A Sermon Based on Mark 14:1-9
When I was a minister in Zurich, Switzerland, we asked our church members to write a devotional booklet that we could use during Lent. We divided the Gospel of Mark into “40 days” of short passages of Scripture, and then we asked church members to write a one-page reflection on the text.
Dr. Ernst & Betty Schmid took this morning’s text and wrote the following (I quote):
Mark 14:1-9 tells of the woman who used precious oils to pour on the head of Jesus. Some were indignant. Why was the costly oil
thus wasted!? It could have been sold, and the money used for the poor! Jesus replied, “The poor you can help anytime you wish. But I shall not always be with you.”
Yes, we do have difficulty accepting freely-given gifts.
We feel different reactions…
The most natural seems to be that of genuine gratitude. We are
delighted by the gift and have nice thoughts about the giver.
But this is not always the case. Receiving something
unexpectedly may cause us to wonder about the motives of the
giver. Does she want more from me, in return? (Quid pro quo.) Is he
trying to ‘buy’ my friendship? Does he want to make me ‘dependent’
Freely-given generosity may not be without its problems. The giver
has to consider the wisdom of the gift… its value, its
Will it damage the receiver in some way more than it will help him? A person too long on the receiving-end may become passive. They come to expect it, like an entitlement instead of a gift. When the generosity of others stops… resentment, dislike, even hatred can set-in.
On the other hand, there is the danger that a proud person may feel humiliated by someone’s generous gift, especially when it is given in public.
However, to experience the spontaneous gift of the moment, such as the anointing of Jesus’ head, has its merits. Such moments do not come twice. The inclination to be of help quickly must not be passed up just because there is a greater need elsewhere. Jesus understood the woman’s generosity. She could only do this for Him at that moment.
Not to be overlooked is the genuine, happy giver, whose gift we can accept for God’s sake [and for the good of the Giver, whose generosity can be acknowledged].
If we, likewise, give to others, as we have freely received, the world can be indeed richer for the free flow of freely-given gifts. As the Psalmist expressed it: “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” (Psalm 103:2).
Ernst & Betty Schmid did a fine job of opening up the complexity and nuances of both the giving and the receiving of generous gifts… especially when it is known to the public. Are there “strings attached” to this gift? Is this some kind of “pay-to-play” contribution, or a “quid-pro-quo” donation from which the giver hopes to receive something of value in return?
Is the gift spontaneous – an innocent expression of one’s heart-felt emotion – or is there more to it? Will it be helpful or detrimental in the long run? How is one to know?
Matthew tells this story verbatim as we heard it from Mark.
When the Gospel writer John (some 50 years later) re-told Mark’s original story, he put the complaint -- “Why was the ointment thus wasted? It could have been sold for more than 300 denarii and given to the poor!” -- in the mouth of Judas.
That story brings to my mind the kind of in-church battles that arise over the question: what should we do with our assets? Judas is playing the part of the “church treasurer”, who has other important bills to pay and does not like a “designated gift” passing though the books that is not within the priorities and policies of the congregation. (!) Or perhaps he is like the social-action, outreach-mission committee chair who complains that to restore the stained glass windows or put in new carpet is a huge waste of money when there are so many local needy, nearly homeless, poor people in the Alpena area… or so much world hunger and so many immigrant refugee families who need help.
Actually, when you read John’s version of this story, it looks as though Judas was hoping to line his own pockets!
According to John, Judas said this “not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief; and since he had the money box, he used to take what was put into it.” (John 12:6) It indicates a trusted treasurer embezzling the group’s money! (!)
Jesus replies: “The poor you always have with you; but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8) He also says (in Mark 14:6): “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. … And whenever you will, you can do good to the poor. … She has done what she could. She has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly I say to you, whenever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her!” (Mark 14:6-9)
Jesus’ response to the complaining disciples introduces a complexity and nuance to the question of the management of our money and assets much like Dr. Schmid & his wife did a moment ago. On most days, we who follow Jesus take care of the poor. We preach and teach and heal in order to sustain the community in Jesus’ name for God’s sake. (Right?) This is our basic task and calling as a Church.(!) It’s the business we are in!
Jeffrey Mindock (for example) runs our Sunday School and leads Wacky weekday Kids’ Club all year long -- behind the scenes -- and we pay him to do so. But once in a while we want to show him in action in public and say “Thank you! Well done!” Or Shelby Sexton provided childcare every Sunday for a year-&-a-half (like Gabby Benedict does now), but one time we got her a cake and thanked her (last Sunday). Up to two years ago, Betsy Adamus had been here for 23 years… toiling away day-after-day, as the organist, choir director, and Christian Education coordinator. But when she & Greg decided to move downstate, we gave her the Church’s Labyrinth… and the choir gave her a Peace Pole… and we celebrated her dedication with a party!
It’s like what Jesus said: most days we care for the poor with assets at our disposal. But occasionally we celebrate! It’s OK to be extravagant… on special occasions, when the mood strikes.
Most days you work in the field, like the Prodigal’s older brother, hardly noticed; but some days you kill the fatted calf and throw a party! It’s okay to “party hearty” in the Kingdom of God -- like the wild Pentecost event that birthed the Church so long ago! But we don’t expect to do that every day, do we?
Let’s look at it this way: it’s okay to spend money on a beautiful building to the Glory of God, or to sponsor a big-event that draws large crowds… like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or his feeding of the 5,000. (!)
But it’s also OK to conserve those resources, energies, and assets in order to deal directly with people one-on-one (one day at a time, one decision at a time, one relationship at a time)… all week long. (Slow and steady wins the race, right? Wasn’t that the tortoise’s advice to the hare in Aesop’s fable?)
The difficult thing is to know when to conserve (for the duration) so that things are sufficient and sustainable into the future… and when to expend without reserve. (!) When to be “prodigal” -- profligate, expansive -- overtly generous… and when to scale-back, or to down-size… to pinch our pennies.
This necessity for discernment is hard for some of us to take. (!) Those of us who feel our fiduciary responsibility would be discharged best by following rules – make a budget, raise the funds, spend according to the authorized plan – may not see a need for spiritual discernment. (!) I mean, a “tithe” is very simple to compute: 10% of one’s income. It’s a rule that some Churches follow by rote. Mormons (for example) look at their member families’ tax return; see their net taxable income, divide it by 10, and ask from that family that amount. That is their “tithe” – the minimum acceptable amount.
No need for a “pledge campaign” in a church like that. (!) That’s also why the Church of Latter Day Saints has been building new churches all across the country (and around the world) paying cash, and holding no mortgages. There would be plenty of assets available for ministry if every family gave 10%.
In a “free church” like the Congregational tradition, no one can tell anyone else how much to give. In fact -- except for the Treasurer, the Sunday morning collection counters, the people who enter your record of offerings into the computer, and the Stewardship Committee members -- nobody here knows what anyone else gives. It is not public knowledge. What you give to our church (or to other charities) is an expression of your own life circumstances, your personal attitudes, & your core values.
If all 150 of our members would donate a “tithe” -- 10% of their annual income -- our church budget (and Mission Fund) would be able to do a great deal more ministry for Jesus Christ here in Alpena and around the world in ways that would make a real difference. But we don’t. Most of us won’t. (Patty & I try to.)
Some folks, like the woman with the precious ointment, have assets on hand that can be used quickly (spontaneously) as a gesture of love, gratitude, and faithful support as needed.
Here in Alpena, I think of Mary & Dick Bloom, who can be counted on to give Patty & me asparagus from their farm in the spring, and red potatoes & corn-on-the-cob mid-summer… and I think of Dr. Tom Cook, whose apples & cider grace our church every October. Some folks, like them, have assets on hand (in season) and they make generous use of them… with gratitude!
Others of us are so deeply in debt – with mortgages, car loans, student loans… not to mention all our credit card debt – that we not only don’t have ready assets, but we are actually spending 110%-120% of our income. (!) Overspending… and ever deeper in debt! (“St. Peter, don’t you call me, ’cuz I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”) It makes me wonder: if someone is already outspending their income, would “tithing ten percent” mean that the church actually owes them money?
The ethics of having assets -- in physical terms, a grand building like this church facility; or in economic terms, managing an Endowment at the Community Foundation or the Comstock Fund – requires good stewardship principles. It demands of us a continuing concern for fitting our available resources to what we believe God is calling our church to do and to be as Jesus’ followers here in Alpena. (That’s why we’re having another short “Strategic Planning” session upstairs in Fellowship Hall after today’s worship service. To talk about that “vision”.)
One task before us… is to articulate a sense of our distinctive message as a church (as one among some 50 others in the Alpena County area) and, second, to find a common (communally understood) purpose for being here.
Most of us can tell the story of our founding as Alpena’s First Church (back in 1862) – a body of believers who were open to all faiths, with a focus on teaching about Jesus Christ and preaching an inclusive Gospel that was relevant to daily life.
Most of us can recite the story of three church buildings that have stood on this street corner in downtown Alpena: the wooden one from the 1860’s, the brick one from the 1890’s, and this incredible Besser-concrete block masonry marvel that was built in 1953 (dedicated in 1955), which is already 63 years ago.
Some of you can tell stories about Rev. Robert Barksdale & Madge (Mrs. B), or about Jack & Nancy Fitzgerald… Certainly many of you remember vital aspects and activities from the more than 20 years of Rev. Bob Case’s leadership… and his wife, Judy, as our choir director. That’s when we put up the “Peace Pole”… and when we became a “Just Peace” Church. That’s when Alpena began its long relationship with our Partner Parish in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and the visits to East Germany for Kirchentag. That’s who we have been… It’s part of who we are, what has made us & formed us to this day.
But within this common narrative about Pilgrim Fellowships and the Pfeiffenbergers, about Olive Steele & Jennie Kerr (and my Mom, Dodi), we need to articulate not just the glorious past, but the future vision (our purpose) or we’ll be headed for trouble. We must ask ourselves: What are we going to do with this generous gift of building & finances from our past? Ernst & Betty Schmid said that the most “natural” response to a freely-given generous gift is “genuine gratitude”. We are delighted by the gift, and we have nice thoughts about the givers… all of them.
In today’s reading, the woman’s spontaneous gift of precious, anointing oil was the best she could do for Jesus. He appreciated it (the gift), and he appreciated her (the generous giver). Jesus even said that “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” That’s some high praise, if you ask me!
Let’s let this unnamed woman’s generous gesture be a model for our own spontaneous expressions of love and faithfulness when the occasion presents itself. Claim it! Act on it! Be unashamedly generous. And do so with Jesus’ hearty blessing, for God’s sake.