Who Is My Mother?

May 8, 2005
Rev. Elizabeth M. Deibert
First Presbyterian Arcadia

Matthew 12:46-50 7th Sunday of Easter - Mother's Day

Thank you, session of Arcadia, for the opportunity to stand in this pulpit, to seek together with you and the folks from Lakewood Ranch and Peace River Presbytery to know the Holy One we come to worship. But also to know one another in this process of discernment as the new church development seeks a pastor. We are grateful for your hospitality today.

It’s Mother’s Day and I left my own dear mother caring for our four children, who had an eighth grade formal dance, a state-wide piano recital, a regional track meet, and next week’s state achievement tests. She’s a remarkable mother, grandmother, retired school teacher and Presbyterian elder who’s nearly eighty.Who mothered you? A biological mother, stepmother, adoptive mother, grandmother, aunt? My friend and predecessor at Faison Presbyterian Church claims to have been mothered by all the women of the church. Steuart’s father was a pastor and his mother was tragically killed in a car accident when he and his three brothers were very young.

People come to Mother’s Day with mixed emotions. There are those who have lost a mother recently and those who have a difficult relationship with mother. There are those who wish they had children and those who wish they had handled the children they had with more grace. But let’s get clear on the history of the day: Mother’s Day is not on the liturgical calendar like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. During the seventeenth century in England, the fourth Sunday of Lent in March became known as Mothering Sunday, a day when servants could return home to their mums. In the USA, Mother’s Day is attributed to two women, Julia Howe and Anna Jarvis. Howe started a Mother’s Day for Peace in 1872 in Boston. Anna Jarvis encouraged a national celebration of Mother’s Day in Sunday services. Today forty-six countries observe a special day for mothers.

Now I, having no desire to glorify mothers, knowing very well the sins of motherhood, ask you today to focus with me on the responsibility we have as a church to mother one another, to be sisters and brothers in Christ, to put priority on our Christian family as Jesus suggests in Matthew. Hear now the word of the Lord.

(Read Matthew 12:46-50)

How rude! A Jewish son denouncing loyalty to his own mother! " Who are my mother and my brother?" Didn’t Mother Mary and Brother James do the will of God? Jesus’ family members had good reason to be concerned that he was stirring up too much trouble. Maybe they were trying to protect him against the onslaught of attacks from the Pharisees and scribes. But Jesus sure put his family in their place.

Now raising such a question " Who is my mother?" was more radical in the first century than our modern ears can appreciate. " To disavow literal family members was so repulsive that even using the image would have been culturally offensive." (Craig Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary) But Jesus crossed that sacred line to make an important point. He wanted to make it clear that family is not first, at least not the family we think is family. The things of God can never be second. They have to be first. That’s what the first two commandments tell us – worship God alone and have no idols. God takes first place, no other.

There are many contemporary cries of alarm regarding the changing patterns of family life and their affect on our society. Those who are most fearful plead with us to focus on our families. And we are rightly concerned about infidelity, casual sex, physical and emotional abuse, poverty, and rampant consumerism, all of which tear at the fabric of meaningful human relationships. But in our quest to maintain the so-called " family values," we must resist the temptation to turn family into an idol to be worshiped. The trouble with idols that they seem so right and good and even holy, and yet they distract us from keeping God first.

The people who are most lured by the family idol are people like me – marriedwith kids. We strive to embody an image of the family ideal. We sign the children up for countless organized activities aiming to fulfill the American family dream. We have double incomes and are still swimming in debt because we must have the ideal house and drive latest model SUV. We take beautiful family portraits in our stylish immaculate clothing to reinforce this image. But the perfect family is an impossible feat, as some of you in the older generation can attest. It is a pipe dream, especially when perfection requires accumulating as much you can for your own family, with little regard for the whole human family. How many families have disintegrated under the pressures of maintaining such a lifestyle? How many families have been fractured by the seemingly wholesome desire of one generation to provide a cushion for the next? And how many families have never had a chance because those with power and privilege passed by on the other side of the road?

Now let me be clear: I am not saying that nurturing and providing for your own is wrong, but only that striving to create an ideal family life can become idolatrous, because it so readily distracts us from our primary purpose in life -- loving God and caring for neighbor. Yes, you can love your mother too much, your spouse too much, your children too much, your grandchildren too much. If your family with its bottomless-pit need for time, energy, and money gets in the way of your Christian commitments, then you’ve got your priorities mixed up.Hear these words from our denomination’s recent study document called Transforming Families: " We envision a church and society in which persons freely devote themselves to building up one another within their families, and families freely devote themselves to the will of God and the welfare of others."

