Written by: Rachael Keefe

A Way in the Wilderness

Once more I find myself sitting in an airport waiting to board the plane that will take me to another state where I will keynote at a conference. This surprises …

A Way in the Wilderness

Once more I find myself sitting in an airport waiting to board the plane that will take me to another state where I will keynote at a conference. This surprises me almost every time. I marvel that I am now paid to break the silence and shatter the stigma around suicidality. For decades I was told never to share the details of my past, the details of my struggle with suicidality, depression, and an eating disorder. Now I am invited to come and speak these things out loud and challenge people of faith (all faith traditions, not just Christian) to examine their beliefs about suicide and see what needs to change in order to save lives. It’s more amazing than you might guess.

While I contemplate the transformation my life has undergone in the last decade or so, I think about the woman who anointed Jesus with oil of nard. While I do not believe that John’s gospel has the details correct, there is power in the story nonetheless. I doubt that Mary of Bethany was the woman who poured the expensive perfume over Jesus. Mary was a friend and the risk of her anointing Jesus in the company of other friends, was minimal. To think of this woman as an outcast, perhaps a prostitute, who entered the home of a leper (Matthew, Mark) or a pharisee (Luke) assumed a greater personal risk. This personal risk of rejection or condemnation adds a depth to the story that is missing in John’s more homey account.

That being said, it’s the anointing itself that matters most. Be it Mary or an unknown woman, she anointed Jesus with immeasurable extravagance. A jar, perhaps an alabaster jar, of rare, expensive oil could have been used for other purposes. The disciples wondered why it wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor. If a more reasonable person wanted to support Jesus’ ministry, even in the last days, the oil could have been sold and the money used to purchase food, clothing, or shelter for Jesus and his disciples. Or, looking at the days ahead, the money could have been spent on a really good lawyer. Why simply dump it on Jesus’ head for no perceivable reason?

Well, Jesus answers this question, sort of… Jesus tells them that the poor will always be around or that they should always be with the poor. In contrast, he wasn’t going to be with them much longer, at least not physically. The anointing, the extravagance, was good and necessary. I can just see the disciples shaking their heads in puzzlement. How was this waste the right thing?

Many of us ask this question today. We have choices to make with our resources. How often do we choose to pour out our very best on Jesus? Are we willing to give to Jesus that which is most valuable? What extravagant love have we offered Jesus just because Jesus is Jesus?

When it comes to transformation, it might just require this extravagant outpouring from us. I think about my own experience. I held so tightly to my own pain. I thought it defined me. I thought it was the most valuable thing about me. Over time, I was able to let it go and ask God to put something new in its place. The letting go was scary, not unlike walking into the house of a pharisee or leper as an unwanted outcast. Trusting God to heal the deeply broken parts of me was a kind of outpouring, offering God everything I had in exchange, nothing withheld. Can you smell the nard, the extravagance, filling the room?

Church, it’s time we seek to anoint Jesus with that which we hold most dear. We need to break those jars and let the smell of extravagant love flood the room while the tears of grief fall. Trust in God is a gift we can offer anytime. If we break our precious jars over Jesus’ head, there are those among us who will not understand and grumble about the cost. God is always doing a new thing and clearing a way in the wilderness. It’s time for us to stop doing the same old thing and try out extravagant love and see what transformation comes in its wake. It is worth the risk. Lives will be saved as a result for this is God’s promise to us – life, and life abundant at that.

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Photo: CC0 image by andreas N

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About Rachael Keefe

Rachael is an author, a pastor, a teacher, and a poet. Her latest book (The Lifesaving Church - Chalice Press) is on faith and suicide prevention. She is currently the pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, and has launched a spiritual direction practice.

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