Sunday, 31 March 2019

Mothering Sunday Sermon 2019


What is Mothering Sunday about? Is it simply the Church’s version of Mothers Day – Well no – Mothering Sunday was around long before Mother’s Day even though it is difficult to buy a Mothering Sunday card today but the shops are full of Mother’s Day cards. We still do focus on mothers and women in general on this day in the life of the church but strictly speaking as a festival Mothering Sunday  is not primarily about human mothers but rather Mother Church and has evolved into what it is today over a 500 year period.
During the 16th century, people returned to their Mother Church for a service to be held on the 4th Sunday in Lent. This practice was known as: "a-mothering". Subsequently Mothering Sunday became a day when servants were given a day off to visit their mother church with their family.
Children who were in service were also given a day off on that date so they could visit their families and Mother Church. The children would pick wildflowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers. And in time the religious tradition evolved into the Mothering Sunday secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers.
The readings we use in church today reflect the theme of motherhood with the Old Testament reading coming from the book of Exodus -  the story of Moses where his mother lets him go,  not once but twice so that he may survive – first when she puts in the papyrus basket and the second time when she finally relinquishes him to Pharaoh’s daughter who took him as her own son……Loving and letting go are all part of motherhood – And an even greater pain is foretold in the Gospel from St. Luke where Simeon tells Jesus’ mother Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too”.
And it is appropriate that we use these readings because the idea of Mother Church is of course derived from our human understanding of mothering.
It is also important that we focus on mothering because the Church over the centuries has lost an appreciation of the importance of the feminine in humanity as women were so often written out of history in the patriarchal culture from which we are only just emerging – and we are not there yet!
When I was training for ordination there were some (women included) in the theological college who at the time believed that while they could be ordained they should never be a rector (never mind a bishop) because a woman should not hold a position of authority and should remain a perpetual curate. Today there are still clergy in the church (mostly men) who believe that to be the case.
          I found this totally shocking when I first encountered it having come to ministry training having already completed an undergraduate degree in Theology and Biblical Studies and one of the optional modules I had taken was Feminist Theology in which I was lectured by our now Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. I am still reminded of the occasion in one of her classes when I declared that I had found the feminine within myself! There was a stunned silence in the class before one of my colleagues burst out laughing and the rest of the class soon followed.  Katherine if I recall was however greatly impressed!
Before you write me off as slightly confused, the context of my declaration was a discussion of the scientific reality that we are all a mixture of what we classically distinguish as male and female – for example both Oestregen and Testosterone are present in the bodies of men and of women albeit in different ratios and therefore some men display what are classically seen as female behaviours and vice versa.
          There is though a serious issue which we need to consider as a Church and that is the way in which we have suppressed the feminine elements of our faith. Yes of course Jesus was a man but God is beyond gender and yet we are content to use language of God which only reflects the lived experience of 50% of humanity.
Right up to the Reformation the figure of Mary was hugely visible and revered throughout the Church, East and West and then with the Reformation and the rise of rationalism and literalism which suppressed the symbolic and the artistic representations of Mary and other saints the feminine dimension within the life of the Protestant churches in particular was hugely reduced.
Richard Rohr the contemporary Catholic theologian comments on this and says quite critically that ‘many Catholics divinised Mary …… have a poor theology of Mary but an excellent psychology: Humans like need and trust our mothers to give us gifts, to nurture us, and always to forgive us, which is what we want from God’.
He goes on to give a very concrete example: ‘I once counted eleven images of Mary in a single Catholic church in Texas cowboy country. I see that as a culture trying unconsciously, and often not very successfully to balance itself out. In the same way Mary gives women in the Catholic church a dominant feminine image to counterbalance all the males parading around up front!’
          But even outside of the explicitly religious there are vestiges in our language of an almost forgotten appreciation of the centrality of the feminine in life. The phrase ‘Mother Earth’ reflect the association with the primary role of the female in Creation and yet that has been effectively suppressed or at best ignored. The Hebrew for Spirit is ruach which is a feminine noun. In Genesis 1:2, the verb for hovered takes on the feminine of the noun. So, Genesis 1:2, the beginning of the Creation narrative could be translated, “the Spirit of God she was hovering over the face of the waters…” In other words God’s creative spirit is depicted as feminine from the very beginning.
Little wonder then that the Church in its earlier years and still in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions has such a strong attachment to the figure of Mary who represents the ongoing presence of the feminine in God’s ongoing creative work in the world. Richard Rohr points out that she is present at key moments in the Gospel story and plays a key role in our faith experience ‘From her first yes to the Angel Gabriel, to the birth itself, to her last yes at the foot of the cross, and her full presence at Pentecost where she is the only woman named at the first outpouring of the Spirit……in Mary we see that God must never be forced on us, and God never comes uninvited……In Mary, humanity has said our eternal yes to God….Far too often the feminine has had to work in secret, behind the scenes, indirectly….We see Mary’s subtlety of grace, patience and humility when she quietly says at the wedding feast of Cana, “They have no wine” and then seems totally assured that Jesus will take it from there. …….While Church and culture have often denied the Divine feminine roles, offices and formal authority, the feminine has continued to exercise incredible power at the cosmic and personal levels. Feminine power is deeply relational and symbolic – and thus transformative – in ways that men cannot control or understand. I suspect that is why we fear it so much.’
And so back to Mothering Sunday – how different would Mother Church, the Church look if we embraced a fuller and more balanced vision of Church and recovered the feminine dimension of our faith which is not just about Women’s Ordination but opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s creativity in our world today. God is still at work in our world today and perhaps a wider vision of that presence will help us to be a more authentic and more effective force for good and for change. On this mothering Sunday we give thanks for our experience of mothering and pray for the wisdom to say yes to it in all its fullness and possibility. Amen.

*In Italics extracts from Richard Rohr's 'The Universal Christ - How a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe'

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Sermon for St Patrick’s Day 2019 - A response to the massacre in New Zealand Mosques


What does St. Patrick's Day mean to you? Is it about the parades, the green beer and a nice long weekend?  Is it about our Patron Saint and the stories told about him and attributed to him, some of them true perhaps and more of them legends? Is it about the history of Christianity on this Island? Or is it an opportunity to celebrate our Irishness, our culture, our identity and indeed identities plural because it is not so easy to define what it means to be Irish today? 
When I was growing up Irish identity was assumed to be Catholic and Nationalist and we Protestants were a small minority who kept our heads down but now we are part of an increasingly diverse Ireland which is uncomfortable with identifying with any religious tradition and if anything has come to define itself in terms of its plurality and openness to difference. I think this is a good thing but we still have our moments - times when we get sucked back into that them and us way of thinking.
          Like many people on this island I watched with disbelief the shambolic behaviour of the British parliament last week in dealing with the ongoing Brexit issue and I was provoked to post some very negative satirical material on social media which to the neutral observer might be deemed anti British. It is a fine line that is very easy to cross when defending ones own nation becomes an attack on another and I think in hindsight I probably crossed that line - and that is not a good thing. Celebrating or even protecting our own national identity should not necessitate attacking or undermining another! 
          Today we live in a world where a very strident and aggressive nationalism is on the rise and is characterised by demonization of various minority or marginalised groups.  It is a politics of hate and makes no apology for that.
Sadly it was part of the narrative that brought about the result of the Brexit referendum which was fuelled by the politics of fear and hate concerning immigrants and refugees. It is also to be witnessed in the domestic and foreign policy of the United States under their current president who cannot bring himself to condemn Nazi intimidation in his own country and has created an entirely false narrative equating immigrants with terrorism when virtually all such incidents on US soil have been perpetrated by white US indigenous nationals.
          Just a few days ago we saw the outworking of this mindset in the New Zealand massacre by Brenton Tarrant who in his manifesto praised Donald Trump as a 'symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose'.
          If all of this is sounding too political for the pulpit let me assure you this is not about party politics - but the kind of politics that Jesus himself was concerned with - Jesus was probably crucified because of his politics. The Gospel when you take it seriously and try and implement it in the world is a very political instrument.
          So how do we respond as Church to this? - Many people have said that 'Thoughts and Prayers' are not enough and that we need to be proactive - not just salving the wounds but addressing the very roots of the problem. One response to the New Zealand massacre published in the Guardian was an article by Masuma Rahim who said this:
........it’s not just Muslims who are losing their lives at the hands of far-right nationalism. It’s Jews and Sikhs and black people. Because when fascism comes to call, it usually doesn’t care what shade of “different” you are. All it knows is that you are different, and it does not like you for it.
My fury and my pain is not lessened when a Jewish person is killed, or when a Hindu person is killed. We share a common humanity and that is sufficient for us to feel rage and pain. ............ It’s time to make a stand. Defend our rights......... Use your position to send a clear message that hatred has no place in society. .......Too many have died. More will die if you fail to act. History will judge you for it.
