Sunday, 7 April 2019

The scent of the perfume filled the house

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12.1-8

So, why did Mary understand Jesus' mission so clearly, while Judas couldn't (or wouldn't)? 

What compelled Mary to spend so much money on such an expensive bottle of perfume?

Elsewhere in John's gospel we come across the motif of extravagance, right at the start, when Jesus turns water for washing in into huge amounts of the best wine - the account in the second chapter of the first miracle at the wedding in Cana. This is seen as the first sign of the breaking-in of Jesus upside-down kingdom. And it is characterized by extravagance, excess, outrageous generosity.

It seems that Mary, whose brother Lazarus had been restored to abundant life only days before, had had her life turned upside down by Jesus. And it was at a party to celebrate Lazarus's resurrection that she does this extravagant action. Yet Judas, one of his disciples and closest confidante's, reacts with anger and condemnation. 

Judas seems to be characterized by meanness, grasping, holding on: John suggests he controlled the common purse and stole from it. By contrast Mary is generous, willing to let got and gives out all she has to pour this perfume on him in such quantities that the scent fills the house.

Mary sees. Judas is blind.

Mary sees something coming that she knows is going to be heartbreaking, something totally destructive, something like the looming cross and death of Jesus. She is realistic - she prepares Jesus' body for burial ahead of time. She is somehow informed - her heart and head have seen the reality and have informed themselves of the loving thing to do. She is obedient - although others around her might have criticised her (I wonder what Lazarus and Martha thought about her spending so much money - remember, this was at least half a year's wages for a common man). 

She sees and Judas is blinded. 

She sees a new thing in Jesus' death and sacrifice. She sees him identifying himself with poverty and weakness and powerlessness. She sees him identifying him with all who have been despised and rejected and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53.3). Does she see this as good news?

What I think is that Mary does not see Jesus as an object but as a poor human. While Judas sees Jesus as a means to an end. He objectifies Jesus at this point. Perhaps also he is hiding from the reality of Jesus. He wants to see something else - a victorious, charismatic over-thrower of the powerful Roman leadership. While Mary is seeing through to the cross. Judas wants to manipulate and control Jesus. While Mary has come to realize that Jesus cannot be manipulated or controlled. Instead she discovers liberty in extravagant worship and adoration. She honours Jesus' humanity and divinity. 

How often I try to manipulate Christ? in my prayers, for example - 'you surely must answer my prayer in this way'. How often do I, in my self-sufficiency, want to run from the reality of Christ as suffering servant? Like Judas, I prefer the security of what I think I know and want to hold onto. Judas preferred the idea of control (controlling the purse-strings). Mary had learned a much fuller life of being able to let go. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Between a rock and a hard place

An impasse. An impossible dilemma. A feeling of being stuck. Between a rock and a hard place. It feels like this to me and so many of us. The pendulum keeps swinging between 'all in' and 'all out'. It feels like a zero-sum game, this Brexit crisis. If some group win, others will have to be losers. 

The origin of the idiom, 'between a rock and a hard place', springs from Homer's Odyssey. In this legendary Greek myth, Odysseus must pass between the treacherous whirlpool Charybdis(The Hard Place) and a horrid man-eating cliff-dwelling monster called Scylla (The Rock). In popular TV animation 'The Simpsons', Homer is forever finding himself in that place of dilemma. So much of the show's popularity is based upon his utter foolishness and his grappling with his character flaws. Here, in this still shot from the animation, Homer is quite literally caught swinging between A Rock and A Hard Place!

But, eventually, the wrecking ball must stop swinging, surely. And even Homer will emerge from the crisis.

Today we continue to watch on helplessly as our political representatives struggle so much to find a way between the rock and hard place that is Brexit. Compromise seems to be in the air. But hard hearts and stubborn wills are still at work in the House of Commons and Number 10.

Sam Wells in his Thought For the Day on Radio 4 this morning suggested that pragmatism and principles are always in tension in the human story - whether within the religious community or the political.

Politics works where everyone gets enough, he suggested.

The Early Church, nourished by the four different Gospels, reflected much on the challenge of principles and pragmatism.

Dr Wells reminded us that in Matthew's Gospel we have Jesus saying: 'Whoever is not with me is against me.' But Mark's Gospel has Jesus quoted as saying the opposite: 'Whoever is not against us is for us.'  He went on to say that in the 17th Century, religion started getting a bad name precisely because people of faith were not willing to compromise. 

'Compromise remains the hardest part of politics,' he concluded. 'Politics only works once we realize we won't get there unless we all got there.'

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Surprise, surprise!

