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April 7, 2019

“Count on God: The Lowest Common Denominator”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Isaiah 43.16-21

John 12.1-8

April 7, 2019

I recently stumbled upon a Disney short film that made me laugh, cry, and really think, all in the span of about eight minutes. The film is called Feast and goes through not only an entire gamut of emotions, but also the entire lifespan of a human and his dog. The film begins with a young boy, James, finding a dog, Winston, outside of a fast food restaurant. Winston is scavenging for French fries, and James adopts him and begins feeding him dog food. Over time, as James and Winston grow, we see the various cuisines James shares with his adorable dog: ice cream, eggs, bacon, nachos, spaghetti, peanut butter, and more. James and Winston grow closer to one another through their feasts.

One day, when James is an adult, he meets Kirby, a chef, who puts James and Winston on a diet. Immediately, James and Winston’s relationship is torn apart. His schedule is different, his food is different, and there is a third person in the relationship. Eventually, they come back together, but I won’t give away how.

As I watched this, I laughed, I cried, and I saw scripture throughout it. James gave Winston this extravagant gift. Why would you feed a dog ice cream? This sacred food is too important to dip into a dog dish! Yet, the food was relationship building. We build relationships around food, as well. We gather to chat and listen at meals. Each month we have communion, remembering Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, and uniting as Christians around the world. Jesus does the same connecting through his meals with sinners and tax collectors and the disciples. Justo Gonzalez says: “Jesus eats his way through Luke’s Gospel.”[1] Meals were important to community, and still are in our time.

This is the setting for our Gospel reading – a meal. Jesus is with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. The meal takes place after Lazarus had died and was resurrected by Jesus. Judas, and perhaps other disciples, are present at the meal, but are not referenced at the beginning as the author sets the scene.

The Gospel passage is found in the other three Gospels, as well, yet each has a different perspective and emphasis. We know through context that the author of John wanted to point toward Jesus’ identity as a king, and that he will soon be buried as such.[2] Mary seems to have some insight into his death, as he has been talking about it for a while. She can probably see some of the writing on the wall, as he has been challenging the political and religious systems of the time. He was not going to survive much longer. So, Mary takes some oil – probably enough to have cost an entire year’s salary – and just pours it all over Jesus’ feet. She doesn’t take out a measuring cup and only pour a half a cup. She doesn’t calculate this, but gives all the oil, dumping it all out.[3] It seems wasteful, at first.

Judas speaks out against her actions, wondering why so much money was spent on some oil that was merely poured over Jesus’ feet. What about the poor? What about the hungry? My initial reaction to this passage has always been similar to Judas. Why not the poor? Why not the homeless? Can’t we spend it on something more “useful’? Judas is painted here as a troublemaker. This Gospel author states that he was a thief, which explains his motivation for speaking up. Yet, this is the only Gospel in which Judas is called a thief.[4] It is possible this statement was more of a justification for criticizing Judas. Looking back over the passage, it is easy to “side” with Jesus, but we all have moments when we question the use of money.

Imagine a large gift you have seen recently. Colleges, institutions, non-profits, churches – all of these receive large gifts at some point. I have always heard that a donor should give generously and generally, because often the specific gifts can limit an organization. When a gift is given to a general fund, the organization can decide where the money is best used. It shows trust in the institution or governing power.

We can probably think of ways we have seen churches, institutions, colleges, organizations, or the government waste money. Maybe we like to talk about how we think money should be used, because when it isn’t our money, we have the answers. Perhaps part of this depends on our motives and our principles. What we hold dear may not be the same as what someone else finds important. What does the gift benefit? People? Relationships? Does it glorify God? When we can narrow down to the lowest common denominator - the basic needs of relationships and food and shelter – we might be able to understand someone’s reasoning behind giving.

I read a story about a man who went to a stewardship conference and watched, worriedly, as the presenter took out a $100 bill and then burned it in front of everyone, stating he was offering it to God. The crowd became nervous, wondering why someone would do that, if he had more, and if maybe it was fake.[5] The person was making the point of how once we have given something to God, it belongs to God, and it doesn’t have meaning for us anymore. The gift is temporary. We shouldn’t waste gifts to God, but we can see how some gifts to God do not last forever, but seem to dissipate into the atmosphere, such as an anthem, seasonal flowers given in worship, and food.

Think back to the short film, Feast. Many would say that giving a dog spaghetti and ice cream is wasteful, but to Winston and James, it was almost essential, building a bond between them. Our gifts help to build relationships and bring people together, and bring us closer to God.

The meaning of the Gospel is not to say we are like Judas or Mary. In fact, we should see that, in many ways, we vacillate between being both.[6] Last week we learned about how, sometimes, we are the missing coin, but sometimes we are the woman looking for the coin. Sometimes we are lost, and sometimes we are searching for the lost. Lent is a wonderful time to consider being both, and how we can grow closer to God.

God gave abundantly. We were witness to this fact last week as we heard about the man and his son who had run away, but came back. The man was generous to both sons, even if one was unable to see and understand. God is generous to us, as well. I am reminded of Proverbs 15.15: “All the days of the poor are hard, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast.” We cannot ignore the poor. We cannot disregard the poor. Yet, we can find joy in a continual feast – a continual connection and continual relationships. Another translation states “goodness of heart is a continuous feast.” We are called to share what we have with others and to be generous. When we share that feast, others find a cheerful heart. We join together our cheerful hearts every time we gather together as a people, as we witness to the love of God in worship. We remember God’s saving acts through Jesus Christ.

God tells God’s people to “remember” often in the Bible. Yet, in the Isaiah passage, we hear that the Israelites need to “forget” the old. Why would God encourage this? There is a difference between remembering and grasping so tightly one cannot move forward, and remembering, but holding loosely, so as to make space for something new.[7] God is doing something new. In this part of Isaiah, the people have been in exile. They have held tightly to what they know, to the past, because it has been their connection and comfort in difficult times. When they have been in a strange land with different customs, their memories have helped them through. God is telling them that God has not forgotten them or forsaken them, but that perhaps something new is happening.

What are you holding on to? What can you let go? Do you perceive it? Can you understand? Can you imagine this new thing God is doing in our lives? God is always working, always creating – sometimes we just have difficulty seeing it. We cling to the past because it is most comfortable. Many remember when this church was filled with the college choir and college students. Many stick with churches that are traditional and have pews facing forward and are comfortable, because that is what we understand. Yet, what if we took some of that away? What if there were no pews, but chairs instead? What if we had worship outside these walls? Would our faith be different? If we could boil down our faith to the lowest common denominator – to that one or two things we hold dearest – we might see that it is actually the greatest common denominator – our love and relationships with God and with one another.

Lent is a time to imagine. We clear out all of the distractions that take us away from God, and make space for possibilities. Let us make space so that we may feast together in God’s realm. Amen.

 

[1] Justo Gonzalez, “April 7, Fifth Sunday in Lent” Christian Century, Volume 136, No. 6, March 13, 2019, p. 19.

[2] Rene Kieffer, “John,” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 983.

[3] Gonzalez, 19.

[4] Kieffer, 983.

[5] William G. Carter, “John 12.1-8” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 142.

[6] George W. Stroup, “John 12.1-8” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 144.

[7] Michael E. Williams, “Isaiah 43.16-21” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),126.