Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mothering Sunday

John 19. 25b-27: Mary at the Foot of the Cross

I'm delighted to tell you that we are joined this morning by Clare's parents - John and Jan...which means that I have the pleasure of having my Mother--in-Law with me on Mothering Sunday. The only problem is...I can't now tell you any of my mother-in-law jokes!

So instead, to get us started on the theme of Mothering Sunday, here is a letter from a Mother to a Child....

Dear Child,

The bathroom door is closed! Please do not stand here and talk, whine, or ask questions. Wait until I get out. Yes, it is locked. I want it that way. It is not broken, and I am not trapped. I know I have left it unlocked, and even open at times, since you were born, because I was afraid that some horrible tragedy might occur while I was in here, and you would want some comfort from me. But it's been ten years and I want some privacy.

Do not ask me how long I will be. I will come out when I am done. Do not bring the phone to the bathroom door. Do not go running back to the phone yelling "She's on the toilet!".

Do not stick your fingers under the door and wiggle them. That was funny when you were two, but not now. Do not slide pennies under the door, or notes, or LEGO pieces.

If you have followed me down the hall talking, and are still talking as you face this closed door, please turn around, walk away, and wait for me in another room. I will be glad to listen to you when I am done.

And yes, I still love you.

(From 'A Barrel of Fun' by J.John and Mark Stibbe. ISBN: 1-85424-621-6)

There's an old Jewish proverb that goes, "God could not be everywhere at once, and therefore he made mothers". It's meant to be taken ironically, of course. God, as we well know, is everywhere - at all times and in all places - deeply and fundamentally present by the Holy Spirit. In fact if we change the old Jewish proverb just a little bit, I think we might get an even better picture of the importance of motherhood. Let's say "God is everywhere at once, and yet he still decided to make mothers".

The idea of motherhood was so important to God, that Jesus was given an earthly mother. God could easily have appeared among us in an instant. He could have arrived on earth, as Jesus, by just willing himself into a human body - fully grown and ready to embark on his ministry. But that was not the path that he chose.

Instead, God chose that Jesus should raised by a mother...that he should experience 30 or so years of the closeness of family life, under the leadership of Mary. Joseph, of course, was involved too - but it is interesting to note that the focus of the gospel stories about Jesus' parents tend to be on Mary, rather more than Joseph. It is Mary who is chosen to bring Jesus into the world. It is Mary who first accepts the Angel's news. It is Mary who goes through the pain of childbirth. Ultimately, for reasons we don't know, Joseph drops out of the Gospel stories altogether - until it is only Mary who stands at the foot of the cross, in front of her dying son.

The Orthodox church has a term for Mary - they call her "Theotokos" which directly translates as the 'God-bearer', or the one who gives birth to God. It is a rather more precise understanding of Mary's role than the term 'Mother of God' which is often used in English. 'Mother of God' can seem to imply that Mary was the source from which Jesus came, eternally. Whereas Scripture, and the church's tradition, quite clearly tells us that Jesus has always existed, from eternity. Check out the first chapter of John if you want to be sure: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". That passage goes on to explicitly state that the Word, Jesus, then came and dwelt among us.

The word 'Theotokos' - God-bearer - then, makes clear that Mary bore Jesus into the world. She was the channel through which he came - and she was the one entrusted with the task of bearing him, and bearing with him, throughout his childhood, and then his earthly ministry. She was entrusted with his care, and with teaching him what it meant to be human. The church believes that Jesus was, in a weird theological twist, both fully human, and fully divine. Being fully human, Jesus needed the love, care and teaching of an earthly mother.

It is for that reason that the church venerates Mary as perhaps the most important human being who has ever lived. She had more physical connection with God than anyone has had - by bearing Jesus within her. She obediently and willingly carried out the task that was given to her of bringing Jesus into the world, and bringing him up to fulfill his mission.

