Sunday, 4 April 2021

Easter Sunday: The middle of the story

 Listen here

Mark 16.1-8

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I love a good story, whether I am telling it or listening to it. The satisfying thing about stories, especially traditional ones is that, by and large, they tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and at the end there is some resolution. The criminal is unmasked, the lovers get together, things are rounded off, if not neatly then at least enough to feel it had been worth ploughing through the rest of it. 

By that reckoning, Mark’s Gospel is a bit of a failure, to be honest. The passage we just heard was the end of it. “Terror and amazement seized [the women]; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid…”  And that’s it

I mean, it’s a bit rubbish isn’t it?. As an ending. It doesn’t even really make sense, because if they said nothing to anyone, how did anyone find out that the tomb was empty, that Christ had risen? How did the story of the resurrection - the whole Christian faith - ever get off the ground?

If you’re beginning to smell a rat, you wouldn’t be the only one. Biblical scholars are pretty convinced that at a very early stage in the transmission of Mark’s Gospel, within 50 years or so of its composition, the last page simply got lost. We have to remember that this was long before printing, let alone the kind of digital technology we take for granted. When documents were hand written, there wouldn’t have been lots of copies around, especially at the beginning of their life. If a page got lost, that was probably it. There was no 2autosave function to come to the rescue.

The early church wasn’t a big organisation, just small groups of Christians dotted around the Mediterranean. It had no power or wealth, and its members were intermittently persecuted. It didn’t have libraries or archives to carefully store the writings of its early leaders, so it’s perfectly possible to believe that the last page of a loosely bound pile of papers, or the last part of a scroll, might have been damaged or torn, or just left behind somewhere. 

Attempts were made to put things right early on by adding endings, based on the other Gospels, but the original is what it is, a document that finishes with fear and amazement and silence. 

And maybe that’s no bad thing. 

I suspect that the reason we like stories with beginnings, middles and ends is that, in reality, life isn’t like that. We can’t remember our beginnings. We don’t know our ends. We are stuck in a perpetual middle. Even if we think we have got life sorted we soon discover that there are more problems to be solved, new developments – good or bad – we hadn’t anticipated. We don’t know what’s around the next corner. 

This last year has shown us that, even if we didn’t realise it before. Whatever any of us thought 2020 would contain, I doubt we had a pandemic on our radar. Yet here we are, picking our way through a landscape that has often felt completely alien, learning new skills, facing new challenges, bearing new burdens, but also, sometimes, finding new joys as well, strengthened bonds with one another, a deeper appreciation of what we have. In truth, disaster planners had long put pandemic disease right at the top of the list of likely threats to the world, but I’m guessing that most of us didn’t see it coming, or, if we did, we didn’t know how it would affect us or what it would involve. 

And, of course, it isn’t over. We are still in the middle of this part of our story, not knowing how long it will last, or what the world will look like when the tide of disease finally retreats, what flotsam and jetsam will be left behind.

Real life isn’t like the stories of which we are so fond, at least not from our point of view. Easter Sunday isn’t a happy-ever-after ending. It isn’t an ending at all in fact. The women who fled in terror from the tomb and the angel’s message knew that. According to the other Gospels, they did indeed do what the angel told them to – they went and told the other disciples what they had heard and seen. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here now, still telling the story. But I’m not surprised that they were terrified. They knew that this message, for all its joy, would bring them unimaginable challenges.  Maybe, as Jesus lay in the tomb, they had started to resign themselves to slinking off home, hoping people would forget they had been followers of this apparently failed Messiah – a good man perhaps, but someone who’d never stood a chance, like all the others who’d stood up to the might of Rome. But the resurrection proclaimed that Jesus hadn’t failed, and that his way was the way they should still be following. It proclaimed that hope, love and life had triumphed over despair, hatred and death. It called them, and all who still follow the risen Christ, to live life in the light of Easter, daring to expect that tombs which appear to be sealed shut can be opened, that injustice that seems entrenched can be remedied, that divisions that seem to be unbridgeable can be bridged. 

“Do not be alarmed” said the white-robed messenger who greeted them at the tomb. Angels are always saying that “ Fear not, don’t be afraid!” It’s their trademark opening line. But whenever an angel says that, we know that it’s because people are alarmed and afraid, usually with good reason, and so would we be. Good news can be just as challenging as bad news,  even if it turns out to be a lot more exciting and fruitful in the end than bad news. 

So, although I do like a good story, I also really like the fact that Mark’s Gospel has this unfinished ending. It’s a reminder that each of us is called to be part of this story, the Easter story, the Resurrection story, taking up the thread of it in our own lives, letting it open our eyes to the hope, love and life that our world needs, living out that story in the places God has called us to. 

