Monday, March 22, 2010

A Royal Waste?

Sermon for fifth Sunday in Lent (3.21.10)
Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Epistle: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

As I was preparing my sermon this week, I came upon the following anecdote. The writer says that he “will never forget the furor sparked at a stewardship conference at which an ecumenical group of pastors gathered to discuss generosity. One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, ‘Lord, I offer this gift to you and you alone.’ The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, ‘If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.’ There was nervous laughter around the room. ‘Do you not understand?’ asked the speaker. ‘I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.’ It was an anxious moment.” My question is whether the presenter’s action was a great waste, a royal waste.

Something of the same thing happens in our Gospel this morning. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. Remember that Jesus had a deep friendship with this family. Their house was probably more home to him than any other. The event also takes place not long after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, and so Mary’s action can be seen as an act of extreme, extravagant gratitude. The cost of such perfume would have been almost a full year’s salary for a working person. Mary uses it so lavishly that the entire house is filled with the fragrance. Her gift may in part have been meant to counteract the memory of the stench that overwhelmed Martha as she approached the tomb where her dead brother lay. Is it a royal waste?

The family may or may not know that because of raising their brother, both Jesus and Lazarus now carry death sentences. Jesus’ power with the people was simply considered too dangerous to ignore. At first Jesus retreats into the wilderness with his disciples. But then he returns to Bethany, less than a week before the Passover. We all know what this means, even if the people in the household do not.

They hold a dinner for him and Mary anoints his feet. She doesn’t say a word, drawing attention only to the One she anoints. We don’t know how she would explain what she did. But the extent of her love is clear. It’s the deep love that defines being a disciple. It’s also intuitive, spirit-driven. Jesus hasn’t yet given his explicit commands about loving, hasn’t told her explicitly that his body will be broken—tortured—on the cross. But she knows how to respond to the situation without being told. She longs to honor him and give comfort. She also anticipates the foot washing at the last supper when he illustrates servant ministry to his followers. When Jesus raised Lazurus from the dead, he revealed how the fullness of God is available. Now, in advance of instruction, Mary reveals the fullness of discipleship. She gives boldly as Jesus will give boldly, and without his telling her what to do. She simply understands—and acts. Only at the end of the passage does Jesus explain that this ointment is for his burial and that his death will not be far off. Her liturgy of love—for that is what it is—creates connections far beyond the act itself and can hardly be called a waste.

Judas, on the other hand, does not understand. Even if we weren’t told that Judas was about to betray him and that he stole from the common purse, we can hear that point of view which sees only what is useful, practical, and cost effective, what adds up in human terms. Judas does not understand the fullness of who Jesus is. He does not understand that Jesus is the gift of God and that we respond to God’s gift by loving Jesus and those whom he has entrusted to us.

But just as we had to take a closer look at the Elder Brother last week, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, so we must not dismiss Judas so quickly. If it is Jesus’ mission to save the lost, who is more lost than this one who betrays him? Judas may well have been called to do this terrible thing so that crucifixion and resurrection may follow. Yet if the Good Shepherd will leave the ninety and nine to seek for the one that is lost, can we say that any sheep has wandered too far for the Shepherd to find? These are hard questions and I’m not sure that the Gospels give us a clear answer. These questions are worth pondering in humility and prayer. If Isaiah asserts that even the jackals and the ostriches honor God, which of us can reject any of God’s creatures, judging them simply a royal waste?

Our job is probably not to see ourselves either as Mary or Judas, but to understand that they are models, paradigms, and that we undoubtedly combine both. At times like Mary, we adore and give thanks to our holy and awesome God. But in the figure of Judas, we see all those who have gone astray. Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not excusing the actions of the historical Judas. But surely the grace of Jesus must extend to those who are at least sometimes unfaithful. Peter, who becomes a leader of the church, denied Jesus three times. Without sinners, there would be no need for the pain and the light of the cross.

Paul is wrestling with these questions in the passage from Philippians. In him, we see a person in the round, and also ourselves. Paul is asking us to draw up a life assessment, a ledger in which we note gains and losses. All of the considerable perks with which Paul came into the world, all his accomplishments and achievements, he is discarding because nothing equals “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus.” What does that mean: “knowing Christ”? Mary presumably does know him; Judas presumably does not. Knowing Christ Jesus is not abstract or theoretical or a matter of a few prayers. For Paul it is a privilege and it calls us to set aside what we formerly valued, to turn away from what keeps us from Christ, and then act. To act because Paul wants to share in Christ’s “sufferings by becoming like him in his death” so that somehow he may attain also the resurrection from the dead.

This isn’t just fancy language. Paul is asking us to dive in royally, even if it is painful. This is where we need to be extravagant with our time and efforts. With our very being. Paul calls us to look hard at our own definitions of righteousness and to turn to God’s grace for answers. Paul urges us to participate in resurrection by finding our story as part of God’s larger story. Paul asks us to identify so closely with Christ that we seek where he continues to bring life into places of death and that we join in that resurrection. This is work for what remains of Lent and beyond. It reminds us that we can be part of God’s continuing faithfulness and join God in bringing about new things for our own broken hearts as well as for a broken world. Any apparent waste of our lives and labor in this way will indeed be royal.

Let us pray: Dearest God, Heavenly King, let us remember that you are still at work in us and in your world, and that you invite our participation. As we faithfully accompany our Lord through the darkness of Holy Week, let us offer Him all our love and gratitude. Let us accept whatever discomfort or sorrow occurs as we try to know Him better, assured that we are not alone and that we can press forward for the new life of resurrection. Amen.

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