St Bride's: Sermons

Mothering

Mothering

The story of Moses really is one of my favourite tales in the whole of scripture.  Because apart from being a rattling good yarn from beginning to end, it is also a story that contains a great deal of wisdom both about human life and about the ways of God.

You will all, I'm sure, be familiar with the episode that we heard as our first reading this morning - the story of Moses in the bullrushes: Moses has the misfortune to be born in Egypt, the son of two Hebrew slaves, just at the time when a paranoid Pharaoh has ordered the wholesale slaughter of all newly born Hebrew boys.  Having failed in his attempt to get the Hebrew midwives to do the dastardly deed for him, Pharaoh gives orders that all Hebrew boys are to be thrown into the river Nile.

So, what does Moses' mother do when she gives birth to a son?  Initially she does what I imagine most mothers would do in her appalling situation: she hides the boy for as long as she is able.  But she can only hope to conceal him for a short time; to attempt to hold on to him for longer would be to risk discovery and lead to his certain death.  But she cannot pass him on to anyone else to care for either - because, of course, he would be no safer with any other Hebrew family than he would with her - and who on earth would risk taking him in, in any case?

So, in the end, Moses' distraught mother is driven to do precisely what Pharaoh has ordered: she does indeed put her son in the Nile.  But she places him there in a waterproofed basket, so that she is at least spared the horror of being directly responsible for his death.  In doing so she surrenders her little boy, and his destiny, into the hands of God.  As chance would have it, he is discovered in the bulrushes by Pharaoh's daughter, who adopts him as her own.  And then we come to the glorious twist in the story: because, thanks to the agency of Moses' elder sister, who has been watching all of this, Moses' mother ends up being employed as his nurse.  So, ironically, having surrendered her son to his fate, she not only gets him back, but she gets a salary thrown in as well.

For me, there is something at the heart of this story that rings true in what it tells us about the ways of God.  There are times for all of us when, like Moses' mother, we find ourselves forced to surrender something that we hold very dear - a heartrending sacrifice.  And yet, it is certainly true in my own experience that, if we are able to relinquish something that is truly precious to us, and entrust it to God to care for - then, more often than not, eventually it will find its way back to us, and frequently with an added bonus attached - but in a way that is completely unexpected.

But there is also a very interesting and important metaphor about motherhood embedded within this story.  As I'm sure most responsible parents would testify, one of the hardest things to get right in the murky and complicated world of childrearing, is managing to establish the right balance between control and freedom; between holding on and letting go.  And it is particularly difficult because of course the balance is not static.  It will shift as the child grows and develops, and its circumstances change.  

Children need security and clear boundaries in order to grow up safely and to learn some of the basic rules of negotiating life, and human relationships.  Because we all need to understand roles and responsibilities, duties and obligations, in order to be able to flourish within human society.  But children also need to be given the freedom to explore; to try things out; to make their own mistakes and learn from them; to negotiate difficult situations for themselves, so that they are properly equipped to fly the nest when the time comes for them to leave.

These days, Mothering Sunday is principally understood as a day on which we are all reminded to be nice to our mums (if we are lucky enough still to have them) - and I am all in favour of that.  My lovely daughter Sinead gave me a copy of this book this morning - it is one of those wonderful spoof Ladybird books, this one is in the 'How it works' series, and is entitled The Mum.  It begins:

This is a mum.  A mum has two very important jobs to do.  One is to look after her children.  The other is to do everything else as well.

But my absolutely favourite page (and you need to bear in mind here that my younger daughter happens to be called Olivia) is this one:

Alice is a successful biochemist.  She publishes at least one highly regarded academic paper a year and has won the Colworth medal.  At the school gate, nobody knows this.  Alice does not even have a name.  Everyone calls her Olivia's mum.  Olivia has not done anything yet.

But of course behind the tradition of being nice to our mums, lies a much more ancient, and in its own way more significant commemoration within the Church's year, which is a celebration of Mother Church.

What does it mean for us to think of the Church as our mother?  As imagery it might seem rather bizarre.  And yet, when understood in terms of the balance that good mothering strives to achieve between the competing claims of safety and freedom, to my mind at least, it begins to make some sense.

For Christians, the Church should rightly be experienced as a place of safety and nurture; a place where we are loved and accepted; where we are enabled to grow and to flourish; where we hear the word of God, and are inspired, and fed.  But there is a reason for this.  Because the Church is also a place from which we must depart and go out into the world, confidently and courageously, equipped to embrace the opportunities that come our way day by day, and to meet the challenges we face, knowing that our Mother Church is always here for us, and that we can return whenever we like to receive refreshment and renewal.  For this to be possible the Church needs to be the right kind of mother: it needs to be endlessly nurturing and supportive, but never controlling.  It must encourage us on our own, individual journeys of faith and life, rather than forcing us into a particular, predictable mould.  Mature faith is like a mature maternal relationship: you can come and go.  You are always welcome, but you are also free to depart again.  It is a relationship that should be a joy, and never a burden.

Very often the things that we most value mothers for, are the small things: being there for us when we are afraid; encouraging us when we feel despair.  At one of our evening services last year, I reflected on some words by one of my favourite poets, Elizabeth Jennings.  When her own mother died at the age of 87, she spoke very movingly of the burning grief that she felt at her loss (describing herself, rather touchingly, as 'orphaned and elderly') - but also naming the things that she valued most, and missed most, about the various ways in which her mother had expressed her love for her when a child.  She wrote this:

Orphaned and elderly and yet a child,
For so I am when thoughts of you return,
Return and batter me and I'm not mild
But close to tears and scarred, for these tears burn.
You tamed me when most wild,

You comforted my nightmares, came and sat
Beside my bed when sleep was far away.
You were a healing presence.  More than that,
You were a joy, a treasure, could display
High spirits when the flat

Dull mood took charge of me.  You always were
Busy and quick and swift to suffer too,
But only now and then did I know fear
When I could see a troubled look on you.
Tonight you feel so dear.

Our church here at St Bride's is, and should be, so very much more than simply a fabulous historic building.  Because we are called, first and foremost, to be a community of faith; to be a place where we can all both receive and provide comfort, healing, and joy; a place where we can bear one another's burdens, just as a mother eases the burden carried by her child.  And thanks be to God for that.      Amen.

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