Sheepscott Community Church March 21, 2010
Isaiah 43: 16-21
Philippians 3: 4b-14
John 12: 1-8
Not Sparing the Expense for Christ
Because of the readings this week and this message out of those readings, right out of the gate I want to note an irony I never noted before: the inscription on all American money: “In God We Trust.” Has there ever been a country that has trusted in money as much as we do? It’s as though the country is hedging its bets by inscribing “In God We Trust” on its money. Well, if this doesn’t work, we can fall back on God. See God? We put your name on our money. Talk about self-serving.
It’s a useful platform from which to launch thoughts that arise from today’s readings. Whom or what do we really trust in? If we strip away what we are inclined to take for granted and in fact trust in to carry us from day to day, e.g., mental and physical health, our personal wealth, our family, work, religion, hope––I could go on, but you get the idea––if these blessings were stripped away, what would we be left with? God. Is God enough? If not, why not? If not, do you at least wish God were enough to sustain you, or do you not view God that personally, as One who gets involved in our lives? As one who would and did pour out everything for you, for me?
Today I am using the figure of Mary from today’s gospel––Martha and Lazarus’s sister and a close friend of Jesus––I am using the figure of Mary pouring out that costly nard or spikenard to prefigure Jesus pouring out his precious life, not holding anything back from us, anymore than Mary held back any of the spikenard to be sold and the profits given to the poor, and this over Judas’ objections.
Judas in this scene hearkens back to Jesus’ encounter with his temptations in the desert before his public life. Turn this stone into bread; fall down and worship me and I will give you control over all the kingdoms of the world, as it has been given to me; throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple. God will not allow you to dash your foot against a stone. Show your power.
Judas is throwing in the face of Jesus and the others gathered the wantonness of Mary’s generosity. What does he say? “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor. It was worth a year’s wages.” The writer of John tells us that Judas isn’t at all concerned about the poor, but as keeper of the purse, from which he used to help himself, he’s angry about what he perceives as a waste of potential money he won’t benefit from. The seeming “good cause” of helping the poor is a front and expression for his own greed. He was a victim of his greed, wasn’t he? Think about those thirty pieces of silver. How they must have burned in the palm of his hand when he realized what he had done. I can’t help saying, poor Judas. I hope his eternity provided an opportunity for him to receive God’s healing love and forgiveness. But, that isn’t my business, is it?
My business is following through with this idea, which only occurred to me as I was writing this sermon, of Mary prefiguring Jesus, her pouring out the precious nard without reserve, without holding back any of it, as Jesus himself would soon pour out his blood, the last of it rushing out at the end of the centurion’s spear. He did not withhold from God what he held most precious––his own life, when the circumstances played out at the end of that life and that was what was asked for. Could we do the same? Can we do the same in our own lives where God is always asking us to trust him, not what we see around us?
In her pouring out of the nard on Jesus’ feet––considering, as Judas points out, the high cost and value of the stuff––Mary is economically generous, or even wanton, to use again the word I used earlier. And that’s fine by Jesus. He even tells Judas to back off, easily seeing through his hypocritical raising up of the specter of the poor. He commends Mary’s generous impulse to action noting that she is preparing his body for burial. She is also notably sensually wanton or generous in her act of kneeling at his feet and pouring out the oil and then wiping his feet with her hair. Tell me that didn’t raise a few eyebrows in the room. Again, did Jesus chide her? Stop her? No. On the contrary, he rebuffed the criticism in telling Judas to “Leave her alone.” Important for us Puritans to note that response of his, don’t you think? Whether we’re Puritan or Victorian by religion, social upbringing or the combination in a culture which tends to “tsk-tsk.” Jesus didn’t “tsk-tsk;” he welcomed the attention, the homage in just the way Mary offered it.
Jesus also said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Part of what that says to me is that we will always have the opportunity to serve the poor because there will always be financial inequities in society, however those come about. Most of us are now on the giving end, but in a trice, we could find ourselves on the receiving end. We have been around long enough to see how that could happen. So, if you’re lacking in the generosity department spiritually speaking, you might do well to look after that department practically speaking. You just never know when Jesus might drop by for a visit, for a foot wash , and you want to have something on the shelf of your life as you have lived it to offer him.
