Opening words: E. E. Cummings
if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses
my father will be(deep like a rose
tall like a rose)
standing near my
(swaying over her
with eyes which are really petals and see
nothing with the face of a poet really which
is a flower and not a face with
This is my beloved my
(suddenly in sunlight
he will bow,
& the whole garden will bow)
Sermon: Forgiving Mothers
First, the sermon title was changed from Wrestling With Your Demons – by the word demons I had in mind what Carl Jung called the ‘shadow,’ those parts of ourselves about which we’re not fully aware, or about which we’re not conscious. Generally they are thought of as our weaknesses or shortcomings or basic human instincts.
Jung said, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the denser it is.”
The playwright August Wilson put it this way: “Confront the dark parts of your self, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” (Lincoln used the phrase ‘the angels of your better nature.’)
Jung suggested that the shadow isn’t all negative – it’s more accurately everything that a person refuses to acknowledge about him/her self; it may include positive things like a deep sense of compassion that threatens one’s sense of security or vulnerability, creating a rough exterior for protection; it may include creativity that hasn’t been given expression because it’s too risky to leave the well-paid bank job to write poetry.
I think there’s also a kind of collective shadow – a culture, country, religion’s shortcomings influenced by the most basic or ‘base’ human survival instincts, suggesting we’re better than they are.
Since the sermon title was printed an important event occurred – Osama bin Laden was found and removed, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Some of that relief overflowed into raucous celebrations with chants of “USA!”
I was reminded of a story from the Talmud — the a collection of rabbinic discussions about the meanings of stories in the Bible Jewish as well as opinions about Jewish law, ethics and philosophy – about customs and history. The word Talmud means ‘to teach, to study.’
One of those stories is about God parting the Red Sea to allow the Hebrew people to escape their bondage in Egypt. The story says that once they crossed to safety God closed the waters back and the Egyptian soldiers who were chasing them were drowned. The Hebrew peoplewho God allowed to cross safely, parting the sea for them. The story says that when the Egyptian army was drowned the Hebrew people applauded…they celebrated.
Exodus 15:20 “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after he with timbrels and with dances. Miriam (said) Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; for the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.”
In the Talmud, the rabbis say that God scolded the children of Israel for their inappropriate celebration and says, “How can you sing when my children are drowning?”
It seems like a natural thing to do, to celebrate the death of the evil enemy — and Osama bin Laden was the personification of evil in our time—in the same category of evil as a Hitler. But there’s a big difference between feeling relief, on the one hand, and shouting for joy, on the other.
All people are part of God’s creation, if you will. There’s no joy in the killing. Martin Luther King said it best:
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
The execution of Osama bin Laden was a necessary step on the road to preserving our nation’s security. We breathed a sigh of relief, of course.
Like the fabled Egyptian soldiers in the Biblical story, bin Laden has been ‘thrown into the sea.’ There will be no gravesite monument with pilgrimages, and we don’t need a photograph of the body which would certainly be used to cause more deaths. As President Obama said, “We don’t need to spike the football.”
However, this is Mother’s Day, a day designated to pay a tribute of respect and appreciation for our own mothers and grandmothers, for our daughters who are the parents of our grandchildren.
As I reflect on it today I think of the suffering of so many mothers whose sons and daughters were taken from them on September 11, 2001, and taken from them in the wars we’ve been fighting since that day – and taken in the terrorist attacks before 9/11.
I think of mothers whose sons and daughters were put in harm’s way by Osama bin Laden and his gang of terrorists.
I think back historically of the women who struggled for justice – the suffragettes who demanded equality and justice; the working women who are demanding justice at the work place – equal pay for equal work; the women who suffered from lack of access to safe, clinical family planning; the women who have suffered and are suffering from physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Mother’s Day is usually all about red and white carnations, which is fine as far as it goes. The red and white carnations are called ‘the flower of love.’ Extolling the virtues of mothers and motherhood, however, may become patronizing when offered by a man in the pulpit.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve invited women to deliver the sermon on Mother’s Day. I know the risk of having a man speak for women. But I’ve become braver lately – or foolhardy! It’s too late in the day for me to be overly cautious.
In my work as well as my private life I have seen the various ways women struggle – witnessed their suffering. Mothers worry about their children’s health and safety while they carry them before they give birth; then they become a nurturing mother – caring for a child for the first years, helping their child to become a separate, self-reliant person.
They worry. They worry about their children, whether they express their fears out loud or keep them covered, as one covers the eyes from the direct glare of the sunlight – you can’t stare at it with a steady eye. But the worry, the fear, is always there.
