An elementary school teacher had just taught a science lesson on the subject of magnets and afterward gave a quiz to see if they had grasped the concepts. One of the questions was, “My name starts with an M, has six letters, and I pick up things.” To her surprise, at least half of the class wrote down the answer, “Mother.”
In the book of Genesis, when God took one of Adam’s ribs to create a partner for him, Eve, Adam exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” This is as it is for mothers, there is an instant and total overwhelming sense of looking at this newborn child and knowing he or she is a very part of you.
As you know, Claire and I became grandparents for the first time five months ago. Perhaps the most fun part of it for me so far has been watching the way our daughter has been transformed by being a mother. She learned from a master, of course, and it is gratifying to see her embrace her new role and do it so well and so happily.
Before launching into this sermon I want to acknowledge that there are many different emotions present in this room today. Some, like me, have had wonderful mothers and have nothing but positive thoughts on Mother’s Day. Others may have become alienated from their mothers for one reason or another, or have raw emotions from recent deaths of mothers. Some mothers here may have children who have turned away from them, or have had the terrible experience of their children preceding them in death. Some of you may not have known your true mother because you were put up for adoption. Some of you may not have been able to have children, or decided not to have children. It is a complicated day, filled with many different emotions. Two very different Scripture readings have been read today, and as I reflect on them I hope you will find something for your situation.
One of the passages was about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. I think being a good shepherd is a wonderful goal for a mother, and for a father. Sometimes, of course, parenting feels more like herding cats than it does shepherding sheep, but be that as it may I want to try to see the similarities here.
A shepherd is an authority figure, not just another one of the sheep. It is the shepherd’s role to provide for the needs of the sheep, to keep them safe, to keep them well, to keep them out of dangerous places. The sheep don’t always like for the shepherd to do these things, especially when the grass seems greener on the other side of the hill and they don’t realize there is a cliff to fall off on that side. It is not the shepherd’s job to make the sheep happy all the time, but to safely shepherd them from one place to the other so they can fulfill their purpose in life. Over time the sheep do realize that the shepherd has their best interests at heart. They know the shepherd’s voice and will respond to it. They trust the shepherd to take them where they need to go and provide what they need.
There is no more important job in the world than preparing a child for life in the world. There are no more difficult decisions to make on ethical and moral issues in the business world than there are to make in raising children on a daily basis. When to discipline, how to discipline, when to give in, when to compromise, when to grant freedoms, when to take them away. These are tough choices which can shape and teach or stifle and alienate depending on what you do and how you do it.
A mother wrote the following article about making such choices. She says, “Someday when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother, I will tell them:
I loved you enough to ask where you were going, with whom, and what time you would be home.
I loved you enough to insist that you save your money and buy a bike for yourself even though we could afford to buy one for you.
I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover that your new best friend was a creep.
I loved you enough to make you take a Milky Way back to the drugstore (with a bite out of it) and tell the clerk, ‘I stole this yesterday and I want to pay for it.’
I loved you enough to stand over you for two hours while you cleaned your room, a job that would have taken me 15 minutes.
I loved you enough to let you see anger, disappointment, and tears in my eyes. Children must learn that their parents are not perfect.
I loved you enough to let you assume the responsibility for your actions even when the penalties were so harsh they almost broke my heart.
But most of all, I loved you enough to say ‘no’ when I knew you would hate me for it. Those were the most difficult battles of all. I am glad I won them, because in the end you won something, too.”
Mothers, and fathers, are given an incredible privilege and opportunity to have the primary role in helping shape the character of the children entrusted into their care. Words are important, but our actions and examples are more important. From how to treat other people to the habit of going to Sunday School and church to the teaching of stewardship by giving the child a quarter to put in the offering, we can instill good habits, morals, and beliefs into our children.
It is far from easy. Nothing that is worth doing ever is, and this is profoundly worth doing. So if you have children at home now, keep on persevering and remember what important work you are doing. It is like planting a garden. It requires constant attention, regular watering, protection, and time. The harvest comes in time and is so worth it.
The other passage read this morning was the story of Ruth and Naomi, which you know is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I love it for Mother’s Day, because it is actually about a mother and daughter in law rather than a mother and daughter. This story gives all of us an example to aspire to today, whether our mothers are alive or dead, whether we have children of our own or not. Ruth and Naomi give us a moving example of self-giving love in the face of great tragedy and disappointment between women who are not blood relatives or even from the same country.
To summarize the story, during a famine in Israel Elimelech took his wife Naomi and his two sons from their home in Bethlehem to the country of Moab in search of food. While they were there, Elimelech died. The two sons both married Moabite women, surely a bitter pill for Naomi to swallow, and in about ten years both of the sons died. So there Naomi was in a foreign land with her husband and both sons dead. It is a story of bitter tragedy.
Naomi decided to go back home to Bethlehem. Her daughters-in-law started out with her, but she told them to go back home and find new husbands and start a new life among their own people. One of them did so but the other, Ruth, refused to leave Naomi’s side. She told Naomi, “Do not ask me to leave you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay; your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”
What a remarkable, moving statement. What kind of mother-in-law must Naomi have been to have inspired such love and devotion from her daughter-in-law! And what kind of person must Ruth have been to leave her home and go to a strange new land in order to love and care for her mother-in-law! The Scriptures tell us that the whole town of Bethlehem was stirred by the story of these two women when they arrived, and well it should have been. The story stands as a high point of the way in which human beings can care for each other.
In the midst of bitterly disappointing circumstances, Ruth and Naomi found and gave themselves to each other. They made the most of what they had rather than dwelling too much on the disappointments. In the end, the women of Bethlehem tell Naomi that her daughter-in-law, who loves her, is worth more than seven sons. This was a revolutionary thing to say in that patriarchal society, but they spoke truth.
We can learn much from Ruth and Naomi. If your mother is no longer living, don’t live in a world of grief and regret. Search for your Naomi. It probably will not take long. They are widowed, they are homebound, they are lonely. They would cherish a younger person’s care.
If you have no children or they are grown and live elsewhere, find a Ruth or two or three. You can teach them in Sunday School or work with them in Scouts or tutor them in school. You can encourage them in their parenting and in their marriages, and help them see the big picture and the long view. There are all kinds of things you can find to do to fill voids in your life without sitting around feeling bitter and angry and sorry for yourself.
If you have much to be thankful for on this Mother’s Day, then act as though you know it. Give thanks to God and show thanks to and for the mothers in your life. Don’t hold back! If you do not feel that you have much to be thankful for on this day, well, there’s not going to be much accomplished by sitting around feeling sorry for yourself and mad at the world. Give somebody a reason to be thankful for you and to praise God for you. You’ll find that it does not take as much as you might think and that the rewards are tremendous.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
May 11, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson