Strange Guests; Strange Gifts
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

March 13, 2016
Fifth Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21
John 12:1-8

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

The Bible messes with us. Whether we have a finely crafted theology, or have built a way of seeing the world from our experience and our reason, or we just know that we know how things are, the Bible will upset them.

Maybe you have seen the bumper sticker, or painted on an overpass or a water tower, which says “Jesus is the answer.” For many of us, this prompts the thought, “So, what is the question?”

Reading the Bible tends to mess with whatever preconceived notions we have. I am starting to like the phrase I heard many years ago, that “Jesus is the question to all our answers.” Whatever answers we have, reading the Gospel will call some of them into question.

This morning’s text for example. By now, we are starting to understand that Jesus sits at table with people who would make us uncomfortable. Sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, THEM, this man who had been dead and in the tomb for four days, whom Jesus raised, whose sisters are here with him. And Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, offers this grand, over-the-top, costly offering of thanksgiving. Taking a pound of pure nard, she anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair.

This profoundly personal and intimate expression of gratitude does not go unnoticed. Judas comments on it. “That amount of perfume cost enough to feed 5,000 people one and a half times (if we translate the cost from last week’s story in Mark about feeding the crowd). Why is she wasting it on you?”

Now, John points out that Judas will be the betrayer, and that he is already dipping his hand into the till, but nevertheless the question hangs there. And if you are like me, perhaps it causes some discomfort.

Imagine the good that could be done with nearly a year’s wages. Imagine the food that could be bought, the coats for the coat drive, the school supplies for undersupplied classrooms, the books for kids who do not have any, socks and food and shelter for the homeless.

Part of me looks at the church, our church, their church, any church, and the amount of money that goes into upkeep of buildings. Don’t get me wrong. Whether it is a plain Quaker meeting hall or a fully appointed cathedral, I am in awe of the feeling of sacred space. But could not this have gone to direct help for people?

Is this not the same Jesus we find in the other three Gospels who deals with the rich, young man:

[And] Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Mark 10:21)

And do we not look at the ratings of charities to see if money given to them goes to their proposed programs or if it goes to overhead and advertising?

There is something decidedly non-stewardship-like in this story.

Whether we are conservative and what to get the most bang for our buck, the best return on our investment, or we are liberal and want Jesus to hammer home the message of social justice, this story seems to run against the grain for all of us.

For us, who are uncomfortable with the story, let us examine a couple of points.

Judas has a vested interest in something other than his complaint. How often is the issue not really the issue? How often is the complaint about something other than what is really troubling us?

And more importantly, we all have vested interests in things that are not the Good News of God that we find in Jesus Christ. Let us be honest. I want the kingdom of God to come, that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, but I also check my retirement account and hope the market is doing well. As the cartoon says, “How many of us want change?” And all the hands go up. “How many of us are willing to change?” And all the hands go down.

We have vested interests in this world that make such an overflowing gesture of gratitude seem ludicrous, or wasteful, or ostentatious.

Or worse, we might take the line about “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” to mean that, well, if we will always have the poor, I guess there is not anything that can be done about it.

We all have a bit of Judas in our being, do we not?

And Mary, is there anything too costly for the return of her brother Lazarus from the dead? She is pure thanksgiving in this scene. She expresses a gratitude so profound that it does not care about the values and costs of the things of this world.

However devout we are, however grateful we are, however much we give thanks each day for all that God has done for us, do we not also hold back? Do we not take a look around to make sure we do not look too over-the-top, too foolish, to extravagant?

Do we let our gratitude to God, our trust in God, reorder our lives and our priorities? Or do we let what the neighbors might say keep us from singing praises loudly and being grateful extravagantly?

The God who saved the people of Israel from death at the hands of Pharaoh, the God who sent Jesus, the God who shone forth in glory when Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out!” and he did, is doing a new thing.

And it will mess with our preconceived notions, these rivers in the desert. And it will mess with our priorities, this grace for which we cannot withhold thanks and praise.

Maybe our prayer is, “Lord disturb us, but not too much.” But perhaps our prayer could be, “Lord, let your disturbance, this new thing you are doing, make us so grateful that we cannot help but pour ourselves out in gratitude for you and for your grace.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.