, that holy, spacious place is all that is needed for God’s hidden grace to work, so that we can move past where we’re stuck.
This is what God does for us in prayer. God accepts whatever we need to do, to say, whatever we need to ask for, just as Jesus accepted Mary’s act of desperate devotion. In that container of love, what began as a fit can calm down and become something else. Sometimes as the larger view opens up to us, the very questions we originally brought to prayer cease to be important.
And it is what we can do for others. The parish is a good place to practice this. Sometimes people act inappropriately. They get mad, they cry, they voice unreasonable expectations. They’re not always rational. That’s okay. As long as they’re not hurting anyone, let them do what they need to do. God knows - yes, God knows, even if we or they don’t know - what brought them to this moment. When nobody kicks them out, when they’re invited up to the altar like everyone else to receive God’s grace, when next time we see them, we don’t avoid them but greet them with a smile, a little healing happens.
We use the word “community” a lot here. This is an example of what real community is, and what it can do. It can provide an open place, a container, a holy indifference that receives us all as we are, not reacting, sometimes not even needing to talk about it. We abide, and we go on, together. As we learn to do this in this school of faith we call a church, we can then take it into our homes, our places of work. We can be that same container for anyone, whenever it is needed.
This is what Jesus did for Mary that day. It is what God does for us in prayer. It is what we can do for others. And in that open space of love, beneath the surface, hidden to our eyes, God’s grace is given room to move, and to heal.