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Saturday, March 20, 2010

True Gospel Scandals: Perfume and the Poor

John 12:1-8

At our church Finance Committee meeting this week, a new member of the committee asked a perfectly reasonable question about an item in our church budget: why do we have a line for flowers for worship? “Don’t people donate the flowers?” he asked. “Yes,” came the reply, “but that’s for Sundays when people don’t donate flowers, and for other special occasions.” “Why don’t we just not have flowers on those Sundays when people don’t provide them?” he responded. After a long silence, someone said, “Because that’s not how we do it here.”

It’s a very good question: why do we have flowers in the sanctuary? Why did we spend thousands of dollars last year to refurbish the stained glass windows? Why did a group of us meet here yesterday morning to spruce up the grounds to make our church look better for our Easter visitors? Why doesn’t the choir just wear blue jeans and tee shirts? Why do you dress up on Sunday mornings? Think of all the money we could save by not doing those things. We could – give the money to the poor, couldn’t we?

One of the very few stories about Jesus that appears in all four gospels is this morning’s reading about a woman who anoints Jesus with oil. The gospels differ in where it takes place and when, where he is anointed – head or feet, and who anoints him. What’s absolutely consistent in the stories is the horror by the onlookers at this act. In Luke, the woman is described as “a sinner.” Pharisees – the word literally means “separate” – were shocked that Jesus would contaminate himself by associating with such a person. In the other three gospels, including John, it is the disciples who are aghast. In John it’s Judas, who was the treasurer, which means he was the most trusted and responsible of the group. “That Chanel perfume could have been sold for three hundred dollars, and the money given to the poor!” John interjects that Judas was embezzling from the communion fund. In Matthew and Mark, it’s the disciples, plural. It makes no difference whether it’s Pharisees, Judas, or the whole group of disciples. It’s a scandalous act, this sensuous outpouring of perfume and affection on a minister who should know better, and who should have insisted that something useful be done with this gift.

Now, the official commentary on this passage, handed down through two millennia of prayerful and scholarly commentary, goes like this: Jesus is the Messiah, which means the anointed. Anointing in the Bible happens to kings. One explanation of anointing with oil comes from shepherds, who would anoint the heads of their sheep to keep the flies from gnawing on the ears and eyes of the sheep. When we lived on the Eastern Shore, we had to use oil on our dogs’ ears to keep green flies from doing the same thing. It’s Skin So Soft, or bug repellent. So when kings are anointed, or we anoint the sick as I did to Fran Garnett last week before she died, or when in some Christian baptisms babies are anointed at baptism, it’s to keep the enemies away. The Messiah would be the one anointed by God to save Israel from its enemies, and to restore the nation to its glory. And in the gospels, the only person to ever anoint Jesus for any reason is this woman, to the horror of the onlookers. She’s the one follower of Jesus who gets it right, whether she knows the deeper significance of what she is doing or not.

Now, all that’s absolutely true. It’s typical of the delicious irony of the gospels, and of the Bible as a whole, that the only person who gets it right is someone who’s either not expected or not trying to get it right, when the people who should be getting it right are getting it all wrong instead. Those stories always remind me that we official followers of Jesus had better be pretty humble about anything we do and pretty open to what may be going on outside the official channels.

What strikes me today about this story, though, is that, practically speaking, the disciples are right: the money could have been sold to help the poor. This act of extravagance by this woman is, for all intent and purposes, useless. It’s an act of beauty, and an act of love, but it’s utterly impractical. It’s like sending flowers to someone who’s died. Or even sending flowers to someone living whom we love. Yes, it’s pretty, but why not buy them some socks? The socks will last a lot longer than the flowers.

Or these expensive stained glass windows that we have to fix every twenty-five years or sooner. Let’s just replace them with some nice double glazed double hung windows that we could open on a day like today, so you could better hear and see the Harley riders when they come thundering through, or know whether it’s raining or not. Let’s replace the upholstered furniture in the parlor and lobby with folding metal chairs, so we won’t have to worry about muddy shoes or spilled coffee. Nat, you cost too much: we can play all the music from CDs. Bryan and choir: we’ll just watch a music video, thank you very much. For that matter, you’d get much better sermons and Sunday School lessons if we do streaming video: from now on, we’ll organize groups according to who you want to watch: The Joel Osteen group will meet in the gym, the Adam Hamilton group in the sanctuary, and the Pat Robertson group can meet somewhere far, far away. And, of course, we’ll give the money we save . . . to the poor. Of course we will. Won’t we? We always do.

In Keith Miller’s dramatic retelling of Jesus’ anointing, as part of his Easter sermon in the Rose Bowl, Jesus says to the disciples: “Leave her alone. She’s done a beautiful thing for me. And years from now people will be telling each other about this.”

It is a beautiful thing. But beauty’s not very useful. Beauty doesn’t feed people. Beauty doesn’t cure disease, or give people homes. And, after all, we want our lives to count for something. And the only things that count are things that are useful. There’s even a poem about why men shouldn’t marry beautiful women:

Beauty’s just a passing thing

Ugly’s to the bone

Beauty, she’ll just fade away

But ugly will hold her own.

And yet . . . we put flowers in the sanctuary. We dress up. We put art on our walls. We watch a sunset. We listen to music that we don’t understand. We rake up the leaves and pick up the sticks. We go to the ballet. We upholster our furniture in patterns, and drape our windows. We paint our walls bright or soothing colors. We read novels and watch movies. We plant flowers. We watch the waves and the clouds. And we all marry beautiful people. None of it is . . . useful.

Nevertheless, in this act of useless, fragrant beauty, Jesus is declared the Messiah. Could it be that useless fragrant acts of beauty worship God as much – or perhaps more – than all our strident usefulness?

The night after the morning that Port au Prince, Haiti was destroyed last month by the earthquake, rescue workers were shocked to find Haitians dancing and singing hymns in the streets. Surrounded by death and destruction, the people of Port au Prince were dancing. They were alive, even though so many of their loved ones lay crushed beneath the rubble. In the midst of the horror, the people of Haiti engaged in acts of senseless and useless beauty. They were claiming life. And in the beauty of that moment, they were praising God.

Yes, we should feed, and clothe, and house the poor. Yes, we should be good stewards of our resources. Yes, like Jesus, we should lay down our lives for the salvation of the world.

But sometimes the most “useful” thing is what seems to be the most useless: an act of love, beauty, or wasted time. And if God clothes the grass and the lilies, more so than Solomon in all his glory, might not Jesus be anointed Messiah more by our embrace of all things bright and beautiful, than by all our desperate usefulness?

It’s a beautiful thing this woman has done. And Jesus was right: we’re still telling her story.

Go, and do something beautiful for God.

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