“Something Great for God”

March 17, 2013


John 12:1‑8


“Jesus came to Bethany, and there they gave a dinner for him.”

You've got to love a religion that puts as much emphasis on eating as Christianity does. What church building would be complete without a place to cook and a place to eat? When people here dream of changes, many of them think, wouldn’t it be nice to have a place that was something other than a museum quality 1950’s kitchen?

Not that we don’t use it just as it is! Lent begins—we prepare brunch. Easter approaches—we plan a breakfast. We mark the beginning of the school year, the beginning of Advent, the end of the school year all with, that’s right, lunch for everybody! No wonder our kitchen is looking a little frayed around the edges.

I think I’ve told you before of the minister in the United Methodist church in which I grew up who said: “If Methodists could eat their way into heaven, they would have been there a long time ago.” And you know that Congregationalists wouldn’t be far behind.

The stories we tell of Jesus so often center on meals.

Certainly we remember the meal he shared with his disciples on the night of his arrest. A week from this coming Thursday we’ll gather in this space in order to remember that meal and to be fed as we so often are with bread and wine.

We also remember Jesus comparing the realm of God to a great feast.

We remember Jesus telling Zaccheaus the tax collector: "Get down from that tree. I’m going to your house," where they then ate together.  We remember that by eating with tax collectors and other “sinners” Jesus made the good religious people of his day quite angry.

And we remember that story of the meal in Bethany at the home of Lazarus.

The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to those present.

Then he shouted toward the stone tomb: “Lazarus, come out.”

At that command, Lazarus did just that. “The dead man came out,” John’s Gospel tells us, “his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”

Some time later, the one who had died and the One who was to die sat together at a table. It was, in some sense, a feast of the resurrection. That dinner pointed ahead to the meal that we share in this space.

Whenever Jesus sits at table with other people something wonderful happens.

Martha serves. John seems to mention this only in passing. But instead of rushing on, let us linger over the wonder of the wonder of Martha’s service. The grace of hospitality and the gift of welcome are two of the great delights of living. Consider times when you have been welcomed. Gracious people make you feel at home in their home, comfortable and relaxed. Recall those times when you have been privileged to extend hospitality to others. You share what is yours with someone else, and both of you are enriched in the process.

Something wonderful happens.

Martha serves. Her hospitality provides the setting in which everything else in this story might unfold. Martha gives to all of us a model of how we might live our lives.

Then Mary walks onto the scene. She pours perfume on Jesus' feet and wipes them with her hair. The fragrant scent fills the room. It is a beautiful gesture. It is an extravagant gesture—literally one that “goes beyond the bounds,” beyond all reasonable limits.

This gesture speaks to something deep inside us.

We long to do something great for God.

We sense that God calls out the best within us—which might seem excessive to others, maybe even to ourselves.

We hope that when we act out of an abundant heart great things can happen.

There is that story of a medieval woodcarver who created elaborate figures on the beams of cathedrals. “It is a waste of your skill and effort,” he was told, “for no one will see your work from the ground.”

“God will see, and understand,” the carver replied.

Do you remember a time when you gave more than you thought you should?

Do you remember a time when you did more than seemed reasonable?

Do you remember when others thought you had gone too far?

Remember how good that felt?

There are times in our lives when we are drawn out of ourselves, out of a preoccupation with our immediate wants and needs, caught up into something far greater. You spend an afternoon at the food pantry, or a morning at a Habitat site, or an hour helping a child to read. Maybe you dig in your garden, or throw yourself into a problem at work, or talk with someone and really listen. You forget about yourself. The time passes quickly.

There are times when as individuals—and as a congregation—we gave far more than we might have expected. In giving some we found ourselves giving more. We were pulled out of our usual ways, giving less thought to ourselves and more thought toward others.

This kind of experience is the experience of abundance—surrounded by all that we need and then some. It is the experience of giving—of being pulled out of oneself, beyond oneself, beyond what is usual.

These are moments of grace—given by God so that we can enjoy them and find strength in them. And these experiences are a window onto the abundance of God.

In a wonderful mediation on this story of Martha and Mary and Jesus, the great theologian Paul Tillich said that people are sick not only because they have not received love but also because they have not been allowed to give love.[1]  It may be that our healing is found in going beyond what is necessary. That is to say, our healing will be found in extravagance.

Those of us who give sermons are told: “In all things preach the gospel—and use words if you have to.” 

In this story Mary is presented as a woman of action who is not in need of words. And what good news she proclaims! Without words, Mary makes two bold statements.

First, death is ugly and strong.

We know the story. We know that Jesus is soon to meet his death. And while we know that the ultimate outcome is victory over the grave, for the disciples and for us, death is death, with all the dread and sorrow and separation that the word implies.

Mary seems to understand this—perhaps better than the other disciples, better than we do. She loves Jesus now, not as the one who will conquer the grave, but simply as the one who will die.  She pours out her love for Jesus today because he may not be with her tomorrow. Death is ugly and strong.

Mary’s actions point also toward a second reality: as the powerful words of Song of Solomon put it, love is stronger than death. Love always creates something new out of destruction. Mary’s reckless act of pouring out expensive perfume and wiping Jesus' feet with her hair shows genuine human love—love that is not measured out, love that overflows. The ethicist might make a different calculation, but what counts is not always “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  What also counts are faithful and self‑giving acts for those closest to us while there is still time.

This, then, is the bold invitation that Mary’s act offers to us in all of our hesitancy and caution. Don’t wait. Don’t wait until a “better time” to love fully, to give generously. That time is now. Your actions will make a difference.

Look at the good news Mary proclaims: Love is stronger than death.[2]

There is something in your soul that longs to be able to love in the way that Mary did in Bethany—freely, extravagantly. There is something in your soul that longs to do great things because you have known God's great love. There is something deep and strong within each of us here today that desires to be generous in giving because we have received in abundance.

The sad reality is that other people are always so ready to criticize the generosity that wells up within us. You probably know people who are ready to push down your desire to invest your whole self in a project.

Unfortunately, all too often the people opposed to the excessive love that Mary shows and calls forth in us are people in churches.

How easy it is to agree with Judas! What he says sounds so reasonable: “This perfume that was just wasted could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” There’s a new picture for us: “Judas, advocate for the poor.”

But he’s right, isn’t he? Especially when we hear that Judas probably could have made about a year’s wages selling that perfume, we're almost convinced by the argument that he makes, aren’t we? I can think of a great number of congregations who would be glad to have the sensible Judas on their Mission Board or serving as a Trustee.

Maybe it’s our Puritan and Protestant heritage that finds the words of Judas ring true. Or perhaps it’s just our Midwestern, Iowan sensibilities that make excess seem so, well, excessive.

How often the voices inside and outside of churches have cried: “Cut back, hold down, do less, keep in reserve.”

This tension is still with us.

We are so afraid that we will “run out.”

Like Judas, we often oppose excess. Let’s face it: the words of Judas make good sense.

Still, Jesus seems to encourage extravagant discipleship. The words of Jesus startle us with their new perspective. The gentle response of Jesus is, “Leave her alone.” Tillich spoke of Mary's act as an example of “holy waste”—that is, a waste growing out of the abundance of the heart.

Yes, we still have the poor; we still have the hungry. But God never spurns giving greatly out of an abundant heart, even if well-meaning people will object.[3]

After all, as the old union organizers used to say: "We march for bread, but we march for roses too." Or as a teacher of mine put it: "Let's give the hungry food, but let's also give them Beethoven."

Jesus encourages the excessive act of Mary.

And in some sense Jesus inspires such excess even in us. The old hymn by Isaac Watts points to Cross and sings: "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all." When we glimpse the love of God, shown in the life the Jesus being poured out freely, wasted in death, we begin to sense a call to give beyond what we would expect, to love beyond reason.

Yes, the one who does this will be reviled by the Judases who take a more reasonable approach to faith and life. But extravagant love will find support from the Christ we follow.

Let us do big things, extravagant things.

Don't hold off giving all that you want to give.

Don't hold off singing as strongly as you want.

Don't hold off from the community that is offered around tables, here in this sanctuary, in Rockwood Hall, in your own home.

We are invited to extravagance in giving, in worship, in service. Extravagance in teaching and learning. Extravagance at the table. All because God’s love, which is stronger than death, is given freely, without measure, to us.

[1] Paul Tillich, "Holy Waste," The New Being.

[2] J. Ramsey Michaels, Interpretation, July '89, 287‑91.

[3] Tillich, op. cit.