Mother’s Day 2003

May 11, 2003



Mother’s Day, 2003 (5/11/03)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

It is no secret that our beloved Dr. Meyers is not a big fan of high church. High church covers those Christian traditions that have a lot of pomp and circumstance—lots of rituals, with incense and candles and each week of the year dedicated to some specific aspect of the Christian faith. Bob comes by his feelings quite naturally. Congregationalism, in its original form, was quite suspicious of all the glitter associated with the church, and especially with the clergy.

You may remember that Henry VIII formed the Church of England during the Protestant reformation. Now, I’d love to say Henry was a serious theologian who carefully examined the history, creeds and tenets of Christianity and came to the faithful conclusion that Protestantism was the right choice for the people of England. But that would be untrue. The fact is, a combination of the European political climate of the 16th century, and the fact that Henry wanted to get a divorce and the Pope wouldn’t let him, led Henry to start his own church.

Well, God works in mysterious ways, and despite being founded on less than noble grounds, the Church of England became a great church. It still is, and in the United States the Church of England is called the Episcopal Church.

For Protestants, the Episcopal Church is considered high church. They have a lot of ritual, and their services are typically formal and ceremonial. They form a very important aspect of Protestantism, and for that matter, they are a critical piece in the overall picture of Christianity.

But back in the 16th century, as the Church of England developed its practice of worship, there were those in that church who didn’t like what they were seeing. There were candles and incense, and the places of worship were expansive and ornamental, with lots of gold and marble and stained glass windows.

The clergy dressed just like the priests from the Roman Catholic Church, with flowing robes and elaborate headwear. A hierarchy developed, with several levels of clergy, and with authority going down through the ranks, with the individual parishioner at the bottom of the heap.

Certain elements in the church thought that the Church of England looked just like the Catholic Church from which it had supposedly parted ways. And these people set out to purify the church. They became known as Puritans, and they eventually left the Church of England and started their own church. This new church was based not on a hierarchy in which power flowed from the top down, but rather on the autonomy of each individual congregation. The people of a congregation, in prayerful communion with God, would determine the proper path for the individual church. The ultimate voice of authority was no longer a Pope, or Bishop, or Priest. The authority was placed entirely in the congregation itself.

Of course, the name of this new denomination was Congregationalism. The Puritans were not permitted to practice their faith in England, so they fled to Holland for a time, and eventually chartered a ship called the Mayflower and sailed for the New World. And the rest, as they say, is history. If you’ve ever wondered why the beauty of this place of worship lies largely in its elegant simplicity; and if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t have stained glass windows; now you know.

The reason I begin this morning’s sermon with this little history lesson is so you will know that Dr. Meyers is on solid theological ground when he turns away from the high church traditions. Neither Bob nor I were raised Congregationalists, but like him, I discovered as an adult that I was born to be a Congregationalist, so I fit in here nicely.

Historically, there have been some Congregationalists who reject the high church so much, they don’t even acknowledge Christmas and Easter. Every day is a day the Lord has made, the say, and the celebrations of Christmas and Easter contain too much pomp, too much religious ceremony, for them to accept.

Well, Bob and I don’t go that far. And if you would take a poll, you would discover that even most ardent Congregationalists agree that Christmas and Easter are worth a bit of special attention. But that’s where they would draw the line. Christmas and Easter, they would claim, are the only two days that demand special attention in the course of the church year. That poll, however, would contain a serious error, as any preacher of the gospel will tell you. There is one other day that must be set aside for special attention, and that, dear friends, is Mother’s Day. Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day are the three essential dates on the church calendar.

Let me tell you story. When my family and I were considering leaving Oklahoma City and moving to Wichita to serve this congregation, Bob’s son, Robin, told me that University Congregational Church was not at all a high church congregation. And he said that Bob paid so little attention to the church year—to the seasons of Lent and Advent, and to the other special days on the church calendar—that he once preached a sermon about Satan on Mother’s Day!

I found that hard to believe, but it turned out to be a true story. I heard about it from several people here at the church after I arrived in Wichita, and what is now fondly remembered as “Bob’s Mother’s Day Satan sermon” has become a part of the folklore of University Congregational Church.

I didn’t realize what an effect Bob has had on me until a few weeks back when I was organizing my sermons for spring. As most of you know, I write my sermons well in advance, and typically like to work on them for a month or so before they reach their final form and are actually delivered from the pulpit. Leigh was looking at my calendar and said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

She pointed to the sermon title I had written for May 11th, and said, “You’re not really going to deliver that sermon, are you?”

I simply had not noticed that it was Mother’s Day. Along with Christmas and Easter, Mother’s Day is the one day of the year when you have to deliver a topical sermon. You can’t preach about war on Christmas; you can’t preach about comparative religion on Easter; and you can’t preach about Satan on Mother’s Day.

So when Leigh looked at my calendar and saw that the sermon I had prepared for this morning was titled, “Justifying Hatred—Part One,” she feared that I was starting to morph into Dr. Meyers. So my two-part series on hatred, and the way people adore those who give them permission to hate, will have to wait. And we will turn instead to the subject at hand.
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Mothers. What do you say about mothers? I’m certain I could have gone on the internet and found a couple of hundred sermons on this subject. There are lots of sermons floating around on the web. I’ve read two or three over the past year, and made the discovery that the only thing worse than hearing a bad sermon is reading one. But I’m sure those sermons about mothers would all say the same thing, basically. Motherhood has to be the least controversial subject in the history of the world. Seriously, if you downloaded 10,000 sermons off the web on this subject, I guarantee that you would not find a single one with the title, “Motherhood: Why It’s a Bad Thing,” or, “Mothers: Why I’m Against Them.”

