How many times have we heard it? All you need is love! Love makes the world go ‘round! Love is a wonderful thing! Love will find a way! If we just have love enough, everything will be OK! Really? SUPER! Now on to reality. I’ve met people who live their lives believing no one loves them. They think, “Nobody understands me. Nobody cares about my pain. No one cares if I live or die.” Even in marriages and partnerships, we can feel like the one we love no longer understands us. I think of a couple I once knew, let’s call them “Mark and Jonathan.” Mark and Jonathan fell in love after college. Their eyes sparkled for each other. Their steps were light. They felt that unique, special attraction for each other. They lived together as partners, believing they would forever supply each other with a permanent sense of self-worth. As time went on, Mark expected B Jonathan eth to be as accepting and forgiving as he was when they were dating. Jonathan expected the same from Mark. The sparkle dimmed. They began to feel disillusioned, even betrayed by one another. They replaced affirmation with sarcasm and ridicule. They each expected unconditional love and selflessness from the other, and each failure to do so was another brick in the growing wall between them. Although they have shared many years together, they experience very little real love.
In some ways we are all frustrated lovers, wanting to be understood but feeling alone. We want to love and be loved, but we can feel incompetent, inadequate and insecure. Some will say, “If I can only do something to make myself more likeable or desirable . . . if only I can be successful . . . if only I can make myself more beautiful . . . if only I can be more self-sacrificing to serve another, THEN all our relationship problems will be solved.” We know all about imperfect love. We have examples all around us. Today, we are going to look at an example of different kind of love in the story we just heard from John’s gospel.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12:1-18
Jesus reclines at a table. He’s at dinner with Lazarus – one of Jesus’ best friends. In the previous chapter of John Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. That’s a big deal. Time for a party. In comes Mary, one of Lazarus’ sisters. She has a reputation for doting on Jesus all the time while the other sister, Martha, is working away in the kitchen. When Mary sees Jesus, she follows a common practice of the lower servant class, not only washing Jesus’ feet which are dusty from walking with sandals on dirt roads, but washing them with her perfume and drying them with her hair. The way John tells the story, Jesus realizes it is a way to prepare his body for burial. A dead body is surrounded with spices and perfumes when it’s buried in a hot Mediterranean tomb. But there is more to the story. Mary also pours this perfume out of sheer devotion. In Jesus’ time, a women would not unbind her hair, let it fly, and use it as a towel. Mary didn’t really care what others thought. She needed to share her love. It reminds me of when two people are captivated with each other–they are in a world of their own. They rejoice that the world sees their love. Or have you ever seen a child who is free and uninhibited? She just loves what she’s doing at that moment, no matter who is watching. That’s Mary. At that moment, it was only Mary and her love.
I do want us to be careful here. We should see some problems in a story where a woman subordinates herself to Jesus, as if being a woman is of secondary value to the community. We see a system in which women and men must remain divided by sexism, racism, economic injustices and imperialism. We still live in that system. We expect women, especially mothers, to be selfless saints who give up their dreams in order to fulfill the needs of others. Some men and dads are expected to do it, too, but it’s preached strongly to women. Often these goodly "saints" are revered by those whom they serve because of their caring ways. What better way to promote this useful servitude than by continually commending self-sacrificers as "moral," "saintly," "devoted," and "virtuous"?
It turns out, people who act out of selfless love may in be in danger of losing the very Self they ought to be developing. And, they may end up hurting the people for whom they care. Think about it. If a moral saint is spending all her time feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising money for OXFAM, and packing peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless, then she’s not taking time to read a good book, go for a brisk walk, or enjoy the smell of warm wet earth after a passing Summer thunderstorm. If a moral saint is giving all of himself to save the world, he has no time to be an artist, or a good parent, or a skilled listener. There’s no chance for a truly selfless person to have the time or moral permission to develop the skills, talents and personalities that makes us interesting, well-rounded people.
Selfless behavior is immoral when it prevents you from knowing your own intrinsic and equal value as a human being. What kind of love asks you to discount your Self for the sake of the other? What kind of love asks you to deny your needs? Where’s the mutuality? Where’s the trust? Is that what Jesus wants from the woman who washes his feet? Is this the kind of love God wants from us? Selfless love? No! There is no such thing. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants to feel needed. Selfless love may seem ideal, but it eventually denies partners what they need—to be desired and needed as equals.
I know plenty of people who give selflessly of themselves and feel rejected by those they love. What kind of love is that? As long as we feel rejected, we cannot love fully.
I know people who have been manipulated by others in the name of serving God. If God appears to us as an unhappy recipient of selfless love who gives according pleasure and condemns according to wrath, we cannot love perfectly.
If we can be in touch with the true spirit of love, our imperfect relationships can change. Like Mary washing the feet of Jesus, we can share in a love so extravagant, so complete, so true, that once we feel it, we can’t stop sharing it.
I’ve been thinking about love in terms of another word: Namaste. Even though it is commonly used as a greeting, Namaste also expresses spiritual meaning. Namaste means “the divine in me blesses and honors the divine in you.” It’s love in action. Imagine a seemingly subservient woman who mimics a woman of ill-repute washing the feet of Jesus as a servant. Imagine the scandal. Imagine the shame. Imagine the system that perpetuates her posture. And imagine Jesus saying, “She has done nothing wrong. This nameless woman has shown love. The divine in her just blessed and honored the divine in me.” Imagine if WE could do this. Instead of discounting ourselves to bolster another, we could say, “Love is known when we give and take as equals. The divine in me blesses and honors the divine in you.”
I will be the first to admit, I am not skilled at showing this kind of love. I feel it all the time, but I have a hard time expressing it. Having a persona of selflessness can be an easy way to deflect love. If I can serve you, then I can hide my own discomfort with receiving love. So I want to tell you all about my own learning and my commitment about love in action.
Just like you, life has brought me pain. There are times when I’ve let down my guard and then felt like others took advantage of my vulnerability. 5 year ago, I came to CCC hurt by other churches, feeling disillusioned and betrayed. I told myself there was no way I was going to allow that to happen again. Those experiences reinforced a guarded exterior that does not show how I am really feeling inside. It has become such an automatic response, I don’t always know I’m doing it. I trained myself to be so emotionally non-responsive, I can forget that others need to experience a wider range of emotions. I have something to receive from others as well as something to give.
Here’s what else I’m learning: I’m learning to allow what I honor as the divine in you to uncover and honor that which is divine in me. I am learning what it means to be mutually giving and receiving as a pastor and a congregation. And my sincere hope is that you are able to risk the same with me.
In the words of Fulton Sheen, love is a mutual self-giving which ends in self-recovery. It’s what God wants for all of our relationships. Love means that each and every one of us is created in the image of God, co-workers with God in struggling for the liberation of humanity and for a world order that respects each one’s dignity. God loves us so powerfully, and God wants to love another person or creature through us. That’s what I yearn for in my own life. It’s what I want for each of you. Healing power stirs us. We can love God. We can love our own being. We can love others from whom we are estranged. To love this love is to love God. And if you can love God, then you may also be able to accept Life and love that, too.