Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day

On Saturdays I spend a lot of time engaging in an online conversation about Sunday’s sermon. This week my colleagues, mostly women, spoke a great deal about their hesitation to “celebrate” Mother’s day because of the pain some of their members feel around this day - indeed, because of the pain some of the preachers experience around Mother‘s Day. Some said they would speak to Mother’s day only in their prayer, others were going to do their best to just ignore the whole thing. Some said, because they have no experience of being a mother, they felt inadequate to the task.

Because some feel pain - ignore the day? Perhaps that is a good idea. We, as ministers, aren’t supposed to intentionally cause pain to our congregations. And yet, Motherhood is about pain - and Joy, but first and foremost, it’s about pain. I’ve never done it, but I know that bringing a child into the world is a painful experience. Raising a child, allowing that child to go forward and get hurt - fall off a bicycle, experience that first broken heart, make their own decisions, live their own lives - each pain the child experiences brings pain to the mother, even in a healthy, functional family.

Then there are those whose mothers don’t live up to the ideal of Hallmark cards or even the book of Proverbs - mothers who abandon them, either physically or emotionally; who put the new boyfriend ahead of their children, or whose addiction to drugs and alcohol makes them unavailable in every way; mothers who are abusive or inattentive. So many children these days are raised in foster care because their mothers are simply unable, for whatever reason, to live up to the standards the state has set. Children whose mothers cannot care for them often blame themselves for their mothers inabilities. That’s painful!

There are those whose mothers have passed on - whose grief does not allow them to celebrate a day set aside for Mothers. And those who desperately want to be mothers, but whose bodies are not cooperating - and those mothers who have outlived their children: whose children had been kidnapped and murdered, children who died of illness, or in an accident, or in a war, or who are lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol. Mothers Day is one of the saddest days in retirement communities, where some mothers will sit all day long waiting for the visitors who don’t come.

As the day progressed, more and more stories appeared about why it was so difficult to celebrate a day set aside for mothers. And I understand the pain, I understand the hesitation on the part of pastors to avoid occasions of pain for the members of their congregations.

I also remember how the church helped me heal from my own pain around Mother’s Day. For many years I experienced pain on Mother’s Day because my body had not cooperated - I could not be a Mother, so I felt less than the other women around me. My first church-going Mother’s Day after 25 years away from church I dreaded going - I knew they were going to celebrate Mothers and I didn’t want anything to do with it. As I entered the church that Sunday I was offered a carnation, and I tried to turn it down. “I’m not a mother. I don’t deserve one.” I said. And the woman handing them out said ‘We all mother someone in our lives - take one. You deserve it.” I cried tears of gratitude. I had just experienced the radically inclusive nature of the Christian Church.

We see another example of that radical inclusiveness in this reading from the book of Acts 16:9-15 (Read)

Paul and Luke, the author of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, went to Philippi. As always, they first sought out the Jewish community to tell them about the coming of the Messiah. On the Sabbath day they went outside the city gates to the river - And there they found women praying, observing the Sabbath. Why just women? Jewish Men and women couldn’t worship together - not in the temple in Jerusalem or anywhere else - Paul had had arrived at the women’s worship. Among the women there was Lydia. Lydia was the head of her household - a wealthy woman, a merchant who dealt in the most expensive dye in the world, most probably a widow who had worked side by side with her husband and inherited the business. Sitting out in public with women was bad enough - Jewish men and women who were unrelated just didn’t do that. Now in the days before his conversion, Paul would never have stayed there - he wouldn’t have been able to stretch the rules that separated men and women that far. Nor could he have accepted Lydia’s hospitality, and indeed, the passage tells us she had to convince him to do so. But with no male head of household, Paul would have found himself sharing a meal with women, and for an observant Jew, this was problematic. Or it had been, before the radically inclusive message he had personally received from Jesus on the road to Damascus.

