3/17/2013 sermon: Sacramental giving

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: John 12:1-8
Fifth Sunday in Lent

Sacramental giving

A long time ago, I found a small, lumpy sealed envelope in a box of miscellaneous old papers that I was archiving. The envelope bore only a date, and the date was over ten years old. When I opened the envelope, an obviously very expensive wedding ring fell out. There was nothing else inside or outside the envelope.

Now if this same thing were to happen today, I would promptly put that ring back, seal the envelope tight, and file the envelope under “sacramental giving.” I didn’t, though, because back then I hadn’t yet learned about sacraments—outward and visible signs of an inner and spiritual grace—and I certainly hadn’t learned about sacramental giving.

I never learned the actual story of the ring, leaving me free to tell you about this incident, and to speculate:

  • I speculate that for this ring to have ended up that envelope, the marriage had ended of someone who had valued that relationship very highly.
  • I speculate that the owner of that ring had given away something of value that symbolized the value of her relationship with her spouse.

If so, the ring symbolized the value of the relationship, something more priceless than the valuable object itself

I didn’t understand all of this back then, though. So when the suggestion inevitably arose to sell the ring and use the money for the food pantry, I agreed. Of course, today’s gospel lesson identifies this type of reasoning as Judas-reasoning, as deficient reasoning—even without any stealing involved.

Jesus and his disciples—including Judas—were at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. This was the same Lazarus whom Jesus had just raised from the dead. The text says that this was something of a party, given in Jesus’ honor, quite possibly in thanksgiving for the miracle that Jesus had wrought in returning Lazarus to life.

In fact, Lazarus had been so dead that his sister Martha had warned Jesus that Lazarus’ body stank. And now here they were, all three siblings, having dinner with Jesus and his disciples.

The house in which this party occurred was in Bethany, just two miles north of Jerusalem. Jesus was about to make his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the original Palm Sunday. Jesus himself was about to die.

Now, apparently, Mary was very grateful to Jesus and valued their relationship highly. She began to put an exceedingly expensive lotion on his feet (lotion that she hadn’t used on her brother’s body just the week previously). This ointment cost 300 denarii, a year’s wages. Now I don’t know how much you all make, but you do. Think of what you earned last year. Now imagine that you give that amount of money to God in a completely frivolous way. Let’s see, maybe you throw a year’s worth of your income up in the air out in the woods, and then walk away.

This, seemingly, is what Mary was doing. At least Judas thought so, because he began to berate Mary. “Just think,” Judas complained, “of all the poor people we could have helped with that money.” But Jesus intervened, telling Judas (in a slightly different translation that we heard in our gospel lesson today): “Let her alone so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” This was a sacramental gift —a gift that represented an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace—and thus a gift that cannot be reduced to a utilitarian value.

You may have noticed that Mary never said a word in this incident. Instead, her actions spoke very loudly—shouted—her love for Jesus. Mary used her own hair to rub this lotion into Jesus’ feet. This was a very intimate act, erotic even. Palestinian women didn’t let their hair down for just any Peter, James, or John. Mary showed by her actions that she loved Jesus, and that she was a model disciple.

Judas, on the other hand, revealed his love—or lack thereof—for Jesus. Judas Iscariot, who we know betrayed Jesus for money the very next week, did not value Mary’s expression of love and devotion to Jesus. Instead, he wanted to put her gift to more practical use. This Judas-thinking denies the sacrament of the gift and the relationship that the gift signifies.

This wasn’t a question of deciding where the gift would do the most good. This was a question of what the gift revealed about the giver, how much the giver valued God and her relationship with God. Helping others is a good in which we should be and are engaged. But, Jesus was saying, so is having a relationship with God and valuing that relationship. In Jesus’ economy, our acts of devotion count, as well as our acts of charity.

By his words, Judas proved himself to be quite the opposite of Mary. If Mary was the model disciple, Judas was the anti-disciple. Before we move on, though, we need to notice that, curiously, Lazarus is both silent and action-less throughout this episode. Lazarus was the one who Jesus had raised from the dead. How did Lazarus show his love and gratitude to Jesus? We just don’t know.

So, how does this story apply to us today? The obvious way is to look at the gifts we give to God. What is the value of the gifts that we give—both their monetary value and their sacramental value—in comparison to what we have been given? How do we express to God how much we value what God has given to us? How do we thank Jesus for what Jesus has done for us? What gifts do we give God, not in payment for what we have been given, but in gratitude and because we value our relationship with God?

  • Do we—like Mary—engage in sacramental giving?
  • Or do we, like Judas, count our gifts to God only by their utilitarian value?
  • Or do we act more like Lazarus in response to all that we have been given?

Will your gifts to God this week and next include money? We need to give God money, somehow, in some way, not counting the cost but valuing the relationship. This is not a pitch for you to give more money to the Church of the Resurrection, although we would welcome such gifts. This is the assertion that our gifts of money to God are about far more than their monetary value.

Will you gifts to God this week and next include your presence, time in the life that God has given to you? Or will you skip right over Holy Week and join us only for the post-Resurrection party? Either way, we will be glad to see you, but one will be more of a sacramental gift than the other.

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