Thursday, 31 March 2011

Mothering Sunday - Hovering, Brooding...

Genesis 1:1-3, 26-31
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Luke 2:33-35
And Jesus’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

I think I was about thirty when I felt that God was calling me into ordained ministry. It came as a bit of a bolt from the blue as I was rather enjoying my career in science and could see all sorts of possibilities opening up. The music was going well too and our band was generating some interest and had been signed with an independent label.

But then, one New Year’s Day, came that clear indication from God that he had other plans and that I needed to walk a different path, and so here I am, quite a few years later.

In terms of Mothering Sunday the interesting thing is the way that other people dealt with me having this sudden sense of needing to train to be a vicar. Almost everyone close to me made the comment that they had seen it coming, even if I hadn’t. Even most of my work colleagues, few of whom were believers themselves, seemed unsurprised.

However the most important comment came from my mother. When we were alone one day she told me quietly that she had seen this coming for years, since I was a teenager, but she had not said anything, although she was beginning to worry that I would miss it. She knew me, she knew what motivated me and she could see all the possibilities, but she kept her own counsel.

The word that comes to mind is ‘brooding’. My mother had been brooding over a call she had seen in me that she feared I might miss if I continued to become caught up in my career. She had been hovering, if you like, and it’s that example that I want to draw on in the readings today.

When we talk about God we almost invariably use the masculine pronoun. In fact, just to emphasize it, we used to put a capital letter on He and Him. And the same has tended to be true throughout the last two thousand years, with whichever part of the Trinity being referred to as male. Yet that distinction has not always been so clear cut.

One of the names for God used in the Old Testament was Elohim. So much has been written about this one word that I could not hope to do justice to it. However, what I find interesting is that the root of the word Elohim is actually the feminine singular word for a god which is Eloah. To get Elohim a masculine plural ending is given to the feminine singular word. So Elohim is a singular feminine noun with a masculine plural ending which is always used with singular verbs when referring to the One True God in the Hebrew scriptures.

We shouldn’t speculate too far about what this means except to say that in one of the earliest words for God there is a feminine word at the root. But this becomes a lot more specific when we look at the word for Spirit. In Latin the word is masculine, in Greek, the language of the new Testament, it is neuter, but in Hebrew the word for Spirit, Ruach, is feminine. It’s also the word for wind.

We are only two verses into the Bible when we get this difficult to translate verse which could say, ‘...a mighty Wind from God swept over the face of the waters’, but it could easily be translated as ‘...the Spirit of God hovered, or brooded over the waters.’ In this poetic imagery, the waters are the formless nature of the creation, waiting to take shape.

So for me this takes me right back to the image of my mother. I can imagine her with her hand over the bump in her belly as I took form within her, brooding over what I might become. I can picture her watching me through my teenage years as I became a believer in my own right, hovering, brooding over what I might become.

And I can think of her watching me in my early career in science, still brooding over the possibilities of what I might become. And the same is so true of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In that reading from Luke’s Gospel I can imagine this young teenager, coping with the first exhausting days of motherhood, only to hear the words of Simeon about what her son would accomplish, and her holding him close to her breast, brooding over his future.

Later on in the same chapter we have the story of how Jesus was accidentally left in the Temple when he was a twelve year old, and how Mary and Joseph found him talking wisely with the Rabbis. At the end of that section we have the same kind of comment, that Mary treasured all these things in her heart. This image of my own mother, and this image of Mary convey something very special about motherhood which is confirmed in the last part of the Genesis reading which says this:

"Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."

We are created in the image of God. Now God is spirit so it would be silly to try and put a gender on the different persons of the Trinity, yet we are clearly created, male and female, in the image of God, and the language of the Old Testament and this brooding nature of the Holy Spirit, this feminine mighty Wind from God, suggests that this brooding nature of motherhood is uniquely in the image of God.

What my mother did for me, and what your mothers did for you, brooding over your futures, is an attribute of God the Holy Spirit. What’s more I don’t think it’s uniquely bound to mothers. When I look at the church of Tanworth, I brood over it, and over the people. I wonder what will become of them. I wonder how I can nurture them. I’m not even a father, let alone a mother, but I still have some sense of that feminine brooding.

Being a woman, being a mother, and having mothering instincts regardless of your innate gender, are hallmarks of having been created in the image of God. For too long we have insisted on the masculinity of God, not recognising that feminine imagery is written all over scripture too. And if we, male and female, are together in the image of God, then scripture itself instructs us that the feminine we see within our race is just as much in the image of God as the masculine.

