Mothering Sunday

It’s Mothers Day and the kids have sorted out breakfast in bed. They’ve given their mom their presents and she’s had her choice of DVD so we’re sat here watching Frozen (the story of which I blame completely on bad parenting).

But Mother’s Day isn’t always straight-forward. Many people struggle with their relationship with their mother, others never had that relationship in the first place. Others were abandoned, others were abused. Some women were never able to have children, others know the pain of losing a son or daughter. This isn’t the easiest of days for many.

But there’s a phrase ‘Mother Church’. It’s a bit of archaic term, we don’t hear it much nowadays, but maybe there can be truth in it. We talk about good game about how church is a family, a community, and that’s a reality we need to embrace, especially on days like this.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of how her church, which had initially been made up of younger, ‘alternative’ people, suddenly started being attended by middle-class baby boomers. This sparked a bit of an identity crisis until one girl stood up and hit the nail on the head: “I’m glad there are people here who look like my mom and dad,” she said, “Because they love me and my own parents can’t.”

There’s a word there about God’s heart for each one of us, a heart that the Bible describes in terms of motherhood, and the Church should be a reflection of that. Often it fails – I’ve written here about the way in which families with disabilities are often pushed to the ecclesiastical margins, and we can all think of other examples of how religious communities can shun, condemn and ostracised. All that does is push people away from God, but when Church gets it right, it shows the heart of Christ to the world.

So that’s why intergenerational church communities are so important, that’s why taking an interest in the lives of those sitting next to us in the pews is a ministry in itself. That’s why Sunday Schools can be a lifeline, that’s why Saying Goodbye services can mean so much to so many.

It’s Mothering Sunday, to use the old fashioned name. While that’s a day to honour and remember and treat our moms, maybe it’s also a day to commit ourselves to being a Mothering Church as well.

Always Listen to Old Ladies (Acts 6:1-6)

So, the early church – shining example of ecclesiastical perfection or not?

It’s easy to romanticise those first few years after Pentecost, but chapters like Acts 6 point to a far more complex situation. Here we read that, while the Hebrew speaking widows in the church were being looked after, Greek widows were getting overlooked in the distribution of food. This cultural faultline was a problem that festered away under the surface until eventually the apostles had to jump in and sort things out. But why did it get to be a problem in the first place? Because no-one was listening to the Greek speakers? Because no-one was listening to the women? We can admire how the apostles dealt with the situation, and that’s fine, but why was no-one talking to each other in the first place? Why were vulnerable people being overlooked over something as important as food?

Maybe this particular organisational problem was caused by everyone taking their eyes off the basics; no-one was looking out for a whole group of Christians, part of their own extended spiritual family. There were hungry people out there who weren’t being fed, and it seems that even the apostles had been dropping the ball. You’d’ve thought they would have been on top of things – after all, these were the guys who had picked up leftovers after the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. But hey, even then they only counted the men who ate; They weren’t so accuate about the women and children.

So yeah, the apostles eventually sorted out the logistics of distributing food to a whole bunch of widows who were at risk of starving. They had fixed an important problem, but take a step back: someone had to listen to those widows. Someone had to be relationship with them, someone had to advocate for them. I don’t know, this may be heresy, but I reckon the apostles found out about this problem because of some old lady, who’s already sorting out all the church’s cooking and cleaning in the first place, finally cornered Peter at the end of a meeting and wouldn’t let him leave until he promised to get the whole thing sorted.

(Always listen to busy old ladies. They know more about what’s going on than you do.)

(Don’the you think it’s odd that one of the people chosen to distribute food while the apostles focus on preaching the Word is, in the very next story, arrested and executed for preaching the Word? Maybe it’s harder to separate all these things than we might think.)

Problems begin when everyone’s busy having debates about, say, the mechanism for feeding vulnerable elderly people, but no-one’s actually doing the cooking, no-one’s loading up the van, no-one’s getting the food out there, no-one’s in relationship with the people they’really serving, no-one’s even doing the washing up. And by the time the gears of bureaucracy finally turn, there’s already been too many scared elderly people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

For the church to truly be the church we need to constantly have our fingers on the pulse of our communities. We can’t get so caught up in theological debates and organisational maintenance and political campaigning that we miss when someone living next door doesn’t have enough to eat. Because that’s where Jesus wants us to be, and sometimes the first to realise that aren’t priests or CEO’s.

It’s all those busy old ladies.

Feeding the Five Thousand: What happened to the leftovers? 

So the feeding of the five thousand is a pretty well known story: Jesus miraculously multiples five loaves and two fish to feed a massive crowd. It’s a Sunday School classic. But here’s my question: what happened to the leftovers?

We learn from the story that, after everyone had eaten their fill, the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. But even if those baskets were lunchbox-style things, that’s still a lot of food going to waste. Those leftovers may have been binned, I guess, or the disciples might have dived in next time they felt peckish. Or, as I’d like to think, they took those baskets into town and helped people out – after all, there were plenty who lived hand to mouth at the time. The same conversation can be had about a couple of other miracles: John 21’s miraculous catch of fish, for instance, or the feeding of the 4,000.

That last one gives us a hint as to where we can go with all this. It’s a parallel story to feeding the 5,000 but this time there are seven baskets left over. This isn’t a coincidence – the twelve original baskets represent the tribes of Israel, while the seven baskets represent the gentile nations. These miracles are royal metaphors, the Messiah inaugurating a different Kingdom, a Kingdom in which, among other things, the hungry would be fed. These baskets existed because everyone had eaten their fill.

