St Michael & All Angels, Marden, Kent

Sharing God's Love

Sunday Sermon 

Lent 4 - Mothering Sunday - 14 March

Readings: Exodus 2:1-10; John 19:25b-27

Today is Mothering Sunday, a festival, a celebration of those we love, and of those who have loved us. It’s a time of thanksgiving, of homecoming, of gift-giving, of affirming our bond with the ones who have given us life, have nurtured and cared for us, who have wiped our tears and our noses, who have rejoiced with us in times of joy, been proud for us in our achievements, and grieved with us in our times of loss and disappointment, who have protected and championed us, and whose feathers have occasionally been loyally ruffled with indignation on our behalf!

We may have received this care, support, protection and love from our mother or father, from a foster parent, adoptive parent, grandparent, friend or teacher. God bless them all! And their love mirrors the love of God for us:

‘With his feathers he will cover you,
and under his wings you will find refuge.’
(psalm 91)

This is a day of thankful acknowledgment but it can be a difficult day. We may never have experienced this love and feel the gap of its absence; we may have known it and still grieve the loss of that much loved person; we may have lost the fullness of that relationship to dementia or distance. For anyone who has lost a child, for anyone for whom this parent/child relationship has broken down, or whose longing to have a child has been unfulfilled, this day is a painful reminder, rather than a day of celebration.

Mothering Sunday comes rather uncomfortably in the middle of Lent, which is a time of reflection, pared back and austere, not a time of feasting and celebration. The 40 days of Lent recall Christ’s time of trial, hardship and hunger in the wilderness, his desert experience of isolation and deprivation. Perhaps the awkward position of Mother’s Day in the church calendar means that it can represent, recognize and hold all these things: the joy of loving and being loved, and the experience of loss, isolation and hardship.

This year those feelings are intensified. We have either been cooped up with family, juggling home schooling and home working, too close for too long; or separated and distanced from those we love, too far for too long. Not many of us are going to be able to take flowers to our mums in person and treat them to lunch. Our adult children won’t be coming home for the day. Covid has had a physical impact causing sickness and death, the resulting lockdown has led to separation from those we love when they most need us, in care homes, hospitals or alone at home, and emotionally it has led to mental anguish and suffering. We are social animals and our connection with one another is profoundly significant to our well-being.

Our readings today show a variety of love and loss. The Old Testament passage tells the story of Moses in the bullrushes. His mother faces an impossible choice: to keep him and risk his certain death, or to let him go and risk his likely death. If she keeps him he will be killed because Pharaoh has decreed, in order to reduce the number of Jews in Egypt, that all Jewish baby boys shall be drowned in the River Nile. She chooses the alternative which is to give her baby up in faith, hope and trust that he will somehow be saved. The biblical account describes the actions not the feelings, but we can imagine the emotions of this woman who, having hidden her child for three months faces the agony of giving him away.

She is not the only one to show maternal love in the story. Moses’ big sister, Miriam, hangs around the river, keeping an eye on the baby in his basket among the reeds, protecting him. When Pharaoh’s daughter comes by, it is thanks to Miriam’s quick thinking that the baby is cleverly reunited with his mother. Miriam says boldly to the princess,

‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from among the Hebrew women to nurse him for you?’

Then there is the princess herself. She takes pity on the baby when she hears him crying, she provides him with all he needs, and she takes him and raises him as her son.

Moses’ survival, nurture and education are thanks to the combined efforts, love and safe-keeping of these three women; and to the power of a God of love who can bring about transformation, even when things look hopeless.

The New Testament reading gives John’s account of the death of Jesus. His mother, Mary, waits with him in anguish at the foot of the cross, helpless to protect or save him. Knowing that he must leave her, Jesus brings together the disciple he loves and his mother in a parent/child relationship of mutual support and protection:

To Mary he says, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ To the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’

This is an extraordinary act of devotion and care, to be meeting the needs of others and constructing and blessing relationships between them at the hour of his own agony and death. The disciple also plays his part in this, accepting and honouring the sonship that Jesus has conferred on him. John says,

‘From that hour he took her into his own home.’

We have the story of the adopted child in Moses, and the story of the adopted mother in Mary!

What these stories, and the whole span of the bible, tell us, is that God is a God of relationship, of his relationship with us, and our relationships with one another; and that the mark of these relationships is love; and that this love can be transformative, and restorative even when all seems lost.

I think our relationships have taken a battering in the past year. I may only be speaking for myself, but I think we may have become more insular and wary, inward-looking, anxious, brittle. Our communication with others may have decreased lately, either because we have little new to share and say, or so much weighing on our hearts that we wouldn’t know where to begin. We haven’t had much opportunity to exercise our social skills! I mentioned this to my daughter who said that her fear was not so much the loss of social skill, but the loss of social stamina when socialising returns.

As we anticipate coming out of lockdown some of us may wonder what we will find? How will we reintegrate into our community and friendships and activities and work? Will we continue as we were as a society, only with renewed joy and appreciation of all that we have missed and come to value, or will we have to review and relearn and rebuild?

I listened to a video recently that spoke of this current situation in terms of the emergency relief model used in disasters and crises around the world. It identified three phases:

            the emergency response phase when people are running fast and hard to meet the basic human need for food, warmth and health care;

         the recovery phase, marked by grief and anxiety, mental health problems, lack of confidence, when the need is for emotional and mental support, memorial services, pastoral care; and

         the reconstruction phase, when the future needs to be re-imagined, new ways of doing things found, when we must adapt to scarcer resources, we find our values have changed, when trust and relationships need to be rebuilt.

I’m not sure where we are in this model. The kind and practical community and health care response to the emergency phase was, and still is, remarkable. I think we are registering levels of stress, depression, anxiety and poor mental health that are signs of the recovery phase. We probably under-estimate the power of kindness and our ability to lift the spirits of another person by calling on the phone, listening, communicating. Already we are starting to look ahead to the summer and the reconstruction phase.

Jesus on the cross brought together his mother and his friend in relationship, companionship and human comfort at their darkest time of grief, trauma and loss; he started the process of rebuilding. His message to them, and to us, seems to be: hold fast, be patient, be kind; reach out to those who are near to you, or dear to you, in humanity and love, and also take the hand that is offered to you; support one another and go forward in hope and trust. After the sorrow of the crucifixion will come the joy of the resurrection; and after the darkness of Lent comes the light and hope of Easter.