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