“Who is in your family?” – a sermon for Mothering Sunday

In a departure from the Lectionary, I am preaching on Matthew 12.46-50

When I was in Year 5, we learned about family trees. We were each given a piece of A4 paper, and told to draw our own family tree. I looked at my blank paper. I tried to visualise my family tree. And then I put up my hand: “Please, Miss, I think I need a bigger piece of paper!”

Families are complicated, messy things. I know mine is. I think most are, in their own way. The reality of our beautiful, flawed, complex, imperfect, glorious, human relationships is not easy to pin down on paper.

I wonder who is in your family?

I wonder if everyone you just thought of is actually related to you? Or does your family include people who aren’t related at all? Mine does. It used to be common for children to call adults not related to us “aunty” and “uncle”. Now more and more people, especially those who have been rejected by their birth families, talk about their “family of choice” – those friends who are as close as any family.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus challenges his disciples’ assumptions about what a family is. The disciples assume they know who Jesus’ family is – his mother and brothers – but Jesus speaks about a much bigger idea of what and who his family is. Jesus’ family includes everyone who follows him, and does God’s will.

That’s a pretty broad definition of “family”! All of us, all of the people who follow Jesus, throughout the world and throughout history, are part of his family. When we choose to live God’s way, we become part of God’s “family of choice”.

And just as Jesus expands his disciples’ idea of what his family is like, so the Holy Spirit is continuing to expand our idea of what God’s family is like, and who is included.

So who is included in God’s family? Everyone. It’s a simple answer, and a challenging one. Everyone is included in God’s family, because everyone is loved by God. Love is what families, relationships, in all their complexity, are all about.

You are loved by God, and so you are part of God’s family. And so am I. And so are the people you like. And so are the people you don’t like (this is where it gets challenging!). All of us, together, in God’s messy, beautiful, unconventional family.

And it is challenging sometimes, isn’t it? Like any family, we disagree, we fall out, we upset each other. But there’s always something that holds us all together. And that something is love. God is love, the most powerful force in the world.

We are called to share that love, in whatever ways we can, with whoever we can. And we are also called to look for that love. Sometimes it’s easy to see – in happy families, loving mothers, supportive friendships. And sometimes it’s very difficult to see indeed – in broken relationships, abusive families, conflict.

But always, always, that love of God is there. It is there in the Junior Doctor running across Westminster Bridge into an unknown danger, in order to hep people. It is there in the child who invites their classmate who doesn’t have a friend to sit with them at lunch. It is there wherever people treat each other as precious, unique individuals made in the image of God.

Today we celebrate the love which has nurtured us. The motherly love of God. The love of the people who have guided and cared for us. For some of us, that will be our mothers, and we celebrate them today. For others of us it will not, and we celebrate instead (or as well) the other relationships which have shown us something of the vast love of God.

Whoever you can think of who has nurtured you – whether they’re related to you or not – I invite you to write their name or draw a picture of them on the paper flower you were given when you arrived, and bring them to the front.

Let us thank God for the many, diverse, beautiful expressions of love we have known, each of them showing us something of the awesome, mysterious love of God.


Mothering Sunday Flowers

Display of paper flowers, showing the names of people who have nurtured us.


Lifting the Lid on Lent 4: Generosity

I am leading an intergenerational Lent group (more details here). This is what we did this week. 

Introduction: We found the letters of our theme word around the room, and worked out that it was “generosity”. We talked briefly about time when someone had been generous to us, or we had been generous to someone else.

Story: I told the story of the Widow’s Mite, using toy people and props to act out the story.

Wondering questions: We wondered together about:

  • I wonder why the people in this story wanted to give?
  • I wonder what it feels like to give away everything?
  • I wonder what was the most important part of the story?
  • I wonder if there’s anything we could take away and still have all the story we need?
  • I wonder where you are in the story?

Reflection activity: We thought about what gifts we have, that we could give to or share with others, wrote/drew these things on coin-shaped pieces of silver card, and discussed them.

Creative response: With a variety of materials available, everyone was invited to create something to give to someone else. 

Prayer: We made a paper chain with prayers written/drawn on each link.

Lord’s prayer.

There were five of us for this session – three adults and two children (aged 6 and 8). For two of the participants, this was the first session they had attended. The freedom of having a range of materials to use, and minimal guidance about what to make, led to some interesting discussions about what we had each chosen to create and why. 

Lifting the Lid on Lent 3: Growth

I am leading an intergenerational Lent group (more details here). This is what we did this week. 

