Sermon for Mothers Day, May 14, 2017
Acts 6:1-7:2, 7:44-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
John 13:36, 14:1-14
Last year I started a new hobby. I took classes in Improv Comedy – does everyone know what that is? Chicago is actually a breeding ground for Comics. But if you aren’t trying to rise up in the comic world, is really just paying someone to let you play quick-witted games with creative strangers. I called it Laugh Therapy. You learn Improv by acting out skits without a script. And our coach, Antoine, had a brain full of games that were designed to get your creative juices flowing.
One of those games was called “Forrest Gump.” Three people are called forward to be in a scene. Once there, they would be given a location where they might interact; like a bus stop, or a grocery store, or a laundromat. Amateur Improv classes the skits almost always start with the audience or the teacher giving you a setting, a location and a relationship to get you started. So, three neighbors are at a bus stop, chatting. Someone begins the conversation with an opening line, which in my opinion was always the trickiest. And then you go from there, without a script, making it up as you go along. We did these games in practice and we did these games in shows, in front of an audience.
The key to this particular game called Forrest Gump was that, as often as possible in the skit, the actors in the skit pause in the conversation and say, “My Mama Always Said…” and trail off, waiting for someone in the audience to interject something mom-like.
You can imagine what the comments were like, right? ‘Is your homework done?’ ‘turn off the tv, go outside, it’s good for you.’ ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’ or ‘eat your vegetables’ or ‘clean your room!’ I was surprised how many times I heard, ‘always put on clean underwear.’ But I think that’s because, in Improv, the audience tries to be as funny as the actors.
I bring this up because some mothers – and those that act as mothers in our lives - are pretty good at telling us what we don’t want to hear. I know that occupied quite a bit of my relationship with my mother growing up. ‘Its time to get up.’ ‘you are gonna be late.’ ‘don’t eat so many cookies.’ (Yeah, none of those worked.) But of course, as we grow we eventually recognize that the reason for all of that insight and encouragement – or direct orders, depending on your mother’s style – was actually for your own good. Tough love conversations and sometimes unwelcome advice and giving comfort when we inevitably go against our mother’s advice;
Our two scriptures today are both hard conversations. The first is downright hard to hear - the stoning of Stephen, the first disciple to die after Jesus. The second is called Jesus’ ‘farewell discourse’ in the book of John, when he tries to offer comfort and guidance for the future he knows the disciples will face without him. God knows how to mother us, too.
Stephen is a disciple who is faithful and full of grace and power. God has started to dwell in Stephen’s heart. As with Jesus, he does great wonders and signs amongst the people. He has great wisdom and insight… and some hard truths to proclaim - and we begin a story that parallels the story of Jesus. The people begin to feel disgruntled with Stephen’s truth, his authority, his faith, and then they start to conspire to bring Stephen to trial and out of their lives. I added a lot of scripture to this reading because I felt it was important for us to hear the full account, rather than just the experience of violence and death.
Stephen has a hard truth he tries to share with the crowd. A Jew like Jesus, Stephen recites the shared history of Abraham, Moses, Joseph, and Jacob to the Jewish elite with unflinching certainty that in each instance, God’s people failed to grasp God’s message, and that truth was repeated with Jesus. And then Stephen asserts that Jesus, the recently crucified man branded as treasonous and a bandit, is standing next to God in heaven. Although Stephen’s audience is irritated with his long lecture, and even more insulted after being accused of murder, you can see in the text that their flash point comes after Stephen has this vision. To be seen standing, rather than sitting, could indicate that Jesus was going to speak for God, like a lawyer or advocate stands to speak for their client. These are Jewish people, strictly monotheistic, and some may have considered Stephen’s vision an inducement to false worship. The people respond by covering their ears – which seems strange unless you know that in Deuteronomy, the book where the laws are articulated, God’s people are instructed not to listen to anyone enticing them to follow other gods. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy instructs people to take that person out and do exactly what this crowd does. Perhaps the author of this book was pointing us to that law. Rather than hearing his words as prophetic, his audience hears him as enticing them to false worship, and if so, this death would be one that follows the law.
Nevertheless, the violence in this scripture is disconcerting. Jesus lit a fire in Stephen’s, and he bears his witness and dies a martyr’s death. It’s difficult for me preach that we should all be like Stephen. Rather, I think what we need to take away from this scripture is that, like Jesus, Stephen was proclaiming truth to power. Jesus gave his life proclaiming God’s truth for our lives. He gave voice to uncomfortable insights within his own culture. And Stephen followed suit.
