Text: John 12:1-8.
Where there is no
there is no love,
and where there is no love
there is no understanding.
The image is still fixed in my mind. We had traveled five hours in an old van on rough roads that at points seemed impassable. Malkhaz, the archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Churches in the Republic of Georgia, was determined that I visit a house church sponsored by the mother church, Peace Cathedral, while on my visit to Tbilisi. The particular house church that we were traveling to was situated along the Black Sea in the region of Abkhazia – a region still occupied by Russia. A host of people had gathered to greet us upon our arrival to the home of the pastor of the house church. Mostly elderly people, they welcomed me with open arms, generous kisses and comforting smiles. The house, which served as the home of the pastor and the church, was simple – no running water or electricity. The only bathroom was an outhouse; and after riding five hours on a bumpy road, I was in need of a bathroom. So the first thing I did after all the greeting was make my way to the outhouse. Upon opening the door, I discovered that the outhouse consisted of a hole in the ground and an old chair hanging on the wall. The chair had a hole cut in the seat for those who were not accustomed to an outhouse. And while I appreciated the option of that chair with a hole in the seat, I decided in that moment I could wait a bit longer to go to the bathroom.
I nervously returned to the group that was sitting outside underneath a large shade tree, trying not to think about next steps. For the next hour or so we sat underneath the tree visiting, talking and getting familiar with one another. Just as the sun was setting, Malkhaz motioned that dinner was ready and so we made our way for the first time inside the house. There were four rooms to the home. The first room was the worship space. In it were a piano, a lectern and several old church pews. To the left was a small bedroom with two single beds where I would sleep that night. On the far side of the worship space was another gracious size room with a long wooden table that could seat at least 20 people. The image of that table is the image that is still fixed in my mind. This rustic wooden table was set for a queen. Beautiful flowers in bottle vases were scattered from end to end, distinguished dishes that had been collected over generations marked a place for everyone present, hand sown napkins that had survived generations cradle our utensils, bottles of wine were strategically placed, and overflowing plates of food filled every inch of the table top. It looked like a scene from Babette’s Feast – one of my all-time favorite movies. Indeed, it was a picture of extravagant love set in an environment that was at best minimalistic. In that moment I knew that this feast was for me and that the extravagance was not so much the food but the love and sacrifice and affection with which it had been prepared for their honored guest. Mary Gordon says, “We must not deprive ourselves, our loved ones, of the luxury of our extravagant affections.” That night, in a part of the world that experiences very little luxury, I felt extravagant love.
Another story. This one from Cuba is still fresh on my mind. It has become part of our trips to Cuba that one night during our visits with our sister church in Matanzas we go into the homes of church members for a meal. Before our arrival, individual members of First Baptist Matanzas sign up to host one or two of the Pullen pilgrims in their homes for dinner. On Tuesday night, each of us was told whose home we would be going to for dinner on Wednesday evening and a little bit about the family. One member of our group was told that the family she would be visiting had wanted for several years to host a Pullen pilgrim but had not been able to because they were not sure they could provide enough food for a guest. But for this particular trip they had decided to take a risk and sign up. Around 5:00 on Wednesday afternoon each of us departed for our host family’s home, none of us knowing what to expect. As we gathered back later in the evening for our group check in time, we each shared about our host family and the dinner they had prepared for us. After several people had shared, Carol began sharing of her experience with her host family. She told us again of the story of how they had wanted on previous trips to host someone but had been fearful that they couldn’t provide enough food for a meal. She noted how excited the family was to have her in their home. She also noted that the meal was simple – rice and liver. You can imagine the group’s response. Someone – maybe me, probably me – asked: “What did you do?” Carol graciously responded, “I ate it. They had prepared it for me. And for them it was an extravagant meal.” I doubt anyone here would say that a meal of rice and liver was extravagant. But Carol did. She knew that meal had been prepared with great love, sacrifice and affection. And it was not lost on her just how extravagant it was. And so she responded with great extravagance. Oscar Wilde said, “Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.” That night in Cuba, over a meal between people whose countries tell them they are not supposed to be friends, there was both love and understanding. And it was an extravagant evening.
