- Isaiah 43:16-21: The Lord gives water in the wilderness to the chosen people.
- John 12:1-8: Mary anoints Jesus for his burial.
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois, on March 25th, 2007
“Extravagantly dying.” I think it’s safe to say that this is probably not the most common pairing of words in our thinking and speaking. We more often speak of “extravagantly living”—regardless of whether you think that living extravagantly is a good or bad. And there are other things that we think we should do extravagantly: extravagant loving, extravagant welcome, extravagant generosity. But extravagantly dying? Is there such a thing?
Certainly the power of death seems abundant in our world. This past week marked the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, and its stench of death seems to cling to almost every word in our newspapers and minute on our newscasts—the CIA leak case and the Scooter Libby trial, the Walter Reed Hospital scandal and even the entirely-too-early build-up to the 2008 presidential campaign. And yet, even with all that, we still find ways to shy ourselves away from really dealing with it head on, banning the display of coffins of US war casualties and numbing ourselves to battle scenes on TV. Even the Register-Star’s cover on Monday that featured a rather candid testimony from my friend Nick McCord, who spent a year as an Army specialist in Iraq, seems more the exception than the norm.
Of course, it seems somehow “easy” for me, the preacher man, to stand up here and talk about government actions happening thousands of miles away. What about the forces of death at work right here? What about sitting in a parking lot crying as you’ve never cried before, when that first true love just told you they’re HIV-positive? What about the moment the doctor comes back into the exam room with that less-than-cheery look on their face? What about watching the coffin being closed for the last time?
In the midst of all these, how can I speak of extravagantly dying—or, even more, how dare I?
Of course, I do dare speak. I dare to speak because I too am just as caught in the world’s web of brokenness and death that entangles us all. But more so, I dare to speak as one who has already been given over to a different kind of death in the waters of my baptism. [pause] A different kind of death? An extravagant death. A death-destroying death. A perfume fragrance kind of death.
You see, there is a competition of sorts going on in and around this story from the gospel of John. Unfortunately we don’t get quite the full picture of it from the selection appointed by the lectionary for today. If we were to have been reading along in the story, though, in chapter 11 we hear the story of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus after being ‘in the tomb four days’. At the end of that story, someone goes and tells the religious authorities about what Jesus had done, and so the religious authorities decide that they are going to try to kill him. Then, in the few verses after this morning’s reading, we hear that the religious authorities decide that they need to kill Lazarus too.
But here, in the middle of this building plot, in the midst of the forces of ‘bad’ death, so to speak, we see something different: a moment of calm, an intimate, passionate, compassionate gathering. We hear the anticipation of ‘a new thing springing forth. Do you not perceive it?’ Do you not see the warm caress of body to body, flesh to flesh as Mary anoints Jesus? Do you not see the joyful feast, thankful friends and followers preparing food for Jesus?
And, as people who know the rest of the story, who live the rest of the story, who are the rest of the story, we can see how this story points forward to the ultimate new thing that God has done. Mary touches Jesus feet just as Jesus would touch the feet of his disciples in service to them a few days later. The feast is prepared for Jesus just as Jesus would give thanks and share the meal in an upper room a few days later. Even Judas is seen betraying himself and his own interests in these days before he betrays Jesus. And all of this is said to happen 6 days before the Passover, the day when the Passover Lamb was to be selected.
This something different—this scene of abundance and extravagance—all seems to point onward to another something different. In the midst of the cheep, tawdry forces of ‘bad’ death, we are pushed forward to the extravagant death on that Friday we call ‘good’. We see the One who is here embraced by friends ‘lifted up’ to embrace us all. We see love poured out that we might be the fresh scent of extravagant perfume for the world. We see that the attempt to kill by the forces of bad death ends up in the death that kills death itself, which pushes on to the life the raises all to life.
So, again, these two words: “extravagantly dying”. It isn’t so much that they are a prescription for self-help, that in the midst of death we can figure out some way to do it that some how will make it less ugly, less painful, less gut-wrenching. Rather, in a place such as this, can we be extravagantly dying in the waters of our baptism, that we might extravagantly rise to new life in Christ? Can we be the ones extravagantly pouring ourselves out in service to Christ, only to find ourselves being served by him? Can we be the ones joining in a meal that proclaims the extravagantly dying One, only to find ourselves greeted at the table by the Risen one? Can we be a people of such extravagance in the midst of the death within us and all around us that our whole story is crafted to point to the extravagant dying that destroys all death, the new life that raises all creation to life?
Sermon © 2007 by The Rev. Matthew C. Emery. All rights reserved.