That All Might Know Love


Mother’s Day can be kind of a dilemma for the preacher. It doesn’t observe any religious festival, such as Christmas or Epiphany, Easter or Pentecost.

It’s not marked on the liturgical calendar of the church. The common lectionary readings don’t revolve around the theme of mothers in any intentional or meaningful way. And yet there are some subtle – and at times not so subtle – expectations for the morning message from the pulpit.

Robert Fulghum, Unitarian pastor and best-selling author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” remembers: “For twenty-five years of my life, the second Sunday of May was trouble . . . I was obliged in some way to address the subject of Mother’s Day. It could not be avoided . . . The congregation was quite open-minded and gave me free reign in the pulpit. But when it came to the second Sunday in May the expectation was summarized in the words of one of the more outspoken women in the church: “I’m bringing my mother to church on Mother’s Day, Reverend, and you can talk about anything you want. But it had better include MOTHER, and it had better be good!” (It Was on Fire When I Lay Down On It, p. 100)

Maybe it’s the bittersweet paradox of love that we take those we love less for granted once they are gone. Since my own mother’s death several years ago, I seem to have a more acute anticipation of the observance in the days leading up to Mother’s Day: her wry sense of humor in the face of personal trial, her enduring devotion to family, the sacrifices for her children.

“Nobody loves you like Mama does,” observed Garrison Keillor. “The cruel injustice of motherhood is that, out of devotion to her brood, she sacrifices so much of her own life that her children grow up to find her a little boring in comparison to the maiden aunt who is a little rebellious and more fun to be around, whereas Mom is just the lady who runs the vacuum. As Erma Bombeck said, the kids walk in and ask her, “Is anybody home?”

“But she loves you,” Keillor goes on to say. “You could come home with snakes tattooed on your face and she still would see the good in you. Most great men were mama’s boys. She encouraged them long before anybody else could see any talent there.”

Mothers keep you centered; remind you of what’s important in life.

I can still remember getting a call from my mother one day when living in Cleveland. I picked up the phone, and said, “Hello?”

And the familiar voice on the other end launched in, “Tommy! What’s wrong, honey?”

Surprise, and a little alarmed, I replied, “What? Mom, is that you? Nothing’s wrong. What makes you ask that?”

“Well,” she deadpanned, “It’s been so long since you’ve called I naturally thought something must be terribly amiss.”

Memories of a mother’s love can make the toughest heart turn tender.

Several years ago, the great Bear Bryant, legendary tough football coach of the University of Alabama, did a TV commercial for South Central Bell Telephone. It was a very simple, 30 second commercial. At the end Coach Bryant looked into the camera, and in his imitable gruff voice, said, “Have you called your Mama today?” and then ad-libbed, “I sure wish I could call mine.”

Me too, Coach. Me too.

While we might occasionally forget to appreciate our mothers, they will never fail to hold us close to heart. I feel my mother’s heart close by to this day.

Throughout the Bible we are urged to remember who God is and what God is all about. And while it’s true that the majority of images used in the Bible to describe God tend to be masculine: God as Warrior (Exodus 15:3); God as Husband (Hosea 2:16); God as King (Psalm 98:6); God as Father (Psalm 10:13), yet scriptural descriptions of God are not, by any means, limited to male oriented language.

Again and again, the Bible also describes God using very maternal analogies: God as Midwife (Psalm 22:9); as Mistress of a household (Psalm 123:2); as Birth-giver (Isaiah 66:13); and as Mother (Isaiah 66:13).

The prophet Isaiah could only fully express God’s love by declaring, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? . . . I will never forget you. You are engraved upon the palms of my hands.” [Is. 49:15ff]

And the same with the prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him . . . It was I who taught him to walk, I took them up in my arms . . . I was to them like those who lifted infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” [Hosea 11]

Even Genesis [1:27] affirms, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Indeed, there have been linguistic arguments made which suggest that the original Hebrew pronoun of the phrase “he created them,” can as easily be interpreted as “she,” or even as a more neutral (plural) pronoun.

I think it was on our second or third date Diane told me the joke, “Why did God create man first and woman second?” Answer, “Because she needed a little practice first.” (Although I’m not sure she was joking).

The masculinization of God tends to be a function of subsequent cultural biases and – what I believe – are rather myopic misinterpretations of Scripture.

My belief is that we are all – male and female – created in the image of God with the same potential to realize the characteristics of both toughness and tenderness, courage and compassion, strength and nurturance as distinctively human qualities.

In his work, The Book of Creation, J. Philip Newell wrote, “Paul says that in Christ there is neither male nor female. The positive way of knowing, on the other hand, affirms that there is, in God both the masculine and the feminine. There is a mother’s heart at the heart of God, as well as a father’s . . . In essence, God is neither male nor female, but in [God’s] theophanies (meaning physical manifestation) God is both. And so it is to both that we may look in our search to know more of the Unknowable.”

