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April 11, 2019

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Pr. Craig Mueller


What A Waste!


What a waste! That’s what Judas says after Mary just pours a whole bottle of perfume on Jesus’ feet. It was equal to a year’s wages, after all. Would you spend $50,000 on a bottle of smelly liquid, and pour it all on someone’s feet, even if it was the love of your life?

What a waste! That’s what I felt about my former partner’s addiction to crystal meth years ago. What a waste of his life and his talents after he lost his job and relationship.

What a waste! As author Rob Bell wisely adds, underneath Judas’ comment is a universal longing and ache we can all relate to. You give yourself to a relationship and it ends. You give yourself to your kids and they let you down. You invest time and money into a project, cause, or political initiative and nothing comes from it.  

Did I waste my time? My expenditure of energy? Was it worth it? Was my life worth it?

Sometimes all the losses of life can seem like a waste. That we grow old. That our bodies and minds fail us. Our Lenten book, Waking Up White, reminds us that we have no idea what it is like to be black and be confronted with racial issues every day. Think of people who struggle with mental illness and how overwhelming it is to find the strength for another day.

One writer received the news that he had ALS at age thirty-five. He realized he would probably be dead within a few years. But it’s only a matter of time for all of us. That eventually we lose everything, the writer goes on. At some point we all confront the fact that each of us is, as the poet William Butler Yeats writes, “fastened to a dying animal.” It can seem like such a waste!

Imagine true waste: trash, garbage, compost, junk, refuse. Rubbish—that’s the word in our reading from Philippians. The original Greek means human excrement. Paul is saying that in the end all his titles, accomplishments and resume don’t mean a thing. All his losses are nothing, are rubbish, are waste, are crap, really—compared to sharing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Eventually the wake-up calls dawns on us, too. We press on into the future, not grasping after the things in life that pass away. But clinging to the things that truly matter.

But what about Mary’s waste of all that expensive perfume? We make crosses with scented oil on foreheads. Yet you’d probably call the bishop if your pastors used their hair to rub the oil on your feet like Mary did! Judas says it the perfume could have been sold and given to the poor. Ah, Judas’ true motive is anything but care for the poor. No question that everything about Jesus’ ministry is about care for the needy and marginalized.

There’s something else going on here. Jesus suggests that what Mary is doing is beautiful. She is anointing his body for a death and burial to come shortly.

It may seem like waste. Yet nothing is really lost in the divine economy and landscape. Our losses are part of the fabric of life. And all the perfume, all the devotion, all the love is not wasted at all. Mary’s offering, her sacrifice, her intention are infused with something precious, something sacred.

A lot of people would say what we are doing right now is a waste of time. After all, what really is accomplished in liturgy? Marva Dawn even wrote a book on worship called A Royal “Waste of Time.” She makes the point that the purpose of worship isn’t to attract new members. Or to get positive liturgy reviews on Yelp. Or even to get points with God. Rather worship is an act of devotion with no other goal at all. Reminding us that life is not about profit or accomplishing things. It’s not ultimately about accumulating things and money.

I’ve read a bit in another book with a title I love: Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination. By the fifth century many Christian communities developed a lavish use of incense, holy oils and other sacred scents. These holy smells opened them to the divine and showed the importance of the body in devotion. Our use of the five senses in worship in this place could seem like a waste, something utterly unnecessary to some. As if we experience God only in the heart or the mind and not in our very bodies.

In God all things belong, our bodies and souls. All things belong, even our great losses and things beyond our comprehension. And so in a moment we will sing a classic Lutheran chorale with words of great devotion: “Lord, thee I love with all my heart, I pray thee, ne’er from me depart. . . And should my heart for sorrow break, my trust in thee can nothing shake.” As the psalmist adds, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

Perhaps there is no greater loss than the body of Jesus crucified at a garbage heap. What a waste! Yet each Sunday we acclaim the cross as our life and resurrection. We carry in the sweet smell of incense. Everything belongs. So we press on to Easter. And to the God who provides a way through the wilderness wasteland to an extravagant springtime of new life.