“I Loved You Enough….”
I think truth gets inside the human head best when it rides on the back of a story, which is why Jesus told so many parables, but I’m forsaking that teaching method this morning in favor of simply sharing a series of observations about a secular holiday which has gotten itself firmly ensconced in the Christian calendar under the designation of “Mother’s Day.” I mentioned many years ago that a good Methodist woman named Anna Jarvis deserves most of the credit for promoting this annual celebration. When her mother died 94 years ago today, she first honored her mother by some simple memorial ceremonies in the Sunday School she taught, and then decided it would nice to branch out and honor all mothers once a year on the second Sunday in May.
Anna Jarvis organized extremely well and she wrote letters like one possessed. She got people like William Jennings Bryan to join the cause, along with the World Sunday School Association and the YMCA. Her own Methodist Episcopal denomination formally embraced the holiday at its General Conference in 1912. Women in most states would not be able to vote for another 8 years but governors and senators, understanding maternal influence on thost who could vote, quickly lined up behind Anna’s new holiday, and President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday in 1914. One of our own Congregational papers was so excited by the growing prominence of Mother’s Day that it said, “Not Christmas, nor Easter….has stirred such depth of sentiment.”
It did not take long for Mother’s Day to go far beyond the plans Anna Jarvis had in mind when she first dreamed up the idea. For one thing it reinforced the ideal of the 1920s and 30s that women stayed at home to have families, and for another it delighted business leaders who were quick to see the profit potential. Anna had imagined Mother’s Day as a purely Christian celebration of maternal love and patience, but not as a holiday at the mercy of what she angrily called “trade pirates.” Two years after she founded Mother’s Day the Florists’ Telegraph Delivery Association was established, and four years later the National Association of Greeting Card Manufacturers. Anna fought strenuously but unsuccessfully to keep both groups from taking over her holiday, and in her severest moments begged people not to buy any gifts at all for Mother’s Day, but especially not flowers and greeting cards, which she felt were a form of “quick absolution” — an easy way to atone for months of neglect. She wanted sons and daughters to go visit Mom, or at the least to write a grateful letter.
Some churches joined Anna in her fight to keep the holiday simple. One writer in the Christian Advocate fretted that Mother’s Day was becoming what he called “a tool of commercial interests,” and that the “spiritual values” of this festival of the Christian home were being obscured in an onslaught of “expensive gifts” and “falsely sentimental advertising.” But timing was against all such hopes. With the help of the advertising industry the whole American calendar was transformed in those decades into a kind of festal cycle that helped sustain the expanding consumer culture. Mother’s Day got swept along with all the rest.
And if commerce outside the churches had caught sight of a goose that laid golden eggs, people inside the religious world were quick to see the vision for themselves. Denominational publishing houses sold Mother’s Day souvenirs, postcards, bookmarks, lapel ribbons and celluloid buttons. Church leaders discovered that if they advertised it right, Mother’s Day might pack the house almost as tightly as Christmas and Easter. And, inevitably, rituals became part of the celebration. Anna Jarvis had emphasized remembering with white carnations, but a florist jingle made it possible to branch out and sell more expensive flowers: “White flowers for Mother’s memory,” it said. “Bright flowers for Mothers living.” I remember being coached as a child that since Mom was alive, my sister and I could wear a red flower — and and how we pitied the occasional friend who had to wear a white one. As with Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed Reindeer (which is an invention of Montgomery Ward), and Mrs. Santa Claus (contrived by Westinghouse), modern folklore has often sprung directly out of advertising.
It’s a little ironic that the founder of Mother’s Day never married or had children of her own, and although she went a bit overboard at times in pushing her holiday I have to admit I like the touches of tart feminism she showed at times. She pointed out with some asperity that the American calendar was terribly patriarchal: Washington’s birthday as the “Father of our Country”; Memorial Day for our “heroic Fathers”; Labor Day for “Laboring Fathers”; Thanksgiving Day for “Pilgrim Fathers”; and even New Year’s Day for “Old Father Time.” So Mother’s Day was at least a kind of furtive opening for women in the Protestant calendar.
But it did not include all women, obviously, since many women could not become mothers and some did not wish to be. An effort was made to include these women when International Women’s Day was set on March 8th and Woman’s Equality Day on August 20th, but they lacked the sentimental appeal of Mother’s Day, so churches and most other organizations have paid almost no attention to them. I was made acutely aware that not all women are turned on by Mother’s Day when I read an article once by a Catholic woman who said that like many other women around the country, both Catholic and Protestant, she made it a practice to stay home from church on that particular day. She spoke of the unintentional pain churches inflict by ignoring certain realities of life that can make Mother’s Day difficult and distressing for some: the woman, for example, who has just lost a child she had dreamed of mothering; the woman who has just undergone an abortion or given up her child for adoption, the mother who is alienated from her children, the stepmother who has not yet found her place in the family, the mother just denied parental custody of her children. Our own Laura Cross used to remind me, in one of her delightful curmudgeonly moments, that not every woman was eager to hear a sentimental sermon on Mother’s Day.
