I have to admit that I’ve never done a baptism on Mothering Sunday before, but it’s great today to have baby Hannah and her mum, Sam, with us – living breathing witnesses to the joy and miracle of motherhood, but also of its challenges.
Because this is Mothering Sunday, everyone here today comes with a different set of experiences – some of us come with thanksgivings, others with sadness, some with guilt, and others with worries and concerns, some of us come in joy, and others come with a whole mix of confusing feelings. Because of this it can be hard to find the right words to meet everyone where they are, and I rely even more than usual on God’s unerring ability to reach out to people’s hearts, whether through my words or in spite of them.
Colossians 3 seems like the easier reading this morning: it’s a list of good characteristics and habits that we probably all wish we had more of or were better at. Sam will need every single one of them as she embarks on the lifetime’s vocation of being Hannah’s mum. And she’ll hope to teach Hannah to grow into those characteristics, too. The reading talks about these things as if they were clothes: “Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, patience… above all clothe yourselves with love…” At the moment Hannah can’t dress herself, but as she grows, she’ll need to learn not only how to put on socks properly and how to do the buttons on her school shirt, but also how to start every day by clothing herself in all the virtues in this reading, and more besides. Like all of us, some of them she’ll find easier to wear than others. Hopefully most of them will become so familiar that they are like old clothes, well-worn and comfy.
If Colossians 3 is the easy reading, then the very short gospel reading we heard from John 19 is the hard one – in this reading we see Jesus on the cross, about to die, and his mum standing there beside him, together with his best friend.
In a way, John 19 is the ultimate test of Colossians 3. Are those ‘clothes’ in Colossians 3 really up to the task of real mothering? The sort of mothering that’s done at the foot of the cross? Sometimes it seems as if the ‘clothes’ of patience, kindness, and the rest are worn so thin by the challenges of life that they go beyond the ‘old and comfy’ stage and become no more than rags. Maybe that’s how Mary felt at that moment.
Mothering Sunday contains within it not only thanksgiving for the great gift of motherhood, but also:
– The patience of the person who longs to be a parent and the frustration and heartache if it doesn’t come to be;
– The love of a parent that turns to overwhelming grief at the loss of a child – or a child at the loss of their parent;
– The wisdom of a parent in teaching their child right from wrong, and the endless worry of that same parent about whether those lessons will stand up to the rigours of real life decision-making;
– The forgiveness by a parent of their child’s misdemeanours, but the often crushing guilt about their own failings as a parent.
– The compassion of those who care for others, often at great cost, and the anger at those who were supposed to care, but didn’t.
Mothering Sunday is all this and more. It is complex and ambiguous for most of us – an annual nightmare for some, and an occasion for great joy and thanksgiving for others. Can all of these things possibly be reflected in our readings?
What we see in Colossians 3 is a model to live up to, a list of virtues that we know would make the world an infinitely better place if only we could all live up to them. It is the gold standard not just for motherhood, not just for parenting, but for human existence.
But what we see in John 19 is God’s way of dealing with it when it doesn’t work, when we fail to be all that we’re called to be. Jesus is only on the cross because humanity isn’t living up to that call to compassion and kindness, patience, humility, peace, wisdom, and the rest. The cross is what happens when God meets all our failings head-on.
And in this one tiny moment during the passion of Jesus we see God’s unstoppable and creative capacity for redemption and new life. Even from the cross, Jesus looks down at his mum and at his best friend, and entrusts them to each other, creating a new family out of what looked like irreparably broken pieces.
John 19 tests Colossians 3 to the limits, and finds that actually, a narrow definition of motherhood and mothering is not enough. There’s a well-known saying, origin unknown, “It takes a village to raise a child,” in other words, every single one of us needs more mothering than any one mother could ever provide. And although motherhood is a unique honour and challenge, all mothering takes place within families and communities and networks of support and influence.
All through his ministry, Jesus redefined the idea of our accountability to one another, he challenged people to rethink what compassion and forgiveness meant, and showed again and again that love has no limits. He kept on doing all of this even up to the moment of his death.
Jesus was starting to create a community that really did live up to the ideals of ancient Israel, and the commandments to respect and care for all people, including the widows, the orphans, and the strangers. The letters in the New Testament pick up where Jesus left off, showing the embryonic church how to order itself in such a way that every single person gave and received love and care, every single person was provided for, every single person reached their potential, and fulfilled their God-given calling.
Parents have a unique role in shaping their children to be the people God made them to be – as Hannah’s mum, Sam’s responsibility is immense. But she is not alone. Not only does Hannah have grandparents who love her to bits, she also has five godparents, each of whom, I know, has taken their role seriously, and in a moment will promise to be there for Sam and for Hannah not just for today, but for a lifetime, to walk with them on their journey of life and faith, and to work out what the baptism promises mean in real life, at every stage of life.
The huge importance of Godparents at baptism points to the role of the whole church community in the formation of children (and indeed of adults, too) into individuals who ‘wear well’ the patience, kindness, love, peace and humility of Colossians 3. At the same time the church is also called to become a community that is defined by those same characteristics.
In the old days, before Mothers’ Day was invented, Mothering Sunday was a feast of the Church, celebrating ‘Mother Church’, drawing her children to her like chicks under the hen’s wing. If we live by the values in Colossians 3, and test them in the fire of John 19 and of all the most difficult and hard-to-bear situations faced both by the people close to us, and by our fellow human beings across the world, then we really will have a church that lives up to the ideal of motherhood, and we’ll have a church that supports all those upon whom the burden of care falls most heavily.
Whatever feelings this Mothering Sunday brings for you, may this be a place and a time for you to receive through the grace of Christ in scripture, in holy communion, and in fellowship with one another, the assurance of the overwhelming, creative, mothering love of a God who would and did do anything and everything for her children, and in whose arms we are all, living and departed, held and treasured for all eternity.