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.

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