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Day of Peace

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, May 10

Text:  Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

This morning, I’m feeling a bit like Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, the newborn British Princess.  The British talk about “the heir and a spare” -- and it’s always handy to have a spare around, in case the preacher loses her voice!  When Karin confirmed yesterday that her laryngitis wasn’t going to clear up enough to preach, I had fun looking through my various Mothers’ Day sermons and seeing how my theology and understanding of mothers and motherhood had evolved over the past three decades.  That, combined with today’s lectionary text about Peter finding his voice, and Dan’s participation this morning in the Mothers’ Day Walk for Peace will give us some things to explore together. 

I have to begin with my favorite Mothers’ Day cartoon.  It’s a New Yorker drawing of a young boy, making a card at school.  He has drawn a picture and written “Happy Mothers’ Day” across the top, but his teacher is standing over his shoulder, pointing to his paper, and clearly unhappy with how he’s written it.  The children on either side of him have also written Happy Mother’s Day, with the apostrophe before the s, while he put his apostrophe after the s.  The caption says, “I have two mommies.  I know where the apostrophe goes.”

So is it Mother’s Day?  Or Mothers’ Day?  It’s not just a question about how many mothers you have -- it’s a far deeper question about the origin and purpose of this day.  It was not originally a Hallmark holiday, you know.  It wasn’t about flowers and phone calls and cards and breakfast in bed.  It had its origins in our very divided country, fractured by the Civil War.  In the mid-nineteenth century, when women were founding groups to address all sorts of social issues -- slavery, temperance, poverty, education – Ann Reeves Jarvis and others organized picnics and other events for women as pacifist strategies to unite former foes from the civil war conflict: Union and Confederate loyalists.

In this context, Julia Ward Howe (the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic) issued her 1870 proclamation calling all women to leave the responsibilities of their homes and gather together in an international assembly, first to commemorate the dead and second to work together to discover the way to make a lasting peace. She has this great line: “We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”  It was a day for women, a day for mothers – which would put the apostrophe after the s. 

A generation later, a few years after Ann Jarvis died, her daughter, Anna Jarvis organized Mother’s Day observances.  For her, it wasn’t a day to celebrate all mothers – it was a day for individuals to celebrate their own mother, to go to visit and thank her for all she did.  Anna was horrified by the growing commercialization of the day, emphasizing instead the simplicity of an intimate visit.  That’s why she stressed that it was Mother’s – apostrophe s - Day, not the plural Mothers’ Day.  (Although one could assume that if she were campaigning today, she would allow the children of two-mom families to place their apostrophe after the s.)

Today, if you look through the Mother’s Day card section, you’ll find card after card inviting mothers to put their feet up, and not do anything.  Relax, enjoy, be pampered.  So how did we get from the activist-pacifist women of the nineteenth century to the 20th century call to be inactive and passive?  Why did we shift from a day when women were called to leave their homes to attend a women’s peace convention – to a day where women were expected to stay at home so that they could be honored?

Is this another time when we in the Christian church can be once again counter-cultural?  Christianity is not about honoring God by putting him on a pedestal or by inviting God to put her feet up and fixing her breakfast or taking her out to dinner.  Christianity is about honoring life, working for peace and justice, even when – or especially when – that involves challenging the status quo.  We hear Jesus’ challenge to transform relationships.  I came, not to be served but to serve.  I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.  Jesus challenged the power structure of the society, and modeled mutual relationships of honor and respect.

When we do this work of transforming society, one step at a time – when we do it not alone, but with each other, there is power and possibility.  Where two or three are gathered, Jesus promises to be in their midst.  Alone, we are vulnerable.  Alone, the immensity of the violence is too painful to bear.  Julia Ward Howe knew this and called women to come together.  The early church knew it too, and called its followers together so that they could find the courage to proclaim Jesus’ story, so that, in turn, others could be baptized and join them on the journey.

Every year in these weeks before and after Easter, as we read the Passion narrative and the story of the early church, I’m amazed at how Peter is transformed: from one who denied even knowing Jesus, one who hid behind locked doors -- into a proud and confident disciple, preacher, and leader, the “rock”, the cornerstone upon which the whole structure is built.  How did that transformation come about?

At the conclusion of the terrible events in Jerusalem, the terrified disciples fled.  Where did they go?  Back to their homes, back to their fishing.  The long walking journey gave them time to reflect.  The slow patient pace of fishing and the grueling work of hauling in their nets gave them even more time to contemplate.  Back to their routines, they must have wondered what it all meant – those months and years spent following Jesus – ended as suddenly as they began.

And then, perhaps after a number of months, or maybe even years, the disciples’ grief and anger and fear turned into a powerful experience of Jesus’ presence with them, more real than his absence.  And they knew that his teachings and passion had made a difference in their lives.  Many people know that feeling – when grief gives way to gratitude.  It doesn’t mean that the pain goes away, but at least some of it is transformed.

It is these moments of transformation that are the central core of Christianity.  Peter’s vision, described in the 10th chapter of Acts pinpoints a moment of transformation in his understanding of the gulf that divided the Jews and Gentiles of his day.  Julia Ward Howe’s vision and call to action brought together the Union and Confederacy.  Today, we might see those divisions by race or ethnicity, or maybe divided by class or privilege.  And, if you’re like me, there are many days when it all seems too immense a problem to overcome, too wide a gap to bridge.  We start to feel defeated and diminished and alone, which of course just keeps the imbalance of power in place.

When we come together, we find courage.  Marge Piercy’s poetry reminds us of the power of numbers:

… Alone, you can fight,

you can refuse, you can

take what revenge you can

but they roll over you. …

Two people can keep each other

sane, can give support, conviction,

love, …

Three people are a delegation,

a committee, a wedge.  With four

you can play bridge and start

an organization.  With six

you can rent a whole house,

eat pie for dinner with no

seconds, and hold a fund raising party.

A dozen make a demonstration.

A hundred fill a hall.

A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;

ten thousand, your own media;

ten million, your own country.

 

It goes on one at a time,

It starts when you care

to act, it starts when you do

It again after they said no,

it starts when you say We

and know who you mean, and each

day you mean one more.

 

So --- put your apostrophe wherever you want to put it, but put it there for a reason.  May God bless our mothers.  May God bless those nineteenth century women who agitated for peace and advocated for justice, and may we join them in speaking and acting for peace and justice in our world.  Amen.

 

 

References:

See Katharine Antolini, "Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Defense of Her Mother's Day" as referenced in the 2014 National Geographic article, Mother's Day Turns 100: Its Surprisingly Dark History, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140508-mothers-day-nation-gifts-facts-culture-moms/

Marge Piercy, “The Low Road” in Cries of the Spirit, pp. 170-71

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