If you were at the church retreat last fall, you may remember us doing some Biblio drama around the story of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet. A version of this story appears in all four gospels and when we explored the story at retreat – we used a mashed up remix of the accounts to tell the story and work through the layers of an unnamed woman of the city, which implies a woman with a reputation, finding her way into Simon’s house where Jesus was reclined at table breaking open a jar of expensive ointment and pouring it head. She also bends down and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. There were lots of perspectives to peek through as we embodied the text, acting it out together several times in a row.
Today is no different, today we once again have layers to work with and several perspectives at play in the account from John of this incident. And yet there are things we don’t have to address – we don’t have to address the anonymity of the woman. In John’s account, the woman who anoints Jesus with such extravagance is not an unknown woman of the city. She is Mary. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus has just raised from death. In fact, if you go back to chapter 11 to read the story of the raising of Lazarus, you will find Mary identified like this:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.
In case you missed the chapter we are working with today – it is chapter 12. The story of Mary anointing Jesus hasn’t even been told in the book of John at the point of Lazarus’ illness in chapter 11, yet this incident is so poignant that Mary is already identified as the woman who anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.
She is the same Mary who, much to her sister Martha’s exasperation, sat at the feet of Jesus on one of his earlier visits to their village soaking up his wisdom and teachings. This is, Mary, one of Jesus’ beloved friends.
And we can see that there is a certain amount of familiarity between the two. Because, in this scene, Mary doesn’t simply anoint Jesus with nard, she also wipes his feet with her hair. This is a vulnerable, intimate act. And it is an act done in the presence of others.
How do we respond when we find ourselves in the presence of vulnerability? Of intimacy?
Yet this act isn’t just an act of intimate connection, it is also a gift of extravagant affection. Mary has not pulled the olive oil off the shelf to anoint Jesus. She has pulled out a pound of pure nard, a costly ointment, in that measurement said to be worth a year’s wages for a working person of the time. This is no small gift. This is extravagant generosity.
How do we respond when we find ourselves in the presence of extravagant generosity?
Judas is quick to respond. He sees the nard in Mary’s hand and instead of seeing the act of love, affection, and nurture it embodies. He sees an asset:
Why wasn’t this ointment sold? It could have brought nearly a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.
As one of Jesus’ groupies, this seems like a valid question to ask. This Jesus has been hard at work the last several years in a ministry that specializes in serving the underserved, while time and again asking those who have to share with those who have less.
This combination of vulnerability and extravagance has Judas second guessing what he is witnessing, experiencing.
I experienced an act of generosity this past week that had me second guessing the situation. To understand the deep meaning in the act you have to first know that I have secretly (or perhaps not so secretly in some circles) held a desire to learn how to play the hammered dulcimer for many years now – we’re talking like, around 30 years.
It came to pass that about 5 years ago, my cousin’s brother-in-law took a voluntary service assignment in Iraq. He and his wife packed up most of their belongings and put them in storage at my cousin’s farm. Among his possessions was a hammered dulcimer. Somehow, I’m not quite sure how, although I suspect it was a conversation between my father and my cousin, that dulcimer was lent to me for the duration of the couple’s service trip. All of a sudden, after years and years of quietly dreaming about learning to place the dulcimer, I had one at my fingertips! I was super excited.
Also, around five years ago, our son Simon was born, and I was also super excited about that – and I was sleep deprived, learning the ropes of parenting, and balancing new work/home life realities that didn’t leave much time or spare energy to invest in learning to play a new instrument. So the dulcimer sat, untouched for the past five years.
Last week I pulled the dulcimer out of its resting spot and decided it was time to return it to my cousin’s brother-in-law who has been home from his service assignment now for several years. I felt bad that I had kept it so long and when I opened the case I found that two of the strings had popped, and I certainly didn’t want to run the risk of anything else bad happening to his fine possession if I kept it any longer. So I reached out to him and asked about getting it back to him and should I get the strings fixed first or how could we make things even?
His response came back to me in an email that read:
I’m not certain I actually want the dulcimer back at all, so if you have any interest in it you are welcome to keep it.
You can imagine how my inner dulcimer-ist squealed with glee at the prospect of actually having a dulcimer that I could call my own and that I could learn to play now that Simon is a bit older and more independent and I am a bit less stressed about learning to parent (a bit).
And then the generosity of the statement hit me. Dulcimers are not the most expensive instruments and yet, like most instruments, they are a bit of a financial commitment if you invest in owning one. And so, while my heart was swooning, my head took cautionary control and I quickly wrote back to him:
Are you sure you don’t want to sell the dulcimer and use the money from it for something else?
Generosity, when aimed at us, can disarm us. It can make us respond with vulnerable uncertainty because we are caught off guard by the extravagance of the situation at hand. Generosity is grace in action as it clearly exposes the fact that we may not be particularly worthy of the receipt of such a gift, and yet, whether we are ready or not, it is going to be offered and gifted without any strings of reciprocity.
And Jesus shows us how to be recipients of such extravagance: let it be.
Jesus doesn’t say, no, no, stop anointing me, I’m not sure I’m worth it. Jesus graciously sits back and lets Mary anoint his feet and wipe them with her hair while the scent of the perfumed oil rises and wafts around them filling the whole house. The scent acting like a reverberation of a moment of extravagant generosity. Jesus senses the holy in the moment and lets it be.
I don’t know how many weeks you have been at church during this season of Lent. But if you have been here more than one, you likely will have noticed the banners up front here changing from week to week. The central banner began with an empty open oval – a desert space making room for the unknown journey to come as we entered into the season of Lent. The side panels began empty with only a fine covering of gritty spray paint to create a small sense of depth and texture. Each week both the central and the side banners have changed as they continue to evolve and become whatever they will become by Easter Sunday, which is in just two weeks!
