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Trinity + 2 Reciprocating God's love in full measure

13 June 2010
1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-22, Luke 7:36-8:3, Psalm 5:1-8 Give Ear to my Words, O Lord

Today's gospel reading from Luke tells us about a woman who anointed the feet of Christ with balm, having first wet them with her tears and dried them with her hair. We learn from the version in Matthew's gospel that this ointment was very expensive, and from Mark that it was made from the essence of spikenard, a plant illustrated on the cover of today's service sheet. And John tells us that the woman was Mary Magdalen and that the scent filled the whole house. 1

So, what is the message here? Well, it has been said that:

This story tells us that whatever one Christian does in the service of God, another Christian is bound to come along and criticize it. 2

This sounds heartfelt: Emily Dickinson sounded equally heartfelt when she focused on the physical and emotional cost of producing essential oils such as the spikenard:

Essential Oils are wrung:
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns alone
It is the gift of Screws.

The same can be said of much great art. As Bill Nighy's character said of Vincent Van Gogh in last week's episode of Dr. Who:

He transformed the pain of his life into ecstatic beauty.

Vincent himself said:
When I have a terrible need of - shall I say the word - religion, then I go out and paint the stars.

Anyone gardening in this village over last winter, when Trevor recorded 18 degrees of frost one night, knows all about the pain associated with the creative process. Atheists complain about the nevertheless universal tendency to extrapolate from our experiences of creation to imagine that there is an eternal Creator:

Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
Douglas Adams

But, as a gardener, I'm among those who believe that much of the evidence of God's existence has been planted. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said,

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes -
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

If there are sermons in stones, there are many more in plants:

Hildegaard of Bingen was a twelfth-century mystic, composer, and author of a theology that knitted together nature and spirit, cosmos and soul. She described the Holy Spirit as the Greening Power of God. Just as plants are greened, so we are as well. As we grow up, our spark of life continually shines forth. If we ignore this spark, this greening power, we become thirsty and shrivelled. And if we respond to the spark, we flower. Our task is to flower, to come into full blossom before our time comes to an end.
Lauren Artress,'Walking a Sacred Path'

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to thee.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Let every Christian be a gardener so that he and she and the whole of creation, which groans in expectation of the Spirit's final harvest, may inherit Paradise. If we Christians truly treasure the hope that one day we, like Adam and the penitent thief, will walk alongside the One who caused even the dead wood of the Cross to blossom with flowers, then we must also imitate the Master's art and make the desolate earth grow green.

Vigen Guroian, 'Inheriting Paradise'

God and Man together produce all that is in nature - God provides the seed, the earth, the light & warmth, and the rain. Man provides the cultivation - weeding and pruning, harvesting and -here- distilling into essential oil. It is a symbiotic relationship which forms a virtuous circle:

The good gardener knows with absolute certainty that if he does his part, if he gives the labour, the love, and every aid that his knowledge of his craft, experience of the conditions of his place, and exercise of his personal wit can work together to suggest, that so surely will God give the increase. Then with the honestly-earned success comes the consciousness of encouragement to renewed effort, and, as it were, an echo of the gracious words, 'Well done my good and faithful servant'. Gertrude Jekyll, 'Wood and Garden', 1899

Victor Hugo, in his panoramic novel about the human condition, 'Les Misérables', sums up the importance of a garden:

He would sit on a wooden bench leaning against a decrepit trellis and look at the stars through the irregular outlines of his fruit trees. This quarter of an acre of ground, so sparingly planted, so cluttered with shed and ruins, was dear to him and satisfied him. What more was needed by this old man, who divided the leisure hours of his life, where he had so little leisure, between gardening in the daytime and contemplation at night? Was this narrow enclosure with the sky for a background not space enough for him to adore God in his most beautiful, sublime works? Indeed, is that not everything? What more do you need? A little garden to walk in, and immensity to reflect on. At his feet something to cultivate and gather; above his head something to study and meditate on; a few flowers on earth and all the stars in heaven.

What does it all mean? Well, for Julian of Norwich it was all about God's love:

And in this He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus, 'It is all that is made.' I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it.

And so we return to the story we began with, of the extravagance of Mary Magdalen's gesture. Her response to the love of God was not to measure out her balm in careful teaspoonfuls but to pour out the whole contents , echoing the words of Isaac Watts:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an off'ring far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

1 Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-11 and John 12.1-11
2 Esmeralda, Ship of Fools

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