So maybe it’s time for us to enlarge our imagination of the nature of God. Amen.

Friday, 25 March 2011

3rd Sunday of Lent: For the people who wonder.

Hi All
Sorry for there having been no entries for a couple of weeks or so. Just back from a trip to Israel which was really great. Exhausting but fab., and welcome to any new readers from that trip who've found me here after my incessant plugging. Here goes for this week.

Romans 5:1-11
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

John 4:5-30, 39-42
So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

In our nice, neat clean-cut religious world we have a tendency to split people into two groups; Christians and non-Christians. To be honest I loathe the phrase ‘non-Christians’ purely because it’s judgmental, but we seem to be stuck with it. I’ve recently been confronted with this kind of language on several occasions, and I still find it jars because, if I am honest, I don’t think the lines are as clearly defined as we would like them to be, although I’m positive many would disagree with me.

Our beliefs are messy. I could define for you what I think a Christian should believe, but I suspect some of my ideas would be odd to another person who would also call themselves a Christian. The problem with this desire for nice, neat, well defined demarcations is we always end up using them to judge who is in and who is out, and that’s why today’s Gospel story is so important.

In Jesus’s time there were similar demarcations by the Jews. Of course there were disagreements between groups, with the Sadducees denying any form of resurrection from the dead and the Pharisees affirming it, but basically their world was also split up into Jews and Gentiles; those who were God’s people, and those who weren’t; those who were in and those who were out. Except... well today’s story is one of someone stuck in the middle, a woman from Samaria, and for me she represents a vast swathe of our own population.

You see she was neither one thing nor another. Even though the Jews loathed and rejected them, the Samaritans felt that they also had a claim to be descendants of Jacob. They thought they were God’s people too. And Gentiles would probably assume that the Samaritans were part of the same race because they claimed to worship the same God, even though they did so in a different place to the Jews and their beliefs may not have been in complete agreement.

For me, therefore, this woman represents the majority of people who say that they believe in God in this country, yet probably would not sign up as fully fledged Christians, nor necessarily be a part of a church. The way in which Jesus speaks with her should therefore teach us an awful lot about how we should be engaging with people who express an interest in our faith.

Let’s have a look at some of the elements of the story and see how they fit into our own world and what questions they ask us. And the first thing we note is the location. Jesus is at the well. Now wherever you lived in the 1st century, the prime importance was access to water. This was something we picked up in Israel. Jerusalem came to be populated because it has a water source.

So water was vital, and if your water source was a well, that was where the people met. So Jesus was where the people would go. Is that your experience of Christianity, or are we more likely to try and escape those ‘evil’ places? Do we expect people to come to us and behave like we do or are we going to be more accessible by being where they are?

The next thing you pick out is that it’s the middle of the day. Now, apart from the early months of the year, the middle of the day in Palestine can be brutally hot. No one in their right mind goes to draw water then! Can you imagine carrying your water skins in forty degree temperatures? The only reason someone might choose to go then is because she’s trying to avoid everyone, and given the public morality of the time, this is no surprise.

As we discover later, this is a woman who has been with a lot of men. We don’t know the back story and it’s possible she’s been badly abused, but whatever that is, she seems to be going out of her way to avoid the other women of the town. So not only does Jesus try to be where the people are, he seems to be going out of his way to meet someone that everyone else has rejected.

Does this sound like Christians to you? Or are we more likely to be found trying to get close to the popular people or even the powerful people? You see Jesus takes it even further. According to the traditions of his day, he shouldn’t even be talking to her. Firstly she was a woman, and men didn’t talk with women they didn’t know - especially ones who would sully their reputation. Anyone who saw them would have assumed Jesus was making a move on her.

Secondly he was a Jew and she a Samaritan. These were two cultures who did not think a great deal of each other, and the Jews would avoid Samaritans and even walk the long way around from Galilee to Jerusalem to avoid their land. But Jesus ignores religious traditions, because he’s more interested in people than in what people think of him.

Does that sound like today’s Christianity to you? Or do we care a great deal about what people think of us? On more than one occasion in my life I’ve been accused of behaving in an un-vicar like fashion because of who I’m talking to. How tied have we become to what we think other people expect us to look like and behave like as Christians? Jesus came eating and drinking and the religious people complained because he liked to party.

One of the things I loved about our Israel trip was the way some of our group opened the doors to people they didn’t know and made them welcome with drinks and nibbles before supper. They were fun! How often do Christians get accused of having too much fun? We’re more likely to be accused of being boring complainers who think everything is off-limits or sinful, and you know what, sometimes our detractors are right!! It’s no wonder the secularists are winning the battle for hearts and minds!

