Sunday 11th March - Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday) - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Can be found in audio format here.

Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday) – John 3:14-21

+ ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’

I usually start a sermon with a text from Scripture but today, in honour of Jeremy Corbyn, my quote is from Chairman Mao Zedong. In 1956 he started the ‘hundred flowers’ movement with this slogan, encouraging intellectuals to criticise the Chinese Communist party so all could work together for a socialist future. A hundred flowers; a hundred different opinions. Not literally a hundred, because in ancient Chinese philosophy ‘a hundred’ means ‘many’.

After the intellectuals came out into the open with new ideas during this short period of a hundred flowers, Mao began his ‘Anti-rightist campaign’ and killed them or sent them to labour camps. What made me think of this phrase, however, were the posies given out on Mothering Sunday and the seeds we are given today. Last year the packets of drab seeds produced a fantastically colourful diversity of wild flowers. There is something wonderful and human about a bright diversity, whether of people, opinions or even clothing; and something depressing about a drab Communist uniformity which kills the human spirit. A Polish friend remarked that the empty shelves in the supermarkets here when we were visited by the Beast from the East last week reminded her of her parents’ stories of Polish shops during Communism. This is a warning to our society. It is fragile and we depend on a few big companies and their distribution systems; as one commentator said, we are ‘nine meals from famine’. There was no milk in the supermarkets around Lothian Road, but I eventually found it at the wholefood shop at Tollcross. When the big systems crash we need the variety of small, local suppliers and our own back gardens.

There are a hundred flowers, and perhaps a few weeds, in our response to sermons too. The preacher has a few ideas, puts them together and I am always pleased when people get all sorts of things from what I said, often ideas I hadn’t even thought about. We begin our vestry meetings with a Bible study and there is always a great diversity of responses to the Sacred Text. That is the point. There is one Bible, one sermon, one Christian faith but we all respond in our own ways. This means that sermons and worship, like the great diversity of the Bible, must be constructed to help us all make our own response.

Today is a good example of that. It is the fourth Sunday of Lent. In the gospel Jesus has us look forward to his crucifixion which he interprets using a story from the Old Testament, the lifting up of Moses’ brass serpent which brings healing. But we are half-way through Lent and we get a little break. Today is also known as ‘refreshment Sunday’ when the Church encourages us to have flowers, eat simnel cake and break our fast. It is also known as Laetare Sunday from the Latin word for ‘rejoice’ used as the old opening words of today’s Eucharist, ‘Rejoice O Jerusalem’, from Isaiah 66. That’s why we began with the good old Wesley hymn ‘Rejoice the Lord is King’. We deserve a break – a glass of wine and some cheese is what I’m going to have.

Today is also Mothering Sunday. As the Eucharist today used to begin with the words ‘Rejoice O Jerusalem’, so the first reading until the 1960s was from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians and included the words ‘the Jerusalem above is free and is our mother’. Today’s celebration takes its origin from the Biblical idea of Mother Church. We give thanks for our mothers and for the gift of motherhood, whether it is physical or spiritual. This can be a day of pain for some, some stay away from church. But again a hundred flowers bloom, there is something for everyone and the Bible and the Church always subvert the limitation of our ideas, which might reduce today to nothing more than ‘motherhood and apple pie’. Jesus was lifted up on the cross, like the brass serpent in our first reading which brought healing to Israel. On the cross he gave his own mother Mary to John saying ‘son, behold your mother’, and through John he gave her to all us disciples. In Christ biological motherhood is affirmed, Jesus owed everything to his Mum, and it is transcended, it is shared in the community. Fostering children is an example of this, and teaching, but there are so many others. In one of his sayings, Jesus even compares himself to a mother, a mother hen.

In a minute we will sing that great hymn about Mother Church, Jerusalem the Golden. It is rich with images and you might say that this sermon is too rich, too many blooming flowers. Has anything struck you from what I have said? The glory of diversity, refreshment Sunday, Chairman Mao, Motherhood, Jeremy Corbyn and the heavenly Jerusalem? Last week we decided to open the church all day and all night as a shelter for those who were sleeping rough. Hundreds came here, hundreds more rallied round to provide food, care, security and their time. It was a tremendous experience for all of us who took part, guests and helpers. For a moment St John’s didn’t just talk about justice and community, we became it. This church, the building and community, became a mother – giving warmth, nourishment and protection.

One moment stuck in my mind. We were singing Choral Evensong, the usual congregation was joined by 30 or 40 guests, some were joining in, some were on another planet and others were being served sausage suppers at the back of the church. As we were singing the song of Mary, the Magnificat, we sung the words ‘he hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away’. I had a vision then of Mother Church, of our community as it should be – a community where the glories of worship, music and art, centred on the faith of Jesus, Mary and the Bible, are one with a passionate commitment to doing community and social justice. It was a vision of Jerusalem the Golden, accompanied by snores and drunken shouts [added on the day: ‘not from our choir’; chorister shouts: ‘for once’]. The challenge to us in our bicentenary year is how can we learn from this experience, how can we use our buildings and community to become truly a Mother Church in our city? How can we overcome our limitations and let a hundred flowers bloom?