Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Sermon: Experiencing Extravagant Worship

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John 12:1-11
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii[b] and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Series: Experiencing Easter
Experiencing Extravagant Worship

Did you happen to watch any of the Hollywood awards shows this year? When I think of extravagance, or lavishness, these events come to mind. The gowns, the tuxes, the jewels, and the pre-and post-parties. Being the foodie that I am, I enjoy seeing what feasts the famous chefs prepare for stars to eat as they celebrate their big wins, mourn their losses, and enjoy being together. As the entertainment news shows count down the days, they show glamorous tables covered in rich fabrics under glittering chandeliers. The special menu, complete with the most expensive ingredients we can imagine are listed, almost as if a thought has not been given to their cost. The carpets are red, the lighting is perfect, and it is indeed a party for the rich and famous with no expense spared.

There is sense of extravagance to these scenes – not only are these parties over the top, but we could also claim that the money spent on them is wasteful. Could the funds be given to the homeless who sleep on Hollywood Blvd, or fill a food pantry? Oscar night is not the first time we asked these questions in the history of time. The same question was asked of Mary, as she anointed the feet of Jesus with an expensive perfume worth the equivalent of a year’s wages. Our gospel reading today is a reading that tells of love and worship, that may be seen by some as lavish to the point of being wasteful – extravagant.

To fully understand the context of the scene, let’s go back a few days. Just prior to this dinner party Jesus had spent some time with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He received the word that Lazarus was ill, and tarried on his way to heal him – when Jesus arrived, Lazaraus was not ill, but indeed had died. Lazarus had been in the tomb for 4 days, and probably had the stench of death clinging to him when Jesus arrived. Mary and Martha were beside themselves with grief as the thought of the death of their brother, and were a little angry with Jesus for not arriving soon enough to heal him. It is in that reading we hear the shortest verse in the Bible – Jesus wept. He wept with grief for the loss of his friend. Then he cried for Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus did. Smelly, wrapped in graveclothes he emerged from the tomb, alive. The news began to spread, and it was this act that finally drew Jesus to the attention of the chief priests and Pharisees. He had gone from being a crackpot who answered questions with more questions to being one who performed many signs. Their fear was that people would begin to believe what he was doing was the truth, and that the Romans would come and destroy them. The death of Jesus was ordered, for the sake of the nation, and Lazarus was also put on the 10 most wanted list.

It is now six days before the Passover, and Jesus is unable to move freely about the country. He came back to Bethany, and to the home of his friends – a place that should have been safe. Mary and Martha hold a dinner party, with Martha serving, and Mary at the table next to Lazarus. The guest list included such A-listers as Jesus, Lazarus, Judas, and other disciples. It was a big deal, and I can envision them all having a good time together – these friends who had traveled so far together. What happens next is unexpected, to say the least. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, and poured it on the feet of Jesus, anointing him with it. This is where the dinner becomes extravagant. A pound of the perfume would cost just about the same as wages for the whole year. We don’t know how Mary acquired the nard, how long she saved for it, or what her intended purpose was. To compare in today’s terms – the most expensive perfume in the world is Clive Christian No.1 Imperial Majesty perfume. Only 10 bottles were ever made, and they are made from Baccarat crystal, adorned with a 5 carat diamond and 18K gold collar around the throat of the bottle. It comes in a red velvet lined box, and is $12,721.98 an ounce. A whole pound is $203,551.68. But, most of that cost is in the container. The same scent, in a less ornate container – still crystal with a diamond is $2,150 an ounce, or 34,400. Imagine what you must think of someone to open a brand new bottle and pour one pound of perfume – about 2 cups of liquid on the feet of someone. But that’s what Mary did.

Mary’s extravagance was an act of love and thanksgiving. She took her most valuable possession and offered it to Jesus as a few will act of love. It is an act of worship.

I’m teaching a Sunday School class right now about Presbyterian Worship, and the theme of today’s portion of our Lenten series, fits in with that. Before we can think about extravagant worship, we need to think about what we believe about the act of worship itself. Why do we come and gather on a Sunday morning to participate in this practice we know as “worship”? What do we do in this sacred time we set apart from the rest of our weeks to solely come and honor God? Many of you who have participated in officer training with me, or been in our Sunday School class have heard me say that the Directory for Worship, particularly the first and second chapters are my favorite sections of the Book of Order. In some circles, that gets me labeled as a polity dork, or church nerd, labels I will gladly own – Popewatch may have been the highlight of my Wednesday. But, I digress. What do we believe happens when we worship?

