Mothers’ Day sermon for a Family Service, by Canon Ginnie Kennerley, March 30th, 2014

Like mothers’ love, God’s love is unconditional – for gay people too!

Mothers’ Day sermon for a Family Service by Canon Ginnie Kennerley


It’s very good to be with you all this Mothers’ Day – though what with the clocks going forward and an early morning service to conduct it was a very short night.  Thank you to your rector and to the Mothers’ Union for inviting me – and please forgive me if my lack of sleep shows in what follows, won’t you?


On Mothers’ Day we celebrate and give thanks for our mothers, for motherhood in general, and for the motherly qualities of the Church.  And all that is good to do.  But today I’d like to move on from that to consider just WHY we are so thankful, and also to help mothers here to be the best, most thanks-producing mothers they can possibly be. Also to reflect on any particular challenges there might be for those determined to be “good mothers” today.


Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect mother, any more than there are perfect fathers or perfect human-beings.  So the psychiatrist who introduced the idea that simply having a “good enough” mother was all that children needed to become happy and useful grown-ups did us all a big favour. Without that “good enough” phrase, there could be an awful lot of guilt-ridden mothers about.


Mothers only need to be “good enough” to not cause damage to their children.  But “good enough” is still demanding.  “Good enough” means that we love them without conditions, we protect them against danger, we encourage them to be themselves and we give them a good example. And it is OK, maybe even better, to have our own careers and out-of-the-home activities, making a contribution to the world around us as well as to our family life. Some of us get quite ratty if we can’t do that, so as well as thanking God for mothers, we thank God for good crèches and loving grandparents. And we thank God for children who are proud of all the great things their mothers do, outside the home as well as in it; and for men who treat their wives as equal partners, not just as home managers and comfort providers.


Having no children of my own, I can really only provide a child’s eye view of mothers and what we need from them. And I think I would simply say “Love that makes no conditions”; that’s what it comes down to. Love for one’s children however difficult they are is basic. It is, in a sense, an earthing of God’s love for every one of us. It shows us just how God loves us, unconditionally. And knowing ourselves loved and valued gives us the freedom to explore and to experiment, and helps us become all God made us to be.


Looking back to our first reading: Samuel’s mother Hannah is a perfect example of this generous, non-possessive love. As a wife who appeared to be barren, Hannah had prayed desperately for a child; and when God granted her prayer, she was exultant and nursed her baby boy joyfully ‘til he was weaned. But there was a price to pay. She had longed for the child so much that she had promised if she could only have him for a little while she would then give him back to God, to help the priest at the temple at Shiloh; and she would be so very proud of him. He would always be her son, but also God’s special gift not only to her but also to all God’s people.


Giving a child to his future at such a very young age made Hannah an amazingly generous mother, all right; but at some stage all mothers have to let their children go to become what God has made them to be – to fulfill their talents and make their own path in life. If all the mothers here today are able to do as Hannah did, first to love and cherish their children unconditionally and then let them go to make their own way in God’s care, every child here today will have be able to make their own very special contribution to the world of tomorrow. And if through a family tragedy a child has no mother of their own, we pray that an “unofficial” or adopted mother will fill that role for them.


I wonder what any of the younger people here feel about all that?  I don’t suppose any of you would much like to have been given to the Church before your first birthday, would you? But Hannah’s heart was in the right place. She loved her son and wanted him to become absolutely the best that he could be. And in those days, being apprenticed to the priest at the main Jewish sanctuary was going to do the trick for Samuel. As things turned out, he became the great leader of the next generation of the Jewish people – hugely respected all the way down to the time of Jesus and beyond.  Hannah must have been over the moon! (And I do hope she went on to have more children. She deserved that.)


But of course being a generous, encouraging and non-possessive mother isn’t easy.  We want the best for our children, but sometimes we may want that “best” to the best as we see it, not as they do. Sometimes parents can push their children to become what they, the parents, would have liked to be themselves. They may want them to run their own business, make it to the top in politics or the arts, become a star sportsman, make a splendid marriage – whatever.


But the children may want to be and do something quite different. They can never be substitutes for their parents, though they bear their genes and probably share their values; they are individuals whom God will lead to the place where they can do most good – given half a chance. Good mothers and fathers will always remember that. They won’t try to force their children into a wrong mould. They will watch them carefully to see what way they are developing, what they are best at, what they most enjoy, and what sort of a person they are deep down, what they need and what they have to offer. And encourage them in all that.


Now there’s one area related to this that has been argued about back and forth between Christians in Ireland and round the world an awful lot of recent years. Granted that we all want our children to grow up to be happy as well as successful, in fact happy more than successful; granted that we would all like them to find the right person to spend the rest of their life with and hopefully raise a happy family – how do we react if one of them comes to us one day and says that they have found that right person, that they are in love and terribly happy, and that their intended life partner is another boy, or another girl? Or to put it another way, how do we react when we find that one of our children is what most people now call “gay”? And they can only be happy and do well in life if they can be accepted and respected and celebrated along with their new love?


