May 9th, A Spacious Christianity, First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon
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May 9th, A Spacious Christianity, First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon
Today is, of course, Mother’s Day, like any holiday, we might find ourselves in different places, feeling a whole spectrum of different emotions and all of that belongs. Today, I wonder if we are better served by mothering as a verb rather than mother as a noun. Today we celebrate the act of mothering the ways we have been mothered, the ways we, regardless of our gender identity or biological motherhood, have mothered others. And we name the ways that mothering reminds us of who God is and how God loves us, not just in the traditional language of God the father, but as God who mothers too.
May today be a day that we expand our preconceptions and definitions of who God is, who we are and how we are called to the sacred work of mothering. I’m not a mom in the traditional sense, though, there’s a golden retriever that would be really, really lost without me, truly lost. But I work with a lot of people who mother and I get to hang out with a lot of young people who are mothered. And I have an amazing mother and grandmother of my own who are listening in this morning.
Famous author and philanthropist Glennon Doyle Melton says this. I want to try to explain my evolving definition of the word mother, I’m starting to understand that the word works better for me as a verb than a noun. Mothering is a choice we make. Like loving is a choice. We do not need to have given birth or to have signed adoption papers to mother. To mother, to me, means to nurture, to heal, to help grow, to give, and so anyone and everyone who is involved in the healing of the world is a mother.
Anyone who tends to a child or friend or stranger or animal or garden is a mother. Anyone who tends to life is a mother. Today is a celebration of all the healers and hopers and lovers and givers and tenders. In other words, today is for every single one of you. Mothering is unto life, that is the whole work of mothering. I was having a conversation with a friend on Friday, and she asks really good questions, and as I told her about this sermon, she said, Well, who has mothered you?
And obviously, mom, I said, you. And there’s this network of women who have walked with me and cared for me and asked me questions that spoke to the deep parts of my soul in ways that no one else could. And I also have these names and faces swirl through my mind of some incredible men who have mothered and nurtured me until life mentors, professors, advisers and people who have believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. So I invite you as we are together this morning to think of those names and faces, who has mothered you, who has tended you unto life?
One of the greatest outcomes of our time together today would be that we reach out and say thank you to someone who has mothered us, tended us until life, or maybe reach out to someone who we desire to mother with a word of love and kindness. So even though we are virtual and I’m sure you’re doing all kinds of things right now that you wouldn’t be able to do while worshiping in person, I can practically smell the Sunday morning pancakes you’re making, even though we aren’t in the church building.
I want to say it’s entirely beautiful if you want to step away from this screen and text, email or call someone who has mothered you or who you feel moved to. Mother, those connections are way more important than what I have to say. Mothering brings us into the realm of this divine impulse to tend to the world. There are all these images in scripture of God revealing this beautiful feminine tending, nurturing role that sometimes gets left on the shelf of Christianity in the West.
But what if we expanded our imaginations to allow God to truly encompass all that it means to be human, male, female and non binary? There are moments in scripture where God is called compassionate, and the Hebrew word for that is Riham, which is also the Hebrew word for womb. And so whenever scripture talks about God being compassionate, they’re talking about this deep care, like being comforted in the midst of a mother’s womb and being brought to life from there.
There’s another moment where the prophet Hosea speaks of God as a mama bear who will do anything to protect her cubs. If you’ve seen someone in that, what I like to call mama bear mode, you’re getting a glimpse at an intense love and a righteous anger that will stand up for the vulnerable and protect the beloved. We get yet another feminine image of God with Jesus when he’s entering Jerusalem for the last time. He’s sharing with his disciples how he’s lamenting just how far the people are from understanding the ways of justice and peace and says he longs to gather his children and gathers her chicks under her wings to protect.
To tend unto life to usher in a better direction, to lead them toward flourishing. So the mothering impulse brings us close to the very heart of God and reveals something to the world of what God is like. We can all picture a moment when we saw someone mothering and it just reminded us so clearly of what love looks like. Maybe it’s incredible patience in a grocery line, right? I’m not a mom and I know that one. Maybe it’s saying just the right thing after someone has a bad day and understanding what’s behind the tears and speaking to someone’s heart in a way that makes sense to them and brings them to life and tends to their soul in a way that is gentle and generous.
