Love makes us do over-the-top, lavish, even outlandish acts. Some of these acts mark us forever.
Almost two years ago a young couple, then as yet not affianced, worshipped in my parish, and did soon mark me forever. I’d met them both years before through Teens Encounter Christ retreats. And I liked them both, eventually loved them both—one of them, years later, would say to me that I had been an inspiration to them although even now I can’t really see how.
For all too short a season they were present in my parish until life took them to their next step.
One particular Sunday morning they stood before me after worship, all alight with love for one another and so hope-filled. I was so caught up in the hectic busy-ness of Zion Lutheran that my vision and attention were too limited. They stood before me awash in love and I never realized that this would be our last Sunday together—their last day in my parish before heading back to Tennessee after the young lady’s college graduation from Lenoir Rhyne University. The hectic busy-ness of Sunday worship leadership had somehow limited me from the reality that we were standing on love’s holy ground.
In blind limitation I hugged the couple, wished them well, and after they’d gone, and after I’d taken off vestments and settled into my chair to refocus, I looked to my wife and said, “Was this their last day among us at Zion?” And Harriet looked at me with compassion and said, “It was. Didn’t you know?”
I realized that busy-ness had limited me and a chance to pour out my love had been lost. The realization caused sadness to cover me as a pall covers a coffin—a sadness that took better than a month to fully shake. They were gone—and in their coming and going they had marked me by pouring over me the costly gift of their loving presence. And what’s more, beyond the costly gift of their presence, they left an extravagant financial gift of love that I’d only discover once they’d gone. (a gift that has been a way for love to pour out scholarships, provide music, and make dreams possible for others)
This life-changing story is a single shimmering reflection of a larger lavish love that is shared in John’s Gospel. It goes like this:
12Six 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.” (NRSV)
This pericope is so often reduced into a matter of money and seemingly wasted perfume. It would be beyond paltry to reduce God’s love to a matter of cash and smells; too simple, too confining a take on what God is extravagantly doing in, with, and through the Christ. Obviously the story does contain elements about money and perfume, yet at the core, isn’t this a love story? Isn’t this about a boundless loving spectacle, a seemingly foolish love, a fragrant love whose sultry scent lingers across the eons to perfume our minds, and cense our hearts?
Italian company, PROFUMUM ROMA says, “Sometimes a scent is more evocative than a photo or an image. It is a primer for the deflagration of sensation, emotions, desires, uncontrollable atmospheres, dejavus that flood and wrap us like honey, until they make us drown in an unrepeatable moment of well-being,” —-yet for three hundred denarii? That’s a year’s salary wasted; a lot of profumum down the drain! Who does that? Why would any responsible sound-minded person do that?
Isn’t the “why” found in love? And isn’t the 300 denarii remark about limits? When we get right down to it, isn’t the remark from Judas really about how Mary has exceeded his limit?
It’s almost like love is up for auction. What is the limit one would pay for so great a love? And what if the limit isn’t 300 denarii, but 290 denarii? Or 190 denarii? 90 denarii? 9 denarii? 1/9th denarii?
Last Sunday’s lectionary gospel text had a father prodigally pouring his love out for sons. This Sunday’s lectionary reading has a woman pouring an annual salary out over feet. Last Sunday’s gospel was about love’s boundlessness, and this Sunday’s gospel lifts up boundless love as well. Last Sunday’s love had a party seeking to set a limit. This Sunday’s love has a party seeking to set a limit.
And that comes to the point of it for us—-what’s our limit?
Upon whose God-made, Christ-loved feet are unwilling to pour out perfume? Upon whom are unwilling to pour out love? The gay? The straight? The Democrat? The Republican? The Asian? The Caucasian? The Baptist? The Lutheran? The autistic? The homeless? Our neighbor?
Isn’t is true that Christians are commanded to love neighbor as self, and that the command is given to them by the Christ?
Again, what’s our limit? Who does our limit restrict from our love? Upon whom, in our defiance of the Christ’s command, are we unwilling to pour our love? The ugly? The anorexic? The prep? The thug? The wealthy? The loud-mouth? The wallflower? The Muslim? The atheist? The gossip? Our neighbor?
What’s our limit? Upon whose God-made, Christ-loved feet are we unwilling to pour perfume?
Tell the truth. We all have our limits don’t we? “Not him. Not her. Not them. Not those people! Not this day!! Not now!!! Not ever!!!! Heaven and hell, NO!!!!!”
Isn’t is true that Christians are commanded to love neighbor as self, and that the command is given to them by the Christ? Judas has a limit that Mary has crossed—-300 denarii. What’s yours? What’s mine? 30 denarii? 3 denarii?
A long time ago—a wise pastor in Knoxville, TN—one who I often see as the walking-talking-love-of-Jesus-up-close-and-personal, shared a story that goes something like this:
“A father, stands under a fragant blooming magnolia tree by the front porch, and for preservation of his family, says to his son who has sold his own body for drugs, and stolen from his parents to get the next fix, ‘Get away from here, boy! Don’t come here again until you have cleaned yourself up. This isn’t your home any more.’
The teenage boy leaves and addiction-driven behavior lands him in the state pen until he becomes a young man. The pastor shares how he writes his parents from prison telling them how he loves and misses them, how he’d love to come home once released.
As he writes, he smells the fragrant magnolia and feels the sting of his father’s words, “This isn’t your home any more.” Each remembrance urges him to rip up the letter, to receive that he no longer has a home with mother, father, and sister; yet sweet broken-hearted hope urges him to write and ask his parent’s if they want him to come home.
To avert any chance of unbearable pain from a face-to-face fight, the son borrows an image from an old Tony Orlando song and asks his parents if they want him to come home, to tie a yellow ribbon on the fragrant magnolia by the front porch. A railroad track runs past the family property and he knows where to look for the tree and the ribbon that may or may not be there.
Upon his release he boards the train.
And as the train comes within a couple of miles of the farm, the boy’s stomach ties up in knots. He’s too afraid to look for the ribbon. A mile or so from the farm, voices in the train car grow excited, and passengers begin to point outside the windows. The boy looks out his window, wondering what causes the stir.
He sees a mile’s worth of yellow ribbons tied to fence posts, to light poles, to fence wire, to power lines, to road signs, to every shrub and tree, but on the heady magnolia by the front porch there is not one ribbon, but thousands of them tied all over the tree! Every bough, every branch, every limb, every twig, every sprig, even the trunk, has thousands of yellow ribbons tied all over the fragrant magnolia!”
So I ask you, should the parents have sold all that ribbon for 300 denarii and given the money to the poor? Or did they do rightly by going beyond limits and pouring it out as the fragrance of love?
We all know the answer, don’t we?
Ribbons rot and perfume fades and denarii fall out of use—yet love is eternal, marks us forever, and never leaves us where it finds us.
And as the saying goes, “That’ll preach!”