And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Last Thursday, a colleague gave me a little token in honor of Mother’s Day. It’s a little square with a heart in the center. On one side it bears the words: “Gifts of a Godly mother,” and on the other side it lists those gifts: Enduring Love, Strong Patience, Happy Memories and Gentle Guidance. Reading the little key ring made me wonder about the origin of Mother’s Day, and I did a little research. It was Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, who first proposed an annual Mother’s Day in 1870. For its first thirty years it was called Mother’s Day for Peace, and its intent was to encourage mothers and all women who cared about peace to speak up about it. Here is an excerpt from her Mother’s Day Proclamation. Howe wrote:
Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts,
whether our baptism be that of water or of fears!
Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by
irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking
with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be
taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach
them of charity, mercy and patience.
We women of one country will be too tender of those of another
country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From
the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance
I think Howe understood that war is sometimes necessary when the cause is a noble and a just one. We have only to think of the stirring hymn she wrote to inspire the Union soldiers fighting against slavery in the Civil War. This was no passive peacenik, but a person who believed human beings were called to help bring about God’s new kingdom here on earth. What she objected to was letting the violence take on a life of its own. Julia Ward Howe worried about the husbands and the sons being changed by their experience in war, their exposure to carnage. That is something I have prayed about a great deal in the past two years. Our war in Iraq and its aftermath of the past year have been visible to more people than any other war in the history of the world. Previously unimaginable images have been on television and in newspapers. I worried about young men, not just at risk of injury or death, but at risk of being maimed on the inside by the actions and sights of war.
And now it is a young woman, too, who we see pictured not as the victim of violence and injustice but as the apparent perpetrator of it.
What kind of a world is it when torture is on the front page of the paper? Is this God’s new kingdom of love and justice?
I guess the good news is that we live in a free country, that our press can report on the story and that our system of checks and balances is clearly functioning when members of the Executive Branch sit down to answer the questions of our legislators in Washington.
That’s all I’m going to say that strays into the political world. We’re here to talk about the gospel. But we’re also here to apply it to the world we live in, not to live in a nice, sweet, joyful bubble that takes no account of what goes on outside our doors. That kind of approach to worship is shallow. We live in the time we live in; we believe in the words of Jesus; how do we reconcile the two? It is always a challenging question; there are just some times when it is also a heartbreaking one.
It was for Julia Ward Howe, and she clearly wrestled with the question for many years. She concluded that death was necessary to bring about change, and that is so true. Sometimes we have to die metaphorically by changing our understanding and then go on to live again.
God gave birth to us and to all creation. Whether you believe it took seven days or seven million years or something in between, God brought us and everything around us into being. And like any good mother, God had ideas in mind for us, ideas we heard vaguely and interpreted for ourselves. Making things new again and again—that means accepting new ideas, or at least considering them. It means looking around to see how the world has changed and processing it, not just rejecting it. “Don’t they listen to what I am saying?” She must have asked that question a million times.
But it’s a mother’s job to get things started and then step aside, hoping that what we have done is enough. This is a topic very close to home for me right now, as we prepare to watch #1 Son graduate and see him off to college this fall. There is a natural process of separation that goes on, and it is almost always more painful for the parent than the child. If you have done your job well as a parent, in my case as a mother, it certainly ought to be. You want to see them leave confidently and do well and live rightly. At least I do. And while it is true that I recently tried to convince The Princess to put on a sweater because *I* was cold, at my house the advice following a child out the door is less likely to be about umbrellas and overcoats than about treating others as I believe God calls us to do or stretching out to reach the full potential God has given us, for in that stretching lies our salvation, I believe. And not just our personal salvation, but the world’s as well. God has given us free will and we are still mucking around trying to figure out how to use it to build rather than to destroy, to live rather than to die.
You don’t have to be a mother, or even a parent, to understand the struggle with leaving home. You may have had a job or a business and reached the natural time to end it or turn it over to someone else; that is some hard work, too. Churches have a hard time with change. At the Christian Educators conference I attended this past week, our key note speaker, Mary Luti, told a story about visiting a church in Chicago some years ago. It was a big, old downtown church that had fallen on hard times: members had moved to the suburbs as the neighborhood changed, and those left behind were aging. A new, young pastor had been called and was doing some good work to draw in new people, as she had been asked to do. But some of the older members were determined to keep things familiar, no matter the cost. And so it was that Mary shook hands with the greeter that day and heard the following words, delivered with a smile: “Good morning, this church is dying.” If we don’t want to be a more subtle incarnation of that Sunday greeter, sometimes we have to get out of the way and let things develop as the Spirit is leading them. Learn to be a midwife of the new. For God is all about the new. In Revelation today we read, “See, I am making all things new.”
