There was a moment during last week’s worship service that has stayed stuck in my mind all week long. It came after the sermon and Peter’s testimony as we welcomed Sarena into her season of preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. I was standing here, in front of the altar with Sharayah, Sarena was next to me but had her back to me because she was facing her husband, Grant, who is also acting as her baptismal sponsor. Because one of the ways that we understand baptism is our participation in the dying and rising of Christ, Grant was making the sign of the cross on Sarena’s forehead, and ears, and lips, and eyes, and shoulders, and heart, and hands, and feet. Ryan and Rachel and I had described this to her in advance, and had prepared her for the fact that it’s a very intimate action performed in front of the whole community. But there’s a difference between preparing for the moment and actually being in the moment.
So, as we went through the motions of marking Sarena with the cross; as all of us sang to her while she was initiated into this ancient pattern of preparation for baptism, something happened that I couldn’t immediately see, because her back was turned to me. If you were here last week, you probably had a better view of what was happening than I did. Do you remember? Actually, I saw it on your faces before I saw it on hers. You were singing to Sarena, “Christ will be your strength! Learn to know and follow him.” And then I heard it, the sniffles spreading across the room, so I looked up from my binder and saw your faces, wet with tears, and you were looking so intensely, yet gently, at Sarena. And then Jossy got up, as we were all singing, very naturally, and handed Sarena some Kleenex because, of course, she was crying too.
And no one was crying because they were sad, right? I mean, I can’t speak for all of you, but I know that the feeling that welled up in me wasn’t sadness. It was actually something like joy, though not even that quite exactly. It was that watching her experience that moment of being welcomed fully and wholly reminded me that I too have been welcomed fully and wholly, that my body was marked with the sign of the cross as well, that “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:12) It was an acting out of the gospel parable of the prodigal, the child returning home and the parent rushing out with robe and ring to celebrate the homecoming, the past forgotten and the future filled with forgiveness. It was the catharsis, the relief, of remembering in every cell of your body that you belong. That you are not an alien in this world. That you are home.
Her heart was breaking open, and our hearts were breaking open, and it was intimate without being immodest. It was unusual without being inappropriate. What was traced on her body was felt in our hearts. The sign of the cross. We belong to the dying and rising God.
I wanted to check in with Sarena after worship, but you know how it gets here with everyone milling around, catching up with each other, as folks make their way to the door. But then she was there right in front of me, with the biggest smile on her face. There was a light shining inside her, a glow in her skin like transfiguration, and as she thanked me she said, “I’d really like to find a way to give something back. Can you give me some ideas for ways I can be more involved?”
Umm, yes Sarena, we can help you out. Actually, though, it made me laugh, because it sort of highlights the conundrum we face in the church when somebody has a powerful and intimate experience of the living Christ, and they want to get more of that, get closer to that, and so we offer them the chance to join a committee. I’m not saying that there isn’t powerful, faith-building work going on in our committees. I’m just saying it’s been a while since I’ve seen anyone come out of a council meeting transfigured by joy. We’re working on it. We actually had a great Council retreat this weekend, but it wasn’t quite “Welcome to Baptism.”
As I said, the whole scene has stuck with me throughout this past week, especially as I read the texts assigned for this morning. The scene of Mary on her knees anointing Jesus for his death, and the memory of Grant on his knees making the sign of the cross on Sarena’s feet preparing her for the baptismal anointing which will join her to that death. The sensuality of Mary’s touch, with her hair and the fragrance of the perfume filling the room, and the intimacy we all felt with one another as we saw the power of human touch in making God’s promises real. God, who is not content to exist as an idea or an ideal, who took on human flesh to bless the experience of all of us who also exist as ideas and ideals and bodies too. Not one part of us unwelcome, not one inch of our bodies a source of shame.
It made me think how these stories, from different gospels with different characters, still work so well together as a kind of call and response. Last week we imagined God as a parent whose love is so unconditional it is almost embarrassing, whose ultimate concern is getting the whole family back together under one roof. This week we see ourselves in the response of a woman yearning to express her love, her gratitude, her solidarity with her Lord. The fullness of her response is so complete it mirrors the shameless love of the the father welcoming the prodigal son home. You can easily imagine both their faces wet with tears.
That kind of love can’t be compelled. It can’t be legislated. It is relational, not regulated. That’s how I read the exchange between Jesus and Judas over the extravagance of her gesture with the costly jar of oil. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he says, and Jesus replies, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
This isn’t a story about the prudent and judicious allocation of our resources, or the habits and disciplines and Christian life. You can’t work it into your schedule, make it a resolution, or give it up for Lent. It is an epiphany, a transfiguration, a moment of conversion. It is the heart cracking open long enough to notice that the love we have been longing for has, in fact, always and already been there. It is the realization that God is not waiting for you to become good enough to love, good enough to welcome home, good enough to save. God has already loved you and welcomed you and saved you.
For Mary it was the recent experience of having her brother Lazarus raised from the dead, even though the performing of that miracle set Jesus on a path that would lead him straight to the cross. He knew it, she knew it, Judas knew it, the rest of the disciples knew it — and still he did this for her and her family, and she couldn’t love him enough for it, she couldn’t get close enough to him to show him, she wasn’t thinking about the needs of the poor, she was remembering the poverty of her grief, the loss of her brother, and then the sight of his body being unwrapped from the grave clothes that had bound him and the feeling of holding him her arms again, he who had once been lost but now was home.
This is the narrative arc of Lent. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. That life is a precious gift, and one that does not last forever. That we make it hard on ourselves and one another when we forget that we are all in this together, that our stories and our struggles are shared. We hear the call to come home, to return to the Lord our God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We can hardly believe it. We are so conditioned to believe that everything in this life is fought for, is earned, is contingent on our actions, our discipline, our habits and hard work that it drives us further and further away from the home that God has crafted for all of us to live in together.
Life with God is not about following the rules, or earning your place. It is instead those moments when nothing you might do can fix the situation. Your blunder is front and center for all the world to see. Your self-righteousness has driven someone away. Your despair is total and your hope has dried up. You have no reason to expect anything to get better. Then a word of forgiveness. A boss who says, “Let’s give that another shot.” A partner who says, “you’re not getting rid of me that easily.” A friend who says, “I’ll sit with you while we wait for the sun to come out.” A sibling who pleads on your behalf, “Lord, if you had been here.” A parent who says, “come home.”
I think most of you, if not all of you, have had that moment at one point or another in your life. I think you’ve met God in one another, people in this room and people in other rooms. I believe you’ve had those epiphanies of grace that have brought you to your knees out of gratitude for the surprising second, and third, and fourth chances that have their source in the heart of a God who never wearies of forgiving. Because God loves you passionately, a full-bodied love, shameless and extravagant.
I mean, look at you! What’s not to love?!