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Sunday, 6 March 2016

Love bade me welcome

Please scroll down for the main sermon and its podcast - I did add some additional stuff, so it is slightly different.

Children's Talk - Mothering Sunday

It will not have escaped your notice that it's Mothers' Day today. But what you might not realise is that it's also Mothering Sunday, which is a church thing. Mothers' Day is basically a commercial festival, useful for making money for retailers by selling flowers at twice what they normally cost. But Mothering Sunday is only tangentially about human mothers.

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and it’s long been known as Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday – it’s half-way through Lent, and in days when people kept it rather more strictly than they do now, it was a day when you could relax the rules a little. And the tradition grew up that on that day, you went to the mother church in your area – often the cathedral, but it might have just been the largest church in your area.

Families went together, and it became traditional for servants to have time off to go home and see their families on that day, if they lived near enough. In the Middle Ages, servants may only have got one day off a year, and it was, traditionally, the 4th Sunday in Lent. Many servants had to leave home when they were very young – only about 11 or 12 – because their parents simply couldn't afford to feed them any longer. And, indeed, many of these children hadn't known what a full tummy felt like until they started work. But even so, they must have missed their families, and been glad to see them every year.

And today is also a day for remembering God’s love for us. We’re having the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent today, but if we’d had the traditional Mothering Sunday readings, we would have heard Jesus weeping over Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you. I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you wouldn't let me.”

The image of Jesus as a mother hen! What we remember on Mothering Sunday isn’t just our mothers, although that, too, but above all, the wonderful love of God, our Father and our Mother.

We do give thanks for our mothers, of course we do. But we have to remember, too, people whose Mums are no longer with us, and to remember that some people didn't have satisfactory relationships with their own Mums, and some people have never known the joy of motherhood. The Church isn't always very tactful about Mothers Day, I'm afraid – I used to find it very patronising, especially considering that for the rest of the year I was rather left to get on with it, and was told that the loneliness and isolation and lack of fellowship was “the price you pay for the wonderful privilege of being a Christian Mother!” As if....

But we can all celebrate God's wonderful love for each and every one of us. 


 Love Bade Me Welcome

This is such a familiar story, isn't it? We probably first heard it in primary school, and have heard it on and off down the years ever since.

Jesus had a couple of stories that began, “A farmer had two sons”. I shouldn't wonder if he didn't flesh them out a bit, give them names, and so on, and when he started a new story about them, the crowd would relax, knowing that a favourite type of story was coming. That's slightly a fantasy of mine, but don't you think the two sons who were asked to help in the vineyard were the same two sons as in this story, only younger?

Well, we don't know why the younger son got fed up with his comfortable life on the farm; Jesus didn't go into details about his family background, or, if he did, Luke didn't record them! Perhaps he was being asked to marry a girl he really disliked – or perhaps he'd fallen in love with the wrong girl. Or perhaps he just found farm work boring, and the lights of the big city more attractive. Whatever, he goes to his father and asks for his share of his inheritance, and takes off.

Now, it was really awful of him to ask that – he was more or less saying “I can't wait until you're dead!”. And, of course, it wasn't a matter of going to the bank and writing a cheque – it was a matter of ­dividing up the farm, letting the younger son have a certain number of fields and buildings, and a certain amount of stock. But this story is taking place in God's country, where the rules are not the same as ours, so the farmer does just that, and a few days later, when the son has sold all this – I wonder if he sold it back to his father, I wouldn't put it past him – he lets his son go with his blessing.

And the son goes off to seek his fortune in the big city.

But, like so many of us, he doesn't make a fortune. Instead, he wastes what he has on what the older translations of the Bible called “riotous living” - “reckless living” is what the Good News Bible calls it. You know the kind of thing – fashionable clothes, champagne, caviar, top-of-the-range smartphones, expensive callgirls, fast cars, and so on and so forth. They perhaps didn't have quite those things in his day, but very similar! And he almost definitely gambled, and may even have taken drugs as well.

And, inevitably, it all goes horribly wrong and he wakes up one morning with no money and with his creditors ringing the doorbell. And he is forced to earn his living as best he can.