Isn't it interesting that this most important human being of all...was a woman? The world is so often dominated by men, and by male perspectives. Just think for a moment about the worlds of politics, academia, journalism, finance and banking...all of them are still dominated by men. Gradually, decade by decade, we are seeing women beginning to gain a foothold...but it is a slow and difficult process.

It is still the case that the majority of Christian churches are dominated by men. The Orthodox church, the Catholic Church, the Coptic Church, and many of the Bible-belt churches of the USA...all of them still reserve the role of priest or minister, or pastor, exclusively for men. It is only in the reformed churches that women are gradually being recognised for the contribution that they bring to the role of priest. And I want to say publicly that I truly value the contribution of my female colleagues in this team.

However, what I don't want to do is fall into the trap of saying that it is only women who can do certain things, or only men who do others. It is too easy to say, as the classic book-title does, that 'Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus'. Too often we hear the tired old rhetoric that men are the warmongers, and women are the peace-makers.

The bible teaches us that we are all made in the image of God - male and female. That means, I think, that all of us - potentially - have those God-given attributes of creativity, and nurturing, and caring for one another, and loving each other. Motherhood is not necessarily something that is only done by women...some of the best mothers I know, are actually men! Consider those men who are perhaps widowed, or left by their wives to bring up their children. What about those men who stay in England bringing up children while their wives are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan?

There is another phenomenon that is making us rethink those old gender stereotypes, as well...namely the phenomenon of homosexuality. Gay people are teaching us that all men do not have to be warriors... and that it is perfectly possible to be artists, and homemakers too. That is not because gay men can't also be warriors...many of them patently are, despite what our armed forces would like the enemies of the UK to believe! But perhaps homosexual people, who tend not to slip so easily into the stereotypes that society has constructed for us...perhaps they are helping us to ask questions of what it truly means to be human...made in the image of God...male and female. (See Genesis 1:27 for a biblical reference to this idea: "So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them".)

Perhaps the story of Adam and Eve teaches us that to be truly human - truly made in the image of God - is to embrace all of the characteristics of maleness and femaleness. Perhaps becoming more like God, in whose image we are made, means traditional men becoming more traditionally female, and traditional females becoming more traditionally male.

What am I trying to say to you? Let me try to break it down into some examples. There are at least two men in this congregation who spend a great deal of their lives caring for an older relative. They are not out working in a bank, or shooting people...they are acting as nurturing carers. They act, in fact, like mothers to their elderly relatives in all but name. On the other hand, there are women within this congregation who work as administrators and managers within their chosen professions - jobs that until only a few years ago would have been exclusively assigned to men. Two out of the four priests in this parish are women, not men. At least three men in this congregation regularly spend time in the Community Cafe, offering a listening ear, comfort and care for lonely people who come into the Cafe. They nurture...they care. They take on the role of 'mothering'.

Some people might panic at this apparent breaking down of the traditional gender roles that society has assigned to men and women. But not me. Even some churches play to the gallery of male and female stereo-typing...declaring that they will help men to become 'true men in the Lord', and women to become 'true women'. Regretfully, that kind of teaching programme too often results in re-enforcing old stereotypes. Men go out to work, and have fun with their mates (on the pretext of evangelising of course!). Women still end up at home with the kids.

I believe in a Lord who welcomed women into his circle of disciples...a circle that for any other Rabbi of his time would have been exclusively reserved for men. I worship a Lord who chose to reveal himself, after his resurrection, first and foremost to a woman. I worship a Lord who used words like 'Love one another' and 'forgive one another' - traditionally female words, nurturing words. I worship a Lord who, perhaps because of the influence of the Mother whom God had appointed for him, was completely in touch with the feminine side of his nature, as much as the masculine.

He held those two sides in balance. He refused the temptation of the Devil - during the 40 days and 40 nights - the temptation to use the traditionally male-notion of power to dominate the world. Instead, he embraced the more traditionally feminine notions of service - washing his disciples feet, and giving up his life for others.

