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Bishop Alan’s sermon from the Chrism Eucharist 2023

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You can read his sermon from the service below. You can watch the full service on Norwich Cathedral’s YouTube channel.

Chrism Eucharist: 2023 1 Samuel 3.1-10; Revelation 1.5b-8; Luke 7.36-end

This service reminds me that ministry can sometimes be a strange mixture of the deeply poignant and the surprisingly comic.

I was asked, last year, to visit a dear old priest who was dying at a very good age. We gathered around his bed, his daughter and son-in-law who lived next door and were his carers, and his wonderfully kind colleague who’d been visiting faithfully. I quietly said the twenty-third Psalm and some prayers and then anointed him with oil as he lay still, looking very frail and barely present. As we stood for a few moments at the foot of the bed chatting softly, he suddenly and entirely unexpectedly sat up straight in bed and said in a clear and surprisingly strong voice “It’s the Bish” whereupon he lay down again and continued dozing.

Echoes of Monty Python there perhaps, but I’m happy to say those weren’t my brother’s last words as he seemed to rally after the experience and lived a few more months before he died peacefully, a faithful priest going to his well-earned rest.

Those kinds of memories are one of the reasons why the Chrism Eucharist is always for me a moving service and it’s particularly so this year as my fifth opportunity to preach to you on this occasion will also be my last.

I’m grateful to Bishop Graham for agreeing that I could make this my farewell service.

Every year, I’ve found this to be a service of deep emotion because of the powerful, collective reaffirmation of our commitment to serve Christ in our communities, and because it’s also a chance to look out on a sea of so many faces of people with whom much has been shared over these years. As many of you will know from parishes or chaplaincies or schools, wherever you minister, there really is a sense in which we can come to see the face of Christ in the faces of those we serve and in one another – and I’ll return to that notion of what and how we see in a moment or two.

There’s also a richness to this service in the symbolism and blessing of the oils, and I imagine like me you’ll have your own memories of times when you’ve had the privilege of anointing someone in the name of Christ, when happily our tears are sometimes mixed with smiles and laughter.

This service also gives us some Scriptures and a helpful introduction to the order of service that explore our themes in different ways, but it’s to the Gospel I wish to turn this morning.

This beautiful passage about the woman who lovingly anoints Jesus’ feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee has a twin of sorts in the story of Mary and Martha that follows just two or three pages further on in chapter 10.

You’ll recall in that story, Mary is commended by Jesus for sitting at his feet attending to what he had to say, whilst Martha is gently chided for fussing in the kitchen, seemingly worrying about showing their honoured guest the proper hospitality he deserved.

In this passage in chapter seven, the situation appears to be reversed. Simon the host is chided for not showing proper hospitality – “you gave me no water …  you gave me no kiss… you did not anoint my feet”. He seems, like Mary, only to have listened and observed, whereas the unnamed woman might be said to have mirrored Martha in fussing around Jesus to show him the proper welcome and respect for such an honoured guest.

In one passage the practical woman is criticised and in the other, she is commended. In one passage, the one we might call a little more attentive is affirmed for listening and not fussing, whilst in the other, he is criticised for seeming to do the same thing.

It seems clear to me that it’s not the chosen activity itself which is the problem, something else is going on here.

One thought that we might take from this is that there’s no hierarchy of gifts or ways of serving Christ. That’s evident from these two contrasting stories in Luke, and as we look back on our own ministries we can probably all think of some wonderful saints of God who expressed their faith most eloquently in very practical acts of love, service, and hospitality.

We need to acknowledge and value such gifts as much as those that give you a collar, a blue scarf, or a special badge. It follows from this that if we want to help deepen the discipleship of some in our communities we will never do it by looking around for a better course to put on; we need, instead, to use our imaginations and find more practical avenues through which faith can be encouraged and deepened.

