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Should we celebrate Mothers' Day?

[Note: This sermon takes its origin in the gospel for E6A, but is in other respects a biblically based topical sermon. The lectionary reference is however not merely convenient. I hope that it addresses the contemporary situations in a theologically sound manner in which biblical authority is maintained with openness to new development in understanding the mind of God. It has been revised since, but it happened that it was preached first on a Mothers Day which was also the occasion when some candlesticks were being dedicated in memory of a former leader of the congregation, with her family present, when folk religion might easily have displaced the biblical faith. See also the sermon for E4B The Good Shepherd.]

In the gospel for today [John 14:15-21], this Easter season, we read of how Jesus promised his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit of God would be very important for them to make their way in the future. In the way that John tells it, the gift of the Spirit was linked by Jesus with keeping his commandments. It was a matter of having a close relationship with Christ as with God the Father, in love which leads to do doing his will:

The close relationship he had with them would continue for ever in the Spirit, and in that relationship they would be faithful to his teaching. His teaching or his commandments were not very different from what they knew anyway as Jews, but it was more general than rigidly following specific rules. His commandments were a fulfilment or summing up of the old commandments, basically to love God and to love one another. He did not spell out in detail a set of laws to tell us how to act in every situation. Instead he promised that the Spirit God would lead people who keep a close relationship with him to discover the way that God was leading them as things changed in the future, and as the gospel was taken into different cultures.

And later,

In two weeks time we will remember this when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Today, I am departing somewhat from my usual practice of interpreting the scriptures read for this Sunday, to address a topical question. But you might keep in mind that it involves us in some difficult questions arising from great social changes which have been experienced in our society in recent times, especially in regard to the role of women, and that we should expect to be led by the Spirit of God to learn things we had not known before. We do not discover how to deal with all new situations by looking for simple rules in the Bible. We must be open to what God is saying to us here and now as we continue to look to Christ as the principal revelation of God.

Should we dare to question a popular practice?

The general community celebrates today as Mothers' Day, and even to raise the question of whether it should be celebrated in the church could be offensive for some. Yet, it is a relatively new practice and has no part in the traditional celebrations of the church, although in the Church of England there his been and to some exten still is a different Sunday known as "Mothering Sunday". There is no Biblical basis for Mother's Day as a regular observance. It is reasonable to ask whether it should be celebrated in the church, and there are things to be said both for and against. It is certainly one of those things on which opinions can differ, and not one on which a preacher can say with authority what scripture says or the church teaches. If I share my opinion it will be to help you to take into account some Christian principles in coming to your own conclusion, hopefully under the guidance of the Spirit of God rather than the social pressure of the wider community. To do that I will have to say some things that might surprise you. They are only part of the picture, so please do not be offended if I challenge things you have come to accept. You will see that there are positive things to be said as well.

First let me acknowledge my great indebtedness to my own mother in my development, in terms of both human achievement and in Christian faith. She was the primary witness to the faith in my childhood and right up until the last conversation I had with her before she died in her eighties she was a source of encouragement and deep spiritual insight, a person whose living faith was obviously based on real personal knowledge of God, a woman of prayer who studied the Bible faithfully, both in private and in groups with others, and she was never afraid to confess the faith. Nor did she rely on teaching indirectly by example, but taught her own children and others quite openly what she believed. In this she was a model of what mothers need to do even more deliberately today when there is so much more anti-Christian influence in the community. That is the first point I would want to make to Christian mothers, and to grandmothers and all who support mothers and take part in their caring work: you need to teach the faith openly and deliberately to your children. If I cast some doubt on current enthusiasms or see some danger in the celebration of Mothers Day, it is not out of any lack of appreciation of value of what mothers can do, but the opposite -- mothers and mothering are far more important than the things that tend to be emphasised in the way Mothers' Day is being celebrated.

The history of Mothers Day

Mothers' Day does not appear in the official calendar of the Church. It is a modern American innovation, now publicised largely for commercial purposes. For some centuries, there was an earlier tradition in some parts of England where the Fourth Sunday in Lent was called "Mothering Sunday". That day, which would have come a month or so before the date of the American observance in May, is still observed to some extent in Anglican Churches. It was a time when people in some areas visited their mothers and when there was a practice of visiting the cathedral or mother church on that day.

The practice which has now come to dominate in the general community began during the American Civil War when Mrs Anna Reeves Jarvis was organising a special day for mothers who had sons fighting on both the opposing sides. Later Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the rousing hymn Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, organised a Mothers' Day meeting in her home town of Boston. By 1907 the idea was so popular that Anna Jarvis, the daughter of the Civil War campaigner, began a movement to make it an American national event and in 1915 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mothers' Day.

In Australia, Mothers' Day was first celebrated in 1920 at the Presbyterian Church, Burwood, NSW. The Youth Leader John Stewart wrote to Anna Jarvis to get details of the American observance, and the youth group handed out white flowers to all mothers at the morning service. The wearing of white flowers seems to have taken on generally in a few years, but that was about all there was to it. Later, children came to be encouraged to do helpful things for their mothers on that day. It has been massively promoted in recent years by commercial interests as another occasion for buying and giving gifts although that had no part in the original observance. Fathers' Day was invented and placed at a different time of the year entirely for that commercial reason.

