Philip Larkin wrote a famous poem about ‘your mum and dad’ that you couldn’t read out in church, at least not every word. It’s best known for one word beginning with an ‘F’. And the drift of it is that parenthood hands on misery.. and the advice is ‘Get out as early as you can, And don’t have kids yourself.’
I imagine that most of us here some kind of story about the ambiguity of motherhood, or fatherhood. We know that what we celebrate today is not always easy or even possible, and that the word ‘mother’ can evoke grief, loss, anger and sorrow for some of us at the same time as it denotes joyful, tender love for others. We are not children now, not innocent or naïve. We know that some here suffer the loss of children, while others endure frustrated longing for a child that never came. We know that our love for our children or our mothers is not always straightforward, or theirs for us. For many of us we are at our most vulnerable today. And we want somehow to hold together an honest celebration of the joyful love we may have known or hoped for, with the recognition of the truths about all our lives, and the longings that often define our aching hearts.
The more I get to know this extraordinary congregation of God’s people, and indeed the more I get to understand about human experience, the more I see how mothering can be done by all sorts of people and not only for those who are the children of our bodies. Many of you here know what it is to mother generously. I remember a few years ago having a woman from Zambia stay with me, who told me quite calmly that she had thirteen people in her household, including her own children, but also several nieces and nephews whose parents had died of AIDS. She was mothering a wide network of relatives. Mothering in such a situation is not sentimentalised, but simply taken up when necessary because someone needs to do it and it’s really important that it’s done. The Bible is also full of stories about children finding a mother. You can find stories in the holy book of surrogacy and of adoption, of slave children being mothered by a princess, of wet nurses and of step mothers, and even of mothers-in-law inspiring the deepest and most moving affection. Many of the Bible stories reveal that human beings give and find mothering in all sorts of ways and that God’s love can work with the whole variety of those ways. In the amazing story of Moses there’s the irony that the Hebrew boy saved from Pharoah’s cull of the Hebrews was brought up by Pharaoh’s own daughter. And then his biological mother became his ‘nanny’, while he was mothered by the daughter of his people’s oppressor, before he led the people to freedom.
Mothering has always been a complex thing. And every single one of us here will have a different story to tell. But there is one way in which we all have something in common today. No matter how wonderful our childhood, no matter how well we’ve been loved, no matter what our story, there will have been times when we felt lost in the world, as though we had no mother, as though we were adrift in a crib of papyrus and set down in the water, as though we could go on crying and no one would come. That moment might have come at very different times in our lives, but I’ll wager that we have all known it or will know it. Though our lives are different, we could all sing the same song…
Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home….
That African American spiritual has been recorded by singers as different as Paul Robeson and Tom Jones, or Ike and Tina Turner, Billie Holliday and even the Osmonds… and that suggests that pretty much everyone who’s ever lived has known what it means to be a motherless child.. Whether you are young or in the last years of life, whether you come from a family like the Waltons or the Adams, there are days when you could be forgiven for thinking that this is your song.. Which of us hasn’t at some time or other longed for someone to come and love us completely and unconditionally?
One of the most moving stories I’ve ever heard was told by someone I know a little and with whom I once shared in leading a clergy conference. His mother died when he was a teenager. She died slowly of cancer. But she left a gift and a letter for him to open on his 21st birthday, so that she could be part of his coming of age. He looked forward to reading that letter, to knowing what his mother would have wanted to say to him as he crossed the threshold into adult life. Sadly, about a year before he reached the important birthday, the house was burgled and the gift and the letter were stolen – and he never found out what his mother wanted to say to him. And I imagine that, for many of us, there are things that we wish we could have heard from our mothers, things that we wish we could hear still. But before we get overwhelmed…
Let me take you to the remarkable passage from John’s Gospel that we heard earlier. Jesus is dying on the cross and, seeing the beloved disciple, he tells his mother ‘Woman behold your son!’ and then he says to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. I’ve often puzzled over this small incident. Why is it there? You might think it shows us how wonderful Jesus was, to be so considerate for his mother. He was making sure she’d be all right in her old age with her oldest son gone. But since just about everything in John’s Gospel seems to mean more than first appears, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t something I’ve missed.
It’s easy to think that this is all done for the benefit of the mother, but could it be true that this passage is really about something for the disciple? He was witnessing the death of someone he loved and who loved him so much that everyone could see it – he was the disciple known as ‘the beloved’. I think his world was coming to an end. It’s hard to imagine a more deeply devastating loss. He was at his own ‘motherless child’ moment. And Jesus says to him, ‘Behold your mother’. Perhaps this story is not so much about Jesus providing care for his mother, but actually about Jesus providing solace for his deeply beloved friend. And then some people say that the beloved disciple is more than a real person, more than just anyone, but a kind of symbolic figure. He stands for any of us who are disciples of Jesus. So that means that Jesus was giving each one of us a mother, inviting each of us to behold our mother and to make a home. And Mary is sometimes a kind of symbol too. She stands for the Church. So you see it may be that Jesus was not so much sorting out some family politics from the cross, but offering each of us who are disciples the love of a mother. This passage is telling us that the new community Jesus was creating is a place where we need not be motherless, and where we might find the sort of mothering that all human beings really need.
For some people that might sound laughable, since the church has not always lived up to this grand hope. For those who have found themselves rejected by the church or have found that the church is just indifferent to them – this just seems like a broken promise. But what if we took this seriously? What if we really made the church a place where any and all of could find the kind of unconditional love and acceptance that we long for?
There are people who would say that in the church they have discovered what it means to be born again – to flourish in human living and to grow up in wisdom. There are people who will testify that they turned up at a church door and found a welcome home. There are people who will tell you that they found themselves being accompanied into life by those they found in the community we create through baptism – water actually sometimes being thicker than blood. That’s the sort of church I would like to be part of, the kind of church I’d like to work with God in making, the sort of church I believe we are called to be. The phrase ‘mother church’ has been rather diluted to suggest a cathedral with little baby parishes, or the church we grew up in or the church that founded a mission somewhere. But what if ‘mother church’ could really mean that the church gives us the kind of love that makes us confident enough to stand on our feet and flourish? What if ‘mother church’ could mean the place where we find ourselves beloved? What if ‘mother church’ could mean that we find out at last how God really is towards us and what our lives really mean?
God’s people have actually never been shy in recognising that God is a mother to us and loves us profoundly deeply and securely.
Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic, wrote that
‘As truly as God is our father, so just as truly is he our mother. In our father, God almighty, we have our being; in our merciful mother, we are remade and restored….’
Sometimes, in some bits of the Christian world, the church is referred to as a ‘sacred canopy’, a kind of big embracing tent where we can find a place to be and to become human, to be truly ourselves, to grow in love and grace and confidence. This is the church as mother, this is God as love, this is Christ as the one who welcomes us into a better kind of life, where at last we find that we will never be motherless again.
The church is not just a place where we find out what we are supposed to believe or what we are supposed to do. It’s not just a place where we are challenged to be good or where the prophets urge us to change the world. It’s also a sheltering world where we discover what it means to be loved, and where we find home at last. There is so much heartache in all our lives and here in the arms of mother church, God offers us a consoling embrace.
My friend whose mother died when he was a teenager says that he knows now what he might have found in that stolen letter. He knows now that God loves him always and wholly and unendingly. He has found in his life within the church the kind of love that he always imagined his mother had wanted to give him. He knows now who he is and who God is. And he knows that even if Philip Larkin was right about your Mum and Dad, that God’s love is sure, and that ‘in our merciful mother, we are remade and restored.’ May it be so for you and all whom you love, on this mothering Sunday and every day. Amen.