Mothering…bringing hope when things are tough.

daf in garden basket

Words for Mothering Sunday at St Mary’s Whitkirk.

Mothering Sunday…what’s that all about?

…thanking Mums…breakfast in bed…taking them out to lunch…

Gosh, today’s readings seem a bit serious for that kind of day. But then maybe not…I reckon one of the most important things good Mums do is help us through the tough times. However much we argue – when things are bad – it’s often Mum we want. Good mothers sort of say ‘Look – we’ll get through this, because I’m here with you.’

That’s not a bad way of looking at mothering – bringing hope when things are tough.

Of course we can’t all be mothers; we don’t all want to be. Some of us have lost mothers; relationships with mothers aren’t always good. But ‘mothering’ – the things that good mothers do – is important…especially when things are tough – important enough for all of us to get involved.

Jesus knew that – even as he was dying on the cross. He knew once he was gone things were going to be tough for the tiny, new church. He knew some good ‘mothering’ was going to be needed. So he created a new family…with his mother and his disciples…a new place where mothering could go on. A community to bring hope when things were tough.

In church today we have members of two organisations…the Mothers’ Union and Girlguiding. I think they’re both in a way about ‘mothering’. I wonder…do those of you representing them know why they were started?

What about the Mothers’ Union?

Mary Sumner saw what a difficult job being a mother was, especially for the poor. She the problems for mothers trying to bring children up as Christians. This was 150 years ago, when women and children didn’t have the righst they have now. Things were tough – Mary Sumner wanted to bring hope that things could be better. She thought bringing mothers together would help them improve things.

From the start they based everything on prayer…but they did much more than pray. One early campaign was to raise the legal age of marriage for girls from 12 to 16. Today the Mothers’ Union is in 83 countries of the world – still nurturing families and fighting for social justice. If you go on their website, the first thing you see – in large letters – is, “Help support families displaced by war”…the Mothers’ Union – still bringing hope when things are tough.

What about Girlguiding?

Well it grew out of Scouting…when girls saw something good and wanted to be part of it. Robert Baden-Powell who started it had fought in the Boer War, and knew another war was on its way. He thought young people are really important for their country. Not necessarily to fight in war – but definitely to help when things are tough.

Does anyone know the promise?

Develop beliefs, serve community, help others…

Law…honest, reliable, helpful, faces challenges, good friend, takes care of the world.

So Girlguiding does some great ‘mothering’ – it helps girls to be part of a good future of our country. And like the Mothers’ Union – there is guiding and scouting all around the world. Young people are developing skills and confidence to help their communities – to bring hope even in difficult places.

There are even guide groups in refugee camps…a real sign of hope.

Of course the other organisation represented here this morning is the church. What’s the church here for?

We meet here week by week because we’ve discovered God’s love, because we’ve realised that following Jesus makes sense of life. But the church was never meant to be just about us who are here.

After all Jesus taught us to pray ‘your kingdom come on earth as in heaven’. God’s Kingdom come on earth…a kingdom where all people are valued equally…a kingdom built on love not on hate…a kingdom where no one feels lonely or abandoned or bullied.

Working for God’s kingdom on earth – that’s surely about bringing hope when things are tough – about some good ‘mothering’.

And although we’ve so much to be grateful for – it’s not that easy to be British at the moment. It’s hard to look to the future when we don’t really know what it will be. It’s hard living in a divided country – where people are looking for someone to blame for the mess.

‘Mothering’…bringing hope in difficult times…what might that look like for us today?

  • praying for our nation – especially for its future.
  • in everything we do – trying to bring people together – sharing love not hatred.
  • caring for other people not because we feel sorry for them…but because we think everyone is important.
  • Listening to other peoples’ ideas – even if we think we disagree. Asking about them…trying to understand…working for a future that nurtures their hopes as well as ours.

 

On this Mothering Sunday – let’s all, girl guides, Mothers’ Union, Christians – think about how we can bring hope in tough times.

 

 

Dwelling with the Word…

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A sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk on the third Sunday in Lent.

‘Is this going how you expected?’

A question asked at Faithbook last September. Now, the thing I learned very quickly about Faithbook was not to expect…just to be ready for anything.

