Sunday 13th March 2016, Lent 5, morning

John 12:1-8

by Revd Chris Palmer

going to churchIf you do a Google images search on ‘going to church’, this is the first picture that comes up. As you can see it’s very formal, polite, old-fashioned, conventional, traditional family, white, and middle class. This is, or was, somebody’s ideal of what going to worship should look like.

anointing at bethanyContrast that with this image, which tells the story we’ve just heard in the Gospel. This is what real worship looks like. The story of Mary anointing Jesus is embarrassing, offensive, erotic, unconventional, extravagant, and blows apart our definition of family. And I’m making no special claim about this picture, by the way: there are many picture of this story; I just rather liked this one; its collage nature reflects the messiness of the story.

Let’s just unpack it for a bit. And start with the family thing. Jesus is continually creating communities which don’t conform to traditional family models. And he has some hard things to say about family. ‘Unless you hate your father and mother, you cannot be my disciple’, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ ‘Those who hear God’s word and do it are my brother and sister and mother.’

And in today’s story, think about family. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – two sisters and brother who live together as adults. It’s highly unconventional in that culture that they haven’t married and set up their own homes. What’s happened? Did their parents die young, and they’ve had to bring each other up. Or I heard one suggestion that Lazarus lived with learning difficulties, and was cared for by his sisters. And then they welcome Jesus and his followers, who have left families to be with him, and who are a mixed bag of well-meaning, buffoonish, and priggish people. Judas presents himself as the guardian of good morals; probably he’d have approved of the family in the first picture – but really he’s the one with dishonesty in his heart.

And Mary. We’ve heard of her before; she’s the one who sat at Jesus’ feet whilst her sister served. And she’s again at Jesus’ feet, but this time even more literally in this shameless display of affection.  Pouring out her precious ointment, getting close up and messy, with her hair and Jesus’ feet and the oil all tangled together. And Jesus accepts her worship without flinching, and defends her when the moral police, in the shape of Judas, try to ruin the moment.

Because this is what true worship looks like: it is messy, surprising, wasteful, offensive to conventional sensibilities, and creates unexpected relationships and families. And I say this, aware that my own worship and our worship too often seeks to conform to the model of worship in the first picture, rather than this second one.

Of course, there have always been forms of worship or prayer that don’t look so conventional – and rejoice in flamboyance or abandoned celebration. From very charismatic worship, to makeshift worship in refugee camps, to carnivals in European cities, to people worshipping with energy – despite the fact they have almost nothing – in the open in Zimbabwe, because they’ve been locked out of the church building.

Sometimes people’s genuine and heartfelt devotion overflows in tears in Sunday morning worship. But sadly I’ve known more than one person who’s apologised or even stopped coming to church because they can’t help but cry here. It is a problem if we have created an atmosphere in which even tears are too much to bear.

The liturgy of the church has moments of extravagance of course. The foot washing on Maundy Thursday, the creeping to the cross and kissing the feet of Jesus on Good Friday, an others.  And yet almost everything in conventional Christian worship has been tidied up over the centuries. We use tiny amounts of water in baptism, rather than getting people properly wet. We use tiny smears of oil to anoint them, rather pouring oil over their heads. We use specially manufactured, sterile-looking tiny portions of bread and wine. On Maundy Thursday we wash the feet of a select few, rather than wash each other’s feet; and so on. There was a point in England when the monarch washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday, but now she gives out little packets of Maundy money instead. Almost every aspect of our spiritual devotion is debased. Fasting has become giving up chocolate. Penitence is a quick anxious sorry and the hope we won’t be found out. Giving has become tipping God.

And this safe polite devotion isn’t restricted simply to worship. Within social and political life the church resorts to a rhetoric which is safe in commending reconciliation and peace and agreement. And, of course, reconciliation and agreement are like motherhood and apple pie – you can’t disagree with them. Except they can prevent us challenging the status quo. Christian leaders in apartheid South Africa noted that the rhetoric of reconciliation plays into the hands of those promoting apartheid by offering a quiet life without challenging injustice [1]. Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian Archbishop from the 1960s - 1980s famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” It’s great that we give food to Wimbledon foodbank; we are one of its biggest contributors. But on its own, that is inoffensive polite religion. There is also a need to be awkward and ask why foodbanks are needed in a prosperous country in peacetime; to be awkward to the systems – and it’s not just politicians – that create these circumstances, and to own our own complicity in these processes. The same goes for the culture of violence, the culture of environmental destruction, the culture of religious bigotry, and much more also.

And finally, whilst we can challenge others, we can both challenge and change ourselves. I would like to suggest that you choose two actions to take this Passiontide in which you can enter a more messy and offensive spiritual engagement. One action relating specifically to prayer and worship, and one action of mission or social engagement. But they need to stretch your boundaries a bit. The worship or prayer one could be about trying something new in prayer, engaging with Holy Week worship in a new way (maybe you’ve always said no to the footwashing on Maundy Thursday, but this is the year), letting yourself cry in prayer, talking with someone about your spiritual needs (because for some people, sharing is the hardest thing). The social one could be as simple as calling someone you find difficult, or – bigger – relinquishing gains you have made at others’ expense, or campaigning for the voiceless or marginalised.

But my other real suggestion is that you tell someone. Because this kind of sharing is the truly hard and extravagant gesture for many people. It makes us feel awkward. Of course, choose wisely whom you tell. And choose things you can action in the next two weeks of Passiontide – this isn’t a long term, never never action. That way, come Easter Day, this risky, messy spirituality can be released in new joy, freer worship, and more extravagant praise. 

[1] The Kairos Document, 1985; section 3.1; p15-17