It’s the fifth Sunday in lent, this time of introspection and the spiritual practice of turning: turning away from some things, turning toward other things. How many of you have felt busier than you want to be? So let’s start with a minute of silence. During this silence I invite you to put down your to-do lists and your burdens and just become present to yourself, to one another, and to God. Out of this silence I’d like to ask you a question. What is it that you feel you never have enough of?
Some of us would answer, time. Others would answer, meaningful connection with other people. Others would answer, money. We’re living paycheck to paycheck and floating checks to pay the bills. Despite the fact that we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, one in five children live in food insecure households in our nation. So there is extravagance on the one hand, and scarcity on the other. The feeling and experience of scarcity drives many things; it drives territorial behavior, and aggression, and fear. So hold on to your answer, the answer about what you feel you never have enough of, and we’ll come back to it in a while.
In today’s gospel reading we have a most unusual story, and therefore we’re also going to have an unusual homily. It’s the story of a woman who does an outrageous thing. We’re so used to the story that I don’t think we appreciate its extravagance, so let me paint a picture of it for you. Imagine that a bunch of us get invited to John Bellaimey’s house for dinner. One of the women gets out a gallon sized bottle of Chanel perfume that has been on display at Fifth Avenue in New York, that literally costs $20,000, and goes over to John who is walking around barefoot because it’s summertime. She pours the entire jar of perfume all over his feet, takes her hair out of its ponytail and wipes his feet off with her hair. Ummm, how would you react? How would Lynnell react?
Just so it’s clear, this wasn’t a common practice in Palestine in the first century. It was as outrageous then as it would be now, maybe even more so. This was an act that makes no sense at any time in history. It wasn’t practical and it sparked Judas’ righteous indignation, which we are quick to dismiss since he was a thief and the betrayer, so it’s easy to throw him under the bus. But wouldn’t you or I be tempted to think the same thing? 300 denarii was the equivalent of nearly a year’s wages for a day laborer, so in today’s terms for people who make $12.00 an hour, about $20,000. $20,000 can do a whole lot of good to a whole lot of people. I could go on and on, but you get my point. What are we supposed to make of this story?
This story shows up in all four gospels, but in the other three gospels the authors try to domesticate it a bit. In all the other gospels the woman is anonymous. In Luke’s gospel the woman also kissed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her tears and her hair, but she was a “sinner”, so maybe we can dismiss her outrageousness. In Matthew and Mark the woman pours the ointment on Jesus’ head and avoids his feet entirely. But in John’s gospel, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is Mary, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus has raised from the dead. Mary has received something priceless from Jesus. She got her brother back, but she didn’t just get him back. She got a wildly extravagant hope. She had the experience that God in Jesus could meet her at the point of her greatest pain and loss and bring life and joy into it. And that was worth an expression of gratitude that was so primal, so visceral, that it couldn’t be expressed in words. It had to be expressed in touch and scent and feet and hair.
The truth is, I suspect most of us would give a lot to love something that much, and we’re also afraid of loving something that much. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be that passionate about the way of Jesus? Or, should we be afraid of people who are that passionate about their beliefs? Just think of the man who protested outside our doors a few weeks ago. He was obviously passionate about what he thought. So once again I ask, what are we supposed to do with today’s story?
During my 30s I was in a part of my spiritual journey where I was exploring all kinds of different spiritualities, and I stumbled across the ancient sufi mystic poets Rumi and Hafiz. Are any of you familiar with them? Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and Rumi and Hafiz were thirteenth century writers who wrote incredibly beautiful ecstatic poetry about their experience of God, whom they called the Beloved. They wrote about experiencing God in everything and everyone. Hafiz wrote a poem about this keg of wine that fell off a wagon in a field, where the beetles had a binge drinking party, and that this made God very happy. I remember reading this poetry and saying to my very agnostic skeptical ex-husband Ron, “I wish I could just let go and fall in love with God again.” And I was shocked when he looked at me and just said, “Why don’t you?” And something cracked open in me and it happened.