My dad was the strong silent type; provider of the family; the definitive decision-maker. Dad grew up believing that he had to be tough; resolute; firm; self-reliant; forceful. And, indeed, perhaps having gone through the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War, men of that generation had to be tough.

They were not taught how – or given much permission – to express those more tender, nurturing human emotions.

But then, when my nephew Joseph – my father’s first grandchild – was born, I saw an amazing change in him. I first noticed it one day, when Joseph was just a few months old, lying on a big blanket on the living room floor. Dad – now Popa – lay down next to his baby grandson, and began gently stroking his head, patting his little back, cooing and cuddling Joseph, dare I say it, just like a mother hen.

I remember watching in awe and thinking at the time, “Who is this guy?!”

Since that time, I’ve seen Popa steadily grow in nurturing and soft-heartedness. Hugs are more routine with him now. Tears come more easily. Words like, “I love you,” are spoken more readily and more often.

Popa cast off those rigid, restrictive cultural stereotypes of `manhood’ simply because it has now become more important to him that his grandchildren, his children, his whole family knows how deeply he loves them; what’s in his heart.

Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” [Mt. 23:37 & Lk. 13:34 nrsv].

Motherhood – a mother’s heart, a mother’s selfless love – is not only theologically significant; it is, perhaps, one of the most authentic ways of talking about God and God’s love. (J. Buchanan)

And, it seems to me that, that is the very kind of love we are called to embody as the Bride of our Lord Jesus Christ – the Church.

The late Margaret Mead, distinguished anthropologist, observed that the nuclear family – mother, father and children – separated from the extended family of aunts, uncles and grandparents, is a modern convention and not a very good one at that. Because it takes more than two parents to raise a child.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” as the old African proverb puts it. It takes a community of care, attentiveness, discipline and love to raise children. (ibid.)

I sincerely hope, as we go through these challenging times, that the leaders and citizens of this country remember that the education, nutrition, health and wellbeing, inclusion and acceptance of every child in this nation is the responsibility of each and every one of us.

In his wonderful little book The Good News from North Haven, Presbyterian Pastor Michael Lindvall shared a story that I think perfectly reflects this communal value. It revolves around the time he found one of his members sitting alone in the sanctuary after a baptism Sunday. In Lindvall’s little northern Minnesota church, baptisms traditionally involved the grandparents and aunts and uncles all standing as the newest member of their family was held by the minister for the sacrament.

Through tears Pastor Lindvall’s parishioner, Mildred, told him that she had a new grandson and was thinking about having him baptized. And Pastor Michael told her to have Tina (the baby’s mother) and her husband give him a call to make the arrangements.

“Tina’s got no husband,” Mildred said. “She’s eighteen, was confirmed in this church just four years ago . . . she started seeing this older boy.” She wavered and then the rest of the story came spilling out. “She got pregnant and Jimmy (the father) joined the Air Force and she decided to keep the baby and she wants to have him baptized here, in her church, but she’s afraid to come talk to you.”

 Now, in that time and place, a situation such as Tina’s raised eyebrows; in fact, it was controversial enough that the Session had a long discussion about the appropriateness of the whole matter before eventually approving the baptism. But ultimately Session did, indeed, approve it. But, the real problem, as everybody knew, would be when the minister got to that part where the whole family stands up and there wasn’t going to be anyone to do so; and then Tina’s situation would be out there in the open for everyone to see.

So the day arrived, the last Sunday in Advent, and the church was full. An elder announced, “Tina Cory presents her son for baptism.”

“Down the aisle she came,” remembered Michael, “nervously, shaking slightly with month old Jimmy in her arms, a blue pacifier stuck in his mouth. The scene hurt all right, every bit as much as we knew it would.”

“`Who stands with this child?’ Michael asked and Mildred, Tina’s mother, stood up all by herself. Michael writes, “I was just about to ask Tina the parents’ question when I became aware of movement in the pews. Angus McDowell had stood up in his blue serge suit, Minnie beside him. Then a couple other elders stood up, then the sixth grade Sunday School teacher stood up, then a new young couple in the church, and soon, before my incredulous eyes, the whole church was standing up with Tina and little Jimmy.” (p. 168 – 175)

“I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus promised his frightened disciples. “I will come to you with the Spirit of truth. And I have declared to [you] God’s name,” Jesus would go on to pray, “. . . that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.” [Jn. 14ff]

Today we remember that God has a heart like mother’s heart; one that doesn’t just feel the depths of love, but also acts courageously, sacrificially, and wisely on behalf of all God’s children. That all might know love. In Jesus Christ.

 

(*Grateful acknowledgement to Rev. John Buchanan for inspiration in development of this sermon)

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