Rev. Annich’s sermon begins at the 40 minute mark.
Happy Mother’s Day. Having said that with absolute sincerity, I must admit that Mother’s Day is always a complicated day for me as both pastor and preacher. I’ve sat with too many women who’ve lost their mothers or children, or been unable, for any number of reasons, to have children, to see it as a one size fits all Sunday. I know other women who have been emotionally wounded by mothers whose own legacies of abuse or dysfunction were all they could pass on to their daughters.
It may help to remember that the original intent of this day was actually peacemaking. It emerged from the efforts of a number of women who longed for peace particularly after the carnage of the Civil War. It was meant to help mothers, children, and families live free from the horrors of war, not as an overly commercialized Hallmark holiday that leaves some women feeling empty or alone.
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely believe mothers need to be honored for the work they do. I’m a card-carrying member of the mother’s union. I want to lift up every woman who’s ever labored to raise children in this challenging world. I’m not sure how we can begin to calculate the amount of sacrifice and creativity that goes into helping children grow into a healthy, contributing members of society.
Mothers deserve endless praise, and not just one day a year, for their hard, usually unsung, contributions to civilization. I know many folks here have beautiful memories of your mothers and boundless gratitude for their legacies. I also know that many of you mothers here have discovered capacities in yourselves you never knew you had and have lived selflessly for the sake of generations yet to come. To you and to those you hold dear I say with great love and respect, “Well done, good and faithful servants!”
At the same time, I’m concerned that unrealistically perfect images of motherhood may leave some women, and even some men, at risk for never-ending guilt and shame when, for any number of reasons, they feel that they don’t measure up, either as mothers or as children.
Let’s face it—mothers play powerful roles in our lives, whether skilled or unskilled, present or absent. I don’t know if you ever watched The Sopranos, an award-winning drama on HBO. It chronicled the life and “work” of Tony Soprano, the fictitious boss of the New Jersey Mafia. In what for me was a brilliant bit of irony, Tony actually went to psychotherapy to deal with his dysfunctional family.
In one episode as he described his personality-disordered mother who had just ordered an assassination plot on his life, he gruffly admitted, “Yeah, she was a formidable maternal presence.” A formidable maternal presence? Are you kidding me? This woman was, at best, a whining, manipulative, energy vampire and, at worst, a murderer! My 32-year-old son later claimed that phrase as his own and whenever I did something that rubbed him the wrong way he would look at me, nod his head in his trademark comical way and say, “Yeah, Ma, you’re a formidable maternal presence.”
Tony Soprano’s huge understatement speaks volumes about the power and complexity of relationships between mothers and children. As I’ve thought about those relationships I’ve found myself in a paradoxical place that I frequently inhabit. For as long as I can remember I’ve been keenly, even painfully, aware that life and people are far from perfect. Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and any number of other spin-doctors often paint an unrealistic view of who we are and how life works.
The truth of the matter is life is complex and difficult, and we human beings struggle with all sorts of frailties and vulnerabilities. If you read the Bible as our family scrapbook, you’ll see disobedience in the first generation with Adam and Eve, murder in the next with Cain and Abel, and a never-ending host of betrayals, fights, and losses in the many generations that follow. Embedded in this family scrapbook, however, is wonderful news as well. Despite our imperfections, God pursues us time and time again; offering to love us into new life and help us grow into the people we were created to be. To make sense of the concept of salvation–of wholeness– we have to hold in one mysterious embrace the truth that we are very imperfect, yet very deeply loved.
The ideal of motherhood takes its cue from this kind of unconditional, redeeming love. The fact that we hold motherhood in such high esteem is because we’re hard-wired for love. The fact that women through the ages have done a faithful job of raising children or grandchildren is because they’ve had some taste of God’s goodness, whether they could name it as such or not. And, if our experience of mothering hasn’t been what we might have hoped for, we can take comfort in the fact that, while life isn’t perfect, God yearns to hold and shape us in the very midst of our human struggles.
