A sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Acts 16:9-15.*
It was the worst Mother’s Day ever. Having suffered a pregnancy loss just a few weeks before, I probably would have been wiser not to sit in the third row in church on a day when fourteen children, most of them babies, were being baptized. My own children were tucked away in the Nursery or sitting with the children’s choir, underscoring my feeling of isolation and loss. There would come a time when Mother’s Day would be enjoyable again, but on that Sunday, the wound was just too fresh.
I tried not to cry, but that was beyond me. At least I could keep from sobbing, I told myself, thinking of the people sitting near me, not wanting to ruin church for them. I began to tremble. I wondered if it might not be a good idea to leave quietly, but my choices were a door too near the families lined along the front of the sanctuary, or a long walk to the back doors, some 30 pews away.
Suddenly, I felt a strong and comforting hand on my shoulder. It was the husband in the couple who usually sat right behind us. Randy and his wife had suffered such losses. He didn’t just sit there and try not to notice my distress. He reached out and touched me, that man I had always experienced as kindly but not demonstrative. He was the most unlikely of godmothers.
Coming from a tradition that didn’t require godparents at a baptism, I never had one officially. The person who came to play that role in my life was my grandmother’s best friend. About 4’ 10” tall, Maggie somehow managed to teach classrooms full of first-graders and later served as principal, leading the entire elementary school through the difficult days of desegregation. Maggie signed my earliest birthday cards and Valentines with “Your ‘Step’-grandmother,” her way of trying to name our unofficial, but close, relationship. But somewhere along the line we simply started calling her my godmother.
It was Maggie who loved me just for me at a time when I thought no one much loved me at all. Her apartment was my haven. She let me know in a thousand ways that I was special to her, with no conditions placed on that status. Maggie had the gift of making many people feel that way, especially the children who had been in her classroom and who never forgot her. And no matter how grown-up they became, she recognized those former first-graders who called out to her on the streets of my hometown.
Alongside my grandmother, Maggie spent a decade building new Sunday School programs in her community, as new neighborhoods grew up after the Second World War and new churches were built to serve them. She carried her gifts for teaching into the church that had nurtured her and beyond its walls into the community. She was my godmother, and she was their godmother, too, modeling a mothering God’s care for all Her children.
In this 24 hour world, a world in which we can get the news so quickly, in which we know what our celebrities are up to almost as soon as they have crashed a car or shaved their heads or left their spouses, we have some pretty strange ideas about role models. Our heroes are high-paid athletes or scantily-clad singers. Popularity seems to be the highest goal. Success is about money and possessions.
The Princess and I have been watching American Idol this year, the first time for both of us, rooting for our favorites, wondering why bad singers seem to be so popular and how good singers suffer if the producers of the show give them bad camera angles. We have cheered for a single mother hoping to make a better life for her young daughter and were disappointed to see her leaving this past week as the numbers were narrowed to three. We even tried to call in and vote, although we never managed to get through!
My attitude toward our popular culture has been to protect my children from it for as long as possible, but to talk through it with them when they are finally exposed to its fullness. There is something to be learned in every situation, and in how we choose to respond to it, and there is almost nothing that goes on in the world that cannot be evaluated using that understanding. I want them to approach life with an ethic of love, for God and neighbor and self. I hope I am modeling that the choices we make must be grounded in what we believe God asks of us. I hope I am modeling my faith. I hope I am more than their mom; I hope I am their godmother, too.
After Hurricane Katrina, I had an irresistible urge to go to Mississippi, to be of some help to a friend I had never met, a Presbyterian pastor I knew only by her blogger name, St. Casserole. I really didn’t know what I could do to be useful, but I began to discern that the urge was a calling of some kind. St. Casserole, waiting out the storm and the early weeks of the recovery in another state, was hardly reachable, and when she did return home, I worried about her. One day she wrote a little note on her blog, which is an online journal, inviting preachers who could take a Sunday away from their churches to come to the Gulf Coast and provide respite for the exhausted pastors who lived through the hurricane and were struggling to rebuild their own lives and homes while caring for their congregations as well. She did not ask this for herself, but for others.
