First Reading MCC Hartford March 13, 2016
From “The Uses of the Erotic” by Audre Lorde
The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference…
Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe…
But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering, and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.
In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.
Gospel – John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Marie Alford-Harkey, clergy intern MCC Hartford March 13, 2016
If you identify as Christian, do you ever wonder why? I do. With all the homophobic, transphobic, biphobic, eratophobic, sexphobic, patriarchal, misogynist baggage that this tradition carries, I often wonder why I’m still here.
When I hear political candidates who claim to be Christian promoting racism, sexism, bullying, calling for the expulsion of those who are different from their rallies, from the country – I wonder why I’m still here.
When I hear so-called”Christians” shaming women for their reproductive choices – I wonder why I’m still here.
When I hear the calls for a “return” to some mythological time when the United States was a Christian nation and so much intolerance for people who practice other religions – I wonder why I claim this tradition, I really do.
Two of the reasons that I am – still – a Christian, are presented in our gospel today and in our wonderful MCC tradition. Those two theological concepts are embodiment and extravagance.
In today’s story we see a prime example of Jesus living into his own body, honoring others peoples’ bodies, and reminding us that our bodies are sacred.
And we also see an example of extravagant love that is grounded in sensual, embodied pleasure.
To set the scene.
Jesus and his followers are aware that he hasn’t got long to live. He has caused such disruption among religious and civil authorities that they are coming after him. This third Passover of his ministry is going to be his last, and before he goes to Jerusalem, to the accolades and eventually to face death, he comes home – to his chosen family in Bethany.
This is Jesus’ haven – this household with two unmarried women (who perhaps called each other “sister” to cover their actual relationship) and their unmarried “brother.” The truth is that we have no idea about the sexual and romantic lives of these three individuals, but what we do know is that their home represented a safe haven for Jesus.
We know that Jesus wept over the grave of Lazarus and raised him from the dead, so great was his love for him. We know that Lazarus was one of those at the table with Jesus at this dinner, and, as Aaron says when celebrating communion, we know that people reclined at the table in Jesus’s day.
So here’s how I like to imagine the scene. Jesus decides to come “home” before he goes to face his future in Jerusalem. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus call their other friends – all of them outsiders – living in queer families, outside the bounds of “normal” family life, but deeply intimate with one another – to join them for dinner.
They all come together, laughing, hugging, kissing, unabashedly showing affection in this home – one of the few safe spaces they have. Jesus lounges at the table, with Lazarus laying against his chest. Perhaps Jesus plays with Lazarus’ hair.
Perhaps Martha is lying against Lazarus, enjoying the embrace of her “brother” and Jesus as well. They are a relaxed, warm tribe of loving people eating, talking, enjoying each other’s company and all their family rituals – and trying not to think about what is to come.
Then Mary is moved to even greater intimacy. Maybe there’s a lull in the conversation. Maybe people are getting ready to shift from the table to somewhere else. Whatever made it the right moment, Mary takes it to show her love for Jesus. She showed it by kneeling at Jesus’ feet, letting down her hair, breaking open a bottle of expensive perfume and rubbing it into his feet with her hair.
Even for this intimate group of friends, this must have been startling, and even embarrassing. Rubbing someone’s feet is an intimate act. It’s the kind of tenderness generally reserved for people who are in love with one another. And I’ll leave you with that – to speculate on whether and how Mary is in love with Jesus. I’m sure the other folks in the room were speculating. But Mary is – dare I say it – shameless. She refuses to let her love be constrained by shame.
This is embodied love. This gesture that Mary makes is sensual to its core – it acknowledges the pleasure of having a body – of feeling someone’s hands massaging your tired feet, of smelling a spicy, wonderful smell. This is a gesture that some disembodied, far-away god would not appreciate, could not receive.
This is the heart of the matter, for me. Incarnation. Embodiment.
Christians believe our God became human. This not just some theological concept that relates to God. The fact that God took on human form has some serious implications for humanity. One of my favorite theologians, Mark Jordan, says, “We have in the incarnation, not only a concession to our bodily life, but a vindication of it.”
In other words, Jesus, by the VERY FACT of his existence, Jesus has declared our human bodies – our “bodily life”– good.
And you can see it in his reaction to Mary’s anointing. Jesus can receive this gesture, because Jesus has a body. Jesus can enjoy this physical manifestation of Mary’s love because Jesus has a body.
And listen because I’m going to take this one step further. What we Christians believe is that God created us in God’s image and then did something even more radical in creating Godself in our image in the form of Jesus – so GOD Godself is enjoying this extravagant sensual foot massage from Mary.
Our God has human flesh. Our God CHOSE human flesh. Our God vindicated human bodily life in the person, in the body, of Jesus.
So embodiment is one part of the Jesus story that speaks very strongly to me, and to us as MCC folk. But our God doesn’t just show up in human form. Our God traffics in extravagance.
Mary’s gesture is the very definition of extravagant. We know this because Judas, who would rather have had the money in the common purse where he could steal it, tells us that the perfume is worth a year’s wages.
Mary had bought the perfume to anoint Jesus for burial (which tells you something about what she knew). It was an extravagant purchase already. But then she made a choice to pour out this perfume, some might say wastefully, on Jesus – on this day, in this moment, while he is still alive to enjoy it.
No doubt Mary learned to practice extravagant love from being Jesus’ disciple. His first miracle was at the wedding in Cana where he turned so much water into wine that it would have taken years to drink it all. When he performed the miracle with the loaves and fishes, there wasn’t just enough food to go around, there were 12 baskets of food left over. After his resurrection, when Jesus showed up in the boat with Peter after an unsuccessful day of fishing, Jesus told him to try once more, over there, and when he did, the abundance of fish almost breaks the net.
At every turn, in a harsh world of scarcity, Jesus creates more than enough – of everything.
This is how Jesus demonstrates God’s love as well – extravagantly – more than enough for everyone, without exception. He invited himself to dinner with a despised tax collector. He engaged a foreign woman in a theological conversation at a well. He welcomed little children – who were of almost no worth at all in his time – into his arms. He healed a hemorrhaging woman who was considered unclean. Just last week we heard the story of the prodigal son being welcomed home with a parent’s extravagant love – no conditions, no recriminations – just love. This, Jesus tells us and shows us, is what God’s love is like.
Mary of Bethany understands this deeply. She understands that real love is extravagant. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the next chapter of John, Jesus himself takes up Mary’s act of foot washing with his disciples in the upper room at the last supper. Jesus takes the extravagant love that Mary showed to him, and passes it on to those disciples in that crucial moment just before the world is about to end for all of them. He takes the same posture toward them that Mary had taken toward him.* He kneels at their feet, girded in a towel, and he performs this intimate gesture for each and every disciple present, even Judas. Extravagant, some might say wasteful, love.
But it doesn’t stop there. Afterward, Jesus gives his friends their most important assignment. He tells them go and do to others as he has done to them. He tells them to go and share this extravagant love.
This is our charge as Christians and most specifically as MCC folk. In the midst of a world filled with hateful rhetoric, we can proclaim that love wins. We can follow Jesus’ and Mary’s examples – to love with passion, and without shame. We can take pleasure in our bodies, knowing that our bodies are sanctified by God. And out of that sureness of God’s love for us and for all of humanity, we can share God’s extravagant love with others. Because we are all beloved of God – no exceptions, no conditions. Amen.
*adapted from http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-extravagance-john-121-8/