Pentecost 3: The absurd and the extravagant

When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD. (2 Samuel 11:26-27)

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19b-20)

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. (Luke 7:36-38)

When is the last time you really thought about what it means to be a Christian?

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we hear words that, for many of us, sound familiar and commonplace: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. …I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

But I want you to listen to those words again, and really hear them. We know that we are justified – that is, made whole and righteous in the sight of the Lord – through faith in Jesus Christ. We know that we are released from the burden of sin and released from the power of death, and that despite all of our sins, despite all of our mess-ups, we can yet stand in front of God, the creator of the world and the ruler of the universe, as righteous, whole, forgiven people, through none of our own efforts, but simply because we believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again.

This is no small thing. Does it not sound absurd and extravagant to you that the Son of God loved you and gave himself for you? Does it not sound absurd and extravagant to you that God gives you all of the gifts of salvation simply through faith?

We encounter two different characters in today’s readings, each who deal quite differently with the extravagant gifts of God that they have received.

First, we have David. Far now from the cute and precocious little boy who flung pebbles at giants, he is a king. A king and a grown man, rich and blessed and shown favor by the Lord. But despite all that David has been given, he still can’t resist the temptation of wanting more. Upon seeing Bathsheba bathing on her roof, David desires her. He desires her enough to inquire about her, despite the fact that he himself has plenty of wives, not to mention plenty of power and plenty of wealth. He desires her enough to send her husband into the front lines of the war, so that she might “accidentally” become a widow and therefore available to him.

And in response to the utter evil of David’s actions, God says to him: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.  Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?”

Aren’t we all, sometimes, a lot like David? We have received a bounty of God’s gifts – the families we are a part of, the roofs over our heads, the splendor of creation, the moments of peace and joy that come to us, the overwhelming forgiveness and love that God grants us – and yet the temptation is so strong to long for more. And not just to long for more, but to snub God’s gifts, seeking to gain more through our own means. We, like, David, sometimes have a hard time trusting that God will give us what we need, and we, like David, often get our needs and our wants very confused.

There is yet one small glimmer of good news for David, though.  Despite Nathan telling David that his child would die, Nathan yet declares to him that “the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” If that word of forgiveness isn’t extravagant, I don’t know what is.

This extravagant word of forgiveness brings us back to Paul’s words: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Because the most extravagant part of our forgiveness and redemption is the good news that Christ lives in us, and because of God’s grace, every corner of our life belongs to God, who sustains us by faith and who works in and through us.

The second character in today’s readings is the woman in Luke’s gospel. Jesus is eating with men of religious power and political prestige, and their meal is interrupted. A woman, breaking all boundaries of propriety, barges into the room, desperate to make her way to Jesus. I like to imagine that she has heard all the buzz about Jesus – how he’s been traveling around, healing people, taking notice of poor and powerless people in society, standing up to the authorities, and just generally being extravagant with his love and compassion. I like to imagine that she happened to see him entering Simon’s house, and her heart started beating a little bit faster. I like to imagine that she had a conversation with herself: “That’s Jesus. You’ve been dying to meet him. You should wait outside until he comes out and then try to talk to him. Or maybe…maybe you should just go inside and find him! But no…the religious leaders know who you are, they’d get angry and throw you out, and you’d get in trouble. Maybe arrested. But…but it’s Jesus! And if I don’t see him now, I might NEVER see him!”

There’s an urgency about this woman – an urgency to respond to all of the extraordinary and extravagant things she’s heard about Jesus. An urgency to find something to offer this man who could offer her her very life. An urgency to pour out love in response to the one who poured out love.

And so this woman, “a sinner, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind [Jesus] at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.”

It was an extravagant and risky gesture.

If Paul’s words really mean anything to us, if we really take to heart the absurd and extravagant good news of God’s grace shown to us in Jesus, and if we truly believe that Jesus has come to us and is living in us, then we, too, are called to extravagant and risky gestures. We are driven to love and serve our world as extravagantly as God has loved and redeemed us.

We are not called to be restrained and safe. We are not called to sit politely in our pews and to then go home, hiding our light under the proverbial bushel. But each of us has been loved so deeply and has been given such an extravagant gift of life that we should feel propelled to burst out of these church doors and love the world without restraint.

In another week, we will be sending a team of youth and adults to Reedsburg, Wisconsin, an area of the country devastated by flooding in recent years. Reedsburg may have rebuilt much in the way of buildings and homes, but it is still doing the work of rebuilding its community. The children still need an assurance of hope, the parents still need to recover joy, the community still needs to feel peace. And so a Camp Noah team from our church will drive to Wisconsin, their cars full of craft supplies, costumes, guitars, and snacks. They will lead lessons, games, crafts, skits, songs, and activities for a group of children whom they have never met. They are taking a week of their summers not to lay around at the beach on vacation, but to roll up their sleeves and respond to their own faith by reaching out to love others. They are showing God’s extravagant love to this community in their own extravagant and abundant way.

Last night and today, 500 volunteers passed through the doors of St. Timothy, teaming up to pack over 100,000 meals for hungry children in our world through Feed My Starving Children. What seemed to be an impossible task – raising over $15,000, recruiting hundreds of volunteers, and setting up our church to function, for a weekend, as a remote Feed My Starving Children Facility – turned into an extravagant expression of God’s love and abundance. Feeling called to ministry after the earthquake in Haiti, members of our congregation stepped forward, drawn by God’s overwhelming grace and love, to lead this enormous and abundant event that accomplishes something as necessary and extravagant as putting food in the mouths of hungry children across the world.

Packing all those meals, sending volunteers to areas of need in our country, working shifts at Hesed House, praying for members and friends on the prayer line, mentoring families through Bridge Communities – none of these things would ever happen if we as a church decided to play things safe, and express God’s love only in predictable, manageable ways.

My challenge to you, my friends – God’s challenge to each of us – is to continue to push the boundaries of love in our world. To live ever more deeply into the knowledge that God has shown us extravagant and unmerited love and grace. To take our cues from the woman at Jesus’ feet, whose gratitude was so intense that it poured itself out in service.

Where in your life can you be extravagant with your acts of gratitude, love, and service? Extravagant can be 100,000 meals…but it can also be one meal, shared with risky person, whether that person be a stranger in need, an enemy, a rival, a person you have hurt, or a person who has hurt you. Extravagant might be a matter of crossing state lines to serve hurting communities…but it can also be crossing the street, or crossing the aisle, or crossing the living room to reach out to someone near you who needs a word of hope and grace. Extravagant means giving of yourself out of faith, not worrying about whether you have “enough” to give, but trusting that God is leading you and providing for you.

This, my friends, is stewardship. Really, if you think about it, this whole sermon has been a stewardship sermon. And notice that I’ve said nothing about money, or pledges, or even time and talent sheets. Because for us, as redeemed people of God, our whole lives are stewardship. Our lives and our redemption are gifts – free, gracious, abundant, extravagant, unbelievable gifts from God, and with Christ dwelling in us, we are empowered to live every moment as stewards of these extravagant gifts.

So, back to my opening question, “What does it really mean to be a Christian?”

It means stewardship. It means clinging desperately to the unfathomable good news that Jesus Christ, the living, breathing manifestation of God’s abundant love and grace, has redeemed us, and how lives in us, spurring us on toward extravagant, risky, joyous works of love and good deeds. May the word of God that we hear in this place and the food that we share at Christ's table strengthen us for service, this day and always. Amen.

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