Introduction: We found the letters of our theme word around the room, and worked out that it was “growth”. We talked briefly about things that grow, and what they need in order to grow.

Story: I presented the Parable of the Sower, using 4 trays containing objects to represent the 4 types of ground. .

Wondering questions: We wondered together about:

  • I wonder how the sower felt when they saw that some seeds grew and some didn’t?
  • I wonder what was the most important part of the story?
  • I wonder if there’s anything we could take away and still have all the story we need?
  • I wonder where you are in the story?

Reflection activity: I introduced the idea of Lent being a time when we “grow in faith and holiness” and we discussed what  that might look and feel like.

Everyone was given a piece of paper and some string. We cut lengths of string, stuck them to the paper and decorated them as plants, to represent things God is growing in us. Different sizes and types of plants were used to represent different things, and we discussed these.

Creative response: Everyone had the opportunity to plant some seeds to take home, and decorate their seed pot.

Prayer: We wrote/drew on printed outlines of people to represent the people we are praying for.

Lord’s prayer.

This week there were 7 of us – 3 adults, and 4 children aged 3-9, including one child with significant learning disabilities. It was notable that this child was more integrated than they would have been in a children’s group (where they would require adult support) because the adults were not there to ‘help’ them, but as fellow participants.


Lifting the Lid on Lent 2: Repentance

I am leading an intergenerational Lent group (more details here). This is what we did this week. 

Introduction: We found the letters of our theme word around the room, and worked out that it was “repentance”. We briefly shared ideas about what repentance means is. We each had the opportunity to share a time when we had said “sorry” and a time when someone had said “sorry” to us.

Story: I presented the story of the Prodigal Son, using Objects of Reference.

Wondering questions: We wondered together about:

  • I wonder what made the son come back home?
  • I wonder how the father had felt when he was waiting for the son to come back? And how the brother felt?
  • I wonder what happened the day after the party?
  • I wonder what was the most important part of the story?
  • I wonder if there’s anything we could take away and still have all the story we need?
  • I wonder where you are in the story?

Reflection activity: I introduced the concept of repentance meaning “turning” back to God, and shared a brief demonstration of this: water (representing all that is good) is poured continually from a jug (representing God) to a cup (representing us). When we turn away from God, we don’t get filled up with those good things in the same way, but whenever we turn back to God, we do. God never changes, and is continually pouring out good things for us.

Then we stood between two large pieces of paper. We wrote/drew on one the things we wanted to repent of and change. Then we physically turned around to face the other piece of paper, and wrote/drew on it what we wanted things to be like instead.

Creative response: We had double-sided cards (a different colour on each side) which people could use to write/draw some of the things they wanted to repent of, and what they wanted instead, in the same way as on the large pieces of paper, to take home as a reminder.

Prayer: We used pipe cleaners to make the things/people we were praying for.

Lord’s prayer.

There were six of us this week – two adults and four children (aged 6-10). There was nobody who came both last week and this week (except me!).

Our prayer time was developed and enhanced when one of the children suggested that we got the world map out, to place our pipecleaner people on. 

Lifting the Lid on Lent 1: Temptation

I am leading an intergenerational Lent group (more details here). This is what we did this week. 

Introduction: We found the letters of our theme word around the room, and worked out that it was “temptation”. We briefly shared ideas about what temptation is. We discussed what we have given up/taken on for Lent, and what might tempt us to break those resolutions.

Story: I presented the story of the Temptation of Christ (Matthew 4.1-11) in a Godly Play style, using the desert bag.

Wondering questions: We wondered together about:

  • I wonder where the voice Jesus heard in the desert came from?
  • I wonder why Jesus kept saying “no”?
  • I wonder what it feels like to be in the desert?
  • I wonder what was the most important part of the story?
  • I wonder if there’s anything we could take away and still have all the story we need?
  • I wonder where you are in the story?

Reflection activity: We wrote/drew the things that tempt us on stones, and placed them in a sand tray. People had the opportunity to share what they had written/drawn with each other. Then we washed the writing/drawing off the stones and talked a bit about forgiveness.

Creative response: Everyone had the opportunity to decorate a stone to take home, to remind them of what we had experienced/discussed/reflected on.

Prayer: We used to our inflatable globe, taking it in turns to say what/who/where we were praying for as we rolled the globe to each other.

Lord’s prayer.

