Scripture: John 12:1-8
Theme: Ahead from Rob Bell’s book What We Talk about When We Talk about God
After I finished High School, I went to college with the intent of majoring in accounting. I ended up with a major in German, a minor in French, and a concentration in international economics. Not exactly your traditional path to ordained ministry. But I have found that fodder for sermons can come from the most unexpected of places and experiences. So, because I do not like to waste things I learn in life, perhaps I can integrate some of what I picked up in undergraduate school in this sermon.
One is the principle of Economic Efficiency and Scarcity. This is based on the concept that resources are scarce. Therefore, there are not sufficient resources to ensure that all aspects of an economy can function at their highest capacity all the time. Instead, the scarce resources have to be distributed to meet the needs of the economy in an ideal way while also limiting the amount of waste produced. Basically: Resources are scarce- we don’t have enough – so don’t waste them.
But today, in our gospel reading, we have a story of waste – of extravagant waste by Mary. Her gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet with such an expensive ointment, with such an extravagant amount, is certainly not in the best of economic interests. Some translations tell us that the amount she used was worth a whole year’s wages! In a culture where the majority of the Jewish people were living hand to mouth, in a household that would have probably been classified as poor, maybe middle class, this act of Mary’s makes no logical or financial sense.
God’s economy, however, is not based on logic, is not based on the same principles as ours. God’s economy is based not on the premise that resources are scarce, and should be tightly guarded and efficiently used, but rather on the theory that resources are abundant and should be used extravagantly!
We see this economic principle throughout the gospel of John. Jesus’ very first sign, inaugurating his ministry, takes place at the wedding of Cana –where he performs this miraculous feat of changing water into wine – and not just a little water into your ordinary table wine, but six jars holding 20-30 gallons each – 150 gallons of amazing, delicious, fine wine. What a waste, what an exaggeration, what an extravagant gesture of love.
What is it that compels Jesus to this lavish way of loving, to the reckless relationships he forms with people on the margins, to the multitude of miracles he performs for those who are sick and hurting? Reverend Karoline Lewis ponders whether it was the love that his mother Mary showed at the wedding in Cana that propelled him to extravagance at the beginning of his ministry. Lewis says, “Back in Cana. At that wedding. His mother, who loved him, . . . knew who he was and what he was capable of doing . . . Because of her insistence, Jesus starts doing what he came to do. Because of her encouragement, Jesus realizes the time really had come. Because of her love, Jesus can do what he was sent to do. Jesus’ mother loves Jesus into his future as the Word made flesh.”
His mother Mary loved him into the beginning of his ministry. And at the end of his ministry, he has another woman named Mary who is showing him incredible love. Lewis goes on to say: “Now, in Bethany, Jesus finds himself in the same kind of position, the same kind of transition, the same kind of situation. Immediately after Mary anoints Jesus, he will enter the city of Jerusalem. And so, Jesus needs that same encouragement, that same love, to do what he must do. Mary’s extravagant love for Jesus makes it possible for Jesus to show extravagant love in what follows -- washing the feet of his disciples, handing himself over to be arrested in the garden, carrying his own cross, dying, rising, and ascending. Mary loves Jesus into his future as the fulfillment of, ‘for God so loved the world.’ ”1
These two women, these two Marys, gave Jesus so much love. He carried this love, and most likely drew strength, courage, compassion and mercy from it, and was able to give all that back out to the world, and to fulfill his destiny. No scarcity of resources here when it comes to love.
Another economic principle states “one party’s situation cannot be improved without making another party’s situation worse.” In other words, if there is a scarcity of resources, a limited amount, then when one person takes more, it leaves another person with less.
Our God, however, is not bound by this kind of math. Our God is a God of abundance. God moves us ahead of this kind of economy. God calls us to more, not less. In his chapter “Ahead” from the book we are reading this Lent, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell says: God has always been present with all of humanity, leading and calling and inviting and drawing and pulling all of humanity into greater and greater love and joy and justice and equality and peace.2
I am of the belief that giving begets greater giving, that generosity begets greater generosity, that kindness begets greater kindness, that love begets greater love.
