Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Good morning. We had a lot of people in worship last Sunday—upwards of a hundred, I think. It was really nice, considering it wasn’t Christmas or Easter. Over the course of the week, several of you commented on this, particularly because there were a lot of young people here. It was like a herd of unicorns wandered into the church.
Some of those guests were from Bridgewater. The young people, along with some of the grownups, will be joining us on the youth mission trip in July. We’ve been partnering with them for a couple years now, and it seems to be a really fruitful partnership. Young people and grownups from Bridgewater and Freehold have begun to build relationships with one another, as they work together to share God’s love in the world. That’s pretty amazing!
We had a big meeting after worship last Sunday, so that we could bring everyone together to plan our final fundraising efforts and discuss finances for the trip. I have to tell you, there was a lot of excitement in the room, and a lot of love. As you heard in the announcements this morning, we still need to raise a lot of money to meet our goal, but we have a plan. When you have a plan, you can channel the love and energy into something productive, and you don’t get overwhelmed by scary things, like asking people for money. More on that later.
There’s a lot of love on display in our reading from the Gospel of John. In this story, the love is expressed toward Jesus, as Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with some very expensive perfume. We’re used to seeing Jesus express God’s love toward humanity. Jesus embodies and enacts that love throughout the gospel, as he heals and feeds people wherever he goes. But in this story, Jesus is the one who receives the love.
The Gospel of John is different from the other three gospels, and we have to be mindful of those differences. Where the other gospels describe the events of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of John describes what it means to be in relationship with God, through the presence of the human Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. As John tells us at the beginning of this Gospel, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace (1:14, 16).” Through Jesus, God’s grace is not just an act of extraordinary generosity. Through Jesus, God’s grace becomes a category of relationship. God’s love and mercy and grace are known and seen and touched and smelled and tasted through the presence of the human Christ.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins in the village of Cana, at a wedding, where the couple have just run out of wine. When Jesus’ mother, Mary—not to be confused with Mary of Bethany, from this morning’s story—asks Jesus to do something about this, Jesus tries to put it off by telling her, “My hour has not yet come (2:4).” That is, he’s not quite ready to begin the work that he was born to do. But Mary is his mother. She’s loved him from the moment she knew she was pregnant. So, Jesus responds and turns water into wine. It’s a sign of God’s abundant mercy and grace—and it tastes like the best wine! And in part, it was Mary’s love that equipped Jesus to begin his ministry in the world. The world that God so loved that he sent his only begotten Son.
That’s all operating in the background in today’s reading. Jesus has spent the last three years, according to John’s Gospel, traveling around the Judean countryside, teaching and healing and performing signs of God’s love for humanity. The last of those signs was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. That was the end of Jesus’ public ministry. And now, Jesus and the disciples are gathered at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, at Bethany.
Bethany is about two miles from Jerusalem, where Jesus will face his final trial and his eventual death. After pouring out his energy and God’s love for humanity, Jesus is recharging his batteries. He’s eating and drinking with people who love him, people who don’t require anything of him.
At that meal, Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with oil that was fit for a king. This was not an act of repayment; Mary isn’t doing this to thank Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead. That would be a transaction, a payment for services rendered. Instead, Mary offers the perfume and her service as an act of love and devotion, mercy and grace. The scent of that grace is overwhelming—it fills the whole house! It’s inescapable! This act of grace equips Jesus to face his final trial in Jerusalem:
Jesus needs that same encouragement, that same love, to do what he must do. Mary’s extravagant love for Jesus makes it possible for Jesus to show extravagant love in what follows—washing the feet of his disciples, handing himself over to be arrested in the garden, carrying his own cross, dying, rising, and ascending. Mary loves Jesus into his future as the fulfillment of, “for God so loved the world.”
And in the midst of it all, there’s Judas, saying “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” It seems that there’s always someone who’s threatened by an honest expression of love. Judas can’t understand Mary’s act of love and devotion because he doesn’t share her love for Jesus.
At that meeting last Sunday, we talked about what we would need to equip our young people to go on that mission trip to Kentucky. Mostly, we need more money, but we also need your love and prayers. And some of the adult leaders presented a plan to the group—the plan that Sam shared with you this morning.
There was a time when we could have asked the Session to write a check to cover all the expenses for the trip. Sure, we would have had some fundraisers, but we might not have to do so many activities. We wouldn’t have to hit you up for additional donations—at the same time we’re about to start a campaign to repair the organ, and just as we’re about to start our annual stewardship campaign.
When I first saw this church, I was impressed with the building. But I was more impressed with the pictures of the youth mission trips. The unfortunate truth is that beautiful, old buildings like this require a lot of resources, a lot of time, effort, and money to maintain. So do our missions in the community and the world at large. We can’t give up on either.
When we hear about all of the financial needs of this congregation, it can sap our energy. But like the poor, our energy bills will always be with us. We only have our youth for a short while. And there’s a lot of energy and excitement about the upcoming trip.
This morning, I am asking you to examine the ways in which you can support this mission trip. Perhaps you’re not in a position to offer extravagant grace, like Mary. But we can all commit to praying for the youth and the adults on this trip. We can all ask them to tell us about the trip. And we can all send pictures and greetings to the families in Kentucky that we serve, so they know that our young people come with the love of the entire congregation.
With your help, we can equip our youth with all of our love, so that they can go forth and do God’s work in the world. In doing so, we can all share in the energy and excitement. And then we can harness that energy and excitement and channel it toward routine maintenance, capital campaigns, and all the other challenges that come our way. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to practice extravagant grace and share God’s amazing love with the world. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Karoline Lewis, “Loved Into Future,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5309