A sermon preached on the fourth Sunday of Lent by Revd. Aaron Kennedy
2 Corinthians 1:3-7, John 19:25-27
Mothering Sunday is that moment in the Church’s year
when we celebrate the hard work, physical endurance, and deep love, of mothers.
It can be a wonderful recognition for many,
and there will always be a place for such a celebration.
Indeed, all who mother – however that is defined,
are invited to take a bunch of flowers with them as they leave this morning
as a blessing and a sign of our collective gratitude for your care and hard work.
Even if you happen to be male, single, and childless.
So, thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, to all who mother.
But in the light of events this week
it is right I think to look below the surface of motherhood and family life,
and acknowledge the complexities many of us face.
All families are psychotic, said Douglas Coupland,
in his 2001 novel of the same name.
And there is something strangely relieving and comforting
about honestly acknowledging that none of us is perfect,
that none of our families are precisely the image we present to the world.
Look under the bonnet, and all families have their difficulties.
I am referring, of course, to the revelations the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have made,
in their interview with Oprah Winfrey, broadcast in the UK on Monday.
I won’t get into the details – Lord knows we’ve all heard plenty about it this week,
except to say that we all live in glass houses where family is concerned.
The Bible’s account of families is also pretty earthy.
The Gospels do not focus on nice, normal nuclear families at all,
but more often on singles, lone parents, widows, vowed celibates, and children.
While some families came to faith and were baptised all together,
such as the family of the jailor at Philippi,
the Gospel seems to divide families too,
and those without status, such a slaves, single woman, and children
are seen to part company with their families
and follow Jesus on their own.
Even when families do feature in the Bible, they are often pretty screwed up.
Take the very first family, for example.
There’s that whole business of the fall in the Garden of Eden,
with Adam pathetically blaming Eve;
their eldest son Cain then goes on to murder his younger brother Abel.
Several generations later, Isaac’s eldest son Esau is duped out of his inheritance
by his younger brother Jacob; very nice.
Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery;
King David’s first son Amnon rapes his half-sister, Tamar;
and is then killed by David’s second son Absalom,
who himself then tries to overthrow his father and take the throne.
Most obviously of all is Jesus own family.
Joseph was not Jesus’ father,
and Mary his mother was likely an unmarried teenager when she fell pregnant.
And just when they were beginning to settle in to being such a peculiar family,
they forget to bring him home from a trip to Jerusalem
and take a whole day to realise he wasn’t with their travelling group
(we really should’ve been more gracious to David Cameron
when that happened to his family!)
Families aren’t perfect in the Bible,
but the good news is that God seems to work with them nonetheless.
Changing gear slightly,
another family we must mention this week,
is that of Sarah Everard.
Again, I am not going to repeat the details.
We will have heard all that we can bear to hear, already this week, I guess.
But I do want simply to observe one reality.
That, however distantly, we all – the vast majority of British citizens,
share something of the shock and grief of Sarah’s family.
We feel something, however fractional,
of the pain they are suffering.
As if she were our own daughter, partner, sister, friend.
And it goes without saying that we hold them all in our hearts
as they navigate the excruciating pain
of every family’s worst nightmare,
in the days and weeks to come.
While it is mothering Sunday, our focus today is on a related but slightly broader theme: The mystery of God as parent, mother or father,
and of the Biblical teaching that when we come to faith
we are adopted into God’s family.
The short gospel passage we have before us this morning
says rather a lot about God’s family in a mere three verses.
Jesus’ own mother is standing at the foot of the cross,
watching her son die the most excruciating of deaths
– quite possibly every first century Palestinian family’s worst nightmare.
And as he is dying he nonetheless has the presence of mind to notice Mary standing there.
His words: “Woman, here is your son” may sound strange to our ears,
but they clearly come from a place of concern and compassion.
He is dying, and no longer able to provide for her as a good son should.
So, he enlists John – whom the Gospels attest he was especially close to,
to be her protector and provider in old age.
And John, who we may speculate, had lost his mother,
is in turn told “Here is your mother.”
While the word woman may seem to us a cold greeting for one’s mother,
it was in first century Palestine a term of respect.
