Sunday, June 7, 2015

earthquakes and mothers

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

By way of a rather odd coincidence, I had my first experience of an earthquake on the same day I had my first direct encounter with that peculiarly American brand of humour called the 'your momma' joke. It was not long after Navy boot camp and I was at training school in a place called Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. A small group of classmates and I, fellow sailors, had gone for lunch in the chow-hall.

Now the chow hall was a rather odd building – think extremely large, concrete warehouse with a relatively low ceiling, and you'll get the picture. The best that might be said of it that it was functional if not beautiful. So there we were, half a dozen or so young sailors, resplendent in our white uniforms, eating our lunch of good, all American food such as cheese burgers and fries, when the floor beneath us began to vibrate. The table trembled along with it. The water in our glasses jumped gently up and down, not slopping out of the glasses, but not sitting still either the way water in a glass is supposed to do. And then it stopped. We all stared at each other.

'What was that?' someone wondered. Big Jake, a mountain of a man, shrugged.
'That weren't anything. Just a truck passing.' He took a bite of his burger. We all gazed at him in astonishment. In vain we tried to explain to him that the vast and bunker-like qualities of the chow-hall would make it impervious to the passing of even the largest truck. We also pointed out that the chow-hall was located at least half a mile from the nearest main road; there were simply no trucks to pass.

'So what do you say it was?' said Jake, chewing.
'An earthquake,' said one. The rest of us agreed; it was the only explanation that made sense. Jake laughed.
'This ain't California. There's no earthquakes here. It was a truck.'
His refusal to listen to reason was the cause of much amusement and made him the target of much good-humoured slagging as the meal continued. Jake shrugged it off, but one particularly witty fellow, Chuck, seemed to get under his skin. Jake fixed him with a look and passed a comment about his mother. The man was silenced. The others howled with laughter; several gave Jake high fives.
'Sorry dude,' said Jake with a smirk. 'But you had that coming.' Someone noticed the young Irish man didn't seem to be in on the joke.
'Burke. You're not laughing.'
I shook my head.
'I don't get it.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean, Chuck was being funny. Jake just said something about his mother that had nothing to do with what we're talking about; how was that a witty come-back to what Chuck was saying?'
'But, dude, didn't you hear him?'
'Yeah. I still don't see why I should think it was funny. And where I come from a remark like that would get Jake a punch on the nose, big as he is.'

I still don't get 'mother' jokes, even though the days when I think a punch on the nose would be an appropriate response have long passed, of course. That's because mother's are precious; they bear us in their bodies, nurture us when we are young, and care for us fiercely and passionately all their lives. The tie that exists between a mother and her child is a wondrous and sacred thing. All of which makes our Lord's words in today's Gospel rather shocking. A group of his male relatives have heard about what he is doing. And they are alarmed. This is Mary's son and Joseph's son they think; not the Son of God. And they fear for his mental health.

 So they go to get him, bringing his widowed mother with them, no doubt thinking that her presence will bring him back to his senses. Arriving at the house where he is, they find they cannot enter – the house is full and great throngs of people are gathered around it. So they pass a message through the crowd – tell him to come out, they say; his mother and family are here. And Jesus' reply to that message must have been shocking to all who heard it: for he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 

In a time and place where the bonds of blood and family were even more important then they are today, this response would have stunned those listening. Our Lord, of course, intends no disrespect to his mother; we know of his deep and abiding love for her, so great that even in his agony on the cross he takes care to entrust her to the safekeeping of his beloved disciple, to make sure she will be cared for all her earthly life. And we can be sure that she would have not misunderstood what he was saying, and perhaps be hurt or take offence; for she, of all people, knows exactly who he is. She knows that this is God's Son, as well as her own. She has talked with the angels, met with the Magi, heard the prophesies of St Simeon in the temple, even heard her Son's own words, spoken to her as a boy of 12 as he stood among the doctors of the law, astonishing them with his wisdom, that he must be about his Father's business.

Indeed, perhaps she was the best equipped of all people to understand fully the extraordinary offer that Jesus was making to people, the Son of God inviting ordinary human beings to be his brothers and sisters; had, after all, not God not given her an equally extraordinary invitation when he asked that she should become the Mother of the second person of the Holy and Blessed Trinity, the mother of God?

Of course, she would also have known that day that, just as she could have said 'no' to the message of an angel, so also the men and women listening that day, and all who would hear those words passed down through the ages, could say no to the offer of brotherhood that Christ himself made. For just as the Blessed Virgin Mary had to be obedient to God's will in order to become the Mother of the Christ-child, so too must we be obedient to God's will if we are to be brothers and sisters of Christ.

And note very carefully what Christ said that day – he said that all who did the will of God could enter into that wonderful and special relationship with him; which, of course, means that all those who are disobedient to God's will can not. And the consequences of disobedience are real; we see that in our reading from Genesis this morning, concerning the Fall of our first parents, where they are tempted by the devil and sin. I know that many may think it old-fashioned to speak of things like sin and Satan, but please note that our Lord himself speaks of them very plainly in our Gospel reading today – which means they are things we think of as being old-fashioned notions which can be safely ignored at our peril. 

 But that is not what God wants, that we should reject him and his offer of eternal happiness through disobedience and sin. That is why Christ exhorted us to be obedient; that is why he suffered and died for us; that is why he became man and was born of a woman for us. Heaven is offered to us – what we must do is say yes to it by our obedience to God.

Some of you may wonder who was right concerning the discussion in the chow-hall – Jake who said it was a truck, or the rest of us who felt it must surely have been an earthquake. Well, the next day, on the front page of the the Indianapolis Star, it was reported that the area had indeed been rocked by a minor seismic event at lunchtime the day before – certainly not the 'big one' California has been waiting for for years, but an earthquake nonetheless. 

I sometimes wonder why Jake, despite all the evidence to the contrary, insisted it had been a truck. The answer, perhaps, was that it was just too scary to believe that it might be an earthquake; to think it was a truck was a far more comforting idea. Wrong, but comforting. I pray that none here will find it more comforting to think that God does not mean what he says that he asks obedience of those who would be his brothers and sisters; and instead will be filled with joy instead by the knowledge that he desires us to be part of his family, as close to him as his own blessed Mother, and daily pry to him for the grace to live out the obedience he desires so that we may be with him forever in heaven. Amen

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