Sunday, March 17, 2013

A lavish, extravagant, beautiful gift!




When I was young we used to have storytellers come to our schools on a regular basis.  Some would read to us abut there was one man who had all his stories memorized.  I was infatuated to say the least.  I actually love the art of storytelling and dreamt of being a professional storyteller at one time.  The closest I ever got to it was taking state in storytelling in competitive speech but that’s beside the point. 
One of the stories he told has stayed with me and went a bit like this.

A long time ago in a kingdom far away there once lived a beautiful princess and her wise and benevolent father.  According to tradition the princess had reached the age to marry and yet there seemed to be no viable prospects nearby, so the king put a call out to the neighboring kingdoms calling for suitors.  What is the best way for a princes to meet her suitors…you guessed it the king threw a ball. Cue the music!  No, just kidding.
Well at the ball the princess met many a young men.  Tall, short, wealthy, wise, simple, proud every size and sort of young man one could imagine.  The princess was able to weed down her choice to three young princes, each one smart, handsome and kind in a unique way.  The king agreed completely with the princess’ choices but now how to narrow the choice down.
What else but a quest the king said; “Each of you is deserving of my daughters hand and she would be honored to call any one of you her spouse alas she cannot decide and I will not decide for her, so a quest!” so the king went on; “Each of you shall set out to find the most perfect gift worthy of my daughter and she shall decide by the gifts which one of you is most deserving to win her hand” 
So the princes set off on the road from the kingdom.  Eventually they came to a place where the road split in 3 each one chose a different path but before they left they made a pact. “One week before we are to return to the castle let us all meet here at this spot and return together” they all agreed and set about their quests.
The first prince set off on the path to the right he went over hill, over dale, past settlement after encampment till one day he was passing a medicine show when heard; “Step right up I have all that can cure you!  You name it I have got it, curiosities, ointments gifts fit for a princess!”  The young prince just stopped.  “Did I just hear that?”  He thought to himself.  “Yes young man I am speaking to you everyone knows what is you seek and I have it right here in the back of my cart”
The young man approached the barker.  “Step right back here allow me to show you.  Here I have a looking glass.” “A looking glass?” replied the prince.  “What is so special about a looking glass?”  “Well nothing unless it this looking glass for the one who looks through it will be able to see whatever they wishes no matter how near or far just by concentrating upon it.”
Needless to say the prince was totally astounded and was happy to purchase the item thinking; “I have the finest gift for the princess for sure!”
The Second prince set off on the path to the left he went over roads, over rivers, and through the woods even. After sometime he came upon a small market place. He heard shop keep yell out; “Step right up I have all that can cure you!  You name it I have got it, curiosities, ointments gifts fit for a princess!”  The young prince just stopped.  “Did I just hear that?”  He thought to himself.  “Yes young man I am speaking to you everyone knows what is you seek and I have it right here in the back of my shop”
The young man approached the barker.  “Step right back here allow me to show you.  Here I have a carpet.” “A carpet?” replied the prince.  “What is so special about a carpet?”  “Well nothing unless it this carpet  for the one who sits upon it will be able to go wherever they wishes no matter how near or far just by concentrating.”
Needless to say the prince was totally astounded and was happy to purchase the item thinking; “I have the finest gift for the princess for sure!”
The Third prince set off on the path to in the middle he went from town to town and shtetl to shtetl till one day … yada, yada, yada!
 “Step right back here allow me to show you.  Here I have an Apple, Which is unique for the one who eats of it will be cured of whatever ails them.”
Needless to say the prince was totally astounded and was happy to purchase the item thinking; “I have the finest gift for the princess for sure!”
Well the princes met up at the fork in the road just as they had planned and as they started heading back one wondered… “I wonder how the princess is doing.”  Well the first said; “I have a looking glass let’s see. Oh no the king is crying, the princess is lying in bed...She doesn’t look good!”  The second said;”I have the carpet everyone get on it and it will take us to her now”  They were all whisked to the kingdom immediately where they were told they had arrived just in the nick of time for the princess was ill and there was no cure.  They rushed to the bedside where the 3rd prince handed her the apple to eat.  Which of course they she was immediately cured.
There was rejoicing all round and the princes relayed their story of how they all took part in helping the princess with their gifts.  And after short discussion the king and princess declared they knew who would win the hand of the princess.

Well that is where the story ended.  We were told discuss who won and why.  The following year the storyteller came back and asked how many of us remembered the story from the previous year and of course not a single kid had forgotten for none of us knew how it ended though we all had our theories.
Now I want to turn to today’s story Mary wants to bestow a gift upon Jesus.  Knowing that he is coming to dinner and he has just gifted her with her brother’s life.  Martha was busy serving and well Lazarus was almost as much of an attraction onto himself as was Jesus.  What could she do?
 Adam Copeland writes
Lazarus, by his very presence, spoke to God’s provision. Just days before, he was dead and buried in a tomb, his body decaying and had begun to smell. But Jesus miraculously raised him from the dead and now Lazarus has him over for supper. (I hope to goodness Lazarus had made Jesus an open invitation to his house. I’d say raising someone from the dead certainly should certainly qualify you to a free meal whenever you’re in town.) Lazarus served by just being there, present and alive.
The rest of the disciples were there too, each with his own gifts and graces. Judas’ job, we read, was to carry the common purse, but he was corrupt. Of course, Judas later betrays Jesus to the authorities, but in this passage he raises a fair question, really. Why doesn’t Mary sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. It could have bought meals for hundreds, maybe even saved a life or two.[1]

Can you imagine Mary’s panic in this situation?  After all that has happened in her household she had to do something. So she rushes off and gets a Jar of the finest perfume oil.  Now this is not cheap cologne but scented, pressed, and filtered oil. Now it is custom to anoint the feet and perhaps forehead of an honored guest to offer comfort and welcome. But here is Mary in her excitement she just went overboard, or perhaps this is completely intentional and she is just going all in.
The story tells us “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,” (John 1:5) now according to Wikipedia, Nard is a flowering plant of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. The plant grows to about 1 m in height and has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It is found in the altitude of about 3000–5000 meters or 1.5 – 3 miles up. The closest Himalayas to Bethany are a distance of 3,101miles.
 So Judas wasn’t exaggerating when he stated how much the perfume could bring in for the poor. To be more exact a danarii has often said to be equivalent to dime yet it was also said to be a day’s wage.  Well, the average day wage earned in the United States based on social security reports is about 103 dollars multiply that by 300 and you get 30,900 dollars.  Umm yup!
Many people find this passage a bit confusing.  I mean after all isn’t it Jesus who is always reaching out to serve the poor, the marginalized, and the underserved?  Isn’t Jesus the one who instructs the disciples to feed the hungry on the hillside instead of sending them off?  Isn’t Jesus who stops because one poor cripple just wants to see him? Yet in this moment Jesus affirms Mary.
You see Mary has a prophetic vision.  She had bought this oil for Jesus’ death and burial but in this moment of presence and joy and communion she chooses not to wait but to express all she has in abundant joy and to anoint Jesus now.  She chooses to take her lavish, extravagant gift and give it now and give it completely and not wait for a later day.
Adam Copeland goes on to explain; “Sadly, throughout Christian history some have used Jesus’ response to Mary, ‘The poor you always have with you’ as justification not to help the poor. These interpreters miss the fact that Jesus was probably alluding to a passage from Deuteronomy which commands generosity toward the poor exactly because ‘there will never cease to be some in need on the earth’ (15:11).” He goes on to explain that “Stanley Hauerwas takes it even a step further: ‘The poor that we always have with us is Jesus. It is the poor that all extravagance is to be given.’ [Feasting on the Word, Year C, v2, p. 145]” [2]
So what does all this mean for us,  well I believe we are called to be extravagant givers, we are called to give out of our excess, we are called to give out of what we are saving up for tomorrow or for that last great day.  This is about practicing what Christ and now Mary are teaching us that every day we must walk the walk and talk the talk, and talk it well each and every day.
This isn’t about being a Christian and or a member of this community just on Sunday.  This is about digging deep and giving all you have lavishly and in great abundance.  Now for each of us this looks different.  Some have a gift of art or music; some have gifts of skilled hands and vision of spacial relationships, some have the gift and skill of clever finance, and some have the gift of devotion and prayer.  The point is these are gifts of God to be lavishly returned to God not just on Sunday but every day.
 God speaks to different people in different ways. Sometimes are gifts seem odd or could be spent on better things  But this passage suggests that God isn’t always put off by extravagant gifts that are short-lived. The flowers we buy for decorations wilt and die in a few days, but they are a lavish gift. The lesson that a teacher prepares lasts 45 minutes and then is gone yet does it? Faithful giving is hard to assess by worldly accounting.
     Jesse L. Jackson once said, “If a person has a goal for living into which one can put everything he or she has, that person is blessed.” You see that is true but many people spend time waiting for that opportune moment when they can lay everything on the line and feel good doing it. Mary uses her expensive perfume, nard oil, for the Lord she doesn’t wait, she goes all in.
   Pastor Jeff Richards at Faith UMC in Cheyenne States; “ Lastly, let us praise rather than criticize when we meet somebody who uses his or her gifts extravagantly for God, and learn from them. Jesus, our Lord, commends their extravagant giving.”[3]  In Mark 14:6 Jesus says in the same story “She has done a beautiful thing to me. I tell you, truly, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her,”
     So who remembers the story if relayed at the beginning of the sermon?  Which one of the three princes was chosen?? 

     You see the next day the King called all the men into the great hall and there sitting upon her throne was the princess.  The King commanded that the men present their gifts.  The first presented the eyeglass proclaiming “It was through this that each of us knew of your dilemma “The second prince stepped forward and stated; “Here a magnificent magic carpet which brought us all here to you!”  The third sheepishly stepped forward and said I have nothing to present.” 
     The princess arose from her throne stepped forward and gently placed her hand under the princes chin lifter his face as to look in his eyes and says; “I know for you have given your gift completely and fully to me, yes the others used their gifts of which I am grateful but yours was given fully, completely and wholly, therefore I choose you!”

Okay this was a long road to get to a quick point but if you have anything at all be it a simple word of prayer or the everyday mundane job that makes it possible for you to get here on Sunday that is using your gift for God.  But if you take that simple word, that mundane job and give all you have to it and give that to God everyday….That is a lavish, extravagant, beautiful gift indeed.!







[1] Adam J. Copeland, Lavish gifts, http://www.adamjcopeland.com/2010/03/21/sermon-lavish-gifts-john-121-8/ (accessed February 27, 2013).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jeff Richards, Extravagant Giver, http://www.faithcheyenne.org/_pdfs/Extravagant%20Giver_03212010.pdf (accessed March 7, 2013).