I often struggle with the set readings for Mothering Sunday when it comes to planning our morning service. Frankly the official choices – printed on the pew leaflet - are rather grim. Moses being left to take his chances in the bulrushes. Hannah, desperate and childless, and yet when she does bear the child she has longed for, she gives him up to be raised in the Temple. In the Gospel there is either Simeon warning Mary that her child will one day cause her pain, or the reading we’ve just heard, Mary watching that prophecy come true as Jesus dies on the cross. It is all a very long way from the images on the Mothering Sunday cards. These stories are powerful reminders of the cost and pain of parenthood – sometimes too painful for All Age worship.
There’s another way in which the set readings are often hard to reconcile with the popular view of Mothering Sunday, though, because they challenge the idea of what it means to have a family, what Godly families might look like – families where God can be found and known. These stories don’t give us Ladybird book “Peter and Jane” pictures of mum and dad and two kids gathered happily around the tea table. They are stories of groups of people – related or not - managing somehow, to create family arrangements that work for them. These often seem somewhat ramshackle – fostering your child out to an elderly priest in the Temple, or, worse still, into the hands of a genocidal Pharaoh would be hardly likely to be recommended practice now, and yet Eli loves Samuel, and Moses finds a safe enough place to grow up – and perhaps skills which God later needs him to have as a leader – because he grows up in Pharaoh’s court. . And in the Gospel we see Jesus entrusting his mother to the keeping of John - not some male relative, which would have been the respectable thing to do – and entrusting him to her too, creating a new family for them now that he is dying.
The early Christians would have found this image particularly helpful. Many of them had had to leave family ties behind, or perhaps been pushed out of their families. Often too they knew that following Jesus would expose their families to danger, and had to make the appalling choice between keeping their families safe, or being true to their commitment to Christ. Those who campaign for justice and truth face the same dilemma today – think of Nelson Mandela, or Aung San Suu Kyi , whose families have paid almost as high a price as they did because of the choices they made.
That’s why this new community, this new family that Jesus called them into was so important to them, despite the fact that it seemed so unorthodox to others. When they met together slave and free, men and women, Jew and Greek, rich and poor were drawn into one family, and it was every bit as close and committed as any of the families they can come from and utterly essential to them.
Christianity is often seen as a bulwark of traditional family values, but actually, a lot of what we find in the Bible is very far from the stereotype of mum and dad and 2.4 children. There is a huge variety of familial expression within the Bible – polygamous marriage was perfectly normal and accepted, for example, up to and well beyond the time of Jesus. It was the Romans and Greeks – pagans - who gave us monogamy, and it is only because the Church developed first in their milieu that we think of it today as the norm.
The Biblical writers are, above all, realists. They recognise that what matters is that people love and care for each other. What pattern that love and care come in is of very little moment, so long as it works.
This is all very relevant at the moment, of course, because of the debate around gay marriage. You’ll all have your own opinions on this, of course – personally I am all for encouraging love and commitment whatever form it takes. But whatever we feel about this specific issue, the Biblical picture is that families come in many forms, and the ones that work may not look the way we expect them to. What matters is that each one of us can find a place to belong, people to belong with, where we can be clothed with love, and where the peace of Christ can rule in our hearts. Amen