We have a lot to do tonight.
That fits, right?
Tonight we are staring at the role of women in our lives and we come to a point of saying, ‘There is a whole lot to do. ‘
And we’re going to get it done.
That sound like any woman you know?
Plenty to do.
And it’s going to get done.
Let us start with the recognition that today is Mother’s Day and that every soul in this room was born of a mother.
Sometimes that relationship went well from there. And sometimes not.
For those who can wholly celebrate their mothers’ enduring presence and wisdom in their life, we gathered here – we celebrate that with you.
This is not a competition. The world may teach us that we are supposed to be better than everybody else, that for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose, that if you are all happy, I am going to be talking about you behind your back.
You know what I say about that?
I say that is from Hell. Those are the world’s values. Those are not God’s values. That is not love of my neighbor. So I look on Facebook or I look around this room and I see that you have an incredible relationship with your wonderful mother and y’all had brunch together today and it is all so happy.
For those you who have great relationships with your mothers and great relationships with your children and all or any of the things that are supposed to make this a great day, I say blessings on you for your joy.
But that may not be the relationship that you have – or had – with your mother. Or maybe your mother was wonderful, but she’s gone. Maybe gone earlier from your life. Or maybe, excruciatingly, just recently.
So maybe you look at the fact of Mother’s Day and your heart hurts. You look at all those blasted sappy Hallmark cards and you look all those smiling brunch pictures and your heart hurts.
But you know what we are going to do tonight? We are going to celebrate. We are going to be happy that we were born onto this Earth of a woman who – for whatever was going on in her life – did what she could do. For some of us that was grand and wonderful and perfect. And for those of you among us, those people who know this day as a joyful one, we rejoice with you.
Even as we grieve our own losses. What was. What was not. What could never be. What has been lost to us.
We rejoice with you. You acknowledge our pain. That is the compassion born to you.
Together we are healed. Together we look upon the faces of women in this world and we give thanks and we know and release our pain and we forgive.
We can say the same for the mothering we have or have not done. We who have given birth to a child may rightly rejoice on this day. Thank God for our children. But at the same time it is no less true that there are hearts which are broken – hearts to whom a child was denied. Or lost. The suffering. Oh my God. Women who for whatever reason wanted a child that was denied to them. Or bore a child who could not be the child they dreamed of. Or who didn’t want a child and somehow felt the judgment of the world. Or maybe there are no words.
It takes a village, my friends. No truer words have ever been said. Somehow all of us have to come to this moment in our lives.
This evening, you know what we do? We celebrate. We celebrate all the good mothering that happens in this world. That good mothering happens through biological mothers and through incredible women who offer that into the world because that’s what they do.
Thank God for all the mothering that happens in this world. Thank God that we do not have to rely on some single chain of biology for us to give or for us to receive.
While I tend to shy away from describing God as a Father or as a Mother because I believe that God is way, way, way beyond our human conceptions of gender and role, let us fully assert in this moment that in our life – no matter who we are separated from in this earthly realm, no matter what – we are wholly immersed in the love of God.
Whatever the best love that you got from your mama or that you didn’t get for but yearned for from your mama? That? That is the love that God wraps you in every minute of every day. And whatever love that you have to give? The love that you would give to a child? God calls upon us to offer that back into the world.
Because the world so desperately needs it.
You get to decide what that looks like.
Know that the world needs a mother’s love. And that you – whether or not you are anybody’s biological mama – and in the unlikely event that you are a man and sure ain’t going to be anybody’s biological mama – the world and its people still need that kind of love. And you, my friends, by the nature of being here, by the nature of listening to the call of God can consider yourself summoned to provide it.
The world needs the kind of love we are supposed to learn from our mamas. If you received that kind of love in your life, excellent! Turn around and share it. If you didn’t, well then, you know what you missed. Help make sure no one goes without it.
Now let’s turn to our Scripture to teach us something about what it means to do this work in the world.
Women’s work, that is.
We look tonight at the story of Deborah, kept deep in the book of Judges – which is not a book we preach from too much in our tradition because it’s hard. These are not for the most part the easy stories of morality, our legacy of ethics and tradition.
Judges is a brutal book, the story of the Israelites, finally settled in Canaan, getting it wrong over and over again and finding themselves accountable to God for that fact. The Israelites have spent their time wandering in the wilderness under Moses and Aaron. They’ve followed Joshua in gaining control of their promised land. They occupy this territory now and they are trying to figure out how to live.
Brutal, bloody stuff. This is not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.
In the Hebrew Bible, judges are not judges quite like we think of them today. We’re not talking formal courts and appointed or elected legal arbiters. The judges of this book are respected leaders. They are the folks that others turned to for wisdom and direction.
And of all things the amazing thing in this incredibly patriarchal society? One of them was a woman. Her name was Deborah.
Deborah was a prophet and a wise woman. Under her leadership, the people of Israel defeated those who were attempting to conquer them. And under Deborah the Israelites lived and prospered and stayed faithful – those folks had a real hard time with false idols sometimes – but they stayed faithful for 40 years.
