Marked with Oil
A Community of Salvation
Mary was the emotional one
she carried her heart on her sleeve
she got choked up when they said the blessing before a shared meal— when everything smelled so good and was perfectly laid out
with candles glowing and wine flowing
the way Martha always got it just, exactly, beautifully right—
she was a romantic that way
wishing she could climb inside that feeling and live right there
when everything and everyone was just exactly as should be
she was quick to say “I love you” and quick to lose her temper and quick to pick a favorite quick to get her feelings hurt quick to protect
quick to fuss
and quick to forgive everything with Mary was big
it was no different in her relationship with Jesus in fact, it was all just that much bigger somehow he saw her
she saw him
they got each other
oh, how she loved him
she was overcome with gratitude for what he meant to her the space he made for her
the protection and affection he offered their family
Three Years. No Fruit.
I'm rethinking salvation today. Well, not just today, but particularly today as we hold this broadly known story of the prodigal son. Folks far beyond our Christian tradition know this term. “The prodigal son has come home,” people exclaim, whether in jest or in sincerity. We tell the story about the behavior and actions of this one man. His walk of shame. His loving and forgiving father. His begrudging and do-good-always brother. As I hold this story, though, I hear echoes of Jeremiah 29:7, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you...In doing so, you will find your own.” Our welfare, our shalom, our flourishing is intertwined. Our life together matters just as much as our individual lives. There is something happening in this story that is about the son who returns home and also not about him. There is much more happening about the void he leaves and the potential atrophy of his community...and we’ll come back to that.
One of the most beautiful examples I can think of this kind of communal care comes in the story of Remus Lupin. If you haven’t yet read Book 3 of the Harry Potter Series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, I’m about to give some character spoilers but not plot spoilers. I want to honor anyone who reads in sequence and needs to take a minute to plug ears as we explore the story of the Shrieking Shack—this boarded up house with seemingly no access point that is rumored to be haunted. Almost 50 years ago, people who lived nearby could periodically hear screams coming from inside, and no one dared explore the premises. Even Dumbledore himself, beloved headmaster of Hogwarts, confirmed the rumors of its hauntedness and urged everyone to stay away. It turns out the only way in and out of the Shrieking Shack is through a tunnel that begins at the roots of the Whomping Willow—a tree that moves and fights and can wound anyone who comes near to it—and the tree was planted to protect that entrance.
What does it all mean?
Becky Meriwether, Priscilla Stovall, Caroline Durham, and I attended an event on Friday morning hosted by The Atlantic Monthly about race and justice in New Orleans. It’s a series they are producing around the country funded by a MacArthur grant to look at questions of mass incarceration, the system supporting prisons, and all of the intersection conversations that surround the carceral state. The underlying question in every session came back to the inherent value and worth of black and brown lives. Do we as a nation believe some people are inherently more dangerous, more broken, more in need of fixing, more worthy of incarceration, less worthy of being seen as fully human?
We have an elaborate system in place in our country that answers “yes” to that question. And every discussion of recidivism, mental health, education, poverty, equity, and opportunity came back to the essential question about the full humanity of all people. It was telling as certain key officials who are tasked with incarcerating human bodies and counting the “inventory” in our local jail seemed oblivious to the complexities of value and worthiness of a life and unable to incorporate human narrative into their work. Their imaginations were bound like the roots of a tree that has outgrown its pot. Stifled. Locked. Unable to move beyond the containers in which they live and move and have their being.
There are signs that mark our lives and connect with the essence of who we are. Scents and songs and images, but the signs are just as significant. We have a Walgreen’s across the street from the church now. Have you even noticed? It’s been the Rite Aid for as long as I’ve lived here, but I’m smart enough to know that it’s really the K&B. And I know that if you peel the signs off of the Broadway side door of that building, the K&B logo is still underneath everything on the outside. The K&B on Springhill Avenue in Mobile was the marker to turn to my grandparents house. A marking sign in my childhood that we were almost there.
When I drive to my hometown now, like I did on Friday, something happens in my heart along I-10 when I see the “Sweet Home Alabama” sign. I don’t even know if I’ll ever live in Alabama again in my lifetime, but when I see that sign (or, let’s be honest, hear the first notes of the Lynyrd Skynyrd song) I’m home. There’s this other sign on I-65 when you’re driving North from Mobile to Montgomery or Birmingham, as I have so many times, that pictures a red devil with a pitchfork. Do you know it? Have you seen it? It says, “Go to church of the devil will get you.” It disappeared for a while recently, and I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, the theology is so gross, but on the other…that’s one of my signs. I know where I am when I see that sign. Turns out the owners were just repairing it to hang it again after a storm, so that Southern Gothic combination of landmark and toxic theology is still right there along I-65 on the northbound side near Prattville.