Rev Kevin Highfield (United Methodist Church).
Sunday 7th of April 2019, Lent 5
The Generosity of Discipleship
Do you have regrets? I do. I think about how things could have been better. Lent is a time of reflection and I think about how my actions have hurt or healed. If only I had done this instead of that. I often wonder how to live with less regrets?
I think today’s scripture provides a possible way to limit regrets.
This passage in the Gospel of John begins the final countdown to the final days.
Mary’s act of anointing is intimately connected to Jesus coming death and burial, as we transition in the book of John from a focus on ministry to Jesus’ glorification and what it means to live as a disciple.
How much does it cost to love Jesus? 300 denarii, a year’s wages? How much are you willing to give?
The Cost of Discipleship is a classic book by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With all due respect to Bonhoeffer, I would rather call it the “generosity of discipleship.” I think today too many disciples focus on “costs,” a focus on the world’s economy of cost-benefit analysis, not on the abundance in God’s economy.
Centering ourselves on “costs” makes us look to our own interests, looking inward on ourselves. Concentrating on generosity helps to focus on being part of God’s household, and loving interests of God and others.
As disciples of Christ we are called to show Christ-like generosity, generosity which is unveiled in acts of Christian humility and hospitality.
In the Gospel text read today,
Mary was impractical.
Certainly, Mary could have found a more practical way of stewardship for more than year’s wages than this extravagant oil poured out on Jesus feet? Her unreasonable decision is immediately highlighted by Judas.
These decisions of the best use of resources are very similar to one’s all Christian organizations face. What glorifies God more? How best to perform the mission God gave us so we don’t regret the use of our resources, out time, our talents?
We know that Jesus and his Father have a heart for the poor, a preferential option for the poor and oppressed, as illuminated by Liberation Theologians.
Surely, Judas is correct. Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor? (12.5).
Yet, Jesus commends Mary, not Judas. In fact, he rebukes Judas. You will always have the poor with you, but this is an indictment of people and systems of power and privilege that capitalize on the poor, such as those managed by those like Judas, taking advantage of the economically poor.
Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15.11, “for the poor will never cease out of this land; therefore, I command you, you shall open wide your hand to the needy and poor.” We can throw up our hands in despair, but dig in and help them, they should always be in the center of what we do.
The narrator felt obligated to provide an aside about Judas’ motivation, to help explain away a seemingly incongruous response by Jesus.
But I think Judas’ motivations are almost irrelevant here. There is a choice to be made by Mary. What is the best use of her perfume? A choice we face every day with our own time, talents, and resources. How do we know what is best and have less regrets about missing the mark?
Loving God does not mean being trapped into false choices. We can easily get trapped in the “Judas argument.” A true church always has the poor and oppressed in its midst, and always treasures their lives. They are part of us so much that we don’t need reminding that this world is cruel and crucifying poor people, like Jesus, every day.
I suggest we use the lens of generosity, not focusing on the opportunity costs of our actions, looking solely on ourselves on this earth, but on just being the most generous people we can be. Knowing God uses our generosity for eternal results in others, it is furtherance of God’s abundant love in their lives.
Mary was focused on impractical, reckless, generous love, relishing the abundant presence of God, demonstrating humility.
What is Mary concerned about right now in this story? Being doctrinally correct? Following the letter of the Law? Winning a battle of faith, of theology, of scripture, of tradition?
Mary know nothing of the coming church councils that occurred hundreds of years later, determining what we should believe about Jesus, nor does she know for sure what will happen to Jesus that week.
She sees those who would take Jesus life gathering around, and she was not deterred from her mission of love and service, of lavish generosity.
The Greek word used here for “wiping” Jesus’ feet is only used one other time in John, it is when Jesus wipes the feet of the disciples in the next chapter. Jesus explains this as an act of generosity, of humility and hospitality, of service, of servant leadership, and it is to be an example to all of us who want to follow him.
Mary pre-figures Jesus’ love with its lavish impracticality, not only as an example for all Jesus’ disciples, but of Jesus’ love for the world.
Jesus has begun his march to Jerusalem to reconcile the world to God with his life. Mary’s small gift will soon be subsumed by the extravagance of God’s own offering in the cross of Christ.
Do you think Mary regretted her act of generosity? I think not. We know Judas regretted his focus, a focus on the practical “costs,” not on humble generosity, a cost of 30 pieces of silver.
What then do we take as true discipleship, what does it look like, and how do we do it?
Impractical expressions of love and devotion that are ill-advised and reckless? Is this true discipleship?
Remember the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark chapter 10 (v. 17-31), who Jesus told to sell all that he owns and give it to the poor, a sign of lavish and impractical generosity. His rejection of being a disciple of Jesus may have caused him a lifetime of regret.
In the church we can focus on our own or an institution’s interests, the costs to us and our interests, to the exclusion of a God who has an expansive vision. A vision of abundance, of generosity, extravagance for all.
The readings from Isaiah and from Philippians today, help us also. Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” and in Philippians after listing his accomplishments (good or bad), Paul says, “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.”
We all have regrets for not doing the best thing, missing the mark, but Jesus offers us the chance to put those behind us, but on ot only that but to also minimize future regrets by having an attitude of generosity towards others, with extravagant, lavish actions towards all people.
Often, people store up precious resources, material, spiritual, or emotional, and these actions of saving up for a rainy day, consume our lives, our time and talents, and limit the outpouring of gifts.
We hold back, in fear that sharing the resources means losing them, losing our security. A faith-filled outpouring of practicing generosity means openness, not restraint. A gift of joy not fear.
Generosity, poured out in humbleness, has continuing ripple effects on people.
The effects of the perfume pervaded the home in this passage. Generous humble hospitality sweeps in all who are nearby, to inspire, and pull them into the extravagance of God’s love.
Without humility, you are not being generous when you give, you are counting the costs, making a business decision. Generosity like Mary’s means we are looking to the immediate loving benefits of those who are here in our presence, serving as Christ to them.
Risking rejection and hurt, rejecting fears around security, being open, unrestrained, even reckless. I am not saying you should let people abuse you, as a disciple you are a precious child of God, in a position of strength that allows you to be generous. Only from this position, secure as a beloved child of God, can you be generous and self-giving.
We can focus on the interests of our institutions and ourselves, doing cost-benefit analysis, living in a world prone to having regret, like Judas.
or we can be like Mary and focus on being truly generous, which means having a humble spirit, living fully in the new kingdom of God, pressing on to the goal of being a disciple of the most generous, extravagant one of all.
How do we do this?
When faced with a decision to act or speak, simply ask yourself, what is the most generous thing I can do or say? Am I being humble?
The answer to these two questions will give you less regrets, and help you to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ.
Mother Teresa tells the story of a young woman who took her baby around to different convents looking for a bit of milk for the child. She was turned away with words like, you are lazy, go and work. She arrived at Mother Teresa’s convent and as Mother Teresa took the boy in her hand, the baby died. Mother Teresa cried out, could we not find a glass of milk for this one on behalf. Of the one who was the most generous of all? She said she was ashamed to look at the cross of Christ after that. The representation of God’s lavish generosity.
Starting this Lenten season
Don’t have regrets, don’t be ashamed to look at the generosity found on the cross, be the most generous and humble disciple you can be, pour yourself out at Jesus feet.
Isaiah 43: v 16-21
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
Philippians 3 v 4b-15
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, 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 9 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,[e] the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ[f] and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;[g] but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved,[h] I do not consider that I have made it my own;[i] but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly[j] call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
John 12 v 1-8
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.”
Similar stories in:
Mark 14.3-9, Matthew 26.6-13, Luke 7.36-50