Posted by: owizblog | September 21, 2012

Mothering Sunday Sermon, UCB, 2012

1

Some fifteen years ago, we were sitting as a family, watching a situation comedy on television when, unexpectedly, the next scene was one of a woman in labour, expressing herself very funnily and forcefully, in terms I couldn’t possibly reproduce from the pulpit, to the effect that she could do with some more pethidine, or gas-and-air, or something, and that she would rather be anywhere else on earth at that moment, and doing anything else. Suggestions from her hapless and quite overwhelmed husband that she relax and try to calm down were greeted with, let’s say, a very vivid expression of the idea that if he were in her position, he wouldn’t be doling out such stupid advice.

At this point, one of our offspring, looking straight past their mother, asked me “Dad, is childbirth very painful?”

What I should have said was “I don’t know.” Or maybe “How should I know…”

And I should certainly have said “Ask your mother…”

But I’m a Minister, and one thing that six years of theological education will do for you is to make it very hard to say “I don’t know…”

So I offered an opinion of my own that I wasn’t qualified to have.  On how painful childbirth is. I’m not a mother, and I’m not going to be. Despite the fact that, just before I went to my charge in Glasgow, a friend not quite acquaint with the terminology of the Kirk asked whether the Presbytery had decided yet when I was to be induced.

I’ve lost weight since then….

This is Mother’s Day. But it’s also, and more importantly, Mothering Sunday, which is not the same thing. Mother’s Day is a celebration of mothers – and that means that it doesn’t include all of us.

For Christian centuries, Mothering Sunday has been about God’s mothering love for us, about the young girl Mary, about the Church our mother, about Christ our brother, about us all being siblings – belonging together in the same love.

All of this is about including all of us, mothers or not.

2

One of the really dangerous things about our society is that it still thinks in terms of things that should include all of us. Of big, important things that apply to many, many people – and that it’s easy to think apply to us all. One of the most dangerous, hurtful things out there is an idea with a very straightforward name. Normal.

And one of the most dangerous things that can happen to this idea, and one of the most dangerous things that can happen to us as the Church, is that the idea of “normal” can come in here and be blessed in God’s name, so that the meaning of “normal” becomes “the way God wants it to be.”

Because “normal”, such an inoffensive child of a name, suddenly discovers an evil twin. “Abnormal.” Not-normal. Not how things should be. Not-what-God wants.

Yet it turns out that it’s not the evil twin Not-Normal that is the bad one at all. It’s actually Normal who is capable of murder. He was complicit in the murder of Jesus. Because, you see, there is nothing more characteristic in the Gospel story of Jesus’ ministry than that he went round in the company of people who were not normal. Not normally good. Not normally respectable. Didn’t – couldn’t – live according to the norms of society. It was the Normal that killed him.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day – they were people who thought that God wanted them to be a certain way, and that they were capable of being that way. For them, religion was being bound by God’s commandments, by the Law, which sets down how we should behave. How we should normally be. What’s normal for us.

And the Pharisees believed that they could do that. That they could be normal. And that other people, who couldn’t manage that, who fell by the wayside, or whose lives just went different, unexpected ways, who were not normal, not the way the Pharisees thought God wanted everyone to be, were failures because they were not normal; bad because they weren’t normal; unloved by God because they were not normal. Even in things taht weren’t their fault, but certainly in things that were.

But the Pharisees themselves were haunted by a terrible fear. The fear that they themselves weren’t normal. That there were things in them – things that they denied, and hated, but were part of their humanity – that God would hate if he knew about them.

So what these Pharisees did was to pretend that these things didn’t exist. In fact, they chopped off, amputated, big bits of who they were. The bits they couldn’t love, and didn’t think that God could love either.

And they hit on an age old human technique for doing that. If there’s something about us we don’t like, we hate it. It causes us terrible pain. It’s an awful thing to hate things about yourself. But if we see these things in other people, we can safely hate them in them. And then I can say “Because I hate these things, I’m on God’s side! I feel the same way about them as he does. Look at these horrible people, who let these things be shown in their lives! I’m so different to them! I’m the way God wants me to be! I’m normal!

