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March 25, 2007 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)—“What A Gift!”

Pastor Yukio Hamada

Isaiah 43:16–21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b–14; John 12:1–8

(Webmaster’s Note: Pastor Hamada, chaplain at Punahou School, is also an ELCA pastor.)

Grace and Peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

First of all, I want to thank Pastor Jensen for inviting me to preach this morning. I’ve always regarded the Lutheran Church of Honolulu to be a special place because of your great history. And, now, it’s sort of exciting to think about how you, as a congregation, are about to open a new chapter with the advent of your new pastor. And, what better time is there than during the Easter season—a time of rebirth and renewal. I think all the churches in the Hukilau Conference rejoice with you.

I don’t know why but, when I read today’s gospel text about Mary’s gift of precious perfume, it made me think about a story in the “Chicken Soup” series in which a mother was concerned about her son, who was a “special needs” student mainstreamed into the school. As Valentine’s Day approached, he asked his mother to help him make Valentines for every student in his class. She was a little cautious because she knew he would probably be disappointed because he probably wouldn’t receive very many cards, if any, from his classmates. But, because he was so excited and determined, she agreed to help him. On the big day he went to school with a big shopping bag full of cards. He seemed so excited and she was afraid that he would be disappointed when he didn’t get cards in return. Imagine her surprise when she picked him up to see him run up to her, face beaming and all excited. She looked in the shopping bag and saw only a couple of cards and she was confused. Why was he so happy? Bubbling with excitement and joy, all he could say was. “Mom, Mom, I remembered to give everyone in my class a Valentine. I didn’t forget a single one!”

Like I said, I don’t know what this had to do with the text but maybe it was the unselfishness of the child’s cards, about his disregard for himself, and the love he had for his classmates that made me correlate this story with what Mary did at Bethany that day. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to realize that John sees what happened in this supper as a prelude to what is about to happen in the next week. Since all this happened six days before the Passover, we realize that on the next day Jesus would enter Jerusalem mounted on a colt and be greeted with Hosannas and shouts of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But, in less than a week, he would be arrested, tried, and crucified.

That’s why what Mary did that evening at Bethany is prophetic and provocative. Jesus must have known that, being here in the same house as Lazarus, would not be received well by the authorities. We know from other scriptures that the authorities were looking at ways of arresting both Jesus and Lazarus because they were perceived as a threat. But, here they were feasting and celebrating. Then, Mary does the unthinkable. She kneels at Jesus’ feet and pours this expensive perfume on his feet, then wipes his feet with her hair. When our Bible notes tell us that the perfume was worth about 300 denarii, it probably doesn’t mean anything to us but, when we say that would be about a year’s wages, we might take notice. But, when we try to figure out what a year’s wages is in today’s dollars, it makes us wonder why she would make such a sacrifice. If we calculate that at a minimum wage of $7.50 an hour for a 40-hour week for 50 weeks, that alone would be worth $15,000. So, Mary was doing the unthinkable.

No wonder Judas Iscariot was outraged. We can do all the psychologizing about Judas’ real intent, and John leaves us little doubt what he thought about Judas, but the reality is that most of us would be appalled with such extravagance. Like Judas, we question how church monies are allocated and devise rationales that ask the same kind of question that Judas raised, “We could have given that money to the poor,” when the reality is that we really don’t care about the poor. It’s the same kind of reaction that people have raised about former Vice-President Al Gore’s movie on the environment and the expenses for the electricity in his home. Judas’ reaction diverts our attention from what was really happening at that table. Jesus helps us to refocus. This is a remarkable gift of faith. There was not regard for cost or reward; this was a gift of pure love. It was like the gift of the little boy; he wasn’t looking for Valentines for himself; he wanted to make sure that he remembered everyone. Mary’s gift was selfless and Jesus saw the deeper meaning of what was happening when he replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” And Jesus discerned that Judas really didn’t care about the poor because, as the treasurer of the disciples, he could have directed the group’s finances to the poor all along but made Judas examine himself and his commitment when he said, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

It’s so easy to get caught up in the comparison game and, if we can compare ourselves to Judas, well, none of us has betrayed Jesus with a kiss so how can we not look good in comparison. But, in our lesson from Philippians, Paul makes it clear that it isn’t about comparisons. When Paul asserts that he is a “super” Jew, a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” he’s not stating that as a matter of pride. He is trying to tell us that Christians don’t measure themselves in that way. He makes that clear when he says, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” The amazing thing to me is that, as intimately as he knew Jesus Christ in his life, Paul hadn’t arrived. He continued to seek and to discover his Lord in every new challenge and new encounter and Paul knew that, as long as he dwelled in this earthen vessel, he needed to seek to make Christ more and more a part of who he is.

There are some who would regard the search for this kind of intimate relationship with Christ as futile. But, the amazing thing is that, when you examine the lives of those saints who chose to take that path, the result is one of sheer joy and happiness. I think we Americans see this kind of spiritualism as some type of drudgery because we equate this with the monastic life of Eastern mysticism. Paul doesn’t see it that way. He understood what Jesus meant when he prayed in the High Priestly Prayer in John 17 that we would be in the world but not of the world.

Today’s Psalm captures the feeling that being in relationship with Jesus Christ brings. The Psalmist uses the Babylonian captivity as the image, but it describes the believer who has renewed his/her relationship with Jesus. Note the joy and excitement the psalmist expresses at discovering that God does indeed act in our lives: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” When was the last time you felt that happy?

But, isn’t that what God wants for us? Doesn’t God want us to be happy? Of course, God does. But, for some reason, God doesn’t do things quite like we’d like God to do. For example, he tells us that Mary is a lot happier because she gave away a fortune in perfume to honor Jesus than Judas who wants to do what is religiously correct.

So, what does God want from the Lutheran Church of Honolulu? What is the ministry challenge for you in this neighborhood? It seems like God is speaking to you in today’s lesson from Isaiah. While it’s important to look at the past, Isaiah is telling Israel that it’s time to move on. He recounts what God had done in the Exodus and how the Egyptians were thwarted and perished in the waters of the Red Sea. But, God is saying through Isaiah, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing new things! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, to my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”

I can’t imagine a more perfect challenge for you and your new pastor. Without question, LCH has had an effective ministry in the past but, in the challenges facing Honolulu and Hawaii in the years to come, LCH is being called on to do new and greater things. What a scary and exciting time this can be!

But, it’s only scary if you think it’s about comparing what the ministry of the Lutheran Church of Honolulu will look like to this neighborhood or to other churches. It’s not about public image; it’s about faithful service to God. If you begin to measure yourself in public opinion, then you’ll fall into the “Judas” trap but, if you look at Mary and follow her example and give your most precious gifts to honor Jesus Christ, then you will find a joy and peace that will pass all human understanding. But, as important and powerful as all our gifts might be, this final Sunday in Lent makes us realize that the greatest gift was given on that cross, just seven days after Mary gave her precious gift. And, like that little boy, despite the agony and suffering, Jesus could joyfully proclaim, “It is finished. Into your hands I commend my Spirit.!” because on that cross, Jesus did not forget a single one of us.


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