After all, it’s a fairly random group of people trying to get to grips with the idea of Faith…Christian faith, which has at its heart a relationship with God.

One of the things we explore is what we think God is like…and we quickly realise that words never quite work…perhaps because apparently opposite things seem to be true about God.

Particularly, that God is nearer to us than we can imagine…within our lives even when we don’t realise.

Yet at the same time God is completely beyond our understanding.

One God – here and out there…

This tension runs through the whole bible. It’s there in today’s passage from Isaiah. In 9 verses, these words from God go from an intimate invitation, ‘come to me thirsty one’, from a God who is surely close…to ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways’…a God beyond our understanding.

So how do we approach this unknowable yet personal God? One way is through scripture; through reading our bibles…something we often try to do more during Lent.

There are many ways to approach scripture. It can be studied…with the help of others who know more…commentaries written by learned people. And it’s good to learn how scriptures fit together, what they may have meant to their original readers.

But I think the bible has lasted because much of it speaks afresh to every new age. I think scripture remains relevant because it’s more than just literature…it’s a place where we can get to know God as well as learn about God.

But like any relationship, we have to invest time…not only time reading what other people think…but time with the words themselves. A practice I find liberating and exciting is what we might call a contemplative reading of the bible…sometimes called Lectio Divina or divine reading.

This is a slow, praying through of a passage of scripture, and I think it helps us grapple with this God who is so intimate and yet so distant.

For those of you not familiar with this way of bible reading – first you read a short passage…slowly and attentively…then allow a space to think whether any part stood out for any reason…leave time to think about this…then you read the passage slowly again, when it may well have more meaning…finally spend some time talking to God about what the passage seems to be saying…and some time listening.

I find this very powerful because it treats the bible as something to be encountered. It assumes that to read the bible is to come into the presence of something living and transformative…that we read it in the presence of God. It approaches a bible passage expecting to be changed by the encounter. It recognises God present and immediate in our lives.

But this kind of reading also remembers that God’s ways are not our ways…God’s thoughts not our thoughts.

As humans we tend to want answers…clear guidance on what to do…or to have our own opinions reinforced…to feel justified. We often want the bible to be a tool to work for us…rather than on us.

But God’s ways are not our ways…and spending time with a bible passage might just give God’s ways a chance to work.

If we stay in its presence long enough…letting the words interact with our thoughts, our hopes, our desires…we might just start to question our ideas…to notice our prejudices…we might be changed by the encounter.

Praying the daily offices gives me 6 daily doses of scripture – including psalms. And I will admit that sometimes I’m left wondering about the point of a particular passage…but so often there is a phrase that stays with me through the day…rubbing up against my assumptions…making me think.

This week it’s been the first verse of Isaiah 55…I thought we might spend a few minutes with it now…

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
I’ve been wondering…what is it that I’m thirsting for?

What does it mean to me to buy with no money?

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Our weekly sheet has the readings printed out. It might be a good Lenten discipline to take them home…pick one reading…dwell with it through the week…give God a chance to speak.

 

 

 

Becoming more righteous for Lent? A lesson from Abraham…

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Sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk on the 2nd Sunday of Lent.

Lent…anybody given something up, or taken something up?…hopefully not just to lose weight, or help others, but for how the experience might change you in some way. How are you hoping to be changed this Lent?

I wonder if anyone is hoping to become more righteous?

I know from one Pilgrim group, that righteousness is quite a tricky idea. But here it is in our Old Testament reading – ‘and God reckoned Abraham righteous’. One definition I found whilst reading this week…’to be righteous is to be faithful to the relationships in which one stands.’

With this in mind, I want to explore two things.

First – what does it mean to be faithful to our relationship with God?

Second – what about our relationships with others?

We first meet Abraham, aged 75, when God tells him to leave his land and family. He’s to go where God leads him – and promised he will become the father of a great nation. God, often a remote figure in the Old Testament, begins a relationship with Abraham. He asks Abraham to trust, and offers him great things.

And Abraham is faithful to that relationship. At an age when most of are winding down he sets off into the unknown. But by today’s reading, he’s beginning to wonder how faithful God is. He’s followed God to Canaan, and left because of famine…he’s now even older and still has no son.

