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 Gospel Extravagance

Sermon - 3/17/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 12:1-8

Most of us, I think, are familiar with the ways in which we make the Christmas story into this amalgam of gospels, combining a little bit from Matthew, and Luke -- the shepherds in Luke, and the Magi from Matthew -- and we put them in one nice pastoral scene we can put on our Christmas cards. But of course that would be the equivalent of putting Luke Skywalker on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It's just wrong :) Or imagine a movie, if you're a Star Wars fan, with Yoda along with (if you're a Star Trek fan) Spock -- in the same movie. Yoda says: "This one, a special gift he has". Spock replies: "The syntax of your sentence is illogical" :)

But you see, that's what we do with the gospels -- we create this mish-mash of the story that none of the gospel writers would recognize. And the text this morning is a case in point. It's the story of the anointing of Jesus. So, call to mind everything you know about that story of the anointing of Jesus, and I bet you if we re-told that story right now, it would be a story we could not find in the gospels, because we would have taken a little bit here, and a little bit there, from each one. And they're all different.

So I want you to set all that aside, and listen again for the first time, to this story of the anointing of Jesus, as it is told by John, in his gospel, from the 12th chapter, verses 1-8:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’’

 

Alright, so my question for you, to stimulate your thinking, is what's left out? What is it from this story that you remember that wasn't there?

What do we think of the woman who does the anointing -- that's she's a what? A prostitute! Right? The woman of "ill-repute", who not only washes Jesus' feet and dries them with her hair, but she also mixes in her tears. That's not here in John's gospel. Why? That's a significant difference. This woman of ill-repute, you see, (you may recall it's in Luke's gospel, chapter 7, you might want to compare the two), in that story, what is the point? What is it that Jesus does? He forgives her of her sin. For her sins that "were many", he says. And hence her tears, because of that sin and thankfulness of being forgiven. And in that story, as Luke tells it, this woman of ill-repute stands in sharp contrast to, and a strong rebuke of, the host. Who's the host? It's not Mary and Martha, it's not in their house, it's a different house. It's Simon the Pharisee, and he's the one that has kind of been rebuked, and there's a story Jesus tells right along with it.

So it's a different house, it's a different occasion, it is a different woman, and it is a different message.

In fact, it's one of the great scandals of the church that this woman of ill-repute has become associated with Mary, and most likely (actually, it was definitely) an attempt to dis-credit Mary (Mary Magdalene) because of her growing popularity and some competition with the virgin Mary. So we need to separate the two stories.

And just to add to the confusion, on this story, that Mary falsely accused of being this woman of ill-repute, is not this Mary! Mary Magdalene is from Magdala (a different community), this is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. They are two different Mary's. So this Mary is not that Mary who is not 'that woman'! Which of course all depends on how you define "is" :) Oh, sorry, it's not that woman either :)

So, now that we've cleared all that up, let's talk about what this story is about. See, this apparently extravagant act of Mary, that could have been put to better use (Judas says), has nothing to do with sin. There's nothing here to forgive her for. To the contrary, as we'll see.

Judy's parents lived most of their life in one house. She was raised in one house from the age of 2, they stayed in that house until they sold it and moved into a retirement center. A house with a single-car garage, because they only had a single car throughout their whole marriage. Like so many that generation that grew up during the Depression, they were the epitome of frugality. Saved every penny, spent nothing that wasn't necessary. And so when they moved into this retirement center where they got all these things -- cooked elaborate meals for them, and services provided, they struggled with that extravagance. And I remember Judy's father, because he did the finances, that he fussed because they were spending more money than they were receiving through their retirement income. And that really bothered him.

Well, after Judy's mother died, Judy went back for the service and sat down with her father and sister and went through his finances, and lo and behold, they discovered that with this extravagant lifestyle of his, that he had enough money to live for another 40 years! And being that he was 88 at the time, we didn't think it was going to be a problem :)

Judy and I probably don't live quite as frugally as that, though we currently have a home without any garage (which is just as well, because the last 2 homes we had, the garages were so full of junk we couldn't have parked a car in there anyway :), but still, we have invested in our future through our children. One who is starting her career in the movie industry, and the other is a PhD candidate starting this Fall for a career in academia and scientific research, and we're hoping one of them will make it big so they can support their parents in the luxury to which we are entitled :) I say that all in jest, of course. But if we have been extravagant in anything, I hope it is in our love and our support for our children.

And when I calculate the amount of money it took to raise them, if you include the housing, the clothing, the out-of-pocket medical expenses, the transportation, food, and the extra $276 by PhD-bound son cost when he slept through his alarm and missed his flight to go check out a graduate school :), add all that up, and it's over $200,000 per kid! It's no wonder we're struggling at times. But they're worth every penny. Well, almost :) I'm still planning to collect that $276, even if I have to put a lien on his PhD :) So, parenting may well be one of the most extravagant things we do as human beings. And extravagance has its price.

Have you ever been haunted by that question of Judas? Whether it was spending on your kids, your spouse, your significant other, or even yourself -- this money could have been better used to help someone else. Yeah. And in this age of increasing scarcity, how do we justify those expenses beyond the bare necessities?

