The Sermon - Holy Extravagance
This should come as no surprise to you: I’m Scottish. Well, the thing is, I’m not Scottish through and through. I’m always being asked where my name comes from. You would think people would be able to put 2 and 2 together. The Name ‘Cutler’ comes from Yorkshire in England. My father’s ancestors were steel workers in and around Sheffield. They were ‘Master Cutlers’ – makers of swords and surgical instruments.
I often tell folks that the family business was stolen by a family called Wilkinson (ha, ha). Even my grandmother on my father’s side, her family were Irish. My mother’s family, however, were Scots through and through and their surname was Shaw.
Scotland is a country of many famous people and even many famous people have come to make a home for themselves in Scotland. I’m sure you remember the Paul McCartney’s song of several years back? I’m told that he still has a home on the Mull of Kintyre.
So I understand that it was my grandfather who came to Scotland from England. Scots are sometimes accused of being fiscally conservative – nothing to do with politics – ‘tight’ is another name for it. However, if Scots are accused of being ‘tight’, they’re not a patch on those who come from Yorkshire. I have some Yorkshire blood and a few friends who originate from Yorkshire and so I know, I have first-hand experience.
However, I don’t believe that I’m ‘tight’ no matter what my late wife used to say. I prefer to think of myself as frugal. My philosophy is, “Moderation in all things.” I figure if a little will do, and a little less won’t hurt anymore. I’m not one to splurge.
Plus, I’m not very demonstrative. I tend to hold back in many areas of life, not only in spending money, but I think deeply about making commitments, I can be quite emotional, and forward perhaps in expressing love and devotion. Annis, my late wife, used to say that I was a hopeless romantic. And a young lady of 7 years old described me as a ‘cool cookie’.
OK, I’m a bit reserved – ‘Shy’ is the scots word for it. You’ll not often, see me gyrating across a stage or even a dance floor. Annis and her cousin Morag had to teach me to dance to be able to dance at my wedding. Up till then, I was happy to tap my foot indiscreetly.
All this is to say, when it comes to the gospel lesson for today – the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus, I find myself uncomfortably sitting in the same camp as Judas: A whole pound of costly nard? Get real. That was worth a whole year’s wages! Why not use just a drop and put the rest to good use, like buying blankets for the homeless or feeding hungry children? Surely, Jesus would understand.
And then, and then wiping his feet with her hair? Come on, now. In those days, women didn’t appear in the company of men with their hair down. They kept it tightly wound in a bun and covered. Yet, Mary held nothing back. She let down her hair and poured the ointment and her tears over his feet. Judas had every reason to protest. Yet, Jesus sided with Mary. He said:
“Leave her alone. She has kept this for the day of my burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me.”
Of course, hindsight is a great thing. We who live in post-resurrection days know where this is going. We know this is no ordinary visit for Jesus and Mary and Martha, it’s a farewell dinner. Jesus has come to say goodbye.
They’ll never have a chance to be together like this again. It’s their last supper. In just a few days, he’ll be arrested, tried and sentenced to die on a cross. And so, this is no time for restraint. It’s a time for ‘Holy Extravagance’.
We all know what that’s like. I well remember my daughter’s first wedding. As father of the bride I suppose, I would, for I’d to pay for everything. We’d to put down a deposit on the hotel and make some reservations at other hotels where the guests were staying. God only knows what it all cost before it was over. Annis made sure that I never knew.
But, then, that was beside the point really. Having your son or daughter get married is, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, a time to celebrate and pull out all the stops, a time for ‘Holy Extravagance’. That marriage, however, only lasted a year, and there was the thought of having to do it all again.
I suppose there are other occasions that call for extravagance – occasions that aren’t as joyous and upbeat, but they’re every bit as real.
For example, you’re rocking along going to work, taking your son and his pals to the football or going fishing or taking your daughter to piano lessons, attending committee meetings, working out now and then. Anyway, you’ve finally struck a healthy balance between work and play, your career and your family. You’re into a comfortable routine. Then, all of a sudden, your husband or wife or child gets a little indigestion or finds a lump, goes to the doctor, the doctor feels around, has some tests run and comes to the conclusion that he or she has cancer. Without warning, your tidy little world is turned upside down.
“But, wait,” you say, “This is not a good time for this. My diary is full of activities and appointments. I’ve got places to go to and people to see.” No matter. You need to make arrangements.
You wipe the diary clean and prepare for the long ordeal of surgery and recovery, and after that, chemotherapy. It’ll be weeks – no, make that months – before you can even begin to think about getting your life back together again.
But then, that’s the least of your worries. All that matters for the moment is the health and well-being of your loved one. And so, you hold nothing back. You throw caution to the wind. You do what needs to be done. Again it’s a time for ‘Holy Extravagance’, or as the Oncologist told us ‘Retail Therapy’.
Then there’s the experience of falling in love. Can you remember back when? Oh, you’d known people before – people you found attractive, but nothing came of it. You’d been on numerous dates, but, somehow, the relationships never went anywhere.
You may have even had a steady boyfriend or girlfriend, but, for one reason or another, the relationship fizzled out – it never really worked. As my sister used to say: “You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.”
Then, something new and exciting happened. You met someone unique and different from all the rest. There was a certain chemistry to your relationship – “sparks,” as my sister said as well. You were smitten. All of a sudden, the world around you burst out into surround sound and living Technicolor. You heard bells ringing and birds singing and children laughing. You wanted to dance like a child and do something rash, like buying her a gift or preparing for him a lavish gourmet dinner. You spent hours talking on the telephone. You stayed up late at night and didn’t worry about getting enough sleep. Know what I mean?
