Tuesday, April 14, 2009

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

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