Sunday, 15 March 2015

Mothering Sunday sermon for Breathing Space Communion

Mothering Sunday can be a very difficult day to plan for if you are a member of the clergy. If you look at the card shops and in advertisements all you see is celebration of mothers who are loved and loving, families which are happy and together. But even a superficial acquaintance with reality tells us that this is not the whole story of motherhood. In reality in church on Mothering Sunday there could be children, young or old, whose mothers have left them or have died. Children whose  mothers were, or are, neglectful, or abusive or just too weighed down with their own problems to be able to look after them properly. There may be mothers, who have lost children or who are estranged from their children, and mothers whose children have acted in ways that make them ashamed – imagine being the mother of Jihadi John . There may be fathers who have to be mothers as well, and stepmothers, and foster mothers, grandparents or other family members raising children. Families come in all shapes and sizes. And there will be those who would love to be mothers but are unable to have children.

The card shop version of Motherhood, all roses and kittens, just won’t do in many circumstances, and it can rub salt in the wounds for many people, which is why I am glad that this isn’t just a commercial festival but also a religious one, and one which draws on Biblical stories of motherhood which are far grittier and more complex, and often closer to reality. We may think that unconventional, fractured or blended families are a modern challenge, but actually they’ve been there throughout human history. The “Janet and John” family – Mum and Dad and 2 children living happily ever after with never a cross word spoken – is the thing that is unusual.

Family life in the Bible is very varied in its form, and often falls prey to forces beyond people’s control. Rarely is it trouble free. The readings we heard today – set for Mothering Sunday – bear that out. There was Moses – born in a time of persecution and danger, threatened from the moment of his birth to a mother who was placed in an impossible position. Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew baby boys should be thrown into the Nile. What could she do when she gave birth to him. You can only hide a baby for so long. But putting him the Nile herself, cradled in a lovingly made reed basket, was a very risky ploy. It could all have gone very wrong. It is a story in which a lot is left to our imagination. When Pharaoh’s daughter finds him we aren’t sure what will happen next. She realises he’s a Hebrew, one of those her father has condemned, but she decides not only to spare him, but also to bring him up as her own. What does she think will happen if her father finds out? We aren’t told. Does she cotton on that the “nurse” Moses’ sister offers is actually his mother? Maybe, but she’s obviously not going to say so. It is as if she has thought “least said; soonest mended”. Quietly, quietly she engineers a situation in which not only does Moses’ mother get to keep him till he’s weaned, but she can form a new family for him for the long-term. As her son he will be right at the heart of Pharaoh’s court, among people of power, where he will get the best protection, the best nurture, the best preparation for the role he will eventually take. A new, second family is created for him alongside his birth family, and this is the only reason he survives to adulthood.

In the Gospel reading we hear of another new family being formed. As Jesus hangs on the cross his mother and one of his closest disciples, usually identified as John, stand watching, helpless and desperate. Each is losing someone they love – a beloved son, a beloved friend. Mary is losing the man who should provide for her and protect her.  Jesus entrusts them to each other. It’s not a normal arrangement. It might even have seemed a bit disreputable. After all, John is not a relative, and for a woman to live with a man she wasn’t related too would have been frowned on. But it seems it worked. For the early Christians for whom John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century, this new family formed at the foot of the cross was meant to be a picture in microcosm of what many of them had encountered in the church. Some would have been cast out of their families of origin when they decided to follow Christ. Some may have lost their families to persecution. Some – slaves, unsupported widows and orphans – may not have had a family at all when they encountered Christian faith. Some were Jews and some Gentiles. Yet all had a place in this new family that met together to worship, to learn, and to love one another.

