Sermon March 17, 2013


“Is Our Effort Ever Wasted?”

March 17, 2013

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson


1 John 4

4Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

4Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.


John 12:1-8

12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


This story of a woman washing Jesus’ feet is one of just a few stories to occur in all four gospels.  There are slight variations in each gospel, but two features unify these accounts:

First, we witness a woman, pouring expensive perfumes and ointments over the road-weary feet of Jesus, getting down on her knees to wash his feet; even, in John’s version, using her long hair as a towel.

Second, a question: was this expensive perfume and oil wasted?  Disciples in one version, bystanders in another, and Judas here in John’s Gospel, question this act: is this a waste?  “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”[i]

Was this expensive perfume wasted?  Wasted on a man, heading for his death?  Wasted on an ascetic, who never asked for such luxury nor needed this attention?  The perfume is poured out on Jesus’ feet, leaving no lasting benefit.  The perfume will drain onto the floor, its scent soon lost.  Jesus will get up and leave, and in the first few minutes he walks down a road, all this luxurious oil will be soiled, and soon scuffed off.  Was this perfume wasted?

I find myself riveted by this question.  And it’s not the coupon-clipping, hand-it-down mom in me.  And it’s not just the Portlandia recycling zealot in me.  It’s the existential question of waste that troubles me so deeply.  And I know I am not alone.  Who hasn’t asked themselves, “Have I wasted myself here?”  Have I poured out my life on a cause, or a person, or an organization, or a job – and to what end?  Was my effort wasted? After giving time and treasure to our children’s lives, they grow up and turn cold; after investing the best years of our life in a marriage, spouses cheat or make life hard for us; after being there for friends at birthdays, weddings and illness, our “best” friends move away and stop calling; after long years laboring past the workday clock, sacrificing health and family time, jobs simply end; was our work so inconsequential?  Does life poured out on relationships and projects and causes dissolve and vaporize, like it was never there – was our effort wasted?

I think about us OG mission trip workers, pouring time and grit into rebuilding houses on the risky proposition of renewing the poor neighborhood of East Biloxi.  Will the lynchpin of renewal, the neighborhood school, get reopened? Will strong, new families buy our houses? Will the houses last? (If our General Contractor, Jimmy Chevalier, wasn’t there supervising every step of our amateur work, I fear the answer to that question!) Or, maybe another hurricane will come, destroying our work, shattering weeks of effort.  Will OG’s work be wasted?

My former church was long involved in an African mission, aiding a Presbyterian orphans’ school in Kampala, Uganda.  Our church sent volunteer workers; we raised money; we sponsored the United States visits of its charismatic leader.  Our family dentist and fellow church member, James Miller, was especially dedicated to the mission.  Dr. Miller marshaled the aid of colleagues to set up a dental clinic on the school grounds.  He and his wife Laurie worked there, around the clock, in intense heat and primitive conditions to serve the children and community. Dr. Miller trained local people to carry on the work of the clinic, providing basic dental care and maintaining the equipment.  And the outcome?  Funds raised for the school were diverted to build an opulent home for the school’s leader.  The dental clinic was looted, its equipment picked off and sold.  Was our effort wasted?

Is our effort wasted – it’s a natural question anyone might ask.  But, we’re not anyone – we’re Christians.  And how should a Christian ask this? As people of faith, we must reframe the question.  And, as Christians, we ask instead:  is Love ever wasted?  For, when we pour out our time, treasure and talent as Love, as an act of Love, is that Love ever wasted?  And the answer, for Christians, is Love is never wasted, Love never dies.

Today’s Epistle lesson is from John.  John writes that love is the essence of God’s very nature:  “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”  (1 John 4: 7-8)

John is not talking about love as a fleeting feeling, an emotion.  John is making a claim about reality, about ultimate reality.  John is making what theologians call an ontological claim – that Love is the Most Real thing, that Love is the ultimate structure of reality.  Love is God’s being, John says.  Love is God’s personality that infuses every atom of existence.  This morning, during chapel, we read the 136th Psalm, which repeatedly and with growing intensity says, “God’s love endures forever.  God’s love endures forever!”  So, Love – God’s being -is eternal.  It can never dissolve, fail, or be lost.  Love goes on, when all else falls apart.  So, the Bible teaches us, Love is never wasted; love never dies!

Let me offer a personal illustration.  For years I kept a brown box in my house, treating it with the greatest care.  I never jostled this box, never dared open it, lest daylight degrade its contents.  As we moved from state to state, I carefully packed it within a larger box, nesting it in Styrofoam peanuts.  Finally, this summer, preparing to move here, I made myself open the box.  I lifted the lid, and put my hands inside, and all that was there was a thin layer of papery, brittle petals that dissolved as I picked them up.  The remains of my wedding bouquet, carted around for 26 years, decomposing, into waste.

But one thing remained of this bouquet, untouched by time:  the bouquet holder.  There it was, a strong wire vine, where the florist had anchored the flowers 26 years ago.  (In fact, only that wire vine assured me that there had been a bouquet in the box!) Well, that wire vine is like our love. Our efforts at work, at home and community may dissolve, decompose and be wasted — like those flowers.  But the love that anchored our efforts endures.  Love is never wasted. Love never dies.

When we think love, of course we remember 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul’s hymn to Christian love.

And notice what Paul says about waste, about gaining nothing for our efforts and achievements:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 

The tongues are wasted, the prophetic powers are wasted, the knowledge is wasted, the sacrifice is wasted, even faith is wasted – without Love.  Without love, time spent on children, money for education, phone calls to friends, and late nights at work – all wasted.  Without love, the African dental clinic, the Biloxi homes – wasted, dissolved, no lasting legacy.  Without love, the perfume, wasted, dissolved, with no lasting legacy!

Perhaps we put too much stock on legacies that are tangible: diplomas, paychecks, houses built and members gained – metrics that distract us from what is enduring.  Distract us from Legacies that are intangible but give life.

Yet, right before us sits a faithful group who each week leaves a legacy, life-giving and intangible.  They pour effort into a weekly project that leaves no material outcome, no physical artifact of their effort.  I am talking about our choir and its exquisite singing.  Frank Burch Brown, a musician and theologian of worship, points out that music exists only in sound, and must, by nature, after each performance, “self-destruct.”[ii]  At the end of the hymn, what is left? – no material trace – it’s gone!  But, our choir singers pour love into their ministry:  they love the music, they love each other, they love Jody, and they love God.  And we move into their zone of love and touch here the Eternal.

There is something extravagant, wild and beautifully impractical about such worship music – this Mendelsohn poured out on our ears, just like perfume poured out on Jesus’ feet.  The sound becomes silence.  The perfume drains off.  The scent faces.  Yes, Jesus’s feet soon will be dusty.  But this woman’s love?  That is eternal!  So Jesus says:  “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her!”

Our Love is never wasted. Love never dies.  Amen.

[i] Matthew 26: 8-9:   When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

[ii] Frank Burch Brown, Religious Aesthetics (Princeton University Press, 1993), p.

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