‘Woman, here is your son… Here is your mother.’
At Christmas I was given a book called ‘Born a Crime’. It is by the South African comedian, Trevor Noah, who is now the host of ‘The Daily Show’ – a late night talk and news satire show. He was born to a single mother and much of the book (at least as far as I’ve read so far) is about his relationship with his mother. He writes with great humour about how difficult a child he was and about how she used to admonish him. What is clear is that she nurtured in him the importance of pushing back and challenging the rules, particularly when the rules didn’t make sense. A useful code of behaviour when growing up in Apartheid. Of course that also meant he pushed back and challenged her. But I think there is something good when one’s children feel safe enough and able to challenge their own parents.
This week was International Women’s Day. It was also the day when Sarah Mullally officially became Bishop of London as her election was confirmed. A significant milestone in the flourishing of all in the church of England. This year is also 100 years after the triumph of women’s suffrage in this country, which is something very much worth celebrating. But a century on and perhaps the more striking thing is
the many ways in which women’s rights are still not where they should be. This past year has highlighted many ways in which universal suffrage was only the first step. Whether it is the #meto movement, the now annual women’s marches around which started at the time of President Trump’s inauguration just over a year ago. The campaign for equal pay. The attacks made against our Prime Minister because she didn’t have any children of her own. The revelations and response to stories of sexual harassment in Hollywood, in the hallways of Westminster and amongst international charities, and sadly in the church as well – only to name a few.
And then by coincidence Mothering Sunday is only 3 days later. Coincidence because International Women’s Day is always the 8th March, Mothering Sunday moves around with Easter. For all the Hallmark card poems and the wonderfully positive Mothers Day sentiments – Mothering Sunday is altogether more complex than a simple celebration of our moms. Even in the reading from the first book of Samuel we had this morning we hear of the story of Hannah, a woman who has longed for a child and then when she receives him, feels the only thing she can do is give her son to the Lord, sending him to live with Eli from the moment he is weened. It is a reminder today of the many women who don’t want children, who can’t have them, or who have been unable to care for their own children and needed to rely on others.
Much like the imagery of God as Father can be difficult for those whose own experience of fathers doesn’t reflect the God revealed to us by the loving compassion of Christ. Those whose relationships with their own mothers, or with the possibility of becoming or not becoming a mother (desired or not), or with their own experience of motherhood, might understandably find it difficult to relate to the idealistic celebration of Mothers Day. Mothering Sunday is meant to be something different. Not just a celebration of motherhood in all the variety of ways that it works itself out. But a time to remember the calling we all have to mother one another as the church. Historically the New Testament reading chosen for the fourth Sunday of Lent had Paul describing Jerusalem as mother to us all – a role which the church, as an earthly manifestation of the Kingdom of God, is meant to continue.
Today’s Gospel is sometimes described as the Birth of the Church. John, the disciple that Jesus loved, is told to receive Mary as his adopted mother and Mary is to accept John as her adopted Son. It is an image we look at every week in our rood cross. Jesus, in this moment of great personal suffering, looks with compassion on his mother and his friend and asks them to care for each other as family. And we are all called to do so as brothers and sisters in Christ. In Canada there was a programme called Block parents. A Block in this case referring to the block of houses encircled by a rectangle of streets. Block parents would be trained and vetted by a centralised organisation so that if a child felt unsafe or needed help, they knew they could go and knock on the door of a block parent in their block and get the support or help they needed. Church – that is the people – should be the place we all feel we can turn when we are in most need of a listening ear and an open heart. I remember when Princess Diana died and the following Sunday there were reports of the royal family all going to church together. Commentators and the public was questioning why they should be made to go to church at such a time. But Church should be the sort of place where we want to turn at those moments when we need to find compassion.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians outlines this vocation of the church beautifully, the followers of Christ – the community of the faithful, should clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We should practice forgiveness and love, we should teach and admonish with wisdom, and let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts. And it is by these very principles, in our role as mother church that we should challenge the ways in which our society maintains unfair and unequal treatment of women.
So today, as we receive flowers at the end of the service, we celebrate all those who have cared for us, nurtured us, encouraged us, enabled us, supported us. Whether they were our own mothers or not. And we also re-commit ourselves to care for those around us,
to be compassionate and kind, to have humility and patience, to be forgiving and loving and to teach and admonish. To make this place,
this community, a home that any can turn to find the love of God for them, an open table and a caring and honest conversation.
The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams