April 7, 2019 Sermon
Old Testament Scripture: Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
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?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
New Testament Reading: John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany,
the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
There they gave a dinner for him.
and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,
anointed Jesus' feet,
and wiped them with her hair.
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot,
one of his disciples
(the one who was about to betray him),
said, "Why was this perfume not sold
for three hundred denarii
and the money given to the poor?"
(He said this not because he cared about the poor,
but because he was a thief;
he kept the common purse
and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, "Leave her alone.
She bought it so that she might keep it
for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you,
but you do not always have me.
Sermon: "Extravagant Gestures"
Ah, here we are again, with the Nard. One of my favorite words, one of my favorite topics.
I think I’ve already told of my fascination with Nard, one that I pursued at length in seminary, one that even other Bible nerds found strange.
But I don’t think I told you about the first time that Nard became a part of my life. I was working with the kids at a vacation bible school back in Grand Junction, CO, about 25 years ago. I can't remember at all what the theme for the VBS was that year. For all I know, it might have been "Funny Words in the Bible", one of the lesser known VBS themes.
But I do remember Nard. It's such a foreign word. It has no connection to us. We never, ever say this word, at least not in polite conversations.
Nard. It's weird. And for me, it's strangely compelling.
I was so taken with this word, that I wrote a song for the kids that summer for VBS. I can't remember at all the tune for the song, but I remember that it started out like this:
"Nard, Nard, Nard, Nard,
Nard, Nard, Nard, Nard."
It became a sort of running joke with me and the rest of the VBS Staff. We'd walk by each other in the hallways, and throw a quick "Nard" as we passed. It was always good for a laugh. in fact, let's try it together, let's say, "Nard" together. Ready? "Nard."
See? It's a funny word.
Now, I thought I was done with it after that summer. I thought that I had gotten it out of my system.
But, then I went through my seminary phase with it, which I’ve already talked about. I’ll spare you that story, except to say that I learned some really very interesting things about Nard. And I learned some interesting things about myself as well. More about that later.
But, you know what? This passage is not really about Nard.
Nard can be a bit of a distraction, actually. I know this from experience.
The Nard in this story is rich in symbolism. It says things about Jesus that are deep and profound.
But it's not about the Nard.
Now, I have heard many, many sermons on this text, and I'm sure you have as well. I've heard sermons about Mary. I've heard sermons about the hair. I've heard sermons about the feet.
I've even heard sermons about how in this story Jesus is somehow releasing us from our responsibility to the poor, you know, the poor will be with us always, so there’s no need to help, because, I don’t know, Jesus?
I've heard sermons about submission, about kingship, about death, about burial, and of course, I've heard sermons about Nard. None as good as mine, of course, but lots of sermons about Nard.
But I've always wondered if there was something more to this passage than this. Is there something more to this bizarre story of a woman putting this oddly named perfume on Jesus' feet with her hair?
We first get to know Mary in an earlier part of the Gospel of John, when her brother Lazarus dies. Jesus arrived too late to heal him. In fact, it seems like Jesus deliberately delayed his arrival until after Lazarus was dead. Dead, and rotting in the tomb.
But then Jesus did come, and against the expectations of everyone there, both his enemies who mocked him, and his followers, who called him Messiah, Jesus gave new life to Lazarus. The stench of death was gone from him, and he rose again from the grave.
To the amazement of Mary and everyone else, Lazarus, who was dead, lived.
And, now, 6 days before the Passover, a week before his crucifixion, 1o days before his resurrection, Mary is anointing him with Nard in today's text.
And she is excessive with her anointing. Expensive perfume. Lavish attention. She lies on the ground before Jesus, wiping his feet.
And there are some present who find her display disturbing.
"What are you doing?" Judas cries. "How could you possibly be so wasteful? Do you think money grows on trees? Don't you think that you could have thought of some other way of showing honor to our friend here than smearing $45,000 worth of perfume all over his feet?
"What kind of stewardship is that, anyway? What kind of Christian are you, throwing away that kind of cash? What about the poor? What about the starving?
"And, what about me? Do you think I'm made of money? Who can possibly keep up with you? I can't possibly match this. I've got my own problems. This, this...., is just absurd. It's pointless. It's grotesque."
You can tell that Judas is thinking about the bottom line, can't you? He's thinking about the practicality of the thing. What's the cost-benefit of this awkward and expensive symbolism? What are the risks and rewards for giving one's own self completely to Jesus in this way? How can we possibly justify this kind of prodigal behavior?
Judas might also be asking, "Where is your dignity, woman? Where is your sense of self? Do you know the message that you are sending?"
And you know, I'm pretty sure he wasn't the only one in the room thinking that. He was just the most vocal, and, in a perverse sort of way, the most honest. In the other Gospel versions of this story, many of the disciples were aghast at the way Mary squandered herself, the way she frittered away a year's worth of salary. They were shocked at her actions, and they criticized her and they rebuked her. But in this Gospel, it is Judas who voices their concerns.
