Friday, March 26, 2010

Palm Sunday

This sermon is based on a reflection by Martyn Percy in “Darkness Yielding”, Liturgies, prayers and reflections for Advent, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, Cairns Publications, Dwylan UK, 2001.

A while ago I happened to see some old footage of a Suzi Quatro concert.  For those who don’t know, Suzi was the original 1970s rock chick, the diminutive leather-clad crazy-wild blonde with a bass guitar and a big-decibel voice.  I checked her biography the other day and found she’s turning 60 this year - apparently still singing, too.  Back then, in the 70s, Suzi epitomised everything that was wild and exciting and dangerous about rock music.  The fact that she was only about five foot nothing just made her even badder.  Anyway, I happened to see this video clip of Suzi Quatro performing in her high-octane days.  She was absolutely alone on stage - no backing band, no giant-size screens either side or whizz-bang laser-lights, just Suzi and an amplifier turned up so high it must have been shattering windows a mile away.  Just Suzi, belting out some grungy rock ballad with her bass guitar - and about ten thousand fans going absolutely wild with delight.

I realised this pocket-diva knew a thing or two about working a crowd.  She started out quiet, barely a whisper, and she reeled them in with a couple of bars of something sweet and tuneful.  Of course they knew what was coming.  As soon as she’d got them humming along, bodies swaying, looking mellow, then she belted them between the eyes with a wall of noise pounded out wave after wave from an epicentre of sheer physical fury.

Psychologists find crowd behaviour fascinating.  The oldest theorists on crowd behaviour, like Sigmund Freud, all noticed the depersonalising effect, the stripping of inhibitions, and Freud thought we tend to revert to animal behaviour in a crowd.  Modern theorists think it’s a bit more complicated than that - certainly the emotions of a crowd tend to be pretty basic - just joy, fear or anger - and fairly unflatteringly psychologists can’t distinguish much difference between a crowd celebrating a nail-biting win at a soccer match from the religious fervour of a charismatic revival meeting.  Crowd behaviour seems to follow a sort of spontaneous problem-solving logic - individual actors switch from being followers to leaders, from heroes to villains, becoming the focus either of copycat behaviour or reprisals as the crowd tests out various strategies for survival or solidarity. The one basic, or course, is that crowd behaviour is unstable, uncontrollable, creative, fluid and chaotic.

Like Suzi, Jesus knows how to work a crowd.  You get the picture that he knows how to work an audience. In his teaching he uses humour, he engages his listeners’ emotions. He is persuasive. His stories keep thousands of people listening way past lunchtime. He knows the techniques of storytelling, vivid imagery, repetition, how to draw examples from everyday life. In Jesus we see wisdom, the technical skills of a top-class orator, empathy, passion and coolness, all rolled into one.

Palm Sunday is not really the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Certainly, he is cheered and egged on by the crowds, who in Luke’s version of the story throw not palm fronds their own clothing down on the road as Jesus rides along on a donkey. He's getting a pop star welcome. The crowds lining the street have come out to see a Galilean prophet who has acquired quite a reputation as a crowd pleaser. The word the crowd are calling out, “hosanna”, literally means "save us", "rescue us"- perhaps the sense is "do something for us"-or even "entertain us". For the crowds of Passover pilgrims jammed into Jerusalem for the holiday weekend, Jesus is a lifesaver, something to gawk at. And the way he comes in to town is pure street theatre-as John Dominic Crossan points out, a parody of the triumphal entry being made at pretty much the same time on the other side of Jerusalem by Pontius Pilate.

Understanding the whys and wherefores of crowds gives us an important key to seeing what's going on. An over-excited crowd is a paradox - far from being just a passive collection of spectators, the crowd defines what they think is going on, feeding on the perception of power and charisma, building momentum and pushing events in a certain direction. Communication and clear thinking break down, giving way to the desire for more and more stimulation, a sort of social drug. I think that's part of the problem of Palm Sunday, the very behaviour of the crowd that is worrying. In the space of a few hours Jesus is swept along from a position of being a minor Galilean prophet with a little bit of recognition, to a dangerous celebrity status, one in which he's been crowned as the "People's King". Holy Week begins because it's obvious that the people who set him up are going to bring him down. That's how crowds work. Any politician or celebrity will tell you that crowds, glued together by excitement and a sense of power into a kind of single many-headed organism, can quickly turn nasty, especially if you don't meet their expectations.  Just ask Britney Spears.

