May 08, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
I’ll let you in on a secret. Most pastors, and I am among them, feel a lot of trepidation about preaching on Mother’s Day. I learned the hard way in my first church what happens when you don’t preach about mothers at all on Mother’s Day. When I got out of seminary I followed the lectionary, prescribed Bible passages for each Sunday of the year. My first Mother’s Day I followed the lectionary without a mention of mothers. And I heard it from all the people who love their mommas and all the mommas who have kids. I don’t think I could have had a more visceral reaction than had I preached some heresy.
But then as I started addressing Mother’s Day as a focus in sermons I realized something else. Not everyone had a loving momma. And there are many women who have not been able to have children, or lost children, and for many people Mother’s Day brings a lot of grief. And then of course, there are those whose mothers have recently died.
I think of Ashely Judd whose mother Naomi Judd took her life last week. At the Country Music Hall of Fame event just days ago she and her sister, Wynona, paid a tearful tribute to their mom. Yet in Ashley’s autobiography ten years ago she also shared how lonely she was growing up. Her mother and sister made it big as a country singing duo and they were gone regularly on tours. Ashley didn’t have her mother around. Then after being sexually assaulted as a child, her mother didn’t believe her. And later her mother’s depression became a further experience of separation.
Sometimes tears are for the mothers we no longer have with us, but sometimes the tears are for the mothers we wish we would have had.
So I do understand that Mother’s Day brings with it a lot of mixed emotion, and yet, one of the most powerful images in the Bible used to describe God’s love is that of a mother.
Jesus looked over Jerusalem and said, “I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chick under her wings.” (Luke 13:34) Hosea described God’s fierce love as “a mother bear robbed of her cubs.” (Hosea 13:8) God says through the prophet Isaiah, “As a mother comforts her young so will I comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:13)
My personal favorite comes from Moses. He describes God’s love “like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.” (Deuteronomy 32:11) Moses probably witnessed this sight in the mountainous Sinai wilderness--an eagle teaching its young to fly. It would appear cruel. The mother swoops down as destroys the nest that would have been perched on a high cliff. The eaglets are thrown out, falling down, surely to die. They flap their wings wildly but they can’t fly. They haven’t yet learned to stretch them and glide. And right before they crash, the mother swoops underneath them, without their being able to see her, and the mighty wind current from her wings suspends the young, so they began flapping their wings and learn they can fly.
The Bible, of course, is saying this is how God loves us. Sometimes what feels like a total wrecking of our lives is just a step toward our learning how to soar. We don’t always understand why God allows things in our lives to happen as they do, but underneath us is God’s presence all along, suspending us, supporting us, using whatever we have gone through to learn to learn to fly.
So Mother’s Day really points beyond our own individual families, and even our lives. It points to God, and what I hope you will see by the end of this message is that what Mother’s Day really stands for is the very hope of the world.
We are working our way through 1 Corinthians 13 and in the verses we heard today there are two important statements: “Love endures all things,” and “Love never fails.” In other words Love puts up with a lot, and love never lets us down.
At the end of the chapter Paul compares love to faith and hope but says the greatest of these is love. Why? Because love is the one thing God does. God doesn’t believe. God calls us to believe. God doesn’t hope. God is our source of hope. But the Bible does say God loves. More than anything else, when we love, we participate in the activity of God. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)
God puts up with a lot and God never let us down.
As I pointed out last week the word Paul uses for love in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape. There are several different words for love in the Greek language in which the New Testament was first written. Most of the words describe human relationships, but agape is the highest form of love. It describes God’s love. It focuses on the needs of others.
But I said something about agape last week that isn’t exactly correct. I said agape isn’t based on human relationships and that’s not quite true.
Let’s go back a few weeks ago to Maundy Thursday when Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with the disciples. In John’s Gospel, it was at that table when Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment to love one another.” The late Dr. Mark Trotter, long time pastor of First UMC in San Diego, pointed out that there really was nothing new about this commandment. It goes back to the Torah, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus had already established earlier in his ministry. Why did he say it was a new commandment?
