The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 7, 2019
High in the Himalayan mountains, sixteen thousand feet above sea level, there grows a little plant. This shrub, this root, grows to be about three feet tall and has a beautiful, pink, bell shaped flower. High up there in the clouds, one of those little plants is rooted up and carried away to a village. Torn apart, the root of that plant is crushed and distilled into a thick, goopy, fragrant oil. That oil is then carefully, so as not to lose a single drop, poured into a small vase made of the stone alabaster. Down, down, down the mountain goes that little jar of alabaster and its precious, fragrant oil.
That little jar is loaded onto a camel caravan, headed west. Over the Hindu Kush, along the Caspian Sea, and through the Fertile Crescent, our little jar of perfume finally arrives at a trading post along the Mediterranean Sea; it’s traveled over three thousand miles along the Silk Road from the Himalayan mountains to Palestine.
After such a long journey, that little jar of perfume has increased tremendously in value. So much so, that twelve ounces of it, the size of a can of coke, would cost you your entire annual salary. This the nard, the perfume, the fragrant oil in an alabaster jar that Mary uses to anoint the feet of Jesus.
On the surface, it’s foolish, isn’t it? I mean, who would waste such an exotic gift all in one shot? Who would pour out your entire annual salary in one hit? This perfume, this nard, is like that Chanel Number Five that you only break out for special occasions. And this isn’t Las Vegas, where you could blow your annual salary in a few minutes, but at least you would have a shot at winning something back. Mary doesn’t count the cost, she just gives. She takes a whole pound of this stuff and pours it over Jesus’ nasty, road worn, dusty feet and crusty toenails. What a waste.
“What a waste,” Judas says. Because he is thinking of all the ways he could’ve spend that money. “What a waste.” It’s what we all say in this age of austerity and budget cuts. We tell ourselves there is only so much and no more. Surely, this money could’ve been used better elsewhere. Surely, they don’t really need money for that. Surely, this is all a waste. We say that, not because we have better ideas of what to do with the money, but because we want to keep it for ourselves.
And so let’s be honest. According to the world’s economic principles, what Mary did was a huge waste. I know that you procrastinators will be filing your taxes tomorrow. And I can see the look of horror on your accountants’ face if you told them you spent your entire salary this year washing the feet of a guy who will be dead in less than a week. What a waste.
And you know what? That’s the whole point. Saint Paul puts it best – I regard everything as loss compared to the value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Whatever it is that you have, that you own, that you’re striving for, that you’re saving for – at the end of the day it’s all going to be a waste if you don’t use it to press on toward Jesus. Paul boasts of the wastefulness, the extravagance of God’s love poured out for me and for you. Yes, in the eyes of the world it’s a giant waste for the Son of God to die on the cross for bozos like us. But that’s the whole point. What they see as waste we see as glory.
And the only waste, the only waste was that Judas could not see this extravagant, loving, beautiful gift lavished on Jesus. Make no mistake, this is Judas’ first act of betrayal. He betrays the love that has been given to him. He betrays the gift that Mary is pouring out. When Judas betrays Jesus to be arrested, it all starts in this moment. Because instead of seeing an act of love, all he could see was dollar signs. That was the waste.
It is a waste when all we do is criticize, complain, and mock. It is a waste, when cynicism is our public virtue.
You might call me Polly Anna. You might say that I haven’t seen enough of the world. You might say that it’s obvious that I was not an economics major in college. Be that as it may. But I’ll tell you what, I would far rather be a generous Christian than a shrewd miser. As for me, I will choose the God of abundance over the god of money. Because I know, as the end of the day, the God of abundance will never abandon me. The god of money, that god will end up betraying me, just as Judas was betrayed by the god of money.
So why? Why did Mary pour out this wasteful, beautiful gift? Remember, that just one chapter before in John’s gospel, Jesus raises Mary’s brother, Lazarus from the dead. This act of anointing is Mary’s act of gratitude. She is pouring out her absolute best, her most to the Lord Jesus as a way of saying thank you. As William Temple put it, “It is probable that in most of us the spiritual life is impoverished and stunted because we give so little place to gratitude.” Our spiritual lives are impoverished and stunted because we give so little place to gratitude.
This is another sign of God’s economics. There are no transactions here, there are only gifts. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead as a gift, not because he wants to get his feet washed later. Mary pours out this whole bottle of exotic, lavish, expensive nard to Jesus as a gift, not because she needs anything in return.
The real waste, the real waste is when our hardened, stingy little hearts refuse to accept the extravagant gift of eternal life from God. It was a glorious thing that Mary poured out that whole jar upon the feet of our Lord. It was a glorious thing that our Lord presumed to die upon the cross, pouring out everything he had so that you and I may have life, and have it abundantly. If we scoff at Mary’s gift, then we may as well scoff at the gift of God’s love for us upon the cross. If we scoff at such abundance, then we may as well walk out of this church and give ourselves over to the god of money. And that god would be more than happy to have us.
At Holy Comforter, we have named 2019 as our Year of Abundance. This will be the year in which we will not give in to the stinginess and the austerity that world fawns over. We will not close our fists, close our hearts, to the extravagant gift that God has given us. No, we will open our eyes and see that each one of us is a beloved child of God. Each of us is a gift from God given to one another.
Because you are like that precious bottle of nard, purchased at great price. Purchased with the blood of Jesus on the cross. Indeed, you are precious, far beyond any earthly treasure. From the least of you to the greatest, from the richest to the poorest, you are of eternal value to God. You were bought from death itself. And so I ask you, do not pour yourself out one drip at a time. Though that might be what your financial planner would tell you to do. No, allow God to smash open your heart, smash open that precious bottle so that all your love can come flowing out with reckless abandon. The fragrance of your love will then fill your whole life, and that will be an offering pleasing to God and to your neighbor. The Lord Jesus did not hold anything back to purchase you. Do not hold back any of your love, for that would be a waste.