(Transforming Families, PC(USA) OGA, 2004, p.11)

A healthy family life has God at the center. A healthy family devotes itself to the welfare of others. A healthy family rehearses sacred history, taking care not to forget the Lord who brought them out of the land of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey.

The old adage the family that prays together stays together is true. Are you praying together or are you just playing together? Do you worship God together or do you worship family life? If the Sunday soccer match or the second soothing cup of Starbucks takes priority over being in church, then maybe you want to take a second look.

And another consideration: When you come to church do you come as a family or come to be family? Do you sit in family clusters in the pews (or chairs) or do you come to unite with your primary family, your church family in worship? I once asked a whole congregation to mix it up right in the middle of a sermon. I don’t know you well enough to ask you to do such a thing. But I will remind you that you belong not to the Smiths or the Clarks or the Jones family but to the family of God, Abraham and Sarah’s offspring.

(Gal. 3)

Many of us like to think of the church as our extended family, and that’s not a bad idea, only it doesn’t go far enough. Jesus didn’t say, " Tell my mother and brothers to wait a minute." No, he challenged the whole notion of motherhood and brotherhood. The natural bonds of kinship do not give us any special privileges in the company of Jesus. He offers himself as a brother to all people no matter their background. Jesus said that his truest family members are those who do the will of God. We discover who we really are not in healthy relation to our mothers, as Freud thought, but in healthy relationship to Jesus Christ, who was willing to stiff-arm (in the moment) even own his beloved mother to do the work of God.

The Christian community is our first family, whether we are single as Jesus was, whether we are coupled, whether we have children or not. The church is our primary family because we belong to God. We belong to God! That’s the title and opening of our new catechism for the young, which all of us, young and old, need to memorize. Who are you? I am a child of God. What does it mean to be a child of God? I belong to God who loves me. What makes you a child of God? Grace – the free gift of God which I do not deserve and cannot earn. (Belonging to God, Questions 1-3)

As God’s grace-gifted children, we are sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers to one another. Jesus honored his family, but he also challenged deference to the nuclear family with harsh words: " Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37)
When tragedy strikes, our understanding of this truth deepens. When storms come, the church knows how to be family to one another. I understand this congregation played a pivotal role in providing family support to many people who were in desperate conditions after the triple strike of the hurricanes last summer. We are often at our Christian best when circumstances are the hellacious worst. But under normal conditions, our individualistic American culture tells us to huddle up in our own small households, and not to trust beyond that. (See Larry Rasmussen quote , p. 20 in Transforming Families) Our culture tells us to build a haven at home where we can hide from all who are different from us. Our culture tells us to be successful in our work, to buy more than we can afford, and to find happiness in our personal leisure activities. But we all know, yet are afraid to admit even to ourselves, that there is a great deal of emptiness in such living.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I do not need to tell you that we are not saved by a healthy or happy home life, blessing though it may be. Plenty of people who grow up in comfortable homes make terrible life choices and end up in disastrous circumstances. Children are not saved by growing up in a functional family. In spite of dysfunctional families, in spite of the pain we inflict upon those we love and hate the most, we are ultimately saved by the grace of God, which we Christians have come to know in Jesus. That grace is a balm for all the wounds we bandage in family life. After all, how many functional families can you name from the Bible? Not Cain and Abel, not Jacob and Esau, not Joseph and his brothers, not the families of David and Solomon.

The disciples of Jesus abandoned their families to follow him around for three years or so. We are not saved by a decent family, but by the mercy and love of God in Jesus Christ. We come to know and appreciate that mercy and love best by being an active part of a community of Christian faith, where many people seeking God’s will together can and should more faithfully witness to the good news of God’s amazing love for the world. I challenge you to dedicate your life to the health of your most important family, not your family of origin nor your nuclear family, but the family of God. Into that family we all are born as adopted and adored children.
Now being God’s beloved child is no guarantee of safety, any more than being mommy’s baby keeps older brother from biting when mom’s not looking. God’s house is not a safe or easy place to be, but it is where we belong. It is where all those neighbors of yours (who claim belief in God but have trouble walking through church doors) belong. And belonging requires trust, even misplaced trust sometimes. Being family means wading through a lot of dirty laundry, and helping to wash it. Being family means diving into relationships, not as a test but as a commitment. It means sitting at the table together even when someone is sick or upset or just plain irritating. Being family means struggling openly and respectfully with differences of opinion, knowing that family is family. Church is not choosing your friends. It is loving your family, whom you did not choose. It means taking risks, for the sake of another’s benefit, at sacrifice to self. Because our trust is in the Lord of heaven and earth, who will not let our foot be moved. The Lord is our keeper. (Psalm 121) The Lord is our dwelling place.(Psalm 90) The Lord brought us out of the house of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6) The Lord can be trusted even in the wilderness of fear.

