Monday, March 26, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, Mar 25

based on John 12:1-8 (read it here: )

If you’re anything like me, this story in Scripture makes you a little uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable because it really seems to me like Judas has a point. Let’s review this story quickly. Jesus is in the town of Bethany. One chapter prior to this story, Jesus was in Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. Now he has returned to Bethany, and the town has thrown him a party, a festival dinner. And we read that Lazarus was seated at the head table with Jesus; Lazarus’s sister Martha served. If you remember other stories about Mary and Martha, Mary was the one who was sitting with Jesus, listening, while Martha was the one who could not stop working. Here again, Martha is waiting tables, always preferring to keep busy.

But Mary is not working. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, has brought from her house a jar of very costly perfume, a large jar weighing about a pound. The perfume inside of the jar is made of pure nard, a very aromatic, very costly oil extracted from the roots of an Indian plant called spikenard. And Mary worships Jesus by pouring this perfume out, every last drop, onto Jesus’ feet.

I had friends in college who would wear too much cologne. I think it was a reaction to our dorm, which smelled of wet carpet, body odor and stale pizza. If you were going on a date with a beautiful woman, you couldn’t smell like wet carpet, body odor and stale pizza. So you put on cologne. But, as I say, some guys overdid it. And you would just know someone was heading out on a date when they would walk down the hall, and they would just leave this trail of cologne smell behind them; smelling too much cologne was only nominally better than smelling wet carpet, body odor, and stale pizza. But that too-much-cologne smell would hang around for minutes after the guy wearing the cologne actually left.

So I know a bit of what it is when John tells us that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” While the perfume was poured out in a relatively small area, the whole house, every nook and cranny, was filled with the beautiful fragrance of this perfume.

To most people, it smelled fine, wonderful, and heavenly. But to Judas, it flat-out stunk. To Judas, it smelled like money wasted. And so he says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Three hundred denarii was a lot of money–a year’s wages for a full-time worker. In our culture it would be at least $30,000. And this Mary woman has simply poured it out onto Jesus’ feet, in this prodigal act of extravagance. This did not need to happen.

Verse 6 tells us that Judas did not ask this for any good reason; he used to be the treasurer of the group and he used to help himself to whatever money he felt like using.

But–that does not change the fact that Judas has a point, does it? Judas does have a point here, doesn’t he? Why would this woman spend $30,000 to pour perfume on Jesus’ feet when there are a whole lot of problems in the world that could be helped by that $30,000?

When the new Catholic church went up just north of Eagle on Rt. 100, several people, including a few from this church, said to me, “it just seems like a waste to spend so many millions of dollars on a place to worship when there are just so many problems in the world.” And indeed, something deep inside my Baptist soul agrees; Baptist places of worship are generally plain, without many frills, because we believe that the church is not a building, but a church is a gathering of people, so why spend money on the building?

It’s also written deep in our culture to ask the same questions about our time. You and I both know people who are not Christians, and sometimes their rationale is this: “Look, I don’t know much about God, but what I do know is that God wants us to do right by other people. Right? Isn’t that what God is really concerned about? Doesn’t the Bible say something like, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’? Doesn’t the Bible say something like, ‘Don’t waste your time fasting; the fast I desire is to break the bonds of injustice’? Doesn’t God pretty much just want us to make the world a better place? So why should I waste my time with going to church, with singing old songs, and listening to some guy talk, and putting my hard-earned money into the plate, when I can be using that time and money to make the world a better place? Isn’t that what God wants me to do?”

These are questions that often touch a nerve in us very deeply; we are inclined to view these questions sympathetically. They touch us deep in our Baptist spirits. Why? Because Baptists are historically outsiders. We tend to identify not with the people with the big money and political influence, but with those who are outsiders, those without influence, those without power. It’s kind of the gift that we bring to the Christian table.

And so the truth is we tend to be very skeptical of multi-million dollar buildings like the Catholics have. Actually, I think we tend to be unfairly skeptical of everything Catholic. But that’s another issue. Anyway, we tend to be nervous about people spending money simply on lavish items or facilities for worship, believing usually that that money is better spent on people.
While we are skeptical of those in power, at the same time, we tend to be very sympathetic towards the questions that outsiders have. This church especially has been a haven for people who have been burned by bad experiences in churches before. And so when I give an example like that non-Christian above who believes that God really wants us to be good people, something inside us says, “Yes! That’s the way it is–that’s right–don’t get burned by church again, man; be the person you know God wants you to be.”

In fact, I think our preference as Baptists would be for the story to read a little bit differently. We would like for Mary to open her jar, and for Jesus to jump up, and say, “STOP! What are you doing? Don’t waste that perfume on me, Mary! Weren’t you listening when I talked to the rich young man? I told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor! Don’t waste that perfume on me, sell it–give it to the poor! That’s who God really cares about.”

But of course that is not what the story says and so we Baptists are faced with the uncomfortable realization that it is not the Savior Jesus who voices our feelings, but the traitor Judas who says what we are thinking. Jesus says, “Leave her alone. Leave her alone. She’s honoring me for my burial. The poor you will always have with you, but not me. You will not always have me.”

