"Giving The Perfect Gift????"

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 21, 2010

Isaiah 42:16-21; John 12:1-8

    The story that we have in our Gospel lesson today is clouded with numerous bits of contrasting information when we compare John’s version of the incident with other references in the Gospels. Very few stories make such a rare appearance in all four books.  This story is an example of how a lesson can be consistently taught while the details are vastly different.  

     For example, in Matthew, the setting was the house of Simon, the Leper.  The disciples were the ones who displayed anger over the use of the expensive oil used by a woman to anoint Jesus’ head. (Matt. 26:6f)  In Mark, the location was the same but in this version the people were the ones enraged when a woman anointed Jesus’ head with priceless oil.  (Mark 14:3f) 

     There is a similar story in Luke but the details are significantly different.  This episode took place at the home of Simon, the Pharisee.  The woman was a prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with a combination of oil and tears.  She dried his feet with her hair.  Seeing this the Pharisee thought, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him and would know what kind of sinful life she lives.” (Luke 7:36f) 

     In John, the drama occurred at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  The woman who was massaging Jesus’ feet with the expensive oil was Mary.  The person who was angered by the wasteful use of this oil was Judas.  John focused on Judas because this disciple was known to be a thief.  Which version of this story appears to be more accurate? 

     As we have mentioned before, John’s Gospel is filled with accounts that seem to be remembered by an eye witness.  John wrote, “The sweet smell of the oil filled the entire house.”  No author would write with such a detail unless he had been there to experience it.  John is also the Gospel writer that described the exact number of 153 fish that were caught when Jesus instructed his disciples to throw their nets back into the water on the right side of the boat. 

     The core meaning of this story, however, was not compromised even though there were four distinct versions of it.  The story was preserved by Jesus’ followers because a woman chose to give the perfect gift to someone she had come to love and respect.  Regardless of what others thought about this act of extreme generosity, it did not matter.  What made this gift perfect was Mary’s desire to give the Master a gift without counting the cost.  

     Why did massaging Jesus’ feet with pure nard evoke anger?  Nard comes from the root of the Spikenard plant, a rare species of the herb Valerian grown in the Himalayan Mountains of China.  A pint could easily cost 300 silver coins.  To put this gift in perspective, one silver coin was the average wage for a rural worker during Jesus’ day.  In the face of such social poverty, this expression of love would have been viewed as extremely excessive.  It would symbolize a senseless squandering of resources.

     This background may be too much information for all of us to absorb, particularly if we believe that this story has little relevance to our lives.  This morning I want you to consider what happens within us when we give an extremely generous gift to someone or when we receive something that is of great value.   Many givers find it very difficult to receive graciously.   

     One Christmas, a young boy had a one-track mind.  He wanted a particular product that cost over a hundred dollars.  He did not care if no other gifts were under the Christmas tree with his name on it.  He wanted this one gift more than anything else in the world.  He communicated his desire in very pleading tones to his parents day after day as Christmas was approaching. The parents eventually gave in to their son’s wishes.   

     On Christmas morning the microscope he so desperately wanted was sitting under the tree.  He was absolutely thrilled with it and it became his prized possession.  None of his friends had anything like it. This scientific instrument was generally purchased for older boys and girls.

     One day his mother found that his prized possession had been moved from its familiar place.  When she asked Michael about it, he was evasive and said he had grown tired of it.  She said, “Honey, it has only been three weeks since Christmas.  Where is it?”  He could not lie and his eyes began to tear up.  She said, “What’s the matter, Michael.”  He told his mother what happened.           

     His best friend did not have a Christmas because his friend’s father had lost his job and they were using their money very sparingly just to keep their house. When Michael learned this about his friend’s family, Michael gave him the expensive microscope so his friend would have a Christmas gift. 

     His mother was silent after hearing the story and she called me.  She told me what Michael had done and that her husband was away on business. She said, “This thing wasn’t cheap, Dick.  What would possess him to give away the gift that he had wanted the most?  When Jeff hears of this, he will be furious.”             

     I cautioned her that she and her husband had to be very careful how they handled this issue because the empathetic, compassionate and generous spirit of their son was something to be affirmed and supported in spite of the cost.  As it was, his mother’s silence had made the young man feel that he had used poor judgment.   

     Fortunately, when the lad’s Dad returned, he received the news extremely well because he had done something very similar when he was a boy.  The young boy just beamed when his parents praised him for his generosity.  His Dad said, “It gave us as much pleasure to give the microscope to you as you felt when you gave it to your friend.”  He told Michael that when he was young, he had given his bicycle to his friend so he could ride it to a summer job.  Michael learned that giving was far superior to owning something that few others his age could afford.             

     There is something very profound that happens to our spirits when we give without counting the cost.  When we suddenly become overly concerned and preoccupied with our lives, the quickest remedy to the cobwebs shrouding our spirits is to do something for someone else.  We need to be reminded of this when we have a bad hair day or our lives are conflicted.  Sometimes when we are so absorbed with self, we forget we have this ability to reverse the process simply by taking the healing medicine known as generosity.           

     I was visiting a couple recently and the hostess told me a story about the shamrock cookies she wanted me to sample.  A long-time friend had been on the telephone with her earlier in the week discussing a tale of woe of how badly she felt and how horrible she looked.  Perhaps the woman did not stop to think that the person with whom she was speaking had some physical problems of her own.  Something within the caller triggered a complete reversal of her thoughts.  Even though she lived in Northern Virginia, she baked the shamrock cookies and drove to Bowie to give them to her friend as a gift.  One of the prescriptions constantly written for patients by our spiritual physician, Jesus, was to give and not count the cost.  Mary loved Jesus intensely and she did just that.             

