With thanks to Carolynn Pritchard and Gretchen Wolff Pritchard for their inspiration.
A Sword Will Pierce Your Heart Also:
sermon for Mothering Sunday 2012
In the film “I Am Legend,” Will Smith plays the sole survivor of a virus that has wiped out humanity. The story of how the plague happened is told in a series of flashbacks; in one powerful scene, the federal government has quarantined the island of Manhattan, and is screening everyone who wants to leave, to see if they carry the virus. One mother desperately holds her child up to all passers-by, begging them to take him.
Shortly after I was born, my mother wrote, “when I turn to the Gospels themselves, especially the Sermon on the Mount, I find an invitation not to peace and trust but to a degree of self-abandonment that fills me with terror, and then with defensive outrage. How can anybody with children take these texts seriously? And yet many have been driven to – by war, by poverty, by conscience, perhaps even by love. Is any of this stuff addressed to me? I don’t know – I don’t want to know ... In one way or another, ever since my oldest child was born, I have been saying to God, “promise me you won’t touch my babies, and show me what you want, and I’ll do it – only then promise that you absolutely won’t touch my babies.”
Very few parents in modern London are faced with the trials that were standard in previous centuries, and which are still routine in many parts of the world today – the constant threat of disease, and the constant threat of war. But every parent understands the primal fear my mother wrote about, the knowledge of your children’s frailness and vulnerability. And many parents have, in desperate circumstances, been forced to confront that frailness and vulnerability head-on.
That woman throwing her child over the wall to a stranger who might save his life could be living in modern-day Afghanistan, or Saigon in 1975, or Warsaw in 1939, or, even, Egypt, a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
I would like you all to look at picture number 1.
And now I would like you to talk with the people in your pew about what you see in that picture, and what the people might be feeling.
The story of Moses in the bulrushes has become sentimentalised through over-familiarity. At the sleepover we had with the older children a few weeks ago, we watched The Prince of Egypt, an excellent animated re-telling of the Exodus story. The filmmakers have turned this part of the story into an action sequence, complete with alligators snapping at the basket, oars from boats on the Nile coming close to capsizing it, and so on. It’s a bit overdone, but it gets its point across – Moses’ safety was not a foregone conclusion. Imagine taking your three-month-old child and placing him in a basket on the Thames, knowing that if anyone found him, the overwhelming likelihood was that he would be killed. And you begin to have some idea of how vulnerable this child was. How desperate his mother must have been.
And now let’s look at picture number 2.
Neither of these pictures are great works of art, but what they do effectively, I think, is capture the mother’s expression. This picture reminds me of parents handing over a child to be held by a doctor – Mary’s expression of hope and fear is that of every anxious parent awaiting the pronouncement of the experts.
Simeon said to Mary – “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I would like you to talk with the people beside you about what you think he meant by that.
(give them a minute, then take ideas)
Which picture has you in it?
So where is God in all of this? Where is God in a world in which mothers and children are so vulnerable? Where is God in all those late-night fears for our own children?
And the answer is, I think - right in the middle.
That prophesy you just talked about – “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The parallels between the early life of Jesus and the early life of Moses are many – both escaped a genocide, Moses from Pharaoh and Jesus from Herod, and both grew up to be the one who set their people free, Moses at the Red Sea and Jesus by his death and resurrection. But what all those parallels mean is that God didn’t ask Moses’ mother to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. And the same is true for all parents. God didn’t spare his own son from the dangers of this world – in fact, he chose a particularly inauspicious start for him. The son of an unwed teenage mother, belonging to a colonised people, under the thumb of a cruel but efficient Empire. Many of our own children have a better start than that. God has not asked us, as parents, to suffer anything he is not willing to suffer himself.
That is comforting not only because it means that our God is a God who can understand our pain, but because it lets him off of the charge of hypocrisy and cruelty that could otherwise be levelled at him. He is not the General standing on the hillside, commanding his troops into a battle he dare not face with them – he is in the trenches with us, taking the same risks, bearing the same wounds.
But there is more to Jesus than just allowing God to understand what parents go through. Because Jesus was also God, he was able to turn that earthly suffering into new life, which he shares with us. And one way he shares that new life with us is through baptism.
Today, Henry and Rosalind are being baptised. Their parents and godparents are throwing them over the wall and trusting that God will catch them. The promises they make today are extravagant and over the top – and I hope you will say them with passion and conviction, because it truly is remarkable, what you are doing today – it is an amazing leap of faith. You are, as Moses’ mother did, trusting in the water to carry your child to safety. And, as he was with Moses, God is in the water.
In that banner Flora carried for us in procession, our children portrayed the story of the Exodus – God brought his people through the water, to safety on the other side. The water of baptism has often been a metaphor for death. No, we can’t keep our children safe – no, God doesn’t promise that all of us will have happy, simple, easy family lives. But God doesn’t ask us to do anything he hasn’t done himself. And God has promised that there is life on the other side, no matter what.
The truth of the world, for those who have children to care for, is that a sword pierces your heart also. And every one of our children is ultimately set out alone on the water, with only hope to guide them. But God has not left you alone to bear it; God has borne it too, and is there, with you, every step of the way.