It’s still quite a shock to most mothers and fathers when this happens – and unfortunately there are still some who can’t bear even to consider such things, which means that their children dare not tell them – sometimes with tragic results.  But I’m glad to say that nowadays more and more parents are equal to the challenge.  Because they deeply love their children, they are sensitive, sensible and supportive. They can recognize a good relationship when they see it, and if they’ve been watching their children carefully through the years, they may not be that surprised at the announcement; so they welcome their child’s news and their happiness. They may even be relieved that there are no secrets in this area any more.  I’m pretty sure I would be.


After all, there are plenty of great gay people out there to admire nowadays. The old fears and embarrassment and smutty jokes are more and more a thing of the past. Did you see the Oscar Awards on television recently? I’d say Ellen De Generes’ mother must have been more than proud of her. There she was, hosting the big Oscar night to the manner born (and so good at it that this was her second time) –  and she has been an “out” gay woman for years, happily partnered with Portia DeRossi , and fronting a TV chat show that draws audiences all around the world.  And what about Elton John? Being a gay man didn’t stop him being invited to sing at Princess Diana’s funeral. I imagine his parents were pretty proud too. I could go on, and mention a few well-known people in Irish public life, and the younger people here could give me many more names, I’m sure. In fact you might recognize some suggested to me by the BeLonGTo gay support group recently: Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen Page, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, and Raven Simone. I expect you know them better than I do! 


But never mind the famous people. I’d like to think that a good number of you know personally at least one or two happy couples who are gay, and that you both like and respect them. Because it’s when such couples keep themselves hidden away, pretending to be something else, that prejudice and persecution take hold, among Christian people as much, or maybe even more than any one else. And unspeakable suffering results – nervous breakdowns, self-hatred, suicides, and also horribly broken marriages, when people have tried to force themselves into a conventional marriage that simply doesn’t work for them.  Family pressure can be the cause of that.


Sad to say, the Church has on the whole been dragging its feet on this issue while governments have been pushing ahead towards legislation for equal marriage. (The first of these took place in England only yesterday – maybe you saw that on the TV news.)  But for around twenty years now church leaders and councils have been spending valuable time and energy arguing about whether we should or should not discriminate against gay people, or in some countries actively prosecute them.  The Church of Ireland Synod, in a sudden and I believe ill-advised attempt to resolve matters before undertaking a thorough listening and discussion process, recently re-stated its traditional position that marriage and all that it entailed could only be between a man and a woman; but in fact this resolved nothing, because at the same time it was agreed that we must urgently promote discussion, consideration of research and conversation with gay, lesbian and transgender people, implying that the traditional position could be modified.  


So as I see it, the jury is still out; and I just pray that good sense and Christian love for one another will prevail and that the conservative element in the church, faithful and principled though they are, will stop towing along like a ball and chain the ancient taboos of the early Israelites, with cries of “abomination” and “impure”. That attitude might be easier to forgive if it weren’t for the fact that the people most likely to take their own lives are young gay men; if it weren’t for the fact that the Church’s conservatism encourages parents to reject their gay children or to try to get them “fixed” – usually with tragic results; if it weren’t for the fact that there are a good many faithfully partnered gay and lesbian members of the Church of Ireland, among them some first rate clergy, who dare not admit to being who they are in church circles for fear of rejection or even punishment.


Of course we all know that God speaks to us through his Word in the Bible; but I’d like to suggest to you that what God said to the ancient Israelites about what they had to do or not do to distinguish themselves from the tribes they were driving out of the Promised Land, is not necessarily what he wants to say to us three thousand years later in Western Europe! In the same way, the few verses that condemn same-sex activity in the New Testament, some of them written by St Paul, some by one of his followers, seem to me to be prohibiting casual, lewd, promiscuous, or exploitative sexual behaviour of any kind, which all of us continue to reject, not life-time partnerships between two men or two women pledged to love and support one another to their life’s end. Granted that the typical life-partnership is going to be between a man and woman – without that human life would not continue – what is typical has never excluded what is a-typical – there are always exceptions to the rule.  And some might say that the overpopulation of today’s world and the threat of rising seas and diminishing food supplies means that we should actually be grateful for a few life partnerships that do not produce children!


For me, the absolute standard for Christian life and behaviour is and always will be the example of Jesus and the command he gave us, “Love one another, as I have loved you! By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Thoroughgoing, unconditional love, love especially for the people the society of his day rejected, was the example Jesus of Nazareth gave us. He even warned that the tax-collectors and the prostitutes were going into the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of the pious, law-observing, respectable people. If gay people had been persecuted in his time and place, you can bet your bottom dollar Jesus would have been spending time in their company.


Let’s think about that. And let’s resolve never again to condone or be party to jeering remarks or rejection of our gay brothers and sisters in Christ.  Let’s pledge ourselves to work for their full acceptance, in both our parishes, our national Church, and society at large. And mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts and grandparents alike – and children too – please make your homes and places of work into sanctuaries where any one who might feel unwelcome – not only gays and lesbians but equally the handicapped, people of other cultures, races and religions, the poor and the rich alike – will experience the respect and welcome that is every human being’s due. That is the way of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Canon Ginnie Kennerley 30.3.2014.