I remember an advertisement that used to be on TV back in the 80s, in which an average young family were trying to squeeze themselves into an average motor car. Mum and Dad were doing alright up the front – behind them on the back seat, the kids are pushing and shoving. ‘The average family’, we were informed by the usual supercilious-sounding male voice-over, ‘consists of Mum, Dad, and 2.3 kids’. ‘Yeah’, the smallest of the three squabbling kids in the back seat broke in, ‘and I’m the point-three’. The point, of course, was that this picture-perfect looking family wasn’t average at all, and they needed a car that was bigger and better than average as well.
Nowadays, of course, no demographer worth their salt would hazard any sort of definition of what constitutes an average family. At an engagement party I was invited to a while ago I was amazed at the ease and grace with which the happy couple welcomed mothers and fathers, step-parents, their parents’ former partners, siblings and step-siblings. I also remember a political row that erupted a few years ago when a politician dared to suggest that a family should be defined as one or more adults who were caring for children. Couples without children, he was very quickly reminded, are families too. Single people, gays and lesbians, foster-children, people who live together to share expenses – families today aren’t what they were 50, 20 or even 10 years ago.
We all, of course had mothers. Some of us still do. Some of us also have adoptive mothers, birth mothers, step mothers, foster mothers. In our modern society some of us have surrogate mothers, some are estranged from their mothers, in our world of conflict mothers and children may be separated by court orders or the artificial lines established by warring nations. In our own country we have the sadness of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal people removed by government order from their families and forced to grow up never knowing their own mothers, we also have the Forgotten Generation sent out to Australia in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, some of them orphans, others separated for decades from living parents and siblings.
On Mothering Sunday we dare not descend into easy sentimentality or simplistic generalisations. Not about our human relationships, and not by bland appeals to the old-fashioned concept of ‘Mother Church’- especially not that, now that we can no longer pretend the Church has lived up to its own ideals of compassion and care. Today, it seems to me, we need to honour the complexity and the mystery of actual human relationships which are never perfect, always in need of forgiveness, but at the same time, always the context in which we learn about ourselves, about one another, and about God. Our readings this morning, I think, can help.
Our Exodus reading is especially helpful to post-modern families trying to work out what it all means. Recognising the danger to herself and her son in a culture that is hostile to them, Moses’ mum finds a practical alternative to having her child executed. The bit we heard this morning offers what seems like a happy ending, with Moses being brought up by his mother and then adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Actually, this is a bit like a modern-day pop-star going to Malawi to adopt an “orphan” and then having to pay off the parents before she can take the baby out of the country. Sounds too good to be true. But we know Moses is going to grow up confused and resentful, that he’ll get himself thrown out of the royal court after murdering an Egyptian slave master for beating an Israelite. So, not really a happy ending, then.
Just that through this confused and morally murky beginning, and through Moses’ coming to recognise and respond to God’s presence in his life, the people of Israel are going to be brought out of slavery into the land promised 400 years earlier to Abraham and his descendents. It’s a story that speaks to us about faithfulness, even as it highlights the difficulties we sometimes have in working out what and who exactly we are supposed to be faithful to. Actually, the story of God’s people has always been about faithfulness, about the blessings as well as the sacrifices of living in covenant relationships – relationships based on the giving of ourselves in trust. The story of God’s people has always been about faithfulness – about promises kept and promises broken which, even then, remain promises. We sell it short if we think it’s just about the modern ideal of the nuclear family – in the Bible it’s a whole lot messier and more human - with concubines, competing wives and serial husbands, extended families, families divided and families that are open enough to welcome strangers. The important thing is faithfulness, not the veneer of social conservatism that confers respectability on some and keeps others out.
None of this is to devalue the sacrament of marriage, the giving of a woman and a man to one another in a covenant based on the covenant between God and God’s people. In fact, more reflection beforehand on exactly what is being given and promised in marriage might make modern marriages more enduring. But it is to recognise the profound sacramentality of extended families, of open and inclusive kinship groups that confer welcome and belonging, and that encourage commitment and self-giving. As well as being supportive of marriage as a covenant relationship in which children can be born and grow in the assurance of love and nurture, the Church also needs to recognise the Holy Spirit at work in relationships that don’t fit within the traditional mould, affirming the lives and relationships of single people, those whose marriages have ended through divorce or death, those whose God-given sexuality makes the covenant relationship of marriage impossible.
Above all we must learn in the Church to be a true family, to be a place where all are made to feel welcome – regardless of age, status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, education, disability or any of the barriers we put up either consciously or sub-consciously. It seems to me that if the Church – even just if we here at St Michaels – were ever to get the reputation for being truly accepting and inclusive, for actually putting into practice Jesus’ way of hospitality and love, not just for talking about it, then we’d be full to overflowing. Like it or not, we are actually in the business of drawing people together into a profoundly life-giving experience of family.
Which leads me to our reading from the Gospel, to Jesus’ remarkable act by which he joins together as family his own earthly mother and the unidentified disciple known only as the disciple Jesus loves. It’s a striking reminder that family is where we make it. It’s also an action both practical and symbolic, an action that draws together as family not just Jesus’ mother and his earthly friend, but all who would claim to be his beloved disciples. Catholic commentators, in particular, see Mary in this scene as the Mother of the Church, the beloved disciple as a sort of Everyman and Everywoman. As we stand together at the foot of Jesus’ cross he gifts us to one another as a family constituted by commitment, decision and self-sacrifice, by the shared experience of word and sacrament. Like it or not, we’re made into a family by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So today, on Mothering Sunday, we are challenged to reflect on who we are, and who Jesus calls us to be as a Church, to recommit ourselves to being an open, generous and hospitable community of care, a family in which each member is known and loved, in which each member takes responsibility for noticing and responding to the needs of others, in which the nurture and protection of the most vulnerable members is given the highest priority. A family which practises non-judgemental acceptance for the simple reason that we have been made into a family by the one who eats with prostitutes and tax collectors, who promises the kingdom of heaven to murderers and brigands, and to us. A family which, only then, perhaps, could again without irony be called by the name of Mother Church.