Sunday, April 26, 2009

Creating Home ... With a Shared Sacrifice

April 26, 2009
An Equal Sacrifice
Mark 12:41-44
Homestead UMC is in the middle of a capital campaign called "Creating Home" for the purchase of land to relocate the ministries of our church. These sermons are to encourage our congregation and listen to God's call on our community of faith to extend its reach in ministry and mission through relocation.

Jesus was taking a break. He was in temple teaching and had faced a number of tests to his teaching, so he was taking a break.

He sat on one side of temple watching the crowd of people. On the opposite side of him was the treasury. The treasury was a series of thirteen offering boxes that looked like suitcases, but were made out of metal. There was a slit in the top of those boxes. People would place their offerings through the slit on the top. Little signs were placed on each of the offering boxes indicating the various ministries funded by each of the offering boxes. One said building maintenance; another said utilities; another said rabbis’ salary; another said widows and orphans.

Now this particular day there are many people putting money in the treasury. First Jesus notices that there are many rich people in the temple that day. I am guessing it was hard to miss them. They put large sums of money into the treasury. The metal boxes assured that you could hear what they were doing. No doubt they dropped the coins in with great flare so that when they dropped them in the metal boxes the noise rang throughout the temple space.

Then Jesus notices a widow. He would have had to work hard to notice her, though Jesus always seemed to notice those the society forgot about. She was probably trying to blend into the background. I imagine she quietly approached the treasury, took out her two coins – the last two she had to live on - and dropped them quietly into the treasury.

At that, Jesus’ break from teaching is over. The time for teaching has begun again. This time rather than teaching to all the folks in the temple, he pulls the disciples aside to teach exclusively them. The lesson is for those who are trying to follow Jesus, for the disciples, for us. Jesus lauds the example of the widow’s giving two small coins and he questions the motives of those giving large sums.

Jesus’ teachings must have surprised the disciples. Certainly the large sums of money would have been useful. Why wouldn’t those gifts please Jesus? And the widow’s gift was minimal. What makes that so special? Shouldn’t Jesus be more pleased by folks giving equal shares?

Jesus teaches that the widow’s gift is sacrificial. It was given out of her living expenses. She had learned to trust in God for her needs. She was dependent on God working through others for her living needs. All the widows were dependent on that. So her sacrifice was enormous. As she dropped those two coins in, there was nothing left to rely on except God.

Those giving large sums were giving from a different place. They were giving out of their abundance, giving from what was left over. It was not a sacrifice for them. They hardly knew it was missing.

It isn’t that both gifts are not useable in ministry. The large sums and the two small coins would both be useful in ministry.

But Jesus calls all of us to an equal sacrifice. Jesus calls us not to give out of our abundance, but to give from a place of sacrifice: to surrender something in our lives in order to contribute to the needs of others; to forgo some comforts so that others might be comforted; to give up something that God might use it as a blessing for others.

Jillian, Rebecca, Deanna stood in the ticket line for the movie theater at the mall. They had planned for this day and saved for this movie - a romantic comedy. They had high expectations for the movie experience.

Out the corner of Deanna’s eye, she could see Betty. The three girls dressed in the latest fashion, unlike Betty who always dressed plainly. Betty was short and a little overweight. The three girls were trim and pretty. Everyone at school knew Betty lived a small apartment and there were rumors spreading that Betty’s father lost his job.

“Look who’s here,” Deanna whispered. She nudged the others and pointed to Betty. Rebecca turned and glared at the girl behind them. Betty turned her head so she wouldn’t see Rebecca’s cold stare. Rebecca and Deanna whispered and giggled as they pointed occasionally at the unpopular girl. But Jillian stood back and remained silent.

The three girls approached the ticket window and ordered the tickets for the movie for which they had waited. They pooled their money together to buy the tickets. “$15.75, please,” the man at the ticket window said. Rebecca realized she had a one dollar bill instead of the five-dollar bill she thought she was carrying. As they counted their money, the girls realized they were a dime short.

Deanna shoved the money toward the man at the window. “Come on! Give us the tickets,” Deanna demanded. The man behind the counter shook his head. They only had enough money for two tickets, and that was that!

Everyone could see the disappointment in the girls’ eyes.

Suddenly, a hand reached from behind and placed a dime on the ticket booth counter. As the girls turned, they saw Betty walking away. All three girls knew who gave them the extra money.

“Great!” Rebecca said. “Now we have enough money for tickets!” She began to shove the money to the man at the ticket counter.

“Wait,” Jillian said in a low voice. “I’ve changed my mind. You two go in. I’ll see you later.”

Deanna and Rebecca stood speechless as Jillian ran to catch up with Betty. “Thank you,” Jillian said to Betty as she pressed the dime back into the plain girl’s hand. “Do you want to go to the movie with me tomorrow?”

Sometimes a small sacrifice for one person is a huge one for another. For the three girls, a dime was nothing more than a small coin. They might not think twice about spending a dime. For Betty, the dime meant a lot of saving. It was a huge thing to give up and she would have to think about this kind of sacrifice.

Like Betty, the poor woman gave up something for which she had to save. A few small coins worth less than a penny, but her small gift and her huge sacrifice impressed Jesus. Here was someone, like Betty, who was willing to give up the little she had for the good of others.

Jesus calls us to do the same.

Through the Creating Home campaign, we can do the same. We are not called to an equal share. We do not take, say, our first step goal of $300,000 and divide it by the number of members and then know what our “share” is. God does not call us to equally distribute the numbers. We are not called to an equal share. That is not what God honors that day in the temple. That is not a Biblical principle.

Instead, your share in this important work is based on the resources God has entrusted to you. You are a God-appointed custodian of resources for this time and this ministry project. God calls us to give an equal sacrifice, to surrender some of what makes us comfortable, to give a sacrifice that will be a blessing to others.

What does it look like to equally distribute the sacrifice? For one person, $10 / week will be sacrificial. It may mean not going to the movies every week. It may mean giving up eating out once a week. It may mean dropping the cable package to basic. For others it might take something more in the $150 / week range to be sacrificial. It is not about equally distributing the numbers, it is about equally distributing the sacrifice; each of us surrendering something for this important work of God

The question lingers in my mind…I hope it does in yours as well. What little things can we give up for the good of others? Daily coffee? A family vacation? A weekly meal out? A portion of our savings account? That new car?

That day in the temple God honored the gift of a humble woman, not because of the amount, but because of the sacrifice. God will honor our sacrificial gifts, as well. May we learn together what it means to surrender before God for the good of others. Amen.

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Creating Home...In Times of Fear

April 19, 2009
Immeasurably More
Mark 6:34-44; Ephesisan 3:14-21
Homestead UMC is in the middle of a capital campaign called "Creating Home" for the purchase of land to relocate the ministries of our church. These sermons are to encourage our congregation and listen to God's call on our community of faith to extend its reach in ministry and mission through relocation.

Check out some of these current headlines.
  • Home building takes a big dip – declines nearly 11% last month
  • MN Jobless rate 8.2%
  • Credit Markets dry up
  • GE’s Profits Dragged by Finance Arm
  • Foreclosure Filings Jump 24%

If we listen carefully, the “experts” want us to be afraid. And perhaps there is legitimate fear. Maybe you’ve lost your job, or you’ve actually looked at your investment portfolio, or your income from investments has dipped. Maybe you tried to refinance your home, only to find out you owe more on it than it is worth. The “experts” would have us afraid and acting in fear. There’s not enough to go around. There’s not going to be enough for a while. If you see any glimmers of hope, you need to check your eyesight. This is going to last a long time. We’re not going to have enough for who knows how long. We are supposed to be afraid of the economic times in which we live, and that fear of scarcity can paralyze.

