Sermon for Mothering Sunday: Exodus 2.1-10, John 19.25-27

When I was a little girl, I remember being asked at school to draw my family tree. I sat and thought for a moment, then put up my hand and said “I think I need a bigger piece of paper!”

Families are complicated. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Not many of us measure up to the picture-book ideal of Mummy, Daddy, 2.4 children and a dog. Or the perfect family on a Mother’s Day card. And is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so. Better to be ourselves, our own imperfect families, in all our glorious mess, than to try to squeeze ourselves into a mould that doesn’t fit.

Yesterday with the introduction of equal marriage for same sex couples we moved a bit closer to acknowledging that God makes families in all sorts of ways. And we can never judge from the outside. What looks like the perfect family might be concealing all sorts of pain. What looks like a chaotic, broken family might be full of love and strength.

So families are not neat, not always easy. And the families in today’s bible stories certainly aren’t what we’d expect from a “conventional” family. Moses, abandoned by the river and brought up by his own mother as if she was a hired nursemaid. Jesus, as his own life ends, giving the people he most loves to each other, creating a new family.

A definition of family which I love, though I’ve long since forgotten where I came across it, is this: “family is the people God gives us to look after.” That’s what we see in today’s gospel. Jesus, in his final moments on the cross, gives these two people he loves, his mother and his dearest friend, to each other, to look after each other, console each other and nurture each other when he is no longer there to take care of them.

God gives us people to nurture too. Not always the people we were expecting. Not always in the ways we were expecting. But all of us need looking after, and all of us are called to take part in that looking after too.

Let’s look at some of the things we need in order to be nurtured, looked after.

First, food and drink. [volunteers to hold plate and cup] We need to eat and drink. Too many people in our town find they need help from organisations like the One Can Trust to be able to meet this basic need. When we drop off a tin or packet in the collection bin at the back of church, we are reaching out to those people, looking after them, saying “you’re part of our family, and we care.”

We pray in the Lord’s prayer “give us today our daily bread”, but we’re really asking for much more than just bread. We’re asking God to give us everything we need to live life in all its fullness. And he does. When he meets us in the bread and wine of communion, he feeds us in ways beyond what we could imagine.

Now, what else do we need to be nurtured? I know, a home. [volunteers to make roof shape with arms] Too many people in our town don’t have a safe place to live. When we volunteer for or donate to Wycombe Homeless Connection, when we sign petitions to demand better, fairer social housing, we say to those people “you matter, we care, you’re part of the human family.”

And God gives us a home too. Not a physical building to live in, but a home with him in his kingdom. And he promises that one day we will live with him forever, truly at home.

And there’s something else we need in order to feel cared for, something harder to see. [volunteers to hold up heart] It’s love. We all need to know that we’re loved. And to make that happen, we all need to show each other that we are loved. God’s love is so huge that we can’t properly understand it, although we can and do experience it. God’s love is for everyone, but how will people know that unless we show them? We need to nurture and care for and love the people God gives us.

And who does God give us to look after? Who is in our family? I’m not just talking about the people we’re related to, our mums and dads and brothers and sisters. Who are the people in our lives God wants us to nurture, look after, help to grow? Friends, acquaintances, strangers… How far does our family extend?

As far as you can imagine. Further. Because we are all part of God’s family. Brothers and sisters of Jesus. Children of a God who loves us and nurtures us and mothers us beyond what we could hope for. And so everyone is part of our family, because each person is a child of God, just like us.

Remember my 8 year old self with the piece of paper too small for my rather complicated family tree? Imagine trying to fit this family onto a piece of paper, God’s family, our family. You couldn’t do it. Because we are part of a family too huge and complicated and beautiful to fit onto any piece of paper. But every name is written on God’s heart.

God loves and nurtures us in so many ways. And we are called to be the human face of that love to each other, as we nurture and care for each other. It’s not easy. It’s complicated. Sometimes it hurts. But we keep loving and caring because we are fed and nurtured and mothered by the deep well of love that is God.

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Rainbow Sunday

Today (16th March 2014) is Rainbow Sunday, an initiative started by Inclusive Church to celebrate and affirm LGBT people in our churches. At the church where I am children’s minister, we marked Rainbow Sunday in Ark, our children’s group, with discussion, stories, prayer, and the creation of a beautiful rainbow altar frontal. Then we took our altar frontal into church, put it on the altar, and I had about a minute to talk to the congregation about what we had been doing and why.

All Saints has sometimes tended to keep our message of inclusion “under the radar”, as a colleague put it this morning, occasionally mentioning sexuality as an afterthought in a list of groups we are not excluding, but “not making a big thing of it”. Our congregation is in every sense a broad church, and I am aware that there is a very wide range of views on this subject. Today felt a bit like sticking my head above the parapet!

This is (roughly) what I said:

“Today is Rainbow Sunday, the day in the church calendar set aside for affirming and celebrating LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans*) people in the church. The rainbow, as we know from the story of Noah, is a sign of hope. It has long been used as a symbol by the gay community to represent the hope of equality, a brighter future, and the right to be and to celebrate who God made each person to be.

The church does not have a good track record when it comes to how we have treated gay people.  Too often our brothers and sisters have been hurt and rejected simply because of who they, these precious children of God, are.  Still, when equal marriage becomes a reality at the end of this month, same sex couples won’t be able to get married in this church, to experience that joyful celebration and blessing of their love as part of the body of Christ. Still our church leaders are too slow and too hesitant to speak out against the support shown by some of their African counterparts for violently homophobic laws.

Still, in so many ways, the church fails to be the face of God’s justice and love. And I believe God weeps for that.

At Ark this morning we’ve been looking at the last two verses of today’s gospel reading, which N will read for us [John 3.16-17]. Everyone who believes inherits eternal life. Jesus came not as judge but as saviour. How can we hear those words and not be moved to do our bit to right the wrongs done to our LGBT brothers and sisters?

And so today we are making this small start. We are saying that discrimination is never the will of God, and that in this church we will not accept it. We are saying that there is nothing about anyone that is not fearfully and wonderfully made by God. And we are celebrating in all the colours of the rainbow the fabulously diverse group of people God calls us to be.”

 Then the vicar led us in this prayer, which I wrote for the occasion:

“Loving God,

We thank you that each of us is made in your likeness

And that every aspect of ourselves is a gift from you.

Help us to celebrate and treasure each other

As your precious children.

We thank you for the rich diversity of sexuality and gender

And pray that we may come to value one another

And support each other

As we grow more and more into the people you made us to be.

We thank you for the example of creativity and love

Shown by our children today

And ask that we may all face you and each other

With the openness and honesty of a child.

May your church become ever more like Jesus,

Filled with the generous love of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.”

Here’s a picture of the altar frontal:

Image

And finally, a quote from one of the children who helped make it: “it’s to show everyone who comes into our church that God loves them just how they are”.

 

Marks of Mission: what are our priorities?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been to a number of excellent, thought provoking events, organised by WATCH, Christians on the Left, and Changing Attitude. These are organisations that espouse some of the values I most care about. They are each doing valuable, vital work and I have left each event full of excitement about the next steps for these groups, and how I might get involved. And then I’ve come down to earth with a bump. How do I possibly think I have time to do any of this “extra” stuff? I’ve got a busy parish ministry (to put it mildly). I’m a school governor, a charity trustee. I’ve got more than enough to get on with. So why do I feel the need to get involved with these “distractions”? I haven’t been able to work it out.

And then last night I suddenly did. At our first Lent talk Bishop Paul Bayes was talking, amongst many other things, about the five marks of mission. Sure, I know what they are. But how long since I really thought about them, and how they apply to me and my ministry?

