Mothering Sunday Sermon (Click here if you are looking for another sermon)
The Reverend Charles Royden March 2010
Today is Mothering Sunday and we have as our Gospel reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We could study it from the point of view of the errant wasteful son, the jealous hardworking son or the ridiculous push over of a father who gave away shed loads of money to allow his son to go and have parties. This year I would like us to think of the importance of family, not domestically but the human family. See if we can appreciate something about the father which enabled him to make a fool of himself, expose himself to ridicule and hardship, because he believed that it was really important to try and hold together the ones he loved.
I want to do this because as I look at the human family I see so many divisions and bitterness and hatred and killings. And as I look at the church I see so many factions and divisions and threats of schism, a willingness to fracture the church.
I have not always been a tremendous fan of the Bishop of Liverpool the Rt Reverend James Jones, but he has recently been making some statements of importance which I really do applaud. When speaking about current controversy within the church, he has taken us back to the passionate debates between conscripts and pacifists during the two World Wars. He said that we should look to the day when Christians who profoundly disagree on subjects should nevertheless, in spite of their disagreement, drink openly from the same cup of salvation. He reflected that there should be a new chapter of fellowship and tolerance in the Church
‘Just as Christian pacifists and Christian soldiers profoundly disagree with one another, yet, in their disagreement, continue to drink from the same cup because they share in one body,’
The Church Times decided to follow this up with poll on their website this week asking if those who disagree on sexuality should stay in communion - after you have voted it tells you what the current voting stands at, It was 61% for and 39% against, which is mildly encouraging.
There is so much more which unites us than divides us. At the heart of this unity lies the fact that we share the same parent, that we are children of the same family, brothers and sisters. So it is that this Sunday we have a parable which uses the illustration of a family. We are not sure where the mother was in the story, but God is clearly shown as a parent in the character of the father.
We are like the children in the story, who are contrasted so clearly with the goodness of the father.
The brothers are jealous and undeserving, selfish and proud, whilst the father is forgiving, tolerant, caring and loving.
It is a great parable for Lent. As we go through Lent we use the word repentance over and over again and we talk about us changing to make ourselves more acceptable to God. Lent is often associated with giving bad things up or starting to do good things instead.
It is good therefore to be reminded that Easter is not about our actions. It isn’t about our repentance, it isn’t about us at all. No, it’s about the one who atoned for us, the one who died for us while we were yet sinners, the one who rushes out to welcome us home with open arms and rejoices every time he finds us wandering down the road.
We do well to remember this as we fight with each other and criticise each others views and behaviour.
The view is often taken the religion causes wars. However God is not the source of such conflict it is something wicked inside our souls.
The Church Times this week also carries the news of the increasing violence and killing of hundreds of people in Nigeria.
Archbishop Kwashi wrote
“Some of these communities may never again be recognised in history because genera tions have been wiped out. Hundreds of corpses of men, women, children, and grandchildren littered the burnt houses, roads, bush paths, farm areas, and hiding places. Tears and endless wailings until voices croaked and words are no more.”
In Nigeria we see hundreds killed in sectarian violence, but this is has been seen across the world, in our lifetimes, Europe, the Balkans, Sudan and the Middle East
Conflict nothing to do with religion, but rather economics and power.
There is a traditional pattern to this violence
- One group feels treated unfairly.
Who does that remind you of in the story today?
- One group think that the other groups has come and taken their wealth and prosperity. Who does that remind you of in the story today?
This is true not just in the parable of the prodigal son, it is true of situations of violence and murder across all of our world. It happens because we see our differences.
People who once lived side by side can be induced to hate. That is why it is so important that Christians are encouraged to use their vote in the forthcoming elections. I notice that our Diocesan website has information encouraging Christians to vote and stating in one document
The Church of England celebrates the diversity found in its parishes, schools and congregations, and the contribution of this diverse people to the life of their communities and churches. The Church of England is also aware of its own need to be constantly vigilant regarding racism and all forms of prejudice in its common life and structures.
Note how the statement stresses diversity, because it recognises that hatred comes from seeing the difference. If Christians do not exercise their vote then we are partly to blame when unsuitable people are elected on very small numbers of votes.
I note that the Methodist Church this week has joined with The Baptist Union of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church in questioning whether the BNP should be allowed to stand as a party in the General Election, because the constitution remains discriminatory.
Rachel Lampard, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church said,
“Every human being is created in the image of God and every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their nationality.”
The churches highlighted three particular areas of concern with the BNP’s policies;
- the abolition of anti-discrimination laws
- a halt on all new immigration, together with repatriation policies and plans to review all recent grants of residency or citizenship
- cutting all foreign aid.
The point about all of these things is that they seek to exploit the difference. In all of the sectarian violence and killing across the world it is the same. Others are shown to be different and getting more, this can be used to manufacture jealousy and hate
The very worst thing is that religion often gets used to justify this hatred and when people feel that God is on their side, then things get really ugly..
That is when we allow ourselves to
- Hate, in name of the God of love
- Show cruelty in the name of the God of compassion
- And kill in the name of the God of life
That explains how in the 20th Century as a result of race, nationalism and political ideology 100million people have been killed.
This is why the statement by Bishop James Jones is so important because it encourages us as Christians to live out the example of unity and forgiveness and love. We have to lead by example, showing how we respect and value people who have different views than our own.
So we come back to the parable and we recognise our common parentage.
All human beings are created in the image of God, we have a common humanity which precedes our religious divides.
The Human Genome Project has taught us a great deal about DNA. Interestingly, the Director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, Francis Collins, is a Christian. He claims there is a rational basis for a creator God and that scientific discoveries bring man “closer to God”. Collins was an atheist until the age of 27, when as a young doctor he was impressed by the strength that faith gave to some of his most critical patients.
“They had terrible diseases from which they were probably not going to escape, and yet instead of railing at God they seemed to lean on their faith as a source of great comfort and reassurance,” he said. “That was interesting, puzzling and unsettling.”
The Human Genome Project has helped to inform us about how remarkably similar all human beings are 99.9% at the DNA level. Those who wish to draw racial boundaries around certain groups cannot use science as a legitimate justification. Recognition of how much we have in common is a key to being able to overcome our differences.
We also share 50% of our DNA worth bananas and 98% with chimpanzees, but that only serves to illustrate further that we are all created out of God. Our DNA is DNA from God. Christians say that God created the world ‘ex nihilio,’ or ‘out of nothing’, and that is used to show that God created a good world, he produced the stuff from which we and the world were made, not another evil creator, so creation is good.
It is perhaps better on this Sunday to think that God created the world not ‘out of nothing’, but out of God, himself or herself. This world is God’s, its is God’s DNA.
This means that when we strike out and hate other human beings we strike out at God's DNA, at another human made in the image of God.
God made us to need each other and this relationship to one another as a part of God’s family is so important.
The Franciscan Friar Salimbene relates a story about the Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. He was not a pleasant man and indulged in some ghastly experiments. In one it is said
‘he fed two men most excellently at dinner, one of whom he sent forthwith to sleep, and the other to hunt; and that same evening he caused them to be disembowelled in his presence, wishing to know which had digested the better: and it was judged by the physicians in favour of him who had slept.'
In another he was intrigued about the origins of language. Therefore he ordered that some children be raised from birth in complete silence, in order to ascertain what language they would speak. Perhaps they might spontaneously speak the Language of Heaven. Frederick’s experiment was performed by
‘bidding foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no wise to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.’
It seems that the children never learnt to speak any language. They died in infancy. This is because we live, develop and grow as human, by being immersed in the nurture, love and encouragement of each other. We need each other so much that the untouched newborn may literally die. In South Africa the Xhosa have a saying ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ or ‘a person becomes a person through persons’.
It is as we share the love of others that we become human. In being known and loved we know and love. It is through humans that we come to know the love of God and learn about the ways of God.
This brings us back to where we started with the father who gave away all he had and was willing to give up everything, his dignity his wealth, expose himself to ridicule and hardship, because he believed that it was really important to try and hold together the ones he loved.
This father knew the importance of keeping the children together, he did not want there to be hatred and bitterness, he showed forgiveness by example.
This brings to mind a passage from Philippians 2 with which I will leave you today. In it the Apostle Paul encourages unity. He asks for people not to be selfish, to think of others and he speaks of Jesus, putting aside his dignity and showing humility. Paul tells us that Jesus did this for a very special reason, to bring the love of God to every human soul.
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.