A man named Jack was walking along a steep cliff. He accidentally got too close to the edge and fell.
On the way down, he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet.
He couldn’t hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff. So Jack began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something.
“Help! Help! Is anyone up there? Help!”
He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice.
“Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, yes! I can hear you. I’m down here!”
“I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?”
“Yes, but who are you, and where are you?”
“I am the Lord, Jack. I’m everywhere.”
“The Lord? You mean, God?”
“God, please help me! I promise if, you’ll get me down from here, I’ll give you everything. My money. My time. You name it. I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.”
“Easy on the promises, Jack. Let’s get you down from there; then we can talk. Now, here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.”
“I’ll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do.”
“Okay. Let go of the branch.”
“What?” asked Jack.
“I said, Let go of the branch. Just trust Me. Let go!”
There was a long silence.
Finally, Jack yelled up, “Is there anyone else up there?”
That story is funny only because we know what it’s like to be Jack. We know what it’s like to be asked to give up control and let go. It can be unnerving. It can be a very fearful thing.
During the Season of Lent, we have been focusing on different fears that can keep us from being the people that God has called us to be. Today’s fear is the fear of being generous in offering our resources. That’s understandable because sometimes we worry that if we give something away, we won’t have enough for ourselves.
I think that one of the ways that God helps us to overcome our fears of being generous is through the example of other people. Take for example our Gospel reading for today.
It’s the story of three people who were willing to let go and trust God with all of who they were. We know them as Mary, Martha, & Lazarus. They were siblings and they were close friends of Jesus. They offered their very best gifts to him in their own unique ways.
Before we look at each of them individually, I just want to mention them as a family because together, they were very generous. On more than one occasion, this family provided lodging for Jesus and his disciples after their long journeys traveling to Jerusalem. Bethany was a town just outside of Jerusalem so it was a perfect location for Jesus and the disciples to stay when they traveled to Jerusalem for the different religious festivals that took place there each year. They had formed a friendship with Jesus.
And perhaps this is where generosity begins. It begins with becoming friends with Jesus. We offer Jesus a space in our hearts where he can reside. We offer Jesus a space in our day to day living where we grow in our relationship with him.
One of the ways that we can overcome our fears is by first realizing that Jesus wants to be in a relationship with us, a real relationship that we cultivate through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. These are the five things that every person who joins the church pledges to do when they stand up here and are received into membership. This gives a whole new meaning in what it means to be part of a church family. Becoming part of a church where we are all offering our gifts is how we grow in our relationship with Christ.
So let’s take a look at our Gospel reading for this morning and see how Martha, Mary, and Lazarus offered their very best gifts to Jesus.
Let’s start with Martha. In verse 2 of our Gospel reading, we are told that they prepared a dinner for Jesus and specifically it said that Martha served. We’re not exactly sure of what that meant specifically, but it’s probably a good guess that her generosity involved cooking and hospitality.
I don’t mean to brag, but if you’re looking for someone to make sloppy joes and put out some potato chips for a family of four, I’m your man. But if you need someone to cook a real meal, you probably want to go with Martha. Martha knew how to turn a house into a home, as they say.
The incredible thing about Martha is in how she literally created a space for Jesus whenever he was in need of lodging during his long journeys into Jerusalem. Martha had a very generous and serving heart.
When our children were in elementary school, an older couple in our church always invited our family to join their family at there house on Christmas Eve. And they would always serve this incredible Christmas feast for all of us. They held it a couple of hours before the Christmas Eve service so that we would have time to get home and get ready to be at the church.
It’s now been twenty years since we’ve been at that church and we still get Christmas cards from this couple telling us how much they enjoyed those meals together. And I still remember the menu: Roast beef, potatoes, green beans, several other incredibly delicious side dishes, and for dessert, they always had grasshopper pie. This pie was a homemade mint chip, chocolate cookie crust with whipped cream on top. Basically it was like biting into heaven. It was that good!
After our meal, we would exchange gifts, laugh, and tell stories. We became really close. We felt like we were part of their family. I would later officiate at their granddaughter’s wedding that was held in Michigan. We will always be grateful to Jack and Jean and their generous hearts toward our family every Christmas Eve. They helped our children feel special while we were at that church since our families were out of state.
Those of you who love Jesus, have the gift of hospitality, treat others like they are family, and know how to make grasshopper pie, please know that your acts of love will be remembered for a long time. Martha knew to not be afraid in being generous with her gift of hospitality. Martha used her gift to serve Jesus, her family, and their friends.
But Martha’s sister, Mary is another great example for us of someone who wasn’t afraid of being generous in offering gifts to Jesus. In fact in our gospel reading, her gift was so generous, that one of the disciples even rebuked her for not giving her expensive gift to help the poor. Her gift was a very costly burial perfume which in that time period was a necessity for every person to have in order to have a proper burial.
