Each year in Sweeny Texas the community hosts a UM ARMY type event called Sweeny United. The event opens with a Sunday evening worship service. Below is my sermon from that service last night.
Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me” (John 12:1-8, Common English Bible).
We Americans are a wasteful bunch of people. I was reading this past week and according to motherjones.com Americans throw away 106,000 aluminum cans every 30 seconds, we distribute 1 million plastic cups on U.S. airline flights every six hours,
go through 2 million plastic beverage bottles every five minutes,
discard 426,000 cell phones every day, use 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags each hour, use 60,000 plastic bags every five seconds, use 15 million sheets of office paper every five minutes and produce 170,000 Energizer batteries every 15 minutes.
“Would you like me to go on? I can. Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet every three months — and aluminum represents less than one percent of our solid waste stream. We toss 14 percent of the food we buy at the store. More than 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on each square mile of ocean.”
Can I get three volunteers to come up here? I have here in one hand, one of the hymnals we Methodists use. In the other hand a $10 gift card. Both of these cost roughly the same amount of money. But here is my question. Which one is more valuable? By show of hands, who thinks the hymnal is more valuable. OK, who thinks the gift card is more valuable? WOW. That is interesting. OK, let me ask the three of you, “Why?”
I am going to ask you to take a seat for a few minutes. I will come back to you a little later during the message.
There are those in the world around us that would make a claim that either, or both, is a waste of money. Think about it, all we really do with the hymnal is sing a bunch of songs. In this church we pull out this particular hymnal once every couple of months. Is it really worth spending money to buy a bunch of new hymnals?
On the other hand, we could take the gift card and help the poor with it. Depending on what we bought we might even be able to feed a family one night with the money on the gift card. But there are those who would say, “Trying to help the poor is a waste of money. They don’t appreciate it and they will probably just go and buy cigarettes or beer with it. They will still be poor after the money on the card is long gone.”
For many of us it is a matter of priorities versus waste. Ever since I was much younger than each of you, people have been arguing the merits of space travel against the cost of the same. The cost of the Apollo program was huge. One Saturn V rocket cost taxpayers $220 million dollars in 1969. That is 1.5 billion dollars today. The computers used by NASA to land on the moon cost 3.5 million in 1969. That is almost $24 million today. Further, those computers only held 4K of usable memory. And, you thought your cell phone was expensive. Your cell phone cost probably between $100 and $800 if you paid cash for it. It has about 14 gigabytes of usable memory and processes at 32,000 times the speed of those old IBM computers. Those IBM computers were each the size of a car and you can carry your cell phone in your pocket.
Here are a couple of the lines of thought that are well used in the debate.
“I believe that it is a total waste of time! The government should be worrying more about the earth’s environment instead of spending millions of dollars on space exploration just to see if there were PAST living creatures! Sure, the universe is something cool to educate children with, but we don’t NEED to know about it!”
“Environmental concern is more of a waste then space. Space unites the people of the planet regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. When a man stepped on the moon, it was just that, a HUMAN.. not an American, not a male, not a female… a Human. Space will unite us, and make us look beyond our petty differences.”
What may seem wasteful to one of us may well be a treasure to someone else. I feel pretty certain that you have probably heard someone from my generation talk about how much time you guys waste talking or texting on your cell phones. Make no mistake, the world is different today than it was when we were growing up. When I was a kid I can’t remember my parents ever calling someone out of town. Today we call people all over the country and never think anything about it. Back in those days it cost extra on your phone bill to make a long distance call. Long distance calls today may not be gone but they are definitely an endangered species.
I have been heard to say, “Elementary and junior high kids don’t need cell phones.” In recent days I am re-thinking that position, particularly for junior high kids. All the communicating you do on a cell phone may seem a waste of time and money to me, but you use them to connect with one another. You use them to build community. And, because you are connecting and building relationships, what you are doing today may be the basis for what you do in the future and the future for any of us should never be seen as a waste.
“So, what is all this talk of waste about? After all, this is the beginning of Sweeny United. Are you going to tell us not to waste the building materials?” Well, while I do hope you will keep the waste of the building materials to a minimum, that really isn’t the point here at all.
