Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Crazy extravagance, gracious reception

For March 13, Lent 5.  Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 4-14, John 12:1-8

A long time ago, back in BC (before children), I went on a learning tour to Colombia with a group of other youth ministers from Canada and the USA. While there, we walked the streets of Bogota and had a chance to go into a small store owned by a couple from the Mennonite Church. The store was the size of a large closet. They sold soap, small hardware items, and odds and ends. The owners were excited to have foreign visitors and we were given some coffee and nice hot-cross buns. Later on, we were told the store barely earned enough for the family. The buns were a very special thing, purchased fresh from a nearby bakery to welcome us. It was one of the most humbling things I have ever experienced. These poor people were so willing to give of themselves to bless us. Us wealthy folks were the recipients of an abundant and joyful generosity that we could do nothing about but accept it.

I have often thought of those people and how they gave so generously even out of their poverty.

The texts for this week are of crazy abundance, God's willingness to share, and our own struggle with what it means to be on the receiving end.

Isaiah has God making ways in the wilderness, stopping armies, and giving rivers in deserts until even the wild animals honour their creator-BUT-read a little further. Verse 22. "Yet you did not call on me." God has so much to give, and yet the people do not receive. We aren't very good at receiving.

Jesus teaches a lesson about gracious reception. In John we read the story of Mary (Martha and Lazarus' sister) pouring expensive perfume on Jesus' feet and wiping them with her hair. The perfume was worth a year's wages for a labourer, a crazy extravagance to use to clean someones feet! In the face of the outpouring, Jesus lovingly accepts Mary's gift. Judas, however, is the voice of reason and practicality. He exclaims at the waste and questions why the money wasn't put to better use. After all, it could have helped the poor! Most of us have to admit that our voice is probably the same as Judas'!

There is a little aside following Judas' outburst, an aside that disparages his character. I am a bit inclined to disregard this bit. It's obviously added after the betrayal when no one liked Judas anymore. It feels like dismissal of his argument, a way to justify ourselves when we use this same argument. And we do use this argument. Is it okay to use it if we are good people and only not okay to use it if we are like Judas?

It occurs to me that this extravagant generosity and these texts of abundance (and stingy reception) are particularly appropriate for our Alberta boom and bust mentality. When do we give? When the economy is booming, governments argue that they can't spend because prices are too high, workers too scarce...etc...When the economy is bust, the argument switches to "now isn't the time to spend."

How are our lives, both spiritually and physically, a boom and bust mentality? How many times do we use very practical arguments to prevent generosity or to obscure what is really going on, or to limit resources that are meant to be used to bless others?

It was common practice  in NT times for perfume to be used to mask the odours of death. Mary must have been listening to Jesus and was already mourning his upcoming death. She had purchased the perfume for his burial, then rather spontaneously, decided not to wait. She anoints Jesus before death when he can respond to what she does. This wasn't only an extravagant gift, but an expression of extravagant love and acceptance of what Jesus was about to do with his life. And Jesus extravagantly receives. (Note how he defends Mary, but also is kind to Judas. In saying that the poor are always there, Jesus is not dismissing the practical concern Judas raises. The poor are to be cared for too, but  at this moment Mary has chosen well.)

Questions: How have you been extravagantly blessed by another? How have you blessed someone? Are you able to receive an extravagant gift of love in a way that honours the giver?

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