‘Waste not…want for everything’!
April 7, 2019
Scripture: John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Last week’s reading from the 15th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke recounted the familiar story of what we commonly refer to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As in today’s reading the story dealt with the idea of wastefulness, however it was from a very different perspective. Last week’s reading forced us to look at the incredibly wasteful lifestyle of the younger son who squandered away his share of his future inheritance. It then goes on to tell of his father who received him with open arms and great joy upon his return home…behavior which some, including the older brother, felt was itself extravagant and to a degree wasteful. And in looking at the story more closely I wondered if perhaps our own lifestyles might in any way sometimes qualify as ‘prodigal’…if the comforts and trinkets we surround ourselves with, which far too often are produced in oppressive and abusive conditions in other parts of the world should at all give us pause…and, if the knowledge of the underlying human costs of that comfort moves us as people of faith to seek to advocate for change towards more just systems of production overall and perhaps, even less consumption.
So last week we focused on ‘waste’ in the traditional sense…as in taking, having, or using more than is needed, more than is justified. We looked at waste much the way we were taught to as children…as something negative to be avoided as best we could. Sort of in the way that underlies the old saying, ‘Waste not, want not’. Which in both today’s passage from John as well as the same story’s telling in the 26th Chapter of Matthew is the prevailing position of both Judas and the other disciples of Jesus.
All of them felt that Mary’s actions in pouring out a flask of pure nard ointment upon the feet of Jesus was deeply wasteful in this traditional sense of being excessive and unnecessary, or even negative. And yet somehow Jesus had a very different take on Mary’s sacrifice of love…so much so that it was recorded as one of those interesting points throughout the gospels where particular attention or emphasis is given to what often seems otherwise minor or trivial. Jesus not only corrected the disciples and Judas by celebrating the act of Mary but said as well that her actions would forever be remembered wherever the gospel was preached. A seemingly small point…to us…but not to Jesus. Why is that do you think?
A number of years ago, sometime in the mid-eighties’ I think, I came across a book written by a Chinese theologian and first published in the mid-fifties’. The author was Nee to Sheng, a Christian living in China in the early part of the 20th Century who came to be known as ‘Watchman Nee’. The book I obtained of his was titled, ‘The Normal Christian Life’. Perhaps it was the title that attracted me, however I do not actually remember if or who recommended it, but one thing I have always felt was that there is not much if anything that is ‘normal’ about living a Christian life! But anyway, I read the book with fascination as Watchman Nee dealt with very deep questions I had long struggled with. But one discussion in particular that caught my attention and has held it ever since was a small essay towards the end in his chapter titled, ‘The Goal of the Gospel’. Within that chapter, which was full of insight, was a study of this concept of ‘waste’ based on the reading we have today from John. And ever since I first read it, I have been challenged, inspired, and reminded as needed by the Spirit, that wasting oneself on the Lord, as did Mary there in the house of Lazarus, is in fact central to our relationship with God and our responsibility as those called to bear witness to the grace and love of our Lord. But what, you may ask does that mean? How are we to live such that God might see us as ‘wasting ourselves or our lives on Him’?
Years ago, our youth choir at the time was asked to sing and share at a small little Methodist church up in Stamford NY, nestled in the middle of the Catskills. And for the occasion I wrote a song that we shared with that church titled, ‘Small Little Church’, the first line of which went, ‘We’re just a small little church in the valley, with a great big love for our Lord…’. The song was intended as a nod both to them as well as to our own congregation in Patterson. And I tell you this only because the song was meant to be a reminder that the Lord always looks at the content of our hearts and our faithfulness, and can work amazing wonders no matter the size of the church or the congregation. For in truth, there is nothing more valid or more holy about a huge gathering of souls, then there is wherever ‘two or more are gathered together’.
I told you that Watchman Nee’s treatment of this idea of ‘waste’ challenged me as well. And that is because whether it is the size of a church, or the call to which you feel led by the Lord…no matter if you are a pastor or employed in some other profession, no matter if you are a stay at home parent or a school bus driver, no matter if you are young or not, if you are retired or still in the workforce…
…whatever the Lord has asked of you…whatever the Lord has set before you as the task He feels you are best equipped to fulfil…
…that is the place where you can give your all, where you can spend everything you are in love and service. Wherever the Lord has asked you to serve him, is exactly the place where the Lord needs ‘you’…exactly the place where you can ‘waste’ yourself on the Lord.
