Preacher Revd Neil Summers
I guess for some of you (like me) today is a day of mixed emotions: for me, of gratitude and of sadness. Gratitude for memories of a mother who demonstrated her love in so many ways; sad because she isn’t here anymore, so I don’t have to buy a card and a gift for today. But, when I did, I used to search the shelves for a card which celebrated Mothering Sunday rather than its more recent designation, Mother’s Day. For today isn’t solely about individual mothers, much as we honour and value them. Its origins are more about a day set apart in the calendar to celebrate the act of mothering, and to give thanks for ‘Mother Church’ – as well as for our own mothers. A day, indeed, to celebrate the gift of love itself. But this is a day some find very difficult, because its focus underlines silent personal griefs and sorrows. For a whole host of reasons, quiet tears will be shed today – perhaps for those we have lost, children who have rejected their parents (and vice versa), relationships where the love has withered and died, relationships that never happened, for the children that never were. Tears, yes, for mothers who have loved and been loved, but are now sorely missed. Maybe tears for mothers who have loved too much, and mothers who have weren’t able to love at all. So, very much a day of mixed emotions. This morning’s Gospel, moving though it is, is also something of a counterbalance to the risk of over-sentimentalising this day.
Mary, Jesus’s mother, is often submerged by centuries of church tradition that can too easily overlook the fact she was a teenage girl; pregnant before marriage; forced onto a long journey on the back of a donkey in the last stages of her pregnancy; compelled to flee with her betrothed and the baby as refugees to a foreign land. Hardly the stuff of flowers and chocolates, is it? And in Lent we remind ourselves it is only a few short weeks since we celebrated Candlemas, when the old prophet Simeon told Mary that a sword would come to pierce her heart, a prophecy heartbreakingly fulfilled on that first Good Friday, as Mary waited at the foot of the Cross and witnessed the agony of her suffering son. Surely this is where the iconic nature of Mary finds its truest expression, as her mother’s love becomes an icon for all our loving. She teaches us that love is vulnerable, that it suffers, that it takes risks. If we didn’t love, if we couldn’t love, then those painful realities that upset the equilibrium of our lives – rows, sickness, broken relationships, loss and death – all these would matter far less to us. But we do love, and so they do hurt – sometimes acutely.
Mothering Sunday, placed not long before Holy Week, reminds us that a relationship, any relationship, without pain is likely to be a relationship without love. In fact, if we love, then we put ourselves in the very path of pain and anguish. To love is to put yourself at risk, and your heart may sometimes be wrung out, even broken. But it couldn’t be any other way, for we are made in the image of a God of love, and real love, as Jesus demonstrates, costs. It is a very expensive commodity, and sometimes we may have to pay for it with the currency of our tears. The love of Jesus and the love of Mary both teach us that the only sort of loving and the only sort of living worth having are those which will take risks, which will place themselves in the path of suffering, and which will face piercing, even to the heart.
Jesus takes this moment of agony to say something profoundly important. To his mother he says, ‘Here is your son’, and to his close friend, ‘Here is your mother’. In other words, you now have a responsibility to nourish and care for one another if you are to be my followers. What binds Jesus’s followers together more than just blood ties is the recognition of one another’s humanity and the need both to give and to receive love. This is a whole new way of relating to one another and it finds its origin and expression in the God whose very nature is love. It has been remarked that, in this moment, a new way of being family is born. Historically, and sadly, the Church has frequently failed to live up to this Gospel of love and care for each other. But at its best, the Church will always seek to mirror this reality of reflecting God’s love for us, and Jesus’s teaching that we must love one another. So this is a day to rejoice in that.
In that spirit of mutual support, I need to say something important about our life as a church community here at St John’s. In a few weeks, we need to elect our church officers for the coming year. As part of that (and I’ve been pointing to this for several months now in the pew sheet) we have to appoint a new church warden to work alongside Mary. Martin, our other current warden, has indicated he is willing to stand and continue as a deputy warden for a couple more years, and also to continue to represent us on the parish’s Property and Finance Committee. Over the years, we have been very fortunate in the people who have served as church wardens here: some of them are in the congregation this morning. I even did the job myself many years ago! And we are very well served now by Martin and Mary. But it is time now for one mantle, at least, to be passed on.
I would urge all of you to think seriously about this and to pray for the right person to emerge. I have to say the job is nothing like it was in the days when I did it! No having to be in church regularly for contractors’ visits, much less administration and financial overseeing, far fewer ‘chores’. That’s because much of this work is now done by paid employees in the parish, and we currently have a very capable team in place. While wardens have some legal responsibilities, I think some of their most essential duties are, in fact, pastoral – caring for and supporting the priest, and also caring for the congregation and encouraging people in their Christian faith. I tend to think the job of church warden is itself a vocation, not just a title and not just business-focused.
I want to encourage you to ask yourself if this is a role you could take on, or a potential you might recognise in one of your fellow members of this church family – to be part of the care and nurturing of others that typify the best human qualities we are reminded of on Mothering Sunday; that takes today’s Gospel of mutual support to heart, and that leads to the flourishing of the most effective Christian communities. If you’d like to explore this further, please speak to me, or to Mary or Martin, in the next few weeks, as we continue to prepare for the Annual Meeting in late April.
A final thought. Mother Julian of Norwich, the English mystic, wrote this: “A kind, loving mother, who understands and knows the needs of her child will look after it tenderly because it is the nature of a mother to do so. As the child grows older, she changes her methods, not her love. This way of doing things is our Lord at work in those who do them.” I know we routinely refer to God as our Father, but today, of all days, I am more than happy to leave the final word to Julian of Norwich, who concluded, ‘Thus God is our Mother.’ Amen.