Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent

John 12 1-8


It is a remarkably challenging historical moment. There is the ongoing instability caused by Covid, now with rising fuel prices; there is the tragic war in the Ukraine, and there is the ongoing challenge of climate change. Now, on the individual level, such pressure can lead to distraction, fear, mental health issues, a sense of overwhelming powerlessness. What can I do? What can the Church do? The ground of the world feels so fragile at the moment.


In the Gospel today we meet Jesus, at dinner with his friends. He has a strong foreknowledge he is journeying toward the vulnerability and desolation of the cross. The world then, haunted by violence, divided, was not a safe or comforting place. Now into this fragile moment, Mary, the sister of Martha, does this. 'Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them away with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.'


Into a dark, violent-haunted world, Mary does her act of pointless love. I call it pointless because this is not a worthy, do-gooding action. And Judas flags up its sheer pointlessness when he says, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" But the love of the action, its disturbingly selfless quality, wiping Jesus' feet with her hair, makes the action expand in space and time; 'The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.'


There is a condition of mind and heart which I would like to focus on today, and which Mary’s gratuitous action seems to reveal. I would call it God-intoxication.


Let's just re-set for a moment. We come back to these two points in time. There is the time of Jesus, at dinner with Martha and Mary and Lazarus (freshly raised from the dead by the way) and the disciples. Into this challenging time Mary brings the passion and colour and extravagance of her God-intoxication, she pours her love out in the most naked and selfless way. 'Costly perfume', costly love.


Now let’s come to our own time. As I say, a difficult, restless time. And perhaps into this time we might, dare I say, extravagantly, outrageously share out the love of God which has no point?


I mean most of the time we are not exactly extravagant people, are we? We tend to cling onto the costly perfume and share out bits of it here and there as we see fit. But listen, the life of the God-intoxicated person is different. The God-intoxicated person keeps pouring out the perfume, without end. The God-intoxicated person doesn’t just love the victim, no, the God-intoxicated person, outrageously, loves the persecutor. The God-intoxicated person, for whom Christ is a radiant interior reality, forgives the person for whom no forgiveness seems possible.


Of course, Judas is right. "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" Judas is, no doubt, a good businessman and knows the cost of everything and he no doubt felt that there was something frankly indecent about Mary’s outrageous and other-worldly love. And it’s true, there is something, well, outrageous and other-worldly about a God who gives up every status and forgives every wrong. What kind of God is that?


Full disclosure. This week I had an argument with somebody. It was one of those arguments that are full of the weight of the past, where wrongs are held onto. Full of you say this and I say that. Of course, it’s nothing at all against the suffering of the Ukraine people, except that, war, of course, always starts with yourself and your own hard-heartedness and lack of forgiveness. But just think of those cold, barren places where there is hostility between you and another, where there is no generosity, let alone forgiveness, and into this cold, drab and barren place let Mary pour her costly love, 'Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.' The colours of love coming into our monochrome world.


To be so courageous in love we need to sit at the feet of love, as Mary does. Prayer is a sitting at the feet of love. Prayer is letting yourself be engulfed in God’s love for you, a love, by the way, which is even stronger and deeper when God knows the full range of your weaknesses and crimes. I’m sure that’s true, by the way, when you think, you don’t deserve this love. You don’t. I don’t. But God loves you anyway because God’s love is not based on a moral rulebook book of this and that. It is not the love of a businesswoman who knows the risks of profit and loss.

It is here perhaps, in the secret depths of prayer, where we can learn to be intoxicated and transformed by a love so much stranger than anything we could imagine.


Martha, by the way, is also pouring out the costly perfume of her love here, just as much as Mary. 'Martha,' it says, 'served.' Martha served. Martha doesn’t make such a display, if you like, of love’s intoxication. Martha and Mary, apostles of love's pointless, magnificent extravagance.


That world, your life, yes, harsh, tough, distracted. But find time to sit at the feet of Christ, in prayer, and you will know a love which is so intoxicating, so wild and beautiful, that you cannot but go out there and give yourself away.


Reverend Ben Brown

3rd April 2022
















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