Sermon, May 12, 2019 "Three Mothers"
Mothers Day brings to mind my devout Methodist grandmother. She lived to be 98 and spent her last years in Winslow, Arizona, with her daughter, my Aunt Zada. Aunt Zada was also a lifelong Methodist and often preached at the Winslow Methodist Church when the minister was away. She was a marvelous speaker, and more people showed up for Aunt Zada’s sermons than for the minister’s.
On Mother's Day when Grandma was 95 or so, Aunt Zada told her it was time to get ready for church. Grandma said she didn’t want to go to church, which was way out of character for her. “Aren’t you feeling well?” Zada asked. “I’m feeling just fine,” Grandma said.
“Well come on then, let’s get dressed for church, it’s Mother's Day. You’ll be the oldest mother there, and they’ll give you a picture of Jesus.”
To which Grandma replied, “I’ve already got a picture of Jesus.” She was tired of being the oldest mother in church on Mother's Day.
We need to be aware that not everyone looks forward to Mothers Day. As with many of these holidays, Mothers Day can bring up difficult memories, and we ask special blessings upon those for whom this is so.
It took me a while, but after some years in the ministry, I could see I had no business preaching sermons on Mothers Day. I figured we needed to hear from people with experience, so I called upon mothers to do it. One mother called her sermon “No Jesus, You Can’t Have the Donkey Tonight,” imagining that Mary might have had some trying moments with her precocious boy.
Once I prevailed upon Arline, and she gave us a beautiful Mother's Day sermon. We had recently been to Italy where she was deeply moved by Michelangelo’s Pieta, the small sculpture of Mary holding the crucified Jesus in her arms.
In the sadness on Mary’s face, Arline saw the pain her mother felt as she stood at the graves of two of her five children and the pain her mother felt when her other children left home. In her sermon, Arline gave us a deeper understanding of this part of parenting. I think she may have preached that sermon here years ago.
Our lectionary study group noticed that we’ve had a lot of sheep and shepherds in our Bible readings these past two weeks, and we felt shepherding and mothering kind of go together.
The shepherd in the beautiful 23rd Psalm not only provides for wants but also for peace and calmness to restore the soul. He brings forth confidence that goodness and mercy will prevail. Mothers are always doing that sort of thing, or trying to, and so we felt mothering and shepherding have things in common.
In our Gospel Reading, Jesus twice calls himself the Good Shepherd, the shepherd who sticks to the job even when difficulties arise, which mothers are known to do. And the Good Shepherd, we read, is even willing to die for the sheep in his care.
That verse reminds me of what my mother said fifty years ago when she learned I needed some tricky surgery at UC Med Center in San Francisco. She said, “Why can’t it be me?” Thinking it was more dangerous than it turned out to be, she was willing to take my place, which is still an overwhelming thought for me.
So we have our mothers or someone who shepherded us through our early years, but we also have other mothers as we go through life. We’ll look at three of these: Mother Nature, Mother Music, and Mother Church.
Mother Nature is perturbed with us these days, as well she might be. We’re burning more fossil fuels than ever and fixing to drill for even more in places like the melting artic. We’ve based our economy and comfort on burning oil and gas and coal, which displeases Mother Nature no end. Actually, I don’t think Mother Nature is all out angry at us, she just has her rules and consistently enforces them like a good mother should.
Then there’s Mother Music. I’ve been reading a book about music theory and brain science that says some of the sites where music registers in our brains are near the sites of peace, well-being, and healing. Now that’s mothering.
One thing music does is set up patterns of expectation so that on the basis of what we’ve heard we can feel the notes that are coming. But music also delays the expected notes with unexpected notes so that we have tensions that must be resolved. And when the resolution comes, it feels like going home.
That’s what jazz musicians call it. They take a tune in many directions, setting up all kinds of tensions, but then someone says “Goin’ home,” and you hear the tune they started out with, and right there it feels so good the audience often applauds.
Hymns are great at meeting expectations. The last line is often like the first, and it can feel as if we’ve arrived in a safe and holy place when we sing it. That’s true of many kinds of music.
Out in the west county we have our Mr. Music, also known as Jim Corbett, with his all-volunteer Love Choir that sings for the sheer joy of it, imparting joy to those who hear them. According to the book I’m reading, we’re hardwired for that sort of thing. To its credit, the church has been a source of important and uplifting music for centuries.
So we come to Mother Church. For a variety reasons, a good many people have simply disowned this mother and gone blithely on their way. Still, Mother Church continues on. Her children keep trying to form caring communities in a difficult world. And they keep on singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
I would have never felt the strength and goodness of a faith community if I had not heard the Welsh people in our congregation in Scranton, Pennsylvania, sing their magnificent hymns. Some of them were slow and deep and heart rending, often reaching into minor keys, and others were lilting and fortifying. When they got going, they would repeat stanzas and choruses and sing a hymn for ten minutes or more.
I came to feel that what’s important in hymn singing is not just what the hymns say but how we make them sound when we sing them together. We can hear longing and pain in congregational singing and we can hear faith and courage and hope. We hear faith and courage and hope being passed around from voice to voice, from soul to soul, and we sense God coming closer to us as our voices blend together.
A professor I recently listened to said we should have less talk and more music in church so the Spirit has a better chance of getting through. Knox has lots of music every Sunday. We let Mother Music lead us out of ourselves toward experiences of God’s love for all the world, which is exactly what church is for.
Our Lectionary Group took special note of where Jesus talks about the connection between him and God being the same as the connection between us and Jesus. Over the centuries, the church has worked such verses into a doctrine called the Incarnation, but one of our hymns puts it, “Love divine all loves excelling,\Joy of heaven to earth come down.” In the hymn, this much debated and much revered doctrine becomes an experience of love and joy. That’s what Mother Music does for the church. All praise.
Married in California in the fall of 1959, Arline and I left family and friends and drove across the country to Scranton where we didn’t know a soul. On our first Easter there, Arline had a cold and a cough and was all stuffed up, so she stayed home from church. As I went out the door, I heard her singing the Hallelujah Chorus as best she could. “Something of Easter in that,” I said to myself.
When I got home, Arline was pretty miserable. She said her mother always put Vicks Vaporub on her back when she felt like this. I said my mother did the same thing, and it only works if your mother does it. She said, “You’re my mother now.” So I walked to the corner drugstore and got a little blue bottle of Vicks and spread that gooey stuff on her back.
It must have worked because she was soon off to sleep. And so learned we never outgrow our need for mothering, and it’s likely we all will be called to be mothers from time to time.
So we gather here week by week for shepherding, for mothering and for renewing our sense that God’s love comes to us in the goodness and joy that flows from our songs and prayers and out love for each other. May it be especially so for those who need mothering today, which very well could include us all and probably does. Amen.