WHO IS THE MOTHER?

 

Isaiah 66: 1-2 and 7-13

Matthew 12: 46-50

Felicity Wright

May 8, 2005

 

I am sorry to say that Mother’s Day (or Festival of the Christian Home Sunday, as it is called in ours and other churches) is one so-called holiday that pretty much leaves me cold.  Until I researched it for this sermon and learned about Anna Reeves Jarvis and her emphasis on having a “Mother’s Day” as a way of condemning the violence and honoring those lost on both sides during the Civil War, I had assumed that Mother’s Day was just an invention of the family restaurants, florists, and greeting card companies.  I thought it was all hype, all market manipulation … phony. 

 

Or worse.  I something wondered if Mother’s Day was the cruel invention of the so-called perfect family (whatever that is) inflicted on the less fortunate.  For many people, it’s a reminder of what’s missing in their lives.  For example, half of the population (the men) may feel irrelevant.  Of women, consider those who’ve never married,  those who’ve never had children, those whose children have died, those whose children forget to call or to write… the list goes on.  It seems to me that there are as many, or more, people who feel devalued on Mother’s Day as there are those who delight in it.

 

And yet, and yet … look at how many of you are wearing hats and clearly enjoying it…  And we enjoy  the lesson from the Hebrew Bible, which  describes Jerusalem as a woman, and depicts God as a comforting mother.  There is a lot of talk these days about the feminine aspects of God, and the nouns and pronouns we used to describe God.  The problem is both cultural and linguistic.  Culturally, we and our forebears grew up with the idea of God as a powerful – indeed sometimes malicious – man, much like the Greek Zeus and the Roman Jupiter.  And there are aspects of God in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that match this larger-than-life warrior. 

 

But there are numerous descriptions of God – in both the Old and New Testaments – as a mother hen, a mother eagle, a human mother – giving birth to creation and loving it – and sometimes suffering on account of that love. 

 

Every Jewish scholar that I have spoken to has stated, unequivocally, that the God of the Hebrew Bible is both male and female – always both-and, never either-or.  They note that there are as many as 72 different names for God.  The five that are most common are Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim, Eloha (the feminine for Elohim), and El Shaddai.  El Shaddai is particularly interesting.  It appears 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, for example, Genesis 28:3, where it is translated as follows: “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples.”  Now what is curious is that, while El (God) Shaddai (Almighty) always appears as God Almighty in English, one of the definitions for Shaddai in Hebrew is “large-breasted one.”  So you might want to change the image of God the creator from the militant Zeus-like tyrant to a large-breasted woman with enough milk for all of her children.  Or consider this translation: “May God, the large-breasted one, bless you and make you fruitful and numerous...” 

 

And then we get to Jesus, with the query, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"  And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

 

And so we ask, “Who is the mother?”  What is motherhood all about?

 

I’m reminded of Margaret Garner.  In January 1856, Margaret Garner and her husband and four children fled the Kentucky farm where they were slaves and escaped to Ohio, a free state.  As the posse of slave owners surrounded their little shack, Margaret Garner cried out that she would rather kill her children than see them live as slaves.  So she murdered her youngest daughter with a butcher knife and was attempting to kill all of the children and herself, before she was overpowered.  The story was the basis for Toni Morrison's novel Beloved and was made into an opera that debuted in Detroit last night.  In talking about the novel and the opera, Ms. Morrison explained that blacks before emancipation were allowed to reproduce, but not to parent.  If she couldn’t experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood, Margaret Garner decided that she would rather be dead or childless.  For her, freedom and motherhood were synonyms.  She spent the next few years in prison, and then was returned into slavery.  And so we ask, “Who is the mother?” 

 

I’m reminded of a friend who was having a horrible day.  It started with a call from her father a thousand miles away that he had been having heart pangs and the doctor wanted to do a series of tests.  Then the postman brought a letter from the IRS saying that they wanted to audit her tax returns of two years’ earlier.  She left the house to find out that she had a flat tire.  By the time she had gotten that fixed and was on her way to a meeting, she was feeling pretty down about life in general.  Not being as attentive as she might have been, she was slowing down for a red light but a wee bit too late.  So – bam – she ran into the fender of the car ahead of her.  The other driver was a young man – perhaps a college student.  He got out, looked at both fenders, shrugged his shoulders, and said that there didn’t seem to be any damage.  But by this time, my friend was pretty shook up and perhaps a bit teary.  So the young man gave her another look and said, “It looks like you need a hug.”  And that’s what he did.   He gave her a hug.  And so we ask, “Who is the mother?” 

 

I’m reminded of those people – male as well as female – people who have no biological children but who give of themselves to others, day in and day out, for no reason except that they care.  They’re all around us.  Consider, for example, Kris Whitten.  He’s clearly not a woman; he has no biological children, he has an incredibly busy professional life as a lawyer and part-time professor, AND he is always there for the youth at ACC.  If this is not mothering, then what is?

 

And finally, I’m reminded of a story of two friends in a regular book club.  One, let’s call him Jonathan, was single and in his 30’s.  The other, Mary,  was a grandmother in her 60’s.  Along with about 8 others, they had meet once a month for several years.  That was pretty much it until Mary learned that she had kidney failure and would die unless a donor with a replacement kidney could be found.  Finding a kidney is not as difficult as finding a heart or a liver, because people can typically live with only one kidney, but still very few people are inclined to give up their second kidney, because it’s always better to have an extra in case of an emergency. 

 

Mary mentioned her condition one day as the reason why she might not make the next session of the book group.  Well, you can imagine the rest.  Blood tests, psychological evaluations, etc., etc., and then Jonathan’s kidney was put in Mary’s body.  Jonathan’s kidney was the gift of new life, the gift of … creation.  And so we ask, “Who is the mother?” 

 

Which brings us back to the Scriptures.  In the Hebrew Bible, God says that, “as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”  In the gospel, Jesus says that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother.” 

 

So who is the mother?  Certainly, it is the one who comforts, the one who hugs the stranger after a bad day, the one who gives up a Sunday evening once a week to spend it with teenagers.    It may or may not involve biological parenting; it always involves emotional nurturing. 

 

Who is the mother?  It is the one who gives birth to new life, but that new life may or may not be a new baby. 

 

Who is the mother?  The mother is the one who, like God, gives birth to hope.  And so it seems especially fitting that we use Mothers’ Day to be agents of hope to others, by providing tools and blankets to those in need. 

 

Let us pray.  Dear God, help us all to be mothers.  Help us to be agents of new life in one another.  Hold our hands during the labor pains and we strive to give birth to hope.   Amen.