Author Justo L. González says, “Mary spills her perfume with wild abandon for no other reason than this: Jesus is there. There is no calculation here, no consideration for efficiency, no sense that this is a waste. There is nothing but sheer love and gratitude for what Jesus has done.” He goes on to make the point that “This does not mean that the poor are not important. On the contrary, Jesus establishes a parallel between himself and the poor. Now he is present, and Mary rightly feels the need to be extravagant. When he is no longer present in the flesh, the poor will still be there—to be served with the same extravagance.”3
What happens when we serve the poor with this kind of extravagance? Here is one story that touched my heart when I heard about it last month. 8 year old Tanitoluwa Adewumi, affectionately known as Tani was a homeless child, living in New York city as a refugee with his family who escaped from religious persecution of Christians in Nigeria. He had just won the New York state chess championship for his age group. After an article about him ran in the New York Times, and a gofundme drive, he now has a home, a six-figure bank account, scholarship offers from three elite private schools and an invitation to meet President Bill Clinton. The gofundme drive raised over $200,000 for his family, immigration lawyers offered pro bono assistance to this family in the country legally and seeking asylum. An anonymous donor paid a year’s rent on a two bedroom apartment near Tani’s current school. Extravagant giving from so many people made all this possible. But here’s how this abundance begets abundance: The Adewumis have decided that they will not spend a cent of the $200,000 on themselves. They will take out a 10 percent tithe and donate it to their church, which helped them while they were homeless, and the rest will be channeled through a new Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation to help African immigrants who are struggling in the United States the way they were a week before. “I’m a hardworking guy,” Mr. Adewumi explained. He has two jobs: driving Uber with a rented car and selling real estate. He says “God has already blessed me. I want to release my blessing to others.”4
I so resonate with his last statement. In God’s economy, the love we receive fills us, compelling us to fill others with that love. The more we feel full of God’s love, of God’s grace upon grace upon grace, the more we are able to give.
Most of you know that my mother died a little over a month ago after two and a half weeks under hospice care. As I look back on those last days of her life, I am amazed at how much love and time I was able to give her. I was strengthened, upheld and filled by the extravagant care of this church community – of friends and family. The cards, prayers, emails, calls, texts, visits, food, encouragement and support – so much love! - filled me and made it possible for me to pour that much love into mom’s care.
In God’s economy, there is not only abundance of resource, but there is also abundance of meaning. Everything we are given, everything we are blessed with, is so much more than just what we perceive on the surface. In Rob Bell’s book I mentioned, he talks about what Jesus says about his anointing by Mary.
He says that what she’s done is prepare him for burial. Burial? Bell says: “Here’s the revealing part: in Jesus’s day, preparing someone for burial was a religious act. In Jesus’s eyes, the woman’s gesture is a holy, sacred act of worship. His disciples miss this . . . They miss the power and significance of the moment because they don’t have the eyes to see what’s going on right in front of them. There is a strong word here in this story for our day: you can be very religious . . . and yet not be a person who sees. . . . With Jesus, what we see again and again is that it’s never just a person, or just a meal, or just an event, because there’s always more going on just below the surface.”5
God’s economy is deep as well as wide. On the last day before mom died, my sister and I were praying with her as she slept in her bed, and I was inspired to anoint her. I used simple olive oil, blessed it, anointed her forehead. Oil – just a simple commodity, yet balm for the soul, healing for the heart, strength for the journey. Anointing with oil is a rite that goes back thousands of years in our Judeo-Christian tradition for healing, forgiveness, and strength. Bread and juice are also just ordinary commodities, common and inexpensive. Yet they are also made precious, and sacred and filled with meaning by the remembrance of, and the presence of Christ, and Christ’s sacrifice.
Today we are invited to come to this table, to know the depth of God’s love through the ordinary elements of bread and of cup. After the service, I will be in the chapel for anyone who would like to experience the rite of anointing.
Living in faith, opens our eyes to see beyond the surface, to believe in a God who is always showering us with blessings. In God’s economy, there is abundance, there is extravagance, there is depth of meaning. May we be open to receiving, to seeing, to moving always ahead towards more love, more grace, more mercy as we take in the extravagant blessings with which God anoints us each and every day. Amen.
2Bell, Rob. What We Talk about When We Talk about God. HarperOne, 2014. p 155.
5Bell, Rob. pp 123-124
Economic principles: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/economic_efficiency.asp