Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mother's Day Redux, Advent Week 1

Greetings all.  It's the first Sunday in Advent, and the kids and I are away, so this sermon is from last spring.  TinyChurch stepped outside the lectionary a bit this morning to focus on the Annunciation (the angel telling Mary she was going to have a baby), and I had used the same passage for Mother's Day.

The holidays are a tough time for me and always have been.  Expectations swirling in the air, a big buildup to Christmas Day (both Santa AND baby Jesus), the crush of people in homes and stores, the constant jingle of Christmas music, the darkening of days as we approach the solstice.  I know I am not alone in my sense of a downward spiral.  If you're feeling full of the Spirit this Advent season, I thank you for carrying the torch for a while. And if you're grumpy and spiraling down, just know you are not alone in the journey.

I pray for you all peace and wholeness. May this advent be a time of restoration and beginning, however you get there.

Here's that sermon:

Sermon, May 10, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

First Scripture Reading: Psalm 91
Second Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-38

We gather this morning to give thanks and praise for all of the mothers in this world. Each of us was born to a mother, and many of us have given birth to children, or will someday. We gather this morning to honor the physical act of birthing and mothering children, for carrying a child in one’s body and laboring to bring that child into the world is an act of love and sacrifice in many ways. Yet motherhood is more than a biological act, and there are many ways in which we nurture and care for one another. We often associate motherhood with women, as if the ability to physically give birth determines the ability to nurture and care. On Mother’s Day in 2009, we also gather to honor all those who are mothers—women, men, the young, the old—all of those who set aside their own self-interest to tend to the needs of another.

It seemed appropriate this morning to start by honoring Mary, the mother of Jesus. We hear the story of how she came to be a mother at Christmas time, during the Advent season. As we await the birth of Christ, we often dedicate a Sunday or two to Mary’s story. The, suddenly, Christmas is upon us and Mary takes a back seat to the baby Jesus. Soon after we focus on the life and ministry of Christ, and then we’re into Lent and Easter. In these weeks following the resurrection of Christ, preaching often follows the early life of the church by reading from the book of Acts and the letters from Paul. It is easy in our protestant tradition to leave Mary behind as we move past Advent, her role seemingly diminished as we move through the church calendar. So today we’ll sing some Christmas songs, and reflect some on this Scripture passage usually read in the month before Christmas.

The angel of the Lord is a troublesome, meddlesome figure in the Bible, and no more so than in this passage. Discovering that you are going to have a child to care for is a complicated thing. Children bring into our lives many joys, but also many stresses and sorrows. When we take on the responsibility to care for another human being, whether it is our own child or someone else’s, and whether it is a baby or a full grown human being, we take on a richer, more complicated life. This is certainly true for Mary, who seemed to be living a fairly traditional life as a young village woman. She was engaged to be married to Joseph, but not yet married, and along came the angel to tell her that she would be having a child under unusual circumstances. Mary’s acceptance of this task—to bear the Christ child and raise him—complicated her life almost immediately. In addition to all of the regular complications of pregnancy, Joseph was concerned and began to consider setting Mary aside and not marrying her after all. The social stigma of bearing a child on her own would have made Mary very vulnerable in her community. We often portray Mary as the meek and humble follower of God who gave birth to the baby Jesus in a manger, and sweetly and quietly raised Jesus. But I’d like to paint a bolder picture of Mary this morning as we consider all that motherhood means to us.

The author of the gospel of Luke uniquely gives Mary the name Mariam (Dierdre Good, 99).  Most of our translations shorten the name to Mary in order to make it easier to connect the gospels together. There are other Marys in the gospel of Luke whose names are rightly Mary. But Luke gives the mother of Jesus the name “Mariam.” The name Mariam means “Rebellion” and connects the mother of Jesus with Miriam, the sister of Moses. Miriam was the first person in the Bible to sing and dance a song of praise to God after the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. We have no record of Miriam herself having children, but she was a prophetess to the people of Israel and led her sisters in the joyous worship of the Lord. Later on she earned her name Rebellion for daring to question Moses, and even God, about issues of authority. Miriam was no meek miss and Mariam, the mother of Jesus, wasn’t either. When the angel of the Lord made his request, Mariam agreed to bear a child under unusual circumstances, at considerable risk to herself, knowing that this child would be destined for great things. The angel said to her, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Surely Mariam must have had some sense of the magnitude of what she was doing. To give birth to a king meant great joy and honor, but also risk and danger. As if her unusual circumstances weren’t enough, shortly before she was due to deliver the baby, the emperor sent out a decree that a census was to be taken and everyone had to travel to their homeland in order to be properly counted. This meant a difficult travel for Mariam in the last month of her pregnancy. The birth itself happened in a barn instead of her home, far away from family and friends. After Jesus was born, Mariam and Joseph took the baby to be blessed in the temple. And then Mariam received an additional blessisng, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Motherhood is certainly a joy, but it is a complicated joy that comes also with sorrow. I wonder sometimes what it must have been like for Mariam to raise this child Jesus. What would it have been like to raise a child born of a mother named Rebellion and of the Restless Holy Spirit? Like most of us, I imagine she threw her hands in the air in exasperation, and like most of us took great delight in gazing on the quiet face of her sleeping child when at the end of a day he finally stopped moving.