That’s what happened that day on the grass. The numbers just as staggering: 5,000 people; 6 month’s wages needed to feed them (John’s Gospel); only 5 loaves and 2 fish. The disciples are paralyzed by fear. “Send them away,” the disciples plead with Jesus. “It’s late. There are too many of them. I know they’ll be getting hungry.” The fear of the staggering numbers paralyzes they disciples. They see no way to accomplish it. They trust only in what they can measure: the clock, the crowd, the need, the scarcity. Rather than acting, they are paralyzed by fear.

Jesus does not play into their fear of not having enough. “You give them something to eat,” he tells them. The disciples protest. The cost of even buying bread for them is staggering. They throw out a number that’s as far as their imagination can go – 200 denarii. Can you hear it? Clean your room … That’ll take forever! Today in gym we’re going to run the mile … That’s impossible! We have to find 40 people to help … There’s no way I can find five! When what’s asked of us seems beyond our resources, we can be paralyzed by fear, but Jesus does not play into fears on the grass that day.

Rather than focusing on what they don’t have, Jesus asks what they do have. “Go find out! Count the loaves! See what resources are available!” The disciples discover they do have resources, meager as they seem. Five loaves and two fish is what they have, but at least they are something.

Jesus gets his hands on those seemingly meager resources and things start to happen! Jesus sits them down. Jesus takes, blesses, breaks. Jesus makes the meager resources holy. He makes them holy in the same way he blessed the bread and the cup. He makes them holy in the same way he took his life and made it holy.

But Jesus does not distribute the bread and the fish. At least three of the gospels agree on that fact. The disciples get involved in the holy act. They participate in turning meager resources into enough.

When the need has been met, they gather up what’s left. To even think that there would be some left is ridiculous! There’s no one that could think this would feed the crowd. But the disciples pass baskets to collect the leftovers. In what is the miracle ending, there are 12 baskets full of broken pieces, leftovers!

If I have heard one concern about the Creating Home campaign more than any other, it is, “How can we do this in these economic times?” Do you hear the fear? Why now? It will surely fail! People will not be able to contribute because of the economy. We won’t get enough money. The project is doomed. Is that a fear that’s gotten a hold of you? It is a fear grounded in the headlines of the day. If the only thing you knew about the economy is from the headlines, if the only data you have to assess the situation if from your quarterly investment statement, if the only experience you have about the economic times is the stories of people around you loosing their jobs, then your fear seems grounded in reality. Perhaps as grounded in reality as feeding 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and two fish.

Jeremiah Clary was a farmer in 1930’s Oklahoma. These were the days of black blizzards. These were the days of the dust bowl landscape. These were the kinds of days when you would plant your seed one week, and the next week it would be a part of the topsoil blowing from Oklahoma to Missouri. Jeremiah Clary had done it for 5 years already. He took a month’s worth of salary and bought his seed. Then he planted it in the sure hope that it would germinate and make a crop. But for 5 years during this time of drought, there was no crop and, therefore, no income. It was getting to the point where Jeremiah didn’t know if he could afford to plant the seed any longer. Now that’s irrational thinking for a farmer. The only way to make a crop is to plant the seed. If you didn’t plant the seeds, there was not going to be a crop for certain. But in Jeremiah’s day, the fear of loosing the seeds to the winds, the fear of the sun scorching out his plants as they thirsted for even a drop of rain, the risk of actually putting the seeds in the ground was seeming more irrational than not planting. He was afraid.

Jeremiah Clary stood in his barn. He stared at his seed and he weighed the cost of actually planting again. He would have to make a quick decision. The window of opportunity to plant the seed and have it germinate was closing fast. If he planted, there was the possibility of even a meager crop, and even a meager crop might help him buy next year’s seed. But if he did plant, he might loose everything. The irony was overwhelming. Now Jeremiah Clary wasn’t a greedy man. But under the mounting weight of uncertainty, he was slowly becoming irrational.
(*Story of Jeremiah Clary found in Fields of Gold by Andy Stanley.)

