Luke 2: 21-35
When I was a child, I was into go-karts. No...I was really into go-karts...I spent my whole child-hood on go-karts! Now these weren't motorised, or even pedal powered go-karts. I mean go-karts made out of bits of wood we found in my Dad's shed, knocked together with any old nails we could find, with ancient, rusty pram-wheels that we picked up from the local tip rubbish tip. Our go-karts were incredible creations! We even made one which could carry four people...it had ten wheels...with a main go-kart, plus two trailers!
We lived on a rather steep hill...which I realise might be difficult for you Flatlanders of Portsmouth to conceive! To give you a idea, let me say that it was a hill of similar length and gradient as the one that goes up Portsdown Hill, past QA hospital. And like that hill, the one I grew up also had a junction at the bottom, on to a main road...which was itself, another hill. Overall, we had a run of over a mile from the top of the hill to the bottom...
My friends and I liked nothing better than to hair down our hill, on wooden go-karts, steered with string. To slow ourselves down before the junction, we would use our rubber Wellington boots as brakes...forcing them against the tarmac to slow our descent a little, before weaving into the traffic on the main road. That meant, of course, that Wellington boots had to be replaced with great regularity!
When I think back on those wonderful childhood days, I remember them with joy. I remember coming home at night, with new holes in my Wellingtons, scrapes and grazes all over my body, exhausted beyond belief...and yet wonderfully happy.
But when I look back on those days more objectively, I find myself asking an uncomfortable question...and one that might have occurred to you already...namely this; while I was careering over a mile down a hill on nothing more than a plank of wood, some pram wheels, a piece of string and my trusty Wellingtons at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour….where on earth was my mother?! (My father, of course, was for the most part out at work).
I asked my mother about this some years later...and learned precisely where she was. She was in our house, keeping out of my way...and terrified out of her wits. At any moment she expected a knock at the door, or a telephone call from the hospital, to say that her son had been discovered in a pile of blood and pram wheels at the bottom of the hill.
So why didn’t she stop me?
I think it was because my Mum was part of that generation which understood that young people don’t grow well when they are rooted to the sofa. She knew that for me to become the exceptionally well rounded human being you see before you - (ahem) - it was important that I had the chance, the free will, to explore my environment...to find my own paths...to make my own mistakes. Her actions, or rather her deliberate inactions, didn't arise because she was an uncaring mother...in fact exactly the opposite.
Motherhood is of course something that most people have to grow into. It’s a road that is paved with all sorts of good intentions…many of which get thrown out of the window the first time that your darling little baby turns to you and says ‘No…I won’t!’. Motherhood – and for that matter fatherhood – sort of creeps up on us. Here are five signs which conclusively prove that you have become a mother – which I found on the internet:
· You start spending regular half hours in the bathroom…just to be alone!
· You start hoping that tomato ketchup is a vegetable, since it’s the only one that your child eats.
· You find that, without thinking about it, you’ve cut off the crusts of your husband’s sandwiches
· You hear your own Mother’s voice coming out of your mouth when you say “NOT in your best clothes!”
And finally…the most telling sign of all…
· You use your own spit to clean your child’s face.
This morning’s gospel reading invites us to consider something of both the joy and the pain of motherhood. When Mary and Joseph presented their new son Jesus to the Lord at the Temple, Simeon prophesied over the child – whom he recognised by divine light to be the promised Messiah. And his prophecy contained some strange words – topsy turvey words: “This child is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel…” (Luke 2:34)
Mary exalted at this prospect. There was real joy in the gift of motherhood she had been given, because she glimpsed something of the potential of the child she had borne.
But there is a darker edge to the prophecy of Simeon too. At the end of his promises, there is a dark foreboding in his final line: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Lk 2:35).
Simeon knows his Scriptures. He knows, for example, that Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would have to die to achieve his ultimate goal of redeeming Israel. He knows that the path Jesus must tread is going to a difficult one.
Do you remember the story of Jesus, when he was about 12 years old? It's the only reliable story that we have about his childhood, other than his birth. It’s the occasion when the boy Jesus stays in Jerusalem to discuss theology with the priests – rather than returning home with his parents…(which is the very next story in Luke’s gospel). Just imagine the worry and pain of Mary as she hurried through the streets of Jerusalem, searching for her lost son among the Passover crowds, and the invading Roman Soldiers.
And do you remember the occasion that Jesus was told of his mother and brothers being outside? I wonder how Mary felt when Jesus responded that his mother and brothers were now all those who hear and act on God’s words? (Lk 8:21)
And that is something that many mothers – and fathers too – must experience. As children leave the nest, and make their own way in the world – there can be pain at their passing. There is a sense in which all parents are called to give back the gift of their child to the God who created them…just as Mary did.
