Preached on 7 April 2019 at Church of the Ascension in Seattle, Washington
The fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
This morning, I want to talk about love. Abundant, extravagant, luxuriant, tangible love. About costly love. I want to talk about a love that is an expression of the grace upon grace in the Prologue of this gospel where John writes,
“The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”
As we make our way through John’s gospel, we can read it through that lens of grace upon grace. We find so many instances of this grace upon grace. And in today’s we find Mary embodying God’s grace upon grace as she anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive, perfumed ointment and wipes them with her hair. This is an act of extravagant, luxuriant love; tangible love; costly love. This wasn’t a small token of affection she bought with her “pin money.” No, this was more like the price of a car.
We see in her act of love a mutuality in their relationship. Jesus comes not only to shower the people with God’s love and blessing; he, too, receives love. Like every human being, he needs love. This tangible expression of love strengthens him for what he is about to face. Soon, he will enter Jerusalem for the last time.
In contrast to Mary, we have Judas. Perhaps it is just human nature that we resist and even resent this grace upon grace God offers – especially when it is given to another.
We saw it last week in the parable from Luke: the father welcomes his wayward son home with an extravagant party. The other son resents it.
Judas resents the grace upon grace given to Jesus and protests Mary’s extravagance, pointing to one of Jesus’ primary concerns, the poor. She should have used the money to help the poor, instead of on Jesus.
And you know, on one level, he’s right. Why spend all that money on this when we could use it for that other thing you care so much about? We hear that logic all the time. Shoot, I say it!
Sometimes it’s said in all sincerity. Other times, though it’s self-serving and the cause will be forgotten as soon as it’s no longer expedient for the person to show concern for it. John clearly thinks that Judas is insincere.
Jesus has a different response, though.
“Leave her alone,” he says, “She bought this in preparation for my burial. I’m about to die. Soon, I’ll be gone. You will have plenty of time to help the poor.
So, we can see there’s another way to look at the question. Sometimes you just have to put your lists of pros and cons aside. You do whatever you can for the needs of the person right in front of you.
You make sure this person you love, this person who has changed your life and loved you like no other, you make sure they will get a proper burial. You make sure they know just how much you love them and care about them before they face the hardest thing they’ve ever done. You give them the grace upon grace you have received.
And you don’t count the cost. Because love is costly.
The Judases of the world think they can (and have to) hoard grace and then ration it out. Give just enough so that the person can barely get by; nothing extravagant mind you: Hamburger, not steak, or better yet, beans, not meat; powdered milk and canned vegetables, not fresh. And of course, only those who are truly deserving and appropriately grateful may receive. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
Some even say that the great cathedrals and churches should sell their art and silver and use the money to help the poor. And yet, even the poorest of the poor can go to those churches and be moved by the beauty of the great masterpieces; they can drink form a silver chalice. They can transcend the deprivations of their everyday existence and for a time, be as rich as a king; they can dwell in the kingdom of God.
Perhaps, instead of keeping art and beauty in private spaces, we can look for even more ways to make them available to all.
Grace can’t be hoarded. Love that is rationed isn’t love at all.
Jesus responds to Judas, “you will always have the poor among you.” In fact, if we want to find Jesus, the best place to look is among the poor; that’s where he’ll be. Too often, his statement is used as an excuse to do nothing for the poor or to alleviate poverty. Some almost take it as a commandment that the poor are meant to be poor.
A better understanding would be, you will always have opportunities to help the poor. Or even a commandment, keep the poor among you, so they are not forgotten; so that we can know them as our neighbor to be loved and treated with dignity as fellow human beings.
There’s still more to Mary’s extravagant act of love. Anointing Jesus feet and wiping them with her hair foreshadows Jesus on the night he is betrayed. He, too, will be at dinner with his friends, the disciples. He will get up from the table and wash their feet and wipe them. We’ll experience the rest of that story during Holy Week.
Mary’s expression of extravagant, costly love gives us a tiny glimpse of the abundant, extravagant, luxuriant, tangible, costly love of Christ.