However, it’s clearly not as intimate or gentle as mother.
There is a distancing in it.
A change of role, respectful yes, but the definite hint of a shift.
Yes, Mary must suffer the loss of her son
but she is provided for within a new family,
by a new son,
not one she has borne herself,
but who loves her nonetheless.
It is important to see just how significant this moment is
for the future of the human race.
And how it contains something we still need fully to digest.
In one masterful stroke,
Jesus relativises his immediate, blood family,
(without disowning or rejecting them)
while simultaneously expanding and redefining what family means.
Blood, or ethnicity, is not to be seen as absolute in the new family of Christ.
– blood relatives, yes,
but also waifs and strays, widows and orphans,
those who don’t fit the stereotype of husband, wife and 2.4 children,
and those who find themselves entirely outside of the shelter of kith and kin,
can discover themselves wonderfully, redemptively,
adopted as members of a new, broader family of the Lordship of Christ.
All of this is contained within these few words of Jesus
as he hangs from the cross.
In fact, there is an argument to be made,
that this is the moment when the church is borne.
Jesus had similar difficult words for his family at other times in the Gospels.
Matthew 12 recounts the story of Jesus, surrounded by a crowd he was teaching
when friends approach to tell him that his mother and brothers
are outside waiting to speak to him.
His reply carries a sharp sting to us even as we read it 2000 years later:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven
is my brother and sister and mother.”
These troubling words of Christ are explained I think,
in another equally controversial passage,
where Jesus makes the shocking claim
that he came not to bring peace, but a sword.
It’s clear in the text that he is not referring to militarism
or physical combat,
but to his intention to relativise family, tribe and culture,
by forming an entirely new community,
one in which it is not the ties of blood or ethnicity that are absolute,
but the bonds of fellowship forged between those
who share the surprising experience
of adoption into God’s family.
In the radical new Kingdom which Jesus inaugurates,
or as others have named it – the Kin-dom of God
our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters
are not only those with whom we share skin colour,
family name, or even, dare I say it, religion.
Family becomes redefined to those who were once our enemies.
Those who are different and strange to us.
This is why the theme of hospitality is so strong in the New Testament.
However, the word that is often translated as hospitality, philoxenia,
is about much more than simply offering the electrician fixing your boiler a cup of tea.
It is also about much more than parish lunches,
and coffee after church among friends –
lovely and laudable though these things are.
Philoxenia literally means, the love of strangers.
And is the polar opposite of xenophobia – fear of strangers.
St Paul describes love of strangers to the Romans as a mark of a true Christian.
And we are told in Hebrews not to neglect philoxenia,
for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Now, Jesus is not in the business of destroying families.
Aside from the fact that we are told in several key places in the Bible
to honour and respect our parents,
we are not being asked to dishonour or reject our families or tribes.
But by relativising these relations
we are being given the freedom to occupy them with integrity and maturity.
Jesus is not in the business of breaking up families;
he is in the business of expanding and redefining what a family can mean.
As Megan and Harry have claimed,
families are really not always safe and happy places to be.
And try as we might and should, no family is perfect.
But just as so many of us feel that we share, however faintly,
in the suffering of Sarah Everard’s family,
as if she were one of our own,
so in Christ we who were once strangers
are adopted as God’s very own beloved sons and daughters.
But if we fail to share the love we have received
with others who are strangers to us;
if we fail to actively extend this gratuitous adoptive love of God
to the world around us,
we commit a sin against God’s love,
we make a mockery of it,
and we undermine the very identity and purpose of the Church.
God, said Julian of Norwich,
is “our true Mother in whom we are endlessly carried
and out of whom we will never come.”
Our mother God loves all of us who, like the prodigal,
were once lost but now are found.
We have been adopted into her family.
And in doing so, she has given birth to the church.
May we, beloved and restored prodigal sons and daughters that we are;
we who have received the surprising and precious doting devotion,
of our adoptive heavenly Mother,
allow ourselves to be drawn beyond the comfort of these walls,
the familiarity of these faces,
to seek out the stranger,
and with the Spirit,
to expand and redefine for a world so at odds with itself,
what a family can mean.
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