Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Lent Series (3): Sacrifice

Third and final Lent sermon - warning, long post!  Based on the story of Mary anointing Jesus with oil and wiping his feet with her hair..

When Jesus came to Bethany, he came to stay with friends.  I think, in this context, ‘friends’ means people he could relax with, people who welcomed him unreservedly.  We don’t know how many people were there: this story appears in all the gospels, but the details vary.  In some places the woman is described as a sinner, but here in John she is named Mary and it is likely that she was the sister of Martha, Mary the student who sat at Jesus feet and learned.  Certainly in this gospel Martha is still stuck in the kitchen, while Mary is utterly focused on Jesus.
It appears, then, that Martha is behaving properly, while Mary is behaving really rather improperly.  She anoints Jesus feet with perfume and wipes his feet with her hair – an intimate act, a brave act, an act which leads to protest from the disciples. I can hear them talking now. It’s emotional, unreasonable, poorly thought out, not the kind of behaviour we expect around here.  Jesus is our teacher, our rabbi, our respected leader. 
Mary breaks through to Jesus the human being.  Mary responds to Jesus as a friend.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t mind a bit.  Jesus responds to the spirit of the gift.  Mary has spent a small fortune on this ointment, and perhaps she was saving it for Jesus’s burial, but she decides to give the gift while she can.  When Judas turns on her and accuses her of squandering the money, Jesus defends her.  Jesus will not let Mary be bullied to make Judas feel better.

It’s not a very Anglican scene.  When we anoint, we are quite restrained in our use of oil.  Just like in our baptisms, when we use just a little bit of water, we use just a little bit of oil.  We don’t pour it out so the whole room is scented with costly perfume.  There is a lavish abandon in Mary’s behaviour, a generous statement – Look, Jesus is worth all this and more.

Jesus is fine with it.  One thing is clear in the gospels – Jesus really wasn’t anxious about other people’s reactions.  Jesus loves Mary, loves her for her grief and fear for his life, loves her for her generosity and her outpouring of emotion.  In other stories she is described as wiping her tears off Jesus’ feet.  As it says in our prayers of confession,

The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit;
 a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.

Jesus responds with compassion and gratitude – it is Judas who despises Mary.  It is interesting that Judas is so negative about this act of generosity – clearly it has stirred something deep inside him.  We are told that Judas liked money, would take money from the common purse, and that he resents this apparent waste. The fact that it is Mary’s money does not seem to occur to him.  Judas wants to control money, to spend it how he sees fit.  Perhaps he is jealous of Mary, perhaps he wishes he’d done something similar himself, perhaps he just has no time for this feminine emotional outpouring.  Judas does not want to give, he wants to take.  Judas has missed the point entirely.

This is the third and final sermon in my little Lent series, though it’s been a whole month since the last one.  I have spoken about repentance, and obedience, and sacrifice is the last of the three.  As a theme it fits perfectly with today’s reading, for Mary shows us everything about the sacrifice entailed in loving Jesus.  We see her open up her home to Jesus and his assorted followers, even Judas who clearly despises her.  We see her give up her emotional security to embrace Jesus and follow him to his death.  She sacrifices far more than money.

Because sacrifice sits at the heart of the Christian gospel. Jesus said, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’  Jesus comes to us as the redeeming sacrifice of God, the one who saves us not by winning but by losing, by allowing violence to destroy him – except it doesn’t, but that’s the Easter story.  Now, as we approach the passion, we see the sacrifice being prepared.  Mary is anointing him for death.

And how can we respond?  We look at Mary and see generosity, self-sacrifice, giving to the point where it hurts. Trying to analyse Mary’s beautiful gesture is like trying to deconstruct the Mona Lisa – I am overawed. 

