28 March 2010

Lent 5 c - Healing Oil

John 12: 1-8

By Stuart Pike

It used to be that I thought faith was about belief. A faithful person was someone who believed the Bible, or believed certain things about Christ. It was as if faith was an intellectual agreement with certain principles or doctrines or dogmas. Faith was belief.

The problem with understanding faith to be primarily about belief, is that it is mostly an intellectual exercise. It is mostly about the head, and has very little to do with the heart. And yet, when I experienced the grace of God most deeply, it usually had far more to do with the heart than with the head.

Faith isn’t about logic – it isn’t cerebral. Faith is embodied, it is something which burns within us. I realize now that faith has more to do with a relationship than it has to do with belief. And it has more to do with the heart, than it does with the head.

Today’s story from the Gospel isn’t something to be understood logically. It is something to be imagined or experienced, it was something sensuous.

In the time of Jesus and his disciples, perfumed oil was ceremonially used mainly in three ways: to anoint the head of a king; as a healing oil for those who were sick, usually applied to the forehead of the sick person along with the laying on of hands; or to anoint the body of the deceased, including the feet, before burial. The anointing of someone with perfumed oil was an action of the heart and not the head. It engaged the two most intimate of the senses: the sense of smell, and the sense of touch.

The Gospel lesson tells the story of Mary who breaks open a jar of perfumed oil worth a year’s salary to anoint Jesus’ feet and then she wipes his feet with her hair. This is perhaps the most sensuous scene in all of the Gospels. What an incredibly intimate moment. And yet this moment, stolen in the week before Jesus’ crucifixion is done before witnesses: the other disciples.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ, Superstar" has this scene presented in a very sensuous way.

Webber understands the fundamental characteristic of the Christian faith as relationship and he fleshes out the relationship between Mary, Jesus and Judas.

Try not to be worried/ Try not to hold on to/ problems that upset you/ oh/ you know everything's all right/ yes Everything's fine/ Its cool and the ointment's sweet/ for the fire in your head and feet/ close your eyes/ close your eyes and relax/ think of nothing tonight/ everything's all right.

The words here point not only to the honour which Mary is giving to Jesus, but also to show us that this was an act of healing, wanting to soothe this man whom she loved during this incredibly stressful time.

This scene is also between two deaths: the death of Lazarus, whom Jesus has just raised from the dead, and Jesus own death which is only days away

Jesus knows his days are numbered now. Everything is coming to a head. If the temple authorities might have found him a nuisance before, after raising a man from death, he has become downright dangerous. Passover was just days away and so the Roman authorities would be looking their way. Today’s Gospel refers to the temple authority’s decision to put both Jesus and Lazarus to death.

The smell of death is in the air, but in the midst of it, Mary breaks open her perfume.

The depth of Mary's love for Jesus is so great that words are not enough for her to express them. Mary uses the extremely sensual, and deeply spiritual act of anointing Jesus' feet with the oil that could be used for a burial.

Imagine the scene as the Disciples watched Mary do this act of love and devotion to Jesus. Keep in mind that in those days it was not proper for a woman to have her hair loose. Mary is beyond all that. Beyond words, beyond social customs. Only she, at this point, truly understands Jesus, and what he is to risk.

The disciples might have thought that Mary’s actions were scandalous, perhaps obscene. How personal a moment. They might have thought - how can she dare to have a more personal relationship to Jesus than we have. I think Judas might just have been grasping for some excuse to stop the scene when he complained about the money. He might really have been jealous that Mary seemed to have a greater spiritual insight than he and the rest of the disciples had. In Jesus Christ Superstar he says:

Woman/ your fine ointment/ brand new and expensive/ should have been saved for the poor/ why has it been wasted/ we could have raised / 300 silver pieces or more/people who are hungry/ people who are starving/ they matter more than your feet and hair.

And Jesus responds

Surely you're not saying/ we have the resources/to save the poor from their lot/there will always be the poor/pathetically struggling/look at the good things you've got/think while you still have me/move while you still see me/you'll be lost/you'll be sorry when I'm gone.

"You will always have poor people with you. But you will not always have me."

This reminds me of Jesus telling his disciples the story of the King of heaven “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The implication here is that "you should honour me while I'm with you in this flesh, and then honour me just as much when you meet me later in the homeless person or the sick or the suffering.”

It is important to remember that Mary's anointing of Jesus' feet is only days before Jesus, in the upper room, will take a towel and bowl of water and will stoop down to wash the feet of his disciples. I think the connection of these two foot washings is quite intentional in John's gospel.

Imagine what it must have felt like for Jesus to realize that at least one person out of everyone he cared about finally understood what he was facing, understood his vulnerability at even being in Bethany, understood that the price he had to pay for his faithfulness to God would be death.

