|The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice
Thursday, March 25, 2010 Last Sunday's Sermon
The Price and the Value
Rev. Ben Dueholm
March 21, 2010 (Lent 5C)
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Aurora
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Judas had a point. Let’s just admit that. Whatever his motives, he was right to raise a moral qualm in today’s Gospel story. There is something unnerving about seeing total commitment from someone. It looks wrong, event fanatical. There is something not right about pouring out $40,000 worth of oil at one dinner. It’s irrational, wasteful, out of proportion. Surely there should have been some discussion beforehand. A congregational meeting should have been called and a budget should have been drawn up. We set aside 25% of the ointment for Jesus and sell the rest. 25% of ointment revenue goes to social ministry, 25% to reimburse Martha for this big dinner, 15% to replace the fridge that we bought with a trash bag full of nickels in 1955, 10% for cash reserves. Sure, there’s room for some enthusiasm now and then. But we can’t risk offending the poor of the town--”Bethany” means “house of the poor,” after all--with this kind of excess. And letting down her hair to wipe Jesus’s feet! That’s like singing a solo with the praise band at church while wearing a designer miniskirt!
Bishop N.T. Wright says of this scene that “it positively shouts at the reader, ‘Where are you in this picture?’
“Are you with the shameless Mary, worshipping Jesus with everything she’s got, risking the wrath of her sister who’s doing all the hard work, the anger of the men who perhaps don’t quite trust their own feelings when a woman lets her hair down in public, and the sneer of the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing?
“Or are you with cautious, prudent, reliable Judas (as he must have seemed to most of them), looking after the meagre resources of a group without steady or settled income, anxious to provide for their needs and still have something left to give to the poor? … Put aside your natural inclination to distance yourself from Judas. After all, even at that last moment none of the other disciples had suspected him of treachery. Can you see just a glimpse of him as you look in the mirror?
Or are you back in the kitchen with Martha? If so, how do you feel about both Mary and Judas? And how do you feel about Jesus, and what he said?”1
We are familiar with these arguments over priorities in the church. Perhaps we have taken part in them. Salaries versus benevolence, the new organ versus the new mission, the Sunday morning faithful versus the people who have never entered the church doors. They are painful and they are ugly. This is partly because there’s a good case for every side in the argument. And it’s partly because our identities are wrapped up in what we do in church. How does the social ministry chair feel if 20 times her annual budget is spent in one afternoon? How does the hospitality team like being taken for granted while everyone stares at the dazzling new musician? If you’ve served a church in any capacity, you’ve had the chance to resent someone, to count the price of someone else’s activities while ignoring the value.
We can even count the price of everything and the value of nothing when we examine our own actions. I spent all those hours on that sermon that half the people didn’t hear at all and the other half forgot before the hymn of the day ended. We prepared like mad for the Sunday School lesson when only two kids showed up. I sat for days by mom’s bedside knowing she couldn’t see or hear me.
Here the Judas in all of us pipes up. Was that the best you could do with yourself? Was that the best use of your time? Shouldn’t you have been working to earn more money to save or give away? Shouldn’t you concern yourself with helping the living rather than someone who is beyond any help? Sometimes the price of our work is screamingly obvious and the value is hidden.
Consider Paul the apostle. Writing thirty years after the meal at Bethany, he recounts the rich ointment of his own gifts: He was religious, educated in the ancient language, of pure lineage and upright character. Yet this proud inheritance, this pound of perfumed oil, “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” He goes on: “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ...I want to know Christ and his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
Paul, you have so much promise and so many gifts. You could do so much good and accomplish so much--will you really throw it all away for a carpenter’s son from Nazareth? Yes, Paul says, yes I will. I will pour out my life like oil on the feet of Christ and wipe those feet--the feet that walked the length and breadth of Palestine, the feet that brought good news, the feet that met the hungry in the wilderness, the feet that were nailed to the cross for the redemption of the whole world. I will wipe those feet with my own hair, my own weakness, my own vulnerability, my own imperfection.
We can not truly know the value of our faith until we choose to neglect the price. Maybe Mary was foolish. Maybe Paul was foolish. But if we don’t have a moment or two of foolishness like theirs, we will never grasp the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. It doesn’t much matter whether you start by pouring yourself out in beautiful worship, or in serving the homeless in the dead of winter, or in teaching kids that everyone else has given up on, or in treating public aid patients at a loss or standing up for ethics in a dishonest environment. Has God given you a heart for worship? Then worship faithfully, and God will teach you to serve. Has God given you a heart for social ministry? Then serve faithfully and God will teach your heart to praise.
See how gentle Jesus is with his arguing disciples. He excuses Mary’s actions, while perhaps suggesting that she hang on to some of the oil. And he reminds them all that there will be time enough to pour themselves out in love, service, in fighting injustice. He reminds us that we will not always have him, but we will always have a way to share our blessings. He reminds us that if you can be generous beyond measure with him, you can be generous beyond measure to the whole world he embraces. Amen.1:59 PM
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