+May I speak in the name of God, the three-in-one and one-in-three, our Creator, our Redeemer and our Sanctifier. Amen.
Those that know me will tell you that I like a good debate.
That I like to set the world to rights.
That I am not slow to put my own view forward.
And to do it forcefully.
That I like to win.
In other words, I like being right!
(Even, if I’m honest, when I know I’m wrong!)
I’m pretty sure we all like to think we’ve got things right.
Some of us may be shy about putting our own view forward.
Or lack the confidence to be completely certain.
It might be that some tend to be more worried that they’re wrong, than certain they are right.
Some are, of course, so sure they are right that they can’t tolerate the idea that somebody else might think or act differently to them.
Whatever kind of person we are, I’m sure we all like it when we think we’ve got things right.
And we are the same in church as we are anywhere else.
Not just about big issues, like whether to keep the pews or introduce chairs, or whether a preacher’s sermon should be 15 minutes long or 25minutes long.
But also about the matters of far less importance.
You know, the minor matters, like how we should read the Bible, or what we should think of certain types of relationship, or whether presiding at Communion should be the preserve of ordained Ministers or should be extended to some unordained folk too.
Or how we talk of God.
In his first letter to the Christian people of Corinth, in the midst of possibly the greatest prose on the nature of love, and therefore of God, ever written, Paul issues a caution to all of us who seek to speak of God, of what God is like, of what God offers us, and of how we should respond:
“For now we see through a glass, dimly.”
Paul is humbly aware of how wrong people can get it.
As Saul, his eyes were wide open.
Christians were blasphemers and idolaters.
They were to be hunted down.
Then God showed him how blind he really was.
I know I am not the only one amongst my friends and other fellow Student Ministers and Ordinands at Cambridge who has a history of struggling to engage with Paul the Apostle.
For those who like asking questions with an open mind Paul can seem over-bearing, over-egotistic, over-confident.
Yet, actually, it is not himself that he is confident in, but God.
It is God’s grace, God’s love, God’s faithfulness that has led him to where he is.
Faith, Hope, Love, these three will remain because these are of God.
But prophecy, tongues, knowledge, these will cease, for these are the things of mortals.
We are so keen, are we not, of being confident in what we know, of what we hear, of what we see?
Sight is a common motif running through the Gospels, especially of John, especially in Chapters such as that we heard this morning.
As we get caught up in the story, hearing the chapter from its beginning to its end, it is easy to start seeing the obvious:
That the man born blind is given sight like those who have the sight to see Jesus as the Messiah;
That the Pharisees,
who refuse such belief,
who suggest the trick of a doppelganger,
who call on the parents of man as if he were still a child because they refuse what the man tells them,
They are the truly blind.
Yet if this is the case what are we to make of Jesus’ line at the end, which is translated in the NRSV as:
“If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.”
So it is not blindness that causes sin, separation from God, but sight?
For those of us who like regularly to claim our own sight above others blindness that can be a bit of an eye-opener.
Or should that be eye-closer?
Having said all this I’m going to take a rather large risk.
I’m going to flag up what I think is an example of sight where blindness needs to be allowed.
I do so even while recognising that the insights I am about to offer are seen through a darkened window.
I am sure it has not escaped your attention that, as well being the 4th Sunday in Lent, today is Mothering Sunday.
Or maybe it has.
Maybe in your mind it is Mothers’ Day.
Well, out there, in the wider world, it may be Mothers’ Day.
But today, in the church calendar, is Mothering Sunday.
The focus is not so much on mothers but on mothering, though it is right that we remember and celebrate our mothers, and give thanks, as we have done, for those who mother us.
And mothering is something that is, obviously, often associated with mothers.
But not always.
Sometimes mothers don’t do any mothering.
It would not take much to pull out my phone, go on the internet and within seconds pull up stories of mothers who have catastrophically, and very sadly, failed to show any sort of mothering to their child or children.
Likewise I could show you stories of men who have given a child or children plenty of mothering.
Mothering is a gift of God.
Indeed, it can also be seen as an attribute of God.
The East Anglian Mystic, Julian of Norwich, whose words were the inspiration of the hymn* we heard sung earlier, offered insight to the Church of her era and our own through the metaphorical blindness that allowed her to recognise the Mothering nature of God.
A nature that allows even the phrase “Jesus our Mother.”
Hearing such terms surely alerts us to the issue of how we talk about God in terms of gender.
Our God-language, such as that found in the hymns we have sung this morning, is loaded with masculinity.
We still have denominations within the Church universal who cannot look beyond men for leadership.
We still have people throughout the world who will not accept even considering describing God using a feminine pronoun.
And we as Methodists cannot say we are above such things: I have seen at least one letter in the Methodist Recorder this year that suggested reviewing our position of having women Presbyters!
Furthermore, when I went looking for an authorised version of the Lord’s Prayer that is written in non-gendered language I had to use one from the Prayer Book of the Anglican Church in New Zealand Aotearoa because there isn’t one available in the authorised Methodist liturgies.
In the English language we are, understandably, queasy about using the neutral pronoun ‘It’ to describe God.
There are some, including me on regular occasion, who will tie themselves in knots finding ways of constructing sentences that do not need pronouns simply so that we don’t have to describe God as either male or female.
And in case this all seems academic let me assure you there are clear issues with using gender specific terms regarding God:
How does the person who suffered child abuse at the hand of their dad respond when we say “Our Father”?
How does the person who was neglected by the woman who gave birth to them react when we invite them to a “Mother’s Day Service”?
And please, to re-iterate, do not think that my re-focussing on the term “Mothering Sunday” is meant as a belittling of the role of mothers in our lives.
I love my Mum. She’s wonderful, and she mothered me as much as anyone could as I was growing up.
She continues to do so now that I’m grown up.
And I give thanks to God that I have such a wonderful mum.
But I recognise that not everyone does.
What I hope that everyone has experience of, even if at unfortunately rare and infrequent moments, is what feels like to be mothered, to have someone exhibit motherly love towards them.
And in those moments they experienced something of God.
When we talk of God we must always be aware that our language limits us, that language is indeed the dark mirror in which see a restricted vision of God.
When we talk of God we must also be aware that our best position may well be one of blindness not of sight.
For if we claim to see clearly what is in fact only a darkened reflection we cause ourselves, and others, to sin.
God is neither male nor female, yet both male and female were made in the image of God.
And all are capable of the mothering that is both a gift and an attribute of God.
Today is Mothering Sunday, a day in which we can allow ourselves to be blind to the human tendency to make God masculine and allow God to show us that the knowledge we claim is insignificant in the light of eternal mothering love.
Whether your experience of mothering love came from your mother, or whether it came from someone else, when you were truly, genuinely mothered you experienced God, even if it was just for a moment.
And that is something we can all give thanks for.
*“Mothering God” by Jean Janzen
Sermon preached at Murrow Methodist Church in the Fens Circuit
Mothering Sunday 2011
1 Cor. 13.8-13; John 9.1-41