Sermon for Lent 5 High Mass Sunday 13 March 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
In both Old and New Testaments, places associated with God and with Jesus, with major figures and events in the history of the people take on an enduring significance.
Abraham at the oaks of Mamre where he entertained the mysterious strangers. Bethel ‘the house of God,’ where Jacob had his vision of the ladder reaching up to heaven.
The mountain of God, SInai or Horeb, where Moses encounters God in the burning bush and later receives the law. The Red Sea and the wilderness which God leads the people through when he has rescued them from slavery in Egypt: which Isaiah reminds the people of when they are in exile in Babylon.
There are too places with negative reputations: Egypt and Babylon, Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the New Testament, we find a series of places associated with Jesus and the people he gathers around him: Bethlehem where he is born; Nazareth where he grows up; the Jordan where he is baptised; the wilderness where he fasts and is tempted; the Sea of Galilee where he calls his disciples and stills the storm There are the places associated with his passion and death: the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple; the upper room where he eats the last supper with his disciples; the Garden of Gethesmane, the hill of Calvary; the garden tomb where he is buried and raised; and Bethany, the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus.
Ours is a tradition which has a high regard for holy places: for church buildings and pilgrimage sites. So it is rather surprising that we do not often name them after biblical places. Our churches tend to be named after divine mysteries like the Trinity or in honour of saints, people associated with Christ.
If we want to find Christians who name their houses of worship after biblical places, we must look, ironically, to people who have a very low theology of places and buildings: to Wales and its non-Conformist chapels: all those Ararats and Ebenezers, Bethels and Bethanies in the Valleys. Alas, like the Bethel in my brother’s village, many of them are now closed.
These biblical places are not just places locked in the past, to be read about in scriptures or visited on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Many of them, and the events and people associated with them, have a powerful symbolic meaning which continues to speak to us today, to show us things which remain true for the church and believers; if we care to look and listen.
So we turn our attention to Bethany, the people who live there and what happened there six days before the Passover which would be Jesus’ last; and his Passover from death to life.
The home Mary and Martha and Lazarus, is a place of welcome and hospitality, friendship and gratitude. In St. Luke, it is, you will recall, the place where Mary listens to the teaching of Jesus and Martha who is getting hot and bothered doing all the work in the kitchen, complains to Jesus, who tells her that Mary has ‘chosen the better part.’
In John, Jesus is there in the interval between his raising of Lazarus and the events of his passion which are played out in Jerusalem. The scene may begin peacefully enough, but the shadow of the cross soon falls over it; the harsh reality of the passion intrudes.
Mary does something extraordinary: she anoints the feet of Jesus with precious ointment; pure nard-something very expensive – the quantity mentioned would cost almost a year’s wages for an ordinary working man. Even without the expense, such a gesture on the part of a woman would have created shock waves. Not the kind of thing you would expect in All Saints, Margaret Street.
John chooses his words carefully as he tells of Mary’s actions. The verb ‘to wipe’ is the same one he will use to describe Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet at the last supper. Mary’s action points towards that foot-washing at the farewell meal. Like the raising of Lazarus and the Sanhedrin’s decision to kill Jesus, which immediately precede this episode, this story prefigures critical events in Jesus’ “hour:” the word he uses in John for the climax of his life and ministry.
The perfume’s all-pervading fragrance signals the extravagance of Mary’s act, but may have an extra significance. Earlier, Martha had tried to stop Jesus when he ordered the stone to be rolled away from the tomb of Lazarus, because of the stench that would come out if it was opened. Through Mary’s act, the stench of death which had once lingered over the household has been replaced by the fragrance of love and devotion.
In Mark’s version of this anointing story, an unnamed group protests the woman’s waste of the perfume, but in John it is Judas who does so. His major role here is another hint that John wants us to link Mary’s anointing with the events of the Last Supper.
The description of Judas makes this connection with Jesus’ death explicit, and, at the same time, robs Judas’ protest of its legitimacy. What might sound like a reasonable complaint is shown to be unworthy of trust.
Greed was one of the early Church’s explanations for Judas’ treachery. Yet the details of this description seem to suggest something else as well. Judas is labelled a ‘thief’, kleptes. This is the same word used in the Good Shepherd passage in John 10 to describe the one who threatens the flock. ‘Not because he cared about the poor’ echoes the description of the hireling’s lack of care for the sheep (10.13). When Judas betrays Jesus, he also betrays the sheep.
So John is giving us two distinct responses to the arrival of Jesus’ hour:
- Mary is the model of faithful discipleship,
- Judas of the unfaithful.
