This is an address in two parts. The larger and second part of the sermon will explore an appeal of the heart from today’s Gospel. I planned for this to link with the face-to face comments of these opening words. These are about the changes each of us this very moment experiences. This is my first Sunday as your Acting Rector. Yes, we are old friends with connections over a couple of years – but today differs from every church gathering of the past seven years.
Today everything is different. Clive and Glenda Watkins move out of the Rectory on Tuesday, then settle into new parish life. Even though our service words are much as they always have been, the gathering has changed and you bring with you a fresh emotion. Clive and Glenda were your friends as well as your pastoral companions: now there is radical change, the parting of friendships. You may write to each other or see each other on some rare occasions, but Sunday-by-Sunday you will miss their company.
Grief and loss mark today’s meeting; I see it on some of your faces. I look around at each of you and know that in your personal and private lives every one of you has some time in your life already been at this place of loss. A friend or partner has died, a child has left home, a close neighbour has moved interstate; there has been a divorce or an unspeakable tragedy; life from that point on was forever different.
Your emotions reflect these changes – confusion, anger, pain, uncertainty; will you come to church next Sunday or will you steadily fall silent and then drift away? Can you trust this stranger with your inmost thoughts? What do you do with grief?
If you were not in church, in this stylised context, but at home, when you lost the companionship of partner, child, neighbour or close friend, you know already what you would do. There could be tears, soul searching, challenge, anger, silence, recrimination, relief – you can name these as well as I can. You needed to be with someone who would listen to you – not some prattler with consoling words and religious clichés. You wanted to know that your passion was understood and accepted.
Be sure to talk with each other about this latest grief in your lives. Tell it with the anger and the confusion you feel: listen to each other with the passion that brings you into community each Sunday. Draw inwards with the urgency of today’s Gospel where passion is seen in action and not in words. Listen for the anger and grief of the Mary of this story; grasp it in such a way that you can visualise the depth of grief and the passion of love and renewal.
Today with the best of my ability I follow in the steps of Clive Watkins: I will try to ‘do church’ as he would but with my own expression of who I am and what motivates me. The Diocese expects me as a locum to ‘hold the fort’. That is probably wise direction if I am here in this role for a handful of weeks. But if they stretch to months, ‘holding the fort’ risks dragging us into inactivity and apathy. So today, as you will already have noticed, the service is ‘as usual’; the next weeks will probably be much the same. But change here and in pastoral connection is inevitable if we are to continue growing as a mature community.
I will invite you to participate more in the Sunday and weekday activities. This has happened already this morning with Sue and George Emeleus playing organ and violin to accompany the Taize chant. My interest in liturgical experimentation will occasionally feature: I hope you offer comment – negative or positive. We are now in this together, working through grief to new places of personal discovery. Mary, in the story following, may offer some clues for living faith in the face of loss.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about half a litre of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” … “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you but you will not always have me.” (New International Version)
All four Gospels tell this story, but tell it in very different ways. Each writer takes what must have been a memorable event in Jesus’ life and applies it, much as we do in a sermon, to their own situation: the differences are as significant as the similarities.
I will have to leave you to fathom which story may have been original and which life situation might have prompted it. So, at the outset I want to make clear that much of what I intend to say this morning comes from my imagination and the general way that I read and construe the Bible. You may well arrive at different conclusions.
The first thing to notice is that despite a long history of interpretation, the central figure in John’s version of the text may well be Mary Magdalene but she is not a street woman. That conclusion is a mater of textual debate. Here, she does not need definition or explanation: she simply brings her identity as woman – no apologies, no arguments about roles, no comment yet in the story about the appropriateness of her behaviour. She is the model of every woman in this congregation who feels no need to plead her presence or right to be seen and heard. And she is central to the story.
We meet her several times in John’s Gospel. In your quiet moments read the previous chapter in John’s Gospel. With her sister Martha she offers hospitality and she bears grief at her brother’s death. She welcomes Jesus and his friends into her home but questions his actions: did Jesus really understand the depth of her grief; why did he hold back when she needed him most? And then there was that really strange conversation about her and her brother rising at the last day.
