Five Bags of Sugar – Mothers’ Day Sermon

When I was a child in Northern Ireland, my Mom would often as me a question which would be the beginning of a conversation, a routine of sorts which I suspect she learned   when she was a child from her Mother. The routine goes something like this. Mom would ask me, “How much do you love me?” and I would answer, as I’d been taught to answer: “A big bag of sugar!” To which Mom would reply, “I love you more, I love you to bags of sugar!” To which I would reply, that I love my Mom, “Five bags of sugar!” Over the years I’ve met lots of people from Belfast who grew up measuring love in bags of sugar.

As near as I can tell this loving conversation has something to do with rationing during World War II. Sugar’s ability to make all things sweet tied it to people’s perception of a happy life. A “big bag of sugar” was more sugar than most people would ever see. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how people could begin to measure love in bags of sugar. To this day my great-nieces and nephews still learn from their elders, to measure love in bags of sugar; even though we have all since learned that consuming large quantities of sugar makes us sick. I suspect the wartime custom of  expressing love in terms of bags of sugar will soon go the way of Ring-around-the-rosy…while children still sing it they have no idea that it is all about the black plague which saw millions of children fall to their death…. Love measured in bags of sugar, like packets full of posy, is a thing of the past…vaguely remembered by only a few.

This week the world remembered VE Day; the end of war in Europe was commemorated from the confines of our physically isolated planet as we all seek refuge from the pandemic which has brought an end to many of our treasured cultural norms. The combination of Mothers’ Day, the 75 Anniversary of VE Day, a global pandemic was topped off with news of the arrival in North America of some beast called a “murder hornet.” These are strange times in which to live. According to the experts, many of us are experiencing culture shock. Think back to just two months ago. Way back then, we would not be confined to worshipping together over the medium of the internet. Less than two short months ago, we enjoyed the freedom of movement which all of us took for granted and many of us would have been gathered together in our sanctuary, singing, praying, exchanging the peace, sharing communion, and then feasting together over coffee, tea, and conversation. In less than two months, so very many things which we took for granted, are no longer possible and we do not know when or if they shall be returned to us.

Last week I listened as Bill Gates, the kazillionaire behind so much of the technology which characterized the past thirty years, insisted that many of us have had to learn new skills at a rate which has seen us absorb fifteen years’ worth of change in just six weeks. Gates called this phenomenon “cultural compression.” So, if you are struggling to come to terms with your new life, rest assured, you are not alone. Go easy on yourself. Humans were never designed to cope with the rate of change we are experiencing today.

Yes, we are privileged. We came into this crisis as the privileged few. We are certainly wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of our parents and grandparents. In addition to our wealth and privilege we also have all sorts of mechanisms in place to cushion the effects of whatever we may still have to endure. We know that there are others who are much worse off than we are, and yet, we can’t quite shake the angst which comes in the middle of the night. No amount of sugar or packets full of posy can obscure the shock waves which are impacting our way of being in the world.

So, reeling from the so many changes, I must confess that today’s Gospel text, makes me feel the way I used to feel when I would turn the tables on my Mom and ask her, “How much do you love me Mom?” As some of you know, my Mom lives on the West Coast, I miss her terribly and there I nothing more I’d rather hear than, “Five big bags of sugar!” There is something about your mother’s voice that has the power to sooth even our deepest upsets. Even if your Mom has long since gone on to “prepare a place for you,” I’m sure that you can still hear her soothing you in times of trouble.

Now, I know full well all the scholarly reasons for insisting that the words of the anonymous gospel-story-teller which we call John has put on the lips of Jesus, very probably come from the community of people who followed the ways of Jesus, rather than Jesus himself. I don’t care much whether or not Jesus actually said these words. However, I do care very much about the truth which these words convey about the DIVINE MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of ALL. I know that love measured in “bags of sugar” and safeguards like  “packets of posy”  are expressions whose meanings have been lost over time. I also know that the words used to express the characteristics of the DIVINE MYSTERY have also lost their power over time. 

