Monday, March 18, 2013

Emotion and Devotion

She is overcome with deep emotion. Her brother, who died, lives. And he lives because the person she blamed for his death, the healer who had the power to help him but initially stayed away and did not come to his aid, called him back to life: “Lazarus, come out of the tomb.” And now, a few days later, the healer and his companions are in her home having dinner. She is there with her sister and her brother. It is not the first time they have entertained the healer, but it is the first time since he raised her brother from the dead. She is overcome with deep emotion.

But it is even more than that. Mary is filled with a sense of awe and wonder. She now understands that Jesus is more than a teacher and more than a healer. She senses that he is the Lord of life, the Son of the Living God, the Messiah. She is overcome with deep devotion in the presence of one who is Holy Other.

Emotion and devotion are a potent and powerful combination in a person. Working together they can guide us to do amazing things; things which may not make sense to those who do not share our sentiments. We will give generously of our time, willingly of our talents, sacrificially of our treasure, and freely of life itself in response to God.

This past week the Episcopal Church celebrated the life and witness of James Theodore Augustus Holly who was born a free African American in 1829 and ordained to the priesthood in 1855. He served a congregation in New Haven for five years prior to accepting mission work in Haiti. During the first year there his mother, his wife, and two of his children died. Somehow Holly endured and, along with two young sons, he continued the work he felt called by God to do. In 1874 Holly was ordained bishop of Haiti, becoming the first black man to hold this office in our church. Over the course of his episcopacy Holly doubled the membership of the diocese, which is now the largest in the Episcopal Church. He also founded numerous schools, hospitals, and clinics prior to his death in 1911. As I read Bishop Holly’s biography this week, I was amazed at what he accomplished given all that he lost so early in his ministry. Emotion and devotion are a powerful and potent combination in a person.

Mary is overcome with both. She must do something for her Lord, but what? What act, what gesture, what words, what offering would capture even a fragment of what she feels for Jesus and what she believes about him?

She lands on what she will do. The text does not tell us if she planned this for days or if the idea comes to her out of the blue. She decides to anoint Jesus from head to toe with a pound of costly perfume. How costly? 300 denarii – a denarii being equivalent to a day’s wage. We are talking about a perfume that in our time would run anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000. Her act is lavish. It is extravagant. It is the product of deep emotion and deep devotion.

And it causes an outrage. The house quickly fills with the perfume’s aroma and all who are in it are drawn to Mary’s action. John’s gospel tells us that only Judas protests, but as the other gospellers tell the story they indicate that all of Jesus’ followers are offended by an act they see as wasteful beyond words. In a sense, Judas is correct. The perfume could have been sold and the money could have been given to the poor. Of course, he had no intention of letting any proceeds slip through his hands. Jesus accepts Mary’s action and defends her by saying the poor will always be with us, but rare are the opportunities we have to express devotion to him.

Today’s gospel reading interests the life of our congregation in a fascinating way. This is our first opportunity to worship in this space since the restored Ascension window is back in place. In a word, it is stunning. It will inspire worshippers for generations to come. On those rare occasions when my sermon is not up to snuff, you can turn your gaze to the north side of the building and be spiritually nurtured by this incredible piece of sacred art.

In terms of cost and the way in which it fills this space, the Ascension window shares much in common with Mary’s perfume. Perhaps some of our local historians know something of the life of Nannie Stuart Elley in whose memory the window is dedicated. A few of you may know of Alfred and Alice Verner in whose memory a previous restoration is dedicated. We certainly know the Holland family whose generosity has provided funds for this particular window during our current restoration project. I am confident that at some level each of the donors was motivated by deep emotion and devotion; gratitude for those they love, but see no longer and praise for the God who gives life at birth and after death.

This day we also collect change to fund a project that will provide a well for a village in an underdeveloped part of the world, transforming everything about daily life for those who receive it. The cost to do this is modest, $750. Many of us have given up something for Lent and set aside the money we have saved to contribute to the collection. Before this day begins we already have over $500 turned in. I give thanks for the way we have come together in Lent around this effort.

When all is said and done, our stained glass window restoration project will cost around $135,000. I don’t know how much we’ll raise for the well, but it would not surprise me if it exceeds $1,000. In the end, what we give to the poor in relation to what we invest in our windows will be in line with guidelines for the Millennium Development Project, which suggests every congregation contribute 0.7% of its budget to funding one of the goals.

The poor are always with us, as Jesus reminds us. I intend to keep this reality ever before our congregation. I am pleased that you respond to the gospel by meeting the needs of others and by being open and accepting of new opportunities we have to demonstrate Christ’s compassion to a hurting world. This drive within us as individuals and as a faith community is something much deeper than a desire ‘to do good.’ It is fueled by our love and devotion for our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. What we invest in this building to enhance and maintain it is a sacred place set apart for prayer and praise is right and good and acceptable to God.

Serving God and extending compassion to others are powerful ways to express deep emotion and deep devotion. At some level each of us understands Mary’s actions – what she did and why she did it. At some point in our lives each of us has felt what she felt that day Jesus came to her home for dinner. Each of us has been touched by God’s grace and love and each of us has tried to find some appropriate way to express our gratitude and devotion. Mary’s act and Jesus’ acceptance of it gives us permission not to hold back; to abandon all common sense and restraint; to do that thing which is welling up inside us to give glory, honor, worship, and praise to our Lord. What might that be in you?