Friday, March 25, 2016

EASTER DAY - Idle Tales?

There is a widely held view that human beings are much more prone to believe negative or bad news stories than they are to believe good news stories.

There is something in our brain that seems to be wired for this kind of negativity and so when someone tells us something critical about ourselves we take that right to heart, but is someone tells us a compliment, we brush it off and we certainly do not take it to heart.

Someone once described this using a metaphor of Velcro® for the effect negative things have on us and Teflon® for the effect good things have on us – one hangs on like glue, and the other slides off.

So it was on that Resurrection morning.  The closest women friends of Jesus went early in the morning to the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid.  While Joseph and his friends had done the basics in preparing Jesus’ body for burial before the “Sabbath” arrived, there was obviously more to be done.  When they got there something was seriously wrong.

The stone closure to the tomb had been hauled back and when they looked inside they saw no body.  The text says: “They stood there puzzled about this.”  I think I might have been more than puzzled.

Anyway, the angels appear and remind the women of Jesus’ forecast of this moment, and then tell them that he is risen.  Amazingly the women believe this straight off.  There is a sense that they are grasped by the Good News and this changes the way the whole world looks to them – forever.  Jesus had promised them way back in Luke 6 – “Happy are you who weep now: you will laugh.”  That seemed impossible when they first heard it – until now.  Just like when Jesus told them “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.”  This life ethic seemed impossible too – until now.

Easter Day brings us the shocking gift of good news: a new way of seeing life that lifts us out of our old ways, turns us around, and reveals everything from a shining new perspective.  That is why you are here today, isn’t it?

When we are experiencing the dark side of life – illness, difficulties, war and persecution as some of you have, or our lives just getting messy and out of control – we want so much to believe that darkness is NOT more powerful than light, and that by Christ’s resurrection God is able to transform our lives.

You have to read between the lines, I think, to see how this good news transformed the lives of these women.  I can imagine them skipping along.  I can imagine them chattering to each other and singing with those wonderful ululations that Middle Eastern and African women are so good at.  And there would be tears – as the realisation that He was not dead but alive began to sink in.

That is why we sing such joyful music and have trumpets and drums and sometimes even dancing.  We have the only good news that can set this world to rights.

But the powers-that-be want nothing of this good news.  “An idle tale” is what the men called it and they would not believe it.  They preferred to be overwhelmed by the bad news of Jesus’ death.  I doubt if the women were really surprised when the men said that.  Women were regarded legally as “incredible” as witnesses of anything.  But there must have been something about the way the women spoke that was new – or empowered.  While the men said “No!  Couldn’t be!”  Peter did get up and go to see for himself, and of course the truth was revealed.

God’s Easter power has met them unexpectedly at the empty tomb, and God’s great Easter victory has transformed all other realities of their lives.

Easter joy like there is contagious and it will not be silenced.  The good news of Easter is real even in the face of doubt and unbelief.  Let us all go from this place like these faithful women to proclaim this good news that can transform lives wherever and whenever we can.

Friday, March 11, 2016

We’re Not Supposed to be Here

There’s a very funny scene in the old film “The Life of Brian” in which there are a large number of women dressed up as men joining in with the crowd in jeering a man who is being stoned to death.  The women had to do this because women were not supposed to be at stonings, and the humour of the story arose when some of the religious authorities began to suspect that there were some women there, but they couldn’t exactly tell. 

It has been suggested by one of the commentators I read, that our Gospel story today is a case just like that.  Mary in this story was in a place she should not have been.  Our Sudanese will understand this better because they have lived by rules that mean that the men and the women eat separately.  But in this story, Mary crosses the line.

I think John has rather carefully crafted the telling of these stories because there are some nice echoes of the stories of Lazarus and Mary in the chapters that follow.  The death and resurrection of Lazarus pre-figures Jesus own death and resurrection, and Mary's gesture of anointing the feet of Jesus rather than his head as you might expect in such a story, prefigures the teaching of Jesus that will follow when he commands his disciples to follow his example and wash one another’s feet.

The story we are considering happened just after Jesus had raised Lazarus to life and it seems to be the case that it was a direct expression of gratitude to Jesus by the new man Lazarus.   And Mary invades the male space at this meal.  It was not inappropriate for Martha to serve the meal to the men as it seems she did, but Mary’s behaviour was inappropriate – indeed it could have been regarded as scandalous. 

John in his telling of the story seems to want to emphasise the extravagance of Mary’s gesture.  The nard she uses was an aromatic essential oil from the Far East so it would have been very expensive and have travelled a long way in the baggage of merchants.  Social mores of the time would have judged Mary’s actions as scandalous – her anointing and gentle wiping of Jesus feet was something that belonged in the bedroom, not a public place like this.

But it is the extravagance of the gesture that incites Judas to words.  He rebukes this woman for invading male space in order to do this to Jesus.

To Judas’ shame, Jesus affirms both the right of Mary to be and what she has chosen to do.  In his eyes Mary is exactly where she should be.  He has made it clear from the beginning of his public ministry that women, children and other powerless people of that day were welcome in his company.  The coming reign of God would be a time and place where all were welcome, all are valued.

This woman who goes where she is not supposed to go is important for another reason.  Her brother Lazarus was dead and now he is alive.  This dinner is to celebrate that barrier-shattering event.  He was dead and the stench that was referred to as coming from his tomb when Jesus arrived – the odour of death – stands in stark contrast to the odour of this costly perfume – a sweet smell of life.

It is reasonable to think that some of the people close to Jesus were aware of how close he was to facing his own death.  They didn’t need to be fortune-tellers.  The signs were clear in the way John tells the story.  So here we have Mary acting as a harbinger of the imminent death of Jesus but crying out for it to be a barrier-shattering event like Lazarus’ death, that his death might somehow be the end of death.

And because we know that in a chapter or two of this story Jesus will teach his disciples something very important, we can say here that this gesture by Mary was an extraordinary example of her modelling the kind of discipleship we are all called to.  Mary has done without being told what Jesus is soon going to do to his friends – wash their feet – drawing them into an intimate relationship with himself, just as he is in an intimate relationship with his Father in heaven.  And it is in this relationship that Jesus removes all of our alienation and estrangement from God.

So this extravagant act of a woman who dared to go where she was not supposed to go heralds one of the most important things Jesus wanted to teach his friends in his last few hours with them.  In a radical call to servant-hood, Jesus commands his friends to do to each other what he had just done for the.  Jesus in this teaching is turning upside down all the social conventions of his day.  When the leaders become the least then the Kingdom of God is here.  When the poor are the recipients of our extravagance then the Kingdom of God is here. 

Everything is upside down and understanding when it is that we must go where society says we are not supposed to go is one of the great challenges of our Lenten journey.  There is no getting away from it – following Jesus is a costly thing.  Remember Mary as we move towards Palm Sunday and into Holy Week.  She will be there with us, reminding us that life can come out of death, and that God is always ready to do a new thing – even in us.