Sermon notes: Expanding the family

Christ_preaching_before_a_crowd._Woodcut._Wellcome_V0034716_wikiSERMON NOTES, PROPER 5, YEAR B (June 7, 2015; preached at Church of the Good Shepherd)

Most of us, from time to time in our childhoods, tried to persuade our parents to let us have or do something because all the other kids had or did it.

Many parents respond to this with, “If all the other kids decided to jump off a cliff, would you jump too?” My father would make me name all of said other kids, who usually turned out to number a minority in the class, and who were not infrequently the same group in any recital of this sort. Then he’d point out how many other children also had mean daddies, and that would be the end of the discussion.

Some parents give in to this form of pressure, whether because of weariness or because they actually believe that it is important to be like all the other kids. One of the more surprising examples of a parent who caves – and I am sure that, in this case, it’s due to weariness with whiny children – is Yahweh, in the reading from 1 Samuel in today’s lectionary.

The Israelites were traditionally ruled by judges, like Deborah and Samson. They decided thorny matters for their people. The nations around Israel, however, had kings, and they wielded more power. The people decided that they wanted a king, too.

God had the prophet Samuel tell them all the things they’ll hate about having a king: “He’s going to take your sons for soldiers and farmers and workmen, and your daughters to be cooks and perfumers and other things we won’t mention. He’s going to grab the best of everything you have – your fields, your vineyards, your orchards, your crops, your slaves – and divvy them up for himself and his pals. He’ll grab everything he wants, and you won’t have any say in the matter. You’re going to hate it.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel, and said “No! We want to be like all the other kids!” And God sighed, and the people ended up with one tall and handsome but incompetent king, one very handsome and extremely cunning king who was also a fine musician, and one who wasn’t able to hold the kingdom together, so that it fell apart even before various empires started running roughshod over its fragments.

The kings were supposed to protect the people from the other kings and kingdoms, and they didn’t do that. And the people did hate it.

Most of us, at some point in our young adulthoods, asserted our independence from our parents. It’s a necessary part of growing up.

We see Jesus doing that in today’s reading from Mark. When his mother and siblings heard what people were saying – “He’s out of his mind!” – they braved the crowds and went to fetch him home.

I have no doubt that this was because of genuine concern for Jesus. He was challenging authority, in a time and place where challenging authority was not remotely a good idea. He was getting the Temple authorities worked up over his words and deeds; he was getting the better of them in their impromptu debates.

They’d say, “He has an unclean spirit,” which translates to, “He’s nuts,” and he’d respond in a fashion that proved emphatically that he was perfectly sane. He was drawing unwelcome attention to himself, and in first-century Palestine that was not a safe practice.

So Mary and her other children went to bring home the wayward one, and talk some sense into him. And he refused.

This is a big change. In the second chapter of the gospel of John, we read about the wedding at Cana. They ran out of wine, and Mary turned to Jesus and said, “They’re out of wine.“ Jesus told her, “That’s not my problem; it’s not my time.” She ignored him and told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” So Jesus had them fill up the water jars, and he turned the water into excellent wine.

Now it is his time, his time to stand up and follow the path set out for him.

His words – “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” – are sometimes interpreted as a rejection of his family, and, even, sometimes, as a suggestion that others’ family members who don’t go along with a particular version of God’s will should be cut off. (That’s not a typically Anglican response, I am happy to note.)

Jesus is clearly not rejecting his family, however. We later see Jesus speaking tenderly to his mother as her worst nightmare comes true; we know that Jesus’s brother James became the head of the fledgling Church in Jerusalem.

Instead, we see Jesus resolutely pushing aside the protection his birth family attempts to give him. We see him stepping out, eventually to be hailed as the Messiah, even though he knows what happens to those who disturb the status quo in Roman-occupied Palestine.

In that time and place, the extended family was the foundation of society. Everything was calculated by kinship – for an extreme example of that, see the priestly caste – with cousins most often marrying cousins. And if you weren’t family, you weren’t anything, at least as far as most people were concerned.

In this moment, we see Jesus opening a door to wider considerations of what constitute family. In the same way, the new Church will open the faith to “the nations” – the Gentiles – as well as to Jews. In the same way, the Church will overcome tribalism and nationality, and welcome all to the Body of Christ.

It’s a courageous act and a meaningful act on Jesus’s part. It is one of the first of many such that we will see from him along these lines, from speaking to Samaritans to healing the slave of a Roman centurion. Jesus is giving notice that the Kingdom of God is open to all.

The ancient Israelites made a mistake when they decided it would be better to be ruled by human kings than by judges. But Jesus was right in his choice to go forward on the path that his Father set out for him.

When he did, he opened the door so that we who believe in Jesus have become his brothers and sisters. And that is a priceless gift.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it

It's a long-standing (and dancing) tradition.

It’s a long-standing (and dancing) tradition.

On Monday evening I went to watch a pagan ritual. At least I think it was pagan, though it ended with Compline in the parish church.

No one knows how long the men of the village of Abbots Bromley, in the English midland county of Staffordshire, have been dancing the Horn Dance on a Monday in early September. The sets of horns they carry in the dances have been carbon-dated to the middle of the eleventh century, somewhere around the time of William the Conqueror’s invasion, and rather strangely seem to have been imported from somewhere in Scandinavia, as they’re reindeer horns. If you Google for “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” you’ll find a number of websites, but no explanation of this strange survival. (My theory is that it’s sympathetic magic, meant to ensure an autumn of good hunting before the winter closes in – but your guess is as good as mine.)

