The Challenge of Extravagant Gifts and Being a Blessing
Have you ever received an extravagant gift? Have you ever given one? Gifts can come in a variety of forms, but a truly extravagant gift can invoke a variety of reactions. Sometimes that kind of gift brings out skepticism about the intentions of the giver. Sometimes, it can cause controversy or arguing. Think about stories of people who win the lottery, all of the people that come out of the woodwork in that person's life, and how many times the life of a winner becomes ruined rather than blessed by the gift.
When specifically thinking about money, we have to admit it has power over us. If someone gives a large gift to our parish, such as a large will bequest to Incarnation Holy Sacrament Episcopal Church, immediately there are pragmatic questions about its use. I've seen churches split over deciding what to do with a large endowment and how the many should be used. If you really stop and think about it, has it ceased to be a "gift" and what do we think it means that it is a gift? Whose use is it for?
Biblical scholar William G. Carter tells a compelling story about an ecumenical stewardship conference. At the conference, a particular speaker was giving a rather mundane talk about giving directly to God. While talking, he pulled out a $100 bill from his wallet, and said he was going to make an offering directly to God. He pulled a lighter out with his other hand, and lit the $100 bill on fire.
As Carter describes, the mood in the room immediately becomes electric as the pastors react out loud with words and gasps, fidget in their chairs, and get visibly uncomfortable. Some mutter about waste, while others suggest maybe the speaker has a few more to spare. But the speaker then says to the room "Do you not understand? I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us."
Often vestries (the group that makes financial decisions on behalf of our congregation) take a utilitarian approach to giving and finances. Members of a congregation - not necessarily IHS but any - make take a similar pragmatic approach to giving, seeking to have some measure of control over their gift. Some people wish to earmark their giving for a specific purpose. Some wish to limit their gift, saying it can be used for these things, but not this other specific thing. Donors may give because they want to see a plaque go up in memory of a loved one, or for the notoriety of the gift.
In the context of all of this, Mary's act in John 12:1-8 is a complete waste. She takes extremely expensive perfume and she anoints Jesus with it, wiping his feet with her hair. Jesus receives the gift with gratitude. He says it is appropriate, since he is going to die. But certainly he had no say in how that extravagant amount of money would be spent on him.
Judas offers a much more pragmatic suggestion. Judas gets angry that the money wasn't rather spent on the poor who are in need. The text actually goes out of its way to say Judas wasn't actually concerned with the poor because he would steal from the coin purse. But regardless of that, I can imagine a vestry discussing how a significant amount of money ought to be spent, and being scandalized at the idea of spending it on expensive perfume to make a one-time, temporary anointing that would *poof* and be gone forever.
Gifts come in many forms, and some of the most significant gifts or blessings are temporary by their very nature. William Carter, in his essay on John 12, goes on to describe all of the gifts given in churches that instantly evaporate. The choir labors over an anthem to sing one time only. A preacher prepares a sermon, delivers it, and it is finished. Huge flower arrangements are given for funerals, only to decay and be discarded soon after. We buy an expensive paschal candle only to slowly burn it away from Easter to Pentecost.
If you really think about it, so many non-profits out there make a much more judicious and expedient use of financial resources with far less overhead than a church. So why do people still give to their church? Is it even practical?
I think that basically the entire framework above ought to be discarded completely from our way of thinking about money, gifts, and giving in the church. Instead, concepts of blessing and generosity are far more consistent with Jesus, his teaching, his ministry, and the Gospel. This Lent we've been reviewing The Way of Love, spiritual practices for following Jesus that we teach in our church for how to be a Christian. The next step in the Way of Love is in fact "Blessing."
Continuing to use Carter's essay, he writes about Jesus' ministry:
Throughout the Fourth Gospel, Jesus provides a blessed abundance. At Cana, 180 gallons of new wine are created, even more than a wedding crowd could consume. Five thousand hungry people are fed by the Sea of Galilee, with twelve baskets of leftovers remaining. After fishing all night without results, Simon Peter is instructed by the risen Christ to cast his net on the other side of the boat. Immediately 153 large fish begin jumping into the net. As John states, Jesus is the one through whom everything was made. There is abundance wherever he is present.
Does the same abundance exist in our ministry today, as inheritors of Jesus' ministry, as those that follow him, his way, his teaching? Do we scoff at the miracles of abundance above? Do we have faith that God provides, not just for what it is needed, but so much more?
The real power here, is that we have already received the most extravagant gift imaginable: God's own Son. John's Gospel relates everything back to that gift. The true abundance is Jesus himself, the gift of the Divine Life, the Logos, given to Creation. God's self joined with humanity, joined with Creation. Resurrected life of the New Creation is given to us now, in the water of baptism, in the feast of the Eucharist, and in the sacramental life we live when we follow his Way of Love. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" is how John's Gospel puts it. If we live with that at the center of our lives, what would that look like?
Blessing means much more than financial giving, and I want to make that clear. This spiritual practice, Blessing, that we're looking at this week in way of love is about an orientation to receive the gifts given to us, not to hoard them for ourselves, or simply for austerity, but in order that we might be a blessing to others. We ought to live our lives oriented to blessing the world around us.
Now at IHS we do this in a variety of ways. We do it when we fill up a couple cars with backpacks for Stonehurst Hills Elementary School students. We do it when we adopt a family for Christmas gifts. We do it when we make lunch bags for the Resource Center. We do it when we hold an Alex's Lemonade Stand every year. Through these we try to bless others, and we get blessed in doing the blessing. The entire orientation should be toward a mindset of abundance and blessing, at the heart of which is the gift of God's Son that we are trying to share with the world.
So what would our parish ministry really look like if it weren't oriented toward blessing the neighborhoods around us? What would your life look like if you practiced this spiritual practice of blessing on a daily basis? What would change? Try not to imagine only the ways in which you already bless others, but the ways you could. Imagine the ways God might be calling you to shed your old way of thinking about what is useful, practical, and cost effective.
I invite our congregation to consider how we might behave differently and handle our resources differently if our mindset is one of abundance and blessing rather than scarcity and practicality? What if we stopped believing our resources were slim because we knew that the only resource that matters is the love of God and the richness of his kingdom?
Jesus gave the most important gift, not because he needed to, but because he chose to give himself to us. He laid down his life for us. Will we lay down ours to be a blessing to others?