There were 7 of us: 4 adults (in our 20s and 30s), 2 three-year-olds, and a baby. Everyone was able to participate, and seemed to get something out of the experience. The ‘wondering’ was especially powerful, as we experimented with removing/replacing various elements of the story, to see if we still had all the story we need. 

Lent: an intergenerational experiment

Have you been part of a Lent group? If so, who else was there? I’m guessing, in most cases, that the answer is “grown-ups”. That seems to be the norm in most churches – Lent groups are for adults, and often have a book or study guide as their focus. There might be (but usually isn’t) something separate for children to do during Lent.

A few years ago, I decided to experiment with running a Lent group for people of all ages together. It was a bit ad hoc, and quite a steep learning curve, but was enough to convince me that it’s something worth doing. This year I’m trying to be more systematic about it, and also to blog what we’re doing in case it’s useful to others.

We are meeting on Saturday afternoons for an hour, for 5 weeks. The group is open to anyone – it deliberately hasn’t been advertised as being specifically for ‘families’, although it has been made clear that children and adults of all ages are welcome.

The intention is to explore key themes of Lent together, through play, discussion, creativity, and prayer. This is not a ‘study group’ but something more experiential and less intellectual which, I hope, will appeal not only to a range of ages, but also a range of learning styles and abilities. We’re trying to create a space to encounter God together.

The structure of each session will be:

Introduction: We will introduce the theme for the week, and briefly explore what the word means. There will be a brief discussion-starter question, to get people talking.

Story: A bible story which connects with the theme will be presented in an interactive and/or multi-sensory way. This might include Godly Play, Sensory Stories, or acting the story out together.

Wondering questions: In a Godly Play style, questions beginning “I wonder…” will prompt discussion. There are no ‘right answers’!

Reflection activity: This will be an interactive activity in small groups, which will enable people to reflect more deeply on the theme and story.

Creative response: Following on from the reflection activity, people will have the opportunity to make something connected with the story/theme, to explore the creative materials, or to continue reflection or discussion.

Prayer: An interactive prayer activity, including non-verbal components.

Lord’s Prayer: We will end with the Lord’s Prayer, accompanied by body prayer (this is something our children – but not our adults – are familiar with).

Will it ‘work’? (What does ‘working’ even mean in this context?) Who will participate? How will they participate? What will it look like? Feel like? What will we learn? How will we experience God together?

I don’t know yet. Watch this space…..

An outline of the session will be posted each week:

“Rhythm on the Edge” – The Conversation 2017

At The Conversation I spoke on behalf of The LGBTI Mission (lgbtimission.org.uk) on the subject of “Rhythm on the Edge”. This is what I intended to say. What I actually said was – I think – quite different, but I don’t have that written down, so here’s what I’ve got:

I wonder what it feels like to be on the edge? The edge can be an exciting place to be – daring, breathtaking, exhilarating. But the edge can also be an uncomfortable place to be – vulnerable, dangerous, scary, lonely. Often it’s all those things at once.

There are lots of people who find themselves ‘on the edge’ in our churches – people with disabilities, homeless people, people living in poverty, people with mental health problems, and many more.

I’m going to focus on a particular group of people who seem very much ‘on the edge’ in the life of the church at the moment – LGBT people. But much of what I say will apply more broadly too.

We all know this is a hot topic in the C of E at the moment. But what has it got to do with this Conversation, about children and young people? Firstly, it affects children and young people, whether they’re LGBT or have family members or friends who are. Secondly, how we address this issue has a huge impact on our ability to be missional.

Very often discussion of sexuality, of the inclusion of LGBT people – and even LGBT people themselves – are seen as disrupting the established rhythm and harmony of the church. People on the edge are often seen as disruptive. But is that disruption always such a bad thing?

Many people seem concerned that the ‘issue’ of inclusion distracts us from our core purpose, our central rhythm, of mission. I don’t agree.

This is often how it feels for LGBT people in the church. For the 49% of 18-24 year olds who don’t describe themselves as heterosexual. (We don’t have comparable figures for under-18s, but it’s likely to be similar.)

Doesn’t this look like a picture worth disrupting?

I wonder where you are in this picture? I wonder how you can change this picture for the children and young people you work with?

I’m here representing an organisation doing just that. The LGBTI Mission is working to challenge the exclusion and discrimination against LGBT people in the church, and working for a more just, more inclusive church.

One of our strands of work is: “Fostering a culture of safety for LGBTI children and young people within the church, its schools and institutions.”

Isn’t that what we all want? For our churches to be safe, welcoming, inclusive places for all children and young people?