A year before I was born, the sculptor David Wynne produced this interpretation of the moment in the garden where Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus.
'Surprise! Surprise!' it seems to sing. For Jesus looks as surprised as Mary. 'I'm risen!' Jesus seems to be saying with his holey-handed gesture. 'It IS you!' signals Mary, her very feminine body stretched by the experience of this out-of-body resurrection experience. 

Here are some photos from different angles, which emphasize the angular nature of the figures in the south transept of Ely Cathedral. What I notice is how important the hands and arms are to this piece. Hands are just so expressive. 

What do you think is happening here? Is Jesus about to clap? Is Mary about to faint? - remember this was created in 1963; was the artist rather informed by a less than liberated understanding of a woman's response that would not involve a swoon? I am simply making the observation. However, there is something strong and powerful about his Mary which perhaps belies that interpretation. She is portrayed not as some meek or mild woman but as one who has presence and a lithe power. 

She is not weak, she is strong. She is standing on the same piece of ground. What is interesting is trying to work out the moment that the artist is seeking to capture. In the account (John 20.11-18) Mary has just turned away from the angels who had asked her why she is weeping (vs 13). Then, as she turns away from the empty tomb she sees a man she thinks is the gardener (vs 14). He asks the same question the angels have just asked her: 'Woman, why are you weeping?' Thinking him to be just a gardener, she asks him where he has put Jesus' body. It seems that without waiting for an answer she has turned away from him. Because the next thing we discover in the text is that he then calls her by her name: 'Mary' (vs 16). At that point, interestingly, the text says she turns back to him and says 'Rabbouni!' (vs 17). This might explain why in this instant, captured by the artist, she is standing at this side angle to Christ. Surprise, surprise!

So thin are they, that they remind me of new-born foals or deer, all legs and arms, just getting strong enough to take on the world. Perhaps she is choosing to give him the space he needs in his newly alive resurrection body. Perhaps it is like the moment when the earth was formed - just incredible energy.

For there is also a tremendous sense of energy in the piece. Resurrection energy! This is life, in all its fullness (John 10.10). This is not a whimper, nothing tentative here. It is almost an explosion of joy. It could be that Jesus is caught in mid-movement, he has clapped his hands in front of his face to wake himself (or Mary) up and is about to continue that contra-circular movement. Perhaps it is a dance we have here, caught in mid-expression. A resurrection dance.

When was the last time you had an unexpected and good surprise which took your breath away? Did you doubt you heard the news right? Did you ask for it to be repeated? Did it suck the breath out of you? What did your hands want to do in response? What did your body teach you? The good news of the resurrection is a bodily experience. We believe also in the resurrection of the body and life eternal. Here in Lent, on this wiggly path to the cross, it is good to remember the destination beyond it - life in all its fullness, resurrection life, which begins here and now.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

The Wiggly Way

In the entrance to Ely Cathedral is this enigmatic 'wall sculpture'. It is a Wiggly Way to the Cross.There is beauty in the curves of the path, beauty that could not be found in quite the same way if the path was arrow-like. And it confronts, in my eye at least, the true reality of the human pilgrim. Following Christ is not a straight path. Twists and turns are very common. But what is absolutely true is the presence of the Cross of Christ at journey's end. 

In fact the art installation is called The Way of Life. It is by the sculptor Jonathan Clarke. It began life as a doodle on the back of a pad. It is unobtrusively positioned and I only spotted it as I turned back from looking at the huge Victorian (and disappointingly empty) font. There it was. From the place of baptism begins The Way of Life.

Its simplicity is also its truth. Pilgrims know that the Wiggly Way of our lives is constantly needing to be re-calibrated by the magnetic north which is Jesus' cross. We are buffeted and knocked off course by events, circumstances, prevailing deep-seated habits or unhealthy responses, and yet Christ continues to welcome us onto his path, his Way of Life.

Beneath Clarke's path is this stunning sculpture by Hans Feibusch, simply called Christus. It is has the welcoming wounded hands of Christ outstretched in costly greeting. Feibusch was an artist of Jewish heritage who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933 and over the years has produced more than 30 pieces of work for cathedrals across England.

This image shows Jesus' worn hands, so marred and calloused by nail and hardship. His vulnerable open stance and human-sized frame does not overwhelm, it is not even central but to the side. The nave like a huge upturned vessel might almost steal the eye away. Yet the grandeur and awesomeness of this medieval structure cannot compete with Christus. He drew me in, pulled me away from the cavernous space. 

The incarnation, in the end, is the expression of God which speaks most truthfully to me. 'Hands that cast stars in to space, to cruel nails surrendered' - to my mind, eleven of the most beautifully crafted words in hymnody, brought to life in this pose.

Which speaks to you today? The Wiggly Way? Christus?  Tomorrow I will share another sculptural gem!

