“Beautiful Discipleship”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 5, 2018

Matthew 26:3-13

 

Perhaps it seems a little odd to read a story about winter today.  After all, it is early August, the height of mid-summer.  Day lilies are blooming in reds and oranges and yellows.  Trees are decked out in their full, deep green canopies.  Corn silk shines golden-brown in the sun.  It is the season of ice cream cones and farmer’s markets, days at the beach and evenings under the stars.  If there is a time of year when the world feels lush and bounteous, this is it.

And yet.  As I listen to the news, day after day… and as I listen to you share what is on your hearts, all the various struggles and sufferings of your lives, sometimes it feels like the bright hues of summer fade into grayscale, the warmth dissipates into chill, and it feels a little bit like winter.  Do you know what I mean?

The winter of injustice, where bigotry has been given license to come out of the shadows and be expressed boldly in broad daylight… where gains that have been made in basic human rights and protections for LGBTQ folks, for people of color, for women, are being rolled back everywhere we turn.

The winter of cruelty, where children of asylum-seekers are torn from their parents’ arms, locked in cages for months on end, subject to abuse and mistreatment, and many of them will never see their families again because their parents were deported without them and can no longer be found.

The winter of hopelessness, where it is so easy to feel overwhelmed by the persistence of racism and homophobia and xenophobia and misogyny… by the long-term consequences of our continued disregard for the welfare of this planet that sustains our very lives… by the enormity of the work ahead for those of us who wish to help bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

The winter of grief, where life is shattered into tiny fragments by the death of a child, a spouse, a friend… where the weight of the emptiness is so great that it squeezes all the air out of your chest and you can barely breathe… where the silence of absence is so deafening that you can’t hear anything else.

The winter of fear, where worry over a diagnosis hounds you through the wee hours of the night… where the sharp teeth of addiction hold you, or a loved one, tightly in their grasp… where a crumbling marriage or a fraying relationship or a tenuous employment situation makes everything feel like it’s built on shifting sand.

The winter of struggle, where the ends just won’t seem to meet, no matter how you tug and stretch and squeeze… where health care costs, or credit card debt, or an underwater mortgage, or a car that breaks down at the wrong moment, mean that although you need food on the table and gas in the tank and power to keep the lights on, you have to choose, because you can’t afford all three bills.

Even at the height of mid-summer, sometimes it feels like the bright hues fade into grayscale, the warmth dissipates into chill, and it feels a little bit like winter—like that moment in the story we just heard when, “Little by little [Frederick and his family] had nibbled up most of the nuts and berries, the straw was gone, and the corn was only a memory.  It was cold in the wall and no one felt like chatting.”

 

Jesus and his disciples knew the feeling.

It was spring then, the season of Passover, when everything was green and the harvests were beginning to come in.  People were flocking to Jerusalem for joyful celebrations of the holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  But even as the natural world was bountiful, and even as the ritual year was turning toward liberation and hope, the powers that be were organizing themselves against Jesus and his disciples.  They were ready to silence his message, ready to rob him of his dignity and even of his life.  Jesus knew what was coming, knew that his days were numbered, knew that he was about to run straight into the fearsome might of the Roman Empire, which did not take kindly to those who were perceived as threats to its power.

His friends, whom he had named as chosen family, must have been terrified of losing their beloved teacher and leader.  They must have been distraught at the direction the world seemed to be heading, a direction where the people who hold power seemed to wield it unchecked with only their own gain in mind, without concern or care for the struggles of those who have been pushed to the margins, made vulnerable by identity or circumstance.  They must have been filled with some combination of desperate denial and deep fear and anticipatory grief.  They must have wished there was something—anything—they could do.

In a moment like that, you can understand why the disciples would feel like they needed to work hard, to spend every moment of their days, every denarius in their purses, in the service of bringing about God’s realm, for it must have felt very far from their reach indeed.  And then this unnamed, anonymous woman showed up with a beautiful alabaster jar of costly perfume.  She arrived carrying beauty in her arms, and she opened the jar and poured its contents all over Jesus.  Beauty everywhere.  Fragrance wafting through the air.  Tenderness spilling down onto the floor and getting all over everything.

