Sermon: The Discomfort of Extravagant Love

“The Discomfort of Extravagant Love”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the Lord,
   who makes a way in the sea,
   a path in the mighty waters, 
who brings out chariot and horse,
   army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
   they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 
Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old. 
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert. 
The wild animals will honor me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, 
   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

Do you know someone whose love for Jesus is totally embarrassing?  

I don’t mean folks who wear big cross necklaces and show off their dog-eared Bibles to prove how holy they are; I mean folks who do things that make you really uncomfortable because they are so committed to following Jesus.

A minister friend of mine knows someone whom he describes as loving Jesus so much he’s pretty sure she would marry him if she could.  

For starters, she talks about Jesus like she just came from getting coffee with him, which is a little startling even when you’re a minister. And she always stops to talk with people living on the street, handing them $20 bills instead of spare change…which feels a little extravagant. And she (unintentionally) makes you feel self-conscious about your own hobbies because she doesn’t really enjoy shopping or watching sports or taking vacations – she’d rather cook a meal for the family with the new baby or read aloud from Reader’s Digest to the lonely older woman in the nursing home. She doesn’t have a car because she gave it to a friend who needed one; now she just bikes or walks everywhere. She’s one of those people who doesn’t exchange presents on Christmas but instead gives a bunch of money to the local domestic abuse shelter in your name. She never gossips, she never has unkind words to say about anyone, and she’s happy all the time!

Look, I love Jesus and I know you do, too, otherwise you wouldn’t be here – but this is a little much.  I mean, surely we don’t have to be so extreme about it!

I’m pretty sure that’s the sentiment everyone is feeling in today’s Gospel passage. It’s clear that Mary’s actions are making everyone uncomfortable; knowing more about the cultural context here makes it a truly squirm-worthy scene.

First off, Mary was entering a male-only space where the disciples were relaxing, post-dinner, with Jesus. According to gender norms at the time, she and her sister Martha – remember her? the one always doing the housework – should have been doing just that: scrubbing dishes in an unseen part of the house, leaving the men to themselves.  

But Mary boldly breaks that barrier and walks right into the middle of a space she’s not supposed to occupy.

Then she touches Jesus, a man to whom she is not related, in a culture where touching people of the opposite sex was a total taboo. She not only touches him, she touches his feet – and you may not know this – I think it’s an arcane bit of trivia that seminary professors delight in shocking their students with – but “feet” in Hebrew is a euphemism for another, much more private, body part. Mary was touching Jesus’ literal feet, but the symbolic intimacy between unmarried people would not have escaped anyone witnessing Mary’s act.  

And to top it all off, she’s using perfume that cost more money than any of the disciples had handled in their lifetime. I imagine the disciples saw Jesus as their beloved teacher; but no matter how beloved your teacher is, you don’t buy sensual, break-the-bank perfume and then slather them with it in public. You get them a Target gift card.

To quote Episcopal priest Chana Tetzlaff, “The question that has occupied the imaginations of theologians throughout the centuries must have been on everyone else’s mind in that moment: Is there something more than meets the eye going on between them?”

Chana’s answer: “Of COURSE there was something going on between them. Mary has fallen in love with the Christ, with God the gracious lover of souls… revel[ing] in the joy that comes from her very soul being laid bare before her Maker and finding, instead of judgment, love and desire for her soul, for her true self, for her.”

I had never thought of it that way before: “Of COURSE there was something going on between them.” Makes you wonder whether those of us who merely want to get a gift card for Jesus have totally missed the point.

Mary’s actions are seen as shameful, scandalous, something only a brazen harlot would do. But what if she got it right, and what’s shameful isn’t her outpouring of love, but the shocked standoffishness we so often exhibit at such displays of devotion to Jesus? What if what’s scandalous isn’t her tender intimacy with Jesus, but rather our own reluctance to engage God in such an up close and personal way?

I grew up in a church culture where we preached and taught about Jesus, but heaven forbid you should talk about your personal feelings for God!  I remember one Sunday as a teenager being stopped after worship by a visitor asking if she could pray for me. There we were, blocking traffic smack in the middle of the steps that were the only way into and out of coffee hour, and she was closing her eyes and grasping my hands and praying to God for me in a mortifyingly personal way. My uber-polite Midwestern upbringing kept me from breaking away, but it was intensely uncomfortable for me – not just because she was doing this in public, but because she clearly felt so emotionally free and direct with God, like she had Jesus’ number on speed dial and would just spontaneously call him up to ask favors for people she’d barely met.

Maybe some of you grew up like I did, and that openness weirds you out. Or maybe you grew up comfortable with expressing this kind of love, communicating to Jesus just how much you love and cherish him – but have gotten out of the habit. Or maybe, some of you grew up familiar with such outpourings but they now make you uncomfortable because they remind you of insincere infatuation, all talk and no discipleship.

Whatever the reasons that now keep us from pouring our love out onto the feet of Jesus, Judas represents them in today’s text. The author of the Gospel of John takes pains to indict Judas not once, but twice, with some of the harshest parenthetical asides in the Bible: “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ’Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)”

John goes to such lengths to make Judas look bad because Judas’ question is a good one, one we have all probably asked in our lives: “Why are we spending so much on this program, this renovation, that photocopier when we could be using our money for ministry that really matters?” It’s a question we struggled with as we tried to prayerfully discern how best to use the Pleasant Street Legacy Grant.

So John has to make it clear that what seems like rational, even altruistic concern is actually, coming from Judas, entirely selfish. John wants to make sure we know exactly who the role model is in this scenario, and it isn’t the church council member advocating, with false piety, his own agenda.