Should the church go along with this kind of community practice? The commercial exploitation of Mothers' Day can be rejected as yet another example of otherwise harmless sentiments being manipulated for money making purposes. The values of the market place tend to debase ordinary human values all too easily, especially when new needs and expectations are created by marketing techniques which have the capacity to create demand where none existed previously. But there could still be value in a community observance even if it is distorted by base motives; and if people want to give presents, I suppose there is no great harm in that, provided it is kept in perspective and does not become a burden. Yet we need to resist the tendency to put a monetary value on everything; and I fear there is an even more serious concern.

Beware of tribal religion

Some see the main role of the church as having to reinforce traditional practices and values, and that is something which must be questioned. All societies have public ceremonies of one kind or another which function to strengthen allegiance to the its basic institutions of family, tribe or community in some sense. The church is likely to be accepted and promoted by the dominant interests in a society to the extent that it helps to strengthen related values of loyalty and service. Kings and governments of various kinds have tried over the centuries to recruit or to bully the church into supporting them through humble submission to authority and the encouragement of loyalty to king and country. It is easy to build into nationalistic devotion love of family, respect for parents, and the duty to protect the hearth, the home, and the soil of the nation. A close link was made with religion in our history in Australia when men went to war "For God, King and Country", especially at the time of the First World War, from which many returned deeply disillusioned with such a religion. It is not unusual for loyalty to family, home, community and nation to be combined with religious commitment and it can result in the most terrible sectarian or communal violence as we have seen in recent times in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, for example. There is good reason to be suspicious of religious sentiments which invoke strong feelings of family loyalty. It can be a form of idolatry with the most destructive consequences.

Jesus had no time for the kind of loyalty to family, tribe or nation which failed to put God first and to accept all people as members of the one human family. All people have the power to become children of God [John 1:12] and thus brothers and sisters of one another. The words of Jesus on this might appear to be harsh if you do not see the great danger of the alternative. If we do not put our relationship to God first and see him as Lord of all, not just a tribal God, then any other loyalties which are placed higher than loyalty to God are likely to do much damage to the human family and to ourselves. Jesus spoke plainly of all his disciples being his brothers and sisters and his mother, as one day when his mother and his brothers came to him while he was teaching in Capernaum, probably for the purpose of pursuading him to come home:-

Sometimes, indeed, Jesus spoke very strongly of how it was necessary to set aside family loyalties and affections in order to follow him:-

It was a matter of priorities, especially when people were being forced to choose between conflicting demands for loyalty in a missionary situation. From the beginning of the church there have been times when people have had to make difficult choices in order to be followers of Christ. Most of us today are not forced to choose between Christ and our parents, but it still happens for some, even in Australia today, and more commonly in countries to our north where many new converts are choosing to follow Christ and where family traditions favour the practice of other religions. It is being experienced here now by some of our recent immigrants from Asia; and it is likely to become a more common conflict in our society generally as the new paganism is set aside by young people responding again to the call of God in Christ.

When social pressure has the opposite influence

Most of us have a difficulty of another kind. Rather than having to make the difficult choice for Christ, it is more likely that young people amongst us today will be under great pressure to abandon the faith of their parents and conform to the ways of world. There many heavy hearts in our churches aching for children who have given in to the pressures of the world around them, leaving the church as if it were some irrelevant relic of a by-gone era, worthwhile only perhaps for its contribution to the arts or some incidental by-product of Christian devotion -- "Yesterday's people" as Jeff Kennett [a former] Victorian State Premier with his peculiar ideas of progress would call us. In the midst of a great struggle that is going on in our society about what really counts as progress, the pressure to conform to what is popularly thought to be progressive is enormous, and all mothers, especially those with teenage children know the power of the peer group and the mass media. It is a terrible thing to be accused of being out of touch, to fear being left behind, even if you don't know where you are going. Parents need all the support they can get to defend their children and society in general against exploitation in the name of progress.

People are being exploited today by being cut off from their roots, so that in the absence of family and other traditions they are more easily manipulated. It is a real battle in which parents of young children are tending perhaps a little more than in the recent past to look to the church for help (at least in some congregations). Some respond to the call of fundamentalist groups to adopt authoritarian ways as a defence against the evils of a progressive ideology which encourages too many liberties. There is a conservative reaction which worries others and will probably get stronger as people become more disillusioned with modern ways, and it is a trap. The essential thing is not to oppose change, which is inevitable, and can be good, bad or indifferent, but rather to ask which of the changes we are encouraged to make are really for the better, or what will count as progress towards a worthwhile goal. Mothers have an absolutely critical role in this. It should be part of the strategy of our mission to encourage respect for their role and to improve the resources available to make mothering more effective. All of us can contribute.

Mothers should be honoured

This brings us to the positive aspects of honouring our mothers. As long as we avoid the traps of commercial and nationalistic exploitation and put God first, it is good to celebrate motherhood. Although he did say that people should put God first, Jesus also quoted with approval the old Jewish law about honouring your father and your mother.

