Spend Love

Rev. Sarah Buteux
March 17, 2013
Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 12:1-11


They say April is the cruelest month, but my money is on March. I hate March. I know I’ve said that before, I probably say it every year, but I do. With its gunmetal skies and yards of muddy yellow, March always feels to me like a long slog through the valley of the shadow of death before we reach the shores of resurrection. I think March in New England is actually the outer circle of the fourth level of Dante’s inferno, but I didn’t take the time to look it up, so don’t quote me on that.  


Perhaps I exaggerate a little. I love living in New England, I really do, and truth be told I probably wouldn’t be happy living anywhere else. I love the stark beauty of winter as surely as I love the stark beauty of this old meeting house: the clean lines, the pure light, the acres of white on white “against a blue true dream of sky” (to quote ee cummings after having referenced T.S. Eliott).  


But March in New England, March sucks the life out of me. And I think I’m finding it particularly hard this year having just returned from Spain. That first week on the Camino we walked up into winter and back down into Spring on a daily basis, up into the majesty of snow capped mountains before descending down into vales already greening with new life. And when we weren’t walking we were sitting, more often than not, in venerable old churches: churches wrought of stone and iron, churches strewn with treasure and dappled with color: gold plaited virgins and riots of stained glass, the pungent odor of incense and the soothing polyphony of ancient chant.  


It was a feast for the senses, walking beneath God’s sky and resting in God’s house, a feast I was perhaps more attuned to because I left my i-phone at home like I said I would. I wasn’t watching movies or TV while I was away. I wasn’t listening to music on my i-pod or texting with my head down every time I left a building. Shopping was right out because I already had as much as I could carry, so all my entertainment came from the world around me, from the beauty I stumbled upon as I walked from place to place. And I found myself so deeply grateful for that beauty wherever I found it because it was a beauty that fed my soul rather than merely distracting it.  


On my last day in Spain I visited the Cathedral in Pamplona. I bought my ticketfor church, (at a 40% discount since I was a pilgrim), and pushed my way in through the heavy wooden doors only to be met by the first strains of Latin being sung by an immense choir; harmonies building and reverberating off the stone in such a way that you could almost feel the sound holding you as if in an embrace.  


I approached a great stone basin at the back of the church, dipped my hand into the cool clear water and crossed myself before sinking down into a pew and letting the wonder of the Cathedral wash over me.  I sat there in awe, drinking in the turquoise and ruby of the windows, the intricate altarpieces and manifold artifacts, the statues of saints and angels emerging from every cornice and crevice up into the eaves as far as the eye could see.  


And as a young acolyte swung a thurible back and forth like a pendulum, filling the cavern with sweet, sweet smoke, I thought about the generations of people who had worshipped in that church before me. I began to think about what a Cathedral would have meant to common people throughout the ages: poor people, the dirty unwashed masses you conjure in your mind’s eye thanks to Monty Python whenever you think of any time between the 1st century and the middle ages.   


Do you know what I’m talking about? “Bring out yer dead.” “This piece of fish is good enough for Jehovah:” those sorts of people. Are you all with me? Probably not, but in any case think for a moment with me about how amazing it would have been for just plain ordinary people hundreds of years ago to worship in such an extraordinary space. I found the beauty, the color, the sound, the smells to be all so breathtaking, but for someone with no easy access to music, dye, soap, rhetoric, or art… such beauty, such majesty… would have been nothing short of life giving.  


Entering a church would not have been merely an opportunity for aesthetic appreciation, as it is for most of us now, but an experience of absolute transcendence, a feast for the senses, sanctuary from all that is harsh and ugly, dull and mundane. Cathedrals and chapels, windows and Madonnas, icons and altars: would have been not just a common treasure to be shared and adored, but an affirmation for people that there was more to life than suffering and toil; that there was also splendor and grace, opulence and grandeur.  


The church would have been one of the few places you could see such color, hear such harmony, be privy to such mystery: no matter how rich or poor you might be. It is true that the money for it all could have been spent on bread for the hungry, but it is equally true that man cannot live by bread alone, that the soul hungers -just like the body - for truth and beauty, that access to the sacred feeds a real and powerful need in us all.   


I derived great comfort from these thoughts as I sat there, because like most of you, I sometimes wonder if all this church stuff is really worth it.  I do. And I bet you do too. Now don’t get me wrong; I love it. I love it all. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. It’s where I want to be. But I know how quickly this can all become an end in and of itself. I know full well the immensity of resource it takes to create and sustain even a church as simple as this one, let alone a great Cathedral. And I have often wondered about whether all this is a good and proper use of the gifts God has given us.  


Like anyone who has ever labored over a church budget or worked for the church or given to the church in any significant way, I have my doubts. I sometimes question whether the money, the time, and the talent we marshal as congregations should be spent on all we do here or withheld the better to care for the poor.  


It’s as if Judas’ objection to Mary rings down through the ages, dogging us at every turn, causing us to doubt whether any of this is as pleasing to God as we’d like to think it is.  


But Mary’s gift was pleasing to Jesus, even and especially in all its excess, not because Jesus thought he deserved it more than the poor, but because Jesus knew a heart attuned to that level of generosity would never fail the poor any more than it would ever fail him.  


Mary gave because she was grateful for all Jesus had given to her. Jesus had loved her and listened to her and taught her and welcomed her and even wept with her when her brother died. And then, miracle of miracles, Jesus had then raised her brother from the dead.  


If you’d asked Mary, there wasn’t enough nard in the whole world to repay Jesus for all he’d done for her, but that perfume was the most precious thing she had, so she poured it out upon him freely, anointed his feet with every last drop until the whole house was filled with the fragrance of her love. She poured it out fully and completely, just as surely as Jesus would allow himself to be poured out for her upon the cross.  


Her extravagant love prefigured his; it was tactile and bold and it spoke with eloquence beyond words of all she had been given and all she longed to give in return.  Her gift was her testimony and it has continued to speak down through the ages, just as every stained glass window and every piece of silver, every hand hewn pew and long tall steeple, speaks to the love and generosity and wonder of common people who have loved God in a most uncommon way.   


This little silver font from which I baptized Russell today, this was someone’s jar of costly perfume. 


This beautiful church - not just the old boards and historic glass, but all the repairs and coats of paint this place has needed, all the tithes and offerings that have gone to fill it with heat and music and words of love - speak to the generosity and devotion that has shaped this community for 353 years.  


Everything around you, right down to the old cushion on your pew, was given as a testimony to someone’s love. (And if anyone would like to testify now with newer fluffier pew cushions, we’d be open that. Really, that would be lovely. You just let me know if you want to love God in that way.)  


All of this… all of this beauty, none of this is wasted if it inspires us to continue to love God and love one another. None of this is wasted if it reminds us of the abundant grace of our Creator and Savior. Every last gift is worth the cost if it calls forth a love in us that we are then inspired to pour out with equal abandon, not just upon the church, but upon any and all who have need… because, in the end, we all do.  


You see, life, kind of like March, is hard. No matter our circumstance, even the best life leaves us haunted and hungry... hungry for something more… hungry for something you can’t quite explain. 


So thanks be to God for all we find here: for the generosity of the faithful, for the sacredness of beauty and the beauty of all that is sacred, for the love of Mary’s gift and gift of Christ’s love. Thanks be to God for the church and all she signifies and thanks be to God for her people, for all they give, for who they are. Thanks be to God for you. Amen.