Easter isn’t a moment when we close the book, with a sigh of pleasure, and think to ourselves “that was good…now what shall I read next?”. It’s the moment when a new world dawns, when we are invited to step out on a new journey with the God who lived, died and rose again for us.

Amen 


Friday, 2 April 2021

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen? A sermon for Good Friday

To listen to the sermon, click here

Mark 15.1-41

Each of the Gospels tells the story of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection in a slightly different way, shaping it and giving it their own slant, as you would expect. 

This year, we heard Mark’s telling, the earliest of the four, and the thing that strikes me about it is how alone Jesus is. From the moment he’s arrested he’s on his own, without a friend in the world.
His disciples run away. Peter denies knowing him. There is no story of Mary and John standing at the foot of the cross being entrusted into one another’s keeping – that’s in John’s Gospel. There isn’t even a penitent thief on the cross next to him, defending Jesus from the verbal abuse of the other man being crucified – only Luke tells that story. In Mark’s version, they both taunt him. There are bystanders, but they mock Jesus, treating him like a curiosity. There are women watching from afar, some of those who had followed him from Galilee, but they’re too far away to be any comfort. Where are the crowds that greeted Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem just a few days before? They are nowhere to be seen – or they’ve changed their minds about him. It is a terribly lonely picture. Yes, there is physical pain of course, but it’s the mental and emotional torture of feeling he has been utterly forgotten that strikes me. Even God seems to be absent. Jesus cries out as he dies, “My God, my God” why have you forsaken me?” Of course, as it turns out God hasn’t forsaken him, but that’s how it feels. 

Loneliness is a terrible scourge. All of us feel it sometimes. Some feel it often. It has been one of the hardest things for many people to cope with during this pandemic. Some people haven’t felt the touch of another human hand for over a year. Children have missed their friends. People have had to bear the sorrow of losing someone they love, without anyone being able to be with them, give them a hug, even share a cup of tea. Family members who would normally have been in and out of each other’s houses have been reduced to a brief conversation on the doorstep, or a Skype, a Zoom or a phone call. I know that there are many people who have missed the get-togethers they usually had at church and in our community; Friday group, the community lunch, Talking Village drop ins, choir, Messy Church. Even if they’ve been able to come to church when we’ve been open for worship, we haven’t been able to linger for a cup of coffee and a natter, a vital moment of connection for some people. And it’s not just those who live alone who might feel like that - many people are perfectly happy with their own company. You can feel just as lonely in a crowd, or with family around you who don’t understand you, don’t really see you. 

That’s the key to it; being seen. Whether we live alone or with others, we need to know that there are people who see us as we are, and accept us as we are, people to whom we matter, and who matter to us. On Good Friday Jesus was surrounded by people, but they were people who meant him ill, or just didn’t care at all.  He was nothing to them, less than nothing to them.

“Nobody knows the trouble, I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow”, goes the African American spiritual we’re going to hear in a moment (see below), sung by Paul Robeson, a man who knew more than his fair share of grief. It’s a song which came out the times of slavery, a song written by people whose suffering was there in plain sight of the white people who enslaved them, but who managed not to see it, not to care about it. Like those who crucified Jesus, they developed a way of blanking it out. We may think that we would do better, but we can still fail to see those around us, especially if it would challenge us to do so.  Injustice of all kinds - racism, sexism, modern slavery, child abuse, poverty - is there all the time; it’s happening right under our noses, but if it doesn’t affect us directly, we can very easily turn away and not let it register. Perhaps it all feels too much. It’s hard enough living our own lives, without taking on someone else’s pain too. But if we’ve ever felt unseen, unheard, ourselves – and who hasn’t? - we should surely recognise how lonely it is when others treat us as if we are invisible. 

As we focus on the cross today, and on one brutal, unjust death two thousand years ago, we aren’t just looking back at something that happened long ago and far away, as if this is the only death that really matters. This death, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual torture that led up to it, stands for all the other suffering around us right now. Jesus embodies it for us, presents it to us, says to us “look – just for a minute, look!” Good Friday challenges us to see not just that one precious body on the cross, but all of those precious people who today feel invisible to others, or are looked on only with hatred or disgust. It invites us to acknowledge our own loneliness too, the times when we feel unseen adn unloved. Jesus has been there, it tells us. Jesus knows what that’s like. 