However it started, it’s now something of a tourist attraction, with the dancers moving along the long village street and dancing outside the pubs (all doing a roaring trade) before heading back to the green in the middle of the village for the final dance in the gathering dusk. And after that final dance, and a short rest, they take the horns back to the parish church of St Nicholas near the village green, where the vicar blesses them and they hang them up in the north aisle until next year. We went into the church to watch, as did many other spectators, and once the horns were hung up the vicar invited us all to stay for Compline – which, as he cheerfully remarked, goes even further back into history than the Horn Dance.

There’s something wonderfully warm and inclusive in the way Christianity can embrace older ideas, things that are rooted in our psyches and have been expressed in one way and another as long as human beings have existed. Magic to ward off a hungry winter ends up being blessed in the name of the God who knows all our needs, just as earlier Christians transformed a bunch of midwinter festivals into a celebration of the coming of the Light of the World.

Not all Christians are this generous; the Puritans found a remarkable number of old customs of which to disapprove. Some evangelical Christians are nervous of anything they think might just have links with the occult. I once had a conversation with an earnest woman who was worried that my batik skirt with a pattern of suns was disturbingly “New Age” She had obviously never heard of St Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures” with its outpouring of praise to God for Brother Sun, Sister Moon and all creation.

Right at the beginning of Christianity, St Paul had to deal with similarly worried people. There were the Christians of Colossae, who were being harassed by the excessively pious with cries of  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:16-20) and there were the Christians of Corinth wondering how fussy they should be about the origins of the meat in the market. Don’t get anxious about it, says Paul, quoting Psalm 24, because the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.(I Cor !0: 23-31). We need not be fearful; we live in a world which God has created and redeemed, and there is nothing which cannot be brought into his light and made holy.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

All saints

“For there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one, too.”

People who didn’t grow up in the Anglican tradition often roll their eyes at the children’s hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” It’s so quaint; it’s so British; it’s so… cheery.

I loved it as a child; I love it now. Part of the reason is that it’s so quaint and British and cheery, and that I grew up with it; part of the reason is that its message is an important one. The saints of God are among us now; they’re not just sanctified ancients with halos attached. They truly are “just folk like me.” We do meet them in our daily lives – and we really can aspire to be saints, too.

Saints, of course, are human, and that means that they are imperfect. Like us, they dwell in the context of their times, and with the fashions and prejudices of those times. Like us, they are susceptible to the vicissitudes of day-to-day existence; some of the finest saints I have had the privilege to know could be cranky before they’d had their morning coffee, or prone to a little pottymouth when provoked.

But the saints of God live their faith in the best way they can, bringing God’s light into a murky world, witnessing God’s love to those they meet. And I mean, God helping, to be one, too.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

“I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”

I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green;
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
and his love made them strong;
and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

– Lesbia Scott (1898-1986)

Beating the bounds

Beating the bounds: St. Michael's, Rushall

It’s hard now to imagine a world without accurate maps, one where you had to use the sun and stars to navigate and where the boundaries of your property or your parish were marked only by stones, trees and streams, and you had to remember exactly where they were.

English churches have been beating the bounds of their parishes at least since the time of Alfred the Great. (Some still do it today, even though a quick look at the diocesan website will tell you all you need to know about the parish boundary. )

Somewhere around Ascension Day, when the crops were beginning to grow and, if you were lucky, the lanes and fields had dried out after the winter’s rain and snow, the parish priest and a party of men and boys would walk round the boundaries of the parish to check that all the boundary markers were still where they should be.

They beat the markers with the branches they carried; sometimes they beat the boys as well, or picked them up and bumped their heads against the markers – perhaps to make sure the rising generation remembered vividly where those markers were. As they walked round, the priest would pray for the growing crops, and for temperate weather and a good harvest for his community, and so the name “Rogation”, from the Latin for “asking”, came to be attached to the ceremony.

The perambulation ended with a stop for copious refreshments, and in the sixteenth century some of the reformers felt that these parish celebrations had got rather out of hand. But vicars and churchwardens continued to beat the bounds, and boys still got bumped, and there were still polite Anglican refreshments afterwards; one seventeenth century will provided for “beer and plum rolls” for the participants.

Our parish’s Rogationtide walk on Sunday was less thorough; we didn’t attempt to follow the parish boundaries through housing estates and across busy roads, but instead made our way along the edge of the churchyard and into the field beyond, now used for grazing horses but still full of bumps and hollows where ironstone was once mined.

From it we could see the old manor house behind the church, scene of a skirmish in the English Civil War (when parliamentary soldiers trashed the interior of the mediaeval church, which nevertheless survived till the Victorians pulled it down to make way for the present building). Then we walked through the woodland which surrounds the old pit where lime was once extracted, now flooded and made into a lake.

As we went, we stopped to read passages from scripture and to pray for the farms, businesses and industries of our parish, all that sustains our lives just as the crops of the mediaeval parish did. And of course we had to have the traditional conclusion of such a walk, and ended up having lunch together at one of the parish’s pubs.

It was a pleasant walk through green countryside with friends in the sunshine. Was it any more than that? I hope it was; not just the continuation of a very ancient custom, but an expression of our love and concern for all that goes on in our parish, and the offering of its life and work to God.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

More on the Parish Church of St. Michael the Archangel, Rushall, Walsall, in the English Midlands.