It seemed extravagant to the disciples.  It seemed wasteful.  They could not understand the value of what the woman had done.  They could not fathom why she would think this would be a good idea.  Why is she squandering these resources?  Think of the good that could be done!

But Jesus knew what Frederick the field mouse knew.  He knew that this unnamed, anonymous woman had a wisdom deeper than the disciples could appreciate.  He knew that beauty has a value all its own, and that it is an integral part of resistance to the powers of sin and death.  That even as we work hard to turn this world toward the dawning of God’s new day of justice and joy for all people, we need, we deserve, to nourish our bodies and our souls.  That we are made not just for struggle, but also for delight—and that the magnitude of the world’s struggles, or of our own personal ones, does that change that fundamental truth.

Indeed, beauty provides a necessary counter-narrative to the prevailing story that things will stay the same or get worse, that the powers that be will never change, that the haves will have more and the have nots will have less, that there is nothing we can do to make it better so we might as well just put our heads down and keep ourselves to ourselves and not get involved with something we can’t change anyway.  To all these things, beauty and tenderness say, “No!  Be present here, now.  Open your eyes.  Open your heart.  All is not lost; we are not without hope yet.  Take courage, and do not lose heart, for there is yet goodness and glory in this world.”

 

Who are the Fredericks in your life, the ones who gather up the beauty of the world, who pour forth sun rays and colors on the dark, gray winter days?

Where do you see the woman with the alabaster jar showing up with extravagant kindness in the face of struggle and suffering?

Or, how can you embody her legacy of beauty as resistance, tenderness as a faithful expression of discipleship?

Maybe for you that means going down to the Vanilla Bean for the Quiet Corner Song Swap, or dusting off your old guitar, strumming a few chords, humming along in the privacy of your own home.

Maybe for you that means signing up for a class at the pottery studio and learning to create beauty with your own two hands.

Maybe for you that means working in your garden, cultivating day lilies or cherry tomatoes or some other delicious and beautiful thing.

Maybe for you that means painting, or sketching, or writing poetry, or sewing quilts, or knitting, or baking cookies, or painting your toenails, or dressing up just because.

Maybe for you that means spending time in what the poet Wendell Berry describes as “the peace of wild things.”  In his poem of that name, he writes:

 

When despair for the world grows in me

 and I wake in the night at the least sound

 in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

 I go and lie down where the wood drake

 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

 I come into the peace of wild things

 who do not tax their lives with forethought

 of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.

 And I feel above me the day-blind stars

 waiting with their light.  For a time

 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

The disciples were not entirely wrong.  Our faith does call us to do justice, to use the resources we possess in the service of the common good, to be agents of change, to offer mercy and kindness wherever we can, to move this world a little bit closer to the Realm of God.  We are not free to surround ourselves with bliss in order that we might ignore or anesthetize ourselves to the plight of our siblings who are vulnerable and suffering in this world.  Nor can we ignore the struggles of our neighbors here in this community, or our own struggles, either.  There is work, much work, vital, crucial, essential work, to be done.  The disciples were not entirely wrong.

But the woman was not wrong, either.  Frederick was not wrong, either.  Neither are we required to deny ourselves all beauty, all tenderness, in the service of the work of the gospel.  Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” and also, “I have said these things that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be complete.”  This is not only for other people, but also for us—and it is especially, urgently true in times that feel wintry, times when despair and hopelessness start to set in, times when it can feel like even if we work as hard as we can, even if we work ourselves to the bone, it will never be enough.

So as we live out our discipleship, let us remember the witness of that anonymous, unnamed, wise-beyond-all-others woman.  Let us remember the witness of Frederick the field mouse.  Let us remember the witness and work of the God who created day lilies, and cherry tomatoes, and field mice, and sweet smells, and sunrise.  Let us remember that beauty, too, is faithful.  Let us live our way, faithfully and joyfully, into abundant life for all of God’s children—and for ourselves, too.

 


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