The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s157g16   Fifth Sunday in Lent  13/3/2016

‘Why ..?’  John 12:5

Recently I heard on the radio some comments on how we finish emails.  ‘cheers’ - the one I often use apparently reflects a desire to be seen as happy-go-lucky.  ‘regards’ is very unemotional.   It is a bit like the retort: ‘with respect’ which actually means I don’t respect you, you jerk, surely you can see that your assertion is obviously completely wrong.   So too this ‘why’ is not actually a question seeking an answer, but an accusation of inappropriate behaviour - on the part of Mary - and also of Jesus who accepted it.

In New Zealand the Anglican Church is (still) involved in the controversy surrounding the government legislating for marriage equality.   I am not complaining, at least the conservative ‘christian’ lobby has failed to get their way in NZ and defeat the secular law, unlike in Australia.   At a recent meeting of clergy I attended when this was a topic, a number suggested that it was not the issue that was important but how we conducted the debate - in a non-judgemental manner.  And I thought to myself - how does one debate a topic non-judgementally when the whole premise of one side is judging others to be inferior, sub-human, beyond redemption, and unfaithful to scripture?   But the problem is that when one counters judgementalism with judgementalism - ‘the measure ye mete out will be the measure ye get back’ applies indiscriminately (1) and one can so easily become what one hates.

But Jesus does not mince his words when it comes to orthodox superiority in Matthew chapter 23!

From the conservative evangelical side there seems to me to be a distrust of liberalism, who they accuse of being ‘wishy-washy’; they want to assert their divine pre-eminence.   From the progressive liberal side, they desire to avoid any form of condemnation, which they somehow know is contrary to gospel.   For me, Jesus sees, again and again, the evil of religious elitism, and rails against it.   For me, this is why the religious elite had Jesus killed.

Jesus replies to Judas: ‘leave her alone’.   Jesus stands beside the outsider, the one not in the ‘old boys club’ or the ‘old women’s club’ either.   Matthew tells us that it was this rebuke towards all the murmuring disciples to Mary’s anointing that led Judas to seek to betray Jesus. (2)  This tells us that cliques can and do exist in the church, and that Jesus always stands with those outside the cliques, those outside the inner circle, the fringe dwellers.  

Somehow the church has ended up being an organisation of rules and beliefs but in this modern secular age where differing rules and beliefs abound, subscription to a particular set will need to be backed by sound logic.   Beliefs and rules have essentially become voluntary and the church cannot go back to threats of eternal damnation to assert her authority.

Actually the only thing that the church can rely on is a return to standing by the outsider - as Jesus did here.   To put aside everything which makes one superior to another and say that it is our solidarity as humans amongst everyone else as equals that is the primary mark of the church.   There is ‘neither male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.’  (3)  I suspect that Jesus will not be found in the church that is monocultural, no matter how faithful she is to the rules, the quality of devotion, the orthodoxy of her beliefs or the amount of charity she collects to give to the poor.

We as church are to follow Jesus and stand beside the outsider, to stick up for those who find belief difficult, to befriend those who call the divine by a different name, who picture God in different ways to us or share intimacy with someone of the same gender.  In the church of Jesus there is no ‘inner circle’ for Jesus is always elsewhere.   ‘He is (always) going ahead of you to Galilee’ - to those on the fringes - not to convert - but to include. (4)

And time and again it is when we are on that road AWAY from orthodoxy that we meet the divine.  So in scripture we read of Saul on that road to Damascus confronted by the Lord, telling him that if he continues in his intention to persecute, he will be persecuting the Lord. (5)   We read of Peter led by the Lord step by step to the house of the gentile Cornelius. (6)  We hear the story of the traveller on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who meets the Lord in the Good Samaritan rather than the priest or the Levite. (7)  We read of those grieving disciples on that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus meeting the risen Lord. (8)

The ‘why ..’ expresses that sometimes it seems ever present temptation to tell others how they should worship; to get others to follow our lead.  Jesus’ rebuke tells us that it is others who are important rather than the ways they express their love for God.   Sometimes others express their love for God through secular concern for others, political actions to bring the marginalised out of the cold, and to rebuke the church for being the lobster who refuses to grow a larger shell. (9)

I am not sure that Giles Fraser’s astute analysis of the reasons behind the popularity of Donald Trump: ‘The US became its own church and eventually its own god.   Which is why its only real atheism is to call into question the American dream – a dream often indistinguishable from capitalism and the celebration of winners’ (10) actually in essence is not much different to the Church of England of old, the Tory party at prayer and notions of empire and colonialism. (11)

And Mary dares to anoint Jesus’ feet in front of the rest of the disciples.  Clearly she has perceived that in Jesus the outsider will be welcomed and defended rather than questioned or criticised.   Through Mary may our church be enabled to do likewise.

1.  Luke 6:38
2.  Matthew 26:14-16
3.  Galatians 3:28
4.  Matthew 28:7
5.  Acts 9:4
6.  Acts 9:32 - 10:34
7.  Luke 10:30f
8.  Luke 24:13f
9  Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski