Sunday, 21 March 2010

Passion Sunday - 5th Sunday of Lent

John 12:1-8 Mary anoints Jesus

In addition to fasting and increasing prayer and scripture reading, another traditional practice of Lent is to increase our alms giving – giving out of thankfulness for what Jesus has done for us. How much to give? It’s a question many of us ask ourselves as we try to budget our income to cover all requirements. What if, out of the corner of your eye, you noticed that the person sitting next to you in the pew put onto the offertory plate a cheque made out for £20,000?

I know I would be fairly shocked if that happened today!

But what happened in our reading from John’s gospel this morning was as shocking as that. Against all concepts of rational behaviour, Mary poured out a pint of pure nard oil onto the feet of Jesus. A pint of pure nard was worth a year’s wages! Whatever your annual income, there it was, in the form of oil, poured out, onto a pair of feet! And most likely running off all over the floor!

This was six days before the Passover, in the town of Bethany, at a dinner being held in Jesus’ honour. Martha – dear Martha – was serving the food, as she had done on another occasion we might remember, when she begrudged Mary for not helping. Thank God for the Martha’s of the world who do the work, who prepare the meals, who have the gift of hospitality.

Lazarus was reclining at the table with Jesus. Lazarus and Jesus were close friends even before Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead, as John chapter 11 reports. And that wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence. Can you imagine the impact being ‘raised from the dead’ must have had on Lazarus, and on his sisters Martha and Mary? They must have been overflowing with love and gratitude for what Jesus had done! And this shows very powerfully in the scene we heard about this morning from the beginning of John 12. Mary pours out her extremely expensive essential oil on the feet of Jesus, and then wipes them with her hair.

An extravagant act of pure love. And Judas thought it was too much. Way over the top. Why wasn’t that expensive oil sold – the money could have been used for the poor. No one would have noticed if Judas had helped himself to just a bit of it... Judas, mocking the extent of Mary’s attention on Jesus.

Some people mock the devotion of Christians to Jesus. Some people mock our worship of Jesus. Some Christians mock other Christians who worship Jesus in ways that differ from their way. Psalm 1 verse 1: Blessed is the man who does not sit in the seat of mockers. Here in Bethany at this dinner held in Jesus’ honour, Judas was sitting 'in the seat of mockers'. There can be times when we play the role of ‘the spoilsport’, spoiling a sacred and special moment of another. If some want to raise their hands in praise, let them raise their hands. If some want to be still in praise, let them be still. It is all acceptable to the Lord when it is done with the motivation of heartfelt worship.

This was a special moment between Mary and Jesus – Mary seemed to know something that other people hadn’t fully realised – she seemed to know that Jesus was soon to die. What was Mary’s motivation to do this extravagant sacred act? Maybe her deep love and affection for Jesus grew from their relationship where she had learned so much from him about God and love. Maybe it was because Jesus had given her brother Lazarus back to her. Maybe it was that she knew he was going to die very soon, and she wanted to make a last loving gesture to him.

We sense that Mary was giving her most valuable possession to Jesus. We, too, are to give our very best to Jesus out of our love for him. As we hear this story, we sense that Mary’s loving gift to Jesus was a symbol of her inner love. And we sense through this story that we are invited to be the same kind of person, the same kind of disciple, to love Jesus affectionately and intimately and give him the very best of ourselves.

In Luke’s version of the situation, it is an unnamed woman who wets Jesus’ feet with tears, dries them with her hair, and covers his feet with perfume. In Luke’s version, this woman is referred to as ‘a sinner’ several times. The motivation for her loving gesture to Jesus was that Jesus had forgiven her for her many sins. Jesus then tells a parable of a man who was in debt for five hundred days of labour and another man who was in debt for fifty days of labour. Both debts were forgiven. Jesus asked, “Who was more appreciative? The man who was forgiven five hundred days of labour or the man who was forgiven fifty days of labour?” The answer was obvious: the man who was forgiven five hundred days of labour. Jesus said, “Whoever has been forgiven much, loves much. Whoever has been forgiven little, loves little.”

The reason this unnamed woman was so generous to Jesus with her tears, her tenderness, and anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume was that her sins were great and Jesus had forgiven her all her many sins. And many of us can understand the woman’s feelings towards Jesus and his abundant forgiveness, because we feel the same way.

Nothing compares with knowing Jesus and the loving forgiveness he paid for with his life. It’s the same message in the first reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul had all he needed, but he’s ready to write it all off for the sake of knowing Christ. That passage from Philippians 3 breathes the same spirit of “unreasonableness” that Mary demonstrates in anointing Jesus with pure nard; of being prepared to give everything for the love of Christ.

