When I was a child, I was into go-karts. Not, you understand, motorised, or even pedal powered go-karts. I mean go-karts made out of bits of wood we found in my father’s shed, knocked together with any old nails we could find, and served by ancient, rusty pram-wheels that we picked up from the local tip...in the days when you could scavenge on a Council rubbish dump.
We lived on a hill. A rather steep hill...which I realise might be difficult for you Flatlanders of Warblington to conceive! To give you a idea, let me say that it was a hill of similar length and gradient as the one that goes up Portsdown Hill, past Queen Alexandra’s hospital in Cosham. And like that hill, the one I grew up on had a junction at the bottom, on to a main road...which was itself, another hill. Overall, we had a run of over a mile from the top of the hill to the bottom...
My friends and I liked nothing better than to hair down our hill, on wooden go-karts, steered with string. To slow ourselves down before the junction, we would use our rubber Wellington boots as brakes...forcing them against the tarmac to slow our descent a little, before weaving into the traffic on the main road. That meant, of course, that Wellington boots had to be replaced with great regularity!
When I think back on those wonderful childhood days, I remember them with joy. I remember coming home at night, with holes in my Wellingtons, scrapes and grazes all over my body, exhausted beyond belief...and yet being wonderfully happy.
But when I look back on those days more objectively, I find myself asking an uncomfortable question...and one that I’m sure has occurred to you already...namely; while I was careering over a mile down a hill on nothing more than a plank of wood, four pram wheels, a piece of string and my trusty Wellingtons at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour….where on earth was my mother?! (My father, of course, was for the most part out at work).
I asked my mother about this the other day...and learned precisely where she was. She was in our house, keeping out of my way...and terrified out of her wits. At any moment she expected a knock at the door, or a telephone call from the hospital, to say that her son had been discovered in a pile of wood, pram wheels and blood at the bottom of the hill.
So why didn’t she stop me?
I think it was because my Mum was part of that generation which understood that young people don’t grow well when they are rooted to the sofa. She knew that for me to become the exceptionally well rounded human being you see before you - (ahem ahem) - it was important that I had the chance, the free will, to explore my environment...to find my own paths...to make my own mistakes. Her actions, or rather her deliberate inaction, was not the action of an uncaring mother, but actually a piece of biblically inspired wisdom.
Today, of course, is Mothering Sunday. I’m sure many of you will remind me...if I don’t tell you now...that what has now become Mother’s Day was once the time when everyone returned home to the church in which they were brought up...to Mother Church. Of course, for those who had moved away from home, it was a chance to catch up with their own Mother. But now, as we are all aware, Mothering Sunday has become something quite different.
Whatever it is has become, and however much it is driven by the card, flower and present industry today - it nevertheless is an opportunity for us to reflect on the best that motherhood can be. The bible, of course, has some advice to offer in terms of descriptions of the perfect wife and mother. The book of Proverbs, in its final chapter, for example, famously describes the “Wife of Noble Character”, whose “children arise and call her blessed”, and whose husband “blesses her also”. (You might like to read the last 20 verses of the book of proverbs for this week’s homework!)
But the Bible doesn’t set out to be a handbook for the whole of life, in every tiny detail. Dr Spock’s book on childcare is likely to be a far more useful present to a new mother than the Bible! And that is because the Bible’s main function is not to show us how each of us should fulfil the detail of our individual callings. Rather, the Bible’s primary function is to show us what God is like, and having introduced us to Him, calls us to live all of our lives, all of our callings, in Godly ways, and under God’s loving rule.
And in setting out to describe what God is like, the picture that the Bible uses with the most force is that of a parent. Both ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ are terms that are used to describe God’s relationship with us.
Incidentally, as a little diversion, we do well to remember that God is not a bloke. Genesis reminds us that God made human beings both male and female, in the image of God. So, for example, alongside Jesus’ powerful description of God as ‘Daddy’ - Abba, comes his lovely image of himself as a mother hen, longing to gather her chicks under her wings. Unfortunately the English language doesn’t have a non-gender specific pronoun - other than the impersonal ‘it’. So, we tend to still say He, when referring to God...even though He is as much a She!
And that means, that we don’t have to be tied to pictures of motherly love alone, when we want to understand what God is like. In my none too humble opinion, the single most powerful picture of God, in the whole Bible, is that of the Waiting Father, from this morning’s Gospel reading - traditionally known as the Prodigal Son. Here we have a picture of the perfect parent...who, just as my mother allowed me to do on my go-kart... gives their child the space, the opportunity, and the ability to choose their own path. And again, like my own mother, scared-stiff at home, the Waiting Father of Jesus’ story doesn’t for a moment stop caring about his child...
There’s a beautiful image that comes right in the middle of Jesus’ story. As the younger son arrives back in his father’s country, but is still far off, Jesus says that “his father saw him, and was filled with compassion for him, and ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him”. It’s a great image, isn’t it? How could the Father have seen his son when he was still far off, unless he was constantly scanning the horizon for him? The Father of this story never gives up hoping and praying for his son’s return...
And that, Jesus shows us, is what God is like. Because God wants sons and daughters, not puppets and robots, He must give us free will...the ability to choose whether or not we will follow Him, or follow our own lonely path. But as God gives us that choice, there is never a moment when He is not scanning the horizon, searching for us, hoping that we, like the prodigal son, will stop running, and come back home to the Source of our life.
Through this story, Jesus paints a picture of parental love which is actually quite challenging. Not every parent, by a long shot, would be able to continue loving their child after the total rejection that the prodigal son shows to his father. But Jesus insists that no matter what the son has done, he is still the father’s son. When no-one else would even give the prodigal something to eat, the father runs to him and accepts him back.
We see God’s perfect love in the actions of the Waiting Father. We see an abundant love which longs, with its whole being, for the restoration of the relationship of the Garden of Eden, when men and women walked and talked with God. As a mother longs to clasp her errant child once again to her bosum, so God longs to welcome each of us home.
Perhaps, after all, there is still some value in the old meaning of Mother’s Day still left for us to contemplate...I mean that old sense of returning to Mother Church. The Church is of course God’s chosen and spirit-inspired vehicle for his ’love-in-action’ in the World.
We return, again and again, week by week to our Church, and take up our places as members of the body of Christ, in renewed relationship with God and with one another. As we do so, let me invite you to let your imagination go wild! The next time that you walk through these doors, or the next time you settle down with a bible in your hand and prayers on your lips, feel the pleasure of the Supreme Mother and Father of us all...and hear in your mind’s ear the wonderful words…”Welcome home my child”.