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Way of 'Yes'

The Way of the Cross is the Way of Yes - of saying yes to the one who calls us, draws us, sticks with us, never abandons us, comes down to us, lives in us and through us and is ever creative, ever longing for newness of life not the deathliness of sin and all that harms. This is the One who beckons us on today, who invites us to drink deeply and eat richly from Christ whose body and blood is freely shared at such great cost yet is to be consumed without money or price by us today. The Way of the Cross is costly - of course - it is hard, it is tough, it does not stop. But it is the Way of Yes, it is the Way of Freedom, it is the Way of Joy and Life. Dear friends, say yes today to the Way of the Cross. And say no to all that deflects you, distracts you or denies you your place on this path. Whatever big 'no' you have woken up with this morning - be it the mists of the dreams that clouded your vision on waking, or the perhaps more usual mindsets of 'I am not worthy to be here', or 'I am a fraud' (which is my usual doubt-filled default setting) - whatever the big 'no' you carry - come and hear the Gospel invitation of Isaiah 55.1-9 for you and the Gospel of Second Chances of Luke (13.1-9). These are for you. Come and join the Way of Yes to God as you walk with me on the Way of the Cross today.

Look again at the Isaiah reading from the exultant and generous and invitational 55th Chapter. Isaiah never spares the truth. Isaiah does not gloss over the various dissonances of human life in the face of the God of justice and mercy and truth. Isaiah tells it as it is: you will know of the chapters of sorrow and grief over the sins of the people, all the ways in which the people have said no to the generosity and justice of God's ways and replaced them with meanness, and grasping and greed. But here in Chapter 55, Isaiah announces an invitation to abundant life. Isn't it amazing that here in the middle of Lent, a time historically of renunciation and cheek-sucking, we have the most bountiful descriptions of the invitation to abundant pardon and sharing? This is not the God who wags a finger or jabs an accusation - the God of NO! - it is the one who says YES, come. Isaiah describes living in God's way as being part of a feast of abundant life - of living generously and in the generosity of God.

We live in a time of state meanness - there is not enough to go round: austerity is a mindset, a choice. Yet, for life to exist everything is dependent upon generosity. What have you eaten today? It was produced by someone, someone dug it out of the ground or cared for it, someone else sweated and worked hard to produce it, someone gave of their time and life to transport it over vast distances. Food and drink production depends upon life poured out all over this globe. Brexit can't stop our inter-connectedness, our inter-relatedness, and interdependence. Life thrives on generosity. Who will you pour your life out for today? Who will you thank today?

We are all in debt to so many. But we do not get overwhelmed by this. Instead, we are set free to live, through God’s grace and kindness. We take and we receive. We sin and are sinned against. We receive forgiveness and we forgive. We live, stumblingly, bumbling along, by the prayer we pray every day – the Lord’s Prayer. And woven into that prayer is the profound truth – we are called to live as those who bear fruit of forgiveness and thankfulness. We live as people of the Way of the Cross, the Way of Forgiveness, the Way of God's Yes and many, many chances. The Parable of the Fig Tree is a story of grace but also bears a warning.

Sin is to be taken seriously. But the thought that suffering is a punishment for sin is something that needs challenging. Job challenged it when his friends counselled him that all the suffering that had befallen him must have been because of ‘something he had done’. Jesus challenged that attitude to. He faced the suffering of two groups of people – some pilgrims slaughtered by Pilate and the 18 people who died when a tower fell. Two tragedies that were the news of the day. The story doing the rounds as Jesus approached Jerusalem was that the suffering of those people must have been deserved. Jesus says simply – we have all sinned. The Galilean pilgrims and the people crushed by the Siloam tower were not especially bad or deserving. Jesus does not dwell on the blame game. Instead, Jesus gives us the enigmatic Parable of the Fig Tree.

The fig tree normally took three years to begin to bear fruit. This fig tree has been in the ground for three years. It’s had its chance, says the owner of the vineyard. But the gardener – a kindly figure in the story – suggests just one more year of nourishment. It gets another chance. How many chances do we need to bear fruit that will last? Oh, so many, is that not so? How long does it take for us to be humble and address our own sin rather than hurl blame at others? How long does it take for us to truly confess our own sins and receive the balm of forgiveness – one of the greatest blocks to receiving forgiveness can be our belief that we are useless – like the fig tree – and deserve condemnation.

But, dear friends, hear this – there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. He comes to us not as the harsh owner but the kindly gardener. On his tree he took all the blame that we might live free from blame. He comes as the one who longs for the fruitfulness of forgiveness not the barrenness of blame.

