MOTHERS UNION Triennial Festival

MOTHERS UNION Triennial Festival

MOTHERS’ UNION Triennial Festival

Exeter Cathedral

Sermon preached by the Bishop of Exeter

9 February 2016

1 Kings 17.7-16; Mark 5.24a-34

It’s a real joy being with you today for this triennial festival as we seek God’s blessing on the work of the Mothers’ Union across the Diocese and on Nickie Johnson, our new Diocesan President.

I’ve been proud to be a member of the Mothers’ Union since I was a curate. You do fantastic work both at home and abroad in championing family life, and I salute you for it.

So the first thing I want to say is thank you for your commitment, thank you for your prayer and for the energy you put into your work. What you do is really important, not least at a time in our society when there are increasing pressures on family life and on hard-working parents.

I remember walking across Primrose Hill in north London when I was vicar and hearing an angry little girl who couldn’t have been much more than five or six, berating her exhausted mother. ‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘you’re only a mother because of me.’ Being a mum has never been easy.

Today’s readings from the Bible provide us with two wonderful stories on which to reflect. The first is from the First Book of Kings and describes the encounter of the prophet Elijah with the widow of Zarephath; and the second is the story of the woman with the haemorrhages in St Mark’s Gospel who reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus’s garment. Both women are great role models of faith and resilience in the face of difficulty.

Although the two encounters occurred centuries apart, their contexts in terms of society were similar. It is easy to forget that with no social security and where women had no legal rights – as is still the case in many parts of the world – women, and particularly widows, were acutely vulnerable.

With no husband or father to protect her, a widow had no security whatsoever. In the first reading, the widow’s vulnerability is made worse by the famine and drought raging in the land.

Last month I was in the Holy Land with 23 of our curates and collecting my room key from the reception in our hotel in Jerusalem, the man behind the desk said to me: ‘Ah bishop, what a blessing you have brought with you.’

‘Blessing?’ I asked, somewhat puzzled. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘this wonderful weather.’ What he was referring to was the fact that it was pouring with rain outside.

In Devon when we open the curtains in the morning and discover the sun is shining we are relieved it’s not raining for once. In Israel, where water is unbelievably precious, rain is a blessing.

In the story, there had been no rain for weeks. The widow is close to exhaustion. She has barely enough food to keep herself and her son alive. Doubtless her skin was grey and stretched tight across her sunken cheekbones. She knew the end was near. I dare say the faces of the Syrian refugees from Aleppo clamoring to cross the border into Turkey look the same.

In spite of her vulnerability, the widow responds to the request of the prophet Elijah to house and feed him in an act of extraordinary faith and generosity.

“As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for my myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”

The widow trusts Elijah and the God who sent him, and we are told that neither the jar of meal nor the jug of oil ran out. Small wonder that the widow and her ‘cruise of oil’ (to use the old translation from the King James Bible) became an icon of sacrificial motherhood and faithfulness.

It was this story, of course, which gave the name and inspiration to CRUISE, the counselling service that has helped transform the lives of so many bereaved people.

I find the story in the Gospels of the woman who had suffered from haemorrhages for twelve years equally moving. I think it’s something about the way St Mark tells the story:

“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had; and she was none the better. In fact she grew worse.”

You can sense her desperation – yes that could be me, I think. I picture myself going from doctor to doctor, from consultant to constant, and all to no avail.

In Jewish society ritual purity was of paramount importance and any flow of blood was met with abhorrence. The woman in question, I presume, was suffering from some kind of menstrual disorder.

Menstruation was taboo in Jewish society. The rabbis interpreted it as part of God’s punishment of Eve (Genesis 3.16). The fact that this poor woman’s bleeding was constant meant that not only was she ill, but she was ostracized by her contemporaries, women as well as men.

She was excluded from public worship and from normal social life. She was unclean and everything she touched was deemed to be contaminated. Her position in society was not dissimilar to that of the leper. Worse still, she is made to feel guilty because the rabbis suggest that God is against her and is punishing her.

This explains the emphasis on touch in this miracle and the woman’s mixture of terror, faith and desperation in daring to touch Jesus’s robe.

In Jesus’s day garments were decorated to show a person’s status. The hem and tassels of the outer robe were important, with the hem being symbolic of the owner’s identity and authority. Not everyone could write and legal contracts were written in clay. Instead of a signature, the corner of the hem of a person’s robe was pressed into the clay to leave an impression.

A rabbi had particularly distinctive robe with five long tassels, one for each book of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. If you’ve ever seen an orthodox Jew praying, you will have seen the long fringes of their prayer shawls which they drape around their shoulders.

The poor woman in our story is desperate. She infiltrates the crowd and, in the throng, bends down and touches one of the fringes of Jesus’s rabbinical robe.

Instantly, in Mark’s words, Jesus realizes that ‘power had gone out of him’. Realizing what has happened, the woman identifies herself and comes before Jesus expecting to be ridiculed and condemned.

But instead, far from upbraiding her, Jesus welcomes her and praises her faith. She needed to know that she was loved and accepted for herself as a person, and he gave that to her, regardless of the raised eyebrows and the scandalized attitude of his fellow rabbis.

And that is the salvation and healing that Jesus Christ brings to each of us.

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus challenging the politics of ritual purity and forging a new set of relationships based on the politics of compassion. And Jesus bids us do the same thing in His Name in our society. It’s what he bids the members of the Mothers’ Union do.

We must resist replacing one set of taboos with another set of taboos. Instead we need to break them down, forge trust and reach out hands of friendship, particularly to the socially excluded.

We need to be alongside widows and their impoverished children in their hour of need. We need to accompany the bereaved on their journey from loss to remembering. We need to hold their hope when they have none.

Today in this 140th anniversary year, as we give thanks for these two women of faith, let us pray for grace to challenge the politics of purity and build a world based on the politics of compassion.

So may we serve the people of Devon with joy and witness to the generous love of God we see in the face of Jesus Christ.

+ Robert Exon