(A sermon for Mother’s Day May 10, 2009 Proverbs 31:1, 10-31)
It’s Mother’s Day, and that’s not something I usually like to talk about in church. But today I want to talk about it, and about mothers and wisdom and about the Mothers of our faith and the ways they have been overlooked and hidden in our texts.
First, it’s amazing we know as much about women in the Bible as we do. Whether we’re considering the Hebrew Bible or the Greco-Roman influence on the New Testament, it’s clear that the books of our Bible were written by men, and are mostly about men, and the infrequent mentions of women have to leave us wondering. And because translations are by their very nature interpretations, our view of the women we do hear about is influenced by the people—mostly men—who have pulled these texts from one language to another, from the original Hebrew or Greek into English words that we, in theory, can read and understand.
Which brings me to one of the first things my mother taught me: books matter and reading them will make you a better person.
A quiet person, my mother appreciated the escape of reading. She liked to go somewhere else for a little while, not literally, but in her mind. My cousin, who is ten years older than I am, says I learned this lesson early. She would often come to our house and find me in the corner with a book, “reading” to myself long before I could really decode the words.
There have always been a lot of books in my life; my dad loved to buy them and my mother loved to go to the library, where I learned to check out a book and take it back and renew it. I always liked re-reading. I still do.
One of the things I learned from early reading is that going back to a book often means finding something different in it. On my trip to Arizona last month, I read some Bible passages as translated in recent years by the presenter, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney. Dr. Gafney translated the Proverbs passage we read today, a famous piece of scripture that has been used to both celebrate and pigeon-hole women for many centuries.
“A capable wife, who can find?” reads one translation of Proverbs 31:10. “Who can find a virtuous woman?”
Huh. Are they really that difficult to find? Looking around the sanctuary here, wouldn’t we say we see those sorts of people in our midst?
Of course, they might not claim it for themselves, and that’s all the more reason to say it about them.
But Dr. Gafney found a different nuance in her study of the Hebrew texts and writes:
“A woman of warrior strength, who can find?”
Hmmm. This woman who I have always found intimidating, sort of a combination of Mother Theresa, Martha Stewart and Princess Diana, now adds Xena, Warrior Princess, to her portfolio?
More seriously, this amazing woman described as an idea wife or partner is no pale flower quietly draped across a chaise lounge. She is woman, hear her roar!!
She is defined not simply by her relationships, as mother or wife or daughter, but by her actions—clothing her family against all weathers, choosing land and selling it, making a profit, reaching out to the needy. She has it all.
The Hebrew Bible includes other women who did other things: Miriam, who prophesied first of all women; Deborah, who was a judge; Sheerah, who was a builder of cities. The New Testament gives us the Syro-Phoenecian woman, who stood up to Jesus asking help for her child; Martha and Mary, who invited Jesus into their home; and Lydia, known as a seller of purple and founder of an early house church. And despite the culture of those times, their stories shine through to teach us. They were all part of the family of faith and each a prophet in her own way.
What is a prophet? In the Bible, a prophet can mean a variety of things. It is a religious office, a sort of employed advisor to the monarch, intended to keep that person mindful of God in decision-making. But more specifically, prophet is the role of intimate intermediary between God and other people, whether because called by God or asked by other people. Either category might include seers, who can intuit a course of action, and visionaries, who experience alternative realities and diviners, who use some tool to arrive at God’s will.
Most of the time, prophets either speak to God at the request of other people, or bring God’s message back to the world, a true command performance that many prophets hoped to avoid.
And that brings me to another thing my mother taught me: have the courage of your convictions. If you really believe in something or someone, don’t compromise, even if it would be easier to pretend otherwise.
From my mother I learned not only to be a Person Who Reads but a Person Who Tells the Truth.
