This was a Mothering Sunday sermon delivered to a small congregation where three members had lost mothers and wives over the past year. We had a 'children's talk' earlier in the service where we discussed the origins of Mothering Sunday and how it was about 'Mother Church' and a hiatus in the Lenten Fast.
The Scripture Readings for this sermon are: Exodus 2:1-10 and John 19:25-27.
I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that Mothering Sunday is – shall I put it diplomatically? – not one of my favourite Sundays as a preacher.
Earlier, we talked about the fact that, for the Christian Church, Mothering Sunday isn’t about human mothers. It’s not about coming to church one day a year to celebrate motherhood or mothers. If it were, then by rights we should also do the same thing for fathers. And this contrast between what the Church thinks Mothering Sunday is about and what the world thinks it’s about one reason that Mothering Sunday can be difficult for preachers.
The other reason is that, really, we do all come to Church this morning with thoughts of mothers and Mother’s Day.
And that opens up a whole different set of issues for a worshipping congregation: thoughts we may have – positive or negative - of our own mothers, of other people’s mothers, about our own motherhood or the motherhood of our wives, daughters or daughters-in-law. Some people will be mourning mothers or wives lost recently or even many years ago. Others will be filled with feelings of thankfulness for their mothers. Others may have feelings of bitterness or even anger. Still others may have mixed feelings about their mothers. Then there are those women – and their husbands – who may have wanted to become mothers but weren’t able to. It all gets very complicated and I’m sure that we could probably spend another five minutes thinking of a variety of other issues around the subject of human motherhood.
So I think that it’s probably wrong to turn Mothering Sunday into a day where we worship human mothers, even as we recognise the importance of being a good mother – or a good father for that matter. But I do think that it’s important that we acknowledge that, in any congregation, different people will be having different feelings about the day, and that’s perfectly OK.
We come together – and notice the image here – as Christian brothers and sisters and we can give space to those who need space, we can walk with those who need companionship, and we can celebrate with those who want to celebrate.
The Parenthood of God
But the most important thing that we as Christians can remember and celebrate today is the parenthood of God.
In this morning’s Old Testament reading, we heard the story of Moses in the bulrushes. What a horrible society in which to become a parent. The Egyptian Pharaoh was engaging in a slow form of genocide: The boys of the children of Israel were to be slaughtered, in order to weaken the blood-lines of the Israelites. The girls could be sold into slavery in Egyptian homes and would eventually bear children with Egyptian men and the whole Israelite culture would gradually disappear. (As we hear this story, we might a connection with expectant Palestinian mothers today who are sometimes not allowed to cross restricted zones in order to have access to medical care.)
And in the middle of this hostile atmosphere, a young Israelite mother bears a child, hiding him for 3 months - as long as she can. Then – no doubt with many tears and prayers – she releases him into the wilds of the Egyptian landscape, hoping against hope that he will survive, that he’ll be taken in by an Egyptian family who will raise him as their own. It was all she could do in the circumstances, really. Far from being cruel, it was Moses’ only chance for survival.
His mother did not abandon him but did everything she could in a terrible situation: first sending the baby’s sister to watch over him and then, by a miracle of coincidence (or was it a God-incidence?), she was able to nurse the baby until he was weaned. When Moses mother finally said good-bye to him, she knew that he had survived infancy and that he had been adopted into a good home.
Weaning him and letting him go must have been among the most difficult things she ever had to do in her life. But no doubt it was her love for Moses that gave her the strength to let him go.
Father and Mother Images of God
I don’t think I need to spell out that the picture that I have just painted of Moses’ mother might also serve as a beautiful and poignant picture of God’s love for humankind.
God is most often pictured in Scripture as ‘Father’. This is because, in the cultures in which much of Scripture arose, the role of ‘Father’ tells us many important things about God’s relationship to us.
The picture of God as our Father tells us who we are in him: how we are given an identity in him (a surname), how we are shaped by his authority, but maybe most importantly of all, it tells us about the inheritance that he has promised us as his children.
Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, believers have God’s unbreakable promise that we will inherit his kingdom. And this inheritance is a very important thing for us to understand about God’s Good News. It’s not that we inherit these things because God is a male parent, it is simply that ‘Father’ was the right image for that culture that conveyed this promise of receiving God’s divine inheritance.
But the bible is also full of images that are more stereotypically feminine. In addition to Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem and saying that he longs to gather it under his wings like a mother hen, there is much use in scripture of the concept of loving-kindness and God’s nurturing care for his children. In addition, ‘Wisdom’ is portrayed as a woman and said to be necessary for discipleship.
God is neither male nor female and therefore is neither a human father nor a human mother. I believe that Scripture testifies to what we might call God’s mothering nature as well as to God’s fathering nature. It is as important for us to understand the nurturing side of God as it is for us to understand that God gives us an identity and an inheritance.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent and during Lent we tell the story of Jesus’ walk toward Jerusalem and toward crucifixion. I believe that Jesus’ walk to the cross was as deliberate as was the decision of the Son to take on human flesh and to walk with us in our humanity. Indeed, Jesus could not have died on the cross if he had not become human.
In walking with us and in understanding our suffering, God was demonstrating his nurturing nature. In dying on the cross because of our sins, Jesus was demonstrating God’s intention to save us and to bring us into the inheritance that he desires for all people.
In our Gospel reading this morning, we saw the tender nature of Jesus as he gave his mother into the hands of another in the same way that Moses’ mother turned him over to the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. On this Mothering Sunday, let’s reflect on the fact that God is like a Father and a Mother.
As we come to the Lord’s Table in the few minutes, I pray that we remember that the God who saves us also nurtures us and walks with us. And may we grow in the faith and the knowledge of God’s Kingdom by this sacrament. Amen