A sweet smell

I was invited to preach at Derby Cathedral today, Passion Sunday.  This is the sermon that I preached.  The readings for the Eucharist were Isaiah 43.16-21; Philippians 3.4b-14 and John 12.1-8.


It’s lovely being back in the East Midlands.  I grew up in Leicester, so this is a bit like coming home but hillier! When I was a lad and we used to be going into town on the bus, we’d get to a point in the journey, just near the city centre, on Oxford Street, when noses would start twitching.  There was something in the air, not an unpleasant, but a strong smell.  It was sweet, very sweet, and it was minty. Then, all of a sudden, it became clear as to what it was, as on the side of one of the buildings by the road appeared the symbol of a polar bear standing on a mint.  It was the Fox’s Glacier Mint factory.  Those of my friends who worked there during the summer holidays used to tell us, a bit like in the pie factory in our village, that you were allowed to eat as much as you wanted, and you didn’t want to for very long!

Foxsmints

Making mints in Leicester

But the smell of the sweet factory pervaded the streets of the city.

There’s a bit of a scene at the dinner table.  Jesus was in the home of his friends, his bolt hole whenever he was in the Jerusalem area.  He was with Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  It was great to be with them because not so long before he’d been there as the two women had been overwhelmed with grief.  Their brother was dead but Jesus had raised him from the dead and restored him to the heart of his family.  The smell of death had emanated from that tomb but now the house was filled with a different smell.

Everything was running true to form – Martha was in the kitchen and busily bringing the food to the table for their guests and Mary was at Jesus’ feet.  It was like deja vu – Jesus had been there before when a row had broken out between the sisters.  Martha had had it with Mary, like Cinders she was doing all the work whilst her sister was sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him talking.  It was an extravagant gesture of devotion, but it had been Martha, slaving over the stove, who’d paid the price.

But now Mary was not listening but breaking open a jar of perfume, and not just any perfume, it was the most costly and as soon as the others in the room smelt it they knew what it was – it smelt of money.  She’d spent more than three days wages on this gesture, money that some thought could’ve been better spent, so no wonder Judas leapt from his place to complain.  But she pours out the costly ointment and holds nothing back.  She pours it over his feet and with a sensuality which was as shocking as her spending, wipes the feet of Jesus with her long, loosed hair.

And John tells us

‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’

There’s a bad smell around.  It seems all pervasive; it feels like there’s no escaping it, no getting away from it.  It’s a smell that’s not just here but, it seems, it feels like, everywhere, at the moment.

We smell it on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament.  We smelt it in Christchurch New Zealand. We smell it at the Mexican border.  We smell it now in Brunei.  It’s the unpleasant, vile smell of hatred.  Too much is being landed at the door of Brexit but whatever your own views on leave or remain, you can’t deny that this so far failed process has unleashed a bad smell.  I smell the hatred of the other, the smell of fear of the other, the smell of phobias, Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia, it’s the smell of Antisemitism, of racism, the smell of a knife raised to kill a stranger, the other caught in the way of violence.

There was a member of the congregation at Southwark Cathedral, a writer, sadly now dead, who in one of his books on social justice wrote something so simple yet so powerful

‘To the other you are the other.’

If we fear the other, then there’s someone else fearing us; if you fear the other then there’s someone fearing you.

The prophet Isaiah in our First Reading is looking forward to the new possibilities in God.  And the prophet says to us that all this will happen

‘so that they might declare my praise.’

So that we might declare God’s praise, so that we might fill the world with another fragrance, the fragrance of love, so that that fragrance born of praise, born of love, might counter that evil smell that’s so apparent around us.

scent-market-sweet-smell-of-success-for-global-desi-celebs_large

‘that we might fill the world with another fragrance’

Today we call Passion Sunday because today we turn our attention away from the wilderness in which we’ve been spending time with Jesus and turn instead towards the cross.  Next Sunday we’ll be holding our Palm Crosses and hosanna-ing with the rest of the crowd as we see Jesus arrive as Prince of Peace.

He’ll be met with violence and hatred and that fear of the other with which we’re so familiar at the moment and he will meet it all with love, because the fragrance of God is stronger than the fragrance of the evil one, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.  This is the truth that we know, this is the truth that we share, this is the truth that Paul proclaims to the Philippians when he says to them in our Second Reading

‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.’

His death brought peace and light and love and life and ‘the darkness could not overcome it’ as St John says as he begins his gospel.

My friends, we’re living through challenging times and Brexit is only part of it.  All those places I mentioned before, Christchurch, a community shattered by the brutal killing of so many Muslims at prayer; the Mexican border where a wall will be built to exclude and not include; Brunei where gay people and straight people who’ve committed adultery will be stoned; and College Green where hatred of the other in our society is being whipped up in the moral vacuum that Brexit has allowed to be created; all these places and more, need to be challenged by Christians and people of faith and people of good will, standing together and speaking the truth and breaking the jar and pouring the costly and extravagant oil of love.

