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Sermon: Love Does Not Make Sense

March 19, 2010

John 12:1-8

On Tuesday, Desiree and I will celebrate nine years of marriage.

Anniversaries are always anxiety-producing events for husbands.  An anniversary is like a minefield.  If a husband takes one wrong step, he will be blown to bits.  Some navigate this treacherous territory with skill and grace.  Other husbands think that a vacuum cleaner is a good anniversary gift.

The men in the second category tend to be very practical individuals.  They also tend to get into a lot of trouble with their wives.  I can certainly understand why a man would think a vacuum cleaner is a good gift.  It is extremely useful.  Most men would be thrilled to get something practical—like a circular saw or a drill.  But I have some very important advice to you if you are a man who is now married or who may get married in the future: never give a vacuum cleaner as an anniversary gift.

There are some areas in which practicality and reasonability are not helpful concepts.  Imagine the results if Hallmark were to come out with some reasonable anniversary cards.

●“Happy Anniversary to my husband; you certainly aren’t as young and handsome as you used to be, but I love you anyway.”

●“Happy Anniversary to my dear wife; I’m really glad we’re married, because if I were single, I’d have to do my own laundry.”

●“Happy Anniversary to my sweetheart; I’m so glad my first choice said “no.”

I think you get the idea.

We ignore issues of practicality and reasonability all the time.  We plant roses in good soil that could be used for beans and tomatoes.  We order a bacon cheeseburger when a salad would be cheaper and healthier.  We put holes in perfectly good walls in order to hang photographs of our family members.  Even Jesus pointed out the birds and the flowers and said, “Look how beautifully and extravagantly God has clothed these creatures.”  A life that is really worth living includes moments of impractical beauty and unreasonable expressions of love.

None of us would want a world without Bach fugues, Monet’s water lilies or butterflies.  You wouldn’t want to go through your day without biting into a crisp, juicy apple or enjoying a smooth piece of chocolate.  A world without the smell of freshly baked sugar cookies is not a world worth living in.  Each one of those sensual experiences, of no practical value but expressing great beauty, are most delightful when they come to us as gifts from someone who loves us.  A rose is beautiful, but a rose from a lover is worth keeping forever.  I really enjoy meatloaf, but when my wife makes it for me, it nourishes my spirit as well as my body.

All four gospels give us an intimate view of one of these beautiful acts of gift giving.  In this story it is Jesus, often called God’s greatest gift to us, who receives the impractical but delightful gift.  Jesus, who gave everything for us, also receives.  That in itself could be an important lesson.

It is only John who sets the scene at the house of Lazarus, brother to the women called Martha and Mary.  Jesus had joined them for dinner not long after he had raised Lazarus from the dead.  Maybe it was a thank you dinner.  “Thank you, Jesus, for the life of our brother.”

While they were at the table Mary brought out a pound of perfume, pure nard.  This perfume was imported, produced from an Indian plant (W. R. F. Browning. “spikenard.A Dictionary of the Bible. 1997. 19 Mar. 2010.), and John’s gospel tells us a pound of the stuff was worth about 300 denarii.  A single denarius was the wage for one day of manual labor, so at the current California minimum wage, that pound of perfume was the equivalent in value to about $20,000.  It was worth real money.

Mary brought out her perfume, knelt at Jesus’ feet, and did what any reasonable, practical person would do.  She dumped the entire jar on his feet; all $20,000 dollars worth rushed out in one extravagant cascade of fragrant perfume.  John wrote that the smell filled the whole house.  Kids in the back could smell this billowing scent, and they wondered what the grownups were up to.  Mary’s action probably lingered in the house for days afterward, and the guests went home with their clothes still smelling of perfume.

This was not a carefully measured application of Mary’s precious ointment.  She did not dab a little bit on, just enough to cover Jesus’ feet.  She didn’t pour out a little bit in her hand to make sure she didn’t spill.  Mary let loose a torrent of perfume, and most of it probably didn’t even get on Jesus.  Most probably spilled on the floor, and the dogs came around to see what it was.  It was messy.  It was uncontrolled.  It was an act of love.

