A Life Investment – Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

A much used, perhaps overused Lutheran trope is “the theology of the cross.” This expression is a kind of shorthand that points to the belief, to the confession that God works through, even prefers to work through unexpected means, in ways that don’t make sense, or in the last place we’d look. In Moses, God chooses a murderer with a stutter to redeem his people from slavery in Egypt. In David, God chooses a small shepherd boy to slay a giant and become the beloved king of Israel. In the prophets, each of them, God chooses someone who’s an outcast or despised or cranky—somehow the last person you’d pick to be the bearer of God’s Word, and yet that’s who God chooses. And in Jesus, God chooses death to conquer death—and not just any death, but death on the cross, an ignominious, shameful, humiliating, naked death lacking in any kind of dignity. Time and again, God defies expectation and shows us that what seems impossible is in fact quite possible with God.

And so when we consider our relationship with God, we must always, always, always put aside the “way things are” as conventional wisdom will tell us, and look with expectant, even joyful hope at what God will do. It’s this hopefulness that guides us forward and undergirds the theology of the cross, that lends it credence. Because God has been faithful down through the ages, because God has been faithful to us thus far, seeing us through even the most trying of times, to ventures of which we couldn’t see the ending, along paths as yet untrodden, and through perils unknown—because God was faithful through all that, we rest secure in God’s promise of continued faithfulness with our own hopefulness. This hopefulness in the face of the world’s conventional wisdom is itself an embodiment of the theology of the cross in our own lives, and so in that way we share with Jesus in undoing what stands in the way of God’s will. We must simply reframe how we think about it in order to see it. And so as we go deeper into the sermon today, I challenge you to reframe how you look at your own life, your own life as Jesus’ disciple, and consider the unexpected ways that God can and does use us to usher in his new world order.

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

When I born, Grandma Spigelmyer bought me savings bonds. For the next few years after that, she bought me more, and so I had quite a few of them. We kept them in a fireproof safe in the spare bedroom. They looked something like paper money, but not exactly. The thing about savings bonds is that although they have a denomination, or value printed on them like a paper money, they aren’t worth that amount until they reach maturity. The $500 savings bond that Grandma bought for me when I was born only cost her $250. It was only worth $500 after twenty years of maturing.

So when I turned twenty, I could take that savings bond to the bank, and it had doubled in value. That was the deal, if you will, when Grandma bought the bond. Pay $250 now and in twenty years, cash it in for $500—getting back what was spent for the bond outright, plus 100% interest. It’s a kind of investment—one of the safest kinds of investments, in fact, because it’s backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government.

Loads of people make investments. Investing means putting some money forward now with the expectation or goal that it will “make more” money—be it in the market, in property, in collectibles, whatever. Investing is a way to take what you have now and use it for the future, to prepare for the future with what you have now. Investing is about taking a risk now with the hope that it pays off even bigger in the future.

Investing…

Money…

They say that money is one of those topics you have to be careful talking to people about. Don’t talk about money or religion with people if you want to stay friends. And investing, well, it’s largely money talk. So let me talk to you today about both those things—religion and money! If one touchy subject weren’t enough, let’s make it two!

And let’ be honest; money is a touchy subject. But part of the reason for that touchiness is because it’s a very important thing. Money represents a certain kind of power—power to make determinations over your life. Money is a means to get things you need or want. The more money you have, the easier satisfying your needs, maybe not your wants, but the more money you have, in our society, the easier it becomes to satisfy your needs. If you don’t have enough money in our society, you run into all kinds of problems.

People worry about money a lot. Even those who have a lot of money—many of them are looking for ways to get more and more of it. Because it represents a certain kind of power. The power to make determinations over your life. Money is the means you can use make an investment in a good life. And so when we talk about money, naturally there’s some touchiness about it because who doesn’t want a good life? It makes sense after all.

But the problem with money talk is that it often comes, if not with overt as least undercurrents of judgment. People with money look around and may think, “This is my money and I’ll choose how to spend it. I don’t need someone telling me anything about my money! I work hard for it!” Or then you’ll have some who, those who likely don’t have as much money, who look around and may think, “You worked hard. You busted your tail. You made it big. Good for you. I’m genuinely glad for you. But all that big success you built, you didn’t do that all by yourself.” And so of course there’s this tension when money talk comes up. It’s just a reality. Money, or at least what it represents, is near and dear to us. It’s important—deeply important. And it’s precisely because it’s important that we as Christians should invest some energy in talking about money—and talk about it from a faith perspective.

