Preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
Sunday 19th March 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
It’s Mothering Sunday; a day full of rejoicing for many, though with decidedly mixed emotions for some; and we want to do justice to the range of responses that this day brings. And to help us with that we’re presented with two Bible readings, both of which feature motherhood, though not in a straightforward way. They don’t fit too comfortably with the secular festival known as Mothers’ Day, but that’s the Bible for you.
What we are given is two tales of adoption. In the passage from Exodus, many women feature, and play significant roles, but the only person mentioned by name is a man: Moses. In the Gospel passage, also, many women appear. They are standing neat the cross of Jesus, and they are named, but on this occasion the only other man in the scene remains unnamed. All we are told is that he was ‘the disciple whom he [Jesus] loved.’ (19:25)
In Exodus, Moses was adopted by an Egyptian princess; she was, we are told, ‘the [unnamed] daughter of [the unnamed] Pharaoh.’ (2:5) Having discovered the three month old child in the basket among the rushes, she arranged for him to be looked after, in defiance of the ruling of her father that Hebrew boys should be put to death. Then, ‘when the child grew up,’ (2:10), she named him – ‘Moses’ – ‘and she took him as her son.’ (2:10) In other words, she took him to live in the Pharaoh’s household.
In John’s Gospel, we also have an adult adoption. This time, though, it seems to be a more mutual affair. Observing his mother, Mary, among a small crowd of Marys, as he hung on the cross, Jesus placed her into the care of the unnamed beloved disciple: ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and then to the disciple, ‘here is your mother.’ (19:26, 27) And then, we’re told, not unlike the situation where Moses entered the house of Pharaoh, and his adoptive mother, ‘from that hour the disciple took her [Mary, the mother of Jesus] into his own home.’ (19:27)
I’m presuming that this disciple’s own mother was no longer living, or at least not living with him. Otherwise I think it would have made for an interesting family dynamic: “mummy, meet my new mother that Jesus has told me to bring home with me.” Things might have got a bit tense.
I presume, though, that if Mary and the disciple took Jesus seriously in what he said (woman, here is your son, disciple, here is your mother), then as well as the disciple looking after her, then she must have looked after him in the years ahead; a new mother in the house.
So what might these biblical stories be saying to us today, on Mothering Sunday?
Well, I believe they encourage us to give due regard both to women and to mothering. Both the unnamed Levite woman in Exodus and Jesus’s mother, Mary, gave birth to their children in highly dangerous circumstances: both babies were endangered by murderous male monarchs (Pharaoh and Herod) who wanted the children dead. Both mothers took extreme measures to keep their children safe. One, in Egypt, put their child in a boat on the water (a bit like Noah and his ark). The other fled from Bethlehem, as an international refugee, finding a safe place … in Egypt – there’s irony for you. Many mothers will do amazing things for the sake of their children.
But these biblical stories also affirm women as women, not only women as mothers; something that’s important to say on a day which for some women can be problematic at best. Women in these stories appear as sisters who intervene to reunite children with parents. Women here are faithful witnesses to the death of Jesus, staying near the cross, when the great majority of their male counterparts have headed for the hills. So while we acknowledge the significance of motherhood, we need to remember that a woman’s worth is not to be judged on the basis of motherhood.
And then also, these passages from Exodus and John remind us to be wide ranging in what we mean by motherhood. Both passages affirm the reality of biological motherhood, and what biological mothers will do for their offspring. Both passages, though also feature adoptive motherhood. I have known some, including friends of mine, who have adopted children. I stand in awe of them. I don’t think I have ever had it in me to do so; and I’m certainly not going to give it a try now.
But consider Pharaoh’s daughter. She knew that this was a Hebrew child. She knew why a mother would have hidden her baby, for she must have known that her father, the Pharaoh, had decreed the death of all Hebrew male children. She was going against his publicly expressed wishes. She was doing the very opposite of following orders.
In the musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, there’s a line about another Pharaoh; that when he cracked a joke everyone laughed for a week. He was that powerful, and no one wanted to get on the wrong side of him. What then do you risk when you defy a Pharaoh, one who is set on murder – even if you are his daughter? She was risking a lot, enabling this child to live, and then taking him, adopting him as her son. Let’s hear it for the princess and for adoptive mothers.
And then again, maybe the Gospel passage also tells us to think more widely still when we talk about motherhood. If the Egyptian princess is the mother in taking the child into her household, perhaps the male, unnamed disciple should be seen as ‘motherly’ in taking Mary into his household. Maybe, as long as we men don’t use it as an excuse to steal Mothering Sunday from women, we ought to ask ourselves whether men can be motherly too. Or, at least, let’s not fall into essentialist thinking, whereby men can’t be caring, or women can’t strong leaders, because traditional culture has tended in this direction.
Which leads me to my final thought. If we, humankind, are made in the image of God, as Jews and Christians like to say, then maybe we derive our motherliness from God. After all, as well as the women and men who are present in Exodus and John’s Gospel, there’s the big story behind these stories. God is at work, acting to protect God’s children who are in danger. God is work by the river in Egypt, in the early stages of God’s project to rescue God’s people from slavery and death. And the events of today’s Gospel passage take place near to the cross, where God is at work to rescue God’s children, no matter at what cost to God’s self.
Mothering Sunday: it’s about women and their children; it’s about women being of worth, no matter if they have children. Mothering Sunday; it about mothering, both biological and adoptive. It’s about mothering, whether offered by women, by others, or by a motherly God, to whose family we all belong; our mother’s beloved children.