Mothering Sunday - 3rd April 2011
Right then. Let's start with some basic dictionary definitions. What is a mother?
According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, a mother is:
"A mucilaginous substance produced in vinegar during fermantation by mould-fungus"
Oh. Hang on. That can't be right. Let's try another:
"A term of address for an elderly woman of the lower class"
How about "the Head of a Religious Community"
"A quality or condition which gives rise to another, as in 'necessity is the mother of invention'"
"Artificial Mother: An apparatus for rearing chickens"
Of course we've all heard the word Mother used in many and various contexts haven't we. The House of Commons is sometimes referred to as 'the Mother of Parliaments'. For our friends in Roman Catholicism, St Peter's in Rome is sometimes referred to as 'the Mother Church'. And Saddam Hussein had an annoying habit of referring to his warlike excursions into neighbouring countries as 'the Mother of all battles'.
But of course, the most usual use of the word is the one we give to our Mums...to those who gave birth to us, and who brought us up in the world.
True motherhood though, is much much more than the biological function of bringing new life into the world. That part of motherhood is hard, no doubt. It takes commitment, devotion, and (apparently!) a lot of pain to fulfill the purely biological process of motherhood. But, as any mother will tell you - it's after the birth that the real work of mothering begins.
Real mothering takes time, devotion, and skill. And many mothers have to learn those skills along the way - often by trial and error. In fact it is very easy to tell new mothers from more experienced ones - especially by the way they relate to their children.
Apparently, when you have your first baby, you spend a great deal of time just gazing at your baby.
When you have your second child, you spend a good deal of every day just making sure that your first child isn't hitting, poking or squeezing the baby
When you have your third child, you spend a little bit of every day hiding from all the children!
There are other signs of an experienced mother too.
· You know you've become a mother when you go out for a romantic meal with your husband, and then reach over to start cutting up his steak.
· You know you've become a real mother when you start thinking about writing a book called "101 things to do with tumble-dryer fluff and dried pasta shells".
· You know you've become a mother when you begin to actually like the smell of mashed carrots and applesauce!
But let's face it, not every mother is successful. In fact, in these days of fractured or highly mobile families, it is not at all unusual for a young mum to find herself bringing up a child, all alone, with no other family members around. In this City I know of many young mums who are isolated beyond belief...stuck at the top of a high rise building, perhaps with the lift broken down, or perhaps with too many children to be able to go out into the world, even to seek help. For many, motherhood becomes an oppressive almost prison-like experience.
The other uncomfortable fact is that some mothers just shouldn't be mothers. Too many children grow up in homes that are unloving, or where one parent or the other suffers from addictions to drugs or alcohol. Some parents routinely use violence to bring up their children, others are too poorly educated to realise that sticking a child infront of a playstation all day does not constitute good parenting!
And that is why Mothering Sunday should inspire us to enlarge our vision of what 'mothering' is. Mothering is something that the whole of society should be involved with. Put it another way...mothering is just too important to be left to mothers alone! Not so long ago...in fact within the memories of most of us here, whole villages or towns were involved in bringing up children. It was perfectly natural for any adult who saw a child mis-behaving to chastise them. Adults from across the community ran scouts and guides and youth clubs and choirs. When I was growing up, the parenting that my mum and dad did was supported by my school teachers, my brass band, my drama group, and my cub pack and my church choir. But now thanks to some mercifully rare, but very high profile cases of appalling child abuse, less and less adults are willing to volunteer...afraid that they will be labelled as paedophiles, just for caring about children. Many activities which are run for children now can only happen if parents stay in the room, or at the side of the pitch.
The danger of this over-protection of youngsters is that children don't get the chance to flap their wings, and find out who they are. Their vision of what life can be is reduced. For children who are taken to school in the safety of Mum's car, then observed in every dance class or drama group, and taught martial arts only 'so they can stand up for themselves', the world becomes a place to be protected from...rather than to be experienced, relished, and enjoyed for all its beauty, challenge, and yes, even danger.
Mothering then, is something which the Church teaches should be done by the whole community.
In fact Jesus used some pretty strange language about mothers. Do you remember the time when someone tugged at his sleeve and said "Your mother and brothers are outside"? Here's the whole short story, from Matthew 12. 46-50
While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.”
This was pretty tough stuff, wasn't it. Jesus appears to reject his own Mother, in favour of the larger community of disciples who were following him. Uh? What's going on?
For Jesus, the bonds of family were clearly important. They were so important that when he hung on the cross, one of the things most clearly on his mind was the long-term care of his Mother...which is why he asks John to take care of her. But before that, by his actions and by his words, Jesus makes it very clear that the family unit - and even the bonds of love between a mother and a child - must take second place to the wider Christian community.
And that's because the Christian wider community is the whole Body of Christ - and the Body of Christ is called, by Christ, to serve and 'mother' the rest of the world. To those who are sick, or in prison, or hungry, or homeless, Christ says, effectively, "Mother them". Christ uses a mothering metaphor of himself, when weeping over the lost city of Jerusalem, he says "How long have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings".
So for the Church, Mothering Sunday has never been just 'Mother's Day'. You could even wonder whether Mother's Day is just a secular scam, designed to sell cards and flowers, and rack-up the profits of restaurants, by feeding on our guilt about not having phoned our mothers!
Going further still, someone responded to a few thoughts I put on Facebook this week, on the topic of Mother's Day. They described Mother's Day as 'A patriarchal construct to reinforce women's subjugation and oppression'! That might be a little bit strong...but I know where they are coming from.
To be a mother is much more than to be the one human being whose sole duty is to bring up one or more biological children. Motherhood needs to be understood as a calling that every Christian - man or woman - shares...a calling to 'mother' a world which is need of the kind of wisdom, challenge and upbringing that the very best Mothers are capable of.
And that, ultimately is surely what we are called to do here in North End. Our churches, in the North End Team, are called to act like mothers to those around us. A good mother imparts knowledge, and wisdom. A good mother reaches down and picks up fallen children. A good mother inspires their child to be more - to learn more, to grow more...to become the best human being they can become. A good mother introduces her child to other children, so that all the children learn together what it means to grow up together. A good mother picks up a child who is crying, and comforts them. A good mother sits beside the bed of a child who is suffering, and prays for them. A good mother feeds her children.
St Mark's, St Nicholas, St Francis churches...all of us, are called to be that kind of mother to the people of our parish. By our teaching of the Gospel, by our prayers for the sick and the suffering, by our feeding of the hungry poor (in our café, for example), by the visiting of the lonely, by our care for the oppressed, by the provision of opportunities for people - and children - to grow in talent and humanity...we are called to act as a mother to the wider family of the people of North End.
So here's my prayer for this church, and for this parish: may we discover the fullness of mother-hood revealed to us through the example of Christ. May we discover the joy of giving loving, motherly service to the lost, the lonely and the poor of our parish. May we know that fulfilment which comes from sharing God's motherly love to more than just our own families...but to the whole world to which Christ calls us.