Sermon for High Mass 5th Sunday of Lent Sunday 7 April 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 43.16-21; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8
The brief account we have just heard of the dinner given for Jesus by Mary, Martha and Lazarus at their home in Bethany, comes at the turning point in John’s Gospel: between what is known as the “Book of Signs” and the “Book of Glory.”
The “Book of Signs” is John’s selection of marvellous acts, beginning with the wedding at Cana and ending with the raising of Lazarus. Each of these “signs,” sometimes followed by one of the
“I am” sayings in which Jesus takes the name of God and applies it to himself; the last being,
“I am the resurrection and the life,” point to the true identity of Jesus: who he really is – the divine word made flesh.
The “Book of Glory” takes us through those last few days in Jerusalem which culminates in the Feast of Passover. We will hear at Mass on Maundy Thursday of Jesus in the upper room taking the role of a slave and washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper; and then giving them the new commandment, the Mandatum Novum from which that day gets its English name. If we read on in the Gospel, we hear his last discourse to the disciples. This is followed by his great prayer, his high priestly prayer, in which he consecrates himself to the Father’s will on behalf of the disciples and all those who will believe through him.
Then at the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday, we will hear in the Passion according to St. John, of his arrest and trial, his passion and his death at the hour when the Passover lambs are being slain in the temple. John brings to his account a powerful sense of Jesus, not the high priest or the Roman governor, being the one who is in control of the events in this drama. John sees the cross as the place of Christ’s glory – “I, when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself.” The physical lifting up on the cross is also his exaltation to glory.
But for the moment, Jesus is not surrounded by enemies but among his friends; or so it seems at first. There are several similar stories in the gospels which may have the same origin: Martha complaining to Jesus about Mary leaving her to do all the work while she sits listening to Jesus – only for Martha to be told the Mary has chosen the better part – that of a disciple. The unnamed woman – often misidentified as Mary Magdalene – who washes the feet of Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee.
John places his version at this crucial point after the raising of Lazarus – an event which has precipitated the decision by the religious authorities that it is time to finally to get rid of Jesus. In the account of the raising of Lazarus, Martha has been the sister who takes the leading role; going out to meet Jesus and speaking to him of their faith in him even in the face of death; showing him where they have buried their brother. Mary stays at home weeping, only going to the tomb when called by Jesus and then, simply repeating her sister’s words.
But now, the roles are reversed and Mary will take centre stage – both as one who acts towards Jesus and as one whose action is condemned as Jesus will be.
But before that, we should note the simple two words: “Martha served.” On the surface this might simply mean that Martha reverted to the traditional subservient role of women in her culture – cooking in the kitchen and waiting on men at the table. But nothing in John is ever simple. We need to see this in the light of what Jesus himself will do a few days later, when at the last supper, he takes the role of the servant or slave in washing the feet of his disciples. In that, and in other ways, he demonstrates repeatedly that those who are his disciples are to be servants; as he came “not be served but to serve.” That, and not worldly power and status is the highest dignity for his disciples. Martha, too, is such a disciple.
And then we have the extraordinary and extravagant, and no doubt to some present– embarrassing – act of devotion on the part of Mary: her anointing of the feet of Jesus with perfumed ointment; nard which came from India and cost a small fortune – a year’s wages for a labourer.
This draws the criticism of Judas, who complains at what he sees as profligate waste: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
And, we have to admit that his criticism of Mary’s action sounds like practical common sense – although John quickly points out that it is his concern for the poor is a pretence, a cover for his own dishonesty. What really annoys him is the lost opportunity to line his own pockets! There are enough examples, past and present, of those who have begun political careers on the side of the poor but have ended up robbing them of both what little they have and enriching themselves from the generosity of others seeking to help. Judas’ common purse is now the corrupt politician’s secret bank account in an offshore tax haven.
Jesus reproves Judas: “Leave her alone. She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
John links Mary’s action with the death of Jesus and with the reverent action of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and the faithful women who have kept vigil at the cross and who gave him a proper burial – anointing his tortured body.
Judas’s criticism is one which is often levelled at churches like this one: our magnificent buildings and glorious music; neither of which come cheap. Doesn’t common sense, let alone the gospel, suggest that something simpler be more appropriate and the money spent on practical help?
Tonight at Evensong, the choir will be singing Allegri’s Miserere, his setting of the great penitential Psalm 51. He wrote it for the choir of another extravagantly glorious building: the Sistine Chapel. Wouldn’t some simple choruses and a guitar or two be cheaper? Well, I suspect Hillsong which worships in the Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road spends at least as much on its carefully prepared and presented charismatic-evangelical Christian rock music as we do on our more traditional brand. The average age of their congregation is rather lower than ours, too.
We shouldn’t instantly mock guitars either. When I was training for the priesthood in Edinburgh, I spent a year on placement at a little church called St. Ninian’s. On Sunday evenings we would have Evensong or Compline, with a devotional address, and then Benediction. A young man called John would accompany our singing of the psalms and canticles and hymns on his guitar. He’s not so young now, but he is the Rector of St. Michael’s church in his home town of Inverness. One of his sons, another John, sings in our choir.
My wife heard an encouraging story recently from the treasurer of a parish church in the East End. He told her how he had drifted away from the church but one Sunday evening he came here with a friend. They heard the choir sing the Allegri Miserere. That, together with the sermon he heard, was the turning point on his return to faith,
“The poor you always have with you,” is not a get out clause from worship but a challenge to us. Devotion to Jesus and service of the poor are not mutually exclusive. We have to hold the two together. It not a matter of “either-or” but of “both-and.” Truly deep and whole-hearted devotion like Mary’s should issue in service which is both practical and generous. If ours doesn’t, then we need to ask how real and whole-hearted it is. Is it a giving of ourselves, an offering of our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice, or simply a taking of comfort for ourselves in a harsh world?
If you come to this church first thing in the morning, you will encounter two groups of people:
a little group of us who pray in silence for half an hour before saying Morning Prayer and celebrating the first mass of the day. There’s Yvonne, who is in her 90s, sitting companionably with Our Lady and the Child Jesus down at the front; there’s Fr. Michael sitting by the font like a “doorkeeper in the house of the Lord,” so that he can if needed remind people that this is a place and time of prayer and they should behave accordingly. There’s Martin, who will have emptied the courtyard bins and put the rubbish out before we open the gates. There will be me sitting with Martin in “mixed bathing” down at the back; where we will soon be surrounded by members of the second group: those who have come to sleep – although some of them do say their prayers and even occasionally join in the mass.
Now we are not claiming to be particularly virtuous. There are times when I look back wistfully to the days when our meditation and liturgy, our private and communal prayer, were not accompanied by the sound of snoring and when this house of prayer was filled only with the lingering fragrance of incense rather than the smell of poverty. But that is not where we are: the poor are with us – and as Matthew’s parable of the last judgement reminds us, Christ is present in them. As St. John Chrysostom told his congregation in Constantinople, we cannot expect to find Christ in the chalice if we do not find him in the poor. An empress who recognized this as a critique of her own extravagant lifestyle, had him packed off to die in exile. A much later bishop, Frank Weston of Zanzibar, would preach the same message to Anglicans of our tradition. Christ is as present in the sacrament of the poor as he is in the tabernacle. Their presence lends an authenticity, a credibility to our proclamation.
The kind of devotion to Jesus which Mary represents must be a part of our life here; even more than it is now. We need more devotion and prayer. Like Paul in today’s epistle, we must both recognise our dependence on the grace of God – rather than our own spiritual merits – but at the same time “press on towards the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The fragrance of our devotion should fill this house. There is no better time to start, or to start afresh, than Holy Week,