Preached at Bridgeport UCC this past Sunday --
I have been summoned by Love!
the true one, that believes, hopes, and discovers
because it is stronger than death
The one that comes to us from beyond the zenith
And submerges itself in the depths of the nadir
The one that extends my arms to infinity
And invites me to embrace the cosmos with Its tenderness
The one that opens my eyes to the mystery that I am
in the unfathomable depth of your eyes
and step by step gives me victory over fear
guiding me safely
to the abundant fountain of life
I have been invited by Love
Whose waves vibrantly tremble
My little clay jar.
Yes, I come from Love
And towards Love I am guided
All my being ecstatically gives itself over to Love’s embrace
In the very heart of beatitude!
I have been summoned by love...that is stronger than death...that invites me to embrace the cosmos with its tenderness...
I imagine words like these running through Mary’s mind as she wanders through the market with her sister, buying the food for that evening’s meal. They are hosting Jesus, you see, their friend, perhaps to thank him for raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. But Mary understands there is more going on than just a simple meal.
Mary’s friend Jesus has been under suspicion for a while, but now word has gotten out that the authorities want him killed. In fact, raising Lazarus from the dead seems to be the final straw. Jesus has gone into hiding, with a death threat hanging over his head. And yet, Jesus is taking the risk to come and eat a meal with his friends, before heading to Jerusalem the next day.
I imagine Mary and Martha in the market, buying acceptable vegetables, fruit, bread, perhaps a nice lamb shank. I imagine Mary remembering Jesus’ work and ministry...the way he made wine flow for the wedding party in Cana...the way he talked to and healed the outcast, the blind, the sick...the way he ran the money changers out of the temple...the way he welcomed that suspect ethnic group, the Samaritans, into the community...the way he fed that enormous crowd...oh, and especially the way he talked to the women, outcast women of questionable sexual repute, that Samaritan woman who began preaching after meeting him...he treated them with respect and kindness and...even...love...even this rag-tag group of followers who seem to miss the point more often than not, he treats with care...and then he raised Lazarus from the dead.
Mary has watched Jesus extravagantly embrace the world around him – including the most outcast of society – with tenderness and love...love that is stronger than societal barriers, stronger than the domination of violence, stronger than corruption, stronger than fear, stronger, even, than death. Love that is stronger than death. Love that embraces the cosmos with tenderness.
Mary absent-mindedly fingers some grapes while Martha barters for a better price. How can I show Jesus that I understand, Mary wonders. That I have seen the way he loves and want to love the same way? My friend, who changed my life, who treats me as an equal, who saved my brother, how can I show him I understand what it means to love? How can I honor him when he could be about to die?
Mary tells Martha to wait for her, and she rushes off to another part of the market. She looks over the oils and perfumes, smelling them, searching for just the right one. Finally, she finds the right one, nard scented slightly sweetly, but with a sharp tinge of sadness. It costs her everything in her pocket. Judas won’t like it, she thinks, but then, Judas has never really understood; he squeezes so tightly to the pursestrings of life, never allowing an ounce of extravagance into his heart. Judas won’t understand, Mary thinks, but Jesus will.
That night the friends gather around the table. There is a somber tone, now that Jesus is at such risk. Laughter is subdued, conversation is quiet. When Mary decides the timing is right, she brings out the nard, kneels in front of Jesus, and begins to anoint his feet. She works the precious ointment into his tired, calloused feet. With her hair she wipes away the excess. This is the most extravagant gesture she can think of, to mirror back to Jesus the extravagance of his own love.
The room grows silent. The fragrance wafts up from the table, mingling with the scent of fresh bread, wine, and candle wax. Some of the friends shed a tear, recognizing the beauty of Mary’s act and holding that sacred space with her. Judas, of course, objects, muttering about using the money to give to the poor. Mary freezes, does not raise her head. She knew Judas would not understand but did not expect him to say anything, did not expect this jab. Jesus cares so much about the poor and outcast; has she done the wrong thing? Could Judas be right? Mary holds her breath in a moment of self-doubt. But Jesus is quick to affirm Mary’s extravagance. Mary understands, Jesus tells Judas. She understands that there are so many ways to love, so many people to love, so many ways to be love; opportunities to love the cosmos will never be lacking.
Mary does not look up at Jesus when he speaks. That he spoke is all she needed. She quietly resumes rubbing the nard into Jesus’ feet. When the last drop of the ointment is worked away, Mary pauses for a moment, just holding the feet. She knows Jesus will not stop being who he is just because the powers that be are upset. He will not stop loving extravagantly. She realizes that in a way, she has anointed Jesus for the rest of his journey, anointed these feet that will walk Jesus into Jerusalem tomorrow, right into the face of his own death.
Mary startles herself with this sudden realization. In a quick move she stands up, glances at Jesus’ eyes. With light touch to his shoulder, she leaves the room without a word.
In the confusion and fear of the days that follow, Mary struggles to hold on to this moment, the moment when the cosmos seemed to expand and collapse all at the same time, in one extravagant gesture of love. And yet she sees and hears Jesus over and over emphasizing, urgently, the necessity to love one another. Love one another, the way I have loved you, Jesus tells them over and over.
Love one another, the way I have loved, says Jesus.
Love one another, the poor, the outcast.
Love one another, the sick, the blind.
Love one another, the persecuted, the marginalized, the oppressed.
Love one another, the suffering, the dying.
Love one another, the celebrating, the grieving.
Love one another, the suspect ethnic group and your own friends.
Love one another, Jesus says. Love the way I have loved. Embrace the cosmos with tenderness. Resist the powers of death by loving with all your might, loving all that is around you, all that is within you, all those with whom you come in contact, whether someone unknown and far away – or your dear friend, about to face his death. There are so many ways to love.
We have been summoned by Love. Mary understood what that summons entailed.
Will we? Will we, who most need to understand, we, for whom it is most urgent that we learn to love the whole cosmos, we, for whom the need to love extravagantly is most desperate – will we understand, as Mary did?