Archives for posts with tag: Mothering Sunday

Sermon for Mothering Sunday, 15th March 2015
Exodus 2:1-10 – the Baby in the Bulrushes

Today is Mothering Sunday, as well as being the fourth Sunday in Lent, which incidentally is sometimes known as Rose Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. Depending on how fierce the regime is that you follow during Lent, you may be very pleased to have Refreshment Sunday, because that is the Sunday when you are allowed to relax a bit and go back to some of the things which you’ve given up, like chocolate and Chateau Yquem or a nice Burgundy to go with your Sunday lunch. On Rose Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, you are allowed to have those things.

Alternatively of course, you can follow the theory which says that Sundays are not part of Lent at all, and that therefore you can stoke up on your goodies every Sunday without breaking any rules. I leave it to you and your conscience, because today I want to concentrate on this Sunday’s motherly aspect, to look through the prism of the beautiful story of the birth of Moses, and the way in which he was saved by being left in an ‘ark’ made out of bulrushes, in the flags of the river, in the reeds at the river’s edge, where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who then gave him back to his real mother to bring him up as a nurse. [Exodus 2:1-10]

At this time in Lent we are reading in the Bible how our understanding of God and our encounters with God developed through the covenant with Abraham and God’s dealings with His chosen people, Israel, the Jews: how they were given the Ten Commandments through the prophet Moses, and then how Moses the high priest, of the order of Melchizedek, was succeeded by Jesus, the real, the true high priest, our mediator and redeemer, as we say in our prayers.

We are reflecting on this central part of our faith, that God made Himself known to us directly by being here with us in human form. Coming in human form, through being born of a human mother.

But today I’m not actually going to spend time considering the vital part which the Blessed Virgin Mary played in the Incarnation of our Lord. Instead I am going to look at Moses himself, the great forerunner, the law-giver. You will remember how the Israelites were in Egypt because Jacob’s sons had sold their brother Joseph into slavery. But Joseph had turned himself into being the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, chief of staff, administrator over the country. The brothers had come to Egypt to buy grain at a time of famine, Joseph having prudently stored up supplies of grain in Egypt, and Joseph had brought his brothers and the people of Israel back into the land of plenty, where they settled, as aliens in a foreign land.

They did well: they went forth and multiplied. They were very successful; they worked hard – perhaps did jobs which the indigenous Egyptians didn’t want to do, and generally became quite visible, visibly successful – people noticed the Hebrews. The Pharaoh, the ruler, didn’t like the way that the Hebrews were, in his terms, getting above themselves. So he tried to wipe them out, by stopping them breeding.

First of all he told his midwives, when they were attending a Jewish woman, not to let male children be born alive: but the midwives didn’t carry out his instructions. Their excuse was that the Hebrew women gave birth too fast, so that by the time they had been summoned as midwives, the birth had already taken place, and it was too late to do away with any male children.

So Pharaoh thought again and came up with the idea that any male children that were born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the river and drowned. Genocide, unfortunately, is something that the Jews haven’t only had to contend with in the last hundred years.

Moses’ mother was from the tribe of Levi; Moses’ parents were from the tribe of Levi, the special tribe of priests, who were allotted a share of any produce simply by virtue of being Levites, priests [Deut.18]. But before all else, she was a Hebrew, in circumstances where Hebrews were aliens in the land, immigrants, and they were subject to persecution.

Pharaoh had been working them harder and harder, trying to grind them down. And now he was trying to wipe them out, by killing their first-born sons. It’s a heart-rending picture. Imagine. Somehow or other, the mother felt that the only way that her baby could survive was for her to abandon him in a little coracle in the hope that somebody would find him and save him. It was a long shot just on the chance he would survive at all. What would the odds have been against that somebody, who found him, being the ruler’s daughter?

It must have been a terrifying moment for Moses’ Mum. There she is, hiding nearby to see if somebody will come and save little Moses, and then the very person who turns up is from the family of the man who has decreed that little Moses and all the other Hebrew boys are to be killed, not saved.

But nevertheless Pharaoh’s daughter had a motherly instinct. She couldn’t hurt little Moses. She looked for somebody to look after him – and along came his real Mum. Pharaoh’s daughter knew perfectly well that Moses was an illegal – not exactly an immigrant, but certainly an alien. He was one of the Hebrew children. She said as much. Nevertheless she saved him, and Moses’ real Mum brought him up, so he was able to thrive.

