By The Rev. Sherry Deets
5 Lent – March 17, 2013
Like last week’s story of a father offering an extravagant gift of love, our gospel story for today is another story of an extravagant gift of love. As Jesus and his disciples are going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festival, they stop to have dinner in Bethany at the home of Jesus’ good friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This event marks a turning point in Jesus’ life. Jesus was probably aware that the Jewish authorities were alarmed at his teaching and healing, and in particular the raising of Lazarus and were planning to arrest him. After this event, Jesus enters Jerusalem, setting in motion he final events of his earthly life.
So what do we make of Mary’s extravagant gift? You know, there are sorts of attitudes that surround extravagant gifts. A gift sometimes provokes suspicion about motives. I think we all know that some gifts come with strings attached. Others will complain that generosity skewers all of the prevailing complacency. A few may perceive that any criticism of generosity is a wonderful way to dodge its power. Some of us should also come clean about money and its enticing power over us. A true gift, though, cannot be controlled.
A woman named Mary wasted perfume on Jesus. We can speculate on her reasons, particularly when we hear the description of how she wiped her feet with her hair. We can surmise she felt gratitude for his restoration of her brother Lazarus. But curiously, Jesus does not take issue with the temporary nature of the gift. He declares it appropriate in that moment, particularly in light of his impending death. He is gracious enough to receive it with gratitude.
If we think about it, lots of extravagant gifts are put into the air, where they soon evaporate. Or seem to evaporate. A church choir labors to prepare an intricate anthem, and three minutes later it is gone. The teacher prepares the lesson, stands to deliver, and then class is adjourned. Mourners provide large arrangements of flowers to honor those whom they grieve. Saints donate large sums of money for their congregation to spend. Why do they do this? Love has its reasons.
Reflecting on this miracle of generosity leads us to reflect on Jesus. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus provides blessed abundance. An Cana, 180 gallons of new wine are created, even more than a wedding crowd can consume. Five thousand hungry people are fed by the Sea of Galilee, with twelve baskets of leftovers remaining. After fishing all night without results, Simon Peter is instructed by the risen Christ to cast his net on the other side of the boat. Immediately, large fish begin jumping into the net.
As John states, Jesus is the one through whom everything was made. There is abundance wherever he is present. As Mary generously anoints him, he tells her critics to “leave her alone.” Generosity breeds generosity. Judas can criticize Mary for what she has done, but the story parenthetically exposes his hypocrisy. Either we love generously, or we do not. Either we are already engaged in providing for the poor, or we are secretly hoarding what might otherwise be shared.
Long before a gift can be wasted, it must first be received. Generosity breeds generosity. During this season of Lent we have been reciting a penitential sentence before our confession of sin. Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Love your neighbor as yourself. Let’s reflect on that. There was a farmer who was the premier corn grower in his community. His corn was always sweeter and better than anyone else’s, and it always won the blue ribbon at the county fair. At the end of the growing season, he would take his seed corn, the corn that would be sown the following season, and gave a large portion of it to all the farmers in the area. ‘Why do you do that?’ someone asked him. ‘Don’t you want to keep the best corn for yourself?’ ‘I do it for myself,’ replied the farmer. ‘My corn will be cross-pollinated by bees and wind from the other fields, and if they have inferior corn, mine will soon become inferior as well.’
…the world is so interconnected that whatever we do for someone else we are also doing for ourselves. No action can be taken in isolation, because everything we do ripples out and has some kind of effect. – M.J. Ryan, The Giving Heart
Jesus is the gift of God. According to John’s gospel, Jesus is sent into a world that did not request him, yet he acts entirely for its benefit. He consistently acts on his own terms, always revealing the grace and truth of God. Lazarus was raised from the dead on Jesus’ timetable, and not in response to his sister’s wishes. Similarly, Jesus will lay down his life for his people, not because he is asked to do so, but because he chooses to give himself.
Mary’s extremely generous act of devotion reminds us that Jesus did not hold back his love for us. Just as Mary gave of the best of what she had, even more so Jesus gave the best of what he had to offer – his life. In true service to us he gave his life so that we might gain life – a new forgiven life, a new life and new relationship with God, a new future life in eternity.
Extravagant love. May we, like Mary, boldly give the best of what we have, the best of who we are, in loving service to God. May we live a life knowing and understanding the abundant nature of God. Generosity breeds generosity. Thank you, Lord, for your extravagant love. Amen.
The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.