May 9, 2004 (Mother's Day)
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sermon: Saints with Sour Shoulders

Having a man and a woman serve as pastors brings different perspectives to so many things in the life of the church. One of the differences between Virnette and me that some may have noticed is how we hold babies during baptisms – or actually, she takes the babies from their mother’s arms and holds them close, and I don’t. I don’t know if that is a man/woman difference, or if it’s just the result of a traumatic experience early in my ministry.

I used to take the babies from their mother’s arms and hold them close, but back in the days when most ministers wore black robes, back in the days when many protestant ministers also wore these academic hoods – made very stylish after Norman Vincent Peale wore one at the White House when he married Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower – way back then I took the babies in my arms and held them close only to have them burp and drool and spit up and otherwise regurgitate everything their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles hade been feeding them to keep them quiet – all over my black robe and white stole and my purple and orange hood with the red trim.

And even after the mess was cleaned up I smelled like someone had poured a two month old quart of butter milk over my shoulder – it was traumatic for a young man all decked out in the symbols of his wisdom and authority.

Of course, that was well before I had babies. If I was more familiar with the species I would have recognized that slight rumbling in the tummy that preceded this outburst – and I would have quickly handed the baby off to the mom, whose shoulder was going to smell like that anyway for a couple of years no matter what.

And if it had been my own child who spit up all over the minister, I wouldn’t think it was traumatic at all – I’d think it was downright cute. I wouldn’t want to wipe it off; I’d want to get a picture. “Hold on there, Reverend, could you just turn this was a little so I can get a good shot of the big stain on your robe – isn’t that the sweetest thing you’ve every seen – what a genius, she waited till just the funniest moment to let loose – don’t you love her?”

And if I had babies in today’s digital age, I’d probably have a website devoted to the event that the whole world could access so that if you typed “baby, spit up, baptism” into Google, you’d see pictures of my dear child.

While this may true for all, people like me don’t understand many important things until we experience them. Having children changed the way I look at all children, and becoming a parent changed the way I look at all parents, especially my own.
It’s almost a cliché to talk about how we look at our parents differently as we grow older. I believe it was Mark Twain who said: When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Relationships with mothers can have a similar learning curve, but for many the psychology is a bit more complex, for mothers are the center point of stability around which all the awesome experiences of life are mediated and interpreted. Perhaps it is well expressed in this poem by Rabindranath Tagore.

Now I recall my childhood when the sun

Burst to my bedside with the day’s surprise;

Faith in the marvelous bloomed a-new each dawn,

Flowers bursting fresh within my heart each day.

Looking upon the world with simple joy,

On insects, birds, and beasts, and common weeds,

the grass and clouds had fullest wealth of awe;

My mother’s voice gave meaning to the stars.

Mother is the center of the universe, as if God had conspired from the first dawn of light from darkness to put our lives in their perfect care. And yet we learn that even mothers aren’t perfect, and we chafe at their control and rebel at their restraints and we go through a separation process that is no less a labor of sweat and suffering than the first birth which brought us forth from the womb.

I hesitate to generalize here, because I speak here out of my own experience and I know that not everyone has the same experience. One of my favorite lines from that movie “As Good As It Gets” is where Jack Nicholson says something like – “you know, not everyone had the macaroni salad Sundays.”

But maybe one pour soul’s progress towards understanding can be instructive for many, so I’ll let this take a personal turn.

My mother once said that I would never forgive her for a certain circumstance of our growing up – a circumstance that separated us each day and put me in the care of her sister, my Aunt Viola.

My mother was born in 1902 and by the time she graduated from high school her family had been torn apart by religious differences and a world war. She was from an Amish background and she was raised in the midst of a large extended family. But within this Amish community a split developed over what today we call the “born again” experience; her mother’s grandfather was one of the Amish bishops who led a separatist movement that became the Evangelical Mennonite church. Unfortunately, her father’s grandfather was a vocal member of the opposition, and their dispute led to divorce and lawsuits.

When my mother was in high school her two brothers enlisted in the Army to fight in World War I. Like many people of German descent they wanted to prove their loyalty to their American homeland – and they wanted to get away from their family. And from what I know, when they came back their was some kind of violent confrontation with their father which resulted in him leaving his wife and children, moving to the western frontier, and changing his name from Beberstein to Jackson.

My mother tried to set out on her own by going to college and she attended one year at a state normal school in Ypsilanti, Michigan and one year in Bowling Green, Ohio, which earned her a teaching certificate. She taught in the public schools in Flint, Michigan, and worked her way up to being a school librarian. When a new principal arrived and told her she was needed four years of college to be a librarian, she decided to enroll at Columbia Teachers College in New York City. To pay for this she took a job with Schrafft’s restaurants.

Right after moving to New York the depression hit and all thoughts of college were put on hold. The job with Schrafft’s was precious like gold, but family obligations weighed heavy on her mind. Eventually she moved her mother and two sisters from the Midwest to live with her and she tried to help them find work. But her mother was old and both sisters were mentally ill to different degrees – Viola to the point where she could never hold on to a job and her other sister to the point where she simply one day disappeared.

Even after the depression was over, even after her marriage to my father who always had a good job, my mother’s sense of duty obliged her to keep working and supporting her mother and sister. And to provide her sister with work, she paid her to take care of our apartment and watch the children. And even after my grandmother died, and right up to the point where my Aunt was committed to the state mental hospital, I was daily in her care and subject to her schizophrenic thoughts and paranoid delusions. And for this, my mother said, I would never forgive her.

But, by the grace of God, we all lived long enough that things could be resolved.

I would never use the word forgiveness here because there really was nothing to be forgiven. What happened was that we came to see how life presents us with certain choices and that given the circumstances we all walk down paths from which there is no turning back. Grace and experience help us grow in appreciation for the struggles and choices our mothers or parents or spouses make in so many ways for us. As the hymn says, I once was blind, but now I see.

Maybe you could call it forgiveness, maybe you could call it simply growing up – maybe you could better call it love.

Jesus commands us to love one another has he loved us – a perfect love which expresses itself in sacrifice and forgiveness. When you find that love in your family life you are truly blessed and a day like this becomes a day of forgiveness, gratitude, and rejoicing.