The precise details of why I found myself reciting Psalm 121 in a North Riding churchyard on Friday afternoon need not be gone into, but if I tell you that Friday was St. Cuthbert's Day, that Cuthbert had worshipped in an earlier church on that site, and that it was probably the first time those precise syllables had been heard there in a thousand years you may get some idea that we're talking about a sense of Place and a sense of connectedness with the saints who have gone before.
I had a little rant at 8.00 this morning about sentimentality and Mother's Day, and I'm sure that countless other clergy up and down the land have had a similar harrumphing session about the commercialisation of yet another day in the Christian calendar. But there's another message in Mothering Sunday for the Church, one which is maybe a bit less comfy and 'aren't-we-good', and that's the one I want to play with.
You'll have picked up that both Paul's letter to the Roman church and the extract from the Exodus story are directed, not at individuals but at communities, whole groups of people. The Hebrews are called out of Egypt as a community, the Church at Rome is saved as a community. What we don't find is individual people being rescued or redeemed on their own.
I'm sometimes a bit uncomfortable with using the word 'family' in church circles. First it can be the last refuge of the scoundrel, invoking 'family values' to hide all sorts of questionable assumptions; secondly because the Family now means 'Mum and/or Dad and the kids, at least at weekends' our understanding of 'Family' can be inward-looking and conventional, excluding huge numbers of people - the single, those whose relationships don't quite fit the bill. But it's probably a good day to retrieve that particular 'F' word from the narrow, isolated nuclear family of the last forty years and to see the Church through the lens of not-entirely disfunctional Family.
In the Good Old Days there were usually a few loosely connected cousins with involvements in other families, two spinster aunts, a collection of uncles, one of whom at least had to be slightly potty, and most of whom had to be unmarried, sundry in-laws, parents, grand-parents and hangers-on, all interacting in different ways. And anyone coming into that family has a rich variety of ages and role models to choose from and gain insight into how they're supposed to grow and change and mature. Instead of a single tram-line there's a great maze of tracks to explore. Far richer, don't you think? And because of the richness of the possible relationships, everyone can find a place in which they belong without feeling significantly odder than Uncle Henry, and if they ARE odder, then there's a real sense of achievement to be had there as well. By way of example, contrast - if you know them - the Royle family on television, where there's a clear hierarchy of who is 'in' and who is 'out', and Dylan Thomas' 'A Child's Christmas in Wales', especially the film version with Denholme Elliott, where misbehaving adults and odd folk and children and others all interact in rich and life-enhancing variety. Where would we feel most comfortable? I hardly need to ask!
Since the early 1960's it feels as though the Church, at least as as much as society, has retreated into individualism, where we can use phrases like 'I am saved' without wondering why it is that you simply don't find that language having much clout in the first one and a half thousand years of Christianity. Bishop Bill Ind once observed that to be on one's own is a pretty good definition of Hell, after all. To free our understanding of Family from the narrow model of recent years to one which allows us to embrace a far wider range of humanity might just present a church where difference and even oddity is not merely tolerated but welcomed as part of what makes it all worthwhile, into a place of freedom, where the weight of the Gospel is not borne entirely by me or by you but by us in our different ways, an 'us' which transcends gender, space, denomination and even time itself.
Standing in an insignificant country churchyard, praying with one of the great saints of England in his own tongue, on his own soil might seem a bit of romantic nonsense. Perhaps it is, you know my weaknesses. But that greater sense of connectedness, of family in its richness and variety, that sense of not being on one's own, of being part of the people of God like the Hebrews in Egypt and the Church in Rome - perhaps that's not just romantic. And once we start to enlarge the borders of the kingdom of the Saved to include all our brothers and sisters and not just ourselves and those we get on with most easily, who knows where that extended family and its shelter and nurture and love might end? And as you go out past the 'Keeping Mum' material, remember that they too are family....