Sermon for Mothering Sunday
In today’s Old Testament reading, we find the infant Moses in a perilous position. The Egyptian authorities are trying to enforce a law that amounts to a genocide of the Jewish people. All male children are to be killed at birth. This task was to have been carried out by the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who are named in the passage preceding. But, fearing God, they refused to do this, instead reporting back that the women were ‘vigorous and give birth before the midwives can get to them’. The two midwives are regarded as heroines by the Jewish people for doing this. Interestingly, their names in Hebrew mean ‘beautiful’ (Shiphrah) and ‘radiant’ (Puah). Midwives have always been treated with a degree of suspicion by the male writers of scripture and history. Maybe it’s because men were traditionally excluded from the process of giving birth, and so didn’t understand the role properly. At times in history they have even been treated as witches, as they dealt in mysteries and secrets that men didn’t know about. Shiphrah and Puah must have been exceptional to have been honoured in scripture in this way.
There would be no Mothering Sunday without midwives, and those of you who are mothers will probably be really grateful for the midwives and obstetricians who helped you when you most needed help. Those of us who are men should also be thankful for them, as they played an important part in helping each of us to be born safely and healthily.
Moses, then, survived the initial danger of birth, but his mother could only keep him hidden for a short while, and then devised a clever plan to give him a fighting chance of survival, making a basket and coating it with waterproof bitumen before floating Moses down the river at a place where he might get caught up in the reeds. It was Pharaoh’s daughter who heard him crying and, taking pity on him, rescued him, found a wet nurse to look after him (who just happened to be Moses’ mother!) and brought him up at her home. She called him Moses because the name means ‘drawn out of the water’. The strange thing is that Moses’ parents are not named in this story. It’s only later on in the book of Exodus that we find Moses’ ancestry listed in a genealogy (Exodus 6.20) and we discover that they were Amram and Jochebed. Maybe they just weren’t considered to be heroic enough to get a mention in dispatches, despite Jochebed’s clever plan to allow her son to be rescued.
It is a story of the love and courage of mother and midwives overcoming the evil plans of Pharaoh, providing the Hebrews with Moses who was later to lead them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. It is just these qualities that we need to see us through the present emergency over coronavirus. Those who work in the NHS are our modern heroes and heroines, courageously providing care and compassion for those who are suffering, risking their own health for the sake of those in their care. The role of those in healthcare is akin to that of a mother caring for her children. After all, when you were sick as a child, who was it who first looked after you? Was it not your mother?
This mothering love that is prepared to be sacrificial is at the heart of the gospel. There at the cross Jesus’ mother is prepared to risk her own freedom to be there for her son Jesus. She is helpless. She cannot do anything. But she goes anyway, unlike most of Jesus’ disciples who have fled. And Jesus in turn provides his own ‘mothering’ love to her and to us, as he commends her into the care of St. John ‘the beloved disciple’ and asks her to continue her motherly role towards him. In that dark moment it is love that triumphs over evil and death. And that is the message we cling to today, as we go through our own dark times in the face of this epidemic. Love must triumph over fear and the forces of death, in our lives, and in the life of our community.
May God bless you and keep you safe, and may you continue to be inspired by those great heroines of the Bible, Shiphrah, Puah and Mary among them.