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Sermon: Mothering Sunday Cathedral Eucharist

Sunday 6th March 2016
Cathedral Eucharist
1 Samuel 1: 20-end
John 19: 25b-27
Download Recording (MP3, 13.1M) Download

"Once upon a time..."

So begins 'Mothering Sunday', Graham Swift's recently published novella. It imitates the dynamics of a fairytale - a story of poverty and transformation: an infant abandoned on the steps of an orphanage; a life of service; the possibility of romance and tragedy.

Jane Fairchild, the 22 year-old protagonist, says 'what was a maid to do with her time, released for the day on Mothering Sunday, when she had no home to go to?'

Her story is set in 1924 - only a few years after Constance Smith, a High Church Anglican, published the booklet 'The Revival of Mothering Sunday'. She reconnected the ancient traditions such as simnel cake to the American campaign for a day in praise of mothers, but rooted both in the church's liturgy.

Mothering Sunday or Mother's Day: perhaps the two have always had a complex social, cultural and religious interconnection. Constance's idea caught hold at a time of loss for many mothers following the Great War.

Loss and unknown origins are themes for Swift too. He explores the stories we inherit and the stories we imagine; the stories we read and those we tell:  'Could her mother have known', she ponders, 'making her dreadful choice, how she had blessed her?

Today calls to mind our stories: the paths not trodden, the unfulfilled longings; a tangle of memories and hopes; simple joys and unexpected blessing; responsibilities and expectations of parenthood. Stories of those who nourish us - mothers perhaps, but not exclusively so. Those who're frail, those we miss. In the honesty of honouring or grieving for mothers, we remember that mothering is part of identity of the whole people of God.

Biblical stories of mothering are complex. Today we encounter Hannah nursing her child.  Like many today, she longed for motherhood.  A year or so earlier, she'd uttered wordless prayers of distress in the Temple.  Her husbanded loved her; others scorned her childlessness. In the presence of God she poured out her soul - her hopes and anxieties.

Perhaps we think it odd that Hannah gives up her son, Samuel. He is fruit of love and an answer to prayer - and yet she dedicates him to the Lord. She lets go of him - entrusting him to the watchful eye of an ageing priest called Eli.

I would encourage you to read more of Hannah's story - her ongoing praises and prayers; her love of her first born and her subsequent children. I would encourage you to read a little more about Samuel too.  He is faithful to Eli, like an adopted son or apprentice; he's faithful to God too. As Eli's eyesight fails, as the vision of God's people wavers, it's this young boy who hears God's call. He comes a trust-worthy prophet. 

Hannah teaches us about the gift and cost of motherhood: the necessary letting go in love, that those who are born might take risks in discovering their calling.

Yesterday, at Diocesan Synod both Bishop Andrew and Canon Hazel spoke about the vocation of the whole people of God.  For all of us, it begins  with our attention to God in prayer and worship; for all of us, it is ignited by allowing the stories of God to shape us.

For all of us, it is about keeping the cross as our focal point, as Solomon put it in confirmation class yesterday. He, Henry, Olivia, Hugh and Josh talked about that being the foundation of our faith; a source of peace and praise; the assurance that we're not alone; the sign of our salvation.  The cross is our hope. It is  sign that nothing can separate us from that love.

As we celebrate Mothering Sunday, we are drawn into the mystery of that love.  Jean Vanier wrote of Jesus as:   The naked king: stripped of power, mobility and dignity, to reveal the truth of love in an offering of self....  This naked man, condemned to death, is the Word of God made flesh who liberates us from all the  chaos inside and around us.

Today we stand with Mary.

Like Hannah, Mary is an unexpected mother. Like Hannah, Mary praised God with a vision of justice and mercy. Like Hannah, Mary presented her Son in the Temple. For Mary, there was a life time of letting go of him.  And she stands there now, with the other women, near the cross.

She is there with the beloved disciple, who takes her into his home; into his heart.  This brief exchange in the midst of agony and death could be seen as an act of practical kindness; a son securing his mother's future. It is far more radical. On the cross, Jesus draws humanity to himself; that is the work that glorifies his Father; now it is nearing completion.  This final gesture, says Vanier,  is to bring Mary and John into oneness as he and the Father are one, to create a covenant of love between them.

This covenantal bond is life-giving. In the face of death, Mary is to be mother to all beloved disciples; bearing Jesus to them that they may share in that mutual indwelling. He in us, we in him.  Likewise, the disciples is to be come a son to Mary; to bear Jesus to her.  This reciprocity is the life the church is called to.  It is the unity of love and communion.  We are one in Christ; we are united in him; we are members one with another.

This is our family. We are gathered together around one table. We are not bound by biological kinship; but by the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We are united in unity of love, communion and blessing into which Mary and the Beloved Disciple stand. Behold your mother; behold your Son.

That is how we are to see each other - as family; a spacious community where we can grow in love, learning, care and trust.  The Eucharist is a place of challenge and blessing, where all find a home this Mothering Sunday. It is a place where we foster a culture of vocation; where God's Spirit is poured on his holy people.

This Mothering Sunday, along our confirmation candidates, let's pray for the fruit of the Spirit: for peace in anxiety; patience in our families; a little more joy, gentleness or self-control.

Let us pray for prophets who'll proclaim God's Kingdom and renew our as civil servants, researchers or accountants; let us pray for pastors in church, social care and volunteering; let us pray for evangelists sharing the good news to young and old, rich and poor. Let us pray for apostles immersed in the world of music, commerce or education. May we discern a calls both to ordination or leadership in the world in our midst.

As we pray for the deepening of our kinship in Christ, what is God calling you to do in his name?

This is no once upon at time; today, we are all called, in the power of the Spirit to bear witness to the one who reveals the reconciling love of God, Jesus Christ.