Living into Abundance

[A sermon based on Mark 14:1-11.]

Consider the second-hand sofa. Faded and thread-bare in certain places, with the stuffing popping out of a tear in the cushion, it’s the eyesore of the living room. Conspicuously tattered around the seams, with a mysterious stain that no one is willing to own up to, its presence heralds nothing but mortal embarrassment. Sitting in it leaves a crick in your neck and an ache in your back, and after a few painful minutes, you find yourself wishing that you had chosen the straight-back, wooden chair across the room. Finally after months of staring at its lumpy, mismatched pillows and its caved-in arms, you decide that it’s finally time to go shopping, to trade in your beat-up, old Pinto for the Cadillac of couches. At last, this sofa you got right after college, a hand-me-down from Great Aunt Suzie, can head off to its final resting place, the Goodwill. Of course you’re excited, and you even give yourself a pat on the back because you’re helping out someone less fortunate . . . right?

Now, all growing up, my brother and I would agonizingly search through the clothing racks at Goodwill to find pants than would fit our ever-growing frames and coats that both we and our mother could agree on. I’m not knocking the Goodwill. But I wonder about this tendency to pass along our second-hand sofas, to offer up our leftovers almost as an afterthought. I wonder what kind of message that sends to the people we grace with our cast-asides. And I wonder whether we’re really able to make the distinction between sending others our rejects and treating others like rejects. What would it mean not just to receive a second-hand sofa, but to feel like a second-hand sofa? To feel unsuitable and discarded, like a worthless eye-sore, like an embarrassment that belongs in a dumpster? Is that really what charity or hospitality or discipleship looks like?

The characters in the story that we read today confront this very same question: what does discipleship look like? For the anonymous woman who anoints Jesus, discipleship is quite costly. The oil with which she anoints Jesus would have been imported all the way from India and worth 300 denarii, an entire years’ wages. In fact, the jar itself was pretty posh. It was made of alabaster, shaped like a teardrop, and the only way to open it involved breaking its slender neck, which meant the entirety of its contents would have to be used once it was opened. There was no way to hold anything back, ration it out over time, or save some of its contents for later. Discipleship for this woman implied this same sort of wholehearted commitment and devotion; it involved the giving her entire self without reservation. She definitely wasn’t offering any second-hand sofas; she was giving all she had, her very best.

This is so expensive that the bystanders, presumably the disciples or the other guests at Simon’s house, were grumbling amongst themselves that she was being wasteful and irresponsible, that this money would be better spent by offering it to the poor rather than lavishing it upon someone who forced all his followers to leave everything behind and join him on his journey. However, when we hear Jesus’ response to their self-righteous murmurs, it’s clear that they weren’t just harmlessly venting or even talking behind her back, actually, the word that Jesus uses to describe their response indicates that they were verbally harassing her, literally dealing her verbal blows. Jesus comes to her aid, pointing out the beauty in her act and identifying her as a prophet. Jesus saw that she alone had realized that he was the Messiah, literally “the anointed one,” and predicted his impending suffering and death through the symbolic action of anointing him for burial. Traditionally kings were anointed with oil as a part of their coronation ceremonies, and prophets often were anointed or anointed others. As the woman anoints Jesus, she not only steps into the role of the prophet, recognizing him as the Messiah and predicting his death, she highlights his kingship. While others go on in the Passion narrative to mock Jesus as the King of the Jews, this woman realizes that Jesus’ kingship is profoundly real even though it defies traditional notions of kingship. This is a king unlike any they have ever seen before: a king that eschews violence and domination and suffers the horrible consequences of that commitment, a king who ushers in peace without military power and occupation. This is a king who dies alongside criminals and who eats alongside lepers in their ghetto. And if these bystanders think 300 denarii is expensive, they’re in for a shock, because following this king, this Messiah involves following him even to the Cross. It means betrayal and abandonment and suffering. Discipleship isn’t for the stingy.

As a result, this woman has to deconstruct and reconstruct our understandings of discipleship; like the prophets before her, she has to reject and proclaim, to root out and pull down but also to build and to plant. She rejects the theology of scarcity that we hear the bystanders and the disciples proclaiming, and she embraces a theology of abundance. Through her example, we realize that when we ease our white-knuckled grip on our resources, we open ourselves to experiencing abundance, hospitality, generosity, and joy, and as Jesus indicates in his assessment of the woman’s actions, this is truly beautiful. Now, we know this. We know that the reign of God is the reign of abundance. We know that discipleship requires giving of ourselves, that following Christ involves this paradoxical worldview in which we only gain our lives by losing them. But there’s a reason why this woman is in the minority in this passage. My favorite author, Anne Lamott explains it this way, “I know that when someone gets a big slice of pie, it doesn’t mean there’s less for me. In fact, I know that there isn’t even a pie, that there’s plenty to go around, enough food and love and air. . . . But I don’t believe it for a second. I secretly believe there’s a pie. I will go to my grave brandishing my fork.” We live in a culture where we can never have enough. Look around. Our TV’s have 600 channels, our fast food meals are super-sized, our planners are exploding from over-scheduling, our office buildings have double-digit floors, and our lives are spent endlessly seeking to accumulate more, more, more. We continually convince ourselves that we’re not okay just as we are, that what we have isn’t sufficient for us, that if we have just a little bit more or do a little bit more or if we are just a little bit more then we’ll be happy. But when is it enough? If we never get to the point where we feel like we have enough, do enough, and are enough, then we will never feel as though we are able to give out of our abundance. We won’t feel as though we can afford to offer a little of our resources, a little of ourselves to others, much less give as extravagantly as the woman who anoints Jesus.

But we’re definitely in good company here. This is the same scarcity theology that frames this story. The story begins with the chief priests and the scribes hatching a plot to kill Jesus because they think there isn’t enough room in their faith tradition to encapsulate this rogue rabbi. The story ends with Judas betraying Jesus, offering up the man that he has left everything to follow in order to make a quick buck. These are the two bookends that contain the story of this amazing, generous woman. This scarcity thinking that plagues us in our own day literally surrounds her in the text. In fact, throughout Mark’s Gospel, no one really seems to get it. The disciples, to be sure, repeatedly miss Jesus’ point, and even we ourselves don’t always see clearly enough to be faithful disciples, but this woman, this anonymous woman, is one of the few people in the Gospel to recognize Jesus for who he is, the Messiah, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and she can do nothing but respond extravagantly. Her story is an interruption of this not-enough mindset. A breaking through of the kingdom. A glimpse of the reign of abundance.

[Moving toward font] Whatever we do, whatever we give, we have the opportunity to bear witness to God’s kingdom of abundance. Every single action we engage in is like a pebble hitting the water. It’s only a small little splash and then it’s gone, but it creates ripple upon ripple whose concentric rings expand to cover more time and space than we could ever have imagined. There’s no telling what shores they may reach or whose toes at the water’s edge they might touch. When we offer our second-hand sofas, we create certain ripples. When we give alabaster jars of costly oil, we create certain ripples. In these waters, we are not only claimed by Christ, but we are called to create ripples of hospitality, of plenty, and of radical joy. We are called to be living glimpses of God’s reign of abundance.