A few months ago, I happened to catch a television documentary about two adults who had been adopted at birth, who were trying to trace their own natural mothers. What made their quest more challenging, and their stories the more poignant, was that both of them were infants who in an earlier age would have been called ‘foundlings’: they had been abandoned by biological parents who left no trace. No documentation existed to help establish their origins or their identity, and were it not for the advent of DNA technology, the quest to try to establish their parentage would probably have led nowhere.
Hearing their stories, I was struck by how viscerally significant a maternal relationship can be, even in its absence: those two individuals had spent their whole lives with a profound sense of rootlessness, plagued with questions that had shaped their entire existences: What kind of a mother would do that to her own child? Why had they been abandoned? Were they unwanted and rejected? Or was it a heart-breaking act of despair by a woman who, like the mother of the infant Moses in the Old Testament book of Exodus, felt she had no choice: believing that the kindest and most compassionate act she could do for her child was to relinquish him – fervently hoping that someone else might be able to offer the safety, and the loving home that she could not.
For those two unfortunate people in the documentary, that challenging start to their lives had defined much about the people they had become. Mothering, even when it is absent, really is that significant.
There are two things that all of us who are sharing in this service today have in common. The first is that each one of us had a biological mother. She may have died many years ago, or she may be very much alive and with us today; she may have been a wonderful mother, or a terrible mother; she may have been someone with whom we are (or were) very close – or with whom we had a very difficult relationship. And it is possible that we never even knew who she was, like the two people who featured in that documentary. Nevertheless, we all had one. And whoever she was, and whatever the circumstances of our birth, our mother gave us all one very precious gift – which was the gift of life.
The second thing that we all have in common is another mother: our Mother the Church. And, just as with our birth mothers, each one of us will have had a very different kind of relationship with her, too. Some of us may have grown up within the Church and never left it; others of us may have discovered the Church relatively recently; some of us may find her a very comfortable and comforting place to be; others may come reluctantly, or even out of a sense of duty; others still may find being here, within the life of the Church, a constant challenge. And we must not forget, in the light of the shocking abuse scandals that have come to light in recent years, sometimes the Church in its frail and earthly manifestation has failed her children badly, just as a neglectful or abusive mother can cause her offspring untold harm.
But just as there is a difference between an individual human mother and the quality of Mothering; so, too, there is a difference between an individual church (which will have all manner of failings) and the Church of God – which is truly our Mother Church: and the Church of God has given us another very precious gift. Because it doesn’t matter who or what we are; it doesn’t matter what it is that has led us to share in this act of worship today; it doesn’t matter what our relationship with the Church has been in the past, or what it is in the present – regardless of all of that, the Church of God is always here for us, just as the love of God is always here for us.
That is why one of the things that I love about the Church of England is that we have a duty of care to everybody in our ‘patch’ regardless of who they are. If they wish to receive our ministry, it is there for them. Because any ministry must have at its core that sense of the boundless love and acceptance of God. And even though we will sometimes get things wrong at the level of the individual church, that basic principle should always inform everything that we do.
Alongside those two different kinds of Mothering that we have in common, I would like to add a third. Because I would hazard a guess that the majority of us, regardless of our individual circumstances, have at some time or another, received a form of ‘mothering’ from someone who was not our biological mother. It may have been a stepmother, or a foster mother, or a childminder, or an aunt or a grandparent, or a wife, or a sister, or a teacher, or a friend. It may have been someone much older than we are – or someone younger. It may have been someone who is male rather than female – which, interestingly enough, has good biblical precedent: after all, it was Jesus himself who, in St Luke’s Gospel, wept over Jerusalem saying: ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’ – a wonderful, and expressly maternal image.
The point being that when we speak of mothering, the precise details really are rather unimportant. The key thing is that, at a time when we really needed it, there was someone who was ready to give us love and support of a motherly kind.
I am all in favour of today being a day when everyone is especially nice to their mums (if they happen still to have them) – after all, I am a mother myself. But it is very important to remember that Mothering Sunday is about considerably more than that.
For Christians, the Church should always be a place of safety and nurture; a place where we are enabled to grow and to flourish; a place where we hear the word of God, and are fed, and challenged, and inspired, as members of a community of love and service. But just as importantly, the Church is also a place from which we must then depart to go out into the world, confidently and courageously, equipped to embrace the opportunities that we are offered, and to meet the challenges we face, and we do so bearing the light of Christ and knowing that we can then return and come home again for refreshment and renewal.
But for that to be possible, the Church needs to be the right kind of mother for us: a mother that is always there for us, nurturing and supportive, but never controlling; a mother that encourages us to explore; to discover who we truly are; to discover who God truly is, and where God might be calling us.
Because mature faith is just like a mature relationship with the best kind of mother: a mother who creates a home where we know we are always welcome, but who also equips us to leave – to depart into the world, supported by that life-giving relationship: a relationship that remains at heart a source of joy and strength, rather than a burden. And it is by going out, as part of the community of our mother, the Church, that we can become channels of that love and grace for others.
So what is it that determines whether or not our own Mother Church is a good mother? Interestingly enough, the answer to that question will depend in part upon us: upon the kinds of people we are, and the kind of community we create together. Because as the American theologian Craig Dykstra once observed: ‘People cannot be introduced to or incorporated within a repenting, praying and serving community unless there is one.
In our Gospel reading this morning, the aged Simeon in the Temple, as he recognises the infant Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, warns Mary his mother that ‘a sword will pierce through your own soul also.’ Because Mothering – whether biological, or any other kind – is a calling that is costly, because love is costly. But it is also more life-giving than any other force in nature. And within the life of our local church we are called to participate in making it a reality. That is why, in his letter to the Colossians, which we heard as our second reading this morning, St Paul says this:
Be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Happy Mothering Sunday!