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An Extravagant Ointment
       --An Extravagant Love

a sermon based on John 12:1-8
by Rev. Heather McCance

A week or so ago someone was telling me about attending an Italian wedding they had attended last summer.  The bride was the only daughter in the family, and her parents took out a second mortgage on their home in order to pay for the $20,000 affair.  Live band, tons of food, five hundred guests or more.  And all of it over in just a day.   Nothing beyond eight hours to show for the 20 G’s.  Only Atlantic City could equal that much money blown in a single night.          

A few centuries ago, a woman spent $20,000 on a jar of scented ointment and rubbed it into the feet of a houseguest.  He was a special person, well respected and well loved, but still.   All of it over in just a few minutes.  Nothing lasting to show for it.

Extravagance.  It's a giving of so much that it ceases to make any kind of logical sense at all.  People outside will always be critical of such extravagance.  Why wasn't that money used for a down payment on the newly married couple's first home?  Why wasn't the ointment sold and the money given to the poor?  People outside of the extravagant act will think it foolish, wasteful, perhaps even sinful.

But for those making the extravagant gesture, it seems the only thing to do.  Only such lavish giving of themselves and all that they have can rightly express the depth and the intensity of their feeling, of their love, at that moment.

Most of us aren't good at extravagance.  In our society, people get worried when the price of gas goes up by three or four cents a litre (which, when I fill up my car, makes a difference of a whopping $2.00 or so).  We're so ruthlessly practical that we've lost a sense of the richness of giving.

And being unable to understand another person's generosity is bad enough.  But it seems to me that this inability to appreciate generosity in another person can all too often be a symptom of a lack of generosity in one's own soul.

Crummy.  It's one of those derogatory words we were allowed to use when I was growing up, in place of any number of other words we which were not allowed to use.  As in, what a crummy spring we're having.  Or, I did crummy on my math test at school today.  Or, my sister is a crummy-head (although that last was discouraged, too).

I found out this week where the word came from.  It started out describing the handouts received by poor beggars; literally, they were given the crumbs, the scraps, from the tables of the rich.   It reminds me of the Grinch, who left nothing in the homes of the Whos for Christmas morning but a crumb that was even too small for a mouse.

Crummy.  Leftovers.   Not even worth keeping for myself, but good enough to give as charity to someone else.

Every once in a while, I'll get a phone call from the Diabetes Association, or the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, or the Community Living Association, asking whether I have some clothes or household items that I'm not using, that they can sell to raise money.  It seems that these other charities are moving in on the junk-selling fundraising territory that used to be split between the Salvation Army and Goodwill.  And so, maybe twice a year, I put out a bag or two of stuff that we're not going to use anyway to help out some worthy cause or another.  But every time I do it, as I'm putting the bags on the front porch to be collected, I can't help feeling like I'm getting rid of stuff I don't want.  I'm stuck by the similarity to taking out the garbage.  It's truly crummy charity.   Interesting, isn't it, that the root word of Charity is love.

God has been so unfailingly generous, so extravagant with awesome gifts to each one of us.  Our very lives we hold as gift; everything we own we have only on loan from our Creator, who has made it all.  And overarching it all is the gift of God's only Son, whose coming into the world to live and teach and heal and die broke God's heart in two and yet gave to all of us the incredible gift of salvation, of never having to fear death, and the possibility that we might journey towards unity with our God.

And in return for the extravagant love and generosity of God to us, what we give in return is all too often truly crummy.

Leftover money, after we've looked after our own needs and a great many of our wants, as well.  Leftover time, after choosing, and it is a choice, to spend so much of our time being busy with work or clubs or family or whatever else we do.  And so God's work, be it the work of church or charity, gets our leftovers.  Spending time with God in prayer gets maybe five minutes at the beginning or ending of the day, and maybe on half of our days we get so busy that God often doesn't even get that.  Crummy, isn't it?

God doesn't expect us to spend $20,000 on some extravagant gesture.  The amount of money doesn't matter; Jesus himself talked about how the widow's mite, those two copper coins placed in the Temple treasury, were worth more to God than the larger gifts given by those who could afford to give more. 

And, in fact, God doesn't want us feeling guilty when we don't give more time or treasure or talent than we do.

But what we are called to in this Lenten season, the goal of the disciplines of fasting and penitence and prayer and almsgiving and study of scripture, is a deeper love of the God who first loved us.   After all, it was love for their daughter that motivated the extravagance of the Italian parents on her wedding day.  It was love of Jesus that motivated the extravagance of Mary of Bethany when he came for supper the week before he died.

God loves us, extravagantly.  The challenge of this Lenten season is in how we respond to that love, that love in which we live and move and have our being.  Is our response crummy, the leftovers of our all-too often busy and stressed-out lives?  Or is it an extravagant, self-emptying gesture that comes from the fullness of joy in our hearts in what our God has done for us?

It's not about living out of a sense of guilt, about what we owe God.  Trying to live that way is pointless, because we can never repay the gifts we've been given, can never make up for what we owe to our God. 

Instead, our giving extravagantly of ourselves to our God is about loving the Lord our God, with all our mind and soul and heart and strength.  Not about guilt, not even about duty, but about love.  An extravagant love, nothing crummy about it, our response to the extravagant love our God has for us.  Amen.