Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Sermon for Mothers' Day

These past few weeks, the lectionary readings have been from the First Letter of John. At the heart of each reading for the past three weeks and for the next two weeks has been one word…love. In this passage alone within the space of 15 verses, John uses the word “love” 25 times. You can hardly miss his point!

Yet, the word love, as frequently intoned as it is, is not so easy to define. Throughout centuries scholars have spent lifetimes crafting definitions of love that adequately describe the philosophical, ontological and metaphysical reality of this human phenomenon. Recently I received an email with this very question. But this time rather than leave the answers to the scholars of the day, a group decided to ask children ages 4 to 8 the simple question…what is love? Here are a few of their answers.

"My mommy loves me more than anybody. You don't see anyone else kissing me to sleep at night." Clare - age 6

"Love is when Mommy gives Daddy the best piece of chicken." Elaine-age 5

"During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my mommy waving and smiling. She was the only one doing that. I wasn't scared anymore." Cindy - age 8

"Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK." Danny - age 7

Love is like how my mommy says my name, When someone who loves you they say your name it is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth." Billy - age 4

The children need no fancy words or theological concepts to understand love…they know it when they see it…or better put, they know it when they feel it. You see, love is not an abstract concept or philosophical state of being, much to the chagrin of countless philosophers and theologians throughout time. No, love is a concrete reality that we as humans are open to experience through our relationships with one another.

Reading back over these statements, it is striking how many children identify love with their mothers. In the very ordinary events of making coffee, saying goodnight and speaking their names, the children recognize love in their mother’s actions.

For many of us our first experience of love does come through a mother’s love…the warm embrace and light kisses on our cheeks and foreheads (kisses that we soon struggle to avoid once we reach adolescence), the cold-compresses and hot bowls of chicken soup when we are sick, the compassionate embraces of forgiveness after we have done the worst, the unconditional support and encouragement no matter how poorly we might play the clarinet, or kick the ball, or swing the bat or dance in the recital.

Being a mother is never biologically determined…mothering transcends kinship ties. For some of us, our own biological mothers provided more harm than healing, more conflict than love and so we had to look elsewhere to find the mothering we needed. For many of us that first experience of love came through mother figures, people, both women and men, who modeled that type of unconditional love through their actions.

For me, I came to know love most fully in the arms of Mama Tana, my adopted Nicaraguan mother. Mama Tana was a beautiful, big round woman, with a smile and a laugh that could crack any frown. Although Mama Tana had her own brood…there were more than 25 people living in her three room house…her love was endless and overflowed to all who knew her. Everyone in town called her Mama, from the adopted daughters she took in to live with her to the street vendors to the children at school. Just as she mothered the town, Mama Tana soon became my mother as well.

I remember vividly one night coming to her house after work. I had had a bad day and felt horrible. I felt as though I was a bad teacher, a horrible person and a faithless Christian. Mama Tana took one look at me and asked me how I was…I tried to answer but found instead of words only sobs came. I could not explain to her how awful I felt, how inadequate, how alone, how alienated. All I could do was cry…and as I did, Mama Tana enveloped me in her in wide arms and held me close, rocking me as if I were an infant. In her embrace I suddenly felt warm all over, the dark depression in which I found myself was shattered by a light of hope and love. Mama Tana loved me no matter what I did. In those few moments, I knew the grace of God in Mama Tana’s arms. Soon after I bought the picture I showed to you, for it became to me a picture of the Divine Mama Tana, the God of love I had experienced in her arms.

It is through experiences like these of human love that we glimpse God’s love for us. John is clear that while we may not be able to see God, at least not in this lifetime, we can come to know God through the love we have for one another: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” If we love one another, God lives in us.

You see John understands that love is the very foundation of God’s being. When all else is said and done, God is love. We know this not through theological speculation or philosophical deduction, but through our concrete relationships with others. It is only through the love we have for one another that we come to know and experience God in our lives.

In a very real way, the love of our mothers’, both biological and chosen, incarnates for us the love of God. God, like a mother, continuously brings forth new life nurtures and cares for creation, wipes away tears, gives comfort and grants us grace beyond measure no matter what we do. While not often as well known as the passages that compare God to a Father, the Bible is indeed full of images of God as mother.
God is described throughout Scripture as a loving mother: God is a woman in labor whose forceful breath is an image of divine power; God is a mother suckling her children; God is a mother who does not forget the child she nurses; God is a mother who comforts her children; God is a mother who births and protects Israel; God is a mother who gave birth to the Israelites. The early scripture writers understood the ways in which the Divine is known to us through our mothers. Through this human love we come to know divine love in God, as we are birthed, fed, nurtured, comforted and cared for. It makes you wonder why we call God “he” when the Bible is full of so much rich mothering imagery for God!
The imagery is indeed rich and multi-layered, giving us glimpses of the diverse and depth of the Divine character. Loving and caring, yes, but also fierce and faithful. God’s love as mother is also portrayed as fierce. In scripture we read of God as a Mother eagle and mother bear, fiercely protecting their young against life-threatening situations. Jesus himself is described as a mother hen who gathers in her brood, to shelter and care for them, to instruct and teach them in the ways of the world.
This fierce love at times becomes swallowed up in our hallmark inspired sentimentality around this special day. We romanticize the love of our mothers as gentle and soft and forget the ways in which mothers reveal to us the tougher ways in which God calls us to love. Love is never easy, even with our mothers!
The original Mother’s Day proclamation was not a sappy rhyming poem inscribed on a greeting card, rather this is how it read”
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: "We will not have questions answered 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 to those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
- from Mother's Day Proclamation - 1870 by Julia Ward Howe

Mother's Day in this country began not as a chance to support Hallmark, but as a cry for peace. “Our husbands will not come reeking with carnage and our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn what we have taught them.” This proclamation is more than tender reverence for mothers; it is a cry of protest amid a violent nation. Mothers everywhere are called to say no to violence and yes to peace, called to reveal God’s fierce love for humanity in a resolute stand against the world’s warring madness.

Having lived through the civil war in this country, Julia Ward Howe was keenly aware of the pain, loss and grief war inflicts on mothers everywhere …no matter which side they fought on. She understood the ties that bind those who mother and sought to use this common bond to seek peace and reconciliation in a time of war.

“We, the women of this country, will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” Mother’s Day originally transcended nuclear family ties and instead of binding one small household in maternal love, stretched the familial ties across nations and around the world. In this proclamation she united mothers everywhere in a love that sought, not just comfort for some, but peace and justice for all.

Julia Ward Howe understood that the Christian call to family transcends our common notions of kinship. Rather than idolize the perfect nuclear family of mother, father, son and daughter, the kinship lines of the Church, of the Body of Christ, transcend these divisions, uniting us all in a common family, with God as our Mother, our heavenly parent. As Christians, we proclaim, “we are family” as a radical form of protest to the ways in which the world seeks to divide us from one another.

The early church knew that the tie that binds was not one of family lineage, nor city state nor nation. No, the family to which we owe our primary allegiance is our Christian family, that transcends common kinship bonds.

Jesus, who longed to gather us as a hen gathers her children, spoke of us as a single family, with one divine parent. He spoke of us as a single living vine, all of us branches of one being. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” said Jesus. We are all intimately connected to one another in this great global family. What happens to one, happens to all.

Peace begins in knowing that our enemies are not "other," but ourselves. The strangers whom we battle are the brothers and sisters whose hearts are bound with ours. Those whom we dehumanize and demonize and belittle and ignore are our own flesh and blood. When we turn away from genocide in Dafur and tolerate sweatshops in Nicaragua, it is our own family that we are abusing. And our divine Mother weeps equally for us all. We want so deeply for God to care a little more about us than our enemies, but she will not. If we can know God’s love through the love of the mother’s in our lives, we can understand the ways in which God loves all her children equally with a fierce and tender love that transcends our limited notions of human kinship. She loves all her children, and neither our pride nor our fear will dissuade her.

Give thanks for the love of our Mother God. Give thanks for our kindred, even the ones with whom we fight. Pray that God will have mercy on us and heal our bitter hearts. Pray that we will honor our unity in God's love. This Mother's Day, pray that we may come to know that we are all children of one Mother, loving and all-powerful, who gives her life for us, that we may have life, and have it abundantly.

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