I want to pick up on one of the phrases that Masuma Rahim used and that was 'common humanity' which straight away resonated with me as I am currently reading a wonderful book which is all about embracing a more generous worldview and faith that focuses on those things that unite us rather than divide us as peoples and nations. In this book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr makes the comment that 'Frankly, Jesus came to show us how to be human much more than how to be spiritual, and the process still seems to be in its early stages'.
Well that is certainly an understatement - we have a lot of work to do on our humanity when these atrocities can be committed in our name and in the name of faith and we must do all in our power to stop the Gospel ever being used to condone, hatred, exclusion and persecution.
In this same book Richard Rohr identifies some specific issues with the way that Christianity has evolved which is at best not helpful in the current crisis and at worst may actually fan the flames of hatred. Much of these failings are truths that we have forgotten but which were part of our faith tradition from the very beginning.
He calls for a recovery of an 'incarnational worldview' which is 'the profound recognition of the presence of the divine in literally everything and every one'.
'Without a sense of the inherent sacredness of the world....we struggle to see God in our own reality, let alone respect reality, protect it or love it. The consequences of this ignorance are all around us, seen in the way we have exploited and damaged our fellow human beings, the dear animals, the web of growing things, the land, the waters and the very air.'
 He also points out that we have narrowed the remit of the Gospel and ignored some key Scriptures such as  the prologue of St John's Gospel which makes it clear that Christ has existed from the beginning of history - Christ as he puts it is not Jesus last name:
 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ............... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,  full of grace and truth.
And yet despite this proclamation of the universal nature of the Incarnation our faith became a competitive theology with various parochial theories of salvation instead of a universal cosmology inside of which all can live with an inherent dignity......As a rule we were more interested in the superiority of our own tribe, group or nation than we were in the wholeness of creation.
This is where it gets uncomfortable because this is exactly the theology which feeds and legitimises the kind of tribal zenophobic nationalism that is so destructive in our world today and it is not authentic Christianity.
Rather says Rohr: 'Authentic God experience always expands your seeing and never constricts it....In God you do not include less and less; you always see and love more and more. The more you transcend your small ego, the more you can include. And Jesus says: 'Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it does it will bear much fruit.'
I said earlier that much of our failings are about truths we have forgotten - If proof were needed just listen to the words of this extract from the Breastplate, attributed to St. Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord
.

In a world scarred by fear and hatred, distrust and disillusionment let us embrace and proclaim, as did St. Patrick  a more generous Christ who alone can reconcile and heal our brokenness.  Amen.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Sermon for Sunday 20th January 2019 - 2nd Sunday after Epiphany


Attending a wedding for the first time, a little girl whispered to her mother, "Why is the bride dressed in white?" "Because white is the color of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life," her mother tried to explain, keeping it simple. The child thought about this for a moment, then said, "So why's the groom wearing black?"

