Let us pray: “Take my will, and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine. Take my heart, it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne. Take my love, my LORD, I pour at thy feet its treasure store. Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.” Loving and awesome God, your love for us is more fragrant than costly perfume. We are recipients of your love poured out for all of humanity. Help us to respond to your love for us by lavishing your love upon others. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you, O God, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Approximately 9 years, 11 months, and 25 days ago, my spouse and sat in the sanctuary of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in San Antonio. As we sat, holding one another’s hand, our dear friend and colleague in ministry, Ashley, delivered the sermon for our wedding. We had chosen John 2:1-11, The Wedding at Cana, as the text. My only instructions to our Ashley was to not focus on Jesus’ words to his mother, “Woman what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come” (John 2:4 [CEB]). Instead, she focused on Mary’s encouragement of Jesus. Ashley reminded us that a parent hopes for, knows more, and prays more for a child than most children ever realize. She reminded us that it was Mary’s instructions that called Jesus into ministry, that because Mary believed Jesus could do something about the lack of wine, Jesus embodied that belief and that encouragement.
As parents, one of the things Nick and I have vowed to do is to encourage our children. When they are unsure of whether or not they can complete a task, we encourage them. When they become frustrated because they don’t understand their homework or because they write a letter backwards, we encourage them. When our son was 2 years old, we used to take him to the indoor bounce house play area that was in the Chautauqua Mall. There were several houses of different sizes for different aged children. On one side of the play area, there was a bounce house obstacle course. It required children to climb up, over, and under obstacles before climbing an 8 foot wall and sliding down to the end. Nathan persisted until he made it to the top of the wall, then he looked down at me, lost his balance and fell backwards off the wall to the bounce house floor below. I ran to him expecting to hear him say, “I want Mommy!” Instead, Nathan said, “I want to try again!” My heart sank. I tried to bribe him away with the promise of chicken nuggets and a milkshake, but he would not be deterred. Reluctantly, I became what Nathan needed me to be, his encourager. I watched him as he again climbed up, over, and under the obstacles, and as he made his way up the wall, I kept saying to him, “Keep your eyes forward,” until he climbed over the wall and came sliding down the slide.
We all need encouragers at one moment or another in our lives. Each of us has faced new adventures, scary diagnoses, and/or an unexpected change in our lives through which we were uncertain as to how we would respond or move forward. It is in those times, when we had to look outside of our own strength and determination and receive the affirmation, support, and love of the people around us. Like the passage from Luke 13 when the Pharisees attempted to dissuade Jesus from traveling on to Jerusalem, our gospel passage from John this morning reminds me of Jesus’ full humanity.
Just as encouragement from his mother began Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John, it is the encouragement and extravagant love of another woman that ushers Jesus into Jerusalem, into the Passover meal, into his trial, and into his death on the cross. At that moment, in the home of Lazarus, Jesus needs Mary’s encouragement and love as much as Mary needs to demonstrate her love for him. That is how love works. That is how relationships work. As parents, we love our children into the future. As spouses, siblings, friends, confidants, and children, we encourage and love those around us into their futures as well. At Cana, Jesus’ mother encouraged Jesus into ministry, into the tasks for which he had come to dwell—to tent—with us, a broken and hurting humanity. Now, as we approach the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, the sister of his friend and host encourages and loves Jesus into the final days of his earthly ministry.
Since about a week before the beginning of Lent this year, the uncertainty of the denomination of The United Methodist Church has been on display for the entire world to see. Rarely, a day goes by when someone does not publish an article, blog, or response to the special session of General Conference. Heading into Lent, I felt uncertain as to how I would be able to lead and to serve as a pastor in the midst of the conflicts and questions that continue to rise up in our denomination. Then, on Ash Wednesday, I read something written by artist and author Jan Richardson:
All those days you felt like dust, like dirt, as if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind and be scattered to the four corners or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial—did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust? This is the day we freely say we are scorched. This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning. This is the moment we ask for blessing that lives within the ancient ashes, that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth. So let us be marked not for sorrow. And let us be marked not for false humility or for thinking we are less than we are but for claiming what God can do within the dust, within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made and the stars that blaze in our bones and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.
These words have encouraged me through this season of Lent; these words have reminded me that God created the earth and humanity out of chaos, and God can certainly create in the chaos of our Church’s current state. This love and encouragement that God lavished upon us through the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ is present for each of us, and it is more than enough to see us through the uncertainty of our futures.
But, we are human and realists; so we know that not everybody easily receives this love, this grace. After all, our text reminds us that Judas questioned Mary’s act of extravagant love. The parenthetical statements in our Bibles say it is because Judas was a thief and would take what was in the money bag. I suspect, though, that Judas’ problem is bigger than he wanted a bigger payout for his act of larceny. When Mary saw her brother Lazarus emerge from the tomb alive, I imagine she felt a love so deep for Jesus that its fragrance filled a room. Judas, though, never experienced that Mary type of love; Judas speaks to the prudent, rational side of each of us; the side that says, “Don’t get your hopes up,” the side that says it is better to invest our time and our resources in that which is tangible, in that which we can measure rather than offering ourselves extravagantly and completely for the work of God here on earth.
When Mary poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair, she gave him every ounce of love she had. In the words of a wise friend, she left it all out there on Jesus’ feet. She had nothing left to give in that moment. I suspect that Jesus knew that, and I believe that when Jesus takes a towel, wraps it around his waist, and begins washing the feet of the disciples who wrestle, question, and even reject the love offered to them, that Jesus is loving in part because he experienced the same extravagant love in the home of Lazarus. As Jesus is led between the Pharisees and Pilate, that it is the love and encouragement that Mary demonstrated that gives him strength, and it is the extravagant love of God demonstrated through Mary that allows Jesus to say, “It is finished,” as he gives up his spirit.
As we journey towards the final week in the season of Lent, my prayer is that you have received and have experienced the extravagant love God has for each and every person. My prayer is that you, like Mary, will accept that gift of God’s love, and that you will respond showing God’s love extravagantly to others in order to encourage them into their futures. I offer this to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, mother of us all. Amen.
 ”Take My Life, and Let It Be” Hymn 399 in The United Methodist Hymnal
 “Blessing the Dust” from Circles of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons