The book Haggai is not one that features regularly on our worship rosters. It is not in the lectionary and doesnt, at first sight, seem to offer material with much relevance to our time. Worse still, the book is used by both Jewish and Christian fundamentalists to support views we would probably not want to identify with. Some fundamentalist Jewish groups hear an urgent call in it to rebuild the temple for a third time and get rid of all the "impurities" on the temple mount today. Some Christian groups will tell you Haggai is arguing the case for a world wide theocracy clean of any non Christian influence. Probably enough reason for most who feel more at home in the liberal side of the Church to steer clear from it. As someone who likes a challenge all the more reason for me to get into it!
The book contains the prophecies of the prophet Haggai, delivered to a group of Israelites who had recently returned to Judah and Jerusalem from Exile. The dates of its conception are given in the text: The year is 520 BCE, the time when Darius was King of Persia. Crop failures and other misfortune are making life very difficult, and after three years on the job the land is still laying waste and the once glorious buildings of Jerusalem are still, mostly, in ruins. Understandably, their spirits are flagging.
It is then Haggai appears on the scene, not only to encourage his people and their leaders but calling them to give priority to the rebuilding of the temple. If they dont, he says, blessing will keep failing to materialise (and he seems to mean that quite literally).
It is in that context the intriguing passage we read this morning appears. In it Haggai asks for a ruling by the priests. "If someone takes a piece of consecrated meat home in the folds of his garment, will the holiness of that meat communicate itself to the garment and through the garment to other food that may be touched by the garment?" he asks. And: "If someone touches a dead body (about the most impure thing one could touch according to Jewish law) will food that touched by their garment, become impure as well?" The answer to the first question is an unambiguous "no", the answer to the second question an equally unambiguous "yes". And any Jew at the time would have known it: the holy, cultic cleanliness, cannot be mediated. Something is holy, sacred, or it is not. One cannot transfer sacredness by touch. The impure on the other hand is insidious. It will pollute anything it comes in contact with.
Now what are those two questions doing in the middle of an argument for rebuilding the temple a.s.a.p? Why would you want to discuss clean and unclean garments when talking to people who are struggling with crop failures and drought and whose motivation to keep going is fading fast? Shouldnt one DO something first rather than engage in a rather academic discussion about ritual cleanliness everyone would have known the answer to anyway? Wouldnt it be better to find ways to improve the harvest, clear some of the rubble, and build more homes for those who are still camping?
The answer lies in the story we read from the gospel. The story about Mary who wastes one or perhaps even two years of income pouring costly nard over the feet of Jesus. (what would that translate to in todays terms? $50.000 or more?). Surrendering herself to him in the most fundamental way known at the time: by throwing herself at his feet with unbound hair.
Judas is right. There are plenty of outreach projects they could have started with that money, plenty of good use they could have put it to. There is so much good work that needs doing! So why is this woman allowed to throw herself and a fortune in nard at Jesus with Jesus supporting her?
It made me think about our society and our Church as it is operating in it at the moment. A Church where "doing" is incredibly important and faith is more often than not gauged by what people do. With worship a tool to drive the action. We, 21st century people want to see results, growth, increased productivity wherever we go. Including in the realm of spirituality and faith. We come to meditation to relax, so we can be more productive people the rest of the time, we come to Church so well know how to be better people, or be part of a community that will do the world some good, or so our spirits can be uplifted so we function better through the week. Faith for many of us has to do with business, with running around and trying to produce. Goodness, care, charity, outreach and whatever else the gospel may seem to spur us onto.
What Mary shows us is that there is another side to worship and faith that has nothing to do with that. She comes to the table wasting resources and indulging in an emotional display others turn away from in disgust.
From the perspective of those for whom faith is about action and results she does something that seems wasteful and pointless. The worship she brings to Jesus does not lead to or encourage any action. It is just there, and a phenomenal amount of it, volatile, fleeting, leaving only the lingering smell of wasted expense. All it does is putting Jesus in the centre. She claims time and space in the middle of people busying themselves with good hard work for something they are desperately trying to avoid confronting.
What Mary breaks open and claims attention for is sadness and fear for what they can probably all see coming. Nard is used at the induction of Kings, but it is also used for their embalming. At the same time she confesses Christ as the King of her life she acknowledges the darkness descending. And she does it so extravagantly it is impossible to ignore.
O come on Mary, be positive, lets concentrate on the ministry weve got going here, there really is no point in becoming hysterical. Pull yourself together girl, and concentrate on the work at hand. It may all still blow over.
Most of us dont like to be confronted with sadness or difficulty. Most of us will try to ignore it as long as we possibly can and, like Judas, will endeavor to keep ourselves busy and positively engaged. Worship in that context is a means to an end: to increase productivity and growth of a cheerful happy "doing type" Christianity. With little space for the Marys of this world for whom worship is a volatile, wasteful extravagance of attention to God at the centre of their existence and a careful, caring awareness for what is underneath the surface of all that busy, cheerful activity. Claiming space for the fragility of life, the sadness, and the darkness, the brokenness that haunts it. Perhaps not as much as it did Jesus at that time, a week before he was nailed to the cross, but nevertheless part of each of our existence, no matter how hard we try to ignore or deny it.
Back to Haggai. His first priority is the rebuilding of the temple, to create a place for God right at the centre of life. Life cant prosper without the sanctuary in the middle he says. With the two rhetorical questions putting a caveat on that. Holiness will not translate itself automatically, through the fabric of the building, into the rest of life going on around it. Putting a good roof on the Church and maintaining its fabric in mint condition is not enough to transform the lives of those looking after it. Holiness does not automatically transfer. It needs to be ingested to be effective. The profane on the other hand is insidious, and will easily infect.
Is it too far fetched to see a link to Communion here? Arent we, at the table, invited to ingest what is of God and let it become part of us? Not as some superstitious practice that will ward off evil, but because we lay ourselves open to being filled, from the inside out, with his presence? Because it offers us a chance to be part of that living temple that Jesus talked about as his resurrected body?
At the table we claim space for the memory of a broken body and blood poured out. Not to busy ourselves immediately with action, but to sit with it, hold it, opening ourselves to contemplate and consider the pain not only of Christ, but of all of humanity brought together and summed up in his. Here at the table we are reminded where our priorities should lie. Not in the busy doing and the brave smiles, or even in the outreach projects and support of the poor. But in putting Christ and his resurrection at the centre without skipping over Good Friday and the story of his suffering. Facing the brokenness as a part of our existence that needs attention and care. Wasteful, honouring attention, that isnt stingy in its spending of love or resources. Bringing all the best of what we have in ministry, music, singing, and praying, in open attentiveness to the table. Not so we can go out and do some more, but just so we can be here, unreservedly giving ourselves over to the sanctity and presence of God and be touched by it on the inside. Amen.