For those not familiar with them, the five marks of mission, as adopted by the Anglican communion, are:

  • To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain the life of the earth

Now, the first three are the easy bit. Not easy to do! But easy to aim for, certainly for anyone in full time Christian ministry. Those things are the bread-and-butter of what I do day to day. For each of them, I could point to at least one example in the last 24hrs of something I’ve done to that end. And don’t get me wrong – these things matter, really matter. They’re what our churches are built around, if they’re any good. They’re an important part of what marks us out as Christians. And though easy to identify, they’re anything but easy to live out.

And the last on the list is something we could all do more about. I know I could. But that’s a post for another day!

It’s that fourth one that brought me up short: “to seek to transform unjust structures of society”. There it is: a key part of the mission of the church. Yet for many of us in parish ministry our efforts in this direction are seen (not least by ourselves) as something separate from our “proper” ministry – a side-line at best, a distraction at worst.

And I feel it’s the same with public perception of the Church as a whole. Churches feeding people? Great! Churches asking what can and should be done so that people don’t go hungry in the first place? Expect a reaction somewhere between bemusement and hostility.

It happens within the church too. Most liberal Anglicans I know are clear about the imperative to offer pastoral care to LGBT people in the church. But speaking out about the systemic injustice which these brothers and sisters experience, the discrimination and oppression at the hands of the Church? Careful, now…. Don’t want to rock the boat…..

Except rocking boats is what Jesus does. Turning over tables. Telling people in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, that the way they’re doing things, the way they’ve always done things, is not the way of God’s Kingdom. And obviously I wouldn’t for a minute claim the same sort of authority that Jesus has, but I do think we have a responsibility to challenge injustice when we see it, however much we might be flying in the face of the received wisdom of the world or the church.

I think there is a danger that we focus on social action at the expense of social justice, pastoral care at the expense of engaging with the big theological issues. I know I’ve been guilty of that myself. And I think we too easily forget that we’re called to do more than pick up the pieces. We’re called to be the means by which God transforms the world.

We need to listen to prophetic voices, whether from individuals or organisations, inside or outside the church. We need to seek to discern God’s will on the big issues of our time, and look for the ways we can bring that about. And we need to get involved with the mess and challenge of changing the world. It’s not a distraction or an optional extra – it’s part of God’s mission for the Church.

“What are you doing for Lent?”

I get asked this a lot: “what are you giving up for Lent?” “what are you taking on?” It’s a hot topic of conversationsover post-service coffee in churches the world over at this time of year, I imagine.

This year, I really haven’t known what to say. There’s nothing jumping out at me as the thing to do/not do. Last year I gave up using my snooze button, which was great for that season, but these days I tend to wake before the alarm anyway. I loved doing #adventbookclub, but my New Year’s Resolution to read a proper book every month is going so well (far exceeding target so far) that taking on more reading doesn’t seem particularly relevant. I try to avoid anything which might tip over into more “self-improvement” than “drawing close to God”. So although it would be good to get more exercise, eat less pizza, and get on top of my filing, I’m not making any of those my Lenten discipline.

Which got me thinking about why we do things for Lent in the first place. If something is just for show, or so we have a good answer to “what are you doing for Lent?”, or because we feel like we ought to be doing something, is that really what Lent should be about? I don’t think so.

So while there are things I’ll be doing this Lent to help keep my focus on God and my spirit in the wilderness, I’m not giving something up, and I’m not taking something up. Instead, this is what I’ll be trying to do:

  • Evening Prayer: as a church, we’re taking up daily evening prayer during Lent. I’ll be there as often as I can.
  • Eating simply: not giving up a specific food, but choosing the simpler option. Digestives instead of jaffa cakes, water instead of wine, beans instead of meat.
  • Slowing down: I walk most places, and usually at quite a lick, with one eye on my watch. I’m going to make an effort to set off earlier and walk more slowly. Maybe I’ll have more random conversations around the parish. Maybe I’ll have more time to think and pray.
  • Praying for people I find difficult: I’ve done this every year for quite a while. Pick three people I find it hard to get on with. Pray for them daily. Be amazed at what God does.

So nothing earth-shattering. Nothing big. Just quietly making a bit more space for God. We’ll see how it goes.