It seems to me that the message of the Bible, which is strewn with unconventional families, troubled families, blended families, new families based on love and choice rather than blood and marriage, is a profoundly helpful one for all of us today. It proclaims that in Christ we are all part of something far bigger than the “Mum and Dad and two children” idyll that the greetings cards and adverts depict. “On the cross” as our collect put it “Christ drew the whole human family to himself”. He showed us what love looks like, as he bound together and healed our fractured world, and he proclaimed that it can take any form we can imagine, and many we can’t. Whatever is in our minds today as we celebrate Mothering Sunday, whether we are celebrating the love of an earthly mother, or mourning the absence of that love for whatever reason, this is good news for us all.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Lent 3: My Father's house

“Stop making my Father’s house a market place” shouts Jesus, as he turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out the livestock that are filling the courtyards of the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s an action which will get him into a lot of trouble, which is hardly surprising. These Temple traders are powerful people, and he is disturbing a system which serves them well.
But what was it that he was complaining about? What is the problem?

There are a number of possibilities. Jesus might have objected to trading going on in the Temple full stop. It was meant to be a space to concentrate on God, after all. Or maybe it was that those who carried on this trade were corrupt. Worshippers normally bought the animals they were going to sacrifice in Jerusalem rather than bringing an animal from home, because the sacrificial animals had to be perfect and unblemished. If you trekked them across the countryside, they might get injured or marked in some way. That opened up a great marketing opportunity for local animal sellers, and it is very likely, human beings being what they are, that some of them ripped off those who had no option but to buy from them. Temple taxes, too, had to be paid  using special coins, so manipulating the exchange rate  was another way to turn a quick profit.

A third possibility was that it was where in the Temple this trade was happening that was the root of the problem. The Temple consisted of a number of concentric areas. Only priests were allowed in the central parts. Outside them was a courtyard where other Jewish men could worship. Beyond that was a courtyard for Jewish women. The outermost courtyard was the only place where Gentiles could come – it was open to all. It is here, in all probablility, that the traders had set up, where they could sell to the greatest number of people, but that meant they were effectively stealing the only space where the Gentiles could pray. Jesus’ message was one of inclusion, of God’s love extending to all people, so taking over this space would have offended him.

Whatever the reason, it was clear to everyone that Jesus was seriously angry, and that the people who witnessed this event were shocked by that. But then, to add insult to injury, he went on to issue what was either a terrible threat or a blasphemous promise. “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The building he was standing in had only just been through a massive extension and restoration, lasting 43 years. Was he saying that it wasn’t up to scratch? That he could do better? Was he threatening to pull it down himself?  No wonder people were offended. We are told that it’s his own resurrection he’s talking about, but the fact that people’s anger centres around the perceived threat to the Temple building is very revealing.

Stop making my Father’s house a market place” says Jesus, but the Greek word for house which he uses here isn’t a word that simply refers to a physical building. It is the word “oikos”, and it would perhaps better be translated “household” than “house”. It encompassed not just the bricks and mortar, but the people who lived in the building, family members, servants, hangers-on. It was the whole unit, the whole system, drawn together by common bonds and goals. The word “oikos” gives us a wealth of words in English, basically anything that starts with “eco-“. Economics,  ecology, ecosystems; they all derive from “oikos”  and they are all about how things work together.

So Jesus isn’t really complaining here about the way the Temple building is being used; he is complaining about the rot that has set into the whole ecosystem, if you like. His people are supposed to be the household, the “oikos” of God. Filling the Temple with livestock, this place where they believed they met most directly with God, is a symptom not the cause of the problem, a sign that something far deeper is wrong.  

This household of faith – the people of Israel - had originally been shaped in very troubled times, according to the Bible, and we heard about the pivotal moment in that shaping in our Old Testament reading today. It was the famous passage which we know as the Ten Commandments, and it sets out very clearly what God expected from those who are part of his family.

The people to whom the commandments were given were an unlikely bunch. They’d been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. They’d endured four hundred years of other people ruling over them, telling them what to do, four hundred years of never having space to make their own decisions. The Saturday before last some of us went on a trip to the British Museum to see artefacts from the cultures which shaped the Bible. We spent quite a bit of time in the Egyptian galleries, which contain a huge range of exhibits – monumental statues, elaborate friezes, splendid grave goods. They all said, loud and clear, “the people who made these things knew what they were about.” Egyptian society was very sophisticated and its religion was very well-ordered. The Egyptians’ main concern was to make sure their souls lived on after death, and they’d worked out very precise rituals, written down in their Book of the Dead; the mummification of bodies, the prayers and incantations, the elaborate ceremonies. It was all there.

At the time our Old Testament reading was set, though, the Hebrew slaves had left behind the order and certainty of Egypt. Moses had led them out into the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. They were heading, so he said, for the Promised Land. But they were starting to wonder whether they’d been wise to follow him.  Of course, slavery had been brutal, but sometimes freedom can be tough too. In Egypt, they’d been ordered around, but that can be a lot easier than having to make up your own mind. They’d wanted freedom, space to be themselves. Well now they had it, but it was the freedom of the desert and the space seemed endless. How could you know which way to head, physically or spiritually? What was the point of freedom if you had no idea where you were going?  And who was this God who’d summoned them out on this trek anyway? The old gods of Egypt were familiar. They’d seen their images around them every day, but what did this God want from them?

The Ten Commandments were God’s answer to those questions. Through them he told these bewildered people the essence of what he cared about, what it meant to worship him. Unlike the faith of the Egyptians it had little or nothing to do with life after death – there’s nothing about the afterlife in the Ten Commandments.  It was about this life, here and now. And it wasn’t about rituals either. It was about relationships, with God and with one another.

God starts by telling them that he is the only God they should worship.  It’s not like Egypt where there were dozens of gods you had to take notice of. This was highly unusual. Most religions had multiple gods. There had been a brief experiment with monotheism in Egypt, under the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who had lived not long before the story of Moses is thought to be set. He’d decided that only the sun God, Aten, should be worshipped. [Thank you to Patrick Coffey for reminding me of this] But it hadn’t caught on. Perhaps people preferred to spread their bets – if one god didn’t favour you maybe another one would? But the God of Moses is clear. Belonging to him isn’t a gamble. He is the God who rescued them from slavery. What more assurance could they need of his love? Their relationship with him was to be one of trust. He was committed to them so they could be committed to him too.

The next three commandments follow on from that. If their relationship with God is one of commitment on both sides, then they don’t need to make idols, and they don’t need to use the name of God as a magic spell, either, to manipulate events, because he knows what they need. Keeping the Sabbath, a day when they were supposed to depend on God rather than striving for their own ends grows out of and strengthens that relationship of trust too.

The commandments move on naturally then to their relationships with one another. This is the God who has rescued them, who has seen their suffering and heard their cries, and cared about them enough to act. So following him means acting compassionately to others too. That means living with respect respect, faithfulness, integrity, appreciating  what they’ve got rather than feeling they have to grasp for more.

And that is it.
As I said, there’s nothing about life after death, no ticket to heaven, no Book of the Dead. The Ten Commandments are about living with our eyes and hearts open to God and to those around us here and now. They are about learning to trust that what we have is enough, and that the hands of God hold us safely and won’t let us go. These are the hallmarks of the household of God – his “oikos”, his ecosystem, his economy. It’s a million miles away from the kind of thinking which would allow people to use the Temple as a way to make a quick buck, or to squeeze out those who were tentatively exploring faith or holding onto it by their fingertips.

When Jesus clears out the traders and money-changers he is restoring God’s ecosystem to health, reforming the household of faith which was so precious to him, declaring it to be one in which everyone is welcome and has access to God. Ultimately the new life he promises won’t come in the shape of bricks and mortar, though. It will be seen in his risen body, raised from the destruction of death, and in the body of those who gather together to walk in his way.