Mother’s Day started the Internet told me this, so who knows, you can find lots of things there, but I heard somewhere that Mother’s Day was begun by a daughter that wanted to honor her mother’s work in social justice and community development. And to encourage others to do the same. What a brilliant testament to mothering, there are these people in the world who embody the presence of God by making the world look more like heaven and less like hell. Who embody the presence of God and reveal something of what God is doing by their generosity, not just of spirit and attention, but of service and hands on getting dirty in the trenches, loving the world.
And to be entirely honest, that was the word that came to mind generosity when I thought about my mom, if I had one word to say about her, it’s that she is one of the most generous people and it has nothing to do with money.
I think often our only association with generosity is money kaching, you know, but what if we were the kind of community where when we thought about generosity, we thought about the kinds of things a kid would say about their mom that they give of themselves and their time and their love, and they make a million meals and pick up after each other. And if that was the way we were known as a community, I wonder what that would be like.
The author, Cheryl Strayed, reflects on her mom’s love when she says she’d come at us with maximum maternal velocity. She didn’t hold back a thing, not a single lick of her love. I love that phrase, maybe we should call it happy maximum maternal velocity day, people might look at you funny. I just wonder if today is about remembering that generosity is one of the many faces of love and that the take away is a posture of gratitude to those who have mothered us, those who have tended to us and brought us to life.
Or attending to something growing in you following that hitch in your spirit or that burning in your chest, that tells you there’s someone you are meant to mother to reach out to, to tend to their flourishing and come alongside them, maybe make their load a little easier to bear in some way. Maybe this is all too simple or should be more complicated, but maybe this is all we have to do today. Practice this generosity until life. And thank those who have done so for us.
The very first illustration I thought of is a story about mothering stories help us walk into truth and remember things better than a lecture ever could. So I’m going to end with this. Some of you may have read it already. A guy named C.S. Lewis wrote a lot of stuff. And in the Great Divorce, he has this vision or dream of what heaven might be like. The first person character is getting a sort of tour of heaven, guided by an angelic being of some kind and meets various other people along the way.
This is one part describing a sort of procession or parade they encounter on a forest path.
“First came bright spirits who danced and scattered flowers, then on the left and right at each side of the Forest Avenue came youthful shapes, boys on one hand and girls on the other. The song they sang was Magic. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no one who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them, went musicians and after these, a lady in whose honor all of this was being done.
Who is it, I whispered to my guide. It’s someone you’ve never heard of, her name on Earth was Sarah Smith, and she lived at Golders Green. She seems to be, well, a person of particular importance. Yes, she’s one of the great ones, you know, fame in this country and fame on earth are two very different things. And who are these gigantic people dancing and throwing flowers before her, a thousand angels celebrating her?
And who are all these young people on each side? They are her sons and daughters. Well, she must have had a very large family. My guide said every young man or boy that ever met her became her son, even if they only met in passing and every girl that met her was her daughter. Well, wasn’t that a bit hard on their own parents? Like I said, no, there are those that steal other people’s children, but her motherhood was of a different kind, those she mothered went back to their natural parents, loving them more.
And whoa, what are all these animals, a cat. Dozens of cats and all those dogs, I can’t even count them. And birds and the horses, well, they are her beasts. So did she keep a sort of zoo, I mean, this is a lot. Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her, they became themselves and now the abundance of life she has in Christ flows over into them.
I looked at my teacher in amazement. Yes, he said, it’s like when you throw a stone into a pool and the concentric waves spread out further and further, who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is love enough in the little finger of a great saint such as Sarah Smith to wake in all the dead things of the universe into life. Friends, may we live in this way, which is the way of our mothering God, so much love, so much inclusion, so much compassionate tending that we help heal the world.
Maybe we remember that mother God calls us beloved. May we see and thank those who have mothered us and awaken to those who longed to be mothered by us? May we embody the sort of love that brings forth life from death, light from darkness and love from fear? Happy maximum maternal velocity day.