But I’ll have a go…

Mary is generous, generous beyond normal limits.  She gives to the point where it hurts.  Sacrificial giving is giving to the point where a space is left behind, and that space is important.  We give things up for Lent, because in giving something up we create a space. 
It is important to give, not just because of what can be done with what we give, but because the act of giving, the act of sacrifice, is in itself important. 
Giving creates a space, giving creates space for God. 
Jesus often tells people to give something up, and it’s not always the same thing.  He tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor, for this young man is in love with money.  He tells other people to leave their families and friends and safe, predictable lives and to follow him.  He tells the Pharisees that they must give up their obsession with rules and human perfection, and learn to love God again.  He tells other people that they must give up dissolute lifestyles and learn to care for each other. Some sick people are told that they must give up their dependence, before they can be made well.  Hard lessons in sacrifice, but whatever stands between you and God is what you must learn to do without. 
Someone asked me once what I missed about my old job, before I trained for the ministry.  It was a useful question.  I missed a few things, but, if I’m honest, the thing I missed most was having definable success.  I loved being able to say ‘I did that, I hit that deadline, I made that difference in the numbers.’ 
I was all about success.  I wanted the big corner office.  I wanted to have ‘made it’.  But what is success in ministry?  How do you measure it?  I promised to serve my congregation and say my prayers.  Measure that. 
The space left by my pursuit of success has made a space for me to look towards the Kingdom of God. I have no idea if I would have been successful, whether I would have got that corner office.  This is God’s way of reminding me that it really doesn’t matter.  Success or failure, God loves you and values you. 
And Mary’s gift is tangible, a gift of service.  She kneels down and anoints Jesus’s feet, just as Jesus will kneel and wash the disciples feet.  Her love is expressed in care and in service.

And just like Mary, at some point we will need to get down there and meet people, get involved, hear their pain and wash their feet.  Church is all about action, not words. A church which is not alive in the community is not alive at all, it is a religious club.  We serve our community in all sorts of ways in this church, and that service is mirrored in churches up and down the land.  The church is by far the biggest provider of voluntary service in the country, because so many of you are willing to sacrifice your time to care for each other.  ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’

And Mary makes herself vulnerable.  She knows that she will be given a hard time by the disciples.  I am sure this is not the first time Judas has had a go at Mary.  There is a familiarity in the way Jesus says ‘Leave her alone.’  It’s not that she doesn’t care – Mary is not someone with a thick skin – but she bears Judas’ insults as the price for being with Jesus.  Sacrifice does make you vulnerable.  We are all vulnerable here, because we all care. 

That’s why divisions in church are so painful – because we are passionate about our faith, we have opened our hearts to God and to each other.  If you don’t feel that other people respect your sacrifice, it hurts. Part of being a healthy church is understanding our differences, our disagreements, and staying together.  If we can’t do that, we turn into a sect, we fragment every time we disagree over a point of doctrine or practice.  There are times when church will make you feel uncomfortable, angry, sad, misunderstood.  You can choose how you respond to that.  You can see it as a time to grow in love, to learn more about each other, to love each other more, or you can close yourself off.  You can share the peace with each other, learn to live together in love, and all shall be well, for it is Christ we serve, and in Christ we are all reconciled.  Believe me, I know it is not easy.

Sacrifice, the voluntary giving up of that which we hold dear, is our way of becoming Christ-like.  We see in the life and death of Jesus the extent of his sacrifice, a ministry of service followed by a cruel death, and we see in his resurrection the power that sacrifice has.  It is in giving that we receive, in the self-emptying act of sacrifice that we open ourselves to God and become truly fulfilled.  The post-communion prayer reads,
Through him
[through Christ]
we offer you our souls and bodies
          to be a living sacrifice.
It is a demanding prayer to say.  To be a living sacrifice, to renounce all you hold dear if the Lord commands, it is not an easy prayer to make.  None of us would be able to make it, were it not for the next line.
Send us out
          in the power of your Spirit
          to live and work
          to your praise and glory.

Repentance, obedience and sacrifice.  The way of Christ is not easy,  But we are not alone in our journey.  The power of the Holy Spirit walks with us as we head along the road to Easter and beyond.

The Lent Series (2): Obedience

Second Lent sermon - warning, long post!  

When the people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt, the first things they needed were food and water to sustain them on the long journey to the promised land.  Manna and fresh water they receive from God’s hand, and they begin their travels. 
Those absolute basics sorted out, what did they need next?  Remember, this is a newly freed people, fresh from slavery.  It is clear that for a while things were chaotic for them. Quarrels broke out constantly and they turned to Moses, their leader, to make judgements between them.  Moses is desperate for some help, and the Lord leads him up Mount Sinai and delivers him the foundation of the law, the ten commandments, on tablets of stone.

You shall have no other gods but me
You shall not make idols
You shall not make wrongful use of the Lord’s name
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy
Honour your father and your mother
Do not murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Do not covet.

The ten commandments are simple and enduring, and they laid the foundation for the Jewish law, later the Christian law.  They were carved on tablets of stone as a symbol of the unchanging nature of the Law of God.