The groom in today’s Gospel reading John 2:1-11)  may not have been wearing black but he was probably having a dark moment when the wine ran out at his own wedding but thanks to Jesus all is well and the celebrations continue and he even gets the credit for saving the best wine till last!  Shaky start or not it all ends on a happy note when a scarcity becomes an abundance.
And this is not just a story about Jesus performing what some would describe as magic trick – No, the text tells us that this is a sign, the first of his signs which revealed his glory and brought people to faith in him.

And its not an isolated incident either – it is in fact reflective of the generosity and mercy of God in providing for us in our times of need.
The Old Testament reading  from Isaiah (62:1-5) is very similar in its structure – It begins in the wake of pain and shattered dreams in the wake of the Babylonian Exile and the return to the site of destruction that was Jerusalem – In the midst of acknowledging this pain the Prophet promises a new reality, a new hope on the horizon:
The nations shall see your vindication,
   and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
   that the mouth of the Lord will give. 

And then in language that is echoed in the Gospel reading we hear this description of the new relationship between God and his people:
For as a young man marries a young woman,
   so shall your builder* marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
   so shall your God rejoice over you.

And just like the Gospel where scarcity becomes abundance we hear these words:

   All mortal flesh shall take refuge
      under the shadow of your wings.
  They shall be satisfied with the abundance of your house; •
   they shall drink from the river of your delights.

This is a God who is present in the lows as well as the highs of life – This is a God who reminds his people that he is with them and has not abandoned them.

And how is God present to us – well one of the ways is in the gifts that we have been given. Today’s Epistle (1 Cor 12:1-11) deals with just that in the context of the Corinthian Church where there had been some tension between the members over rivalry as to who had the best gifts.
Paul says this:  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Very clearly he is saying that these gifts are not about feeding our own egos but building up the Church, the body of Christ. These gifts are complementary and not to be seen as a hierarchy of gifts but given individually to the members for the sake of the whole – and everybody has got one – nobody is left out – the abundance of gifts belong to all and so the generosity and Grace of God is experienced in community primarily.
Being a follower of Jesus is not about solo runs!

We need the gifts of our sisters and brothers in Christ to thrive both individually and as community, as Church. And that is especially important when things go wrong, sometimes when things go terribly and horribly wrong – that we are not alone – that God has called us both individually but also as a people to follow him.

And so back to that Gospel and as we have already noted it is about the generosity of God’s provision for his people but in this case the abundance of that generosity is quite extraordinary. 6 * 20 or 30 gallon water jars filled with wine amounts to as much as 1000 bottles of wine!!  That is totally over the top – there must have been some very sore heads in Cana of Galilee after that wedding.
But in saying that, God’s love for us and his provision for us is way over the top – more than we can ever earn or fully appreciate. Some of the best attempts at expressing it have been in some of the great hymns of our tradition such as Amazing Grace – the title says it all and How Great thou art which opens with the line: O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder!

But its not only about the extent of God’s Grace – it is also about its eternal quality – it doesn’t come to an end – there is always more – there is always grounds for hope and for renewal.  After the miracle at Cana the steward comes to the bridegroom and says:
‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’

We are called to be a people who never give up hoping – who never stop expecting that God is going to do something wonderful in our lives  - it is not a life without hurt and pain – there will be valleys as well as mountain tops but that does not need to undermine our capacity to experience God’s presence throughout some of the most difficult patches of our lives.


I personally find great hope and inspiration in the writing of a Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner who wrote what is almost universally recognised as the greatest book on living with grief in modern times. It is called ‘When bad things happen to good people’, written in response to the death of his young son from a rare illness, and this passage is I think especially relevant:
QUOTE:

It is that reality that gives me hope – it is that reality that has helped me through the darker times in my life – God for me isn’t a God who comes to the rescue when it all falls apart but God is there too when it is falling apart and as long as I or we or you can discern that presence there is a tomorrow and there is the possibility to begin again, to hope again. The best wine is yet to be served.

Last Tuesday was Martin Luther King Day and I can think of no better words than his to speak of that Hope – These were his last words delivered in a sermon in Mason Temple Church in Memphis Tennessee on the eve of his assassination:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead.
But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Amen.