Extravagant Gratitude

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 15 came from John 12:1-8 and focused on the day that Jesus re-visited the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus after he had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Think for a moment about a person you would say is a friend. A close friend. Think about the things you’ve shared, the things that person has meant to you over the weeks, months, and years. Do you have a picture in your mind of someone you’d call a good friend?

Think about how things are always just so easy with this person – there’s never, ever been a time when things were tense between you, or one of you made a mistake; things have always been simply perfect…

Yes, that’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? A friendship where there’s never any misunderstanding, never any cause to regret something you might have said or done…

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Jesus and Mary were close friends. We know that because John chapter 11 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. We see it when later in that same chapter, Jesus becomes aware of Lazarus’ death, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Mary that he breaks down and weeps himself. You know how that is, don’t you? You have a sense of being able to hold it together in a crisis, and then you see a beloved face, and you dissolve in a puddle of emotion.

Jesus loved Mary, and Mary loved Jesus.

But that’s not to say that things were always smooth. In fact, the last conversation that we overhear between these two sounds bitter and almost accusatory: after Lazarus dies, Mary hides from Jesus, and then finally faces him, exclaiming, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” She is sad, she is angry, and she says the first thing that comes to mind.

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Of course, we are not always at our best when we say the first thing that comes to mind, are we? You know how it is to be a part of a conversation that did not end gracefully: you said something to your boss or a coworker; a teacher heard you mouth off; you spoke in anger to one whom you love. Oh, you got out of the room, all right, but now you’ve got to face that one again, and you’re not sure how it’s going to go.

That was Mary’s situation. In John 11, her brother dies, and she does everything but blame it on Jesus. Then he raises her brother from the dead and leaves town. Not long afterward, he comes through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, and Mary’s going to come face to face with her friend.

This Lent, we’re talking about people who turn back to Jesus – those who encountered him, and then left for some reason, and then have come back into the relationship.

Sometimes, when people meet the Lord, we expect to see some sort of fundamental re-orientation of their lives. Think about Zacchaeus, for instance, or the Roman Centurion or Philip. Each of these men, and dozens more, could walk out of that encounter and say, “You know, I really missed the boat. I mean, I was so wrong. I was so off base. I will change my ways and get my life together.”

That’s not the case for Mary, though. There’s no evidence that Mary was a bad person, or had nasty habits, or was in any way reprobate. She’d had a bad day – her brother died! – and she took it out on Jesus…and now she has to face him.

The reading we had from John shows us how each member of this family re-turns to Jesus following the events of chapter 11. Martha, Lazarus, and Mary each have their own style of reconnecting.

Martha, the practical one, seeks to express her care for Jesus. “Relax, Lord. Being the Rabbi is tough work. Let me worry about dinner. You know, Jesus, you work too hard. Rest.” Martha is smoothing things over by making sure that all the details are well-attended.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Lazarus, the man who was, presumably, supremely glad to see Jesus a week or so ago, is content to simply sit at table with Jesus and soak it all in. He is enjoying the chance for fellowship, teaching, and conversation.

Both Martha’s and Lazarus’ approaches are valid expressions of a heart-felt joy in relationship, but I’d like to focus in on Mary’s response to the renewed presence of Jesus in her home.

She is, above all else, profoundly grateful. This is a woman who is clearly overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for all that Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead and thereby saving Martha and her from a life of poverty and difficulty. In looking for a way to express this gratitude, she goes to his feet and lets down her hair and focuses totally on Jesus – for Mary, there is simply no one else in the room.

Mary not only has feelings of thankfulness – she expresses those feelings with concrete actions. And hers is an act that has significant implications for her – we read that Judas was chafed because the ointment that she spread on Jesus’ feet was worth more than 300 denarii. A single denarius was the usual wage for one day, and so she is, in essence, committing an entire year’s salary to this celebration of gratitude. There is no indication that this is somehow “extra” ointment that she had laying around, or left-over from some other event. She took her best and, in an act of devotion, she poured it out on Jesus.

She was doing this, she thought, as a way to re-engage the Lord and to show him how glad she was that he was still willing to come into her home and life. She was not aware, however, that her act had an even greater implication until Jesus pointed out that this was preparing him for his own death.

And note with me, please, that when Mary does act on her feelings of thanksgiving, she acts in a way that, while incomprehensible to others, is totally authentic to her own life. Mary is not seeking to show up anyone, she’s not trying to get Jesus to like her better – she has no ulterior motives here – just spontaneous, extravagant gratitude.

Stained glass window, Meyer's Studios, Munich 1899

Stained glass window, Meyer’s Studios, Munich 1899

A third thing that I notice about Mary’s action is that her behavior – her choices, her outpouring of gratitude make the whole house a better place to be. The ointment that she uses is called “nard”, and it is an essential oil made from the roots of a plant called spikenard. This oil is intensely aromatic and fragrant, and was used in making perfume, incense, or medicine. While Mary is totally focused on making her own act of gratitude and devotion to Jesus, John points out that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary’s act of devotion and thanksgiving was a blessing to the people who were around her.

As we sit back and consider this encounter of one woman’s “re-turn” to Jesus, what are the implications for our lives?

I wonder…when is the last time you slowed down enough just to be grateful to God for who and where you are right now? I know, I know, you are not totally satisfied with your life. There are still some changes you need to make and some goals on your horizon. But seriously, some of you need to be asking yourselves, “How am I still alive right now? Why in the world am I here? How did I pass that class? Who am I that I get to do this, that, or the other thing?

I get it – your life isn’t perfect. But most of us slept last night in some degree of comfort. Most of us have access to food, and we are gathered in the warmth of this fellowship. Aren’t these good things? Do they matter to you? Can you be grateful for something in your life right now?

And if you can (as I hope you are), then how will you respond to that sense of gratitude in your life? How will you act upon the feelings you’ve got? Maybe that’s why you’re here. I get that – some of us came to church this morning just to say “thanks”. And some of us see this act of Mary bringing the nard to Jesus and say, “Yes, of course – I am giving of what I have as a means to demonstrate my joy in Jesus.”

To be honest, that is the only reason for giving that is really comprehensible to me. I know that God can’t love me any more. I know that there’s no way in blue blazes that I am going to be able to do enough to solve one of the world’s problems with what I give…but I am so deeply appreciative of what the Lord has done for me that I don’t really feel as though I have a choice here – I can only respond in generosity as I consider the extravagant blessings in my own life.

So maybe you have a posture of gratitude, and maybe you want to join me in expressing that gratitude in an act of giving. Does our response make the world a better place? Just as the whole house was filled with the aroma of Mary’s nard, are my neighbors better off because I’m grateful to God? Is the way that I treat them or the others around me reflective of the deep sense of gratitude that I owe to our creator? Does your gratitude to Christ spill over so that others are aware or encouraged or enriched?

Another way of asking that same question, I suppose, is this: does the way in which I experience and express my gratitude lead others to become more aware of God’s care in and for their lives, which will lead them, in turn, to a place where they can embrace the savior with gratitude and respond in a way that is authentic to them?

Listen, my friends: Jesus is here, now. He has come to this place, even after I have not always treated him in the way that he deserves to be treated. Today, you and I have the opportunity for a fresh engagement with the Lord of life, a new opportunity for hope and healing.

In view of that, can we resolve to move forward in a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude? And can we decide that our thanksgiving will have practical implications for us and the rest of the world? Can our lives today be anchored in a thanksgiving that is not limited to mere sentiment, but one that blossoms into action that grows into love expressed for the world?

This is a new day, a new season, and new opportunities. Thanks be to God for the chance to respond with joy and gratitude. Amen.

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