Sermon: Letting go in Love
Preached on 17th June 2007
(Second Sunday after Pentecost)
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Yesterday, in the Feretory next to St Cuthbert's tomb, I prayed for his namesake, a baby whose parents brought him from America to give thanks for his life - he was born with all his organs outside his body and before his birth it was not expected that he would survive the necessary operations. Nearly a year and seven major operations later, baby Cuthbert came to Saint Cuthbert's shrine where, a few years ago, his mother had prayed for a child, promising to bring him back before his first birthday but never dreaming that not only his birth but also his survival would be an answer to prayer. I was reminded of Hannah who, centuries ago at another shrine, prayed desperately for a son and then, when he was three, took him back to the shrine to give him to God. In Samuel's case, he stayed there in the care of Eli and went on to become a prophet in Israel. Hannah gave him to God and entrusted him to the care of a man who had clearly failed in raising his own sons to be faithful to their God - we hear of their shortcomings in the early part of I Samuel. I expect she sometimes wished she could take back control of her son's development. But she had let him go and had given him to God so had to content herself with making clothes for him and an annual visit.
Letting go is a part of life. Today, for some of you here, this is almost your last Sunday as part of this Cathedral community and we send you on your way with our very best wishes, and thanks for your part in the life of this cathedral community. However, with the joy of obtaining your degree and heading out for pastures new, also come losses and endings as you let go of your life here. I remember complaining to God at the time I moved to America and life seemed full of good-byes, "Why can't there be beginnings without endings?"
I happened to say to someone a few weeks ago that I was due to preach on a day when the gospel reading was the woman with the flask of ointment, and he said, "Loss, preach on loss." The woman couldn't anoint Jesus' feet without the total loss of her ointment.
Loss, separation, letting go, giving away: these are themes that run through the biblical story. According to the Genesis accounts, when God created the world, the first thing that happened was that there was separation - of light from darkness, of waters from waters, of water from land. Life is born from separation. And this principle which operated in God's actions was immediately played out in human actions: later in the creation stories we hear, "for this reason a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh." When God began to call a people, his first call to Abram was to leave his father's country and house. And the incarnation could not have happened without loss and leaving. Paul, writing to the Philippians, says of the self-emptying of Christ, "though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born inhuman form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." Christ's self-giving led to crucifixion, the ultimate loss since a crucified person literally has no control over their movements or their future. And this pattern of loss was there when Jesus said to his disciples, "If I do not go away, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you." And, in the reading from Galatians, Paul, amazingly, speaks of our being crucified with Christ. This self-giving with no strings attached is not only God's way but now, because we are in Christ, our way.
So I've found myself pondering this recurring principle of loss as a window on the gospel story. We have an encounter between Jesus, guest at a Pharisee's house, and a woman. People could come into a house where there was a dinner party and stand around the edges of the room to watch the proceedings. Guests would like on their sides with their heads towards the table and their feet pointing out. Where the woman went too far was that she approached Jesus, bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Then she continued to kiss his feet and anoint them with the ointment. No respectable woman let her hair be seen in public, and anointing was normally of the head, the feet were only anointed at death, but she went on anointing his feet and covering them with kisses. It was, no doubt, a total conversation-stopper. But Jesus accepted this without comment until he saw that his host was discomforted by this turn of events. Then he addressed not the woman, as we might have expected, but his host and pointed out that the serious breach of etiquette lay not with the woman's actions but with his host who had not observed the very basic courtesy of providing a servant to wash his guest's feet. A contemporary parallel might be something like not taking your guest's overcoat when he arrives but expecting him to sit down to dinner still wearing it. And the story then goes on with Jesus contrasting the woman's actions with those of his host, before forgiving her and sending her on her way in peace. It's a wonderful example of the wideness of God's mercy that we sang about in our first hymn. To paraphrase it: the love of God is broader than the measure of the Pharisee's mind, and he made God's love too narrow by false limits of his own.
Luke's picture of the woman is a wonderful vignette of a woman whose extreme need drives her to offer Jesus her most treasured possession, a jar of ointment that would represent her financial security in an age before banks. Like Hannah, she offers her most precious possession out of love and gratitude to God. Both experienced loss.
If I give someone a gift it cannot have strings attached, otherwise it is not so much a gift as a transaction. I cannot tell you what to do with what I give you - "you must wear that scarf on that occasion"; "tell me what you think of this CD ". The worst examples are wills where a bequest is left with conditions, there's an example from my family's past where a widow was left the estate on condition she never remarried. She solved that one by living faithfully with the man she would otherwise have married, in an age when people didn't do that sort of things. That was no gift, that was control. When we give something away there is loss, otherwise we have not really given.
We live and worship in a context at which the offering of all that we have is at the heart of things. And in that sense, the woman who poured out her ointment and the remaining shreds of her reputation out of love for Jesus is our example. "I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." We are not our own anymore, we are given to God.
Those of you who are leaving Durham have the opportunity to set this transition, which involves loss, in the context of the offering of all of your life to God, to be transformed by God into something new and wonderful. You will take many things away from Durham with you, not least a degree, but also I hope, a more mature Christian faith. What will you do with that? the churches and people to which you will move or return need you to offer what you have, they need you to pour it out like ointment. Like the woman in the story, love for God is going to demand everything of you. You will discover, yet again, and perhaps in new ways, to say with Paul, "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me."
Soon we will take bread and wine and, following Jesus' actions with the bread at the feeding of the 5000, the last supper, and with the disciples in Emmaus, we will take it, bless it, break it and share it so that we receive again the blessing that comes from breaking and giving. It is the same pattern that has always been God's way , and we learn it first from God. Hannah knew it with Samuel, Paul knew it in his life, the woman with the ointment knew it, Christian through the ages have learned it. The woman's action with her ointment foreshadowed what the letter to the Ephesians describes as Christ's outpouring of his life as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God, and Paul reminded the Corinthians that through us God spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. How is fragrance offered and spread? Only by being poured out continually as a love offering to God. Let us offer our love and thus our lives to God, to be poured out like the ointment, to be broken like bread, for God's glory in this world.