You might be aware that here at St. Mary’s we work quite closely with our neighbouring parishes In preparing young couples for marriage and for many years now we’ve been running a marriage preparation day where we welcome around have 30 to 40 couples and it’s a really good fun – a really good day. A former colleague of mine while leading one of these sessions- and I saw him do this on several occasions, with a twinkle in his eye- invited the couples to look at one another in the eye, and to say to one another, “I am God’s gift to you” and of course the reaction was a mix of embarrassment, fun, and yes, a certain scepticism.
I wonder how you would feel if I invited you to turn to the person sat next to you in Church and say, “I am God’s gift to you”? I`m sure the prospect raises that same mix, does it not, of embarrassment, fun and yes a certain scepticism? Because I suppose those words – `God’s gift` are so often associated with someone we believe has airs and graces; someone we think of as a bit too big for their boots. “Who do they think they are?” We want to know. We might think of them as arrogant in claiming a perfection, which clearly is not possible. However, I want to maintain that it is quite correct for us to turn to one another and say, “I am God’s gift to you” and this has got nothing at all to do with your virtue or your perfection, it has everything to do with what happens between us; both the warmth, and the tension.
Let’s for instance look at what it is we’re remembering, in particular today; `mums` and by extension `family life`. On the one hand I expect we would want to say that there is there is huge cause for gratitude and so much to say thank you for when it comes to mums. One of the things I like about the New Testament reading that we heard this morning, (part of St Paul`s first letter to Timothy) is the way in which he refers to both Timothy’s mum and his grandma as being formative in that young man’s growth; a nice little touch. In the same way, again it`s clear that in the vast majority of cases the one we call `mum` is self-evidently God’s gift to me; they’ve been a huge blessing and we have a lot to be thankful for. But this is the easy part isn`t it? The challenge is also to be able to say, that we are experiencing God’s gift when this morning we might also be contemplating matters of loss or of imperfection or moments when we had to learn to forgive because our parenting was not as we had hoped or expected it to be.
Part of the difficulty we face I think is that we are overshadowed by some pretty impossible pictures of family life. Just think for instance of those 1950’s United Sates of America, images of mum`s apple pie and all the rest. These really have and I try to say it in a kindly way, infected our way of thinking about family what it should be like and we can carry them around with us as such a burden. So much so that it comes with some relief to find that every time that Jesus talks about family he is in no way quite so naïve or simplistic in fact he says some quite cutting things about family. No, the reality for so many of us is that these closest relationships are a huge blessing and yet at the same time they are profoundly stretching. They often require things of us that we would probably not want to experience but our faith tells us that God’s gifting is in all of this – all of this, if we will allow it to be so.
The same is true, I want to suggest, of our church life, which is why I was thinking of getting all of us to look one another in the eye. It`s often observed that church life has a lot in common with family life, indeed when you look again at that letter of Paul to Timothy you see that he refers to Timothy as his beloved child; there’s a sort of father- son thing going on here. And here again, if we’re honest our experience is equally mixed isn’t it? On the one hand so many blessings in church life, so many friendships, so many really good experiences, so much that we share together that’s worth saying thank you for and which are clearly “God’s gift to us”. But it`s a challenge to have to cope with the way I which we so often fall short of our calling. Here again we are somewhat hounded by images and expectations of how it should be whilst the more sober reality is that Church life has always, to say the least, been a very untidy thing. After al it`s there to be seen in the New Testament. If things were so perfect Paul wouldn`t have needed to write all those letters! In other words, the reality is that it has always been difficult and it has always been challenging to be part of God’s church but my point is that this doesn’t make it any less God’s gift to us. Yes, it’s hard living with what feels like less than the ideal but the point is not giving up on it.
Or to put it another way- the temptation is either to give or to settle for second best. So when it comes to family life, it can feel so far from “God`s gift to us” that some people do indeed reject it completely. They believe that the typical (Traditional?) models of relating are so deficient that they decide to create their own models. Some of this is out of a certain rebellion and for others it may be the result of a sort of wounded-ness; they’ve had a dreadful experience of family and they’re saying “I’m having none of that, thank you very much”.
People are of course free to act according to their own lights but what I do find rather irksome is their rather defensive assumption that those of us who retain a yes, more conventional vision of family life have an underlying disdain for them and are especially critical if they`ve ended up in for example a `one-parent family` or whatever. I know we`re uncomfortable these days with the idea that some `ways` might actually be better than others but believing this is not the same as regarding others as deficient and because someone has a bad experience of something doesn`t invalidate the vision. In any case it`s a twisted kind of logic that says that because I`ve had a bad experience of something the whole thing is invalid. For instance, we don`t say that because I had a bad experience at school, that all schools should close!
Equally it`s intriguing that some people think of the Church in a similar way. When we fall short people are inclined to leave and it`s really sad that our resources for listening to one another and for forgiving one another so often prove to be shallow and not as strong as need to be. Just like those who create their own version of the family there are some who think they`ve found the answer to the imperfections of Church life by creating their own version of it. So for example, without wishing to condemn the whole exercise, I`ve been intrigued by the arrival of what are called `Fresh Expressions` of Church. These are often attempts to provide a forum for reflection on the way of faith and this is admirable. But when the result is a gathering of Christians where a common interest or hobby is the principle focus of their life their right to be called `church` is in my view questionable. Using some other pretext to meet or self-selecting around some common interest or background is far from the diverse community Christ has in mind.
Without stretching the point too much it does resemble the errors we made in the past. I`m thinking of the way we used to do church in those dim and distant days where we used to self-select our church according to income and social class. So Matins, Morning Prayer was for those who lived upstairs, and Evensong was attended by those who lived below stairs. I`m exaggerating for effect but how quickly we forget Christ`s warning about how easy it is to love those who love you but much more of a challenge among those who are different from you. It seems that we forget the church is not a social construction, it’s not a gathering of the like-minded, and it’s not a weekly meeting with those who are like us. The church is what God is doing and you and I are at the heart of that.
So I’m not going to embarrass you this morning by asking you to turn to your neighbour and say – “I am God’s gift to you” but I want you to think about it and imagine that person saying the same thing to you. I’d like you to think about what it means to receive that gift. They might come from the other side of town to you, they might be of a different generation from you, they might not have the same interests as you,… we could go on with all the differences couldn’t we? Indeed, they might wind you up by their accent or the way they dress. Whatever the case they are still God’s gift to you. Our God loves them and loves you and draws you together into a new humanity. The church is called to model that; not to be like all those others who self-select around common interests, income and background. No that`s not what Jesus Christ came here to found or bring into being. When you can look one another in the eye and say “I am God’s gift to you” something good is starting to happen.