— Graham Low’s sermon for PASSION SUNDAY 13.3.16 —
Editor’s note: some us got jumbled up about which side was which in a meeting the next day. We couldn’t remember if it was left, L for logic, or right R for rationality. Graham is absolutely correct. Left brain is the lists, the logic, the thinking, and right brain is the imagination, the creativity, the what if. You can take a left-right brain test here.
Just to complicate things though, there is not a full consensus that the theory is accurate (see here for example).
Here’s Graham sermon.
Just a few days after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and six days before the feast of the Passover, Jesus returns to Bethany. He comes for a celebration meal at the home of his friend Simon the leper. Remember that three years earlier there was a marvellous feast at Cana, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Now there is a joyful feast for Jesus, at the beginning of the last week of his ministry. And Lazarus is here in Bethany too, reclining with Jesus. Martha has lovingly prepared a meal and now it comes to be served. And in the middle of the meal, a woman who John names Mary, makes an exceptionally extravagant, indeed for some present, an excessive, gesture of love and thanksgiving. She has brought a large measure of the most costly perfume made with pure nard in an alabaster jar. And astonishingly she anoints him with her hair. Equally astonishingly, she anoints his feet, rather than his head and hands, the traditional parts of the body which are anointed. And soon the fragrance of the perfume begins to fill the whole house. This is in the sharpest possible contrast to the awful stench of Lazarus’ dead body. This apparently excessive act of love reminds us of the equally excessive amount of water that was turned into wine at the wedding at Cana. John offers us deep contrasts here.
And we are offered signs of what may well be a close relationship between Jesus and the woman whom John calls Mary. This clearly upsets the disciples, and Judas in particular. Judas seems to react quite violently to her attitude and her extravagant gesture. “What a waste of money”. Yes, it is extravagant indeed, for 300 denarii is a year’s salary for a typical labourer. But we are also told that Judas’, reasons for his hostility are because he is a thief. We told no more about the disciples’ opposition to Mary. Why are they so upset? Where has their anger come from? Why do these men want to control Jesus and other people who have a relationship with him? Are they jealous of Mary’s relationship with Jesus? Are they finding it hard to believe that women are important for Jesus? Are they beginning to see that women could be disciples of his? Are they finding it hard to see that people other than the twelve of them, chosen by Jesus, could be his disciples too? And they seem to be saying: who is this very passionate woman? Why is she here at all? Does this prefigure the washing of the disciples’ feet a few days later?
Let us try and look at this story from Jesus’ perspective. He silences Judas and the disciples with strong words of love. In a corresponding version of the story in Matthew, Jesus says that what Mary has done will be proclaimed throughout the world. One cannot imagine a greater defence of Mary. Jesus confirms Mary’s passion and her dignity as a woman. He has liberated something of her love. In defending her he has revealed his need of her love and her trust, at a time when people are turning against him and preparing to kill him.
Mary has become aware that, because, among other things, Jesus has brought her brother Lazarus back to life, he is going to be arrested and killed. He has given in love to her. Her response is to give herself in love, and in a beautiful, extravagant, foolish and, for some, a scandalous way.
Jesus’ only comment to this is the request to “leave her alone. She keeps the perfume for the day of my burial. You have always the poor with you, but you do not always have me”. Removed from its narrative context, this comment seems almost callous. “You always have the poor” is not a comment on the priority of the church to care for the poor. Rather, it is a contrast between the continuing presence of the poor and Jesus’ impending return to his father, a recurring and sometimes forceful theme in John’s gospel.
Ian McGilchrist has reminded us in his recent and remarkable book, The Master and His Emissary, that we live a culture in which there is a dominance of left-brain activity, the activity associated with thought, with analysis, and abstraction. That is particularly so in Oxford, and in Iffley too. He reminds us of the critical importance of allowing our right brain, which deals with our creative and emotional life to thrive in relationship with our left brain. Many studies show that the one side cannot function adequately without the other. In looking at today’s passage, we can see many interpretive challenges in a text which is paralleled, but with significant differences in other gospels. This passage draws us to a busy, left brain approach. In a remarkable poem called “The Incarnate One” Edwin Muir warns us against the dangers of theological abstraction. He urges us to stay with the incarnation, with flesh and blood, to drop ideological argument, and to look at the cross with “ignorant wonder”. He argues that the Christian Church has turned its back on meaning of the incarnation, and beyond that the passion and the cross. We try to unmake the incarnate one, to refuse the gift of God’s solidarity with us in our flesh, his closeness. Instead he says that we push God back to some infinite distance of abstraction. We betray the image. We prefer the bloodless word, the cold empire of the abstract man. He complains that the church has made the word made flesh back into word. Our flight into abstraction is in danger of dehumanising us.
On this Passion Sunday, we are called to enter again into imagining and responding to the physicality, the emotion, the reality and the power of the next two weeks, as we accompany our Lord to Jerusalem, his trial, his death and his resurrection. Let us pray that we may we have the grace to do this. Amen.