Back to the text, and we see an interesting conversation between Jesus and the woman about living water but I’m not going to go into what all that means at this time. It’s what happens next which is so very interesting. Jesus tells the woman to go, call her husband and come back, and then it all comes out that she has a bit of history with a number of men.

Now this may well be true, but there is far more going on here than it first seems to us. I’ve said it many times, but let me underline it again: John’s gospel is written on many layers and you have to read it like that to get the full significance. In this instance it’s trying to convey something very deep to us. The woman is a representative of Samaria. Back in earlier Israelite history the kingdom had split into two, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.

In 721 BC the northern kingdom was invaded and exiled by the Assyrians. They replaced the exiles with people of other pagan religions from, it is said, five different regions, and there’s that number five that should get us thinking, because John intends us to read husband as God. Think of how the church is often called the Bride of Christ. That means that Jesus, the Son of God, is our husband.

So what Jesus is saying could actually be read like this: He says to her, ‘Go and call your God/husband and come back’, When she says she has no husband/God, he refers to their Samaritan history and says, ‘Exactly; you have had five gods and the one you worship now, ie the God of Israel, isn’t really your own God.’

What he’s saying to her is, ‘The only way you can really engage with this God whom you name is to come to him through me.’ But he’s not making a point in order to be right; he’s telling her the truth in order that he can invite her in to have a real relationship in spirit and truth with the one true God who can be worshipped anywhere.

So what does this have to say in our modern times for Christians? Well I think our message should be one of invitation to people to come with all their baggage, spiritual and worldly , and come as you are.

The Lord knew all about this woman’s spiritual baggage, and he knew all about her emotional baggage, and he knew all about her sexual baggage, and still he called her to come, exactly as she was, but he made it clear he knew all about her, yet didn’t stand in judgement on her.

Now we don’t know all about the people we meet, yet surely the same challenge should be there to us. Do we invite people to come as they are, or do we unwittingly, perhaps by our behaviour or what we say, imply that they need to be a bit religious first, a bit like us? It is not our job to judge people, in fact that’s expressly forbidden, but we should be praying for them that the Lord will reveal himself to them and that he would encounter them where they are.

If you have friends outside church you will know that many people have religious beliefs that do not agree with ours. Is that any reason not to try and be friends and get to know them? There is a great deal of neo-pagan/new age and DIY religious beliefs out there, and yet still they are to be invited in. The Lord will meet them where they are, and we should open that door for them. Let people come and taste and see for themselves.

I do not for a minute expect everyone who comes to church to believe exactly what I believe. I hope that there are plenty here who are questioning hard in their own minds whether there is genuine truth here, and I thank God for the people who bring their friends and loved ones, because that is all any of us can do. It is then up to the Lord to encounter people where they are at, not where we think they should be.

You see the final outcome to this story is that the woman goes back to her own people, not with answers but with questions. Jesus has intrigued has and made her think. Maybe, just maybe this is the one they’ve all been waiting for. She asks this question of everyone else and eventually they all come and see for themselves. The outcome is that Jesus is invited to stay for several more days and people from the town choose to follow him.

So I think that what this story teaches is not to expect the world to be clear-cut and easily divided into believers and unbelievers. There are those in the middle who express a belief in a Deity but are not yet really sure what that means. Our role as Christians is to be out there living amongst them in such a way as to be able to introduce them to Jesus. It’s not down to us to judge who is in and who is out. Our role is to welcome all. We shouldn’t say, ‘Come to church and get all the answers’, we should say, ‘Come and join us on our journey into faith.’

You see the truth is exactly as Jesus made clear: If we want to have a relationship with God which has the warmth and intimacy of a parent child relationship, then we will only be able to do that through Jesus himself. But we must be very cautious that we do not determine for others what their relationship with Christ should look like; that’s up to them and Jesus. Far too much Christianity seems to be based on keeping to a strict set of rules.

But Jesus was all about relationships, not rules, and as we live in relationship with him, so we will grow in wisdom and come to understand what is truly right or wrong. So can I encourage us all to pray more, and come and see me if you want some help in how to do that. As we get to know the Lord better, so we will become more like him and so people will see him revealed through us as we live lives that are based on love, not rules, and so we will be better equipped to meet people where they are, not where we think they should be. Amen.

J. Marsh, Saint John, Penguin. (Sorry, the book doesn't give a publication date, but this is one of the best books on John I've come across!)