That’s the message whoever originally wrote that spiritual wanted to convey. Indeed, some versions of it run “Nobody knows the trouble, I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus”, but whether it’s spelt out or not, it’s clear that this song is a prayer. It came out of the experience of people who knew that even if no one else saw them or heard them, God did. Even if no one else regarded them as human beings, with the dignity that every human deserves, God did. And that made all the difference. Glory, Hallelujah, as the song says.

At the heart of each of us maybe there’ll always be a place which will be unseen by others – no one is seen and known perfectly in this life, and sometimes we can’t even bear to look at ourselves properly. But the cross proclaims that Jesus sees and knows that place because he has been there. “Our lives are hid with Christ in God”, said St Paul to the Colossians (3.3). Jesus entered into the depths of the human heart, he came to the depths of us and endured the worst loneliness there ever could be, the sense that even God had abandoned him. But, confronting that loneliness, he discovered that even when he was hidden in the darkness of death, he hadn’t been forgotten. He was carried through death into new life by the Father who had never for a moment taken his eyes off him, as he never takes his eyes off us. 

Let’s hope - please God - that we’ll be able to get together and enjoy each other’s company again very soon, but the message of Good Friday is that, pandemic or no pandemic, visible or invisible to others, we are seen, and known and loved by the God who never abandons us. 
Amen  



Maundy Thursday: Blessed bodies


The sermon and music from the service for Maundy Thursday.


1 Cor 11.23-26, John 13.1-35

 

 

One of the things I have been particularly aware of this Holy Week is just how physical our observance of it usually is. It is full of material things - Palm Crosses, service sheets, candles, Messy Church paint and glue and tinsel. Hot cross buns and Easter eggs shared in church, interactive prayer stations which people can gather around and perhaps stick things to or write on, singing, processing, and of course the bread and wine of communion. We’ve never gone in for ritual foot-washing here at Seal, and perhaps that’s just as well because that’s one thing I haven’t had to try to rethink or scrap this year – everything else has had to be risk assessed, adapted or abandoned. We’re doing our best, but there’s no denying that without all those physical things, Holy Week feels a bit anaemic, a bit thin. Here we are celebrating the gift of the Eucharist, the wine and the bread which symbolise Christ’s presence with us, but I can’t give you the wine, and the bread will be delivered with tongs, an awkward process at best… Of course, for many people even being in church at all is impossible at the moment. All they are getting is worship through a screen or a disembodied voice on a podcast, or even just printed words on a page. It’s not how we’d want it to be. The Word became flesh, but it feels we’re having to turn it back into words again at the moment.

 

But that is because this year we have had to recognise that physical matter – including our own bodies - can be problematic as well as a gift. The virus that has given us so much grief is a part of the physical matter of the universe, just as much as the beauty of the sunrise, the hand of a friend, the food we eat. It is the fact that we are physical that causes the problem. Physicality brings pain as well as delight.

 

And yet, the Word became flesh – not just in an adorable baby in a manger at Christmas time, but also on a cross, suffering and dying. God didn’t send an idea to redeem and rescue us. He sent a flesh and blood person, into the mess of the world, a bodily being among the rest of us bodily beings. He did that because our God is a God who loves bodies and the physical stuff they are made of.

 

At the time of Jesus there was a school of thought which regarded the body as a prison, something to be denied, subdued until it could be cast off and the spark of light that was trapped inside us, the true self, could fly free. Those who held ideas like that were often called Gnostics, though there wasn’t ever an organised movement that bore that name.  It’s a very persistent idea, though, which has lurked about throughout history, and still does. People often think that Christians believe in  disembodied soul, imagining it as a wifty-wafty thing floating up to heaven when we die. It’s understandable that we think like that. Our all-too-solid flesh (I speak for myself) can be a trial at times, with its aches and pains, and its tendency to start falling apart and generally deteriorating after a while. But the Bible reminds us from beginning to end that this mortal flesh, this temporal life, this here and now, is God’s gift. When he created it, God looked at it and said “that’s good – I like it”, and when things all went wrong, he didn’t abandon it. He came, as flesh and blood himself, to be part of it. He didn’t scoop us up out of the physical world; he came into it. He was hungry and thirsty, tired and in pain. He eventually died, and was raised, a physical being. That’s why it is so important in the stories of the resurrection that Jesus eats with his friends, and shows them the wounds in his hands and feet and side.

 

It would be quite understandable if we were fed up with flesh and blood this year, with having to protect it by wearing facemasks and keeping our distance and not being able to do the things we want, but it is because we recognise that it is blessed and precious that we do this. Our care in the way we have used our bodies this year – all that “hands, face, space” stuff – is an act of thanksgiving for the gift of bodies, our own and others. It’s a statement this life matters, that matter matters.

