Last week I baked a simnel cake for us to share after church. Traditionally you put eleven little balls of marzipan on the top because they represent the apostles – without the traitor Judas. But I always put twelve on anyway – because I feel sorry for him. And because one of the sermons I remember most was preached by a wonderful Methodist minister who I love very much who reminded me that Judas repented – (just like Peter did) and that if he’d lived (instead of committing suicide) he would have been welcomed back into the church, he would have become one of the great and remembered saints of the early church and on many a High Street there would be a church to bear his name. I find that an astonishing and perpetually comforting thought..
This week Judas plays a large part in the Gospel reading. And by the time we get to the telling of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet as it appears in the fourth Gospel – then Judas is well and truly condemned. He’s not just painted as wrong to condemn Mary, but insincere too… You have the feeling that if the writer of John’s Gospel had ever made a simnel cake there would certainly only ever have been eleven marzipan balls on the top.
I imagine that I feel so much for those who are condemned and left out because I know a little bit about what it means to be among the despised and the disregarded myself. We are a congregation today made up of Methodists… and members of the United Reformed Church who might sometimes be called Presbyterian, Calvinist or Puritan. And none of those labels really impress the cultured and the fashionable today. Calvinist is rarely heard except as an insult.. and Presbyterian is not much better… Our church on Paul Street has its roots in the Puritan movement in the 16th and 17th centuries. I think the Puritans were brave and inspirational and looking for the renewal of the church, but if you look up Puritan in the dictionary you are told that a Puritan is ‘someone who believes that it is important to work hard and control yourself, and that pleasure is wrong or unnecessary…’ Oh. And it’s not much better for Methodists. Perhaps some of you have heard of Garrison Keillor – he’s a kind of American equivalent of Alan Bennett and he sings a comic song called The Methodist blues..
Been going to church since I was a boy
Now I’m old and I’m low on joy.
I feel tired, is there something I missed?
Or is it just that I’m a Methodist..
I got the Methodist blues….
And there are other verses in this song about guilt, about the same ten people volunteering (half of them old and the others just weird), and much else. The song ends by saying..
We were founded by John Wesley,
Not Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley…
I got the Methodist blues..
So, we are, both our traditions, firmly in the ‘kill joy’ box, sneered at or patronised, the ones who are worthy but dull, ‘right’ sometimes, but always in the wrong sort of way. I once heard a joke that said that if you ask a Catholic to bring something to the ecumenical table – they bring the Mass; if you ask an Orthodox they bring an icon; a Nonconformist or a Methodist? we would bring a casserole… worthy, dull, a little old fashioned.
And if the stereotype the world makes of us is right then we would surely have agreed with Judas about all that anointing, and all that perfume. And I don’t think it would take too much to convince most of us here that Judas was in a way absolutely right about that waste of money.
Mary of Bethany poured about 300 denarii worth of perfume over Jesus’ feet. Now you might have some idea of how ludicrously expensive perfume can be today, but this was more than a bottle of Yves St Laurent. In today’s money 300 denarii would be worth about 25,000 of your English pounds. Just take in how much that is. The best attempts to calculate how much the perfume was worth come out to a figure something like that – a year’s salary for some. You could buy a good car with that! In a world where there were people desperate for a loaf of bread, someone poured out 300 denarii in perfume…. All that poured out in a moment, pressed onto a man’s feet, filling the whole house with the smell. They even caught the scent in the kitchen, when they were just about to serve dessert – this perfume with a smell so beautiful that they closed their eyes to savour it as it wafted in from the dining room. The servant boy sweeping the dust on the roof tiles got a whiff. Even the neighbours began to sniff the air and breathe it in deeply. In a world of blocked or non-existent drains, in a world of sweat and unwashed bodies, this was a rare pleasure for the nose. ‘How much did you say it cost?! ‘How much did she use?’ A whole pound of it? What an extravagance…!
Judas had read all those leaflets from charities about what £x could buy in goats or seeds or medical kits. He knew what that money could buy and who it could buy it for. He knew it could been spent on ‘better things’. He knew it wasn’t sensible to spend it on perfume. And he would probably have agreed with Martha when she complained about this same extravagant Mary as she sat in a generous silence at Jesus’ feet when there were meals to be made and much to do in the kitchen. Mary had forgotten what is proper, sensible and right. She had forgotten how to control herself, she had forgotten that pleasure is unnecessary. She’s too much Elvis Presley, and not enough John Wesley…
And I think that if we heard this story without realising Judas was supposed to be a villain, we might well be inclined to agree him, especially if we could believe that he was sincere in saying it would have been better to sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. We don’t know whether Judas was there when Jesus told a rich young ruler to go and sell all that he had and to give it to the poor, but he may well have been – or if not then, then on other occasions when Jesus gave money away or encouraged others to do the same. He might have heard Jesus tell the parable of the rich fool, or he might have listened to so many of those other sayings that have been handed on to us from the teaching of Jesus about money. Judas had learned to live in a community where one shirt was enough and the other one should be given away, where everyone was taught to sit light to possessions and where things were always shared in common. He probably nursed the strong hope that Jesus had come to do what everyone expected the Messiah to do, and what Jesus had said he would do, to feed the poor and to send the rich empty away. Judas was right behind all of that. At one of our church meetings or Circuit Councils he would have put up his hand when someone suggested an emergency collection for Christian Aid or a hunger lunch, or a bit of restraint on the building project… and most of us would put our hands up with him.
So, how is it then, that Judas wasn’t right this time? How is it that what’s sensible and proper most of the time sometimes just isn’t? How is that being sensible and careful isn’t all that we are called to be?
Do you know, I think that some clues lie in the parts of our two traditions that our detractors and mockers seem to ignore, and indeed that we ignore at our peril. The Methodist Blues song sings of someone low on joy, but surely Methodism, was and still is absolutely soaked in joy. All that singing, all that wonderful experience of the love of God, all that delight in the God before whom we are ‘Lost in wonder, love and praise’ – the joy of heaven to earth come down. The Methodist people, ‘born in song’, were made for joy – the joy that can be known and sung and expressed even where times are hard. You are not just the sensible and the restrained and the tired. You are God’s joyful people, the ones who sing ten notes on just one word, and four-part harmony because you just can’t help it, pouring out sound to praise the God of heaven and earth… Methodists are made for extravagant joy in the presence of God and for delight in God’s praise. And for me, the highest and clearest note of Presbyterian or Puritan theology is the note of grace (it’s even my daughter’s name) – and what is grace, but the word that expresses the overwhelming and irresistible love of God that comes to us undeserved and unearned, but comes upon us in overflowing measure and in extravagant love. We puritans are not kill joys at all, but those who know the purest joy of all, the joy of knowing that you have received the grace of God in overflowing measure.
Methodists and Presbyterians are wonderful at common sense and decency, at hard work and probity. We are great at stewardship and policies and procedures. We know how to run a good meeting and feed a horde of hungry people. We know how to do things properly. We can be the very best of all that Judas knew how to be as treasurer of a movement that he hoped would make the world a far better place. But, you know something. If that’s all you ever do – you get tired. And you get emptied out. But most of all you forget why we are doing all those sensible things at all. Because we are doing them for the love of God, and the love of God’s people and because we have first learned how much we are loved. There are times for being sensible and worthy and right. But there are moments when what is demanded is the generous spontaneity of love – the kind of love that echoes the extravagant and profligate love of our merciful and gracious God, the love that gives and gives ever more in love’s endeavour, love’s expense…
While we are being emptied out – as perhaps Judas was – with all that decency and activity and hard work, the wonderful thing is that Jesus himself is being poured out… to fill our emptiness and to welcome us back to life. And I believe that that grace of God was and is being poured out for the generous hearted, but senseless, Marys – but also for the sensible and overly cautious Judases – in other words for all of us, for all of us. And that ‘all’ is the most generous and the most Methodist of ideas I think.. and you heard it from a Presbyterian…