We have forgotten so very much about those things we once took for granted. “Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so! Little ones to him belong! Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes! Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.” We are all grown up and in the face of so much suffering, it may indeed be time for us to put away childish things. When our physical isolation is over and we are released to return to our lives, our lives will not be as they once were. Nothing stays the same under normal circumstances.  Life changes over time and the experts may just be correct when they tell us that the effects of cultural compression will have a colossal impact on the ways in which we return to life out there. But whether it’s bags of sugar, pockets of posy, or the sure and certain knowledge that “Jesus loves me!”, this I do know, LOVE remains constant. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust in me as well.” Our way of speaking about the DIVINE MYSTERY which is the source of ALL REALITY may have changed and will continue to change over time.  But the truth that the DIVINE MYSTERY IS LOVE, this LOVE never changes. God IS, was and evermore shall be LOVE. In Jesus of Nazareth, his followers like the anonymous gospel-storyteller who we call John, in Jesus people for generations have seen the embodiment of the LOVE which IS God. Jesus’ Way of being in the world is LOVE alive in the world.

Jesus insistence that, “I myself AM the Way—I AM Truth, and I AM Life.” is not some arbitrary barrier to be crossed or hoop one must jump through in order to know the DIVINE. But rather the followers of Jesus’ attempting to express the reality that for Jesus the Way of LOVE is the only Way of being. The Way of LOVE empowered Jesus to claim unity with LOVE. “I AM in LOVE and LOVE is in me!” “The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is LOVE, living in me, who is accomplishing the works of LOVE.” Jesus loves me this I know; just as surely as I know that my Mom loves me. Just as surely that I know that there is nothing in heaven or on earth which can ever separate me from the LOVE that IS God.

It may indeed be scary out there. I suppose it has always been scary out there. But my Mom always pushed me out the door to meet the world, in the sure and certain knowledge that she loved me more than five big bags of sugar. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Trust in the DIVINE ONE who is LOVE. LOVE beyond the ability of mere words to describe. LOVE beyond the beyond and beyond that also. LOVE which lives in, with, through, and beyond you. LOVE is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Know that LOVE is in you and you are in LOVE and there is nothing which can separate you from the LOVE which is God. LOVE’s got this! Be LOVE and you will be well. Be LOVE and all manner of things shall be well.

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Breasted ONE – reflections for Mothers’ Day – John 14:1-14

Readings: Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation; Revelations of Love, by Julian of Norwich Chapter 26; John 14:1-14

Listen to the sermon here

“I myself AM the Way—I AM Truth, and I AM Life. NO one comes to Abba God but through me.” Over the course of two millennia, the ways in which these words have been interpreted by far too many people who insist that they are “Christian” is enough to make most mothers, be they Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Shikh, Jew, atheist, or agnostic, CRINGE. It seems to me, that to insist that it’s Jesus’ Way or the highway, as if Christians have the exclusive way of being in the world, violates the basic principles of the image we have of what it means to be a good mother.  Today, while we celebrate all the various stereotypes of what it means to be or to have a good mother, I don’t think any of you would hold point to the image of a mother who favoured one of her children to the exclusion of her other children. Yet somehow, the image of God as “Father” of us all, is messed up with the notion of a God who insists on a particular Way of being in the world, a way of being that believes particular things about who Jesus of Nazareth is, was, and ever more shall be; a way of being that insists that only those who believe particular things about Jesus will be welcomed into God’s household. The Good News is, that New Testament scholars have learned a great deal about this passage that contradicts the so-called “traditional interpretations” of this text. New Testament scholars begin by teaching us that these words attributed to Jesus, were in fact written some 70 plus years after Jesus’ crucifixion by an anonymous story-teller that we call John, who in all likelihood put these words into the mouth of Jesus in order to address a particular problem in the community to which this story is addressed.

But, more important than the realization that Jesus may never have actually said these words is the reality that taken out of context and proclaimed in ways that exclude some people at the expense of others, these words fail to express the very ideas of inclusion that the anonymous story-teller that we call John was trying to express to his community in the first place. For as the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call John insists:

“In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well. Continue reading