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Thank God for St Thomas!

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Living Fully, Loving Wastefully

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Living Fully, Loving Wastefully

13 March, 2016 John 12:1-8 Lent 5 By Rev Dr Christopher Page

“Living fully, loving wastefully and being all that we can be is my definition of seeing the presence of God in human life.” ~Bishop John Shelby Spong

Something that has amused me when I have had the opportunity to do a Buddhist mediation day is that they often have throughout the day what they call “lazy time.” It is a kind of insult to my western, Christian mind. I recall the old adage, “Idle hands do the devil’s work.” Being busy is almost always in our culture seen as a virtue.  Laziness, if not a sin, is certainly not to be encouraged.  Of course I know the meaning is to have a break from the activity and practice of meditation; to have a rest.  Now that’s much more acceptable.

I have done a similar word play with the title of the sermon.  Wastefulness is like laziness, seldom seen as a virtue in our culture.  Again we are taught not to be wasteful but rather eat everything on our plate.  The irony is of course that we are probably the most wasteful (in the negative sense of the word) society that has ever existed.  I was talking with someone recently and I said that I bought my first record player when I was about 16; my first tape cassette player when I was about 21; my first CD player when I was about 35; my first iPod when I was about 50 and now I stream, burn and download music from the internet.  And you know what, I am still listening there to the same songs I listened to on the LP record player.  The technology progresses and whether we like it or not, that is the backbone of our capitalistic economic society.  But oh dear, it is soooo!! wasteful.  We fill land sites with disused and discarded TVs, radios, and a myriad of other 20th and 21st Century devices.

But this sermon is about the fact that while we have little trouble using things wastefully, when it comes to what is at the heart of our lives and our faith we often ration, limit, control and regulate their distribution.  I am, as you may realise, referring to love, care, compassion, hopefulness…… Do we ever love wastefully?  Sharing it and giving it away as if there is no tomorrow?  I don’t!

At the Feet of Jesus:
We are on good Biblical ground here from the story read earlier; a simple yet profound exploration of taking something of great value and lavishing it on another person.  It’s a rather sensual story as it is written.  Mary the sister of Martha and her brother Lazarus are eating together, most probably with others, and Mary takes a perfumed oil named here as nard and pours a large quantity on the feet of Jesus. The aroma fills the house.  She then uses her hair to wipe the excess from Jesus’ feet.  It is an obvious act of love and devotion.  

As I have said before, we read the gospel stories from the back to the front.  That is, the writer of this story knows what will happen to Jesus.  He knows that he will die on a cross and that his body will be prepared for burial, and one of the ingredients in embalming a dead body was nard.  So Mary is woven into the drama as she, even in these early days, prepares the body of Jesus for his burial.

Ah! But looking over Mary’s shoulder was the economic rationalist Judas.  Wasteful! Wasteful! Wasteful! he says, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"  A reasonable, rational and responsible thing to do in many situations.  But wisdom requires us to look at life through a much larger lens.  Preferential treatment for the poor is woven through the Gospel story. And this extravagant act by Mary doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to justice for the disadvantaged; rather it gives us a more holistic view of life.

There is an aspect of this in a story about the building of a gothic cathedral in the South of France:

The cathedral took two hundred years to build. The man that designed it knew he would be long gone before it was half finished. The story goes that a traveller comes by, and sees many people working. The traveller asks a mason what he is doing - and the mason says “I’m cutting a stone”. He then asks a carpenter, and the carpenter says “I’m building a frame”. But then he asks an old man whose only job was to sweep the dust away at the end of the day, to clean up for the skilled workers... And the old man says: “I am building a cathedral for the glory of God.”

The extravagant and wasteful act of love shown by Mary goes to the heart of the central message of love in the Christian story.  It is reflected in the extravagant love Mother Teresa gave to the dying of Calcutta.  She was often criticised for interfering with the culture of allowing the most wretched in society to die on the street.  She said:

The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved - they are Jesus in disguise…Intense love does not measure, it just gives…

Remember, the narrator tells us that Judas had an ulterior motive.  He used the excuse of giving the money to the poor so that he could pocket it for himself.  But central to this story is this act of extravagance.  And it must form our way of being a Christian community.
Loving Wastefully:
I first came across this notion of loving wastefully when I read Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die.  Anne and I have had the opportunity to spend an evening with Bishop Spong and his wife and we both found him to be a deeply caring and pastoral man.  And on this point of the centrality of loving he has got it absolutely right:

"Love opens... creation up to life and calls all things into being... Love is the essential power that deepens our relationships and simultaneously expands our humanity. The more we are freed to be ourselves, the more we are enabled to give our lives away to others... The more we explore the depths of life, the more we discover that life is interdependent, interconnected, and indivisible. At the core of the human being there is no such thing as separateness and aloneness.

As the story of Mary at the feet of Jesus demonstrates, love seeks expression in loving acts.  And it is through loving relationships that we connect and deepen our own lives and the lives of others.  But love cannot be measured out in teaspoons, or tablespoons full.  Love is an ocean and we experience it when we are immersed in it.  And that takes courage and the willingness to be an imitator of the one who so remarkably embodied that loving way of life.

Again from Jack Spong:

It only requires me to be empowered by Jesus to imitate the presence of God in him by living fully, by loving wastefully, and by having the courage to be all that God created me to be. It does not mean that I must turn away from life to make contact with the holy, for the holy is within me.

I suppose one could see Mary’s act as a form of prayer.  She opens herself and is willing to express her deepest desire.  She risks the ridicule and misunderstanding of those around her.  The perfumed oil just keeps flowing well after it was reasonable for it to do so.  I think that kind of love beyond love is what I long for in my life.  And it is what I think we as a community long for.  We can become tired of our penny-pinching ways of living.  And I don’t mean just money.  It is the lack of generosity to others that so often shrinks our lives and our souls.

A couple of years ago I was explaining the communion service to the children at the front of the church.  We had a common loaf of bread and I offered it to the children and one delightful seven-year-old said, “I want a huge bit!”

I think this story of Mary makes the Good News bigger.  It delivers us from narrow moral judgements and releases us to be extravagant with the life we have been given and to want the huge bit that gives life its deepest meaning.  It turns life into a prayer and gives us the abundant life that at our centre we are seeking.

Again as Bishop Spong says:

Prayer is being present, sharing love, opening life to transcendence. It is not necessarily words addressed heavenward... Prayer is entering into the pain or joy of another person. Prayer is what I am doing when I love wastefully, passionately and wondrously and invite others to do so..."


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