It’s an awful thing when we say “There but for the grace of God go I…” but what we mean is “Thank God I’m not abnormal, bad, wicked like that person, whom I feel so superior to, because I’m normal…”

So the Pharisees hated the tax-collectors, who would be the first-century equivalent of anything from benefits cheats up to the people who caused the credit crunch. They hated people who were caught up in what now, for some unaccountable reason we call the “sex industry”. They hated people who were in any way not respectable. Part of the point is that they hated these things in other people, so that they could pretend that there was nothing in them that God could dislike, because they were so different. Part of the point is that they both were and weren’t sure that they were all that different.

So you have to see it from their point of view. When Jesus appeared, and started going to these not-normal, not-respectable people, and telling them that God loved them just as much as he loved the normal, respectable Pharisees – and when these people started believing him, and responding to him – the Pharisees must have been furious! And terrified! Everything their lives had been built on, every distinction they had made which separated them from the not-normal, the people who weren’t the way they should be, weren’t the way God wanted them to be – all of that was being swept away.

And Jesus was doing the sweeping. Jesus was undermining everything their lives were about. Respectability. Normality.

No wonder they crucified him…

3

And still he loved them. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…”

There’s a couplet, spilling over into the chorus,  in a song by Chrissie Hyndes and the Pretenders, a song called “I’ll stand by you.” It arrested me in my tracks the first time I heard it, and it still has the same effect. Here are the lines.

“Nothing you confess

Could make me love you less,

I’ll stand by you…”

[Break]

4

If only the Pharisees could have believed that of God.If only the Pharisees could have believed that the way the publicans and sinners, the tax-scammers, benefit cheats, and sex-workers of the Gospels, heard it from Jesus. You are more than you imagine. And God is capable of loving and transforming those things about yourself that you hate, and that are hurting you.

But they couldn’t. For the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t normal, and he was destroying their idea of what was normal and right, and he had to go. They had to kill him. It was the only way they could kill bits of themselves they couldn’t love, that they thought God would hate, and that Jesus kept reminding them of. He kept reminding each one of them that they weren’t normal.

Because the terrible – yet in God’s love glorious and liberating – fact is that none of us is normal.

And the really frightening, yet in God’s love glorious and liberating, fact is that that’s actually OK. That’s what’s normal…

The great English psychologist Donald Winnicott, had this understanding of the mother. It’s the mother’s role to take all the fears, anxieties, hostility of the child, and simply to “hold” them in herself – then give them back to the child with their sting drawn. “It’s OK. I can hold, contain these things. They aren’t too big for me, even though they are overwhelming for you…”

God can do that, if we let God do that.

And that’s why this isn’t Mother’s Day at UCB this morning. It’s Mothering Sunday. It’s not about mums. It’s about how God loves us.

And that’s why this idea of “normality” has to go.

I look out at you all, this morning, and there isn’t a single normal person here! And I thank God for that! Because that’s what God wants…

There’s a stunning little exchange in one of the big-screen Star Trek movies, Star Trek: Generations – the one that, if you’re a fan, brings together Captain James T. Kirk of the original sixties series – the inimitable William Shatner – with the Captain of the Starship Enterprise in the Next Generation series, the sublime   .

But the actual exchange I’m thinking of is between the kidnapped engineer of the Enterprise C, Commander Geordi LaForge, and his captor, the mad El-Aurian scientist Toliam Soren. Even if you don’t watch Star Trek, you may remember that Commander LaForge is the one who wears a metallic visor across his face, because he is blind; the technology lets him see.

LaForge

LaForge is chained up, and Soren has removed his visor, and is inspecting it. Given that the technology is now available, asks Soren, why hasn’t LaForge exchanged his visor for something more “normal”?

“What’s ‘normal’?” asks LaForge back.

Soren hesitates, and then he comes away with   words that I’d like you to remember if you remember little else of this sermon:

“’Normal’ is what everybody else is, and you aren’t…”

That’s what so terrified the Pharisees. The thought that actually, they too, might not be what everyone else is. Or ought to be, and mostly is.

5

Just recently, I was in a conversation which included someone who happened to be single. And I was surprised at the passion with which he spoke of his own situation in the church. And surprised, too, that he wasn’t just speaking for himself, as a single person, but for many people, different to himself, in different situations, who found pain in the experience that here, in church, there is this idea of “normal”. Not everyone is married. Not everyone has a family. Not everyone has the same, safe, “normal” history, or life-experiences. Yet it’s so easy for us to think that they do. If we confused Mothering Sunday with “Mother’s Day” that’s certainly what we’d be doing, said somebody.

And someone else chimed in and said that they’d had a similar person who, for all sorts of really good reasons, found the expression “church family” quite difficult – because it seemed to her to suggest a normality that wasn’t her experience. It wasn’t that the expression needed to be done away with. It was just that it needed to be understood that families themselves are, when you scratch the surface, all “non-standard”. They aren’t families because they fit into some “normal” pattern. They are families because they include patterns of belonging that are sometimes incredibly loving, sometimes unbelievably difficult, sometimes both at the same time, and much, much more.

And if families are about anything, it’s about people belonging, and being secure. But not all families are even like that. And, she asked, “What does that mean for us, talking of “the Church Family”?

There isn’t a better day for us to ask that, than Mothering Sunday. Because this is the day that should be about a love that accepts us as and for what we are, normality be blowed, and is happy to risk pain doing that – to risk pain embracing us, because we can all be jaggy, complicated people, and, by the way, not one of us is normal. And, by the way, that’s OK. That’s what this love says.

The Christian faith isn’t about us being good and normal. It’s about us not being that way, and full of all sorts of things that frighten us, and we don’t like about ourselves, and God saying “That’s OK. I can take it. Look at the cross. That isn’t just what God’s love is like That actually is God’s love in the world, loving all the non-normal things in the world, and paying the price for doing that. And doing so acceptingly, because that’s what love is. And doing so triumphantly, because God is love, and so love overcomes all things.

People often speak of miracles as things that just aren’t normal, and the Resurrection as the most non-normal, unnatural thing of all to talk about or believe in.

But do you know, from the perspective of God’s love, entering a world of savage, terrified, self-hating and deeply suspicious non-normality, a lacerating, crucifying world, desperately in need of healing, acceptance, reconciliation, love – from the perspective of a world like that, there are only two normal things.

The first is this; that God’s love, entering openly and purely into such a world would get crucified. No surprise there. Crucifixion is the second-most-normal thing in the world. It’s what people who hate themselves often do to people who love them, and always do to people they can hate, instead of hating themselves.

But that, since this love is God’s love, overcoming all things, it turns out, from this perspective, that the Resurrection isn’t a not-normal miracle at all.

The Resurrection is the most normal thing in the world.

The love of God, that suffers, but can’t be overcome, is the one normal thing in an insane world. The love that loves me, not because I’m normal – because I’m not  – but as I am. That takes the difficult truth about me, holds it, and gives it back to me changed; “I can cope with this. I’m not frightened by it – and neither should you be.”

That’s what Mothering Sunday is really about.

[NOTE: Some folk will recognize D.W. Winnicott’s concepts of the “good enough mother” and of “holding” as part of the background to this sermon. Also Peter Berger’s staggering and thought-provoking passage on the reassurance the mother gives the child waking in fright in the night forms part of the background to my approach to Mothering Sunday every year, and I’m still trying to get my head round the irrationally rude and hostile reception the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly gave to the marvellous Guild-commissioned report on “The Motherhood of God”, in – interestingly – 1984!]

 

 

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