What a Waste
Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 4/7/19
Utilitarianism is the 19th-century doctrine that what’s moral is always what’s most useful. The more benefit something can be to the most significant number of people, the more it should be pursued. Every decision is based on the greatest good.
As culture and congregation have overlapped, a version of the utility argument can often be heard at the church finance meeting. The first questions asked are, “How much does this ministry cost? Does it pencil out? Will we be effective in helping lots of people.” Because of her gender in a male-only society and her likely occupation as a sex worker, Mary didn’t get invited to many meetings, especially those held in God’s name. But when Jesus received the invitation to share supper with friends, he gladly accepted.
As the plate was being passed and the toast being raised, Mary dropped to her knees, let down her hair, and anointed the feet of her friend and Savior. Despite a room full of disciples and Judas’ rebuke, Jesus sternly answers, “Leave her alone.” Even though her actions were scandalous, breaking every culture norm and bringing shame to her reputation, why does Jesus affirm Mary as the faithful one in the room?
John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
- She didn’t avoid his impending death but embraced it.
- She gave the very best she had away.
- She models costly faith.
In 2010, Haiti was nearly obliterated by a 7.0 earthquake. Once the small Caribbean nation stopped convulsing from the aftershocks, 100,000 people had perished, a quarter million homes were in ruins, and 3 million citizens were displaced. Roads were impassable, harbors unusable, schools shuttered, and morgues so overrun that mass graves were dug. Crawling out from under the wreckage, Haitians erected tents camps from the debris, makeshift shanty towns of survival. Days later, NGOs, foreign money, supplies and western journalists airdropped onto the island. One reporter, as I seem to remember, climbed over piles of concrete and under downed coconut trees, microphone in hand, trying to record the desperate need for primary medical care and sanitation. To her surprise, and even dismay, what she found was entirely unexpected. Instead of round the clock disaster relief, and a focus on the most immediate, the first businesses to open back up were nail salons. Underneath each blue tarp, a generator was humming to power a fan and a radio as neighbors sat down to cool off, bob their heads to the music and receive a manicure. In disbelief at what she was seeing, the reporter interviewed one of the salon owners. “After losing everything,” she asked, “why aren’t you busy somewhere else trying to rebuild your life? Why are you working late into the night applying nail polish to the crowds of people standing in line? Why are you doing this?” The Haitian woman didn’t understand the journalist’s frustration and simply answered, “Even amid natural disaster, we all need to feel beautiful.”
After Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish, the disciples didn’t understand that it was their responsibility to feed the crowds. After Jesus welcomed the little children, the disciples didn’t understand that the kingdom of heaven arrives wearing diapers. After Jesus said pick up your cross and follow me, the disciples didn’t understand that sacrifice is the way. And after Jesus received the blessing of being anointed, Judas, just like the journalist after, didn’t understand either.
But under the table, her hair hanging down in a puddle of perfume, Mary did. And in that intimate moment of knowing, Jesus affirms her because ministry isn’t an outcome to be measured or a dollar to be maximized but rather a reckless love to be shattered, spilled and shared. While beauty and awe, forgiveness and reconciliation, grace and mercy have no utilitarian value because they are essentially useless, they are essential Christian values.
Pouring out our very best, let us remember that Jesus doesn’t call us to be effective, only faithful. So waste your resources, waste your money, waste your ministry, waste your entire life in God’s name.