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Costs and benefits

Apr 11, 2012

A Sermon from Chrism Mass 2012 with a reading from Mark 14:3-9.


In early February I experienced something new. Soon after my emergency appendectomy I received anointing from Holy Trinity’s Pastor, Bill Heisley. I had never been on the receiving end of that ministry and I was deeply moved. After Bill left, I actually broke down in tears. I’ve been thinking about this Chrism Mass ever since, though Bill had no idea he was acting for posterity.


She had no idea she was acting for posterity. It was not to be remembered that she did what she did. She had other motives than that. But Jesus said "wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."


Jesus’ own disciples did not value her deed that highly. In fact, it seemed to them a foolish, wasteful act. We can speculate as to who this woman was, but one thing is certain: in an extravagant expression of affection, this outcast woman had come into the home of Simon the leper-outcast where Jesus and his disciples were guests at a meal, and had poured an alabaster jar of ointment, a jar of expensive oil, on Jesus’ head. It was worth a year’s wages for the average laborer, money that could have put bread in the mouths of hungry children and clothing on their backs. But it couldn’t now; it was gone, poured out in an instant, never to be recovered again. Such a waste. Such extravagance.


But Jesus saw more in the act. He saw beauty. He saw devotion. He saw the future. He said that her deed would be known in all ages and all places where the gospel was proclaimed.


Which side would you have been on? Would you have called this ointment wasted? Would you have commended or condemned?


It was a beautiful thing in Jesus’ eyes, an expression of self-forgetful love. There was nothing calculating about it. The woman had nothing to gain by it. Indeed, she was not interested in gaining by it. And Jesus knew it. She simply wanted to give. She wanted to express in this visible and tangible way something like gratitude, I think. So forgetting herself and the things she might have procured with cash from the sale of that expensive ointment, she poured it all out in an expression of affection and gratitude. And Jesus did not miss that.


Let’s be honest, sisters and brothers. We often do what is calculated to benefit us in some way. We place such a high value on our own welfare, our own interest, our own desires, our own entitlements, and the result is one calculated act after another. There is little beauty in that kind of living; it has no claim to commendation.


But every now and then some person pours out the jar of self in the interests of another, and his or her life takes on a beauty it has not shown before. That’s why Jesus commended this woman! She was acting in love, uninterested in gain for herself. She was pouring out, not just expensive ointment, but selfless devotion and gratitude as well.


The thing that bothered the disciples about this was that they saw no value in it. The woman was giving expression to her feelings, but what good could come from that? What kind of return could be expected from poured-out oil? It just didn’t pay to waste like that. They had no tolerance for waste. And if something doesn’t have some pay-off, it has to be stopped.


But we are not mere flesh and blood, are we? So it is not enough to be concerned only about the most obvious needs. One can be well-fed and yet be starving. One can be warmly clothed and still be cold. One can be surrounded by people and yet feel lonely. One can have everything money can buy and still be miserably impoverished so far as meaning and purpose and love and joy are concerned. On the surface, for instance – thank you, Marva Dawn, for this reminder - it may seem "a royal waste of time" to worship. That’s a realization that could be a bit of a blow at the beginning of this Holy Week. The worship in these days may seem irrelevant in the face of the desperate cries of the needy, in the world of Trayvon Martin and Afghanistan.


But who can measure the influence and importance of what we are doing this afternoon and for these next holy days? Who knows how much meaning is given, how much purpose is created, how much comfort is imparted, how much courage is inspired, how much generosity is motivated, how much love is expressed because of what takes place in our worship this week? There is a lot of wasted oil these days and every day we gather for worship. But who can measure how much God enjoys it? And that is, after all, the main point.


When Jesus said, "the poor you always have with you," what was on his mind was the brief remaining time he had with them. And here they were, mouthing a pious platitude when they could have been doing something to lighten the heavy load he was bearing. But there was one person who did not let this opportunity slip by, and that wasted ointment is witness to that fact.


When you look at her deed in a rational way, it is not too impressive. A royal waste. Its physical effects could not have lasted very long. But it meant something to Jesus that could not be explained in terms of the outward actions and elements involved in it. He was living at that time in the shadow of the cross. He was already feeling the sting of his rejection by the world. He knew his disciples well enough to know that even they would desert him when the going got tough. Perhaps what he needed then more than anything else was the communion of those who loved him. So he was strengthened by this woman’s extravagant and unrestrained expression. Not much could be done for him, but what she could do, she did, and Jesus was pleased. He said, "She has done what she could." Just as we offer our praise, not as we ought but as we are able, doing what we can is often an unexciting and unspectacular thing. We are so often looking to do something else, aren’t we? Something else would be so much more interesting and useful than this, wouldn’t it? But that poured out oil should encourage us to do what we can instead of complaining of how little we can do or waiting for an opportunity to do something big and significant.   


The world and the church owes most, not to those who sought to do great things but to those who were faithful and loving in little ones. The truly memorable people are the ones who devote themselves to doing what they can, what they are able to do, even when it is not what they would like to be doing, even if the results are questionable. The world and the church owe most to people like you.


We should not be surprised, then, that a person should become immortal in history for an act of wastefulness. But this was only because Jesus saw the truth, the nature and value of her deed, and called it a thing of beauty. He knew her deed was a defiance of the mind that thinks primarily in terms of success. He knew she was seizing an opportunity that would not be hers again, doing the little she could do to ease his own hurt and sorrow. And Jesus saw she was doing so out of self-forgetful love.


It is not for waste that we desire to be remembered or to receive Christ’s commendation. But it may well be that if the kind of outlook and desire that motivated that woman long ago could possess us, we might have the thrilling experience of hearing Jesus say that we have done a beautiful thing as well.


Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo


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