Lent 4: Care Deeply

Here are Bishop Emma’s sermon notes for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Lent 4: Care Deeply

Today is Mothering Sunday, a day when we celebrate all of those who have offered us care and compassion throughout our lives, whether that’s actual mothers or people who have given us ‘mothering’, the gift of love and care. Mothering Sunday is a source of joy and celebration, as we give thanks for mothers everywhere, but also of pain, as we recognise that family life is seldom easy, and there are people everywhere who feel the pain of loss of mothering in so many ways - those who have been unable to have children, those whose mothers who have died, those who have difficult relationships with their mothers, and those who are separated from loved ones for one reason or another - which today, of course, is most of us.

Although, we rightly now use it to celebrate the contribution of mothers everywhere, Mothering Sunday isn’t really about mothers at all in its origins. Originally, it was a time where people celebrated and gave thanks for the “Mother Church”, and was the Sunday on which they returned to their home churches where they’d been baptised.

So that’s why, of course, this Mothering Sunday takes on an added poignancy today, when many of us are not going into our local church buildings due to the restrictions around the Covid pandemic. We are finding other ways of worshipping, and praying, and being church together, much of it online and from our homes.

But it’s strange isn’t it? It feels unusual and peculiar at best. Even painful. Meeting together with our fellow worshippers is something those of us who do it often (or even occasionally) value so much. And for the time being many of us are not able to be together in person in the same way.

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that the gospel reading we just heard is a slightly odd one to have on Mothering Sunday - The Crucifixion? It is what’s set as the reading for today in the church’s calendar, but it does seem at first glance to be a bit gloomy, a bit depressing. Surely that reading is for Good Friday? We could cope with it then! Why today can’t we have something a little more promising, with spring and flowers and sunshine - and hope?

Perhaps the reason that reading is set for this day is that it describes really accurately the bittersweet reality of love and loss that is most people’s experience of mothering, and indeed of family life in general. Mary, the mother of Jesus, alongside his mother’s sister; his friend, Mary Magdalene; and his closest friend John. Together they look on as Jesus suffers and dies on the cross. And even as Jesus hung there on the cross, in his love and care for us, dying for the sins of the whole world, he was concerned to make sure that, after his death, his mother would have someone to care for and someone to care for her. And so, he commended Mary and John to each other. “Woman, here is your son.” And to John, “Here is your mother.”

And there, underneath the cross, a new family is born, a family not based on blood ties or nuclear family relationships, but on mutual devotion to the One on the cross above them, under the shadow of its suffering. Jesus’s death on the cross makes possible new relationships and breaks down barriers, between humankind and God, and between us all. That’s what the cross of Christ shows us. The cross is the very opposite of social distancing. The cross shows us that God has come very near to us in Jesus Christ.

The theme of the refreshed vision we think about today is the call to ‘care deeply’. These 2 small words carry so much meaning. Of course, we are called to care deeply for those we love, and even for ourselves (one of the things many of us find most difficult!). We are to care deeply for our brothers and sisters in the church, fellow Christians, if you like. And we are certainly going to need a whole lot of pastoral care as we emerge from the challenges of lockdown that have resulted in so much pain and suffering for so many. We are also to care deeply for the local communities in which God has set us, including the worldwide family of humanity of which we are all a part. That is a whole lot of caring! It could be easy to feel overwhelmed.

But at the heart of this simple story of Jesus’s mother Mary and Jesus’s friend John at the cross, and Jesus's instruction to them to care for each other when he has gone, is the simple message that as a church we are to ‘mother’ people, to welcome all with gentle compassion, to provide hospitality, to listen, to care and to never give up on caring, to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn, to join in with others who are likewise offering care in our local communities. As a church we are to be a place where people can come and be at home.

Our other reading for today is from 2 Corinthians chapter 1 where Paul sets all this is the context of worship: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor 1.3-5 NIV).

When we offer comfort, another way of saying ‘care deeply’ for each other, we do so because God has first cared for us and will be with us in our caring, giving us what we need to be able to care and comfort. We are not alone.

And so, on this most unusual of Mothering Sundays, our prayer is that, under the shadow of suffering, a new community will be born, a community of people the length and breadth of Cumbria who, even whilst scattered, gather together in Spirit, under the shadow of the Cross, care deeply and discover together the new kind of family Jesus calls us to be.

A prayer

Loving God, you are one God,

and you bring together what is scattered and mend what is broken.

Unite us with the scattered peoples of the earth that we may be one family of your children.

Bind up all our wounds and heal us in spirit, that we may be renewed as disciples of Jesus Christ, our Master and Saviour.

And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.