Uncomfortable, Extravagant Love

+ A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on April 7, 2019 +

Text: John 12:1-8

If I’m being honest, this isn’t the sermon I wanted to preach.
When I read the texts for this week and dwelled in their richness, I had all sorts of ideas of where to go and this sermon was not one of them.

I was drawn to the beauty of Isaiah’s prophecy of God doing a new thing in our midst and dreaming in the possibilities of what God could be up to here in this place.

I was intrigued by the seemingly discordant jubilation of the Psalm and how the contemplation and self-examination of Lent may bring a harvest of joy.

I was listening to Philippians and wondering how the new life in Christ’s resurrection squares with what I hold dear in my own life.

I was getting ready to preach a sermon on any of these texts and if I’m being honest, I was ready to just mentally skip past the reading from John’s gospel.
Because, while I know people who love this story…I really don’t.
It makes me uncomfortable, really.

But sometimes I think dwelling in things that make us uncomfortable can allow us to grow, to broaden our horizons and see things in a new way, to get a better understanding of what is going on.
And honestly, the more I tried to get away from this text, the more I found it pulling me in.
I wondered what people love about this story and if my own discomfort was obscuring a deeper beauty.
I wondered what was making me so uncomfortable in the first place.

“The Anointing of Christ” by Julia Stankova

Was it the intimacy Mary was showing as she washed Jesus’ feet—even using her hair?Maybe—it certainly seems awkward to me, especially with all the other dinner guests sitting there watching.
Was it the sheer volume of perfume she used? That could be—the very thought of that smell almost gives me a headache.
But I think what really makes me so uncomfortable is the extravagance of it all.
I try to live a fairly frugal lifestyle, so when I hear that Mary dumped a year’s wage’s worth of perfume on Jesus feet, I can’t help but wonder if that was money wasted.
I mean, that’s like tens of thousands of dollars dumped on his feet!
And then I get uncomfortable when I realize that it is Judas who seems to be voicing my hesitation—why wasn’t this money spent on feeding and clothing and housing people who needed it?
Why wasn’t it used to help people rather than make Jesus’ feet smell nice?
It makes me wonder what would cause Mary to do such an extravagant act.

It reminds me of a movie I watched a few years ago called Babette’s Feast.
The film is set in a small Danish village in the 19th century where two elderly sisters lead a small, extremely pietistic offshoot of Lutheranism.
One day, a woman named Babette appears on the women’s doorstep, a refugee from the war in her native France.
She is penniless and pleading for help and shelter and she offers to earn her keep by cooking for the sisters.
The sisters agree and teach her how to make the basic, bland food they are accustom to. After some years pass, Babette discovers that she has won the French lottery and suddenly has a small fortune of 10,000 Francs.
The sisters assume that Babette will return to France with her new wealth, but she insists on first making them a lavish French dinner to thank them for all they had done. Turns out she was a top chef back home.
downloadSo the sisters invite all of their friends to this dinner and Babette goes all out.
Course after course of the most amazing food these people have ever tasted paired with delicious wines all while Babette is working away in the kitchen.
Well, the guests at the dinner are unsure how to act.
They’re obviously uncomfortable and even worrying that such delicacies might be sinful or even devilish.
But eventually, the guests can’t help but revel in such an amazing feast.
After dinner, Babette reveals that she spent her entire winnings, all 10,000 Francs, on this meal.
The sisters are horrified that she wasted all her money on this one meal, but for Babette, this was an outpouring of her appreciation for all they had done for her.
An extravagant demonstration of her love for them.

Now thinking back to the dinner party we heard in our gospel reading, I still have a lot of questions. unzione2bbetania
What were the disciples thinking as they saw Mary bend down before Jesus?
Were they as uncomfortable as I would have been?
What would a pound of nard smell like once the bottle was broken open?
But most of all, what would compel Mary to make such an extravagant demonstration?

Maybe she was grateful for all that Jesus had done over the past three years—his teachings and his ministry, his feeding and his signs of power. Maybe this was her giving homage to her teacher and friend.

Or maybe Mary was thanking Jesus for what he has done for her family – John tells us that this meal happens just after Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus and how this action brought the ire of the religious authorities who renewed their efforts to quash Jesus.
Maybe Mary was lavishing love on Jesus for her brother’s life.

Or maybe Mary knows what lies ahead for Jesus, that the next morning he will set off for Jerusalem, buoyed by a crowd waving palms and proclaiming him as their king, but that less than a week later he will be laid tenderly in a tomb.
Maybe this was how Mary felt she could express her love, intimately washing and anointing, her tears of sorrow and gratitude mixing with the sweet aromas of that perfume.
Maybe she sensed that Jesus needed this tangible sign of love to help him get through the week to come.

‘Anointing His Feet #2′ by Wayne Forte

Whatever her reasons may be, it’s clear that Mary is lavishing her friend, her teacher with a sign of her love and gratitude.
And while the amount of money she is pouring on Jesus’ feet may seem excessive to us, perhaps it can remind us of God’s abundant love.
A reminder of the abundance of wine that Jesus produced as he began his ministry at that wedding in Cana.
Or for that matter, a reminder of the excess of wealth we use to celebrate love at our own weddings, or lavish on our loved ones at their funerals.
Maybe Mary’s extravagant act can remind us of God’s own abundance that rejects our assumptions of scarcity but envisions a world where all have enough and we all share what we have in love.

Which brings us back to Judas’ objection, because while John makes it clear that Judas’ motives were perhaps less than pure, he seems to make a valid point.
Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?
And Jesus’ reply doesn’t seem to help the situation.
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This puzzling response has been used countless times by those who may claim to care about those living in poverty but would really seek justification for complacency and inaction.
It’s been used by those who reject the abundance Jesus proclaims, who preach the law of scarcity as they hoard their own vast sums of wealth.
It’s been used to claim that Jesus somehow condones poverty, that he says it’s inevitable and we shouldn’t even try to end it.

But that’s obviously not what Jesus is saying here.
Jesus who has spent his entire ministry caring for the poor, reaching out to the outcast, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick.
He spent his life among the poor and was poor himself.
And he told us that by reaching out to those in need we are in reality serving Jesus face-to-face. matthew-25
In fact, rather than trying to twist Jesus’ entire ministry into some sort of justification for poverty, it seems more likely that he is alluding to the commandments God gave the people in Deuteronomy 15: “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.’”
No, there is nothing in this chapter or in any part of Jesus ministry that would suggest a slackening of our call to care for those in need. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And this certainly makes me uncomfortable—I am well aware of how much more I can do to follow Jesus’ example and live into God’s command to care for my neighbors in need.
But I also know that leaning into this discomfort can allow for transformation.
To see issues of poverty not as ideas, but as lived realities.
To understand my own privilege and the abundance I have in life.
To see the face of Christ in more and more people and change my sense of calling from obligation to opportunity to love and serve Christ more and more.
To commit myself to following Jesus better and working to end poverty and help usher in a world based in abundance.

So maybe Mary is giving us an example of how we can be extravagant in our love—not with Jesus, whom we no longer have physically with us, but with each other.
Maybe she is showing us how we can orient our lives to embodying the love we have from Christ.
And just a few days later after a somewhat more famous meal with his disciples, Jesus will give them a new commandment to love each other as he has loved them—a commandment that is demonstrated by Jesus when he washes his disciples’ feet.
So maybe in this seemingly uncomfortable act, we see our ancestor in faith demonstrating how we can live into Christ’s commandment—to lavish love on each other and all people.
To stop pretending that we don’t have enough or that our efforts can’t make a difference.
To share the love of Christ with reckless abandon, to live in the abundance we have in him, to be among those he served following his example, and to glimpse his face in everyone we meet.
Maybe Mary is showing us how we can live lives of gratitude, in extravagant thanksgiving for the love that we have received.

‘Mary Anointing the Feet of Jesus’ by David Finley

When Mary pours out that perfume over Jesus’ feet with no regard to cost or what others may think, we can see an embodiment of how God’s love is poured out over us.
How God created the universe and formed each of us in love.
How God so loved the world that God took on humanity and walked among us to embody and proclaim that love.
How God’s love flows over us in the waters of our baptism, when we are anointed with the sign of Christ’s love, and we are named as God’s beloved child.
How God sets a feast of love before us with heavenly food beyond compare where we can see and hear and taste God’s love.
How we have these tangible signs to remind us of God’s unimaginable love for us and help us through the trials of daily life.

It’s almost uncomfortable how expansive God’s love for us is, isn’t it?
How unworthy I feel to receive it, how meagerly I return it, and how timid I am to really share it with my neighbors.
But no matter what that love does not change and gives us an opportunity to grow; an example by which we can shape our lives.
And now we see our ancestor in faith show us how we can live into the love we have received, how this love can pour out from us, how the sweet smell like perfume can permeate our lives and our world.

Perhaps this story still makes you uncomfortable—I think that’s ok.
It still makes me uncomfortable.
But as we are teetering on the edge of Holy Week, as we ready ourselves to marvel at God’s extravagant love that will be proclaimed in these most holy days on our calendar, I hope that this story will stay with us, that it will grow within us, that its outpouring of love will linger in our minds like the scent of a pound of perfume must have lingered on Jesus as he journeyed through that week from death to new life.
I hope that Mary’s example will inspire us to orient our lives to be able to embody Christ’s love for all people.
And I hope that we can enter this last stretch of our journey to the cross and the joy of Easter confident in the abundant love God has lavishly poured on us.

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