What Lifts Me Up? Sermon for an inclusive Mothering Sunday by Ms Donna McDowell (Lent 4 2016)

Published on Sun, 6 Mar 2016 17:31
Lent 2016 Congregational Sermons

In 1925 Anna Jarvis from West Virginia protested at a conference of the American War Mothers, which was raising money by selling carnations, and was arrested for disturbing the peace. Two years previously she had crashed a candy-makers convention in Philadelphia. She did these acts of protest and also organised boycotts and threatened lawsuits against Hallmark and other card manufacturers because she was aggrieved at the gross commercialisation of Mother's Day.

Interestingly it had been Jarvis who had worked tirelessly for almost 10 years from the time of her
own mother's death in 1905 to have a day be set aside as a holiday dedicated to mothers. Anna's
mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both
sides of the Civil War and had created Mothers' Work Clubs to address public health issues. Anna
was keen to follow her example and wanted the unseen work of mothers to be recognised.

In 1908, her proposal to have an official holiday to honour mothers was met with derision by the all-
male US Congress who joked that it was a slippery slope and if mothers had their own official
holiday then soon mothers-in-law would have to have one too. Jarvis was undeterred and kept
campaigning and eventually in 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation creating Mother's
Day, the second Sunday in May, as a national holiday to honour mothers.

But fast forward a decade and by the early 1920s Jarvis had become so embittered by what she
saw as misinterpretation and exploitation that she protested and even tried to rescind Mother's
Day. The holiday that she had worked so hard for was supposed to be about sentiment, not about
profit.

At about this same time, in England, a vicar's daughter called Constance Penswick-Smith was so
inspired by Anna Jarvis' efforts that she created the Mothering Sunday Movement, which sought to
revive the festival of Mothering Sunday.

This was a European Christian tradition with its roots in a Roman festival dedicated to the mother
or earth goddess. On this day, the fourth Sunday of Lent, it was traditional for people to return to
their mother church to worship. Domestic servants and children in service were given the day off to
join their families at church and the day became known as Mothering Sunday. It was often the only
time that whole families could gather together, since on other days they were prevented by
conflicting working hours, and servants were not given free days on other occasions.

By the 1920s, outside of the Anglican church, the custom of keeping Mothering Sunday had tended
to lapse throughout Europe. Enter Constance and her successful campaign to combine the
traditions of Mothering Sunday, with the newly imported celebrations from the US. UK-based
merchants saw the commercial opportunity in the holiday and relentlessly promoted it; by the
1950s, it was celebrated across all the UK, and most people today think that Mothering Sunday
and Mothers Day are one and the same thing.

Why did I spend so long relating the history of all of this to you? Well, partly because context
matters. But mostly because it is good to be reminded that this day wasn't originally about
commercialisation or profit, indeed it wasn't even about singling out mothers for special treatment
but rather it was about the importance of family, both that of blood relatives, and one's church
family.

And because I stand here as a single, childless woman, who has had an uneasy relationship with
her own mother in the past, and who often feels that Mothers Day, as we, in the wider community,
now tend to celebrate it, is yet another occasion that she is absent from, or left out of. I started
attending church regularly on my own at the age of 15 and sat through many a Mothers Day
sermon, reeling from yet another argument with my mum, and watched as daffodils or cake were
passed around for the mothers to take, looking forward to the day when I would sit with my brood
of 5 children and receive those very gifts with gratitude for the blessing of being a mother. But that day never came. Instead I watched my younger sister move up to the adults table at family celebrations because she had married and had her first child at 19, while I remained at the kids table with my younger cousins, despite being in my early 20s. I went back to my family for Christmas after Christmas, plopping my suitcase next to the single bed in the spare room, and then would spend the holiday attending various activities centred around my sister and her kids. Opting out wasn't an option.

So on Mothering Sunday which has now become synonymous with Mothers Day, a day when it
has become commonplace to celebrate motherhood and to give gifts or send cards, my question is
this: what about those of us who never knew our mothers, or who had or have a difficult
relationship with them? Those of us who have never had children whether through infertility, or
circumstance or choice? Or those of us who have shared in Mary's suffering, those who could say
that swords have pierced our own souls too as a result of the pain of losing children?