“We are the body of Christ,” I often say, as we share the Peace together Sunday by Sunday. It’s a joyful moment, but it’s a moment when we are faced with a huge responsibility, because those words remind us that we are called, just like the Hebrew slaves in the desert of Sinai, to live as God’s household, with relationships that reflect his love and commitment. Today, as we hear those words, may our hearts be open to let him sweep into our lives, to overturn and drive out whatever gets in the way of us living up to that challenge.


Thursday, 5 March 2015

Lent 2: Whatever it takes...

Last week my husband, Philip, was taking part in an orchestral rehearsal, as he does. The rehearsal was taking place in a school in London.  It was a splendid building, and clearly the school was trying its hardest to inculcate in its students an ethos of hard work. To this end, they had decorated the school with inspirational slogans, painted on the walls. The one which confronted Philip as he rehearsed said, in large letters. “Whatever it takes…” That was all, “Whatever it takes…”

Now, I get what this was trying to say. It was meant – I am sure – to be an encouragement to its pupils to put all their effort into their school work, but Philip wondered, and so do I, whether the school had really thought this through.

There were two problems with this slogan. First, you have to ask, “Whatever it takes to do what?” It is only a good idea to put your whole self into doing something if the thing you are doing is worthwhile. Jihadi John has put his whole self into something he believes in. He’s done “whatever it takes” to achieve his goal. Unfortunately it is ISIS and its campaign of terror. We might want people to be aspirational, but what do we want them to aspire to?

The second problem with the slogan was what it  by “Whatever”  in “Whatever it takes…” Did it mean that students should push aside others in their rush to achieve their goal? Did it mean that if a student could get where they wanted by low cunning and cheating, they should do so? I can well imagine some enterprising youngster presenting homework they’d copied from someone else with the cheeky observation, “well, sir, you did say ‘whatever it takes’, and that was what it took!”

That may all sound rather fanciful and far-fetched, and perhaps it is, but it highlighted for me the danger of slogans and inspirational quotes if we use them unthinkingly. That caution should extend to Bible verses too. Take the one we find in our Gospel reading today. “If any want to become my followers” says Jesus, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” It is a powerful, stirring call to discipleship – there are no half-measures here - but if we don’t think about it carefully it can lead us up some very dark alleys indeed. These are the kind of words which fuelled the Crusades, holy wars – Christian jihads – which caused slaughter and misery. They are the kind of words which have encouraged people into joyless repression, giving them the idea that what God wants, more than anything, is for us to be having a hard time, carrying crosses for the sake of it, depriving ourselves of comfort and pleasure. “Whatever it takes…” people have muttered to themselves grimly as they have hurt and damaged themselves and others in the pursuit of a completely false idea of holiness. It is the delusional, confused thinking of the ISIS fighter and the suicide bomber, who imagines they are dying in a noble cause, so it doesn’t matter what collateral damage there is.

I don’t believe Jesus meant us to take his words that way, but if that’s the case, then what did he mean? Perhaps it would help us to ask the same two questions of these words as I did for that slogan on the school wall. What end are we supposed to be aiming for, and what means should we use to get there?

Undoubtedly Jesus  wanted people to be wholehearted in their faith, wholehearted in their commitment, but what was that a commitment to? Peter thinks he knows. His vision of the future is of a time when Jesus will sit on the throne of Israel, a victorious king who has swept the Romans out of his nation. When Jesus starts talking about suffering and dying, he is aghast. Surely that can’t be right, and it will put the crowds off completely! He takes Jesus aside to try to persuade him to come up with a more upbeat message. But Peter just hasn’t understood what Jesus is about, and he wouldn’t be the only one. He is measuring the success of Jesus’ mission the same way he would measure a night’s catch as a fisherman, by how many fish there are in the net. If people are following Jesus, listening to him, supporting him, then that’s all that counts, never mind why they are doing so. It’s a temptation we all fall into, to gauge how we are doing by how many friends we have, how many “likes” on our Facebook page. I might try to assess the health of the church by looking at how many people come to worship. But all that really tells us is whether people agree with us, not whether we are right. The record of history shows countless examples of despots and dictators who had a huge following – Hitler was elected to his position as Chancellor of Germany, after all. “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on earthly things” says Jesus to Peter. The kingdom of God just doesn’t look like the kingdoms of the world. God’s success criteria aren’t the same of those of a business or a club.

