a simple extravagance
a sermon for the fifth sunday in lent, preached at the 5:30pm (saturday) and 10:30am services
The home of Lazarus, a home for Jesus. We are treated today to a snapshot of the last (and perhaps only) place that Jesus finds the comfort of home throughout his ministry. Here is the family he loves. His friend Lazarus, raised from the dead, and dealing with that reality. Martha, forever grateful, forever the hospitable one. Mary, forever grateful, forever the worshipping one. This is a place of rest. This is a place of welcome. This is a place of love. And in this place Mary offers a simple extravagance, celebrating this fleeting moment in time, celebrating the life of her friend, this man Jesus Christ. And Christ accepts this simple extravagance. He accepts the gift of love from someone.
It’s a gift of love that expresses gratitude, gratitude for the return of a brother, gratitude for a reality-shifting ministry, gratitude for a life that will be sacrificed, and soon. Mary has come to terms with this reality of death looming large over Jesus, death that will come shortly. And, Mary will not let that promise of death keep her from expressing her appreciation for the presence of Jesus Christ in her life. The extravagance of the gift that is offered points to the devotion that Mary has towards Christ, and more so, the extravagance points to the deepness of the impact that Christ has had on her life, and the deepness of the love that Mary is expressing towards Christ. This deepness of love is seen in the quality of perfume, the anointing of the feet and wiping with her hair. This deepness of love reflects the great sacrifice that Christ will make. This deepness of love prepares Christ to make this sacrifice.
And yet, even with this deepness on display, objections are raised.
Judas, one of the twelve, decries the use of the expensive perfume. It is worth 300 denarii he declares, roughly the equivalent of a year’s wages for most folk. Beyond this, what impact could this influx of cash have on their ministry? They are constantly and consistently reaching out to the poor, the sick, the needy, and 300 denarii would go a long way in furthering the cause. The writer of John uses this moment to further the narrative of betrayal, that Judas does not actually care about the poor, he is more worried about his bottom line. But, what if Judas wasn’t skimming from the communal purse, would his argument have merit? Is it just, is it Christ-like to bathe in expensive perfume when the whole mission has been focused on helping those without? Doesn’t that sound a bit hypocritical? So, what then might Judas’ objection be (if he weren’t so corruptly invested)?
Judas, and the rest of the twelve, have made a personal commitment to the message of Christ. They have given up everything, jobs, homes, families, to pursue the mission of Christ, to follow him and be his disciples, to travel the lands bringing Good News and healing to all they encounter. They are dirty and tired. Even though they have the benefit of enjoying hospitality of those who welcome Jesus in, it isn’t every day, and they’re basically tagging along with the star of the show. No one is offering to anoint them with expensive perfumes.
So, Judas objects, and it’s easy to imagine that some of the disciples secretly agree with Judas (especially not knowing that he is stealing from them behind their backs). Why wouldn’t we sell this perfume, take the money, solve some problems. But at what cost? Ideology is important but ideology can also be dangerous. When we get sucked into our ideology and forget to step back and see the bigger picture, we are viewing the world through a distorted lens. We get so sunk into our sense of what is right and what is wrong, who is right and who is wrong, who is of us and who is against us and our mission, that we forget that there are larger forces at play, that we are all connected whether we like it or not. Our ideology creates a my way or the highway type mentality, and leads us to question constantly anything that goes against us. And yet, what if we took that step back. What if we didn’t voice an objection quite so vociferously. What if instead of decrying the use of an extravagant perfume to anoint one who is about to die because that money could have been spent to save a few more lives, we open our eyes and see how this one life that is being prepared for death will save many more lives than we can ever fathom.
This is why Judas’ objection should ring so loud and familiar to us. This is why Judas’ objection is so important for us. Not because he is secretly a thief who is ready and willing to betray Christ, but because Judas’ objection reflects what happens when one becomes so entrenched in the ideology of the movement, that they can’t see the bigger picture, the greater implications of the small acts that are occurring right in front of our faces.
And Mary is clearly preparing Christ for his death. The ceremonial anointing of the feet found here in John departs from other versions of this story where Jesus is anointed on the head. In those versions, it is important because the anointing of the head marks his place as king. Here in John, Mary anoints the feet of Christ because she is marking that the end is near and that Christ must be anointed, not just with perfume but with the mark of a deep love, as he approaches the time of his sacrifice. She anoints him, and in doing so, shows to Christ that at the very least, one person in all of creation understands and profoundly appreciates the sacrifice that is about to be made, and in many ways that’s all the motivation that Christ needs.
Christ rebukes Judas declaring that “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This is not a rebuke against serving the poor. This is not a rebuke that excuses not serving the poor because they’ll always be part of this existence. Rather, this rebuke is against being so singularly blinded by one’s mission that you miss the bigger purpose for what you are doing. Of course it is the mission of Christ that we serve the poor, the sick, the needy, Christ makes that clear time and time again, and of course we will always have the poor because we continue to prop up man-made power structures that disenfranchise, belittle, hold down, make nigh impossible for there ever to exist a time without the poor, or the sick, or the needy. But, our mission is ultimately larger.
Just serving the poor will never change the underlying causes of what makes them poor. Just giving out money will never help someone reach that next step they must take in order to become whole again. It is the general practice here at the Cathedral to not give out cash to those who come in asking for it. It is not because we don’t want to help, and it is not because we don’t have the means to help. Rather, it is because throwing money at a problem does nothing to solve the underlying problems. We do offer a bite to eat for those who are hungry and we make every effort to direct folks to those organizations who make it their mission to serve in these specific times of need. More often than not, these are organizations that we (either as the Cathedral or you individually) do support through financial resources, supplies, service projects and more. But, ultimately, we are a Church, not a charity. And our mission as the Church must look beyond the narrow focus of treating symptoms. It is our job as the Church to be the voice that challenges the societal structures that have been put in place to keep the poor poor, the rich rich, and never the two to meet. It is our job as the Church to prepare this world for the coming of Christ, through spreading the Good News of the Gospel, Good News which is fully realized in the reverence that Mary shows to Jesus today, seeing the larger picture for what it was, and understanding that a greater purpose was in play.
We are challenged today to be like Mary, but you are not at fault if Judas’ question doesn’t ring even a little true. What we are challenged with in this moment is learning where our focus lies. We have to understand what the role of the Church is. We have to understand how we use our resources, the purpose to which we are using them, we have to understand the justifications for how we spend our money, not because we should be giving it all away, but because it is our job as the Church to use these resources in a long-reaching manner that drives to the heart of the deep-rooted issues that create the symptoms of poverty, neglect, abuse, addiction, disgust for our fellow beloved children of God. If we use our resources, both financial and personal, we can help creation live into the Good News of Christ. If we become too singularly focused on one end, we will miss the bigger picture of what is at stake. Let us live into our mission as followers of Christ, let us live into our mission as the Church.