Don't get me wrong - i applaud any opportunity to stop and pause and express gratitude for the
sacrifices that one human being makes for another, and in many ways motherhood is all about
sacrifice. And I think that it is essential that we celebrate the contributions made by the unsung
heroines of many families, particularly when women have been denied power and equality for so
long. This was a certainly the motivation behind Anna Jarvis' movement in the US, even if her
experience isn't true for us all. But for many this day is a reminder of what we don't have, and all
the grief that might accompany that.

So want if we reimagined motherhood? Or at least allowed for the possibility that we are all
mothers in the sense that we can all give birth to and nurture something whether that be an idea, a
project, or our own creativity. Is it possible for us to continue to celebrate actual motherhood,
whether that be through birth or adoption or fostering, whilst also recognising the kind of maternal
urge that we might have within and which we use to give life to the relationships we have, both with
children and with others? Part of the reason why I love this particular church is because it, and we,
as the church community, try to do just that.

For Christians the archetypal mother is Mary. But her immediate reaction upon hearing that she
was going to have a child was not to focus on the pleasures and pains of pregnancy, childbirth or
childrearing. Instead she offered up these words:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For...his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty."

For Mary, her impending motherhood had ramifications far beyond her body and her family. She
was participating in a much broader, more expansive narrative. She would give birth to someone
who would change the course of history, through whom justice and mercy would be brought to
earth. Mary was the conduit through which this was able to happen. Her labours gave birth to it,
her body nurtured it, her discipline and love allowed it to grow.

I love this passage for it reminds me that I don't have to be a mother to give birth to something, to
nurture something and watch it grow. And I love it because it challenges me to turn away from the
idealisation and idolatry of the nuclear family towards something much bigger and much more
inclusive. And it reminds me that motherhood can also involve reimagining the divine, and the
nature of divine love. It allows for the expansion of the notion of God as Father to include the idea of God as mother. For those of us who have had absent fathers or difficult relationships with our fathers, this can be very healing.

The Bible is full of examples of thwarted motherhood redeemed, Hannah and Sarah and Tamar
being just a few examples. And I cannot tell you how many times I have had well-meaning
Christian friends tell me to be patient, because it might still happen; I still have time. And it might.
But it might not. I don't know how it all works, but I do know that despite how we interpret what the
scriptures say God doesn't always give us what we think are the desires of our heart. Maybe that is
because God knows best. Maybe God knows that I wouldn't have coped very well with all the
deprivations a mother has to put up with on a daily basis. Or maybe it's because that loving God
and seeking to follow God, doesn't exempt us from sharing in the suffering of humanity. I don't
know. I don't have the answers and all this is still in process for me.

But what I do know is that I have had to grieve and let go of an assumption that was also a dream -
that of traditional motherhood. And I do know that for many of us it is our lack of motherhood or our
painful experience of motherhood that lifts us up onto the cross - that is when we feel the most in
solidarity with the suffering Christ. So I am trying to embrace a different kind of maternal being. I am trying to be the best God-mother

I can to my two god-daughters and their siblings, and the other children of friends who call me
auntie. I am spoiling my new little great-niece with the gift of every story book I had hoped to one
day read to my own children. I respond with joy and a melting heart every time little Rosa calls me
mummy, even if it is just the word she uses for every woman she loves but she doesn't yet know
the name of! And I am embracing the freedom my lack of parental responsibility gives me and the
challenge accompanying that freedom to make sacrifices that parents cannot make.

I will receive my flowers today with such gratitude that I belong to a church community who doesn't
define me by my marital status or childlessness, but rather seeks to be an inclusive place of
welcome to all, recognising that we are all broken and all have unfulfilled longings, but that we all,
also, have much that we can contribute.

I am realising that my legacy will probably not be in the form of flesh and blood, but in the stories I
will tell the children that surround me, and the lessons I have hopefully taught my students, and the
ways in which I will try to love my family and friends, but even more so, the ways in which I will try to love my enemies, and the stranger.

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