Mystics throughout time, mystics in every religion – in Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism and yoga – have experienced the extravagant presence and love of God and have tried to express their experience. Think of St Francis of Assisi, who loved God so much that he renounced everything he owned and fell in love with birds and animals and the sun and the earth. And there is a mystical strain in John’s gospel. There is this theme of the extravagant overflowing presence of God. Jesus comes to a wedding in Cana and changes 180 gallons of water into the best wine for people already half in the bag, and this is how the Word made flesh begins his public ministry. He changes a few loaves and fish into enough food to feed 5000 people and still have 12 baskets left over. The risen Christ tells Peter, who has fished all night and come up with nothing, to cast his net on the other side of the boat, when he catches so many fish the boat threatens to capsize. John’s gospel talks about all of us receiving grace upon grace from the fullness of God. Jesus says that he came for us to have life, and to have it abundantly. John’s gospel concludes by saying that if all of the wonderful things Jesus did were written, the world itself could not contain the books. Ephesians talks about being rooted and grounded in the love of God in Christ, so that we may be able to comprehend what is the height and depth and breadth and love of God, which surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.
I’m painting a picture for you that can’t be painted in words. Most things in our world, if you share them, they diminish. There are only a few things that the opposite is true. Fire grows if it is shared. Love grows if it is shared. The love of God overflows in all directions when it is shared, and this is the essence of the gospel of John, the ministry of Jesus, and the whole point of following the way of Jesus. The love of God in Christ is meant to be experience so abundantly that it has to be expressed in tangible physical reality like nard and feet and hair.
Now to play devil’s advocate for a minute, Judas did have a point. Pouring $20,000 worth of perfume on someone’s feet does seem like an extravagant waste. And when Jesus says that you will always have the poor with you, he does not for a minute mean that we should stop trying to care for them. Deuteronomy 15:11, which Jesus would have been very familiar with, says this: “Since there will never cease to be some people in need on the earth, I therefore command you, `Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” The point isn’t whether $20,000 should be spent on perfume for Jesus’ feet or on roads in Guatemala. It’s that we don’t need to come from a place of scarcity at all. The love of God can split us wide open to the experience of joy and abundance and make it easy for us to share our resources without a second’s hesitation. This isn’t the same thing as prosperity gospel, which tells you that if you do good things you will receive more good things. The love of God opens us up to the experience of abundance, to the recognition of the presence of God, which is already everywhere, filled to overflowing.
So let’s go back to that thing you were thinking of at the beginning of today’s homily, that experience of what you never have enough of. What if all that is required is a simple shift, a simple turning toward that which is already present in spades? What if God is closer to you than your own breath, closer than your own name, and is able to grant you far more than you can ask or imagine, even if nothing in the physical world seems to change at all? I can’t make this happen for you, but God can; and when it does happen, you may find yourself reaching for some nard and letting down your hair. We can surrender into the presence of God and overflow with it. May it be so.
I will close with this poem:
I have been selling peanuts at a little tourist stand
my whole life with my back to the Grand Canyon, and until yesterday
never once had I turned around.
Yesterday someone passed me with a mirror and I split wide open. Trembling, trembling with my eyes shut, almost afraid to see,
dared to look,
and before me was the ecstasy of light, of red rock,
of immensity beyond imagination
right in my backyard.
Ahhhhh, my heart cries, it sputters, it groans
All the years! All the years selling peanuts! What have I done, dear God, where have I been?
I have not waited
even to tie my shoes. My peanuts lie, torn paper bags, strewn on the ground,
the cash register open, dollar bills flapping in the wind. All forgotten, relics.
I stumble around, around the vastness of this unimaginable beauty, my heart breaking at each new crevice, each
canyon wall of light and dust and rock and piñon pine,
the possibilities only beginning,
A galaxy of rock and splendor to explore.
Let my bones lie in some corner of this miracle, this mystery. I will die happy.