I’ll be honest and tell you that being, well, honest and truthful doesn’t always go over well. Someone else’s mother, a pastor’s wife leading a youth group, once told 14-year-old me that I was “refreshingly honest.” But by the end of that school year, she had declared 15-year-old me “painfully honest.” I’m still thinking about that more than 30 years later, and I hope you know by now, I’ve told you the truth even when you did not want to hear it, and even when I did not want to tell it.
I suspect the Proverbs 31 woman, she of capable hands and virtuous ways and warrior strength, had no fear of telling the truth.
And the truth is that Mother’s Day is a holiday invented for a political purpose but hijacked by florists and greeting card companies. Whether or not it should matter to us, Mother's Day can make us feel euphoric or lonely, delighted or disappointed. Perhaps we had a difficult relationship with our mother, or we wanted to have children and couldn't, or our relationship with the children we did have is strained; there are many reasons to feel left out on Mother's Day.
Some churches make it worse by recognizing mothers in a way that leaves other women feeling devalued; in fact they may avoid church altogether if they know flowers will be distributed to mothers. The worst story I ever heard involved a church where they had the great-grandmothers stand, and then the grandmothers, and then the mothers, and then those who HOPED to be mothers. A young woman who did not then suffered an insult from the man sitting next to her, as if “mother” were the only aspiration a woman could have.
I began thinking about this long before becoming a pastor, when my brother got married in Williamsburg, Virginia, on Mother's Day weekend in 1992. His godmother, Aunt Peggy, a treasured childhood friend of my mother's, had never married, although she fostered many children over the years from a Navajo reservation where she taught as a young woman, and she godmothered perhaps a dozen of her friends' children. On the morning after the wedding, we went out to brunch at the Williamsburg Lodge, known for its "omelet bar." As we stood in line to enter, my mother saw the flowers on the hostess's podium, carnations in a range of hues meant to denote various categories of motherhood. She whispered to me, "We are getting a flower for Aunt Peggy. Don't tell anyone she is not a mother."
Of course, my mother was the mother of other people's children, too. She had struggled through years of infertility in the less scientific decade of the 1950s, watched her peers give birth to large families while she waited and waited and waited for nothing to happen. Having left her career early in her marriage, she found enjoyment in going places with my political father, then a state senator, but she knew other people watched and wondered.
And of course, in those days, you didn't talk about it.
She knew Aunt Peggy's whole story, which included a man she wanted to marry whose background did not pass muster with privileged parents. She knew A
unt Peggy's failed attempts to make her own life at a time when young women of her social standing and economic status stayed home until they wed. She knew, my mother, about not being a mother in other people's eyes, even when you really were in all the ways that mattered.
She knew about not being a mother in your own eyes, and having to adjust the frame around your life to make things fit.
And so my mother reached out to the vase of loose carnations and handed one to her friend, with love.
Maybe that’s the most important thing I learned from my mother. In the end, what matters is being a Person Who Loves.
And that can take warrior strength, my friends.
If you’ve ever had to love someone in fact when it doesn’t match your actual feelings at that moment, you know what I’m talking about. Loving can be a prophetic act, a declaration that God cares about us even when it seems we have difficulties to great to overcome. It can be a prophetic act, loving, drawing in those who are closed out elsewhere. It can be a prophetic act, encouraging others with love, making room for ideas and feelings that do not fit in the rest of the world, tilling the soil that will allow them to grow.
My mother, a shy person who did not like a fuss, would find it funny to be considered among the prophets. She stands in spirit alongside many mothers—each of us had one, for better or worse—alongside all the mothers who ever lived. They have stood hidden, shadowed by the Fathers of the Church, by the Fathers of our Country, by the Fathers of our Faith.
We live in a time when women can do almost everything men can do, a time when women make an impact on our public life that history cannot possibly ignore. But our Mothers have been there all along: the Mothers of Invention and Necessity, the Mothers of Culture and Cuisine and Craft, the Mothers of Virtue and Capability and Warrior Strength, and the Mothers of Love. On this Mother’s Day, may we see beyond the greeting cards and honor the things our Mothers taught us. Amen.