This week’s sacred story comes from John 12:1-8 where Jesus is hanging out with friends over dinner when things get a little intimate. Read the full story here.
I wonder…When have you felt closest to God? What was around you? Who was around you? What do you see, feel, taste, smell, hear? I wonder. ..Have you ever felt so close to God that you felt a part of God- one with your Creator? Your Liberator? Your Sustainer? What was that like?
I bet it wasn’t in a zero-gravity chamber of silence by yourself. I bet there was something around you that played a part – the scent of something soothing or stringent that filled your nostrils - carried on a soft breeze or a powerful wind, the touch of a hand on your shoulder holding you steady or pushing you forward, in the ache of your side – sore from laughing, or in the sting of tears that burn hot on your cheeks, in the sound of a song or a voice that reaches into your soul or the splash of water at bath time, the sight of something beautiful and/or broken – wildflowers along the bayou or a haunting yet holy hospital bed, the taste of something delightful, earthy, shared.
Perhaps you have known the closeness of God in the mystical birth of a new baby, flush, crying, and raw. Perhaps you have felt God nearest standing next to a loved one preparing to die or already gone.
Jesus doesn’t exist in a zero-gravity vacuum either. God is not kept in a pristine museum within a protective glass shield.
Here, with the crucifixion on the horizon, God has gathered with friends - people who have seen each other at their highs and lows. They have shared the mundane task of washing dishes together, the depths of grief, and the miracle of life restored. Here they sit around the dinner table together, talking about that crazy thing they overheard at the market today and the way their knee has really been hurting them lately. Jesus is in there - in the midst of people and moments that share the intimacy of the nitty gritty of life, the details, the nooks and crannies of what we really are when we’re not putting on a show.
As the evening winds down and the plates are emptied, they linger together. Mary of Bethany places herself at the feet of Jesus, at the feet of her Rabbi, the place of a disciple. She pulls out this really fancy perfumed oil…like Gucci level stuff, worth more than a day laborer would make in an entire year. She doesn’t hold back on the good stuff, but pours it out, filling the whole room with its sweetness. She dips her hand into the oil and rubs it into the calloused feet of a savior, a mark of blessing but also a ritual for burial. She pulls her dark coarse hair over her shoulder and pats Jesus’s feet dry. This act is both deeply human and humble-using what it at hand and her very body, and divinely luxurious-extending beyond the typical. This is a rare and precious thing.
The juxtaposition of the moment got me thinking about what is luxury? What is truly liberating and what is performative justice – what do we, like Judas, want to appear as saying the righteous thing, but have prioritized our own benefit whether financial or social over actual impact? Often we associate luxury with expensive, something’s enormous cash value. This week I was introduce to a wonderful little Instagram account called PreachersNSneakers that posts pictures of celebrity preachers and then where you can by the sneakers they're seen wearing on stage for $500-$5000 a pair. And those pastors aren't putting those fancy sneaks on the feet of Christ headed to the cross. Designer labels are one kind of luxury. And it's this understanding of luxury and wealth that is what Judas gets stuck son as he tries to mansplain to Mary why she's doing it wrong. Um, actually….
But Mary and Jesus model a different kind of extravagance, one that recognizes the elevation of everyday moments as they transcend the typical. It’s rare, special, set apart...and rare doesn't necessarily mean expensive. To me, sitting still with a cup of coffee and finally reading the magazines that have been sitting on my end table seems like luxury...because it doesn't happen that often. Standing at the kitchen counter while everyone in the family's works together to peel potatoes, snap beans, and carefully measure ingredients for dinner feels extravagant because somehow time seems to flatten and there's somehow beauty in things that are really just mechanical.
I have always been frustrated by the false dichotomy of the world, the lie that we always hear that things are either this or that. Someone is either good or bad. Something is either secular or religious. Something is either holy or profane, human or divine. In Jesus, and as we see in this text, the dividing wall is dissolved.
Judas says that the perfume should have been sold and the money should have been given to the poor….after he skimmed what I'm sure is what he considered a fair portion for himself off the top. But Jesus says no, that marking this rare moment with rare substance is holy. This is not a license to dismiss the poor or ignore poverty altogether. That would put us right back into the false dichotomy that Care for the poor and care for the spiritual are mutually exclusive, you can either do one or the other, that you have physicality over here and spirituality over there. God brings them together in a hands-on way, in the flesh, in bodies, in everyday transcendent rarities.
Healing and wholeness, experiences of the divine come to us not just in word but when those words connection with action, where they break through the plane of abstract ideas to tangible reality - touch, taste, smell, sound, the sight of something rich and delightful. God gives us these sense not only for our survival, but for our delight, our healing, for our connection to a God who must also be a sensual God.
In the Lutheran tradition we use the word sacrament to talking about things that are a combination of divine promise, earthly elements and Christ’s command. This officially points us to two rarefied gifts in particular, communion and baptism, as they embody God’s promise for new life with everyday items of food, drink. Jesus explicitly told us to do these things, to notice how God is at work particularly in these things, and how God is re-membered/put together and is made known in full when we do them.
So with those parameters, the Lutheran church officially recognizes these two things as sacraments - communion and baptism. But the word sacrament literally means sacred mystery. When you think about those moments when you've felt close to God, doesn't it feel like sacred mystery best describes that experience? So our lives are filled with things that remain sacramental, holy and mysteriously so. These things reveal/create a thin space where the divine and the daily come so close to each other that we know there's something more to this thing. I think back to the moment Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth got together while pregnant and Elizabeth noticed the movement of her body as a reaction to God’s activity in that moment, that her growing womb was dancing around in joy. Isn't that a holy mystery? Likewise I find it to be sacramental when we are crying with a friend in grief, in a comforting and safe embrace when we've felt raw and vulnerable, in the sweet taste of birthday cake shared with friends and family.
Naming these thing as holy may seem decadent, indulgent, a bit of a stretch...but that's what God seems to be all about.
The impact of these sacramental gifts doesn't remain in only that moment, but prepares us for things to come. As this anointing of Jesus prepares him for the trial, crucifixion, and burial to come. So may our anointing strengthen us for the work or justice, soften us to see beauty in the midst of struggle, and fill us with hope for what is possible in Christ. Amen.