March 25, 2007
St. Paul, Gloucester, MA
Rev. Charles R. Lane
The Holy Gospel according to St. John, the 12th chapter.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (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.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This is the gospel of our Lord.
I saw a six year olds jaw drop a last winter. Here is how it happened. I don’t know if the Boston Red Sox do this, but each winter the Minnesota Twins have what they call the Twin’s Caravan. Twin’s players break up into small groups and head for the cities and towns of the upper Midwest. It is obviously a marketing trip, but baseball fans, especially the little one, love it.
I’m in the Rotary Club in my town, and two Twins players paid us a visit. After their program, they announced that they would give out autographed baseballs to the club members who could guess their batting averages from the previous season. I got one of those baseballs. It’s not that I’m such a fan, but one person guessed a batting average at .310. The player gave a thumb’s up, calling for a larger number. The next guess was .312. The player turned his thumb down, wanting a smaller number. My fellow Rotarians aren’t too bright, because I was the first one to figure out that there is only one number between .310 and .312.
So I left with an autographed baseball. When I was 6 that would have been a prize kept under lock and key. Quite honestly, I don’t have much need for it now. So I started thinking of 5 and 6 year olds I knew. Immediately a family from church came to mind. They are huge baseball fans, and I knew the six year old, named Thomas, was one of the biggest. So I called his dad and set it up that I would arrive and present the boy with this autographed baseball. When I gave him the ball and told him whose autograph was on it, the little guy’s jaw dropped. Thirty seconds later, it was still in the same position. He was thrilled. I was more thrilled. A couple days later I got a thank you note from him – and my joy was complete.
As I read this morning’s gospel, and thought about what Mary did, I thought about little Thomas. I thought about him, because Mary had also had a jaw-dropping experience, and it was far more jaw-dropping than what happened to Thomas. Mary had experienced what we can only imagine – her brother, dead for three days, was brought back to life. That would make your jaw drop. And in response to that, Mary becomes extravagant. She spends way too much money on perfume, and in a reckless act of servanthood, she anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair.
This act only makes sense in response to the jaw-dropping good news, brought into her life by her Lord and Savior.
The marvelous reality of our faith is that you and I have experienced this same jaw-dropping good news. In fact, my claim to you this morning is that you have experienced it in no less magnitude than Mary and Martha and Lazarus did. You have experienced the jaw-dropping good news of the gospel.
As a way of thinking about this, think with me about the words of Martin Luther, who said that we are captive to sin, death, and the power of the devil – and Jesus has freed us from this captivity. You would be captive to sin, except that Jesus died on the cross so that your sins and mine might be forgiven. Each week you come to this sanctuary to hear the marvelous news that you have been washed clean of a week’s worth of dirt by the God whose love for you is unwavering.
You would be captive to death, except that Jesus rose from the dead, and you have God’s promise that someday you will too. Death has been called the last and final enemy, but we know that that is not true. Someday your life here will end – but your life will not end. Through Jesus, you will have the last laugh at death, and you will be raised to live with Jesus forever.
You would be captive to the power of the devil, doomed to leading a life that is just one meaningless event after another. Jesus has changed all that by placing you in a community of God’s people and allowing you to be a part of his great purpose for life.
Is your jaw starting to drop? I wouldn’t recommend it, but I wonder if we shouldn’t go through life with our jaws like this, marveling at the magnitude of God’s blessings.
The jaw-dropping gospel of Jesus Christ has come into your life. In response to that jaw-dropping gospel, the only fitting response is a sort of extravagance that matches Mary’s. As we begin together our journey through “Building The Dream”, extravagance in response to the jaw-dropping goodness of God is a fitting starting point.
There is something about extravagance that can fill a room with its sweet aroma, just as surely as Mary’s perfume filled the room so long ago. There is something about generosity, fueled by the incredible generosity we have experienced from our God, that can make life a delight to live.
The call is “Building The Dream” is the call to this sort of room-filling extravagance, this sort of life-delighting generosity. You people of St. Paul Lutheran Church have the wonderful opportunity to fill this room with the sweet aroma of extravagant giving, and to fill your lives with the incredible joy of generosity. “Building The Dream” isn’t just about improving your church home. It is also about changing your life together as God’s people.
I want to close this morning by telling you a story. It is a familiar story – one that is associated with Christmas. It is a story I try to read, or see in a play or on TV every December. It is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.
At the beginning of the story, Scrooge was very rich, and very stingy, and very miserable. In fact, the one who first told Scrooge’s story described him this way, “Oh, but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had every struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
Most of you know Scrooge’s story. How he made life miserable for his loyal clerk. How he greeted any sort of kindness with a gruff “Bah…humbug!”
Most of you also know how one Christmas Eve Scrooge had three visitors during the night – the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. And you know that when Scrooge was visited by that third ghost, and saw what would happen if his present continued unchanged, well – Scrooge was so startled, so utterly scared that he was changed, he was transformed.
When he woke up he wasn’t sure that it was even the same year, much less the next morning, Christmas morning. He found a young lad walking down the street, who confirmed that it was indeed Christmas. Then Scrooge thought of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Next Scrooge thought of a turkey he had seen at a neighborhood market – the largest turkey he had ever seen. And then he hired the lad to buy the turkey and deliver it to Cratchit, and he hired a cab to take them there, for the turkey was far too large to carry.
And then that first story teller writes this, “The chuckle with which Scrooge said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.”
Quite a transformation – from “solitary as an oyster” to “chuckling till he cried.”
Now please know that your pastor has assured me that there are no Ebenezer Scrooges here. But please also know that I do believe that this sort of transformation is possible in each of our lives – not because we have been scared by three Christmas ghosts – not that, but rather because we have been claimed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
My prayer for you over the next five weeks is that you will have occasion to have your jaw drop. I hope you will experience in a new way the incredible generosity of our God. I pray that your jaw will drop in amazement as just how good God has been to you. And I pray that together you will fill this room with the sweet aroma of extravagant generosity. Amen.