Perhaps that’s the same uncertainty under which we feel weighted down this morning. What if I loose my job? What if I can’t pay my bills? What if my investments shrivel up to nothing? What if I can’t contribute to my kid’s college fund? What if I can’t pay my mortgage?

We are not alone in our fear. Many Christians are as afraid as we are. It isn’t a question of fear or faith. There are certainly things that are worth fearing a bit. It’s a question of how much fear and how much faith.

In our history as a community of faith, we have been here before! When the bills for building the Tabernacle needed to be paid, there was a lot of fear. We had no way to pay the bills we owed. The church had a bad credit reputation in town. The situation looked bleak. That’s when the women’s society took out a loan and paid the bills on the spot. Then those same women worked to pay back that loan through bake sales and the like. While there was a lot of fear, our faith in God was stronger than our fear.

When our congregation outgrew the East Center Street Church, there was a lot of fear. We needed a new building, but no one believed it to be possible, at least at first. Rev. Hilton said of us, that we built the parsonage first to prove to ourselves that we could build the church together. And both were built. There was a lot of fear, similar to the fear I hear in us today. But in the late 1940’s, our faith was stronger than our fear.

Each time in the past, when Homestead has been weighted down by uncertainty and fear, we have done in faith what the disciples did that day on the grass. We have taken our resources that seemed to us meager and we have placed them in the hands of Jesus. Look out when Jesus gets his hands on these resources! In his hands, he has taken them, blessed them, broke them. And then asked us to distribute them. Jesus has made holy what we brought to the table. When we have trusted in God’s economy and not our own economy, when we have trusted God enough to sow the seeds we have, we have seen the blessing. We have been released from that fear, aAnd we have known God’s provision for God’s church. In God’s hands, what seems meager is made holy.

Are you inclined to memorize scripture? Even if you are not, I hope you’ll take the challenge today to memorize the text from Ephesians.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Nearly by accident, I stumbled onto our text from Ephesians that has become my favorite scripture passage. I was a teenager and I needed to know the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ. When I read this text, I began immediately to memorize it, though not intentionally. It had a word for my soul I needed in that day. Now my Bible was a different version than what was read this morning – I had the New International Version of the Bible. So when I memorized the words, I memorized: Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine… Beautiful words, aren’t they? I would encourage you to put those to memory, plant them in your heart.

There are many answers to our fears that can make our faith bigger than our fear. God’s promises to take care of us are all over scripture. We have a long history of stories of God’s care of God’s people in the scriptures. We have the history of our own lives and God’s care of us personally.

The promise that overcomes my fears about Creating Home is that God can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine… We have this dream God has planted in the heart of Homestead. We have this dream of reaching more young families with this wonderful family of faith. We imagine that there are young adults and families with children who hunger for the connection we have with one another. We imagine that in the family connection they will find here, they will discover the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ. We dream of a new building with a new location with a new layout to draw those folks in. We dream of that building on the edge of Rochester to extend our reach with the love of Christ. We imagine that God will do amazing things through us.

All of that is in our imagination and in our dreaming and in our asking. The scripture promises that God can do “immeasurably more” than that. We have seen it in our past. We know it in our hearts. So that even as the weight of uncertainty creates fear within us, our faith reminds us that God can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.

May you and your family, and us as a church family, start Creating Home from a deep sense of the promise that God can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine! So be it!

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Radical Renovation: Choose Your Own Ending

April 12, 2009
Easter Sunday
Radical Renovation: Choose Your Own Ending
Mark 16:1-8
*I am indebted in my Lenten preaching preparations to the book Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life by James A. Harnish.