Each of us is the sum of our life’s experience. Our ‘story’ is who we are…all of our great moments, as well as those we do not wish to think much about. But through it all, no matter what, good decisions or not, God has patiently been molding and forming us into vessels for His work. Vessels into which he can pour His love and grace that we might then be used by Him to share that same love with the world around us. Who we are, the sum total of all our experiences, is the raw material that God will use in ministering in whatever places He feels the need to send us. Our own struggles and our own victories are the marks upon us that the Lord can use to comfort or to challenge others that He places before us…if we are willing to be so used.
Which brings me back to this idea of ‘waste’. This chapter on the ‘Goal of the Gospel’ in Watchman Nee’s book resonated greatly with me as I was early in my work life at the time dealing with questions we all probably have when first starting out. I had young children and so concern about the future and being able to provide for them was a common concern and topic of discussion between my wife and I. As with most I assume, I sought how to secure the most income, the best health care, and all of the other comforts of home and heart. I had done well in school and had a good position in a local company and had not yet decided or even considered going to seminary or becoming a pastor. That decision wouldn’t come for almost twenty years. And as I had since I was a young boy, I continued to worship in the same small church.
And it would be nice to try and pin the blame for my inner frequent disquiet on someone else, but in fairness it was deep within myself that I long questioned if who I was, and what I had was being put to the most profitable use…if I couldn’t do more perhaps in another place that would make me more successful or even just better able to provide for my family. Which is probably not all that uncommon for anyone to wonder about.
My problem however is that I always believed that somewhere and somehow the Lord was in charge of my life…and that the Lord would lead me in whatever direction He felt I could best be used. I was not allowed to second guess or to suggest that perhaps the Lord might need my help in laying out the path before me, but rather always felt that I had to listen and to walk in the ways that seemed to open up before me.
In other words, the value of my life and of my life’s work was not for me to construct or to manage but rather would be determined by how much I surrendered my concerns and fears, my hopes and dreams over to this One I claimed to follow. The ‘values’ we tend to assign to someone’s life or to their contributions, the ways we evaluate and judge another’s success were not something I was supposed to focus on. But rather I was only to seek to remain in the center of the path put before me and to do all that I was able there. The size of my salary or my bank account, the size of a church congregation or the location of it, the things the world uses to measure success were not to be my concerns. I was to take whatever I was…all that I was…all that the Lord had long blessed me with…and ‘waste’ it on this One I sought to follow…wherever I was led…and whatever the cost.
I think somewhere all of us have had the thought that we could have done better or we could have done more…that the sum of our life was or is not as valuable as we might wish it was or could be. Probably all of us have regrets and maybe for good reasons. And I am also pretty sure we have all fielded questions from well-meaning friends or family who were just so sure we could have or should have done more or become more given what they think are our abilities or talents. However, in truth, anything we have ever done or sought to be for the Lord our God, has a value that is without price in his eyes. Anything, and everything that we take and place before the Lord for the Lord’s use becomes a blessing extended…as well as received.
For in the end it is all about being able to stand tall knowing we have done everything we could to serve one another in love. It is all about being able to hear our Lord one day say to us, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’. If we can find our way to giving all we have, and all we are into the hands of our Lord…if we surrender everything without condition…if we, in the eyes of the world, completely waste ourselves on the Lord and follow along behind this man who walked to Calvary…then indeed we will have ‘sought first the Kingdom of God and His justice’, and indeed as well we shall have ‘received everything we needed along the way’.
If we waste ourselves on God…we shall be filled…and the world shall be saved through our Lord’s use of our surrender. If however, we waste not…and hold back unto ourselves whatever we feel we may need…then we shall indeed want…for everything!
…come let us approach the Throne of Grace…and there waste it all…
The Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton Ill. 1985, pp. 267-