Sense Memory

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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11)

It is finally spring. The blooming flowers witness to it. The increasingly visible and active wildlife attests to it. My nose confirms it. My nose confirms it not so much because I smell wafting fragrances of spring but because my escalating hay fever serves as a telling indicator that spring has sprung. I am amazed at our senses. Not only do our senses engage us with our present reality, but our senses catapult us into our past, too.

Recently, I traveled to a conference in Durham, North Carolina. A short portion of the conference was held one afternoon on the campus on Duke University. I graduated from Duke nearly a decade ago and have rarely been back since. In fact, it had been more six years since my last visit to the campus. Yet, upon walking through the front doors of The Divinity School, my senses kicked in.

The heavy wooden doors felt the same. The hallways looked the same. And, the building smelled the same. Yes, smelled the same! That same mix of old construction plus youthful vigor stirred with academic anxiety was there. In reality, I do not know exactly what the smell is that makes The Divinity School smell like it does. But, whatever that smell is, it was present.

In a moment, my nose transported me to my days as a student and my stomach began to turn and knot as if I had a test to take that afternoon for which I was ill prepared. Sense memory is incredible in its both potency and viscerality.

I imagine a similar sense memory shaped the gospel writer as he penned the above text. All of the gospels were written after the fact. The gospels are not some chronicler’s notations of the “days of Jesus.” Rather, the gospels are recollections of the acts, stories, and events of Jesus’ life compiled long after the original events to convey a larger theological narrative about life, death, resurrection, and love. This is true for all the gospels, including John’s gospel.

At that future moment as the writer of John scribed this passage, I imagine him in a room somewhere, squirreled away, jotting down his account of Jesus’ narrative of salvation. John would sit next to an open window for better light. While reflecting on the life of his friend and Lord, unexpectedly, a familiar scent wafts through that open window. Carried on a warm spring breeze, the smell of nard from the perfumery in the marketplace below sparks a distant yet still personally present memory.

Ever since the events of that earlier day, when John smells nard he cannot help but recall the powerful events of that long-ago week that began so triumphantly only to end so crushingly. This smell seemingly suspends time and vanishes space, transporting John from his current room to another time and place altogether.

There John was back in that day now some distance in the past. He finds himself, again, in Bethany just outside Jerusalem with Jesus and many of his followers sharing a meal prepared by Martha. The group was still trying to process what had happened a few days before when Jesus raised Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Now, at their table, Lazarus was sitting with them eating. It was during this same meal that Lazarus’ other sister Mary ran into the room and poured out the expensive, fragrant nard oil onto Jesus. That was not the first time that John smelled nard, but all of the emotion and excitement of those days coupled with Mary’s impetuous and lavish anointing sealed that moment in his memory, locking that memory tightly to that pungent smell. If not a new smell, he certainly smelled nard in a new way after the events of that day and the days to follow. Therefore, in some respects, it was as if he was smelling nard for the first time.

In that initial instance, the disciples did not really know what to do with Mary’s actions. What she did was a bit curious, as the nard oil was both expensive and usually reserved for anointing the dead. However, now, with many years between these past events and his present reality, John had managed to reconsider many of Mary’s actions. Back in his present world, Mary’s actions made much more sense.

To buy nard oil, Mary spent her life’s savings. Her action was a complete and total “cashing in” of her life in response to the new life Jesus declared when he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. Just before raising Lazarus, Jesus shouted, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Mary seemed to perceive that the kind of life necessary to have this new, resurrected life demanded complete sacrifice, the cashing in of everything. And, as John and his fellow disciples would soon learn, Jesus’ week would end with just such a complete sacrifice, a total offering of all that he was, nothing held back, nothing reserved.

This kind of total giving of his life in exchange for our lives of service and personal commitment does not leave room for proportional giving or partial commitment. A life of faith is not as much as a set of propositions believed but a way of life we are willing to live, to live sacrificially and completely without reservation or withholding. Like Mary’s oil, our lives must be poured out fully and luxuriously for God and for others.