For God is not completely out of the picture, despite allowing us to do our own thing. Just like Mom, who will continue to be an e-mail or a phone call away if you need her, #1 Son, God has some tools for communication and some ongoing commentary when asked to give counsel and advice.
In our story from the Acts of the Apostles, which we heard in our interview with the apostle, Peter, we were reminded how we develop our own habits, customs, routines and biases and forget what God intends for us. Peter was critiqued by his contemporaries for ignoring boundaries of culture. We must still examine ourselves to see if we are following Peter’s model or shrinking back into the safety of the familiar. But there are other sorts of barriers, too. I got into some trouble here last year for doing what I did so casually earlier in this sermon, making a sideways reference to God as “she.” It was deeply offensive and threatening to some who heard it, yet I meant only, as I do today, to open up and expand our images of God, not to take away those that are more familiar. At the conference this past week, there was a skit in which someone made reference to “The Seven Last Words,” usually a reference to the last seven sayings of Jesus before he was crucified. In the skit, however, the seven last words were these: “We’ve never done it that way before!” Getting locked into thinking that way is as bad for our souls as it is for our churches. We need to always be ready to look at things from a different point of view, just as Peter did.
In the gospel lesson today, we heard a statement I think is key for our understanding of how to be the faithful people of God—the guiding words for us in all we do—love one another; and drawing from Peter’s dream we must realize that Jesus is not telling us to love just the people sitting here or the people who look and speak as we do, but all the people everywhere. What is this love? It is not nostalgia or sentimentality or hearts and flowers. It is the sharing of the Good News that God is with us still and always. It is caring for the poor and helpless. But most of all it is struggling to accept those who are difficult to love. And that might be the sister-in-law who irritates, or the fundamentalist family down the street, or the neighbor whose politics seem all wrong to us, or the boss who just doesn’t get it. It means loving our enemies; it really does mean that. And that love needs to be pure and vivid and even fierce, I believe, in order to be authentic, in order to be a disciple’s love. It takes fierceness to really love the people who you feel are making the world a worse place in which to live, who are reversing any progress toward the commonwealth of God’s love brought to life among us. It doesn’t work to pray and ask God to make them be a certain way, waiting to love them after they are changed. Jesus’ love was unconditionally accepting. Thank God for that! Or where would we be? Love one another as I have loved you. This is how we will be known as his disciples, if we love one another, as he loved us. So pray and lift up, with love, those who are hardest for you to love. Pray with love for the soldiers fighting bravely, and for the Iraqis who have been tortured, and for the young woman whose picture was taken jeering at them. Pray for her and love her as he loved us.
If we could all live in and live out that love, surely we would be bringing about that new kingdom described in Revelation—God’s vision of the new heaven and earth. It’s not for the future, to be whisked in some mystical day, but to be realized by us starting right here and right now.
Early last week, in a sentimental frame of mind about Mother’s Day myself, I picked the closing hymn that is listed in the bulletin: Blest be the Tie that Binds. But in the spirit of revelation and remembering the challenges of discipleship, I think it might be better if we sing more fiercely together. For the change to which our scriptures today call us is not met by buying flowers or sending greeting cards; it is met by actively loving the world, by sitting down to eat with those we have been taught to question, by meeting the stranger as if she were a friend, by embracing the unfamiliar one as if he were a brother. And that takes courage, the kind of courage Julia Ward Howe knew only God could give us. It’s that courage that wipes away every tear and brings about a new heaven and a new earth. God’s truth is marching on, in us and with us, if we have the sort of vibrant love for one another Jesus called us to have and to show. And so we will sing her hymn of praise together—and by her I mean Julia Ward Howe, not God, but feel free to change the “he” to “she,” if it helps you to worship more freely or more fully. Don’t be limited by pronouns. Be increased in faith by God’s boundless love. Every day God’s love is making all things new. Amen.