This sermon was first preached on May 10th, 2009 for Mothers’ Day. It’s not your typical Hallmark card.
Happy Mothers’ Day! … I make this brave assertion with some trepidation though. I never know what to presume from days fraught with such weighty expectations. We’ve navigated the complex family systems annual gauntlet of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover and Easter and can see the light at the end of the tunnel that is Memorial Day weekend. And then wham! May has yet another potentially awkward-sit-down-for-a-big-meal holiday too! And this one I somehow have responsibility for.
I long for the simple days where my relationship with mom shifted between wonderful and fitful, based solely on how tired or hungry either one of us were. Depending on what lens I use, that ended somewhere between five years old and twenty eight. Although, I’m suspicious that these patterns still undergird all of our conversations.
I’ve never been truly satisfied with Hallmark’s extensive series of suggestions on how to adequately express one’s gratitude for being brought into this world; in my case raised well with more opportunities than either of my parents have seen, while honestly lifting up the tensions, challenges, and short-comings along the way. I’m more inclined toward humorous cards like the Snoopy one that reads, “You’re the glue that keeps this family together, That’s a nice way of saying you’re stuck with us! …” because it’s at least accurate. But it doesn’t capture the entirety. The curve of my smirk holds appreciation for a mom who staved off the costs of childcare by going to work nights after dad came home so I would never be alone, yet who was absent at my ordination this year. I imagine that we have as many equally varied stories this morning as we have people here today. I know some of these stories are memories of our mothers who since have died, or the joy of being a new mother.
Our reading this morning is another such story, from the mindset of a mother of five, who was contemplating divorce and navigating rehabilitation from cancer. It’s an intense story of cascading difficulties that far exceeds the everyday. Yet, many of us will know people facing similar and sudden challenges. Some of those people will be us. Everyday. …
I know many of us have Tim Barger, fellow congregant and UU seminarian, in our prayers as he recovers and rehabilitates from sudden spinal surgery in Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, in Philadelphia. I am not myself in conversation with Tim, but the frequent Facebook updates, comments and discussions are looking up. Some of us may be thinking of Marge Odessky, who’s memorial was last Sunday. I could see from the many who shared their stories of Marge, that she showed us how one could be a mother to many in this congregation who are not her children.
I can barely imagine what it would be like to be faced with the prospect this anonymous mother was challenged by. Challenged is probably not even the right word; what she was threatened with. Able to deal well enough with the daily stories of relationships, children, work and community service, this mother reflects, in the extreme, the tentative nature of our security.
She gives us a vision of a street corner where we all reflect on our lives to this point. At times still feeling like children, but with far many more responsibilities to bear. Working with children as I do, I often see the hearts of kids in the faces of grown adults. It makes me wonder how different we actually are, despite what we like to convince ourselves. I sometimes think that’s what makes it harder for some adults to relate to children – we’re not willing to admit how similar we still are.
I believe this mother offers a path of hope in the face of the absurd. I see how she teaches us both to be a little more insecure in our security, and to be more secure in our insecurity. The suddenness of her situation is the classic reminder of how precious health is, and how easy we go about forgetting just how delicate, and how little controllable, it is. How she rises to cope and prosper is remarkable. It’s also very ordinary.
She recalls, “Finally, I said to myself, ‘Well, here you are and there’s no place to go. It’s time you brought a little help into your life.’”
In twenty small words, this mom summed up the entirety of religion, of what it is to be human, the very heart of all the ministry we will ever do. Whatever our individual situation is, we too are standing with her on that street corner. For some of us, unlike our story’s narrator, our loved ones will in fact come down to meet us. Whether we stand alone or in the midst of dozens, the task of religion is to help us all to be willing to let others in.
In many ways, living in New York City sends out the opposite message. In the midst of millions, we try to stave off the stranger because it’s simply just too much to take all in at once. The irony of the City dweller is that many of us choose to live here because we seek the density, or the diversity, or the intensity of human connections and opportunities; and still we so often push against the depth of our human connectedness. Insecurity, shame, or a particular sense of propriety all serve to buttress our isolating walls. As Unitarian Universalists, this communal and covenantal faith seeks to help rebuild those ties that remind us of our human relatedness and our very human need.