Imagine the gospel story if Jesus had only gone part of the way to Jerusalem, turning just before the cross. Imagine if Jesus had decided that the life of faith did not require personal investment of his life and actions but simply his intellectual assent to the notion that the kingdom of God, resurrection and new life, and liberation of the oppressed and healing of the world was only a good idea not an expected, active existence. Imagine such a gospel. Would it be good news or merely news about another philosophy or ideology we choose to believe if convenient?

The gospel writer constructs the narrative so that Mary’s lavish and total giving was both a harbinger of Jesus’ total self-giving that was to come and our total self-giving that must follow. Mary, it turns out, is the very model of faith, i.e., a life committed without reservations to God’s kingdom, a life devoid of withholdings and half-commitments and qualified confessions. Mary, as she proves repeatedly in the gospel stories, gets it. Mary is the first, total convert to the resurrection kingdom because she willingly cashes in all that she has and, in effect, is for Jesus’ resurrection kingdom. Moreover, in her actions, Mary serves as proxy for God, anointing Jesus and making him Christ, Messiah (i.e., the “anointed one”, the king) to ride into Jerusalem as the king of his people, of his new, re-created world.

John cannot help but remember this moment and breathe in Mary’s actions. It is the nard. The nard does it every time. The smell of that oil always transports him back to that moment, reminding him of Mary’s complete and lavish outpouring of self on the one who would pour out himself for the whole world just a few days later. For the gospel writer, the nard becomes but a metaphor for our total, active engagement in a kingdom of love and selflessness, of generosity and abundance. Its smell remains a pungent reminder, a sensual trigger.

The gospel writer seems intentionally to have retained this story to compel us to ask, what sense memories would our lives of faith trigger? If the smelling of nard would transport others to some part of our lives of faith, what would they see; onto whom would they see us lavishly and generously pouring out our lives? Would our lives of faith be more akin to a series of intellectual calculations and appropriate confessions, or would our lives of faith be lives of abundant, selfless, generosity as we anoint with our love those whom Jesus touched: the marginalized, the discarded, the despised, the disempowered, the despicable, the displaced, and the disregarded?

Jesus’, Mary’s and our touching herald the in-breaking of a new, resurrection kingdom.
As we begin Holy Week, may our retelling of these stories become more than simple reminiscing but the declaration of our manifesto to an active living of the kingdom not for ourselves but for others through our own lavish, loving outpouring.

Amen.

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Let the Children Come to Me

. . . Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ (Matthew 19.14)

Today, in Georgia thousands of children are trafficked to work in fields, to work as sex slaves, or to be transported from one city to another. Advocacy groups like Shared Hope estimate that more than 200,000-300,000 individuals are trafficked within the United States each year. Many of those trafficked are children and teenagers. Whether grabbed while walking home from school or sold by parents in exchange for drugs, children are being exploited all around us, and we often do not recognized it. Within Atlanta, The Juvenile Justice Fund estimates that, monthly, 200 to 300 children and teenagers are trafficked for sex. That estimation solely includes Atlanta! Moreover, as the current statutes read in the state of Georgia, law enforcement officers have little option but to arrest children that are trafficked for sex. Once arrested, these children are not liberated from their captors but charge as prostitutes and held captive to a system that forces them to the margins, often out of the reach of care.

Georgia anti-trafficking advocacy groups like A Future. Not a Past. and StreetGRACE note that once convicted of prostitution, these children are ineligible to receive state services for victims of sexual abuse. These groups are working to help state legislators provide alternative paths for children picked up for prostitution. Through SB 304, these alternative paths would allow children not to be charged as criminals but placed in a victim’s advocacy and rehabilitation services stream.

As the above gospel passage reminds us, Jesus rejected social convention and intentionally reach out to children. In this particular gospel story, the disciples did not want to waste Jesus’ valuable time because, in Jesus’ day, children were considered property of their parents. Not being considered fully persons, children, the disciples’ eyes, were not worth of Jesus’ time. Yet, Jesus saw the children as co-equal inheritors of the good news of the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom was for all, especially those previously left out. Jesus’ desire to upend social convention to help a marginalized and underappreciated—and, therefore, easily exploited—group placed him in a long line of agitators-for-a-greater-good, i.e., advocates for God’s kingdom.

