SERMON LENT 5 - 13 MARCH 2016
Life is a journey, so it is often said. A journey that begins at conception, and, in earthly, bodily terms, ends when we take our last breath. It then seems very linear, though no-one’s life goes in a straight line. There are always twists and turns, ups and downs, dead ends and wrong turnings. But, basically, we see it as a progression from beginning to end. I am sure we all also feel that there have been many different lives we have lived within that journey. Looking back I have not infrequently prefaced a comment with “Years ago, in another life time….” Our lifetimes are marked out by different events, some of them painful and some of them joyful. If you have suffered a bereavement there is always the life “before” and “after” that event. These events are markers along the way. Other happenings have acted more like signposts that have made us pause, consider and quite possibly change our direction somewhat. The trouble is that nowadays our ability to see the signposts can be hampered by so much clutter and distraction and too much information. A drive along any road provides a metaphor: there is so much signage, visual pollution it has been described. It is distracting. And then the sat nav is there to tell us where we should be going but it isn’t always right. We get anxious about getting lost because our sense of direction has become depleted by all this confusion and information. Apparently children now have little sense of location because they are driven everywhere and are probably not looking out of the window anyway because they are focussed on some electronic device. We are very far removed from when Aboriginal peoples roamed this land and found their way about by knowing their country, their rocks and rivers and the stories they hold.
The Biblical narrative gives us a different perspective on journeying, the story of the Hebrew people to understand what it meant for them to live in a particular relationship with the one God who had promised them that he would be their God, they his people and that he would guide them to a place of flourishing. It was not a straightforward linear journey. We know the stories of captivity in Egypt, of slavery and struggle, of wandering in the desert for a long time. Last week we read from Joshua about them being told to leave the past behind and to celebrate eating the harvest of the land, even though those crops had not been sown by them. We know their ups and downs to live as faithful people in the land, their battles, their kings. We know of them being taken into exile in Babylon where they were held for generations and then had to find their feet again back in their own land, rebuilding Jerusalem and their lives. We know of their prophets who, during their exile and after, had to call them back to faith and who were often ignored and punished. Today we heard from Isaiah who, as Joshua earlier, tells them not to dwell on the pain of the past but to look forwards because God would care for them as he did for the wild animals.
These stories, time after time, are about life and death, life again and death. It is not so linear as cyclical, or maybe an upwards spiral, which, indeed, is how some cultures regard time. Through it all is the one overarching, undergirding fact of God’s call for them to move in God’s way and to focus, not on their little lives but on the bigger picture. They had to trust that God would continue to lead them beyond the horizon, because God had, and has, a bigger purpose. We, in our Christian understanding, see that as a purpose of love and hence hope, justice, peace and healing for all people. We call that God’s kingdom. It is made real for us in Jesus, whom we are called to follow.
So here we are in Lindfield. It is Sunday 13th March 2016. Some of you have long histories with this place and carry memories of people whose journeys you have shared here. Of times that were very different. They are times to celebrate and times that hold within them God’s blessing. Others of us have come more recently, carrying with us memories of other places where our faith has been fed and nurtured, places that remain important. But here, for now, our paths have met and we look to the one who is our guide and who, we believe, holds our future in his hands.
Meantime, we have been on a journey through Lent, a journey that is getting near to its destination. We can feel it looming, just over the horizon. It doesn’t matter how often we have made this journey, it is different each time, just as it should be, because, if we think we know it all, that we know the way, we have closed our eyes and our ears and shut off our hearts. This is a journey where we are always being called on in faith, where, in the words of Isaiah, we are being told “Forget the things of the past; do not dwell on them. See, I am doing a new thing!” This is a journey of faith and is about the deepest, most important things of life, because it is about how we discover God in the middle of celebration and loss, in pain and even death. And then, in life again, though we can’t leap ahead to that point yet. We may have been here before, but what are we looking for now?
Today’s gospel reading is from John. This is one of the few times in the lectionary where John gets a look in, and, as you know, I would much rather John got a whole year to himself instead of being made to break into our journey with Luke, or whatever the gospel for the year might be. Today it gives us a number of signposts for what lies ahead. The story of the woman anointing Jesus with oil is in each of the four gosep,ls and different in each. You might find it interesting to go home and compare them. John’s account is set in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and follows almost directly on from Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Mary extravagantly pours the perfumed oil over Jesus’ feet in a gesture that is acknowledged by Jesus as being offered in that moment prefiguring his burial. Once again, as in the story of the prodigal son that we heard last week, extravagant love is offset by a niggardly response, this time from Judas. We can see how John is setting the scene in this account which is full of detail, from the house that is filled with the scent of the perfume to the description of Judas as not really caring for the poor but of regularly stealing from the common purse. John’s gospel clearly lays the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jewish community and Judas plays a key role in shaping the story.
This lovely reading is given to us almost as the climax to the pre-Easter story. Next week we will come into Jerusalem shouting “Hosanna!” The signposts for what will happen are given to us: a resurrection story, an early burial preparation and an excuse for action for a discontented disciple. Jesus will stay the course, and so we can only imagine what Mary’s extravagant gesture of love meant to him at this dinner in the house of his friends. There had been death and there is celebration of life. There will be more death and then more celebration of life. The cycle will go on and on and maybe we are being asked which part of the cycle we focus on and how we will celebrate life and love.
Paul reflects on this cycle of life in his letter to the church at Philippi. He had moved from a place where the most important thing for him was being a Jew, a Pharisee and a defender of his belief as he persecuted the Christians. His life changed direction and he lost all that old life, leaving behind what, in my translation is described as garbage. He had a new life in Christ. He wants to know more and more, to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection and participate in his sufferings. He is journeying on, forgetting what lies behind, straining towards what lies ahead. What a journey! What ups and downs! How many lives had he lived in his lifetime!
Now this sermon, so far, has been devoid of little stories or lighter illustrations for the most part, but I hope that you may have been thinking a little bit about the different parts of your own story and how, here you are, having come through some tough times and, it may well be, still going through struggle and loss of some kind. Here we are, importantly, journeying together in this particular time. Our time is not really any better or worse than any other, just different. There are some things we can’t change, and there are some things we can, but we will only do that effectively when we keep our eyes focussed on Christ. We live as faithfully as we can in our present moment, knowing that the God who has always provided for those who try to live his kingdom way, will do so for us. We may not see over the horizon. We may think we do not see any results, but the signposts tell us to go on loving extravagantly as we keep company with Jesus and follow where he leads.
I have not given you any real illustrations apart from what the Scripture points us to, but I will finish with one reference to a story. I was thinking about it as Malcolm shared some of his favourite books at Open House on Tuesday. One of mine is “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks. It is a novel based on the true story of how a rare and unusual illustrated Jewish prayer book was passed from hand to hand for safe keeping over centuries; how it survived wars because people of different faiths valued it. In the novel, it is given to a book restorer to be mended. The clues she finds in the bindings – an insect wing, a hair, wine stains among them – lead her to some understanding of the journey of this precious book. No one person who held and cared for that book could have known what would happen to it over the centuries, but they did care and they did act in their particular time, and it survived.
We are people of faith in our time and place. Our Lenten journey has brought us to the brink of Easter, when faith is tested, when betrayal, suffering, life and death will be played out again. It is the story of our own lives to different degrees, but beyond it all, it is the story of God-with-us, Emmanuel in this lifetime and the next.