Motherhood & Blood & Toil & Tears & Sweat
Sermon for Lent 4 – Sunday 30 March 2019 – St John the Baptist, Felixstowe
Text: Luke 2.33-35
‘…and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’
Those who have been attending our Lent Course on the film Darkest Hour will recognise these as words from Winston Churchill’s first speech to the House of Commons after he came Prime Ministers on 13 May 1940. They are also a fair description of the consequence of Mary saying ‘Yes’ to God, and in fact a pretty accurate description of motherhood in general! Blood and toil, tears and sweat.
I remember vividly the day our eldest child Tim was born. We had just moved to live at Seminary and were far away from our own mothers so were without their presence to support us. There were strange looks from other expectant couples when they realised our new born child would be taken to live in a Black Township instead of a leafy White suburb which made us feel more isolated. It had been a long labour, and in the end Tim needed some help to be born involving scissors and what can only be described as a skullcap shaped vacuum cleaner applied to his head. Soon after his birth, with our son lying on her chest I looked at my beloved Lesley-Anne, who was in a state of disarray yet at the same time absolutely radiant (why do dads insist on taking photos of new born mums before they’ve had a chance to put on some slap and a little lippy?) and, feeling just a tiny bit of the pain she had suffered, told her that we need not have any other children. Fortunately for Tim’s brothers’ sake, she smiled radiantly and said ‘I want more.’
‘Blood and toil, tears and sweat’ may describe some of the attributes of motherhood but it is an incomplete one as it omits the crowning glory of motherhood, love. A deep self-giving love that outweighs all the ‘blood and toil, tears and sweat’ turning the pain into passion, and passion into life. Even though, they know love hurts, mothers still love, and love freely and flagrantly.
The story of Mary is the story of mothers across the world. Mothers are born to grieve, and in grieving love, and in loving redeem. At their best mothers are living the legend of the mother pelican who pecks at her own breast to feed her hungry young and have always been an imitation of Christ.
The experience of Mary is the experience of mothers throughout the Bible. Old or New Testament mothers are almost always only mentioned in times of ‘blood and toil, tears and sweat’ . There are very few cuddly mother scripture verses.
This sacrificial love is what makes today a precious day for those whose have their mothers with them yet it is also a bitter-sweet day for those of us whose mothers are no longer with us, or who never knew their mothers. Today also brings pain for those mothers who have lost a child they loved or whose child was born asleep. You see, even in the act of saying ‘thank you’, motherhood hurts.
Today is not only about mothers of the flesh. We know that Mothering Sunday was originally about our Mother the Church. In British Society in medieval times and flourishing in the 17th Century, Mothering Sunday was a quarter day at the end of the hardships of winter. One of those four days of the year when children who had gone into service where given their wages and a day’s holiday to go home to visit their family and worship with them in their ‘mother church. A time of bringing home produce to an empty pantry, such as the calorie rich Simnel Cake, to hearten the hearth, and make the darkness of winter brighter with the first flowers of Spring. A time of saying thank you for past blessing and asking for future protection.
The Mothers’ Union was part of the revitalisation of the observance of Mothering Sunday as a day of saying ‘thank you’ for Mother Church and in the early part of the 20th Century a Mothering Sunday card would have prayers such as this on them:
Make every day a Mothering Day
When loving thoughts take wing
And this be the simple prayer we pray;
And this be the song we sing;
‘God bless Mother and keep us strong,
to fight for right and banish wrong’
In a world where the mantras, ‘you can be a Christian without going to church’ or ‘I can be closer to god in a garden than in a church’, are a commonplace the idea of attending church to give us strength to ‘fight for right and banish wrong’ may give us cause for thought.
Yes, we can worship God without being amongst God’s people
Yes, we can meet God, and do so each day, in places other than those set aside for worship.
But if that is the sum total of our devotion we will find the Christian journey a lonely furrow to plough and also find it more difficult to ‘fight for right and banish wrong’
This is not to see Mother Church as some kind of magisterium issuing edicts about our behaviour – we are all grown-up children and left home a long time ago. Church, when we are at our most caring, is a place where Christians are strengthened to get rid of their worst and fight for their best.
Unsurprisingly to do this also involves, ‘blood and toil, tears and sweat’. I would that it were different. That somehow the Body of Christ would be able to gather together Sunday by Sunday in peace and harmony, our care of each other would be impeccable, and we would float out of worship overflowing with the milk of human kindness and spreading love, joy and peace wherever we go. Sadly the Minutes of any church meeting be it from General Synod to the local village PCC give the lie to that.
As the family of God we are more often like the seven Pontippee brothers – Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank (short for frankincense – supposedly due to no Bible names beginning with F – and their mother thought he smelled sweet), and Gideon – before they meet their Seven Brides. (Why is that all the best movies are only on the TV at Christmas?)
The church can seem to be a rabble of siblings who all descend, unwashed on the common food as if they have never been fed before each grabbing as much as they can and perversely thinking that the one who wins the fight at the end is the most righteous. Little wonder Adam’s new bride Milly rings a peal over them!
Sometimes I think God feels the same about us. He calls us to be the Church that we might nourish each other and instead…
God’s response to our selfishness is the cross, and Mother Church, when she is at her best imitates him by pouring out ‘blood and toil, tears and sweat’ and an overflowing love. Spreading her balm to not only her unruly brood but also their friends (and enemies). Setting ever larger covers for her table to feed the hungry. Welcoming into the warmth of her inclusive live those who do not fit in with society and have no home of their own. Healing broken hearts and providing weal for woe in a way in which only a mother can.
So today we have two things for which to be thankful, our mothers in the flesh (and those who ‘mother’ us in other ways, a care worker perhaps?) and our Mother the Church. Both of them suffer much that we may have life and deserve none of the ‘blood and toil, tears and sweat’ we inflict on them.
Perhaps it is providential that Mothering Sunday is in the middle of Lent. Our penitence is best shown not by deeds of mortification but by acts of love.
A love for our mothers (and our fathers).
A love for our brothers and sisters of the flesh and of the Spirit.
A love for all those who give of themselves that we might live.
A love for our Lord, who loved us through ‘blood and toil, tears and sweat’ that we may be set free to love others.
Please Note: This blog ‘Motherhood & Blood & Toil & Tears & Sweat’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2019