Sermon preached on 13th March, 2016
Readings: Isaiah 43: 16-21 and John 12: 1-8
Today is what we used to call “Passion Sunday” – but, before any of you get the wrong idea, let’s be clear, that’s Passion with a capital “P” and refers to Christ’s Passion – the events leading up to his arrest and execution.
Today’s readings are already starting to hint at what lies ahead – there’s the optimism of Isaiah – of new things “springing forth” – the power of God to create and re-create – to bring new life out of death.
And then, in our Gospel reading, there’s a series of contrasts:
the contrast between this meal shared, as if in gratitude for Lazarus whom Jesus has raised from the dead, and the Last Supper that Jesus will soon share with his disciples, on the eve of his own death.
There’s the contrast between Mary’s loving, generous act in anointing Jesus’ feet – and Judas’ hostile reaction, sewing the seeds perhaps for the betrayal to come.
And of course, there is the contrast between two sisters – dutiful Martha, serving food, and dreamy Mary – giving her full attention to Jesus, rather than lending a hand.
And it’s that difference, between siblings, that I want to pick up on now. We can, I’m sure, think of families where we find those same dynamics – a serious minded sibling alongside a more playful one.
And I suspect that we can also recognise both personality types in our churches too. It’s been suggested that most congregations conform to a 20/80 rule, where 20% of the people do 80% of the work involved. And clearly, that can sometimes lead the 20% to feel frustrated and unsupported – just as Martha did.
But one thing we learn from Jesus’ attitude to these two sisters is that “work” comes in different guises. And there may well be people in our churches who do very firmly resist joining any committee or working party – but whose faith is so clear and generous that they serve the rest of us by rooting us firmly in God’s service. And we need those individuals – just as much as the grafters – to remind us all WHY we stick at it – and what all those meetings are actually FOR!
In short – our churches need BOTH our “Marthas” and our “Marys” – of both sexes!
And if we see those differences in the way we get things done, the same is surely true when it comes to the business of worshipping together.
Some of us are liturgical Marthas – who need to feel actively involved, and get fidgety if too much is left to others. Some of us are more akin to Mary, preferring to let the service wash over us, to be caught up in the general flow, and for our own adoration to flow just as freely in return.
And those two approaches don’t always mesh together.
It was partly for that reason that, last year, we undertook a thorough review of our Easter services – to make sure that each of us could immerse ourselves in worship somewhere within the mix.
This year, we’ve kept things pretty much the same – but since it is 11 months since we thought through it all, it might be good just to remind ourselves, before Holy Week begins, of what we were trying to do.
We begin, on Palm Sunday, with a sense of optimism and jubilation. The Procession of Palms and Eucharist recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the joyful response of the crowds. And – weather permitting – WE will gather in the Market Square, together with our Baptist friends, and members of the band, to begin Holy Week together with that same sense of joyful expectation.
On the Monday, there’s the more reflective experience of the Stations of the Cross – at 6pm – with a short act of devotion at each of the stations around the walls here, preparing for the events of Good Friday.
Since most schools don’t finish term until Maundy Thursday, this year, we won’t have chance to prepare the larger “Experience Easter” stations.
And so our Family Activities slot will move to Good Friday at 10 am, and will be in the Community Centre – so that the silence here is undisturbed.
We will, I HOPE, produce something to display here on Easter Sunday.
We re-designed our service on Maundy Thursday evening, with a shared meal, incorporating elements of the Last Supper and leading to a simple Eucharist and a final reading, to recall Jesus’ praying in Gethsemane before his arrest and the scattering of his disciples.
Last year that all worked very well – APART from the fact that we were serenaded by the Town Band one side, and had the Weightwatchers group on the other! SO – the only change this year is that we will hold the meal here, at the back of church.
For those of you who don’t like to come out in the evenings, and anyone who would find the quiet, solemnity helpful, Good Friday in church begins at 9.00am — with the “Mass of the pre-sanctified” – a shortened form of Holy Communion, using bread and wine which has been blessed the previous evening.
I’ve mentioned the families slot at 10.00am – and so to the ecumenical procession of witness (from the Parish Church to St Peter’s churchyard), beginning at 11 o’clock.
This is our opportunity to step out in faith – to risk whatever reaction we may provoke and so, in some small way, to identify ourselves with both the loyalty of those who stood by Jesus and also the inadequacy of those who fled.
And then, between 2 and 3 o’clock our Choir will lead a special service in which we’ll reflect on the “Seven Last Words” – Jesus’ final utterances from the Cross.
That’s a time to be still, to appreciate the full enormity of the crucifixion and the desolation of those who’d given everything to follow Jesus. And after that service, the church falls silent.
SO, no church services on Holy Saturday, as we preserve that sense of emptiness and desolation.
There will be a short vigil – readings and meditation in preparation for Easter – just for one hour before midnight, and held in the community centre so as not to disturb the emptiness here too soon.
Then, at midnight, we great the Easter Dawn – as the beacon (giant bonfire) is lit and the “new flame” is taken in procession, through the candlelit churchyard, to light the Paschal Candle at the main entrance to the church. Then into the darkened church with just the one candle flame – then many – and the light spreads until the darkness IS overcome, and onto the traditional Easter liturgy – blessing the Altar with incense, renewing the promises made at our baptism and celebrating the first Eucharist of Easter.
In the morning proper – and not forgetting the Clock change this year! – there’s the calm of the 8 o’clock service at St. John’s and the Parish Eucharist at 10.45 – where we aim to welcome and involve all our visitors and families in particular.
That’s the briefest summary I could manage!
And if all that feels a bit like navel gazing – obsessing over things that in the bigger picture are not really that important – then I’d want I’d want to suggest that this IS one time in the year when we SHOULD obsess over our religious observance.
Over the next 2 weeks – the real heart of our faith is laid bare and examined, as we’re invited to walk through the last few days of Jesus’ earthly life.
And, whether you can make it to many of those things, or a few – whether you will be a 20% or an 80% person – let’s aim to immerse ourselves as fully as we can in the story of Christ’s Passion and resurrection.
Committing ourselves whole-heartedly to our Easter worship – and being clear and unapologetic that that is what we are doing – enables us to get to grips with both the meaning and the power of the Gospel.
It’s from that springboard that we are able to see where, in the real world of our day, new shoots are already “springing forth“ and where God is calling us to do our bit to renew and transform what has gone wrong.
And that means first imitating Mary – in her unrestrained adoration of Christ – and then imitating tireless, practical Martha in caring for others.
All of us will find one of those two things more natural than the other – but in striving to achieve both, we are serving Christ as BOTH Martha and Mary did.