Holy Week 2012: Monday

John 12:1-7  Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.  Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it.Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” [emphasis, in green, my own]

This was the reading we had at the Monday of Holy Week communion and compline in Bishopthorpe.  The Spectacled Bear has an excellent imaginative contemplation on the whole passage but it was the second half that struck me as it was being read.

Firstly this scene reminds me of a number of discussions me and my friends have.  “Why do churches need big buildings, and all that finery?  Let’s demolish all the cathedrals, sell the land and use the money to set up homeless shelters” is a good enough synopsis of them all.  My friends ask this because they have a genuine concern for the poor, and one that I share.  I genuinely think the church needs to be doing more to help those in most need.  I do, however, also think that selling our churches, or even the ornamentation, of those glorious buildings is not the answer.

For me this passage has two implications; one that serving the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, challenging injustice, privilege and systematic abuse or neglect is vital to the Christian calling … but so is honouring God, and worship, and acts of adoration.  The first have that sentence make up part of our worship,but they are not all of it.  They should not push out other expressions of honouring God.  Some people, Quakers, puritans being the strongest examples, but most of non-conformist Christianity too have plain places of worship, in order to put emphasis on the relationship with God.  It is a way of removing distractions.  Other elements of the Christian tradition; many Anglicans, the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, for example have very ornate building.  Here the buildings themselves express worship to God.  Mary used an expensive resource in excess to demonstrate adoration of God, so too do churches use expensive resources; stone, Gold, embroidered fabric, land they own etc to express their adoration of God.

and in the passage Jesus permits and defends Mary.  Obviously we can stretch this too far, I would struggle to assert so plainly “Jesus permits and defends glorious cathedrals”.  It is not my place to speak for him, but the message is clear.  Abundant worship is right and proper and should be celebrated, and that is what these rich buildings are.

The second thing I noticed during the service, and it was more of an aside, was that the evangelist really didn’t like Judas Iscariot!  I struggle to picture a Jesus who has such obvious concern for justice permitting him to take money himself from the (implied) communal money bag.  Yes, Jesus built a community of love and acceptance, but he also came to right injustice, abuse, and to say “sin no more”.  To me this sounds much more like one broken human (or group of humans) struggling to love another broken human who caused them so much pain, and taking that anger out in personal attacks against them when writing up an account of their time together.

For more thoughts on Monday, have a read of these thoughts on Jesus in the Temple

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January Services

Today has been another 3 service sunday!! A covenant Service, an Epiphany service and then Cafe Church.  Many of my friends are blogging about their experiences of these services and so I want to join that crowd!

Covenant
The first thing that has to be done is to point you to Jessica‘s blog where she reproduces a sermon she delivered at her Covenant Service! (take a moment to be amazed by her preaching prowess to do the ministry of the word at service so dear to many Methodists – beyond that, I shall save her from blushing by abstaining from any further praise).

In Bishopthorpe, where I spend my holidays, there is a Local Ecumenical Partnership between the Methodists and the Anglicans, so it was a joint service.  This year, in particular, we had 3 people leading the service; the Methodist Superintendent, the Anglican Curate and a Student Deacon on placement in the Circuit, which was really nice.  The super did another fabulous sermon (they are often superb) Julie, the Student Deacon has a lovely way of leading worship and her prayers were lovely and the Curate lead the beginning bit well, handling a confusion in the order of service very graciously, so all in all a very nice service.

I now move to share some reflections on the covenant service.  They are not particularly new, or complete.  They are the ones that spring to mind!  Any number of Methodists could tell you this and a pile of more profound things beside, but I shall have plenty more Covenants to bore you with other observations.

The things that stuck me most keenly today was the interaction between the corporate and the personal throughout the service.

Some elements are personal bits.  In the liturgy the word “I” is used; they are between God and the individual saying it.  Most notably this is true in the Covenant Prayer; the commitment that we remind ourselves of during this prayer is a commitment to sacrifice our entire lives to God.  Rach make somes very good points that I think are almost as relevant in my life over at her blog.  As Jessica says it is an act of obedience. It is also an act of love; our love of God.  When fulfilled completely it is our offering of everything we have, and are, and will be, or might be, our gifts, our talents, or pet-hates, the whole shebang, our nature, our self, our character to God, for God to do as She wishes.  No one else can make that commitment for us.  It would be wrong, cruel barbaric for them to do so, and also, I would hope inefficacious.  Our lives our not for someone else to offer up.

Other elements of the service are corporate; they whole congregation do them together.  The call to self-sacrifice outlined above, is ultimately a call to discipleship, and discipleship happens in community.  (something those of us who are products of the reformation can easily skip over).  We need friends around us, the teachings of the Church, mutual support from those also trying at this discipleship gig and advice from those who’ve treaded the boards before us.  This was most clearly highlighted in communion, when the bread and wine were distributed to everyone where they sat and then we took them together.  I cannot think of a more “together” way of taking part in what should be a communal event.  And as my father said over coffee, the service was a nice reminder that the two denomiations, and indeed Christians as a whole, share more in common than divides them.  (disclaimer: That is in no way meant to belittle the differences, which I do hold to be very important)

Epiphany
Was next.  At this point I ought to say that Epiphany actually happened 2 days ago, but this is the sunday Bishopthorpe chose to mark it.  Epiphany is when we commemorate the coming of the wise men/magi type people to visit Jesus.  I point first to Simon who does some good myth de-bunking. Always helpful.  And then to Bx who writes a very potent reflexion with much that can be learnt from them, and finally Richard Hall over at Connexions uses a lovely quote.

Epiphany in Bishopthorpe is a very “High Church” event.  There are lots of robes, and processing, it is even one of the few services that the incense in cracked out!  Interestingly I quite like the smell of incense, but I can find it too much, and have to say it does not enrich my worship experience that much.  The service did raise some unfinished pondering in me; mainly around the use of symbol, or re-enactment in services.  In the order of services (although not in actual fact) the choir, a person carrying a cross, the person carrying the incense, the priest and “3 kings” process around the body of the church; this procession (which did occur with the priest, the incense, the cross-cum-King-1, and 2 Church-Wardens-cum-Kings) represents, re-enacts and symbolises the journey of the wise men.  We as the congregation are joined in this symbolic journey, just as our lives can be seen as journey of faith.  I enjoyed it, but was saddened that no explicit mention of this was made in the liturgy or the sermon.  (The sermon, in fact, missed many of the joys of Epiphany and seemed to act more as a coda to Christmas than a celebration of a feast in its own right).  For me this was a shame, there is much that can be said at Epiphany; about the Magi, about manifestation about all sorts of things, and no doubt I shall mull over these more.  But as for symbol, I found the symbolism of the service lovely and thought-provoking, but I come to the conclusion that we must be careful. It is entirely possible to forget to explain or contextualise our symbolism and then it appears to be ridiculous ritual and that is of little help to anyone.

Café Church
Café Church is the entire opposite; no symbolism or ritual there.  That is not to say it is an entirely culture-free zone, or that it is neutral in anyway.  Those at the Epiphany service would have felt very intimidated by the informality, the use of a game that required quick mental reactions and speedy physical movements, to be honest the use of a game in an act of worship at all would be new and possibly off-putting, and many other features of the service.  This is not meant as a critique but as a general tonic to the assumption that Fresh Expressions are neutral, and have stripped way all that off-putting churchy culture.  This may be so, but if it is, then they have replaced it with their own different churchy culture.

There was however, a nice sermon on the risk the Kings too and the risks we are called to take in our lives.  It was a nice culmination of the two major themes of my day!