One of the experiences we are able to have as ministry experience scheme participants is preaching in our placement churches. On the 7th April (5th Sunday of Lent), both Natalie and I were down to preach at our respective services. It’s something that’s still quite new to both of us, but especially for me – this was only the second time I have preached, following on from about a month ago. So for anyone who’s interested to see what we preach about when they let us loose on the congregations, here you go!
Natalie’s sermon was for the BCP Eucharist at her placement church, and her reading was John 8:46-end.
Our gospel reading today comes at the end of a chapter in John’s gospel throughout which Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and has been repeatedly questioned and tested. He continually responds in ways the accusers don’t expect: by questioning their sins when they bring to him a woman caught in adultery; using their own laws of testimony to witness to his identity and message; and causing them to think about their parentage, and whether Abraham is more important a father figure to them than God. Throughout it all, Jesus is trying to figure out how deep their faith runs.The part we’ve just heard reads almost like a comedy sketch, where two parties are arguing, but the only ‘counterargument’ is one person aimlessly contradicting everything the other says; everything Jesus says, there is a “yes, but…” waiting in response.
Jesus says: “I’m telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me?!”
The others respond: “Yes, but you have a demon.”
“Believe what I say and you won’t die, but you’ll be with God forever.”
“Yes, but Abraham died, so you must be lying.”
“My Father told Abraham that I would come, and Abraham rejoiced! Before Abraham was, I am.”
“Yes, but how can you know what Abraham thought? You’re committing blasphemy.”
Back and forth this goes throughout the whole chapter. Jesus is questioned and accused, but his concern is not with what the Pharisees say about him, but with what they say about his Father. Here, his concern is not that they think that he has a demon, but that they think he is dishonouring God.
It’s sad to say, but I’m sure that many of us have experienced times in our lives when we’ve been bullied, whether as children or as adults. It can be difficult to ignore hurtful comments about our appearance, or something we’ve done or said, but most of us are able to hold our tongues and ignore or brush I off what is being said. But when those comments are directed at a loved one, I imagine that most of us would find it much more difficult not to speak out against it. Jesus doesn’t respond to the comments about his having a demon with further insults, instead he seeks to defend the honour of his Father. “I honour my Father, and you dishonour me” he tells them.
So often in the gospels, conversations with Jesus centre on those asking the questions never quite being able to comprehend the answers, and our reading today is no different. The group who are questioning him take everything that Jesus says at face-value, often missing the deeper meaning of his words. What Jesus is trying to tell them is that through him they already have the key to eternal life: believing his teachings and following him is all they need to do. Yet they remain fixated on their ancestry and connection to Abraham. And when Jesus tells them that Abraham rejoiced when he saw what Jesus – his descendant – would do, the Jews become fixated on the physical limits of this statement. “You can’t have seen Abraham, you’re not even 50!” they tell him.
I think the responses of this group can speak to us today about the ways in which we can allow ourselves to be distracted from the personal and spiritual sides of our faith. We may now be 5 weeks into Lent, but we still have time yet before we reach Easter weekend with all its sorrow and celebration. Lent is a time of prayer and penitence, as we seek to draw closer to God. Often, we give or take up things for Lent – in the past I’ve given up chocolate, crisps, or biscuits, or taken up doing a good deed every day. But reading this passage in John’s gospel made me wonder whether we too can get fixated on the material and overlook the spiritual?
Jesus’ age is a real moment of distraction for the Pharisees. They can’t comprehend what he is telling them because they are too concerned with how a thirty year old man knew what Abraham said 2000 years before. When Jesus tells them “before Abraham was, I am”, he is identifying himself with God. “I am” is what God says to identify himself to his people – for example, when God appears to Moses in the burning bush, Moses asks “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”, God replies “I am who I am.” By using it himself, Jesus is signifying his divinity – that he is both fully God and fully human; but they are too distracted by Jesus’ physicality to grasp his divinity. I wonder in what ways we – today – can be distracted from what God is trying to tell us?
For Lent this year, I wondered about giving up the things that I’ve given up in the past, but then realised that I had a selfish motivation behind this – I wasn’t thinking about giving them up to improve my Lenten discipline, but so that I could eat healthier and maybe lose some weight! There are other areas too where I worry that I am like the people in our reading – being distracted by concerns about whether certain biblical events really happened, spending time on social media when I’ve woken up early to pray, or worrying too much about what I’m saying when leading intercessions instead of actually praying them myself. These things have the potential to distract me from my relationship with God. I need to become more aware of the times when I do things in the name of my faith – like giving things up for Lent – which are actually for my own self-interest, rather than for building up my relationship with God. I believe that there is a risk that when we focus on the material things, on the things that can distract us from our relationship with God, we can overlook the deeper, more spiritual, things.
And so, my challenge to myself – and to all of us – is to not let the outward actions of our faith distract from our relationship with God. Let’s use the remainder of Lent to seek to draw closer to God in prayer, using this time to deepen that relationship, remind ourselves of God’s love for us, and build up the foundations on which the outward workings of our faith are built.
I did my sermon at both churches in my placement parish – Morning Worship at one followed by Holy Communion at the other. My reading was John 12:1-11.