Children and adults in this age desperately need to learn to trust beyond nuclear family boundaries. If you are a parent, the best gift you can give your child is not your own acceptance and love, which is infected with self-interest, even if you’ve seen a great therapist and read copious literature on how to have a healthy family. The most valuable gift you can give your child or grandchild is the opportunity to know the Faithful One whose acceptance and love makes our own feeble attempts at love look pitiful by comparison. All of us need the disciplines of the Christian life, which are so noticeably absent in our culture and even our churches. The best way for all of us to know God’s love in Christ is to be meaningfully involved in a daringly compassionate and committed community of Christian faith, full of sinners who know that they are...sinners redeemed!

We are the family of God, not merely a cluster of families with common goals. We are single and partnered we are widowed, married, and divorced we are blended families and single-parent families.We are children, youth, and adults in many seasons and storms of life. But most importantly, we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, the Christ, members together of one family — the motley household of God.1 Those involved in the Lakewood Ranch New Church Development have an unique opportunity to shape the early identity of congregation as one which takes communal life seriously. Luke describes the early church with these words: " They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers...All who believed were together and had all things in common they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." (Acts 2:42-47) Sounds like family to me. Learning, praying, eating together, and sharing what they have with all who had need.

Now is the time, Presbyterians, for a new vision of the household of God, a vision in which all persons are truly one in Christ. Now is the time for all gates to be open and all walls to come down – rich and poor races and classes, young and old, educated and uneducated, conservative and liberal – Christians together committed to unity with diversity, held together by the steadfast love of God which never ends.

Now is the time for baptismal vows to be taken seriously or not uttered at all. I understand a new baby was born to this church recently. That child belongs to all of you. You are charged with the duty to teach that child the unconditional love of the Lord. When we Presbyterians promise in baptism to nurture a child or adolescent or adult in Christian faith, we are making a monumental commitment, not a sweet sentiment. And nurturing happens in the context of significant relationships. And significant relationships are messy. They take time and energy and patience.Let me close with an example from the new church development we served in Montgomery:

A divorced mother with two difficult adolescent sons was an active member of the church. Greg, the elder son, had landed in a group home, after numerous angry episodes beyond his mother’s control. After returning home, he and mom continued to battle with no resolve. By age eighteen he was on the street with no where to go, having abused the privilege of living at home. Richard and I began to notice things were moving around in the Christian education building. You see, Greg had found a way to sneak into the church to sleep each night, leaving his mess behind every morning when he slipped out. Blanket in the classroom, dishes in the kitchen.

The session had a couple of options: they could politely tell him that living at church was not acceptable or they could choose a more radical approach. They were courageous enough to take the more daring approach. Greg was given permission to live at church provided he would get a job, keep the classroom/bedroom clean, bring no drugs, alcohol or friends into the church, and be respectful to all. Two elders began to offer Greg parental supervision, giving him that second chance. Now eight years later, Greg is working, married, in church and nurturing own infant son.

We saw his mother recently and she reflected that the church family’s love turned Greg’s life around. At a dangerous moment when the church could have said " shape up or ship out" they said bravely, we still love you and even when you cannot live in your mother’s house, you can find a mother and father, a sister and brother here.

God never gives up on anybody, so how can we? How can we?

Note: The following paragraph was in the manuscript, but in the moment of proclamation was intentionally deleted:
" It is our job to mother the crying babies in the nursery, to teach Bible stories to children who cannot sit still, and to offer tough but abiding love to teenagers in trouble. It is our job to take care of our aging brothers and sisters in the church, to hold their hands and hear their histories. It is our responsibility to welcome home all prodigal sons and daughters – to embrace them with the forgiving love of God. We are the family of God, not just a gathering of people who spend an hour in worship together when it fits our schedule. We are children of the living God, struggling together to be the people the Lord created us to be. Who are my brothers and sisters and mother? Everyone who loves the Lord."