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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
April 7, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Central Passage
Philippians 3:4b-14
Subject
Lent 5C
Description

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: April 7, 2019 – Lent 5C

Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

 

Trash and Treasure

 

              Anyone remember Antiques Roadshow on PBS? People would bring all kinds of stuff in to be appraised, much of which had been “sitting in the attic since 1962 when Grandma Florence died” or something. Very occasionally, what they brought in was worthless, but more often than not, they learned they had something worth $1000, $5000, or even $25,000. And there was always a look of amazement and surprise when they realized their trash was actually treasure.

 

              In today’s readings, we get into these themes of extravagance vs. frugality (or seeming frugality), the former thing vs. the new thing, self-accomplishment vs. God’s accomplishment, and self-striving vs. God-striving. Paul puts it quite graphically in our reading from Philippians, saying that he regards all his former religious accomplishments as “sewer trash”, literally “poop”, compared to “superior value of knowing Christ Jesus….” and gaining a right relationship with God based in him. And because Christ has already “grabbed hold of him”, Paul can put his efforts toward something infinitely better. Something not based in himself. While Jesus has already done everything necessary for salvation, Paul sees his work as a lifelong process of being made in Christ’s image. Embracing his faithfulness. Sharing in his sufferings. Conforming to his death. All to share in his resurrection. All that he thought was trash before, by persecuting the church, turned out to be the greatest treasure.

 

              And like Paul, we too like to justify ourselves based on who we are or what we have done. Or perhaps more precisely, what we are NOT. Something consistent across human societies is the need to have people we can feel superior to, so we can feel better about ourselves and our own group. These people we define ourselves against can be in our own community – “those people across the street” or “those people in that church”. They can be political opponents – those “communist liberals” or those “fascist conservatives”. They can be reality TV stars – after all, what did the cast of the Jersey Shore or the Kardashians provide but the continual thought, “Thank God I’m not like them!” They can even be within our own family. This may be a misattribution, but I believe Will Rogers said, “The alcoholic is an elected position within the family.” Think of your own family. Is there someone always in trouble, always messing up, always between jobs, always getting into and out of relationships, always the topic of conversation in your family? What would your family talk about if you weren’t talking about that person? They can even be people within the congregation! There are those “lazy Willmans”, remember?

 

              That last example is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s true that we often define ourselves against others. Paul did it, too. For Paul, his religious accomplishments were not so much based on who he was or what he did, but what he DIDN’T do or what he WASN’T. He didn’t eat at tables with proscribed foods. He was NOT part of those heathen Gentiles. He was NOT one of those lukewarm Jews, who “pick and choose” parts of Torah to follow. No, Paul was a Jew’s Jew, or as he puts it, “a Hebrew of the Hebrews”. But when Christ knocked him flat on the Damascus road, something dramatically changed. He could no longer feel superior to certain people. No longer could he define himself by who he was not. He could only define himself by who he was in Jesus Christ. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”[1] Paul himself will write in his letter to the Galatians that because all our identity and usefulness is in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[2]

 

              Judas does it as well. Leave aside John’s explanation that “he was a thief and he used to steal what was put in (the treasury).” He defines himself against Mary, this prodigal woman, who is wasting an extraordinary amount of perfume that could be better used on the poor. His objection is valid. The disciples must have been scraping by day-to-day. There were certainly many poor among them. And Jesus himself is firmly on the side of the poor. Jesus’ quote, “You will always have the poor with you,” is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 15:11, which in its larger context compels the community to care for the poor and most vulnerable among them. For Judas, Mary might as well take that costly perfume and throw it in the trash for all the good it is doing. Judas is right. But he’s right in a completely wrong-headed way. Jesus reminds him that the ultimate treasure is before them in his person. “You will not always have me,” he says. Jesus is treasure, above everything else.

 

              That great treasure is still here today, in a different way, in this community of faith. It isn’t confined to these four walls, but it is here that we meet that treasure in the Word and in the Sacraments. We also meet him outside these walls in every person we meet, even those who we might think are wasteful (like Mary in today’s Gospel), tight-fisted and greedy (like Judas), or in those who remain “behind the scenes”, providing for everyone’s needs (like Martha). We meet him in those we are tempted to feel superior to. Everything we have and everything we’ve done is nothing compared to what he has done for all of us alike, without favoritism or differentiation. Everything we are and everything we will be is rooted in him. This is what Judas and the rest of the disciples don’t get, but Mary gets. Mary understands. Paul, also, eventually understands. They realize that Jesus is their priceless treasure.

 

              It was also understood by the lyricist Johann Franck and composer Johann Crüger, as well as the composer J.S. Bach, German Lutherans all. In a hymn text often translated “Jesus, Priceless Treasure”, they wrote, composed, and arranged:

 

Jesu, meine Freude,
Meines Herzens Weide,
Jesu, meine Zier,
Ach wie lang, ach lange
Ist dem Herzen bange
Und verlangt nach dir!
Gottes Lamm, mein Bräutigam,
Außer dir soll mir auf Erden
Nichts sonst Liebers werden.[3]

 

              Let us pray.

 

              Jesus, you are our treasure above everything else. Everything we are is rooted in you. Help us to understand that in every place in our lives. Amen.

 

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

 

 

[1] John 15:5.

[2]Galatians 3:28.

[3] Literal transation by Francis Brown: Jesus, my joy, pasture of my heart, Jesus, my adornment, ah how long, how long is my heart filled with anxiety and longing for you! Lamb of God, my bridegroom, apart from you on the earth there is nothing dearer to me. Retrieved from http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/Chorale062-Eng3.htm.