SERMON PREACHED AT St MICHAEL’S, ANDERSON’S BAY
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT (31st March) 2019
1 Samuel 1: 20-28
Psalm 127: 1-4
John 19: 25-27
Mothering Sunday has never been a part of my own tradition. This is not because I don’t think mothers are a good idea. Most of us have had one, after all! Rather it is but because I am not sure what it is doing in the middle of Lent. Professor Google is always a useful friend, and reports that the origins of this strange incursion into the middle of the Lenten journey was an English invention, based on the premise that the peasants' daughters were likely, by mid-adolescence, to have been forced away from home in the search for an income, and that on this mid-point of Lent they might be allowed home, in an act of grace by their employers, to visit their mothers.
Tradition has it that the daughters gathered flowers on their journey back to their home, usually just a few miles away. At this juncture we can recognize some marriage between the British break in lent and a later American celebration, Mother’s Day (the apostrophe belongs before the s, in recognition that most of us have only one mother). Mother’s Day was originally invented by a Methodist woman named Anna Jarvis. She would soon regret the commercial event that grew like a cuckoo chick in the nest of her mourning for a much-loved and inspirational mother. Asher expression of love and admiration for her mother was seized on my Hallmark Cards and other profiteering ventures she sought to rescind the day she had invented, but the capitalist genie was out of the bottle, and the expression of love by a grieving daughter.
There are two ingredients we should hold over from these two stories; the first is grace, the permission granted to the young women to return to their village for one Sunday. The second is yearning, the yearning grief that Anna Jarvis was seeking to redress in honouring her mother. Grace and yearning.
For the young women of the sixteenth century the return to the home village was a break in privations. They returned for this one day to mother (if she was still alive), and to the mother church in the which the young woman’s faith had been nurtured as a child.
So our readings hang very loose to the great themes of Lent and of God’s willing redemption of humankind. Yet there are hints; we find the dying Jesus recognising a mother’s incalculable grief as she observes her son’s agony. No parent wishes to outlive their beloved children, and I know as I speak these words that some of you will have borne that anguish. There are no words. Jesus, in his own agony, recognises, connects with, redeems the emotional suffering of his mother: “woman, here is your son.” Of course an adopted son will not wholly replace the real son, yet Jesus reveals the compassion, the “suffering with” which is what compassion means, the compassionate being of God.
Here is revealed the truth that Timothy Rees would express in one of his finest hymns, “when human hearts are breaking under sorrow's iron rod, then they find that selfsame aching deep within the heart of God.” The heart of God aches … and there the lights of resurrection hope begin to form, if not yet to flicker.
But Jesus has always revealed the ability of the divine heart – which it is, as it were, his “job” to reveal – to ache, to yearn. He has stood over his beloved city Jerusalem and cried out “How I would gather you together as a mother hen gathers her chickens, but you would not.” He has been moved again and again to the depths of his being by the plight of the poor and the outcast. He could not but feel his mother’s anguish, even though his own: “woman” (a word or greater endearment than it sounds to us) “behold your son.”
Jesus has always yearned. This should be no surprise. The Creator God who Jesus calls “Abba” has also always yearned. The story of the Hebrew people and their God has been one long tale of unbalanced yearning. Again and again the prophets tell of God, yearning that the Hebrews will return to right relationship with their Creator. Over and again God weeps for the chosen people. God weeps for all humanity, for whom the chosen people are called to be a sign. And while the human yearning for God is dulled from the moment of our expulsion from Eden, it remains: we seek as a race to find meaning, seek hope, seek authentication of our existence in so many ways. Generally though we are loathe to turn to the God who beckons us, and seek meaning or sometimes just anaesthesia elsewhere, instead.
The founder of the American commercial Mother’s Day never wanted it to be commercial. She wanted it to express her yearning for an inspirational mother who was no longer with her. This deepest, most visceral human emotion was at the heart of the day that became obliterated by commerce. In a strange coincidence the origins of the English quasi-liturgical event of Mothering Sunday expressed that other great truth, of grace. Unmerited access to hope, to love, to God, to God’s resurrection promise for us and for those we love. And so, despite my bigotry, in tis strange mishmash festival there is a twofold message of God. The God who yearns for us, and who creates in us the ability to yearn for God, and for all who we love, also provides this unmerited hope: God is here, God waits for us again and again to open ourselves up to divine love. God embraces those who we have loved and see no longer. God invites us to relationship, and God invites us to be a sign to others in this world that such hope, such relationship with the Source of All Meaning, the Creator, is possible.
The author of Colossians sets out a blueprint as to how we might be a sign to ourselves and to those around us of the possibilities inherent in relationship with Jesus. Enabled, empowered by the Spirit we can be a sign, that the yearning and the grace can collide, leading us into the heart of God:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.