Sitting with the Question

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Last week Fr. Stuart talked about the wildly reckless, extravagant love and grace of the Prodigal father – divine excessiveness without limits that overcame the limited excesses of a wildly reckless son. This theme of reckless excess is picked up again in this week’s gospel when Jesus’ friend Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pours out a very costly pound of pure nard oil on Jesus’ feet, using piles of her own hair to wipe them clean.

The gesture was not only financially reckless but wildly provocative. Throughout the wisdom literature of the Hebrew texts and on into the Christian scriptures, a woman’s hair is synonymous with her feminine mystique, permanently covered from public view after her marriage to be seen only by her husband. Not only has this householder – rather than a house servant – touched the feet of Christ, but she has touched them with her own hair, arising from the floor, her dark hair now lustrous from the viscous ointment, the day’s heat diffusing the perfume’s aroma throughout the house.

Just as the older brother from the story of the Prodigal son names aloud his sense of the unfairness of the father’s generosity, here Judas names his sense of the misuse of resources that could have gone to charity. But Jesus intervenes, refusing to let Judas’ discomfort inhibit Mary’s risk-taking. And let’s be clear, she risked crossing the disciples’ boundaries, not necessarily Jesus’ boundaries, which also makes us a little uncomfortable, if we’re honest. I cannot quite say how but somehow my own deep shame feels very large when I see God’s boundless love poured out – but there is also something compelling about it – like while I’m desperately trying to cover up my shame, God is offering to lift it away. And God’s attention to us helps us see our true shape (Boyle, 55); that is, as beloved children of God.

Because if we allow that weird jealous anger in, it becomes like the aroma that filled the house in Bethany – we breathe it and it’s on our clothes and even when we try to walk away, we still taste it.

It had to really smart for Judas when Jesus called him out on his bogus complaint. “You’re not worried about the poor. If you were you wouldn’t be stealing from the purse all the time. Don’t worry; you won’t run out of poor people to help.” I hate it when Jesus sees through me.

Is it just a kind of “stingy righteousness” that suggests that others have it too easy when it comes to receiving God’s grace? Or, particularly in this story, is it Mary’s excessive act of adoration that makes me so uncomfortable?

Our friend Rabbi Biller would caution here not to trade perfectly good questions for mere answers. Ordinarily, I press for the answers, but I’m not as impressed with “answers” as I used to be all the way two weeks ago. And, considering what we’re all going through, I’m suspicious – maybe you are too – about “answers” that come a little too quickly. Indeed, as Pema Chodron encourages us, I want “to stay with that shakiness – the broken heart, the rumbling stomach, the feeling of hopelessness or wanting to get revenge – this is the path to true awakening.” So, instead of “answers” here are four ideas for sitting with the questions, perhaps as a way of bidding adieu to Lent, knowing full well it’s only a matter of time before we’re here again.

The first idea is to be aware of what we’re feeling. Deuteronomy tells us “Know this day and set it on your heart.” We have to recognize that each day is cabined by sunrise and sunset and in between we are experiencing something weird or shocking or tragic. It may or may not be bigger than this day. But, this cabining allows us to think about it and live with it without globalizing its power to every part of who we are. Feeling really sad about one thing does not prevent us from experiencing deep joy elsewhere.

The second idea is to affirm that every human is created in the image of God and, as such, is a prism through which the Divine is refracted. Think on this. What “side” of God is each person in our lives showing us? Every scene in life that involves us and another person has to be considered in this light. What message from God is this person giving us? Should I take a chance – like Mary of Bethany did – and see what it does to my mood to do something dramatic toward God? If we really live as though each person were made in God’s image, we must necessarily find every human being to be of interest to us! It’s ok to even be fascinated by someone like her.

The third idea may seem like it’s coming from left field, but observe regular Sabbath time. To whatever degree makes sense to you, honor the notion that if God can sit still on a regular basis then we can, too. What can we see when we stop hours on end, just thinking or resting or imagining? Sabbath observance turns contemplation into a way of living. To stop whirring around for twenty-four consecutive hours every week helps us find our “right size” in the whole scheme of things.

Finally, we need to intentionally get outside ourselves otherwise the sense making of an event becomes all about us. We may not have the answer to what we are struggling with but it is pretty straightforward to call and check on the welfare of a friend or walk the block and pick up trash. How are other folks dealing with the same situation? Or, equally important to good health, what else is happening in the wider world that may be waiting on your particular skills or gifts for help?

The bottom line is I think it can be arrogant to insist on answers – as well as perfectly human. Robert Frost said, “How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?” So, I am hoping that, if nothing else, this Lent and all that we experienced as a community or individually was a space for each of us to spend some thoughtful and prayer-filled time with what is happening to us. And, to think of it in the context of the muddy, dirty place where the cross meets the world where we live. It seems no coincidence that on the eve of entering the drama of Holy Week and God stepping into the judgment that rightly falls on each of us in order to redeem us we close out Lent with two stories of wild and reckless extravagance.

Where we customarily think and live in relatively small terms – griping on the surface about fairness and charity — beneath the surface of our protests we are really a little uneasy with such big love and prefer to hide behind distractions. We are face to face here with God who is bigger than God, in a way – or at least our notions of God.

The truth is, whether we call all that is happening to us Lent or just life, every day we have to re-cross the Red Sea that separates us from the world where we are captive to reach the world where we are free before we can renew our covenant with God. At least, that’s what has occurred to me.


Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Lent V, Year C
March 13, 2016

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