Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
(Click above link for the Scripture texts upon which this sermon is based)
What is your capacity for love?[i]
A friend once sent me an email
of children’s answers to the question “What is love?”
There were all sorts of things in there, from love of pet dogs
to touching stories involving turtles and ice cream.
I think my favorite response was this:
“When my grandmother got arthritis,
she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore.
So my grandfather does it for her all the time,
even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”
That is love, I suppose
— sacrificing all sorts of pride and comfort for the one you love.
Or how about this story, you may know it,
about a young couple, Della and Jim.
Della and Jim were very poor, but very much in love.
Each had one unique possession.
Della’s hair was her glory.
When she let it down, it almost served as a robe. That’s how it covered her.
Jim had a gold watch which had come down to him from his father
and it was his pride.
It was the day before Christmas, and Della had exactly
one dollar and eighty-seven cents to buy Jim a present.
So, she went out and cut her hair and sold it, for twenty dollars;
and with the money,
she bought a platinum chain for Jim’s heirloom pocket watch.
When Jim came home that night and saw Della’s head shorn.
He stopped, breathless.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like the way she looked, or loved her the less;
She was lovelier than ever. She moved him. Deep in his spirit.
Slowly he handed her his Christmas gift:
a set of expensive, tortoise-shell combs with jeweled edges for her hair.
He had sold his gold watch to buy them for her.[ii]
Our capacity for that kind of love —sacrificial, humble love —
gets measured in countless tiny ways throughout our lifetimes:
—measured when a parent is slowly losing mental reasoning;
—measured when child
seems to be following the path of the prodigal son;
—measured when a spouse
has been down on their luck for just a little too long;
—measured when a friend admits a stupid mistake
and wonders if you’ll forgive them.
It is our capacity for this kind of sacrificial, humble love
that will be the true measure of the kind of women and men we are,
and the measure of how faithfully we tried to follow Jesus
in our walk of faith.
Because Jesus loved sacrificially and humbly, of course.
Jesus’s capacity to love is unsurpassed in human history,
and the few events we know of three years of his life
point to so many occasions when he exhibited
that sacrificial, humble, costly love.
–Jesus risked his own REPUTATION by hanging out with sinners and outcasts.
–He risked his own COMFORT by living the life of an itinerant preacher.
–He risked LOSING HIS DISCIPLES by telling them hard truths like
“the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”
and “those who seek to gain their life must first lose it.”
–Jesus risked his FREEDOM by challenging the authorities in the temple.
–And he risked his life — rather, he LOST his life —
so that his followers, including you and me,
might know the gift of freedom from sin and death
and the gift of everlasting life.
THAT is sacrificial, humble, costly love.
And Jesus calls his disciples to imitate him in loving like THAT.
Throughout the gospel of John,
those intrigued by Jesus are urged to Come and See
what this Jesus is all about.
That’s the language used at the lakeshore, when the first disciples were called.
That’s the language, a few verses beyond this passage,
that the Greeks will use when they come to Philip asking about this Jesus.
We want to see Jesus.
In some ways, that’s what LENT is all about: striving to SEE Jesus
along with the hope that, when we see, we might understand
and if we understand, we might love
like Jesus loved.
Its not always all that easy.
In today’s reading from John,
Mary of Bethany demonstrates sacrificial humble love,
and in some ways,
she, of all the disciples, best understood what Jesus was teaching.
It’s a strange scene to picture, even today —
a woman pouring perfume on a man’s feet,
then wiping the perfume off with her hair.
For us, it might seem STRANGE, though not OFFENSIVE. Not to us.
But for the contemporary hearers of John’s gospel,
this scene is downright SCANDALOUS.
See, it was utterly taboo for an unmarried woman
to let down her hair in front of a man —
much less a crowd of men —
in front of a man who was not her husband.
To do so would be the equivalent of a blatant come-on,
a proposition made in a bar
when someone’s had a bit too much to drink.
And wiping a guest’s feet was something that slaves did, not friends or hostesses.
So that’s two problems.
And then there’s the SCANDALOUS waste of money.
Three hundred denarii was about what a day laborer would earn in a half a year;
by today’s standards, we might consider that
ten thousand, twelve thousand, fourteen thousand dollars.
Ten thousand dollars spent on exotic perfume: poured away.
She used that whole bottle? Really?
Imagine how many people could be fed for $10,000.
Imagine how many people
could receive assistance for their first-month’s rent with $10,000.
Imagine how many winter coats, boots,
clean socks, hats, gloves could be purchased for $10,000.
What a WASTE! Judas had a point, didn’t he.
No matter the scriptural aside that he really wanted to rob the pot.
