St Andrew's Church Walkerville
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Sermon – Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday

Sermon Preached by Reverend Stuart Langshaw on Sunday, 10 March 2024.

The date is May 12, 1907. The place is Grafton in West Virginia. The church is Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church. The lady is Anna Jarvis. The occasion is a memorial service for her late mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. This was the first Mother’s Day service – a service to honour the memory of Anna’s mother, a great worker for justice and fairness, and by extension a service to honour all mothers. The idea caught on in a very big way in America, and in that Methodist Church in West Virginia today stands the International Mother’s Day Shrine. Anna Jarvis the daughter, became resentful of the commercialisation of the day, and she organised boycotts of Mother’s Day. She said that people should appreciate and honour their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their love and gratitude, instead of buying gifts and pre-made cards.

The other date is the 16th century, specifically the fourth Sunday in Lent. Half-way through Lent a day holiday is declared, and children and young people who are in domestic service in great manor houses are allowed to go home to see their mothers – and visit their “mother churches” where they were baptised and perhaps confirmed. Girls who were “in service” would bake a cake to show their mothers their new skills – a “Simnel Cake.” As they walked home across the fields they would gather violets and other wildflowers to give to their mothers, and to take to church. It was often the only time that whole families could gather together, since on other days they were prevented by conflicting working hours, and servants were not given free days. Mothering Sunday has become an occasion for honouring the mothers of children and giving them presents. Other names attributed to this festival include Refreshment Sunday, Pudding Pie Sunday (in Surrey, England), Mid-Lent Sunday. Simnel Sunday and Rose Sunday. Simnel Sunday is named after the practice of baking simnel cakes to celebrate the reuniting of families during the austerity of Lent. Rose Sunday is sometimes used as an alternative title for Mothering Sunday, as is witnessed by the purple robes of Lent being replaced because in some churches the purple robes of Lent are replaced by rose-pink vestments.

Today, March 10 2024, is the Fourth Sunday in Lent – today is Mothering Sunday, the English day for thinking about mothering.

There are mothers in the Bible of course. Not a huge number. In Bible times society was very male dominated and focussed on fathers and sons. But there was Moses’ mother whose protective instinct was not going to let her new baby boy be killed by the threatened Pharoah – and she set him afloat on the River Nile. There was Rebekah the mother of Jacob and Esau who doted on Jacob and was not fussed about his older, fraternal twin brother Esau. There was Hannah, Samuel’s mother, who desperately wanted a baby – and had a son – and gave him back to God to serve in the temple when he was little more than a toddler. There was the unnamed mother of the disciples James and John who, wanting the best for her young men, asked Jesus that they might have places of preferment in Jesus’ kingdom. And there the mothers of Jerusalem who wanted Jesus to bless their little ones, only to have the disciples tell them to go away – and then hear Jesus speak harshly to the disciples … tell the disciples that what they were doing was dead wrong … and welcome the children in his arms. And there was Jesus’ own mother Mary, who went through so much during her oldest son’s life – watching his popularity grow, and his popularity fade, and being there at his wrongful execution. (I wonder if we see any parallels with Alexei Navalny’s mother?)

I am very conscious that I am a male when I say what I am going to say now. It’s a bit presumptuous. I wish there was a way of making a clear distinction between the way we talk about women who give birth to babies, and women who are involved in mothering, because birthing and mothering are not the same thing. Birthing is a small part of the process of mothering. Mothering is a life-long process of caring and loving and nurturing and protecting, sacrificing and providing and training and instructing and correcting and self-giving and so many other things.

On this Mothering Sunday, those of us whose mother has passed away could helpfully think about what is a great gift that we received from our mothers – not something tangible, but some attitude, some life-philosophy, some way of looking at things. Those of us whose mother has passed away could think about some funny little thing that our mother did, or wore … some idiosyncrasy that we now regard as an endearing little way but that may have driven us nuts when she did it in life. Those of whose mother has passed away might also try to think of what we are passing on to our children – what attitude, life philosophy, way of looking at things we would be glad if our children inherited from us.

There are two great instructions from the Old Testament about mothers – Commandment 5 says, “Honour your father and mother …” And the other is in Proverbs 1:8 – “Do not forsake the law of your mother.” Both these presume that there is a positive relationship between mother and child, and later between mother and teenager, and even later between mother and young adult, and the between mother and adult offspring.

A lot has been said and written about mothers. A few I have come across are these:-

“When you finally realise that your mother was right, you have a daughter who believes that her mother is wrong.”

Or the Jewish proverb, “A mother understands what her child does not say.”

And “A mother’s hug lasts long after she lets go.”

And “Life doesn’t come with a manual – it comes with a mother.”

But what happens when both the American and the English days for mothers arouse bitter memories … memories of mothers and fathers who have left a negative impact on people’s lives … wastrels … affected by alcohol and other drugs … gamblers … violent … condemning their children to lives of struggle and poverty. I wonder how social workers in the Department of Child Protection feel about Mothering Sunday and what is stands for? It is easy to be so wrapped up in our own good fortune and positive family life that we forget that others have been given no chance in life. Today is not a day for which everyone gives thanks. And that should make us more determined that today will be a day for which our families and our children and grandchildren will give thanks because of our relationship with them, and their relationship with us.

I said that mothering is a life-long process of caring and loving and nurturing and protecting sacrificing and providing and training and instructing and correcting and self-giving and so many other things. And it is because we see these things in God, too, that we went through a phase where people wanted to call God “Our Mother.” Some even wanted to change the wording of the Lord’s to “Our Mother in Heaven ..” I understand where they were coming from, but for myself, I did not find such word changing to be helpful.

Have you noticed that there is no “Fathering Sunday”? I’m not making a song and dance, but just saying.

I think that we are helped by androgenicity, don’t you? There are mothers who fulfil what we regard as stereotypically male roles of leading, and decision-making, and pronouncing, and providing, simply because that is how those mothers’ life-circumstances have turned out. And there are fathers who fulfill what we regard as stereotypically female roles of caring and loving and nurturing and protecting and so on, simply because that is how those fathers’ life-circumstances have turned out. As mothers and as fathers we do what we need to do to nourish and guard our family lives. While Mothering Sunday may emphasise the mothering role of parents, those roles are often practised by both mothers and fathers who are being androgynous.

The date is March 10, 2024. The place is Walkerville in South Australia. The church is St Andrew’s Anglican Church. The occasion is Mothering Sunday. This is a day and a service to honour all those who practise mothering, regardless of age or gender. For this is a day on which we remember and practise Jesus’ great command, that we love one another, as he has loved us.