Her little prayer, “that the Lord will send me someone to help me along the way on my subway journey every day… and that He’ll send someone that I can share my faith and my strength with too. Both things…”
is far from little. How healing a prayer this is! It acknowledges that we are in need of one another. It is full of hope. And it is within this need, that we recognize that we too have faith and strength to share. Some of us will struggle will the outward reach for help. Others will prefer to help as many as they can, so long as no one notices their own hidden needs. And there are those who can not see that they have anything to give. This prayer is medicinal for all of us who find any of these statements too close to home; whether you pray to God, or you change the words to reaffirm your relationship with the living world.
There’s another thread in her story that I feel we rarely lift up. So often we speak as though blindness equated with ignorance. Her parable of the birthday cake, and the blind boy who stopped being attracted to a girl when he was told she was unattractive is quite telling. “…When you begin to see with that inner eye, that inner eye everyone has, it all changes. Everyone is human, everyone is God’s child. Everyone is helpless, one way or another, and everyone is helpful too. We’re all here for each other….”
The bodies we are born into, or the circumstances that change them, are both limiting and instructive. This woman who lost her sight for a time learned to see people differently – and I would contend that from her writing she learned to see them more clearly. She has known the difference. These lessons are not limited to disabilities. Anyone who was less than popular in childhood or youth, was given a firm yet difficulty opportunity to extend the kindness to others that they did not receive. They have known the difference. Anyone who has experienced the injustice of oppression, whether it be because of gender, race, sexuality or gender expression, have a different lens in which to view the injustices perpetuated on others. They have known the difference. The list could be exhausting – class, wealth, weight, health, or education to name even more. “Everyone is helpless, one way or another, and everyone is helpful too…”. We remain helpless and unneeded only so long as we choose to pull back our hands. We are not alone.
There’s a poem by Jill-Beth Sweeney Schultheis that I find to be a powerful reminder of this message called “Fragility/Divinity.” It reads: “We are fragile. We are not broken. We are imperfect. We are not flawed. We are curious. We are not confused. We are vulnerable. We are not weak. We are of this earth, and yet the divine lives in us. When I feel as if I’m going to break, I am the most human. When I embrace my fragility, I let you into my imperfect world.” This is the liberal religious tradition of which we are a part. This is my faith. Fragility, imperfection, curiosity, and brokenness are what make us human. We are not weak because of these qualities – we are alive because of them.
Coming to terms with our insecurities deepens our security. Security, in the spiritual sense of the word, is not the ability to control our circumstances. It’s not what makes us safe; it’s what makes us whole. Security is achieved when we hold in tension the lessons of our first and seventh principles. The first principle is where we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person – and I should clarify that every person here does in fact include ourselves, but it is not limited to just ourselves. The seventh is where we appreciate how we stand in relation to the living world. We are all connected and interdependent. Held in tension with each other, these principles point toward a living web that can catch us when we are falling, and strengthen us as we build up community. As our anonymous mother tells us, “There are ups and downs, of course. You start blind and you reach out. Sometimes there’s nothing to hold onto, but you still reach. Then you learn to hold onto whatever you get. Then you find someone’s hand and you take it. Then you see you can reach and hold onto someone else.”
The mother in this story started out seeing herself as independent and she ended up seeing herself as interdependent. I struggle to see myself like she does.
The words from the African lullaby prayer we heard for our offertory are beautiful. “Oh God of the sunrise, as I have given of myself to my babe, wilt Thou watch over and protect him through the night. If he awaken when the sun greets the earth, he will grow to be a man and will take upon himself the responsibilities of a man in the world.” I pray that every day we awaken to this earth and this sun, may we each grow to be human. May we take upon ourselves the responsibilities of a people in this world. May we know that this stewardship entails a reaching outward and a letting in. That we hold ourselves up as we hold and lift one another. May we know that we are living into our responsibilities when we choose to live more fully with our neighbor; when we choose to open our hearts and lives to another. I pray that we can accept a sense of security that focuses less on control and more on relation. In so doing, may we all be surprised by a newfound joy, that can not be found on our own.