Well, Mary has no difficulty justifying her extravagance. Jesus has just returned form the cemetery with her brother Lazarus, just raised from the dead. Do you think she's going to skimp on the party? Right? Is she concerned about the amount of money for this perfume? And by the way, this is no cheap perfume -- 300 denari is almost a year's entire wage. And quite possibly, intentionally on John's part, it's symbolically 10 times that of what Judas gets for betraying Jesus (the 30 pieces of silver).

So when Mary opens this bottle, unleashing this rich aroma of $30,000 worth of perfume that's going to end up as a puddle on the floor, the stench of the tomb, both of Lazarus' past and Jesus' future, is overcome in this one rich moment of the aromatic celebration of life. And it's wonderful.

Now, before we dismiss Judas' objections, just think about some of the ways that we waste our wealth, our time, our opportunities. I'm not talking just about the stuff that fills our garages or the garbage dumps, but all of those things that may be frivolous, the opportunities wasted, resources squandered, fossil-fuels consumed and turned into climate-destroying gases for what? A momentary pleasure in the sun?

If a government contractor spends hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars on bonuses for well-paid managers that provide services that no one really wants or needs, wouldn't you want someone to stand up and say "What a second! Could that money not have been better used to help someone else?" So the question of Judas is a fair one, even if his motives are not. For Judas, as we're told, really is not concerned about the waste, his problem is the opposite. His is stinginess and greed. He wants to use some of this money for himself. And stinginess and greed is just, if not more, problematic that wastefulness. The world produces enough to feed, clothe, and house every single human being on this planet. We have plenty in this community to feed and house every single person. The problem is not that of production, the problem is one of distribution. Just as the old joke goes, every church has plenty of money to finance all of it's ministries -- and that's true for this congregation. We have plenty of money to finance all of our ministries, everything we want to do. The only problem is, how do we get it out of your pocket? :)

There's an amazing trend of wealth acquisition, well-documented in numerous studies, that the richer people get, the stingier they get. Turns out people making less than $20,000 give a higher percentage of their income that those earning over $200,000. And the Christian principle is the exact opposite -- the more you receive, says Jesus, the more God expects you to give. And we're very blessed, very blessed in this congregation to have a number of people, exemplary Christians stewards who give in the measure to what they receive. And who understanding that tithing is not the goal that we strive to achieve, it's the foundation, it's the beginning, it's the basis of our Christian stewardship, and it's only when we go beyond the tithe of 10% that we begin to reap the true reward of going the extra mile.

So stinginess and wastefulness are spiritual problems. Stinginess values receiving over giving and comes from a false spirituality focused on 'things'. Wastefulness values self over others and comes from a false spirituality focused on 'me'. In contrast to this stinginess and wastefulness of our lives and our society, Jesus offers another view, another possibility -- that of extravagance. Only coming from Jesus, it comes with a twist. Remember that story of the widow who puts her last 2 cents into the Temple treasury, and Jesus says she has contributed more than anyone else because out of her poverty, she has given all that she has. That is extravagance.

Or that rich young ruler who wants to inherit eternal life, asks Jesus what must he do, and Jesus says to go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and come and follow me. That is extravagance.

Or that parable of the pearl that Jesus tells, the Kingdom of God is like a pearl, so precious, so valuable, you are willing to sell everything you have to obtain it. That is extravagance.

And now we come to this. On this night before Jesus enters into Jerusalem in that great triumphal entry and the religious leaders being to plot against his life (and not only his, but John says they also plot against Lazarus), Mary breaks open this flask of incredibly expensive perfume. And anoints the feet of Jesus.

Can you smell that rich aroma? That fragrance of extravagance? The extravagance of that kind of giving that embodies the realm of God? For in that realm, all are equal. In that realm, women like Mary serve right alongside the men -- equally. In that realm, there is plenty for all to share in the riches and the wealth of God's earth. In that realm, it's not the poor who have difficulty getting in, but like that camel going through the eye of the needle, the rich have difficulty. And so Jesus says you will have plenty of opportunities to welcome the poor, who will always be with you. So welcome them.

In that realm, we are judged not by what is in our pocketbooks but by what is in our hearts. In that realm, as Martin Luther King Jr said, it's not the color of our skin that counts, but the content of our character.

In that realm, the aroma of life overcomes the stench of death. So I ask you: how much is it worth to you?

In the extravagance of God's realm, we are invited to give as much as we receive. So the real question is not how much we will give, but how much have we received?

Next Sunday, as Disciples of Jesus, we will be invited to follow Jesus. Not only on that road, in that great celebration, in that triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but also on that painful path to Calgary.

And if you go there, you will hear the sound of death. From the hammer pounding the nails through the hands and feet of Jesus.

If you go there, you will taste the bitterness of death in that vinegar-soaked sponge offered to the lips of Jesus.

If you go there, you will see the pain of death in that sword thrust into the side of Jesus.

If you go there, and if you remain through all of that, and throw yourself at the foot of the cross, at the foot of Jesus, you will smell the extravagance of Mary's gift. The extravagance of God's love, so powerful it overcomes even death.

I invite you to breathe deep. Do you smell it? Breathe deep. Can you feel it?

This is the extravagance of God's life given for us.

 


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