And who can really blame them? It's crazy what she did, isn't it? And, no matter how many sermons I've heard about Mary and her worshipful submission, blah, blah, blah, I just don't get it. I don't understand how Jesus approves of her groveling at his feet. It doesn't work for me. It probably never will.
And not only that, I believe that this passage has been misused by people in authority to solicit subservience, in the name of God, of course. That in order for us to be proper Christians, our job is to bow our heads in abject humiliation, to bear the heavy cross that Jesus puts on our shoulders, and above all, show the correct amount of decorum and respect, especially to those in spiritual authority over us.
At the beginning of this sermon, I said that I learned some stuff about myself as I looked deeply at this passage. You see, I didn't want Mary to waste herself in this way. It called into question my own dedication, somehow. In fact, I didn't think that it was necessary for her to do the things that she did. I didn't want her to be obsequious before Jesus. I didn't want her to give away so much of her dignity.
And so, I looked for ways to minimize Mary's gift. I looked for ways to rationalize the text. I looked for ways to make this weird text make more sense. And I realized that the more I tried, the more I sounded like Judas. And that was a sobering moment. Because, I did not want to sound like Judas.
I want to be more like Mary. I want to give a unique and meaningful gift to Jesus, in response to the gift that he has given me. I want to be able to offer myself extravagantly, in ways that only I can.
Because that's what this story is really about. It's not about submission. It's not about waste. It’s not about the Nard. In fact, it's not even about Mary, or Judas. It's certainly not about me, and my ideas about what someone should or shouldn't do in offering themselves to Christ.
This story is really about the act of giving. It's not about the what, or the how, or the why. It's about the who. It's about the gift of Jesus himself. And we get a glimpse of that as we watch Mary showing us what that kind of giving might look like.
We see Mary offering to Jesus a particular gift, a gift that only she can give. It's not the gift that I would or even could offer Jesus. It's probably not the gift that many of us would offer him. Who has a pound of Nard, anyway? Everyone who gives themselves to Jesus does it in a different way, and it's taken me several years to figure that out. In fact, I'm still trying to figure it out.
But Mary offers a gift that only she can give. And it's an extravagant gesture that is mocked and critiqued by those who witness it. It's a gift that is attacked and ridiculed, by those who love Jesus, and by those who don't. It's a gift that baffles disciples, betrayers, onlookers, and religious authorities alike. It still baffles me.
But it doesn't baffle Jesus.
And maybe that’s because Jesus knows all about extravagant gestures of love, doesn't he? Jesus knows something about a gift that only he can give. He knows what it's like to offer himself completely, with abandon. He knows something about humility and wasteful grace. Because He is that grace.
Jesus knows that love is not something that shows up on the bottom line. Jesus knows that there is no accounting for gifts of the heart, given with no expectation of a return. Jesus knows this better than any of us do.
And Mary knows it too.
We see Mary anointing Jesus for burial, but she is also anointing him for something more, something beyond death. She knows from personal experience that, like the essence of the perfume she is giving him, Jesus will also rise to the heavens, a costly gift, an extravagant gesture of God's love for us.
And she's grateful for that gift. And she gives herself completely in response to it.
So, where does that lead us? How does this strange and poignant story touch our lives? In what ways can we respond to the gift of new life that we find in Jesus Christ? In what ways do we live our lives in ways that reflect our gratitude for God's unexpected favor that Jesus shows us? Do we look to Mary for guidance? Or her critics? Do we offer ourselves wholeheartedly, to God and to each other, or do we dole out ourselves in small pieces, always keeping something in reserve?
Live extravagantly. Give extravagantly. Love extravagantly. Worship extravagantly.
And you know, we already have some experience doing that.
Our gifted musicians offer themselves in disciplined, energetic, weekly rehearsal, preparing anthems well in advance, only to watch their hard work disappear like a puff of smoke after those anthems are sung. There is no pay-off here. It's a gift of the heart.
We see it in the generosity of people who give extravagantly to the church, a gesture of love and gratitude, symbolized by their offering. There is no expectation of payback, of some sort of quid-pro-quo. We give because we are grateful, with no expectation of a return on our investment.
We see it in the folks who give themselves in teaching. So often, the seed that is planted in Sunday School or Public school doesn't begin to show itself until years afterward. And yet, these folks continue the planting, the watering, the caring, and the praying.
We see it in the way you all work behind the scenes in this church and in the community, with no expectation that your work will be recognized, or appreciated. There are folks who might live here in this town from birth to death without ever knowing the important role this church plays in their lives.
Extravagant gestures, acts of selfless, abundant giving are at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We feel it in the extravagant grace of God. We act it out in our extravagant response.
Our gift of Nard is to live and love in ways that point to the work Christ has done in your heart. Be the blessing you have received. Show with your hands and feet and your gifts and talents your overwhelming gratitude. Give with utter abandon. Ignore the critique of those who can't possibly understand why you do these things. Offer yourself to Jesus extravagantly, in ways that only you can.
Above all, remember and be comforted by the fact that Jesus Christ knows intimately the cost of what you do. Thanks be to God. Amen.