What a preacher he must have been! There were no gospels to read from. There were stories about Jesus’ life and preaching, but nothing set down on paper yet. He would have told the stories he had learned from the others, from people who had heard Jesus preaching and teaching. But most especially Paul would have shared with them what happened to him on the road, the event that brought to his knees, and brought him to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the chosen of God, who had come to transform the world. Imagine, Paul sitting on riverbank, and saying “Even me! Jesus accepted even Me! Who persecuted his followers, sent them to prison, even helped stone one of them to death! If he accepts me, if he loves Me, a terrible sinner, one who actively worked against him, then surely nothing you have done in your lives can keep him from loving you. Give him your love, believe his words, enter the water of repentance, and come out prepared to live a new life in his name.”

Notice though, that the passage doesn’t say “Paul convinced her.” Rather, it says “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said to Paul.” Just as God opened Paul’s eyes, just as God reaches for the heart of each of us, Lydia’s heart was opened, and her life was changed.

And here’s one more thing we should keep in mind about Lydia - and about the widow Dorcas, whose story was told a few weeks ago. It is likely that, not only were they widows, but that they also childless - or at least, son-less. Whether they had outlived their sons and grandsons or had never had any isn’t known. But scholars suggest that, if they had sons, they would not have been in charge of their households. If there was a son, he would have been head of household. Lydia could not have extended this invitation - she wouldn’t have been known as a merchant in her own right. Lydia, while not a mother, became the founder of a church in the city of Philippi - the mother of the Christian community there.

We speak of the church fathers, yet the book of Acts makes it clear to us that there were also mothers of the church, women like Lydia and Dorcas, who were financially able to care for others, independent so they could offer the use of their homes as places of worship, as places where those in need could be cared for. Women who could extend the hospitality of their homes to traveling preachers like Paul and Luke without seeking permission, or worrying about what the neighbors would say. Women who had embraced the message Paul brought to them, who accepted the radical message of God’s love and forgiveness, entered the water of baptism, and emerged changed forever. Indeed, what is there to fear from the neighbors when we know that God accepts us - that these acts of love, compassion and radical hospitality are pleasing to God.
The gospel reading tells us Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, they will obey me. Then my Father will love them, and we will come to them and live in them.” The Spirit of God comes upon us when we love our Savior, and loving, obey the teachings we have received. When we love, and are open to God, the Spirit of God brings us the gifts of love, joy, and peace - the greatest of all the gifts we can receive. Let us give thanks today for the mothers of our church, and for these gifts of the Spirit, so freely given.

Hymn: Of All the Spirits Gifts to Me

Monday, May 07, 2007

Loving into the Kingdom

Our first reading today comes from the Book of Revelation. I know that we tend to read Revelation in horror and trembling - it’s filled with war and plagues and dreadful things happening. The first time I read it I decided that if Jesus, the Lamb of God, can order such awful suffering upon the people he was supposed to love then I didn’t want anything to do with him. Luckily I met a wise Disciples minister who told me this was a vision, a dream, that one man had during a particularly trying time for Christians. She encouraged me to focus on the gospels to learn about Jesus, his teachings, and his love, and study Revelation later with a teacher who could help me understand it better.

In our Monday night bible studies we often talk about the vision of heaven that can be found in the book of Revelation - streets of gold, houses made of precious gems, fountains pouring out the water of life, the believers, dressed in robes of white, singing unending choruses of praise to God along with the angels and all the other inhabitants of the New Jerusalem. This is a place that represents all the most wonderful images that John of Patmos could use in describing his vision to the churches. And many even today believe that this is what heaven will be like.

The book of revelation is, quite frankly, a dangerous book, as all books of prophecy are. People can and do use it as a threat - a stick to beat people who don’t believe as they do. And yet - the book of revelation is intended to give hope, as all the biblical books of prophecy are.

