View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin

Sunday, November 1, 2015 | All Saints' Day | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.

Give. Grow. Become!
Joy and Generosity

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 24
John 12:1–8

Eternal God, in every age you have summoned
men and women to serve you and, in serving,
to reflect your truth and glory. As they enjoy the
company of heaven, inspire us by their example
to answer your summons as they did and so
come ever closer to Jesus Christ our Lord.

Book of Common Order

“Pastor. Hey, Pastor! Wait!”

I heard those words as I stood across the street just outside of Walgreens. At first I was a little confused by who was calling me and how she knew what I did. (I then remembered I was wearing my ministerial collar. Mystery solved.) But when I turned towards the voice, I immediately recognized her. She is someone who spends quite a lot of time on Michigan Avenue with her empty Starbucks cup, unobtrusively but persistently asking for spare change. I walk by her whenever I make hospital visits, so we now recognize each other.

Typically, whenever I walk by, we end up having a conversation. We had done so that very day. Earlier that afternoon we had talked about prayer and healing. She wanted to learn what I believed about those things, and I wanted to hear her perspective on them as well. But that conversation had ended, and I was in a hurry to get back to work when that voice rang out again. “Pastor. Hey, Pastor! Wait!”

I turned, and she ran up to me and thrust a bouquet of lovely flowers in my hand. They still had the plastic on them, so I knew she had just bought them. I immediately realized she must have used that money from her Starbucks cup to make the purchase. Why would she do that? I wondered. Why not buy food with that money?

But before I could say anything, she gave me instructions. “Now, take these flowers for me, put them in the church, and pray for me when you do it. OK? It’s my offering to God. Do you think God will like my offering? Do you think so?”

Her facial expression was a complicated mix of emotion that I could not quite put my finger on. But all of my judgmental internal questions fell to the wayside. “Of course,” I responded. “God delights in your offering. I will make sure they are put in the Sanctuary. You can come by later if you want to just take a break, and you will see them there.”

“And will you keep praying for me?” she asked. “That’s the other part.”

“Yes,” I responded. “I will.” And with that, she turned and went back to her usual place, Starbucks cup empty again, waiting for the kindness of others.

The tops of my ears started to burn a bit with embarrassment over my initial internal reaction, my cynical judgment about the right use of that money being for food and not flowers, never imagining her motivation was to give God an offering, to say thank you for the way God continued to sustain her life. And I immediately prayed for her, thanking God for her and asking God’s forgiveness for myself. My new friend’s act of unexpected and extravagant generosity made a holy difference for me on that street corner on that day. Her act of giving reminded me who and whose she is, as well as who and whose I am.

Judas, one of the twelve, might differ with my conclusion. My guess is that Mary’s offering did not make a holy difference in him on that day in Lazarus’s house. Whereas I kept my cynical judgment to myself, Judas spoke it out loud for all the world, including Jesus, to hear. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he asked.

Now, the Gospel writer John makes a parenthetical comment that infers Judas would have stolen the money had it been given for the poor. But perhaps that was just John’s assumption. Maybe we should give Judas the benefit of the doubt and take him at his word. Judas might have actually been concerned as to why that money, all that money, a year’s worth of wages, had been wasted on perfume and then poured completely out, all at once, an extravagant and, in Judas’ opinion, wasteful offering. From Judas’s perspective, it was as if Mary took the entire annual household food budget and used it all up on a birthday gift for Jesus. Judas could not understand it. He certainly did not seem moved by it.

And why would Mary do such a thing? As you might assume, many different opinions exist as to Mary’s motivation. According to this story in John, Jesus had just raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. Can you even imagine the emotional whiplash in that family? One moment they are crying at his tomb. The next moment he is sitting at the table for dinner. It is a stunning miracle. So indeed it might have been that Mary wanted to show her gratitude for that stunning miracle by offering the one stunning gift she had: the anointing perfume. Some scholars presume that perfume was the same perfume she had used just a few days earlier when she anointed her brother, Lazarus’s body, for burial. If that is indeed the case, then it would have been absolutely fitting for Mary to use the rest of that expensive, stunning nard on Jesus. Jesus had raised her brother from the dead. Of course she needed to say thank you to her upmost ability. How could she not?

Other preachers wonder aloud if Mary was a prophet. Perhaps in God’s infinite wisdom, they propose, God had given Mary not only a clear sense that time was running out for Jesus—something everyone else in that room knew too—but maybe God had also given Mary a vision of just who Jesus truly was: the Messiah, the anointed one, the King. Therefore, when Mary poured out that entire bottle of nard onto Jesus’ feet, she was anointing him as King, her King, their King. In that moment of offering, Mary was acting as a prophet, one who foretold the full revealing of Jesus as Emmanuel, Son of God.

Listen to how Barbara Brown Taylor preached this moment: “Like the bottle of perfume, his precious life was also not meant to be saved. It was going to be opened, offered, and used, at great price. It was going to be raised up and poured out for all humankind, emptied to the last drop until the fragrance of his sacrifice takes the world’s breath away” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p. 61). Taylor proposes Mary’s action foreshadowed God’s own action on the cross and in the tomb.

So Mary might have given Jesus this stunning gift of extravagance as a thank-you or as a prophetic witness as to what would soon be. Perhaps her motivation was a mixture of both. But what if another reason Mary poured it all out that day was simply because she knew deep down that her gift would make a holy difference to Jesus. Her gift, her generous offering, could remind him who he was and how much he was loved.