 

It’s no accident, then, that Jesus’ tells his disciples on the night before he dies that something as basic and physical as eating and drinking will be the place where they’ll encounter him in the future. And he doesn’t say that it should be some sort of special ritual meal. Any meal will do. The God who was present with his disciples in the flesh and blood of Jesus is still present with us in the stuff of the world around us, blessing it and declaring it to be good, if we have our eyes open to see him. The God who was present with his disciples as he washed their feet is still with us in the practical care we give to one another, even if it has to be rather “hands-off” at the moment. As the choir will sing later in a recording Philip has edited together from our separate voices and instruments, “Where love and loving-kindness are, there is God”. It’s a quote from the first letter of John. “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est”, as it is in Latin.

 

We may not be able to touch each other today. We may not be able to do many of the physical things we would like to, but God is present in the love we show and share, including the loving act of protecting each other’s bodies by not touching or getting too close to each other so we don’t pass on the virus. Whether we are able physically to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist at the moment, everything around us, everything that is us reminds us that matter matters to God, and so it should to us. It is blest. God loves it.  

 

Amen


Sunday, 28 March 2021

Palm Sunday sermon by Kevin Bright

 Audio version here 


Mark11.1-11, Isaiah 50.4-9a

Perhaps the most notable thing about Mark’s version of this story is how anti-climactic it could appear to the casual observer. All the excitement of the parade, the crowds chanting, the road strewn with coats and branches – it all leads up to, well, nothing much. Jesus goes in the temple, looks around, and then returns to Bethany.

He’s not even staying in the centre of Jerusalem during Passover, but because it gets so crowded he’s staying with the 12 in one of the villages, outside the city walls.

Whatever the disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t happen. Their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart.

In fact, despite the impression a cursory reading of today’s Gospel Reading could give, there’s an enormous amount going on here. In fact, when you stop and think about it, we are there in the story and it’s a struggle that continues to this day, even if it’s hard to imagine being in a chaotic crowd scene at the moment, unless you’ve been going on these illegal protests recently!

Let’s start with our Old Testament Reading from Isaiah.

The person we hear describing themselves as teacher seems to be someone who will come and lead the people of Israel, in that person the Israelites also see that they collectively need to turn to God, return from exile and rebuild their relationship with him.

We heard in our Isaiah reading ‘ The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.’

Many of Jesus’ followers would have been familiar with this passage and they were desperate for a figure to lead them out of oppression, to build a new future, drawing upon their knowledge of scripture to find hope. Such a teacher, leader, prophet would have God at his side and surely this must mean victory.

But had those throwing down their coats and palms stopped to really understand what Jesus meant or were they just looking for a regime change which would make their lives more tolerable?

At this stage, are our we open to the shocking radical generosity of Jesus? 

Of course, we know what happened next but if we had been Jesus followers at this time, what would victory have looked like in our eyes, in our hearts? Had we learnt and understood Jesus’ teachings or would we have been stuck alongside many where our own interests continue to cloud our judgment? 

Jesus knew what lay ahead, that in a few days the crowds would be crying for his blood, but caught up in the crowd’s euphoria and worship of a new king this wasn’t what they were anticipating.

Their agenda is a revolution that will sweep away one empire and replace it with – a new empire. Jesus’ agenda is a revolution that will replace empires altogether with a humanity in which everyone is included.

Their agenda is to use God to legitimize their vision of a better future. Jesus’ agenda is to realize the divine love that lives in every person.

It seems the crowd are thinking of kingship in the terms of Simon Maccabaeus, an heroic figure who defeated Antioch, a ruler who sought to impose Hellenic ways, Greek thinking and tradition upon Palestine. 

We can read the whole story of the struggle between Antioch and Maccabaeus in the first book of Maccabees, but it’s poignant that after Jerusalem had been restored to Jewish rule the people ‘ entered it with praise and palm branches…because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.’ The story is still celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hannukah.

Many commentators say that Jesus’ procession wasn’t likely to have been the only one entering Jerusalem around this time. 

While he rode through the crowds from the east, on the opposite side, Pilate, governor of Judea entered from the west. Jesus would have known that it was pretty standard for the Roman troops to come and police major Jewish festivals so the fact that each came into Jerusalem from different sides was highly symbolic and the ultimate collision course was set.

When you allow yourself to really start digesting this there is a sickening tension here. It’s an uncomfortable and challenging, but appropriate place to stop and dwell a while before the events of Holy Week start to unfold.  

So, at the end of the day, after all the excitement, nothing appears to happen. The expectations of the crowd are not realised. But this is a pivotal point, this is the beginning of the end, where the crowds boisterous cheering starts to fade to disappointment and ultimately to anger.

