Monday, May 14, 2007

It's Mothers' Day

It’s Mothers’ Day. I notice that I’m fighting a losing battle, insisting that the apostrophe go after the “s” to show that the day belongs not to any one mother, but to all. Our Episcopal Life insert disagrees with me, but I’m grateful for what it brings to our observance of this day.

First, it reminds us of how this day was conceived. Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and so showed herself no common pacifist, called for a Mothers Peace Day in 1870, and I think her words deserve to be heard today:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, ‘Disarm, Disarm!’ …In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

Notice that forty-two years later, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day but dropped the word “Peace”—just two years before the outbreak of World War I.

Bringing home the urgency of our need today for Howe’s kind of passion is the icon of the Madonna of the Sudan shown on this insert, itself a proclamation—and a powerful sermon in two dimensions—declaring universal the hope and the pain of motherhood. This image reminds me of Mother Raile Daffala, and some of us are fortunate enough to have met her when she came to Williamstown some years ago. She is still going strong in Khartoum, where she is a matriarch among the Anglican deaconesses who, in addition to mothering their own children and grandchildren and youngsters in their extended families orphaned by war or AIDS or famine, also mother the growing number of street children in the displaced persons camps, teaching them, feeding them, showing them God.

More of you will recall Ruben Odragwa, one of Mother Raile’s sons whose family we have had the privilege to assist in resettlement. When I returned to my office last Sunday after coffee hour, I found a voice message from Ruben. In his rich and lilting voice, he wanted his and Kawthar’s love sent to you all from Fargo, North Dakota, where they now live. I hope to return that call one day soon, and then have more to report about them.

Mother Raile of Khartoum, Mother Theresa of Calcutta… Here are in-our-lifetime icons of how universal the embrace of a mother’s love can be. And when that love is focused primarily on a mother’s own children, she shows how that universal embrace is actually extended: one by one. And intensely, passionately (we know it isn’t only Mama Bears who rush to protect their cubs). And creatively, wisely, insistently.

All these words describe also the care that countless women extend beyond their own family circle through their jobs, their careers, through volunteering, through being friends and neighbors—and we celebrate this extended universal caring today, as well as the original kind that Hallmark and our local friendly florist have had in mind for the past several weeks.

Let’s just be sure that we remember the original original vision that moved Julia Ward Howe: that this day deserves to be about women coming together in solidarity against warfare in all forms. Show us men how. Invite us to that meeting.

I’ve mentioned Mother Julia, Mother Raile, Mother Theresa. Mother Mary also gets airtime in this sermon today. I mean Mary, mother of our Lord. Mary who was an at-risk young mother, braving stigma to bring us our Savior. Mary who simply didn’t understand how her 12-year-old son could dump her and Joseph so totally, that time when they went up to Jerusalem as pilgrims and Jesus remained in the temple, talking theology with his elders (a scene remembered by Louis Comfort Tiffany in a window on the west aisle). Mary, whose understanding of her son got more and more challenged, the older he got, until the day would come that she prompted her other children to plan an intervention and bring him home, before his public preaching tour landed him in worse trouble. She failed. And probably thought she had failed him. (“What did I do that was so wrong that my boy can’t settle down?”)

I’ll guess that her maternal self-blame burdened her beyond description on the day of his death.

We don’t hear her voice or see her in any memorable way after that. But if you look at the last of the windows above our altar, those windows that tell the full story of our Redeemer’s life, you will see her at the very center of the apostolic band. It is the Day of Pentecost there, flames of fire darting above their heads, showing them on fire from the passion of Christ, and by that light she understands. She comprehends the mystery, embraces his disciples as her own children, and, one might guess from her prominence there, becomes the Church’s Mother.

I know that she plays a rich role in the spiritual journeys of some of us. I suspect she may not have a front-row seat in the inner lives of many of us. I wonder if the stress placed on her virginity has placed her beyond reach, beyond imagination, on a pedestal of purity that doesn’t have its base on the ground that you and I walk.

If so, that’s a shame. And a far reach from how Mary was revered during the Middle Ages. Then, her popularity stemmed from her down-to-earth and up-close familiarity with the hope and the pain of all sorts of people. She was the holy one everyone could relate to. Peasants and royalty prayed to her at her shrines because they expected she’d get the job done, they knew she cared about what they cared about.

In 1951, when the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the belief that Mary had been physically drawn up into heaven—the Assumption of Mary—the psychologist Carl Jung said (more or less), “It’s about time that the feminine side of God should be acknowledged.” And the universal reach of motherhood.

I’ve chosen two poems, and want to read them, in closing. The first is Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned from My Mother”:

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household…

(You can find this poem and the next in "Good Poems", edited by Garrison Keillor and published by Viking.) The second poem is Wendell Berry’s “To My Mother”:

I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do…

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Towel and the Sheet

At 9:00 this morning we offered Worship Outside the Box, our experimental frontier in worship that we’ve been doing twice a month, first and third Sundays, since last fall. Through that service, we’re learning how to aim the language and music and movement of worship towards children and youth, and to do it within twenty minutes.

On first Sundays, we celebrate communion. On those days, I design the service, and that includes putting the one scripture reading, usually the Gospel, into language that works. Here’s what I did with today’s Gospel. I don’t offer it as an improvement upon the inspired word of blessed John, our Patron. Receive it as an echo of what you heard moments ago, and just hear what you hear.

At the last supper, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, doing for them what a servant would normally do, not what you would expect a leader to do. This action shocks Simon Peter, who thinks it’s beneath Jesus’s dignity to do this. It was the last straw for Judas Iscariot. He has expected Jesus to lead a revolt against the imperial Roman army, to free the Jewish people. He watches Jesus getting his hands dirty, bathing the dusty feet of his friends, and thinks to himself, “This man is not the leader we need,” and angrily storms out into the night to find a way to get Jesus arrested by the Roman army. “Maybe this will spark the revolution,” Judas thinks, desperately—like a suicide bomber thinks.

Seeing him leave, Jesus says to the others, “Now the Son of Man shows what true power is, power from God, power that gives God the glory. I’m going to have to leave you, and where I’m going none of you can come. Only the Son of Man can walk the path I’m about to walk. I do it for the whole human race, once for all. Judas wants me to free one group of people from injustice and tyranny. God our Father wants to free all peoples from every evil, and needs me to use his power to break the hold of sin and death. I will do this as servant leader, as I have shown you.

“Your part is to keep a new commandment, to keep it every day and every moment of your lives. By keeping this you will fulfill the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. This will be your power. This will be within your power because my Spirit dwells within you and among you.

“My commandment is that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. This is how all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another and so love God with all your heart and mind and strength.”

That exercise in paraphrasing taught me that John had an economy of words that I do not have (my version is three times the length of his). But I think John would understand my desire to put this little passage in its wider setting. It’s a good thing I didn’t try that approach with our reading from the Book of Acts! Worship Outside the Box might still be going on…

And yes, I do want to go to that story with you now.

In John’s Gospel, there’s a towel in the background, the one Jesus used to wipe his disciples’ feet. In the Book of Acts, there’s something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners and in Peter’s vision it comes close to him. I like to think of it as just a bigger version of our Lord’s towel, because it serves the same purpose: it holds the glory of God. In the first case, that was the glory of servant leadership, what the power of God looks like at its best in human form. In this second story, the glory is God’s ecumenism.

Oikoumene is a wonderful Greek word meaning, more or less, “one world”. Today at Worship Outside the Box we sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”.
The wider setting of our story in Acts is that some of the apostles have had great success preaching to the Greeks. Remember that their message was shaped by Hebrew scripture, their Messiah was born and died a Jew, their ranks, before the Day of Pentecost, were entirely Jewish, and, in its earliest generations, followers of Jesus were a movement within the religion of Israel.

The success of some apostles in the conversion of Gentiles was a hard pill for other apostles to swallow. Shouldn’t these Greek Christians be circumcised? And keep kosher households?

In Peter’s vision God answers, “You’re asking the wrong questions. These old distinctions must end. See, I am making all things new—starting with the Church. There must not be Jewish Christians and Greek Christians, but one body, a new creation, my oikoumene. Now get it together!”

This message opens every rite of holy baptism: "There is one Body and one Spirit; there is one hope in God’s call to us; One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all."

The message of the lowered sheet is the message of the towel: "By this you will be known as my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The whole greening groaning world needs to be wrapped in that sheet and freed by those words, What God has made clean, you must not make profane.

The fracturing Anglican Communion needs to be wrapped in that sheet, and cleaned by that towel that shows what the power of God looks like at its best in human form.

Each of us needs to feel the rush of that flapping sheet that contains all the experiences we could find unacceptable but, contained by God, are never beyond his providence, and so hear a voice that says, “Dare to welcome all that life brings. I stand within it, towel in hand. And here is your towel: wield its power.”