In his 2009 TED Talk, filmed in the Seattle area, author and speaker Simon Sinek offered the world a fairly simple theory of how effective leaders lead and why certain ideas inspire and catch on. His theory, summed up in the title of a book he released the same year is unnerving in its simplicity – ideas and people who inspire others, “Start with Why”. Inspiration doesn’t come from the how or the what, but from why, from belief and conviction and faith. In his 20 minute talk Sinek quips, “[Martin Luther King Jr.] gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”
Drawing concentric circles, he explained that our response based on “why”, and not what or how was as simple as biology. I’m sure there are doctors in the congregation who can set me straight, but as Sinek describes it, there are layers to the brain. The outermost, the neocortex, is related to language and rational thought. It allows us to see a problem and put it into words – to mull it over. The inner two layers comprise our limbic brains, which control our feelings, our ability to fear or rely on others, our capacity for choices and decision-making, and are totally incapable of language. And, so, it is strange that so much of what passes for leadership, so much of what the world and people try to tell and sell us, as they strive to compel us to some sort of decision or choice, speaks directly to that outer layer, to our rational minds, to that space of our brain dedicated to words and argument, and, ultimately, indecision. Its not that we are incapable of processing lots of information, of considering vast amounts of data and input – we’re smart enough – its that we communicate in the wrong order. We start with the what – “here’s the problem” – and we move to the how – “here’s how we solve it” – and so often, as a result, we get stuck on the why – “because….er, well, we’re problem solvers.” Reverse the order, Sinek says, and you’ve got inspiration.
Well, what does this have to do with us? What does this have to do with the fifth Sunday in Lent, to a gathering of Episcopalians, to Mary and her Nard? I’ll tell you. Imagine if we this morning began our worship by asking everyone to pull out their bulletins and to begin reading the italicized notes and directions. Imagine if we began like this “The prelude this morning is Largo, from Concerto in A Minor. You will want to stand to begin the service and then kneel right away to confess. You can stand or kneel for the prayers. Please come forward for Eucharist as you are released by pew… in order to maintain a beautiful space for worship we ask that you not eat during the service – crumbs are distracting and make it difficult to encounter God”. Or, what if we began with unwritten instructions, the rules we all know without even printing them, the unspoken “how”…”please remember to silence your cell phone and disable your flash… the bulletin contains the words you will need to worship” It would be absurd, we may as well instruct the congregation – in case of water landing your pew cushion can be used as a flotation device. Remember no smoking in the lavatories. Red carpet leads to altar – altar indicates communion” No one would ever come to church. No one would ever be inspired.
In fact, Episcopalians long ago learned to think as Sinek describes. We like to say that how we pray not only shapes, but says something of how we believe. You could say that in our worship, each week, we begin precisely at this central point, with belief.
“The Lord be with you.”
A blessing, a bidding, a statement of belief – God is with us, with you and me – and when reciprocated God’s beloved community is professed – With me, the Lord be with me!? And also with you! God is present, in our midst. Not inspiring enough for you? Just flip through our liturgy today and you’ll find all kinds of belief. God is present, in our suffering and joy. God meets us where we are, in all our failing and falling. God forgives us and holds out the hope that our lives can be transformed in Him. God knows us. God loves us. God’s love can be experienced, really and truly encountered in the flesh and blood of communities like ours. This is what we believe.
And, sometimes what we profess to believe can put us ill at ease because it doesn’t connect with where we actually are in our day to day. Sometimes what our liturgy professes and what we really believe, are two separate things. I told the choir last week that when we enact the procession of Palm Sunday there is the very real chance that it will seem incongruous and ill fitting. Because we know the whole story, we know that that band of rebels that heralded Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, with all the conviction that he was the Messiah, the king, come to confront the powers of Rome and all she stood for, we know that their certainty of victory, their joy at finding themselves on the winning team soon turns to disappointment and betrayal as they shout crucify. The liturgy puts us in the position of being both the band of revelers and the angry mob, the joyous and the disappointed. When Jesus fails to confront Rome in the way that we want, when Jesus fails to use his powers to overcome power, when he allows himself to be arrested, that is when we turn. And, so, knowing all this, our liturgy can leave us feeling uncomfortable. We discover we have come for the what and the how.
What? Change, release, rescue. How? Power and strength. We expect God to fix, and he doesn’t.
I think this is the dynamic at play here in this morning’s gospel. Jesus is at table with his disciples and Lazarus whom he has just raised, and their meal is interrupted by Mary. In a display that can only be described as socially unacceptable, both lavish, out of place, and completely vulnerable, she anoints Jesus’ feet. Letting her hair down, something women would never do in the company of men, Mary pours out a pound of costly nard, a perfume that scholars say would have amounted to almost a year’s salary, and wipes Jesus’ feet with her locks. The house fills with the smell of the perfume, Jesus’ feet glistening, and Mary’s hair matted with the oil, the table would have been speechless at this shameless act of public devotion. All would have been speechless, that is, except for Judas. Jaw agape, he neither critiques the unacceptable intimacy and familiarity shown by Mary, nor the frank display of devotion. Rather, Judas calls out the wastefulness of Mary’s act.
“Couldn’t the money spent on this perfume have been saved and given to the poor?” he asks.
Couldn’t we have put this money to good work, fixing poverty, overcoming problems, repairing the roof, upgrading the organ, fighting Rome, keeping the cause? Couldn’t we have done something?! John’s narrative stage notes aside, I like to think that Judas was a man with a cause. He didn’t care who Jesus was, or why he was headed to Jerusalem. All he cared about was a solution, the doing, fixing something – poverty, pain, oppression, Roman domination – whatever Judas cared about it was the how, and the what, not the why.
And, then we have Mary, the inspired. Her prodigal offering, her over-the-top gift anointing Jesus feet is the act of pure devotion, born of conversion, and comes from deep within, from a place beyond words, from the heart. It is as if Mary sees Jesus, as if she sees who he truly is, and what he is truly about, and what she sees is so compelling, so convincing, so enticing that she has no other choice than to give her heart, to give her all. Mary chooses Jesus.
Her outrageous outpouring is then a response, a reflection of what it must feel like to be chosen, an approximation of what it feels like to be known and loved. Seeing in Jesus one who is pouring and will pour out his life as an offering for many, as one who gives so abundantly, who heals the sick and raises the dead like Lazarus, she swoons before one to whom, as the collect today says, her “heart is fixed.”
And, the gospel tells us that Jesus honors this inspired act. The poor we will always have. The cause will always exist. The world will always need us to do justice and mercy. The hungry will always need food. But, in order to confront these things, in order to heal the world, we need to begin where our worship begins, where Mary begins, with why, with the heart, with Jesus.