“The Wayside Sacrament”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
June 23, 2019
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
Our chocolate lab, Jezebel, is slowing down. We walk a mile and a quarter every morning. And, for the last month or so, she really can’t do the last few hundred yards.
I cajole, encourage, drag; I cajole, encourage, drag. And we get there, but it is hard. This has been going on about a month because I don’t want to accept her getting old.
Kathy intervened- knowing my powers of denial. Can you shorten the walk? Can you go slower? I . . . I . . . I didn’t want to change the habit, a very well-worn habit, given what it means that she needs it to change.
I capitulated. We walked a bit shorter distance, closer to a mile. That didn’t work. A happier voice was offered in the last leg of the walk. Didn’t work. And then the Holy Spirit came, whispered in my ear, how much greater can a dog smell than you can smell? 40 times more flashed in my brain.
Then it came to me: what if you walk as slowly as she smells? Try it.
I tried it. It was hilarious.
Our habit had been a mile and a quarter in twenty minutes at my speed. At the speed of her nose it was twenty minutes and two blocks. For the last few weeks we have been walking the same few blocks slowly; we move at the speed of her nose.
We walk the same amount of time. But the end result is completely different. I don’t drag her or cajole her to the door. She finishes the walk without any problem.
She is happy. She is the same really. But me? I am now watching the birds play in the branches; I am hearing a mother say good bye to a child; I am noticing the lovely choices of good landscapers and the other choices. We are going really slow. When I walk at the speed of her nose, we are meditating. And here is the funny thing: I am much more refreshed and ready to live the day after the slow walk. She led me to a better place.
I don’t want to get too mystical here, but she led me to the insight of Ralph Waldo Emerson. If you have eyes to see and ears to hear nature, if you slow down and breathe, you will find the wayside sacrament. There is beauty all around us; beauty in the just now blooming dogwood; there is beauty in the rain pounding the cherry blossom to the ground. If you slow down and breathe, you can see it. And the seeing is a blessing, a power, a gift that makes you better.
In a journal entry in 1855 Emerson wrote this:
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting—a wayside sacrament.
Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.”
I have preached sermons on this quote; lived these words. But I was surprised to hear them spoken from the arthritic feet of a Labrador. It turns out if you walk as slowly as a Labrador smells, you will find the wayside sacrament, the handwriting of God. It need not be as dramatic as the Grand Canyon or the cliffs of Dover. It could be just the weight of rain on a maple branch struggling to be ready for the fickle sun; it could be the impatients wanting to bloom before the full heat of August. The wayside sacrament doesn’t need to be historic; it just begs to be seen.
I am very lucky man. Not only do I have Labradors who guide me to the mystical thoughts of transcendentalists, I have walked the great halls of art; I have seen the acropolis and known the martyr churches or Rome. I have seen beauty in so many places where it is grand and overwhelming. Bernini! And my luck is that it is not contained by the Louvre or the Metropolitan or the Uffizi; I also know the wild of John Muir and the openness of the great lakes and the taste of salt water in winter of an El Nino. I can smell the desert air of the southwest.
I am well accustomed to beauty. I trust it. I believe beauty is healing as did Emerson. It’s the handwriting of God. Stop and smell and breath and look and taste and know what a beautiful, curious earth. If ever I am harried or bothered or worried I go to these places and they save me, redeem me, restore my spirit.
And so it is important to me that the key moment in the gospel of Mark, the climax, the true apex, is a moment of beauty. Don’t bother her; leave her alone. She did a beautiful thing. And whenever the gospel is preached it will be done in memory of her. That is a lot of freight in a few lines. The whole gospel is here; the gospel going forward happens here; it’s all in what she did; and what she did was beautiful. Before we go forward, let’s just say that is pretty big.
We need to know this and see this, how big and important beauty is, before we move forward in the gospel stories. You need to hold onto this beauty before you like a Labrador walking; you need to move a bit slowly and patiently. We do because beauty is the key to what comes next. And what comes next is betrayal.
Betrayal: This is Psalm 55. It is not enemies who taunt me— I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me— I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng. It is you. It’s betrayal.
When Mark composed his gospel and ordered the stories of Peter, he came to a point where he needed to tell the story of Jesus’ death. He could have told the story as the hatred of the Jewish religious leaders; he could have told the story as the fears of the Roman rulers who dreaded an insurrection. Each one is a part of the story. And, together, they are more than enough to explain why Jesus died, why he was crucified. But Mark downplayed these. It wasn’t the hypocrisy of bad religion; it was not the long knives of the realpolitik. The death of Jesus was a story of the betrayal of friends. His friends betrayed him.
