Sunday, 11 June 2017

Enjoying the Trinity: a sermon for Trinity Sunday

It’s good to be back in the pulpit at All Saints’ once again. 

I’d like to thank Father David for the invitation to preach on Trinity Sunday.  The invitation may have originated in a comment that I made to him two weeks ago, when I said that, on Trinity Sunday, I normally make it my business to attend worship in congregations that regard the Trinity as an occasion for joyful celebration, rather than as a theological problem to solve or a theological embarrassment to somehow explain away. … Here goes.

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

If today’s Eucharist was an episode of Sesame Street, we could say that our liturgy today was brought to us by the number three.  We celebrate God-as-Trinity, with the unity of the Three and the diversity of the One.  

Today, I’d like to mention (briefly) three reasons for us to go overboard in celebrating our affirmation of God-as-Trinity.

Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us that our faith has never stopped developing, and that it keeps on developing.

If you read any of the scripture lessons for Trinity Sunday in any year of the lectionary, you won’t hear any definite statement about the Trinity.  Instead, you’ll hear hints about the Trinity,
  • such as Paul blessing the Corinthians in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
  • such as Jesus calling his disciples to baptise in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
There’s a good reason for this.  The Christian belief in the Trinity really developed after the Scriptures were completed.  As important as the Trinity is for Christian faith, it’s definitely post-biblical.  And that’s OK.

Our faith as Christians has never been static.  It has never reached a point where it stopped developing and where we can say, “Here it is.  Here’s our faith in its final and definitive form.”

Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us that our faith has never stopped developing, and that it keeps on developing.

Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us that it is a good thing for us to use our minds in service to our faith.

The last time I preached here, I referred to the importance of our using our minds in service to our faith.  I spoke of Hercule Poirot and his “little grey cells”, and how it’s important for us all to use our “little grey cells” in service to our faith.  We don't need to check in our minds at the church door.

Our affirmation of God-as-Trinity is the result of generations upon generations of Christian thinkers using their “little grey cells” to make sense of the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and how this relationship relates to us as people of faith.

Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us that it is a good thing for us to use our minds in service to our faith.

Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us, clearly and unambiguously, that “God is love”.

For many children, that brief, three-word verse “God is love.” would be the first words from Scripture they learned.  And these words are true.

And these words are also a profound theological statement.  When we affirm God-as-Trinity, we state that a loving relationship is at the heart of God’s very being.  The love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for one another is the source of our very being.  The love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for one another spills over into love for the whole universe.  “God is love.”

This is the theme of the famous Russian icon by Andrei Rublev on the bookmarks that Father David has given you today.  The Trinity is depicted as three people sitting at a table sharing a meal together.  They are three distinct figures, whose oneness is seen in their arrangement as a circle and in their identical faces:  identical, youthful, androgynous faces.  And there’s a fourth seat at the table: a seat for you, … for me, … for all the world.    The love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for one another spills over into love for the whole universe.  “God is love.”



And, as we affirm that “God is love’, we are also called to deny the popular distortion of our faith that says that God is somehow less than love. 
  • Sometimes these distortions are forwarded by people seeking to rubbish the life of faith (as we sometimes find in letters to the editor in the newspaper). 
  • Sometimes these distortions are forwarded by those seeking to promote a legalistic understanding of faith (as we sometimes find in letters to the editor in denominational magazines). 
In either event, the distortions are wrong and it’s the task of all of us - not only those of us who are ordained, not only those of us who have a theological education, but all of us - to challenge these distortions (and to ask "What part of 'God is love' don't you understand?") “God is love.”

Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us, clearly and unambiguously, that “God is love”.

And so,
  • Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us that our faith has never stopped developing, and that it keeps on developing.
  • Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us that it is a good thing for us to use our minds in service to our faith.
  • Affirming God-as-Trinity reminds us, clearly and unambiguously, that “God is love”.
Thanks be to God, the Trinity of Love.  Amen.

 
(Don't worry, Dame Maggie, I didn't use the word, but I used the idea.)

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

"And now abideth liberty, equality, and fraternity, these three; but the greatest of these is fraternity."

Late in 1988, I spent a semester at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin, studying ecumenical and interfaith theology.  One of the subjects our group studied was a unit in what Catholic seminaries call "moral theology" and what "Protestant" seminaries call "Christian ethics".  It was taught by the Rev. Professor Enda MacDonagh from Maynooth. 

One of the things I remember from Fr. MacDonagh's lectures, in addition to his phrase "Kingdom values and virtues", was his attempt to relate Paul's ideals of "faith, hope, and love" (from 1st Corthinians 13) to the French Revolution's ideals of "Liberté, egalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, and fraternity).  (It was a year before the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the liberation of the Bastille, so many Europeans were becoming French Revolution-minded at that time - at least in terms of the French Revolution before it turned nasty under Robespierre.)

The link between "faith" and "liberté", to my memory, was the hardest to get a handle on.  As I remember, it had to do with trust:  with "faith" involving a radical trust in the compassion of God and with "liberté" involving a similar trust in the democratic wisdom of one's fellow-citizens (a trust that is difficult to achieve following 2016's Brexit and Trump fiascos, but a bit easier following Monsieur Macron's recent victory).

"Hope" and "egalité" are both future-oriented.  In hope, we look for the wholeness of God's reign, happening in God's good time.  With "egalité", we look for the emergence of a just and fair human society, and seek to build such a society incrementally.

"Love" and "fraternité" seemed to me to be the most closely related.  For Paul, the profound love (Greek, agapé; Hebrew, hesed; Latin, caritas) of God for humanity needs to spill over into a universal compassion (and universal solidarity) on our part toward all humanity.  This universal compassion and solidarity is also affirmed in the idea of "fraternité".  This "fraternité" was also celebrated in Schiller's poem "An die Freude", as later set to music in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:  "...All people become family. ... You millions, I embrace you!  This kiss is for all the world...." (free translation).  Without this compassion, there is no faith or hope.

And, ultimately, I believe that the heart of it all is "fraternité".  To paraphrase Paul (or, at least, Paul as poetically rendered by the 17th century KJV translators), "And now abideth liberté, egalité, and fraternité, these three; but the greatest of these is fraternité."

"Liberté" without "fraternité" is a false "liberté".  Today many people believe that the heart and soul of "free speech" is merely the right of some loudmouth in a pub, takeaway shop, radio studio, or (sadly) pulpit to make a racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic, or antisemitic comment without challenge.  That rubbish isn't "liberté".

"Egalité" without "fraternité" is a false "egalité".  In most western democracies, populist political movements (whether within or outside the major parties) make extravagant economic promises to economically disadvantaged members of the majority culture while taking a hostile stance toward members of minority cultures, whose economic disadvantage is, if anything, much worse.  Until a few days ago (Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Macron!), these populist movements have been enjoying an undeserved dream run in many countries.  This populism isn't "egalité".

"...All people become family. ... You millions, I embrace you!  This kiss is for all the world...."  True "liberté" and true "egalité" are built on a solid foundation of "fraternité".

"And now abideth liberté, egalité, and fraternité, these three; but the greatest of these is fraternité."

Monday, 1 May 2017

Now we are forty ... or Five Hundred?

A first draft of this article appeared on this blog in March.  This version is now in print courtesy of the Uniting Church Historical Society of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.  Thanks to the editor of the Society's Proceedings, the Rev. Robert Renton, for his sensitive editing of my first draft.

Anniversaries, particular anniversaries ending with a zero (and most particularly those ending with multiple zeros) are often occasions both for looking back and for looking forward.  With most such anniversaries, whether the looking forward is useful or not is determined by the extent to which the looking back is dominated by uncritical self-celebration, merciless self-flagellation or sober self-assessment.

In any event, it is an interesting coincidence that this year of 2017 sees both the fortieth anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia on June 22 1977, and the five-hundredth anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Luther posting his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 30 1517.

For any of us in denominations that see Luther’s act as a part of our heritage, and particularly for those of us within the particular community of the UCA, this year can be a useful occasion for sober self-assessment.

The heritage of the Reformation


For all who are heirs of the Reformation there are many gifts that this 16th century movement has given to the whole Christian faith.  Most prominent, in my mind, are the following affirmations.

1.  Our relations with God are  firmly grounded in God’s grace and mercy, not in any attempt on our own part to ‘earn’ a relationship with God.

2.  The life of the Christian faith must involve an encounter and an active interaction with the scriptures, both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures.

3.  Solid, critical biblical, theological, historical and ethical scholarship is a healthy and essential element of the life of the Christian community.

4.  Lay Christians are active participants in the ministry and mission of the Christian church, and are not the passive recipients of ministry by ordained clergy.

For 500 years following the beginning of the Reformation, these affirmations, while being characteristic of the Reformation, are not exclusively Protestant concerns.  I see that they are affirmed as enthusiastically by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic Christians as by Protestants, and in some cases even more so.