What I am saying is, if it doesn’t come naturally to you to be generous or magnanimous, if that’s a really hard thing, be shrewd like the manager of the parable in Luke 16, who Jesus said was accused of wasting his master’s possessions. When the master found this out, he fired him, but the manager summoned all of his master’s creditors before he left the job and told them to mark down their invoices by 10 or 20 % or more. The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. “I tell you,” Jesus continued, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Do you see why I noted the irony of “In God We Trust” being written on our money?
“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus,” the scripture says. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable n God’s sight.”
Jesus is clearly saying in yet another way what I have quoted for the last two Sundays: That God’s ways and God’s thoughts are not our ways or our thoughts. Look at Jesus, hear what he says, do what he does and then do we begin to approach God in our way and in our thought, albeit obliquely, considering what and who we are before the Creator. What does Jesus say and do? He defends Mary when he tells Judas to back off when Judas criticizes her for pouring the nard on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. He also states clearly that she is preparing him for his burial, and there is no recorded response to that assertion from those gathered in the room for the supper that was honoring Lazarus, following him being raised from the dead.
Underneath the lesson of generosity Jesus and Mary teach through the anointing of the feet is the deeper lesson of trusting God for outcomes. There will be no money realized from the sale of the nard, but the apostles have to trust that there will be enough for them in their circumstances. How much did Jesus know of or guess at his own need for trust in God that was just in the offing? Next Sunday at the Palm Sunday service, we will be hailing the Messiah as he enters Jerusalem . We will wave our palms as the crowd did when Jesus entered the city over 2000 years ago. Within a week of that we will be among those calling for his death. How quickly the crowd is swayed, and we are the crowd.
How much of all that did Jesus know or sense ahead of time? We can learn from his trust in God in these last few weeks of his life to try to do the same in our circumstances. If we do not hold back from God our very selves, we too can be assured of resurrection in and with the Christ, when our time comes. And if we believe that this church supports the spiritual needs of the community––and that is part of our mission statement––then we in turn can support the church in meeting those needs through prayer, service, and donations of our time and wherewithal to the church.
Whatever may have led you to be skeptical about trusting in an unseen God, consider today’s reading from Isaiah. Through his prophet Isaiah and his followers, God is encouraging the Israelites, who are in captivity in Babylon by the time of this section of the Book of Isaiah, to “Forget the former things.” And those former things include the Exodus, where the writer refers to the path through the mighty waters of the Nile, the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements, laid low, “never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick.” God encourages the people to forget these former things, get their attention off the past so they can see the new thing God is doing. “Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”
God is still the God of the Exodus, who led the Israelites through his prophet Moses to the Promised Land, but let that history be internalized, part of just that: history. While it is important to learn from the past so that we do not repeat its mistakes in the future, it is at least as important to focus on the present, to stop looking over our shoulder at the past, in order not to miss what God is doing in the present.
Again, as Paul says in Philippians, “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
I would like to introduce you to the figure of the Angel of History, as described by 20th-century philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin. “His [the Angel’s] face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. [Does this make you think of Chile? Haiti?]. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”
I would suggest that we individually and as a church leave hand wringing, blaming, invocation of histories that separate and divide––I would suggest that we leave all of that debris to the Angel of History, which is to say, to God, and then to trust God for that future to which the back of the angel is turned. If we do not forget those former things, if we continue to dwell in the past, we will miss the new thing God is doing. We will miss how he is making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.
It is an unknown future we face individually and as a church. Are we willing to trust that God is wanting to do something new here? Are we willing to turn from the past and press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God is calling us heavenward in Christ Jesus? If you will accept my critical analysis of our model, Jesus, emptying out with complete generosity the last of his life’s blood because that was what obedience to God in the circumstance called for, if you can accept Mary as prefiguring that great sacrifice as she poured out the precious spikenard on his feet and dried them with her hair, if you can accept that level and kind of generosity of spirit that can lead to the actual sacrifice of a body, then perhaps you can accept that this is the model Jesus is giving us for responding to the One he called Father, whom we severally address by our own terms: God, Spirit, Creator, Mother, and so forth.
We too can empty out all of what we consider our wealth, whether that is money, time or service. Think about that in this season of sacrifice, this Lent where we see and anticipate what our leader did and is doing and if we can’t do the same, counting all else as rubbish by comparison, as Paul says. Amen.