There are only a few times where I will say this. So consider this as important as I can be. If you understand, if you can grasp why Mark blends beauty and betrayal, if this is clear, you have a great gift of life. This saves me again and again. This is a very powerful truth. When Mark described the death of Jesus, the salvation of all creation, the redemption of all life, when he chose to put this in order it was a perilous balance born of beauty and betrayal.
Fair to say: what are you talking about? This is a fair question. Let’s go back to Labradors and how they smell. Not how they smell bad, but how they smell things. When I walked as fast as my Labrador wanted to smell things, the wayside sacrament was quick to come. There was beauty in the trees and the flowers, the children and mothers, the smell of rain and steam of humidity. Lovely.
What Mark did was take this beauty (she did a beautiful thing) and he didn’t talk about canyons or paintings or Labradors; he talked about betrayal. He talked about something terrible. Judas betrayed Jesus because there was beauty; Judas had no way of loving the beauty.
There was a time in my life where I half understood this. Judas didn’t get the beauty. This nard could have been sold to help the poor. Why was it wasted? People who think this way, who try to control life this way, I learned to see as false. They don’t get it.
Many times I have fought to keep the Bach and the organ; many times have begged people to trust the pageant, the vestment, the water poured over the head of the child baptized: trust it. This is beauty; it is power. Beauty will redeem us. You just need to see it.
And this is true, but it is only half the truth.
Last March, as we traveled through Jordan, Kathy and I enjoyed the company of a Baptist pastor and his wife. So many parts of our life were similar; so many choices were made with the same intent. But then the Baptist pastor, Larry, would see someone light a candle or kneel. This filled him with hatred and disdain. He confessed how much he was revulsed by pilgrims laying on the ground and kissing the preparation stone in the Holy Sepulchre. I listened and did not argue, for zeal is beyond challenge.
But then he said, “what? If you light a candle is your prayer stronger?” I looked at him in the eye and I said, “yes.” He was shaken and said with great earnest, “how so?” “Well, there is more light.” I let this settle and I said, “the more light, the more we can see what is good. It is more.”
What Larry didn’t know, what I couldn’t say there, was that I believe the gospel is not about what is true and right and the best. I believe the gospel is about the power to see what is good and right and true and best in the broken. I have been broken. I have been broken and I have been freed by the ones who saw what was good in me in the midst of the ruins of ages.
A younger me, a better me, could look at the candle lit by the desperate pilgrim as something to dismiss. But the older me, the broken me, welcomes the light.
I have come to understand why Mark wrote the beauty of the gospel as wrapped in betrayal.
You see you can stand before the Grand Canyon and see glory. You can learn to listen to the bird’s song or wait for the lilies’ gift. But that is the wayside sacrament. That is the moment when all of life is in order. All that is good; it is making the heart of God a clear picture.
The sacrament of Jesus is different. The sacrament of Jesus is when you can find the beauty, not only in the whole, but in the broken. Jesus is betrayed. This is pain and heartbreak. Why would Mark write the gospel steeped in betrayal? This is the question. I believe he did so to let us find beauty in the broken as well as the whole.
The unbridled beauty of the Indian paintbrush exploding in the twilight beam demands effort and luck. You can miss it. You may lack a Labrador. Yet, the friend who hurt you, the spouse who lied, the sister who stole, the father who had no character, these are a whole other question. They are messy and broken.
Psalm 55: I could endure anything, except betrayal. It was you. Mark’s gospel begs us with Judas and his betrayal: can you find beauty in the broken as you found it in the whole?
Leonard Cohen said, there are cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
It would be wrong of me to preach this passage and ignore its greatest claim. Where the gospel is preached it will be done in memory of her.
If you find the wayside sacrament and if you learn to love the beauty of each person in spite of the brokenness, if you do this that is great. You are close to becoming a human being. That you can walk slowly like a Labrador and see the beauty of the sunrise that lingers in pink and orange and red, this is part of becoming a human being.
If you find the sacrament of Jesus and if you learn to love the brokenness of the heart next to you, if you find the grace to say there is more light here, then you have found the kingdom of God. And that is enough. Well, it’s actually more than enough.
But, if you want to preach the gospel, there is another layer, another level. Love what is beautiful . . . good; find beauty in the broken, even the betrayer, better. But if you want to not just find the kingdom of God but bring the kingdom of God as well, you must call others. You must risk your peace and joy and invite the ones who hate, the ones who hurl bitter words, you must invite them to love, to speak with compassion.
If you do this, then you stand with the woman who broke the alabaster jar. You proclaim what you have found; you give what you have received. And the beauty of the wayside sacrament found with Labradors and the beauty of the broken Jesus did not cast aside with Judas is born anew. Amen.
- Isaiah 25:1 - 10
- Mark 14:1 - 11