Text: Mark 14:1-9; 17-21; 53-54; 66-72
When I was the age of you balcony dwellers sitting to my right (I am talking to you, Pullen youth), I had a fundamental choice to make about how I was going to live my life. Would I accept the truth about who I knew I was or would I continue to live denying the core of my very being? To accept the truth would mean risking alienating those I loved the most and whose approval I felt I desperately needed in order to survive. To deny the truth, I knew on some level, would mean sacrificing my soul and that which gave my life meaning. My decision was not just about accepting my sexual orientation-that was big enough-but it was about being fully me-with all my different thoughts, beliefs, and feelings-and having the courage to follow my passions regardless of what others might think of me. Later, I will come back to how my decisions played out.
Palm Sunday, this Sunday, ushers us into the drama of Jesus’ final week of his life. The lectionary gives us the option on this day to read the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem or to move deeper into the events of his last week; reading portions of the story that tell us of his interactions with those around him during his final days. Our children, in a grand processional announcing Jesus’ arrival and waving palms, have taken us through that triumphal entry. Now, I would like to move us deeper into the events surrounding that last week of his life.
When I read the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume and the account of Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus in the 14th chapter of Mark, I immediately thought of that earlier time in my own life when I was trying to decide which path I would take-the path of accepting truth or embracing denial. Immediately what jumped out at me was the contrast in how each of these characters responded to what was happening in them and around them. As I began to discuss this idea in worship planning as a direction for my meditation, one of my male colleagues began to laugh. When I inquired about the laughter, he said, “Oh no, here’s another one of those places in scripture where the woman got it right and the man got it wrong.” To which I responded, “I’m not one to rewrite scripture.” (We all laughed harder at that point.) Well Larry, listen closely. You might be surprised at where I end up with this one.
It is true that, at a glance, when the woman with the alabaster jar of very expensive perfume broke open that jar and poured the soothing ointment on Jesus’ head and began anointing him, using her own hair to wipe his feet, she got it right. In that moment, nothing mattered more to her than extravagantly caring for the one who had shown her her own worthiness of love and grace. Her act was one of compassion, love, and devotion. An outcast herself, portrayed throughout church history as a prostitute and one unworthy of even being in Jesus’ presence, she risked any small bit of standing that she might have had left with her peers and probably all the resources she had accumulated throughout her life to bless the one who had led her back to truth and life through love and grace. She didn’t care what others thought. She didn’t care what it looked like to anyone else. She didn’t consider the cost to herself. She simply followed her passion, doing what she could; and Jesus blessed her for that act. But the people didn’t get it. So, to make the lesson clear, Jesus told those who were eager to condemn her that “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she did would be told in remembrance of her.” It is a powerful story-one that throughout the centuries the church has not quite known what to do with. The truth is that this story makes us feel uneasy because we question Jesus’ response. We wonder: Did he really get this one right? Surely there was and is something to consider in the notion that the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Yes, somewhere in our heart we wish just a little bit that Jesus would have recognized that idea and given some credence to it. But he didn’t. Instead, he held her up as an example. And this is why I believe he did. Because she accepted the truth of her own story-of who she was and what she had to offer-and then she acted out of that truth with love, with compassion, and with devotion. She risked being herself and following her heart. And when we risk accepting the truth of who we are and following our heart, we live a more authentic and abundant life-which is exactly what Jesus came to offer us. This woman anointed Jesus with the greatest gift she possessed-not a jar of expensive perfume-but in being true to herself and doing what only she could do. Did she know when she poured that perfume over his head that he was going to die? Was it indeed an act of preparing him for his burial? Is that why he said we would remember her? I think not. I think we remember her and her story because she had the courage to do what she could-not what others expected and not what others thought was right. She didn’t allow herself to be boxed in or out by someone else’s rules or expectations or boundaries. The approval of others was not what she sought. Instead, she followed her heart, her passion, and who she knew she was as one of God’s beloved. She did what she could do. And because she followed that path of truth, Jesus blessed her.
It would be so easy (and I must admit a bit fun) to set up Peter in contrast to this woman who anointed Jesus. To talk about how he didn’t follow his truth or any truth. How his denial of Jesus was an act of fear and self preservation unlike the woman who acted out of courage and selflessness. But I can’t do that because that would not be the whole truth of Peter’s story. No, the truth of Peter’s story is that he moves between blessing and denying the truth. And who among us doesn’t know that story line? Instead of condemning Peter for denying the truth, I wonder if it would be more helpful for us to think about why sometimes it feels necessary to embrace our denial and to recognize that there are times when the truth of what is happening in and around us is just too much to handle.
As my friend Rachel Smith reminded me, denial can be a survival mechanism. When we are in denial, sometimes that can serve us well in that all we are trying to do in that moment is survive. Maybe that is what Peter was doing in those moments when he denied knowing Jesus. He knew that Jesus was in danger and that his own life was in danger. When we feel that vulnerable for our physical health and emotional well-being all we can do sometimes is try to survive. Maybe that was what was going on with Peter-he was just trying to survive and the thought that he might not was just too much. All of us have had times when we feel like we are just hanging on by a thread. It might be the result of a death of a child, or a divorce, or an illness, or the loss of a job, or recovering memories of abuse, or even being overwhelmed by the feeling we have when we are falling in love. We go into survival mode until we can feel the safety of the ground back under our feet. Sometimes it is simply necessary to embrace our denial. But this we know: the way of the spirit is not just about survival. It is to grow beyond that-to confront our fears head on, to live through them and not deny them. But sometimes until we embrace the way of the spirit we have to embrace our denial.
The rest of Peter’s story is that he didn’t stay in that survival mode. What Peter teaches us is that we can survive and eventually come to know the grace of God. And even when we are in such despair that we deny the grace of God or the presence of God-when we can’t feel it or acknowledge it-it is still there wooing us. God’s grace does not depend on our perception of that grace in order for it to exist. God is big enough for both our acceptance and denial of the truth.
When I was fifteen years old, I couldn’t fully live into or accept the truth of who I knew I was. There was too much at stake at that time in my life to break open that alabaster jar of ointment. But by the grace of God and finding places of safety I have been able to grow more into the way of the spirit: to name my truth, to live by my truth, and to keep searching out my truth. The way of the spirit is the way to resurrection, to new life; and this week is leading us there. Whether you are at the place of accepting truth or embracing denial, know this: God is big enough for both!