In my late elementary years, I discovered “choose your own ending” books. You begin reading to set the stage of the story. You are even a character in the story. You read along, and at some point you have to make a decision. Do you take the door to the left or continue down the hallway? Do you follow the advice of a nice person you just met or just ignore their call and go on your way? So you “choose your own ending”, making your first choice, guessing where it will take you next. “Turn to page 13” it says by your selection. You flip the pages quickly at first and you breathe a sigh of relief when you find paragraphs on page 13. The story continues. That’s the joy and thrill of a “choose your own ending” book, that you make choices and find new adventures, new pathways. The story just keeps going and going. That is until finally you make a choice that directs you to, say, page 46. As you turn to page 46 and peak, there you see it. A few brief sentences and then the words you didn’t want to read, taunting you with their bold lettering. “The end.” Sometimes I went back and chose again, because I wanted the story to continue.

Mark’s Gospel seems to be a “choose your own ending” gospel. Most scholars agree Mark’s gospel originally ends where we did this morning. So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8) That is not the powerful Easter ending we are used to, is it? Mark has the people confused and fumbling. They don’t even know what to do next. They are all locked up in fear. The ending they have chosen seems unfinished, like a renovation project that was never completed, like one of those home-repair projects that never seems to be done. It is a ragged ending at best. A nonending, really. There is nothing of what happened next. The women do not answer the call to share the good news. There is nothing of the meaning and purpose of the empty tomb or the raised one. Just this ragged, nonending of a gospel.

Perhaps that’s why for centuries people have been trying to “choose their own ending” for Mark’s gospel. There is an attached shorter ending that is a wordy theological benediction of sorts. And there is an attached longer ending that is a recording signs and sightings of Jesus, greatly influenced by stories of the other gospels. Both of these endings try to complete the project. They both attempt to neatly wrap up the work of Jesus, to give it some meaning and purpose beyond the missing body, to have someone go and tell the good news, to find some closure to the story.

But Mark’s Easter story is a dangling nonending story, and in that, it speaks to some of the inconclusive renovation projects in my own life. Perhaps you are like me at some level. You start some important work and no matter how hard you try to tie up the loose ends, to make all the pieces fit together neatly, to bring closure, you keep ending up with a lot of loose ends in your life: broken relationships that don’t ever find healing; fears that continue to influence our lives; problems that remain unsolved; doubts that defy simple answers; temptations that return with disturbing regularity; visions that I may not see accomplished; dreams that I may not see fulfilled. No matter how hard we try, there seems to be these unfinished renovation projects in our personal lives.

The women came to the tomb that day with an unfinished project. They were prepared for death. They brought spices to anoint the body for burial. They believed the insurmountable barrier of the rock would block them from their project. There was only death and brokenness. There was only fear and frustration and terror.

But that first Easter morning, they discovered something different than what they had prepared for. They discovered that the barrier between life and death had removed. They discovered an empty tomb. They discovered that Jesus had gone before them. They discovered that Jesus was leading the way. They discovered that they were at a “choose your own ending” point in their lives. They discovered that a different project awaited them.

The good news of Mark’s Easter story, in its original ending is not that we are given conclusive evidence of the resurrection. The good news is not that there is a closing argument that nails down the verdict of what happened to Jesus. The good news is not even that the women do the right thing, because they do not go and tell like they were instructed to do. The good news is that we are given hope.

The gospel writer speaks of a “young man” dressed in white. He sits at the edge of the tomb as if he’s been placed there to direct the people who will most surely come to the grave. When they do, he speaks a word of hope to them. That is all he has to offer, hope, but that is something powerful! He says to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. … But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ (Mark 16:6-7) The hope isn’t inside the tomb. Hope isn’t in the place of death. It is not in the place of broken dreams & shattered expectations. Hope is out ahead of the disciples. It is before them. It is on the journey yet ahead of them. Jesus has gone before them and they must choose the ending. They choose whether or not to leave the place of death and brokenness to journey to the place of hope. They choose whether or not to follow the risen Christ to hope.

