May 13, 2012

 

ON MOTHERS

                                                           Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                               at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 13 May 2012

 

Seventeen years ago, on the Thursday evening before Mothers’ Day, the day on which I retired from the United Nations, Lincoln and I flew out of Nairobi and travelling via Frankfort, Germany, and Chicago we arrived in Traverse City, Michigan, very much later on the Friday evening, ready for me to take up my post as the Priest-in-Residence at St Mary’s in Cadillac that weekend.  We were met at the Traverse City airport by Jim Pals, the Senior Warden, and his family, who drove us to what was to be our new home.  They gave us a chance to freshen up before they took us out for a typical Michigan meal, which was something very different from anything that had ever come out of Paula’s kitchen!  Over dinner Jim told me that the parish was celebrating Mothers’ Day that Sunday, and his wife, Mary, suggested that it might be appropriate for me to preach on that topic.  Now, that was something that I had never done – we do not keep Mothers’ Day in the U.K. or in the Queen’s dominions and colonies and former colonies.  Yes, we have a celebration in mid-Lent that is known as Mothering Sunday, but it is nothing like the Hallmark Event that is so familiar and popular in the United States, and it is often held as a religious celebration of the acceptance by the Blessed Virgin of her motherhood of the Saviour, something that is very different from what we have been urged to do these last several weeks in television commercials and advertising supplements in the local newspaper. 

Well, I endeavoured to do what I had been asked to do, and I would be the first to say that my sermon on that occasion was not a great success, and I have done my best not to prepare a sermon for Mothers’ Day since that day.  Yet this year I have felt constrained to make another attempt to preach a sermon for Mothers’ Day, but be warned beforehand, if you think that it will be in praise of mothers, or even my own mother, you may well be disappointed.

As a parish priest I am very well aware that there are women in any congregation who cannot be mothers, at least after the natural order of things.  For a few this is a matter of choice.  They choose to remain celibate, some of them even taking orders and becoming nuns, in our own Anglican/Episcopalian tradition as well as in the Roman and the various Orthodox traditions.  Others, and these are fewer today than was once the case, took a vow when they were young women, perhaps even idealistic teenagers, to be faithful to a young man for ever, only to see that young man have to go off to war and be killed.  His death might be said to release such a woman from her vow, yet there have been many, especially after the Great War of 1914-1918, who remained faithful to those vows.  But for other women it is not a matter of choice, for, for them, for some medical reason, they are physically unable to bear children, even though they may feel, or even know, that they have a vocation to motherhood. 

Yet, as we are only too well aware, many women have no problem in conceiving children and bringing them to term.  And as we also are only too aware, some of these women may have borne children in their wombs, but really have had no vocation to motherhood.  I find it necessary to lay stress on this notion of a vocation to motherhood, because I believe that, like matrimony, it is a state not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.  I may be awfully quaint and old-fashioned, but I believe every child who is born should come into this world as a result of prayer-filled love rather than mere animal lust.  Our children deserve that their conception be more than a matter of careless chance.  Conception should be a matter of careful choice.  Dare I say it – but every conception should be an immaculate conception.  I realize how difficult that can be in the heat of the moment of passion, but the untold sufferings of many innocent children would never have come about had their so-called natural parents responded with their minds and with their hearts concerned for the child that might be conceived, rather than with the mere satisfaction of a fleeting moment of animal desire.

This is not to say that the Good Lord in his love cannot later rectify a situation for a child conceived less than immaculately.  Of course he can do that, just as he can change the attitudes of those who merely lust for one another into something much more beautiful and closer to his designs.  Perhaps the story of David and Bathsheba brings this point home for us.  We all know the story as told in II Samuel and I Kings, how Bathsheba chose to bathe in the nude where the young King David would see her, and how this provoked lust in his body and how he took her, even though she was married to a senior officer serving at the battle front in David’s own army, and she conceived.  David did his utmost, as have many political figures since, to cover up the affair, but in this he failed, as have so many other political leaders and “wannabe” leaders.  He had Bathsheba’s husband meet his death in battle.  The child of that illicit union died shortly after birth, and as the writer tells the story it was this loss of her child that moved David’s interest in Bathsheba from lust to love, so that she held a unique place in his harem and in his court.  Her position was low in the pecking order as she was the most junior of David’s wives, yet it was she whom he loved and it was her next son, conceived in love, whom he designated as his heir, and, as it turned out, to be the ancestor of the Messiah a thousand years later.  And when David’s courtiers sought to put another of his sons on the throne, Bathsheba went to David, although the courtiers sought to prevent her, and insisted on the legitimate rights of her son to the throne of his father. 

