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Can You Receive the Gift?

by The Rev Beth Knowlton on March 30, 2022

“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.” —John 12:1-8
 
Many of you know that I’ll be on sabbatical this summer. We announced at the parish meeting that I was awarded a Clergy Renewal Grant from the Lilly Foundation and there will be some wonderful parallel activities for the parish to engage in over the summer. Be on the lookout for a letter after Easter with more details. 
 
The grant I received is designed to allow time for real rest, travel, and renewal and fund activities that will “make your heart sing.” There are only modest reporting requirements, and you are not allowed to engage in a study project or use it for continuing education. It’s all gift. What’s not to like about that?
 
Well, it turns out it can be more challenging that I expected. Initially I was uncomfortable when we received word that I would receive something that extravagant. Most people don’t have the luxury of extended time away for renewal, and while it’s certainly been a challenging few years, that is no more true for me than anyone else. The worst thing I can do for myself spiritually is to fall into a trap of imagining such a gift is about whether I’ve earned it or deserve it. What has helped me is to look at it instead as pure gift.
 
And that can make us uncomfortable. 
 
In this well-known passage from John, Mary approaches Jesus and slathers him with expensive perfume and intimately wipes his feet with her hair. Clearly Judas is uncomfortable and immediately starts questioning whether there is a better use for such an expensive purchase. But while the writer of the gospel goes out of his way to let us know that this critique is not offered in a spirit of real care for poor, we don’t really know the full complexity of Judas’ response. And our knowledge of his ultimate betrayal of Jesus shouldn’t get in the way of the parts of ourselves that might respond similarly. 
 
We are conditioned to be in the position of being the givers, and frankly that is often more comfortable. Acts of service are an important part of our calling as disciples. But part of our calling is to be willing to receive—not because we are good people, not because we have “earned” it. Rather we are invited into the intimate and uncomfortable space of receiving a gift that mirrors the grace that we are offered in our life in Christ. When we enter that space of vulnerability, we discover that we are loved warts and all, snarky voices included. And to allow ourselves the gift of that space means that we are allowing grace to saturate us in ways that will ultimately sustain us.
 
I pray that, as those gifts show up in your life, you can give thanks and receive them with your whole heart.

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