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Mother's Day Proclamation

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, May 11

Mother's Day

Texts:  Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10

As I was going through old family photos to prepare an album for my mom’s 70th birthday, I came across one of yours truly, sitting in my neighbor’s backyard and holding in my arms a relatively newborn baby lamb.  I was probably about 8 years old.  I was feeding it a baby bottle of warm milk.  Cute, right?  And wouldn’t you know, it happened to be a little black sheep.

Mind you, I grew up in a Northern New Jersey suburb, 20 minutes from the GW Bridge into Manhattan.  Our next-door neighbor though, Mr. Wilbur Vandergoot, was a Dutch-born, wooden-shoe holdout from an earlier time. Equal parts carpenter and farmer, he lived in small red brick house and had a few precious undeveloped acres on which he raised chickens, pheasants, a wide range of fruits and vegetables and always at least three lambs and sheep whose wool he would sheer and sell. For the first 13 years of my life, I slept within earshot of those sheep, chickens and sometimes roosters, hearing their sounds, as I shot hoops in our driveway or played with Star Wars action figures in our backyard.  What’s more, whenever Mr. Goot (as I called him) went away, it would fall to me to care for his chickens and pheasants, and yes, to feed his sheep.  Part of me liked it, I guess, but I also remember this subtle sense of dread and a weight of responsibility every time I went into the coop or through the gate to the sheep pasture. What if something had happened to one of the animals?  What if one of them ran away, got sick or died?  What if they decided to get angry with me and start chasing me out, because after all mine wasn’t the voice they knew so well?

Like some of you I’m sure, I grew up hearing, even memorizing Psalm 23, with its language of God as our shepherd and its invitation to lie down in green pastures. I probably also had some vague childhood awareness of the texts from John that depict Jesus as a Good Shepherd, or in the case of today’s scripture, as a gatekeeper for the sheep.  Even despite this familiarity, it wasn’t until I saw that photo of me holding and feeding the little lamb that I ever connected all this biblical pastoral imagery with my daily childhood experience of Mr. Goot’s farm.  For those with no personal experience of farms, I have to imagine that all this sheep and shepherd stuff seems even more remote.  If you’re like me, you might even find some resistance to it as it relates to our spiritual lives.  For one thing, the images tend to turn God into a human figure and us into animals, and not very bright ones at that!  There’s also just something kind of soft and saccharine about sheep and especially lambs, thanks no doubt to the cheesy Sunday school materials some of us grew up with.  If we aren’t careful, we might relegate these images and the lessons they carry to the realm of all things sentimental, putting them right there alongside all those super sappy, pastel-colored Mother’s Day cards, with the cursive writing and bad poetry.  I’ll come back to Mother’s Day in a moment, but first, let’s take a quick closer at our two scriptures.

For starters, setting aside whatever sentimentalizing tendencies we may have about these pastoral metaphors, tending sheep is hard and gritty work.   In many ways, a shepherd is no different from a cowboy – the work of tending and corralling animals requires that same kind of “true grit” and savvy and smarts, instincts based on experience, and fortitude in the face of whatever present threats whether of animal predator. In our scriptures, Jesus mentions bandits or thieves.   Far from being sentimental, this business of being a shepherd or even a sheep is dirty and dangerous work and Jesus knows it when he uses the metaphor.  The point is not really about the shepherd or the sheep.  The point is about a kind of guiding and ever present relationship between God and humans.  In Psalm 23, God will lead us not only to moments of rest and stillness, yes, but also in paths of righteousness.  The gatekeeper in John is there not so much to declare who’s in and who’s out, but to open up and usher in a new way of life – a life that is abundant with meaning and loving purpose as opposed to death and destruction. These images are here to show us what it looks and feels like to live our lives fully aware of the constant companionship and presence of God, what it feels like to be led into trusting relationship, to be guided to walk in the ways of love and mercy and peace.  Ultimately, these images tell us about God’s love.  God’s love is like the intimacy between a good shepherd and all of his sheep, or elsewhere in the gospels, like a hen gathering her brood, or like a father’s love for his only child, like a love to be shared throughout the human family.  

I have a timely example of someone who was so led on the path of this righteous, as opposed to sentimental love.  It happens to be the story of the very first Mother’s Day, proclaimed as such by a woman named Julia Ward Howe in 1870.  Though I’m sure some of you have heard it before, it bears repeating.  And if you haven’t heard it yet, I guarantee it will change the way you of think of Mother’s Day for years to come.  An abolitionist, a pacifist, and a poet, Howe is most famous for penning the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  However, in the aftermath of the Civil War, and in the face of mounting casualties from the Franco-Prussian war, she also wrote a powerful manifesto entitled “Mother’s Day Proclamation.”  Hear her words: 

 

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will 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.
...

