Sunday, May 13, 2007

Standing as Witnesses to the Gospel

During the Easter season we have been exploring what resurrection means, not in death, but in life. We have asked what it means to practice resurrection and we have looked with hope for signs of this reality in the world around us. Yet, this is only the beginning. Inevitably, we like all other followers of Christ, must ask the same question, after the resurrection: What next? When Jesus ascends, as he will in the text for next week, what are we to do?

The Book of Acts gives us one answer: after resurrection we are called to tell the story of resurrection life to others. In the beginning the movement was shaped by a passion for communicating this exciting good news. Paul and the apostles told the story of Jesus and asked people to join the Jesus movement. There was no series of faith professions, or theological statements to which people had to adhere. There was no strict doctrine or polity or even Book of Discipline. Rather, the apostles simply asked folks to believe in this new vision of a kin-dom initiated by Jesus, empowered by the Spirit and made real through small house churches which were to embody the good news through their lives. With a focus on witnessing to the story, rather than creating a hegemonic religious cult, the Jesus movement was open to new possibilities, new ways of communicating this message and as such opened doors to leadership for those who might otherwise have been left aside.

This week in the lectionary, we read about just such a person, Lydia, the Church Mother of Macedonia. Her presence comes as a surprise to both the reader and to Paul, for it is not exactly what they imagined. Paul had set out for her homeland only after receiving a clear vision of a man who had cried out to Paul, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Surely all of them imagined they would meet such a man who needed their help.

Yet, upon arriving what they found was not a man, but a group of women, and women who didn’t need help, but rather offered help to the apostles. The text tells us that the women they met were worshippers of God. Among the women gathered there was Lydia, a merchant of fine purple cloth, a wealthy business woman, independent and successful. Listening to the apostles she was drawn to the message of this Christ and decided right then and there not only to be baptized herself, but to baptize her entire household.

Now, when we read household, we must not imagine the nuclear family structure of contemporary culture, but rather envision of network of various relationships, that could include extended family, friends, employees and even servants. Lydia is a matriarch, a leader of an entire household which may or may not include her biological children. A commentator in 1891 reminds readers that “There is no ground for the inference that she was even married, or had children.” I’m sure his agenda in pointing this out was different from ours, but nonetheless it points to the correct interpretation of household in this culture.

Upon her baptism Lydia offers the apostles a place to stay, food to eat and a place of privilege and power within the local community. Far from needing help, Lydia and the other women, proved to be capable disciples and apostles, bringing others to Christ and offering concrete material aid for the movement. These women were organizers, something the early church desperately needed!

We see in this story a tale of a great mother, not necessarily a mother of children, but rather of one who mothered a church into being in Macedonia, a church we know will grow and thrive over the ages. Lydia’s mothering of this nascent community of faith reveals to us not only what it means to evangelize, or to spread the gospel, but it also illustrates for us a glimpse of what it means to mother.

Walter Bruggemann points out three essential things about Lydia:

Lydia, like Jesus, had an open heart. When the apostles arrived she listened to the strangers in her midst. Unafraid of this queer band of religious zealots, Lydia took time to earnestly listen to what they had to say, not merely to be polite, or nice or a “good woman,” but so that she might truly understand the message. She listened with a heart and mind that was open and receptive to new possibilities.

Lydia, like Jesus, found that the rules of the age now had no power over her. She received, in her baptism, the freedom to be God’s child and to live by a new set of rules…those of Christ’s kin-dom. In baptizing her entire household, Lydia baptized them into a new way of living and loving that was independent of the world around her. She was no longer subject to Roman rule, but rather was free to embody Christ’s vision of peace and justice in her household and community.

Lydia, like Jesus, manifested through her actions the new commandment of love. Immediately following her baptism, Lydia took action, embodying the message through her concrete choices. We know of her initial act of love and generosity in offering hospitality to the motley crew of apostles, but we can also imagine that this love for the stranger extended beyond this first act, for we know that her church community continued to grow, welcoming new people from all classes and ethnicities to join her in this new life of love.

These three marks: open hearts and minds, freedom from the powers of the present age and a willingness and desire to love and welcome all, offer us a vision of what evangelism looks like, not just for Lydia but for the Church throughout the ages and for us here today. Spreading the good news of Christ’s kin-dom requires that we have hearts and minds open to not just to one another, but to the myriad of new possibilities God has for us in resurrection life. It requires that we say no to the powers and principalities of the age that would hinder our ability to witness to a gospel of radical inclusion, peace, justice and non-violence. And it requires that we embody Christ’s good news first and foremost as love.

Open hearts and minds, freedom from institutional powers and a desire to embody the gospel through love.

I think that these three characteristics also point to an alternative vision of what it means to mother in the kin-dom of God. Mothering in the kin-dom is not always like our cultural image of the super-mom reflected in society.

