Justice, love, and bananas – a sermon for Mothering Sunday

A sermon on Mark 7.24-30.

Happy Mothering Sunday! Or, perhaps not. For some, this is a happy day, when we celebrate and thank our mothers, and tell them how much we love them. For some of us, it’s a sad day, when we mourn mothers or children who are no longer with us. For some of us, it’s uncomfortable day, when we feel we don’t fit in, or can’t participate, for a whole host of reasons. All of that is part of Mothering Sunday, because all of that, the whole range of human emotion, is part of the way people relate to each other.

But if you look at the card displays in the shops, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all – Mothering Sunday, relationships between mothers and children, between any of us – all much simpler, fluffier and more two-dimensional than that. You could be forgiven for thinking that being a mother is all about cooking the dinner, cleaning the house, enjoying a glass or two of wine and – above all – being the “Perfect Mum”, “Best Mummy Ever”, just like all the cards say.

Hopefully we can all see beyond those stereotypes, can all recognise that mothering, whether it’s done by our biological mothers or others, is very much more than that.

Certainly today’s gospel reading should challenge any twee images of motherhood, along with any lingering ideas that ‘Biblical womanhood’ is something meek, submissive, or bland. Here we see a woman, a mother, challenging a man – challenging Jesus himself – and standing up for her child. It’s a risky thing to do. But she’s prepared to take that risk, to make herself vulnerable, in order to stand up for justice, and for the daughter she loves. She’s brave, she’s feisty, and she’s not about to take any rubbish from anyone.

I want to tell you about another mother, who perhaps has something in common with the Syrophonecian woman. This week is Fairtrade Fortnight, and the woman I want to tell you about is a Fairtrade Farmer called Rosemary. She’s a 43 year old widow with 3 children, and she grows bananas. This is what she has to say about Fairtrade:

Being a single parent, a permanent employment contract and a secure income is incredibly important to me and my children.

Fairtrade has changed a lot, Women and men now have the same rights. There are regular working hours, fixed leave days, and significantly improved safety regulations. It is especially important for the women workers, as they were often not aware of their rights. Now they are much stronger than before.

I am happy and proud that my sons have been able to study. Fairtrade has had a very positive impact not only on our working conditions, but also on our family life,

Rosemary, like the woman in our gospel story, is involved in standing up for justice for herself and her children. For both mothers, their willingness to speak out, to stand up for their children, and to seek justice for them, is part of how they show their love for their children. It’s all a long way from your typical Mother’s Day card, isn’t it?

But it’s not a long way from the love of God – not at all. In God’s kingdom, love and justice are very closely connected indeed. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,” says God through the prophet Isaiah. “Let justice roll down like waters,” says Amos. And the prophet Micah couldn’t be clearer: “What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Jesus himself is very often shown standing up for the people who find themselves on the receiving end of injustice.

Commanded by God, with Jesus as our example, we are called to justice, to make justice part of the way we love our neighbour. But how? The injustices which surround us can seem too huge to know how to start tackling them: poverty, homelessness, violence, inequality, discrimination. But we can and must do our part to stand up for justice, like the two mothers we have heard about today.

One of the ways we can do that is by supporting movements like Fairtrade which, as we have seen, make a huge difference to farmers like Rosemary and their families and communities. But there is still a very long way to go before all the people who produce our food live in the conditions we would want for our neighbours. We all have a part to play in seeking justice through the choices we make when we buy food and other things.

Another way we can make seeking justice part of the way we love is by speaking out against unjust situations. Many people in our local community are speaking out at the moment against plans to close our local children’s centres. Many are mothers, many are not, all are driven by care, concern, love for local children and families, and a desire to see a just allocation of resources, especially for the most vulnerable families.

“Let justice roll down like waters.” Our small attempts to make the world more just may seem tiny, not enough to make a difference. But if justice is to roll down like waters, an ever-living stream, then that stream of water must be made up of a million tiny droplets – each of our individual actions and prayers joining together to become an unstoppable force, a tidal wave of grace, the kingdom of God breaking through.



Recognising Jesus – a sermon for Candlemas

What is the longest you have ever had to wait for something? How does it feel to wait for a long time? How do you feel when that long-awaited thing is finally here?

Now picture Simeon, in the temple. He had been waiting years and years for what he had been promised by God – that he would see the Messiah. And now, at last, the moment had come. Among all the crowds, all the other parents bringing their new babies to the temple, Simeon saw the one he had been waiting for, that one special baby, Jesus, the Messiah.

There is a moment, a moment of recognition, when Simeon looks into the face of this little baby, and sees God. We don’t know exactly what it was he recognised, what divine spark he saw, how the holy spirit spoke to him in that moment. But that moment of recognition is key – it’s key to today’s celebration of Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – but it’s also the first of a series of moments in the gospels when people recognise Jesus for who he really is.

Peter: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah.” Mary Magdalen: “I have seen the Lord.” Doubting Thomas: “My Lord and my God.” (Not-so-doubting anymore.)