If you put these Mary stories together you meet a woman who has plumbed the depths of despair and from that point has faced her own mortality and the recovery of her sense of worth and destiny. Fifty years ago a close friend and colleague told me about the death of his father and then added: ‘Death changes you’. The words have stayed with me ever since.
Almost every week I conduct a funeral; I visit the family and work with them to shape a special service to honour their partner, child, parent or sibling. I watch how death changes the living, sometimes I admit for the worse, but in most cases the grieving and the funeral become a moment when the spirit finds its anchor. The questions about ‘why’ that we so often ask find their resolution in the ways that we remember and reach out. Death is a life journey.
That observation is a key to today’s text. Whatever the immediate cause, the woman of this story has balanced profound loss with profound love. Her act of wilful generosity causes consternation and Judas raises the obvious question about budget constraints: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”
But love does not own those constraints: love is about abandoning yourself to ‘the other’. Yes, Judas’ question and comment have validity. In a world of need there is no cause for waste but what about the times you have held someone and whispered that you loved them. Was that a moment to discuss balancing the household budget? Do you remember those occasions in your life when you knew deep inside yourself that you must write a letter to a friend, or tell a frightened child that they are beautiful and courageous?
Jesus’ observation that “You will always have the poor among you” is not about avoiding responsibilities: it is about seeing where love can embrace and heal. Relatively recently I worked for a faith-based Charity, some days with unemployed people, sometimes in the hostels for women escaping violence and young people dealing with addiction. Always I learnt one thing, beauty and hope are there if you take the trouble to watch and to listen.
The woman in our story “took expensive perfume, poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair”. That was the love of simply being ‘woman’. One day the Charity CEO told me about a remote Indigenous community in the Northern Territory. Years before they had been gathered from various clans and tribes onto a church run mission, now they had some very limited government and local administration. The elders had written to our faith-based Charity asking for training support for their own Indigenous workers.
Daily they dealt with community violence, drunkenness and sexual abuse. They were not crying victimhood: they wanted human resources to help them gain the skills that would assist in the recovery of community. Specifically they asked the Charity to send them its missionary first of all – and that meant me as the National Chaplain. If they could accept me, they would accept the Charity. So I found myself some five-hour drive south of Katherine, greeted by the men and women who were the community elders. We met in the community hall. Their first question was about my childhood – not money, not resources, but who was this person come to them as a man and not as the bearer of gifts. They asked who I was not what I did. And so I told them a story that I will not repeat here.
Lest this sound too dramatic and distract from the actual focus of what I wish to say here, it is enough to add that I was a 1940s inner-city, lonely, love-starved latch-key kid who learnt how to fend for himself and survive. The contrast with these people’s childhood experiences should have set me a universe apart.
As I spoke now one, now another, gathered me in their arms and wept: it was as if I was their child. I was a man with nothing more to offer than myself. By contrast my life was privileged with opportunities to rise up the social ladder and as an adult to establish myself. But right then, none of that mattered. We met each other at the place where love recreates.
The woman of today’s story knew the meaning of passion, the passion that was her love and his journey to death. Just days before the betrayal and crucifixion this woman saw deep within herself the need to just be and let be. This sort of love models Christian service. It has nothing to do with being specially devout or religious and nothing to do with counting the dollars of aid or even serving the needy: at this point of discovery “the poor you have with you always”. The passion of love is the motivator.
The Gospel story tells us about Mary’s self-giving vulnerability. What we learn from her is to offer the generosity of our love for the healing and restoration of others. As Good Friday and Easter Day come, that story will be repeated in ways that drive home its meaning and application. Today, in each person’s grief there are no easy words or religious clichés. We wait and listen, and sense a hint of change without yet knowing where it will lead:
I weave a silence on to my lips
I weave a silence into my mind
I weave a silence within my heart
I close my ears to distractions
I close my eyes to attractions
I close my heart to temptations
Let the Voice of Beauty
and the Touch of Love
still all tumult within me
and enfold me in peace.
My soul waits, silent for God,
for God alone, my salvation,
alone my rock, my safety,
my refuge: I stand secure.
A Meditation Homily based on the Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday in Lent, John’s Gospel chapter 12, verses 1-8. The address was offered at the Eucharist held at St George’s Church, Paddington, NSW, 17 March 2013.