Judas had a point.
Judas had a point, BUT… Judas missed the point completely.
I like what author Kathleen Norris says about this story:
“… the symbolic acts matters;
…those who know the exact price of things, as Judas did,
often don’t know the true cost or value of anything at all.”[iii]
And poet Ann Weems puts it more succinctly:
“An EXTRAVAGANCE of the heart
is a fine and beautiful thing.
Why is that one so hard for us?”[iv]
Because, let’s face it, this one is hard for us.
I bet if I asked for a show of hands,
the majority of us in the room would echo Judas’ words,
would share the sentiment that Mary’s was an extravagant waste,
made all the worse by her “shameless exhibition.”
But really, it’s the extravagant waste.
If LOVING is SERVING, that money could be so better spent.
Better not to waste it on the perfume. Give it to the poor.
And I share that sentiment, if I’m honest
not because I don’t love Jesus enough (I think)
but because I am far too concerned about
staying in properly prescribed boundaries of appropriateness,
and because I worry about people who are hungry, or without clothes
and I am quick to dismiss such an extravagant waste
when that money should go to mission, right?
and because, well, it is hard to follow Jesus,
to know what to DO.
So I do what so many people do: I establish a list of good things and bad things
and make quick judgments about them.
Because life moves far too quickly to really think about it.
But that kind of living is a measured life, a thin life.
T. S. Eliot has a great line in one of his poems about the kind of person who
“measured out [his] life with coffee spoons.”[v]
To measure out life in tiny wee spoonfuls,
to live with carefully crafted limits on appropriate behavior —
that is a CONTROLLED life that many of us choose.
That is a MANAGABLE life that tells us,
in black and white, what is and is not right.
It is APPROPRIATE to spend a LITTLE money on this extravagance,
but maybe to spend just a tad more on others.
It is APPROPRIATE to look to Jesus as lord and savior,
but compartmentalize him,
don’t not let Jesus move me into real changes in my life.
It is APPROPRIATE to accept his beautiful words of “lilies in the field”
and “God so loved the world” and “you must be like a child,”
but not to accept the depth of his critique
and the truth of his real forgiveness and its radical implications.
Phhh, Jesus says.
Forget about black and white,
and start seeing God’s creation in full Technicolor.
Take in the full beauty of the world, what it smells like…
Throw away the quarter-teaspoon measures
and measure out your life with a shovel instead.
Forget all your tidy little understandings of appropriateness,
of decorum, of neat faith, he says,
and love the Lord your God
NOT ONLY with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,
but love the Lord your God and your Neighbor
unabashedly, shamelessly, with abandon.
An extravagance of the heart, Jesus says,
is a fine and beautiful thing.
“Leave her alone,” actually, is what Jesus says;
she sacrificed to buy that perfume so that she could keep it
to anoint my body when I die.
Jesus is pointing to his death, his pending death.
He’s not going to be around much longer.
So, for now, it is good for them to mark the depth and beauty
of their relationship, of their love for each other.
What this story boils down to, and the point for us, I think, is this:
Will we live based purely on rules we have to follow,
or will let our lives be driven by the relationships that root us, that ground us
that show us what love and grace truly are?
It is much easier to live by those rules, really.
Do this, don’t do that, and you will have a long, happy, prosperous life.
Rules gives us clear guidelines, and markers by which to judge ourselves.
Rules also enable us to judge others,
to determine if “they” are good or bad,
as good as we are or worse than we are.
Judas was someone who used the rules to his advantage,
Judas knew the rule that extra money
should ALWAYS be used for the poor.
No matter what.
And if you didn’t ALWAYS follow that rule,
you were bad and deserved to be publicly shamed.
Its not that Jesus didn’t care about the poor.
He cares deeply about the poor and urges that we help them.
He spent much of his ministry tending to the poor
feeding the poor
sacrificing his comfort for the sake of the poor. We cannot forget that.
But Jesus cared much, much less about those RULES of propriety
and much, much more about relationships.
Love God. Love neighbor. Love self.
The ONLY RULE Jesus gave his disciples was to love,
and love is always about relationship.
Mary got it.
She understood that everything that Jesus taught was about relationships.
Mary had an advantage;
she and her siblings Martha and Lazarus were personal friends of Jesus.
She had witnessed Jesus raising her brother from the dead.
Her relationship with Jesus was rooted in real experiences, in a miracle, even.
No wonder she loved him so much.
Her extravagant, shameless act of devotion
was all about her relationship with Jesus,
her love for Jesus,
her desire to give him her most valuable possession,
to lavish him with the beauty he deserved.
