A Sermon for Passion Sunday
March 22, 2013
When I was a young social worker I had a call from a family who had run out of cash. They had no money for milk for the baby. Could social services help? In those days we had the discretion to make cash payments to families on the basis of preventing children from being admitted into care – something that doesn’t happen now. I took a bus up to a council estate in the north of the city and sat with the young couple in their chilly and sparsely furnished home. What benefits were they receiving, I asked. Was there a problem with payment of the benefit? No, they said, they had received their last benefit payment, but had spent it all on a Christening gown for the baby. Mum, who was in her late teen, disappeared and came back and proudly showed me the pristine white satin robe. Baby was being baptised next week, and it was really important to have a Christening gown. What could I say? There was plenty of sensible things I could say about feeding children and parental responsibility, about budgeting and prioritising, but the white satin gown took my words away. It was beautiful, and the way Mum held it told me it represented something infinitely precious to her – her love for their baby and perhaps, in some way she had no words for, a sense that their baby was precious to God. What they had done was irresponsible and extravagant, and yet at that moment I felt that the Kingdom of God was very close. Yes, that they had done was extravagant, and yet it seemed to me an act of holy extravagance.
Holy extravagance is at the heart of our gospel reading today. Jesus is with his closest friends, at the house of his beloved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It’s a safe, intimate setting for the action that unfolds. Mary takes a pint – a full pint – of the most expensive, most luxurious perfume, and pours it over Jesus feet, filling the whole house with fragrance. And then in a gesture both humble and sensuous, she wipes the perfume away using the medium of touch, using her own hair. It’s an act of love, an act of devotion , something very feminine, very womanly.
By the standards of Jesus’ time – indeed of any time! – this would have been a very demonstrative, excessive way for a woman to behave towards a man. And in any rational calculation, it makes no sense. Why ever would you choose to waste a year’s wages on perfuming a man’s body – fragrancing a house – just for a few fleeting moments? What sensible person would do such a thing? When there are poor people to be fed and clothed, how can you justify such excess? Isn’t there something morally distasteful about it? There’s a case to be made here, and Judas makes it.
Yet Jesus authoritative in his response. “Leave her alone” he says. He sets aside Judas’s objection. “you will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” Jesus graciously receives Mary’s act of holy extravagance. There is no embarrassment, no reproach. Jesus knows that these are his final days with his friends, and that when the death comes , it will not be peaceful or dignified. There will be no comfort of ritual for him or for those close to him. Crucifixion is not that kind of death. Mary understands that too, and so she has enacted the ritual in advance. Her act of love for Jesus anticipates his loss.
This Sunday, the fourth in Lent is known as Passion Sunday. It’s a Sunday on which we share with Mary a sense of anticipation. As we prepare to celebrate Holy Week, the commemoration of Jesus suffering and dying and rising for us, Passion Sunday invites us to contemplate the divine love that underlies all that Jesus does and suffers for us. Passion – it’ a loaded word and a word with two meanings. Both meanings tell us something important about God’s love for us in Jesus.
The first meaning of passion is “suffering” . It comes from the Latin root that also gives us the word “patient”. “Compassion” means literally, being with someone who is suffering. The sufferings and death of Jesus show us graphically that God’s love is suffering love, sacrificial love that is ready to undergo pain on our behalf. And the second meaning of passion of course is love that is abandoned, total, headstrong in its utter commitment.
The writer of the Song of Songs tells us that
love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love
Neither can the floods drown it.
A love that is fierce, fiery, untameable: that’s what passion is like. It’s a love that takes hold of us and won’t let us go. And that is what the love of God is like. God’s love for us is a passion that knows no boundaries. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. That is the extend of God’s passionate love for us. There is nothing sensible and measured about this. This love is not amenable to rational calculation. By sharing our humanity in the person of Jesus God pours out his love for us in a way that is fierce, excessive, risky.
Think about it. By being born as a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, God takes huge risks. There is the risk that Jesus will be ignored, misunderstood, rejected. True, Jesus carries with him all the authority of one who is the Son of God – the authority to heal and forgive, to still the waves and feed the hungry. Yet Jesus is also humanly vulnerable, to the betrayal of his friends, to the exercise of brutal might by the ruling authorities. In Holy week we will hear again the story of the cost, the consequences for Jesus of the holy extravagance of God’s love.
At our film night on Thursday we watched the film Babette’s Feast. It tells of a French woman Babette who arrives as a penniless refugee on the coast of Denmark and is taken in by two sisters as their housemaid. Babette’s only remaining link with France is a lottery ticket. The sisters lead a small church community that, as it shrinks in number is become fractious and loveless. They are deeply puritanical and shrink away from the body and its appetites. When Babette wins the lottery she cooks a feast for the twelve members of the church community. It transpires that she was the most famous chef in Paris in her former life, and she cooks the most exquisite meal, with the finest wine to accompany it. Around the table the enmities that divide the small community dissolve into a sense of harmony and peace. After the meal, the sisters ask Babette when she will be returning to France. She replies that she can’t because she has no money. She has spent all of the 10 000 francs that were her winnings on the festive meal.
The film is a wonderful parable of grace, of the holy extravagance of God. Babette spends all her winnings on the meal. She holds nothing back. Her generosity mirrors the generosity of the one who spares nothing, but gives his Son to live and to die for us. And the story culminates in a meal which takes us back to the Last Supper, the place where Jesus tells us that his very body, his very lifeblood are given and shared with us in the bread and wine. And this meal, this sharing becomes the place where we are healed and restored, to ourselves, to one another and to God. We bring our brokenness to the table and come away nourished by the bread of heaven, God’s living presence made real for us in tangible things we can touch and taste and digest.
So come to this table just as you are. The invitation is from Christ. Simply receive: be made whole.
Frances Eccleston, March 2013