In answering his own rhetorical question as to what proper faith requires, the prophet Micah said, “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). Faith, it turns out, is as much as what we do with our hands and our heads for the transformation of the world as much as it is about what we believe in our hearts.

I challenge us to be just such a people of faith. May we, also, be a people committed intentionally to reaching out to children as Jesus did, especially these children held captive in human trafficking. May we, like the prophet Micah challenges us, seek to change systems that perpetuate exploitation by being advocates for justice while, also, caring for the immediate needs of those exploited through acts of merciful kindness.

May we act!

And to the Little Ones
By Lisa Sharon Harper

Swiped from her village
sold for a dime by poor parents
to a rich global market
Taka’s 10-year-old bones rattle with fear.
Heart?
bound to earth – chained.
Beaten down to size in small back rooms
Spirit broken by westerners who promise the world
and leave her a lump of mud.
No breath…
No breath…
Can’t breathe in this tomb.
Taka’s humanity
her dignity
her soul
is battered and bartered
on the black market for a dime.
And pundits predict her body will be found
in a ditch in an alley
some – day.

Vacant eyes wander her neighborhood
She is “Sold!” for a dime bag
by her crack head momma
to suits and briefcases with Jersey plates
Takisha’s 10-year-old bones rattle with fear.
Stolen
from school
and dreams
and friends.
Her lifeless body puts food on the table
She eats the devil’s dinner
And her humanity
her dignity
her soul
vanishes.
No breath…
No breath…
Can’t breathe in this toxic corner of the world.
And pundits predict Takisha’s vacant body will be found in an ally or a trash can
before her 18th birthday.

And thus says the Lord,
“Come from the four winds, o breath!
And breathe upon the slain!
That they may live!”
That they may live!
That they may run and play and lay in the streets and look up at the stars
That they may dream of romance and significance and peace for their families
and their people.
That they may breathe and stand and live…
And to Taka and Takisha
to their rattling bones
to the little ones
who bear God’s image
The Lord God says,
“Breathe…”
“Stand…”
“Live…”

Are We Awake or Asleep?

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’ (Matthew 26:36-46)

In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes some of his disciples with him as he prays and prepares for the next day, the hardest day of his life and the costly climax to his confrontational ministry. Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake and pray with him, but while Jesus withdraws for a time of private prayer, the disciples fall asleep. Three times, Jesus returns to find his friends and companions in ministry sleeping rather than vigilantly praying. Three times, Jesus confronts them. After the confrontation, Jesus declares, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

How often might those convicting words be applied to us, too? The metaphorical power and depth offered by this moment in Jesus’ ministry is profound. The disciples—having been called by Jesus, taught by Jesus, invited by Jesus to begin and see the beginnings of his new, radically rearranged kingdom—cannot stay awake long enough, cannot focus long enough, cannot attend to the in-breaking moments of God’s kingdom long enough to recognize the significance of the time at hand. Jesus, through his shared life and work, has offered the disciples intimate insight into the expectations and ambitions of the kingdom. In addition, here, in this moment of prayerful preparation and struggle, Jesus invites these particular co-workers in the kingdom to share in his struggle, primarily by staying awake!

What does it mean to stay awake? Physically, staying awake is merely not sleeping. Often, staying awake is more easily said than done. (I am well aware of this reality while writing these words after a weeklong mission trip coupled with the loss of an hour’s sleep that the jump to daylight savings time brings!) When we are physically weary, staying awake is not that easy. Yet, there is another time when staying awake is equally difficult. When we do not want to deal with something unpleasant, staying awake is inconvenient and, therefore, avoided. Like a new parent hoping their crying child will simply go to sleep, avoiding engaging the situation is easier than pealing yourself out of a warm bed groggily to attend to your plaintive infant.

As metaphor, sleep is not just about exhaustion but, also, about avoidance.

Jesus’ words to his disciples seem to represent just such avoidance. We, the readers with two thousand years of insight, know what the next few days hold. We know the story of arrest, trial, torture, death, and resurrection. The disciples do not have the privilege of our vantage. However, they had been with Jesus for several months if not years. I think they might have had some inkling as to what was coming. This possibility leads to another set of questions.

What if their sleep was more about not wanting to be responsible for hearing Jesus’ prayer, his concerns, his fears, his struggles, or his uncertainty than about mere exhaustion? What if the disciples were sleeping because they did not want to carry the burden of expected action incumbent certain knowledge? What if the disciples were hoping that by not knowing what was to come and what might be expected of them they could operate with “plausible deniability”? What if “sleeping” is code for not wanting to know and to be responsible with the weight of that knowledge and if “staying awake” is code for vigilance and action?

This possibility puts a new twist on Matthew’s story, a twist particularly relevant for us. If staying awake is a way of describing a life of faith that does not avoid being vigilant to the expectations of God’s kingdom and the needs of God’s children and if staying awake is a way of describing a life actively committed to acting on that knowledge, then life in the kingdom just became a lot more demanding and complicated than many of us hoped!

The difficult good news is that the kingdom requires just such attentive waking.

This past week, nine of us from Young Harris College traveled to Washington, DC as part of our spring break mission trip. The purpose of the trip was to transition faith into action by studying human trafficking, to inspire us to act, and to empower in some concrete manner those actions.

The knowledge gained in DC jarred us awake.

The statistics about the number of people trafficked around the world and within the US is astonishing. The average age of a person trafficked for sex in the US is appalling. The centrality of Georgia for national and international trafficking is disturbing. If any of us on the trip were asleep because of exhaustion or avoidance, this knowledge shook us awake and defies us to return to the comfort of our slumber while millions of others remain in a perpetual sleepless hell.

Having arrived back on campus, we feel it our task to jar others awake, too. Over the coming weeks, we will educate the campus on this horrific, secret world all around us. We will look for ways to inspire our hopes for change in both the conditions fostering and the laws related to human trafficking. We will strive to empower those within the Young Harris College community to pair faith and knowledge with action, embodying the kingdom’s demand that we remain awake by proclaiming release to these modern day captives.

We are fully aware that this embodiment will not be easy. As Jesus’ prayer in the garden that night reminds us, lives committed to the liberating power of the kingdom might have to sacrifice more than they planned or wanted. We might wish that this cup of knowledge and its accompanying responsibility had not been offered to us. Nevertheless, the cup has been. Are we to accept it, or are we to pass it off to others, hoping they will take it and the burden it brings? Jesus accepted his cup. May we accept ours, and may the knowledge held in that cup stir us from our slumber and motivate our action.

Who Am I?

I am a young man.
I am an old woman.
I am tall,
short,
fat,
skinny,
rich,
poor,
smart,
dense,
tired,
lazy,
strong,
weak.
I am well educated.
I am a high school dropout.
I am raped.
I rape.
I am bought, burned, sold, beaten.
I am ashamed, astounded at how little is known.
I am discarded.
I am depressed.
I am elated.
I am uncertain.
I am helpless.
I am lonely.
I am curious.
I am frightened.
I am important.
I am hopeful.
I am ready for change,
to be change,
to enact change,
not to be exchanged.
I am your daughter,
your brother,
your mother,
your uncle,
your offender,
your victim,
your song,
your joy,
your life,
your love.
I am your child.
I am God’s child.
I must be freed.

Preparing

As we make our final preparations to travel to Washington, DC on our spring break mission trip next week, I offer these expectant verses offered by Billy Cattey. Mission trips present an opportunity to change the world and to be changed.

What is happening to me?

Just beyond my reach
Is something I should know.
The quiet whispering of new senses
Murmur in the back of my head.

There is something important out there.
Comprehended only in fragments,
It speaks of profound mystery,
And suggests resolutions.

Like a blind man learning to see,
I am presented with random patterns
That convey new knowledge
When put together properly.

Stumbling about in the dark,
I should be able to find my way.
The information is all there,
But I do not yet know how to use it.

Across an abyss of unknown,
I feel a new bridge under construction.
When will it be finished?
How soon may I cross?

When that time comes
I will plainly understand
Things that existed outside of me,
Things that I could only guess about before.