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Sunday, 6 March 2016

What constitutes family life? Remembering Jesus and his Mother

Here is my sermon from today's 10.00am Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

In our ongoing series of evenings about dementia at St Martin-in-the-Fields we explore what it means to become a more dementia-friendly church and what the experience of dementia might teach us about God. Our most recent session was entitled ‘Praying with Dementia’ and included an opportunity to explore dementia-inclusive worship together.

The liturgy that we used that evening was led and prepared by Revd Edward Thornley, the Assistant Curate (Chaplain) at St Marylebone Parish Church, and was taken from a service that was originally held at a dementia care home in Norfolk on Mothering Sunday in 2012. The care home where this service originally took place was a residential community for ninety residents, all of whom were elderly people who suffered from advanced stages of dementia in various forms. The service used today’s Gospel reading (John 19. 25b - 27) and was designed to provide a flexible, gentle, meditative space in an often painful and difficult environment.

Family members of residents were contacted prior to the service, to bring objects and examples which they could share during the service, which would be relevant to them and their families. It was a happy service because of the memories brought back to people, although it was equally a hard service for some, as they mourned the fact that those were times past. The service was designed to keep people in the present, and to appreciate how that same person who they loved was still there, and how they could recognize each other, through sharing memories and objects.

When we used this liturgy at ‘Praying with Dementia’ those who shared their memories used photographs, a blanket and a mobile phone to prompt memories of their mothers, before we all then shared memories with each other in pairs. The different items that had prompted memories were gathered together and displayed on a central table as a visual reminder of all that had been shared.

Our starting point had been the simple observation that Jesus remembered his mother while on the cross and our liturgy, in its simplicity and familiarity, aimed to reawaken memory of those who, for good or ill, are foundational to our lives, experiences and memories. We were reminded that the simplest things we see and do can often be the most profound and those that touch us in the deepest places.

This time of sharing was also a reminder to us that remembering, both in the sense of bringing back to mind and also of re-enacting is central to who we are as people. As Katherine Hedderly highlighted later that same evening, “The community of the church has a special place in this work because it is a community of remembrance and resurrection. “‘Do this’ in remembrance of me.” We remember what Jesus did and we act upon it in the present. We are witnesses to the living memory of Jesus in the world, to God’s living presence with us, as we are re-membered, or reformed, as a community together. Holding in our midst with love those who no longer have their memory, must be a special task for the church, because we know in a very special way what it means to know who we are because someone remembered us; Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

Jesus' remembering of his mother occurred while he was undergoing the most extreme agony personally. For some of us, to remember our mothers in the way we have just been discussing, might involve complex and conflicted memories which bring back to mind some of our more painful moments in life. Jesus ministered in and through and out of his pain; remembering particular people (his mother and John, his disciple), forgiving those who tortured and mocked him, and dying for the salvation of all.

It is from reflection on those experiences and actions of Jesus, that the idea of the wounded healer has come. This is the idea that our own pain and difficulties - our wounds - do not necessarily preclude us from ministry but may provide a resource or source from which our ministry can flow. To remember and reach out to support, sustain and strengthen others whilst remaining wounded ourselves may be, as was the case for Jesus, among the deepest and most profound of our ministries to others.

In bringing his mother into a mother-son relationship with one of his disciples, Jesus was extending our understanding and concept of what constitutes family life. For John to view Jesus' biological mother as his mother and for Mary to view John as her son, went beyond ties of blood into other forms of relationship. We could talk in terms of adoption (although in our day and time that word has a legal definition that is narrower than what is happening here) or we could talk in terms of extended families (a more helpful phrase, which we have, in part, lost sight of in a time when we still think primarily of nuclear families). However, we choose to categorise what Jesus did here, we need to recognise that he was initiating a family relationship which was not based on ties of blood and that this necessarily opens up space in which a range of family structures and family ties become possible.

The Nativity story also sets out unconventional and non-idealised relationships which God chose to use at the beginning of Jesus’ life; a conception outside of marriage, a relationship on the brink of divorce, a foster-father, a birth in cramped and crowded circumstances, an immediate threat to life followed by refugee status. When these are added to the fact that, during his ministry, Jesus called his followers to leave behind their family obligations in order to follow him, said that families would be divided because some would respond to him and others not, while, on one occasion, when told his family were outside, said: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Whoever does what my Father in heaven wants is my brother, my sister, and my mother", we see that conventional structures for family life were not really a major priority in Jesus’ thinking or praxis. Jesus’ emphasis in his teaching was on his followers as his family, rather than his blood and adoptive relatives, while his death was for the entire family of God - all people everywhere. What we might now call Mother Church was, therefore, the key family relationship which was at the fore-front of Jesus’ teaching and practice.

Within this he seems less interested in particular structures for our relationships and more interested in those relationships being ones which nurture those who are in relationship, whilst also being open to support others in need through that same relationship. On this basis, it does not matter whether we are in a nuclear family, single parent family, same-sex family, extended family etc. What matters is the quality of relationships within that family and our openness to others. Just as the diverse objects on the table at the Dementia evening were brought together and held together in worship, so our diverse relationships can also be held together within the context of the Church.

I had specific experience as I was growing up of a nuclear family that sought to become an extended family. My parents called the various homes in which we lived 'The Oasis', as they had decided that they wanted their homes to be places of refreshment and renewal to those who thought they were in the wilderness. My father’s different jobs as a social worker, lecturer and landscape gardener meant that we lived in five different homes up to and including my teenage years, but, in each place that we lived, they met young people that they unofficially adopted into our family and supported, as those people lived through the difficulties or issues they were dealing with at the time. My mother keeps in touch with all these people, who were able, in part through the support of my parents, to overcome the issues they faced in the early part of their lives, and go on to find jobs and have families themselves. I was reminded of this only last week, when my mother went to stay with one of these families to offer support after the wife had had an operation for cancer.

In a society which, at the time, was predominantly based on nuclear families their actions were to some extent unusual, but would have been much less unusual in the society of Jesus' day and time, based as it was on a model of extended families. Our own day and time has, as we know, seen a growth of alternative family structures meaning that we can celebrate today all those who act as mothers or parents to others outside of biological ties, including all those who adopt or foster, but also thinking outside those legalised frameworks for care.

We have reflected that in Jesus’s life and teaching there is less of a focus on the structures of our relationships and more of an emphasis on relationships which are characterised by qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. These are qualities with which our New Testament reading from Colossians calls us to clothe ourselves (Colossians 3. 12 - 17). They are qualities that we can easily associate with motherhood but which are applicable to all of us as Christians. In Colossians 3 we are called to bear with one another, forgive each other; clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony, and let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, to which we were called in the one body. These are all actions which are consistent with what we understand mothers, at their best, to do for their children. But the call, here, is to practice these qualities not just in our families and among our blood relatives, but with all those we encounter and, especially, here in Church. They are, perhaps, then, maternal qualities for application in Mother Church.

Finally, it is worth reflecting that, on the road to the cross, Jesus described himself as a mother hen wanting to gather the people of Jerusalem under his sheltering and nurturing wing. The scriptural witness is that that is precisely what he did through his death on the cross whereby he draws all people to himself. In Ephesians we are told that he broke down the dividing wall of hostility between us, creating, in himself, one new humanity, making peace and reconciling us to God in one body through the cross. He acted, therefore, like a mother sacrificing herself for her children. So, as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our mother, we are called to fashion our lives on her sacrifice and example by clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with and forgiving one another, letting the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.


The Waterboys - All The Things She Gave Me.

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