Six days before the Passover feast, Jesus journeyed to the village of Bethany, to the home of Lazarus who had recently been raised from the dead, where they hosted Him for dinner. Martha was busy serving as the hostess, Lazarus reclined at the table with Him, and Mary took a pound of fine ointment, pure nard (which is both rare and expensive), and anointed Jesus’ feet with it; and then she wiped them with her hair. As the pleasant fragrance of this extravagant ointment filled the entire house, Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples (who was plotting to betray Jesus), began to speak.
One day in 1990 a 35 year old teacher named Joanne was stranded on a train stalled between Manchester and London. During the four hour delay, she had an idea for a book. In years that followed, that thought would grow and develop in her mind while the ups and downs of her life continued. She married, moved to her husband’s homeland of Portugal, and had a child. But the marriage didn’t last long, the couple divorced and – struggling with the depression – she returned to the UK. Three years after having the original idea, now a single mother living on welfare, she began writing the book about a boy wizard in short snippets.
According to Forbes magazine, by the time JK Rowling had written and published that book and the next four in the Harry Potter series by 2004, her success made her the first person to become a billionaire by writing books. That single, struggling mother had come a long way.
But by 2012, Forbes had to remove Rowling from that prestigious list of billionaires. Why? Was it because someone had done the math wrong or because she had wasted away her money? Perhaps she’d made some bad business choices or had an employee embezzler all of her earnings. No.
The truth is, 8 years after hitting that milestone, JK Rowling had given away so much of her money to charity that she could no longer be counted as a billionaire. She had given away over $160 million. Now, while I’m sure we can all agree that contributing money to a good cause is worthwhile, well, donating $160 million might see pretty wasteful to some people.
We don’t know much about Mary of Bethany. In the Gospels we only have a few short glimpses of her life with her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus. However, the stories that we do have tell us that she kind of did things on her own terms. Her relationship with Jesus transcends the rituals and customs of the day. Instead of being a good, loyal hostess serving food and cleaning dishes, Mary would rather sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his teaching. But she’s not one to just keep her opinions to herself. When Jesus was expected to come and save her sick brother, Mary had no qualms in getting in his face and yelling at him, practically accusing him of deliberately staying away so that her brother would die. It may have even been her accusation that motivated Jesus to raise her brother from the dead.
And now, once again Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words. Once again, she does something out of the ordinary. She takes down the alabaster jar holding ointment – the ointment that was most likely meant to anoint her brother’s body as he lay in a tomb. Ointment that was no longer needed since Jesus raised Lazarus. And she breaks the seal on the precious jar and pours out the extravagant oil and rubs it on Jesus’ feet. That might seem pretty wasteful to some people. Judas certainly found it to be a waste. Now, I know he’s supposed to be the bad guy and everything, and even if the author’s assertion that Judas didn’t really care is true, well, Judas does have a point. Why would Mary waste such a good resource?
Jesus’ response to Judas is a little confusing. He says “the poor are ever present but I will be leaving.” Is Jesus really saying that we’ll always have the poor so let’s not worry about them right now? Well, no. As he so often does in scripture, Jesus is actually quoting the beginning of a verse from scripture and assuming that his listeners know the rest. In this case, Deuteronomy 15:11 “there will always be poor people throughout the country. That’s why I’m giving you this command: give generously to your neighbor, to the poor and needy in the land.” Jesus isn’t saying that his followers should think more about him than the poor, he’s saying that the way we should think about him is by doing more to help the poor.
We try to be good followers of Jesus. We try to do more to help all of God’s children. But we all have our own resources that we’re afraid of wasting. Our money and our energy and our time are all precious to us. So we protect them. We’re afraid of giving too much away so we take our cash and our calendars and put them in an alabaster jar up on a shelf, saving them for another time, a “just in case” rainy day that may or may not ever come.
But when we risk using our resources to do the work of Christ, it’s just as worshipful as pouring out that expensive oil on his feet. When we use our time to visit a sick friend or empty our cupboards to make a meal for a grieving family; when we give our money to help the homeless, or work through our fears and visit someone in prison, we’re letting our resources flow for the sake of God’s children.
To others around us and even to our own doubting disciple inside, this might seem wasteful. We can think of a thousand other uses for our time, our money, our energy. That rainy day is always a real possibility. Why should we be so inefficient with these precious commodities of our life?
When Mary anointed Jesus, something else occured – the oil got on her as well. As she covered his feet with the ointment, she used her hair to massage it in. So, she too was covered. Mary received some of the same precious gift that she poured on Jesus. When we give to others, we receive ourselves. We receive the sense that we are following in Christ’s footsteps, the hope that we’ve made a difference, the knowledge that there is an entire world outside of our own needs.
Last week, during our Monday night Lectio Divina service, we had a chance to smell nard oil. For most of the people there, the scent was surprising. It wasn’t how we imagined it.
The ways in which we serve God may be like that. The ministries to which we are called may not look the way we expect.
When I first brought the idea of a Kids Care event to the church, I’ll admit even I found the idea a bit confusing. The model didn’t seem to fit anything that we’ve done before. Why would anyone waste their money to contribute to the cause; why would anyone give up their afternoon to be in Ames Hall scooping up macaroni?
But after participating, it was obvious that this is a great example of how valuable it can be when we use our resources to help others. By taking down that alabaster jar of our time and money, we poured out some hard-earned cash and gave up a free Sunday afternoon. And because we did, we paid for and prepared 7,830 meals – almost twice our original goal. Once we opened up that jar, we couldn’t stop the gifts from flowing. In return, we got to spend time with each other, make some new friends, have a lot of fun and know that we made a real difference to families in our community. A little bit of that precious oil got on our hair – and we may have even gotten more if we didn’t have to wear the hair nets.
We need to continue looking at the resources we have and examining how we use them. What are we keeping in that jar that we are afraid to use? Why are we putting our time and money aside? Is there something that God is calling us to use them for right now?
MCC is at a crossroads. We need to decide where we are headed into the future. We need to find a way to care for all of the members and friends of the church and to invite others to join us. Why? Because I believe that MCC is doing God’s work. I believe that we serve God by providing a place for everyone to be accepted and affirmed, we serve God by welcoming in the stranger and walking with them on a journey to discover the Holy, we offer the unique opportunity for everyone to have a place to think about and talk about and disagree about our evolving understanding of God.
We need to make sure that we’re able to provide these opportunities to everyone in our community – especially our children. We need to give them guidance and a space to learn the foundations of our faith, to ask questions, and to teach us about God. We need to find the resources to allow them to do so.
As we once again search for a leader for our children’s programming at MCC we need to pour out our resources extravagantly. We need to spend our time volunteering to teach Sunday school, we need to get out of our comfort zone and ask the children what they think instead of just telling them what we want them to believe. And we need to pour out our money in order to pay a reasonable, living wage to someone who is able to devote the time and energy towards developing the program that our children deserve.
We don’t have JK Rowling’s billion dollars. When we look at our budget that we have, it may seem wasteful to think about spending more money on CE. When we look at our calendar, it may seem wasteful to think about giving more of our time to the program, but when we have the courage to open up that alabaster jar and release it’s contents, we’ll see what a real blessing it is to have the oil in our hair. We’ll see our children benefit from our gifts, we’ll be able to share our faith and our stories with them, we’ll get to hear new ideas about God as only a child can express.
People may have thought that JK Rowling was throwing away her fortune. The disciples may not have understood Mary’s extravagant gesture. My prayer is that we at MCC have enough courage and faith be just as wasteful as they were.