So what on earth is going on?

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April 03, 2022

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

So what on earth is going on?

Back in 2014, when I applied to be Dean of this wonderful cathedral, I had the first of many  learning experiences about the differences between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church. If I have sometimes expressed opinions about the things which I believe the C of E does better than the Episcopal Church, let me say unequivocally that on this side of the Atlantic, the process of recruiting a new priest to a parish is undertaken far more thoroughly than in England, and I think that brings huge benefits to the life of the church.

But that meant that at the point I felt a real call to pursue the prospect of coming here, I had to put in some serious work to get far more ducks in a row than I would ever have to have done in England. Not only did I have to rewrite, and indeed, ‘translate’ what I have now learned to call my resumé, but I had to fill out a vast and complex on-line form for the national church, in which I had to talk up pretty much everything I had achieved since the day I was ordained.

Now, I did think I was well suited to the position. But even I didn’t quite have the nerve to write a covering letter to the Search Committee which said, “If anyone else has reason to be confident…I have more!” Although I’m pretty self-assured, I’m not quite in the same league as the man some people used to know as Saul, and we more commonly think of as Paul, who was able to boast so proudly that he was: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

And yet…. And yet something very strange is going on. For, as we read on, we discover that Paul’s resumé is, in fact not something he either cares about or values. It’s not a ‘gain’ but a ‘loss’. “More than that…” he says about all these wonderful attributes and achievements, “More than that…I regard them as rubbish.” Suddenly we discover that, at least as far as Paul is concerned, although he has the most extraordinary CV – the equivalent of which would delight any search committee seeking to find a new rector, dean or bishop – as far as Paul is concerned, it is all (to translate the Greek more accurately, although rather mildly), it is all dung.

And so I ask again, what on earth is going on?

Paul was a highly educated, very intelligent, uber-competent individual. Gain or loss, his intellectual ability and achievements are enormous, and he is, quite simply, one of the most widely read and influential authors in the history of the western world. One thing he was not is stupid… which, of course, makes him an interesting contrast to an ostrich!

For our perception of an ostrich is that it is a beast which is about as dumb as it gets. The author we commonly think of as ‘second Isaiah’ would have believed the very common, age-old myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand to avoid predators. You can google the scientific truth about this if you are really interested, but the perception that would have been shared by the prophet was that ostriches were dumb – really really dumb.

And if ostriches were dumb, jackals were both dangerous and repugnant. Dangerous because they are cunning and skilled hunters of small prey; repugnant because their more common source of food is picking over the rotting carcasses left behind by other, larger predators. That, in the mind of the prophet, would, I think, have been their most noteworthy attribute. When you look at the purity laws around cleanliness and corpses, you can see that jackals are an icon or stereotype of a creature best shunned and avoided – for their feeding habits make them defiled.

And yet, the ultra-stupid ostrich, and the ultra-repugnant jackal are going to become part of the community that honors the one God. And if that is not remarkable enough in itself, they are going to do so in a whole new setting – a desert that – incredibly - has been irrigated. None of this makes sense. The deserts of Africa and even Judea are arid. The wilderness is a place of danger both because of its climate and its livestock, and the prophet knows this very clearly.

And so we have to ask again, what on earth is going on?

But the trouble with asking that question is that it makes us sound just a little like Judas Iscariot. While the writer of the fourth gospel gives us a helpful editorial comment so that we understand Judas’ real motives, it certainly appears that he, also, wants to know just what is going on in the moving but distinctly curious scene we just heard read as our gospel story.

It’s a story we know well, isn’t it? A woman anoints Jesus at a dinner party. We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? Well, curiously enough, we have. It’s not often that the fourth gospel has clear echoes or repeats from the other three gospels, but when it comes to anointing, it most certainly does.

For you will find in Mark a dinner party set in Bethany where a woman anoints Jesus with expensive nard. And at this gathering, there is grumbling about the waste, and we find Jesus remarking that ‘you always have the poor with you’. Matthew, whose literary dependence on Mark is very clear, tells the same story, and does so at the same point in the gospel narrative.

For Mark and Matthew, the story of Jesus being anointed happens in Holy Week. Jesus has already made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, and the plot to kill Jesus has been decisively laid by the chief priests and scribes. For Mark and Matthew the setting is not the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, but ‘the house of Simon the leper’. And Jesus is anointed – rather obviously, perhaps even conventionally, on his head.

And Luke - Luke also tells a story of Jesus being anointed, although Luke’s story is rather different. For a start, Luke sets his story far earlier in the unfolding gospel narrative, when Jesus is still in the Galilee. And the person doing the anointing is, so we are told, a sinful woman, whose tears fall on Jesus’ feet, and which she then dries with her hair, before anointing his feet.

John, clearly, has clearly caught wind of both the Mark and Matthew story, and the Lucan story, but either he can’t remember exactly what the details were, or he is deliberately and tantalizingly rewriting the narratives to confuse and bewilder us – to say to us, perhaps, that something very strange is taking place – to warn us, perhaps, that we should be perceiving what the prophet called ‘a new thing’...

For it is hard to reconcile what Mary is doing with ointment that she was keeping for the day of Jesus’ burial, if, in fact, she is pouring it on him while he is alive and healthy. And it is hard to work out why she would anoint Jesus’ feet – only to wipe them clean immediately. And, to be purely practical about this, if you were going to wipe clean an unguent, oleaginous substance of this kind – no matter that you had only just poured it out – it is very hard to imagine a less effective tool to help you in this task than hair – even if you are lucky enough to have some.

It is no wonder, perhaps, that New Testament scholars are pretty much unified in asking what on earth is going on? John’s curious, eclectic, partial reworking of these differing traditions from Mark and Luke is tantalizing and opaque. Perhaps the inconsistent and illogical details are just poor sub-editing - but I would rather give John the benefit of the doubt.

For John has given us a story that is deeply evocative. That throw-away line that ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’ should be a hint to us that what is taking place is, somehow, an enormous and abundant sign (to use a term beloved of John) – a sign that should open our eyes to the bigger picture, and which should demand of us that question I’ve been asking and asking: what on earth is going on?

One hint lies, I think, in John’s unique claim about the timing of this story. For Mark and Matthew – the two evangelists who tie Jesus’ anointing to his death and burial – this story happens during Holy Week, probably the day before the Last Supper. But John has taken us just a few days further back in the narrative, so that we find ourselves Six days before the Passover.

For John, this anointing of Jesus happens on the day before what we now call Palm Sunday. Jesus is anointed with precious oil on the eve of the day in which the crowds will ecstatically claim him as being the King of Israel. And we should remember that from the Hebrew Scriptures right up to modern-day Britain, anointing is not just a form of preparation for burial, anointing was, and still is, a way to proclaim and acknowledge royalty.

And when John recounts the Palm Sunday narrative, just a few verses on from where we are this morning, unlike the synoptic writers, he explains that “his disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.” So perhaps it is no wonder that we do not fully understand all that John brings us in this strange, this topsy-turvy, this mystical story – this story of God’s glory present in Jesus but sometimes so hard to perceive.

Perhaps it is no wonder we have to ask, what on earth is going on?

As I think you all know, I am blessed, privileged and enormously grateful to be taking a short break from my ministry amongst you. After this service, I will be starting a period of sabbatical leave, and will be returning to the cathedral in the second half of August.

I think you are also now aware that Lisa’s wonderful husband Alan is one of the candidates on the slate for the election of the next bishop of the diocese of Virginia. Depending on what happens on the day of that election – which is set for Saturday 4th June – Lisa’s time amongst us could be drawing to a close.

But I very much hope that such news about the possibility of clergy coming and going does not leave any of you asking what on earth is going on? For a church is so very much bigger than any or all of its clergy, and the mission and ministry to which we are called by virtue of our baptism rises or falls not because of bishops, priests or deacons, but because – and only because – of the shared commitment to living out the gospel to which we are all called, both individually and collectively.

And if we are faithful to this call – this uniquely great and wonderful call – then we must strive to find an answer when the world around us collectively wrings its hands or shakes its head, and demands to know ‘what on earth is going on?’. What on earth is going on with this evil, senseless war in Ukraine? What on earth is going on that so many people – mainly of color – die each week on the streets of Chicago? What on earth is going on in our lives, when we face sorrow, or anxiety, or even the proximity of death?

For the world seems to exist too easily in ignorance of the loving and redemptive purposes of the one God, and it is the call of the Church to be able to work out and to tell others just what it is that really is going on – going on in this extraordinary, ‘upside-down’ manner that has permeated all three of our readings this morning.

And if we need some help in working it out – if we need some help in knowing and explaining to the world (and maybe even to ourselves) what God is up to, and therefore what the Church should be up to, let me turn to the extraordinary man who wrote the hymn we just sung.

Bill Vanstone was an English priest who could have pursued a professorial career in any of the world’s great theology faculties, but who, instead, served as a parish priest, working for over twenty years in a tough, working-class parish in northern England, until he suffered a major heart attack.

It was during his recuperation that he produced what many consider to be one of the greatest theological works published in Britain in the last century - Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense – the title of which comes from this morning’s gradual hymn, written as a ‘final word’ to this extraordinary book. Vanstone, I believe, knew exactly what on earth was going on, and lived out his belief in the extraordinary nature of God’s love in a demanding and challenging location. A few pages before the book’s ending, he says:

The love of God is no controlled unfolding of a predetermined purpose according to an assured programme 

Rather, he tells us,

That upon which all being depends is love expended in self-giving…without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, spent: love…on the brink of failure…yet ever finding new strength to redeem tragedy…and restore again the possibility of triumph.

But – as Mr Spock might have helpfully said – “it’s triumph, Jim – but not as we know it.” And therein lies the challenge. For the author of the fourth gospel understood what it meant for God to be glorified – he knew that God’s glory would be something new springing forth, and in his gospel he begs us to perceive it.

For the triumph of love of which Vanstone spoke so powerfully is only possible when we come to understand that in Jesus God was doing a ‘new thing’ – that God continues to do a ‘new thing’, and – as God turns the world on its head to proclaim a triumphant love – God will always be doing a ‘new thing’... a ‘new thing’ that is, indeed, ‘springing forth’, if only we can perceive it and, having perceived it, share it.

For that is the job of us who are baptized and called to be the Church of God. And if you find the task a little daunting or difficult – if you feel a bit lost for words or if you wonder where and how to start – then do as Canon Vanstone did for us in that last hymn. Simply point to God’s greatest moment of triumph, when the world was most fully turned on its head, and all its conventional values discarded for ever. Simply point to Christ on the cross, and echo Vanstone’s words, as you say to a world that so desperately needs to understand the true nature of God’s love:

Here is God: no monarch he, throned in easy state to reign;

Here is God, whose arms of love aching, spent, the world sustain.