3/13/2016 Fifth Sunday of Lent The text is John 12:1-8.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Yesterday, Sarahbeth, Carlyn and I were at a synod workshop on Generous Giving. As we were coming to the end of the meeting, someone asked me if I have my sermon done for today and I admitted…No. It was then that one of those next to me suggested that I use the day’s workshop as the basis for my sermon. And of course, I chuckled, saying that maybe if the lessons were different, I could do that, but this is Lent and a time in which we focus on Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It’s not a time of the year when stewardship is the theme of the day.
Boy was I wrong! If there was ever a lesson on generous giving, the gospel for today is it!
Today, as we come towards the end of our Lenten journey, we find ourselves at a turning point. Lazarus has been raised from the dead, and today’s lesson is the closing scene of that episode. It is six days before the Passover, and Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, and he is having dinner in the home of Lazarus. The ever hospitable and busy Martha is serving the meal when Mary unexpectedly rushes into the room, and does something that the others think to be very strange. Mary takes out a jar of very expensive perfume and begins to rub it on Jesus’ feet.
[Back then, it was a sign of great honor to bathe people’s feet or anoint them with perfume. Back then people walked a great deal, and most of the people only had sandals for shoes so their feet got very dirty from the travel. Having their feet cleaned was a great luxury.] But some people at the dinner with Jesus are bothered — not by the fact that Mary is caring for Jesus’ feet, but by the fact that she is using such an expensive perfume to do it.
Judas, for one, can hardly believe what he is seeing. His eyes burn — not only from the scent of nard filling the room, but from indignation. Mary’s spontaneous response to Jesus’ presence touches a nerve within him, and like Mitt Romney, who denounced front-running GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump in scathing terms last week, Judas cannot keep silent. He has the chutzpah to ask the question that many of us would ask: “Jesus, couldn’t these resources been used more wisely – to address the needs in our community?” After all, we are talking about a pound of nard worth almost a year’s wages in world where people struggled to eke out a living. So Judas snipes, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Now, these are good questions. Judas is just asking for justice, the kind of justice that Jesus is famous for, isn’t he? Judas is asking for accountability for he sees no value in wasting such resources. In our results driven society, we might seek the same thing when it comes to the use of what we have and what we give. But Judas has already been demonized and blackballed so his motives are cast in a bad light. Although painted as a misguided thief, Judas is probably a more complicated character than he appears here and we will never know what was going on inside of him when he questions the actions of Mary.
What we do know is that Jesus looks at what Mary is doing in a different light, and he praises her. Mary’s insight and affection are impressive. She has grasped the gravity of moment and she acts with reckless abandonment. To quote Raymond Pickett, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, “Mary here is operating according to the Divine economy that cherishes the dignity of life and embodies lavish giving, and that is difficult not only for Judas but for people like us who are so deeply conditioned to calculate the net value of every exchange and put a price tag on everything.” But not everything comes with a price tag and not everything that comes with cost counts. Mary’s act is a pure gift of generous giving. She gives the best she has without a hint of calculation. She treats Jesus as he treated others.
Would we be so extravagant? Are we that generous in our giving? Are we as thankful when it comes to the good gifts God gives us in Jesus? The Rev. Dr. James Kegel might question that as he tells this story: “Once upon a time there was a man who had nothing. Then God gave him ten apples. God gave him the first apple so that he would have something to show his gratitude for the other nine. God gave him three apples to eat, three more to trade for shelter, three more to trade for clothing. Then the man looked at the first fruit he had received. He knew why God gave him that first apple—to give it back to God in thanks—but the apple looked bigger and juicier than all the rest. And the man reasoned that God still had all the other apples in the world; God didn’t really need his. So the man ate the first apple and gave God the apple core.”
We, who have never washed another person’s floor, let alone someone’s feet with our hair or expensive perfume, may be apple core type of people. We want to see results in order to give. We want to know that the giving of our dollars makes sense. And that is especially true of the younger generations.
We learned a lot from yesterday’s workshop. We learned that those of you who are 70 and above are dinosaurs and so are we who are in our 50s and 60s. We look at the world in a very different way than those who are younger. We tend to be more generous with our giving of dollars and more trusting of institutions, like the church. The younger generation tends to support causes, rather than institutions, and they are more likely to give through a hands-on fashion by participating in walks for cancer and things like the bucket challenge for ALS.
But it doesn’t matter if you are part of the greatest generation, the baby boomers, generation X or any other generation. We all need to learn from Mary, from Jesus, and from all who do not live according to the world’s accounting principles in order to be generous givers. Generosity is a seed of faithful life that needs to be nurtured in order that it may spring forth from the love of Jesus – a love and devotion that moves Jesus to lay down his life for his friends, which include you and me!
May we be forever grateful for the gift of pure grace, and may we show our thanks through generous giving to the work of Christ today, through the ministry of his church on earth. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.