     One of the theologies of Easter week is that Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice.  Suppose that was not the case at all.  Suppose such an interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion is our judgment. Suppose his response was one of loving those who were opposed to him so much even though he knew they were incapable of understanding his message.  Suppose Jesus was just being Jesus. Only the one giving knows the true motivation behind any gift.   

     Let us now consider what Jesus experienced.  In a review of the Gospels, readings will find that Jesus rarely received anything from anyone.  Now he was the receiver of an extremely expensive gift, one that was worth the equivalent of ten months of a worker’s salary.  How many of us know how to receive graciously?    

     During my more youthful days, I had always wanted to become part of an archaeological dig in the Middle East.  I knew that it was a dream that would remain one of many that would go unfulfilled.  However, in 1968, Dr. Dewey Beegle, my Old Testament professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, asked if I would like to go to Amman, Jordan and dig with a team from Andrew’s University.   

     When I asked about the cost, the amount was staggering for the two month period I would need to be away.  I told Dr. Beegle that I would have to think about it.  I wrote letters to all the wealthy people that I knew, hoping that some of them would help to defray the cost.  Not one of them responded.

     One day a businessman in our church at Cheverly gave me an envelope.  Dick Redinger was the owner of the Easy Method Driving School.  Inside was a note with a check that would more than cover the cost of the trip not only for me but also for Lois. The experience turned out to be more than we could have ever imagined.  The trip began with a lengthy tour of England, Scotland, Rome, Athens, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and concluded with a seven week dig with world-class archaeologists.  The trip represented the fulfillment of a dream and it became one of those experiences of a life-time.  

     I want to digress for a moment to tell you of an experience that became part of the lore of the trip. While on the dig, we had to go to bed extremely early, get up long before dawn, eat breakfast and drive to the site, a little village called Heshbon – a city that was mentioned 38 times in the Old Testament.  Around 10:00 a.m., we ate a second breakfast and then ended the day’s work about 1:30 p.m. because of the oppressive heat. 

     Behind our dormitory style building was an outdoor basketball court.  A group of guys was out there every night playing basketball until dark.  Our windows had to stay open because of the warm weather so sleeping was near impossible because of the noise they created.  

     We got so fed up with them that we challenged them to a basketball game.  If we won, they promised that they would no longer practice out there. Our team fielded several tall guys, some who had played college basketball, and all of us played our hearts out.  They smoked us!  The score was something like 89 to16.  We later learned to our chagrin that we were playing Jordan’s National Champions, the very team Jordan was sending to the Summer Olympics that were being held later that year in Mexico City.  This is the end of my digression!!!

     There are some instances where saying “Thank you” is not the most satisfying thing for us to say. How do we ever show appreciation for someone’s massive generosity?  It appears impossible. 

     John and Judy Darvish, owners of Darcars, gave my parents a new car every six months every year until three years before my Dad left us at the age of 93.  Every six months without fail, my Dad would write John and Judy and try to express his appreciation in a new way.  One day he said to me, “Mom and I have run out of superlatives.  I don’t know what to say to John and Judy anymore.”  I told Dad a simple “Thank you” would be enough.  It was very challenging for Dad to receive because he and Mom had been givers their entire lives..

     All of us like to receive.  Mary loved Jesus and was particularly grateful on this occasion because he had brought healing to Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha.  No doubt, Jesus had confided to her that he sensed the end of his own life in the near future was a distinct possibility.  When she was putting this expensive oil on his feet, she probably knew she might never see him again.  There is no record that she ever did. When Judas complained about the excessiveness of her gift, Jesus received her gift graciously by telling him to leave her alone.

     Mary was able to give to the Master a gift without counting the cost and Jesus allowed himself to receive it with gratitude.  During this Lenten season, are we polishing the skill of routinely giving without counting the cost? 


     We are conscious, O God, that we live in an over-stimulated world.  Our senses are bathed in words and images from radios, televisions, computers and publications.  So many aspects of life are persuasive in molding our values and opinions.  We often comply willingly without listening to the still, small voice of your guidance.  We easily march to the drumbeat that everyone hears, neglecting the better map and the superior script for living that Jesus brought.  As we seek many of the rewards within our world, help us to remember what is timeless, changeless and of more infinite value.   Lead us, O God, so that our destiny will be shaped more by our relationship with you than by our neediness for more material comforts and security.  Amen.


     Merciful God -- may Sunday not be the only time this week when we remember that we are in Lent.  As we consider placing our lives under the microscope of our own scrutiny, may we pause to consider our occasional pettiness, our expressions of frustration born from a world that will never be the way we want it, our moments when we must have our wills prevail in some project, or when our surgically precise words of judgment have chased the smile from the face of someone we love.  We thank you, God, for creating us with the ability to change how we think by reframing our attitudes and by replacing our fears with the far more powerful skill of trust that you have given us the ability to adapt creatively in spite of how our lives unfold.

     Help us to remember that faith means believing in and trusting in you, while we live in a world that we cannot understand or interpret with our five senses.  All we can do accurately is bloom where we are planted.  How powerful the guidance is when it comes from a still small voice that beckons us toward kindness, compassion and giving without counting the cost.

     As we experience our moments of worship together, we pray for those who are sitting beside us.  We pray for our national leaders who are today considering National Health Care reform, for our troops stationed around the world and for each of us who have found the will and ability to expressing our faith in every setting in which we find ourselves. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ who taught us to say when we pray . . .