So, on this Mother's day - it is right that we should celebrate all the women who give up their lives to serve their children, or to 'mother' those in need around them. It is right for us to acknowledge their contribution to our own lives and well-being. It is right for us to acknowledge that, by and large, mothers are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great 'vacationless' class. (A quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, taken from 'A Bucket of Surprises' by J.John and Mark Stibbe. ISBN: 1-85424-588-0)

But let us also embrace the mother that is within us all - drawing from the example of Jesus and his Mother Mary. Jesus teaches us that having children is only one way of being a mother. As we embrace the idea that we are made in the image of God...who is father and mother to us all...we know that mothering is something that we all have the capacity to do...whether we have our own children or not.

May you discover the mother within you - as you rise to the challenge of knowing yourself to be made in the image of God. May you follow the example of Mary, the God-bearer, and of Jesus her Son - as you offer love, care and nurture to those around you. And may you come to know God not just as Father, but as Mother...the mother whose love for you will never end, throughout eternity.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Take Up Your Cross

Mark 8: 31-end.
The opening paragraphs of this sermon should be read with a phoney, fake, American accent!

Hey there y'all! Welcome to the newest church in Portsmouth! I have great pleasure in announcing that from today, we are to be known as the "Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, Almighty Saviour Jesus, Healing and Prosperity Church...Portsmouth Branch". Why is this? Well let me tell you, brothers and sisters. Last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me from the heavens. He said to me...

"Pastor", he said, "Pastor - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. You are going to see miracles. You are going to experience amazing healings. (Praise the Lord!) Tongues of fire are going to dance on the head of your congregation. (Praise the Lord!). And every single one of them is going to become wealthy! (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful healings, that the whole of Portsmouth will flock to your doors! You are going to be light in the economic gloom. You are going to show people that all they have to do is turn to Jesus, and he will take care of all their needs."

Well, I have to tell you, I was amazed. So I looked up to heaven, and I asked God "What do we have to do to receive such blessings?" And the Lord God Almighty answered me. I heard him speak to me as clear as he has ever spoken to me. He said,

"It's very simple. All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses, and the ownership of their cars to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with manna from heaven. Then they will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)

So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasury Team are standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!

( can stop reading in a phoney American accent now...)

It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world. Those kinds of churches feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people, people who haven't been properly taught, really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...and magically taking all their problems away.

This is such a fundamental distortion of the Gospel, that it beggars belief. But some preachers can make people believe anything. Many of such preachers have never been to a college, never had any kind of decent theological training. In particular, none of them have, it seems, ever been confronted with the text that we have before us today..."If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me".

And according to the text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. This text comes at a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. Up until this chapter, which comes right in the middle of the gospel, Jesus' disciples have seen him doing all sorts of amazing things. He drives out evil spirits, heals multitudes of people, he calms the storm, and even raises Jairus' daughter from the dead. The disciples have seen Jesus feed the five thousand and the four thousand (plus all their women and children). They've even watched him walk on the water. But now, in this passage, the whole story of Jesus' life and ministry pivots, towards Jerusalem, and to the incomprehensible scandal of the Cross.

After all they have witnessed Jesus do, suddenly, in verse 31: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed".(Mk 8:31). You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He is Jesus' best mate. He's watched all this amazing stuff going on around and through Jesus. He probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts. Perhaps all this power has gone to Jesus head (thinks Peter). Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard! So he rebukes Jesus. Matthew's gospel gives us the words that Mark doesn't record: "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)

But Jesus is adamant. So adamant that he tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff. And then Jesus goes on, in verse 33: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God see things from God's perspective".

Anyone confronted with the idea of suffering might well react as Peter reacts. After all, God can heal, can't he? We've seen healing in action, through Jesus, time and time again. Jesus' many miracles are proof positive that God does not delight in suffering. And yet, somehow, for reasons we might only be able to guess at, suffering enters into God's equation for humanity. A balanced Christian world-view, a theologically literate understanding of God has to weigh the difficult topic of suffering in the balance. It's there. It was there for Jesus, who suffered on the cross.

