One night each month a small gathering of soldiers takes place here in the Cathedral. Chaplain Randy Haycock from Walter Reed Army Hospital brings over a group of “wounded warriors,” young men who have been seriously injured in Iraq or Afghanistan and are spending months here in recovery. He brings these injured and often emotionally devastated young soldiers for a time of silence, reflection, and even healing.
For a couple of hours they wander this mysterious, holy place. At one point, they sit for awhile in War Memorial Chapel and tell stories of their battle buddies who never made it home. The figure of Christ in Memorial Chapel only shows his torso and his head, which often reminds the soldiers of their paraplegic and quadriplegic friends. After awhile they make it to the high altar where all the carvings of the saints helps them to imagine someday being reunited with those they love who are gone. They listen to a rock song, “Tears in Heaven,” and then they hear the mournful tones of “Taps” to close the night.
As I have listened to Randy talk about these young men, what strikes me is that they put everything on the line for what they believed in, and the cost has been incalculable. What an immense, extravagant sacrifice they have made.
For centuries this fifth Sunday in Lent was known as Passion Sunday, the day when Christians were invited to focus on the meaning of the cross in preparation for Holy Week. A week from today is Palm Sunday and from that day on the terrible events of Jesus’ last week will unfold relentlessly. A young man, probably close to those soldiers’ ages, is making his way to Jerusalem. There is tension in the air. Jesus was a disturbing figure. He had challenged everyone and every institution. He was in constant danger of being arrested and assassinated and was called an agent of the devil. His own disciples didn’t know what to make of him.
But what was most striking about Jesus was his determination to put everything on the line for God. “My meat and drink is to do the will of the one who sent me,” he said. “Lose your life to find it,” he kept telling his followers. He called his friends to go for broke with him, to surrender themselves to God’s call and God’s love.
Now, in today’s gospel, it’s the day before Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and unleash the events that will lead to his death. Jesus comes to dinner with some of his closest friends—Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, and some of his disciples. Word has gotten around that he has raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus is a wanted man. The meal must have been charged with fear and worry.
All of a sudden, Mary gets up, goes over to Jesus, and without warning pours a jar of very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, so much that the aroma filled the room. This precious oil, worth a year’s wages in those times, was used to anoint dead bodies and very rarely for people to sprinkle on themselves for a special occasion. And then Mary, in an act of amazing intimacy loosened her hair to bathe his feet. All this was a shocking act of extravagance. Was there something romantic in what Mary was doing, as some suggest, or was it overwhelming gratitude that her brother was back from death? It’s hard to tell. Judas Iscariot, the moneyman for the disciples was there, and he was outraged. ‘What a waste! Shouldn’t this be used for the poor, he cried?’ ‘No,’ Jesus says, ‘leave her alone. She is anointing me for my burial ahead.’
Mary’s response to Jesus is excessive, over the top, you might even say irrational. But she can’t hold back from giving to him in the best way she knows how. Love is like that, and Mary is caught up in a love she won’t restrain.
The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich was riveted by this story. “What has she done?” he wrote. “She has given an example of a waste which…grows out of the abundance of the heart…[and] without the abundance of the heart nothing great can happen….The history of mankind,” he goes on to say, “is the history of men and women who wasted themselves and were not afraid to do so.”
Extravagance, going for broke, putting our hearts and souls on the line—that’s something that doesn’t come naturally to most of us prudent types. We like to be measured, careful people—moderate, risk-averse. Recently New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote an op-ed piece about how user-friendly much of our religion is these days. He says that as society has become more materialistic, churches have given up on the really challenging things, the spiritual disciplines that make real demands, and have emphasized the more worldly expressions of faith—the cultural wars issues for the conservatives and the social justice issues for the liberals. They’ve left behind the quest to know the depths and heights of a vast and mysterious God, the yearning for closeness to God, the willingness to wrestle with the darkness in their own souls.