Nevertheless, I believe the situation is changing.  Two phrases I use frequently in this context involve—the necessity of all Christians today to do their faith with “a Catholic heart and a Protestant mind”, and the need for those of us in churches which reflect the heritage of the Reformation to move into a “post-Protestant” stage in our life together.

Has Protestantism passed its use-by date?


I suspect strongly that on its own the Protestant movement within the Christian church has reached its use-by date.  Just as communism had ‘Use by 1989’ on its ‘label’, and just as market capitalism had a label saying it was best by either 2008, 1987 or 1929 (depending upon the economists and historians to which one might listen), so also the Protestant movement within Christianity reached its use-by date sometime during the past few decades.

It all has to do with our cerebral style of worship.  Most mainstream Protestant churches have a style of worship in which the dominant elements of the service are teaching and learning.  This is the case whether the teaching and learning takes the form of a traditional sermon, or the style of music and liturgy is traditional or contemporary, or the theology expressed in the worship service is conservative evangelical, liberal progressive, neo-orthodox or something in between these extremes.

In each case there is the spoken or unspoken goal that all worshippers present will learn something about their faith as a result of attending worship.

During our lifetimes a cultural shift took place in terms of attendance at public worship.  It was no longer seen as necessary for a person to attend church or synagogue to be regarded as a positive and respectable member of the community.  People no longer felt a need to have an affiliation with a local congregation for a range of non-religious reasons.

When I was a theological student our lecturer in preaching reminded us never to assume that everyone in the congregation was a believing Christian, and that there would be a significant number of agnostics, particularly in the middle-class congregations most of us would be serving, who would be there for a range of cultural and non-religious reasons.  That comment may have reflected the 1950s during which our lecturer had been a parish minister himself.  However, even by the time he made those comments to us in 1975, let alone by the present day, most agnostics had stopped attending church services.

In all this, our teaching-learning style of worship was based on the assumption that people are attending church services, at least partly, to learn more of religion.  This is no longer the case.  People today have a range of ways, face-to-face and increasingly online, to learn all sorts of information about religion.  The quality of what they might learn online is doubtful at times, especially in a time of ‘fake’ or ‘alternative’ news.

I believe that people today attending religious services regularly or occasionally wish to encounter the God being worshipped by the community who have gathered to worship God.  This means that the service of worship that is focused on teaching-learning, in which the focus is on speaking about God rather than relating to God, may not be the community of faith that most from our wider community need.

What does that mean for the UCA?

The UCA’s decline is not a result of union


I believe that the decline in membership which many congregations have experienced in recent decades is not the result of the church union which took place in 1977.  The decline is partly the result of being a teaching-learning oriented Protestant denomination at a time when this mode of ‘being church’ no longer meets the need of a community seeking contact with God.

Overseas denominations from the Protestant tradition that have not experienced a form of church union have seen membership decline similar to that of the UCA.  I believe that, had union not happened, the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches that continued would have experienced a similar decline, probably a worse decline.

There is much to celebrate about the UCA


Despite the decline in membership there is much that we can celebrate about the life and ministry of the UCA.

We maintain a diverse network of services meeting human need across Australia through a variety of agencies including some that serve our country’s most remote areas.

We actively stand alongside many of our nation’s most vulnerable communities, including indigenous people, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

We strongly affirm the ministry of women in every one of our church’s ministries, both lay and ordained.

An increasing number of our congregations have committed themselves to be safe places and to be places of welcome for LGBT people.

Almost every one of our church’s congregations has a policy of ‘open table’ at Holy Communion.

Across the nation, our local congregations provide effective communities of pastoral care and mutual support both to their members and to people in the congregations’ wider community networks.

There is much we can celebrate about what God is doing in our church.

Our communities need the UCA


I believe that local communities across Australia need worshipping congregations in their midst—for their pastoral good.  At a time when some churches ordain only men, when some churches do not welcome members of other churches, or divorced-and-remarried members of their own church, to the Lord’s Table, and when there are churches that uncritically align themselves with the ‘prosperity gospel’ and the politically extreme conservative movements —local communities need the presence of the UCA in their midst.

But the UCA needs to look critically at its worship


We still need to look critically at what we are doing as a church on Sunday mornings.  Whatever else a church may be doing well, if the worship is not well done there is real malaise in the church’s life.

The difficulty is that in almost every congregation’s worship the focus remains on the one teaching-learning style that prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Variations and ‘new’ styles of worship are often minor variations on a theme, and do not provide the opportunity to encounter God or their spiritual self that I believe many people not in the UCA seek.  I am not convinced that continuing to provide an almost exclusively teaching-learning style of worship will sustain the UCA into the future.

I believe that, for the future, the UCA will need to provide three additional ‘strands’ or experiences of worship in local communities which will enable people to find an avenue for that all-important contact with their spiritual life or God.

The first would be an ecumenically liturgical service of Word and Sacrament, rather similar in style to the Roman Catholic mass in the tradition of the Second Vatican Council.  This would differ from the Roman Catholic mass in that the invitation to receive the sacrament would be to all present, and the person presiding could be male or female, regardless of marital status and sexuality.

The second would be a charismatic contemporary service, rather similar to the ‘praise and worship’ style of Pentecostal or charismatic churches.  Again, significant differences might apply such as the leadership of worship would need to be thoroughly grounded in theological and biblical scholarship.  The emphasis would be on a positive worship experience, rather than on a ‘showbiz’ presentation, and the sacrament of Holy Communion would have a more central role in worship.

The third strand would be experientially contemplative.  This strand would offer diverse experiences as opportunities to deepen one’s faith—experiences such as practised by the Society of Friends (Quakers), or meditation using Eastern Orthodox icons, or the use of a labyrinth, or singing meditative worship songs such as those from the Taizé community.

The teaching-learning style of worship would continue to be an option, particularly for those who find this most helpful.

Into the future


The three additional strands of worship are necessary to carry the UCA into its future, while the teaching-learning strand is essential while we continue to minister well to the people with whom the UCA is presently in ministry.  To enable the three additional strands to come into existence will depend upon the generosity of the current congregations, and I believe that this generosity will be present.  Each strand would need to recognise, affirm and respect congregations in each of the other strands as being legitimately part of the whole UCA.

Published in the Proceedings of the Uniting Church Historical Society, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, 24(1), June 2017.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

"That's Your Blooming Lot!": a sermon (of sorts) for the final service of Scots' Uniting Church, Sorell, Tasmania, 9th April 2017

Let us pray:

Loving God, the Spirit of Life began the great work of creation.   

Bless these bulbs, pregnant with life. They show us the Easter mystery of new life coming from death and burial. May they burst forth with abundant growth from earth, rain and sun.

You have called us to the honored task of being workers in your garden. Through the rain and these bulbs bring us to a new awareness of your presence in and around us, as we joyfully live in the knowledge of eternal resurrection.

Plant seeds of love in our lives that will grow through the years. Your Son showed us the way. We now ask your guidance to follow it well. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen. 


A reading from the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verses 20 to 24.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.…

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

A grain is planted. 

As such it dies to itself.

But it grows into new life for others.

So it is with this box of daffodil bulbs which we’ve just blessed.

So it is with this worshipping community which, as of today, formally ceases to worship in this building and which, for a few months now, has been worshipping as part of the Lindisfarne worshipping community within the Clarence Congregation.

A grain is planted. 

As such it dies to itself.

But it grows into new life for others.

These bulbs will not do anyone any good sitting in this box.  We need to distribute them.  I’ll distribute them in a way that symbolises the distribution of those who – up until today – have been part of the worshipping community known as Scots’ Uniting Church, Sorell.

If you get a bulb, please plant it.

The Sorell congregation is now part of the Clarence congregation, with its two worshipping communities at Lindisfarne and at Bellerive.  Here’s some bulbs for Clarence, one bag for each worshipping group.

The Sorell congregation has had a long-standing relationship with the Ningana Home.  Here’s some bulbs for Ningana.

This Uniting Church congregation here in Sorell has lived, worshipped, and witnessed alongside other congregations.  And I have bulbs for two other local congregations, for St. George’s Anglican Church and for our across-the-street neighbours of St. Thomas’s Catholic Church.

This congregation has received great support in its life from the wider Uniting Church, so here’s some bulbs for the Presbytery office in Launceston. 

There are bulbs for individuals, as well.

During our last few months as a congregation, if everyone who came reasonably regularly showed up on the same Sunday, there were eleven of us.  And there’s a bulb for each of the eleven.

Michelle, from the Presbytery Ministers team, did a brilliant job in providing support and encouragement to the congregation in this process.  Here’s a bulb for Michelle.

Over the past five years, there were plenty of people who drove in and provided worship leadership on occasional Sundays.  You know who you are, and there’s a bulb for each of y’all.