It’s fine to have great expectations. But what happens when our expectations go unmet? Do we turn to thoughts (and actions) of vengeance, or does it cause us to consider whether they were misguided, selfish or shallow?

Prayerful reflection should be our reaction but we know that’s not always easy when we feel embittered, like we have lost a situation we wanted to turn out differently. 

Of course, true faith is trusting in God and not telling God how we would like matters resolved then doubting when it doesn’t work out as we hoped.

Jesus remained faithful even in the Garden of Gethsemane with the sweat of mental agony pouring down his face, he was prepared to do what had to be done.

As we enter Holy Week we should try to find ourselves in the story. Let the hurt and pain be real as we remember loved ones that we miss, as we recall times of humiliation and regret let’s offer them to God, be honest enough to cry out to God for the times when it felt that he wasn’t with us.

As we look at Christ in the story we pray that we might increase our own humility, patience and sheer courage. That in our dark times we may find God there suffering and working with us, sustaining and comforting us.

The struggle of Holy week is a choice between that which had to use force to protect it’s values and way of life, its wealth and privilege and a battle for hearts, minds and souls through teaching, acts of love and self-sacrifice. 

If we can accept that we are here by God’s grace, already part of his eternal kingdom, then we can be open, generous and not take ourselves too seriously. Whatever our circumstances we can appreciate the beauty of creation and find much to be thankful for as God starts to feel closer.

This is the story of Palm Sunday and this is our story. By immersing ourselves in these events we can make space to reflect on our own life choices, holding close all we know to be good but having hearts open to the change that Christ yearns for us. 

Amen


Monday, 22 March 2021

Lent 5. The miracle of the seed

Listen here 

Jer 31.  31-34, John 12.20-33

 

In today’s Gospel story, from John chapter 12, we’re told that some Greeks come to see Philip and Andrew, two of Jesus’ disciples. They want Philip and Andrew to introduce them to Jesus. Why seek out these two disciples in particular? It may be because both Philip and Andrew have Greek names, rather than Hebrew or Aramaic ones. They come from Bethsaida which was in a very ethnically mixed area of Galilee, where there were a lot of Greek speaking people, brought up in the Greek cultural world. Jewish families often chose Greek names for their children, because that would help them to fit in and get on. So perhaps these Greeks think Philip and Andrew will speak their language not just literally, but in the sense that they will understand their thinking?

 

As it happens, Philip and Andrew feature as a bit of a double act in an earlier story in John’s Gospel too. They are the only disciples named in John’s account of the feeding of the 5000, back in chapter six. They don’t have a lot to say otherwise, so I wonder whether it is just a coincidence, or whether John means us to connect these stories.

 

Let’s go back to that earlier story. Jesus sees a hungry crowd of people coming towards him. “How shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus asks Philip. Philip hasn’t got a clue – even six months wages wouldn’t scratch the surface of their hunger, he says. But Andrew comes across a small child keen to share his or her lunch, five loaves and two fishes, and that turns out to be enough for this vast crowd.

 

Unsurprisingly, having been fed one day, many of the crowd turn up looking for Jesus the next day too. It seems there is such thing as a free lunch, after all, and if there’s one free lunch, who knows? – maybe ther’ll be another! Alas, they are disappointed. It isn’t so. Jesus’ miracles aren’t just tricks to wow the crowds. His miracles – though John always calls them “signs” in his Gospel – point to a deeper message and draw people into a renewed relationship with God.

 

The miraculous lunch wasn’t just food; it was meant to remind those who ate it of the time when Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt towards their new Promised Land. To get there they had to go out into the desert, where there wasn’t any food, but they didn’t starve. God fed them with manna which appeared miraculously on the ground every morning. The message was that God was at work again, leading people to freedom in a new kingdom, and that he would provide food for the journey through Christ.

 

Philip and Andrew were key to that story, and they are key to this one too. I don’t think that’s an accident, because this is also a story about bread, or at least the first stage of producing it. There aren’t any loaves in the passage we heard, but there is a grain of wheat, one single grain, which falls into the ground, apparently disappearing into the mud. It turns out, though, that what looks like death for that wheat seed is actually the beginning of new and bountiful life. It breaks open, and is destroyed in the process, but from it comes a whole new plant, which bears many more grains of wheat - twenty fold? sixty fold? Even a hundred grains might have come from that one small seed.  The multiplication of the loaves and the fishes was very impressive, but the natural miracle of sowing and reaping is perhaps even more spectacular, and it happens under our noses all the time.