Of course. But we’re not there yet. The church has much to repent of in its treatment of LGBT people and others ‘on the edge’, and much to change – because that’s what repentance means.

Here are two people to help us think more about this:

Dillon is 15. He is a regular member of the church youth group, and part of the sound team on Sundays. He was confirmed last year, and that was a really significant step for him into a more mature faith. Two years ago, he realised he was gay. Some people at his school CU say you can’t be gay and a Christian, and they showed him some online bible study notes that said the same. Dillon has never heard any teaching on sexuality in church or from his youth pastor.

Maia is 5. She comes to church with her two mummies, and has done all her life. One of her mummies is in the church choir. This year she started at the church primary school. A child in Year 6, who attends a different church, told Maia that God doesn’t like her and her mummies, because God doesn’t like it when two ladies love each other. Maia cried when her mummies picked her up from school, but she wouldn’t tell them why.

What resources would help Maia? Or Dillon?

What do the resources you use or produce say to children who are LGBT, or have LGBT family members? Can they see themselves and their families represented? Can they see a place for themselves in the church? Far more importantly, can they see a Gospel which is good news for them?

The language we use matters. “No person is a problem,” said Archbishop Justin at General Synod. But if we talk about ‘the gay issue’ or ‘the problem of same sex relationships’, that probably isn’t how it’s going to sound to Dillon.

Are we using language which includes all types of families? Are we using the language which our young people use about themselves?

Perhaps most importantly, are we using scripture in ways which build up, rather than tear down, people who are already vulnerable? There has to be room in our churches to read scripture in different ways. There has to be room for children and young people to disagree with us, and challenge us, and teach us. There has to be room to engage with the faithful scriptural engagement of people ‘on the edge’, including LGBT people. We have much to learn from liberation theologies.

Ultimately, it’s about life in all its fullness, which is Jesus’ gift to everyone, including those who have been pushed to the edges of his church. Very often LGBT people, like many groups ‘on the edge’, are tolerated in our churches. That just isn’t good enough. Jesus didn’t come to show us how to tolerate each other, but how to love each other.

Many of you will be aware of Lizzie Lowe, a gay Christian teenager who killed herself because she didn’t think her family and church would accept her for who she was. When I come into contact with churches now, I often ask myself “would this church pass the Lizzie Lowe test?” Would a gay 14 year old know that it would be ok to be herself here? So I ask you: what would that 14 year old think in your church? Would your church pass the Lizzie Lowe test?

Lizzie’s church has been on an extraordinary journey since her death. They have realised that being quietly welcoming isn’t enough – we need to be loudly welcoming. “All are welcome” wasn’t enough to tell Lizzie that she was welcome. It’s a journey from exclusion to inclusion, and then from implicit inclusion to explicit inclusion. It’s a journey which opens up the circle around the table to those on the edge.

That journey towards inclusion is not only right for the people ‘on the edge’ – in this case LGBT people – as they take their rightful place as full members of the body of Christ. It is also right for the whole body, the whole church.

“The eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you’.” says Paul. For as long as churches continue to push LGBT people (or any other group) to the edge, the body of Christ is not whole.

The imperative to include and reconcile, to stand with people on the edge of society and invite them in, comes from Jesus himself. Consider the woman at the well. How does Jesus respond to her, as someone ‘on the edge’? And there are many other examples.

The biblical narrative is one of solidarity with, and redemption of, those who live life on the edge, who find themselves outside looking in. God continually transforms, brings back the lost, makes us realise we are not complete until there is space for everyone at the table. We need to make the truth of God’s all-encompassing love a reality for the people on the edge of our churches, including LGBT people.

I don’t think the ‘issue’ of inclusion is a distraction from our rhythm as a church, or an unnecessary disturbance. Disruption is not always a bad thing. It can be holy. “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” says the Lord. Perhaps what we thought was a crashing, clashing discord will turn out to be a new rhythm, a new song, a beautiful descant. Not detracting from our vital rhythm of mission, but adding to it.

The rhythm ‘on the edge’ must be part of our song. We can only sing God’s song with the voices of all God’s people. That includes LGBT people. It includes disabled people, and homeless people, and refugees. It includes the person you would least like to sit next to at church. We – the church – need everyone, because God calls everyone.

And we have a part to play. We, as leaders of young people, know what it is to stand ‘on the edge’, and what it is to be pioneering.

We – with the young people we serve – could be instrumental in leading the church into greater inclusion, with which comes greater fullness of life in Christ.