A sermon based on Mark 3:31-35 and John 19: 25b-27
Did you go to the grocery store this week? The smell of flower bouquets hit my nose when I walked in the door, and the card rack was a mile long. Did you try to make a restaurant reservation this weekend? When I called on Monday, the 7 o’clock hour was already full. If you can’t get a connection with your cell phone today, it may be because the network is busy. Today is the peak day of the year for long-distance phone calls. Long lines at the mall this week? Today falls only behind Christmas as the highest gift-giving holiday.
The signs are obvious even here at church – women wearing corsages, grown children home to visit, carnations at the door– today is Mother’s Day. While not officially a church holiday, it ranks right up there behind Easter and Christmas Eve.
This day began to remember and pray for mothers and their children at war has developed into a “Hallmark Holiday” – one of those days capitalized on by florists and malls and card manufacturers to make a profit. One could argue that Mother’s Day has become over-sentimentalized and commercialized. Even the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Reeves Jarvis, was so disappointed in what the day became that she sued to stop a Mother’s Day event and was arrested for disturbing the peace when she protested against its commercialization. Before she died, she said that she wished she would have “never started the holiday because it became so out of control.”
Sometimes our celebrations of Mother’s Day don’t give us a real, true to life picture of what motherhood and family is really all about. There is another side of Mother’s Day that Hallmark doesn’t write about, and that we really don’t acknowledge or talk about very much ourselves. The other side of Mother’s Day is that it can be a really hard day. Mother’s Day conjures up painful memories for those who have lost their mothers, or for those whose relationship with their mother is not all that it could be. Mother’s Day is a day of grief for those who have desperately wanted a child and could not have one and those who have deeply loved a child that they have lost. For some, the ideals of motherhood have been shattered by disappointment and stress. And those who never became mothers, either by choice or for other reasons, are often made to feel like second class citizens on this day. For a lot of people, Mother’s Day is hard!
A friend of mine in seminary had a disparaging nickname for Valentine’s Day. He called it “Single Awareness Day.” For some of us, Mother’s Day could be nicknamed “Dysfunctional Family Day” or “Family Imperfection Awareness Day.” Mother’s Day is not always a Hallmark moment, because families are not perfect, and life is not idealistic.
I think Jesus realized that. Jesus did not fall into the Hallmark trap of sentimentalizing family. In the two Biblical stories we’ve heard today, Jesus affirms family, but he also redefines what family looks like.
In the first story from the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ mother and brothers came to check up on him. They seemed concerned about his reputation as he was making quite a name for himself as a teacher and healer. When the disciples told Jesus his family was there to see him, he replied, “Who are my mother and brothers? Those who do the will of God.”
Jesus’ response seems a little harsh if we take it at face value. Was he being disrespectful to his mama and brothers? There was a tension in Jesus’ life between his loyalty to his physical family and to his spiritual one. But Jesus was not really indifferent to his family. In fact, he was deeply devoted to his family. He found in that moment a way to affirm the role of family but also make clear his first devotion to doing the will of God.
The second story takes place at the foot of Jesus’ cross. Mary is there, along with some other women and Jesus’ beloved disciple. In those days, a women’s children were her pension and Social Security and Medicare. What would happen to Mary when Jesus was gone? She would belong to no one. So Jesus looked down from his cross in the last moments of his life, and he gave Mary a new son and John a new mother. Her welfare and safe-keeping were among the last thoughts he ever had.
In these two images, Jesus shows us what family looks like. Jesus uses the sacred symbols of mother and brother and sister to tell all the world that spiritual kinship is stronger than biological kinship. Love is thicker than blood. Family, for Jesus, is a picture of adoption. He adopted as brothers and sisters all who do the will of God, and he charged John and Mary to adopt one another in love.
Jesus did not reject his family but he didn’t sentimentalize it, either. He did redefine it. As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor put it, “For him, family was not a matter of whose chromosomes you carry around inside of you but whose image you are created in. It was not a matter of who has the same last name or lives at the same address but who serves the same God…. There was no family tree in his Holy Bible. As much as his ancestors may have mattered to him, it was more like a family forest he walked around in, with relatives collected from all over the place – some from one family and some from another – all of them gathered in one place because of their allegiance to one father.” Jesus makes family bigger. He stretches out the circle to pull in the wider family, the family of God, and he teaches us that our families can be bigger, too.
Now, embracing this kind of Jesus family doesn’t make our own personal family’s problems go away. Adopting new brothers and sisters and parents and children does not bring our lost ones back. And building new bridges does not make the choking smoke of the bridges burned any easier to swallow. But adopting Jesus’ kind of family does help us with something. By stretching our circles, we can resist the temptation to be defined by what we lack. We can move forward with the hope of what we have together so that we won’t miss other chances to experience love.
