September 29, 2019
A Holy Waste
Meg Peery McLaughlin
Prayer of Illumination
We do not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from your mouth, O God.
Make us hungry for your word
that it may nourish us today
in the ways of love
through Jesus Christ, Amen.
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.’
The Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
I think the high school Literature lesson was about irony,
I got the lesson, but more than that:
I remember how I felt after the lesson concluded.
We were reading O. Henry’s short story, the Gift of the Magi.
It is a sentimental, almost sappy, moralistic, American Classic.
In it a young couple, Della and Jim,
bad off and hard up, want to give each other Christmas gifts.
Because they can’t afford to do anything else:
Della cuts off her hair and sells it to buy Jim a chain for his treasured gold watch.
Jim sells that watch to buy Della a set of combs for her long, beautiful hair.
Their gifts, once given, were useless. Their love was obvious.
I don’t know if they still teach that short story in High School Lit classes.
I do know how I felt when it was over.
I said to myself Oh, what a waste!
And my heart had an ache in it,
an ache that can only come when it’s touched by love.
Our story from John’s Gospel today has the same effect.
Read it and it’s clear we are talking about waste. About an altogether useless gift.
And yet there is an ache too,
for we can’t come away from this story without bearing witness to deep love.
Mary pours out an excessive amount of perfume for a friend.
You just didn’t do that. It was hugely expensive and most of it probably hit the dusty floor.
It was a waste and everybody knew it.
I live with someone who doesn’t deal well with waste.
You think he’d have grown up in the depression, honestly.
What I destine for the garbage disposal, Jarrett destines for Tupperware.
Every inch of a Kleenex is used. Which is both disgusting and unsanitary.
A ziplock is rarely thrown away.
We cannot share toothpaste, because he will literally cut open the tube to get every last bit of aquafresh before going to the store for more.
In my parent’s kitchen there is a framed cross-stitch piece that hangs on the wall. It says: Waste Not. Want Not. It has already been willed to Jarrett.
I know he’s not the only one out there.
Wastefulness is unwise, it is cavalier, it is irresponsible.
Not to mention bad for the environment, bad for budgets, bad, in my case, for marriages.
So what do we do about Mary and her wasteful gift?
She shows up at dinner and just flat empties an entire bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. Not on his head, which might have been more understandable, but his feet.
Every single Gospel tells this story. That is abnormal, frankly.
Only two Gospels, for instance, tell the story of Jesus’ birth.
Luke is the only one that tells of the Prodigal Son.
But Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all careful to include this story.
They all recall the costly ointment, the loving gesture, the smell that fills the house.
But only John tells us that it is Mary,
he’s the only one who mentions the wasteful woman’s name.
Not only is the gift special, but so is the giver.
The giver is a friend, a loved one. Someone who is to be remembered.
And only John tells us the amount of the perfume that was used: a pound, he says,
no doubt underscoring the extravagance. A Roman pound was 12 ounces.
Can you imagine if you poured out 4 bottles of Chanel No. 5 all at once?
How overwhelming the smell would be?
No wonder John tells us the smell filled the whole house. Of course it did.
And only John tells us how much it cost, 300 denarii. He wants us to know it’s value.
What Mary does is pours out a year’s salary right there on someone’s feet.
Yes, I said that right, a year’s salary. 300 denarii was not pocket change.
It could have been used for so much more. So much good.
You can tell Judas was thinking that. He was there, calculating it all. Every last drop.
Judas asked why the money wasn’t given to the poor.
He makes bad choices, that Judas, but it’s not a bad question.
For Judas, it was a self-serving question, for he was prone to skim off the top.
But it’s really not a bad question. It’s probably one that feels familiar in our own mouths.
Isn’t there a better use? Isn’t there a way to avoid this waste?
Are there not people who could be served instead?
Jesus’ response, for some, seems antithetical to who he is. He says:
Leave her alone. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
You always have the poor with you.
Could sound dismissive and rude,
which would be strange since we know Jesus is for the poor,
you don’t have to look hard at his ministry to get that.
I do not believe Jesus is saying,
it’s no use caring for the poor since poverty is always going to be a problem…..
No, he remembers his lines, that Jesus,
and this one is lifted straight from Deuteronomy:
There will never cease to be need on the earth,
I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’
Jesus is not absolving us from our commitment to the poor,
rather, he is signaling that there will cease to be a time when he is on the earth.
