Luke 2, 33-35
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
So here we all are on Mothering Sunday and I hope that for all the mother’s here it’s got off to a good start. Breakfast in bed, children running around pandering to your every whim, flowers bursting forth throughout the house and boxes of chocolates sufficient to get you through a whole series of Midsummer Murders? Yes? No? Well, I’m sure the thought has been there and maybe there’s a surprise lunch in the offing!
Now pity the poor preacher on this Sunday morning having to try to think up something original to say that hasn’t been said before. I cast my eye at the lectionary for inspiration and I noticed that not only is today Mothering Sunday but tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. Aha, I thought, this is either Kismet or Divine guidance – I’ll bet there is a wonderful and inspiring sermon on Mothers by Martin Luther King that I can use as my inspiration. Sadly there is not so you’ll have to cope with me instead but we shall return to Doctor King later.
I’m sure that most of you will have read the great Mothering Sunday comments from children on Page 5 of this month’s Link. These took the form of children’s answers to various questions about mothers and some of them were priceless.
I thought the question, “What did mum need to know about Dad before she married him?” was one of the best. “His last name” was a great reply but even better was, “She had to know his background, like is he a crook or does he get drunk on beer.” But the best was, “Does he earn at least £8000 a year?”
The next question was also terrific, “Why did your mum marry your dad?” “My dad makes the best spaghetti in the world and my mum likes to eat a lot”. “She got too old to do anything else with him” and finally, “My grandma says that mum didn’t have her thinking cap on”. In answer to the classic question, “Who’s the boss in your house?”, “Mum doesn’t want to be the boss but she has to be because dad’s such an idiot” Lastly some wonderful frankness in answer to the question, “What would it take to make your mum perfect?” “On the inside she’s already perfect. Outside, I think some kind of plastic surgery”
I was musing on the subject of mothering and indeed parenting when I happened to hear something on the Jeremy Vine show on Friday that caught my ear and that was about the concept of ‘helicopter parenting’. Any ideas what that might be? No? It’s not the system that the very wealthy use to take the kids on the school run. The context here was the difficulty that parents have in waving off little Johnny or little Jane when they leave to go to college or university.
Helicopter parents overcome this difficulty by going off to uni with their precious offspring, joining in with the fun of fresher’s week, popping up every weekend to restock the fridge and do the washing, checking on the coursework and even ringing up lecturers to berate them if they think that their budding genius has been too harshly marked on their last essay. These are the ‘helicopter parents’.
Can you imagine the embarrassment of the student, having mum or dad peering over their shoulder every 5 minutes? So what’s the cause of this behavior? How can parents smother their children in this way? Well I am sure that if you asked these parents to explain why they behaved in this way then they would tell you quite bluntly it is because they love their children. They love them so much that they cannot bear to be parted from them and so they avoid that parting at any cost.
We can only ponder what the next stage of this process will be? Attending job interviews with the youngster? Going to work with them? At some stage, the apron string must break and an independent human being will emerge. But that is difficult for any parent. Not many of us would take it to the extremes of the ‘helicopter parents’ but we all feel those pangs of parting to a greater or lesser degree.
I always think this stage of independence is always much easier for Dad’s than Mum’s. Generally we Dad’s are usually quite pleased to see the back of them! If we have daughters, it means we reestablish almost unfettered access to the bathroom. If we have sons we can open our sock drawer to find that there are still some socks there. But for Mum’s it’s much harder this letting go but it is surely the true and ultimate sign of motherly love that it can be done.
True motherly love is unselfish and unconditional to the last. Mum’s invest their love in us from Day 1, or to be more precise from 9 months before Day 1. They shower love upon us because of who we are, not because of what they will get from the deal. What they will get, if they are really successful is a monosyllabic teenager who doesn’t want to be seen dead with them.
What they will get is a son or daughter who knows for certain that their mother has no idea about the world and how it works. And what they will get, if they are really lucky, is a young person who can step out into the world in total confidence without a backward glance. And that is the true mother’s reward.
