Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on June 14 2009.
Is there ever a good time to sky jump out of an airplane? Apparently, former President George H. W. Bush thinks so.
If you’ve been following the news this week, you know the elder President Bush chose to celebrate his 85th birthday by parachuting out of a plane over his Kennebunkport, Maine home. He made the tandem jump from 10,500 feet, and zoomed downward in a freefall at more than 100 mph before his jumping partner pulled their parachute.
It turns out President Bush has now jumped from a plane seven times in his life. The first was during World War 2 when he was forced to bail out of a plane that was shot down over the Pacific. All of us would agree that was a good time to jump.
But all the other jumps have been voluntary, including jumps he made to celebrate his 75th and 80th birthdays. Once he even jumped just after having hip-replacement surgery. Many of us would say that was terrible timing! When he completed his jump this week, he said he had so much fun he planned to do it again on his 90th birthday.
“Just because you’re an old guy,” Bush said to reporters, “you don’t have to sit around drooling in the corner,” he said. “Get out and do something. Get out and enjoy life.”
Now, some may say the former President should act his age and stick to shuffleboard. I say the man is right on target, and has a great sense of timing.
One question that will thread its way through today’s sermon is, “What is good timing, anyway?” Maybe George Bush’s sky jumps prove it’s harder to determine good timing than we think.
So, for example, is it a good time to talk about giving generously to our church? What pastor in his or her right mind would talk about such a thing these days? For one thing, it’s the second Sunday of June, people are in a vacation mode, and stewardship sermons are traditionally best left to the Fall when we’re back in the meat of the church schedule.
More importantly, we are still laboring through the worst recession since the Great Depression. Some experts are beginning to see glimmers of hope here and there, but these are still tough times when many of us are tempted to hide money in our mattresses and under our pillows, not give more to charitable causes like the church. We instinctively feel the need to cut back and save for that rainy day, and given the financial storms raging all around us, it certainly seems like that rainy day is here.
Nevertheless, I want to talk about giving generously these days to our church. And for the purposes of full disclosure, you should know the Finance Committee has asked me to talk about giving right here, right now. They think it’s good timing because as of the end of May our budget deficit is running almost $110,000. We’re used to running deficits around here until December. But to have a deficit that high before the dog days of summer is alarming to them and me.
Soon, you’ll be getting a letter from church leaders that will ask you to consider doing something as counterintuitive as sky-jumping at 85—being even more generous in your giving during a tough recession. The truth is, we need to narrow our budget deficit to some degree by the early Fall or we will likely have to adjust our budget before the end of this year.
Now, I don’t particularly enjoy hammering away on the topic of giving, especially in times like these. But today I’m going to do it unapologetically because I’m so proud of what our church is doing these days, and I’d rather not have to cut back on our mission and ministry. I’m proud that in the middle of a recession we’re still supporting a team of youth and adults to minister to our truly poor friends in the Dominican Republic. I’m proud that we’re offering the Triad Job Search Network to support and resource unemployed folk in our area. By the way, I’m awfully proud of Lori Carter, who doesn’t even work here anymore, who continues to lead that ministry even as she herself is unemployed. And I’m proud of Judy Eustice who is still giving us great leadership in evangelism and outreach even though her position was also eliminated.
I’m proud that we offer a television ministry, as expensive as it is, to our community in these difficult days. I’m proud that we’re knocking ourselves out to get our facilities to the standard they need to be, not just so we’ll be ready to host the CBFNC General Assembly next year, but for the glory of God. I’m proud that we went out of our way to host a homeless shelter, that we house the finest children’s center in this area, that we just voted to partner with the Winston-Salem Street School in our Sixth Street property. I’m proud of our staff and volunteers who work hard to make this happen.
As a church we’re giving generously of ourselves in very difficult times. And for that to continue, you and I are going to need to be generous in our giving, even in hard times.
You know, when times are tough, you need a role model to inspire you to be at your best. The Bible gives us such a role model. Her name is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
At first glance, you could easily question Mary’s sense of timing. Her sister, Martha, certainly did. One day Jesus happened to drop by Mary and Martha’s house for a visit. Martha got busy fixing dinner for their important dinner guest because in those days extending the proper hospitality to a guest was a big deal. Mary, on the other hand, plopped herself down on the floor at Jesus’ feet and listened to all he said. By the way, sitting at Jesus’ feet was the traditional pose for a disciple of Jesus.
Martha became quite irritated at Mary. In a matter of words, Martha said to Mary and Jesus, “This is no time to be having Bible study. Mary, you need to be helping me fix dinner. And Jesus, you need to encourage Mary to help me. I don’t need Mary later. I need Mary now!”
Jesus response is unforgettable. In effect he says, “Martha, maybe fixing dinner now isn’t as important as you think. In fact, your sister Mary has perfect timing. She understands there’s nothing more important that she can do in this moment than learn from me.”