But Jesus know something else about crowds. Because it's in the middle of crowds, agitated and chaotic, jostling him and clamouring for attention, that Jesus has always been alert to other things. He's alert to the nobodies, those who are doubly anonymous in the crowd. Refusing to be swept along by the weight of other people's expectations, Jesus is in the habit of reaching out towards those who are excluded from the mainstream current of emotion. The ones Jesus heals are mostly outsiders, unimportant people whose names the gospel writers don't even bother to tell us. The small voice drowned out by all the noise, Jesus hears. The untouched and untouchable body, isolated in the middle of an intensely physical, jostling crowd could Jesus feels. The short man who can't see above the heads of the crowd, Jesus sees.  Jesus, the Son of Man at home in the heart of a crowd, is exquisitely sensitive to the presence of those who are beneath notice.

So in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ pop-star entry into Jerusalem comes straight after his encounter with Zacchaeus, the collector of taxes. We’re told Zacchaeus is too small to see over the heads of the crowd. So he climbs tree for a better view-and it is from this comic position that Jesus calls to him, invites himself home for lunch. Jesus notices something about Zacchaeus that drew his attention in a way that the dozens of others who must have also been up in trees or on rooftops didn't.

Of course in Christian memory and in countless sermons, Zacchaeus has got the reputation of being either a rip-off merchant, or a collaborator with the Romans. That's certainly what the crowd thinks. The muttering starts, it's not right, Jesus yet again going off to be the guest of the sinner. Zacchaeus meanwhile has responded to Jesus’ noticing of him by giving away half of everything he owns to the poor, and just for good measure adding that if he has defrauded anybody he’ll pay it back four times over. That little word "if" is the thing. It's dead obvious that Zacchaeus is despised by the crowd, but nowhere in the story does it say he is dishonest. He is hated for what he does - but given the opportunity he reacts with honesty and integrity.

So what have we learned about Jesus in this encounter?  Just that - he doesn’t get seduced by the approval of a cheering crowd, and neither does he get caught up in their prejudices.  The one who is beneath notice is affirmed for who he is, acknowledged as a person of generosity and justice.  As always, Jesus sides with the one who is ostracised and rejected.  Far from being a crowd-pleaser, Jesus is a confounder and disturber of crowds.

Even before the palm branches are ripped off the trees or barracking starts, the seeds of the crowd’s rejection of Jesus have already been sown.  Jesus isn’t interested in their praise - what he wants is nothing less than a fundamental change in how they see reality, how they see themselves, how they see each other.  And even though they don’t know it yet, the crowd are going to make him pay for it, for his failure to give them what they expect.

Palm Sunday sets the scene for Holy Week.  The shallow commitment of the disciples, the coarse bravado of Peter’s empty promises, the crowd’s inflamed and uncomprehending cheering - in the end it all counts for nothing.  Words fail, fair-weather friends disappear.  The crowds melt away.  Hundreds of followers reduced to a few standing in shocked silence, keeping their distance on a dull Friday afternoon.

Where will we be, this week?




Friday, March 19, 2010

Lent 5

My sister-in-law, Chris, lives in Stoneville - which, for anyone who doesn’t know it, is a basically just a few homes - hardly a town - clustered around a general store about five kilometres out of Mundaring.  Actually, they are only about 40 minutes from our place if you go Roe Highway and then turn right at Great Eastern Highway and head up the hill - but by the time you get there you feel as though you’ve left Perth and you’re in the bush.  They are also very hospitable, in fact whenever we go up there the whole family make us feel pretty special, and our dog loves their dog, so going up to Stoneville is like a three hour holiday.

Bethany seems to have been a bit like that for Jesus.  It’s not actually clear how often he came up to Jerusalem - in the three narrative Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, apart from going up to Jerusalem as an eight day old and again as a naughty 12 year old, only one great and fateful trip to Jerusalem is mentioned - so we get the impression that Jesus’ formative years and most of his ministry were spent in Galilee.  John’s Gospel, on the other hand, has Jesus making at least three trips up to Jerusalem during his ministry.  Bethany, a little village two or three miles out of Jerusalem, maybe an hour’s walk, seems to have been where he stayed.  For such a tiny village, a lot happens in Bethany - the home of Simon the leper with whom Jesus eats, the place Jesus goes back for the night after his ruckus in the Temple, the place where in Matthew’s account he finds the donkey he will ride in to Jerusalem that last time.  Bethany is also the place where Jesus can just be Jesus, off-duty, at the home of his friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, the only named people in the Gospels of whom it is said that Jesus loved them.  Mary and Martha feature briefly in Luke’s Gospel, where we get a glimpse of some sisterly rivalry, and in John’s Gospel, just a chapter before today’s reading, Jesus has raised his friend Lazarus from the sleep of death.

