Words from Our Pastor

Monday, April 8, 2019

Lent 5, 4/7/19: Losers-Keepers

Sermon for Lent 5, 4/7/19            John 12: 1-8           Losers-Keepers         
 My mother was a keeper. She kept every pair of shoes she’d ever bought. She kept every wallet she’d ever carried and every purse she’d ever tucked it into. She kept plastic bags and towels and hats she’d never wear again. Cleaning out her closets after her death, I found a couple of old gift boxes of silky pajamas with their price tags still attached—she had kept them, for what I don’t know. Maybe to look “well put-together” when she had to be in the hospital—she never got the chance.  
Now I’m not knocking keepers. If it weren’t for keepers who try to reform, the Miriam Circle wouldn’t have a chance at collecting all the stuff they get for the yard sale.

This morning we meet some keepers. Mary was a keeper of a fragrant ointment (in our story, called perfume) used in preparing a lifeless body for burial. Judas rightly pointed out that it could have brought 300 denarii in the marketplace. A full year’s wage for the average worker in that time—quite a prize.
And yet, Mary poured it out. Jesus said she was keeping it for the day of his burial. So why use it up now, on his feet? The custom was to wash the feet, as an act of hospitality. What you anointed was the head, the head of a king. And that night, when her brother Lazarus sat at the table with Jesus (who had just days before raised him from the dead), Mary could have pulled off such an anointing, to honor the power of Jesus! But instead of his head, she anointed his feet, an act reserved for the dead. Clearly she knew what was coming for him.
Mary was a keeper all right, but she knew the right moment to let it all go. And the house was filled with the fragrance of her gift.  

There was another keeper in this story, Judas. He guarded the disciples’ collective wealth, the common. He did it in a way that made him brittle and angry, aloof and judgmental. That money was what gave him value, and he wasn’t letting it go. Watching Mary so freely doing what he would never have done—lavishly pouring out that valuable, fragrant spice, with abandon—disgusted him.

Which of the two, do you think, the Gospel writer John wants us to praise?

We have yet another example this morning of a keeper who lets it all go. It’s Paul, who has found his value in his ancestry, his education and (he’s not shy about naming it) his righteousness. Paul is a rule-follower with a pedigree.

Reading through the list of credentials he gives in today’s reading from Philippians (a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, blameless under the law) reminded me of a story George Moffat (in our congregation) told me about meeting his birth mother’s family for the first time.  
It happened in Pennsylvania, where much of her extended family lived close by. The day George was in her house, several of his 1st cousins came to meet this new relative. They were all from Sufada, a village near what is now Lebanon. Each cousin, in turn, put his hands on George’s shoulders, kissed each cheek, and proceeded to detail what George calls their ‘bona fides.’ “I am Michael, son of Josef, son of Roald, son of…. and so on. Each one had to show the newcomer he belonged in the family, with the right connections. That was their way, and it was Paul’s way as well. In our time, too, often your ‘bona fides’ matter.

But Paul, in his letter to the Philippians (in fact writing from a prison cell), called his bona fides ‘rubbish.’ Instead of his own worthiness, he claimed the worthiness of Christ. Paul made it his mission to bring others to that same faith—not in anything they owned, or in their ancestry or education, their status or track record, but in Christ alone.

How could Paul have thrown out his bona fides, just like that? And how could Mary have poured out a year’s worth of money on the feet of her friend? Did they know something we don’t? (about what gives us worth?)
What gives YOU worth? A prized possession that’s always made you feel special? Your upbringing and family status (bona fides)? Social routines that help you ‘fit in’? Maybe long-time friendships right here in this church? Or maybe the things that are insurance against hard times—like my mom’s brand new PJs with their tags still attached, for years in a box in her closet.

I’m reading a book with a small group of women—called New Clothes. The author contends that most of us find our worth in things that ‘cover us’ for a time and make us feel important or safe, but have no ultimate value. He calls them ‘loin cloths,’ like the fig leaf coverings Adam and Eve made once they had sinned and their eyes were open to their nakedness. Those coverings helped them feel confident again, no longer exposed. We, too, we wear loin cloths of all kinds, he says—like a bulging wallet, a jar of expensive perfume, a list of credentials, the badge of a busy calendar. The items change, but the problem is the same—those things are only temporary placeholders.   

The more of that stuff we can put aside, the more space we’ll have for the thing we really need.  The stronger the chance that more space will open for what’s already inside us, God’s Spirit. That Spirit is like a natural spring of living water. You might remember Jesus describing that water to the woman who met him at Jacob’s Well, the one who came from the wrong side of the tracks, carrying the heavy baggage of a ruined life. He said to her, “I’ll give you living water that will bubble up inside you to eternal life.”

I don’t know what it looks like for you to shed the loin cloths and the baggage and be naked and open before God. But I do believe with all my heart that losing that stuff is the key for keeping the important things, the things of God.
The best clue I can think of for how this works is to remember how it makes you feel to give yourself away. Can you remember how you feel after….
·      --Nailing up siding all day long at a Habitat house
·      --Helping a child you’re tutoring figure out a math problem
     --Standing beside someone who needs encouragement in building a strong resume for a job she needs to get
·      --Pouring out your best skills to fix a car or a roof or the porch steps—for someone else.
When you empty out yourself doing these things for others—do you feel filled up again? Do you get a sense of the fresh living water springing up in you, the living water that comes from God’s Holy Spirit? It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it.

And as for running out (a constant worry for the Judases of the world and many of us), don’t give it a thought. You may lose some time or money or a chance for a round of golf. But in the Kingdom of God, ‘finders-keepers, losers-weepers’ doesn’t compute. Losers become keepers who hold onto something better—a strength from the Christ within, and a hope that lasts a lot longer than anything money could buy. It’s true!
           Ask any Mary who has poured out her valuable perfume for Jesus’ sake, and found her life filled with a holy fragrance. Better yet, try it yourself.