The late William Sloane Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, one Easter morning told his congregation that there was nothing sentimental about Easter. He said… Easter represents a demand as well as a promise, a demand not that we sympathize with the crucified Christ, but that we pledge our loyalty to the risen one. (Living the Truth in a World of Illusions, pages 70-71).

Resurrection demands our participation, like a “choose your own ending” book calls us to participate in the unfolding story, like early Christians tried to write Mark’s gospel with their stories. We participate in writing the ongoing story of the resurrection with our very lives.

Giacomo Puccini was a great Italian composer who gained international acclaim with La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. He began his final opera Turnadot in 1920. Before he was able to complete it, he was hospitalized with throat cancer and died. Franco Alfano, another composer, took on the task of completing the opera. The first performance was in Milan 17 months after Puccini’s death. Arturo Toscanini, a great conductor of the time, held the baton for the performance. The opera was performed beautifully. When they reached the point where Puccini’s work had ended, Toscanini abruptly stopped the performance. He laid down his baton, turned to the audience and said, in Italian, “Here the opera ends, because at this point, the maestro died.” He turned and walked away from the podium. The curtain came down and the stunned audience went home with the incomplete opera haunting them. The next day the orchestra and performers returned to the stage and completed the opera with Alfano’s ending, and since 1926, it has always been performed this way. (From Radical Renovation: Living the Cross Shaped Life by James A. Harnish, page 57-58)

Resurrection begs us to pick up the baton and finish the performance. We do that by bearing the good news for our time, by being a construction worker on Jesus’ crew in the ongoing renovation of our broken and hurting world. We do that by loving as Jesus loved, attending to the healing needed in our world, walking alongside of the lonely, comforting the grieving, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Resurrection calls us to participate by renovating our world into a home fit for the Risen Christ to take up residence: a world where love is more prevalent than fear; a world where children are safe; a world where the outcasts are welcomed; a world where the left out are included; a world where there is no them but only us!

Resurrection demands us to finish the story with our story!

Mark’s dangling nonending of the Gospel offers an invitation to us to complete the resurrection story with our story. It begs us to allow our lives to become living witnesses to the presence of the Risen Christ, and to carry the Easter word of HOPE to the broken and hurting corners of our lives and our world. Mark’s nonending begs us to participate it the radical renovation God is doing, to construct with Jesus a kingdom here and now that is the kingdom of God.

Mark’s gospel may be a ragged nonending, but it begs for us to “choose our own ending”. May our lives complete the Easter story!

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN

Radical Renovation: It's Nothing if It Costs Nothing

April 5, 2009
Palm / Passion Sunday
Radical Renovation: It's Nothing if It Costs Nothing
Mark 14:1-9
*I am indebted in my Lenten preaching preparations to the book Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life by James A. Harnish.

Perhaps you came today hoping to hear the whole passion story. That will come to you as our worship week unfolds, and it is important to hear the whole story. But today we stop at the first scene of Mark’s passion story. We stop here because I think Mark wants us to stop here, to pause for a moment to be prepared for something.

Simon, the man healed of leprosy, is hosting a gathering at his home. He’s invited Jesus and some friends. Perhaps he wants to tell others about how Jesus healed him. Perhaps he just wants to create some space away for Jesus. Whatever the case, he has hosted a dinner in Bethany for Jesus

Into what is a restful scene of most likely men reclined at the table. A woman breaks in on the scene. We don’t know where she has come from. We don’t know who she is, at least how Mark tells it. And we don’t know why she’s there…at least at first. But very quickly we learn.

The woman comes to give an extravagant sacrifice to Jesus: “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.” Scholars think that would be about a year’s worth of salary. …I’ll wait while you do the math… A year’s worth of salary! This jar that would have been the woman’s security. It would have been her 401K and Roth IRA all in one little jar. It would have been very precious to her future. She takes it and breaks it open without a thought, it seems, and without missing a beat, she pours it over Jesus’ head.