So often, our media – and I was one of those who worked in the media – is driven by blame culture. ‘Who is to blame?’ is often a question you will hear John Humphries ask over breakfast or the Radio 5 presenter hosting a talk show over lunch or an investigative reporter in a late night documentary. When people are knocked out of shape by pressure and stress – you and I, Prime Ministers and football managers – all of us, we all start to seek to blame, point fingers, try and find a scapegoat for our situation. Human societies – from the tribal living of Iron Age civilisation to the tribal living of our current culture – always seek to find scapegoats or enemies.

What we know is that human thriving, the kind of thriving that will takes us into fruitful living rather than the desert of blame, will only happen when we understand the Gospel message that we all of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.

When we kneel at a communion rail and hold out our hands for the bread and wine that represent Jesus’ loving life laid down, we are all equal. We are all saying we need this nourishment, this sacrament of grace, this bread of forgiveness and wine of life. This is the Way of the Cross in action. The Way of Invitation. Why do we expend so much of our energy on blame-life that does not satisfy? ‘Listen to me carefully,’ says the Lord through Isaiah the prophet, ‘and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me; listen so that you may live.’

Lent is a time of freedom. It is a time of fruitfulness. Hear the good news of the Parable of the Fig Tree today. This is the tree of the second chance. It is also the tree of warning. If we refuse chance after chance after chance from God – if we turn a deaf ear to God’s call, if we let our hearts become calloused with hardness, meanness, blame and scapegoating, there will come a time not when God has shut us out but when we, by our deliberate choice, have shut ourselves out from God.

God save us from that! Let us be People of the Way of the Cross - the Way of Yes to God.

Thursday, 21 March 2019


Jesus, our brother,
who gave without reserve
but also withdrew into quietness;
help us to learn from your experience
that we too may spend 
and be spent wisely and well
within the economy of your Commonwealth.

This is the prayer we say together at the end of our Wednesday Lent study group. Last night 32 brothers and sisters from five Smethwick churches gathered at St Hilda's for the second of our five studies on 'Feast or Famine - how the Gospel challenges austerity'. 

We shared a hot potato supper and then considered the challenge of hunger in our country today. We wrestled together with the parable of Jesus in Luke 14, where the rich man's anger at the 'haves' refusing his invitation to a feast turned to compulsion to invite the 'have nots' from the alleys and byways. We asked why he first invited the well-off to his meal? We asked what obstacles need clearing to allow all - both haves and have nots - to feast at the same table?

We learned that more than 400 people died of malnutrition in Britain last year. We heard how the Smethwick Foodbank founded by the churches and supported by schools and people of the town has provided 350,000 meals for hungry people here in the last seven years. We reflected upon how our response to food poverty in our time is only made possible by joining together with others rather than doing nothing. But we also questioned again how we might move beyond meeting need to asking the questions why the need exists. To help us further we then heard stories of real people from a Foodbank meeter and greeter.

We heard of people who came for help because they were working on such low incomes they were struggling to make ends meet (such as the single father of two daughters, humbled in this way); we heard of people who had been sanctioned and had benefits withdrawn for six weeks because he missed an appointment at the job centre due to his having to pick up his daughter from school when the time for his slot was put later by a late official; we heard of people who might be abusing the system yet who could not be barred; we heard of families of six living in one-bed accommodation with no income at all; we heard of a man in a hostel who had nothing but a meager benefit who wanted to work but would lose his place in the hostel if he took the job. All real stories of hungry people. 

Finally, we learned about a national campaign, began by Christians but now partnered by many groups fighting food poverty - it is called End Hunger UK.

You can find a link to this at

We can't deny the problems.
But we also can't deny the tremendous good that comes from responding together.

Learning how to spend ourselves wisely as well as withdrawing into quietness is a spiritual discipline for an age of hunger.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019


As Lent wends its way deeper into this year, we might become conscious of previous pathways laid by others who have gone before us. People who have been faithful followers of Christ in whose footsteps we tread. Their legacy might be the path we now tread. A legacy of secret liberation. Work not done for attention or specific remembrance, but a bi-product of their faithfulness.

Like another contributor to these pages, I have always been struck by the phrase in the Ash Wednesday liturgy we have used in years past: ‘Lent is not a time to be festive, but it is a time to become free, to be planted in holy ground, to become oaks of righteousness.’ It is also a time to set others free through the freedom we discover. I wonder what legacy of secret liberation Christ is calling you and I to this Lent?

In the wonderful passages in Matthew 6 where Jesus is recorded teaching on prayer, fasting and alms-giving, there is a repeated mantra about secrecy. ‘Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you,’ says Jesus as he urges his followers to pray in secret, give in secret, fast in secret.

There is something modest yet extravagant about the life Jesus calls us into sharing. These are secret yet liberating acts which leave quiet legacies of love.