So what is the point of all this? Is Jesus concerned for the poor? Should we be concerned for the poor? Of course, Jesus is concerned for the poor and of course we should be too. In fact, when Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” he is quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11. And the point of Dt 15:11 is not, “well, you’re always going to have the poor with you, so don’t bother doing much about it.” The actual passage says, “Since you will always have the poor with you, I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” The very fact that there will always be poverty means that God’s people always have to be generous in response to poverty.

So Jesus quoting this passage does not mean, “Don’t worry about the poor, because there’s always going to be poverty.” What he means is that there is a time for serving the poor; all the time, really. There is always room for serving the poor; it is something there is always time for. But there will not always be time to have the Savior of the World in bodily presence with you. This moment comes and goes and cries out to be memorialized in some fitting, memorable way. My presence with you in this way is not eternal and so it is right to celebrate my presence with you now in this way. The poor are a real, valid concern; but so is sacrificially worshiping me in this moment, right now, while God is here among you.

This is, after all, the point of this passage. So often, the Gospel takes “either-or” questions and dares to answer them “both-and.” So the question comes up, “Was Jesus a man or was he God? He was either one or the other.” And Christians dare to say, “Yes, Jesus was both man and God.” Or someone asks, “Is the Bible a human book or is it the word of God?” And Christians dare to say, “The Bible is a human book–it was written by actual people in concrete circumstances–and it is the Word of God to us.” Or someone asks, “We are saved by either faith or our works. Which is it?” And Christians dare to say, “Both have a role–are faith saves us and our works demonstrate and testify that our faith is real.” So often, when people pose either-or questions, the gospel exposes these questions as being false. They presuppose something incorrect.

And this is what happens here with Judas. He says, “Either we are here to serve the poor or we’re here to lavishly pour ourselves out in worship to God. Which is it?” And Jesus exposes this as flawed logic. It presupposes that you only have a limited amount of time and money, and you can either use it to serve the poor or you can use it to worship. And Judas tries to take the high road; he says, “Well, you can use your time to pour perfume all over the ground if you want, but for me, I’m going to serve the poor.” And Jesus shows that this argument is just foolish. It’s not that you have to choose between, on the one hand, being passionately, deeply involved in worship and, on the other, serving God out in the “real world.” To force you to choose between the two is just wrong.

In fact, the truth is that the one needs the other. Far from being a choice of either serving the poor or worshiping God, the truth is that the two need each other. Worship that doesn’t instill a desire and a motivation to go and serve the poor is flawed worship. Why do I say that? Because you can come to church all you want, and sing, and be happy, and feel close to God; but if it doesn’t translate to seeing the world with God’s eyes, if it doesn’t translate to viewing other people with Christ’s love, then it has been an exercise in self-indulgence. If you come to worship and it is strictly, always about you and your feelings, then you may as well find some other product to make you happy. The goal of worship is not to make us happy, but to change us and equip us to go and serve and change the world. And the miracle is that as we do that, when we give ourselves to that goal, then God comes in, meets our needs, and takes care of our hearts.

Worship that doesn’t look outward to the problems of the world is not real worship.
But at the same time, the flip side is that serving the poor is not all it can be without a heart that loves to worship. Why do I say that? Because the truth is that we cannot truly change the world without changing ourselves. “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” says Romans 8:19. All of creation is in bondage to decay; the whole world follows the script of the seasons, moving toward death. And so all of creation desperately is waiting to see the children of God, a chosen people; all of creation is desperately longing to see the children of God, people who God has empowered, people with God living in them, people who through God’s spirit are given the gift of not being in bondage to those things.

Deep down, the problems of poverty and blight are related to sin. Does this mean that everyone who is poor deserves to be poor because they’re sinful, and if they’d just stop sinning, then they’d be OK again? Of course not. I’m not saying that every person gets exactly what they deserve in life. I am speaking of sin in a far more systemic kind of way. We all exist within a world which is sinful to its core; a world where greed dominates, and so some are poor while some are rich; some have access to the best health care money can buy and some cannot get a simple net to cover their bed and keep them from getting malaria. This is all sin; even though it’s not as simple as saying, “They just need to stop sinning.” The world is sinful, thus individuals suffer poverty and other difficulties.

And so it is that issues of serving the poor are directly related to worship. Because deep down the creation is not looking for a handout; the creation is looking for the revealing of the children of God. The creation is desperately looking for people who know God intimately and can point the way out of this web of sinfulness. And that knowledge is something we only gain in worship. We do not gain this precious knowledge from being activists who work and work and work and never spend time reflecting in God’s presence. We only gain it from being in the presence of God, and going from there empowered and nourished to serve the world in amazing ways.

You see, when Mary knelt before Jesus and poured out that costly perfume over his feet, and wiped them with her hair, she was not saying, “Jesus is more important than the poor.” She was saying, “The greatest friend the poor has ever known is here, and loving the poor starts with loving Him. Serving the poor starts with serving him. Caring for the poor starts by worshiping Him, by becoming his children, by becoming partners with the great God who is changing the world by bringing in the Kingdom.

My prayer for you during this holy time of year is that you would be unafraid to give your most prized possessions, even yourselves, to God; that you would make a sacrifice of your life the fragrance of which would spread through the whole world. I pray that you give yourselves completely to Christ so that he can send you forth to love and serve all the world.