Extravagant, reckless love

Emilyby Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

“When I was growing up, I was only allowed one scoop of ice cream for snack,” I told my congregation’s children a number of years ago during our Easter Sunday service.  I wrinkled my nose as I looked at the piddly scoop of ice cream in my hands.  “That’s not very extravagant, is it?”

Such a big word deserved a big illustration, so I pulled out a giant mixing bowl and began scooping ice cream out of a bucket.  Eventually, I gave up and just dumped in the whole gallon, much to the children’s delight.

The boys and girls pushed in closer around the kitchen cart with their eyes wide, gasping as I squeezed an entire bottle of chocolate syrup onto the ice cream, giggling and bouncing on their toes as I covered the surface with sprinkles, unable to contain their excitement as I added cans of whip cream and finished it off with a whole jar of cherries.

God’s love isn’t just a scoop of ice cream, I told the children as their eyes remained glued to the overflowing bowl of goodness.  God’s love is extravagant—like this giant ice cream sundae.  A love so extravagant that it couldn’t stay dead.  A love so extravagant that it came back to life again.

Years later, children and adults alike tell me that they still remember the illustration of the extravagant love of God.  And that word, “extravagant,” has remained a favorite in my vocabulary.

On a recent Sunday, I visited Souderton (Pa.) congregation for a service celebrating the congregation’s partnership with Urban Promise, a ministry that works with kids in the heart of Camden, New Jersey.  The ministry’s director, Bruce Main, shared the story from Matthew 26 of the woman who poured a bottle of perfume on Jesus’ head.  The disciples responded with shock: “What a waste!”  Most of us, Main suggested, would have responded to that woman’s act of love with the same disgust as the disciples—how could she be so reckless?

As Main encouraged us to love recklessly, I found myself thinking about traditional Swiss-German Mennonite values: living simply, frugally.  What a difference there is in how we hear “love extravagantly” and “love recklessly!”  While they mean virtually the same thing, extravagance can be controlled: we can weigh the options, evaluate the outcome, and then, when we decide our love will be effective, love extravagantly.

But what Main, and I believe Jesus, is encouraging us to do is to love with risk.  To pour our love out in ways that we can’t control, can’t predict, ways that may not be efficient, may seemingly not be effective.

Jesus poured out his life knowing that we might still say, “No thanks.”  If we are truly going to join God in God’s mission in the world, we can’t control how people will respond to our love.  We can’t prevent our love from being rejected or ignored.  Perhaps the greatest hindrance to mission is our fear that our experiments will fail and our money, time, or emotional energy will have been needlessly depleted.

May we instead judge extravagant love by the act, not the outcome.  May we see reckless love not as carelessness, but as overflowing compassion.  And may our extravagant love draw others to a God who first recklessly “wasted” his love on us.

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