And I believe it did. You heard it in his voice when he responded to cynical, judging Judas’s reproach. “Leave her alone,” Jesus said. Leave her alone. Through her act of unexpected and extravagant generosity, Jesus recognized the power of the love Mary had for him, and as threat and death loomed all around, the reminder of that powerful love mattered to Jesus. It made a holy difference for him in the room on that day.

The power of that love had urged Mary to take risks her sister Martha might have advised against—the risk of walking into the room with the male disciples, when she should have been helping Martha prepare the meal; the risk of letting down her hair, something an honorable woman never did in the company of others; the risk of completely emptying out the most valuable thing she owned, knowing she would never have anything like it again; the risk of drying Jesus’ feet with her hair, an act that no single woman would ever do, not even with friends. And yet I think Mary did all of those things in part because she knew it would make a holy difference in Jesus, as well as in her.

That is exactly what generosity, born of gratitude, does. It makes a holy difference. It makes a holy difference in the life of the one on the receiving end of that generosity, for sure. But it also makes a difference in the life, the expansiveness of the spirit, of the one who is being generous, as well.

For the last few weeks, when I have been in this pulpit, we have been talking about the relationship between money and faith, the relationship between what we believe and how that does or does not impact what we do with what we have. This sermon is the final one of this particular series, though we will continue to talk about money since Jesus talked about it all the time.

We began by asking the question why we make an offering. We looked at giving as an act of worship and thanksgiving for who God is, as well as an act to help us remember that all of it belongs to God in the first place. In the second sermon, we considered the act of giving to be an act of resistance—a countercultural decision that directly confronts our national culture of acquisitiveness. We concluded we did not want to end up like that fool in Jesus’ parable, the fool who chose to hoard rather than to share, ending up alone and possessed by his possessions.

Today, though, with both my new friend with the cup and the disciple Mary as our examples, I want us to consider the effect our giving has on us. How does the generous giving of our resources impact our lives? What kind of holy difference does our giving make in us?

Allow me to tell you yet another story. I have already shared this particular one with some of you, but bear with me as I tell it again. It is a story I heard a couple of weeks ago from a preacher friend of mine about a member in his congregation. This particular member had a sizeable amount of resources but for whatever reason, his pledge did not reflect his capacity to give. But this man was a regular worshiper, and he had heard my pastor friend preach time and time again about the joy of giving and how giving made a holy difference in one’s life. The member became sick of hearing this spiel and decided to challenge my friend’s assertion.

“Pastor,” the man began, “you are constantly talking about the joy that comes from giving away your money. Well, I don’t feel joyful. My giving has not made a bit of difference in my life. Rather, it feels like drudgery and expectation to me. One more bill, this one due to the church rather than the athletic club.” My friend replied, “Well, Joe [not his real name], I think that means you are not giving enough.”

Joe was taken aback, a little offended, but also challenged by his pastor’s response. And so he decided to test my friend’s theory. He greatly increased his pledge that year. But in addition to writing checks, he also got involved in the work of the church. He started teaching Sunday school and volunteering in their food bank. In other words, his larger investment of his monetary resources led to a much larger investment of his time and energy, his heart, into the work of the church, the building up of the kingdom, the reign, of God. And even though he did not initially realize it, his generous giving started to make a holy difference in him.

A year or so later, he came back to my friend. “You were right about the joy,” he said. “I am having so much fun giving away my money, and giving my heart and my time.” And then Joe said, “I think I feel more joy because it is impossible to be grouchy and generous at the same time. When I was feeling grouchy about my giving, I realized it was because I was not feeling very generous about it. Now that I am acting with generosity, joy surrounds me.” True story.

Mary must have felt something akin to that joy when she acted so bravely at the dinner table, pouring out that expensive anointing perfume with a sense of generosity born of deep gratitude. At that moment, you know she must have felt surrounded by joy. That act of giving made a holy difference in Jesus’ life but probably also in her own life. I imagine it expanded her own spirit, empowering her with even deeper courage. We see that courage as she follows Jesus all the way to the cross just a few days later.

I have come to realize that feeling of joy is what I saw in my new friend’s face that day as she put those flowers in my hand. She had been moved to make an offering of thanksgiving to God for the way God continued to sustain her, even though daily life was a constant struggle and the compassion of others was hard to find. Yet she was joyful as we honored her offering and put those flowers in the Sanctuary on her behalf. I think her decision to make that generous offering, one born of gratitude, made a holy difference in her life. Perhaps it expanded her own spirit and empowered her with even deeper courage. Her generous act certainly had that kind of effect on me. I will not forget her witness, nor will I forget to pray for her.

So this week, as you continue to prayerfully consider what you will pledge, give, to this church for God’s work in this world, for the building up of God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s community of love, or as you reconsider what you have already pledged, take into account what kind of a holy difference your gift will or will not make in your life. Maybe one shortcut could be to ask if you feel grouchy when you do it, of if you feel surrounded by joy. As Henri Nouwen put it, “Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever ask or imagine—the creation of a community of love in this world. . . . Indeed, if we raise funds for the creation of a community of love, we are helping God build the kingdom.”

Your giving makes a holy difference in the life of this place, in the life of our city and world. And it can make a holy difference in your own life, as well. If you don’t believe me, learn from the man we call Joe, learn from my friend with the Starbucks cup, learn from the disciple Mary, and try it. Amen.