Jesus’ words, “Let her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”, affirm Mary’s action and link it with his death. Mary’s act anticipates that other anointing in John’s Gospel, at the burial of Jesus (19.38-42), and confirm the impending arrival of his “hour.”
Jesus goes on, “You always have the poor with you, you will not always have me.” He alludes to the commandment in the Jewish Law to care for the poor (Deut. 15.11). In Matthew and Mark, these words clearly rebuff the protest about money and waste. But John gives them another twist, to remind the disciples of the limited time of Jesus’ presence among them and the urgency to respond to Jesus while he is still there. Mary has recognized that time limit and responded to it.
So John sees the anointing by Mary as anticipating two events in Jesus’ hour:
- his washing of the disciples’ feet;
- and his burial.
It is in the link between them that we can see the evangelist’s distinctive understanding most clearly.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet to express his love for them and draw them into his life with God. He will ask them to repeat this act of service for one another. What Jesus will do for his disciples and will ask them to do for one another, Mary has already done for him here. So in Mary, we are given a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. Her act shows the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship and the recognition of Jesus’ identity, as the one to be worshipped, that is the decisive mark of Christian life.
Mary’s act of discipleship is highlighted in the contrast with Judas. He does not respond to the coming of Jesus’ ‘hour’ with an act of love, but with cynical and self-centered disdain. Judas’ response leads to the break-up of the flock of Jesus, whereas Mary’s models the life of love that should characterize it.
Mary seems to know how to respond to Jesus without being told. She fulfills his command of love before he teaches it to the disciples after he washes their feet. She recognizes Jesus’ ‘hour,’ his impending departure, before he has taught his followers about its true meaning. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, she had responded to Jesus’ calling for her, showing that she was one of his own, a disciple. In the anointing she shows what it means to be one: she gives boldly of herself in love, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself in love at his hour.
Jesus’ words about discipleship in the Farewell Discourse will spell out what that story shows about discipleship: it is defined by our acts of love and our response to Jesus.
So what does Bethany, the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus and what happened there have to say to us in this place?
I have been pondering this all week as I have gone about my daily tasks, so here are some thoughts.
1. There is that attention to Jesus which we find in Luke’s Gospel: that ‘better part’; that vital learning of him and from him. That is focused in our worship and prayer. When we are criticized for its extravagance, its music and ceremony and vestments, we sometimes cite those words of Jesus. And we are right to do so as long as what we do has two vital elements: that is it filled with prayer and loving devotion to our Lord, (worship, however beautiful, which exists only to keep God and others at a safe distance, is no worship at all); and that it issues in care for the poor.
2. There is hospitality, being a place of welcome and kindness. We are seeing a huge upsurge of rough sleeping in London. Some churches across the diocese open their buildings as “night shelters” for the homeless. We have found ourselves becoming a “day shelter.” Sometimes, this building is filled not with the fragrance of incense but with the stench of poverty. Most of our guests are very little trouble, but this is not always the case. Over this past week or more one of them, who is not an immigrant from Eastern Europe of Africa but a Brit, has been climbing over the gates at night and using the courtyard where you will be having your coffee after mass as a urinal.
Yesterday morning, he was doing this when my daughter and I got back to the house. When I remonstrated with him, we were treated to a tirade of abuse and threats of violence. Fr. Michael and I are “paedophiles,” (the stock insult directed at the clergy these days). I won’t repeat what he said to and about my wife and daughter. Later in the day, my wife went into Martha and Mary mode, bought the cleaning equivalent of pure nard and washed down the polluted areas so that you would not have to endure the stench this morning.
But life here is not all like that; there are lovely and poignant moments too. On Friday lunchtime, we had in the congregation at mass one of our Friends, Elaine Bullock. She had come up from her home in Southsea because it was the 30th anniversary of her daughter Rosie’s death. Rosie had been a member of the congregation here, and Elaine remains eternally grateful for all that was done for her here. There was also a man whom I had not met before. He told me at the door that he was on his way to hospital to have a brain tumour removed. He was so glad to be able to come to mass on his way there.
That evening, as Area Dean, I was at St. Paul’s, Rossmore Road, in North Marylebone to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the re-opening of the church as a building adapted to serve the needs of a community with many problems. The space in which we celebrated the mass that evening is the same one which is used for all sorts of community gatherings during the week and as a night shelter for the homeless during the winter: another Bethany. The church has a chapel, where the sacrament is reserved, set aside for both public and private prayer, day by day.
So my prayer for this place is that it will always be a Bethany: a place where Jesus is heard and met, where he is responded to with love; and where the poor are never forgotten.