From slavery, to freedom, to law.  That is the theme of Exodus, and perhaps the theme of much of the Old Testament. It seems we need law, almost as much as we need food and drink. 

This is a roundabout way of bringing us to the theme of this address.  Last week I talked about repentance, this week I am talking about obedience.  But obedience means nothing without something to obey.  The bible develops the idea of law right from Genesis, when the people ignored God, to Revelation, when the last judgements are delivered.  It’s the story of civilisation itself, of a move from barbarism to the basic law of the ten commandments to the deceptively simple commandments of Jesus, to love God and neighbour.  We all need law.  Law says that we all matter, we all have rights, we are all free within the constraints of the law.  The consequences of our actions are moderated by the law and those who lay it down.

Law, and obedience, are foundational to our faith.  Without law, there can be no morality, no goodness, no justice.  Mercy and forgiveness are meaningless without that first, objective standard of what is right, what is the law.  And law comes from God.  Whatever your understanding of who or what God is, you have some inner sense of right and wrong which drives your beliefs and your behaviour, and that comes from the deepest part of your humanity.  Without it, you are like the animals.  We call people who behave without regard for that sense as ‘inhuman’.  Even the most amoral people I meet seem to have that inner sense of justice – it comes out in statements like ‘Well if he snitches on me I’ll kill him, because you don’t grass someone up.’  Why don’t you grass someone up?  You just don’t.  These people are living by rules, they are just different rules.  They have evolved their own codes in the absence of any sane set of standards which they can buy into and live by. 

We need law.  Law is the expression of goodness within a society, and God is goodness, God lays down our law.  It’s there in scripture.

Except, of course, that it’s not that simple.  There are six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Old Testament, and not all of them are as useful as the ten I spoke of earlier.  
‘If you find your enemy’s donkey wandering, take it back.’  OK…
‘Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’  er… 
 ‘Free your male slaves after six years….’  Now we are  getting problematic.  Because simple commandments cannot legislate for every time and place.  The detail has to be worked out afresh, and the Jewish people knew that.  The rabbis spent endless hours interpreting the law.  And Jesus came along and reinterpreted it, giving fresh perspectives on ancient commandments.  Moses brought the people from chaos to stability, with justice and law as the foundations of civilisation.  Jesus did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.  Jesus takes justice, and adds mercy.  Jesus takes law and adds forgiveness.  Jesus brings the new commandment of love.

And so obedience to the bible must be obedience refracted through the teachings of Jesus.  Love your neighbour as yourself, then think about whether it’s OK to keep a slave for six years before you free them.  Clearly, with our modern eyes, it is not.  The bible is not a recipe book for life.  The bible is a complex offering of law, parable, history, exhortation and poetry.  Anybody who picks out one text and hurls it like a weapon violates the bible, for it is not meant to be used like that.  When we enter into the ethical debates that concern the church today, we should look to the foundational commandments of loving God and loving neighbour, and read all else in that light.  Anyone who starts thundering about biblical morality meaning literally obeying the commandments of the bible needs to stop and think.  We have endless commandments about oxen and none about cars.  We have a punishment system which might have worked for a small nomadic people living three thousand years ago but which is hopeless for life today.  We are supposed to reinterpret the bible for our age.  Every scholar has done this since the law was first written.  Every Christian leader has done this since St Peter and St Paul had their first arguments over how to relate to the Gentiles.

What I’m trying to say, in all this waffle, is that we should obey God’s commandments, in a loving way that fits with the society in which we live.

But law and commandments are only the foundation stones of obedience.  Above law come the great voluntary commitments of our lives.  We make promises, sacred promises which bind us in ways we cannot always predict at the time we make them.  I am bound by my ordination vows and they are precious to me.  I took them freely, and now they both constrain and protect me.  I am obedient to my bishop, to my church council and to God (not in that order).  This matters to me.  It matters hugely, because if I don’t take my vows seriously, how can I expect others to take their vows seriously?  We make promises and vows at baptism which are life-changing.  We make big scary promises on behalf of little children.  And when you marry in church, you take sacred, solemn vows before God and his people, to love, cherish and stay faithful until death.  It’s a high standard, a holy standard, a way of life made sacred by God.  Obedience to vows is voluntary, but it is God’s way.  And vows have a strange way of leading you into right paths in unexpected ways, if you take them seriously.

