2016 03 13: A Believing Heart

Posted on 14 Mar 2016

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Throughout the season of Lent, I have been presenting a series of meditations based on the spiritual treasures offered in the sacraments. In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, we are taught to remember our baptism and that in the sacrament of holy baptism God “brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation.” In the waters of baptism we have been given the assurance that God washes away the marks of sin from our lives. It is the assurance that we have been united with Christ, so that his strength protects us from the power of the devil. And finally, that we are encouraged to walk as God’s forgiven and protected children in the newness of life. Last Sunday we turned to the sacrament of holy communion, and Martin Luther’s simple explanation, “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” Today, we will close with a meditation based on a verse from Luther’s Large Catechism where he writes, “In this sacrament Jesus offers us all the treasure he brought from heaven for us, to which he most graciously invites us.”

This morning’s reading of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume is the conclusion of a much longer story in St. John’s gospel. It is the miraculous account of Jesus raising Lazarus, the brother of the two sisters Mary and Martha from Bethany, from the dead. He had already been buried in the tomb for four days, and their lives had been shaken with sorrow. Mary and Martha wanted to believe that Jesus could make all things new, and that their friend and master was the resurrection and the life. But their trust was deeply challenged. Jesus arrived at their home days after their brother Lazarus had died. Yes, they watched as Jesus wept at his friend’s tomb, but what more could he do? To their surprise, Jesus had ordered that the great stone placed in front of the stone be rolled away, and then, in a loud voice, he cried our Lazarus, and after a moment, their brother still wrapped in the bands of his burial, walked out of the tomb – alive. Like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who had to celebrate younger son’s return because he was dead and alive again, they too, Mary and Martha had to celebrate the return of their dead brother Lazarus who was alive again. And of course, they had to honor their friend Jesus for the miracle he had performed.

Miracles do happen, though not often as dramatically as in St. John’s gospel. Acts of healings occur every day, lives do turn around, new beginnings do come to pass, though some miracles are small and go unnoticed. Other occurrences shouldn’t be considered miracles as all. I am reminded of the wife who considered it a miracle if she could change her husband’s bad habits. Unfortunately, for the husband, it was a no-win situation. For 25 years, the impatient wife had hounded her husband to put the cap back on the toothpaste tube. Finally, on their 25th anniversary, he committed himself to breaking the annoying habit. Faithfully and regularly, he screwed on the toothpaste cap every time he used it. After a week of unbroken success the poor guy was blindsided by his suspicious wife. She cornered him at the breakfast table and said, “Why did you stop brushing your teeth?” Or we might jest, of course miracles happen, how else can you explain how that fool of a son-in-law can be the father of the world’s smartest grandchildren? But how do you respond when true miracles occur in your life?

The scene in today’s gospel reading of Jesus’ dinner in Bethany offers two possibilities. Consider the response of Mary and Judas. For Jesus’ unassuming friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, there was no choice but to celebrate. The shroud of mourning has been cast off and so a feast had been prepared. Apparently, no cost was too great. Mary went to the bank, and withdrew $30,000 for the pound of fragrant nard alone. Their lamenting cries had been replaced by laughter and music. The staleness of death has been driven from their home, and was filled now with the fragrant perfume of scented oil. Mary was deeply thankful for the miracle of new life and opportunity. And although, it was an extravagant gesture of thanksgiving, she honored the Master by anointing his feet with her tears and expensive perfume. No gift could express her gratitude. No words could contain her thoughts. No gesture could convey her thankfulness and love. Mary’s response to God’s miracle was simple.
In happy moments, praise God.
In difficult moments, seek God.
In quiet moments, worship God.
In painful moments, trust God.
And in every moment, thank God!

In contrast, study the response of Judas Iscariot. St. John the Evangelist would like to say that the disciple’s harsh criticism of Mary was a sign of his greed and dishonesty. This may be true. But I believe that Judas’ words also reflect a far more common and calculated response to God’s miracles. It is to minimize and their importance and wonder. Judas treats Mary’s action as an enthusiastic, but rather naïve gesture. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Perhaps that’s your excuse as well. You don’t believe you’re stingy, but you don’t see the need or wonder in presenting God a gift of thanksgiving for all the marvelous things he has done. You’re rather like the twenty dollar bill and the one dollar bill who met one day in the bank. The one dollar bill asked the twenty where he had been since he was issued. The twenty dollar bill answered proudly, “Oh, I’ve been traveling around. I’ve been to the movie theatre, basket ball game, a play, and a few restaurants. And where have you been?” the twenty said to the one dollar bill. “Oh, I’ve been traveling too. I’ve been to the Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches.” The twenty dollar bill looked confused, “Could you tell me? What’s a church? I’ve never been there.” Perhaps for you, sacrificial giving or a gift thanksgiving has no meaning. You’re not alone. More of us hold onto our purse strings like Judas, than offer in gratitude everything we possess like Mary.

Our response to God’s miracles, however, isn’t simply about the offering of our personnel treasures. For many today, even kneeling before the feet of Jesus and giving thanks is awkward and unnatural. For some the future seems instead to hold no hope. You can’t make sense of the death of a loved one. Time has moved on, and your life is stymied by the weight of suffering and sorrow- or worse yet, inertia. You’re longing for a sense of direction but you are uncertain of whom to follow and where to go. Not so long ago, you considered Jesus to be your friend. You had been inspired by his words, astonished by his deeds, and filled with hope. But now all you can do is wait for any miracle to happen in your life.

That is why God has given us the sacrament of holy communion. It is his gift so that you may believe and have trust in him. Mind you, it may be difficult to believe that this broken bread and poured cup is anything more than a symbolic gesture. After all, how can eating and drinking offer such great things? It’s not just a theoretical question from the Luther’s Small Catechism. It is a question that comes from your own human experience.

But let me assure you, in these simple gifts of Christ’s body and blood, Jesus is offering you all the treasures he brought from heaven. And we all need that means of encouragement. You may have a week like mine- my father –in-law moved into our home, my sister died, my son’s transmission went out on his car, and then life became comical with disappointments. You wonder how you can keep going.

My friends, even when you are filled with doubts and questions, Jesus wants you to come to his table to be strengthened. Even as you wait for your own miracle to happen, he invites you to taste and see. In this holy sacrament, Jesus offers you all the treasures he has brought from heaven- his encouragement, perseverance, strength, patience, grace, and so much more. In the bread and wine, he offers the assurance that a miracle can happen even in your broken life. Yes, when all the world seems to be crashing down around you, when sin and evil have overtaken you, and when your dreams have been shattered, Jesus enters through these gifts bringing you new hope, wonder and life. As Martin Luther’s writes in his Small Catechism, there is nothing more needed from you then a believing and seeking heart.

Mary’s act of love, so lavish and extravagant, is a wonderful foreshadowing of the greater gift yet to be revealed, when God would offer to the world the gift of his only begotten son. You see, God’s love for you cannot be held back. His precious love for you cannot be spared. It is opened, offered and used, at great price. And every time we celebrate holy communion, we celebrate God’s love for us and that Jesus has come offering all the treasures of heaven.

So how will you respond to God’s great love? Will your words echo the sentiments of Judas, “This was truly wasted?” Or will your response be that of the unassuming Mary, who could do nothing more than offer everything she had, her most precious treasure and her tears? Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.