The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Online      22nd March 2020
On Mothering and Distance
Jeremy Fletcher

Every year new words and phrases become part of our common language. On 2005 the Oxford Words of the year were Sudoku and podcast. In 2011 the phrase was “squeezed middle”. 2013’s was “selfie”. Last year was “climate emergency”. There will be no surprise if 2020’s is “coronavirus”, or “Covid-19”, or “pandemic”. But I think “social distancing” is in with a shout too. 
We are supposed to avoid each other now. I know what social distancing is about, but I prefer our Bishop’s clarification. This is “physical distancing”. Some people joke that we are all to be hermits now. Those people who choose the hermit life, or who are chosen by it, testify that in many ways they are closer to more people even if they are physically isolated. Their friendship and commitment to others takes a different form. Their community life remains strong. 
One of the images of God in the prophecy of Isaiah is that of a mother longing to gather her chicks under her wings. It’s an image of tenderness and great strength: you would not want to take on a mother hen defending her brood. On Mothering Sunday we rejoice in the God who gathers us, cars for us, defends us, gives everything, even life itself for us. It may be that we have seen such tenderness and strength in our own mothers, though many can only imagine what that’s like. But all can recognise the best mothering. It gathers, holds, cares, preserves, and ultimately lets go as the chick becomes and adult – yet, of course, never really lets go. 
I appreciate the gathering image, the “under the wings” image all the more this year because that experience will be denied to so many. People will be aching to be gathered by those who mother them, will be desperate together those they mother, and this will be impossible because of the distancing we have to practice. This morning the clergy here celebrated Communion in mourning because our people were not able to be present. Our gathering wings are empty, and we miss you. 
But this is physical, not social or spiritual distance. The church is full. It’s just the building which is empty. Mothering is happening all over this community. People are discovering that physical isolation is creating deeper links of communication and love. Some of you have spoken to friends and family far more often in this last fortnight than you’ve done for ages. Texts, emails, social media, and video calling don’t replace physical proximity, but they do eliminate social distance. Love takes digital form here. Mothering, gathering, is happening in countless ways. 
It is not a surprise that people are fearful. It would be foolish not to be. It is not a surprise that we long for safety, long to be gathered under protective wings. It’s not a surprise that we long to gather together, and are just baffled that those we want to hold close might be a danger to us, or we to them. So, for the moment, distance is love, to be apart is to care, to avoid touch is to be tender. 
We will mother each other as we look to the deepest needs of those we love, and of those we hardly know. In this way may we know the motherly love of God, who gathers us, cares for us, protects us, sacrifices for us,  and loves us. And perhaps in these days you can hear a mother’s voice telling you to wash your hands. My mum would be pleased at that. 

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