A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
May 10, 2015 Mother’s Day
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
John 15:9-17 Acts 10:44-48
A robin is building a nest on an overhang outside of my office window at home. When she brought the first small twigs to the site, she paused and seemed to consider if this would be a good place to raise a family, but then she dropped the twigs and they fell to the ground.
“No!” I whispered. “Use the ledge! Use the ledge! ”
She used the ledge and began construction.
Was it only instinct that motivated her? Was it parental drive? Was it love, as we understand it? Was I assigning too many human motives to a bird?
I don’t know, but the finished nest included colored strands of plastic from someone’s discarded Easter basket, woven in with the sticks and twigs. What an artist mother Robin is, whether she knows it or not.
Today’s lessons are all about love… how appropriate when the secular culture celebrates the love our mothers have or had for us and the maternal love we feel for all those we nurture.
But how do we rescue “love” from the clichés that surround it? I’m suspicious of any statement that begins with “just…” “Just do it!” “Just believe!” “Just love!”
Loving other human beings is not always as easy as, say, loving a baby panda on Utube or loving the darling lab puppy across the street. Puppies and pandas are easy. Human beings? Not always easy.
While love is often driven by romance or family ties, the term “charity” means giving to those in need. Charity is what we are most called to in church. But, sometimes I become defensive if I am instructed in this too often or too glibly because I have a lot on my plate, thank you very much: obligations, responsibilities, time commitments, financial stuff! I can’t just dish stuff out on command!
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes: “It is no good telling people that to follow Christ, ‘you must become simple and wholehearted,’ as if this could be done just by wishing it. The real question is, ‘Can you take all your complicated history with you on your faith journey? Can you accept your tangles and talents, the varied web of what has made you who you are and bring them along? It won’t do to think of Christianity as a faith that demands of you an embarrassed pretence of a simplicity that has no connection with reality.”
He calls us to a faith that invites our deepest questions, demands sincere attention, honors our reservations, and offers tools for the task.
Enter, today’s Gospel where Jesus says that he knows we need tools for the task of loving, for charity, and there are at least three ways to go about it.
First, Jesus says that love and obedience are linked: “I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Jesus is doubtlessly referring to the Ten Commandments of his Jewish Scriptures. Words so maligned, so revered, so caricatured that they feel removed from us today as any kind of realistic code.
Maybe if we hear them, not in the voice of Charlton Heston in the movie, thundering orders to the quivering Israelites beneath the mountain, but in the voice of a loving mother, they become something else all together, maybe like this: (my paraphrase)
My dearest, dearest child:
Do not put other things ahead of seeking an understanding of life, of the Universe, of God.
Don’t let idols rule your life: wealth, social popularity, stuff, things that are only of passing importance.
Don’t swear; it is not respectful of God and you’re more creative than to keep using the same three words
Respect your father—and your mother! —for our good intentions, if nothing else.
You need a Sabbath day, a holy day to honor God and to honor your God-given need for rest.
For God sake, DO NOT, do not — take another’s life.
Be faithful to your life partner because it’s a vow you made and because the consequences of not doing this can cause great hurt.
Don’t take what’s not yours. You know better.
Don’t lie. It seldom works and can ruin things you care about.
Be grateful for what you have and cherish it.
And I will always love you.
Besides living by the commandments, the second way to love, Jesus says, is to “bear fruit.” He shows us how.
Jesus never did mass healings even though he had many opportunities. He didn’t look out on a crowd and proclaim, “You’re all healed. Please have some loaves and fishes.” He healed the people who came to him or were brought to him. He was usually doing something else when someone appeared with a request –he had a ministry of interruption, in a sense. We don’t have to take on all of the suffering in the world, all the poverty, all of the illness, all of the desperation.
Our operating instructions are at least to pay attention to what crosses our path or comes up in our day. A request or a specific need that may interrupt the course of our work. The forlorn look on a colleague’s face. Word that someone is seriously ill. A situation when you know what has to be said to make it all right and everyone else is holding back. These things can come to each of us every day; we each have a scope of influence that is ours alone, so there are words of hope and healing that will never be spoken unless we speak them and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless we do them.
I’ve started to really look at people checking out my groceries at Target or at the prescription drive through at Walgreens, greeting them as warmly as I can and (if they have a name tag) thanking them by name. It interrupts the process by a few seconds but it injects a note of graciousness into the interaction that can change the moment if not the day for me, and maybe for them. I think it’s a good thing really that stores and banks require their employees to greet people and be friendly (although I don’t really think that the teller at Wells Fargo wants to know what I’m doing this weekend). But civility can be contagious. Small actions are not to be dismissed. They can bear fruit.
Today’s lesson from Acts explains the third tool to love well: awareness of the Holy Spirit. Scripture says that the very definition of God is love – so God’s spirit is present in each act of charity that we carry out and can help facilitate it in ways we may see only in retrospect.
I have this statement from Frederick Buechener framed on my desk: “When you give the world the best you have, it is more than the best you have that you are giving.” We have all had those moments when we are “in the zone,” when we know that what we now is what we are truly called to do, and as Joseph Campbell says, it seems that “hidden hands” are helping us along.
At those golden moments, we become co-creators with God. As God created the Universe, we extend the ongoing process of creation when it just “comes to us” how to solve a problem, right a wrong, write a song, heal a hurt, say the right words.
We are not called to do what we can’t do. To work at a food shelf when we are addicted to cookies. To send a thousand dollars to the Red Cross when we live on a fixed income. Many wise people tell us that we are called to the intersection where our greatest joy and the world’s needs meet. That need may be for food, shelter, employment or beauty. Bread and roses. Beauty can be how God comforts his broken children so to create beauty is to love, it is to celebrate creation, whether it is to cook a meal, take a photograph, write a song, make a phone call, build a nest. Our efforts give form to God’s Spirit and are also guided by it. So when we give the world the best we have, it is more than our best that we are giving.
And some times, suffering drives love.
“Everything we really love undergoes a change, says the writer Katherine Mansfield, “so suffering must become love. That is the mystery.”
Last week a Baltimore mother, Toya Graham, went to find her son when the rioting began and pulled him out of an angry mob. “Get over her! Get over here! You know better!” She yanked off his ski mask, slapped him, and dragged him away. Was she harming him or loving him? Or both?
In the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC today, some forty churches will participate in All Mothers’ Children, a day of prayer and witness. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde wrote to her diocese: “Until the killing of black and brown mothers’ sons becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who follow Jesus cannot rest.”
This same instinct was present in 1870, when the losses of the Civil War were fresh, and activist Julia Ward Howe called the women of Boston together by saying this:
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!
Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall 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 women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace,
The women who took to the streets in Boston to protest war in 1870 and gave birth to Mother’s Day. To the list of suffering mothers, then and now, we must add Mary, the mother of Jesus. Suffering can drive love and may even be transformed into our own salvation, and the salvation of the fractured world we live in. And Jesus, the face of God turned in our direction, shows us how.