Today is ‘Refreshment Sunday’, where the rules of fasting
for Lent are relaxed. In the sixteenth century, when children often left home
to live and work as servants or farm labourers, this fourth Sunday in Lent was
a call for everyone to return to their ‘mother’ Church, and so provided an
annual opportunity for workers to be reunited with their families, including
and maybe especially their mother. It provided a much-needed Sabbath, a time to
put a markers down to measure the distance one had travelled. “My, how you’ve
grown”, “my, how you’ve grown old”, “Who#s not here this year” … a time to
You catch me in a thoughtful mood today. A year ago I was
writing up my dissertation, unclear where I was going to serve as curate, and
having just come back from Israel and Palestine, where I’d experienced one of
the Kairos moments - you know, the
ones where God speaks to you so definitely that it leaves an indelible mark on
you for life.
Those moments of disorientation, as the theologian
Bruggemann would categorise them, those moments where the rug is pulled from
under us. The Bible is full of such moments. Parents who have a son at a time
of intense persecution, when every Hebrew baby boy us under Pharaoh’s sentence
of death. The mother nursing her baby for three months, willing him to be
silent so he is not discovered and killed. And finally the decision that even
to give him away would allow him a better chance of survival than to keep him
It might seem that Mary and joseph’s time of disorientation
was coming to an end. After all, as they enter the Temple they seem like
normal, if poor (because they only have two birds to offer for sacrifice)
But then, just as they seem to be re-orientating themselves,
Simeon pulls the rug out again from under Mary – “and a sword will pierce your
own soul also”. Perhaps she had just convinced herself that it was all a dream
– angels and all that. After all, for some reason Joseph had stood by her –
against all cultural convention – and perhaps it seems as though they could
just get on with being a family – but no.
We all have times of disorientation – losing a job, a
relationship ending, retirement, bereavement, family problems – these are the
big ones, the huge markers in the same, but there are the infinite smaller
events of life that can equally unnerve us – I didn’t make that phone call, I
said that thing, they said that thing and I’m not sure what they meant by it …
the list goes on.
And how does being part of a church help? What difference does
it make to us that we follow Jesus? The people in Colossae were in a period of
huge disorientation. They had heard about Jesus from Epaphras, and now Paul is
writing to them because they are trying to work out how to be Gentile followers
of a Jewish Jesus. Do they need to be circumcised in order to be Christian? Are
there foods they shouldn’t eat? Which rituals should they continue to observe?
This new faith has come out of such a different context to
theirs that it seems as though everything is up for grabs. How can they begin
to re-orientate themselves and make sense of what God has done for them?
For those of us who have Paul pegged as a hard-nosed zealot,
it might come as a surprise that he is gentle with them. He says in chapter two
“let no one condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals,
new moons or Sabbaths”, but there is a right way to behave and that is to
emulate the characteristics of God as seen in Jesus. “compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness and patience”, forgiving each other and living with love,
peace, and thankfulness.
And here’s the hard bit for all of us. Scripture, especially
that of the early church, challenges us that being part of a church community
should change us. We should expect to be disorientated as we meet together, and
learn together, and we should also expect to actively help each other in th
process of re-orientation.
Looking back over the past year I can see the tremendous
change in my physical circumstances, but I also need to ask myself if I am more
compassionate, kind, humble, patient, peaceful, loving and thankful. And for
most of these characteristics to be demonstrated I have to be in community with
I wonder if part of the annual call back to one’s mother
church was accountability? The “my how you’ve grown” might have been followed
up by “wow, what happened to you, I remember you were such an angry young boy”.
These sort of relationships are the most time consuming and demanding, but I
would suggest that they go to the heart of what it means to be a church, a
nurturing community. So whether you are in a period of disorientation, or feel
that your life is pretty much on track, today is an opportunity to take time
out to be refreshed and to put a marker in the sand. The Bible shows characters
reacting to strange and chaotic circumstances, but the same God is with Moses
in the bulrushes, with the holy family, and with us now.