I kid ye not, but I was asked if what I said this evening was available long-hand for somebody to read again. As Eric Morecambe would have said, "the boy's a fool".
We had the Gospel reading from John 12, where Mary anoints Jesus' feet with nard and then wipes his feet with her hair, which made me think about how real our worship ever is.
On May 21, 2008, a little girl was killed in her driveway as she ran to meet her elder brother who was returning from an audition. He was driving and didn't see her - she died on the spot.
Little Maria Chapman was the adopted daughter of Stephen Curtis Chapman, and his wife Mary Beth. Stephen is a successful Christian singer-songwriter and out of his family's grief her wrote an album called 'Beauty will rise', a collection of songs describing his grief and pain and yet holding on to his faith in God. His emotions are raw
I am broken, I am bleeding,
I'm scared and I'm confused,
but You are faithful.
Yes You are faithful.
I am weary, unbelieving.
God please help my unbelief!
'Cause You are faithful.
Yes You are faithful.
these are songs I listen to often, but they are far too personal for me to use in public worship I feel.
I was reminded of these songs as I pondered the way that Mary anointed Jesus' feet. Jesus had raised Mary's brother Lazarus from the dead and so there had been real pain in Mary's recent experience, as well as the visible recognition of who J was, and these two extremes were wrapped together in this public and yet very intimate act. Jesus himself clearly receives the anointing as part of the preparation for his burial, but in the context of that society, and with the next episode in the Gospel being the Triumphal entry there is also the hint of anointing as the Messiah. I think there is also something here about the loosening of her hair to wipe his feet, which might hint at loose morals, but I don't think Mary is even aware of that such is her desire to express her love for Jesus. She allows herself to be extremely vulnerable.
I wonder what our reaction might have been had this sort of thing happened in our Church? I imagine the tense silence, people trying to see over the top of their hymnbooks without making it look like they had noticed her, but then the whispered disapproval over coffee afterwards.
"Did you see what she did?"
Mary wanted to worship Jesus, and Jesus received it graciously and lovingly protected her against the accusations of those around him.
My eldest once asked his godfather, a Vicar, what worship was. He replied that it is what should unite us, but usually ended up being what divided us, and certainly most congregations could tell you stories from the past of worship wars.
I am not convinced we are given the best models of worship as we look around us, from the slick, well rehearsed TV version on Songs of Praise, or the aesthetically pleasing Cathedral style (which ticks all our Anglo-Saxon preference boxes for orderliness) or the mega-event multi-media extravaganza, which can be truly sensational, but for all of them, like any limited diet, will ultimately cloy. Here's a thought - what if the deepest and truest worship can only really take place amongst a small group like those who gathered in Lazarus' house, where we know each other and want to learn to love and trust each other. What if small groups are actually the ideal unit for building the Kingdom in our midst? However, before I am seen to write the aforementioned styles of worship off it is worth noting an important point. The potentially bland middle of the road expression we see in the C of E - was it not an attempt to end the bloodshed of the Reformation? The processions and ostentation of high Catholicism - were they not actually born out of the celebration of the end of the Roman persecutions?The high energy triumphalism of the Pentecostals - did that not begin in a response to the racism, segregation and poverty of Black Americans?
Does all forms of worship only really make sense when they have been grounded in a sense of pain and distress, the stuff of real ice?
I think we need to have something to chew on in our thinking through Holy Week; the joyful heights of the Triumphal Entry to the bitterest emptiness of Good Friday provide the outer markers of our human experience. All that is contained within is valid emotion and experience to bring to Jesus as part of our worship, providing, of course, that we kneel at Jesus' feet and be honest about them before him, and in that honesty we need to find a way through our Anglo-Saxon reserve - to be wiling to express emotions publicly, not necessarily everybody on every Sunday.
I think there is a potent myth in the Church of England at the moment which says that if we get our worship right then people will come to Church but the next step that seems to be made in this logic is to look at what we do now, and then try and tidy up a few loose ends; tweak the sidemen's rota and make sure the person reading the lesson speaks properly and the microphone works. I believe the true course for worship may not be automatically attractive to the world outside, but at least will engage them in some questioning of their presumptions about the Church and what it means to be real in our faith. It would be for us to be a place where we can be real and vulnerable together, holding each others' emotions and experiences and questions with gentleness and grace (after all, these are often the most real parts of us anyway). For if these parts of us do not come into our worship how can we actually claim to be worshipping at all?
But even that is to collude with the lie that worship is the 75 minutes we are together on a Sunday morning and not an expression of our gratitude to the love that Jesus showed us. Worship is actually a way of life; our attitude when we are washing up, or stuck on the motorway, or in a boring meeting at work - we should be living acts of worship, such that the fragrance of this expression of our love for God fills the rooms that we inhabit.