This coming Sunday, Mother’s Day, is, well, a fraught day, filled with much love and gratitude; but also, for some, a day when memories carry a wistful sadness of loss; and for yet others, a struggle to acknowledge that relationships with mothers can often be difficult.
Preachers have a hard time of it – say too much about wonderful “sainted mothers” and half the congregation thinks you’re being hypocritical; say too little, and half the congregation thinks you’re insensitive, if not an outright ingrate. It’s a day that can get caught up in an easy sentimentality, but I’m not sure that’s is a day for full-on honesty.
Some years, when I have had to offer a Mother’s Day sermon, I have side-stepped the dilemma by talking about the early history of Mother’s Day, when it was, in fact, a call for peace. It was after the horror of the American Civil War, that Julia Ward Howe, a pacifist, suffragette, and writer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” first suggested Mother’s Day in the U.S.A., a day when mothers could rally for peace. Take a look at her call to action (1870):
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
Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons
of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a
great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women,
to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the
means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each
bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a
general congress of women without limit of nationality may be
appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at
the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the
alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement
of international questions, the great and general interests of
Julia Ward Howe’s idea didn’t really take off, so in 1908, Anna Jarvis campaigned for a nationwide observance of Mother’s Day in honour of her late mother, a community health advocate. She was successful, and on May 9th, 1914 President Wilson signed a bill recognizing Mother’s Day as a national holiday. Anna Jarvis’ story gets interesting, however, because she became dismayed at the rapid commercialization of Mother’s Day. She campaigned against it – and lost; and before she died in 1948 she admitted that she regretted ever starting the holiday.
Note that this year it is estimated that US consumers will spend about 23 BILLION dollars celebrating Mother’s Day. I don’t have a statistic for Canada, but when I look at the racks of cards in the drugstore; when I hear florists and restaurants acknowledge that this is one of their busiest days in the year; when I think of all the chocolate that will be consumed – well, I am certain that we Canadians are also caught up in the same Mother’s Day juggernaut. It’s tricky to preach about this for once again you can come across as a kill-joy; and yet, it’s hard to sit comfortably with such frenzy, and not raise questions about ongoing sexism, women and poverty, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women — a different kind of honouring of mothers.
Other years, I have tried to craft a Mother’s Day sermon that explored the metaphors we use to talk about God. It’s a perfect opportunity to lift up alternatives to the predominantly male imagery that, in the past, we have almost taken for granted. Talking about God as mother can still be liberating – God is the one who experiences labour, who gives birth, who nurses us; who cares for us as a mother cares for her child – warm, nurturing, rich in love.
There are some fine hymns that help us catch a sense of what this might feel like; for example, Brian Wren’s “Bring Many Names” (Voices United, 268),where he shifts our expectations by talking about “Strong mother God, working night and day, planning all the wonders of creation, setting each equation, genius at play” and then “Warm father God, hugging every child, feeling all the strains of human living, caring and forgiving will we’re reconciled.” Or, check out the hymn rooted in the writings of the mystic Julian of Norwich (Voices United 320) — “Mothering God, you gave me birth… Mothering Christ you took my form… Mothering Spirit, nurturing one, in arms of patience hold me close….”
But you know what – this year I’m not preaching on Mother’s Day, and so in these next few days, I will not be thinking about possible sermons. I will be thinking about my own mother, who died five years ago. I will be remembering her passion for gardening, and bird-watching and Esperanto; the taste of her molasses cookies and angel strata pie; how she loved her granddaughters; her intelligence and her faith.
And I am looking forward to listening to Rev. Dan offer the sermon.