 

Seed sowing at the vicarage is well under way now. There are baby tomato plants, chillis, sunflowers, and a whole host of other things sprouting and growing on every available windowsill. Every year it’s an act of faith. The seeds seem so tiny when I sow them, and I can be waiting weeks before anything happens, wondering if they have actually just rotted away. But the life in a seed is stronger than we can imagine, and pretty soon, there are roots and shoots, and not enough room to grow them all on. Every seed is a miracle waiting to happen. It’s in their nature to be miraculous, to produce life out of what looks like death.  

 

Jesus knows that, like a seed, he is about to be sown, buried in a cold stone tomb. It will look like it’s all over for him. But his death won’t be the end; it will be the beginning of a new world, because the life-giving love of God will turn out to be stronger than the death-dealing hatred of those who want to be rid of him.  

 

My guess is that, when those Greeks got to hear Jesus’ response to them, it would have puzzled them greatly. Classical Greek philosophy taught that God was immovable, perfect, unchangeable, far off in a distant heaven. If they’d come with that in their minds, as they probably had, they’d have a lot of trouble getting their heads around the idea that God could be in this carpenter from Nazareth, in the messiness of human life, in the agony and humiliation of crucifixion, in a battered, dead body. The cross would challenge everything they thought they knew about divinity, as it does for all of us. It is often only when we are broken ourselves, like that disintegrating grain of wheat, that we understand the cross, because it is then that we find the life of God springing up in us as we let go of our own attempts to hold it all together. 

 

Authentic faith, the kind that is written on our hearts, not just on tablets of stone, as the prophet Jeremiah said, nearly always seems to come from a place of brokenness, surrender, failure.  

 

This week sees the anniversary of the beginning of the first coronavirus lockdown last year. We’re marking it with a recorded service on Tuesday, and you are also invited, if you would like to, to come and tie a ribbon to our remembrance tree by the lychgate, and to put a light in your window at 8 o’clock on Tuesday evening if you’d like to. This has been a year when we may all have felt like that grain of wheat sometimes, buried in the mud of grief and fear and stress and the grinding complications of just getting by. It may have been hard for all of us to hold onto hope sometimes – perhaps it still is - to believe that things could ever be normal again. But these readings today tell us that down there in the mud isn’t always a bad place to be, that feeling broken may be not the end. It may be a beginning too, the place we find that same life-giving love which raised Jesus from the dead, and which never runs out.

 

A free lunch of loaves and fishes is great now and then, to keep us from starving, but Jesus wants more for us than that. He wants us not just to eat the bread he gives us, but to be the wheat, which grows and multiplies and brings life to others too, and there’s no way to do that except to fall into the good ground of his love, accept ourselves for who we are, with all our frailties, and allow him to raise us to new life.

Amen

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Mothers Galore: Mothering Sunday

 Listen here

Exodus 2. 1-10, Luke19.25b-27

 

Today is Mothering Sunday, a lovely day of celebration for some, but a day which is fraught with complications for others.

 

Some will find nothing but joy in this day. Those who have, or have had, wonderful mothers, those who have children who they delight in may find this day easy.

 

But many don’t. There are mothers who have lost children, children who have lost mothers, especially if there have been issues that make mourning complicated or difficult. There are those who never knew their mothers, or whose mothers weren’t able to care for them, and those who long to be mothers but haven’t been able to have children of their own. There are mothers who are estranged from their children, or whose children are a source of worry. There are fathers bringing up children alone, who have to be mum as well as dad. There are many reasons why today might be problematic, awkward, painful for some.

 

That’s why I am glad it is Mothering Sunday, and not Mother’s Day we celebrate today. Its origins are rather obscure – don’t believe all you read on the internet – and its observance has waxed and waned in popularity over the centuries, but it is linked to the medieval custom of honouring “Mother Church” on this fourth Sunday in Lent. Today is also known as Laetare Sunday – “Laetare” is Latin for Rejoice. The title comes from the opening words of the Latin prayer which would have begun this service, which quotes Isaiah 66.10 “Rejoice, Jerusalem”. Isaiah goes on to describe Jerusalem as a mother feeding her children from her breast.

 

Mothering Sunday was developed in its modern form in the UK early in the 20th Century, drawing on those ancient traditions, by Constance Adelaide Smith. She was aware of the quite separate and secular “Mother’s Day” which was celebrated in the US in May, but wanted to put the emphasis not just on mothers, but on mothering in all its forms, including Mother Church, and that makes all the difference. It broadens its meaning out immensely.

 

And, frankly, if Mothering Sunday was just about biological mothers, the readings set for the day would be a rubbish choice. There aren’t any hearts and flowers in them. No one gets a box of chocolates or a lie in, and the family set ups they describe are full of pain.