More Americans than ever, Douthat says, report having religious or mystical experiences—up from 22% having them in 1962 to 50% today. Seekers now have a wide array of options to choose from. This has been good in many ways, he says, as ancient practices have been reclaimed. But the danger is that these have simply become a set of options to complement our upwardly mobile lives, rather than provocative alternatives to the success-driven lives we’re leading.
And Douthat declares what the great spiritual writers have always said, that real spiritual breakthroughs require us to go deep in a particular tradition. Without that, faith just becomes a form of comfortable therapy, with no capacity to deepen or challenge our lives. We have to give ourselves away, to draw closer to God.
There was never anything cautious about St. Paul’s faith. In that wonderful passage from his letter to the Philippians we heard today, he is locked in a Roman prison for refusing to stop spreading Christian faith, and even there all he wants to do is give everything he has for Christ.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, [he says] and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
There is so much more to discover, he says:
[And] this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
You don’t hear that kind of spiritual ambition much these days, that willingness to put our lives on the line, to ask God to take us where God wants us to go, to show us what we need to see.
The reality is, C.S. Lewis says, we’ll never fully know what Christ can do with us without going for broke:
The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.
You see, Lewis says, Jesus wants to do big things with you: ‘Make no mistake,’ Lewis hears Jesus saying, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in my hands, that is what you are in for….You can push me away. But understand that I am going to see this job through.’
I’m sorry that a family emergency kept Kay Warren from being with us today for the Sunday Forum because her recent book tells the story of how she put everything on the line. Dangerous Surrender is a moving account of someone with her own share of joys and tragedies, who at a critical moment was willing to be as extravagant as Mary and Paul and go for broke.
She was sitting on her couch one spring day with a cup of tea and picked up one of the weekly newsmagazines and happened to notice a story about AIDS in Africa. She quickly flipped the pages to see what else was in the magazine that day.
As I began to read, I quickly realized that the graphic pictures that accompanied the article were horrific—skeletal men and women, children so weak they couldn’t brush the flies away from their faces. I couldn’t look at them. But for some strange reason, I was compelled to continue reading. I partially covered my eyes with my hands and tried to peak through the cracks in my fingers at the words without looking at the faces of dying men, women, and children.
The phrase “twelve million children orphaned due to AIDS in Africa” jumped off the magazine page and she threw the magazine on the floor in horror. The images haunted her in bed that night and the next day, and she came to see that God had begun an intense conversation with her.
Ultimately she realized that she had to make a decision, either to retreat to her comfortable life or, as she put it, “Would I surrender to God’s call and let my heart engage with a cause I was pretty sure would include buckets of pain and sorrow?” And the moment she said yes, she says, “I became a seriously disturbed woman.”
She has faced many struggles since, entailing countless trips to Africa and involving herself in an array of ministries, and along the way she has endured two bouts of cancer. But she sounds a lot like Mary of Bethany—extravagant, excessive, going for broke.
I don’t believe that all our breakthroughs, all our extravagant surrenders, will be that vivid. Many of the people I talk with are often more muddled, and take more time, and aren’t as clear as Kay Warren. They take smaller steps. They tutor DC kids, they work in soup kitchens, they work at their marriages, they do their work well, they campaign for universal health-care, they look after aging parents. They stay with their faith and keep asking God to show them more, to challenge and lead them more.
“Do not suppress in yourselves or others the abundant heart, the waste of self-surrender,” Tillich said. “Without the abundance of heart nothing great can happen.”
Jesus is heading to Jerusalem now. He’s lived God’s love flat out, in ways that will soon have him hanging on a cross. He doesn’t have to go. It would be the wise thing to turn around and go back to Galilee and lay low for awhile, which is what some of his disciples were pushing him to do.
But instead, after the dinner with his friends and Mary’s anointing, he gets up the next day and rides into Jerusalem and to the fate that awaits him.
He’s going for broke. What a wasteful, extravagant thing to do, for us.