When Jesus dies on the cross the crowds that followed him so enthusiastically earlier are nowhere to be seen. As Jesus hangs on the cross you wouldn’t know he had ever been popular at all. We know that Resurrection is just a few days away, but even then Jesus appears just to small numbers of people. It’s not the triumphal takeover that Peter, and many others would have been expecting from God’s Messiah, and yet his death and resurrection have had more impact on the world than almost anything else in human history.

That’s why Jesus warns his followers that if they really want to come after him, to walk in his way, they need to be reconciled to the fact that it may involve crosses for them too, things that look like failure. We need to be careful how we measure success, this passage warns. Jesus talks about the risks of gaining the whole world but losing our lives. The Greek words he uses are revealing. The word for world is “cosmos” and it really meant the created order, what you see in front of you , the material stuff of life. There was nothing wrong with it – it was made by God – but it was just stuff. We get our word “cosmetic” from the same root, something that looks good, but may only be skin deep, and is transient and temporary.
The word translated as “life” is “psyche” – it’s probably better translated as “soul”. It is the essence of ourselves, but specifically in Jewish thought it is the essence that was breathed into us by God.
In the story of the creation of Adam from Genesis 2, God first makes a man out of the dust of the earth, a mud-pie creature, essentially. It is fine, but it’s not alive. So God breathes his own breath into him and Adam becomes, according to the Hebrew a “nephesh” a living man. His soul isn’t just a spiritual part of him, it is a divine part of him, the part of him that comes from God and is of God and belongs to God. It might seem paradoxical but to be really human you have to have this divinely gifted soul within you. 

So Jesus is saying that it’s no use if you have all the riches the material world can offer, if you haven’t got, in here, the presence of God which brings you his life. And if you have that life of God within you, you will find that the prizes of power and wealth and popularity don’t really matter that much anyway.

Jesus said that he came to bring “life in all its fullness” . That’s the only aim worth pursuing, for ourselves, for the church, for the world.   Not numbers, not wealth, not prestige, but life. That is what the Kingdom of God is all about .

So if that is our aim, what are the means by which we achieve it? There again, Peter has missed the point. Later on he will be the one who reaches for a sword to fight off the guards who come to arrest Jesus. He thinks the kingdom will be won with the tools and in the ways earthly kingdoms come into being, by force, by political strategy, by manipulation. He hasn’t understood what Jesus has been saying about it starting in small and gentle ways, with things the size of a mustard seed or a grain of wheat or a tiny piece of  yeast. He hasn’t understood that it isn’t won by overthrowing the might of Rome, but by overthrowing the selfish and judgemental impulses in our own hearts. He‘s missed the bit where Jesus talked about removing the beam in your own eye before complaining about the speck of dust in someone else’s, as we all so often do. “Consider the lilies” Jesus has said, “who neither labour nor spin, and yet God clothes them more beautifully than King Solomon” You don’t need anxiously  to protect your own position in the world, says Jesus to him, and to us, because you have the only position you really need, held securely in the hands of God. You don’t need to be top of the human heap, because you are the apple of God’s eye already.

The route to that aim of “life in all its fullness” starts within us, as we learn to pay attention to what needs to change in us, so that we can learn to love because we know that we are loved. In the end, this passage isn’t so much about our commitment to God, but God’s commitment to us, which is total and faithful, just like the covenant he made with Abraham in our Old Testament reading. He gives “whatever it takes”, in the person of Jesus who gave his life out of love for us, and only when we know that can we healthily give “whatever it takes” to him. In doing so we can afford to lose everything the world might offer us, if that is what it costs to live with integrity, because we are rich beyond our wildest dreams anyway, rich in the love of God who will never let us down.