Let me give you an example.  I received a letter this week asking me to go on a training course in a couple of months’ time.  An interesting course, a mandatory course for priests.  But it happens to take me away from home, on a residential course, on my daughter’s thirteenth birthday.  Where do my loyalties lie?  In learning to grow the kingdom, or looking after my daughter.  Without my vows, that tell me I should live an exemplary family life, I might find it difficult to know which way to turn.  My vows protect my household and set me a standard.  Stuff the course, I have a cake to bake.  God will show us how to grow the kingdom without me going on a three day residential in West Wickham.

Our lives are shaped by commandments, the law laid down for us, and by vows, voluntary commitments made before God.  But beyond even vows come another set of holy demands from God.  Every one of us has a vocation, a calling from God.  Sometimes it is hard to discern quite what God wants from us.  Sometimes it is scarily easy.  I can still remember the shock of seeing the advert for this unusual combination role, advertised in the Church Times last January.  I took one look at it and said, ‘That’s my job.’  Calling is sometimes as clear as that. What are you called to do?  It may not be anything overtly to do with the church – doctor, cleaner, writer, advertising executive, benefits adviser, retired volunteer, you are all equally valued by God and called to work out your vocation in this world.  A secular calling is still a holy calling.
We all have more than one calling – I am mother, chaplain and priest, disciple, neighbour and friend.  All of you have a role to play in your church and your community, no matter what your age or your condiiton.  Find your calling,
But if you are struggling to find your role in the church, or in life, seek help.  We have vocations days coming up, and they are not just for putative vicars but for anyone who would like to explore the way forward.  Take a look on the noticeboard at the back. 

I could leave it there.  You’ve had your eight minutes, probably more.  Except that obedience, in our church at this precise moment in history, is a contested area.  We have decisions to take in the church which are not easy.  We are squabbling over women bishops, over gay marriage and other issues which have yet to hit the headlines.  Staying faithful and obedient to the commandments of scripture, to the call of Jesus to love and understand, and to find a way to work out God’s call in our lives is hard going.  You may have realised that within this church there are disagreements, just as there are nationally, and I hope they will not tear us apart.  For what it is worth, I am in favour of women bishops, and I am in favour of gay marriage, and I will happily explain why to anyone who cares to ask me, as several of you have already.  But above my own views come my vows, and I do not and will not act in disobedience to my PCC or my bishop.  I will wait until the day comes when canon law, the bishop and the PCC take us forward together. 

At the same time this is an inclusive and loving church, and I expect all to be made welcome here. 
Love one another, as I have loved you.
Jesus said that, without qualification.  Not love some people, but love everybody.  Love one another, as I have loved you. All are welcome, here at God’s table.  Jesus has already issued the invitations.

Obedience is our lifelong state, as Christians.  We are to obey the laws of God and the land.  We are to remain faithful to the vows we take as husbands and wives, as parents and godparents, as the holy priesthood of all believers, united in one baptism.  In obedience we find our true freedom, for we are free to accept or reject our calling.  We are free to decline our invitations to join at God’s banqueting table and share in his love.  But who would want to?

The Lent Series: Repentance

First of a series of three sermons - warning, long post!  

Are you sitting comfortably?  That’s a shame, because Lent is many things, but comfortable it is not.  Lent is the season of disturbance, of separation, of examining and facing down temptation and sin.  Like Advent, Lent is a penitential season, but while Advent is a time of joyful anticipation, Lent is altogether more serious. When I told the prison management team that I was planning to start Lent with an Ash Wednesday service, one person said, ‘Ash Wednesday, that’s a bit of a downer, isn’t it?’ 

Yes, possibly.  But Lent is not necessarily sad, or painful.  It is, however, challenging.  This is where the Christian life gets serious.  The Christ child, the cute baby in the manger, has grown up and is looking down the long road to Jerusalem.  We leave Epiphany and the beauty of Candlemas behind and follow Jesus into the desert to find – what?  Some peace?  Some space?  Jesus goes into the wilderness and finds hunger, thirst and temptation.  Jesus is challenged in the desert, and for centuries the church has taken this forty-day period as a time to reflect on, and face up to, our own challenges.  Lent is given to us as a time to focus on repentance, on obedience and on sacrifice, and my three Lenten sermons will focus on these three themes.