So when God appears saying ‘Don’t be afraid…your reward will be great’, it’s rather too much. What’s the point of a reward, he asks God, if I’ve no son to inherit it?

And God shows him the stars – and gives a famous promise – look at the number of the stars – that’s how many descendants you’ll have.

We’re told Abraham ‘believes’, and God reckons him righteous. I wonder what exactly Abraham believed…that there were lots of stars?…that he would have a son?…that God can be trusted? He’s certainly not confident enough to stop asking questions…God counts him righteous…and immediately he demands proof that he will indeed possess the Promised Land.

So, righteousness, not blind trust that never wavers…not trust that has no doubts…but a willingness to try to live based on God’s promises.

Abraham’s is a questioning faithfulness that’s a good model for us. He doesn’t demand, “when will I get what I want and be happy?” He doesn’t complain. His questions don’t deny God’s presence and power in his life.

He’s open to God’s word, to God’s transforming influence on his life, because he believes God can do something – but he also knows the limits of his own faith. He asks for more information so he can find the courage to remain faithful.

As we consider our own discipleship, it’s good to remember Abraham who also struggled to live in response to God’s call. Like Abraham, we have questions that just won’t go away as we try to stay faithful to God. But Abraham shows us that bringing those questions to God is part of our faithfulness and trust.

Being faithful in our relationship with God is not, I think, about being certain. It’s about trying to trust whilst bringing our uncertainties to God. It’s about trusting that God will keep faith…even if we’re not sure how. It’s about trusting that he desires the best for us…that he holds us in his hands.

’To be righteous is to be faithful to the relationships in which one stands.’

As Christians we don’t only stand in relationship with God. Through him we are called to many other relationships – with family, friends, colleagues, neighbours…with those we find easy, and those we don’t.

What does it mean to be faithful to these? I think this is also to do with trust. There are some relationships we can’t trust – with good reason – but for most, trust is vital.

At work for example… As a teacher, I made mistakes, and sometimes got complaints from parents. The only ones that really hurt me, were the parents who assumed I was trying to upset their child. Of course I tried things that didn’t work…sometimes the parent did know better…but the home school relationship only worked when there was trust that we all wanted the best for the child.

We’re approaching the time when we elect churchwardens and PCC members. They in turn invite others onto subcommittees to take responsibility for all aspects of our church life. We elect them because we trust they desire the best for St Mary’s.

I think the faithfulness of Abraham is a good model for these relationships too. We won’t always understand their decisions, we won’t always agree. We will need to question – but as Christians I think we are called to question not in a spirit of accusation, but from a basis of trust. Then perhaps our questions will not be complaints – but a search for how together we can follow God’s call.

And if this sounds a bit churchy…and divorced from the real world…recent events in New Zealand have shown what happens when mistrust and fear invade our relationships. Terror attacks are the fault of the attackers, but they grow out of poor relationships between communities. They grow when there is a lack of trust between people of different faiths that we all desire the common good.

As Christians we’re called to build relationships of trust with each other…so we have an example to offer to the world.

Perhaps becoming more righteous is a good goal for Lent…an increase in faithfulness to our relationships. Righteousness that’s not afraid to question, but that frames these questions on a background of trust…trust in God that we are held in his love…trust in others that our shared humanity can lead to a shared future.

 

Faithful God, we offer you our fears and questions, in trust that our lives are held in your hands, and that you will never abandon us. Help us to be faithful to our relationships with one another and with you. Amen.

Ashes…the dangers and possibilities…

Words for St Mary’s Whitkirk on Ash Wednesday

Ash…so what’s that all about then?

Our prayer book tells us ashes are an ancient sign of penitence…of being sorry for what we’ve done wrong. In popular culture they are perhaps a little more.

“All his dreams were reduced to dust and ashes”, we might say…after a business goes bust…or a relationship fails. With the extreme weather effects of global warming we have seen it more literally…entire towns reduced to dust and ashes by wild fires. And we see householders – grateful to be alive, but looking in despair on the ashes of their homes, trying to find the energy to start again.

So what has that to do with us at the start of Lent?

