The story of Moses really is one of my favourite tales in the whole of scripture. Because aside from it being such a rattling good yarn from beginning to end, it is also a story that contains a great deal of wisdom about both human life and the ways of God.
You will all, I’m sure, be familiar with the story of Moses in the bullrushes, which we heard as our first reading this morning. Moses is 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 initial attempt to get the Hebrew midwives themselves to do the dastardly deed for him, Pharaoh then 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 such an appalling situation: she hides the boy for as long as she possibly can. But she can only hope to do so for a short time; because to attempt to hold on to him for longer would risk discovery and lead to his certain death. But the problem is that 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 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 there 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 – obliged to make that 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 by entrusting it to God to care for – strangely enough, eventually it may well find its way back to us, sometimes with an added bonus attached – but always 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 that balance is never 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 function, let alone 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.
But of course behind the tradition of being nice to our mums, lies a much more ancient, and in its own way far 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 appear to be either naively cosy, or bizarre and antiquated. 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 perfect 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, and where we learn. But the Church is also a place from which we must then 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 always return to receive refreshment and renewal.
But 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 single predictable mould, and ordering us how to think. Mature faith within the context of the Church is like a mature maternal relationship: you can come and go. You are always welcome, but you are also free to depart again. And like the best of maternal relationships, it should always be a joy, and never a burden.
Very often the things that we most value mothers for, are the things that cost the least but mean the most: being there for us when we are afraid; encouraging us when we feel despair.
One of my favourite poets, Elizabeth Jennings wrote very movingly of the death of her own mother at the age of 89, when of course she herself was of retirement age. She described the burning grief that she felt at this bereavement (describing herself, touchingly and paradoxically, 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. Elizabeth Jennings 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 wonderful historic building. Because we are called, first and foremost, to be a family; to be a community of faith; to be a place where we can all come both to receive and to offer comfort, healing, and joy; a place where we can do our very best to bear one another’s burdens, just as a mother is there to ease the burden carried by her child.
Happy Mothering Sunday!