How Far Will You Go?
April 7 “How Far Will You Go?” Isaiah 43:16-21 • Psalm 126 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • John 12:1-8
When I was still going to Seminary, I met a young man who claimed that the church would be better served if we stopped giving sermons on Sunday. Unfortunately, I never heard from him what we should do instead. I only had one class with him and never saw him again. My main memory now is that we worked on a group project, and our instructor hated it. This man tends to come to mind when I have preached a sermon that just didn’t feel right. Sometimes they come together, sometimes they don’t, and I can’t foresee which will occur, or why. I tend to compare giving a sermon to testing spaghetti to see if it is done cooking: you toss it onto something to see if it sticks. Last week I set a personal record for the number of people I put to sleep during the sermon. You probably didn’t notice this dubious accomplishment because you were nodding off, too.
Things were fine in the beginning. I told about my experiences, most of you were listening, and there were even a few laughs. Usually a good sign. But once I started discussing our reading from the book of Joshua, it was nap time. This is a lesson for all of us as we seek to share our faith: our listeners will be more interested in our own stories than if we just quote Scripture or doctrine to them. Some people are very good at adding Scripture to their story in an effective way, but most of us will probably struggle. Those who are good at it have had a lot of experience, like our friends from the Gideons. Now I warned you in advance that it was not a particularly exciting story, and this may have been a mistake, for it certainly didn’t help. People didn’t perk up again until I read beyond our selected reading, to the story of Joshua meeting the angelic being who identified himself as the commander of the Lord’s heavenly forces. I thought what came before this was important, but apparently few of you did. Another lesson there: instead of just giving the same, memorized presentation to someone you are inviting to church, try to adapt that message in a way that is meaningful for that person.
I believe that where I failed was that I didn’t help you connect to the Biblical story in a meaningful way. For it was an important milestone in the unfolding of the plan God has for his people: the Israelites stop and celebrate arriving in the Promised Land, ritually purify themselves from the past, and get ready to claim their new homeland. The message I wanted you to hear was the promise of a new future and the hope we have in Christ for a purposeful life. Unfortunately, I had already put you to sleep by that time in the sermon! But I am driven by a deep sense of hope for where this church is headed. We have had several new people join us lately, and each person is another jolt of hope, especially the younger ones. Each of you who have been here longer represent hope, also. Each person here represents new stories to share, new lessons to be learned from our combined experiences, new support for our struggles, new ideas for ministry, and new messages from God. Each person invites us to stretch in new ways of understanding and connection. Now I am certainly grateful that you feel comfortable enough to take a nap in church, but our goal is to seek further levels of connection: with God, each other, and our neighbors. We can’t do this very well when we are sleeping!
Our Gospel lesson takes place in the home of Lazarus. This is shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps Lazarus is the one who really needs the perfume, if the stink of death is still upon him; but the room is filled with strong scent of expensive, rare perfume. Perhaps we are reminded of that store at the mall that pumps out perfume, the smell billowing out of the store, supposedly hinting at exotic clothes worthy of our friends’ envy, but overpowering for those of us who are sensitive to such intense odors. Here, we have a much more potent and extravagant fragrance, in a much smaller space. Perhaps it reminds us of the incense at ornate and dignified cathedrals and other holy places. A fine fragrance that transports us into a different space, perhaps into God’s presence in a different realm. But there always must be a party pooper, bringing us back to the ordinary. Perhaps we remember the earlier story when Jesus visits Martha at her house, and she complains that she must do all the work while here sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. So here Martha is serving again, and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. This time Martha doesn’t complain, instead, we hear from Judas, the ultimate party pooper.
As the anointing here of Jesus presages his death, Judas’ words are a foretaste of his betrayal, and his lust for money. Does anyone really believe Judas wants to give the money to the poor, or just to keep it for himself? Who do we identify with here, Mary or Judas? We would like to say “Mary” but if we are honest, we are often more like Judas, holding on to what is temporary, rather than giving extravagantly to what will bear fruit into eternity. How far are we willing to go? Sure, we give some to God, but are we willing to sacrifice all that we have? We aren’t told where Mary got the perfume, or how she could even afford it. Are we willing to give even a small portion to Jesus, or do we give we small hearts, thinking of what toys we could have purchased instead?
Of course, we give sacrificially to God and his people in other ways too: with our time and our lives in ways that show our love without money being involved. We don’t need to be rich moneywise to give extravagantly to the Kingdom of God. Lazarus’ house, we are told, is in Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. Mary anoints Jesus for his final days leading to his death. Next week is Palm Sunday, and then Holy Week. Can we even imagine how far Jesus is willing to go for us? Probably not, if we are not willing to go even a small step. Here, his journey leads to the cross, but we remember that Jesus comes to people in many other ways in the Bible: he comes to the sick, the poor, the sinners. These things did not require him to sacrifice money of his life, but the sacrifice of his time and perhaps his reputation and safety. Certainly, he sacrificed in many other ways in service to God’s people that there is not enough space in the Bible to tell. He does not do one or two acts of mercy but lived a life that was geared towards serving others. He lived to embody the hope we have in a better world. He sends his disciples out to do likewise: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the orphans, widows, and all in need. How far are we willing to go? Does our service to God and our neighbors show our faith in God’s promises, our hope that he will bring better things into our world, maybe even through us?
Paul’s story may or may not be one we can relate to: it is from a very different time, and he has a pretty long rap sheet. We can pursue our faith in a place where we won’t be persecuted. Our struggles are more likely to be from things we didn’t seek out: cancer, loss, addictions, the suffering of loved ones. Jesus’ example may be even more difficult to identify with, especially his suffering and death on the cross. But we can identify with his efforts to reach those on the margins. We to seek to help those in need, those who try to stay in the shadows: the homeless, the hungry, the sick. We may not have his power, but we carry his promises of hope, reconciliation, and restoration. Paul may sound like he is bragging at times, but he is quick to point at that it is all worthless if Christ is not gained in the process. We don’t gain anything eternal by our own efforts; our gain comes solely through the righteousness of Jesus and what he went through on our behalf. We don’t do anything to earn his grace, we act in response to his grace, sharing his love and grace in gratitude for his having first loved us. As Paul writes:
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, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of 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. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Like Paul, we must remember that we are not there yet. We may have obtained salvation and eternal life, but we keep responding to God’s call as long as we have breath. Even if we already have done many things for God, even if we are tired or discouraged. Jesus is our hope, and he gives us the strength to keep going on this path he prepared for us. We keep working to spread the Good News of Jesus, for the needs of our community continue to cry out to us. Perhaps we have gotten too comfortable, perhaps we are nodding off not only because of another boring sermon, but because we are no longer listening to those who need us. We must keep asking ourselves: How far will we go for Jesus, and for our neighbors?