SERMON, ST JOHN’S, NOTTING HILL JUNE 12th 2016
In Today’s Gospel we were witnesses to Jesus being invited to explain the Good News of the Kingdom at a dinner party, given by a high profile religious leader. We know the story well. Imagine a central group of invited guests and around them a small crowd of onlookers. Dramatically there emerges a woman. In a short space of time she would break several taboos. As “a sinner” she came with a bad reputation. The unnamed woman arrived having spent a small fortune on a jar of extremely expensive perfumed oil.
She starts to weep profusely; she took the liberty of touching the religious teacher; she had the gall to kiss and anoint with oil Jesus’ feet, drying them with her long hair.
The response of the Pharisee was to doubt the authenticity of Jesus. How could he permit this scandalous behaviour?
Where’s his intuition about this woman? Surely he’s no prophet! Jesus then reveals his unique and troublesome authority, exousia, given to him by God, explaining what no one else could see: this woman had more faith than all those who were criticizing her. Understanding Jesus’ message, she claimed the undeserved gift of God’s forgiveness and blessing. She was blessed in recognizing that God doesn’t love us for being good; rather, because God is good, God loves us. Receiving this led to her deep penitence and willingness to risk everything in showing her gratitude to God for the gift of God’s friendship.
The Gospel passage further reminds us that this is just one illustration of the healing offered by Jesus, travelling with disciples and companions. The Gospel writer invites us into that same space with desperate people, recognizing they were low on their own resources, prepared to let God be God, taking the risk of believing that in Jesus they could find wholeness, peace, healing and joy, receiving what mattered most in the whole world.
Thank you for inviting me to spend this weekend with you, focusing on how, if we allow it, God blesses us beyond mere prosperity or physical health, so that in turn we become a blessing. I am aware of the multifaceted blessings you already enjoy, celebrate and pit to work in your lives. This contrasts with so many churches living in anxiety and pathos in a difficult time for faith across Western Europe and North America. Strategies for church growth leadership and mission action planning all have a place;
but on their own they can become a mere survival mechanism or even a way of bowing out with dignity.
What can we learn from the woman in the gospel passage? She was honest that she couldn’t find life in its fullness anywhere else. She had made many bad judgements in the past; now she throws caution to the wind, placing herself at Jesus’ feet in penitence, relief and expectancy.
Our culture prizes self-sufficiency, individualism and self-help. Jesus offers us a contrary identity – together and as separate people – as God’s beloved, daughters and Sons, called by name and loved. Jesus desires to “abduct” [a term much used by Coleridge] us, so that we allow ourselves
– in body, mind and spirit - to let ourselves be impoverished until we choose at our deepest place to live out of God’s blessing. That is to let ourselves hear God “speaking well” of us, “benedictus” – words of blessing
and inviting us to live out of God’s Word rather than some negative word coming from our head, from our family or our society. St John in his gospel constantly repeats the message: live in God’s Word about yourselves. You may well be good sinners but as God’s creation you are very good and God delights in you. Believe that whne you look in the mirror each day!
To have the humility to be “abducted” – against your better judgment - by God’s incessant love, as described in Psalm 139, “with love everlasting you besiege me/us”, to have this humility is the beginning of wisdom. There’s a word we get from Old French: “dismantling”. We use it of old unreliable edifices that need to be pulled down for everyone’s safety, or of organizations that no longer serve their purpose. Literally, it means to remove the defensive battlements from a castle, so that it becomes a home, or to remove our cloak or outer garment. To be dismantled by God is to become vulnerable, real, present to God, to the world, to others and to our deepest selves, where God dwells.
The comprehensive scriptural notion of being blessed to become a blessing – as we see in the lives of Abraham, Mary or Paul – is rooted in this surrendering of our selves, our anxiety, our independence, our desire to keep up appearances or to succeed in our own strength. It’s to make worship and praise central to living, believing in God’s reliability and invitation. To say “Amen”, “Yes” to all that Jesus shows us of God. Blessing is about non-necessity, overflow, abundance, gift, glory but also challenge. Anyone in scripture who dares to receive a blessing sets out on a demanding road. It’s no coincidence that when we’re blessed in the liturgy that it’s in the sign of the cross – God’s promise to be with us through the mess and danger – God with us on the cross, to the point of knowing the Good Friday cry of dereliction within the very life of God, as the Son cried to the Father: “my God why have you forsaken me?” But also the amazing presence of the self-starting God who outdistances and bypasses rejection, failure, suffering, agony, death or tomb.
As we have briefly explored and I hope you will continue to do, I believe that when as “church” we have simple conversation, being as open and present to one another as we can - rather than proving ourselves right in mere “discussion”, then through us God can change the world.
That’s why we are “church”, seeking to be agents of the search for justice and peace, the coming Beatitude of all creation. To live in blessing is for the health of our society.
It’s also to change the prevailing despair that there is no hope for our cosmos – the Late Great Planet earth view of history. The Risen Christ who blesses the disciples (that’s us) through the gift of the Holy Spirit to do even greater works, changes the view that we are all doomed - everything is hopeless and it’s not worth trying anymore.
Blessing is a challenge to aimless and futile lifestyles. In this we can learn from many new and radical forms of church that integrate a contemplative deep engagement with God’s life with a world-engaging, suffering-embracing practical companionship with God’s action.
Which is where we came in. When we read the gospels we see Jesus walking the lanes of Galilee – purposively inviting us to join in. We have recognized God acting in Jesus
to heal the woman who disrupted the dinner party. Nothing else mattered to her. She had run out of her own resources. I believe God needs us to rediscover confidence and joy through dismantling our cleverness, self-sufficiency and capability. Now is the time to recognize the potential of living out of blessing. The blessing that flows among us when we appreciate and listen and care for one another.
Dismantling old habits of “coming to church”, instead we are called to become church – as an enacted verb not a static noun; no longer as observers but as disciples who trust God’s promises and to surrender to Jesus as our host in worship, prayer, and mission; walking with a sense of abundance and joy as a source of blessing to all we meet on the road. AMEN