We’re not specifically told, but it seems the raising of Lazarus was only a short time earlier.  This episode, in which we get another fascinating glimpse of the open and familiar relationship between Jesus and the sisters, Mary and Martha - so familiar in fact that both of the women tell him off in no uncertain terms for not getting there earlier - the raising of Lazarus causes huge excitement and consternation both among Jesus’ friends and his enemies, who begin to finalise their plans to do away with him.  Jesus goes into hiding on the edge of the desert but returns, six days before the Passover, to attend a dinner in the home of his friends.  It’s a tense, charged atmosphere as you might expect at any dinner party where one of the guests has only recently spent four days dead.  Perhaps the odour of death is still lingering a bit, certainly, we’re stating to catch a whiff of the odour of Jesus’ approaching death.

Martha is serving dinner - the word used here for serving, diakoneo, is the same word we translate as deacon and the dinner she serves, deipnon, is the same word we are going to hear later to describe the final supper in Jerusalem. Then Mary, the one we already know is capable of extravagant love, retrieves from somewhere or other a jar of expensive, aromatic oil and anoints Jesus feet, an action that he interprets as being in anticipation of his suffering and death.  You know, we still all too often hear nonsense about Jesus’ disciples all being male, nonsense about there not being any precedent in the Bible for the ministry of women.  Today’s Gospel reading shows us one woman in a priestly role, another in the role of a prophet. 

There are some similar stories in the other Gospels.  Mark, for example, also has a story of an anointing in Bethany but in his version it happens at the home of Simon the Leper where Jesus is anointed on the head by an unnamed woman.  In Luke’s Gospel the anointing is separated from its setting in Bethany near Passion Week.  Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee (also called Simon) when a woman identified as a sinner comes into the home with a flask of perfume, weeps over Jesus feet and dries his feet with her hair.  Perhaps all three of the Gospel writers know of the same story as part of the oral tradition, maybe each of them tells it in a slightly different way.  In the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he said that all three stories refer to the same woman, Mary of Magdala, so that was how Mary Magdalene got the undeserved reputation for being a prostitute.  With respect to the Pope, though, I think we need to resist trying to draw these obviously related stories into a harmonious whole and focus on what the story means in the Gospel we are reading today.

The ointment Mary of Bethany applies to Jesus feet is spikenard, here called by its Indian name of nard.  It comes from a flowering plant of the valerian family which only grows above 7,000 feet in the Himalayan regions of China, India and Nepal.  Judas tells us that a pound of nard would have cost 300 denarii, which is about a year’s wages for a day labourer, and you can see why, if it had to be imported from the end of the known world.  The Gospel tells us it is ‘pure’ nard using the term ‘pistokos’ , which elsewhere is translated as ‘faithful’.  What Mary would have been doing with such a treasure, how she came by it is anybody’s guess, but Jesus’ interpretation is that she has been saving it for his burial.

Mary’s action in this story is not just extravagant, but shockingly intimate.  Women, who were expected to fade into the background public settings, were not supposed even to touch unrelated men, let alone to do so in a way that is so clearly over the top.  Where anointing is normally associated in the Bible with kingship and is done by a proper, official prophet pouring oil on the head, here the action is more tender, more sensual, more personal.  Where the head represents the public self, the feet are private and vulnerable, representing where a person goes and what they do.  And Mary uses her hair to wipe away the perfume - her long, loose hair which as a respectable Jewish woman should never even be unbound in public, let alone used to wipe the feet of a man to whom she is not married, and then left hanging, damp and heavy with scented oil.  Here is a scene of great impropriety, an embarrassing scene over which we wish the veil of privacy could have been drawn.

