Monday, March 30, 2009

Alabaster Sermon

READ FIRST: the scripture lesson is from Matthew 26:6-16

My sermon: with thanks to the worship committee, because we really did co-plan this worship service and the sermon was subordinated to the rest of the worship, especially the offering.

This story, of the woman who anointed Jesus with ointment from an alabaster jar, is a very important time in the Gospel story. We’re reading it out of order here, because chronologically it happens after Jesus actually entered into Jerusalem on a donkey, with palms and people shouting... Next week, on Palm Sunday, we will read that story, and if we were reading along with the gospel, we would find that this story happens sometime in the early part of Holy Week. So, when this happens, Jesus is getting into greater and greater danger. He has marched into the temple in Jerusalem and overturned the tables and pronounced doom on the Pharisees and scribes. People are looking out for a way to kill him. But also during this week, whenever Jesus is alone with his disciples, he has gathered them in to give them his very last lessons. He tells them parables about the end of the world and about how to be good leaders until the end comes.

Unfortunately, even though Jesus is teaching them privately, the disciples are getting farther and farther away from understanding. They never were the brightest bunch of disciples, but it gets worse now. By the end of the week, Judas betrays Jesus, and Peter denies him, and by the time Jesus is dead and buried ALL TWELVE of them have deserted him and run away. They don’t get it. When Jesus got arrested, Peter took out a sword and cut someone’s ear off – as if protecting Jesus so that he could break free. Peter probably thought that it was the moment of truth, when Jesus would finally show all his power and set up his kingship on earth, once and for all. In our Bible Study we even discussed if Judas thought he was doing the right thing when he made arrangements to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Maybe he thought that Jesus was ready for a big confrontation, and that the time was right for everyone to find out who Jesus really was – the king of Israel.

Can you imagine how surprised they must have been, later in the week, to find out that Jesus was NOT going to call up an army of angels and establish his kingdom right away?
And at the beginning of that week, can you imagine how lonely Jesus must have felt, as he realized his twelve closest followers STILL had no idea what was going to happen in Jerusalem that week?

So that’s the bad news: Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it.

The good news in this story, though, is that SOMEBODY understood. Somebody realized that Jesus was not a military king, that folks were out to get him, and that Jesus would not fight back when he was arrested, and that the only place this kind of behavior could lead him was into prison or to his death. Somebody saw that Jesus was the Lamb of God headed meekly for the slaughter.
This somebody has no name. John identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, but Matthew never says anything about them. And Luke talks about another woman, a sinner, who pours ointment on Jesus’ FEET, but that might be a different person. We really don’t know who she is.

But we do know that she arrives on the scene just as the twelve disciples start turning tail. She is bold – she enters a gathering of men, apparently uninvited – and she is devoted. She is making it clear that she supports Jesus and will follow him even to the death. It’s interesting that she is a woman, and that through the week while the male disciples fall away, the female disciples grow closer to Jesus, and the women are the ones who find the empty tomb. It’s not about who’s male and who’s female – what’s happening is that one group is straying away while another comes closes during this time of conflict. This woman, who brings the alabaster jar, has a little confrontation with the disciples, although she never says a word to them. By her action she shows them that she understands what they don’t. She knows that Jesus is headed for the grave, not for a royal throne. And she acknowledges this with her whole self – she pours out an offering of perfumed ointment that is costly, extravagant, poetic, and deeply meaningful. It is a beautiful action she does, and Jesus praises her.

But! The disciples object, and they do have a good argument. Anyone who’s ever balanced a budget knows, poetry doesn’t pay the bills. Hungry people cannot make it through the day on prayers and perfume. Jesus had taught his disciples how to generously feed the hungry, and once Jesus even told a rich young man that in order to have treasure in heaven, he had to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. The disciples had been with Jesus for all of this, and they had learned to be efficient careful with money, and certainly never to waste it. Now Jesus seems to change his whole mind by accepting a useless and expensive gift like this. Her action is not efficient or cost-effective at all!

My sister and I went through an argument a little like this, when we were serving an orphanage in Uganda. We had raised some money to spend on the children, and we had made a decision to ask the older children what they wanted or needed. Most asked for pencils, shoes, underwear, and other sensible things. One girl asked us for a pillow. Now this was a rather efficient orphanage. They spent money on the basics: food, soap, medicine, blankets, school supplies. None of the kids had real pillows, but some had pillowcases and they’d bunch up a sweater in it and sleep on that. My sister took one look at that request and said “no way. That’s a waste. Notebooks, pencils, books, books, books – no way does she actually NEED a pillow. We can’t afford it.” But I fought back and said “I want us to be extravagant and just really show her that she’s loved.” And when we did decide to buy that pillow, and then lined it up with all the other sensible things we were giving out, we both felt a little bit sheepish, because it looked really out of place. It was a really different kind of gift. It wasn’t useful. It was extravagant. (but lest you think I’m an easy spender, let me tell you that my sister and I switched roles when it came to the argument over whether or not to give the little kids candy. I got really strict on that one.)

Many of us in this church would side with the disciples – at least financially. If you were running an orphanage, or a church, or whatever, you would run a tight ship and never waste a thing. You’d shop at the secondhand store even if you could afford to buy new, and you’d make exactly enough food to go around. This perfume would be seen for what it is – a luxury item, a waste, and who needs that??

But when the right time comes, let me just point out that some of you here in the church really are extravagant with giving money. You give generously beyond what you are asked. The capital campaign can testify to that, right Dale?

Others of you might claim not to be extravagant. And financially you might be correct. But there is more than just one way to be extravagant. For example, taking on foster children is an extravagant expression of your time. Foster parents devote lots of time and lots of love to children, even when the children might be taken away at any time. And some of you give non-financial gifts to others. A hand-knit prayer shawl is a very extravagant gift. Sure, it is useful, to keep someone’s lap warm, but it is more important than its use. At the core, a prayer shawl is an generous outpouring of hours and hours of prayerful knitting. If we were more efficient we’d buy a blanket, for less money than we spent on the yarn, and then we could spend those hours working instead of wasting our time slowly knitting. But that’s not what the gift is about. When we give, our generosity does not have to meet efficiency standards. And even if we generally live a very efficient life, it can be a gift to temporarily drop our efficiency standards, to make time for someone in need.

You don’t need to be rich to be generous. And you don’t need to waste your money to be extravagant. My time in Uganda was a very rich time of giving and receiving, so I’m going to tell you another story from there. This time I was on the receiving end. It was my last day out of a five month stay there, and I was busy to the gills all day long with packing up, cleaning my room, organizing the projects I hadn’t had time to finish. The school had called for a parent-teacher meeting all day long, so I thought I was lucky and I’d just skip off and do my own stuff alone. But they called me in and made me sit at the “high table” – meaning everyone was watching me and I couldn’t so much as fidget – for the whole morning while they gave speeches in Luganda and I barely understood what went on. Then at the end of the day they formed a receiving line, and the parents – or uncles, brothers, grandmothers, or whoever served as “guardian” for the orphan children – all wanted to thank me for what I’d done to help the children. None of them were rich. Most of them were subsistence farmers, and many were single parents, taking care of large families at home, or even taking in other orphans from the neighborhood as well. They lined up and gave me little baggies of peanuts, some popcorn kernels, or a basket of eggs, or some avocados they had grown, and some of them had made straw mats for me, weaving them completely by hand. These small, hand-made gifts were so expressive to me. Jesus was right with what he said about the widow who put two pennies in the offering – that she actually gave MORE than all the doctors and lawyers who donated large amounts of money in.

But don’t be mistaken. I’m not here to argue about perfume or pillows or prayer shawls or orphanages, or on how we choose to waste our money or waste our time. Whatever your philosophy on waste is, this passage is not just about extravagant giving. Money is a touchy subject, as we all know, and it often brings to light what is hidden underneath the surface.

And here, what it brings to light is the question: Who do you say that Jesus is? And THIS is the real gift that the woman gave. At a time when the twelve disciples were getting pushed and pressured, and probably getting confused, and beginning to fall away throughout this week, SHE stood up boldly and said with her action: I know that you are the REAL king even though you are going to die, and I support you in that. This is the gift she gave, and this is a gift we can give, by confessing with our words and with our lives who Jesus is to us. Whatever you do, at work, at home, or out in the community, you can make into an offering that states clearly who Jesus is for you. He is the Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace, the king of heaven, our companion and friend – he is many things to many people. He also has told us that whatever we do to “the least of these” we do to him.

Today we will take a special offering. Instead of placing things in the basket we will come up and put our gifts on the table in the center of this sanctuary. This table is the center of our worship; it is where we give our gifts to God and where we receive from God in the Lord’s Supper.
Some of you will give generously of your money. I don’t mean that you will give a lot, but that you will give with a glad and generous heart.
Some of you may not feel that you can give much money, or even any money, right now. Remember, this is not what it’s all about. Someone in this church told me about times when he had no money to give, and when the offering plate came around he would hold the plate in both his hands and pray a prayer to dedicate himSELF to God instead. And any time when you don’t have a check to put in the offering plate, you are welcome to just reach out and touch the plate as it passes you by, or to take it in your hands and put a prayer on it.

Today let’s put whatever we have on the table, whatever can express our love and gratitude to Jesus and to the church, which is Christ’s body. No one is too poor, too weak, too sick, or too ANYTHING to have something to offer. If you’re unemployed, you can take that free time that you’re probably not too happy about having, and dedicate it to God. If you’re sick, you can take the hours you spend being miserable in bed, and give those hours to God asking God to help you through. You can offer your prayers. Or on the other side of things, if you have no free time at all, you can offer your work, your busy-ness, to God.

You can do this by writing something down and putting it on the table. If you don’t want other people to read it then simply fold it up. If you have an object that can represent your gift, please feel free to bring that up too. And the children are doing the same thing downstairs, so right after we ordain and install our new officers we will call the children up to join us in the offering.

Let us pray:
God of all, you treasure each one of us and see the best in us. Help us to give our best to you. Give us assurance in our hearts that we are worthy and that you accept our gifts. Help us to proclaim with our lips and with our lives the wonderful name of your Son Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. AMEN.

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