http://lksquaredphoto.com/birth-photographer-on-long-island/ The Sunday Sermon – March 13, 2016
Offering All to God
As the sermon begins, I take out my wallet and pull a one hundred dollar bill from it and say that I’m going to make of this money and offering to God. I want to make sure that the congregation is aware that it is a genuine $100 bill, so I ask a few people up close to examine it. After they do, I take out a lighter, set the bill on fire in an ashtray. As the bill finishes burning, I turn to the altar and pray: “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.”
Listen for the Word of God: Read John 12:1-8 …
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ 6(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.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
The Word of the Lord … Thanks be to God.
For anyone who may be listening later in the day or the week and may be wondering what just happened, I tell you that I just burned a $100 bill as an offering to God, and to God alone. To those of you sitting in the sanctuary this morning, I say again that the $100 bill was indeed real and that I this wasn’t, isn’t, any sort of magic trick. The money truly went up in smoke, and like a costly perfume, its fragrance remains in the air. I will not be producing the “real” $100 bill from up my sleeve, or out of my back pocket when the sermon message is over. So, if you are feeling angry or indignant now, you may expect to remain so when my words are done.
For those of you who are more merely puzzled, and for the fewer yet who may be a bit curious, perhaps the rest of this message may speak to you. Though it won’t attempt to excuse, or explain, what just happened beyond what you have already heard: This was offering to God … and to God alone.
Pray with me …
Well … nothing quite gets our attention like an extravagant gift to God. Whenever we receive word of an “extravagant gift” given to the church, the atmosphere in the room changes. Suspicions may form fairly quickly, however mild, about the donor’s reasons. The gift may come with strings attached, and the giver may use this extravagance to peddle or impose some influence on the congregation. Even if the gift is given without any directives, undoubtedly it will spark debate over its use, revealing the otherwise hidden priorities of those who will make the decisions on its use. Nothing begins a conversation quite like the giving of an extravagant gift “to God.”
This is due in large part to the fact that our “offerings to God” are more often understood, perhaps most often or always understood – at least somewhere in our minds, as gifts to ourselves – to our church, of course, and to the mission and ministry of our church, decided as all that is by faithful Elders elected by everyone and responsible leaders trusted by all. Still we expect the gifts we give to God through our giving to the church to benefit ourselves in some way, even more than our gifts to charities or other benevolent groups. We expect our church offerings to benefit us pretty directly – through the deeper fellowship of a church picnic that the gift funded, or the more comfortable pews that it bought us, or our strong sense of personal satisfaction gained from the faithful mission work it allowed us to carry out. All good reasons for the offerings we give – fellowship, stewardship, and mission – and all appropriate enough responses to the utilization of the offerings we receive. But our lesson from the Gospel of John cuts us no slack whatsoever this morning as it reveals a sliver, if not a large wedge, of hypocrisy in our giving, whatever righteous intentions we profess.
Some version or another of this story is in all four Gospels. The characters are different in each telling, but the gift offered is costly in all – be it the cost of the ointment itself or in the cost required by the one, a woman in all cases, who steps forward to make the offering to Jesus, to God. And because this story is here in all four gospels we are required to reflect on the attitudes surrounding our own giving of gifts to God. In this story, we find ourselves, not in the shoes of the woman offering the ointment, not in the minds of anyone standing idly by watching, and not in the shoes of the receiver of this gift. No, our role in this short narrative is played by Judas Iscariot … yea, that Judas – the one “parenthetically described” so vehemently by John in his Gospel.
You felt it, if only for a moment, only moments ago. What in the world are you doing, man? Why this waste? We could have used that for … You felt it and some of you are still feeling it. I am … But, in the words of Jesus from Mark’s telling of this story, “why do you trouble me?”
I said before I made the offering and after that I was offering this gift to God and to God alone. And when I, or when any of us, make an offering to God, we should understand that gift to cease to be useful to us. The lesson of our scripture reading this morning is this: A true “gift” cannot be controlled. If any of you is honestly worried to distraction over the wasteful nature of my offering as this sermon began, then you could replace it in a few moments when the offering plate passes you. (Now, I know that’s funny, but I’m serious. Do it … if your response to this object lesson calls you to … do it.)
A true gift cannot be controlled … So …
With the shock of my opening act over and the lesson of our scripture reading revealed, I suppose it’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Surely some of you have noted this, as well: My gift this morning was … manipulative. It was, at least, manipulated, but I think also manipulative. However real (and it was real, I’m seriously not pulling that $100 out of my sleeve in a moment), but however real, it was purposefully planned to provoke a response. It was controlled. And as such, according to the teaching from our Gospel this morning, it was not a true gift. And I know that I’ll hear from many of you as you leave this morning, how you, too, have decided to offer your gifts to God, and to God alone, and so don’t need the church as a “middle man” anymore! I know … (I‘ve been watching the members of our Session and Finance Team squirm this whole sermon!) But that, of course, will have missed the whole point of the good news Gospel message that is ours this morning. It has little, or nothing, to do with our money. That’s just the kind of burnt offering that gets our attention most quickly and most intensely (and it did, didn’t it?). No, it has little to do with our money, but everything to do with the offering of our lives.
This lectionary reading is placed on the fifth Sunday in Lent. Holy Week approaches and the passion and death of Jesus lie immediately ahead, for all the characters in the Gospel of John, and for us. This story is placed here, in John, just before “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” Jesus’ life, you see, is his gift to God, his “true gift.” And as such he relinquishes control when he offers it. He dies to himself and is born again with each decision he makes in the direction of God and God’s radical love for the world. Jesus offered his life – indeed, he continues to offer it every year at this time in the memory of the Church – as a model of for us. But we, like Judas, cry out to him: Why didn’t you not go on living so that you could use your life to serve the poor? And, like Judas, we say this, not because we care so much about Jesus, but because we care about our own lives and the offerings, the sacrifices, we will have to make if we truly follow our Lord: our own “relinquishing of control” and our own “deaths.” But there it is .. again.
Very soon now, Jesus will lay down his life for his people, for you and I, not because he is asked to do so, but because he chooses to offer all to God and to God alone. How can we offer any less?
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / March 13, 2016