And, if there are any bulbs left, please feel free to take one.  (Can I suggest, kids first?)

A grain is planted. 

As such it dies to itself.

But it grows into new life for others.

And, in the words of someone who has planted more than the occasional bulb in Tasmanian soil, and who recently turned ninety:  “That’s your blooming lot!”

So I suppose it’s time to bloom.

In the name of the Trinity of Love: 
Creator,
Redeemer, and
Giver of Life.
Amen.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

A few new words and their definitions

A few months ago, while walking past some buildings that displayed brass plates for the various medical specialists who practised therein, I noticed a brass plate for an Ear, Nose and Throat Consultant whose name was Dr. Garg.  I observed that this distinguished medico may well have been the person who invented gargling.  (Sorry about this, but this is just the way my mind works.)

Frequently, particularly in the field of medicine, people's names are attached to diseases they've discovered or to medical equipment they've invented.  If your surname is something like Alzheimer or Condom, you may well have a distinguished medical person in your family tree.  (But, nevertheless, it's still rather tedious to be lumbered with such a name while you're in high school.)

I've coined a few terms in recent months, based on the names of people who've inspired the words.  I hope you like them.

Cundallination (noun, with verb form to Cundallinate):   the act of urinating on a lemon tree with the intent of helping the tree to grow and to produce large lemons.  (from Peter Cundall, colourful Launceston horticultural and media identity).

Dawk, to (verb):  to parlay expertise in an area in which one is an acknowledged expert (say, evolutionary biology) into the right to pontificate on subjects in which one has no expertise (say, theology, philosophy, politics).  (from Professor Richard Dawkins, colourful Oxford scientific identity).

Lathamectomy (noun):  the dismissal from a position of responsibility (by a media organisation, political party, religious denomination, academic institution, business enterprise, etc.) of an individual whose outrageous public utterances have proved to be a liability for the organisation, usually well after the outrageous statements have done irreparable damage to the organisation concerned.  (from Mark Lathan, colourful Canberra political identity, turned colourful Sydney media identity).
 
Pellgrimage (noun):  the act of leaving one's country of residence ostensibly for religious reasons, but also to avoid involvement in embarrassing legal proceedings (from Cardinal George Pell, colourful Ballarat religious identity, turned colourful Melbourne religious identity, turned colourful Sydney religious identity, turned colourful Vatican City financial identity).

Trumpdashian (adjective):  seriously rich and seriously tacky, simultaneously.  (a composite of the surnames Trump and Kardashian, from Donald J. Trump, colourful Atlantic City gaming identity, turned colourful New York reality television identity, turned colourful Washington political identity; and from the Kardashian family of colourful Los Angeles reality television identities).

I hope you find these new words useful.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Confessions of a SWAGMan

I have a confession to make.  I'm a SWAGMan. 

No, that doesn't mean that I'm like the guy in the song "Waltzing Matilda".  

SWAGMan (plural:  SWAGMen) stands for "Straight, White, Anglo, Gentile, Male".  I've just coined this term.  I coined it today, in fact.  I hope you like it.  Please use it.  (If you credit me for it, even better!)

Now, I don't want to see being a SWAGMan as a source of either pride or of shame.  I didn't choose to be born a SWAGMan.  It just happened that way.

Now, there are some good SWAGMen and some bad ones.  As it is with any other group in the community, we SWAGMen spend a lot of time apologising for our own bad apples, rather than celebrating the achievements of more positive members of the SWAGMan community.  I personally don't feel I have the right to claim credit for the achievements of such noted SWAGMen as Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates, but neither do I want to be automatically associated with the crimes, sins, misdemeanours, and general inanities ever committed by any person who happens to be a SWAGMan.   (Yes, I know that Donald Trump, Mark Latham, and Franklin Graham are all SWAGMen, but so are Stephen Colbert and Justin Trudeau.)

I know that the social, political, and economic system of every English-speaking nation in the world is set up to maximise the comfort and ease of those of us who happen to be SWAGMen.  While I don't think I've personally ever tried to deliberately game this system, I know I've benefitted from this arrangement, as every other SWAGMan reading this article also has.  While I've been known to protest this unfairness, my protests haven't been as loud, as direct, or as obnoxious as they could have been.

But, speaking now to my fellow-SWAGMen, I think we need to take a good, hard look at ourselves, guys.  Our sense of universal SWAGMan entitlement is wearing a bit thin with our friends, neighbours, colleagues, and family members who don't happen to be SWAGMen. 