Fortunately, there was a reasonable man in the room.  There was someone present who was prudent and thoughtful and careful.  His name was Judas, and he kept the shared treasury for Jesus and the disciples.  And he was outraged.

“Wait a minute!  That perfume could have been sold, and the money would have been enough to take care of a destitute family for an entire year.  Mary just dumped a year’s worth of wages all over the floor!”

John wrote, in his attempt to demonize Judas, that all the man cared about was the money.  He would have stolen it, just as he did with all the other money for which he was responsible.  But really, whether or not Judas was an evil man who stole from the poor and kicked puppies, there is a point in that argument.  That perfume could have been sold for a lot of money, and that money could have done a lot of good.  But it wasn’t sold.  It was poured out extravagantly on Jesus’ feet and wiped with Mary’s hair.

Whenever a beautiful, expensive monument is built, such as a cathedral or that lighted, musical fountain down by the cruise ship terminal, someone will complain that the money could have been spent in a more effective, efficient way.  That is a legitimate thought.  We should pay some attention to how money is spent.  We should be concerned about the poor and about justice.  There are real choices we have to make in this life we’ve been given, and we should make them wisely.

But thank heaven that God doesn’t only care about what’s prudent and reasonable, what is practical and sensible.  God gave us eyes that appreciate the rich colors and patterns of a field of orange poppies.  God gave us taste buds to take pleasure in every melt-in-your-mouth bite of warm cornbread and honey.  God gave us bodies that love to be hugged and loved.  God gave us ears that thrill at the delicate tones of a violin.  God gave us noses that can soak up the scent of pumpkin pie and roasting turkey.  God gave us minds and a spirit to be able to take in these various sensations and to recognize them as beautiful.  We are created in the image of God, and God enjoys the beautiful and extravagant, especially when it is shared as a generous gift.

My first appointment was as an associate pastor to a fairly large congregation.  There were a lot of shut ins in that congregation, and so I did a lot of visiting in homes.  I always called ahead.  You don’t usually have to worry that I’ll show up at your door unannounced.

One day I went to see an elderly woman who lived in a trailer park.  I had never met her before, and so I was a little nervous as I knocked on the door.  She was friendly and invited me in to her little front room.  The place was very neat, very clean.

As soon as I sat down, she said, “Would you like some coffee?”

As you know, I love coffee.  I have never had “enough” coffee.  But I am also shy.  It was my first appointment as a minister, and I don’t want to be a bother.

So I said, “No, thank you.  I just ate lunch.”  I no longer remember if I had or not, but I said it anyway.

“Oh no,” she said.  “It isn’t any trouble at all.  Let me get you some coffee.”

“Thank you, but no.  I’m fine.”  I didn’t want to be a bother.  There’s no reason that little old lady should go to any trouble for me.

So I didn’t have any coffee.  It was a good visit.  Nothing remarkable about it.  She was a really nice woman.  At the end of the visit, I said a prayer, said goodbye, walked down the steps and started to go out to my car.

As I walked along toward my car, I passed by this woman’s breakfast nook.  There was a window there, and I could see inside.  On her kitchen counter was a tray.  On that tray there were two beautiful china cups and saucers.  And a bowl for sugar and one for cream.  There was a plate with cookies neatly arranged on it.  And there was a full pot of coffee that had been there throughout the entire visit, just sitting there waiting to be enjoyed.  I felt like the biggest heel in the entire world.

A gift of extravagant loveliness should be appreciated and enjoyed.  Such a gift imitates the Great Giver.  Such a gift imitates Jesus Christ, who came to us as a gift from God, a gift that made no sense when you consider that we are foolish people, bound to repeat every mistake we have ever made, bound to squander and misuse the gifts God gives to us.  The gift of Jesus, and he gave himself to people who can never truly appreciate him.  It makes no sense.

It makes no sense unless it is given in the spirit of great love.  Through the eyes of love, the categories of the practical and sensible are meaningless.  The only thing that matters with a gift of love is that it is profligate and beautiful and extravagant.  That is the sort of gift given to one that you love.  That is the sort of gift God gave to us.

And so I say what I said before.  Don’t you dare give a vacuum cleaner.

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