The church is the alternative community, in which we lavish love not only on one another but on the neighbors who live around us.
My title “Loving Lavishly” arose from my reflection on today’s Scripture passage where Martha serves a wonderful dinner for Jesus and his disciples and Mary pours expensive scented oil over Jesus’ feet, then wipes his feet with her hair. What fragrances in that house! First the aroma of dinner cooking, then the scent of an expensive perfumed oil! The meal and the oil were gestures of love lavished on Jesus and the disciples. Think about some of the best dinner parties you’ve hosted or attended. Remember all the sights, sounds, tastes, touches and smells that made them such special and memorable occasions! And remember the love?For the most part the dinner party in Bethany was a pleasant affair with lots of love expressed. But wouldn’t you know, Party-Pooper Judas scorns and scolds Mary for what he considers a terrible waste of good oil. He complains that the oil could’ve been sold for a lot of money, which then could have been given to the poor. Jesus tells Judas to back off, and then affirms Mary for her gesture of love.
What I find interesting about this bit of the story is that Judas was invited to the dinner party in the first place. Everyone knew what a scoundrel he was. I’m not sure I would have invited him.
Now keep in mind that John’s Gospel was written and circulated after 50 years of church life. Fifty years of Christian education, worship, fellowship, service and witness. Fifty years of search committees trying to find new pastors. I have a hunch that the story of the dinner party and anointing in Bethany is as much about what is happening in the Johannine community in the late first century as it was about what might have happened a week before Jesus died.
In other words, I wonder if the early church’s experiences of lavishing love on one another gave rise to the story. This, and so many other stories in the Gospels, reveal the early church’s operative values, which were in stark contrast to the operative values of empire.
In a world where people in power at the top of the pyramid dominated and controlled those at the bottom of the pyramid, and everybody in between, the church offered an alternative! The church was a counter-cultural phenomenon. For in the church, people didn’t dominate and control one another. Rather they loved one another lavishly, extravagantly, and equally.
What if this story of a dinner party and anointing pictures what was actually going on in the household of faith, where all are welcome and no one is excluded? Even Judas, the scoffer, thief, traitor is there! The expensive perfumed oils which Mary pours over Jesus’ feet picture the way in which the members of the household of faith lavish one another with love! Though the story reads like history, it’s really more like a parable, a story with many layers of rich symbolic meaning.
So picture yourself a member of the Johannine community in 95 AD, where you hear week after week stories and teachings from John’s Gospel. Chapter 12 reminds you how you have discovered a community of all kinds of people, old and young, rich and poor, male and female, Jew and Gentile, who are trying to love one another lavishly.
Mary’s offering of expensive perfume is a constant reminder how all of you in the Johannine community share all things in common, give abundantly so that there is no one in need. Judas’ response to Mary is a constant reminder that even within this church there will be a tendency toward greed, stinginess, and hoarding. But together in community, you will learn to be less stingy and more generous, less focused on profit and more focused on people and the planet. If the Johannine church has anything to say about it, the poor will not always be with us!
Now jump ahead to us in the 21st century. How does Mary’s generosity and Judas’ stinginess speak to us here in this congregation? How does being linked with this community of faith affect what we do with our money, possessions, time, talents and gifts? In what ways do we lavish each other with love?
In pondering these questions, I thought immediately of a conversation our church leaders shared at a retreat in February. We asked, “In all areas of our programming, can we possibly find ways to engage children, teenagers, even college students who may not be living near us, but who are still valued members of our community? Can we possibly find ways to engage senior adults and people who are differently-abled?” Great questions, right? And not merely from a programmatic point of view, but because full engagement of everyone in our community is what love looks like!
Another example — Our High Schoolers are planning a Youth Forum for May 19th at 9 am. Our teens will be sharing with us their perspectives on a variety of topics, including their level of engagement in this congregation. They’ll be answering questions like:
What scares you and/or excites you about the future? From where do you draw inspiration and hope? Do you feel your voice is heard in this church, and in the larger culture?
What a gift of love the teens will offer us! An opportunity for adults and teens to hear one another’s voices and share one other’s perspectives!
One final example: Many of you will remember when we were deliberating about how to make a difference in our neighborhood using a large amount of money we had raised. In creating the SW Partnership, we were very much against merely offering hand-outs, and very much in favor of establishing meaningful relationships with our neighbors. Now eight years later, there are many stories of close meaningful relationships which have been established.
I had a delightful phone conversation last week with one of our volunteers in the Partnership who wanted to discuss a particular need of the family she’s been working with. When I asked about the nature of her relationship with this family, she replied, “They are really my second family. We celebrate birthdays and other holidays together. I do what I can to help pay their rent. Whether it’s acquiring shoes for one of the children, or running errands, we’re right there for each other through thick and thin.” While listening to her, I felt like I was sitting with Jesus in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, nibbling on fresh baked bread and sniffing the fragrance of perfumed oils.
We are STILL the alternative community, lavishing love not only on one another but with the neighbors who live around us.
It seems critically important to me to note that love is central to our identity as Christians. The apostle Paul wrote in First Corinthians, “Now abide faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”
We read in John 2 of the abundance of wine at the wedding feast in Cana, and we’re reminded of the abundance of Divine Love lavished upon us, and the kind of love we lavish on one another.
We read in John 6 of the feeding of over 5,000 with a little boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fishes, and we’re reminded of the abundance of Divine Love lavished upon us, and the kind of love we lavish on one another.
And here in John 12, we read of Mary’s outpouring of expensive scented oils on Jesus’ feet, and we’re reminded again of the centrality and importance of Love in all we do as the Church.
As the alternative community, our operative value is love. In empire, the operative value is scarcity. The myth (or lie) of scarcity says, “We don’t have enough. So we have to build walls to keep others from taking our jobs, or using our resources.”
In contrast, the Church says, “there is more than enough love for everyone! Therefore no one should be hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, jobless or without education or health care!”
Today’s service of Communion is our own little love feast. The bread and cup remind us to open ourselves to Divine love in everything we do. Every crumb or drop of love is holy nutrition. After you partake of Communion, you are invited to move to one of five stations where you can receive a blessing and an anointing with oil. In the spirit of Mary of Bethany, ten of our own women will lavish love upon us. Pairs of these women will stand in the four corners of the Worship Hall and in the Crossroads. Simply, approach any pair of women you choose, fold your hands like so (Ken gestures), and share, if you wish, one or two sentences about a particular situation in your life for which you’d like to receive God’s blessing, or simply remain silent. One woman will speak God’s blessing to you. The other woman will anoint your hands with the oil of God’s love. Then you may return to your seat.
No greed, stinginess, or hoarding in this place! As one of my friends used to say, “There’s a whole lot of love in this room!” AMEN