Over these five Sundays in Lent we have been reflecting together on our relationship with God. We’ve gone out to the wilderness in search of God, and discovered God in the ordinariness of our daily lives. We’ve hungered and thirsted for God, and discovered that God was hungering, yearning, to be reconciled with us.
In today’s reading, we come face to face—or hair to feet—with God incarnate, God made flesh in the person of Jesus. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus has revealed the nature and character of God: what God is like, what God cares about, who God loves and how God loves. Several weeks ago, we had the story of Jesus turning water into excessive amounts of wine at a wedding feast. Later he feeds a crowd of thousands with five barley loaves and two fish. And in the chapter just before the passage that Caroline read for us today, Jesus performed his greatest miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead.
Throughout this gospel, Jesus reveals God as a giver of life, a provider of abundance, a relentless God who will not rest until all are invited to the feast, all are fed, a God who wills abundant life for all. The God we meet in Jesus will go to any lengths to reconcile us to himself. Even to the cross, and suffering, and death.
This is meant to show us that there is no place we can go, no experience we can endure where God has not already been, that God has not already experienced. There is no place, no experience, beyond the reach of God’s love. God’s saving love. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus came into the world to save the world, to rescue us from all that ensnares us in this life, from all that chokes out life.
So the wine flows, the hungry are filled with good things, the lost are found. This is what God is like. This is what God wants life in the world to be like. So the Gospel confronts us with a choice: are we contributing to this vision of how God wants the world to be, or not? Are we cooperating with God, or are we following some other plan?
The Old Testament reading for today commands us, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God is reminding us that he is a restless, creative, innovative, and strategic God, doing whatever is necessary to fulfill his purposes. That God will do whatever it takes, including changing his mind and changing course, in order to rescue us, to save us and the world, to include everyone in the vision of abundant life.
What are we doing?
So again, a choice: what are we doing? Are we looking backwards, considering the things of old, clinging to the ways we have known? Or are we on the lookout for radically new ways that God’s love can spring forth in the world?
In the gospel story, we can see these two possibilities. On the one hand, there is Mary’s extravagant, excessive act of love, devotion, and service. And on the other, Judas’ prudent, calculating, and critical disapproval; his defense of the poor which is revealed to be self-serving and hypocritical. And this all takes place against the backdrop of Jesus’ impending death.
This profligate act of hers: taking a pound of rare perfume—nard from the distant Himalayas—and pouring it on Jesus’ feet, and wiping them with her hair, so that the whole house was full of the fragrance. The way the perfume wafted through the air, so that no one there could escape the sumptuous aroma; this act embraced and enveloped them all.
Perhaps some of them were carried away by the sweetness of the scent and its exotic suggestion of faraway places; perhaps others made the connection between fragrant ointments and the ritual of preparing a body for burial, and fell silent in their contemplations. But not Judas.
For Judas, who is identified as a betrayer, the fragrance in the air doesn’t carry him away, or make him think of his friend’s death: for him the scent that reaches his nostrils is an outrage, signifying an act of inexcusable waste. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?,” he charges. Judas, defender of the poor, seems to have a heart of stone, incapable of being moved by the sweetness, the love, or the quiet sadness that fills the room.
We may be surprised to hear Jesus defending Mary for breaking open a jar of perfume that cost as much as one year’s wages for a labourer. We may be shocked by the apparent callousness of his statement that “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” The first thing to say here is that Jesus is actually referencing a teaching from Deuteronomy, chapter 15, verse 11, which says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
It’s a call to always be attentive to the needs of those who are poor, not just in those moments when you happen to disagree with how someone else is using their resources. Jesus is suggesting that Mary’s extravagant act certainly wouldn’t prevent Judas or anyone else from being mindful of the needs of others, and being generous with their goods. More importantly, I think Jesus is pointing to Mary’s action as a new way that God’s love is springing forth in the world. Mary is doing a new thing by pouring out her whole heart, her whole being, in an act of love, devotion, and service.
I read somewhere this week that what we see in Mary is the excessiveness of compassion and generosity that we see in the lives of the saints. It’s the totality of her giving that matters here. She’s not calculating, like Judas is, how much this perfume cost, and what she could sell it for: there is no monetary value attached to this gift for her. She’s not wondering if she can afford it, or trying to determine how much she should tithe. This perfume is the best she could offer, it was everything she could offer, because she really did know that her friend was about to die, about to pour out his whole life for the sake of the world.
She understood who Jesus was, and what he was doing, and what that all meant for her, and for the world. She knew that Jesus was asking them to do a new thing, to live in a new way; to forget the former things, to break through, to spring forth, to pour themselves out, body and soul, to cooperate with God’s vision for the world. She knew that they were past the point of just having another fundraiser, or considering a slight increase to their givings. Mary knew that the kingdom of God asks for nothing less than our full and complete commitment.
Now, most of us are not like Mary. I know I’m not like Mary. But I also don’t want to let myself, or all of you, off the hook so easily. You know we look at the world, and all of its problems, and we ask ourselves, Why doesn’t it get better? Why doesn’t it ever seem to change? I mean, two thousand years since Jesus, and is the kingdom of God any closer? Or is it maybe further away?
Well, part of the answer is us. It’s our tolerance of the way things are. For most of us, most of the time, the system works for our benefit. And even when it doesn’t work so well for us, we keep believing in it and hoping that our luck will change. The world is as it is largely because we are willing to put up with it. But that’s the way of Judas in this story: trying to figure out ways to make the system work.
We need to be more like Mary.
We need to be more like Mary. We need to stop counting the cost. We need to stop being so reasonable and prudent; we need to give without expecting a tax receipt. We need to engage our hearts. We need to open our hearts, as the song says, to the joy and pain of living, to receiving and to giving.
Believe me, this is not meant as a clever stewardship strategy. It comes out of my conviction that we really need to shift gears: we need to shift out of our former ways of being and doing church, and we need to break into a new way of being church. We need to push beyond our carefully measured ways of being in community with one another, and supporting good causes, and create opportunities for us to pour ourselves out, heart and soul, in acts of love and devotion and service.
So, I don’t want to let us off the hook; and I don’t I want to demoralize us or paralyze with guilt, so that we just end up feeling badly or beating up on ourselves. I do want us to think about ways that we might give without counting the cost. So I invite you to think about something you might do, something whole – heartedly unreasonable, some excessive act of compassion and generosity.
Here are some ideas that I had: perhaps when you buy a grocery store card from the UCW, you might buy an extra one for someone in need. You could leave it with Jillian in the office, for when we next have a request.
Perhaps you would be willing to be an honorary grandparent, or aunt or uncle, taking a special interest in the lives of one of our young families. Maybe you could commit to providing a ride to church to someone who is no longer driving.
You may have all sorts of other ideas and suggestions. If you do, I’d be happy to hear them, and to help you make them happen. I don’t want you to think of this as another chore, or task, or obligation; or as another thing that earns you a tax receipt.
I want this to be something you put your heart into. I often call us “a community learning to love like Jesus.” That’s what we’re trying to do—love like Jesus. Today I’m asking you to love like Mary. For each of us that may be a different thing. And, perhaps you don’t feel that you can do this. That’s okay too. There was only Mary in the room, yet the fragrance of her extravagant love filled the whole house. May the witness of her love and her commitment to God’s dream long linger in this house. Amen.
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