It is in the strength of our relationship with God and Jesus Christ that we are empowered to live our faith in the world and both to do Jesus’ work and to serve Jesus as we see him in the face of the poor, the sick and the outcast. And this is one of the reasons why we will use holy oil today in our service of anointing and healing.

The Christian faith is relationship. Relationship to God and relationship to Jesus - however we meet Jesus in our lives today. Amen.

Lent 4C - Mothering Sunday

Sermon for Mothering Sunday, 14 March 2010

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

by Sharyn Hall

One of the frustrating things about Bible stories is that they often leave unanswered questions, but maybe that is the way they make us ponder the message. Jesus told the grumbling Pharisees and scribes the parable of the prodigal son to make a point about God’s love, but as a story about real life, this parable is far too simple. The parable ends without a realistic picture of the future.

My guess is that the prodigal son may have learned his lesson, but there is no guarantee that he would be satisfied to stay on the family farm. His older brother would inherit all the property, and why should he tolerate his brother’s scorn? The older son would struggle with his resentment of his younger brother. He would be angry with his father for welcoming his brother home and taking his own loyalty for granted. I suspect that the older son would be a brooding presence at family meals.

The ever-patient father would continue to act as mediator between his sons, but their rancour would be a constant source of heartache for him. What about the mother in the story? On this Mothering Sunday, we have a story about a father and two sons, but somewhere there is a mother and a mother’s concern. Even if she was displeased with her prodigal son, we can guess that she is glad of his safe return, but if she favoured the older son, the family dynamics would be very tense.

As a real-life story, the parable of the prodigal son can be interpreted in various ways, and we may see ourselves in the story. In which character do you see yourself? Are you the forgiving father who loves his wayward son and celebrates his return? Are you the prodigal son who has made some errors of judgment, has disappointed others or caused anxiety in the family? Are you the older brother who resents the good fortune of others? Are you the unseen mother who tries to keep the family together, even when she is feeling frustrated or fearful? In whichever character you see yourself, you are given an opportunity to see yourself more clearly as an individual, as a member of a family and as a person in a community.

Each character can be understood in different ways; nevertheless, each character offers us insight into ourselves and into our relationship with God. Is the prodigal son sincere in his penitence or is he insincere and manipulative? Perhaps we recognize a person who expects others to solve his problems and give him a free ride. Could we forgive that person? Do we feel that the resentment of the older son is justified? Loyalty and hard work should be rewarded and favoured, but resentment eats at your soul. The older brother will poison his life and the life of the family, if he allows resentment to rule his heart.

As much as we might admire the loving forgiveness of the father, we might decide that such forgiveness is naïve. Anyone who forgives so easily is asking to be hurt again. That may sound cynical, but it could be logical to a person who has been hurt repeatedly and has given up on forgiveness.

Finally the mother in the background may be dismissed or forgotten, but we all know that mothers can be the core of the family. Mothers are human and not without faults, but on this Mothering Sunday, we celebrate mothering love, which can be strong, wise, compassionate and enduring. Perhaps because mothers give birth to their children, we associate mothering with nurturing. Mothers hold the beginning of life. They nurture their young for physical, mental and emotional well-being. In today’s society, fathers are invited and encouraged to participate in the nurturing process. Mothering love is about fulfilling needs, encouraging growth and preparing those we love to meet the challenges of life. Mothering love is one very good description of God. God encompasses all aspects of human existence, which include the qualities of love in both fathers and mothers.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the wisdom, forgiveness and love of the father for the wayward son is an image of God’s love for humanity, regardless of our foolish and selfish ways. Jesus teaches the Pharisees that God’s infinite and patient love is the kind of love that we, as human beings, can strive to give to each other. Some people suggest that the parable should be re-named the parable of the forgiving father. Regardless of the title, this is a parable about a family, which reflects our relationship with God and with each other. We can be foolish and selfish like the two sons. We can strive to be patient and forgiving like the father.

God can be the ever-loving and always forgiving father of our prodigal ways, but we are learning that this image of God, and indeed any image of God, is incomplete. God is beyond our imagination. Yet it is natural for us to seek an image, which in some way fulfills our need to feel that God is with us. On this Mothering Sunday, let us honour and welcome the mothering love of God, who gives us life, nurtures us, guides us and sustains us through the joys and sorrows of this earthly life.

Thanks be to God.

07 March 2010

Lent 3 C – Bearing Fruit.

Luke 13: 1-9

7 March 2010

St. Luke’s Burlington

There is a short story about the Fig Tree written by Edward Hays and included in his book “The Ethiopian Tattoo Shop” (Forest of Peace Publishing, Leavenworth KS, 1983) It goes like this:

After the owner of the garden has agreed to one more year, the gardener puts manure around the fig tree. The tree holds her head up as high as she can because she doesn't like the smell. The gardener begins talking to her about vocation, "Everyone and everything that lives has a vocation. It's the calling to be yourself."

The fig tree doesn't want to be herself because she thinks that being "only" a fig tree isn't very exciting. She's been trying to be an apple tree for years, but to no avail. "She even went to college and took all the courses necessary to become a pear tree, but no pears appeared. So she then resorted to taking a home correspondence course entitled, 'How to be a Banana Tree.'" All that has grown on her is frustration and the fruits of failure.

The gardener tells her that a job is a task, but a vocation comes from your very roots. And in her roots she is a fig tree.

HE tells her she can be "creative in the truest way by living out the

mystery of [her] 'figtreeness'". She will then "become not only something special but also something sacred!" HE tells her, "By responding to the challenge to become yourself you will find yourself in the presence of the real mystery‑‑God. However, both life and God will escape you if you attempt to be what you are not intended to be. And remember, you have only one more year...."

The fig tree wants to become like an animal and run away ‑‑ become a travelling tree, which would make her *special*. The gardener tells her that if she would only listen to what's in her roots, she would become the most special, creative and lovely tree in all the world.

When she asks "what's down there?", he replies that down there in her roots are her dreams, history, passions, desires and other mysteries such as memories of who she was even before she was a fig tree.

The tree thinks this is great, but how can she think with such a terrible smell everywhere?

The gardener replies, "I have surrounded you with manure. I realize that it's not the most pleasant of perfumes, but it is one of the 'real' smells of life. Your life, mine‑‑everyone's‑‑has its share of crap. We all prefer to get rid of it as soon as possible. But we have to learn to live with it if we wish to grow. You, like all of us, must be willing to live with the manure of defeat, mistakes, failures, sickness, pain, suffering and even sin. These are the fertilizers of life. They are really the stuff that enables you to grow, to get in touch with strengths you never knew you had. Yes, my young friend, manure is an essential companion for those who wish to be fully mature."

The fig tree ponders, but doesn't think her pain & frustration have helped her to grow into anything but a failure.

The gardener quotes e.e. cummings: "'To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, day and night, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.'" He tells her she's not a human being, but that doesn't matter.

The tree says she's BEEN fighting to be *special*, not "everybody".

"'But,' answered the gardener, 'that doesn't mean becoming a hybrid or having some graft done; it means being *nobody but yourself*. The source of what you desire is to be honest to your roots ‑‑ honest regardless of the struggle.'"

The fig tree is silent while she is thinking clearly for the first time in years. She decides she was fighting for the wrong thing, trying to be novel instead of creative. She decides to put all her energy into letting whatever is down in her roots flow upward and bloom on her branches and mature into ripe fruit.

As the gardener gathers his tools in the evening & prepares to leave, he stops by the fig tree and asks, "Well, my friend?"

"Taking a deep breath, she rose to the fullness of her height and said in a voice loud enough for all the trees in the orchard to hear, 'I think I'll be a Fig Tree!'"

Two thousand years ago, when Jesus walked this earth the common assumption which people had about tragedy and disaster was that it was in some way a punishment for sin. In the opening verses of today’s Gospel lesson , before the fig tree story, they ask Jesus about why The Galileans were killed by Herod in the very act of going to the temple to worship.

They seem to want some kind of assurance that somehow there was a reason for this to happen to them. Perhaps, they might have thought, they were revolutionaries, or they did something to deserve this. Jesus gives them no such assurance. In fact he stirs up their fear even more by giving them the example of another tragedy where 18 people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. These people seemed to be killed just because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

In both cases, when people want some kind of reason, Jesus says, “No.” and doesn’t give any reason.

Instead Jesus seems to be saying that these people who are asking him people are focused on the wrong thing. It isn’t about wondering what those people did wrong: instead it is about focusing on what you can do right.

We might think that we are ever so much more enlightened than the people in Jesus’ time, but most people still seem to ask the “why” question when confronted with tragedy. There seems to be a need to make sense of the tragedy. What did they do? What did I do to deserve this? What did she do? There seems to be a need to make sense of the tragedy. This is so strong that the Evangelist, Pat Robinson, in response to the earthquake in Haiti, said that it was God’s punishment for a apparently corporate sin of there being Voodoo in that land. Mr. Robinson should read his Bible. Jesus doesn’t give a rationale for tragedy.

Instead, he tells the story of the fig tree. Jesus seems to be saying that there is no punishment or reason here for these tragedies. Death happens. It will happen to each one of us. What we need to be focused on is how to live. We were created to bear fruit. That’s what we’re for.

During this season of Lent, ask yourself the question: How can I live more fully into the dream God has for me? Living in this way, you will bear much fruit, and you will be filled with the joy of living, and for the glory of God. Amen.