Mothering Sunday - Nurture and Sacrifice

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Clare Heard, 30 March 2014

Mothering Sunday is traditionally a day to celebrate motherhood. Churches often present flowers to those who carry out a mothering role. The shops and restaurants are full of mother’s day cards, presents and special menus. All encouraging us to spend money on some lovely and some rather less lovely things. In fact the market for mothers day is estimated to be about £400m in the UK alone.
On a day that celebrates and remembers not just mothers but all surrogate mothers or other figures of care and nurture I wonder what Jesus and the early church would make of it all.

There is of course a lot of good in buying thoughtful gifts, sending personal messages and spending time with our mothers (as a recipient of some of these things I am incredibly grateful for it), but Mothering Sunday is historically much broader than this.

Mothering Sunday did not originate as a day for celebrating mothers but rather a day when all people in local parishes would return to their “mother church”  - often the local cathedral or a large church nearby.

Mothering Sunday was a recognition of church unity and also of the church as a spiritual home – a place to nurture followers of Christ. Early church fathers described the church as a mother in whose womb people came to faith. The church as mother should be a place of love and nurture for all God’s children (and I don’t just mean card carrying Christians).

For some, however, the image of mother may not bring happy memories, but be more painful. Likewise our experience of church as a place of nurture and Christian family may not always have been a positive one. Many people have been and still are burnt by or excluded from the church. Most of us will at some point have suffered from a lack of nurture in our lives, and I can say this confidently because we are part of a broken world.

Even the best parents in the world don’t get it right all the time and even the best churches make mistakes. Pain and suffering is part of the world we live in and can often be caused by those we are closest to.

And as we know – this pain and suffering is not only experienced by the children. We should also remember that the role of a mother frequently involves pain and sacrifice.

In both the first reading and the gospel reading for today, we heard of mothers having to let go of their children, say goodbye and leave them to God.

Hannah left her much longed for son at the temple with the priest at an incredibly young age and said goodbye. Mary stood at the foot of the cross and watched Jesus die.

In today’s society we try and shield ourselves and those we love from pain. The most common examples would be parents trying to protect their children, often trying to shield them from the reality of the world. My daughter asked me about WW2 a few days ago and I confess I wasn’t quite up to explaining it all – opening her eyes a little wider to the evil that can be found in the world.
As part of this protection, sacrifices may be made. This is not just about parents making sacrifices for their children, although this is possibly the most common sort of sacrifice found in today’s world. A world of celebrities and self fulfillment where sacrifice is not at the top of the suggestions of self help books, how to get rich quick or how to be famous advice.

Sacrifices are possibly most naturally made for our children, our own flesh and blood and yet we are called beyond this. The love that we are called to extend to those beyond our family, even to our enemies, is likely to involve sacrifice in some way.

As Robert said last week, in Baptism we are joined to Jesus’ story of priestly self-sacrifice. In the sacrament of the Eucharist we participate in and share in that priestly self-sacrificial ministry of Jesus. We are called beyond ourselves to concern for the welfare of our families, our local church and local communities, concern for the national and global issues of economic injustice, poverty and deprivation. Concern for the whole of God’s creation. It is such an education of our desire beyond the selfish, beyond sectarian borders, that is truly priestly, truly sacrificial, truly costly.

(That’s a very reduced sound-bite and if you weren’t here last week I’d encourage to read his sermon on our blog)

However, throughout the world we do see many instances of sacrifice that perhaps do not get the recognition and merit they deserve.

We have organ and blood donors, we have enormous amounts of charitable giving and volunteering, we have green (or environmentally friendly) lifestyles, which often do without some of life’s comforts and we have those who fight for justice and against poverty.

And then there are the little sacrifices that we might not even notice, such as giving up free time to visit a sick friend, or take your child to yet another club or event. All of these sacrifices, no matter how small, in some ways nurture the world around us and our families and communities.

It is these elements of both nurture and sacrifice, that truly reflect the Christian life and in particular the life of Jesus.

Jesus whole life involved sacrificial self-giving love - and even while hanging on the cross, dying and in excruciating pain, he does not forget his mother. He gives her into another’s care – to be protected and provided for – to be nurtured.

But what does nurture mean? It is more than just meeting needs, it is more than caring, it is helping the person to grow into all that they are created to be – loving them, cherishing them, delighting in them, being there for them.

The problem is, nurture can fade as our children start to get their own ideas and may not make the decisions we want them to. This extends beyond children to our friends and families, church and wider community. To what extent do we only give our love and nurture to those in alignment with our ideas and opinions?

Kahlil Gibran, or The Prophet, reflects on what the nature of our love and nurture could be…..

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

We might ask ourselves these questions: What are the living arrows that we are called to be the bows for? Who are the people in our lives that we can send shooting forth into the future through our love and nurture?

We can nurture others and make sacrifices because Jesus did so for us. It is easy to wear ourselves out trying to give if we are looking only within ourselves for the strength and resources we need. We must remember that it is God who is the archer to our bow.

It is through God’s spirit and in his power that we find the strength within ourselves to give and to make sacrifices – to shoot all the arrows that we nurture; our families, our friends, our church, our community and our world, trusting in God to bend or direct us in the right way so that we can send those arrows shooting forth into the future in confidence and faith.

Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Holland Park Benefice