Well our ashes are fairly tame – they come in a little pot, as part of a religious ritual. And we’ve just heard in our readings the dangers of rituals…of sacrifices, prayers, fasting…how they can become empty. How there’s always the danger of the ritual becoming the end in itself…rather than something to bring us closer to God.

Isaiah shows the people asking God “why do we fast but you don’t see? Why humble ourselves and you don’t notice?” ‘What’s the point’, they seem to ask, ‘if we don’t get something back?’ As if rituals can buy God’s favour.

And in the gospel, Jesus sees people flaunting their religious practices…hoping other people will notice and admire them. Hoping to buy a good reputation perhaps.

Isaiah condemns the hypocrisy of people who fast and make sacrifices, whilst still oppressing the poor. But I don’t think that means we should dump the rituals until we get our lives sorted – I know that I’m much more mindful of the needs of others when I’m most connected to God. So perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps focusing on how rituals can build our relationship with God might then help us to live better lives.

And in a bizarre way, this Ash Wednesday tradition helps us to avoid that hypocrisy. Tonight’s ash is the burnt remains of the palms we waved on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday, the ultimate reminder of how empty our praise can be…the same crowds who waved those palms, 3 days later were calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.

The ash on our forehead isn’t just a reminder of death and sin, but of how rituals can become empty of meaning. It takes the memory of last year’s joyful celebration and literally rubs our faces in it. It’s a tangible reminder of how palm waving…or any other tradition…means nothing if it doesn’t open us up to God.

We have 40 days to repent and examine our lives – perhaps tonight is about dwelling with the ash. The mess on our foreheads that says it’s not about what we do – it’s about God’s grace. The gritty black cross that asks whether parts of our weekly sacrifice need to be reduced to dust and ashes.

Tonight, as we do weekly, as Jesus told us to, we’ll share bread and wine. We’ll use familiar, beautiful prayers and actions…but with familiarity there is always danger.

Shortly before my priesting, I had a chat with Lawrie Peat about the terrifying and wonderful prospect of presiding at the Eucharist.

One of the many wise things he said, was the day presiding stops being an awesome privilege and responsibility is the day you should stop presiding.

And exactly the same is true for all of us. That morsel of bread put into our hands, that blessing, is the most precious gift we can ever receive…do we always remember that?

Of course some days we come feeling ill, distracted, annoyed or upset by someone or something…we can’t make ourselves feel ‘holy’ or ‘pious’…but that is the point of the ritual. It’s there to bring us closer to God, or there’s no point in it.

So first we remind ourselves that we meet in the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit…that we stand on holy ground.

Together we confess our sins – accepting that we are no better than the person next to us – accepting that God really and truly forgives us all.

The word of God is proclaimed and discussed…and we have the chance to really listen for what God might be saying to us.

We sing…a chance to forget about whether we like the tune…what our voices sound like…and just to praise God in a different way.

We hear again the story of Jesus’ passion, and his invitation…we come to his table…do we come expectantly?

Perhaps tonight is the time to think about what we do each week…maybe to notice some bad habits we’ve fallen into.

And there’s another way ash has spoken to me this week. The idea of burning last year’s Palm crosses sounds wonderfully simple. But…

…first you have to undo them and cut them up – not an easy task in itself. Then they have to be heated to a very high temperature, then mashed up, then mixed with a bit of water or oil to get them to smudge properly…

This being Whitkirk – someone did that for me…but it’s a good reminder that it’s hard to reduce bad habits to dust and ashes, to make our rituals authentic. It means deliberately looking for times when we go onto autopilot, or focus too much on getting it right…or whether others are getting it right. Perhaps it means praying more and chatting less before the service.

Whatever it entails – we have to be willing to see our habits reduced to dust and ashes. But the good news is that ash makes great fertilizer. If we try burning up anything that gets in the way of encountering God…we leave perfect conditions for something new to grow.

As Richard Giles describes…when we get it right…at least occasionally we find ourselves ‘standing at the gate of heaven, handling holy things, and touching the eternal mystery.’

…worth reducing a few things to ashes.

Your story…my story…God’s story?

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Sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk on the Sunday next before Lent

Theology books…an occupational hazard – often a joy…sometimes hard work. One theologian I found difficult is Jurgen Moltmann. Then one day I read his personal story.