You can imagine the shocked, awkward silence, people wishing they were somewhere else, indeed, anywhere else.  And Judas puts his foot in it.  To be fair, he probably wasn’t the only one who was shocked, not the only one who totally missed the point of what Mary had just done.  It’s just not right. Think of the poor who could have been fed for what that perfume cost! Think of the orphans in Haiti we could have helped with that money!  I’ve got to admit I thought exactly the same thing when I read the other day about a special 70 year old cask of Scotch that the makers have finally released.  Each bottle is going to cost tens of thousands of dollars.  Drink the cheap plonk.  Give the rest to charity.  It’s a reasonable objection.  We always have to balance what we spend on our worship space, what we spend on sacrament and spirituality, against the demands of the compassion for others that Jesus models.

The Gospel writer, of course, gives us a cue for why we shouldn’t agree with Judas’s otherwise fairly reasonable objection.  Because he’s insincere, because he is a thief himself, because he is going to betray Jesus in the very next chapter.  It’s up to Jesus to tell us what Mary’s action means - in anointing Jesus’ body as though for the grave, Mary not only recognises the suffering and death that lies ahead of him, partly because of his restoration to life of her own brother, but she also recognises and fulfils the role of a true disciple.  The rebuke to Judas sounds gentle: ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’   But it carries a note of sharpness and certainly of sadness.

I think the whole point of the story is that, to use the language of movie-makers, it’s a prequel.  It’s a story that happens before the main story that fleshes it out and tells us what it means.  You read it through the lens of what you already know is going to happen next.  The main story is the story that happens next week - in the time frame of the Gospel which has now slowed down to become the same as the time frame of our own lives - next week’s story of the last meal in Jerusalem at which Jesus, not Martha, will will be the diakonos, serving the food and pouring out the wine, at which Jesus, not Mary, will pour himself out in service and will wash and dry the feet of his disciples.

In the house at Bethany, the poverty of the human Jesus becomes visible. Mary’s extravagant gift of anointing is given to the one for whom there was no room at the inn at his birth, precious little hospitality during his lifetime, and in the end, a borrowed tomb.  Mary’s generosity challenges our own attitudes toward giving, especially the ways in which we offer ourselves to God.

The world is full of earthquakes and disasters. Week in and week out our Church agencies as well as governments and NGOs are bombarded with the real needs of hurting, starving, wounded people in famine and war, flood and hurricane. The poor we have always with us, always with legitimate claims on our compassion and generosity.

The challenge is how well we make time or use our imaginations for risky, generous offerings, like Mary who poured out her extravagance of perfume on Jesus' feet. Mary’s gift and ours show how well the generosity of God is reflected in our own lives.  Alone of all Jesus disciples, who in today’s story remain silent, Mary gets it.  How well do we?


Friday, March 12, 2010

Mothering Sunday (Lent 4)

I remember an advertisement that used to be on TV back in the 80s, in which an average young family were trying to squeeze themselves into an average motor car.  Mum and Dad were doing alright up the front – behind them on the back seat, the kids are pushing and shoving.  ‘The average family’, we were informed by the usual supercilious-sounding male voice-over, ‘consists of Mum, Dad, and 2.3 kids’.  ‘Yeah’, the smallest of the three squabbling kids in the back seat broke in, ‘and I’m the point-three’.  The point, of course, was that this picture-perfect looking family wasn’t average at all, and they needed a car that was bigger and better than average as well.

Nowadays, of course, no demographer worth their salt would hazard any sort of definition of what constitutes an average family. At an engagement party I was invited to a while ago I was amazed at the ease and grace with which the happy couple welcomed mothers and fathers, step-parents, their parents’ former partners, siblings and step-siblings.  I also remember a political row that erupted a few years ago when a politician dared to suggest that a family should be defined as one or more adults who were caring for children.  Couples without children, he was very quickly reminded, are families too.  Single people, gays and lesbians, foster-children, people who live together to share expenses – families today aren’t what they were 50, 20 or even 10 years ago.

We all, of course had mothers.  Some of us still do.  Some of us also have adoptive mothers, birth mothers, step mothers, foster mothers.  In our modern society some of us have surrogate mothers, some are estranged from their mothers, in our world of conflict mothers and children may be separated by court orders or the artificial lines established by warring nations.  In our own country we have the sadness of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal people removed by government order from their families and forced to grow up never knowing their own mothers, we also have the Forgotten Generation sent out to Australia in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, some of them orphans, others separated for decades from living parents and siblings.