What was she thinking? This woman’s gift to Jesus is extravagant. It is excessive and senseless. I am not even sure the woman knows the full meaning of her act. She just has an extravagant love for Jesus, perhaps because she has either witnessed or received such love from Jesus. Out of the depths her self, she pours this costly gift. It was likely a surprise to her to hear Jesus say that she was preparing his body for burial. She simply offers a sacrifice to Jesus and her sacrifice is extravagant.

Those gathered around the table are a little put out. Doesn’t that happen when someone wants to be generous? We think we could give away their money in ways that are more sensible. We think we could spend more prudently. So we can be a little put out by the extravagance of others. The people at the dinner are put out, too. Why was the ointment wasted in this way? They are confused and questioning. They think they could have made a better use of the woman’s gift. “Sell it,” they thought. “Sell it and give the money to the poor.” Now that sounds logical, and giving, and very Christ-like, don’t you think? Unlike John’s version of the story, there are no alternative motives. They just see what amount of money they could have gotten for that jar of ointment and they knew what kind of good work they could do for the poor with that amount of money. Think of what you could do with a year’s worth of your salary?

But what Jesus wants us to pay attention to is the extravagant sacrifice of the woman. The poor will always be with us. We will always have opportunities to serve the poor. We can do it anytime we wish. Whether we do it is the question. But notice the woman’s extravagant, sacrificial gift. That’s why Mark wants us to stop here.

Mark locates the story here on purpose. It’s two days before Passover. It is the last event Mark records before the events of the passion begin to unfold. Mark places it here to prepare us for what follows. It seems as though Mark is inviting us to ask the questions people asked around the table of the events yet to come: Why this irrational waste? Why this extravagant sacrifice? Why this squandering of the life of Jesus? The questions will haunt us as we walk through the events of Holy Week. Straight through to Good Friday we will be asking “Why this waste?” Many have tried to answer these questions of “why?” to find an answer, to explain the sacrifice of the cross, to calculate the mathematics of the atonement, to weave together some rational explanation for this irrational extravagance of God. Mark locates the story of the woman here to remind us that sometimes the search for a rational explanation is misguided. Mark is preparing us to experienced the gift of God’s sacrificial love on the cross, this extravagant, self-surrender that is beyond reason. The cross means that this God was willing to pay any price. The cross means that God was willing to go to any length. The cross means that God was willing to do anything necessary to accomplish the work of salvation. The cross means that God is willing to do anything to fulfill the radical renovation that God intends for us.

Not only is Mark preparing us to experience the gift of the cross, Mark is also preparing us to respond to the extravagant gift of the cross, to offer ourselves in extravagant surrender to the One who died for us. The only appropriate response to God’s gift on the cross is to offer ourselves the way the woman did, to give ourselves in unrestrained, extravagant obedience to Jesus Christ. Mark invites us to go beyond rational calculation, to give without counting the costs, to surrender without planning out all the details, to respond to the extravagant grace of God at the cross.

I know a man who lived that self-sacrificing response to the cross.

Scott came to Mississippi with his church. They were there to help victims of hurricane Katrina recover, and they worked hard. Perhaps they didn’t calculate so carefully what it would cost. I don’t think Scott knew what it would cost. He shared his time, his big heart, and his construction skills. But something happened to him that week. He came to understand God’s great gift for him on the cross. He came to understand that his own sacrifice for God is nothing if it costs nothing. Within two weeks after returning home, Scott was back in Mississippi. He had not calculated what it would mean for him to come back. He just packed up and returned. He didn’t wonder about any retirement plan. He didn’t question what salary he might get. He just extravagantly offered himself in service. He responded to the extravagant grace of God on the cross.

As you come to this Holy Week, as you sit at the table and share in Christ’s meal, as you stand before the awe of the cross, as you wait in vigil in the darkness and emptiness of the tomb, may you find a way to respond in extravagant, unrestrained obedience. May you leave room for God’s extravagant gift to radically renovate your life.

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN