Sermon – April 7, 2019 – Fifth Sunday in Lent


Mary’s Extravagance

If you made a good deal, you could pick up a new Corvette Stingray for $54,000.  A tricked out Ford King Ranch pickup would cost you about the same. If you are a new cop in Champaign, you’d be in the $54k range, a little better in Urbana. About the same for a Registered Nurse at Carle. $54,000. That is the value in today’s dollars of that jar of nard that Mary cracked open and poured on Jesus’ feet. $54,000.

No small gift, that. No empty gesture.   The reason it was so expensive is that it was extracted drop by drop from a root that was found only in Eastern India in what is now Nepal.  It was then carried across India and the Arabian desert to the countries in the Middle East.  This was a tremendously valuable commodity in Jesus’ time.   A rare and lavish gift that Mary that she spilled on Jesus’ feet and the floor of Lazarus’ home.

She meant to say something with that extravagant gift.   She saw something.

First we have to ask, Why Mary?   The house was full of other folks.   Judas was there.  All he did was object while pinching the purse.   Martha was busy with her own gift of dinner.   And what about Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from death?   Good Lord, Lazarus should have been hurling those 54 thousand dollar jars of ointment around like water balloons, bursting them everywhere and splashing Jesus from head to toe.  For heaven’s sake, he was raised from death?

There’s something about Mary.   She saw something.   She knew something.   She recognized that this Jesus was more than just a healer, more than just a good teacher or preacher.   She recognized something in him that changed her, changed her values and those things which she valued.

Saint Paul talked about that in our Philippians lesson today when he said all the former things he had gained were like rubbish after he encountered Christ.   His values changed. . .  the value of his acquired credits and things were rendered valueless in terms of their hold on him.    Paul’s values changed when he recognized this new relationship with Jesus.    I think that’s what happened to Mary.  She gave all that she had as a dramatic and extravagant recognition of this Christ who had changed her as no other had, and she gave her greatest treasure in this gesture of thankfulness, this ointment that she spilled, and the fragrance of it filled the house.

What’s important as well about this story is not just what she gave, but what the gift represented and how it was given.   We know it was a prodigally expensive gift. . . . but it represented, for one thing, the anointing of a king, as David was anointed.    And as Jesus said, the anointing of one to be given over to death.   Maybe Mary captures in this gesture, that tension between Christ the king and Christ the sacrificial lamb.   Mary was no theologian, but she was certainly something of a prophet.

Secondly, this gift was given in utter humility.   The Bible says that she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, not only the task of a slave, but also of self-effacement.   You see, then a woman’s hair, as we have heard, was her glory.  To take it down and soil it cleansing the feet of another was, well, just shocking. . . . . about as shocking as our Lord washing the feet of his disciples.

Hers was a humble, worshipful gesture of recognition and thankfulness.    And it alerts us to the nature of God’s gift to us. . .  the gift of his only Son . . . the sacrificial lamb . . . the one who would be king. . .  given to die for us, whose life would be extracted drop by drop.   Maybe Mary began to see the true Jesus and responded as she was able.

So, how does this speak to us?  What are we to do?    What extravagance are we capable of in light of God’s faithfulness and love?    How are we changed?  How do our values change and how does what we value change in the light of Christ’s great gift to us?

Now, our treasurer, Stewart, would be exceedingly pleased if you all were to throw 54 grand into the collection plate . . . but this isn’t an issue of money . . .this is an issue of gifts.

All of us have reasons to dance in the streets because of the gifts God has given us, through Christ, through that encounter.    It begins with our faith.  You see faith is based on an extravagant precedent.   Early in John, the apostle declares, “For God so loved the world—this world, the Mary’s and Martha’s and Lazarus’s, and Bob’s and you—-that he gave his only Son,—this lavish gift— that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life–would be bound forever to God’s grace and mercy”   Faith is based on this extravagant, immodest gift of God, made all the more valuable because it is not something we can acquire or conjure on our own . . . it is simply a gift.

Faith is an extravagant gift based on an extravagant gift.

And in its sway, are capable of a lavish response, like Mary.

But first, we need to recognize that value and values change.  We have to be careful that the bean counters don’t undermine our gifts.

I’ll give you an example. Time may be one of our greatest and most jealously guarded commodities.  While the bean counters would have us order our day to maximize our output and productivity, but we can seize back some of this gift.  Wouldn’t it be terrible extravagant to set aside a half hour or so to pray for those in need, for the folks in your live and family, for those who struggle in poverty and fear and shame and hopelessness, for the immigrant, the refugee, the abandoned child?   Wouldn’t it be extravagant to take part of your lunch hour to intercede in prayer for those who may have no other resource than your compassionate heart, filled with God’s spirit.  Oh, my!

We are capable of extravagant compassion.   It is not cost-effective, the bean counters tell us,  to be sure that your neighbor is fed and housed. . . .there is no monetary margin of return . . . but, oh, how you can change a life with compassion. We are freed to build bridges, bind wounds, comfort the shamed and broken.  So much can happen when we decide not to look the other way.  So much can change when we take a stand for mercy.

What would happen if we practiced in faith, extravagant loving as Christ has loved us?  Freed look beyond race and gender, beyond color and creed, beyond sexual orientation . . . beyond past mistakes and present idiosyncrasies.  What if we practiced extravagant love?  I’ll tell you what would happen, and you know.  People would come together.  Relationships would heal.   Walls would tumble down.

Each of us has been given great and extravagant gifts.   Look around this community of faith some time and think of the depths of knowledge and wisdom and skill and love and possibility.

Circumstances, other values cause us to soft-pedal, even deny these gifts.  The true value of Mary’s gift was realized in the giving . . . in the releasing of it in honor of Christ.  So too with our gifts.

Because of God’s mercy, and compassion and love and sacrifice, we have jars full of these profligate gifts, friends.   The value of them realized in their release in the name of Christ.

Maybe we ought to mess the place up a bit. . .  in Jesus’ name.

Let’s hurl a few of these gifts around like water balloons splashing and soaking God’s children . . . getting a little on our brothers and sisters, the body of Christ . . . and think what would happen. Maybe like Mary’s gift, the fragrance of ours, too, would fill the house and heart of many.