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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Where Is God When You're Trying to be Practical?


John 12:1-8 "Where Is God When You're Trying to Be Practical?"

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

Sunday, March 25, 2007

All this month, I've been doing a sermon series called, "Where Is God?" We've talked about where God is - or could be - during times of worry, tragedy and really, really good times, too. My goal has been to help us think about where God is in a different collection of times, in preparation for seeing where God is all the time. The Scripture Picking People – the invisible “They” who pick scriptures for the Lectionary – picked today's scripture specifically for the Fifth and last Sunday of Lent. We've let this path through the Bible lead us through Lent to right here. Today's scripture is kind of like the final point of windup before the Bible lets go and flings us into Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, where Easter is the target destination of all we've been doing. And if you're into sports, you know what that final point of windup or backswing, or “mark, set” but not quite “go” is like. It's a point of perfect tension between what has been and what's about to happen. It's that split second where you're not holding your breath, but you're not quite letting it go.

OK, I know. Only preachers get this excited about the Fifth Sunday of Lent. But you've got to realize, my entire year is the windup to Easter – or at least it should be if I'm paying attention to what's going on through the scriptures of the rest of the year. That really hit me this year for the first time (duh) and that's probably because I'm a little slow. It's also because this time of the year I'm thinking about so many other things, like planning services, mulching the yard, Spring Break, poisoning dandelions, the Egg Hunt – and like so many other preachers I'm just living for the Monday after Easter - I'm thinking about so many other things that the heart-poundingly exciting tension of the spiritual windup of Lent is just another thing to mark off the To-Do list. And I'm guessing most of you are the same way, too. Springtime, Eastertime, has so many practical concerns to tend to that the spiritual stuff gets shoved to the side. I don't know this for sure, but I think that's why the Scripture Picking People picked this scripture for this day. Because in this passage the world of practical matters and the world of spiritual matters smash together in this one, breath-holding moment right before God's big release. Where is God, when you're trying to be practical? Where is God when you're trying to be a good, bill-paying, practical person? Is God right there with you, dotting the i's and crossing the t's? Or is God getting all spiritual and messing everything up? Where is God when you're trying to be practical?

OK. Just so you know you've come to the right place, yes the sign out front says, “Presbyterian.” It's from the Greek word meaning, “Accountant.” Not really. If you're a really artistic, emotional accountant, I apologize for the stereotype. But accountants are known for doing things by general accounting principles, and Presbyterians are known for doing things (how?) “decently and in order.” (Incidentally, the accountant who does our taxes has this joke. “Why did the accountant cross the road? Because he did it last year.” He tells me that same joke every year. I don't think he remembers, or maybe he does and he's just being ironic. But I always laugh really hard, because he could have me sent to jail.) Presbyterians are, generally speaking, pretty practical people. We're annually predictable. We're not prone to emotional outbursts, at least not in public, and especially not in worship. And I'm fine with that. If you started standing up and shouting, “Amen!” - if the choir started dancing and clapping in unison during their anthems, I'd run and hide under my desk. I'd think you were possessed or something. That's just not our style. A few of us may be a little colorful, but for the most part, we're decent, orderly, practical people.

In today's scripture, who's the practical person? Or at least, who's trying to appear to be a practical person? Is it Mary? No. Is it Martha? No. Is it even Jesus? No. The practical person – or at least the one who's trying to appear practical – is Judas. Judas Iscariot. Judas, the one who a week from Thursday is going to betray his Lord and Master with, of all things, an emotional sign, a kiss. Judas is the practical person in today's scripture. And that ought to give us practical people pause.

Back up with me and let's set the scene for what's going on. Jesus is making his final preparations in the home of his beloved friends, Mary, her sister Martha, and their brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. (Bing, bing, bing! That right there ought to be a big clue as to where God is headed. In all the houses in all the world of all his friends, Jesus walks into this one. The one owned by his friend he raised from the dead and his sisters.) But they don't know all that. An old friend passes through town, and just like we might do, they throw a dinner in his honor. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were pretty well-off, so this isn't just soup and sandwiches; this is a banquet. (Another Bing, bing, bing!)