His time is limited.
And whenever time is limited with those we love, our love becomes all the more urgent.
It’s why when the hospice nurse calls and says “better gather the family now”
we cancel the meetings, we buy the plane ticket, we come to hold vigil,
and not hold back our love.
It’s why I’ve watched grown men crumple up nice suits and contort big bodies to squeeze into child sized beds to cradle a sick child, it’s why I’ve witnessed college students forfeit a season of social life to care for a grandma who needs help getting to the bathroom.
When life gets fragile, it seems love expands, intensifies, does it not?
Mary’s love, in this story, feels urgent.
No wonder she enacts this loving gesture that wastes resources.
But that waste… it is not condemned, but rather celebrated by Jesus.
If I understand the text, Mary’s is a holy waste.
It is a gesture that is born of a full heart,
a love that is not calculated,
a love oblivious to risk.
And in that way, it is sacred.
It is a beautiful, holy waste.
In many respects,
this story encapsulates the most beautiful picture of stewardship we have in scripture.
Out of deep gratitude for love that she has received from her friend Jesus,
Mary pours out a gift, simply for love’s sake.
The gift renders no tax benefit, no perks for game days, no accolades for Mary at all.
The gift doesn’t feed anyone, plant trees anywhere
or fund the salary of anyone doing important work. It wasn’t expected at all.
And it ends up on the floor.
This is the part of the service where your stewardship committee rushes the pulpit and takes the new preacher down.
So let me be clear.
Of course the time, talent and treasure you offer here at UPC make a difference.
Of course they do. They
they impact our neighbors—
neighbors down the street eating meals at IFC,
and neighbors down south in Port-au-Prince Haiti
your gifts enable ministry and mission through the spectacular staff you’ve gathered,
they maintain this space where couples speak vows,
families commend beloved ones to God’s eternal care,
and where we blow the top off this organ to
bear witness to the victorious reign of God over all that would tout darkness or despair.
The gifts of this congregation are not mopped up with the table scraps as in this story, no, they are faithfully used and meticulously monitored.
I suppose what I want to say is that I hope that even though this church is fiscally responsible and even though the gifts you give help meet a budget that is rightly focused on mission and ministry, I hope that your giving is a waste.
The kind of holy waste that comes from abundantly pouring out whatever it is you have to pour because you just cannot help it,
not because you ought to,
but because love is deep and you can’t help but respond.
This life we are gifted with,
these relationships we share,
this time—right here, right now,
this breath—that so easily flows into us and out of us,
is it not all so fleeting
. . . . and thus so, so precious?
Mary showed us what it looks like to face the fragile precious gift of love,
she makes a fool of herself in responding extravagantly, abundantly.
These days, there are those who would consider church a foolish waste.
I may have once thought that was an insult.
I may have tried to defend my use of time.
But now, I’ll just trust that it is a holy waste.
For there are things we do here that don’t make sense if you calculate them.
The choir wastes hours on a piece of music that is over in three minutes.
Students in order to build community,
will waste precious hours of sleep as they travel to and from Fall retreats
and will stay up late into the night in conversation—
Sunday School Teachers will waste the better part of their computer batteries or ink pens,
crafting Sunday School classes that may raise more questions of faith than they answer.
Stephen Ministers will waste whole afternoons visiting members
though those visits are never logged in patient charts.
To be the church, I believe, requires a Mary-kind of love.
a willingness to waste ourselves for the one that we love—
and UPC, we do love Jesus Christ in this place,
him and all his beloved ones.
And his love is wondrous indeed, born of a full heart, oblivious to risk.
it would have been altogether reasonable,
so very understandable, if after that dinner,
Jesus had just received Mary’s love and gone home.
Put his sweet smelling feet in his sandals and headed north.
He could have just withdrawn from view for a while,
resumed his teaching in the synagogue,
gone on quietly caring for the poor,
practiced a little carpentry,
lived to a ripe old age.
There were plenty of people who advised him to do just that.
Instead, he got up the next morning and rode into Jerusalem,
to his arrest, his crucifixion, to his death.
What a waste. What a holy, holy waste. [i]
[i] The last move of this sermon was influenced by John Buchanan’s sermon from 4th Church Chicago, 9/25/11.