It was there for the many whom Jesus encountered whom he did not heal. Think, for example, of the story of the pool at Bethesda (see John 5:1-15). Jesus healed the man who could not get down into the water...but what about all the others who were lying around the pool? It's an uncomfortable fact - but one which grown-up Christians have to learn to deal with. Suffering, somehow, is part of the plan. Some Christians, fixated on the Jesus of the Miracles, have missed out on the suffering Jesus of the Cross.

But that is precisely whom we are confronted with in this text. Jesus had to was part of the divine plan...and something we will think more about as we approach Good Friday. But Jesus says that we are called upon to suffer too..."anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, and take up his cross".(Mark 8:34

Let's notice that there are, in fact, two elements to Jesus stark statement: we are called first to 'deny self', and secondly, to 'take up our cross'. Let's look as those in turn.

First - what does it mean to 'deny self'?

I find it most helpful to think of denying self as actualy being about putting others first. It's a way of living that always looks out for other people. It's a way of living which never asks "what's in it for me?" but rather "what's in it for my neighbours, and for the Kingdom of God?". If Jesus had asked himself 'what's in it for me?' before embarking on his ministry, he would never have got beyond his baptism. We too are called to live that live generously.

Why? Why are we encouraged to live so radically, so differently from the way that other people live? Well, we only have to look at the current state of the stock market, and of collapsing banks, and the promise of food wars to see the result of living by the maxim 'what's in it for me?'. To deny self, is to see ourselves as completely bound up with other human beings. It's to understand that every time I keep something for myself, or pursue my own self interest, I always do that at the expense of another human being... another brother or sister.

The current mess in the world's economy tells us that even after 2,000 years, we have not yet learned that most basic of Christian teaching. To deny self is not a negative act...its not so much about denial as it is about giving. To deny oneself is, in fact, to give oneself - unstintingly, unselfishly, to others. It's the way of life - the way to truly experience life...that Jesus calls us to.

Lastly, let's think about the crosses that we - like Jesus - are also called to take up. (Apart from bearing the cross of listening to one of my longer sermons that is!).

Last week, I spent time with a member of this parish who has become very frail. I won't tell you who - though many of you will know them. This person is someone who has spent all of their life serving others through the church. They have been at table top sales, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. They have given unstintingly of their time - they have truly denied self in order to bring the Kingdom into this area. And yet, they now find themselves frail, often housebound, and unable to serve others as they would like to do. Even more distressing is that they now rely on others to do the little personal things that they used to be able to do for themselves.

This person said something very profound to me, as I was taking communion to them. They said "perhaps God is teaching me that despite all the things I have done for others, there was still a bit of pride in me. Perhaps this illness, this long-slow decline, is God's way of teaching me that I am part of a community of people...and that I need to let them serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people...and that we must set aside all pride in ourselves."

I was intensely moved by what that person said to me. I think that after a life-time of Christian faith, and even on days when they can't get up off the floor after falling down, God is still teaching them something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God.

Jesus own suffering clearly had purpose. What that purpose was we can only begin to glimpse despite all the words that have been written about it in the Bible and elsewhere.

Interestingly, the Gospels themselves don't provide a definitive answer to why Jesus had to suffer. The task of interpretation is one that was left to later writers, like St Paul - and other great thinkers of the Church. All that Mark says on the subject, in today's reading, is that Jesus taught his disciples "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (Mark 8:31). The task of working out why is something that Jesus leaves to his Church. We continue to grapple with it...just as we grapple with the reasons for our own suffering, or the suffering of martyrs across the centuries, and even now in other lands. We will grapple with it some more when we come to Good Friday.

We continue to grapple - but we also continue to trust...that denying self, and taking up our own cross - participating in our own suffering and the suffering of the world is an essential, central message that is right at the heart of the Gospel.

May you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you. May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter.