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Who Is My Mother?

May 14, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Easter / Mothering Sunday, May 14, 2017

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 Mark 3:31-35

My mother is not going to church today. What she really needs today is a space to sit quietly with God without her role as mother (and daughter) being highlighted in some form of untroubled celebration of moms or thanksgiving for moms. After my grandfather passed away at just this time last year, my mom took her mom in to live with her, and took on the role of full-time caregiver. Those of you who have done this yourselves know the difficult questions, doubts, guilts and ambiguities this raises about our relationships as parents and children. I searched the words ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ on Amazon.com the other day and found twenty pages of books with these words in the title. Subtitles typically involved some variations on healing relationships, restoring health, stress, strain and family secrets.

I wager that if you stopped almost anyone on the street today and asked them what today is, they could, without blinking, answer “Mother’s Day.” So I thought we might take a look at Jesus’ understanding of “mothering” and the implications of mothering for us, as we struggle to be witnesses to Jesus and his gospel.

Mothering. The act of being a mother. Seems innocuous enough, right? Hah! This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing of women’s experience. It’s wiley and sly; always a step ahead, metamorphosing at every corner into a new set of questions, ways of being, and challenges. Mothering exposes cultural assumptions about women’s identity and role in society: is biology destiny? For that matter, how do gay men mother their children? Mothering is metaphorically iconoclastic: what if we, as the church, were to embrace as normative, the scriptural and experiential images of God as mother? Like hymn #7, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth,” utilizing the language of the fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich. And is it not still the case that our image of mothers plummets from pedestals to ridicule by adding the simple adjective “welfare” before their name; as if lack of income indicates a lack of morality. Clearly mothering is much more than apple pie and flowers.[i]

Mothering. Where to start. I think that one of our most “natural” impulses is to think of mothering in terms of our biological mothers. So let’s start by exploring the nature of women’s bodies and the birth process: how women are created to create. Let’s reflect, for a moment, on the sense of hospitality and wonder related to the conception and growth of life within women’s bodies. The sacrifice of bodily nutrients, the taught roundness of an expanding belly that jerks with life within, the strangeness of physically experiencing the growth of another human, the womb as perhaps that watery chaos at the dawn of creation, that prerequisite habitat supporting and suspending life every day, every hour, every minute, every second; the womb as a place of safety and development; a place of grace. In Hebrew, in our Bible, the word for mercy and womb are the same. To speak of God’s mercy is to speak of abiding in God’s womb. We recall this every time we baptize a child as we speak of the font as a “womb of new birth.” What a privilege to realize within your own bodies such a physical haven of mercy. And of course the birth; the pain and delight; the solitary, sometimes supported adventure of bearing, of pushing, a fragile, wrinkled, howling person into life. The magnitude of that first deep, cleansing, breath after delivery. What was once within, has broken forth; the one have become two. The mother as liberator: the one who nurtures in order to set free.

But as wondrous and fertile as the image of “giving birth” is, it is not uncomplicated as a primary image of mothering. Listen to these words from Tickva Frymer-Kensky, a Jewish professor of Biblical Studies, a mother, and expert on ancient near-eastern birth narratives. She writes this about the value placed on giving birth,

The first principle is the assumption that having children is an important activity. It is not the easiest of enterprises, for it involves dedication and self-sacrifice, even during the months of pregnancy, and certainly for the rest of child rearing. It has also often been the occasion of much sorrow for women, often fatal, almost always painful, and sometimes ending with the tragedy of miscarriage, stillbirth, and perinatal death. Birth also defined women [in the ancient world] and limited their roles in society. Biology was destiny: women were expected to have children, women who did not give birth were considered “barren” and unfortunate, and a woman who did not want to have children was somehow unnatural, unwomanly, devoid of the “maternal instinct.” Society had [and has] a vested interest in women’s wombs and sought to guard them by excluding women from occupations that might endanger their reproductive powers.[ii]

In our Bible, we find story after story where women are exalted because of the progeny they produce. They are famous or infamous because they were barren and their wombs were opened (Sarah and Hannah) or they were virgins (Mary), because they laughed, argued, or were “receptive” to God’s creation of a child. It was their primary defining role. Their raison d’être. Without a child, they are insignificant, less favored, if you will. And while all this miraculous kind of birthing we find in the bible underscores the activity of a God beyond (though in relationship with) humanity, it seems also to devalue women’s ordinary experience of conception, pregnancy, and birth. After all, most women in the birthing rooms at White Plains Hospital aren’t claiming a virginal conception. Yet is it any less miraculous?

And what of mothers who have chosen to adopt children? Certainly, the nourishing relationship formed between mother and child is not diminished on account of biology. And what of those of us who are unable to have children. Too much of an emphasis on mothering as birthing runs the risk of diminishing the regard for the female body that has not conceived, or that has suffered a miscarriage — even to the point of devaluing the woman herself. Think about our religious rituals for a moment. We have memorial services for both the death of children and adults. But we whisper sorrowfully, awkwardly about a woman’s miscarriage. Many times, she fears to make it public. It becomes a private, profound, solitary grief — devoid of a spiritual framework from the church in which to wrest meaning from the experience.

I have two colleagues who pastor a church here in New York who were expecting twins this summer. The twins were delivered stillborn last month. The parents named the boys, the congregation held a memorial service and mourned their loss, and celebrated the joy the boys-to-be had already brought their parents in expectation. One of them writes,

Within the English language, as tragic as it is, there is a word to describe parentless children – orphans. A word for wives without husbands – widows. And for husbands without wives – widowers. Yet, remarkably, there is no word within our language that captures the reality and the pain of a childless mother. Perhaps the absence of this language speaks volumes.[iii]

I am thinking of and praying for this couple this mother’s day as they stand to lead worship, and for all those like them.