Those who, like me, stand at the front and love to hold forth, are hopefully fulfilling a worthwhile and fruitful calling, but it is no better or more valid than my sister or brother whose face and faith come alive when they find a practical way of expressing their love for Christ as the woman in the Gospel did.

Thank God that our churches are a mixture of such different people, the gifts of whom are all equally precious to God.

What I think unites Martha and Simon, and leads to their being chided by Jesus, is the fateful tendency they exhibit not simply to attend to their own behaviour but to compare themselves with another. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.

In Martha’s case, she is gently chided for worrying about too many things. The one thing she should have done was focus joyfully on her own response to Jesus’ visit and allow Mary to respond in her own way too.

In Simon’s case, the criticism is a little firmer, explored in the parable and in the way Jesus explains it and drives the point home. I think Simon’s treatment is more severe because he doesn’t merely compare, he also judges. This is where we come back to that question of what and how we see.

The narrator tells us that when Simon observed the woman’s display he saw her simply and unequivocally as a sinner, seemingly with the unspoken implication, not like me!

But when Jesus very pointedly challenges Simon, he does so with the question: “Do you see this woman?” It’s one of those places where the words really need to be read aloud to get their full force. The implication is that Simon hasn’t really seen this woman properly, fully, truly.

If Simon had really understood what Jesus was about, he would have known that sinners were among Jesus’ favourite people, the very people he loved to see coming to him. He would have known that Jesus looks beyond society’s judgment, and often the judgment of his co-religionists, and sees instead into a person’s heart. He would have known that Jesus might be considered rather liberal in seeing as repentance the desire of those who came to him for help. He would have seen that, for Jesus, the woman’s passionate expression of love, in the words of the epistle of Peter, covered a multitude of sins.

The last thing that Simon would have seen on Jesus’ mind or in his response was any sense of judgment or condemnation for the woman Simon wanted him to write off. This passage, along with others in the Gospels, has something important to teach us. It shows us that in Jesus’ mind, it’s not always the sinner who is rebuked, it’s more likely to be the one who judges them. It’s so tempting to judge others, because it appeals to our desire to feel morally superior, better than others, holier.

We’re living through some pretty tense and difficult times as Anglican Christians following the decisions of the recent General Synod about which different strong views are taken. As I reflect on this passage, in Luke’s Gospel, I find Jesus’ wisdom addressing us wherever we might find ourselves standing on these issues.

The temptation to judge and condemn one another is great, as it is to judge or condemn those who come to us seeking God’s blessing.

When we are thus tempted, we need to hear clearly Jesus’ question: do you see this person? Do you see them as I do, so much more than the person you take them to be. Not simply too different from me in their desires, not simply too conservative in their attitudes and teaching, not simply too liberal in their desire to include?

I love that much-quoted line from Walt Whitman’s lengthy poem ‘Song of Myself’ where he says: “I am large, I contain multitudes”. When we reduce people to one-dimensional targets it’s so easy to judge, condemn and write off – and this is a temptation for all of us, whatever stance we take on the big issues of our day.

Over the years, I’ve never tired of going back to the Gospels fascinated by the different pictures of Jesus that Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke present. The wisdom that comes through in Jesus’ actions and his teaching is for me endlessly challenging, endlessly worth pondering, endlessly fresh, and able to offer new insights.

And the Jesus I read about, who I encounter in my prayers and as I gaze at him on the cross is one in whom I have gone on finding forgiveness for my failings, patience with my limitations, and reassurance in my fears. Like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, whenever I’ve had the privilege of anointing in Jesus’ name, I know that I have done so as a sinner, but, like the woman, I have been able to do it because I have felt accepted, understood, affirmed.

The Jesus I have sought to follow and serve throughout my ministry is one in whom I have found so much grace and mercy, and because of what I know about myself and what I’ve experienced from God, that Jesus tells me not to judge, not to refuse to forgive or to bless, not to turn away.

Any of us who seek to serve others in the name of Christ would do well to ponder deeply and try and to live by these words: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”.