Henri Nouwen, the brilliant pastoral theologian, made a wonderful distinction between God’s love and human love. “How do we know about God’s love, God’s generosity, God’s kindness, God’s forgiveness? Through our parents, our friends, our teachers, our pastors, our spouses, our children … they all reveal God to us. But as we come to know them, we realize that each of them can reveal only a little bit of God. God’s love is greater than theirs; God’s goodness is greater than theirs; God’s beauty is greater than theirs. At first we may be disappointed in these people in our lives. For a while we thought that they would be able to give us all the love, goodness, and beauty we needed. But gradually we discovered that they were all signposts on the way to God.”
All signposts on the way to God. That is such great news! In God’s economy nothing is wasted. Every bit of human love, no matter how small or imperfect, can lead us to the knowledge that we are precious in God’s sight.
I’m reminded of two different families I grew up with: in one the mother was sweetness, compassion, and patience personified and her children were the most grounded, radiant, self-assured people I’ve ever met. They still give their time and energy to others in a natural, confident, matter-of-fact way. In the other family, the children have struggled hard with a legacy of mental illness and addiction that compromised their mother’s ability to parent. And guess what? They are courageous, forgiving, caring people who have discovered through years of counseling and support from all sorts of people that God can be trusted to redeem what to human eyes might seem completely unredeemable. Both families have followed the signposts on the way to God!
Psychologists tell us that gratitude is really good for our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Calling to mind the people who have nurtured us is one way of practicing gratitude and paying attention to those signposts on the way to God. One of my friends who faithfully keeps a gratitude journal told me about an epiphany she recently had. As she was reading her journal entries from years past, she realized that she had been “mothered” by all sorts of people, including a number of men. These people had helped carry her life forward and deepen her relationship with God in all sorts of ways she could never have predicted.
The God of love, whom we see in Jesus, has been holding all of us throughout our lives, much as mothers have held their offspring. We are children of this God and so our basic DNA is love. But therein lies the rub: Love is a word that rolls smoothly off the tongue but is such a difficult practice to embody. It’s hard to love on those days when pressures abound and nerves are stretched to the breaking point. It’s equally hard to forgive people who have hurt us. It’s not easy to embrace people who are different from us when unconscious fears rear their ugly heads and convince us that safety lies in separation. And it’s frightfully hard to imagine that we are loved by God or have much to offer others if we’ve internalized false messages about our own value and worth.
When we talk about love we’re talking about a way of life and a committed practice. I don’t think any of us would expect to play golf or tennis well without the tedious discipline of hitting balls over and over and over again. No artist would expect to sing or paint or dance without painstaking rehearsals and often a fair number of mistakes along the way. No professional would be so presumptuous as to hang out a shingle without years of preparation and even more years of continuing education.
John spoke last week about abiding in God. Abiding in God is our ongoing practice, lived out in a variety of ways–through silence, prayer, study, worship and the various tasks we’re called to throughout our lives. It’s how we’re able to do the hard work of loving. As we abide in God we learn to live with our own brokenness and failings, and as we come to accept the fact that God unconditionally accepts us, we are better able to extend acceptance and love to one another.
And extend it we must! Each one of us here is a signpost on the way to God. We all have gifts that contribute to the common good—loving hearts, keen minds, listening ears, strong hands. And our gifts are not necessarily restricted by age or circumstance. We have members of this congregation whose health and mobility are limited, but who still serve as channels of God’s love by praying for others in the church and in the world. We have members of this congregation who are grieving great losses, with whom we stand in solidarity and in whom we see God’s love at work, even in the midst of darkness and despair.
Whether we are biological or adoptive mothers, grandmothers or aunts; whether we carry life forward by nurturing other people’s hopes and dreams; whether we are wise elders of the tribe; or whether it is our season to receive nurture and consolation; each of us– women and men– have an important role to play. We are all carrying the seed of God’s love within us and are called to birth that love in ongoing measure for the sake of a world in desperate need of life and of hope.
Thanks be to God who continues to hold and guide us in this great calling.