A sermon for Mothering Sunday by Deacon Jessica Foster.
It may surprise you to learn that I don’t really like Mother’s Day. It won’t surprise my Mum who is sitting here in the congregation because she knows how contrary I am.
I don’t like Mothers Day in the same way I don’t like the fact that the Diocese has a Dean of Women’s ministry. Having a Dean of Women implies that men’s ministry is the default. Having one day to focus on mothers means their work can be ignored and unappreciated for the other 364 days.
I also don’t like Mother’s Day because it can make people sad. It’s not a great day if you are living with infertility and I can’t imagine what it feels like today for mothers who are separated from their children and live every day with the unimaginable pain of being apart. It can also make people– and particularly women – who are not Mothers feel as if they don’t count and that motherhood is some exalted, mysterious state. When my sister came to see me the day after my twins were born she said I looked like an adult for the first time and I think in our culture there is some myth that a woman without children is somehow incomplete. I look to a prophet, a teller of truths, outside the church to answer that.
In her book, How to Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran says: “ I don’t think there is a single lesson that motherhood has to offer that couldn’t be learnt elsewhere.. it’s nothing you could not get from say reading the 100 greatest books in human history, learning a foreign language well enough to argue in it, climbing hills, loving recklessly, sitting quietly alone in the dawn, drinking whisky with revolutionaries, swimming in a river in winter, growing foxgloves peas and roses, calling your Mum, singing while you walk, being polite and always, always helping strangers.” I would of course add coming to the Eucharist and prayer to that list.
In today’s readings we see new family structures being created that do not depend on genetics and biology. While we are commanded to honour our parents, elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus seemed ambivalent about the importance of these ties – preferring to spend time with his friends and followers. But in John’s Gospel, with loving compassion for his friend and his mother we see Jesus giving Mary and John to each other, creating a new interdependency that was born in that moment of agony and despair.
The familiar story we heard from Exodus shows how resourceful women work together to protect a child and enable God’s loving work of liberation. Moses is placed in a dark, womb-like floating cradle where his sister watches him waiting for a rebirth. Then in a way that so resembles baptism, he is drawn out of the river waters and is reborn with a new identity, safe in the household of Pharoh. What happens next is history and our shared story of freedom and salvation.
These stories offer us models of relationships which bring comfort, safety and nurture in both older age and youth. Mothering is not only for a woman and the child she bore. Paul, we heard in Thessolonians, is not afraid to compare his ministry to that of a breastfeeding mother – an allusion we often don’t hear clearly as the word ‘nurse’ has changed its meaning over the years. If Paul, not the most cuddly of Biblical characters, is happy to talk about his relationship being one of mothering I wonder why it is not a metaphor of relationship we talk about much inside or outside the church. We are so much easier with a Father of all but rarely do we speak of a mother outside a domestic setting.
Perhaps we avoid it as a model for nurturing relationships because it is too demanding or too overwhelming. We might think we don’t have time or energy to be a mother to people and that to be mothered would limit our freedom and turn us into child-like dependency. Maybe what we are thinking about is smothering rather than mothering.
I was recently reading about the ‘good enough’ theory of parenting. It goes something like this. When a baby is newborn the Mother (usually) bends over backwards to make sure the baby has its needs met. But gradually the Mother can’t meet all the needs all the time and the baby has to learn to wait, to make do and communicate more. So the theory goes, it is the Mother’s failure to be perfect that teaches the child independence and resilience and so a good enough parent may well be more use than a perfect one. If we don’t have to be perfect – can we risk being a mother?
Or perhaps we don’t like mothering as a model of relationship because it seems exclusive and limited only to those inside the family group – the well-used stereotype of a protective lioness ready to kill anyone or anything that threatens the welfare of her cubs. (You should see me if anyone is rude to my children).
I think this kind of loving is perhaps ‘othering’ rather than mothering. When we other someone we seem them in groups, we focus only on our differences and the ways in which we are not like one another. We view them as a threat to our possessions, our inheritance, our identity and we take away their humanity, they stop being our neighbour and then we don’t have to care. Some theologians talk about this being an I-it relationship rather than an I-thou relationship.
It’s very easy to ‘other’ especially when we feel threatened. I can find myself growling like a lioness when someone tries helpfully to do something I consider ‘my job’- it may be something ridiculously simple like pouring the tea at Church coffee. You may recognise the feeling.
Perhaps we other when we become too attached to an identity formed by our jobs, family, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, age, or culture. When we feel we have a lot to protect we can use these things as barriers to keep others away. These things were not a barrier for Jesus – in Jesus’s eyes people were not a collection of labels or markers but children of God. Jesus was clear that his identity was tied up in God and perhaps that’s why he did not worry too much about always keeping his mother happy.
We too, like Jesus, Moses and Mary are offered new identities in the waters of baptism. As new creations in Christ we are freed from the need to be ‘somebody’ and then we are not threatened by the other. This new creation, the new identity is nurtured in the womb of the church and fed by the Eucharist. It sets us free to mother and be mothered – not falling into smothering or othering.
And so while I am ambivalent at best about Mother’s Day, I think Mothering Sunday is an important day to remember that we are all called to mother and be mothered. The Bible is full of images of mothering, God as mother, Jesus as mother, Paul as mother. An Eygptian ruler’s daughter mothering the son of a Hebrew slave, the beloved disciple being mothered by a bereaved woman.
So let us celebrate today the motherhood of all believers. Let us thank God for all the people who have fed us, loved us, nurtured us and prayed for us and let us be ready to mother and be mothered as we love and live together.