Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent, 21st March 2010 – Gospel Reading
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair ”. John 12:3
Yesterday’s ‘Irish Times had reviews of ten sermons heard by journalists., I am glad I shall never to have face such treatment! Being honest, I don’t remember sermons very often, I would be hard pressed to tell you what I had said myself the previous Sunday, but I remember a sermon I heard in Bristol during the first week I was there, six years ago.
On Wednesday evenings the college gathered for Holy Communion and the preacher on that first week I was there was the vice-principal. Drawing on the Bible story of Jesus reaching down to grab hand of Peter, who was sinking in the water, he preached a moving sermon about the death of his father and about his own emotions. He admitted feeling a sense of anger at the graveside. He could not remember his father, who had reached the grand age of 92, ever giving him a hug in his entire life. It was a sermon about depth of feeling, about deeply felt emotions, about grabbing firmly the hand of God. We all agreed with him. But, of course, I suspect few of us changed the way we were.
We don’t express emotions, it’s not in our culture. We might get worked up about a rugby match or a soccer match, but when it comes to our relationships with people, we maintain a calm reserve. Before I moved from the North I was in a parish where I would have had 20-30 funerals a year and, like everyone else, I would have shaken hands and said, ‘Sorry for your trouble. We don’t go in for expressing ourselves in the way that people do in some other countries, it’s just not us.
But when we turn to the Gospel reading, we have this great outpouring of emotion by Mary, not in keeping with conservative Jewish tradition, we might think.
But Mary might have pointed to the prophets to explain her emotion; to explain how her feelings were in keeping with Scripture. The prophet Jeremiah at one point rebukes himself for not being more emotional. ‘Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!’ The prophet complains at his lack of emotion in the face of all that has happened. He realises that things important to God should draw deeply held feelings from us. Jeremiah does not regard being quietly reserved as appropriate when it comes to the things of God.
God is a God who expresses emotions. Read through the Bible for yourselves and the one thing that God doesn’t do is sit there and say nothing, God never speaks in bland platitudes. Read Jeremiah, read the prophet Hosea, read the Gospels. When his friend Lazarus dies, we are told in St John’s Gospel that Jesus weeps; the risen Lazarus is sitting at the table as Mary makes her heart-felt gesture; she has great reason for the thoughts sh expresses. When Jesus looks down on the city of Jerusalem, St Luke tells us that Jesus expresses his grief at the stubbornness and hard-heartedness of the people, ‘Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem’; you can hear the pain in his voice.
Expressing emotion in our culture is often seen as a sign of weakness, yet emotion is an expression of how important things are to us. How can we express huge emotions at soccer or rugby matches, but when it comes to the real things, to the things of life and the things of death, then say nothing?
I would love an explanation as to why the most deeply felt thoughts and feelings don’t bring out a greater response in us.
We say nothing. We seem afraid to express our emotions. Perhaps it’s because we are reserved, or perhaps it’s because we don’t believe things very strongly. Scripture demonstrates that there are situations that demand a deep response, that if we are serious about something, then tears may be the only response we can make.
I remember listening to that sermon in Bristol and agreeing with what was said, and when I got to the chapel door I just very reservedly shook hands and said ‘thank you’. When it came to applying what he said in my own life, I did nothing.
I think we all do that, hearing something is OK, doing something about it is a different matter. ‘Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!’, prays Jeremiah and I think we need to share in that prayer, we need to pray for a faith that stirs up deep emotions as her faith did for Mary.
If we don’t feel deeply – if we think it’s all right to sit lightly to the things of God; if we think it’s all right to be detached in what we believe; if we think that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, then we need to ask ourselves a question, if my faith doesn’t matter enough to get worked up about, then does it matter at all? Either God is everything or he is nothing.
Thank you so much Ian. I really needed to read deeply into what you said. Wonderfully put together and with so much meaning.
Cobbled together on a Sunday afternoon!