Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dying We Live:
Reflections on Axe Body Spray
and the Kingdom of God

[Grace and peace. My name is Father Jonathan Melton, and in addition to serving as chaplain to St. Francis House at UW, my family and I are blessed to be parishioners here at St. Andrew’s. Andy and I have joked that, because he and I lead worship services at different times and places, we could call on each other to preach if something unplanned were ever to happen to either of us. It’s not everyone who has parishioners with sermons they’re planning to preach later that day. Unfortunately, the unplanned has happened, and Andy is at home, sick. I am happy to be able to fill in for him this morning and for the chance to be with you. Please remember Father Andy in your prayers. Now to the gospel…]

Three hundred denarii worth of perfumed oil, requiring roughly one year’s worth of wages to purchase, is what we’re told Mary took to wash Jesus’ feet that night, about a week before he died. The Huffington Post reports that, in 2011, the median annual wage dropped to $26,364. Wage reductions notwithstanding, that is still a lot of oil to pour on your Savior’s feet. Even less than one-fifth of that amount – or $5,000’s worth – would be comical. Consider that Axe Deodorant Body Spray, which advertises itself as a fragrance “classically masculine and sophisticated with an addictive fresh combination of crisp sparkling fruits, sage, and a creamy, musky background” sells at Walgreen’s for $3.74 a can. $5,000 would buy you 1,336 of those cans, with a little left over. But we’re not talking about $5,000, are we? The number – the median annual wage in 2011 - was $26,364, which would buy you 7,049 cans.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Mary was using anything as crass or lowbrow as Axe Body Spray that night. I am suggesting that it is nearly impossible for us to wrap our heads around just how extravagant this act of hers is. We’re talking about a semester’s tuition for a non-resident student at UW-Madison or a year and half’s tuition, in-state. A YEAR AND A HALF'S TUITION. Poured out in a twinkling.

I don’t know about you, but I live on a budget and consult my wife on purchases greater than $20. I’ve never thrown an epic party, and nearly every piece of furniture in my house is a hand-me-down from someone else. I like to think I’m a big tipper, but I’ve never left even a one-hundred dollar tip before.

And so I only have one thought to think at an impromptu $26,000 pedicure: irresponsible; improbable; wasteful, even.

But this is where the story gets interesting - Jesus says it’s not a waste; that Mary needn’t torture herself calculating the opportunity costs for what the money might have purchased otherwise; that a life poured out at Jesus’ feet is not wasted. Did you hear that? A life poured out at his feet is not wasted.

A good word for those of us still wondering what we will do someday. Do we ever stop wondering? Wondering how you will live out the gifts God has given you. Christians are asked to keep a broad imagination for what it might look like to pour out one’s life at his feet.

I don’t want to romanticize it, far less tell you how to do it, but I wouldn’t be a truthful priest for you if I didn’t tell you that thousands on thousands of Christians throughout the ages have done exactly this; that thousands on thousands of Christians have poured out their lives at the feet of Jesus in sacrifice and to the point of suffering, in imitation of his self-emptying and death, in order to share the fullness of new and unending life in him. These saints shared Paul’s desire in the epistle this morning to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

St. Francis, the namesake of our university ministry – and the Catholic Church’s newest pope – is the poster child in this dynamic of self-emptying in imitation of Jesus, but there are others. Countless others: teachers, preachers, farmers, artists, mothers, fathers, sisters, partners, brothers, bankers, waiters, doctors, botanists, scholars, women and men – known and unknown - of all kinds of gifting who have given themselves up to the one who has given them everything.

I may have told you before about the time I was with a group in Taize, France, and one of us, a teenager, asked an honest, but almost cruel, question of one of the brothers. (It wasn’t me.) He asked, “Why did you do it? Do you even know what you walked away from? No offense, but you don’t have a real job. This doesn’t count. No family. No hope of children. I know my parent’s hopes, their dreams for me, how disappointed they’d be…why on earth would you, how could you, give it all up?”

The brother monk smiled a tender smile and nodded. It was not an unfamiliar line of questions. He looked at the boy, straight in his eyes, and talked about his joy in Jesus’ words when Jesus said, as if to him: “...the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

We stared at the brother in perplexity and wonder as we soaked in this strange answer. But he wasn’t waiting on our response. Like Mary, he was already poured out at his Master’s feet.

So we watch with a special attention today, as Mary drops to her knees, undoes her hair, and begins to wash Jesus’ feet, and we realize that it’s not just about the money wasted. It’s the scandal. It’s the end of other opportunities. To identify with Jesus in this way is to go all in. Her reputation will not survive it. Her future will not outlast it. She’s becoming a fool in front of their eyes and she knows it; the eyes of the others falling hot on her shoulders, as a shame she is supposed to feel, but doesn’t.

Mary knows. She knows she’s aligning herself with a dead man. Knows that there’s no going back. She washes his feet anyway. Why? I wonder if Martha had told Mary about the conversation she shared with Jesus some weeks before, in the moments before he called Lazarus out from the tomb. “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ I wonder if Mary is ready to become like him in his death, if somehow she can attain the resurrection from the dead.

Mary finishes drying his feet. She picks herself up. It is finished. And this is Mary saying to Jesus, “Wherever you are going, I’m going, too.”

Like Mary, we know where Jesus is going. Lent is almost over. Holy Week begins next week. By the end of that week, Jesus will be dead. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die on the cross. Another in a line of senseless deaths, we think. Poured out in a twinkling. A waste. 

But this is where the story gets interesting – the Father says, and Easter will show, it is not a waste; that Jesus needn’t torture himself with regret for what might have been; that this life poured out for us on the cross is not wasted. And this moment, these weeks, is our moment, our chance, to meet Jesus in the place of divine love and self-emptying. This moment and these weeks want to give us permission to live lives that don’t make sense apart from the story they tell. In days ahead, then, will you listen with me to the story they tell? This moment is our time to learn how to say to Jesus, “Wherever you are going, I’m going, too.”



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