That’s pretty amazing. This text tonight is a part of the song that affirms their victory. And we hear Deborah named as a mother in Israel.
A mother in Israel?
We don’t know if Deborah was the biological mother of children. We don’t know the story of her family life. But we do know here that through her wisdom and skill, she gives birth to something very, very important – 40 years of peace and faithful living on this land.
Let’s think about this for a moment – she gives birth to peace in the land. She is a woman called to do important work and she does it seriously.
On this Mother’s Day, we celebrate the literal births – the wonders of children and family. But I also put to each of you – what do you want to give birth to?
It may be children – literally. Precious beings you guide in this world.
For you, it might be a community of nurturing and care for other people’s children. Or other people’s mothers. Or for people who have no family of their own.
Deborah does not do this work alone She’s faithful to God and she works with others. She summons Barak and together they lead an army. And through her prophecy, Deborah knows that the courage of yet another woman will bring them a key victory – a bold woman named Jael who single-handedly killed the Canaanite general Sisera to secure the peace.
What can you give birth to?
Maybe you give birth to a great idea, something that makes a difference not only in your own life but in the lives of those around you.
Ella Baker gave birth to a powerful grassroots organizing tradition in the Civil Rights movement. Dorothy Day gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City during the Great Depression, Jane Addams gave birth to the Settlement House Movement for immigrant welfare in early 20th century Chicago. Rachel Carson gave birth to the modern environmental movement.
Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Sandra Cisneros and Denise Levertov and Barbara Kingsolver have given birth to words in the shape of poems and stories and essays and novels, words that move us and teach us and change us, words that will endure for centuries.
In the country of Myanmar, Aung Sung Suu Kyi gave birth to a non-violent revolution that ended decades of military dictatorship.
I know dozens of women – some of them in right here in this room – who have given birth to communities of love and care, where people find connection and friendship and prayers and support. Women who mother children and grown children who are not theirs by birth all the time.
Thank God for that. It sure enough takes a village to raise any child or even to live in this world – and we give birth to and sustain that village for one another each and every day.
Sixteen years ago a group of women – and men – gave birth to this church. Today we all tend it, nurture, keep it growing with a deeds and our wisdom. Who says you even have to be a woman to give birth to the stuff of a better world? This is a message for us all.
In 1971 in East Harlem, New York, a former Black Panther named Afeni Shakur gave birth to Tupac. I have great respect for hip hop and hip hop culture, but I don’t claim it as my own. But of course I know Tupac and appreciate his work and his genius. As some of the friends in my Facebook feed began to call the name of Afeni Shakur on Monday morning and to mark her sudden passing, I started to pay attention.
Afeni Shakur was a mother – a mother who grieved the tragic death of her gifted son – a mother who grieved for and fought the sins of the world, its systemic evils of racism, sexism, and economic disparity. Even before Tupac was born, Afeni helped give birth to a chapter of the Black Panther Movement, nurturing along others in the struggle for a world of freedom and equality for black people. Later, in her sorrows about the world, Afeni mired herself in the awful clutches of drug addiction. She became dependent on crack cocaine. And then she gave birth to a new life for herself. She got clean and stayed that way, even after Tupac’s devastating murder. She gave birth to a foundation from his earnings, reaching out to people in need and good causes all over this country and indeed around the world. She continued this work up until the time of her death this week.
In that time, she also gave birth to this wisdom, which I share with you this evening –
In this speech, she’s been talking about the example of the great Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave, herself a mother of enslaved children, who fought men to gain rights for women and white people to gain rights for blacks during the post Civil War Reconstruction and the ugly early grip of Jim Crow and the lynch law.
Afeni Shakur instructs us – “Things are worse that you think. Worse, much worse, than you think. But remember Sojourner. Don’t make no difference how bad they are. It is our responsibility to look it square in the face and say ‘What should I start with? Where shall I begin?’ You hear what I’m saying? That is what it is that all of us must do.”
Afeni Shakur stared at the face of her own pain, the irreconcilable loss of a child and she tells us – and this is a quote “You can do this thing. You can turn that garbage, that pain, that awfulness, you can turn it into something else. We must challenge each other to do that. . . [we must ask ourselves] What can I do different with this pain? I am not asking you to do something that I didn’t do.”
Look around you at how messed up this world is. Look at your own pain – whatever its source, I know it’s there. Look at the example of Deborah, a mother of Israel, who in the middle of a society that viewed women as property made her way to leadership and gave birth to 40 years of peace and faithfulness among the Israelites. Look to Afeni Shakur and know that though there is pain, there is also life. We can live life and we can give and nurture life. Whether it’s a biological child or the hopes and dreams of child that’s not our own or an idea or a poem or a way to save the world.
So we have this day.
What do you rejoice in?
What must you grieve?
What you might you give birth to? In ways traditional or something altogether new.
What will you do?