So today’s gospel reading – the anointing of Jesus. I’ve always had the sense with this passage, that there’s something beautiful going on here, but I’ve never quite understood what. Whenever I’ve tried to picture it, tried to understand what it is about it that’s beautiful, I just get caught on the fact that to me, pouring perfumed oil on someone’s feet and wiping them with your hair is a bit weird. It’s not something that happens in our culture. Maybe you’re the same – after all, none of us are familiar with the culture of Jesus’ time. So what is going on here?Well, we’re told that Jesus is at a dinner party – that’s a familiar enough setting for us! It’s held at the house of someone called Simon the Leper – who, given his description as a leper, is probably a bit of an outcast, this isn’t high society we’re talking about. Jesus is surrounded by his friends and disciples, most of whom were people who society looked down on and shunned. Probably none of them were very rich themselves, certainly some of them were quite poor. And Mary comes along, with this jar of expensive perfume, worth about a year’s wages. And she opens it and she pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet, then wipes them with her own hair. If we put aside what might be our first reaction of thinking that this sounds odd or awkward, I think we can recognise it as wonderfully outrageous – Mary is breaking so many social rules and conventions, and in a society where women were expected to be meek and mild, unassuming, and generally keep out of the way, Mary bursts in to centre stage with reckless abandon and extravagance. Why?
To understand Mary’s action, I want to challenge us all to put ourselves into her place. You’ve known this man, Jesus, for some time. You know there’s something significant about him. You’ve spent hours listening to him teach. When your brother died you couldn’t bear to see him and when he asked to see you, you spoke out of your pain, and you said to him ‘if you were here, my brother would not have died’. He didn’t argue, he didn’t reason with you, he didn’t even defend himself. He wept with you. He shared your grief. And then, a miracle! He visited your brother’s tomb, told him to come out, and there was your brother, alive again after four days. Utter joy at seeing your brother turned to utter awe at this man who raised him from the dead – do you dare believe that this man is the promised messiah? Whoever he is, there’s something about God in him, and you can barely believe he cares about you. Why would he? You’re just you, unremarkable, ordinary – he’s the Lord! How else can you respond to his extravagant, unbelievable love for you, than by giving all you have, placing yourself at his feet and blessing him in any way you possibly can? What do the judgemental stares and pious outrage around you matter when you’re worshipping, yes worshipping this man who you believe might just be God?
But then Judas breaks the moment of Mary’s worship, he’s angry about this apparent waste. He points out that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor – a whole year’s wages could have done a lot of good. John’s gospel accuses him of saying this because he was a thief, but the point remains. Jesus doesn’t require us to spend lots of money worshipping him – so why did he defend Mary’s extravagance over giving money to the poor?
Jesus’ line of reason might sound harsh – there’ll always be poor people, help them some other time. I’m not here for long, so worship me while you still have the chance. But I think if we look at it a bit more carefully, it makes sense. Jesus isn’t denying the good of helping the poor. In fact, the word worship comes from the word worth – to worship is to affirm worth in another, praising or glorifying them because you recognise their overwhelming worthiness. If we take this understanding of worship as affirming worth, then I think that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would equally be a valid way of worshipping Jesus – affirming his worth by showing his teachings as worthwhile enough to follow. What I think Jesus is affirming is the uniqueness of Mary’s action. He’s not saying that Mary anointing him is the only way she could ever worship him, or intrinsically better than another way. I think what he’s saying is that Mary is in a unique position, historically, socially, relationally, where she is drawn to worship him in this way, and this unique way she is able to worship could be understood as her personal vocation of worship – she is called to worship in this way because of who she is. Sure, someone else could equally anoint Jesus’ feet – in fact in Luke’s gospel there is an account of a similar event where a different woman anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume. But it is only Mary who can worship him in this way, at this moment in time, for this purpose – anointing him with perfume less than a week before the Passover, in order to prepare him for burial. This was the unique way Mary was called to worship Jesus.
And that is not to say that her act of worship was better than someone else’s act of worship. We, living in Cornwall in the 21st century, cannot anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume to prepare him for burial. That is not the way we are uniquely called to worship him. There are many ways we might worship God – perhaps by worshipping here together on a Sunday morning, or maybe by showing God’s commands to be worthwhile by striving to follow them – loving our neighbour, acting to defend the oppressed in society, fulfilling the needs of the world around us. We might worship God by caring for the world God created and thereby deeming it worthy. We might worship by demonstrating God’s love to a friend, by listening and by caring. We might worship by praying with God. All these things and more are things which affirm and uphold God’s worth, and so they are worship, and so they are good.
And I believe there is a way that each one of us can uniquely worship, as Mary did by anointing Jesus’ feet. Not necessarily some way of worshipping that no-one else has ever done before – it is not the action which is unique, but the fact that it is us who do it. Each of us, with our individual personalities, experiences, minds, hearts, using all those things which God loves, each of us, can worship in a particular way which is made unique by our doing it. So how do we find this unique way we are called to worship? Mary didn’t spend years listing all the ways she might worship Jesus and try to decide which best fitted her personality, her abilities, or her context. Worship was the only thing she could do in that moment. Perhaps it is by copying Mary, by worshipping simply as we can, worshipping in the way we have to as we experience God’s reckless love for us, that we discern the way that we are uniquely called to worship. Maybe it is by worshipping and watching for God’s love being visible that we find where we can affirm God’s worth, find where we can experience God’s worth. Maybe it is by worshipping as only we can, using everything about ourselves that God has created and that God loves, that we can most authentically give worth to God. And I believe it is in those moments that we can most truly know the worth that God so lovingly affirms in us.