Perhaps you can relate to those moments of recognition. I wonder if you can think of a time when you have recognised Jesus? Or realised something about who Jesus is? Maybe a sudden “aha” moment, or maybe the slow dawning realisation that Jesus is who he says he is; the son of God, the Messiah, God made flesh, God with us, the Light of the World.

Today we celebrate the recognition of Jesus as “a light to reveal God to the nations”. But the light, and the revelation of that light, doesn’t stop there. Each of us in our baptism is given the light of Christ, and we must take seriously our call as the body of Christ to “shine as lights in the world to the glory of God”.

[Light candles from central candle.]

The light spreads and multiplies, and the more light there is, the more we can shine God’s light in a world which often seems rather dark and dismal, the greater the chance of people seeing that light and recognising it for what it is.

Jesus became like us – “flesh and blood”, as we heard in our first reading – so that we can recognise him in his divine human body, and recognise the divinity in our own fragile humanity, the spark of God’s Holy Spirit in each of us.

It may be hard to recognise ourselves – and each other – as bearers of the divine image, made and known and loved by God, carriers of the Christ-light, filled with the Holy Spirit. But that is the reality. And until we learn to recognise ourselves as who we truly are in Christ, we will find it very hard to show others who Christ truly is in us.

There is a wonderful moment in an episode of Dr Who, where the Doctor asks “who’s that?” and receives the reply “no-one important”. His response is brilliant: “in 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

It can be tempting to think of ourselves as “not important”, not clever enough, not old enough, not good enough. But that’s not true. You are important. You do matter. You matter so much to the God who created the whole universe that he was born as a vulnerable baby, lived a very human life, died and rose again, for you – so that you can know how loved you are and how important you are. The truth is, each of us is vitally important in God’s plan for the salvation and transformation of the world. Each of us has a role to play, a calling to fulfil.

We may recognise Jesus in many places and people, in ways that amaze or challenge us. I know I have done, and will no doubt go on doing so. But we must also learn to recognise Jesus in ourselves, in the work of the Holy Spirit in each of us. Recognising God – in ourselves, in the world around us, in the sound of sheer silence, and in the busyness of life in all its fullness – is the work of a lifetime. May God give us grace to recognise those glimpses of glory. Amen.

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred” – sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday of Christmas

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle

When Paul talks about how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son”, he’s not talking about a God who magically lifts us out of whatever mess we find ourselves in, but one who gets stuck into all life’s mess and complexity with us. This isn’t God as superhero, but #GodWithUs, God deeply and compassionately with us. This is the Good News that we have a God who ‘gets it’, gets what it is to be human, to struggle, to hurt, to laugh, to love.

The great change brought about by the incarnation is that the divine becomes human, and so the human can be recognised as divine.

Every aspect of human life is touched by God – “life in all its fullness”.- our laughter, our tears, our fears, our anger, our hopes, our complicated, messy relationships. All of it. Jesus comes to give us life in all its fullness, and to call us recognise in all the fullness of life something of God,

That’s not always easy to do, of course. We have a very human tendency to categorise things, and all too often people. Good. Bad. Naughty. Nice. Worthy. Unworthy. And yet, we know that isn’t how God sees things – in Jesus even the boundary between humanity and divinity is destroyed. How then can any other boundaries remain?

Even as we try to do the right thing, to be just and compassionate, it’s very tempting to start putting things (and people) into boxes. It’s often easier to be sympathetic at a distance, to help ‘those people over there’, and ignore the needs of those closest to us, or our own needs. It’s all too easy to dress up what God calls us to do in fancy language, and be so busy looking for the next ‘missional opportunity’, that we fail to notice the person right in front of us.

We can come up with all the strategies and resolutions and plans we like, but in the end it really isn’t that complicated (which isn’t to say it’s easy – far from it). Jesus calls us to be a church that ‘gets stuck in’. Pope Francis wrote: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Challenging words. God is a God who in the incarnation ‘gets stuck in’ to all the messiness of what it is to be human and, in the very person of Jesus as well as in his words, calls us to do likewise.

Isaiah in our first reading proclaims not only the first coming of Jesus (as we have heard throughout advent) but also the second coming, the realisation of God’s kingdom on earth.

I wonder what New Years Resolutions we might make which promote the realisation of God’s kingdom on earth? In our local communities, our families, our homes, our church, – not by grand schemes but getting stuck in’ in all the little ways which – together – change lives, and turn the world upside down.

The truth of the incarnation, God made flesh, God with us, is that God works through people is this: There is nobody and no circumstance too lowly or too ordinary for God. There is no human situation, no part of the human condition, in which God is not present. God works through people – little, ordinary people – to redeem all things and draw all people back to the God who created them. It is the calling of the church – of each of us – see what God is doing, and get stuck in, whatever form that takes, and whatever words we use (or don’t use) to describe it.

“There is nothing so secular it cannot be sacred”, nothing so human it cannot be divine, nobody so human, so lowly, so flawed and broken that they do not contain the image of God. In a stable long ago, very ordinary people recognised God in the very ordinary stuff of human life. God is still here, still present in the mess and muddle of our human lives. The realisation of that, of God made just as human, as fragile, as vulnerable as we are, will change our lives if we’ll let it, as we learn to recognise God in ourselves, in each other, in whatever mess we find ourselves in.