We still accept the Ten Commandments of which the fifth one is

Jesus took care to provide for his mother when he was dying:-

The importance of mothering and of honouring mothers raises all sorts of issues for us today. They are broad human questions shared by many regardless of belief. We have greater problems than ever before today in knowing what is best in the care of elderly parents. The responsibilities of young parents are by no means clear and there are many abuses. There are big questions in our economy and work practices about how women can be helped to combine competing roles in work and family. Child care, maternity leave, equal employment opportunity and family allowances give rise to a host of public policy questions. As we have already noted, mothers and fathers are often challenged in their tasks as parents by other influences which are relatively more powerful than they used to be. Christians do have a concern to strengthen family life. So also do many others and we should be prepared to work with all people of good will for this purpose. It is not an exclusively Christian concern, and the teaching of Jesus which his followers are expected to apply in their own lives are equally valid for the whole of humanity.

The mothering image of God

One reason why family life is important from a Christian perspective is that relationships in the family help people to grow in the knowledge of God. That is, the relationships between husband and wife, and parents and children, and in the extended family, should mirror something of the loving care and faithfulness of God towards his people.

Mothers also embody important attributes of God. Traditionally, we speak of God as Father and often refer to God in the male gender, saying he is our creator. As Paul said to the Athenians in what we read today,

Although we say he made the world, and in the Apostles' Creed "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth", there is a motherly aspect to the act of creation. To create means "to bring forth" in much the same way as giving birth. From that point of view it is even a little odd to speak of the creator as Father rather than Mother. For this reason some people, as in a church we used to attend in Berkeley, California, prefer to say the Lord's Prayer beginning "Our Creator in heaven ... " instead of "Our Father .... " I don't do that because I think we should follow what Jesus taught as we have it recorded in the gospel [Matthew 6:9], and if we say "Creator" we might forget that we are speaking to a person, much as we could speak to our father or mother; but there are female as well as male characteristics in God. God is both Father and Mother, especially in "his" creating and nurturing work. That is, of course, shown to us is the way that human beings, both male and female are made in the image of God:

Mothers then are a very important model. Children learning to love and respect their mothers learn to love and respect God. Mothers are the most important teachers of the faith in all they do and say. A mother's love lays the foundation of trust on which all future relationships with other people and with God are built. That kind of caring extends beyond the natural mother to all who have a part in the care of children, including fathers, grandparents and others. When we honour mothers we honour also others who give motherly care. We should increase the value which is placed on this kind of work in our society.

The need to change public policy

It is a terrible thing that the values of the market place have so distorted our relationships and our economy that mothering work is regarded as unproductive and outside the normal economic system in which value is measured by money paid in exchange for goods and services (though there is an economics unit at the University of Melbourne led by Duncan Ironmonger which has gained a good deal of recognition for its study of the economic value of unpaid work in the home). What could be more productive than giving birth and caring for children. There is something very wrong when the socioeconomic system works to seriously disadvantage couples who have children in competition with those who don't, especially in regard to housing. Enormous sacrifices are made to have a baby, or to care for several children in one family. Single income families are greatly disadvantaged in comparison with two income families at the very time when they are most in need. Abortion is sometimes favoured for economic reasons. There is something radically wrong with such a system.

I am not arguing for women to stay at home in the role of wife and mother to the exclusion of paid work outside the home. Far from it. Women are discovering many different ways of coping with competing demands and young men are learning to share tasks which their fathers did not. Part time work and a period out of the paid work force, returning to it later, are the most common choices of women with young children, and also for some men. Whatever means are developed to meet the present situation, there is no way back to the kind of life in which the division of labour gave a meaningful role to women largely within the domestic sphere. In earlier times a much greater range of productive work used to be done in and around the home, and there was a greater sense of community associated with it, as I remember from the full and varied life of my grandmother on the family farm. As in many things, the changes have not all been for the good, but we probably need more change yet, rather than a return to the past. A great deal has yet to be done for the roles of women as both workers and mothers, or as full participants in society, still to be honoured, whether or not they choose to spend part of their lives at home with children. The values of the market place are not sufficient to point the way forward. The contrasting values of service, sacrifice and community service will need to be raised in public esteem if mothers are to be properly honoured.

So should we celebrate Mother's Day? Perhaps we should -- as a public celebration like Australia Day or some other national day, or like a day of remembrance like Anzac Day. It is not a specifically Christian festival, but many human values and activities can have significance in a Christian life as we share in the life of the community which is part of God's creation. If we avoid the idolatry of ancestor worship, of greater loyalty to family, tribe and nation, than to God the creator, and if we can avoid the debasing of human values through commercial manipulation, then it is good to be reminded of the great good that comes from honouring mothers and family life in general. It is the foundation on which people learn to love God and to love one another, and today we have a major task to rebuild and strengthen family life which has been very seriously damaged in our selfish and materialistic Western society as it has turned away from God. In the future, I am confident that people will learn more of God and human relationships as we develop a new understanding of the contribution of mothers to human life in general. May we be led by the Holy Spirit to discover the way of Christ in these changing times.

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