Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are many good Irish sayings fitting the story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. There is the classic toast, “May you be in heaven a half-hour before the devil knows you are dead.” Or perhaps, “May you live long, die happy, and a rate a mansion in heaven.” And of course, “May your neighbors respect you, Trouble neglect you, The angels protect you and heaven accept you.” Then again, there’s the story of Gallagher. He opened the morning paper and was dumbfounded to read in the obituary column that he had died. He quickly phoned his best friend Finney. “Did you see the paper?” asked Gallagher. “They say I died!” Finney replied, “Yes, I saw it!” Then he added thoughtfully, “So Gallagher, where are you callin’ from?”
Like toasts at a wake, there are all sorts of responses in life to events that happen. There may be sadness, joy, disbelief and laughter. But how do we respond to miracle? This morning’s gospel reading of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume is the response to the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus, the brother of the two sisters Mary and Martha 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 truly the resurrection and the life. But their confidence 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. 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?”
The scene in today’s gospel reading of Jesus’ dinner in Bethany, however, offers two responses to a miracle. Let us consider the response of Mary and that of Judas, and ask ourselves, which one is our most natural response.
For Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha, there was no choice but to celebrate. The shroud of mourning had been cast off, and pall of death had been lifted. A feast had to be 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. No gift could express her gratitude. No words could contain her thoughts. No gesture could convey her thankfulness and love.
Unfortunately, as Mary, Martha and Lazarus discovered, even those closest to Jesus can be shaken at their spiritual core- especially when sickness, tragedy and death destroy our perception of God’s love and loyalty towards us. But my friends, in spite of the world’s troubles, there is a distinct quality to the Christian faith which has been true of Jesus’ followers throughout the centuries. It is a confidence that Jesus has the power to work a miracle. The followers of Jesus do not presume to know the will of God, nor do they always know what they ought to ask for. But they are entirely certain of God’s love for them, and his compassion toward them, and his power to carry through what no one else could do for them. They leave it at that with the quiet, contented and sometimes frustrated minds. It is the assurance that nothing in all creation can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. When my brother was dying from leukemia, my sister-in-law said, “I can’t be angry with God. I need him so much to hold my life together.” Yes, Jesus’ followers trust that miracles happen. So, even when you are filled with doubts and questions, Jesus wants you to come to him to be strengthened. Even as you wait for your own miracle to unfold, he invites you to come and wait with him.
In contrast, ponder 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 the 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 of 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. My friends, your response to God’s miracles isn’t simply about the offering of your personnel treasures. For many today, even kneeling before the feet of Jesus and giving thanks is awkward and unnatural. They feel no debt of gratitude for his grace and mercy, and certainly, no pain or sorrow for his sacrificial, and life giving death.
In this world, we are often surrounded by skeptics. But frankly, more damage can be done by doubting followers than questioning elusive outsiders of the faith. Judas watched as Mary poured the expensive oil over Jesus’ feet. The guests at the table too watched as Mary let down the tightly wrapped hair from around her head. They marveled as she wept and, kissed Jesus’ feet, anointing his feet with the perfume as a gesture of deepest love, drying his feet with her long, falling hair. Some were moved, and no doubt others, like Judas, scoffed. It was truly a lavish act. But was it beautiful or naïve? In but a few days, Jesus himself would be crucified, and for a second time, the perfumed oil would be prepared. There would be nothing economical or sparing about this man’s death, just as there had been nothing economical about his life. In him, the extravagance of God’s love was made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy was made manifest. He offered his only begotten son.
My friends, the story of Jesus’ death upon the cross, God’s love for you in Jesus cannot be held back. . His precious love for you cannot be spared. It is opened, offered and used, at great price. His life was raised up and poured out for the life of the world and for you, emptied to the last drop. So how do you respond to such a love and such a miracle? Do your words echo the sentiments of Judas, “This was truly wasted?” Or is your response that of the unassuming Mary, who could do nothing more than offer everything she had, her most precious treasure and her tears? Only you can decide. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.