On Mothering Sunday we dare not descend into easy sentimentality or simplistic generalisations.  Not about our human relationships, and not by bland appeals to the old-fashioned concept of ‘Mother Church’- especially not that, now that we can no longer pretend the Church has lived up to its own ideals of compassion and care.  Today, it seems to me, we need to honour the complexity and the mystery of actual human relationships which are never perfect, always in need of forgiveness, but at the same time, always the context in which we learn about ourselves, about one another, and about God.  Our readings this morning, I think, can help.

Our Exodus reading is especially helpful to post-modern families trying to work out what it all means.  Recognising the danger to herself and her son in a culture that is hostile to them, Moses’ mum finds a practical alternative to having her child executed. The bit we heard this morning offers what seems like a happy ending, with Moses being brought up by his mother and then adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Actually, this is a bit like a modern-day pop-star going to Malawi to adopt an “orphan” and then having to pay off the parents before she can take the baby out of the country.  Sounds too good to be true.  But we know Moses is going to grow up confused and resentful, that he’ll get himself thrown out of the royal court after murdering an Egyptian slave master for beating an Israelite. So, not really a happy ending, then.

Just that through this confused and morally murky beginning, and through Moses’ coming to recognise and respond to God’s presence in his life, the people of Israel are going to be brought out of slavery into the land promised 400 years earlier to Abraham and his descendents.  It’s a story that speaks to us about faithfulness, even as it highlights the difficulties we sometimes have in working out what and who exactly we are supposed to be faithful to.  Actually, the story of God’s people has always been about faithfulness, about the blessings as well as the sacrifices of living in covenant relationships – relationships based on the giving of ourselves in trust.  The story of God’s people has always been about faithfulness – about promises kept and promises broken which, even then, remain promises.  We sell it short if we think it’s just about the modern ideal of the nuclear family – in the Bible it’s a whole lot messier and more human - with concubines, competing wives and serial husbands, extended families, families divided and families that are open enough to welcome strangers.  The important thing is faithfulness, not the veneer of social conservatism that confers respectability on some and keeps others out.

None of this is to devalue the sacrament of marriage, the giving of a woman and a man to one another in a covenant based on the covenant between God and God’s people.  In fact, more reflection beforehand on exactly what is being given and promised in marriage might make modern marriages more enduring.  But it is to recognise the profound sacramentality of extended families, of open and inclusive kinship groups that confer welcome and belonging, and that encourage commitment and self-giving.  As well as being supportive of marriage as a covenant relationship in which children can be born and grow in the assurance of love and nurture, the Church also needs to recognise the Holy Spirit at work in relationships that don’t fit within the traditional mould, affirming the lives and relationships of single people, those whose marriages have ended through divorce or death, those whose God-given sexuality makes the covenant relationship of marriage impossible.

Above all we must learn in the Church to be a true family, to be a place where all are made to feel welcome – regardless of age, status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, education, disability or any of the barriers we put up either consciously or sub-consciously.  It seems to me that if the Church – even just if we here at St Michaels – were ever to get the reputation for being truly accepting and inclusive, for actually putting into practice Jesus’ way of hospitality and love, not just for talking about it, then we’d be full to overflowing.  Like it or not, we are actually in the business of drawing people together into a profoundly life-giving experience of family.

Which leads me to our reading from the Gospel, to Jesus’ remarkable act by which he joins together as family his own earthly mother and the unidentified disciple known only as the disciple Jesus loves.  It’s a striking reminder that family is where we make it.  It’s also an action both practical and symbolic, an action that draws together as family not just Jesus’ mother and his earthly friend, but all who would claim to be his beloved disciples.  Catholic commentators, in particular, see Mary in this scene as the Mother of the Church, the beloved disciple as a sort of Everyman and Everywoman.  As we stand together at the foot of Jesus’ cross he gifts us to one another as a family constituted by commitment, decision and self-sacrifice, by the shared experience of word and sacrament.  Like it or not, we’re made into a family by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So today, on Mothering Sunday, we are challenged to reflect on who we are, and who Jesus calls us to be as a Church, to recommit ourselves to being an open, generous and hospitable community of care, a family in which each member is known and loved, in which each member takes responsibility for noticing and responding to the needs of others, in which the nurture and protection of the most vulnerable members is given the highest priority.  A family which practises non-judgemental acceptance for the simple reason that we have been made into a family by the one who eats with prostitutes and tax collectors, who promises the kingdom of heaven to murderers and brigands, and to us.  A family which, only then, perhaps, could again without irony be called by the name of Mother Church.