Extravagant Gifts, Extravagant God

This sermon was originally shared on April 7, 2019 at Kenai United Methodist Church and North Star United Methodist Church in Alaska.

John 12:1-8 (NRSV)

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. Martha served, 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.”

 

Today, our gospel reading is one whose circumstances are kind of unexpected or out of the ordinary, yet the story of a shared meal is incredibly familiar. In this passage, we experience a dinner party, a meal shared around a table with Jesus, his disciples, Lazarus, and Mary and Martha. Now, we can cite the sacredness of a meal with friends, and in fact, we’ll be sharing in that later in our service with holy communion. This meal was no different, but the cool thing about this meal, that we read about, is how each person present brought something to offer, their gifts, we would say.

Martha, who we’ve read about before in relation to the Mary and Martha story, is offering her service, her hospitality in preparing the meal. Lazarus’ presence was a gift, as just a week or so prior, people thought he was dead forever. Jesus was a guest, and he offered teaching and leadership as his gift to the folx gathered. Each of the disciples brought themselves with their gifts. And even Judas had an offering, as our story said he was responsible for keeping the common purse. Perhaps people saw a gift for organizing money or administration in him.

So these friends gathered together around a table, each of them offering their gifts, great gifts, but around the same level. And then we hear about Mary. Mary recognized her gift in a way that was different than the other offerings. She wasn’t using her gift in moderation, or doing just enough to get by. And she certainly wasn’t withholding her gift, like Judas did when he stole the money from the common purse. No. The passage says Mary took a pound of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet with it.

We’ve probably all put a spray too much of our favorite fragrance on in the morning, where it becomes overpowering or gives us a headache. Mary takes it to a whole other level. But it’s not just the quantity of the perfume that’s over the top. This perfume cost three hundred denarii, which is a lot. One denarii is about a day’s wage for someone doing manual labor. So three hundred denarii is almost a year’s wages. Mary decided her offering was to anoint Jesus’ feet with all of it. She wasn’t holding back.

Side note: We can also make an assumption that Mary’s perfume counters the smell of Lazarus’ tomb, a sign that life surpasses the emotions of death or loss in this passage.

We read that Judas has a problem with this. The author of John even uses a little parenthetical to note the intention behind Judas’ issue, which states that he wasn’t concerned because he cared about the offering going to the poor. Rather, it meant that if Mary had chosen to sell the perfume and put the year’s wages into the offering for the poor, Judas could have embezzled it. Either way, Jesus responds, affirming Mary for her generosity and for the way she was willing to follow God, no matter the circumstances or the cost.

There’s something unexpected in sharing our gifts, in offering our gifts to God in whatever forms they present themselves. And there is something sacred, we read, in recognizing our gifts, and how they contribute to the wider picture. We have a choice to hold on and stick with what we think should happen, like Judas, or we can allow ourselves to fully recognize who we serve, and allow ourselves to seek discernment about where our gifts can be the most fruitful in each season. This passage gives permission for us to honor Jesus in extravagant ways.

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Mary knew in that moment that her gift would be best suited to honor God, even when it might seem wasteful or too soon or overly-extravagant. As your pastor, and we as people of God, we have to be willing to let go of what we think should be done and embrace the reality of our gifts and how we can best bear honor and witness to Jesus Christ in our lives by our willingness to kneel before the extravagant God we serve, and use those gifts.

One of the gifts I have is a call to ordained ministry, a call to share the gospel and to be a pastor in the United Methodist Church, and beyond. That gift allows me to have a job, a pretty obvious blessing. It also gives me the opportunity to be in relationship and to serve, more blessings. The other piece of that, especially being a pastor in the United Methodist Church, is that my gifts lead me to be itinerant, that is, able to move locations to serve, depending on where I’m called.

Many of you know already about my health issues. I have a set of autoimmune diseases that attack my body pretty consistently. This year, and this winter especially, things have gotten really serious with that. I’ve been steps away from the emergency room several times, and my body hasn’t been functioning in the ways it needs to, for me to use my gifts, to pour them out extravagantly, like Mary did with Jesus. After months of conversation, prayer, and discernment, our district superintendent, Carlo, our bishop, Elaine, and myself have made the difficult choice that I need to relocate out of Alaska beginning in July.

This unfortunately means that I’ll be leaving you all, and it means our church will have a new pastor starting July 1. This means that both of us will be going through a lot of transition again, earlier than we probably expected. This means there will be bittersweet feelings, and things will change, and we will work through that together in the next few months, and I am confident you all will continue that process together after I’m gone.

While this is big news, I don’t want the message today to be all about that news. The lectionary doesn’t stop or slow down just because change happens. And so, our gospel story today still speaks, and still offers us important messages, and maybe now, especially so.

My prayer is that we follow the example of Mary, and not allow anything to get in the way of us using our gifts, sharing them with the world. The world, which includes this church, so desperately needs to experience God as a loving, thoughtful, and compassionate being, and through our gifts, we have the opportunity to be a part of that sharing. My prayer is that we use our gifts, and we extravagantly share them, to honor Jesus in this season.

When I had my introduction meeting with you all last year, Carlo told me that my appointment here would be announced on Easter Sunday, to which I pointed out the clear connection to new life. Today, as I stand here with all of you, I’m reminded again, in this season of Lent, a season of preparing for the resurrection, that new life is upon us, each of us as people, me as your pastor, and our church. New life is on the horizon, and our job in this season is to prepare for it. What gifts do we possess, and where are we using them now? How can we develop those gifts, giving room for them to evolve and grow into new life?

As we leave this place today, and as we transition to holy communion, I want to encourage us all to be open to being Easter people, people that follow God’s plan for how God wants to use our gifts, even when it’s unexpected or scary or too soon or even extravagant. May we offer ourselves at the feet of Jesus, being willing to kneel before Jesus and use the gifts God has given to us. And may we follow Mary’s example, humbly serving and seeking God above all else.

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Let us pray.

God of hope and resurrection, you have provided us with so much, so many opportunities and relationships, and so much hope. In this season of Lent, we transition, away from the idea of death being the final answer, and into a new reality of your everlasting life. Help us to hone our gifts, using them to seek your kindom in every circumstance of our life. In your holy name we pray, Amen.

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