Worst of all, of course, is the occasion when Mary finds herself at the foot of her son's cross - watching him die, having been deserted by all the crowds, and all the followers, expect John.
So - from the example and story of Mary, we see that both joy and pain are inevitable, normal aspects of what it means to be a mother. That's one of the reasons why I say that Motherhood is one of the highest callings on earth.
There's something else about Mary's story which should give us pause for thought. Like most mothers of her day, Mary worked out her role and task as a mother in community. Mary had her cousin, Elizabeth, during the earliest stages of her pregnancy. At Jesus' birth she had the companionship of Joseph, and the acclamation of shepherds and wise men. In the story we've just read, Mary and Joseph present Jesus to the priests of the Temple, so that by his circumcision he can be welcomed into the community of faith. During the visit to Jerusalem, when Jesus gets lost, the family travel with many pilgrims. Even at the end of Jesus life, Mary has the support of Mary Magdelene, and of John.
Motherhood is never something which should be done in isolation. As a church, we have a duty to support mothers in the joyful, painful, testing, glorious calling of motherhood. In our community cafe, over the next few weeks, we are going to be adding some play-equipment, out on a new front lawn...precisely so that mothers and children will feel even more welcome here. At St Nicholas, we provide space for a Pre-School, to supplement and build on what Mothers do. The Rev'd Bev, as part of our team, is currently planning a course on Spirituality for mothers, which we hope to deliver. We are also hoping to run a training course called 'Made of Money' which is designed to help families, and especially Mothers, to get a grip on their finances. Our Sunday School teachers, week by week, are giving support to families, by teaching our youngsters the things of God. Children have the chance to sing in our choir, which helps them to grow and develop, and therefore also supports their mothers.
All these things we can do because we are a church! I feel so incredibly sorry for mothers who try to do the hard work of bringing up children all by themselves. So many mothers in our city think that the only additional support they have as mothers is to plonk their child in front of a Playstation. But as a church, a body of people, we are stronger together - we can support one another, as well as the local community.
I wonder whether you've thought about that before? Have you ever thought that one of the main reasons for coming to church, is quite simply - to serve our neighbour? We can worship God at home. We can pray on a mountain top, or walking by the sea. In fact, Jesus was fairly suspicious of people who come together to pray...he recommended doing prayer in private (he even went as far as to say, "when you pray, go into your chamber and close the door" See Matthew 6.6). Although praying and singing and worshipping together might be wonderfully uplifting, and encouraging for us, I want to suggest to you that, believe it or not, its not the main reason why the church exists!
The church's primary task - the primary goal given to it by Christ is to carry the gospel, the good news about God, into the world. (Matthew 28). Part of that good news is that people are stronger, happier, better when they live in community with one another - as members of the body of Christ.
That is something worth bearing in mind the next time you don't feel like coming to church...the next time that you want to pull the duvet over your head and go back to sleep. We don't come to church for our benefit - we come to church for the benefit of the community. When we come to church, we show by our very presence that we believe in community. By adding our body to the other bodies around us, we create a feeling of community that reaches out and touches others. People walking into a full church of many people will be drawn to that community.
But when we stay at home, when we can't be bothered to come...we leave a gap. When we are not here, our seat is empty - and so are the hearts of those we would have encountered...including
· that elderly person who has spent the week on their own, and is desperate for some human company
· including that young couple who are starting out in life, and need the guidance, love and support of people who've been married for years
· including that mother who has been coping with a crying baby all week - and needs to see your friendly smile, and gain your assurance that crying is normal, there's nothing wrong with her baby.
· including that young woman who has not yet been blessed with a child - but who is supported through her grief and anxiety by the love of those around her.
In other words - don't only come to church for your benefit. Come to church because being here is part of your duty, part of your calling, your vocation, to be a Christian who lives in community with other Christians. Come to church because it is as church that we have the capacity to become all God made us to be - people who need people. Adam needed Eve...it was not good for him to be alone. I need you. I hope you need me! We certainly need each other, and mothers need us.
Just like Mary did.
So on this Mothering Sunday, we thank God for all Mothers - and for the joy, privilege and incredible challenge of motherhood. We remember that motherhood is a calling which brings great joy, but can also bring great pain...and we pray for all mothers, and those who feel called to be mothers. But at the same time we recognise that, as Mary taught us, the best motherhood is carried out in community with others and, I pray, we dedicate ourselves to being part of that community.
Just like Mary did.