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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 5, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 17, 2013

Psalm 119; Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8

Hear her heart

A pastor phoned a local radio station on Clean Up Australia Day to say that his congregation would not be gathering for worship that morning. Instead, the pastor said, the congregation would “do something useful” and help to gather rubbish in the neighbourhood. The radio host was impressed, but I was a little confused. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with helping to gather rubbish, helping to look after the environment, not to mention supporting the good efforts of others – it’s a good thing to do. But cancelling a worship service begs the question: Why gather for worship at all? Rather than spend time and resources on prayers, songs and sacraments, why not do something “useful” every Sunday morning? Is worship something we do only when there’s nothing better to do? On the contrary, today’s Gospel sees Jesus affirming a very impractical devotion – impractical in the eyes of a critic who seeks a higher moral ground. Today’s Gospel is about extravagant love, perfume, the risk of intimacy. God be with you

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the pastor on the radio. I don’t know him or his congregation. The decision to spend a Sunday in solidarity with people of good will may well be wise and prayerful. I begin with reference to that story because it provokes certain questions – not dissimilar to those raised by Judas in John 12. Couldn’t the perfume used to anoint the feet of Jesus have been sold and the money better spent? Couldn’t the time and resources expended on worship services be better allocated? In the interests of the community? In the interests of the earth? In the interests of the poor?

I’m left with the sense that unless what we do here on Sunday enriches our work for the common good, unless it invigorates our resolve to do good, unless it sustains our justice- and peace-making, then it’s probably not worth our gathering at all. Judas has a point, then. To the extent that our acts of devotion distract from service and responsibility they are self-indulgent and dangerous – they are gnostic in that they indulge escapist fantasies, a turning away from the real world.

But this is not what we have before us in John 12, or indeed, in various versions of the same story in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 7. Although each evangelist reworks a story about extravagant love, perfume and the risk of intimacy (disagreeing as to the venue and characters involved), there are constants: a woman at the margins pours expensive ointment on the head or feet of Jesus, attracting the scorn of male disciples who find the act utterly shameful. It’s more than a little bold, more than a little sensuous. Jesus, in each case, defends her, interpreting the act of devotion as an anointing of his real body in preparation for his real death and burial.

In John 12 it is Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus, who performs the immodest act of devotion. And Jesus refutes Judas’ claim that this somehow robs the poor of resources. “There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone,” he says, darkly [Kurt Vonnegut] – a comic retort that can be heard either as lamenting inequity or as an indictment of injustice, but certainly not as license for neglect of those in need. Jesus’ words, in fact, echo those of Deuteronomy 15: “There will always be those among us in the world who are in need, so I require of you that you be always generous with the poor and needy in your land.”

Jesus will be killed precisely because he is a friend to the poorest – precisely because his parables and demonstrations upset the status quo, precisely because his radical hospitality offends the wealthy and the powerful.

Mary understands. She discerns the “hour”. She empathises with Jesus and the torment to come. She sees that he is a “marked man”. And she acts. She expresses her love in a way that honours him, the one who will be put to shame. She gives herself unto him, the one who will give himself unto death and unto God – in the Spirit of a love for all, the poorest in particular.

The Gospel, that is, reveals the presence and the activity of God. If we’re drawn to that love, truly and deeply drawn, we are changed utterly. We will give without calculation and without concern for social status or reputation. We will express this reality in extreme terms because it prefigures who we are and what we do. Our love for others – the poorest, the humiliated, the despised – will flow from a deep discernment of the presence and activity of God.

It’s often said that a person can tell when an act of kindness is offered in the Spirit of genuine Christ-like care – as opposed to what we lately call political correctness or ideology that is often pretentious or hypocritical. Jesus defends Mary as one whose love is genuine. Our worship ought to shape us as genuine lovers.

There’s one further point to make – and this with thanks to biblical scholars at the manse on Thursday night. It’s true that the Gospel encourages us to love like Mary, and it’s also true that we’re encouraged to receive love like Jesus receives love. There’s a time and place for us to accept extravagant gifts – gifts of compassion, time, food, drink, honour, friendship, loyalty, kindness, trust, oil, ointment, attention, intimacy … That can be difficult to accept – especially in the context of scorn, hostility or jealousy. Sometimes the scorn comes from within our own hearts.

God says, You are worth it. God says, Yes, I know you are facing death. I know you are tormented, misunderstood, sometimes lonely, afraid, overwhelmed. I know you want to love your neighbour. I know you want to do good. I know you. Don’t let the hypocrites and the lovers of abstract ideas and utopian worlds rob you of this joy in life – you are made for relationship and you are worth love’s most extravagant embrace.

To whom in this Gospel story are you drawn? To whom might it draw you?Amen.