And how costly, how extravagant?  Well we’ll see what the cost actually is.  On the day we perversely call Good Friday we’ll see the costliness of love, and we won’t smell death but we will smell life.  God spends all for you, for me, for us, for the world, God expends God’s own self as the nails are driven home and the spear pierces the side and blood and water flow.  The poet Madeleine L’Engle describes it so simply and profoundly in her poem ‘Love Letter’

I take hammer and nails
And tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood

And the message that we read on the crossed wood is, ‘I love you’.  And that, my sisters, my brothers, is the message of this Eucharist.  We can smell bread baking and wine fermenting – this is God preparing a meal, this is God preparing a meal of God’s own self, that will cost everything and give everything.

And you and I do not need to break a flask and pour out the oil, all we need to do is come forward with our hunger and our thirst and our empty hands and then go out, smelling of God.  Let this house be filled with divine fragrance and let it spread out of these doors into a world desperate for something better, as we leave with the fragrance of God lingering about us, to make sweet what is sour in the world.

Sweet Jesus,
fill the world
with the fragrance
of your love.
Amen.

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Deal or no deal

Once it was just a game show in the afternoon with Noel Edmonds and a bunch of people stood behind a load of boxes.  The mysterious person on the other end of the phone, the banter with Noel, the desire of the person to make sure that their box contained a fantastic amount of money, all added to the tension.  Would they accept the Bankers’ deal and if they did and when they pulled that red tag and revealed what was in their box, would they have made the right decision?  Noel asks the now famous question – ‘Deal or no deal’ – and then often, tantalizingly, would cut straight to the adverts and we would be left, me included, doing the ironing in front of the tele on my day off, hanging in limbo – would they do a deal?

DON-LOGO-STILL-REVERSE

Fortunately most game shows don’t become reality.  We see elements of ‘Blankety Blank’ around, there is a continuous ‘Generation Game’ going on, and yes, things can often seem ‘Pointless’.  But no one would have predicted that Noel Edmonds, all hair and jumpers, would become a prophetic figure (though I suppose John the Baptist was all hair and camel coloured clothing)!

But we are now living the game.

A couple of summers ago, on the beach, I read the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy, a series of dystopian novels by Suzanne Collins. In those books a game show is a reality show.  Communities compete for food by sacrificing their young people harvested in a process of selection called ‘The Reaping’.  The books, though intended for a teenage audience, are disturbing because of the way in which the game becomes the reality – and the trilogy is about how this is all resisted and defeated.

So, thinking has been done around a ‘No deal’ outcome at the end of the Brexit process and this week has seen the publication of the first 24 of a proposed 80 papers setting out the implications of ‘No deal’. For some reason we were told that the BLT sandwich would be safe (I hadn’t realised that was also in danger) but that medicines might not be and credit cards might not work so easily and … and …

On the news some people in the street were asked what they thought. Most of the opinions broadcast were that they didn’t believe anyone about anything.  That was for me the most depressing thing and the greatest sadness of the political turmoil we are going through nationally and internationally.  No one is trusted, there is no longer a thing called truth and we don’t believe anyone.  So how will that work?

Perhaps I’m just a naive fool but I have always lived on the basis of believing people and trusting them until I have evidence to convince me otherwise.  It’s a great shock when you realise that some one has been lying to you, that some one you thought genuine and honest has been taking you for a ride – but we have this great presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and I have applied that across to other things.  Perhaps I have been wrong.

It’s like some horrible game that we are in, except that it is reality and that it is all our lives that are in the box before us on Noel’s table!

Things were not always easy for Jesus.  We see that in the Gospel reading that I have been thinking about in preparation for Trinity 13, the conclusion to the long passage from John 6 that we have been reading at the Eucharist for the past four weeks.  The chapter begins with the feeding of the five thousand and then moves on to Jesus speaking in the synagogue in Capernaum about himself being the ‘Living Bread’.  Those who eat of this bread – his flesh – will never be hungry; those who drink of this wine – his blood – will never be thirsty.  A dispute breaks out.  People cannot accept what he says – after all, he is known to them and so what is this talk about coming down from heaven?  He’s from Nazareth! And then the language of flesh and blood is crude, offensive and too much to take.  It is so bad that some of those who had been following him walk away.  they can no longer follow him, they can no longer believe in him.

Jesus looks at who are left and in one of the most poignant moments for me in the gospels asks

‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6.67)

It is Simon Peter who answers on behalf of the others and with words that I keep coming back to every time faith becomes a bit too hard, every time priesthood becomes a bit too demanding, every time disappointment knocks my confidence

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6.68)

There is no one else, Jesus is the only one I can trust and believe and follow and give my life to and I know, I know, that he will not let me down and that he will feed me and quench my thirst and be my shepherd and be the door of the fold and be my light, my resurrection and my life and be everything that he promises to be, that his words are not just trustworthy and true but they are eternal words, that span heaven, that span time, that define reality.

So like so many of us I don’t know what to believe about ‘Deal or no Deal’ (though I’m still a proud Remainer) but I know what to believe about Jesus. In him I trust – it’s just the others!

Lord Jesus,
eternal and life-giving Word,
walk with us through the uncertainty of life
with the certainty of your love.
Amen.

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