But as I Scratched my head trying to imagine some way to say something on this subject that would be fresh, a question came to mind. Why is it that motherhood is so universally admired? Why is motherhood the least controversial subject in the world?

I started searching the internet for an answer, and it turned out to be a waste of time. Oh, I found some good quotes, some nice sayings and proverbs. I decided to pass on three of my favorites, even though they don’t really answer my question about the universal respect for motherhood. William Makepeace Thackery wrote, Mother is the name of God in the lips and hearts of children. Pretty good. I found a Jewish proverb that says, God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers. And then, the one I found most humbling and at the same time most true, this Spanish proverb: An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy. Ouch!

None of those proverbs and sayings gave me the answer I was looking for, but they did point me in the right direction. Did you notice what all three sayings have in common? God. The first two speak directly of God and mothers, and the third one makes clear where, between the choice of mothers and preachers, God is most likely to be found.

God and mothers have a lot in common. The most common metaphor for God is God as father, but it is a mistake to insist that “father” is the only acceptable metaphor. The image of God as father probably came about because God was viewed as the mighty creator, the one with the strength to provide for the needs of his children, and at times, the stern disciplinarian who punished the children who went astray.

But God as mother is an equally powerful image. God is the one who gives us life, the womb from which we come into the world, the loving nurturer that gives us comfort through our days, and who loves and forgives us when the rest of the world turns away from us.

For those on spiritual quests the ultimate goal is to be one with God–spiritual union with the divine, the eternal. But we actually have been one with our mothers. Part of the reason the bond between mother and child is so powerful is because the child is the flesh of the flesh, the blood of the blood, of the mother from whom he or she came. This is one being that became two.

But that is only a tiny part of the picture. Because while biology plays some role, adopted children are loved just as much, treasured just as much, as biological children. So we have to push beyond biology to find what it is about motherhood that is universally admired. It has to have something to do with the relationship between mother and child.

Let’s consider that relationship. Mother is the one we know will respect our tears and our fears. Mother is the one we turn to from our earliest days to take away the hurt, whether the pain is physical or emotional. We won’t get a lecture from mom—at least not in the moment of our pain. All we are going to get is unconditional love.

There is a great song by Chrissie Hynde that she wrote for her newborn daughter. The song is called I’ll Stand By You. One verse of the song talks about how the child will one day come to a fork in the road and have to choose between two paths. She sings to her daughter, “Let me come along, even if you’re wrong, I’ll stand by you.”

And I think that may help answer my question about the reason motherhood is so universally regarded as a wonderful thing. “Let me come along, even if you’re wrong, I’ll stand by you.” Mothers are the very essence of unconditional love. Mothers don’t love their children because of their achievements. Mothers love their children for being exactly who and what they are.

When our youngest daughter used to dance competitively, she sometimes won and she sometimes did not. But it was those times when she had a poor performance, or when she felt embarrassed at the outcome of the competition, that our love for her was most evident. Did we love her more when she won? Of course not. Our love was not even remotely conditioned upon what she did. Our love was entirely based on who she was.

And again, mothers are so much like God in that respect. God stands by us through thick and thin, through good and bad, and God’s love is not conditioned on our performance in life. God loves us because we came into this world from the womb of eternal God, and God loves us through every moment of joy, through every heartache, through every success, through every failure.

As I wrestled with the universal admiration of motherhood, I finally had my epiphany. I finally came up with an answer that works for me. The question, again, is Why is it that motherhood is so universally admired? Why is motherhood the least controversial subject in the world?

Here is my answer. Human life is the quest for God. We try to pretend we’re too busy for the search for God. It is much too important that we get the lawn properly manicured for us to think about the fact that we are alive and don’t know why. We’ve got to wash the car. There’s not time for asking why we were thrown into this world with a thousand questions and no answers that really satisfy. We didn’t ask to exist, but here we are, and now that we’re here, we’d like to keep on existing, and we won’t.

I’ve just defined what it means to be a human being. Dogs don’t lay around the yard day after day wondering about their ultimate fates. The fish swimming in circles around the aquarium aren’t wrestling with the existential predicament. It is only human beings who have the capability of asking the big questions, and we’ve taught ourselves to ignore them. Run away from them. Pay a little lip service to the idea of God, and then, for goodness sake, stay busy. If we catch ourselves starting to think, quick, turn on the TV, crank up the radio—drown out the thought process.

What I’m trying to say is that the most important question we can ask—Where is God in all of this—is the question that we refuse to ask because we are afraid of the answer. What if the answer is, “nowhere.”? What if God isn’t there at all? What if God is there and does not care? What if God is there and cares, but has no power. What then? Better not to ask the question in the first place.

Well, let me assure you that God is there, God cares, and God has power. I promise. Go ahead and ask the question. I have it on very good authority that if you knock on the door, it will be opened. If you ask (the question,) you will receive (the answer.) I didn’t just make that up. Those words come from the person after whom we’ve named our faith.

And right now you’re thinking, gee, you said a couple of minutes ago your were going to give us your answer to the question about why motherhood is so universally admired and respected, and as of this moment, we’re still waiting.

Well, I didn’t say it was a short answer. But let me cut to the chase. Human life is the search for God. The universal appeal of motherhood lies in the fact that mothers are the closest we can come to successfully completing our search. We hide from the question, but the answer is already there. If you want to find God, don’t look in the mysterious depths of quantum physics. If you want to find God, don’t look beyond the perimeter of our ever-expanding universe of star-filled galaxies. If you want to find God, don’t look in the complex theories filling theology and philosophy textbooks.

If you want to find God, look at a mother as she gazes at her child. There in that that gaze we find the answer to our quest. Motherhood is the answer to the question we were afraid to ask. That is the closest we can come to the love God feels for us. It’s true—it’s all about love. And God loves us. And he—she—always will.