It’s also likely that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had this gift of burial perfume to offer Jesus since they didn’t have to use it for Lazarus who Jesus had brought back to life just one chapter earlier. Ironically, Jesus who brought back Lazarus from the dead was being prepared for his own death through this incredible gift of generosity on the part of Mary.
When have you opened the costly jar of ointment to bless others?
The great Christian writer, John Bunyan wrote these awesome poetic words about generosity, “There was a man, they called him mad. The more he gave, the more he had.” Generous people teach us this all the time. The more you seek to bless others, the more you get in return.
The Psalmist for today ends his Psalm by exclaiming, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
Mary’s heart was full of joy as she anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. She knew that her generous gift for Jesus was nothing compared to what Jesus meant to her and to her family.
Mary teaches us that we can overcome any fear of generosity simply by remembering to whom our gift is being offered. And here’s another thought about overcoming fear of generosity. Imagine the incredible scent of perfume that filled that house the moment that Mary opened that jar. Burial perfume in Jesus’ day was known for it’s delightful and powerful aroma. It was a treasured item.
Reflecting on this story, someone offered these questions to consider. I love these. “When was the last time that you experienced the love and power of God in such a real way that the perfume of God’s grace lingered with you? What would our lives “look like” if we bore the aroma of the Holy Spirit? What if grace and love and compassion poured out of us in an intoxicating way.”
No wonder that some churches use incense during the worship services, to remind them of the perfume of a gracious God and a generous congregation who joyfully offer their gifts to be a blessing to others.
Martha was fearless in her generous hospitality. Mary was fearless in her generous offering, which brings us to Lazarus who offers us an example of being fearless in his generous witness as well.
Think about it. Just one chapter earlier, Lazarus was dead and Jesus brought him back to life. I’m sure that incredible story got some mileage. Lazarus was literally, a living testimony of Christ’s power at work in his life. Jesus literally breathed new life into him. He was once dead, but now was alive and could tell others about it.
How is Jesus breathing new life into you? How has God answered a prayer in your life in an unexpected way? In what ways did you experience Christ’s presence recently? We call these “thin place” moments because heaven and earth often overlap in our every day lives giving us holy goosebumps.
One of the ways that we can overcome our fear of sharing our faith with others is by becoming more alert to those thin place moments in our lives where God has breathed new life into us and then to sharing those holy moments with others. This is an important part of our small group ministry here at our church as we give each other the opportunity to reflect on how God is at work in our lives based on the previous Sunday’s worship theme.
Martha offers us the example of being fearless in our hospitality. Mary offers us the example of being fearless in our possessions. And Lazarus offers us an example of what it means to be fearless in being a generous witness of God’s life-giving presence in our lives.
And on this Holy Communion Sunday, we have the greatest example of generosity there is, Christ himself who offered his life so that we might have life in all of it’s fullness. As we come forward to receive the bread and the cup, we are invited to let go of our fears, trust God to catch us, and become the generous people that God has called us to be.
My Fears Relieved: Generosity
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 126 & John 12:1-8
April 7, 2019
Pastor Robert began his sermon by telling the story of a man who was hanging from a cliff for dear life by holding onto a branch. He calls out for help and God responds by telling him that he will catch him if he is willing to let go of the branch. After a long silence, the man shouts, “Is there anyone else up there?!”
Have you ever felt like the man in this humorous story who was fearful of letting go of the branch and trust in God? Share a time when God called you to “let go” and trust him.
Our Gospel reading is the story of a time that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who were friends of Jesus offered him hospitality and lodging during one of his trips into Jerusalem. Each of these friends of Jesus offer us an example of what it means to “let go” and trust Jesus with our gifts.
Martha offered her generous gift of hospitality by serving Jesus a meal. Share a gift that you have and how you have used or might use that gift to be a blessing to God and to others.
Mary offered her generous gift of her possessions when she anointed Jesus with very closely perfume. This gift was equivalant to a year’s worth of income.
When have you gone above and beyond in offering a financial gift to be a blessing to God and to others?
Lazarus offered his generous gift of being a witness of how Jesus restored him back to life (see John 11 for this story.) How has God breathed “new life” into you? When have you felt God’s precense at work in your life? Are you sharing these “thin place” holy moments with others so that they can be drawn closer to God?
While Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are great examples of what it means to overcome our fear of being generous through their sacrificial sharing of what they had, Jesus himself is our greatest example of generosity. Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate example of overcoming our fear of being generous by letting go and trusting God with all of who we are. When people join the church, they commit to offering their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
In what ways do you see people living out their membership vows through the church?