For me, this has been a visual journey of learning to: let it be.
Nothing about this process has developed like I had anticipated, envisioned, even inwardly hoped it might as I sat in worship committee months ago and brainstormed it with folks. And yet here we are. This is what has become of the creative process of the last several weeks. You might be curious about what that process has entailed.
First, it began with unintentional, self-imposed complications. By spraying gritty paint on the side panels to make them visually appealing, we made it very complicated to actually attach the small colorful panels to the paper. Glue doesn’t like grit, neither does tape. If you were here on week two you may remember that there were two little squares sticking to the papers and one panel stuck crookedly to the wall! That week was an exercise in futility as I attempted to get those little paint chips to hang on the banner and make pockets to hold the words that had been brought forward during the previous week’s worship.
It wasn’t till week three that I found the combination of double stick tape and modge-podge seemed to collaborate with enough strength to hold several slips of word papers. And all I had to come to terms with, on the unexpected front, was the marginal blobby and glossy texture created by the modge podge. In my aesthetic mind it isn’t ideal, but I am practicing the art of letting it be.
And if the side banners weren’t complicated enough on their own, there has been the journey of the central banner. That took its own turn on week one when, instead of the simple circle I had envisioned creating, I decided I would attempt to echo the more oblong shape of the beautiful wooden platter we have been using to collect the word offering each week during lent. So I extended the circle and when we hung it up on the wall and stepped back: behold, a giant egg. Oops. While an egg is a seasonally appropriate visual image, it certainly wasn’t what I intended. Once again I had the opportunity to let it be.
And then there has been the visual transition in that egg over the past several weeks. You may or may not have been able to see the pattern of growth that has evolved. Starting on week two of Lent, and each week since, some of the words from our word offering have sprouted like curly vines into that empty space. The next week those swirly words become block letters that begin to spark with jagged lines of color. And on week three of their growing journey, those block letters are completely filled in with color. Each of the weeks word offerings have been incorporated in this manner ending up with the banner that we currently have. And, for me, this aspect of the visual journey has been yet another practice of letting it be.
While I like the theory of the growing journey that the banner has been on, the visual reality of it has been challenging to me because it has forced me to let the community bear witness to the creative process. A process which is rarely easy and, honestly, doesn’t always result in beauty. Typically artists gets to be editors of the creative process, only showing others the outcome if and when they are confident and committed to the result that has been created.
This is not the case when one is creating in front of a group. And so it has been a vulnerable act to let the banner be in whatever stage it is in each week. To let people interact with it, experience it, love it, or judge it however they have each week and to simply let the process and the visual stage of the journey be as it has been each week.
And it is still on a journey. I am not certain where the banner will go from here. We will all find out together over the next two weeks as we continue to let it be. And we will all continue to respond to it in different ways. I will likely continue to be hesitant about the product that becomes. I am certain others will continue to join me in that hesitancy about what is developing. While yet others have been and may continue to enjoy various stages of the visual process for different reasons. We all bring our own individual thoughts, contexts, expectations and aesthetics along with us and, as a result, we all interact with things in different ways – sometimes loving and sometimes scrutinizing the moment at hand.
Mary and Jesus experience this diversity of response to the extravagant act of beauty offered by Mary in the anointing of Jesus. I like to imagine that Mary, in this act, has offered an expression on par with the beauty, spiritual connection and confession offered in Psalm 63 and is perhaps even holding the Psalm in her mind and spirit as she leans over anointing Jesus’ feet:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
Jesus sees this extravagant offering of love for what it is and lets it be. He knows this is a gift of nurture on the edge of a chaotic time. Extravagant moments of nurture are necessary to all of us. Extravagant love and nurture offer space for healing from what we have come through, a brief moment of reprieve from whatever we are experiencing in the moment at hand, and sustenance for the journey ahead, whatever it may bring.
Not only does Jesus let it be, he celebrates and defends it when it comes under scrutiny. Judas’ seemingly responsible social justice query about a possible better use for the nard asset is heard and responded to:
“Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You have poor people with you always. But you won’t always have me.”
Jesus, once again, sees through the situation, directly to the self-serving motivation that Judas is truly grounding his question in. He doesn’t deny the need for caring for the poor – he affirms it: have poor people with you, always – take care of each other, share with each other, always. And also be the kind of people who can sense the fleeting presence of the holy. Sense it and linger in it.
This is the same answer Jesus gave when Martha questioned Mary’s choice to sit at his feet and listen to him teach as told in Luke 10:38-42. Martha, who is overwhelmed with the serving work at hand complains to Jesus about Mary:
“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Surely this Jesus character who is about acts of service will support Martha’s indignation. Instead, it is Martha who is called to accountability:
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Mary time and again senses the holy and acts in response to that presence in ways that makes space for the holy to be and thrive. And, against the expectations of his followers, Jesus celebrates the extravagance of such acts. He lingers in the sustenance and nurture offered. Jesus calls those who seek to follow him to acute awareness of context [including awareness of what we might not know about the context at hand] and to be mindful of our motivation, and our own power in any given moment as we choose how to respond to the holy that is fleeting, yet ever present.
We hold power. And we hold the responsibility and the opportunity to choose what to do with the power we are given. As followers of Jesus’ we are called to live into the awareness of the presence of the power that we hold and to be intentional about how we live it out: always in relationship, serving each other, and sometimes leaning into unexpected acts of extravagance as we sense the presence of the holy and join in to make space for it to nurture and thrive.