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A Both/And Extravagance

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Mar 13

Text: John 12: 1-8

One day, in my junior year of high school, I was coming from school and stopped at the end of the driveway, as I always did, to check our standard issue black tin mail box. You know- rounded at the top, with a little red flag on the side. To this day, I’ve never seen a mailbox so full. What on earth, I wondered. It took me both hands to pull out all the cards and letters. Then it hit me. It was about to be my dad’s birthday, and by that point most people knew it would probably be his last. Word had spread that he had begun to lose his two-year battle with prostate cancer and now everyone wanted to wish him well. Granted, this was in the days before email, but still there must have been 50 or 60 cards and letters. Friends from around the country, from former churches he had served (he was a minister too), from family members he had hadn’t heard from in years. For a few days after, I remember my dad, sitting in his blue chair, reading those cards, almost all of which included a long note or handwritten letter. He read a few aloud to us, sometimes with tears in his eyes. People reminded him of moments, sometimes twenty years earlier, when his life, ministry, care and humor had helped or challenged them, often right when they needed it most.

Imagine such an outpouring of words, and love and affection. There were, I know, expressions of forgiveness, too, for hurts he had caused, as well a few confessions, I’m sure, of poor behavior that left hard feelings. My dad had plenty of kudos and honest conversations throughout his life and work but he often joked towards the end of his life that it takes an awareness of one’s death to really celebrate one’s life.

I was reminded of that mailbox when reading our gospel lesson this week. I wondered about Mary’s outpouring love for Jesus and how he was able to set his humility aside and receive her gifts, and welcome that most intimate expression of love, and service and affection. Did it have to do with his pending death, or the way he reminded her of her own mortality? After all, that fragrant oil cost 300 denari a jar; that’s almost a full year of wages. What could be so important? On the other hand, what could be more important? At the end of Mark’s version of this story, Jesus says a remarkable thing of Mary’s outpouring: “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

I was somewhat amazed that this was the appointed passage for this fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s not often that the lectionary hands me such a gift. What could be a better fit for a Sunday before we make our for such a time as this capital campaign commitments, right? Extravagant generosity, sacrificial outpouring of gifts, right at the feet of Jesus. If you don’t believe me, check out what happens in John’s gospel directly before and after the passage we just heard.

Chapter 10 is the powerful story of raising of Lazarus. He makes a post-resurrection cameo in our story. Next, in Chapter 11, we learn that the Passover is near and pilgrims are gathering in Jerusalem. The authorities are wondering about this rebel Jew they’ve been hearing about. They are already plotting to arrest him. In the line just before our text, they say, and I quote, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” Then comes our passage, a little calm before the storm, a break in the nearby village of Bethany, at the home of his friends. The verse that immediately follows: “The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus coming to Jerusalem. So they pulled branches of palm trees and went out to meet him.” For us, the Palm Sunday entrance to Jerusalem is next week. For Jesus, it was the next day.

Given all this context, our passage now reads as though it’s a dress rehearsal for all of Holy Week. Check it out: There’s a last supper at the house of his friends. There are fragrant oils used for burials. Jesus himself clues us into that not so subtle foreshadowing. Less obvious, there’s a foot washing that follows the anointing. In Mark’s version, it says she washes the oil from his feet with her hair and her tears. Recall Maundy Thursday, when Jesus does the bending and washing of Peter’s feet and sets that act as an example of genuine love and service. What's more, there’s unrighteousness, resistance bordering on betrayal, by Judas- go figure. And to top it off, we’ve got a dead man walking! Lazarus was, just days before, stinking up his own grave until Jesus came along, invoking God’s power to raise him. No wonder there’s a spirit of grace and gratitude in the place, let alone a need for some extra air freshening! This text is oozing with omens. It reeks with anticipation! It practically holds the entire gospel narrative in miniature. Life and death. Beauty and mystery. Extravagant giving and heart-wrenching grief.

Maybe that’s the point of putting this story here and now. Ultimately, it is about bringing our whole selves forward for the cause of the Kindom, about not holding anything back. Spill it all for Jesus, right? Setting aside the fact that such a message alone makes for a way too predictable sermon, there’s more going on here. For this text is also one of Jesus’ last chances to teach that we don’t live in an either/or world! For him, it’s never life or death. It’s life lived with an ongoing awareness of death and the promise of new life that follows! For him, it’s never extravagance or prudence, dear prudence. Its both reveling in gifts we share and receive and recognizing that there will always be demands upon our time and wallets for which we are responsible

Our former pastor, Mary Luti, picks up on this theme in a recent reflection she wrote about the tension between the so called spiritual devotion types and social justice types. She writes, “In the wee hours he prays. [But] He never separates inseparables. For him, the kingdom comes by wonder and strategy, protest and ecstasy, imagination and politics, beauty and programs, service and solitude, rallies and gratitude, resolutions and praise.  It's not about the soul's silence versus the noise of the street, the sanctuary versus the subcommittee. It's not even about finding a balance or making equal time. It's about yielding our whole selves—every gift and skill, picketing or praying—to the Living One, in the sure and certain hope that, with us and without us, the kingdom comes, pure gift beyond our dreams.” Amen! And, yes, I miss her too!

