Sermon Sunday 29.3.2015

by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair

‘Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,

what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

 

It’s all about preparation.  We might be forgiven, when reading the gospels, for thinking that everything Jesus did during the years of his ministry were spontaneous, done on the spur of the moment.  He suddenly (or ‘immediately’ – a favourite word of Mark) sets out for somewhere, or crosses the lake, or crosses back again.  He appears just to land on people for meals and for accommodation – and we have often put all that down to the customs of hospitality, customs on which we draw for much of what we do here.  But there’s more preparation in there, probably, than meets the eye, or is reported by Mark and his successors.  As we enter the last week of this ministry, the last week of a life we still seek to live, the preparation is much more on display.

 

The story of the entry to Jerusalem is probably one of the best known of the stories of the gospels.  The story of Jesus sending his disciples ahead, of the colt tied up – the colt Jesus knew would be there; there’s the prearranged password about the master having need of it.  The preparation has been meticulous, the choreography carefully worked out.  The ‘many people’ are not there by chance, and neither have they just happened to have branches and leaves from the fields about their person, to spread on the road into Jerusalem.  This dramatic entry is not a spur of the moment thing; this is a procession, a demonstration even, that has been planned and arranged and prepared.

 

And there is more preparation ahead.  These preparations are expected.  What preparations do you want us to make, his disciples ask, to celebrate the Passover?  All Jews are expected to have such a celebration and, as anyone who has hosted a meal or a party will know, these things don’t just happen – they have to be prepared.  The food and the drink have to be bought, the guests invited, the place arranged; it needs thought and work and timing.

 

Go and find a man carrying a water jar, they are told; it shouldn’t be hard – men don’t carry water jars; that’s women’s work.  So they find him, and they follow him, and the preparations are made, preparations that have been possible only because of what has been prepared before.  There are networks of supporters, grapevines of information, ways to move around without being discovered – unless you want to be discovered.

 

But there’s another bit of preparation in our readings this morning from Mark’s account.  It comes between the preparations for the entry into the city and the preparations for the Passover.  This bit of preparation is a source of controversy, perhaps the last straw for Judas, the last piece of evidence that Jesus was not the Messiah he was expecting – and that in spite of the fact that in Mark’s gospel, unlike in John’s, the objections are not put into the mouth of Judas in particular, but of ‘some’ of the company – unnamed, unspecified.  But the story, whoever it is who objects to it, is about a piece of preparation that is perhaps more important than the preparation for a procession, more important than preparation for a Passover.

 

Jesus and his company are in Bethany, but not in the house of Martha and Mary and Lazarus; Jesus and his company are in the house of Simon the Leper.  There has been speculation that Simon may be the one leper who returned to thank Jesus after ten lepers were cured – but it’s only speculation; the original story had no names attached.  All we know is that Jesus has taken his followers to a house where the word ‘leper’ is attached.  Is that a problem?  Is that an issue for them?  Are they being put at risk, being made to feel uncomfortable, unsafe, insecure?  It would, after all, not be unusual; religious people have often taken steps to protect themselves from one another for fear of catching something – from AIDS to the common cold via TB, the reason for the invention toward the end of the nineteenth century of individual communion cups.

 

So, are Jesus’ followers irritated, annoyed, on edge, because they are where they are somewhat resentful of being?   They have, after all, been put in an awkward position; they’ve been asked to be where they don’t really want to be – but they don’t feel they can say anything.  That’s possibility number one.

 

Possibility number two is what the story tells us is the issue.  It’s the economy, stupid.  It’s about the money – and the money is being wasted – or at least the possibility of raising some money is being thrown away – well, poured away.  We’ve talked about this before.  We’ve talked about this specific incident, and we’ve talked about the use of money more generally.  And, like the worry about being asked to risk your health (however tiny the risk may actually be), the concerns of Jesus’ disciples turn out to be our concerns as well.

 

What do we do with our money, or our potential money?  How do we make decisions about the use of surplus resources – and how, anyway, do we decide what counts as ‘surplus’?  Is it the money we spend on holidays, or a second car, or any car?  Is it the money we use to pay for the private provision of things that are available without the payment of fees?  Is it the occasional expensive meal out, or the ‘better than before’ hotel?  Is it the extra pair of shoes – the ones we didn’t really need, but really did like?

 

‘Give the money to the poor,’ say the disciples, ‘don’t spend it on ourselves.’  And we agree – or we think we do – in principle.  But, the thing is, Jesus doesn’t.  He has already caused religious offence by not fasting as he should, and by drinking when he shouldn’t.  Is this really the way a messiah should behave?

 

So there are two possibilities for offence, enough to send Judas off to betray him.  They are about offending religious people who think they should have the right to exercise sensible precautions against infection and dangers to health; and about offending the same religious people, who think that his behaviour should be more restrained, more sober, more decorous.  But actually, I don’t think either of those (though real in themselves) are the real reason.  The real reason, possibility number three, is about preparation.

 

This incident in the home of Simon the Leper, with the woman with the extremely expensive ointment, is about preparation for death.  And the incident shows that this whole week is about preparation for death.  The entry to Jerusalem, the Passover meal itself, are about preparation for death.  And that is where the real objections lie.

 

Jesus has several times tried to explain where the mission was going – and his followers have been repeatedly deaf to the explanation.  ‘Don’t talk that way,’ they said; ‘don’t talk about things like that.’  And we still say similar things.  In fact, the tendency may have become worse.  We are all encouraged to eat, drink and do things that will, we are told, lengthen our lives.  And our lives are lengthening – and we can begin to think that they can be lengthened indefinitely.  But it’s not true.  And, because it’s not true, it is not at all inappropriate to be aware of death, to prepare for death, to speak of death.

 

And in Bethany a woman prepares Jesus for death.  It’s not an act of morbid fascination, not an act of surrender; it’s an act of devotion.  It’s an act that recognises that following Jesus is not about preservation; it’s not about hanging on to what we have, or indeed to what we are.  Jesus says this to anyone who will listen, and also to those who will not – and still we struggle to hear.  Still we put ourselves in preservation mode, hanging on to what we have, hanging on to what we are, hanging on to what we know.  We are still disturbed by those who, like the woman in Bethany, confront us with death – but we should, by now, know better.

 

She discombobulated the disciples, already perhaps unnerved by the house they were in, by her use of resources – and by her honesty about death, and her preparedness for it.  She still discombobulates us, and for the same reasons.  But this week we come face to face with a man anointed and prepared for death – a man who looks at us and asks us what we’re prepared for and preparing for.  Is our preparation about self-preservation, or is it about extravagant self-giving?

 

‘Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,

what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

 

 

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