Mothers for Peace and Justice

Mary and ElizabethA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Text: 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Luke 1:36-55 (The Message)

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Mess of Crocuses (December 15, 2013)

sermonsA MESS OF CROCUSES

A sermon preached by Naomi Schulz
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 15, 2013

Text:  Luke 1:46-55: Mary’s Song of Praise – The Magnificat

Opening Prayer: Loving God, as a Hasidic Rabbi once said: “By reading sacred scripture we put your words on our hearts, but only you can put them inside our hearts. When our hearts break, oh Lord, may your holy words fall inside.” Amen.

In Judaism the written words and letters of scripture are called black fire. The written words of black fire are what get passed down unchanged from generation to generation. But the blank spaces between the letters and words is called white fire. White fire is all the stuff that could be in the story, but isn’t. The black fire of Mary’s magnificat sings praise to God who lifts up those who are vulnerable. With black fire she gives thanks for carrying a babe who will become God’s outpouring of love into the world. The black fire speaks to the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In Mary’s Magnificat, God is at work in a deeply personal way that also changes the world. It tells us that we see evidence of God at work in the world when the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are fed. But what about the white fire? I wonder about all that is left unsaid in the story. Mary sang this song of praise during a visit with her cousin Elizabeth. But, I wonder how uncertain Mary felt about her future when she left Nazareth to visit her cousin? I wonder if it was fear that prompted her visit. Perhaps she wanted someone with more experience to help her figure out what to do next. Recognizing God at work in our lives is neither easy, nor comfortable, nor always reassuring – but the black fire of today’s scripture doesn’t mention that part.

When God is working in our lives what does that look like? What does it feel like? Would we recognize it if happened to us? For Barrie Hathaway, the Executive Director of the Stride Center in Oakland, these are not idle questions. He founds his livelihood on answering them. The goal of the Stride Center is to lift people out of poverty through offering free training in cutting edge Information, Communication and Technology skills. A couple weeks ago Barrie told me that students who spend six months getting one technical certification at the Stride Center have a 61% chance of getting an entry level job. That job typically pays 16 to 20 dollars per hour – an income that doubles what many of their trainees are accustomed to earning. Study for three more months to get another credential and you have a 76% chance of finding a job. Add a little work experience and suddenly you have a 90% chance. These numbers make the Stride Center one of the most effective job training programs in the U.S., and It offers folks with histories of incarceration, generational poverty, addiction, or mental or physical disability a real and lasting opportunity for upward mobility.

Looking in from the outside, this looks like God working in a deeply personal way to change in the world. It describes the kind of reversal Mary points to as evidence of God’s presence – a God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. For those who succeed, there is indeed enormous potential for blossoming here. But that’s not all there is to this story. The black fire of Barrie’s percentages doesn’t paint the whole story.

Barrie also shared that the Center loses 10% of their students off-the-top because they are too afraid to leave their underpaying jobs – no matter how much training they complete. These folks have been beaten down so repeatedly, Barrie said, that letting go of their poverty wages feels like too big a risk to take. God may make a highway out of the desert, like Isaiah says, but experience teaches us that sometimes folks are too tired, or too scared, to follow it. For Barrie, the ethical invitation here is find ways to breach the gap. He reaches out with all the resources his institution has to offer, he works to bolster and build highways between the support systems of the folks he trains.

Despite years of effort and trial and error, he hasn’t yet found a solution to overcoming the many inhibitions that get in the way of launching the lost 10%. For me, this loss suggests a much wider societal problem – that of an insufficient safety net for protecting the vulnerable among us, and harmful structural inequalities that leave people behind at an early age. Faced with the vulnerability of our individual lives, and structural inequalities that serve to exacerbate such vulnerability rather than overcome it, I cannot help but wonder – as Barrie does – what more could be done to ensure that all of us have the opportunity and the courage to flourish.

At this time of year, our own hurts, fears, sorrows and dysfunctions are often thrown into stark relief with the cheery expectations of the Christmas season. Some of us are too sick to celebrate, some are too sad, and some of us are just plain tired. Its hard to know what to even do with these difficult feelings. It’s hard to know where to put them. Do we slip into isolation where we can keep them to ourselves? Do we throw ourselves into a flurry of activity to keep them from surfacing? No matter how hard we try to hide them, they likely break out in some form or another, often in the least helpful way at the least helpful time. So where do we find the opportunity and courage to flourish even with these difficulties?

In today’s scripture, newly pregnant Mary walked 80 miles from Nazareth in Galilee to a small hill town in Judea to visit her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Mary renewed a connection that offered mutual understanding and support. In uneasy and unexpected circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth encouraged each other, and in doing so they created a Holy Highway for intimacy and rejoicing. They held open a space for each other to flourish in their wildernesses, and we can do the same with and for each other.

Someone asked me a question last week that I’ve never been asked before. It was during an interview for chaplaincy training. After asking me to share what I might do in a hypothetical scenario common in hospital settings, the director of the training program asked me: “What is the positive side of anxiety?” Being deeply familiar with anxiety, I had a ready answer. “It’s highly motivating”, I told him. “What else?”, he asked. I was totally stumped.  After an extended pause he asked again: “What good is the I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know running through your head?” I looked at him blankly and told him I gave up. He replied that everyone else in that hospital room probably has exactly the same uncertainty running through their heads, so anything I could I do to put a little container around it would be helpful. “You can offer a glass of water,” he said. Relief poured through me. Ah heck, I thought, I can do that. I’ve done it before. We all have. But something even that simple can be hard to remember in times of stress.

What I like most about this story, and about the Magnificat that arises from Mary’s conversation with Elizabeth, is that they remind us that sometimes our souls most magnify the Lord when we offer each other the equivalent of a glass of water. We are all vulnerable beings and if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable together, to let the sorrow and hurt show along with the joy, perhaps we can find a way forward through the wilderness of our lives, the wilderness of of the holiday season, and the wilderness of church renewal.

Barrie, the Director of the Stride Center, is facing the problem of how to help some of America’s most hurt people to relearn just enough vulnerability to accept a well-paying job. A job that they are fully capable of excelling in. Here at First Baptist Church we discern how we can and will be present to ourselves, and to each other, during this often stressful season. May we emerge from that process as a mess of blooming crocuses in the desert.