I think I love Jesus most for this capacity to teach and hold complexity, and the utter awareness of nuance he brings to every situation. He’s constantly confounding our dualistic ways of thinking, constantly creating room for the ever broader possibilities that the ways of generosity, and grace and forgiveness afford! I’m tempted to consider here that cast of characters in our current election cycle, the utter divisiveness of the rhetoric and the shameless casting out of entire groups of people. Talk about the dangers of dualism.

For now, let’s consider instead that cast of characters around the table in Bethany. His teaching shows that God’s love is never a zero-sum game, with winners or losers, but that there is always more than enough to share, and we aren’t meant to hide or hoard it. Mary, star disciple that she was, was always somehow a few steps ahead. Here she is, embodying those exquisite foot washing lessons of love and service a week before her teacher models them for the others. She’s the first to his grave, the first to weep after his death, the first to greet her Risen Lord. Jesus commends her and loves for her it. God’s love is always in urgent need of expression for we live in a life and death world! But let’s not lift up Mary so much that we forget about the others at the table.

You see, just as important to capture the whole gospel in this lesson is that Jesus doesn’t love the others any less: the ever pragmatic Martha, poor still stinking Lazarus, and even the predictable Judas. What’s amazing in this scene of Mary’s extravagant outpouring is the ongoing extravagance of God’s overflowing, ever-inclusive love that she encounters. Judas at first wants to divide it up. There’s not enough, he cries! Not for the poor! (Not for me!) But this is no zero sum game. Jesus assures him that Mary’s actions aren’t exclusive. The poor are always with us and inside of us, along with those pragmatic Martha’s and naysaying Judas’s as well. Notice just how whole this community of friends is, at the start and end of the story. And then notice again why Jesus appreciates Mary’s act. She is bringing her whole self, her very being to the tasks of love and care. What if this congregation is the body for which we are called to care and to which we are called to yield our whole selves? What if this is the generative and life-giving body of love and service that we are called to anoint, from year to year and from generation to generation? What if ours are the exorbitant gifts that anticipate the reality of death and the promise of new life?

You bet that we are inviting Mary-like urgent, irrational and sacrificial love of this people and this place, this body of Christ! But we don't do so at the expense of the poor, nor of anyone else who had a role at this exquisite gospel-in-miniature scene. We can give at the same time as we find a place at the table for the practical concerns of all our Martha’s. We can hear her now. But will that new kitchen be big enough? We need Judas at our inner table too, the voice that cries out in doubt, whether with genuine concern for the poor or with concern about the financial sustainability of it all. Can you see how no one is cast out of this narrative? How everyone has a role? Though Jesus calls Judas out, a bit, he never rejects him outright! He hears his concern and speaks to it. He says to them all, it doesn’t have to be either/or! The way love works may not always seem fair- 300 denari spilled out on Jesus’ feet?- but God’s love is always expansive, always daring, always extravagant, and in the end, if not fair by our standards, then always, always just. Mary’s love outpours. It overflows. And there’s plenty to go around, enough for both me and for you and for the poor. No one is cast out. Each has a crucial role. Just like he never rejects Peter who betrays three times. Instead, the Risen Christ greets him with a heart-melting kiss of peace! No more either/or. Instead, wholeness of community, and ongoing invitation to outpour the fullness of each of our selves.

Life and death! Faith and doubt! Strategy and wonder! Mary and Judas and Martha and Lazarus and Jesus. We need them all for us to be whole! Who knows, maybe it’s even Mary who brings the strategic thinking here – a strategy for finding deep joy and freedom in our hearts: the joy and freedom that comes when we can animate our values in ways that are clearly not all about me or my family or my ideas of what’s right or wrong; the joy and freedom that comes when we can start thinking and acting for the whole of our community, nation and planet. And who knows, maybe its Judas who brings the doubt-and-curiosity-filled, fact-checking wonder that brings further clarity to the story! If we listen closely enough, we might hear both of these voices within each of our own hearts! In order to yield our whole selves, we need to bring them all forward to the table of God’s love and justice.

We are about to enter in once again to a holy week drama that will remind us of our mortality, of how we too might be remembered, of our needs for being grounded in God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. And we, here in this community, are gearing up for a big commitment Sunday, next week.

What is required of us at this moment is not some vague idea of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly. What will be asked of us is sacrificial and extravagant generosity- not only of the financial variety, not only those 300 or however many denari we can each muster. It will require of us an ongoing generosity of spirit as well, a willingness to embrace and accept and constantly make room at the table for the entire cast of characters, especially the poor, and the pragmatic, even those who would seek to divide “us” and “them” for their own gain. If it seems like any of this generosity hurts or pinches at first, that’s not a bad thing. Think of that joy and freedom, think of the complexity and nuance and challenge! We can’t afford not to have those.

As Holy Week approaches, what can we each do to assure that we have brought our whole selves to this transformative moment? What can we do to resist our patterns of either/or thinking, our habits of rejection that are tearing apart our country as such a time as this? Maybe, just maybe, we can imagine in some small way that our capital campaign is our dress rehearsal for this coming Holy Week. How can we care for this Body of Christ before us? How can we pour ourselves in costly expressions of love and service? How can we share God’s both/and message of love with one another and with our world? Indeed, how can we heed Christ’s call, and give our very selves away?

As Jesus said of Mary, and I think of that whole gospel-in-miniature narrative, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. As we anticipate and prepare our hearts and lives for what comes next, whatever comes next, may we too so foreshadow the at once present and future kindom of God that the same may be said of each of us! Amen.

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