s157g01 Somerton Park 1/4/2001
"Why was this ... not sold ... and the money given to the poor ..." John 12.5
I rarely go to the movies, but I'm beginning to think I ought to do it more often. Every film I've seen in recent times has given me lots to think about, lots to appreciate. A while back I saw "American Beauty" with Catherine and thoroughly appreciated it. Then last Friday week ago we saw "Chocolat". Again, I can highly recommend it. It has no overtly violent or other sorts of scenes, so I was a bit puzzled by it's M 15+ rating. In order to tempt you further, one of the leading roles is played by Dame Judi Dench, and a wonderful role it is. The newspaper advertisement describes it as a "comic fable" and I suppose it is - but it has a very worthwhile and serious message, about life and Christian discipleship. Without giving the plot away completely, an attractive woman and her daughter come to an isolated village and set up a confectionary shop. This particular village is very devout and it is simply not done to not go to Church, let alone eat chocolate during Lent. The story is the unfolding and the resolution of the conflict between those who go to Church and the newcomers. It would be a very worthwhile "Lenten discipline" to see the film, and, I hope, an enjoyable one at that.
The home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus was the scene of some significant exchanges. And I am sure that we are meant to look at the one in the light of the other, despite the fact that they are found in different gospels I find it interesting that these exchanges also have an element of conflict in them.
We have, in the exchange in Luke chapter 10, a competition between Mary and Martha about which ministry was the most important - the serving at the table or the ministry of listening and learning. And we learn that no one's ministry will be taken from them.
And here in John 12 we have another competition, this time between Judas and Mary. Which is the most important ministry, the ministry of devotion to the Lord or the ministry of charity to the poor? In this case as in the earlier one, Mary's ministry will not be taken away from her.
And the church has, down through the centuries, been wracked by similar competitions. What is the most important ministry - ordained or lay, sacramental or homiletic, worship or social action, quiet devotion or wildly demonstrative, prayer or hospitality, political action or passive resistance?
So I suspect that if we are to be true to the gospel accounts we will do well if each and every time we make sure that other people's ministries are not taken away from them.
Now this has practical applications in our day to day life. The whole system of parish boundaries actually is a way of delineating whose ministry is whose, so that one parish's ministry is not taken away by another. We should not be fighting over people, and I regret to say that it is a very sad situation to find one parish in this diocese setting up a church within the parish boundaries of another. It is very easy to say that this is evangelism at it's best, but consider how our closer neighbour, Warradale, might think of an Anglican church set up in Marion Shopping Centre? It would be an attempt to take another parishes ministry away from it. And, of course, I only use this as an example. We are perhaps fortunate here at Somerton Park that we have no major shopping centres here. The "big" centres within this parish are the Masonic Memorial Village where we have a particularly strong presence, Minda, which is serviced by an ecumenical team, and the schools.
This should alert us to the fact that trying to get someone else to do their ministry "my way" is just another way of attempting to take someone else's ministry away from them.
So this parish will flourish, not as everyone who comes into this place simply admires what has been achieved in the past, but as we look at the contribution new people might make to this place and actively encourage them to make it.
It does us well to recall that the first murder was committed when Cain killed Abel because Cain perceived that Abel's offering to God was more accepted than his own. And there is good evidence to suggest that this exchange between Jesus and Judas, and the chagrin of Judas that Jesus did not "take his side" against Mary was the actual impetus for Judas deciding to betray Jesus. (Matt 26:6-13 => 14-16 // Mark 14:3-9 => 10-11)
No wonder Judas is described as a thief who didn't care for the poor - despite what he believes was his motivation. It may be that he actually pilfered the money from the poor box, but rather more importantly and relevantly, he also attempted to take away the ministry of Mary, who could well be described as poor simply because she was a woman. Women, in those days, had no status at all. He was, in this more important sense, a thief, caught in the act. Jesus was accepting her offering when he really should have been listening to Judas. So he belittled the anointing and Mary.
And I wondered as I thought, sometimes the label "Christian" can be used to validate one ministry and invalidate another. This doesn't just happen when Anglicans "discuss" the relative importance of the various ways of exercising Christian ministry, but also as Christians are often perceived to be critical of advances in science, for instance.
How often has "the Church" questioned scientific advances. Galileo was excommunicated, Darwin still has his critiques within "Christian" circles, IVF treatment is looked at sideways because of the possible ethical questions IVF related technologies pose. I don't think either the creationist or the evolution model of how we came to be, tells the full story, yet the full story will only be discovered as we take into account the observations and thinking of modern scientists as well as the ancients. So often we make the Biblical authors answer our questions without appreciating that the questions they considered worth trying to answer were quite different to ours. I also want to say that it is very easy for those who have successfully reared children to fail to really appreciate the anguish of those who, for what ever reason, seem to not to be able to do so. Instead of learning from the great thinkers, the Church has often denied their ministry and "stolen" all wisdom to itself.
Other people's ministries will not be taken from them. And this means that instead of putting others down, the Christian ministry "par excellence" is when other people's ministries are recognised and magnified - when other people are affirmed not belittled.
Parishes are sometimes given money in bequests, and we have indeed been fortunate to have received some ourselves. I believe it is quite inappropriate to give such money away. It would be as inappropriate for bequests to Anglicare, for instance to be given to St Philip's Church, as it would for a bequest to St Philip's to be given away to Anglicare. People would quickly realise that the terms of their bequest would not be honoured and would be loathe to give. It is an act of disrespect towards the person who initially gave the bequest.
In a talk on ABC radio in the 1970's Gordon Dicker (reprinted in the booklet: "O Freedom! O Freedom!" said: "The paradoxical fact is that freedom cannot be given away. Those who give freedom can as easily take it back again. Even the giving of freedom represents a kind of power over those it is given to, and therefore it is not really freedom at all. Freedom cannot be given; it has to be won, it has to be taken." (p16,17) (Gordon Dicker was at the time lecturer at the United Theological College, Sydney and a Methodist - presumably now Uniting Church - minister. He received his doctorate from Union Theological Seminary in New York). So there is, I suppose inevitably an element of conflict when God rescues the poor from the powerful, for the powerful never let their power be taken from them without a struggle.
Mary, in anointing Jesus, was not looking for personal recognition or reward. Jesus tells us that somehow Mary foresaw the coming conflict with the religious leaders and the outcome that conflict would have. It may well have not have been any supernatural premonition on her part. She may well have taken seriously what Jesus had repeatedly told his disciples on a number of occasions. It was therefore something about anointing him before his coming trials and sufferings. One can't receive recognition or reward from someone about to die a reasonably ignominious death. So the action was that of pure love for someone else.
But I think I want to say that God is not just interested in making sure that we as individuals get our own way all, or even some of the time. We are all here not for ourselves, but for others. It is often difficult for us to see how others suffer because we demand what we consider our rights.
Again, Gordon Dicker: "We regard ourselves as good, kind, honest people. We would never oppress anybody. But oppressors generally do think of themselves this way. Not infrequently they even see themselves as the benefactors of the oppressed. Of course, oppression is often indirect and for that reason we never see what we are doing. What have we to do with the oppression of cash - crop farmers in Brazil or Ghana? Just this: our insistence on cheap chocolate means that they are working harder and harder for less and less in terms of buying power. It has been pointed out recently that ten years ago Ghana could buy a tractor from overseas by exporting a tonne of cocoa, but to buy that tractor today it must export five tonnes. Cocoa is really a luxury crop. It is we of the affluent countries who eat and drink it, but obviously we are not paying a fair price for it. The cocoa farmers are justified in thinking of the affluent nations who control the market of cocoa as oppressors. Though it may never have occurred to us, that includes us." (p 13). Obviously these figures are well out of date by now, but the point remains the same.
One of the loveliest expressions of charity comes from the book of Deuteronomy: "When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this." (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Interestingly I actually think of tipping at restaurants as a way of doing this.
It is not up to the government, the welfare agencies of the Church - someone else - to help the poor, it is something for which we all have a part to play. Our charity necessarily will cost us something.
And sometimes that might be monetary, perhaps at other times it will be accepting "taking a back seat" so that others can have the spotlight for the moment.
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