Precentor - Revd Canon Andrew Zihni
Many of us have had, at some point or other, the experience of being selected for a particular role: perhaps it was finding that ideal job, to which we feel completely called. Or perhaps it was when we were invited to join a particular committee or group where we can make a real difference
Or perhaps it was something lighter-hearted, as, for example, when I was selected to win the award for the best main course dish at the Master Chef competition at our parish fair in South Yorkshire when I was a curate, which led one of my parishioners to comment: “That’ll do the lad no good: like John the Baptist says in the Bible, he needs to decrease not increase. Rather than cooking fancy food, maybe he should try eating wild honey and locusts for a bit!”
As my astute parishioner hinted at, when we have been selected, there can be a moment of truth as we come to terms with what has been decided. Will we match up to other people’s expectations? Have we really got the talents and the skills that are required? Will what has happened do us or others any good? These are some of the questions that naturally arise as we consider the implications of the commitment we have made.
This is no less true for the caring roles that we may exercise, whether as a mother or in some other way. I wonder how Mary felt in this morning’s Gospel reading at Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. Having heard Simeon’s words that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people Israel”, Mary is then faced with Simeon’s more challenging prophecy that we heard in the reading: “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”. As we hear elsewhere in the Gospel, Mary no doubt treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
I have always thought of Mary as a wonderful example of hope and encouragement for Mothering Sunday. In Simeon’s stark words, we are reminded that ‘mothering’ in all its diverse forms is not the twee image that we often see on Mother’s Day cards in the shops. Because we are human, ‘mothering’ is complex: it is both joyful yet challenging and costly. ‘Mothering’ can bring us immense pride, but also sometimes much pain.
In our relationships as parents, siblings, partners and close friends, we are capable on the one hand of sacrificial kindness, yet on the other, of engaging with our relationships in way that reflects our own needs more than the needs of those for whom we are caring. We know that sometimes the vision of goodness fills our horizon; and that at other times, small-minded desire has us at its mercy.
Geoffrey Stoddert Kennedy, better known to thousands of First World War troops as Woodbine Willie, knew what a mixture we are in this regard. He wrote this poem about the feelings of the average soldier:
Our padre says I’m a sinner,
And John Bull says I’m a saint,
And they’re both of them bound to be liars;
For I’m neither of them, I ain’t.
I’m a man, and a man’s a mixture,
Right down from his very birth,
For part of him comes from heaven,
And part of him comes from the earth.
There’s nothing in him that’s perfect;
There’s nothing that’s all complete.
He’s no but a great beginning;
From his head to the soles of his feet.
And this is where the example of Mary can encourage us. Her actions, thoughts and responses in the infancy narratives remind us that she did not need to achieve perfection; she did not need to understand everything about Jesus.
Mary linked her life to the life of Jesus Christ, and everything else followed. She started from the fact that God in Christ loved her, and from God, she learned something about loving. And from loving God, she learned how to radiate the love of God to all with whom she had to do. Living followed on from loving. Behaving followed on from believing. And so it is for us. When we respond to love with love, from that will follow a desire to live lovingly; we can then so order our lives that they will continue to grow in love. This seems to be a good premise from which our ‘mothering’ – in whatever form that may be – can take root and develop.
Let me perhaps illustrate this with a lovely, old Chinese story I was taught as a boy. Once upon a time there was a water bearer, who had two large pots, each one hanging on either end of a pole, which he carried across his neck each day to collect water. One of the pots had a crack in it; and, while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to his master’s house, the broken pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years, this went on day after day, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its work, perfect for the task for which it was made. But the broken pot was ashamed of its own imperfection and miserable that it was able only to accomplish half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the broken pot spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream: “I am so ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you”. “Whatever for?” the bearer asked, “What are you ashamed of?” The pot replied, “For these past two years, I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to the master’s house. Because of my flaws, you never have full value for all your efforts”.
The bearer said to the pot, “But did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you have been watering them. For two years, I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would never have had these beautiful flowers to grace his house.”
This story strikes me as a wonderful parable for the kind of ‘mothering’ to which we are all called in our relationships and which Mary exemplifies. Whatever the disappointments, the challenges, the flaws in our natures, our care for others lies ultimately in how we enable them to be the people that God has called them to be.
This is perhaps what we so celebrate in our mothers and those who have cared for us that we shall see in the beautiful montage later in the service.
We reflect the love of God in Christ when we nurture others in discerning and reaching the fullness of their potential as God-created human beings. As Mary discovered, this can often be costly, but it is the way of true love.
This is the wonder of the example of Mary that we encounter in the today’s Gospel. If we can use this season of preparation to reflect and pray about how we can live out the love of Christ in our nurturing of others to be the people that God calls them to be, we shall indeed have kept a fruitful Lent. This is the essence of Mothering Sunday.