21st March 2010 - "A spendthrift lover"

Usha Hull - All Saints'
John 12 1-8

In the world we live in, extravagance is often frowned upon. Yet our God is a God whose gifts and whose love we might consider are wildly extravagant. I recently came across a lovely little hymn by preacher and hymn writer Thomas Troeger, and I quote the first verse here:

A spendthrift lover is the Lord,
Who never counts the cost,
Or asks if heaven can afford
To woo a world that’s lost.
Our lover tosses coins of gold
Across the midnight skies,
And stokes the sun against the cold,
To warm us when we rise.

As Troeger says, all nature reflects this abundance, this over-flowing plenty, this generosity. And I believe some of the finest moments of our human existence occur when we respond to this great love by giving the best we can to the Lord.

I truly believe that when we love, there is nothing we can give that is too much. I’m reminded here of someone I once knew who was widowed after many years of marriage. Her bereavement followed many years of her husband’s illness, many years when her house had been a place of suffering and silence. When her husband died, she did not have many savings and she was quite poor. Yet her first thought was to spend the little she had on flowers for her husband’s funeral and she spent it all extravagantly. Flowers helped to lift her mind above the harsh reality of sickness and death, flowers helped to sanctify with tenderness the years of pain, flowers gave expression to what was in her heart. And so often when we seek to express what is deep in our hearts, we seek to do so by giving something of beauty because this reflects what words cannot.

Today’s Gospel story tells of an act of utmost extravagance. All four Gospels mention the anointing of Jesus. In Mark and Matthew the woman is unnamed and pours an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume on Jesus’s head. In both these Gospels the disciples are extremely indignant at what they see as a waste of money. In the Gospel of Luke, the woman anointing is again unnamed but branded as sinful. The Gospel of John, however, names the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha, both of whom are also the sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.

In John’s Gospel, it is the week before Passover and the crowds are already flocking to Jerusalem to take part in the necessary purifications. For the Lord, Jerusalem is a dangerous place as very powerful people are already plotting to kill him, fearing his power and influence, particularly since the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the account of which John gives in the preceding chapter to the account we have just heard.

The little village of Bethany, where Lazarus and his two sisters live is near the outskirts of Jerusalem, and it is here that Jesus retires temporarily, having set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem and his own imminent death. In quiet Bethany he is among friends, people who love and know him and who want to feed him and look after him. And I take it that the mood was one of celebration and thanksgiving: Lazarus who had been thought dead is alive and well and the Passover is just a few days away.

There are several named people present. Lazarus remains silent in John’s account as does his sister Martha, who is preoccupied with serving. Instead, other than our Lord, centre stage are two very different people, Judas and Mary, and I’d like to look briefly at the different attitudes and approaches of these two people.

So let’s take Judas first. John says of Judas that he was a thief, even though he was in charge of the common purse for the group, but let’s leave that aside and look at the other aspects of Judas.

During his time with Jesus, Judas has been witness to many healings, to many miracles and instances of grace. He has been constantly in the company of someone who has fed the hungry, healed the sick, changed water into wine, even raised the dead. He has been constantly in the company of one who has taught love and forgiveness, compassion and right living, care of the vulnerable and the outcast, the poor and the grieving.

You would have thought that by this time, three years into the ministry of Jesus, Judas would have come to have known something of the character of Jesus and what Jesus was really all about. But it seems not.

It seems Judas continues to be blind to the love and the grace and the overflowing abundance of God’s generosity that he has witnessed in such acts as the changing of water into wine and the feeding of the five thousand, the raising of the dead. He objects to Mary’s act of anointing not because of real concern for the poor but because his vision is limited, his mind is closed, he cannot see beyond his own parameters and goals. His truly are eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, his a heart that remains barren soil.

For that matter, you would have thought the disciples too, who so vociferously object as Judas does to the out pouring of the perfume, would also have got the message by now. Nard, we are told, the perfume used for the anointing, comes from northern India and although extremely expensive was much treasured in the ancient world. The historian Pliny, for example, lists twelve species of nard and the poet Horace offered to send his fellow poet Virgil a whole barrel of his best wine in exchange for a small phial of it. An alabaster jar of purest nard, such as used by Mary, would have been the equivalent of a whole year’s wages for an ordinary person in the time of Jesus. So the indignation of the disciples, while understandable, completely overlooks what Mary sees so clearly.

For Mary seems to be the only person in that group, other than our Lord, who really does get the point. Mary, just a short while ago was deeply bereaved following the death of her brother Lazarus. When Martha led Mary to Jesus following the death, she must have been a pitiful sight. Mary knows what loss, what bereavement is all about. But she also knows the joy, the surprise, the utter incredulous gratitude of having something she had thought lost and gone forever restored to her in a brief moment of time and for a brief and utterly precious length of time.

Mary’s heart has understood the truth that the present moment is sacred and that God is with us in the here and now. She has understood that death is not the end and that there is another dimension beyond the material and the every day. Her heart understands the truth that our time on earth is fleeting and that in the joy and the beauty of the present moment we are given the chance to connect with that which is life giving and eternal.

Her gratitude and love know no bounds. For Mary, there is nothing she can give that will ever be good enough. There is nothing that she can do that can ever adequately express this gratitude. There is no way she can ever repay the love of God brought to her by the one who is His Son. So in an effort to give of herself she takes the most precious thing she owns and anoints the feet of Jesus in a great outpouring of love and tenderness. It is love like this which is a healing and a balm in the face of the ugliness and the sorrows of life. And it is this love that anoints Jesus in the face of the cruelty, the evil and the terrible death which is to come.

Both Mary and Judas have traits of character that are present in all of us. Let’s go back first to Judas. Judas never learnt grace despite claiming to be a disciple. No doubt he weighed up cause and effect. No doubt he carefully calculated the personal gain in any given venture and sought to boost his own standing. But don’t we ourselves often look to the expedient, that which will benefit us materially, that which will serve us first and others second? Again, sadly, aren’t we often looking to our own standing in the church, a church ironically where its master has gone down on his knees to wash the feet of His disciples?

Do we seek to learn from the examples of God’s over-flowing and abundant love and generosity that leap out at us not just from the Gospel but from countless instances of our own lives? Or is our vision often blinkered, our purposes narrow-minded and self-seeking, our hearts hardened by the politics and material gain of the situations around us? In our own faith, do we often rest on the good things we undoubtedly do, and yet ignore our spiritual lives?

Or instead, like Mary, do we choose the spiritual over the material? Do we seek beauty and blessing to soothe and sanctify the ugly realities of life? Do we learn to recognise, accept and respond to the many ways in which God constantly gives to us? Do we try to give to God that which is best in us without counting the cost?

I began with a little verse from the hymn writer Thomas Troeger and I end with a verse from the same hymn:

‘How shall we love this heart-strong God
Who gives us everything,
Whose ways to us are strange and odd,
What can we give or bring?
Acceptance of the matchless gift
Gift us gift enough to give.
The very act will shake and shift
The way we love and live.’

May we, who are loved beyond measure, learn to love without measure, too