So. Today millions face starvation in South Sudan in a world where obesity kills more people than hunger. It’s a problem if you retrieve perfectly good food from a dumpster but we accept it being thrown away in the first place. Food waste is something we need to tackle; what we eat – or don’t eat – is a justice issue. From a Christian prespective, the blessings we receive should always be used to also bless those around us; the edges of our harvest should always be up for grabs. It’s one of the ways we show which Kingdom we’re living for.

It’s easy to hear the great old stories of faith and miss the finer details, details which nevertheless point to how applicable they are to life in the here and now. We ignore them at our peril; we’re blessed to be a blessing, and even our leftovers can be sacred.

Ash Wednesday: The Ashes of our Crosses

There are too many Swastikas around nowadays.

I never thought I’d need to say that; I grew up at a time when Nazi iconography was frowned upon, so seeing the resurgence of the Swastika as a symbol of white nationalism and hate is a shocking reminder that these things never really got away, they just get rebranded.

My instinct is to fight back, to deploy a better symbol aso a gesture of defiance and hope. As a Christian, that means the Cross, but something stopped me from blithely suggesting we all bring out our crucifixes. Because, blasphemous as this is, we’ve made our symbol of love and grace, hope and redemption into something problematic. The KKK used burning crosses as an act of terror; now branches of the church are complicit with politics and attitudes that actively destroy lives. In doing that we’ve turned the cross into a mechanism, a banner, something to get us into heaven, something to march under so we can be sure we’re comfortable before we get there. The idolatry of our anger and fear conspire to turn the Cross into a heresy of terror.

I’m scared we’ve neutered our greatest symbol. I’m scared people see our cross as yet another form of oppression.

So. Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this year’s ashes come from the burning of palm crosses blessed in the previous twelve months. Even this is a picture of resurrection – there are ashes today, but Easter’s coming soon. And I can’t help but think that, this year at least, we need to let our use and understanding of the Cross pass through the fire.

We need to repent.

We need to face up to the ways in which we’ve co-opted Jesus and his cross into our culture wars.

We need to ask forgiveness of everyone we’ve driven away from God

Many churches now do public Ash Wednesday services where anyone can receive the ashes on their forehead. But wouldn’t this be a great time to wear the ashes ourselves as a public act of repentance for the sins and the mistakes of the church? To start rebuilding a few bridges into the communities we’ve marginalised?

Sometimes the most powerful outeach starts with a “sorry”.

The Cross was once a means of humiliation and execution, but it was transformed by Christ into a symbol of love and grace, and when we lose that we’re just another Empire. The “foolishness” of the Cross isn’t intrinsic, it’s granted by the transformative sacrifice of Jesus. Lose that, lose the love and grace, lose Jesus and the Cross becones nothing. The Church becomes nothing.

Ash Wednesday is a time to confront our past, our mortality, our mistakes, our sin. In a world where Swastikas and their ideology are resurgent, we need to utterly reject our silence, our apathy, our tacit support, rejecting the politically symbol we’ve made of the Cross and rediscover the true love and mercy and justice of Calvary.

Let us reclaim Christ’s Cross and, in doing so, pray for redemption, for transformation, for the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to come.

(This is part of a conversation which started, I guess, here.)

Shrove Tuesday: The Party’s Over

Traditionally Shrove Tuesday represents the last day before Lent, a time to wolf down all the food from which the devout would fast over the coming 40 days. The tradition of eating pancakes stems from this, as does Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the end of the Carnival season that runs from Epiphany through to Lent. The message remains the same even if the traditions are radically different: we’re heading into a time of repentance and absolution, so drink up, it’s closing time for a while. The party’s over.

But there’s an issue here. We’re comfortable, we’re well-fed and warm, we don’t want to surrender anything to Lent, at least nothing that actually costs something. And while this is true for us as individuals, it’s exponentially true of the church as a collective. We stand at the edge of our forty days in the wilderness, eating our pancakes and watching the technicolour dancing, reluctant to join Jesus out in the desert. Because we know the temptations he faces out there in the scorching, hungry heat, and we’re ever so concerned that we’ve already given in to every. Single. One.

There’s a danger, this close to the Cross, of getting greedy – greedy for power, greedy for influence, greedy for status. And even though we’re standing at the edge of Lent, we don’t want to give these things up; we think they’re going to build the Kingdom, so much so that we don’t stop to think about why Jesus rejected his temptatons so roundly. Instead we walk the corridors of power, thinking we’re changing the world when instead the world is changing us, a city on a hill, yes, but one decorated with barbed wire and machine gun nests. We say our King is on the throne but maybe, just maybe, he’s still being crucified outside our walls.

Lent offers us the opportunity to let go of things that hold us down. Sometimes we say that’s chocolate or cigarettes or Twitter, but collectively they’re more insidious habits – complacency, injustice, idolatry, riches, self-righteousness… Maybe this year, as the world trembles, we need to take the next forty days seriously, we need to be transformed by Lent rather than coopting it for our own agendas.

The food is eaten, the party’s over, and we’re faced with two potential destinations – our palaces or the desert. One will keep us safe, even at the expense of others; one may allow us to meet Christ in the wilderness. The choice we make affects not just us but everyone around us, so as the music of our carnivals fades, may we hear the whispering of the Spirit, showing us the way to go.