Our gospel lesson for today is another story of extravagant love, affection and sacrifice.It’s a week before Jesus death, and John has written that Mary, whom we already know loved Jesus intensely, is immersed in her feelings about his approaching death. Jesus has come to her home for dinner, an intimate meal with her, her sister Martha, and her brother Lazarus. At some point during the evening, John tells us, Mary brings out a bottle of expensive, perfumed oil. She pours it over Jesus feet, massages them lovingly, then gently wipes his feet with her long hair. In response, Jesus does not murmur in surprise. Neither is he embarrassed. Rather, he accepts this intimacy, this tenderness, with the love and affection it is meant to show.
John has written about other times Jesus visited this house, and each time there is an intimacy with Mary that set her apart from the rest. There was the time he brought all his disciples there. Mary sat at his feet, in the circle of men, and Martha, who wanted to bring them all food, complained to Jesus that Mary should be in the kitchen with her. And Jesus defended Mary. “She has chosen the good portion, and it is not to be taken away from her,” he said. The good portion: being close to him, close enough to touch him. And now, once again, they are all together, eating Martha’s good cooking. Judas, it turns out, is also there that evening. And according to John he complains that the perfumed oil is too expensive, and the money should not have been so lavishly spent. John accuses him of being a thief, but Jesus does not say that. Instead, he again defends Mary, saying she bought this oil for his death – and that he will not be with them for long.
Throughout the ages, hearers of this story have long debated whether Mary’s act was wasteful or wonderful. I imagine if we asked the wasteful or wonderful question here today there would be a variety of opinions. But that’s not the question I want us to think about this morning. The larger question for me is this: How open are we to experiencing and accepting the extravagance of other’s love, sacrifice and affection, especially God’s love, sacrifice and affection for us?
In our society extravagance is often defined by material things like luxurious homes and fancy cars; lavish vacations and costly meals; designer clothes and jewelry. Very rarely, if ever, would it apply to a dinner party where rice and liver was served, or to a meal eaten in a home with no running water, electricity or an indoor bathroom. But extravagance isn’t primarily about how much something costs. It is about how much we are willing to give away – how much we are willing to risk loving another. Real extravagance involves intimacy, deep affection, and the risks we take to show our true hearts to one another. Mary’s act is extravagant. Not because of the price of the perfume. It is extravagant because she sits before the appointed disciples of her beloved spiritual leader and she touches him, washes him, she mourns the loss she anticipates. It is easy for us to miss the point of this story because of our tendency to focus, as Judas did, on the price of the perfume. But as Jesus often does, in this story he reorients our thinking and our understanding of what words like extravagance and love and sacrifice really mean. And just as extravagance in this story doesn’t mean cost, sacrifice in this story doesn’t mean that we have to lose out in order for another to gain. Instead, it means that in the act of giving away, we receive. Mary sacrifices an expensive bottle of perfume, one that would be very hard for her to replace. But that sacrifice allows her the kind of moment with her friend that is priceless – a moment of true presence, of raw emotion, of connection, the kind of moment that anyone who longs for wholeness and connection and love would choose.
The good news of the gospel is this: It is this kind of extravagant love that God longs to lavish on us. And so I ask again, how open are we to experiencing God’s extravagant love and affection for us? And how open are we to experiencing such extravagance from one another? In some ways, it is a difficult question as we approach the events of Holy Week. It’s hard to see the extravagance as we move through Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion. But if we can hold this image of Mary pouring this perfume over Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair through the devastating events of Holy Week, there is the promise that extravagant acts of love and kindness can carry us and bring comfort in times of great despair. Extravagant love isn’t a force field that protects us from suffering, but it invites us into an intimacy that can sustain us in our hour of need.
Our gospel lesson today reminds us that, “We must not deprive ourselves, our loved ones, of the luxury of our extravagant affections, especially those of God.” In these last days of Lent, I challenge you to look for opportunities for extravagance that you have to offer and to receive, from God and from others. Reflect on your images and stories of extravagant love and know that God’s love for you is, indeed, extravagant.