To elevate “giving birth” as the pinnacle of mothering makes the body the principal measure of our humanity and of woman-ness. Understanding ourselves as embodied is good and revelatory in incredible ways, but our bodies should be our ground of being, not our cage. They are the starting point for life’s meaning making, but our flesh and organs are not the sum of who we are. We know that mothering by women is much more than simply contributing an X chromosome and a lot of labor. We know that there is much more. Women who have given birth, we know that you are much more.

Mothering also makes us think about the family. Who constitutes our family? There are families that live together and families whose members live apart. Our families have people of all sexualities in them – gay, bi, lesbian, trans, straight parents and kids and relatives. The old “Leave it to Beaver” paradigm is, thank goodness, giving way to a more honest, freeing, and expansive understanding of the many different ways we are family within American culture in particular.

Many of us in this congregation come from homes where our houses burst with family and where the door is always open. Great-grandparents help prepare the meals, great-aunts discipline the children, siblings do the wash and cook together with mom, dads share the tasks of making the household run — in-laws move in for months at a time each year. “Family” somewhat loosely defined, are in and out of each others’ homes, feed each other’s kids, borrow money, and take up the task of nurturing another generation. Or the reverse is true: in many first-generation immigrant families it is the children who teach their elders how to speak English. The sisters and brothers and aunts and great-grandparents and cousins ‘mother and father’ each other.

What I’m saying is: mother may be the one who gave you birth. But mothering; the sense of being raised? Why it takes the whole neighborhood.

And what of the times when we assume a mother role outside the family? The times when we inspire children through our tenacity and care for them. When we teach them how to read and how to cooperate in our schools. The times when a therapist takes the part of a mother to enable his client to speak freely. The time when a 17-year-old student crumbled into my arms on a mission trip, saying, “I just miss home so much.” The times when we are honored as god-parents of others’ children.[iv]

In the Episcopal Church, there is a celebration during Lent called “Mothering Sunday” that dates back many centuries. On this day, members remember their church as “mother.” One of the most fascinating things I read about the celebration of Mothering Sunday, was the English custom of “clipping” or hugging that was practiced. The congregation would walk outside, grasp hands, surround the church and hug the church, their mother. What a really powerful image of community, of strength and thanksgiving. What if we turned the image around a bit. What if we, the people who make up church, both women and men, are the mothers who give birth to faith alive in this world. I suppose we would need then, to hug each other. [NOTE: we did just this as part of our benediction] But shouldn’t we want to reach and touch each other in thanksgiving for those times another has held our hand for strength. For a tender word in a time of grief. For patience when we were angry. For encouragement when we were discouraged. For hope when we were immobilized.

It’s fascinating that my own son seems to have trouble keeping mom and dad straight. I get called “mom” all the time – when he needs help with homework, or to thread a needle, or a second helping of breakfast or when he wants to play imaginary games. Noelle gets called dad, as well, when he wants to know where his clean shirts are, or needs help cooking dinner, or just needs someone to pay attention to what he is doing. What he is looking for from each of us, of course, is love.

“Love heals,” write Maya Angelou in her memoir about her relationship with her own mom, Mom & Me & Mom. “Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins… love heals and helps a person to climb impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths.” [v]

What does it mean to love, to show love, in this way? Sometimes it means moving beyond the cultural straight jackets society places on us. It means as a man to stitch a doll’s dress. It means as a woman teaching our daughters strength and pride, not just humility. It means to dare to reinvent concepts and experiences such as mothering, enlarging them metaphorically until they embrace our larger world. Because that’s what Jesus did! Recall the interesting story we haerd today from the Gospel of Mark:

While Jesus is teaching a crowd, they call to him that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for him. “And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” [NRSV, Mark 3:33-35.]

To do the will of God. What a provocative (and biblical) definition of mothering.

Jesus asks us to expand our notion of mothering beyond the household to the world. To sacrifice, stand up on behalf of, to risk, even our lives, for the will of God. This is the gospel.

Jesus redefines mothering, moving it beyond the household in order to speak of a way of justice and courage that cares for all people and that is concerned especially for the most vulnerable. Perhaps today Jesus is calling out to us in the eternal words of Dr. Seuss (P.D. Eastman), “Are you my mother?”

[Following the sermon, we sang a new hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette called “You Formed Us In Your Image, Lord,” which brought home all the point above in song. It can be found at www.carolynshymns.com.  At the end of the service we surrounded the sanctuary (from the inside) and held hands to hug the church, and then one another. f anyone took a photo, I’ll post it here.]

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[i] Among many provocative studies, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. (University of California Press, 1982).

[ii] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Motherprayer: A Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995):xvi.

[iii] Patrick and Jenna are blogging about their experience at: https://endoftherainbow.blog/2017/05/13/a-childless-mother-on-mothers-day/. I recommend their site for those who have experience such loss.

[iv] Wayne Oates writes, “Getting an ‘overview’ of Jesus’ and Paul’s perception of the family enables you and me to see to it that the component parts of the whole human community as a living system of face-to-face relationships are mobilized around the nurture ad the enlargement of children’s life. They are not shut up to the suffocation of an unventilated nuclear family. God has other faces and forms in addition to those of mother, father, brother, sister. Basic sources of hope are not shut up to these significant persons alone.” See “The Extended Family” in When Children Suffer: A Sourcebook for Ministry with Children,” cited in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B, ed. Allen, at al. (Westminster John Knox, 2011).

[v] Maya Angelou, Mom & Me & Mom. (Random House, 2013). p. x.

*This sermon was adapted from and built upon a sermon The Rev. Noelle Damico preached in 1997 after I came home from a weekend of study with Dr. Frymer-Kensky. I thank Nikola for finding the image above after worship this morning.

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