Our lesson tonight takes place in the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. This is after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. In the lesson there was a celebration dinner of sorts, a party, most likely to celebrate Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. As things were moving with the party, Mary comes out and breaks open a jar of perfume made of costly nard. It came from a plant and it was very expensive. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with the perfume and then dried them with her hair.
Judas didn’t like this at all. John accuses him in these verses of being a thief and he probably was. But, I do find it interesting that Jesus never makes that accusation. Anyway, Judas is appalled. John thinks it is so Judas could steal the money but that isn’t what Judas said. “Why wasn’t this taken and sold and use the money for the poor?” Taking Judas’ at face value, his question does not at all seem unreasonable. He sees the use of the perfume on Jesus’ feet to be a waste. It might be a nice gesture but something this valuable? The text says it could be sold for 300 denari. That is almost a full year’s wage for most people of the day. Judas is right in that 300 denari could help a lot of poor people. It looks like a waste.
Jesus says, in essence, what she is doing for me is a good thing. There will always be opportunities to serve the poor. There aren’t many left where you can serve me.
In that little experiment we did earlier I asked which was more valuable the hymnal or the gift card. Now, for you three, which do you think Mary would have chosen the gift card or the hymnal? What about Judas?
To be honest, I would have said the gift card. I think there is a need for hymnals but if I only had the $10, I would have picked the gift card because it could serve the poor. But, the more I worked on tonight’s message the more I thought that isn’t the case. I always have the poor I can serve. How many opportunities do I have to serve Jesus?
This week is my first Sweeny United. I don’t know exactly how these things go. But, I am familiar with the concept and history of the program. I am told that Sweeny United got its start from a UM ARMY camp my church hosted years ago. After that camp folks in town started thinking about how good it would be for us to host a camp every year to visit and help the elderly and less fortunate folks of Sweeny. Sweeny United was born out of that dream.
While this is my first time to work Sweeny United, I worked seven or eight UM ARMY camps so I am familiar with the concept. In each of those experiences, one of the kids would come up to me and tell me, “My friends thought I was crazy to come here. I’m not sure they were wrong. They would say, ‘You are really going to go out of town for a week, sleep on the floor of a church, work out in the heat for people you don’t even know and not get paid for it? What a waste of time!’”
Well, you may not be sleeping on the floor of the church or going out of town, but you still will be working out in the heat, most likely for someone you don’t know and you definitely are not getting paid for it. And friend, if that is a waste of time, it is time well wasted!
I want to mention one more passage of Scripture. In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about serving people. He said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison and you visited me.” Then the people asked “When was it that we saw you hungry, thirsty, naked sick or in prison?” Jesus’ response was to say, “Just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”
Then Jesus turned the tables and talked about not doing those things and he said, “Just as you didn’t do it for one of the least of these you didn’t do it for me.”
I don’t think Jesus meant that taking care of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and in prison to be an all inclusive list. Even if it were, He is probably pretty disappointed in us. What I do think Jesus meant here is, we go out to serve, to serve our neighbor in whatever form that service may take place. In our case, it is in going out and doing home repairs and yard work. It is in going out and sharing our time, sometimes doing those things, but the really important thing isn’t in the work we do but in the time we share with someone who is often lonely and all too often ignored by the world. We do for Jesus whenever we go out and share the love of our hearts with a hurting world. And, make no mistake, if that is a waste of time, and I don’t really think it is, but if it is, it is time well wasted.
You see, at the end of all this, it really wouldn’t matter much whether I spent my $10 on a hymnal or a gift card. Whatever I do I am honoring, serving and loving Jesus. With the hymnal I sing praises to my Risen King. With the gift card I go and serve my neighbor, which Jesus said was the same as serving Him. Either way, I can’t help but think I am fulfilling what Jesus said was the most important commandment. I am loving the Lord my God and I am loving my neighbor as myself.
When you go to work tomorrow remember, more than anything else, the work you do shares the love of Christ in our community. Love takes time and if that is wasted time, it is time well wasted. It is the best use of wasted time we could ever make as in it we serve both God and neighbor.