Sermon - 26th March 2017
Scripture - Matthew 12:46-50
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Many of us will have seen lots of commercial promotions marking today as Mothers Day. Bouquets of flowers are on sale at almost every retail outlet and usually cost around twice as much as they did a few weeks ago. Reminders that we must not forget to mark the day in some special way are all over the place. And there is nothing wrong in having a special day on which to show our appreciation to our mothers for all the love they have shown to us over the years.
In the UK, Mothers Day is kept on the fourth Sunday in Lent. In the USA it is kept on the second Sunday of May The reason for the difference is that an annual church commemoration in Britain slowly turned into a much wider social celebration with all the associated commercial overtones. But in the USA the link with the church calendar was never there in the first place; and Mothers Day, along with Fathers Day, were always seen as purely social commemorations.
So, in the same way that the church festival of Christmas turned into a secular celebration of turkeys, puddings, pies, and trees, so the fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Mothering Sunday in the UK, turned into a secular celebration of flowers, chocolates and greetings cards.
But Mothering Sunday, in contrast to Mothers Day, has its own distinctive message; and it is a message which speaks most poignantly to anyone whose connection with their mother has for some reason become broken. It invites us to reflect on how we have been mothered by all the people who have loved us; by people who have taught us, by people who have sheltered us, and by communities which have nurtured us. And it is a church commemoration because it invites us to recognise our church as a spiritual community which also mothers us.
Mothering Sunday began as a celebration of family connections and used to involve people attending their ‘mother’ church - which would have been the cathedral for their area or some other large church. Servants were given the day off to take part in this, and it was a recognition that God’s love, expressed through the church as a mother figure, was at the heart of the love shared among families.
And that’s why it’s important to recognise that the church, on this Sunday, has more to say about mothering than perhaps it does about mothers.
In our reading today, the gospel writer reports one of Jesus’s most provocative statements. It was designed to shock and to shake his listeners into a new understanding of relationships and priorities. Superficially, it sounds like an insult. But look deeper and it invites us to find loving and life-giving relationships both within and beyond that community of our blood relations which we most easily call our family.
There is a question left hanging in the air at the end of that reading: “Is there life, is there a calling, is there a more authentic identity for us, beyond the family unit into which a random accident of birth has placed us?”
There are many lgbt people who know only too well that they have survived solely because they found the courage to discover an identity for themselves beyond the confines of their family. The rejection of lgbt people by their families is still a reality for many people. Today, in this church, I will greet people for whom that is a painful and living reality.
When Troy Perry, the founder of Metropolitan Community Churches, first defined Christian Community as one of the three prongs of the church movement he was founding, he said that his churches will be a family “for those who have no families who care about them, or who find themselves alone or friendless...”
For Troy, it was clear that God’s love for all people worked above and beyond the boundaries of traditional family life, and God’s Kingdom on earth would be well served by a church which embraced those people for whom ‘family’ meant rejection, grief, loss or even physical danger.
This congregation was born from the values that Troy Perry first defined in the late 1960s, and those values of Christian community, Christian spirituality, and Christian social action are still the hallmarks of our mission as a church. They influence every aspect of who we are and what we say.
But being true to who we really are, and standing up for our own integrity can be extremely costly, particularly when our family’s moral stance is either judgmental or ill-informed. It was a costly experience in Jesus’s own day.
In the first few decades after Jesus’s death - you risked family rejection by coming out as a follower of the teacher from Nazareth. See if this sounds familiar:
- The family was a powerful and religiously-supported institution in society. Familiar?
- Families were often split and damaged by conflict when some members came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Familiar?
- Such a belief immediately placed you in a minority and made you vulnerable to abuse. Familiar?
- You could well be judged to be crazy or demon-possessed for holding to such a belief and might be deliberately isolated from your family. Familiar?
So, quite naturally, the early Christian communities became the ‘family’ for those who were rejected or cast out by their blood relations - the community became a family of whoever does the will of God. Christians effectively became sisters and brothers to each other in the faith, as a way of acknowledging their inclusion in the Christian family.
Western society has changed a lot since Troy first unmasked and challenged the degree of rejection, fear, persecution and isolation which a lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans identity brought in its wake a few decades ago. But it is not so everywhere.
Listen to the charities and volunteer groups who deal every week with cases of bigotry, exclusion and rejection in this country and elsewhere; read about their work, and a different picture emerges. Listen to lgbt voices from other parts of the world and a hugely different picture emerges
But listen to the gospel and perhaps we have cause for hope - not least from the inclusive values of the faith which Jesus demonstrated in person when boundaries, barriers and prejudices were pushed aside for the sake of God’s love for all people.
For lgbt people, by means of slow and steady progress, the kingdom has come closer: we are called to keep bringing it closer still.
And who are we? We are a Christian community with values which are deeply biblical, and authentically Christlike, and we are called to make a reality of what inclusion really means.
This church is your church, and part of our calling is to offer mothering - as people who love each other; as people who teach each other; as people who shelter each other; and as a community which nurtures its people.
Sometimes we will be a mother to you, sometimes a father, sometimes a sister or a brother - because we seek to do the will of God. There is a sense in which every Sunday is a mothering Sunday - it’s just that once a year we are prompted to reflect on what it means to be a family “for those who have no families who care about them, or who find themselves alone or friendless”.
In fact, the model was there to see from the days when our faith was first formed by a teacher from Nazareth who spoke God’s truth to power; but, like much of what Jesus taught, it might still be too revolutionary for some people to hear.