That’s not unusual in Scripture. You’d struggle to find any family that looks much like the 1950’s ideal of the nuclear family, Mum, Dad and 2.4 children, all biologically related. In the Bible, there’s polygamy, which is never condemned or outlawed, even by Jesus. The consent of the woman is usually not even sought, never mind required. There’s incest and adultery, siblings who murder each other or sell each other into slavery. Women conceive children then give them up to others to raise, as Hannah does with Samuel. And of course, there are widows and orphans, many, many of them, left to fend for themselves in a world which has no room for anyone who has somehow fallen out of the conventional family structures. Reading the Bible can feel a bit like binge -watching Eastenders, except that I think many of the Biblical story lines would have been rejected by the editors as too shocking to be shown before the watershed.

 

The Bible stories we’ve heard today are no exception to this pattern of unconventional family arrangements. A Hebrew woman gives birth to a baby boy at the worst possible moment, when Pharaoh has ordered all Hebrew male children to be thrown into the Nile. She tries to hide him, but you can’t hide a baby for long, so she makes a basket and covers it in pitch – a tiny Ark – and leaves it at the water’s edge. At least there is some hope that he might be found, rather than drowning or being eaten by crocodiles. And she is in luck. Pharaoh’s daughter comes along and finds him. But that’s problematic too. How can the daughter of the man who has made this cruel order possibly help? Will she even want to?

 

This particular baby is in luck too, though. He ends up with many “mothers” in his life – the mother who bore him, the big sister who watches over him, the princess who takes him under her protection, and who, I am quite sure, knows exactly what is going on, and all her entourage too, who keep the secret. God isn’t hindered by the vagaries and vulnerabilities that plague human attempts to build families; the political and economic circumstances beyond people’s control, the accidents and illnesses, ignorance, or deliberate cruelty that blight the lives of so many children. God’s idea of family is very much bigger and more flexible than ours. It’s not the biological or legal connections which make a family in God’s eyes, but the love and care people share, which can take many shapes and forms, and come from a multitude of sources.

 

The same picture emerges in the Gospel reading - just a couple of verses from John’s account of the crucifixion. Its another story I doubt you’d see referenced on a Mother’s Day greeting card. Mary is about to lose her eldest son; Jesus is hanging on the cross, disgraced and dying. But he is the one who, in traditional Jewish thinking, would have been the head of the household, and her main protector. Jesus doesn’t entrust her to another male relative, though, despite having brothers who could have taken the task on. Instead, he makes a new family for her with John, his disciple, who is also full of grief at the loss of his friend. He needs a mother; she needs a son. They find what they need in each other.

 

This is all of a piece with the message celebrated by the early church, which saw itself as a new family. In most families of the time – Roman, Greek, or Jewish - everyone had a place, and knew their place. In Roman families, even adult children were under the rule of the Pater Familias – the oldest living male in the family, who had absolute authority over them, including power to kill them in some cases. But the early Christian communities challenged all this. In the family of the Church everyone was equal – men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. Early Christian communities provided a family, too, for many who had lost their own – slaves who had been taken from their families, widows and orphans who had no one to support them, people whose families might have rejected them because of their new-found faith. The new family Jesus made of John and Mary as he died was a symbol of this. God’s love united them. God was the parent – father and mother – who drew them into his family.

 

As a mother, and a daughter, myself I think it’s great to celebrate mothers on this day, if we can. But Mothering Sunday should be good news for all people, whether we share our genetic material or our homes with anyone or not. In way, it should be especially good news for those who might not be either giving or receiving flowers and chocolates today, because they have no children, or no mother, or their relationships with them are fraught or complicated.  Mothering Sunday calls us to celebrate all whom we are called to love and be loved by, to open our eyes to those God calls us into family with, and to celebrate God, the Mother of us all, from whom all love ultimately comes.

Amen

 

 

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Lent 3: Out of the house of slavery


Audio version here

Exodus 20.1-17, John 2.13-22

 

One of the words I’ve been very aware of over this last year is the word “household”. Covid regulations have decreed that there have been things we can only do in household groups. That’s been hard on some who live alone, though it has been possible to form “support bubbles” – extended households if you like. It’s been hard on some who live with others too, if there are tensions or abuse within the household. Whatever size and shape our household is, though, we’ve been stuck with it, and maybe that’s made us notice its blessings and drawbacks afresh, the effect we have on each other, the connections – and disconnections – which shape our lives.

 

We’ve been interconnected in a wider way too. Neighbours have helped one another, communities have looked out for each other. But we’ve also had to deal with the dilemmas about how far to curtail individual freedoms for the sake of the common good. We’ve been reminded that none of us can live for ourselves alone. No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” as John Donne put it in the 17th century.

 

In the world of the Bible people often had to face the same dilemmas we do. How could they live together as a community? It was a question that was especially pressing for the ex-slaves Moses had led out of Egypt on their long trek to their new home in the Promised Land. Slavery had shaped their whole lives, the way they saw themselves, their dreams and expectations, or rather the lack of them. What was the point of dreaming if you were someone else’s possession, theirs to do what they liked with? But freedom sometimes felt tougher than they expected, as they trekked around the desert.  Again and again, they looked back to Egypt. “At least there we had food to eat - leeks and garlic and cucumbers and melons, Now there is only manna! If this is freedom, you can keep it !” they said. At least slavery was familiar. Whose household did they belong to now? And what should that household look like?

 

In our Old Testament Reading, we heard the answer to those questions in the shape of the list of rules which we now call the Ten Commandments. “I am the Lord your God” they start. These people belong to God – he is the head of this household. Why? BecauseI brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That’s the household they had been part of – the house of slavery -  but now God declared that they will be his household, his family. That’s why the Ten Commandments start with God. We’re not free-floating individuals, they remind us. We can’t be. We depend on one another, on God’s good earth and its fruitfulness, and ultimately, therefore, on the God who gave it to us. That’s something we are becoming painfully aware of as we see the effects of climate change and ecological devastation.

 

The commandments go on to remind us that God can’t be reduced to the size of a convenient idol that we can kid ourselves we own or control. We can’t treat him, or his name, as a lucky charm or magic formula as if we had the power to make him do our bidding. Keeping the Sabbath day, too, reminds us that we are in God’s hands, not he in ours. We can rest because God is in charge, not us.

 

When we know this, the rest of the commandments – those instructions not to murder or steal or commit adultery or bear false witness or covet what is not ours – fall into place. If we are God’s children, members of his household, then so is everyone else; they deserve to be treated with respect and care.

 

One of the distinctive things about these Jewish commandments was that they applied to everyone equally; rich or poor, powerful or powerless. In the legal systems of many of the nations around Israel, the punishments for murder or stealing or adultery were different for different social classes. A rich man who killed a poor man might have to pay a fine to his family. A poor man who killed a rich man would be executed. In Israel it wasn’t so. There was one law for everyone. Of course, it often didn’t always work out that way – it often still doesn’t – but it was an important principle, and one which our own legal system still preserves.

 

So, the Ten Commandments aren’t just a list of dos and don’ts. They are about identity and belonging. They tell us who we are, because they tell us whose we are, and we forget that at our peril.  

 

By the time of Jesus, the household of God had built for itself a literal house, the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the symbolic centre of their faith and of their nation, the place where they came together into God’s presence. It should have been the embodiment of that way of life which treated everyone equally. But we are all flawed and fallible, and it’s clear from today’s Gospel reading that all was not well in this particular family home.

 

Scholars argue about what, specifically, so enraged Jesus as he stormed into the Temple with his whip of cords. It may have been the fact that the stalls he overturned had almost certainly been set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place in the Temple which was open to everyone, including those who weren’t Jewish. Their place to pray had been stolen from them. They had been excluded. The selling of animals and the changing of money may also have placed a disproportionate burden on those who had very little, especially if the prices had been hiked and the exchange rate manipulated. The Temple was, as Jesus put it “my Father’s house”, a place where God’s people – all people – should have been able to feel at home, part of the household, equal members in it, but that wasn’t so, and Jesus was furious.

 

Whose house was it? Whose household was it for? Did it belong to the Temple authorities? Did it belong to the traders? Or did it belong to God, the God who had brought his people out of the “houses of slavery”, places where people were exploited, and where some lives counted while others didn’t? This isn’t a story about whether it’s right to sell things in church. It’s a story about what it means to say we are God’s people, what kind of household that means we should be building and how we should live in it together.

 

Households, as I said at the start, may come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They may be wonderful, loving places, or places of struggle and pain – or both at the same time. But these readings remind us that our truest household is the household of God, a household which embraces all humanity, all creation, in which everyone is precious. St Paul said that God is the one, “from whom every family in heaven and in earth takes its name” (Eph 3.15). God calls us to learn to live as part of his household, and to find in it the perfect freedom he wants for us all, which is seen not in rugged independence – go it alone, grab-what-you can and the devil take the hindmost – but in lives that are shaped by the knowledge that we belong to him and because of that we belong to one another too.

Amen