Sunday, May 8, 2016
“M” is for the million things she gave me
“O” means only that she’s growing old
“T” is for the tears she shed to save me
“H” is for her heart of purest gold
“E” is for her eyes with love-light shining
“R” means right and right she’ll always be
Put them all together they spell MOTHER,
a word that means the world to me.
This song, written in 1912 by Howard Johnson and Theodore Morse, represents the sort of sentimentality that has come to define Mother’s Day in this country. More than anything Mother’s Day is a red letter day for greeting card, candy, and flower businesses. It is a commercial blessing for those who make a living off those who celebrate some silly notions of what mothering is all about. It is decidedly not a high holy day on the Christian calendar. Yet I suppose it is being celebrated all around the land to day. I can’t remember ever having built a worship service around it before, though I know I am on shaky ground with some if I don’t at least acknowledge it.
I remember as a child that there were always carnations in church on Mother’s Day – red if your mother was alive, and white if she had died. Often there was recognition, with corsages, for highlighted mothers – the oldest, the newest, the one with the most children, Mother of the Year. This is the first time my carnation would be white. That is a strange, disconcerting, somewhat painful realization. I am a now a motherless child.
In an earlier time, when we would celebrate church as family, with God as Father, feminists were wont to ask how you could have a family without a mother. Then my friend Elizabeth and others began to point out that everyone in the room had not experienced happy family life; that fathers and mothers were sometimes neglectful or abusive; that everyone wasn’t heterosexually married; and everyone did not or could not have children. It’s not that a kind of idealized image of family – mother, father, siblings – is never a meaningful way to look at the faith community; we just need to be careful that is not the only, or even the defining, image we employ. If the church is going to include all of us, then there is more diversity to be considered than the nuclear family or conventional wisdom provides.
Alright, let’s back up for a minute to look at what brought on this train of thought. This is Peace Month at First Baptist and our theme is “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.” Several years ago, through material put out by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz, I was surprised to discover that Mother’s Day in this country has not always been a sentimental holiday. It actually has its origins in the annals of the anti-war movement. Julia Ward Howe, who penned the lyrics for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” issued a Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870 in which she declared, “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” Hers was a fierce and passionate call for peace and justice.
Mother’s Day did not really catch on as a holiday until the early 20th century when Anna Jarvis, inspired by her own mother’s work for peace, justice and the well-being of families before, during, and after the Civil War, organized a movement to establish a national holiday. Though she was ultimately successful – Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1914 – she lived to regret her success as the holiday was quickly sentimentalized and commercialized. She spent the rest of her life and fortune fighting the co-opting of her noble intention to celebrate what was good and right about mothering.
While singling mothers out for sentimental attention is not particularly praiseworthy, there is something significant in lifting up those mothers who have worked for peace and justice, including those who have loved and nurtured us, teaching us the ways of righteousness. Several years ago I did preach a sermon entitled, “The Reproduction of Mothering.” I acknowledged that the title was “borrowed” from the work of an important feminist, humanist, psychoanalytic sociologist, Nancy Chodorow, who taught for many years at UC Berkeley. Drawing from Freud and his followers, Chodorow argues that good mothering is essential to healthy human being. Children need to be loved, cared for, nurtured if they are to thrive. However, she also says that the mothering role can be provided by individuals other than the birth mother, including men. Living, loving relationships are more important to well-being than actual gender or bloodlines.
In a commentary on Mother’s Day, Anne Lamott writes, “…my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, and my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men.”
There is something about “extraordinary love” that gives life. We all need it to survive and thrive. The problem is that we live in a world in which there is too little love expressed and shared. Too many children live in fear, in poverty, in hunger, in sickness. Too many mothers – and fathers – experience those same things and cannot provide adequately for their children. It isn’t that they don’t care or don’t try to love, nurture, and protect their children. And it isn’t that some children don’t succeed mightily, in spite of enduring the most improbable and horrifying circumstances. But wouldn’t life be better for us all if justice and peace prevailed, if we were equally invested in the welfare of all the world’s peoples. Every mother’s child is also a child of God. Each child is as important as the next.
Following her foremother, Hannah, Mary lifts a hymn to heaven in recognition of and praise for a God of peace and justice.
God bared an arm, showing strength,
scattering the bluffing braggarts.
God knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulling victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
“Listen closely,” Karoline Lewis urges. “Anything sound familiar in Mary’s Magnificat? Notice anything similar between Mary’s song and Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19)? Like, everything? Maybe it’s true that you can learn something from your mother.” Every Advent season we sing about “Dreaming Mary”:
“And did she dream about a son?
We only know God’s will was done
in the son of dreaming Mary.
Then she prayed rejoicing in her savior.
She taught him justice for the poor.
She taught that kings oppress no more
when she taught, that dreaming Mary.”
Lewis continues her reflection on the Magnificat. “Jesus’ understanding of his purpose for his ministry restates his mother’s understanding of God’s working in her life. Jesus senses the essence of his ministry because he learned it from Mary. Jesus isn’t just making stuff up. He’s giving voice to how he grew up. He’s articulating what he’s been taught. He’s known this from the beginning. It’s what his mother preached. It’s what his mother lived. It’s what his mother taught him to be. It’s how his mother interpreted Scripture. It’s what his mother shared about who she knew God to be. It’s what his life of faith embodied. Jesus can witness to the God he knows because he heard his mother give witness to the God she knew” (Karoline Lewis, “A Merciful Advent, December 13, 2015,” workingpreacher.org).
So let’s celebrate the Love that makes a difference in the world. Let’s celebrate mothers and fathers and everyone who teaches right living, who works for peace and justice, who is dedicated to creating equal opportunity for every child. Let us sing with Hannah and Mary songs that praise the God of shalom, the God of mercy and compassion, of peace and justice and well-being for all, the God who brought everything into being and called it good, the God who turns the world right side up. Let’s proclaim that we will teach “charity, mercy and patience,” that “We, the women [and men] of [this] one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons [and daughters] to be trained to injure theirs.” Let us light candles and pray together for peace, recognizing that God “did not create us to kill each other nor to live in fear, anger or hatred.” Let our kitchens put forth “recipes of mercy and forgiveness, of compassion and redemption.” Let us resolve to “beat [our] swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruning hooks; [to] not lift up sword against nation, [nor]…learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:3-5). I think this would be a day to delight any mother’s heart and one well worth celebrating. Amen.