Bathsheba is not unique in this regard within the Hebrew Scriptures.  Among the foremothers of Jesus there is a long history of women who have struggled on behalf of their children, some before they were even conceived!  In Genesis we read how Sarah insisted on the rights of Isaac over those of Ishmael, the more favoured of Abraham’s sons.  In the next generation, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, again upheld the rights of Jacob, seeing in him someone better equipped to head up the family than his older twin brother.  And the story goes on as Leah, Jacob’s first wife, asserted the rights of her children, including Judah.  Judah, in his turn, had to acquiesce in the strategy of Tamar whom he intended to be his daughter-in-law but who became his wife and bore him two sons, a descendant and namesake of one, Perez, married Rahab, the so-called harlot of Jericho, who became the ancestress of Boaz.  And we are familiar with the story of Ruth, who under very questionable circumstances became the wife of Boaz and so the great-grandmother of David.  We might not approve of Jezebel, another strong woman, wife and mother, but she too is among the foremothers of Jesus.  Her devotion to her own gods might be regarded by the Orthodox as reprehensible, but the fact that she could demonstrate such devotion and loyalty marks her out as typical of a woman who exercised her vocation to motherhood to the full. 

Surely what we see in this procession of women down through the millennia is how the Lord God can take the virtuous and the not-so-virtuous and through their children advance the cause of his Kingdom.  The stories that we have of them in the Hebrew Scriptures are stories of women who did not bring up their children so as to reflect glory upon themselves as mothers.  Rather, they used their roles as mothers, their motherhood, to advance the Kingdom of God.  And it is this same attitude that we see in the woman we call the Blessed Virgin Mary.  As the story of the conception of her first-born is recounted in the Gospels, it is clear that her concern was not with her own reputation, or with her status in the community – indeed her parents shunted her off to her cousin, Elizabeth, miles away in the hills of Judaea, when it became apparent that she was pregnant out of wedlock.  Rather what she said was, “Be it unto me in accordance with the will of the Lord.” 

For Mary, motherhood was a matter of affording her son every opportunity to be the person that he was meant to be.  If that put her at risk, so be it.  If that meant that she should not expect from her son what many women come to expect of their children, so be it.  A mother is a woman whose first concern is the well-being of her child, and she shows this concern not so much in the hope, let alone the expectation, of receiving anything in return.  She realizes that she is a mother because she has a child.  And that is nothing to gloat about or boast about.  It may be something to rejoice over, but motherhood is for the sake of the child and not the other way around. 

Mary knew this at first hand.  Nowhere in the Gospels did her first-born ever address her as “Mother”, although he always addresses her with great courtesy.  Indeed he denies her the privilege of being his mother in her own natural right by declaring that those who do the will of his Father are his mother, his brother and his sister.  Only once does his filial affection come through, and that is on the cross when he delivers her into the safekeeping of his youngest brother, Jude, telling him to look after the woman whom he describes to his brother Jude as “Your mother”, and, therefore, his mother.  We do not know how Mary felt hearing that word on her first-born’s lips to describe her, but surely Mary was content with this, as she walked away from Calvary with her youngest son and her elder daughter, knowing that she had fulfilled her responsibilities as a mother.  She knew that her role as a mother had been to see to it that her son could achieve his destiny.  That is what motherhood is all about – not what a woman’s children may do for her as their mother, but what as a mother she can do for her children.