Interesting. What looks like terrible timing is actually great timing.
Later, you remember, Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus suddenly becomes deathly ill. As Lazarus rapidly declines, his sisters frantically send word to Jesus to come, and come now, to help their brother. Jesus inexplicably stays put for two more days, and then heads to Lazarus’ home in Bethany.
Talk about bad timing! The disciples think going to Bethany now is bad timing because the Jews in that area have just tried to stone Jesus. The sisters’ think it’s bad timing because Lazarus dies during the delay. But Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. When he finally arrives at Lazarus’ home, he raises Lazarus from the dead, causing many Jews in the community to believe in him.
But the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead cuts both ways, and other Jews are bent on killing Jesus. So Jesus leaves Bethany with his disciples and lays low again for a while. Then, six days before the Passover, or six days before Jesus knows he will die on a cross, he returns to the home of Lazarus in Bethany, just two miles outside Jerusalem.
When Jesus returns, Martha goes into her meal-preparation mode again and cooks a dinner fit for a king. This time, no one can accuse Martha of bad timing, because this is an honor well-deserved. After all, Jesus brought her brother back from the dead.
Mary gets into the act, too. But before we review what Mary does, let me ask this question. Can you think of a good time to take the equivalent of a year’s wages to buy a bottle of very expensive perfume and then pour it on somebody’s feet?
Mary not only thought of a time—she did it! While Jesus was reclining for his meal, Mary took a bottle of pure nard, a very expensive ointment imported from the Himalayas. She poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Judas Iscariot, who will eventually betray Jesus, goes ballistic on the spot, objecting that this is a brazen act that shows incredibly poor taste and even worse timing. Judas, who is the sticky-fingered treasurer of the disciples, can’t imagine there’d ever be a time when you would willingly part with a year’s wages for something as stupid as pouring perfume on somebody’s feet. Since it was common to give to the poor in the days leading up to Passover, if you wanted to give alms to the poor, fine, and Judas says as much. But this kind of reckless waste is inexcusable.
Martha and Lazarus don’t say a thing that’s recorded. But you couldn’t blame them for thinking, “You know, Mary, we have no money in savings for a rainy day. What are you doing taking your most precious possession and pouring it out on Jesus’ feet?”
And then there is the issue of Mary letting down her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. This was seen as a sexually suggestive act on Mary’s part, and here she is doing it with the holy Son of God, for crying out loud, who by the way, seems to be enjoy every minute of his foot massage!
Finally, the normal use for expensive perfume was anointing a body for burial. Mary may have been saving the perfume for her own burial, or the burial of a loved one. Indeed, when Jesus rises to defend Mary from the attack of Judas Iscariot, he says, It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. But Jesus is still very much alive. So isn’t anointing Jesus while he’s alive still another evidence that Mary is guilty of poor judgment and terrible timing?
Before I answer that, let me ask another question. When is the best time to shower someone with words of love and affirmation? After they are dead, and lying in a coffin at a funeral? Or while they are still alive? Surely the best time to show our love is while people are alive, and yet how often do we wait until they’re dead to show our love and affection?
Listen again to Jesus’ words: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” By implication Jesus is saying, “And Mary is showing an impeccable sense of timing by showering me with her love and affection while I’m still here.”
Here’s what I admire about Mary. She doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. She is eternally grateful to Jesus for bringing her dead brother back to life, and she is bound and determined to demonstrate her love for him. In effect, Mary is obeying the most important command Jesus ever gave, namely, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume doesn’t mean she is oblivious to the needs of the poor, or to the fact she might need a safety net for a rainy day. It means she wants Jesus to know she loves him with every fiber of her being. And she wants him to know it before he dies on his cross.
Speaking of bad timing, can you ever imagine a scenario when it would make sense to lay down your life in the prime of your life—at age 33? It would be one thing at age 85 to say—okay, I’m ready to give my life to save others. But 33? Talk about bad timing!
And yet the Bible says in the fullness of time, God sent his son to this earth to live for us, and die for us, that we might have eternal life. And while it may not look like it, nobody has better timing than God.
Whenever I think of the Dominican Republic, I can’t help but think about what Monty Yoder did there years ago. Can you ever think of a worse time to rub lotion over the skin of people than when you’re visiting a leprosarium? I certainly can’t, but that’s exactly what Monty did to several folks suffering with that skin disease. Monty was guilty of terrible timing. Or was he?
See, disciples of Jesus know that there is no bad time to dig down deep and give our finest love for him, and for those he loves. In fact, every time we give generously of ourselves and our resources at those seemingly bad times, we make the greatest impact for the Kingdom, and trigger major transformation in our own souls.
So yeah, now is a terrible time to think about giving more to the Kingdom of God through our church.
Or is it?
I’ll let you and the Lord decide.