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Title: May the Lord establish his word
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Readings: 1 Samuel 1.20–28, Colossians 3.12–17, John 19:25-27
Date: The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday, 19 March 2023 11.00am
May the Lord establish his word.
Meanwhile, so we are told, ‘Hannah conceived and bore a son’. And so our readings begin on this day when maternity seems to leap to the forefront of our minds. And Hannah’s story isn’t any old story of childbirth – for if you read back a mere fifteen verses, you’ll discover that Samuel’s birth is an extraordinary birth, because in the opening verses of the first book that bears his name, it is explained to use that ‘the Lord had closed [Hannah’s] womb’.
So Hannah isn’t just any old mum – she’s someone who had to work hard to become a mum – and not just the mother of any old child – she becomes the mother of someone after whom not one but two books of the Bible are named. What, you might ask, could be better than that to start our celebration of Mothering Sunday
Well, Hannah is – without any doubt at all – a person of very considerable significance in the story of the people of God, and how that story is narrated in holy Scripture. But her story is, perhaps an odd choice if this morning is meant to be a pastorally effective celebration of maternal values and aspirations. A role model who has had a lucky break from infertility might not be the best example for us to hold up in such a context, let alone in any way endorsing the Biblical understanding that it was God’s purpose and decision to ‘close her womb’ and subject her to such grief.
And, in an era when we take issues such as parenting and safeguarding very seriously, one might have to question whether a narrative that sees this sometime barren Hannah give birth, only to leave her baby abandoned at the Temple as soon as he has been weaned, is quite the most appropriate story for a celebration of maternal spirit.
And if you should read on a little, you will discover that the family with whom the baby Samuel has been left is seriously toxic. Eli, the High Priest, is, shall we say ineffectual. His own adult sons are, so the narrative tells us, ‘scoundrels’ – both stealing from the offerings made in the Temple, and sleeping their way through the female members of the Temple’s equivalent of hosts and stewards. This is a far from ideal adoptive family in which to leave a vulnerable small child.
All of which means that we are going to have to work a little harder if we are going to understand why Hannah’s story was read to us just now as part of our celebration of Mothering Sunday, and while we work it out we should continue to pray: May the Lord establish his word.
Meanwhile, about a thousand years or so after the era of Hannah and Samuel, another servant of the one God, was reminding his community about the importance of love. Now – surely we can talk about love on Mothering Sunday – what could be more appropriate than that?
But this choice is not entirely straight-forward either. For a start, you might want to question the pastoral sensitivity of a passage like this for those who were unfortunate enough to grow up in a context of parental abuse, or who may have found it difficult if not impossible to forgive a mother who may not have been someone that either demonstrated love or was easy to love.
And, again, if we dare to read on a little, in this case only as far as the very next verse of Colossians chapter three, we come across those ever-challenging words, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Well, I’ve been ordained 28 years this summer, and I’ve done a fair few weddings in that time, but I have yet to have a couple ask me if they can include the now infamous word ‘obey’ in a wedding service, which was relegated to being an option 95 years ago.
So, again, we may have to dig a little deeper to work out how this passage – which, despite the claim made at the start of the reading was almost certainly not written by Paul – helps fulfil that brief and simple prayer: May the Lord establish his word.
Meanwhile, three hours ago, I was presiding and preaching at our early service at 8am. Now our custom at the early service – like many churches around the country – is to use the 1662 Prayer Book. So at 8 o’clock, you’d not have heard anything about Hannah, you would not have heard from Colossians, and you would not have joined the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the cross.
Instead, you would have heard part of the fourth chapter of that genuine Pauline letter which he wrote to the church in Galatia. A rather tortuous and complex passage where Paul is talking about Isaac and Ishamel, the two sons of Abraham, and their respective mothers, which he sees as being allegorical. And thus, three hours ago, you’d have heard Paul speaking (and speaking in Elizabethan English) that Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, ‘is Mount Sinai…and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the mother of us all.”
Now the tradition of reading that text on the fourth Sunday of Lent goes back well beyond Cranmer’s prayer books, possibly as far back as the Eighth Century. And this curious and oblique remark about the heavenly Jerusalem being the universal mother, and its proclamation for hundreds of years in the middle of Lent – that is what has led to this day being known as Mothering Sunday.
Meanwhile, in 1908 in a small town in what was the coal-mining country of West Virginia, a social activist and devout member of what is known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, inspired by a prayer from her Sunday School days, founded an annual commemoration each May called Mother’s Day. The very next year the idea was picked up in the great metropolis of New York, and by 1914 Woodrow Wilson had issued a proclamation declaring the second Sunday of May to be nationally recognized as Mother’s Day. But all of that, as it so happens, is a completely different story, and not a story that relates to today’s celebration, even though Anna Jarvis, its creator, would, I am quite certain, have been happy to pray May the Lord establish his word.
Meanwhile, on an ugly hill that, in reality, was anything but green, some 2000 years ago, Jesus was busy dying. Except, if you read the Fourth Gospel properly, with your eyes and ears and mind open to exactly what its author is trying to tell us, Jesus is actually busy triumphing. For that is how St John understands what is happening as the Word made flesh is crucified.
And Jesus is about to announce, triumphantly, that everything has been accomplished. Jesus is about demonstrate that Love has fulfilled and completed all that it had set out to do. Only one last task remains, and thus John’s account of the death of Jesus is, as it were, interrupted, as he tells us in the passage chosen for this morning’s gospel reading, that Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother… and, along with some other women, that curiously hard to identify figure known as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. And the final task that Jesus must accomplish is, indeed, to fulfil the prayer of Elkanah, ‘that the Lord may establish his word’.
For this is the moment when Jesus’ vocation is, truly, perfected. And that is why, on Mothering Sunday, we are called back to witness anew Jesus’ final, decisive action. And it is not an action about a woman called Mary, and possibly a disciple called John – for I am quite certain that the evangelist uses titles and not names, because he knows Jesus is doing something bigger and more important than just making sure his mum has a roof over her head.
For in this final moment, the Fourth Gospel shows us the Word made flesh bringing together the one who bore the Word and the beloved community called to witness to that Word. This, if you like, is Jesus symbolically creating the Church – the beloved community of his followers – and it is with this task achieved that he can cry, victoriously, that all is not merely finished but made complete and perfect.
So let’s get real about Hannah. Let me tell you the truly remarkable thing about her. She is not just the first, but the only figure in the entire Old Testament whom we see indulging in what we now would call intercessory prayer, and getting it answered. She could be the subject of an entire sermon that I don’t now have time to preach, but go read her story properly.
Hannah is not important because she’s a mother. She’s important because she had the insistent vocation to lift up her plight to God by walking into the sanctuary of the Temple, and, in doing so, she makes a difference – a difference not just to her own life, but of her entire community. And through her the Lord established his word.
And that quasi-Pauline figure who wrote to the Colossians. He demanded that the beloved community we call the Church of God functioned as one body – a body bound together in the perfect harmony of love – a body in which, ‘richly’, the word of Christ dwells.
And meanwhile… as the Fourth Gospel shows us Jesus ensuring that the Living Word is established in the community of the Word, right now, on Mothering Sunday, we are called again to remember our vocation as members of God’s beloved community.
We are called, in this our own generation, to ‘establish the Word’ – to witness to the Word, to pray with the Word and through the Word – to pray for the world and to go into the world and make a difference.
Indeed, to pick up the real meaning of the Hebrew translated as ‘establish’, we are called to make the Word ‘rise up’. To make God’s Word rise up by our witness and by our actions. And that, perhaps, is what is means for the Church to recall its vocation to the mother of all people.
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