Preface: Anna Jarvis initiated what came to be Mother’s Day. When her mother died in 1905 Anna promised to honor her mother by establishing a special day to honor mothers, living and dead.
One version of Anna’s story says that she and her mother quarreled and her mother died before they reconciled. In any case, the effort to formalize Mother’s Day grew and by 1909, exactly 100 years ago, there were special Mother’s Day services in churches in 46 states and Canada and Mexico, and in 1914 the U.S. Congress voted to establish Mother’s Day, signed by Woodrow Wilson – the holiday emphasized the woman’s role in the family – not exactly what Jarvis had in mind; and soon Mother’s Day became very commercial, and Anna Jarvis came to regret ever having promoted it.
She said, “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” She opposed the selling of flowers (see below) and also the use of greeting cards: “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.”
In 1923 Jarvis filed suit against New York Governor Al Smith over a Mother’s Day celebration, which was thrown out of court, so she began public protests and was eventually arrested for disturbing the peace. She never had children of her own and died in poverty in 1948.
The sermon title comes from a poem by Billy Collins: 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.
Billy Collins penned the perfect Mother’s Day poem; a boy makes a lanyard as a gift to his mother and, years later, he realizes that you can never repay a mother for the gift of life, thousands of meals, many at her breast, and the gift of love she gave, as best she could.
Using self-effacing humor, he makes the point: you can’t repay your mother with a lanyard, or anything else – except living a good life, a life that reflects her influence.
Abraham Lincoln, for example, said, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.” He was nine years old when his mother died, but her influence stayed with him; she certainly would have been very proud of her tall son. Sandburg penned a poem about Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother:
Nancy Hanks dreams by the fire;
Dreams, and the logs sputter,
And the yellow tongues climb.
Red lines lick their way in flickers.
Oh, sputter, logs.
Oh, dream, Nancy.
Time now for a beautiful child.
Time now for a tall man to come
Crafting a Mother’s Day sermon that would speak to all types of mothers, and the children of that wide variety of mothers (of which you are one), feels a bit like offering you a lanyard, as if a single sermon or series of sermons could say all that needs to be said about mothers and motherhood.
I don’t preach a Mother’s Day sermon every year. Looking back over recent Mother’s Day sermons I realize that I used a lot of humor – things little kids say that are funny. I realized, in thinking back, that the reason I’ve used a lot of humor in them is because a Mother’s Day sermon is the most dangerous sermon to give. People have complained to me about sweet-sounding Mother’s Day sermons because it sounds like I think all mothers are good mothers…nurturing, giving, caring, loving, sensitive, etc.
I don’t think that – not at all. No mother is perfect, of course. What a burden that would be, to have a flawless mother! That would be a huge paradox – one of the biggest flaws a mother could have, to be perfect, without the need of some forgiveness!
I came to realize how fortunate I was to have a flawed mother who loved much because she was forgiven much. I’m reminded of the Parable in the gospel of Luke:
36Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[a] and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
48Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Recently Ken Lanouette told me a story about a visit he made to Columbia, South America, a place known for the best emeralds in the world. He asked about the synthetic emerald that had recently been developed and asked a master jeweler how he tells the difference between the synthetic emerald, which seems so perfect, and the real thing. “That’s easy. The real emerald always has a flaw.”
Not every woman who gives birth is prepared to be a mother – to do the things that the verb ‘mothering’ demands.
My dictionary says that the verb ‘to mother,’ is “…to watch over, to nourish, and protect maternally.”
Not every child who is watched over and nourished by a good, caring, sensitive and loving mother appreciates it at the time, but may come to understand and to appreciate later on.
Not every child who is loved in a mature, caring, intelligent way moves into adulthood as a good, caring, sensitive man or woman, and many mothers blame themselves for the faults of their children.
Sometimes a loving, nourishing mother holds on to her grown child too closely and if she won’t let go (with at least one hand, while holding on with the other) the child will have to create the distance necessary to become him or herself, a separate person.
It’s not easy being a mother. It never has been and never will be easy. Mothers are often confused and conflicted; mothers often feel inadequate – what mother hasn’t at times felt like a failure?
Sometimes we feel like we’ve failed our mothers, coming to understand and appreciate them when it’s too late; but in some ways it is never really too late.
The popular Russian poem, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, penned a poem about this:
Our mothers depart from us,
but we sleep soundly,
stuffed with food,
and fail to notice this dread hour.
Our mothers do not leave us suddenly,
it only seems so ‘sudden.’
Slowly they depart, and strangely,
with short steps down the stairs of years.
One year, remembering nervously,
we make a fuss to mark their birthday,
but this belated zeal
will save neither their souls
They withdraw ever further,
withdraw even further.
Roused from sleep,
we stretch toward them,
but our hands suddenly beat the air —
a wall of glass has grown up there!
We were too late.
The dread hour had struck,
Suppressing tears, we watch our mothers,
in columns quiet and austere,
departing from us.
I’ve known women who say that were determined to be a different kind of mother to their children than their own mother was to them, and then they find themselves doing and saying the same things their mother did.
Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is not only a masterpiece in terms of the sculpture, but a perfect portrayal of the suffering mother who has lost a son. The mother in the Pieta, the pity, is unusually youthful, and beautiful. Michelangelo wanted to portray her as beautiful, not because of physical beauty but because she was ‘morally beautiful,’ or ‘morally perfect.’
Mothers give…but it doesn’t feel like giving, it feels more like getting.
Shel Silverstein’s little book, The Giving Tree, illustrates a mother’s giving; the tree representing a mother. The story opens: “Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy…”
The tree and the boy developed a close relationship; the boy would play on the tree and collect the leaves and play in them, and he would play hide and seek, and eat her apples and sleep in her shade, and the boy was happy, and that made the tree happy.
Then the boy grew and no longer used the tree for play; he wanted money to buy things, so she gave him all of her apples and he sold them and got money; then she gave him all her branches for his house, and later she gave her trunk for him to build a boat, and when he was an old man she could only give him her old stump as a place to sit and reminisce…and the last line says, ‘and the tree was happy.’
This little story gets very mixed response. Some mothers’ reaction is strongly negative, saying that it suggests a mother should just give, and give. Other mothers have expressed appreciation for the story’s symbolism of a mother’s love. What do you think?
The poet e e cummings provides a nice close for this Mother’s Day:
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)