How can we, in our own situation and personality and century, be a bit more like Paul and Mary in our devotion? Both their lives had been deeply touched by Jesus, so much so that they wanted to give their best for him. Can that be possible for us?

Does our worship reflect a sense that our lives have been deeply touched by the living Christ? Sometimes our worship (and I include myself) can be a bit lack lustre – it can lack passion. Sometimes our personal circumstances are such that it’s all we can do to ‘go through the motions’. Other times we have no such excuse, yet something stops us from worshiping in spirit and in truth. Is it self-consciousness? Mary certainly didn’t let self-consciousness get in the way of expressing her love for Jesus.

Is it our culture? Our culture doesn’t exactly support extravagant showings of devotion to Jesus. We live in a ‘can’t-be-bothered’ culture – a culture of indifference. But the fact that we’re here in Church today means we’re not entirely indifferent to what Jesus has done for us and for the whole world.

Of course often times in church our heartfelt response is genuine, but simply isn’t outwardly apparent, but its inward appearance is seen by God, and that's what matters most. Perhaps like Lazarus we’re simply reclining with the Lord, or like Martha we’re serving him without a fuss, or like Mary had done previously, perhaps we’re sitting quietly at the Lord’s feet, learning from him. And all of this is acceptable to the Lord. Enthusiasm doesn’t have to be ‘loud’; enthusiasm is sometimes still and quiet.

But an emotionally charged response is also acceptable to the Lord; let us never sit in the seat of mockers if we happen to be in the midst of that kind of response! The motivation behind the response is what God sees. God knows whether our response is made in order to glorify him or to glorify our self.

God’s response to all that is wrong in creation was to send Jesus, who laid down his life for us. That was an irrational, extravagant response. Jesus tells us in John 10 that he came so that we may have life, and have it to the full!

How can we respond? I mentioned at the beginning that a common Lent practice is to increase our almsgiving – our financial giving to the work of the church. This is a good and important response of thankfulness for what the Lord has done. It’s something that we do secretly – no one should know how much we are giving to the church. But much more important is the giving of our hearts to the Lord.

Over the next couple of weeks as we move closer to Good Friday, and we focus even more on the cross, you may want to respond from the heart in an extravagant, costly, sacrificial way in worship of the Lord – and please don’t feel you need to hide that away so that others won’t see! I know it’s scary, and I know it can make us feel like outsiders in a world where we are mocked or treated with indifference. But we’re not called to hide our love for the Lord!

I finish with a prayer from St. Anselm: O God, we pray that we may so know you and love you, that we may rejoice in you. And if we may not do so fully in this life, let us go steadily on to the day when we come to fullness of life. Meanwhile let our minds meditate on your eternal goodness, let our tongues speak of it, let our hearts live it, let our mouths speak it, let our souls hunger for it, and our whole being desire it, until we enter into your joy. Amen.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

A Fruity Faith

Luke 13:1-9
It’s the third Sunday of Lent, and I do hope that any Lenten disciplines you’ve taken on are going better than mine! Lent is often observed by giving up luxuries to remind ourselves of the spiritual nourishment we receive through dependence on God. We heard this morning the parable of the fruitless fig tree, and that made me wonder whether anyone has given up fruit for Lent? Somehow I doubt that fruit is as frequent a source of distraction from God as chocolate can be for some people. On the contrary, I think a ‘fruity faith’ is something to aim for!

I don’t actually eat a lot of fruit, despite the fact that my home state of California is known affectionately as ‘the Land of the Fruits and the Nuts’ - and that’s not just because of its people! California has what’s known as a ‘Mediterranean Climate’, with long, hot, dry summers and short, cool, rainy winters, modified of course by altitude and latitude.

Many of the foods grown in California have been growing for millennia in other places that have also got that type of climate, like Israel and Palestine, and this includes figs. Figs are actually really interesting fruits (once you get to know them)! They were one of the very first plants to be cultivated by human beings for eating. Figs have no pits because each fruit has inside it flowers and seeds that grow together inwardly into a fleshy mass, with a skin on the outside holding it all together. Fig trees usually bear two crops of figs per year: the early harvest isn’t as plentiful as the main, later harvest, but that early crop is always eagerly anticipated as a positive sign of good things to come.

Because they are so common in the Middle East, fig trees, fig leaves and fig fruits often feature in the bible. In chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together as coverings for themselves after they ate the ‘forbidden fruit’ from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Deuteronomy 8, figs are one of the good things available for God’s people to eat in the Promised Land. And in the Song of Solomon there was a fig tree in the garden, where the emergence of its ripe fruits symbolised the fruition of love...