Mother’s Day itself started with some uncomfortable truths motivated out of caring for others, especially for women mourning the death of their offspring. In the 1850’s, Anna Reeves Jarvis, a Methodist woman from West Virginia, had grown tired and impatient with the injustice of children suffering from the effects of poverty and war. “Mother Jarvis,” as she was affectionately referred to, got busy organizing women to do something to improve sanitary conditions and prevent the contamination of water and milk that were causing death in infants. Over time, these same women continued working together throughout the Civil War period, tending to wounded soldiers from both sides of our divide. Following the war, Jarvis and others continued their activism using pacifist strategies to reconcile Union and Confederate soldiers with their families from the opposite side.
This was the origin of our day commemorating a mothers’ love; an effort born out of care, concern and compassion for all children and the women who love and loved them.
The day grew in popularity and formality in years after the war. The efforts of Jarvis combined with the words of a woman named Julie Ward Howe. Howe is most famous for writing words to the song that we find in our hymnal, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic’ – perhaps more familiar to us as ‘Mine Eyes Have Seen The glory’. Her words replaced lyrics to an old slave song praising John Brown, a white man who had led a slave uprising on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 – and which had become very familiar since it was sung by soldiers during the Civil War. Howe herself had grown weary with the violence and death produced by war and in response, she wrote a call to action in 1870 as a Mother’s Day Proclamation that began like this;
“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 decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of 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 women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
Proclaiming a word of hard truth, she called for a focused effort that harnesses the love of mothers everywhere to oppose violence and war by saying:
“In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality be held, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
Way back in 1870, the origins of Mothers’ Day emerged from empathy and compassion, in order to harness the great power of a mothers’ love to create action that engage social injustices. The proclamation for Mothers Day called on the power of mothers to care for others, not only our sentimentality toward our own maternal bonds. Moms out there – you thought it meant you got a day off. But in reality, it meant more work for you, to expand your circle of care to all your fellow mothers, daughters, sons, and motherless children in the world. Their example of peace and justice advocacy exemplifies the unconditional love Jesus shared with us on the cross.
Even in a time of anxiety and fear, Jesus is focused on comfort for his disciples. Our second scripture, from the book of John, is known as the ‘farewell discourse’. Moments after Judas leaves the last supper, Jesus offers these final words of comfort, guidance and expectation to his disciples, because he knows what is coming and how much they will be awash in panic, grief and confusion. This foresight to consider what the disciples will be feeling, and how to reassure them when the worst happens, this is what our mothering God offers.
In this final meeting, Jesus offers a promise that he will continue abide with them, to dwell in their hearts, as he does with Stephen. Jesus himself is all they need; there is no need to panic, no need to search desperately for a secret map to find him. Jesus says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also” because embodies the spirit of God – and we have seen God in his works. This is the whole of Jesus’ mission, to make known the Father, to reveal who God is. And then to abide with us, in us, as God abides in him and is present to all of us.
Jesus’ farewell has everything to do with life here and now because Jesus entrusts his mission to his disciples. He says, in fact, that his disciples will do greater work than he. Jesus promises to be with us through the power of the Spirit, to work in and through us to accomplish his purposes in the world. This does not necessarily happen in the visible, spectacular ways we read about in scripture. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t yet raised anyone from the dead. But wherever there is healing, reconciling, life-giving work happening, this is the work of God. Wherever there is love in action, it is because God dwells in our hearts. Wherever there is life in abundance, this is Jesus’ presence in our midst.
So today – on this Mother’s Day - give honor to those who are mother’s and those who “mother” in other ways – Celebrate them, and lift up the memory of those who have mothered you by birth or by Love. And, in response to a mothering God, let us also lift up those who offer healing, reconciling, and life-giving through our actions in the world, mindful of the original intent of this day. Mother Jarvis and Julie Ward Howe knew that love that was not just for them, but was for the world, unconditionally. That is the spirit of this day: to honor and embody unconditional love for the world, and to honor hearts so big that they impact the world beyond our wildest imagination. Be blessed, knowing that you are loved by a Fathering God and a Mothering God – a God, who dwells in us and delivers truth to our lips and compassion in our hearts, a God who loves us unconditionally and who stops at nothing to love us – even if it means telling us what we don’t want to hear. ~ Amen.