On Extravagant Sacrifice
April 3, 2022
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Today’s sermon is titled On Extravagant Sacrifice.
At least one of the major television networks ends the nightly national news with what has come to be called a human interest story. Perhaps all the networks have adopted this practice, I’m not sure; only one station comes in at my house. Even though ending on a positive note is simply a contrived and manipulative formula, I do appreciate that at least an effort is made to let in one small ray of sunshine to lead us out of the darkness. These stories are tidbits of goodness that tide us over in between the truly epic events in which we see acts of extravagant sacrifice, one person to another, often times, strangers.
There are more of these stories than we could ever catalog because they are happening each and every day. Some of them I cling to like a liferaft when fears for the future of humanity render me feeling hopeless and ineffectual. One such story dates back to 1982 when an Air Florida jet crashed into the icy Potomac River just minutes after take-off. When I say icy, I don’t mean just cold; there were huge slabs of floating ice chunks in the river. Within minutes, passing motorists had stopped and assembled a makeshift life line, stringing together random pieces of rope and torn clothing tied to a civilian who volunteered to swim out to the six people floating together in the wreckage. A rescue helicopter appeared moments later, rescued the man on the lifeline and then returned to the six crash survivors. Video tape shows the rescue line falling into the hands of a man who immediately passes the line to the woman next to him; she is airlifted to the snowy riverbank. Again, the rescue line falls into the man’s hands and he passes it to another woman who is hauled from the wreckage. A third time, the man passes the rope, this time to the only other man, who holds onto two women and all three of them are pulled to within a few yards of the safety of shore. When the helicopter returns there is no sign of the man who three times held his life and future in his very hands and chose to pass it to another, another stranger. That man was later identified as 46 year old Arland Williams, Jr.
There is something in us that I think can be rightfully identified as God, or as poet Frederich Schiller named it, the “God spark.” And when circumstances catch our attention so completely that there is no time for rational thinking, we have a chance to become the servant of that force that is the God spark within; that is the stuff of legend. That, I believe, is the central force at work in the Passion of Christ that we, as Christians, are called to consider each spring.
Our rational minds find it nearly impossible to comprehend how Jesus could knowingly, willingly, go to his death. This was not an emergency situation that left no time to really think; on the contrary, there was time, an excruciating abundance of time in which Jesus knew his fate. The tension had been rising for months, perhaps even for a year or more. He could have simply decided to play by the religious rules of the day, he could have simply stopped his controversial ministry of healing, he could have simply kept his mouth shut about how we are all children of God, with access to the kingdom of heaven, but he did not. His path was not the path of least resistance. Instead of avoiding the inevitable power struggles embroiled in the social, religious and political arenas, Jesus does something that will seal his fate. Actually, he does nothing for four days after hearing that his friend Lazarus had died, and then he goes to Bethany to override the power of one of humankind’s greatest fears, death. After weeping at the tomb, Jesus commanded “Lazarus, come out!” The scriptures say Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb, still wrapped in his burial cloths.
The news spread rapidly through a society that was already charged with the upcoming celebration of Passover, one of the most significant times in the life of every faithful devotee of Judaism. Passover is a time to celebrate and remember God’s goodness and protection of the Hebrew people and it drew people to the temple in Jerusalem from all over the region. The occupying Roman forces had called in extra military reinforcements to prepare for the throngs of people coming into the walled city. In the previous chapter, we are told, “The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will destroy both our holy place and our nation…so from that day on they planned to put him to death.” Into this charged atmosphere, Jesus chooses to return to visit the home of sisters Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus, recently returned to them from his tomb.
As we look more closely at the details of this story, do not forget that it is a story within the larger epic of unsparing sacrifice we know as the life and the death of Jesus. In bearing witness to the scene offered us today in the scriptures, we are prepared for what will demand much more of us as we hold the mystery of Easter. The scene we are offered today is characterized by two opposing figures. In one figure, Mary, we find the embodiment of devotion and unflinching faith, sparing nothing in what was viewed as an extravagant sacrificial offering of valuable oil from the Himalayan mountains, a pound of nard worth a year’s wages. In an action of heartbreaking tenderness, Mary anoints Jesus’s feet and uses her hair to wipe them. Her actions speak volumes. Her actions confirm that she believes what Jesus has been telling his followers over and over, that he will soon die. Her actions confirm that no possession, even one of great monetary value, is to be spared in offering honor and devotion to her teacher; even her own hair she uses as a gift meant to be given, a gift of Self in service to the Divine. In another figure, Judas, we find an onlooker who is not part of this intimate exchange. He is looking in from the outside so it is easy for him to call the act to question and judge it as too extravagant. Jesus replies, “Leave her alone. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
As we look ahead to once again relive the events of Jesus’s death and resurrection, we would be served to remember Mary, kneeling on the floor, offering a gift of great value, and offering her devotion in a gesture sublime. We would be served to remember Mary and what she was willing to give because we are soon called to once again ask ourselves, “How could Jesus willingly offer his life?” The portrayal of Mary can help us to imagine a love so complete that it compelled Jesus to give himself completely, extravagantly, sparing nothing, sacrificing all.
In closing, I offer my gratitude for the God spark within us all. I am grateful for the limitless potential we have to give and receive love that is so much bigger that who we are as individuals, for it is in the giving and receiving of love that we become one with God, in true Communion. So be it. Amen.
God of morning and God of night, draw us closer to the place within us where Your love is all there is. Remove the illusion that we are separate from one another. Empower us to raise our voices for those whose voices have been silenced. As we remember our brothers and sisters in despair, help us to bear the weight of empathy and compassion as we share in their despair. May we be even more grateful for the liberty we enjoy. Strengthen us to live in this world we love and to remain centered within you, where all goodness, compassion and love find their source. And in Jesus’s name, let us pray the prayer He gifted us…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Ephesians chapter 5:
“Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Walk in the way of love. Amen.