The Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 10, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Happy Mother’s Day – and I say that not just to the mothers, and not just to the women, but to all of you. In the words of Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic,
Jesus Christ… is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts…Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
And Jesus tells us, love one another as I have loved you. So, Happy Mother’s Day.
There were a number of things I was not prepared for when I had kids. I didn’t know that my new mountaineering boots would remain in their box on the shelf forever. I didn’t foresee how many hours I would spend staring vacantly out over a playground. I didn’t fully see how much less autonomous I would be, that I would always be tethered to this other person’s life. And I didn’t know how being a mother would break my heart.
I understood pretty quickly that my own children could break my heart. I remember all too well the twisting in my guts when the neonatal doctor came into my room after Benjamin’s birth, to explain to me that he was in an incubator and was having trouble breathing; I know all too well the total panic that still ensues when one of them wanders too far out of our sight in a crowd. But I didn’t know that every news story about a suffering child, or child who is lost, or a parent grieving for their child, would so wrench me. I didn’t know that by having children, I was opening myself to all children. Becoming a parent turned out to be one of the ways God would grow me up and out of my self-absorption, to begin to learn to love as God loves.
Because mothering can break your heart. And that is true for every one of us here today.
Our country is in the midst of such heartbreak right now over our children. There are three storylines that jumped out at me in recent days: A demographic analysis revealing that 1.5 million young African-American men are, as the study put it, ‘missing’: 1 in every 6 black men age 24-54 disappeared from society, mostly because they have died young or been incarcerated. Another piece reported on the suicide epidemic among teenagers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota – not the first time this has happened in Indian communities, who see a youth suicide rate as much as ten times higher than the national average. And another study revealed that if you grow up low-income in certain neighborhoods in our country, including parts of Manhattan, you will earn as much as 25% less than if you grow up in an average neighborhood. The children of Pine Ridge will earn 35% less. The future of so many of our children in this country is bleak.
These are all our children. And if the news about what is happening to our children doesn’t break our hearts, then something is wrong with our hearts. Because it certainly breaks God’s heart.
Heavy stuff for Mother’s Day, perhaps – but Mother’s Day didn’t used to be all brunch and roses. It began as a church celebration of Mary the Mother of God, and by the 1600s in England became a day to allow the working classes time off to visit their own mothers and families – a rare day off for laborers and household staff. In 1872, Julia Ward Howe established a Mothers’ Day of Peace in the U.S. After the Franco-Prussian War and the Civil War, she was disgusted with all the violence, and offered the commemoration as a day to uphold women’s role in peace and in the political arena. In 1914 Anna Jarvis persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to sign Mother’s Day into law in the U.S., honoring mothers and peace – a goal she had pursued for several years. Of course, in 1925, Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace, because she went out to protest the commercialization of the holiday she’d promoted. It didn’t take us long to slide off of the real meaning of the day.
All too often, something is wrong with our hearts. Lives of others are broken, and we don’t allow our hearts to be broken by it. We turn away instead.
The Gospel of John over the last few Sundays has been giving us pieces of Jesus teaching his disciples about love. It is his farewell speech, his parting words to them and to us. Soon I will not be with you in the flesh, he’s saying, so get this: how you make me present, how you continue to follow me, is to love one another. You can’t say you love God and love Jesus without loving your fellow human beings. If there’s nothing else we understand from what Jesus has been living and teaching, at least we should realize how much we are called to love.
But there must be something about this message that we don’t like. Because instead, we’ve summed up Jesus in other ways. Some of us do it by focusing on the afterlife, on the reward or punishment that will come to us after we die. The gospel message becomes a set of rules to follow, like a checklist of behavior for how to be a good person. Don’t swear, don’t murder, give to charity, mind your own business…check: get into heaven. Or it becomes about right doctrine and right theology so we properly understand how God’s salvation through Jesus works. Answer the questions correctly at the end and check: get into heaven.
Others of us prefer to focus Jesus’ teachings mostly on this life and how we live it now, again as a set of rules to follow, only instead of getting us into heaven it makes us a morally upright and good citizen. Go to church, pay taxes, be respectful, check: proper behavior. Or we make it into a kind of self-help manual, a set of tools to make our lives better and more fulfilled: accept God’s love and forgiveness, let go of pain, feel better, check: happiness.
Now, I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with any of these ideas: there’s nothing wrong with holding ourselves to high standards of behavior, or to pushing ourselves to understand better how God works. There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to fuller, more abundant life; or with believing that God offers us healing and love. The problem is in what we’re really focusing on. Because in all of these ways, we tend to focus entirely on ourselves. My ticket into heaven. My righteousness. My happiness. My self-satisfaction. And when our focus lies with ourselves, too many other lives stay broken. And we walk right on by.
This congregation of St Michael’s has a long and hallowed history of social action and care for our neighbors. But like many churches, that history is not entirely perfect. There was a time in the history of this parish when children of the wrong color were not considered our children – they were welcome to worship at the mission ‘for colored people,’ but not here. There have been times when children of the wrong socioeconomic class have not quite been our children either – they might be objects for our charity, but they’re not part of us. And throughout the history of our church and all churches, it can sometimes be too easy for all of us to not quite get involved, to let our daily preoccupations protect us, to not really allow all God’s children to break our hearts.
Today after the service Father Sam and the racial justice study group are offering an opportunity to share our broken hearts. It’s an hour to tell and hear stories of racism and prejudice, times and ways that we have hardened our hearts to others and felt others harden their hearts towards us. It’s a risky move to tell those stories, to be vulnerable in that way with one another. But I commend it to you if you are able – one way in our congregation to let God the Mother teach us again to care for one another better and more lovingly.
New York has a way of encouraging us to harden our hearts. But Jesus asks us instead to allow ours to be broken. As the founder of World Vision, Bob Pierce, prayed, ‘May our hearts be broken by what breaks the heart of God.’ Our command is to love as Jesus loves us; together we can seek further and go deeper into how each of us, and all of us as a community, love and care for all of God’s children. We are all of us loved by God our Mother; and we are all of called to be mothers to one another. May our hearts break enough to allow God to heal our world. Amen.