When we worship, we gather to offer our praise, honor, glory, and power to the Triune God – that’s the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We come together to acknowledge God as present in the world, as well as present in our lives. We make that claim – we claim that God is at work in the world, and in worship we respond to that claim. We respond to the claims that we are all children of God, and that we find our salvation in Jesus Christ. We claim that The Triune God has highest claim on us, and because of that we as people are transformed and renewed. In worship we respond to that transformation and renewal by offering ourselves to God, not from a place of requirement, but from a place of gratitude, and we are equipped for God’s service in the world. Our offerings in worship, as an act of offering praise and ascribing glory and honor, are our response to the self-offering of Christ, and that we can claim that in Christ we are set free from sin and death.

One way we worship is by giving to God material goods. In our case money. The weekly offering, no matter if you mail a check during the week, or put something in the plate are a corporate way of showing our self-dedication to God. I ran across a story this week that I would like to share with you, that caused me to stop and really think about what I give for the offering plate. One Sunday morning, in a church like ours, in a community like ours, there was Sunday Morning worship. The pastors led prayers and hymns, there was a time for children where little Mike wanted to know if killing bugs was covered under the commandment “thou shall not murder”, and Mr. Thomas sang the anthem just a little off key, but with a joyful noise. The sermon was preached, and then the pastor stood up and called for the offering. The plates passed form hand to hand. There were some checks, some bills, some coins, and some envelopes places in as each passed the plate to their neighbor. The first notes of the Doxology began, and the congregation rose to their feet. As the strains of “world without end, amen, amen” died out the Pastor gathered the plates, lifted them high in the air and offered the following prayer: “O Lord, despite what we say, this is what we really think of you.”

Worship is our response to God. It is our response to Christ, who gave his very life for us. Do we give freely, extravagantly like Mary, or do we instead respond with a closed fist like Judas.

You see, Judas complained about Mary’s worship. It was too much, to costly a gift to give to her Lord. Judas complained that the money could have been spent on something better – perhaps even the poor. It sounds like a good response, in theory. God, I think so much of you I want your offerings to go towards good. But, Judas had other motives. In one of his common parenthetical side remarks, John points out that Judas holds the common purse and took from it as he wanted. With the money for the nard spent, he had less to hold onto and use for his own purposes.

One of my favorite accounts of extravagant worship comes from Deuteronomy, as decorations are sought for the temple. In the passage Ted read this morning, we heard about the people bringing their best and finest to offer to God. They could not control what happened with their gifts once given, but they gave freely and generously. They brought the finest china and silver to stock the cabinets of the kitchen for Wednesday night suppers. The silk tablecloths came in abundance, as did the finest draperies for the crystal windows. Silver and Gold serving pieces for the communion tables and funeral luncheons arrived by the box-load, as did the most beautiful handmade banners and paraments. The juice for communion was organic, the bread artisan. So much came in for the building and furnishing of the new temple that the ones in charge of the building project finally had to say “enough!” The people have given abundantly and generously as an act of worship for God, but we can’t use anymore. The congregation literally overflowed the space as they gave their offering.

Contrast that with another story – the story of a family who adopted a family in need for Christmas. The Williams family (names changed, of course) adopted a family in need through their church. As Mr. and Mrs. Williams shopped for their own children and relatives, they spared no expense. Kitchen gadgets form William Sonoma, Hollister, Abercrombe, and Gap clothes for the kids. A new Coach handbag for mom, and an iPad for Dad. One day in mid-December, the family went to shop for the family they adopted. Instead of heading for the mall, they headed for K-Mart, trying to spend as little as possible but fulfill their obligations. Mr. Williams said it hit him as he was looking at discount sneakers that they had provided so extravagantly for themselves, and were hoarding what they had as they shopped for others. They got back in the car, and went to the mall to shop for their adopted family instead.

As Good Friday and Easter draw closer, we will see first-hand the gift that Christ has given us. We will once again hear the story of the parade, the trial, the walk to Gethsemane, the nails, and the death. In that death, we are given life. We are freed from sin. Our worship is a response to that freedom. What do our worship of Christ, and the actions we take in Christ’s name say about our love for him? Do we offer Christ our first and our best, or our leftovers? What prayer should we pray when we lift up the offering plate, and perhaps is there a better one instead?

Rev. Julie A. Jensen
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
March 17, 2013

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