Now look, chaps, we can no longer assume that, when the shortlist for a job includes a mediocre SWAGMan and a few top quality applicants who aren't SWAGMen, the job will always go to the mediocre SWAGMan.  (And before you protest that this isn't fair, believe me, dudes, it is fair.  And it only seems unfair to you if you're a SWAGMan who only listens to the opinions of other SWAGMen.)

And one more thing, those of us who are SWAGMen really need to stop whining about this as if SWAGMen are being treated unfairly when people who aren't SWAGMen are treated a bit more fairly than they were before.  We look seriously ridiculous whenever we whine about SWAGMen being an endangered species.

The game is up, blokes.  The fat lady is singing.  And the song isn't "Waltzing Matilda".

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Compassion and "the little grey cells": a sermon for Mothering Sunday (John 9:1-41)

There are many paths down which a person in a pulpit could walk today on this fourth Sunday in Lent.

I could pick up the theme of Refreshment Sunday, one of the traditional names of this day.  It’s a mid-way point during Lent, and a day when Lenten disciplines are relaxed at least a little bit.  The message of this is that being kind to ourselves is also an important part of the life of faith.  We need to make it very clear, both to others and (more importantly) to ourselves that the life of faith should never be a life of masochism.

Picking up another traditional name for this day, there’s Mothering Sunday, with a wealth of possibilities.

  • One possibility is to pay tribute to all who’ve exercised maternal (or at least maternal-like) compassion in their lives:  mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, mothers-in-law, stepmothers, aunts, teachers, child care workers, pet carers, and so on.

  • Another possibility is to express compassion to those mourning the deaths of their mothers, whether the grief is recent or long-standing.

  • Compassion can also be expressed to those whose memories of either parent – or their memories of both parents – are not happy memories:  people with memories of their parents dominated by abuse, cruelty, neglect, absence, unreliability, or of merely growing up in an environment in which every day was expected to be Mothers’ Day, or Fathers’ Day, or both.

  • Another theme is how churches can be creatively countercultural.  In countries that celebrate Mothers’ Day on its North American date in May, if a church celebrates Mothering Sunday during Lent, there’s at least an implied critique of all the commercialised humbug that now surrounds Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day.

  • Another aspect of Mothering Sunday is a social justice one.  There was always a strong theme of child welfare and youth welfare running through the observance of Mothering Sunday in the British Isles, particularly with a concern for the well-being of young people who lived away from home because of work commitments. Similarly, in the early development of Mothers’ Day in North America, an important theme was the notion of the mothers of the world taking united action to promote peace.  (And, in the US, it was originally called “Mothers’ Day for Peace”.)

  • And, if the person in the pulpit wants to be really radical, there is a whole range of maternal metaphors for God within the scriptures that can be explored.  Particularly in the book of Isaiah, there are images of God as giving birth to humanity, and of God breast-feeding humanity.  These are not the predominant images of God in the scriptures, but they’re there, and we need to hear them.

And, moving away from Mothering Sunday, there’s our scripture readings as listed in the three-year lectionary.   The gospel lesson for this day is the incident of Jesus healing a man who was born blind, and doing so on the Sabbath.

While Jesus’ reaction to the blind man was described as immediate, he still needed to weigh up a whole range of concerns in the process:

  • There was Jesus’ profound compassion toward human suffering, a compassion that said “Heal this person now!  (Do not pass GO.  Do not collect …)”

  • There was also Jesus’ profound respect for, and love of, the Torah and traditions of the Jewish people, a respect and love that may have been saying to him “Heal him, but why not wait until the moment the Sabbath is over.”

  • There was also possibly a concern for the well-being of the disciples.  Were they ready … really ready … to face the opposition of the ultraconservative elements in the community, ultraconservative elements sadly found in every faith community? … Could the disciples cope with the wrath of the “Moral Majority” or the spite of the “Religious Right”?

Jesus had to weigh up all these concerns.  He needed to do so quickly.  He used what Hercule Poirot liked to call “the little grey cells”.  And I believe that Jesus calls us to use our “little grey cells” as part of the life of faith.

And Jesus came firmly down on the side of compassion.  And he calls us to do the same thing.  Jesus calls us to a consistent compassion in each aspect of our lives, even if our “little grey cells” may be telling us to fudge the compassion a bit.

And I believe there is a two-fold message in this lesson:
Let us use our "little grey cells" in the life of faith.

Always, always, come down firmly on the side of compassion.