Repentance is not a fashionable word.  Preachers nowadays tend not to command repentance from the pulpit, at least in our tradition.  Hopefully we have learned enough humility not to command people to do anything, but perhaps we can point the way.  Repentance is a basic, biblical requirement.  Jesus is clear that repentance is essential to salvation.  From the time of his baptism to the ascension, Jesus preaches repentance. 
I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.
St Peter carries on the message:
 ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
St Paul doesn’t let up either:
Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
Repentance.  It is so unfashionable we forget what it means.  To repent is to turn from sin, to turn towards Christ.  It means more than saying ‘sorry’ or feeling sorry, however deep those feelings run.  Remorse, penitence, they are first steps, but true repentance life-changing.
Repentance. Comes from the Greek metanoia – meta, to change, and noia, mind.  To repent is not just to feel sorry, but to change, to transform, the way you think and act.  Repentance is a transforming experience of grace, and Lent is our time to seek repentance.

The final proclamation of Jesus, before the ascension, is reported like this:
’Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.’
Repentance and forgiveness of sins go hand in hand.  True repentance, entering that state of grace, means to accept forgiveness from God, to offer forgiveness to others and to turn away from sin.
We confess our sins, we receive forgiveness and we confirmed and strengthened in all goodness.  We are not to confess one day and commit the same sins again the next.  The process starts with forgiveness and ends with positive change.  Jesus is in the business of changing people to change the world.  God’s kingdom draws nearer when people change for the better.

It is, however, easy to get stuck at the first hurdle.  Accepting forgiveness is difficult.  It requires us, honestly and unflinchingly, to account for our sins and to admit them before God. Confession is good for the soul.  We do not need to confess to a priest, only to God, but there are times when confession to a priest may be helpful, as long as it is clear that God does the forgiving. 

But if accepting forgiveness is difficult, forgiving others is even harder.  We have to forgive, again and again.  Seventy times seven, Jesus says.  Let it go.  Forgive.  Because forgiveness is the only way to move forward.  Without forgiveness no conflict can end, no broken relationship can be healed, no angry family row can be forgotten.  Forgiveness heals both the giver and the receiver. 

I say this often to my other congregation in Cookham Wood, many of whom come from a culture based on pride and revenge.  I ask them about forgiveness and they say, well, some things you can’t forgive.  They say ‘you can’t just let things go’. Sometimes they listen, often they don’t.  I don’t know if I’ve helped them to let go, but it has certainly helped me.  I realised that I was suggesting that they forgive violence and abuse of the worst kind, to let their bitterness go and to accept that the only person you can change is yourself.  I was suggesting to the young people what is almost impossible – to let go of all the awfulness that has been done to them, to step out and refuse to perpetuate the endless cycles of domestic violence, gang conflicts, robbery and debt.  I make this enormous demand in the name of Christ, and assure them that they will be given the strength to do this great work of forgiveness.  I cannot then come home and fail to forgive the sins done to me. 
And if forgiveness seems impossible, in Christ we have the ultimate example – innocent, blameless and forgiving his enemies all the way to death.  It is only by his grace that we can find the strength to forgive.  It may take time before we are ready, it may take support, it may take counselling or therapy, but I firmly believe that forgiveness is the route to true healing of the soul.  There is time.  This doesn’t have to happen overnight, and it may happen in stages, but we are all called to do this task of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And that’s the hard work done.  Without the baggage of guilt from our own sin, and bitterness from others, we are free to change.  We can be the people God wants us to be.  We can turn to Christ, we can live in peace, we can be agents of change, we can take that healing grace into a broken world.

Of course, that is not the end of the story.  The potential to sin is always with us – a ‘human existential’ as the theologians have it.  We can, and will, continue to fall, but grace stays with us.  As we grow, year on year, we meet and fail new challenges, but the grace of God lifts us up again to carry on.  Repentance is not about dwelling on past sins, it is the opposite.  Free from old sin, we look to a free future. Repentance assures us of our own freedom.  We are free to sin or not to sin.  Whatever has happened to us in the past, whatever sins we have endured or committed, we have that precious freedom.  Our choice is to be bound by sin or to be free in Christ. 

To return to my starting point, Lent is not sad.  Repentance is the hopeful heart of our faith.  With and through the grace of God, we are healed, forgiven, restored and empowered. 

I wish you a holy Lent, a time of grace and peace.  I hope that together we can overcome our difficulties and challenges.