Anne Lamott, a Presbyterian woman with a hard story and the sense of humor to tell it, writes occasionally about her own mother who passed away a few years ago. In her essay, "Mom Interrupted," she wrote,
My mother has been dead for several years. But old mothers never die, and they never fade away. They are too complicated for either. For a long time after her death, I didn’t feel much of anything—except relief—because I’m a complicated mother too, and I have my hands full as it is....The “Jesus thing,” as she referred to it, just drove her crazy. After I converted, she must have asked herself many times where she’d gone wrong, as she did when I dropped out of college. But one of the innumerable things the Jesus thing gave me was an understanding of how hard it is for all mothers when the time comes for their children to leave. When Jesus is about twelve, talking to some folks in a temple, a man comes in to tell him that his mother and father are waiting outside ofr him, and he blows them off. The man says, “Your mother and father are outside and want to see you.” And Jesus says, “Who is my mother? And who is my father?” But he’s trying to say what my son said to me at twelve, and what I said to my mother forty years ago: “Don’t you know I’m twleve now?” It’s wrenching for mothers, and the drug they use is worry. And their worry is exhausting for kids. It’s hard for everyone.
It is certainly true that being the child of a mother has its own complexities as well. Most of us in this room could probably attest to the fact that mothers aren’t perfect, and Mother’s Day brings with it both the joy of relationships that have gone right and the pain of those that have gone wrong. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, a professor of church history at Princeton Seminary, wrote these words honoring that complexity:
And there are others who are motherless because of abandonment, forced separation, or general estrangement; people for whom a relationship with a mother is extremely complicated for a wide variety of reasons. Not every mother is a loving mother; not every mother has made good choices for her children. Not every parent and child relationship can be summed up by a Hallmark greeting card or a jewelry commercial. So how do you celebrate an occasion with cards, flowers, and candy when you are working through anger, despair, or grief?

What I’d like to honor this morning is not the easy breezy Hallmark card Mother’s Day we see on TV, because it’s not that easy and breezy most of the time to be nurturing and caring for others. Mariam’s bold statement to the angel of the Lord, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” is not meek or humble statement. It is a declaration of responsibility and love—a willingness to accept joy, but also grief. So many of us lose our children before we are ready, and so many of us lose our mothers before it was their time. To love and give birth to life is a complicated activity.

We so often assign the qualities of motherhood to women, and particularly to women who have children, but let us also honor the aunts and grannies, the cousins and friends of the family who mother our children. And let us also acknowledge and honor the men who mother our children too. I once knew a supervisor who was a terrible boss. His employees often left his office in tears, and it was hard to see him as a human being. Until one day I saw him outside my apartment, playing with his son. As he laughed and played with the little boy, he spoke gently, moving sweetly and delicately around the child. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and one I think of on Mother’s Day as I hope to live up to that image with my own children.

One more Saint I’ll bring to you this morning. I bring you Mother Teresa because she is a woman who had no biological children of her own and she is a good reminder to us that no matter who we are, no matter whether we are a man or a woman, no matter our circumstances, we are capable of mothering one another. Mother Teresa reminds us of the best that mothering can be, but she also was a complicated woman. She served most of her life among the poor of Calcutta in India. Like Mary, she received a visit of some sort from God, which inspired in her a deep faith and longing to serve God and others. She chose a difficult path of service—in one of her journal entries she wrote these words:
Today I learned a good lesson—the poverty of the poor must be often so hard for them. When I went rounding looking for a home—I walked and walked till my legs and arms ached—I thought how they must also ache in body and soul looking for home—food—help.—Then the temptation grew strong—the palace buildings of Loreto came rushing into my mind—all the beautiful things and comforts—the people they mix with—in a word everything—“You have only to say a word and all that will be yours again”—the tempter kept on saying. Of [my] free choice My God and out of love for you—I desire to remain and do what ever be your Holy Will in my regard—I did not let a single tear come.—even if I suffer more than now—I still want to do Your Holy Will.—This is the dark night of the birth of the Society—My God give me courage now—this moment—to persevere in following your call.
It would be easy to place Mother Teresa in a category all her own—one of sainthood and sacrifice. It is tempting to think that her relationship with God is what sustained her all those years, mothering those who had no mothers to care for them. Yet like Mariam, Mother Teresa received a visitation from the Lord, but only at the beginning of her ministry. In later years she wrote of the agony of the absence of the Lord in the midst of her life lived among poverty and suffering. In a letter dated July 3, 1959, Mother Teresa wrote,
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one—the one You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One,--Alone. The darkness is so dark—and I am alone.—Unwanted, forsaken.—The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable.—Where is my faith?...The whole time smiling—Sisters & people pass such remarks.—They think my faith, trust & love are filling my very being & that the intimacy with God and union to His will must be absorbing my heart—Could they but know—and how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness & misery...
As we honor our mothers today, let us remember that motherhood is a much more complicated experience than a Hallmark card can represent. This day brings for many of us joy, but also longing and regret. As we honor our mothers and pour out love on our children (those we gave birth to and those whom we adopted into our hearts) let us care for one another delicately, with the tender suspicion that behind smiles and cheerfulness also lies fragility and worry. And may we cling to an image of God as mother, as the Holy Mother Hen, under whose wings we may rest when all else fails. On this Mother’s Day listen again to the psalmist, giving thanks for the shelter and mothering we find in God:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress
my God, in whom I put my trust”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings, you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and a buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in the night,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday...
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.

1 comment:

  1. Another pop culture reference here, this one from The Crow: "Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children."

    I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!