Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and John 12:1-8
This morning we conclude our sermon series on Stewardship. We have spent the past month considering all the good things that God has given us and how we as Christians are called to respond to and share those gifts. We have talked about loving and embracing our physical bodies as perfect gifts from a loving creator. We have talked about using our minds as we engage the scriptures, theology, and the world around us. And we have talked about spending our time wisely, on our own self-care and together here in the church community. Today we finally get to the traditional stewardship topic: our money.
I have chosen my two favorite Stewardship texts for us to look at today and I want to explore the idea of why we give. Our reading from Deuteronomy illustrates giving as a ritual in worship. This is giving that is commanded. This is giving that is obligation. When you finally enter the Promised Land you are supposed to offer a gift. You bring the first fruits, a tithe of your harvest, and you present it in the worship space and you tell your story. Giving is how you demonstrate that you are a “good” follower of God.
This is wonderful sermon fodder for convincing ourselves and each other in the church community to give. I think that often the reason we start to give is that we are motivated by guilt and obligation. We give because it is what we are supposed to do, and it is a part of how we worship. As a pastor I can’t ask you to put money in the offering plate while I keep all of my money for myself. What kind of example would that be setting? This obligatory giving works for you and it works for me.
This giving in the Deuteronomy narrative isn’t generous giving, it’s “get ur done” giving. People gave what they were commanded to give because they were commanded to give it. A tithe seems generous now, since we have spent generations convincing ourselves that God doesn’t really ask for a tithe. I’m not sure where we got that idea, but we like it and so we are sticking to it. “Get ur done” giving nowadays is simply putting money in the plate. Not a tithe, but just enough so we don’t feel guilty on Sunday mornings. Just fill out a pledge form, we think, it doesn’t matter if we follow through, it just matters if we do enough to look good and make ourselves feel better.
I think the story from John’s gospel is a good conversation partner with Deuteronomy because Mary doesn’t demonstrate “get ur done” giving. Rather, she is modeling extravagant generosity. I am sure everyone here knows the story. Lazarus was ill, and then died. He was dead for four days. He was gone and Mary was moving through the period of mourning, when suddenly Jesus brings Lazarus back to life. Can you imagine how grateful Mary would feel? Can you imagine the depth of love and thanksgiving she felt toward Jesus?
Mary wants to respond to Jesus’ generosity with generosity of her own. She wants to give him a gift. But, what can one give to Jesus? She thinks of the most valuable thing she owns, her jar of pure nard. She will give him that. She will anoint him with it. And although it is so little compared to the gift he has given her, it is a way for her to express her love, her thankfulness, her joy, and her devotion. It is a way for her to give to her Lord, a way for her to show Jesus how she feels. This isn’t “get ur done” giving, putting something in the plate because we have to, instead this is generous giving that comes from the heart. It is powerful, it is beautiful, and it is so very perfect.
Judas wants to spoil the moment because he is uncomfortable. Mary’s generosity makes him nervous, it makes him feel bad, it makes him feel guilty, and so he tries to stomp all over her moment. But Jesus doesn’t let him. Jesus knows that Mary is giving all that she can give, and he honors her gift and calls others to do the same. Of course we should give to the poor as Judas suggests. And I’m sure Mary probably also supported them. The more you give the easier it is to give, trust me I know. I assume Mary had to have been a giver before if she was going to offer a gift now on such a grand scale. But this gift was different; this was her gift specifically to Jesus. Mary is going beyond a tithe. This was her moving and extravagant response to God’s abundant generosity in her life.
You and I both know that the theme of extravagant generosity will continue throughout the close of John’s gospel. Judas does not understand, and he is jealous of Mary’s ability to be generous. Within the week to come, Jesus will gather with his friends in the upper room. He will mirror Mary’s act of love, as he washes the feet of his disciples, another act of generosity and love. Even Judas, whose betrayal looms large in the future, will have his feet washed by Jesus.
Jesus gives the final commandment, to love as God loves. To love with a generous, extravagant, abundance that knows no bounds. Jesus will then demonstrate that extravagant love as he gives the greatest gift he is able to give, his very life. He gives his life for Mary, for Martha, and for Lazarus. He also gives his life for Judas, for the generosity of Jesus is the most extravagant generosity there is. He gives his life for them all, and for us as well.
I’ve told you all this before and I am sure you will have to hear me say it again but my favorite idea from all of the stewardship conferences that I have attended is that we are called to give because we are made in the image of God. That is why we give. Not because we are commanded to, not because it is a part of worship, not because it is an obligation, and not because we feel guilty. We give because it is our very identity to be generous givers. Not “get ur done” givers, but extravagantly generous givers.
Throughout the scriptures God is one who gives and it is a theme that is woven throughout John’s gospel. We all know John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that God gave.” In John’s gospel Jesus gives and gives until there is nothing of him left, and then he rises from the dead and gives some more. Mary is responding to that love, Mary is made in the image of God the giver and so Mary gives. She gives abundantly, she gives extravagantly, she gives all that she has, her most costly and prized possession. She pours out that perfume, worth a year of labor, all over Jesus and all over the floor. The perfume is gone, but her act of love remains. Mary gives, because she worships a God who gives. Mary gives because Mary was made in the image of God.
When we gather together as a family at the communion table then we express our identity as those made in the image of God. When we gather here we remember the gifts of our generous God. We think of the life that Jesus led, of the things he taught us about living in faith. We think of the gift he gave of that very life, so that we may know the depth and extent of God’s love. We remember Jesus’ resurrection, and embrace the knowledge that even death cannot bind God’s generosity. And in the midst of this very divided world, we look to the future, when all people, from all places, will gather together at God’s most generous banquet. Through the months and years as we gather again and again and again at this table we are sustained and lifted up by God’s extravagant generosity and we are formed into extravagantly generous givers.
As I mentioned in my prayer last week, we knew that this election week would be a difficult one for half of our country. As we woke up to the results on Wednesday morning some of us felt relief and rejoiced. Others of us were profoundly disappointed and hurt. And I know that there were quite a few whose hearts were filled with fear. In these unsure and uncertain times, it is more important than ever that we commit ourselves to our faith. Now is the time to gather with neighbors, friends, and strangers and look for the things we have in common. Now is the time to be extravagant givers sharing our resources as much as we can. We have been gifted with faith, hope, and love. Let us share those extravagant blessings with the world around us.
God has given us countless blessings that we are asked not to horde for ourselves but to share with the world around us. We are called and created to be those that give. And we give not because we have to, or because it is the right thing to do. We give because we are made in the image of God, and before anything else, God is one who gives. When we give generously, when we give extravagantly, when we give with love and joy and abandon, that is when we most reflect the image of God in the world. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to give. Amen.