The Early Church Mothers

Given on Mothers’ Day 2014, in response to Acts 2: 42-47.

We have a reading today about the early church, but I’d like to start by acknowledging Mother’s Day. I say acknowledge very intentionally because acknowledge is a nice neutral word. We’ve already celebrated a bit and we’ll celebrate more later I’m sure. That’s one kind of acknowledgment. But there’s more to acknowledge on a day like Mother’s Day than the warm fuzzies. Mother’s Day, just like any other holiday, carries with it joys and celebrations just as much as our disappointments and hurts. And I want to hold up the good and the bad because if we can’t tell the whole truth here, in church, then the truth of our experience won’t be told anywhere by anyone.

So please hold in mind, at least for a moment, those who experience hurt today, on Mother’s Day. For every person who has the good fortune to call their mother there is someone else who has lost their mother, someone who would like very much to call but cannot call. For every person who sings their mother’s praises there is bound to be another who finds their relationship with their mother to be a site of strife and difficulty. And please remember that for every woman who shows around pictures of children and grandchildren there is another who holds negative pregnancy tests, month after month. Remember, please, that miscarriage is a far more common occurrence than most people tend to think. These are all hurts that will not be voiced or raised up if we do not do so here. So I hope you’ll have a happy Mother’s Day but I hope more so that you’ll have an honest Mother’s Day. Hold the happiness and the hurt, each in turn or perhaps both at once.

And, if we’re trying to speak the full truth of Mother’s Day then it seems important to note that we are likely to have some disagreements about the meaning of motherhood. We can all get together to praise mothers but the fact of the matter is that we all have different ideas about what exactly we’re praising when we praise motherhood. I read a really fascinating book recently called The Way We Never Were. I know its bad practice to judge a book by its cover but I haven’t yet heard any prohibition against sermon illustrating by a cover. There’s this 1950’s TV family, neighbors of the Cleaver’s I’m sure, all sitting together. Dad is reading the paper and his wife and two little kids, a boy and a girl, are all looking over his shoulder as if it’s the most delightful thing in the entire world that dad is reading the evening paper. So you can imagine that certain ideas about motherhood might attach themselves to that kind of picture.

Well, the author, Stephanie Coontz, she is trying to trouble some of the ideas that Americans tend to have about traditional or ideal families, and she is especially concerned to trace the history of the expectations we have of wives and mothers. It’s a big book but I want to pull out just one insight from my reading, and I think this holds true regardless of what sort of ideals you hold about motherhood. Here it is: We want the ideal Mother to accomplish more than any mother could accomplish even if she met the ideal. (Repeat.)

The ideal Mother, or so the American story goes, is not only a moral exemplar but she is also responsible for the morality, success, and achievement of her family and even of society at large. But it’s a tall order to be the shining exemplar while also making sure that everyone else is exemplary, and in our desire to uphold the image of the ideal mother we place some extremely unfair expectations on actual mothers. So women who work 70 hours a week to make ends meet for their children are chided for failing to spend enough time at home with their kids. Their poverty problem gets treated as a family values problem in what’s essentially a heads we win tails you lose proposition. If you met the ideal you wouldn’t be in your situation but you can’t meet the ideal because of your situation. On the other hand, though, those women who are praised as ideal get a pass when their children misbehave.We don’t actually expect moral mothers to be responsible for the morality of their children. Something curious happened when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. He made sure to point out to the reporters covering his final press conference that his mother was a saint. He said, “Nobody will write a book probably about my mother. My Mother was a Saint.” Apparently even Saints raise crooks, and I suspect that even if every Mother in America were a Saint we would still have our fair share of social problems and corrupt politicians. Some responsibilities are far too big to place on just one group of people.

And that’s why I’m glad that the Church has always spoken of collective responsibility; one mission and one people; we all belong one to one another and we’re all responsible for the ideals we hold up. To speak of Church is always to speak of us, all of us, never this group of people or that group of people. It’s been that way from the very beginning. Whatever ideals the Church holds up are the responsibility of the church in general. That’s our witness, at least as I read it. It’s never the case that a certain group of people are responsible for certain ideals just because of how they’re classified by others. Paul said We’re all one in Christ Jesus, now. Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female. And of course not everyone has the same gifts. To some the gift of wisdom, to some the gift of healing, to some the gift of prophecy, and on and on. Different gifts but they’re all allotted from the same spirit, Paul said. To some the gift of mothering, and not all have borne children, and not all are women, but to some of us, any of us, the gift of mothering because the Spirit allots as the Spirit so chooses.

So I want to suggest that whatever it is we idealize when we idealize motherhood isn’t just the responsibility of the people we call mothers. If Mothering is part of the gospel then mothering is a task for the church as a whole.

And I believe, personally, that there is plenty good reason to speak of a mothering gospel and even of a Mothering God. Just look at today’s reading:  “All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Think of that what you will but I have a hard time squaring that sort of arrangement with the ideals we usually ascribe to American Fathers. These are really not sound business techniques. (Dave Ramsey would not be pleased with the head of house who implemented this scheme) No, it sounds to me like the church is mothering–ringing the dinner bell, welcoming everyone to the table, making sure all of God’s kids get their fair share.

Or do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? It must be one of our most familiar stories. The kid demands his inheritance, squanders it all, and comes back home with his tail between his legs. And what’s the Father do? He doesn’t say, “Now, what’ve you learned?” And he doesn’t dish out a lesson in fiscal responsibility and he doesn’t say You can stay but only under these conditions and you’re going to learn about budgeting. And it looks an awful lot like coddling and not very much at all like the sort of tough love and fairness we might expect from a responsible head of a household. In other words, the Father in the story of the prodigal son doesn’t act like a father, at least not like a sensible, breadwinning American father. The Father in the story throws a lavish party, as if the kid is back for Thanksgiving after a Dean’s list semester at college.  This is not how the idealized American father would behave, but we can imagine it much better if it’s a Mother. Just imagine Richard Nixon’s saintlike mother. She died before he took office but imagine his Saint of a mother welcoming him home after that final press conference as if he’d been in a minor schoolyard skirmish. That’s what God is like.

And I want to say to you that this is the sort of love that God is imparting to all of us. God loves the creation like only a Mother could and God is about the business of mothering even when God is called by the title Father. Some of us have learned something of God’s love through our own mothers, and others of us have experienced God’s love through the mothering of others. We’re thankful for that. We pray for those who mother and we pray that the rest of us might go and do likewise, building up a church that rings a dinner bell for all of God’s kids and preparing ourselves to welcome back prodigals just like a mother would. Amen.

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