Learning to Love Wastefully

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 4, 2012

John 12:1-8;  Selection from John Shelby Spong

In his book titled A New Christianity for a New World, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong states “God is love . . . and we worship this God by loving wastefully.”Indeed, “loving wastefully” is a phrase that keeps popping up throughout the entire book.  And it has become a real sound bite in a lot of what Bishop Spong writes these days.  He goes on to say, “A life defined by love will not seek to protect itself or to justify itself.  It will be content simply to be itself and to give itself away with abandon.”2

As we reflect upon this morning’s gospel reading, it is obvious, I think, that Mary of Bethany loved wastefully.  All four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—include some variation of this story, which would indicate that it was considered to be of great importance in the early church.  All gospel writers agree that a devoted follower of Jesus brought a jar of very expensive perfume worth about a year’s wages for a common laborer.  This perfume was poured upon Jesus as an act of love and devotion.  In John’s gospel it is Mary, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus loved dearly, that performs this act of devotion during the course of a dinner party they had given in Jesus’ honor.   For John, the perfume becomes a foreshadowing and symbol of Jesus’ death and burial that are to soon come to pass.  Perhaps this was the jar of perfume that would have been used to anoint Mary’s own loved ones when they died, since it was often used as burial perfume.  This unusual gesture provoked a complaint.  Judas, as John tells it, saw Mary’s spontaneous act of love as extravagance or careless wastefulness.  “Why was this perfume wasted in this way?” (see Mark 14:4) it was demanded.  Judas failed to see Mary’s act for what it really was—an impulsive, spontaneous “well-meant act of love.”3  It was a lavish gift “offered without consideration of cost.”4  “Mary allowed her heart to spill over in a gratitude which she could not hold back.”5  In a nutshell, Mary gave boldly of herself to Jesus.  Her act of devotion was not forced, coerced or even asked for.  She did it of her own volition, and she did it out of gratitude and love.

Loving wastefully is the picture of God that Jesus painted for the world.  And during this Lenten season, we are reminded again that Jesus gave his entire life to teaching, touching and giving for the good of others.  John goes on to tell in his gospel how that Jesus himself will wash the feet of his disciples as an extravagant expression of his love for them.  Jesus wasn’t forced to do what he did.  He did it out of love—gladly.  He loved wastefully.

As John’s gospel presents it, loving wastefully is what Christian living is all about.  Love is the hallmark of discipleship in John’s gospel.  Throughout his gospel, John shows that discipleship is defined by acts of wasteful, extravagant love.  For John love is not a feeling. It is being, and it is action.  “To love is to be for another and to act for another, even at cost to oneself.” We think of someone like Albert Schweitzer, a successful minister and accomplished organist who gave up his ministry and musical aspirations to go into medicine and journey to the jungles of Africa to build a hospital for the native people.  Schweitzer wrote that he wanted to no longer talk about religion but to put “the religion of love” into practice.7  In going to the jungles of Africa, Schweitzer loved wastefully. 

Jesus calls us as well to love wastefully those in the world we may have previously not thought about loving.  Jesus calls us to think about our prejudices and to seek to love others as we want to be loved.  {I am reminded of a “Peanuts” cartoon in which Charlie Brown approaches Lucy and says, “Our Sunday school teacher tells us that we must love all humanity.”  In the next frame Lucy says, “I’ve got no problem with that!  I’ll gladly love humanity in general.  It’s the particular people I can’t stand!”  Isn’t that the way with most of us?  It is precisely the particular people that we called us to love.}  Bishop Spong contends, “A new humanity depends on our ability to move beyond the self-centered mentality of survival and into the kind of being that has developed a capacity to love others beyond our own needs—indeed, beyond our own limits.”8  One of the primary purposes of the future church, Bishop Spong contends, is “to encourage this selfless love.”  When we really give love to another, it is a true gift; we do not hope to get anything in return. 