When scripture talks about heaven, so often it talks about food - glorious food. Heaven is where God prepares a heavenly table, an everlasting feast. Heaven is like Food Network, but you can taste everything, forever. There are a lot of theological reasons for the food language in scripture, but I also think the reason could be really... practical. When you sit down for a banquet, all five senses are humming. You see the food, you smell the aroma, you touch the food (until your mother smacks your hand), you hear the plates and silverware, “Clink,” and – of course – you taste. You've got all five senses working overtime, so essentially, you're about as humanly alive as you're going to get. I'll bet, at the dinner in today's scripture, the smell alone would have made you think you were in heaven. You stood near Martha's kitchen and breathed in this magnificent Middle-Eastern meal with all its flavors and spices. And then, as if that weren't sensory overload enough, you walk into the living room and get hit in the face with the scent of Mary's precious perfume worth almost a year's wages – nearly a gallon of this stuff – opened and poured all over Jesus' feet. Breathe. Just breathe. The oxygen itself was flush - with life.

Extravagant” is a good word to describe how the house must have felt. If you look up “extravagant” in the thesaurus, you know what words you find? Excessive. Undue. Immoderate. Overdone. Unreasonable. Wasteful. Extravagance doesn't have much positive meaning. If I asked you for an example of extravagant living, would you think of Jesus? No, you'd think of somebody like, Paris Hilton. When I think of Christian living, Paris Hilton is not who comes to mind. When I think of faithful living, I think of people who live moderate lives, who don't overspend on creature comforts. People with savings accounts and cars that, if not fuel-efficient, are functional. I think of people who - as the Presbyterian Book of Order says – aren't "ostentatious or showy." (That's actually how the Book of Order says Sunday worship should be, but the implication is that's how we should live every day.) However you define "good, clean Christian living," I doubt you would first-off think, “extravagant.”

The scene in today's lesson is extravagant. Mary's pouring out of perfume is extravagant. Even what Jesus says to Judas about how, “You'll always have the poor with you,” is extravagant, over-the-top. All the modesty and humility that we usually think goes with being Christian flies out the window, here in the last Sunday of Lent. What does this mean to us? And where is God when we're trying to be good, practical followers of God?

This is a hard lesson for anyone who's trying to be a good, practical follower of God. Even the Apostle John had a hard time with it, which is why we have the parenthetical statement about Judas only wanting the money so he could steal it from the treasury. But that aside, Mary still does what she does, Jesus still says what he says. The whole scene overflows with extravagance.

I know – I know - that for the sake of the church, for the sake of the community, for the sake of our families, even for the sake of our own health, we ought to live lives of moderation. If you don't have checks and balances, if you don't have restraint, you end up with places like Iraq. But think about scripture. Jesus is not a moderate person. Think of how Jesus says we should live. Think of things like, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor,” “Love your enemies,” “Leave the ninety and nine to go find the one lost sheep” -- if you just open your Bible to the New Testament and put your finger on anything Jesus is saying, I will guarantee you that nine times out of ten it's really, really immoderate. Try it when you get home today. Nine times out of ten, what Jesus is saying is flat out impractical, sometimes downright outrageous. And yet we try to domesticate him into this Jesus that tithes ten percent of his income, rarely gets mad, doesn't get overly emotional, lives cautiously – a Jesus who is... sensible. If that's all we think of Jesus, then we're being like Judas. We're letting our own attempts to appear practical betray who Jesus really is. We're letting our own self-interested ideas of what's sensible twist Jesus into our image of who he ought to be. Even if we don't want Jesus to look like us or talk like us, we want him to be a little less-intelligent than us so, like Judas, we can pull the wool over his eyes and get him to sponsor our personal, practical interests.

But for the sake of God's outrageous plan, Jesus doesn't buy it. He doesn't buy Judas' argument, and he doesn't buy ours. Jesus is the Son of a very impractical God and in two weeks that God's going to do something so unbelievable there is no reasonable response. The only response to the overflowing, overwhelming love of Easter is to fall down at Jesus' feet and pour ourselves out before him. The only response to this extravagant love of God is to breathe in the oxygen that God has filled with the aroma of life. The only practical response is to see what impractical things God's love through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ might compel us to do for the people who love us – and for the ones who don't. Here, at the moment just before release - release from sin, release from death - God is calling you to take a deep breath... get ready, get set, and then go! Go do something completely out of character, something completely Jesus-like. Instead of Judas-like. You may think, “No, I'm not that kind of wild and crazy person. I'm Presbyterian, for goodness' sake.” Well, you're right. You're not that kind of person. But Jesus is. And if you will let him, he and the Holy Spirit will infect your spirit like a virus that causes you to behave with some very weird, very loving, very soulful symptoms. Go ahead. Let go. In the days between now and next Sunday, be a little crazy for Jesus. Love... like crazy.1 Because two Sundays from now, the most impractical love in all of history is going to raise Jesus from the grave. That blessed perfume of life is anointing your ministries right now. Breathe in. Take that life to your heart. And then let it out. For everyone.

1Thanks again to Chris Rice.