The following was delivered in my Preaching class last week. The assignment was to deliver a 5 minute sermon without notes of any kind.
A friend of mine has taken up a Lenten practice that is new to me. She has a list enumerating what she will give away or throw away each day of Lent. For example, two grocery bags full of shredded papers. One bag of girl’s clothes. I think the idea is to release ourselves from the material things we hold on to so we can embrace the full value of the things that do matter.
It reminds me of the story in the Gospels. A woman has a jar of very expensive ointment, a perfume. It is worth a year’s wages, so it’s probably the most precious and expensive thing that she owns. Scholars speculate about what the purpose of this ointment was: some say it was intended to embalm her body at burial. Others think it was for cosmetic purposes. Whatever her intent was when she purchased the ointment, she didn’t fulfill it.
Instead, she interrupted a dinner at which Jesus was a guest. She broke the delicate, alabaster jar on ointment and anointed Jesus with it. She gave up something of great value for no reason, as least as far as the onlookers were concerned.
But Jesus saw meaning in this gift. He saw value in turning over something precious to God.
Maybe this woman intended for her actions to be symbolic and anoint Jesus’ body for burial. It certainly seems fitting, and Jesus acknowledged this was true. Maybe she had multiple reasons for giving up this gift.
I wonder if this woman was caught up in what so many of us are caught up in: owning too many things, valuing too many things, trying to maintain our status through things. I wonder if this woman displayed this costly possession on a shelf in her home, so that all the visitors she entertained could see it.
I so often find myself trying to display my self worth through things. My jewelry must make a statement about me; my car’s upkeep and initial value must make a claim about my dedication to working hard and earning money; Would you like to come over to my house to watch a movie? I have a lovely entertainment center with surround sound. (Well, that last one isn’t true right now)
I think we all do it, I think we all misplace value in things. I think my friend and this woman in the text are both seeking to re-prioritize their lives, one possession at a time.
We don’t just misplace value with our possessions. Sometimes we misplace value with our lives. People who go to developing countries for volunteer work are often asked why they are going somewhere dangerous; why are you giving up years in the prime of your life to serve, when you could be making so much money?
Another seminary friend had a career as a research scientist at a university. Then she quit her job and came out here. Why?
The short answer: because God called. I can see the woman in our Gospel text sitting in her home, admiring her costly perfume and then hearing God’s gentle voice: “My beloved child, your life means much more than this. Won’t you give this up and depend on me?”
The dinner guests scoffed at her. She might have started to have second thoughts, her precious perfume spilled all over the ground and now what?! But no need to fret, because Jesus defends her. “Let her alone”, he said, “because she has done a good thing.”
This season of Lent, I invite you the do some spiritual housecleaning. Are you holding on to some material possessions too tightly? Are you using a status symbol to give you value? Remember that you are Christ’s own. You have value because you are a child of God, and no possession or lack thereof can change that.
That jar of ointment could well be considered that woman’s life insurance policy. To preserve her from life into death. Let’s remember that we are made of dust and will return to dust, taking nothing with us. Won’t you rely on God to sustain you in the meantime?