Monday, March 18, 2013

Extravagant Living or Extravagant Giving?

The gospel reading for Sunday a week ago was the story of the prodigal son. Luke 15:13 says of the son who took his inheritance while his father was still living: Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

This past Sunday’s gospel was the story of Mary pouring perfume on the feet of Jesus in John 12:1-8. She gives a gift that costs “a year’s wages” and pours it out on the feet of Jesus, wiping his feet dry with her hair. The perfume was an extravagant gift, given out of her love for Jesus. Watchman Nee, in The Normal Christian Life, says that Mary “wastes” herself for Jesus. Judas does not understand such wastefulness. Do we understand it any better than Judas?

In one case, a young man takes his resources and spends it on himself, living an extravagant life—traveling, partying, seeking his own pleasure and comfort. On the other hand, Mary takes her resources and spends it on Jesus. And not even on something that will last, like a house or even a robe. She spends it on something that, once poured out, cannot be recovered. In one fell swoop, Mary does an extravagant thing. Instead of extravagant living, Mary shows us extravagant giving.

Both the prodigal son and Mary are wasteful, but their motives and the objects of their wastefulness are completely different. The prodigal wants what is “rightfully his” for himself. He indulges his desires, wasting what his father gave him to make himself comfortable. Mary wastes what is hers on Jesus, life and love poured out in that perfume, an unrecoverable gift for the one she loves more than herself. In that act, she binds her life to Jesus. Her desire is to pour herself out for him, a sacrifice that sets up his own sacrifice a few days later.

I cannot look at these two stories without considering my own life. Do I waste my resources on myself, on treasure that doesn’t last, or do I waste my resources on Christ? When I consider that all I have comes from God, why should I not want to pour out all I have on the feet of Jesus? I want to give extravagantly, rather than live extravagantly. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Inconvenience of Lent

Near our house is a church with a lighted marquee sign. It announces their sermon series and activities. I usually read it as I’m walking in the mornings.

Lately, the sign has been announcing Easter weekend activities. Nothing too surprising about that. What did catch my eye is that the church is having an Easter service on Saturday evening. In the midst of the Easter Vigil, there will be a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, one day early. I wonder what it says about our inability to wait, and our worship of convenience.

This Lent has been especially difficult for me. More than I can remember, I’ve kept count of the days. I’ve found it hard not to grumble about what I’ve given up. I am too easily relating to the Israelites who complained all through their forty-year journey in the wilderness. I am having trouble with forty days. I can’t imagine how I’d do with forty years.

But as much as I want to celebrate on Easter, as much as I look forward to the joyous worship of the risen Christ, I know that the waiting of Lent is good for me, and I don’t want to shorten that by even a day. I know that the pain of the Easter Triduum is what makes Easter Sunday such a celebration. I need to have that time to ponder the betrayal, crucifixion and death of Jesus. I need to spend that Saturday reflecting on what the disciples must have felt as they thought that hope was buried when Jesus was put in the tomb.

Lent reminds me that life isn’t all about being secure, safe and comfortable. It is about laying aside what is convenient for me and taking practices that help me to be more compassionate. Our culture worships the gods of convenience and comfort. To step back and deliberately live differently for the forty days of Lent helps me to recognize how much I’ve bought into those gods. Otherwise, I deceive myself and think that I am not a slave to them.

In the book I am studying this Lent, A Place at the Table, author Chris Seay says, “We have allowed our love of freedom to become an excuse to live a life marked by self-absorbed consumerism.” We think it’s our right for life to be about convenience and comfort, that somehow we “deserve” it. In this season of Lent, difficult as it has been for me, I am reminded that I don’t have it hard at all. What I have given up has been my choice. For others, they have no choice.

Gracious and loving God, turn my eyes toward you. May I see you in the eyes of others. May I not run from the discomfort of Lent but live into it. Break my self-absorbed spirit and fill me with compassion for others. May I reject the false gods of convenience and comfort and instead choose to walk in the way of the cross, living for God’s Kingdom. Amen. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Bare Minimum

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those twelve people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’” Luke 13:1-9

As people told Jesus about those murdered by Pilate, I wonder if they expected to hear that their death was tied to some sin on their part. Jesus’ response about the people killed by a tower leads me to believe that might have been their motive. Instead Jesus tells them that there is no difference in the ones who died and the ones who are listening to Jesus teach. He takes the spotlight off these victims and places it on those standing before him.

We are likely to ponder such matters as well. We want to know how God is going to treat others or we try to link disaster and other tragedies to sinfulness, instead of reacting with love and compassion or looking inward at our own lives. We want to be thought of as “good people” and may use our lack of exposure to difficulty as a sign that we are favored over others.

But Jesus demonstrates that being “good” is not the same as bearing fruit. He tells them (and us) to change our hearts and lives, and goes on to demonstrate what he means with a parable, where our “goodness” is likened to a fruitless fig tree that does nothing but soak up the Word and produces nothing from it. It takes the nutrients but does nothing with them. Am I guilty of going through the motions of being a “good Christian” while at the same time judging and criticizing and living unmindfully of others and of God?

But then Jesus, the gardener, comes and offers us another chance. Yet it is a chance with conditions. Jesus takes the law and prophets and applies them to us, in terms we cannot squirm out from under. It’s not enough to follow the law. We are to love others as ourselves. The prophetic word was not only for those to whom it was originally addressed. It is for us as well. We are told that it is blessed to be poor, to love our enemies, to give without reserve, to forgive without keeping score. We bear fruit not by doing the minimum required. All that does is produce the tree. We bear fruit by self-sacrifice, generosity, compassion and love. When we are focused on the bare minimum, we don’t bear fruit. It is by going beyond the minimum, by not even considering the minimum as a “good” standard, that we bear fruit.