Each year, as we hear again the familiar Christmas story, and reflect on the year that is ending and the one about to start, we have a fresh chance to consider how this deep truth of the incarnation touches our lives now. Where is God in this mess, this muddle? Where, in this ordinary little bit of human life which I find myself in right now, is the glory of God? May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear the sacred presence of God in every ordinary human thing, this Christmas and always.


#advent bookclub Day 17: The Wise Men

Recognising God can be a tricky business (not helped by God’s tendency to show up in the most surprising people and places). But in the Christian life, the recognition of God is a vital skill to cultivate, and one which comes only with practice.

My own life has been marked by moments of recognising God only with the benefit of hindsight, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one: “Ah, I see now, that was God all along!” I have a wise friend who helped me very much in the long journey of learning to recognise God in the moment. Something would occur, I would tell her about it, and she would remark quite casually “That’ll be the Holy Spirit, that will.” And almost always I could immediately see that she was right – what I had described was indeed the Holy Spirit, but I needed someone to point it out to me.

This work of not only recognising but also pointing out where God is and what God might be doing is a vital one. I wrote earlier this week about a Special School I work with.  This is one of the places where I most clearly recognise God, and I have gradually come to realise that pointing out what I see of God in that place is part of how I can invite the staff and students to encounter God themselves. I don’t somehow bring God in with me, nor do I (nor could I) somehow make God more present, I merely point out where God already is. I may even have been known to use the phrase “That’ll be the Holy Spirit, that will” myself.

“May the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting” we pray during Advent. The watching is at least as important as the waiting – watching for God, recognising God, pointing out what we have seen and known and experienced of God.

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 16: Joseph

This chapter about Joseph reminds me to be thankful for, and to pray for, all the people who ‘just get on with it’.

I think perhaps in church as elsewhere we place too much value on the people who have the more showy, ‘up front’ gifts – preaching, music, etc – and not enough on those with the gifts that really keep the church running – organising an event, keeping people in touch with each other, encouraging others, noticing what needs to be done and doing it. In short, ‘just getting on with it’.

St Paul is right when he says that all gifts are given by the Holy Spirit for the common good. Therefore all are equally valuable, and should be equally valued – all gifts, and all people.

I wonder what we can do to value and recognise those in our churches (and elsewhere) who, like Joseph,  have the vital gift of ‘just getting on with it’?

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 15: Zechariah

Not much time to write today, but just to say how much I love Zechariah’s words in the “Benedictus”, and value the daily saying of them in Morning Prayer. A daily reminder that “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us,” is as true today (and every day) as it has ever been, and shall ever be.

Here is a link to the “Benedictus” being chanted in Latin (with English subtitles and some beautiful images), which I think really captures the timeless nature of Zachariah’s prayer: “Benedictus”

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub. 

#adventbookclub Day 14: Elizabeth

“Defying expectations”, the subtitle of this chapter, could make a very good slogan for one of the schools I work with. It is the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) for Special Educational Needs (SEN) schools in our area. For those not au fait with educational acronyms, what that means in practice is that the young people who attend this school have significant special needs, and also challenging behaviour which has resulted in them being permanently excluded from a Special School. Each young person has at least 1:1 support, and many need to have 2 adults with them at all times. It has a maximum of 10 pupils at a time.

It is, in all sorts of ways, a very special Special School. And one of the things which makes it most special is the way it sets out to enable its students to defy the (very negative) expectations people have of them, and which often they have of themselves. At this school, there is no such thing as a hopeless case, and no such thing as a last chance – every day (sometimes every moment) is a new chance, a new start. It is – though not a church school – the very embodiment of persistent hope, consistent forgiveness, and unconditional love, the very values of God’s kingdom which should be (but too often aren’t) the hallmark of our churches and church schools.

I was at this school earlier in the week for their Christmas performance, during which every single student did a solo musical performance of some sort. To achieve this the staff, and especially their lovely music therapist, had deployed a great deal of resourcefulness and lateral thinking. Those who couldn’t bear to be in a hall full of people were videoed. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t sing or play an instrument were encouraged to dance or participate in other ways. Those who find it hard to stay in any room for more than 20 seconds were filmed in short bursts, and the film edited together. But the point is, every single one of these young people was able to perform in some way – not only to be included, but to contribute to everyone’s enjoyment of the event. I’ve never clapped so hard in my life, nor wished so much that I’d remembered to put a tissue (or several!) in my cassock pocket. When I stood up to speak at the end, all I really wanted to say was “The kingdom of God is like this…”

This is testament to the hard work, endless patience and positivity of the staff, as well as to the hard work and persistence of the students. But it is also the product of a mindset – pervasive in that school, but sadly absent in many contexts – that defying expectations is not only possible, but essential, in order to enable each young person to flourish and be valued for who they are. And it is a reminder to me that “defying expectations” is very often where God is to be seen.

This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub.