Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Extravagant Gift

Isaiah 43:18-19; John 12:1-8

        “Do not remember the former things of old, I am about to do a new thing.”  Some of the most inspirational poetry in the Bible is discovered between the 40th and 55th chapters of Isaiah.  Rich with metaphor, these passages bring hope to a people coming home after decades of enslavement.  This was an astonishing promise. The God who brought the Jews out of Babylon would lend a holy hand in the reconstruction of Jerusalem.  But with the promise came a warning.  Things were not going to return to the way they had always been.  Their new life would need to be accompanied witha new attitude.  What worked in the past would no longer be acceptable.  A new day had dawned. 
        I believe Jesus loved 2nd Isaiah.  His approach to life often crossed a line that challenged his contemporaries and continues to confuse us.  Jesus envisioned possibilities where the disciples saw only dead-ins.  Jesus was always in the process of doing something new, something unheard of, and something revolutionary. Jesus completely redefined the meaning of the word, “Holy”.  And he did so in a way that baffled his contemporaries as well as those who continue to follow him 2,000 years later.
        John 12 explores one of those inexplicable moments.  What does it mean to selflessly yet almost carelessly give a gift to God?    The story before us is filled with complexities that challenge the best theologians.  And yet it is a story even a child can understand.  Mary comes into a room, and without a word, breaks open a jar of extravagant perfume.  She pours it into her hand and begins to massage the feet of Jesus.  As the fragrance fills the room, Mary wipes his feet with her hair.  Realizing that everything in the book of John is symbolic, where do we begin?  Perhaps Mary is presenting a holy example of the new role for the disciples.  In other words, as a servant she is washing the feet of the one she will serve.  Maybe it is more than that.  Perhaps she is signally the imminent death of Jesus.  Her actions declare she is aware of what the disciples refuse to understand.  Jesus must die in order that the world be saved.  Perhaps it was just an extravagant gift to an extravagant man.  Or perhaps it was something greater than that. Perhaps Mary somehow understood that the feet she washed belonged to God Incarnate.  I suspect any of the following are adequate.  What is important for us to understand is Mary was forgetting the old and doing a new thing.  Mary was sacrificing something extravagant for something on which no price could be placed.
        This act did not go unnoticed.  Judas, the treasurer of the group, saw the act of love as a bit irresponsible. There were mouths to be fed, bodies to be clothed.  Why spend money on worship when the mission of the church is always so poorly funded?  We still struggle with that today don’t we?  This passage seems to lead us to an impossible impasse.  When do we worship, when do we serve and how do we tell the two apart?
        A thin reading of this text does not help us out.  Jesus proclaimed, “The poor will always be with us.”  That pours gasoline on any blazing fire.  That one sentence has served to excuse involvement in any arenas of social witness.  But a richer, thicker, reading might be even more dangerous.
        I share a story I stumbled across that will send shivers up the spine of anyone who has ever served on a stewardship committee.  It took place at a gathering of pastors who had come with the explicit desire to discuss how they might increase the generosity of their congregations.  One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God.  He captured the attention of his audience by pulling a $100 bill from his wallet, setting it on fire and praying, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and to you alone.”

        As you might image, the reaction was electric.  Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching the greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume.  One preacher whispered it was illegal to burn currency.  Another murmured, “If he has money to burn maybe he will give some of it to us.” 
        “Do you not understand?” asked the speaker. “I am offering it to God.  That means it is going to cease to be useful to the rest of us.”    It was a very anxious moment, but a moment that raised a difficult question. “Aren’t some gifts given and then they are gone, never to be captured again?” Perhaps, and that moment, that incredible moment, is both holy and unforgettable.”
        Sometimes this happens to the choir. A piece of music is brought out and the choir reads through it.  There might be a murmur or two suggesting it is not the right piece or it is too difficult to sing. It is rehearsed, and rehearsed and rehearsed, until it can’t be rehearsed anymore. Finally on Sunday it is offered, not as a performance, but as a gift. And as the piece is being sung something happens. It can’t be explained but the piece sounds and feels different. When the choir sings to God, and only to God, what is heard, and felt, seems unexplainable.
And yet we must explain it. I know each of you understands what it means to truly give of yourself to God.  You don’t do it expecting something in return.  You offer your gift because you believe God to be Holy above everything you know or imagine.  You offer your gift as an expression of your love and adoration.  You offer your gift as a response to God’s grace.  You offer your gift out of faith, not expectation. That is when it truly is a gift.
        I am not sure you realize it but collectively, you, the members of this church, are a gift from God.  Our primary purpose for being here is to proclaim the good news of God’s grace through the extravagant gift of Jesus Christ.  We accomplish this through worship, through missions, through educational programs, through prayer, and through your commitment to serve this community. But sometimes we stumble when we only consider what is useful, what is practical and what is cost effective. When this happens we don’t leave room for the marvelous   surprise that arises when we freely and generously wash the feet of Christ. When it comes to the life of faith, we may discover our hearts are greatly diminished if the budget is our first concern. It is the gift of your heart, the gift of your soul, the gift of the extravagant that truly defines you as a gift from God.
        Remember the gift of Mary.  There was nothing useful, or practical or cost effective about what she did.  But the gift tells us everything we need to know about Mary. Are we surprised that she followed Jesus all the way to the cross?  Are we amazed that she is one of the women who went to the tomb?  Are we stunned that she is the one who tells the disciples that Jesus has arisen?  Somehow Mary, as she opened that bottle of perfume, understood the possibilities of tomorrow rest on what we believe today. Her generosity was not a one time gift but rather a continuation of a lifetime of giving.  She worshiped and then she was overwhelmed by the possibilities that God lay before her.
        In all that we are and in all that we do we must first begin by celebrating Jesus as the gift of God.  Jesus was sent into this world, not at our bequest and yet he acted entirely on our behalf.  This gift of grace is the fulfillment of God’s promise to do a new thing.  And now it is our turn.  Open your hearts to Jesus and give him your all.  Become a gift of gratitude.  Live your lives abundantly in the presence of the risen Christ through acts of compassion and generosity.  Worship and love Jesus recklessly, allowing for the possibility that in you, God will do a new thing.

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