Mothers also worry about the possibility of not ‘doing it right.’ The child doesn’t come with operating instructions – and each child is different, unique, so what worked with one may not work with the others. Motherhood is a precarious occupation.
Mothers struggle with the uncertainties of parenting – especially in our time when most of the old rules have been in flux for several decades. Now mothers are called upon to provide opportunities for the dads to share the nurturing parts of parenting. Old rules and ways are being replaced by new ways.
Before motherhood happens, however, a woman must feel free to choose to conceive or not. Becoming a mother ought to be a choice, not a function of biology only. The ideal is that she has a spouse or partner to share the responsibilities of parenting.
The ideal is that motherhood is gratifying, joyous and rewarding; that it adds a dimension to a woman’s life that can only be described with a word like ‘sacred.’
That ideal may be a bit dangerous since it is almost never fully reached – motherhood is filled to the brim with challenges, uncertainties, disappointments and self-criticism, partly because of the big expectations…the ideal.
While children can sometimes be hard on their mothers, the mothers I’ve known and loved are more likely to be more critical of themselves.
When my mother was in her last days, struggling with lung cancer, and I, along with my seven brothers and sisters, were telling her how much we loved her and appreciated all she had done for us, she said to me, in a kind of private confessional moment, “I haven’t alwaysbeen the wonderful mother you are making me out to be…I’ve had lots of faults…”
I responded, “But whatever faults you had only added to what you gave us…your imperfections helped us to live with our own imperfections, so it was necessary to have a built-in element of forgiveness. Your imperfections were a blessing.”
In that one-on-one conversation I also added with a smile, “Besides, I have no idea what imperfections you’re referring to!” We both knew I was telling a big white lie!
That conversation reminded me of an intriguing story in the Gospel of Luke – maybe you know it – it’s the story of the Pharisee who accused Jesus:
One of the Pharisees asked (Jesus) to dine with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a (known) sinner, when she learned that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more. And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” LUKE 7:36-47.
The (new) sermon title, Forgiving Mothers, is purposely ambiguous. Does it mean mothers who are forgiven for their faults, failures and limitations, or mothers who offer their forgiveness, giving unconditional love of their children – or mothers who are able to forgive themselves, refusing to be dragged down by a sense of inadequacy?
The story from Luke has intrigued me for a long time. Like the sermon title, the story is ambiguous.
If the consequence of being forgiven much is to love much, then those whose faults, failures and limitations, and who are forgiven for their fallibilities, are rewarded with an increased capacity to love.
In the course of doing parish ministry I have, of course, listened to many mothers who have struggled with their imperfections as mothers, and many who suffer ‘the slings and arrows’ of their child’s outrageous criticism.
The same goes for fathers, of course, but this is Mother’s Day – the story in Luke about fathers and forgiveness is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Forgiveness, and the need of forgiveness, is the basic theme of the New Testament and the Christian religion in general. There’s an element of forgiveness in all religion.
These paradoxical stories – these parables – are unique to the Gospel of Luke, there are no similar stories in the other three Gospels. Luke presents us with someone who is considered to be a great sinner, by others as well as by herself, (or in the Parable of the Prodigal son who considers himself a great sinner – ‘not worthy to be called your son,’ he says to his father) in contrast to people who are considered to be genuinely righteous, like the Pharisee and the elder son.
In both cases Jesus is on the side of the sinner, therefore he is criticized by the righteous ones.
That is not to say that the righteous ones are not truly righteous and truly religious.
One doesn’t have to be wrong for the other to be right; the stories point out that we can have differing perspectives, like the blind men and the elephant – each touched a part and compared it to something he knows: the one who feels a leg says the elephant is like a tree trunk; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a fan, and so forth.
I had the good fortune to have a forgiving mother. I had the good fortune to offer forgiveness to her when she acknowledged that she wasn’t always ‘the perfect mother.’
Forgiveness is a gift – one might say it is ‘a gift from God,’ in the sense that ‘God forgives.’ Since God is omnipresent, forgiveness is always available and accessible. ‘Ask and you shall receive…knock and the door will be opened.’
My mother knocked on that door and I simply wanted to convey an important truth to her that day: that she has been forgiven for any faults, real or imagined. But she already knew that – she just wanted me to be aware that she ‘knew.’
That simple, brief interaction is a gift I continue to unwrap and to cherish. So, naturally, I recommend it.
If your mother is no longer here you can think those thoughts, or write them to her. I’ll provide the guarantee that the angels will deliver those thoughts!
If your mother is still with you then you can deliver it yourself with ‘the better angels of your nature.’
We’ll close with Billy Collins’ wonderful Mother’s Day poem, The Lanyard:
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when 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 into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long 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 breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid 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 worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
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