No, our role model is the woman pouring everything she has into love for Jesus, because he’s seen her and valued her in a way no one else ever had.

During our Lenten study series this year, we have been, as it happens, learning to distinguish between our “Mary” and “Martha” voices. The “Mary” voice is named after that scene where the same Mary from today’s scripture simply sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to all the good things he has to say, while the “Martha” voice is named after her sister Martha who is instead fussing about all the undone housework.

What we’ve discovered is that we all know our Martha voice very well – the one nagging us to take care of our to-do lists, the one worried about what everyone will think of us, the one convinced that our value lies in how much we can accomplish rather than how present we can be to what’s right in front of us.

It’s a bit trickier to get quiet enough to hear our Mary voices. But when we do, it is a voice filled with unending compassion, peace, and even humor – it sounds, we’ve decided, an awful lot like God’s voice. One of our opening questions is always “Am I loved?” and our Mary voice always answers with a profound and certain “Yes.”

When we regularly take time to listen for this voice filled with peace and unconditional love, we start to sense the constant, steadfast enormity of God’s sustaining love for us, just as Mary did. It reminds us that God not only looks into the depths of who we are and calls us “good,” but that God cares for us in ways every bit as tangible and concrete as Mary pouring precious perfume over Jesus’ feet.

What’s just as amazing is that as we’ve become attuned to God’s extravagant care and love for us, just as we are, we find ourselves more open to the Spirit prompting us to reach out to others, to love them lavishly as well.

Because the ironic part of this passage is that when Jesus says, in response to Judas’ faux-pious concern, “Leave her alone. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” – well, now Jesus is no longer physically with us, and so one of the main ways we’re able to express our love for Jesus, the overflowing delight and tenderness for the One who loves us so dearly, is to care for those in need. Because a deep and abiding love for Jesus isn’t merely about supporting the church or even drawing close to God in prayer; it’s committing acts of mercy and justice as a way of life. Kind of like my minister friend’s friend, the one who loves Jesus so dang much.

A few years back I read an article in the New York Times about a Baltimore organization called Thread. Thread pairs a team of 4 or 5 adult volunteers with a 9th grader who is struggling at school due to a vulnerable economic situation or a volatile home life, with the aim of building relationships and walking alongside them through the obstacles they face. Sounds like a more hiply named version of Big Brothers/Big Sisters; but here’s what’s different about Thread: these volunteer adults commit to their kid for ten years. Ten years! And the team commits in a huge way.

Here’s one participant’s experience, paraphrased from the article: Eddie Blackstone, 23 and a junior in college at the time it was written, enrolled in Thread in his ninth-grade year. “[M]y mom walked out of my life, my dad had just gotten out of jail, I was in the bottom 10 percent of my class,” he recalled. One of the Thread volunteers with whom he made a strong connection was Tong Zhang, who was pursuing a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. Eddie recalls, “She was like, ‘I don’t want to be all up in your business, but I would like to invite you to my house to play video games.’”  

During his senior year, when he was applying for college, he and his dad lived in an abandoned house without running water or heat. Another volunteer, Rose, bought him space heaters and made sure he had a place to do laundry and get showered. When it came to doing homework, applying for college, getting up on Saturday morning to attend SAT practice, staying on track in college, Tong and Rose and other Thread volunteers consistently showed up, encouraging or cajoling or dragging Eddie out of bed, reminding him of his goals and dreams.

He has helped them, too. Tong had immigrated from China, and Eddie’s companionship helped ease her loneliness. When Rose’s mother died, Eddie attended her funeral in Pennsylvania. “He was really there for me,” Rose said. Now, when they get together, they talk about college and the future. “He’s going to be uncle Eddie and teach my son all the things he knows,” said Rose.

There were hard moments. “One day I got into an argument and said something real hurtful to Tong, and she started to cry,” recalled Eddie. “I saw she was crying because she loves me. I had never had that. I was like, ‘This relationship’s real.’”

Can you imagine a friend calling you up to have dinner some night and saying to them, “Nope, I’ve committed to a teenager who’s not my child to be over at his house helping him study for the SAT?”  Or to say “Sorry, gotta cancel brunch, the young adult to whom I’ve voluntarily committed myself isn’t out of bed yet and she’s got a job interview to get to.”  What would your friends say? “Um, it’s great that you’re a good Samaritan and all….but isn’t this a little much?  Couldn’t you just write a check or volunteer once a month? All this time and effort for a kid who might not even make it, a kid you’re not even related to – it’s almost…embarrassing.”

In the face of practical concerns, the daily busyness of life, and good old New England social norms, it can feel exposing, vulnerable, and yes, even embarrassing to dig deep into God’s overflowing love for us and then to pour it out on others. No wonder Mary’s actions stuck out like a sore thumb! When we’re like Judas, Martha, or the disciples – concerned with who’s paying the bills, which ministries need attention, clearing away the dirty supper dishes, or even trying to understand Jesus’ teachings – to be so in love with Jesus, so overflowing with love for others seems at best distracting and Pollyanna-ish, at worst subversive and even scandalous.

But deep down, Mary’s actions were none of those things. Her actions were a gift, and I think the outrageous, almost unbelievable price of the perfume she pours out on Jesus’ feet is meant to remind us of the inestimable value of that gift: to feel God’s love for us and, in response, to fall right back in love with God and with God’s people.

Today, I invite you to take time to open yourself to God’s deep, unconditional love for you, and then to think of someone, somewhere, some situation where you can pour that love out. See if you can love Jesus so much you embarrass yourself.