I don’t know what is running through the minds and hearts of the candidates for ordination who are sitting here at this moment. Obviously, of course, I know that a hundred per cent of their conscious attention is taken up in listening to the sermon. But I don’t know what may be going on underneath.
But I have a good idea. I know what’s coming up in the order of service. I know what it says in the nine declarations that the Bishop will ask them to make. I know that anyone with any common sense will look at those and realise how bold it is to make those declarations, how extravagant and reckless those promises are, and I know that these candidates have some common sense because you can’t get this far in the selection process without any. At least, not in this diocese. I know that when the candidates have made those declarations, and the Bishop has listened to the boldness of their undertakings, nine times over, he will say ‘you cannot do this in your own strength’. And once, in another time and another place, I was sitting where they’re sitting, and I know what that felt like.
So I want to tell you something that happened a few days later.
A few days after I was ordained deacon, on the first Sunday when I was properly on duty in an ordinary way, without welcome parties and special services and all the rest of it – the first ordinary Sunday – I was in a tiny village church in Somerset. I wasn’t in charge of the service, I was assisting, and there wasn’t a great deal that I could do or knew how to do. I was full of enthusiasm but I was a bit of a spare part, and the best I could do was to sit where I had been told to sit and look around me.
Straight opposite me there was a memorial tablet. A very simple one, not one of those that tell you all the heroic and exemplary virtues of whoever was vicar in 1854. This was very plain. There was just a name – Nellie Pitt – and the dates – she died about a hundred years ago – and a quotation. I remember the quotation particularly. I sat there where I had been told to sit, freshly-ordained and more or less useless, having done everything I was able to do which frankly did not amount to much, and I read that quotation. I have to say, at the time, I took it personally. It said, ‘She hath done what she could.’
Quite a long time later, I looked it up. I hadn’t remembered where it came from. It comes from the part of the Gospel we heard read today. It comes from the story of the woman with the alabaster jar of oil.
Up to then, if you’d asked me to say something about that story, I’d have told you about the woman, and what she does, and how the disciples are angry about it because it’s extravagant. Because it cost a lot. But you get the sense that they also think it’s extravagant, bold, dramatic behaviour, and possibly a bit silly. Extravagant both ways.
I’d have told you, maybe after I’d looked it up, about how the story has a frame. There’s another story going on around it, the story of the conspiracy to betray Jesus. So just before this we hear about how the authorities are trying to find a way to break him. And then we meet the woman who breaks open the alabaster jar. We hear about how precious and costly it is, and what a waste. And then we hear how the betrayer has arranged to sell Jesus for money. The story of the woman is like a little mirror, reflecting the story of Jesus; and when he says that she has anointed him for his burial, there in the mirror is the greater story at the heart of this small story.
That’s what I would have told you before. But now I would tell you what Jesus says about this woman who stands up to do something for him. He says she has done what she could. He’s not making excuses for her. He’s not saying, well, that’s all she could do. He’s not saying she’s done the best she can, or the only thing she can, but that she’s done something distinctive. Nobody else would do what she has done. It’s something as distinctive as the scent of the oil in her jar, oil of spikenard. One of those sharp strong aromatic antiseptic herbs. Like rosemary. One of those scents that stay in the memory, in the way that what she’s done will be remembered, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world. This will be told in memory of her, says Jesus, and the words are so like the words he uses at his last supper with those disciples, ‘do this in memory of me’, that it’s almost shocking. It’s almost shocking that we should find Jesus reflected in the life of a follower of Jesus.
Jesus accepts her gift of the oil and the anointing. Nobody else would have given him a gift like that. It’s distinctive, it’s different from other people, it’s rash, it’s outrageous. Jesus accepts her as a gift. He accepts her; he gives her herself. The people around him who try to police things would push her away as a nuisance; Jesus receives her and makes her into a gift. He gives her herself. She becomes a mirror reflecting his story, because he accepts her as herself, and she is a gift to him. Nothing in this could be earned, nothing is a bargain, nothing can be contracted for. There is only gift.
Nobody would give Jesus the gift you give him, either. Nobody except you. Maybe because nobody else could. Maybe because nobody with any common sense would. Maybe for a combination of these reasons. She offers a gift; it’s all she can do; it’s all any of us can do; and she does it all. She doesn’t try to keep some back, keep something in reserve. She breaks open the jar.
And that, in the end, is what the nine declarations come down to. The grace to become a gift and the courage to offer a gift. That’s why what these candidates are doing can’t be done in their own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. That’s what they will do and how they will do it, and not one of them will do it the same way as any of the others. That’s what we all do as we find out who God has made us to be. Pray for them, and for yourself and for us all, that we may find out what God calls us to be, and be that with all the grace we are given. That we may do what we can.
4 July 2015, St Werburgh’s Spondon, Ordination of Priests, Diocese of Derby