Yesterday morning, I went to one of my local churches to preach.
A couple of months back, I had been invited by the vicar and was available for their Mothering Sunday service.
The readings were: Exodus 2:1-10; 2 Corinthians 1:3-17; Luke 2:33-35.
I had intended to record proceedings but there wasn’t enough time between putting the gospel down and starting to talk to fiddle with the technology that would have been involved. Lesson 1: turn the screen lock off on the phone in preparation. So, if you want to know what I said, you’ll have to read my notes rather than listen.
Has anybody been brought breakfast in bed this morning?
I remember the first time I made a cup of tea for my mum – I was still in single figures, but knew that tea needed to be made with boiling water and had been repeatedly warned, “Careful of that hot tap, the water’s boiling.” Of course, the results were undrinkable and I was very quickly taught how to use the kettle.
Mothering Sunday is, in part, about looking back at where we’ve come from – the homes from which we’ve sprung, the people who have shaped us, and looking for God’s hand in the story of our lives so far. But looking back is only part of the story – knowing where we’ve come from is only useful if it sheds light on where we are now and helps us see where we’re going, or where we ought to be going. Years ago, I fell asleep on the bus and ended up several stops into the unknown, completely lost. I knew I’d got on the bus in the centre of town and had come out of the other side of Heaton, but that was no help at all towards me finding my way home.
None of this to say that our past dictates our future but that it definitely shapes and guides it. Even if all that amounts to is us having the wisdom to say, “I’m never going through that again.”
In both the Old Testament and Gospel readings today, we see childhood snap-shots of saviours, sent by God to rescue huge numbers of people – the nation of Israel, in Moses’ case & the whole of creation in Jesus’s. But, for once, the emphasis isn’t on the children so much as on their mothers and carers – people without whom the stories would have abrupt and premature endings.
In the Exodus reading, the Israelites were being systematically oppressed and persecuted – the king had said that all Hebrew baby boys had to be thrown into the river, Moses’ mother eventually obeyed the letter of the law and put him in the river (but in a still bit of the water and in a floating basket, watched over by his sister – this baby was going nowhere). The rest, although it sets up the story of the rescue of an entire nation from slavery, seems a little bit like a fairy tale – a chance discovery by a princess, the quick, heroic bit of thinking by the sister, and the unexpected joy of his mother being able to bring him up – and be paid for doing so, ending with the bitter-sweet handing over of the grown boy to go and live in the palace. Taken as a whole, the story seems a bit like the news as read by Morecambe and Wise:
- The Good News is: you’ve just given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy.
The Bad News is: the law says you’ve got to throw him in the river.
- The Good News is: you’ve managed to keep him hidden for three months without the authorities finding out.
- The Bad News is: he’s grown too big to stay hidden, into the river he goes!
- The Good News is: you have a cunning plan! Seems to be working, he’s not drowning!
- The Bad News is: he’s been discovered by an Egyptian!
- The Good News is: she’s not nasty and is going to pay you to look after your own child.
- The Bad News is: now that he’s grown up, she wants him back.
- The Good News is: he gets to live in a palace.
- The Bad News is: it’s the palace of the ruling family who told you to throw him in the river in the first place…
What a lot of ups and downs! But it could have ended on bad news at any point if Moses’ mother hadn’t taken swift and decisive action to keep him alive.
In the gospel reading, Jesus has just been dedicated at the Temple, and Simeon (an old man who has been waiting for years to see the saviour God promised to Israel) has just claimed that Jesus will be a glory for the people of Israel and light to guide everybody else. He expands on these ideas and makes a horrifying prophecy to Mary. At the young age of forty days, that’s quite a lot of expectation to be placed on a child and a similar amount of pressure on the mother. How frightened do you think Mary would have been? A sword piercing your soul (in this case, with hindsight, it seems fairly obvious that it refers to the trauma of losing her child through a violent death) must be a horrible thing to have hanging over you; all the more so as you would have go through life, raising your child in the light of the exciting light and glory parts, the challenging falling and rising parts and the alarming final words.
Let me tell you about my friend E. – he’s six years old, clever as they come, has a cheeky smile and a sense of humour to match. He’s doing well at school and enjoys reading, watching TV and horse riding.
He almost didn’t make it to a week old.
Seven years ago, his parents discovered that their soon-to-be-born first child was going to be born with spina bifida. This is an illness that usually causes paralysis of the legs, incontinence, and can cause learning difficulties. There were complications with the birth and it was touch and go whether E. would survive – and, if he did, what kind of a life he could expect in the future. Life was tough but, after lots of surgery, things settled down and my friends had to prepare for a life unlike anything they’d expected or planned for.
E. is all of those things I mentioned but needs a wheelchair or walker to move around and will need more-or-less constant medical care for the rest of his life. The world is a richer and better place for him being in it and he adds so much to the lives of his friends and family – we are blessed to have him with us. But living with his condition has been, and continues to be a huge challenge to his parents.
The way they have dealt with E.’s spina bifida has inspired me. On a day to day level, there’s not much to notice out of the ordinary – besides a slightly bigger-than-usual car to cope with the wheel chair. But they have had to constantly apply for grants to fund all the changes they’ve had to make, including rebuilding the ground floor of their house to make it more accessible for E. Of course, none of this compares to a sword piercing their souls, or even having to hide their child in a basket from imperial troops, but their continuing care and love for their son is setting him up in the best way possible to lead a positive and productive life.
Not all of us are parents, some of us never will be. We don’t live in such troubled times as Moses, Jesus and their families. Not many of us will be called to be movers and shakers, acting to bring about justice and salvation on a major scale. But that doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from today’s lessons.
Just as there was a varied group of people ensuring that Moses got a good start in life, we can all be part of such a group of our own – nurturing and caring for those around us. One important example from church life that springs to mind is the promise we all make at a baptismal service, to welcome and support children into the life of the church.
And just as Mary’s future of raising Jesus promised joy, wonder and heartbreak – taking responsibility for our friends, family and acquaintances will bring its very own mix of reward and hardship.
God does send saviours for his people but they’d get nowhere without their support and carers. It’s unlikely that we are sent to be those saviours in major, ground breaking ways. But we do have an ability and duty to provide care for those we meet in our day to day lives – who knows what God is doing through them and us?!