Who is My Mother?

Matthew 12:46-50
5th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert – Mother’s Day

Steuart Link, our friend and the pastor who preceded my at the Faison Presbyterian Church, does not remember his mother. But he remembers having a whole church full of mothers. Steuart’s father was a pastor and his mother was tragically killed in a car accident when 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 the blessed 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.

Now let me be clear: I am not saying that nurturing and providing for your own family is not a worthy goal. Chip Schaaff has been doing a wonderful job of teaching us in recent weeks about the Traits of a Healthy Family. He reminds us that we spend many hours with family and few hours at church, so it is at home that we get most of our values and patterns of living. But if we strive too hard for an ideal family life, to the neglect of our spiritual life, it can become idolatrous, distracting us from our primary purpose in life -loving God and caring for neighbor. If your family with its bottomless-pit need for time, energy, and money gets in the way of your Christian compassion, then you’ve got your priorities mixed up. Hear these words from our denomination’s 2004 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 single person, couple or family has God at the center of life. A healthy single person, couple, or family devotes itself to the welfare of others. 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 and to each other! 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: (Transforming Families, p. 2) “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37) Who are my family members, but those who do the will of God.

Those of you who are in couples or families, when you come to church do you come as a family or come to be family? It is an important distinction. We tend to sit in family clusters in worship? But we are all Abraham and Sarah’s offspring, (Gal. 3) so I would like to invite you now to move to a new seat. Please move away from your comfort zone from the people with whom you usually sit and find someone in your church family with whom you have never sat.

Our individualistic American culture tells us to huddle up in our own small households, and not to trust beyond that. 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 and often private leisure activities. But we all know now more than ever that there is a great deal of emptiness and sometimes crushing debt in such living.

Stan Ott said, at a recent seminar attended by six or seven of us, that most people are closing themselves off to friendship. We are exhausted from our schedules, hiding in our houses, with our televisions, cell phones, and computers, and all the message checking and keeping up that they require of us. Thus we build smaller and smaller clusters of friends. We are so stressed out by the pace of life that we have few people we really trust. How many of you know by name more than three households of people in your street? How many of you would be comfortable with a close friend arriving unannounced?

In some of my worst mothering moments when our children were young in Alabama, I was rescued...no my children were rescued by sisters in the faith whom I could call and say, “I’m going crazy with these kids.”

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, daring trust because the church is no perfect family, any more than your own family of origin was perfect but we are held together in the perfect love of Christ.

So being family means wading through a lot of dirty laundry, and helping to wash it. Being family means taking your turn with the dishes. Being family means knowing the skeletons in the closet and not walking away. 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, weak, or mentally ill. Being family means struggling openly and respectfully with differences of opinion, tolerating irritations, 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.

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.

We are the family of God, not merely a cluster of families with common goals. We are single and partnered; we are divorced, widowed, coupled and married; 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.

Now is the time, Peace, for a new vision of God’s family, 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; male and female; races and classes, young and old, gay and straight, educated and uneducated, single and married, conservative and liberal – all 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.

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. The elder son, had landed in a group home, after numerous angry episodes which frightened his mother. 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, this young man 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. This volatile young man 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 offering parental supervision, giving him that second chance. Now more than a decade later, he is working, in a second marriage, and involved in a church and in his own children’s lives. When we spoke with his mother a few years ago, 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? “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.”