Somehow I thought I might be able to do this, although later I wondered what gave me the nerve to feel I could say anything helpful or meaningful to people who had clung to trees and watched their lives washed away by the storm. But that December 30th, I got on a plane and went. And as is so often the case when we feel we’re going to help someone else, I learned a lot from my new friend and sister in Christ.
I learned that one of the ways you survive and keep yourself together in a time of crisis is to stop and pray whenever you need to do it. I cannot count the number of times during that ten days I spent with her family that we prayed out loud together. We prayed for the people we met, for the people who lost their homes and might never come back, for the elderly who had been evacuated away, for the animals abandoned and wandering still, for the people who worked hard to get things together again despite the slow response of the government, for the church volunteers of all traditions who came to get their hands dirty and being the rebuilding of homes so necessary to the rebuilding of lives. We cried out together, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
I prayed with her and for her, but what surprised me was the way St. Casserole prayed for me, too. She reminded me that we all need to hear ourselves prayed for, to feel God’s love in the prayers of others. She took me over and over again to the place of prayer.
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.(Acts 16:13-15)
What sort of godmother was Lydia?
In this brief passage we learn three significant facts about her life that help us place understand her context. First, she was a worshiper of God. This means that even before Paul’s arrival she had left off the worship of the multiple gods that were a focal point of culture in the Greco-Roman world of her time. She did this despite the second fact; as a seller of purple cloth, she was a businesswoman. Purple cloth was expensive and valuable, a specialty material as opposed to what we might go and find in the fabric department at Wal-Mart. To even be in that business tells us Lydia had significant wealth. She had to be a confident woman to stop worshiping the culturally accepted gods, for this change of loyalty could well have been a risk to her business. Third, we learn that she was the head of her household. Had she not been, the household of extended family and servants would have been referred to as her husband’s, her father’s or her son’s. She may have been a widow, or never married, but the household was hers, not defined by her relationship to any man. While this was unusual in the 1st century, it was not unheard of; a Greek or Roman woman who inherited her family’s wealth or holdings could manage things herself, if she had the ability.
The head of a household had the responsibility for the well-being of all who lived in the home: family members, servants, even slaves. Lydia looked out for that well-being by bringing her whole household to be baptized. She stood as godmother to all of them, a Mother of the early church and a role model of the faith.
As role models we’re called on to do many things:
- To keep an eye out for those in need, to feed the hungry or visit the poor and imprisoned or simply to stretch out a caring hand, as Randy did.
- To love God and love neighbor as we love ourselves—modeling God’s unconditional love, especially when we sense others are feeling unlovely or unlovable, as Maggie did.
- To testify against the common culture by identifying where it diverges from a faithful walk, as I am trying to do.
- To go the place of prayer, whether that means an actual place or simply the place in our hearts where we allow God inside and listen for God’s voice, as St. Casserole did and does.
- To participate in the sacraments, modeling the ritual participation we talked about last week—being a Christian role model means being present in church and urging others to do the same, as Lydia did. It means truly caring about the spiritual well-being of those around us.
A little while ago, as we baptized Alice, we all made promises to Alice and her family. The truth is that some children will be baptized here and go on to be part of other faith communities. That makes us sad sometimes, and it probably makes us wonder why we were the ones saying the words of support. Remember that we are all part of the Church Universal, a concept that includes all Christian churches everywhere. You may do your supporting to a child whose baptism took place somewhere else, and we must hope the same for those who leave us.
On this Mother’s Day, I hope we all will consider how we model our faith for others. However unlikely it may seem to us, each one of us is called to be a Godmother—or Godfather—to others. We are part of a long line of people of faith; without our modeling of the faith to others, the line may stop with us. We do it by sharing our lives of faith through nurturing or teaching or praying. We do it by sharing a life filled with God’s love. Amen.
* Second in a sermon series on Christian Formation, this week’s topic being Role Models.