Today of all days we become acutely aware of the cultural expectations put upon women and their children. Sometimes we over sentimentalize Mother’s Day, envisioning the perfect woman, sweet, meek and mild, who passively cares for adorable brood. We imagine an uber June Cleaver and reify this image in sappy, sugary sweet Hallmark cards and boxes of candy. In doing so we create a false image of motherhood that can make many in our culture feel either guilty or cheated. When the realities of our ability to mother or our memories of less than perfect mothers fall short of this ideal, we find ourselves feeling disappointed and disillusioned. Yet, I think perhaps worse than this collective sense of cultural guilt and regret, this false image of mothering does a great disservice to those who mother by ignoring the ways in which their mothering is powerfully fierce.

When we look to Lydia as an example of mothering in the kin-dom we see motherhood in new ways. Mothering in the kin-dom transcends biological family ties. It is marked not by domestic perfection, but rather by open hearts and minds, a willingness to stand over and against cultural and political powers, and a radical expression of love for all.

This image of mothering seems contrary to many of the expectations and images of Mother’s Day in our own time, yet this seemingly radical image was the vision of the first Mother’s Day in 1870.

How many of you have sent Mother’s Days cards this week? Or planning to…? I wonder if any of your cards had phrases like “The sword of murder is not the balance of justice” or “Blood does not wipe out dishonor.” How about “From the bosom of the devastated Earth” or “let us bewail and commemorate the dead?”

I’m guessing not many of you were able to find cards like these at Hallmark. But, if we were celebrating Mother’s Day as it was first envisioned by Julia Ward Howe, our cards ought to bear similar sentiments.

Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation as an earnest appeal to women around the world to join in a movement for peace. A prominent American abolitionist, activist, suffragist and poet, most famous as the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Ward Howe intended the proclamation as a manifesto for a new rising up of women everywhere against the violence she witnessed during the Civil War. For Ward Howe, Mother’s Day, was not just a day to wine and dine your mothers, but an opportunity to unite women around the world in the struggle to end war and violence. This was no sappy, sugary sweet Hallmark holiday contrived to fuel the economy. No, this was a special day to be set aside for the pure promotion of peace.

This first Mother’s Day Proclamation embodied that same evangelistic spirit of the kin-dom we see in Lydia. Ward Howe’s vision for the women of world required having open hearts and minds, speaking truth to power, rejecting the culture of war and violence around them and most of all loving the world with a fierce passion.

In a time like today when thousands of people lose their lives in an unjust war in Iraq and Afghanistan; when the culture of war and violence infiltrates our lives to the point where in the name of fashion we dress our girls in pink camoflauge skirts and our boys in the desert camo of their parents; when we watch silently as genocide sweeps through Darfur and unjust political regimes oppress the people in Zimbabwe; when our holiest places become the sites of the most atrocious violations of human dignity; when we glorify war in the name of a patriotism that trumps even our God; in a time like today, we are called to stand with Julia Ward Howe and the women of the world to say no to the power of death and yes to the vision of the kin-dom we know in the gospel, in the lives of disciples like Lydia and in the vision of Ward Howe, of a world marked by peace.

One hundred thirty seven years later, Ward Howe’s proclamation has not been forgotten. Resurrected from card companies’ crass commercialization of domestic duty, Ward Howe’s vision has inspired a group of women to re-new this call to justice through their own manifesto known as the Standing Women.

"We are standing for the world's children and grandchildren, and for the seven generations beyond them. We dream of a world where all of our children have safe drinking water, clean air to breathe and enough food to eat. A world where they have access to a basic education to develop their minds and health care to nurture their growing bodies. A world where they have a warm, safe and loving place to call home. A world where they don't live in fear of violence -- in their home, in their neighborhood, in their school or in their world. This is the world of which we dream. This is the cause for which we stand."

Today women all over the globe stood for five minutes of silence in their neighborhoods, parks and public squares to say no to the injustice of the world and yes to a radical vision of peace and justice.

While we affirm the nurture and care we receive from our mothers and celebrate the ways in which we have received such unconditional love from friends and family who have mothered us, we also must acknowledge the role of women as leaders, as organizers, as activists who not only care for hearth and home, but lead the world to a new vision.

Mother’s Day is not only about celebrating our biological or adopted mothers. Mother’s Day points us to a new image of mothering that transcends traditional images, pointing us toward a radical image of mothering that is fierce, active, powerful and communal. Mothering, like true evangelism, is not an individual act, but rather a collective commitment to protecting and nurturing the whole world through acts of radical justice, open hearts and minds, opposition to institutional oppression and loving hospitality for the sake of the kin-dom. We mother one another into the family of faith when we cultivate lives of openness and love that challenge the places of violence and oppression in the world. Today we are called to stand with Lydia and Julia and the women of the world to witness to the good news of Christ’s kin-dom of peace and justice.

Let us stand together!

No comments: