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.

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