I’ll never forget Tom and Katy’s story – a couple of friends who I eventually married. The story’s about the night he proposed.
They were both studying at the same university and, of course, they were about as over-extended as anyone could be. She was studying geology and he was into environmental engineering. They were both busy with their degrees but still, they managed to find time for each other and then came the big day.
He secretly made arrangements with this fancy restaurant, not only for a particular table, but for permission to play the piano that sat in a corner. He’d written or he’d stolen a special song just for the occasion.
They got to the restaurant on time, and, wouldn’t you know it, Katy wanted to sit in another area. The head waiter, however, feigned some excuse and seated them at a small table in front of the piano. As she was seated, she found a card addressed to her with a little note from Tom. “How sweet,” she said. The wine was served, and they toasted each other; and then, without a word, Tom walked over to the piano, sat down and began to play and sing.
The other guests looked up, and the room became quiet. The spotlight was on Katy. As he sang his love song, she laughed and cried and pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. She couldn’t believe he was doing this. When the song was over, he came back to the table, and, in front of everyone, got down on one knee and asked her the burning question: “Catriona,” because that’s her Sunday name, “Catriona will you marry me?” Now, that, I think you’ll agree, that’s ‘Holy Extravagance’! Yes, and she did say ‘Yes’
All this is to say, in spite of the objections of Judas, Mary was quite right. Jesus was no ordinary guest. This was no everyday occasion. It was a sacred moment, and it called for an extraordinary show of devotion.
Of course, Mary wasn’t the only one who understood this spirit of ‘Holy Extravagance’. A week later as the Gospel has it – on Good Friday – Joseph of Arimathea went to Pontius Pilate and asked for permission to bury the body of Jesus.
Pilate agreed, and so, Joseph and Nicodemus – both members of the Jewish council and both secret followers of Jesus – took the body of Jesus from the cross and carried it to a nearby tomb. There they lovingly wrapped it in a linen shroud along with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe. Willie Barclay writes:
“It was the Jewish custom to wrap the bodies of the dead in linen clothes and to put sweet spices between the folds of the linen. Nicodemus brought enough spices for the burial of a king.”
This spirit of ‘Holy Extravagance’ comes right out of the teaching of Jesus himself. He said:
“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.
Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”
Over and over again, we see this pattern: When individuals experience the reality of God’s unconditional acceptance and love, their lives are transformed, and their hearts are opened. They’ll go to any length to express their gratitude for God’s amazing grace.
Remember the story of Zacchaeus, the little man who climbed up in the Sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus when he walked by? Zacchaeus was a hard-hearted tax collector who cheated the people of their taxes and took all he could for himself. The people despised him, and rightly so. But when Jesus came to the tree where Zacchaeus was perched, he looked up into the tree and said:
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”
As St. Luke tells the story, Jesus ate with Zacchaeus, and after dinner, Zacchaeus announced:
“‘Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. If I have wrongfully exacted anything from anyone, I restore four times as much.’
Jesus said to him: ‘Today, salvation has come to this house!”
When the Spirit of God really takes hold of your life and you experience the wonder and joy of God’s peace and know in your heart the gift of salvation and the promise of eternal life. Well when that happens it’s not enough simply to nod and say, “Hmm, that’s nice. So, what else is new?” You want to do something; you want to tell somebody, you want to share the Good News of God’s love with others. In the words of a song,
“I’ll shout it from the mountaintop,
I want my world to know,
The Lord of love has come to me,
I want to pass it on.”
I once read this story about a family called Crim. Of course, they lived in America and it was at the time of the Great Depression, and things were hard. Countless men were out of work and had no way to support their families.
The Crims owned the general store where everybody shopped, and, out of necessity, they began extending credit, which proved to be a mixed blessing – the folks could still buy their groceries, but, in so doing, they went deeper and deeper into debt.
One day the Crims got word that oil had been discovered on their property. Just like that, the Crims were wealthy beyond their wildest imagination. Being good Presbyterians, they wondered what they could possibly do to thank God for this great blessing. They’d always been faithful and generous in their support of the church, but this was really big.
So, the family came together, and they made a decision. They sent word to all their customers asking them to come to the store at eight o’clock on Saturday morning for an important meeting. The customers, not knowing what the meeting was about, and knowing full well how much they owed the Crims, braced themselves for the worst. Were the Crims going to seize their property?
By eight o’clock on that Saturday morning, practically the whole town was milling around in front of the Crim General Store. Malcolm Crim, the oldest brother, came out and stood on the front porch. A hush fell over the crowd.
In his hand, he held the box containing the cards of all the customers detailing their debts. It didn’t look good. He spoke clearly and to the point: ‘Oil has been discovered on our land.’ he said. ‘which means that prosperity has come to this town. As of this day, all debts are cancelled.’ Well, you can just imagine the celebrations.
Well, this is what the sermon is about today: Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead that you might have the gift of life in all its fullness, both now and for all eternity. When you think about it, this is even better than striking it rich.
However, there’s a question you need to ask yourself. The question is, what are YOU going to do about it? How are YOU going to show your appreciation? Will you make a token response, or, are you willing, like Mary, to pour out a whole pound of costly nard – a whole year’s wages? I believe Isaac Watts said it best:
“When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Today, catch that spirit of holy extravagance, and from now on, let it be characteristic of your devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
HYMN No. 505 ‘All that I am, all that I do…’
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Thank you Jim for this service and those of the last six months.
Thanks also to those who have helped to send out this online service. Youtube links much appreciated.