If this sermon had a title it would be called “The Extravagance of Death”. Which, right of the bat, offers us a paradox of images. Extravagance calls to mind richness, pleasure, leisure and privilege. Something experienced by only some and only some times. Death, however is an earthy experience, one that steals pleasure and thwarts plans, death is a part of the human experience and is known and felt by all people most of our lives. Yet our Scripture tonight points us towards this paradox of “The Extravagance of Death” and so we lift up both the richness and privilege and the finality and inevitable.
When I was in college I took a course called “Death and Dying”. Throughout the class we faced the event of death in a variety of ways; building coffins, writing our own funerals and touring funeral homes. It was in the basement of the musty funeral home that we perused the casket show room, we saw brilliantly shining metals and ran our fingers along fine satin. We compared the price-tags of caskets that ranged from a few hundred dollars to those that compared to a year's tuition at our private little Lutheran college. We scoffed at the extravagance of these pricier caskets. Who, in their right mind, would purchase such an expensive casket for an already dead person? All the materials and all the money would be wasted! We know-it-all college students assured ourselves we would be more sensible, we would be using the pine bookshelves-coffins we had helped to build to be buried in – no muss, no fuss, no extravagance, we would insist on something simple and functional. It was our unattached, academic brains making sure confident decisions from the safety of the college classroom.
It is something completely different to be a bereaved person standing exposed and wounded in the musty funeral home making decisions out of emotions and reading price-tags through tear-filled eyes. Of course, the people who typically peruse the casket showroom are not necessary in their right mind...they are grieving, walking the heavy road of loss and pain. Some, desperate to find ways of caring for their loved person who was once sick and now dead, some needing to purchase extravagance as a final gesture of protection, loyalty and love.
In our gospel story there is also a measure of extravagance. From one perspective it looks like extravagance of gratitude – Mary's brother, Lazarus has just been raised from the dead by Jesus. Mary had cared for her terminally ill brother and stayed by him to the very point of death, experiencing, if only for a moment, death, loss and the grave. So imagine her gratitude when in this moment of loss her brother's life is restored by their friend and teacher, Jesus. Imagine the dinner party thrown in his honor where Mary takes a year's salary and pours it out in perfume and oils and anoints her Savior's feet. The gesture is so lavishly poured out that it makes the men uncomfortable, the waste of money and fine resources, the intimacy of her hair let down to wipe the teacher's feet. If we look back and remember the experience of death and loss – we see this scene as one of gratitude and honor.
But then Jesus speaks, he forces us to hear the story from the perspective of the future – from the center of the cross. Jesus says, “Leave her alone, she bought so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Because where Jesus is is a place of preparation. Six days before the Passover Jesus is preparing for the cross of suffering and death by allowing cultural rituals like anointing to be done to his very body. Preparing disciples for a life of caring for one another in intimate and lavish ways by justifying Mary's gift and extravagance. Jesus is even preparing the church to be places of service and humility by following Mary's example and washing his disciples feet just a few days later. From where Jesus stood, and from our perspective thousands of years after the cross and resurrection– this is also a scene of anticipatory grief, a gesture of extravagant care from the grieving to the dying.
Whether Mary was pouring our her gratitude or or grief – is not ours to know. Maybe there is not such a different between gratitude and grief anyway – one is a word which honors with joy what has been done, the other is a word which honors what is gone. One word is reflecting back to the past – the other is reluctantly looking towards the future which will now be different than planned.
God is no stranger to extravagance, nor is God a stranger to death. In the reading from Isaiah we hear about this God who is doing a “new thing” in our midst – in the Red Sea there was a dry way as the Israelites fled the Egyptians, its seems a bit extravagant this act of salvation and rescue coming with the parting of mighty waters. And now Isaiah tells us that God will change it all around there will be a wet way in the desert, instead of only rescue there will also be provision, living water, springs bursting forth – abundance of water for those who are thirsty. Extravagance is a way of our God.
God is no stranger to death. God experiences the death of dreams as we, God's children, wander away from our God of love and wander back, and away again. The death of nations and people through war and violence, humanity pitted against humanity, God feels this death. The death of creation as the earth is overused and mistreated by the very ones chosen to steward the creation. The death of his only begotten Son on the cross of suffering – the death that ultimately brought us back to our God.
And we know death, too. We know the death of those we have loved, the deaths of plans or relationships, the death of hope or justice in our lives or our world. Yet, as disciples of the One who allows Mary to wipe his feet with her hair, as children of the God who provides springs of fresh waters in deserts we emerge from death knowing something else, too. In dying we know extravagance, we know the extravagance of God who is humble, God who is intimately involved in our lives, a God who so lavishly pours out grace and mercy to us that it could be called wasteful and reckless.
Many of your are here for the Compassionate Voice retreat and have shared your personal experiences of bedside vigils and deeply felt loss. You have witnessed to the frailty of life, the art of dying, the endless need for extravagant compassion. Even if you have not been present throughout the retreat you may carry stories of death and dying, experiences of support and compassion, too. I would like to share with you a scene I will carry with me when I consider the moments of death and the extravagance of God throughout.
One late night during my time as a chaplain I was called into a hospital room to be with a family as they said goodbye to their father and grandfather. The family asked for prayer but wanted to wait until everyone had returned to the room. With every passing moment another family member or two walked in, they always began in hushed tones but eventually their Italian bravado began to show and the room was became loud, booming even. I am also Italian and I began to feel strangely at home with this group of stranger that talked too loud, was overly affectionate and embarrassingly blunt in their commentary. Finally, when no more could possible fit in the room we began to pray. I encouraged everyone to take a deep, centering breath-- and the son, who's arm was draped heavily over my shoulders, looked over to his mother. She was locked in staring at her dying husband...the son took a deep breath and yelled, “Hey ma! Take a breath! Breathe!” Right there with abundant family, with tension to spare, with hugging abounding and caring so thick it could be felt in the air – there we thanked God for extravagant life in a place of death.
God's love moves us through death into new pathways, what was a dry way in the sea is now a we way in the desert. God tells us to not remember former things – the command comes not simply to erase what has been, but to move forward, to keep moving to keep searching for and insisting on healing and life. Mary experiences grief and then miraculous and unbelievable resurrection. Jesus does not stop her gratitude, rather he re-frames it to move his disciple toward the cross of death, and then continues the moving so that Mary's gesture of gratitude points to the cross which inevitably brings the resurrection dawn, the morning of life and hope for us all.
With extravagant love we are invited to give of ourselves extravagantly.
With extravagant mercy we are moved through grief, past gratitude to transformation and life.
Praise be to God who loves and saves us from death with compassion and love. Amen.