It’s a lovely story. Just imagine, what would be a parallel today? Let’s imagine, perhaps, the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton, as was) and some of her girl-friends having a few days by the sea in Sicily, staying in one of those beautiful Relais et Chateaux palazzi, with nannies and ladies-in-waiting, all sitting on the beach under an umbrella, enjoying a glass of Prosecco and chatting, setting the world to rights – and then, all of a sudden, on the horizon, they see one of the refugee ships.

The crew has abandoned it. It is on auto-pilot: the engine is still turning the screw, and it is heading straight for the sea shore. But – wait a minute! It looks as though the ship is going to go past the promontory where the ladies are, and it looks as though it’s taking on water. Suddenly someone on board launches a little life raft, and in the life raft is a baby. Clinging to the life raft, but not in it, is a girl, a teenager, just about hanging on. They get washed up on the beach, just down from where the duchess and her friends are sitting.

Kate Middleton says, ‘Look: there’s a baby. It’s one of those refugee babies – we must save him, and we must make sure that he gets a good start in life. Let’s bring him ashore, wrap him up; give him some food. Oh, he’s only a teeny baby. Can someone nurse him? I wonder if that African girl, the one who was clinging to the life raft, could nurse him. Look, she’s still lying on the beach just a little way down. Poor thing, she looks half dead. Let’s give her something to eat and put everything together.’

Can you imagine that? Or are you persuaded by politicians who tell us that to have enough coast guard rescue ships and helicopters in the area to save everyone who is a refugee and in peril, would act as what they call a ‘pull factor’? Their idea is that if you believe that somebody will rescue you if you get into trouble, it will encourage you to embark on a lethal refugee ship, barely able to stay afloat. Frankly that is evil nonsense. Those people are so desperate that they will take those sort of risks irrespective whether there’s anyone to rescue them.

What do you think about those people – those refugees, those immigrants, those illegal immigrants? Some people say, ‘They take our jobs’ – like the Jews were supposed to be taking the jobs of the Egyptians. Next time someone says how dreadful immigrants are, and how we ought to stop people daring to try to come away from the poverty and violence in their country to get into the UK, think of the Law of Moses. God spoke through Moses: He gave Moses the Law, the Jewish Law: and Jesus affirmed it. The Law tells you to care for the alien in your midst. In the Law of Moses, when you harvest a field or pick the grapes, you are supposed to leave something for the alien and the stranger to have, so that they don’t starve. See Deuteronomy chapter 24, or Leviticus chapter 19.

Somebody else might say, ‘We were born in England, or to English parents. We deserve our comforts. We’ve earned them’. They might say. ‘We’ve paid our taxes. We don’t want our hard-earned benefits squandered on people who haven’t earned them. It’s our birthright’.

But just think what it must be like if you’ve been born in Syria, or in Iraq, or in Somalia, or Libya, instead of in England! What is your birthright then? Surely the most important difference between us and them is where you were born, which is a matter of sheer luck. But God loves us all, wherever we were born. So the commandment means, love your neighbour, wherever they come from.

3,000 years later, are we as good as Pharaoh’s daughter was? It is something for us to reflect on, as we enjoy our roast beef – with or without Chateau Yquem with the pudding.

Advertisements

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.’

Sermon for Mattins at The Chapel of Ease, Westhumble, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 10th March 2013

2 Corinthians 5:19 – ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…’

Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, sometimes known as Rose Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. More recently it has become Mothering Sunday. The good news is that Refreshment Sunday is a break in the austerity of Lent; a nice time to make a fuss of one’s mother, and to see the children giving Mum a nice day, perhaps a lie in with some tea in bed, or some nice flowers, just something to show that we treasure our mothers.

Unfortunately, however, if we think of motherhood as central to the family, family relations are not in very good shape in the world today. There are too many people whose marriage has broken down, perhaps because a partner has left with somebody else.

There are too many cases of child abuse. We are wrestling, in the church at large, with many problems of human sexuality. Our friends in the Catholic Church are reeling from scandals, most recently involving Cardinal O’Brien. It does seem inappropriate just blithely to celebrate motherhood and the family without engaging with some of the challenges which family life has to face today.

There is something very shocking about cases like Jimmy Saville and Cardinal O’Brien. It is very shocking if public figures, people who set themselves up as examples, or who preach morality, turn out not to be worthy of their fame or respect. Jimmy Saville is supposed to have perpetrated over 200 sex crimes, and although we don’t know what Cardinal O’Brien is supposed to have done in any detail, he admits that he did not do what he preached.

