Sermon: Sunday 15 March 2015
Lent 4 / Mothering Sunday
Jonathan Kerry, Diocesan Secretary and Cathedral Administrator
‘Jesus’ father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.’
– Luke 2.33
I’m surprised to be here! No, really, I shouldn’t be here this morning. I’m not talking about some mix up in the Cathedral diary, or discrepancy in my credentials as a preacher (though you may come to wonder about that), but right now, I should be on a train, heading south.
You see, nearly two years ago now, I made plans to go on holiday today. More specifically, today I was meant to be joining a cruise ship in Southampton for two weeks, sailing up to the Faroe Islands north of Scotland to be in the best position, next Friday morning, to see the total eclipse of the sun.
But, as you can see, my plans have changed – and here I am. And on Friday, I’ll have to make do with the partial eclipse that, providing there is no cloud, we will see here in Leicester, about half past nine in the morning – catch it if you can!
Of course, the reason for the change of plan, for my surprise at being here this morning, is the result of another surprise. A surprise that began two and a half years ago, which for me began one afternoon when the then Dean, Viv Faull, ran into my office in a state of great excitement. ‘They’ve found Richard!’ she said. ‘Who’s Richard?’ I thought, and ‘I didn’t know he was lost!’ Then the penny dropped. And the rest is history. And in seven days, seven hours from now, Richard, or at least his remains, will be here, in this Cathedral – something no-one had really expected until that September afternoon.
So, my holiday was cancelled, and here I am – surprise!
Of course, I should be accustomed to surprises, with a name like mine. As A.A. Milne observed:
Has a mouth like an “O”
And a wheelbarrow full of surprises.
For Pharaoh’s daughter, it wasn’t a wheelbarrow, but a papyrus basket that held a surprise for her – the baby, later to be called Moses, that had been left amongst the reeds on the river bank.
Now to understand this story, we have to take into account what is written a few verses earlier, at the end of chapter one of Exodus. Pharaoh was fearful of the growth in numbers of the immigrant Hebrew population – far from being an ethnic minority, they were becoming the ethnic majority and, to combat this, he had ordered all male Hebrew babies to be killed. This is why Moses’ mother first hid him, and then put him in the basket in the reeds – not to abandon the child but to see whether by some means he might be saved. Pharaoh’s daughter, conspiring with the mother, even though she did not realise she was his mother, went against her father’s orders, a remarkably brave act of compassion and defiance.
And the story ends with an explanation of Moses’ name: ‘I drew him out of the water.’ We cannot help but notice how this prefigures the later salvation of the Hebrews, led by Moses, out of the water of the Red Sea and perhaps also call to mind our own baptism, in which through water we are linked to the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ.
So, on this Mothering Sunday, we have two examples of courageous motherhood – Moses’ natural mother, who took courageous, ingenious steps to save her son’s life, and Pharaoh’s daughter, who became Moses’ adoptive mother, who defied the brutality of her father’s regime to ensure the child grew up, ironically to become Pharaoh’s nemesis. And it is perhaps Pharaoh’s daughter whose actions are the greatest surprise – Moses’ mother, in effect, had nothing to lose, whereas she risked everything for this stranger’s child.
Our Gospel reading, three short verses from the account of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, tells us that his parents were surprised: ‘Jesus’ father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.’ Simeon has just said that this child will be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to (God’s) people Israel.’
Now most parents are ambitious for their offspring, but a prediction like that caps them all!
But before Joseph and Mary can get too euphoric about the prospect of their son achieving such international significance, Simeon goes on and says, interestingly to Mary the mother alone, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Not such a happy prospect after all!
So what may we draw from all this for ourselves this day? Well, first we may observe that, though thankfully few parents amongst us have faced such extreme circumstances as the mother of Moses in trying to protect our children from harm, nevertheless every day, mothers, and fathers, take great care for their offspring’s welfare, doing what they can to shield them from danger and laying the foundations for a happy and fulfilled future. And that this is as true for the parents of those who go on to become significant figures in world history as it is for everyone else.
Also that there are those who, whilst not parents themselves, nevertheless will do what they can to look out for the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children, sometimes at cost to their own.
And that parenthood is a risky business. We can never be quite sure how children will turn out – popular, successful, or reviled, a tragic life. They will surprise us – and let’s face it, in most cases bring us both joy and sorrow at times.
But whilst that is what can be said, typically, about parenting for the generality of those of us who live in relatively settled, comfortable times, not far away there is something much harsher. However much we empathise with the mother of Moses, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Mary, let us not sanitise the stories such that they offer only a challengeless validation of daffodils, chocolates and teddy bears on Mothers’ Day.
We live in a world where parenthood, particularly mothering, is still for far too many a world way from chocolates and flowers. Where too many women die in childbirth, too many children die in infancy, too many families live in poverty or under the threat from murderous regimes. There are bad parents and there are children who turn against everything good their parents have hoped for and worked for, who pierce their parent’s souls. And let us not kid ourselves that the pain of that is not close to us, amongst us here this morning.
Let us not be surprised that stories not unlike those in the Bible readings today are being played out, right now, even here in this congregation.
Now I say this not because I want to be melodramatic, or to put a dampener on proceedings, but because I want to tease out something of what is going on here, as we gather for worship, and particularly as we come to celebrate the Eucharist.
‘Celebrate’ – that’s an interesting word, isn’t it? When I Googled it, I was offered the definition: ‘publicly acknowledge (a significant or happy day or event) with a social gathering or enjoyable activity.’ I am sure a lot of people will celebrate Mothering Sunday (or Mothers’ Day) just like that. Enjoy!
But to ‘celebrate’ the Eucharist – perhaps we wouldn’t describe what we are doing in quite the same way. Because at the heart of it, we are remembering betrayal, disillusionment, condemnation, agonising death – a sword piercing a man’s body and a mother’s soul.
And of course this is true every time in the Eucharist. Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death…
But, of course, it is rightly called a ‘celebration’ – a ‘happy day or event’, even an ‘enjoyable activity’ – because we believe that by entering into this act of remembering Christ’s death, we also enter into his resurrection life. Blessed are those who are called to his supper!
In the Eucharist our joys and sorrows and the joys and suffering of the world are brought together at the cross and transformed with the hope of resurrection.
So we can, and must, hold together today, Mothering Sunday, the joy and happiness and the pain and heartache of mothers, fathers, of all who have a care for children – and allow all that to be transformed at Christ’s table by the hope of resurrection.
‘For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ,’ as St Paul puts it.
That is pretty amazing, pretty surprising!
Way, way more amazing, even than the discovery of Richard III’s remains in the Greyfriars car park. Though our hope is that events of the next two weeks will give us the opportunity to link that surprise with the surprising message of the Gospel that Christians discover in the Eucharist.
And before that, if you have the chance, do take a look at the sky on Friday morning. It’s the last proper eclipse in Europe until 2026 and, if you’ve never seen one, you will be amazed.
Though probably not as much as those cruise passengers I had hoped to be among, not of course that I am complaining at how things have turned out. Well not too much!
© Jonathan Kerry