So how do we face the other side of Mother’s Day? How can we be family to one another when our lives are imperfect and people disappoint? Where can we find redemption on Mother’s Day if we feel sad or guilty or lonely or abused? We can redeem Mother’s Day if we find a way to offer a blessing.
Chuck Poole has a great sermon in his book The Tug of Home entitled “Will Someone Say the Blessing?”. In the sermon, Chuck tells the sad story of Esau. If you remember, Esau was cheated out of his father Isaac’s blessing by his conniving mother Rebekah and brother Jacob. Esau’s cry to his father is pitiful: “Have you only one blessing, Father? Bless me, too!” Chuck says, “Esau’s voice has found its echo in every generation. Nobody wants to live an unblessed life. Everybody yearns to hear someone say the blessing to them, for them and about them ….’I love you, I delight in you, and I am proud of you, not because of what you have done, but because of who you are’….The hunger to be blessed is the common yearning of every heart. Whether or not that hunger is satisfied is one of the most critical factors in every person’s life. Our lives are shaped and colored by the presence, or absence, of ‘the blessing.’”
Jesus, in the agony of the cross, where the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of his mother in the days ahead, and in his last moments offered his mother a blessing. What if we spent this Mother’s Day offering a blessing to those who have mothered us?
This Mother’s Day, I have a newfound appreciation for my mother. After carrying a child and giving birth and now experiencing the joys and the frustrations of motherhood, I have a deeper respect for the gifts and the blessings that my mother has given me. So this year for Mother’s Day, I decided to offer her a blessing. I wrote her a letter of love and appreciation not only for all that she has done for me and provided for me, but for who she has been to me.
But there are others who have mothered me, who have stretched their circle of family like Jesus did to include me. Libby Allen has loved me like a mother. When I was finishing my last year of seminary, my husband Jody’s father was dying of cancer. A cancer survivor herself, Libby, who worked at the seminary, faithfully and regularly asked about how he and we were doing. She could speak the language of treatments and options and stats with us. When he’d get a bad report or have a rough day, Libby’s office became a refuge for me to talk and to cry and to wrestle. Libby mothered me through that experience, and she blessed me.
We can bless those who have given their gifts of love to us – male or female, blood kin or not, older or younger. If you can’t bless your own mother on this Mother’s Day, you can bless someone who has loved you or nurtured your growth like the best of mothers do. Author Frederick Buechner says, “Our mothers, like our fathers, are to be honored, the Good Book says. But if Jesus is to be our guide, honoring them does not mean either idealizing them or idolizing them. It means seeing them both for who they are and for who they are not. It means speaking the truth to them. It means the best way of repaying them for their love is to love God and our neighbor as faithfully and selflessly as at their best our parents have tried to love us.”
How can we repay those who have blessed us? We can bless them with our gratitude and our memories and our forgiveness. Or, as Buechner says, we can bless them by loving others the way they have tried to love us.
In her book, Letter to my Daughter, Maya Angelou tells the story of giving birth to her son. Young and unwed, Maya had hidden her pregnancy from her mother until her eighth month. But her mother was there with her, helping her deliver her child. After he was born, she offered Maya her blessing. Maya writes, “She was so proud of her grandson and proud of me…so I became proud of myself.” From her mother’s blessing, Maya found the confidence to raise her son and to become a woman. In fact, that blessing inspired her to bless others. The book is entitled Letter to My Daughter, but that son was the only child she ever gave birth to. In the introduction to the book, she writes: “I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all. Here is my offering to you.”
Today my 11-week-old daughter Merrill is wearing a special dress. It’s her “Miss Jessie” dress. Many of you who were born into this church or have had a child in this church over the last few decades know what I am talking about. For years, Mrs. Jessie Patton, a beloved mother of this church, made handmade smocked dresses and outfits for all the new babies born into the church. Some of you still have yours. I can’t imagine the countless hours Mrs. Jessie sat at her sewing machine, gathering material and stitching hems and monograms. It has been a labor of love for her, and it is a tangible blessing of each new child and new parent who has received one. Merrill is wearing her dress today, on Mother’s Day, because as her mother, I am grateful for all of the mothers and fathers she will have, in this church and beyond, who will love her and nurture her and bless her, like Mrs. Jessie has.
Shortly after I gave birth to Merrill, a seminary friend posted a quote on my Facebook wall from one of our favorite seminary professors, John Claypool. Claypool said: “The most important task of a parent is to delight in her child.” In other words, the best gift that we can offer – as parents, brothers or sisters, biological or adopted Jesus-style – is to bless one another. Not for our accomplishments or what we’ve done right and good – but simply for being who we are.
Being family is not the stuff of Hallmark cards. Being family is not always a sentimental feeling. It is the commitment of getting up for 3 am feedings or of poring over algebra homework every night until he gets it or of sitting by one’s side at the chemo clinic. It is about recognizing the blessings that we have received from those who have shaped our lives and making the conscious effort to offer those gifts to others.
Will somebody say the blessing? Amen.