Exodus 2: 1-10 Luke 2: 33-35
It took me a long time to realize that not everyone finds Mothering Sunday an easy or uplifting time. As a child I used to enjoy making my mum a card in class, and taking home a little bunch of daffodils from Sunday school. And as a parent with a young family I loved seeing our own children do the same for their Mum.
I didn’t begin to see the challenging side of this celebration until I became a form tutor at a secondary school. For a small rural community college we had a surprising number of children whom “Mothers’ Day” left feeling marginalized or excluded – not just those whose mothers were deceased or absent, but less obviously the unhappy few whose relationship with their mother was a source not of warmth and comfort, but of grief and insecurity. And it worked both ways, because at almost every parents’ evening I would get a least one mum pouring out her anguish over her child’s approach to life and agonizing that she must have done something wrong.
So working with children was an eye-opener. But it wasn’t until three years ago, when my own mother passed away, that I experienced the poignant aspect of Mothering Sunday at first hand. I still love it when our granddaughter goes forward to collect flowers for her mum, and I very much appreciate the opportunity to remember my own mother prayerfully and with gratitude. But it has become a poignant time, and I can no longer forget the many others for whom today is accompanied by feelings of loss or grief or even anger.
And so Mothering Sunday isn’t just one of the hardest of days on which to go to church; it’s also one of the hardest days on which to stand here in the pulpit and find a message to deliver that will offer something for everyone: a word of healing for those whose family relationships or memories are clouded, but above all a word of affirmation and thanksgiving for mothers, motherhood and parenting in general.
Our Bible readings this morning offer us two possible starting points, rooted in the stories of Moses and Jesus and their respective mothers.
Imagine the horror for Moses’ mother as a slave woman: giving birth to a son at a time when Egyptian guards were under orders to throw any Jewish boy-babies into the Nile. She manages to keep him hidden for three months, but she knows that she can’t keep him safe for much longer. And so, desperately entrusting his future to God, she lets him go. Fashioning a tiny floating basket, she hides him in the reeds at the water’s edge. There he is found and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, who unwittingly employs the baby’s own mother as a royal nanny to raise him to adulthood.
How painful it must have been for the natural mother, when the boy was older, to take him to the princess to be formally adopted as her son. But by letting go and trusting God she had seen him grow up into a young adult. And none of those involved can have foreseen the consequences: how a mother’s trust and a princess’s kindness would produce such a powerful leader: one who would be God’s agent in securing the release of his people from slavery; indeed, a leader who would lay the foundations not just for Israel’s future, but for the future of the world.
Our short second reading tells us what happened when Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple for his dedication. It’s nothing like as dramatic as the story of Moses’ childhood, but the day doesn’t seem to go quite as expected. It was the equivalent of a modern christening – it ought to have been a pleasant family event that they would look back on with affection and pride for years to come.
But in the event, something unexpected happens. They get accosted by a couple of elderly prayer warriors – the kind you sometimes find loitering in cathedrals today. These old people immediately discern that Jesus is someone of unique importance. One of them begins prophesying about the tribulations that lie ahead for the little one. And finally he turns to Mary and says, “And a sword will pierce your own heart also”.
As I read that last sentence, I thought it wouldn’t make a bad title for this sermon. “A Sword Will Pierce Your Heart”. For many, perhaps most of us, parenthood will have proved a joy and a blessing – for mums, for dads, and especially for the children. But for everyone who ever tries to start a family – whether or not they succeed in their efforts - there’s a health warning on the side of the package that says, “A Sword Will Pierce Your Heart”.
Mary herself experienced the agony of watching as an actual spear entered Jesus’ side, and it must have felt as if her own heart was being pierced. When we start a family, we can’t predict what form that spear might take for us, whether it will involve loss, sickness, alienation, or simply the cumulative impact of a thousand lesser anxieties over health, schooling, family relationships, career choices, and all the other ups and downs of life parents and children go through together. And however good our intentions, all parents make mistakes, some of which will haunt them for years. We can only put our trust in God, and hope for the best.
For others the pain may come when their efforts to start a family are unsuccessful, or when they realize that they have missed the opportunity to try. In a perfect world, Mothering Sunday would be a day on which every single person present is able to join together in giving thanks. But real life is more complicated than that, and it’s probable that for some people here today this is difficult territory.
If that describes you, then it’s our prayer that today will be a day of healing – a day when you feel able to do what Moses’ mother did, when she handed over to God the things that she could not accomplish by herself. And any feelings we may be carrying of hurt, of regret, of failure, of unforgiveness, may God take those things into himself and grant us peace. May you leave here this morning relieved of some of that burden.
In contrast, for many people here, today will be a day of joy, an opportunity to count our blessings, to give thanks for those who have loved and nurtured us, for those who have given us hope and a sense of belonging. In most cases, those will be our natural parents, especially our mothers. But I’ve known a number of people who owe their sense of wellbeing to someone else: a grandparent, or an unrelated person who has been there for them in the long term, supporting and guiding them through the ups and downs of life. For such people as these, this is also an opportunity to give thanks.
And that’s the cue for a final challenge to all of us. Remember, Pharaoh’s daughter became a mother to Moses, and shared all the joy and grief of his tumultuous coming of age, through nothing more than the kindness of her heart and the mixed blessing of having been in the right place at the right time. Similarly, when Jesus was dying on the Cross, he saw his mother Mary and the Apostle John standing there together, and he encouraged them to act as a mother and son to one another. Similarly, part of the wonder of this extended church family is the opportunity we have to act like family to one another: like parents, like grandparents, like children or like siblings; to accept our differences and support one another through life’s ups and downs.