During this season of Lent, we are looking at the five acts of discipleship. The first four weeks, we looked at the acts of worshipping, praying, serving, and studying. This last fifth week we are looking at the act of giving. In today’s gospel account, we have the story of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, and she comes up to Jesus and anoints his feet with very expensive ointment—spikenard, it’s called. Now this ointment Mary cost three hundred denarii. The amount and cost of this ointment here is simply tremendous, staggering. To put that into perspective, three hundred denarii would be worth $43,500 today—roughly equivalent to about one year’s wages for the average hourly worker in Massachusetts.

Perhaps that puts Judas’s remarks a little more in perspective for us. Of course he was shocked. We would be too. Who has $43,500 worth of ointment in a jar to just pour out on someone’s feet like this? Isn’t there some other better way we could use this money—like giving it away to the poor? Of course, we have John’s parenthetical remark about Judas being the treasurer for the disciples and that he stole from the purse, but to be honest, I can appreciate his remark at face value.

And yet Jesus reframes what Mary is doing. He reframes the value of her action. I don’t think that Jesus is scolding Judas like some have us think. Remember—Jesus called the disciples and Judas was one of the disciples. Judas, in a lot of ways, comes to represent the part in each of us that is very human, the part that God still loves though still misses the mark. Each of us, each and every one us, falls short of the glory of God’s vision. Judas is no exception. And neither am I. And neither are you. And so when Jesus speaks up to “leave her alone,” to leave Mary alone, he reframes the value of Mary’s action for not only Judas, but also for us. He tells us, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

But to use another Lutheran trope, what does this mean?

Jesus is saying that Mary has made a tremendous investment in Jesus—a tremendous, staggering investment. And in this remark about his burial, even as he lives, she is investing in what Jesus is all about. She is investing in life the way that Jesus teaches, the way that Jesus has shown is the way, the truth, and the life. Mary invests likely all that she has of earthly value in Jesus because of who he is . Only one chapter earlier in John’s gospel, where Jesus raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, Jesus declared, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Mary is investing in this promise—in newness of life. She is making a life investment. She recognizes that the mission Jesus has is one of tremendous, staggering value, and she wants to be part of it—even to the point of death.

Even though Jesus isn’t yet dead, she treats him as if he were because he is the Resurrection and the Life. And she wants to make a life investment in that, she wants to invest in that power—the power of Christ and the power of his resurrection. And by anointing his feet with her own offering, by giving something of such tremendous, staggering value, by making such a sacrifice, she identifies herself with Jesus’ sufferings and becomes like him in his death in the sure and certain hope that her investment will attain the resurrection from the dead.

It’s the relationship, folks. It’s her belief—her faith. Embodied by her complete sacrifice here…

When we speak of giving to the church, we most definitely mean day-to-day keeping up in this building, in paying staff, in taking care of bills, and so forth. It costs money to take care of the keeping this parish open and the work we do in Fitchburg and our global community. But that’s not what giving to the church is first and foremost about. Giving to the church is about investing in God’s mission—in the mission of sharing the good news that life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hate, and hope is stronger than despair. In our world, money represents power to make determinations about our own lives, and so we use money to invest in the mission of sharing the good news, determined to model our lives on the death and life of Jesus given for our sake.

Emanuel uses the money given to make a life investment—a good life investment. The money we give as disciples of Jesus to the church, to the body of Christ, is used to further God’s work on earth—using our hands, our feet, our voices, our minds. This isn’t to say that it’s perfect, but if the cross is any indication that God can accomplish his purposes despite and even through the brokenness of humanity, then we can give to the church in good faith that our investment in the mission of church will pay dividends—not only for us, but for everyone who experiences the love of God through the work we do as members of Christ’s body, even here in our particular place in our particular time.

We use our offering to make an investment—a life investment. We use our money to make an investment—a life investment in Jesus.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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