So this morning we heard in our reading from Luke 13 the parable of the fruitless fig tree: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' " 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' "

Essentially this parable is saying that we are created for a purpose - like the fig tree, we are to bear fruit. But it also tells us that Jesus gives us time to grow and time to bear fruit as he feeds and nourishes us with loving care. From Galatians 5, we know what kind of fruit is promised to grow in our lives, for ‘...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’.

In Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, Jesus also sees a fig tree without fruit. But in that instance, He curses the tree for its fruitlessness and it withers away. If we allow the practice of our faith to stagnate, we may discover that our faith itself has become dried up and withered. We have to keep returning to God, and to allow God to lead us into new areas of faith. Then we can grow and bear fruit.
Maintaining our faithfulness to Jesus Christ is the essential thing. As Jesus says in John 15, ‘Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’.

Well, we’re finally approaching spring and those of you who are keen gardeners know that preparation is needed for potential growth to be achieved. Fruits are seasonal –for much of the year, the trees will be storing up energy. Our faith and our spiritual growth also go through seasons. As it says in Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, ‘To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven’.

Sometimes we’re dormant for a season, in need of rest, in need of nourishment from the caretaker. Sometimes we have bursts of growth and reach up for the sky! Sometimes we bear fruits that we aren’t even aware of, because the Spirit’s work can be very gentle. Other times the fruits are obvious to all.

Through our Growth Action Planning, the GAP process that we began towards the end of last year, we have been preparing as a church for potential growth. We are taking steps forward together to enrich our prayer life, to deepen our faith and to reach out to our community. Nourished by Jesus Christ, those of us who are able, who aren’t in a dormant phase, must keep up the momentum that has begun within us personally and together as a parish. We’re in this for the long haul, but we eagerly await the first fruits of this season, and look forwards to the future with expectation.

If you haven’t given up fruit for Lent, I’ve actually brought some figs along this morning which you are welcome to try after our worship. I’m hoping that perhaps when we see figs in the shops or when we read about them in our bibles, we will remember that we have been created for a purpose, to bear the fruits of our faith, both personally and corporately, within ourselves, in our community and in our world, trusting in the loving care and guidance of our Lord Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Reflecting on Funerals

I remember when I was on the ordination training course asking former students who were into their first year of curacy how they felt about funeral ministry. It’s a common question amongst ordinands in training – how will we respond to the inevitable and regular taking of funerals? The answer given by all the new curates and experienced clergy that I’ve ever asked has been that funeral ministry is very special, very much a privilege and a blessing, and a unique opportunity to minister to people at one of life’s most deeply challenging times. And now that I have begun taking funerals myself, I have to agree.

Every funeral is different, because every person is unique. It’s fairly peculiar to the Church of England (as the national ‘established’ church) that we often take funerals for people who have had only a very weak link with the church. Anyone within our parish boundaries can have a funeral service led by a Church of England minister, whether they ever attended church or not; whether they were baptised or not.

Some funerals are more difficult than others, of course. In my experience that can often depend upon whether the family are a cohesive unit or not, but obviously a funeral for anyone who isn’t elderly carries an added sense of tragedy. Recently I conducted a funeral for someone who was under the age of 40, who died in tragic circumstances, and whose family situation was quite fragmented. That was the hardest so far, which affected me for several days after, though I never knew the deceased person or his family before the funeral.

To me, a ‘good’ funeral is one where I can really sense a good support system within the family itself, which I know will help carry them through the weeks, months and years ahead. The minister has got a pastoral obligation to follow up with visiting the bereaved, but family and friends are going to be the more frequent providers of care and attention. I have to say at this point, though, that the church can be a real lifeline to people who have lost loved ones. I think also that it is so good for a church to offer some form of bereavement support group, something which I know has been very helpful for members of my own family after my brother-in-law and stepfather passed away last year. Hopefully we will be able to set up something like that soon at the church I’m in now. It certainly seems needed.

Death is such an enigma. On the one hand, we know it is unavoidable, part of life, and will come to us all. On the other hand, we are so shocked by it. St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:55 that because of the resurrection of Jesus after his death, death’s sting and victory are no more. This gives us assurance and hope for the afterlife, where there will be no more tears or sorrow. For now, death still jars us and shocks us. We weep for love lost. We are still bound to suffering in this world. It doesn’t feel right, and it isn’t right. But I believe that is why Jesus came, why he suffered, died, was buried, resurrected and ascended into heaven. I believe wholeheartedly in the everlasting life offered in Christ Jesus. And that is the only possible comfort I can bring to others who mourn.