A dinner party among beloved friends, drawn closer together by a shared experience of loss and renewal. An unexpected and embarrassing interruption, an over-the-top gift, an acting out of unconditional love, an unwelcome reminder of a long shadow that looms over the gathering.
I wonder if you have ever had something like this experience? Most of us can tell stories of people behaving in eccentric and startling ways at a worship service, from the toddler who shouts Amen into the silence after the Eucharistic Prayer to the intoxicated individual who dances up the aisle and prostrates himself on the chancel steps. We all know how uncomfortable such uninhibited acts make us feel. A sense of restraint, of appropriateness, is woven into our Episcopal DNA. We don’t speak easily of profound concepts like love or death. If I ask you to turn to your neighbor now and shout out, “I love you”, will that make you cringe? Or, even worse, if I ask you to turn to your neighbor and say, “I want you to know I love you because I know you are going to die,” that could be doubly cringeworthy – more love than we can handle, more talk of death than we can accept.
In our Gospel story Mary grasps the opportunity to show her love for Jesus. She knows she might never have another chance. So often we miss the opportunity and then someone is gone forever. So don’t put it off! While I’m not going to torture you by making you say it out loud right now, take a moment to think of someone you should reach out to with love. Make yourself a promise that you will do it today. And, while you’re at it, promise yourself that you will complete one of our funeral planning forms in the near future.
Jesus says of Mary’s gift, “She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” How often do we talk about our own death? Jesus offers the ultimate in non-anxious communication. We are all going to die, but we think at some level that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen. So when the subject threatens to come up we deflect, we turn the conversation to more superficial topics. Today’s Gospel story helps us to prepare for the death and burial of Jesus. It reminds us of the great love that his presence symbolizes. It opens us up to the re-enactment of the Passion that we will embrace starting next Sunday.
Does something about this story sound familiar? There is an exquisite sense of timing, completely unintentional on my part, around the coincidence of this Gospel story with our current congregational conversation about the gift of a new, custom-made Chancel cross. In case you haven’t been following the communications, let me summarize: a longtime parishioner, suffering from a terminal illness with a short trajectory, came to me and offered a parting gift to express love for St Paul’s. The parishioner knew that the cross we have was installed 30 years ago as a compromise, after a custom-designed cross was rejected by the congregation, and also knew that there have been continuous criticisms of this cross as being too small for our space and too hard to see since the organ pipes were installed. So this parishioner offered us the opportunity to acquire a cross that would be unique to St Paul’s and would express the welcoming and healing ethos of this congregation. An image of the risen and joyful Christ that proclaims, “This is the table, not of the church, but of Jesus Christ. It is made ready for those who love him and who want to love him more.”
The parishioner offered a very generous sum to cover the cost and requested that we aim to select a design, with congregational input, by the end of April. The arts committee was given the project and Jen Jow volunteered to manage the process. Because of the short timeline we have had limited success in identifying artists and therefore could provide only a relatively narrow range of choices up to now.
Can you hear the Gospel in this story? A beautiful, generous, sacrificial gift is offered out of love for Jesus. He receives it with grace. Perhaps you can imagine other voices, asking why the money couldn’t be used for outreach or complaining that the gift isn’t needed or isn’t appropriate. When Mary interrupts the dinner party with this extravagant gift of love, prompted by her sense that death is near, the disciples shy away from that grim reality and focus instead on the stuff of the gift. Judas, representing the disciples and perhaps us, tries to steer the conversation to a question of practicalities instead of acknowledging the fear and grief that they are all experiencing. Jesus is going to die when they reach Jerusalem. They all know it but nobody wants to talk about it. The outpouring of love and grief represented by the gift makes them too uncomfortable.
The ironic thing about our own discomfort around these issues is that our Christian faith rests on the reality of a love that exceeds all our understanding and a death that is too horrible to imagine. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we re-enact the story of Jesus’s suffering and we receive his gift of love in the sacrament of Communion. “This is my body”: is there any statement that is more intimate, more redolent of both suffering and love, than these words that accompany our acceptance of a gift we didn’t ask for and don’t deserve? What is the appropriate response to this gift? Surely it is deep, heartfelt gratitude and a renewed intention to share with others the love we have received.
Each of us has our own way of demonstrating love. Mary chose expensive oil. Martha, her sister, chose to give a square meal and a comfortable refuge. My father-in-law used to show his love with produce. When we visited him in England he would welcome us with a meal including every vegetable he could lay his hands on, sometimes 7 or 8. We joked that the more vegetables on the table, the happier he was to see us.
Jesus shows his love for us when he offers his own self to us. It’s a gift with no strings attached, a true gift. It’s more than we deserve, maybe more than we want. But the depth of generosity expressed in this gift is what prompts us in turn to be generous: generous in forgiveness, generous in friendship, generous in serving the poor.
The Gospel writer tells us that the house was filled with the fragrance of Mary’s gift. When love is shared extravagantly, unselfconsciously, it fills a house, or a church, or a community like an exquisite perfume.
Judas is deficient in his ability to smell the fragrance. He is unable to perceive the beauty of Mary’s act. He has shut himself off from love, and John makes sure we know what that means, in his parenthetical reference to the betrayal. Jesus’s teaching puts the gift in perspective. We can help the poor any time. You can make your own contribution to the food bank or the Red Cross. You can take some of the snack bags our youth made recently and put them behind the driver’s seat of your car, and when you are stopped at the traffic light and someone is holding a sign that says “Hungry”, you can seize the moment, grab a bag, and hand it over.
The poor are always with us and we always have opportunities to help. But sometimes we just need to show our love of God, generously, extravagantly, even embarrassingly, because only with such gestures can we even come close to honoring the depth of the divine love that we receive every day of our lives.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
April 7, 2019