Pouring out perfume on him showed her acceptance
of who he was and what he said, even of his terrifying words that he must die.
Mary had a true relationship with Jesus,
and that relationship took priority over all the rules
about how to spend extra money
and how women should behave in public
and how to treat a guest.
She knew all of those. She did it anyway.
Do we live our lives guided by a narrow reading of
rules or by relationships?
I wish there were a venue for us in church to talk
more regularly and honestly about our relationships
and especially about our relationship with God.
We Presbyterians have a hard time talking about our faith sometimes,
talking about our relationship with God
and with Jesus Christ
and with each other.
We have done a good job about reminding everyone
what the great Christian rules are:
the Ten Commandments,
the Great Commandment.
Love. Forgive. Pray. Serve.
But there is a danger for all of us
when following those rules becomes the end in and of itself,
when we forget that the rules were given to us in the first place
in order to help us BE in loving relationships
with God, neighbor, and self.
If you’re a newspaper reader,
you might have seen that we Presbyterians have gotten a lot of press of late.
Two front page stories in less than a week. That’s unusual. Really unusual.
And maybe a third, but I was out of town and I don’t know if
the word about our denomination’s major vote on marriage equality
made the front page of the Star, though I did get a text alert
from the New York Times. So, big news.
That was Tuesday. I was actually quite happy by the development.
It fits the welcome and the inclusion of the Gospel.
Even as I know, deep down, that others will struggle with it,
and we have to find ways of staying in relationship, too.
Then last week it was front-page news about a schism in a church nearby
struggles about property and lawsuits and life-long friendships
One side, the leaving side, saying that they needed more JESUS
the other side, the left side, hurt and astonished by the accusation
that they weren’t Jesus-y enough.
That was a tough, tough story. Tough to read.
Tougher to live, as I ponder the hurt many are living through over there.
Even as we pray for good will and love to abide with all of them, ALL of them.
And yesterday, Saturday, another article.
This one about how we as a church have taken an old old building
the former Linwood Presbyterian Church, a grand structure off of 71 highway
in the heart of a troubled community downtown
and are converting it into a social service agency.
Because of the work of faithful Presbyterians,
that building will become a center of care for
people with substance abuse, mental illness, and other struggles.
That story, it makes me really proud.
I don’t know. Such disparate stories. Lots of press.
News stories only get so much, though.
Lots and lots of background and context, too much for a sermon
much less the END of a sermon.
Hot button social issues. Inter-Church struggles.
Resurrecting ministry in the heart of downtown.
But its what people are buzzing about.
Here’s what I hope people hear from us, in the heart of each of them:
the Presbyterian Church USA is concerned about following Jesus,
that in all of these things, we are trying to do right by Jesus,
and we do that through our absolute commitment to love-in-relationship
as the heart of what our faith is about.
Because that’s what Jesus shows us.
As for us. In this space. We want to see Jesus.
We want to know how to follow Jesus.
Where to walk. What to say. How to love. How to read scripture.
Next week there will be a big parade,
and people will line the street and look for this Jesus.
My encouragement to you, this fifth Sunday in lent, is to open your heart
to SEE what Jesus offers us to SEE:
that in JESUS, the heart of the gospel is in our relationships
in how we LOVE one another
in how we LOVE God
in how we LOVE ourselves.
All those rules. All of our stuff. All of our actions.
They have a point: they enable us to love each other well
or protect us when we fail to do so.
My prayer for all of us as we approach Holy Week
is that our understanding of the events of that sacred time
will not simply be an intellectual exercise.
My prayer for all of us as we approach Holy Week
is that we will ingest the depth of Christ’s love for us,
pouring out – not perfume upon our tired feet
but pouring out his very life for our tired souls.
And my prayer will be that we, too,
will lavish THAT kind of love on God,
in acts of service and devotion;
that we will lavish love on neighbors who may or may not follow OUR rules;
that we will lavish love even upon ourselves,
we who feel deep down that we deserve only judgment.
“An extravagance of the heart is a fine and beautiful thing.”
May you love extravagantly this day.
[i] Sermon built on earlier work and from ideas from other sermons lost to me at this point. Broad strokes of this sermon indebted to The Rev. Mark Ramsey and likely others lost to history and time.
[ii] O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi. The connection of this story to today’s text is from William Barclay, The Daily Bible Study Series: The Gospel of John, Volume II, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 109
[iii] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, New York: Riverhead Books, 1996. (p. 147)
[iv] Ann Weems, “Counting the Cost” in Kneeling in Jerusalem, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992. (p. 50)
[v] T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Main image attribution: “Foggy Night” by Transformer18, Creative Commons License, some rights reserved.