Think of the setting. It was the Passover meal. Then as now, the Passover is celebrated in homes with families. You don’t go to the synagogue for Passover. Families keep the Passover together. But Jesus was not with his earthly family that Passover night. He was with the disciples. When he says, “I give you a new commandment that you should love one another,” he’s saying you have a new family. Look at those around you as your family. Look at all people as those to whom you have a commitment, a responsibility to look after and protect and take care of.” This is what’s new. Agape, love as God loves, means that we see all people as family.
What a changed world view that gives us, when you see others, complete strangers, as people to whom you belong, people to whom you owe a debt of love! But this is exactly what the early church did. In those days it was legal in Roman society to practice what was known as infanticide, the practice of abandoning unwanted children to the elements.
A second century Christian named Tertullian sent a letter to the emperor protesting this practice he called abandoning children to “the kindness of strangers.” That is where that term “kindness of strangers” comes from. But the church did more than complain about it, they went out and rescued abandoned children. They brought them in and families took in children as their own.
The church built orphanages to shelter and educate children. One such place in Venice was the Della Pieta which housed abandoned girls. They were taught music. Antonio Vivaldi, who became a priest, was an amazing violinist. He went to the school to be the director of music and created a girls orchestra and choir that became famous all over Europe. Just listen to a bit Vivaldi’s music…
Isn’t that soothing. Imagine girls choirs singing music that would be that beautiful. The music from Della Pieta became famous all over Europe. One time the philosopher Rousseau went to hear them. The choir sat in an apse, an extension of the sanctuary on both sides of the altar, so they were out of view of the congregation, made even more complete by a screen that shielded them.
Well, Rousseau was so amazed by their music he asked Vivaldi if he could meet the choir. He was taken around the screen and was shocked by what he saw. The girls were terribly deformed. That is probably why they were abandoned. But the church took these girls in, girls discarded by the world, and helped them see how beautiful they are to God and discover music within them so they could soar. Many of these girls became highly sought after teachers themselves.
Love endures. Love never fails. But you can only love that way when you have a sense of responsibility to others. When you see them as your children, your brother, your sister, your family. When you believe that you belong to them and they belong to you, for this is how God loves us, and it is why I say that what Mother’s Day originally stood for is the hope of the world.
Did you know that Mother’s Day started in a Methodist Church? The first Mother’s Day in America was celebrated in Andrew Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia the second Sunday of May 1908. It was started by Anna Jarvis in memory of her mother, Ann Jarvis, who was a social activist and community organizer.
Her father was a Methodist minister and her family moved around to churches throughout rural communities in the Appalachian mountains. Ann married and had seven children and formed what became known as “Mothers’ Work Clubs.” They were devoted to fighting the problems of disease, poor health, and improper sanitation, many of which probably led to the deaths of five of her children. The Mothers’ Work Clubs were formed as a way of saying, all the children in our town are our children, and we must look after them.
In the Civil War the Methodist churches were taken over by troops from Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. When an epidemic of typhoid fever and measles broke out among the soldiers, the general asked the mothers’ clubs to care for the sick and they did, receiving high commendation for their service.
When the war was over veterans from both sides returned to the same communities, even the same churches and families, and tensions and prejudice and hatred was high. So Mrs Jarvis decided to reactivate the Mothers’ Work Clubs to, as she put it, “kick the devil downstairs.”
She worked with local authorities to form a new celebration in 1868 called The Mothers’ Friendship Day. The idea was simple: club members would bring their families and mix with other families in the crowds to prevent splitting of the communities into hostile camps. The day arrived and what was feared happened. Union veterans wearing blue gathered on one side and glared at Confederate veterans wearing grey on the other. Authorities fearing an armed battle was about to happen were going to call it off until Ann Jarvis said, “No way!”
And she got up to speak and brought other moms and their children wearing blue and grey standing together. They started singing, first, “Way Down South in Dixie.” Well, that got half the crowd in a good mood. Then they sang, “The Star Spangled Banner,” and that warmed up the other side. Then they sang “Auld Lang Syne.” And an amazing spirit fell over the town. People’s hearts melted and they came together realizing we are a community, we want our community back.
Anna spent the rest of her life promoting these work clubs and Friendship Days helping it spread to other communities. She died in 1905 and her daughter Anna began work to preserve her mom’s memory creating the first Mother’s Day celebration in 1908. Anna never married or had any children herself, and in fact, came to lament the Mother’s Day tradition because of how sentimental it became. She felt it lost the power of community change and focus on helping others.