Sermon for Holy Communion on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 30th March 2014
Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

Today is Mothering Sunday. At the 10 o’clock family service later on this morning, the congregation are going to be invited to take a nice little plant home to their mothers. Indeed, I think the plants are already here; so, if you are a Mum, and you think that your offspring may not be in the right place at the right time to collect a little plant for you, please help yourself!

My problem in relation to Mothering Sunday is that I can’t be a Mum – by definition – and because I am of a certain age, unfortunately my Mum is no longer with us. So when I see the children picking up their little plants and taking them off to give to Mum, it makes me feel rather wistful.

But if you slightly refocus, perhaps with the help of the little card from the Bishop’s Lent Call, you’ll see that the Bishop has suggested that this week is a week for women – not just mothers – and there are a series of stories and challenging situations which are described on each day this week. I won’t spoil it by telling you all what they are – have a look after the service.

The idea is that, leading up to Mothering Sunday, it’s suggested that we should think about issues to do with being a woman – including, of course, motherhood. Indeed, the news has had two or three challenging items in it this week, affecting women.

There was a report on the way in which various police forces investigate domestic violence. Unfortunately our own force in Surrey didn’t come out very well – but all the chief constables are going to try and improve. But perhaps the biggest family issue this week has been the beginning of so-called ‘gay marriage’ on Friday.

In very general terms, it is now the law of the land that homosexual couples, male or female, can go through a civil marriage ceremony. They are married in the eyes of the law, in exactly the same way as a heterosexual couple.

But, in general, the church doesn’t go along with it. Indeed the Council of Bishops has issued a rather fierce statement [http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2014/02/house-of-bishops-pastoral-guidance-on-same-sex-marriage.aspx], saying that anyone who marries someone of the same sex will not be ordained, and any minister who blesses a same-sex union would be contravening church law and would be in trouble – let alone any question of actually marrying the happy couple!

At this point no doubt your eyes are all metaphorically rolling upwards, and you are saying to yourself, ‘Oh no; not again! Not more weird sex issues, drawing the church off the track, when there are so many more important things for us to worry about.’ If 25% of those who are affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ are now in debt as a result, for example, surely that is more important for Christians, who love their neighbours, than whether or not it’s OK for people of the same sex to marry each other.

I would go along with that. But it does seem to me that, as a lay minister of the church, I need to set out from the pulpit at least some reflections on the question of same-sex marriage. But it is of necessity a personal view.

I believe that the bishops’ statement on same-sex marriage was extremely unhelpful, and was unnecessary, given that, following the Pilling Report, there is a process going on within the church called ‘facilitated conversations’, which has not been completed yet.

So unless the facilitated conversation process is a sham, it’s completely wrong for the bishops to lay down the law while discussions about what the law should be are still going on. The discussions and the debate in public fall along predictable lines.

On the one hand, it is argued that it is in the nature of marriage that it is necessarily between a man and a woman. It’s certainly true that the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer begins, ‘We are gathered together here in the sight of God …. to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony’ and that matrimony symbolises ‘the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’, and that the purpose of marriage is: for the procreation of children, to avoid fornication, and for the ‘mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.’ Only one out of three has anything about male and female.

Coupled with this is a literal reliance on Biblical texts, most notably in Leviticus, against homosexuality. Lev.20:13, ‘If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; … their blood is upon them.’ You will be surprised, if you read all this chapter, how many death penalties there are for various sexual misdemeanours. Never mind; people who believe that we should uphold exactly what the Bible says, in every detail, aren’t worried by that.

On the other hand, more liberal Christians point to the fact that the definition of marriage has actually changed over the years. The prohibition against a man marrying his deceased wife’s sister was abolished in the 1800s: it was once thought to be the same as incest. More recently, remarriage after divorce has been allowed in church.

As the Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove, has written recently, ‘These changes were not changes in the nature of marriage itself, but in enlarging the scope of marriage by admitting to it people who were once excluded … But its essence is what it always was: the covenanted union of two people for life. That has not changed.’ [http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/equal-marriage-crossing-threshold.html?spref=tw&m=1
http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/equal-marriage-crossing-threshold.html?spref=tw&m=1%5D

Against this it is argued that marriage is not simply the union of two ‘people’, but it is the union of a male and a female. Even that isn’t completely clear, because there is now quite a lot of argument about what is the true nature of maleness and femaleness. There are people who have both characteristics in them.

The Church of England is entering a period when there will be ‘facilitated conversations’ with a view to trying to tease out the right position for the church to adopt. Is it right, in effect, that the provisions of the Jewish law, as expressed in Leviticus, going back 3,000 years, should decide what we do today, or should some other principles be involved?

Interesting therefore to look at our lessons today. There’s nothing actually about Mothering Sunday, or, indeed, about the position of women, the nature of marriage, or anything else which you might possibly have expected. Instead, we have this short passage from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Incidentally, it’s perfectly timed, because we will be studying this passage tomorrow in the Lent course. ‘Live as children of light, for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.’

In our gospel, Jesus says, ‘As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ Then he goes on to heal the blind man, so that for the first time in his life, the blind man could see the light. I can’t help feeling that shedding light on these various conundrums – about family relationships, marriage, sexuality – shedding light on them must be a hopeful way to proceed.

We have a name for this process. It’s called ‘enlightenment’. I think it might be quite useful, when looking at the various opposing views, in the context of the facilitated discussions, if the facilitator were to say to each side, ‘Is your position enlightened or not?’

What is ‘enlightened’? As so often with the meaning of difficult words, it helps to look at the opposite – here, to reflect on what is not enlightened. What is not enlightened is bigoted, not open to the light. St Paul says, ‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them … Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.’ So the test is, could what you are saying is right look bigoted at all?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his followers, to his listeners, ‘You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.’ The good works are all about love. ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets,’ Jesus says in Matt.7:12 – the ‘golden rule’.

So think what it must be like if you don’t exactly fit the conventional profile: if you love somebody of the same sex. What does the golden rule say about that? We have to treat people as we ourselves would like to be treated: ‘Live as children of light.’

I pray that, as the facilitated discussions go on, we end up with a church which has room for everyone in it; and that in that church there will not be darkness, but rather there will be light. Then we will really be living ‘as children of light.’

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