Last week we had the story in St John’s gospel of the woman ‘taken in adultery’. If you just think of the basic scenario: somehow she had been caught in bed with someone who was not her husband; and if you stop at that point, that is a serious matter. If we lament the fact that so many marriages fail, and that so many children and families suffer unhappiness, pain and poverty as a result, we have to pause and say that the woman – and of course the man with her – were doing what causes all that. They were not doing what they should have been doing.

Although it may be rather unfashionable to talk in these terms, it seems to me that all these things – abuse of children, adultery, being a sexual predator, abusing a position of authority, are all species of sin. What makes these things sinful, as opposed to being just bad or criminal or immoral, is that they drive a wedge between us and God. The word for ‘sin’ in Greek is ´αμαρτια, which means literally, ‘missing the mark’. You will remember the famous passage in St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7, where Paul expresses his frustration and anger at his sinful nature.

He says, ‘For I know that nothing good lodges in me – in my unspiritual nature, I mean – for though the will to do good is there, the deed is not. The good which I want to do, I fail to do. But what I do is the wrong, which is against my will. And if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no longer I who am the agent, but sin which has its lodging in me.’ [Romans 7:18-20, NEB]

To a greater or lesser extent we do sinful things because of human frailty. We do sinful things, even despite knowing what the right thing to do is. When you see all the evil that is around us, it is very daunting. What does it mean? Are we submerging under a tide of immorality and godlessness?

Let’s read again what St Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians. ‘God …. hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…’ [v. 18-19]

‘Not imputing their trespasses unto them.’ No longer blaming them. Contrast with that the story of the Old Testament, say in Jeremiah, for example. The prophets of the Old Testament had to battle with constant tension between God and his chosen people.

Jeremiah says, ‘Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul lothed Zion? why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us? we looked for peace, and there is no good; and for the time of healing, and behold trouble! We acknowledge, O Lord, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers: for we have sinned against thee.’ [Jeremiah 14:19-20]

That’s a very different message from the one that we find in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. St Paul is all about reconciliation. The interesting thing is that the word in Greek that is translated as ‘reconciliation’ (καταλλαγη) originally meant ‘exchange’, almost ‘a trade’, substituting one thing for another. It is also the word used to translate ‘atonement’, as in the Jewish festival of Atonement.

We say that Jesus’ sacrifice, his death, ‘atoned’, made ‘atonement’ for, our sin, made up for it, paid the price for it, in some way. He ‘redeemed’ us, he paid a ransom for us. I have always found it tough to think in terms of a blood sacrifice, that Jesus’ death on the cross was in some way a blood sacrifice. This passage in 2 Corinthians shows us another way of understanding the idea of atonement. Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ death, reconciles us with God.

Richard Hooker, the great Reformation theologian, said, about this passage, ‘Let it be counted folly or frenzy or whatsoever, it is our wisdom and our comfort. We care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man has sinned and God has suffered; that God has made himself the sin of men and that men are made the righteousness of God.’ Richard Hooker, A Discourse of Justification, http://tinyurl.com/dxfvxzq

It’s a sort of a swap, an exchange: reconciliation. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible called ‘The Message’, which is perhaps a commentary and a translation rolled into one, expresses this passage in 2 Corinthians as follows. ‘All this comes from God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.’

This is the clue to the Christian revolution, that God is not vengeful, he is loving. God knows that we are imperfect, and that we do bad things. The woman taken in adultery didn’t intend to hurt anybody, but was just prey to an animal passion. Even St Paul, doing the things that he hated, was still subject to the influence of sin.

We should remember this when we are confronted by people who have done truly dreadful things – the killers of little Jamie Bulger came into the news again this week, for example; and of course we can think again of Jimmy Saville and others who seem to have allowed their baser instincts to get the better of them.

Jesus said to the woman, ‘Has no-one condemned you? She answered, ‘No-one, sir.’ Jesus said, ‘Nor do I condemn you’. Jesus’ message is, to put it another way, we should hate the sin, but have compassion for the sinner. This is a message of forgiveness, of redemption, the very opposite of hopelessness and bleakness. It is a happy message. It is a message for Refreshment Sunday: Mothering Sunday. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a rosy glow. Rose Sunday looks forward to the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness – as Homer put it, ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ – on Easter morning.