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Sunday, May 24, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

Trusting in Abundant Grace

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 31:9–10, 14–16, 19, 24
Mark 14:1–9

I first felt called to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament when I was sixteen years old. God blessed me with strong, clear conviction, even though I had never seen or heard of a woman pastor. But in college I began to have doubts. Was being a pastor really for me? Did I have what it takes to fulfill that calling? I don’t remember whether I revealed my doubts to my beloved home pastor and mentor, Jim Cook. But one day I received a letter from him in which he wrote, “God doesn’t call us to do something without giving us all we need to do it.” I read his reassuring words of faith again and again. “God doesn’t call us to do something without giving us all we need to do it.” Through all these years, I found this to be true.

When we doubt God’s provision, we fall into a scarcity mindset. When we trust in God’s steadfast support, we live into an abundance mindset. It is a choice we make. We can choose to turn away from thinking “not enough” and “either-or” toward thinking “abundance” and “both-and.” I am very grateful that last fall, our Session adopted this as one of its Strategic Directions: “Live in a Spirit of Abundance: Fourth Church will move from acting out of a sense of scarcity to thinking big about ministry, trusting in God’s abundance as we provide for our mission and ministry.”

How do we live in a spirit of abundance? We can learn from Jesus and the woman who anointed him with oil. This prophet-woman knew the moment that was at hand. She recognized death was imminent for Jesus. It doesn’t appear that the disciples understood that. They may have been in denial or not known what to say, because such reality was too painful for them to take in. But the woman faced it. She may have listened intently to what Jesus had been saying, including about his looming death. She could have overheard the increasing anger and determination of the religious leaders to get rid of Jesus. However she knew, this woman was not in denial. It was two days before Jesus would be crucified. She wanted to express her devotion to him.

One of the most painful parts of the pandemic has been that people cannot be at the bedside of their loved ones when they are dying. In hospitals, patients suffer and die alone. Some may experience the care of a dedicated, overworked nurse, but that is all. No opportunity for relatives or friends to pray in person with their beloved, to say goodbye, to hold their hand or kiss their brow. No way for loved ones close by to exchange any final blessing.

We need to be able to say goodbye to those we love. I am acutely aware of this, anticipating my own departure from you. It hurts not to be able to say goodbye to you in person. I hope I can do so later this year when we can once again be physically together. We don’t want endings to just undo us, leaving us feeling distant, separate, empty, and incomplete. And we don’t want to grieve in isolation. That is another difficult aspect of the pandemic: gatherings for memorial services must be postponed. We need rituals as a community to strengthen our support of one another as we honor important people and events in our lives. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote:

Look, and look again,
This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes.
It’s more than bones.
It’s more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse.
It’s more than the beating of a single heart.
It’s praising.
It’s giving until the giving feels like receiving.
(Mary Oliver, “To Begin with, the Sweet Grass,” Evidence: Poems, p. 62)

The woman who anointed Jesus engaged in a ritual that deeply connected the two of them. She offered her most cherished possession—precious, pure nard in an alabaster jar. Nard was an expensive oil, which cost the equivalent of a year’s wages. It was used for the anointing of kings and priests and for preparing bodies for burial. She lavishly poured all of it over the head of Jesus. She held nothing back. Its fragrance filled the room. Her action honored who he truly was and where he was headed. She confirmed his impending death, symbolically crowned him king, and anointed his body for burial.

Her extravagant gift also brought Jesus some peace in an anxious moment. Imagine how comforting it must have been to Jesus not to be alone in his final hours. How reassuring to have someone physically close by, affirming who he was, understanding what he was going through, consoling him with deep affection, preparing him for death. With her outpouring of love, this woman fostered personal connection, fulfillment, and completeness for both of them, giving until the giving felt like receiving.

But the disciples don’t get any of that. They miss the moment and only see waste. Money squandered, because it could have been given to the poor. Theirs is a scarcity mindset. Either you honor Jesus or you give to the poor. They scold her.

Jesus chastises them saying, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has prepared my body beforehand for its burial.”

These have been some of the most misunderstood verses of scripture. People have wrongly applied the phrase “for you always have the poor with you” as an excuse to ignore the poor or not continually work to end poverty.

We need to understand that Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15, which would have been familiar to the disciples. It states, in verse 4, “There will be no one in need among you . . . if only you will obey the Lord your God [verse 11]. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

In other words, God does not want poverty, and we can end poverty, if only we follow God’s commandments (Liz Theoharis, Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, p. 46). Deuteronomy spells out what this entails: “If there is among you anyone in need, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.” Give liberally, redistribute resources, forgive debts, feed the poor, release and care for the prisoner, liberate the oppressed. This echoes words that Jesus spoke at the beginning of his ministry. Early on Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth, took the sacred scroll, and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). Jesus claimed this as his life’s mission statement. With words and deeds, Jesus taught that we are to care for the poor always. He also reminded us, “You can show kindness to them whenever you wish.” The opportunity to do so is ever present. And God gives you what you need to do it. You are freed from clinging, constraining, scarcity-based calculation.

Remember when Jesus fed the 5,000? Jesus had been healing people all day in a deserted place. By dusk they grew hungry. If it had been up to the disciples, everyone would have been sent away to buy themselves food, on their own elsewhere. But Jesus said, “They need not go away. You give something to eat.” The disciples didn’t think there was enough, but Jesus acted as if there was. He broke the crowd into small groups. Taking five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves. He gave them to the disciples who gave them to the crowd. Parker Palmer believes the miracle that ensued was that the people, now sitting on the grass close to one another, seeing the faces of one another, followed Jesus’ actions. He brought forth their generosity. The food they had tucked away—pita bread here, some grapes there—they shared. However it happened, everyone was satisfied. There were even leftovers. God’s abundant grace.

God does not ask us to choose between either showing kindness to our loved ones or showing kindness to people who are impoverished. God calls us to open our hands and hearts for both. And God gives us all we need to care for both.

Fourth Church is increasingly living into God’s abundance. We did not use either-or thinking by pitting raising money for a new organ against allocating money to aid those who face the challenges of poverty. Before the pandemic—and someday again—we daily open our beautiful sanctuary as a welcoming space for anyone and everyone to come in and pray or find respite from the elements. In our current economic crisis, some of us are agents of abundance and some are recipients. Many of you who are able are giving generously so that the church can keep paying all our employees. You are ordering emergency food and clothing to be delivered to the church so we can keep providing for people who are experiencing homelessness. Even though we don’t yet know how our 2020 operating budget will be balanced, we remain committed to funding grants to other nonprofit ministries in our city that count on us to help them do much needed outreach. When one person or congregation feels limited in addressing racial injustice, we gather with others as the Interfaith Coalition Against Racism and discover new ideas, energy, and strength. We are living into a spirit of abundance. We pray. We respond to what God calls us to do. We trust God to provide what we need to do it.

There is no scarcity to God’s goodness and love, truth and beauty. The woman gave her all for Jesus. She poured forth abundant love, offering her most valued possession. She did what she could. She couldn’t prevent the death of Jesus. She didn’t end poverty. But she did minister generously to Jesus in his moment of need. Jesus fully received her gift and commended her. He said, “She has performed a good service for me. . . . She has done what she could. . . . Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

I pray that this is how our shared ministry as Fourth Church and Chicago Lights will be remembered: For having done what we could. Not holding back because we don’t know what to do or because we’re afraid of making mistakes. Not doubting we will have enough. But instead confidently trusting in God. Doing what we can. Fearlessly loving others with all we are and have. Being amazed by God’s abundant grace. Amen.