St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, April 7, 2019
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
First Lesson: Isaiah 43:16-21
Second Lesson: Philippians 3:4b-14
Gospel: John 12:1-8
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you spend any time on Facebook, you might’ve come across a page called “Episcopal Church Memes.” A “meme,” in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is basically an image or a video that’s shared with a lot of people on social media, usually referencing something they find humorous or entertaining. To give you an example, there’s this famous meme called “Grumpy Cat, “featuring a brown and white cat with squinty eyes and a frown on his face. “Grumpy Cat” says lots of funny things, such as, “I had fun once. It was awful.” Or, “If I had a dollar for every time I thought of you, I would be broke.” It never ceases to amaze me how creative people get with the memes they post on Facebook.
Most of the images posted on the “Episcopal Church Memes” page are harmless enough, but occasionally, there’s one that gets pretty controversial, one that stirs up lots of different emotions and opinions.
The other day, I came across such a meme. This image was a cartoon, depicting what appeared to be an evangelical worship leader with a trendy haircut, wearing black clothes and a wireless headset microphone. He was standing on a stage in a thick cloud of white smoke with his arms waving in the air, saying to the crowd in front of him, “…and then Jesus said, “in order to help the poor, we will need a massive auditorium with five projectors, a state-of-the-art sound system, laser lights, six smoke machines, and a Christian rock band.”
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of contemporary worship styles, especially those that use smoke machines, video projectors, and fancy sound systems. If you know me, then you know that I’m a traditionalist at heart. Give me a copy of the Prayer Book, a hymnal, and an organ, and I’ll be perfectly happy.
That being said, this meme that was posted a few days ago seems especially harsh. Even though it was meant to be funny, it seems to suggest that we in the Episcopal Church are somehow better than other churches when it comes to deciding how best to use our resources in the service of God. Quite frankly, it also seems hypocritical that we would dare to joke about other churches for spending large sums of money on worship when we do the exact same thing in the Episcopal Church.
Do you want to know what the average cost of a brand new chasuble is? A chasuble, by the way is the large outer garment worn by the priest during the Eucharist. The average cost of a brand new chasuble, depending on where you order it from, is right around $1,200. Do want to know how much the average chalice and paten set costs, the shiny vessels that we use to administer the bread and wine during communion? The average cost is about $1,000. Those costs, by the way, pale in comparison to what some Episcopal churches spend in order to maintain their historic buildings and expensive musical instruments. I’m not saying that it’s wrong for us to spend money on things that bring a sense of beauty and reverence to our worship. What I’m trying to say is that we have no room to judge others for how they use their resources in the service of God. We may think we know better. We may look at how they spend their money and think that it’s a complete waste when it could be used for better and nobler things, such as feeding the poor. But, then again, the same could be said about us.
All of us, all churches, must prayerfully consider how best to use the gifts God has given us in order to carry out the work we’ve been called to do as the Body of Christ. At the end of the day, the work we’ve been called to do is simply to love, to love and serve others with the same compassion and mercy that Jesus has taught us.
As I was reading our Gospel lesson for today, I was drawn to Mary and the abundant outpouring of love that she demonstrates for Jesus when she anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. All Mary wants to do is to take care of her dear friend, who has come to her home, of all places, on the day before his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In just a few short days, Jesus will enter the final hours of his earthly life. He’ll come to know betrayal, not only from his disciples, but also from those who welcomed him into the city with joyful shouts of praise, saying, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” In the end, Jesus will come to know great suffering and pain, but before all this happens, before he enters the city of Jerusalem, he spends some much-needed time resting with his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, at their home in Bethany.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive at the home of Lazarus, they’re welcomed with great hospitality. Lazarus, whom Jesus recently raised from the dead, along with his sisters, Mary and Martha, prepare a dinner in Jesus’ honor. As might’ve been expected, Martha serves while Lazarus sits at the table with Jesus, probably laughing and enjoying a lively conversation. While Jesus and Lazarus are at the table, Mary takes a pound of pure nard, an expensive perfume, and uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet.
The scriptures tell us that a pound of pure nard was worth three hundred denarii. In the time of Jesus, a denarius was worth the equivalent of a laborer’s daily wage. So, the jar of perfume that Mary uses to anoint Jesus’ feet was worth almost an entire year’s worth of wages! In modern day terms, that would be close to $20,000. So, to describe this perfume as expensive is actually an understatement. Perhaps a better word would be extravagant. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with an entire jar of extravagant perfume, filling the house with its sweet, earthy aroma, and Judas doesn’t like it one bit. He criticizes Mary for what he considers to be a wasteful use of something so valuable. He asks her, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
The author of John’s Gospel wants to be clear that Judas didn’t ask this question because of his concern for the poor but because he was a thief who stole from the common purse. No matter the reason for Judas’ question, the fact is that he criticized Mary for wanting to use the perfume to show her affection for Jesus. He criticized her for her extravagant outpouring of love for the one who raised her brother from the dead, the one who was preparing to endure his final trials and temptations.
Jesus rebukes Judas by telling him, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Mary of Bethany models for us an example of extravagant love, the kind of love that God calls us to share with the world, especially with those who need our love the most. As the Church, there are so many ways that we can share this kind of love. We can share it through our offering of beautiful and meaningful worship, worship that entices our senses, worship that brings to life the Gospel message of Jesus and inspires us to go forth each week to serve our brothers and sisters in need. We can share the extravagant love of God through the various ministries of the Church, ministries that allow us to do the work of building up God’s Kingdom in the world around us. So, let us turn away from the example of Judas and the temptation of judging and criticizing others for the ways in which they feel called to worship and serve God. Let us turn instead to the example of Mary and pour out our greatest gifts on those who come to us to be loved and cared for. Amen.
Click here to listen to an audio recording of the sermon.