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…

So much for all those sentimental Mothers’ Day cards!  At about the same time, another mother, a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis, an Appalachian homemaker from West Virginia, had been working to develop better sanitary conditions for both sides in the Civil War. She formed what were called Mother’s Day Work Clubs, offering meals and care that helped to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors after the war.   Talk about preparing a table in the presence of enemies!  Some thirty years later, her daughter, Anna Marie Jarvis, campaigned to create an annual Mother’s day. By 1914, Woodrow Wilson declared Mother's Day as a national holiday on the second Sunday of May. Did you catch that? Today is the 100th anniversary of Mothers’ Day! 

Amazingly, even by 1914, the greeting card, floral and candy industry had already begun to commercialize Mother’s Day. Jarvis couldn’t stand these developments and spent the rest of her days campaigning against commercialization of Mother’s Day and end up thoroughly resisting the whole enterprise!  The very founder of Mother’s Day, Jarvis once said:  “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.” … “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.” True confession: I sent my mom a store bought card with a very pretty hummingbird on it. No ready-made words, but plenty of sincere scribble, and a plant from WBUR.  Poor Jarvis would be rolling in her grave!

Some good news for Jarvis is that Mother’s themselves have taken up her mom’s mantel and that of Julia Ward Howe, using it for broader purposes. Just yesterday, in what the New York Times, called “a rare venture into foreign policy.” Michelle Obama condemned the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by posting a picture of herself on Twitter, holding a piece of paper with “#BringBackOurGirls” written on it.  First Lady and Mother in Chief!   In the true Mothers Day tradition, this is an act of real leadership, joining together with others in a movement that teaches us that those girls are our girls!  Same with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and those kids, our kids, who have been lost in totally preventable car accidents. Same with Mothers for Justice and Equality and Mom’s Demand Action and the thousands of others who marched in this mornings Mother’s Day Walk for Peace, for those kids, our kids, are being gunned down in the streets of Boston. Same with the group Mothers Out Front who are standing up for our kids, as in every child on the planet, who will face a future of untold repercussions due to climate change.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for breakfast bed and laying on the well-deserved love and appreciation for all of our mothers today.  But today is also a day to celebrate bold acts of leadership of mothers and of all women, those stories upon stories of following a divine urge, of walking paths of righteousness, of setting tables and sitting in the presence of enemies (even in their own families!), stories that the vast majority of our scriptures and history books have left untold and uncelebrated.  Please do take the usual solace and comfort from sharing and hearing Psalm 23, especially the gorgeous version from Bobby McFerrin that the choir has especially prepare for this day.  Rejoice in this day of baptismal celebration, and especially its invitation to see these children of God as our own children, our own sisters and brothers. Thank God for real farmers and good shepherds and for brave mothers who teach us what it means to walk in paths of righteousness, to sit at table with our enemies, to be peacemakers in our world. Just don’t get too sentimental!

Lest you think I’m advocating for being completely unsentimental, I’d like to leave you with a poem I read out loud to my mom at her 70th birthday party as I handed her that photo album!

 

The Lanyard by Billy Collins

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly

off the pale blue walls of this room,

bouncing from typewriter to piano,

from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,

I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist

could send one more suddenly into the past

–
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp

by a deep Adirondack lake

learning how to braid thin plastic strips

into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one,

if that’s what you did with them,

but that did not keep me from crossing

strand over strand again and again

until I had made a boxy

red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breast,

and I gave her a lanyard.

She nursed me in many a sickroom,

lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,

set cold face-cloths on my forehead,

and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,

and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,

and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied,

which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,

strong legs, bones and teeth,

and two clear eyes to read the world,

she whispered,
and here, I said,

is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift–not the archaic truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

that two-tone lanyard from my hands,

I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless,

worthless thing I wove
out of boredom

would be enough to make us even.

 

In the end, what better a metaphor for God’s love, and what a metaphor for the paltriness of our response to it.  Amazing acts of grace, wonders of creation, guidance upon guidance to keep us on the right path, and still we whine like children or think we can somehow get even with our meager acts of thanks and praise.  We are all lost sheep in this regard, and maybe even bandits too.  Today, of all days, lets set aside our sentimentality and our laziness!  Instead, see Jesus as the true, gritty Shepherd watching, calling, herding us to the gate of righteousness. See the mothers, the women all around us as radical leaders urging us to change, to be our best selves for the sake of all humanity.  Hear these words anew and respond to the good shepherd, the Risen one, the divine Spirit, one God mother of us all!  Amen.

 

 

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