It tells of his idyllic German childhood; but then of chaos as the war ended: manning anti-aircraft guns as a teenager; seeing friends killed; of conscription into the German army and surrender before firing a shot.

At 18 he was in a Scottish prisoner of war camp. With no news of his family or hope for the future, all he could do was dwell on his experiences. Then came photos of what had happened in German Concentration camps.

In his own words… “Slowly and inexorably the truth seeped into our consciousness, and we saw ourselves through the eyes of the Nazi victims. Was this what we had fought for? Depression over the wartime destruction and a captivity with no end in sight was compounded by a feeling of profound shame at having to share in shouldering the disgrace of one’s own people…”

Obviously you’re hoping for a happy ending – and for Moltmann it came through two things – Scottish families who befriended the prisoners without reproach or blame, allowing them to feel human again – and a bible, which at first he read only out of boredom.

His words again… “Then I read Mark’s gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now. I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew he understood me. I summoned the courage to live again and I was slowly but surely seized by a great hope for the resurrection…”

So began a journey that at 92 still continues. Thanks to British prisoner of war camps he finished his education, becoming a theologian. His first book?…the theology of hope. I will try his theology again, but I doubt it will speak more powerfully than his story of encounter.

Today’s readings reminded me of that story. There’s Moses, descending the mountain a second time with the ‘tablets of the covenant’…the stones containing the laws that bind the people to God. So we might expect a discussion of laws, some theology if you like…but Moses’ face somehow steals the show.

His face ‘shone’. It’s hard to imagine what that looked like…but he must have been physically transformed in some way by his encounter with God. That’s what people remembered…evidence that an encounter with God changes us.

But here’s the odd part…they couldn’t cope with Moses’ glowing face. He had to put a veil over it. Here’s a story saying that being God’s people is about encounter, about relationship…but they don’t want to know.

Perhaps they were scared– didn’t want to risk that sort of dramatic change. It seems they were happier with the predictability of laws and rules and letting Moses do the encountering.

Richard Rohr, writing about this story, suggests churches have often done the same…that we’ve somehow ended up with the impression that other people can know God for us. That we can have second hand knowledge of God, letting theologians, the bible, or maybe our clergy do the encountering for us while we concentrate on rules, or on what it is we’re supposed to believe.

What of today’s other story…the transfiguration? Here the disciples see Jesus, their friend, teacher, healer…but so transformed he’s ‘dazzling white’. A pretty big hint that in meeting Jesus they were encountering God.

But again we have that odd thing…’they kept silent, and in those days told no one what they had seen’. Why? Did they think no one would believe them? Did they hardly believe it themselves? Could they just make no sense of it?

In the end, of course, they must have told someone…did they realise this odd story said something important about Jesus? Or once Jesus was no longer there did they just realise how important it was to share their stories? That each encounter taught something different about God – and theirs was an important bit of the bigger picture of faith?

There is some complicated theology in the New Testament – John’s gospel and Paul’s letters… But mostly it’s stories…stories of encounters with Christ.

Why? Not because they explain God, or give us answers. But because it’s stories of meeting Christ that make faith real…that make other people interested…That put together, make sense of each other.

And we all have faith stories to share – otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Of course most of our stories are not as dramatic as the ones we’ve heard today – but that doesn’t matter. Every faith story is a story of encountering Christ. Every faith story tells us something about the one we follow. Put together, they tell us much more.

It’s a belief in the power of stories that’s behind our Lent course this year. You regularly hear bits of my story, Matthew’s story…but there’s nothing special about our stories. The Lent course is about sharing the stories of the people you sit beside each week.

Some people are going to stand up at the front and tell their stories. Don’t worry, we’re not asking the rest of you to do that. But we hope you will come and support them…perhaps comment…perhaps share your story in a small group…perhaps just listen and see whether the story resonates with something in your life.

We’re not expecting rehearsed theology, neat explanations – we’re just going to think about people, places, music, anything that’s revealed something of God to us…and we hope that by sharing these stories, all our journeys of faith might be enriched.

I can hear some of you thinking…’I’ve not got much of a story to tell’…really? What could be more exciting than an encounter with the living God?