That really requires a special type of love; a love that is not cloying or smothering but a love that recognizes the individuality of the child, a love that knows that independence is the ultimate goal of parenthood and a love that is wholly unconditional. Just such a love as Mary had for Jesus and that we saw so sorely tested in today’s reading. Mary’s knowledge as a young mother, that her child would not be hers forever, came sooner than it does for most mothers. Her apron strings weren’t tugged by an adolescent child but by a babe in arms.
Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple as the Jewish tradition dictated. There were a lot of rituals to be observed, the first had occurred when Jesus was just 8 days old and was circumcised and this was the second major tradition, that of purification and presentation. Jewish custom dictated that a woman could not enter the temple for 40 days after the birth of a male child and 80 days after the birth of a female, as she was unclean. When this time was through, the mother would come to the temple for a service of purification.
The parents would arrive with a gift of a lamb as a burnt offering and a pigeon or dove as a sin offering or if, like Mary and Joseph, they were poor then the lamb could be exchanged for a second pigeon or dove. After the sacrifice, the mother was declared purified and she and her husband could then bring their child into the temple to be consecrated.
As Mary and Joseph entered the temple Simeon, a devout and holy man, who was well known in Jerusalem, met them. Simeon had vowed that he would not die until he had himself beheld the Messiah and Simeon was now very old.
He was moved by the Holy Spirit to go into the temple courts just as Mary and Joseph entered and so it was he who was there to bless the child. Knowing that he, at last, beheld his saviour, he took the child in his arms and uttered those words that are now so familiar to anyone who has attended Evening Prayer and that we know as the Nunc Dimittis…
LORD, now lettest thou thy servant depart
And Simeon warned Mary that this child, this 40 day old baby, would cause a sword to pierce her heart. Imagine if you’d brought your baby in here to be Christened and Rick said that to you! But Mary’s love was steadfast and certain. She brought Jesus up with love, knowing that the future was uncertain and she had that wonderful unconditional love that allowed her to let her Son go and meet his destiny, even when that destiny was indeed a sword to pierce her heart.
So Mothering Sunday teaches us something very important, it teaches us about the nature of love in its purest and unblemished form. Motherly love, given unconditionally and unselfishly, a love that shows us here on earth, the nature of the love that our Father in heaven has for each and every one of us, his errant children. God’s love, just like a mother’s love is given freely and unconditionally. God is no ‘helicopter parent’, he showers us with love and leaves us to make our own decisions and our own mistakes and boy do we make some mistakes. But none of those errors, makes any difference to the nature of that unending love.
Which brings me back to Martin Luther King Junior. At the heart of his message was a message of the enduring and unselfish nature of God’s love. He exhorted his congregation to try to emulate that love at a time when their capacity for love was being sorely tested and their human frailty for hate was easily fed. He preached at length on Jesus’ exhortation to love your enemy and he talked about the special nature of God’s love. He reminded everyone that the Greeks had three words for love. The first is “Eros”, an aesthetic love, a romantic love between two people. The second is ‘Philia’, a brotherly love between friends and thirdly there is ‘Agape’ and this is what Dr King has to say about that most pure form of love.
Agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.
And this is what Jesus means, I think, when he says, "Love your enemy." And it’s significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them.
But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy." This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
This concept underpinned everything that Martin Luther King stood for and was the driving force for peaceful change and civil rights in 1960’s America. It’s the power that changed a nation in the space of 20 years. They say that love can move mountains and, if it’s the right sort of love then it can. In a few weeks we will be coming together in this church for an Agape meal, a remembrance of that special love of God for his people. A love that is so powerful that it led to Jesus offering himself on the cross for all of we errant children.
As we prepare to acknowledge the love of our God at Easter during this time of Lent, we’re presented with Mothering Sunday, a reminder of Agape love, the perfect and undemanding love of a mother for their child, the symbol of the love of God for each and every one of us. Amen