Sometimes acts of loving wastefully can be quite elaborate.  For instance, when I was about ten years old, one afternoon my Dad surprised my little brother and me when he came home from work and opened the trunk of his car and unloaded a brand new saddle.  The saddle was black with red trim and the metal was shiny silver.  Forty-seven years later, I can still see and smell that new saddle.  The curious thing was we didn’t have anything to put the saddle on.  We didn’t own a horse or a pony.  Well, before long we saw a cattle truck coming down the road.  The truck backed up to our barn and unloaded a pony.  My brother and I had not had any idea that Mom and Dad had secretly conspired to buy us one.  We had not demanded one, we had not even mentioned one, to my recollection.  So the gift of the pony was not forced or coerced.  It was an unexpected gift of joy, given out of love.  It was an act of loving wastefully.

But practically speaking, loving wastefully doesn’t have to be some elaborate gesture, like giving your child a pony (big things like that didn’t happen in our family very often, by the way.)  Loving wastefully is something we can do every day. Loving wastefully is not so much about the thing that is given as it is about the spirit in which it is given.  One can love wastefully by doing more little things for others like surprising a loved one by taking their car for a wash and interior cleaning.  Or surprising your children with a special night out or an unexpected gift.  Or by surprising your co-workers by taking a box of Krispy Kreme donuts to the office to share.  Or leaving a restaurant server a very gracious tip.

Which reminds me of something that Panera Bread is doing.  Now, I love going to Panera Bread.  I love Panera Bread even more since I learned what they do with all their leftover food at the end of the day.  Do you know what Panera Bread does with all their leftover bread, bagels and such when they close every night?  They donate it to places that feed the hungry.  And then during the night their bakers come in and they start all over again.  The Panera Bread chain has opened a trial “pay what you can” location.  It is called the Panera Cares Café.  In other words, instead of set prices, they have suggested donations for their items.  They ask those who can pay the suggested prices to do so, those who can give a little extra to do so for others who come after them who may not be able to afford the full price, and then for those who can’t afford to donate the suggested amount to give what they can or nothing at all.  The question was, would the café be able to break even?  After the first year of operation, the company found that 60% of customers give the suggested donation, 20% give less or nothing, and 20% give more.  The concept has been so successful that they are opening several more locations around the country.  The point is, the 20% of customers who donate more than the suggested price so others can eat are putting the loving wastefully principle into practice in their everyday lives.  That’s what the Lenten season is all about.   

This past week, we were in a conversation with someone about last Sunday’s sermon about the different things that people sometimes give up for Lent.  And one man said he had decided to give up hard liquor for Lent.  But then he said, “But how does that benefit others?”  And my wife suggested, “Well, you could estimate how much money you save on all that hard liquor and then at the end of Lent donate it to a food pantry.”  And the man’s face lit up and he said, “That’s a great idea.  That’s what I am going to do.” 

Lent is about patterning our lives after the one who gave sacrificially and gave joyfully.  To paraphrase Bishop Spong, the God that we meet in Jesus calls us to live fully, to love wastefully, and to be all that we can be.9  And as someone else has said, “there is no waste in love.”10   The season of Lent invites us to ask ourselves in what ways might we love extravagantly, love wastefully, putting all that we are and all that we can give into loving God and others.  The possibilities are endless! Amen. 

 1John Shelby Spong, p. 73.  2Ibid,  p. 140.  3Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p. 654.  4Ibid, p. 655.  5Ibid, p. 654.  6Bishop Charlene Payne Kammerer, Ministers Manual 2003, p. 421.  7Ministers Manual for 2003, p. 4248Spong, p. 212.  9Ibid, p. 238.  10Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p. 655.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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One Response to Learning to Love Wastefully

  1. Dave says:

    Dear rev dr Randy Hammer : I came across your sermon after google this topic from bishop J.S. Spong. Thank you so much the exegesis and homiletic thought on it !!!! I’ve read some of Spong’s books.

    Sincere thanks.
    Dave.

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