Hear the passage again : Read Revelation 21:1-6

After pages and pages describing the awful things that will happen - to believers, to non-believers, and to people who haven’t made a choice about what they believe, John speaks to what the final outcome will be. Rather than trying to figure out what form the number of the beast will take, or worrying about the exact date of the end of the world, or thinking the end will come immediately after a world currency is agreed upon, we might best understand the book of revelation as saying “bad things, even unimaginably horrible things, will come into our lives. But if we are faithful, if we obey the commandments we have received from Jesus, we can live in the Kingdom of God. We can bring the Kingdom of God to earth.” We can bring about a world where there is no suffering, no pain, no hunger, no disease.

The passage from revelation tells us what will happen.
Today’s gospel reading from John tells us what we must do to make it happen

Read John 13:31-35

Love one another. Love is one of those complicated words - it can be really hard to define. I suspect you have all heard, at one time or another, someone pontificate upon the meaning of the three Greek words for love - I’m not going to do that today. I will remind you that love is not a warm fuzzy feeling we can sit back and enjoy. It’s a verb - an action word - something we do. When I say “ I LOVE those shoes” or chocolate or a TV show, I am misusing the word - as I suspect we all do from time to time.

We all know how to love someone we consider loveable. Because I love my husband, I don’t sit back and assume he’ll know I love him - I do things to let him know that. I give him gifts I think he will enjoy, I cook things I think he’ll like, I tell him that I love him. In fact, since 9/11 we do not leave each other, even for just a trip to the market, without saying “I love you.”
It seems harder to love someone we find unlovable, or whom we do not know. That is probably because we think of love as a feeling, rather than an action. When we love, as Jesus directed us to, we act.

Because I love God, I try to do things that will be pleasing to God. I try to care for God’s children, whoever and where ever they are. I try to care for God’s earth and all the creatures in it. I work at forgiving those who I think have hurt me. And I try to discern what is the best way to love others.

That’s not easy. Some decades back a group of American women wanted to reach out and help the poor women of India. They discovered there were no shelters for battered women. So they collected money and built shelters and found people to work in them. And the shelters stayed empty. In India at that time, women who left the home for a shelter, no matter how abused, would then have no where to go from the shelter except back into the home. They couldn’t get jobs, they couldn’t live independently - by law and by tradition. Shelters did not help make their lives better. These American women had done a good thing, but not the right thing, because they hadn’t taken into account the culture they were interacting with. They had not taken into account that the establishment of battered women’s shelters here came as the result of a long process toward women‘s independence. The end of that process will come when there is no longer a need for such shelters anywhere - when the kingdom of God is established in every household, and violence is no longer a way of life.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tells us more about love. Read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

“Love does not insist on its own way.” When we love, we do not try to make those we love over. We do not try to change who they are. We accept them as they are, as beloved children of God. We do not decide that our way of loving, that our understanding of what is needed is the only way.

As Christians, we can and must work toward justice with mercy and compassion for all the people of the world. How each of us loves - what actions each of us take - is a matter between ourselves and God. Each of us must take a hard look at the world, and at ourselves, and prayerfully discern which of our actions are truly love - and which are not. Remember always that the Kingdom of Heaven, New Jerusalem, can exist in bits and pieces here and now, when we are find ways to end suffering - hunger, homelessness, violence - even in a small way, for one person.

A couple of weeks ago, this note was left in the offering tray:
Dear Church: Over the years we have been united as one. We have been united with love. But I do not feel the same way anymore. I feel as if the love has died. Therefore, instead of giving an object (money) I choose to give you more love. By doing so, my intentions of resurrecting the love are more likely to come true, hopefully. Jocephyne

How perfectly Jocephyne speaks of love. “I feel as if the love has died - therefore, I give you love.”

Her words reflect the way our God speaks to us through scripture. Over and over, God spoke through the prophets and through Jesus, assuring us of love and forgiveness, and inviting us to respond to that love by loving God and all of God’s creation.

Let us respond to Jocephyne’s words, and to God’s words, and to the final commandment Jesus gave to his disciples, by seeking ways to act in love. Let us take the spark of love which God has placed in each heart and pass it on, that the world might experience God’s Kingdom on earth.

Hymn: Pass It On