I was on Laura’s side in deploring sentimentalism, which is what you get when good healthy feelings get too sticky sweet, but I never really minded the calendar’s nudging me to honor a mother who never stopped believing in me for a single whole day in her life. (I say “whole day” because I’m sure there were some moments of motherly despair, but they never lasted). I look forward one of these days to blessing Gary’s life with mandated holiday sermons, so this may be the last time I shall have to try for new and creative comments on Mother’s Day. Given that prospect, I decided to honor my mother, gone now for a dozen years, by displaying in Fellowship Hall this morning a cherished sepia-tone photograph of her as a lovely young woman holding an infant son who appears more fashionably dressed than he has ever been since. I’m proud of her and I like the idea of your seeing her, but I’m also hoping that a brief glance at the baby will remind you, as it does me, how swiftly the years pass and how important it is to use them well.
I find it interesting that although sons often come to have more in common with their fathers as they grow up, they almost always revert in times of great pain or fear to their earliest dependence on their mothers. Some of you may have been in Kansas City at Kemper Arena on one unforgettable night of what was then the Big Eight tournament. Donnie Boyce, called the greatest basketball player ever to play for Colorado, broke his leg in two places in a freak accident. People actually heard the bones break in the compound fracture. One of his teammates begged other teammates not to look at the skin extended by the broken bones, and around the arena a hushed crowd heard Donnie Boyce scream in pain, begging someone — anyone — to “Get my mother!”
There are probably men in this room who have experienced in wartime what I am about to describe: wounded boys, out in the darkness and under fire where no one could reach them, calling out for their mothers until by and by there was silence. You knew that some of them had been great pals with their fathers — had gone fishing with them, learned to work beside them, played ball together, absolutely loved their dads — but alone and terrified at the thought of dying they remembered the one in whose body their lives had taken shape, the one who risked her own life to bring them into the world, the one who fed and rocked and sang to them in
those very first months and years. And in the lonely darkness, beset by agony and fear, with the world caving in, the wounded soldier — a boy again, a little boy again — calls over and over for his mother. What greater compliment on this day, mothers, would you want?
The essence of all art is contrast, so lets switch from sentiment to a lighter moment that really happened in church one day when Bibles were being presented to a Sunday School class of third-graders, each of whom was expected to recite a verse of Scripture as the minister handed out the books. On this occasion, everything was going quite well until the minister came to one little boy who was so nervous he couldn’t remember his name, much less a Bible verse. So his eyes frantically searched for his mother, who was fortunately seated near the front. When he finally met her eyes, she cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered a scripture from theGospel of John, the first one she could think of: [Cup hands, whisper into mike] “I am the light of the world.” With obvious relief, the little boy immediately bellowed, “My mother is the light of the world.” One can hope that he grew up to learn that he had spoken truly.
I mentioned that mothers tend to be proud of their children, even, sometimes, in defiance of logic. Somebody put it this way, once: “Only a mother would think her daughter has been a good girl when she returns from a date with a Gideon Bible in her handbag.” If you have heard proud mothers stretch things a little
as they tried to outdo one another in reciting the merits of their children, you will understand the four women who began talking about their sons while they waited for the bingo game to start. One of them proudly stated that her son is a bishop, so when he enters a room people address him as “Reverend Father.” The second mother, not to be outdone, said that her son is a cardinal, so when he enters the room people address him as “Your Grace.” The third woman quietly stated that her son is the pope, so when he enters the room the people say: “Your Holiness.” There seemed no way the fourth woman could top them until she said, “Well, my son is 7 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 350 pounds….and when he walks into a room people say, ‘O, My God!’”
Back again to a serious mood, and the wise and tender words of a woman who wrote what I consider a perfect manifesto for successful mothering:
Some day when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother, I will tell them:
I loved you enough to ask you about where you were going, with whom, and what time you would get home. I loved you enough to make you return a Milky-Way — with a bit out of it — to the drugstore and to confess: ‘I stole this.’
I loved you enough to stand over you for two hours while you cleaned your room, a job that would have taken me 15 minutes.
I loved you enough to let you see anger, disappointment, disgust and tears in my eyes.
I loved you enough to admit I was wrong and ask for your forgiveness.
I loved you enough to let you stumble, fall, and hurt.
But most of all, I loved you enough to say No when you hated me for it. That was the hardest part of all.
If you are a mother, you know about every one of those. And if you are a mother, we gladly salute on this day your patience, love and strength. I suggested once that we might wish sometime to follow the example of many other churches and have a banquet on this day for all women, mothers or not, which is prepared and served by the men of the church. I have notp yet been besieged by volunteers but it has only been eight years and these things take time. Maybe next year, right after Gary’s first Mother’s Day sermon. I’ll help serve! Redeem and bless our good intentions, gracious God, and help
us keep them deeply sincere in a world which is all too willing
to turn them into something else…. we ask through Christ our Lord.
[Note: After this sermon, two men promised to sponsor the suggested Mother’s Day banquet ONE YEAR FROM TODAY]