I don't think we Christians can ever quite realise the absolute horror of what happened next. We don't have the utter horror of pigs that the Jews had and have. We think of pigs, we think of bacon and sausages and roast pork with crispy crackling; for the Jews – and, I gather, for Muslims, too – it was more like taking a job on a rat farm. In terms of actual work, it probably wasn't much different from the work he'd been used to, but he would be an outcast among his own kind, and we gather from the story that he wasn't paid very well, either. He was hungry, to the point where even the pigs' food looked good. I wonder if he was working for one of his creditors?

Anyway, one morning he wakes up and thinks to himself, “What on earth am I doing? Even my father treats his people better than this – maybe he'd take me on as a farm worker.”

You notice, perhaps, that he doesn't say he's sorry. He doesn't appear to regret having left home, only finding himself in this fix. And yes, he would be better off working for his father than he is here.

And again, we know what happened next. Father rushes out to greet him – and men simply never ran in that place and time, but remember that this story takes place in God's country, and anything can happen there. The celebrations go on and on.

Elder brother is most put out. He has been working hard all the time, and nobody ever gave him a party, did they? And this wastrel, who has caused so much grief, is being treated like a prince. What's all that about?

Well, the elder brother could have had a party any day in the week, if he'd wanted one. He'd never said, had he? He'd seemed quite content with his lifestyle. Perhaps underneath, though, he was seriously jealous of his brother. No, not jealous, that's the wrong word. Envious. Perhaps he wish he had had the guts to cut loose and make a life of his own. We don't know.

But whatever, Father's reaction seemed to him to be well out of order. He wished his Father had said, “Get out – how dare you show your face around here!”

Or that Father had said “Well, I suppose you can be a servant, but no way are you coming back into this family.”

Or, perhaps, “Well, if you work really hard and prove to me you're really sorry, I might be prepared to forgive you – in about ten years' time and providing you are absolutely perfect during that time!”

But for Father to rush up and hug Little Brother, and to be calling for champagne and throwing a party – well, that was definitely out of order, as far as Big Brother was concerned. His only hope was that Little Brother would insist on being treated as a servant: “No, no, you can't give me a party! I don't deserve it. I'm going to live above the stables with the other workers, and behave like a worker, not your son!”

You know, that's what I think I would have done. I don't know about you, but I find being forgiven the hardest thing there is. Responding to God's love is really hard. I want to earn my forgiveness, earn God's love, God's approval.

But it doesn't work like that, does it? The bit of Luke Chapter 15 that we didn't read was the other two “lost” stories – the lost sheep and the lost coin. We don't blame the coin for getting lost; we know how easy it is to drop something, or to put it down in a safe place, and we can't find it. Just as I was settling down to prepare this sermon, Robert rang up to say his bag had been stolen, with all his credit cards, his phone, his keys.... in fact, it hadn't been stolen at all, someone had moved it, but great was our rejoicing when we learnt that!

We don't really blame the sheep for wandering off, either. Sheep are dumb animals – well, noisy ones, really, but stupid ones, whatever – and if they can get into trouble, they will. But the Good Shepherd isn't going to lose one if he can help it; he'll be pulling on his coat and wellies as soon as he realises one has gone missing, and set off with his dogs to find it.

You might say that is over the top – but again, this is God's country, the Kingdom of Heaven, and anything can happen there. In God's country there is more joy over one lost sheep being found than over the 99 that stayed in their field.

But we can and we do blame the young man for running off. Perhaps we would like to run off, who knows? In any case, we can identify with him. We know we can – and maybe we have – done dreadful things like that. And we don't like it, like the big brother didn't like it, when the Father forgives him so generously and open-heartedly, even without his repenting properly. He came home, he is here again, this calls for a drink! No, we think, this won't do. I can't be forgiven that easily. It can't be that simple. I need to earn it.

But we can't earn it. We can't earn forgiveness. We can't earn salvation. Sometimes we speak, and maybe even think, that salvation is down to us, that we need to say the special prayer so that God will save us. No. Salvation is all God's idea, and God has a great deal more invested in the relationship than we do. God pours out his love on us unconditionally, and all we need do is accept it.

There's a lovely poem by a 17th-century poet called George Herbert which I'm going to finish with today, as it does summarise what I'm trying to say here:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

May we all “sit and eat”, and receive God's love and forgiveness, not as we deserve, but as He desires. Amen.