In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Mothering Sunday, which has evolved in popular culture into an occasion when we are especially nice to our mums (if we still have them). But in origin it was, of course, a celebration of our mother the Church.
Our personal experience of being mothered will, of course, be unique to each one of us: it may have been absolutely wonderful, utterly appalling, or something in between. But there is something about maternal love at its very best that is remarkable, and life-giving, and selfless, and costly.
An experience I had eleven years ago brought this home to me very powerfully. I was present with one of my oldest friends – she and I had been at school together and had children of the same age – during her final illness and at the moment of her death. I was always amazed at how stoical she had been when receiving the news that her cancer was terminal; but what she said to me was this: ‘I keep reminding myself of how much easier it is for me to cope with what lies ahead as part of my own journey, than it would be to have to stand by and watch one of my children go through this.’
That is maternal love - like the she-bear whose instinct is to do anything to protect her cub. And one of the hardest things for any mother to experience is to find herself unable to feed her children.
I am preaching this sermon for you in St Bride’s this morning, but I am preaching it to an empty church. Like all churches across the UK, we have had no choice but to suspend our public acts of worship here, until the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control. To do anything else would be reckless and irresponsible, and the health and welfare of the elderly and vulnerable in society must always come first.
But it is a strange and dislocating experience to have to communicate with you remotely. Even more painful was the experience of recording the Eucharist here knowing that I am unable to share with you the life-giving bread and wine that is Christ’s broken body and shed blood. Because every mother needs to feed her children; and St Bride’s, our mother church, yearns to feed each one of you.
It is heart-breaking for us to be unable to gather together as we normally do, Sunday by Sunday, for worship, and prayer, and fellowship. Because we are a family. A marvellously disparate jumble of individuals, each one of us at a very different stage of life’s journey – but a family we most certainly are. And at times like this it is faith that will sustain us. Having faith in this context does not mean denying the reality or the gravity of the situation we are in; on the contrary, that reality is always our starting point. Rather, it is a call to all of us to ensure that, by the grace of God, fear and darkness do not, and cannot, have the last word.
Even if St Bride’s cannot feed you in the normal ways at present, we are looking at all kinds of other means by which we can support you and sustain you during the difficult days and weeks ahead. Our aim is to produce two recorded acts of worship every Sunday, which you will be able to access through our website – and also to provide some regular resources for prayer and reflection which you can use at home.
On the news in recent days we have continued to see examples of our fellow human beings at their very worst and at their very best. At their worst because people are extremely frightened at the moment, which drives them to act with mindless degrees of selfishness: bulk-buying unnecessarily, and clearing the shelves of essential commodities, so that those who are elderly or most in need are left with nothing. And we see a different kind of selfishness in those who refuse to take the official guidelines about hygiene and social distancing seriously, utterly indifferent to the fact that their irresponsible actions could kill people. We have also seen some amazing and heart-warming acts of courage, generosity and selflessness – sometimes from the most unexpected of individuals.
As so often seems to happen, the biblical readings set for today have an uncanny resonance with the situation we are currently facing. Indeed, it is worth remembering that the New Testament texts themselves emerged out of a situation of profound challenge and difficulty, when the Christian community was living under threat of violence and persecution.
Our reading from Colossians reminds us of how we should conduct ourselves. We must all strive to rise above our natural instincts to panic and focus inwards on our own selfish needs. On the contrary, we are told: ‘As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience … clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts … and be thankful.’
Be thankful. Like many of you, I have had difficulty finding food in the shops in recent days, which for me has given new meaning to that familiar phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that we so often rattle off without giving it a second thought: ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ One of the things we are all going to have to learn to do rather better is to focus on the here and now. Do we have enough to eat for today? That in itself is something to be thankful for. If we can keep thankfulness - even for small things - rather than fear at the forefront of our thoughts, then we are far more likely to survive this terrible time in good shape, and help others to do so, too, by the example that we set them.
And then there is our gospel reading: those profoundly moving words from St John when the dying Jesus, from the cross, entrusts his mother and the disciple whom he loved to each other: Woman, here is your son; Here is your mother. From that point onward they were to be family. As we, too, are called to be family.
We have prepared a little Mothering Sunday gift for members of our congregation. We didn’t know when we planned this that we would not be able to give them to you in person at this service, so instead we shall be posting them to you. There is a prayer card for you, and with it a little ball made up of wildflower seeds encased in clay. Scatter the seeds in a flower pot, or a window box, or a little corner somewhere, give them some water, and let nature do the rest.
It is a gift that has suddenly acquired levels of meaning that we hadn’t originally intended; not only as a symbolic reminder that everything that we do now sows seeds for the future; but also to remind us to notice the little gifts of God that are ever-present - gifts that cost us nothing: the beauty of God’s creation; the signs of spring; the small promises of hope that will abide whatever we have yet to face; those gestures of love that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Social media can be a bit of a mixed blessing at times like this, but I have to say there have been some wonderful and inspiring prayers, poems and messages posted in recent days, and I would like to end by sharing one of them with you. My sincere apologies to the unknown author, because I received it unattributed – if I could acknowledge it I would. But the message that it contains is important for all of us. And it is this:
When this is over,
may we never again take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbours
A crowded theatre
Friday night out
The taste of communion
A routine check-up
The school rush each morning
Coffee with a friend
The stadium roaring
Each deep breath
A boring Tuesday
When this ends,
may we find
that we have become
more like the people
we wanted to be
we were called to be
we hoped to be
and may we stay that way – better
for each other
because of the worst.
Reverend Canon Dr Alison Joyce, St Bride's Church
22 March 2020