A Mother’s Day Homily

This homily was delivered by Melanie Smith at the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 12, 2019. It was her first time to sermonize before an assembled people of God. She is a public school teacher. Characteristic of her heart, she will spend a month in Costa Rica learning Spanish so she can communicate better with her students.

It brings me great joy – and I’ll be honest, it also brings me nervousness! – to have the privilege of speaking to this community of believers today. I never thought that I would be preaching a sermon, and I probably wouldn’t have guessed I would have called it a homily, either.  For a long time, I never even questioned that I as a woman would never speak in church, only felt a vague, distant sense of disappointment that it just wasn’t even an option for me to consider.  So it still feels a bit surreal to be doing this today. I must begin by thanking you, All Saints, for the community created here, for Becky who first suggested to me that I could preach one day, and for Claire who reached out to ask. I want you all to know that I consider these next few minutes sacred, and holy, and that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you all for sharing this day with me.

I’m sure by this point in the afternoon that we have all remembered that today is Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about these “Hallmark holidays,” as we sometimes call them. After all, shouldn’t we regularly love and acknowledge all the people for whom these holidays have been created? Surely we need more than just one day a year for the people we celebrate on Valentines Day, Mothers or Fathers Day, our even Bosses Day, Nurses Day, or Administrative Assistants Day. This past week was Teacher Appreciation Week; I work in the public school system, and I often find myself frustrated on behalf of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, oddly enough: while I do really love that we have a week to “appreciate teachers,” do we really expect that one day or week of free pizza for lunch is sufficient when the rest of the year is spent overworking them and holding up unrealistic expectations for them? But, I digress; that’s another topic for another day.

Of course, it is good and right and special to pause and take a day each year to honor these people, and I’m so glad we do it. I am especially grateful today for my own mother: it is truly because of her that I know what unconditional love is, and I’m so lucky she’s mine. And I’m grateful for all of my aunts, my sister, my grandmothers of whom I have sweet memories, my friends’ mothers, women in the church, women at work, my friends, women whose writing I’ve read for years but never knew personally, and other women in my own life who have been a mother to me in some way.  I know you all have those women in your lives too, and I am so glad to spend this day honoring them. It is right and holy to do so.

I guess I just mean that it’s difficult to live up to all the hype of these holidays. To begin with, how can we possibly express all of the love, appreciation, respect, admiration we have for mothers with the traditional card and flowers and brunch? This day can be such a joyful celebration: celebration of a lifelong friendship with our mother, gratefulness for how well they have and continue to love us and take care of us. It’s a celebration of dreams realized and prayers answered as we become a mother or a grandmother; I have been told that your heart explodes with love you never even knew was possible when you become one yourself. It’s a day of celebration for all spiritual mothers, stand-in mothers, big sisters in the faith, and important women in our lives. How can we possibly fit all of that joy into one day, or into our one greeting card?

But besides this dilemma of one day feeling almost too small, perhaps what is most difficult for me about days like these are the complexities it brings. It’s another one of our days where joy and grief must coexist.

I was so thankful to see at the very beginning of our liturgy today the acknowledgement of that complexity, the recognition that for many, today is not simply the happy brunch and flowers. This day is marked by grief, perhaps even marked by dread. We might will it to pass as quickly as possible, if it’s marked by emptiness, or marked by longing.  We prayed as we began our service today: We come before You now, acknowledging both our joy and sadness. We grieve with those who grieve this day, missing their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters and daughters. We ask for the space to comfort as You comfort us, those who have challenging relationships with their mothers. We pray in silence with those for whom this day is difficult, who have lost children, who have faced infertility, who have painfully crossed off this day year after year. We sit now in silence, acknowledging disappointment, grief, and pain.

I believe our Scriptures are consistent with this idea too, the acknowledgment of the complexity surrounding motherhood. The phrase “year after year” jumped out to me in our liturgy today because it’s also noted in 1 Samuel in the story of Hannah. I often gloss over phrases like “year after year” in the Bible and don’t pause to think about what is actually happening for so long. I am so influenced by our culture, after all, and I often want to just jump ahead to the good stuff. We are told that Hannah’s husband went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord “year after year.” Year after year, we’re told, he gives Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice because the Lord had closed her womb. Now, it is far beyond my understanding or theological knowledge as to why God has done this, and to be honest, these are the kinds of verses in the Bible that really trouble me.  We are told that Hannah’s husband has two wives, and the other wife has many sons and daughters, but because Hannah’s womb is closed, the other wife, her “rival,” the Bible says, provokes her in order to irritate her…and it says again, this goes on “year after year.” We’re told that Hannah wept and would not eat, and she prays for a son, as we know in the story, and she prays in “bitterness of soul.” What might “Mothers Day” have felt like to Hannah, “year after year”?

In Scripture we have several stories of women who long for children, like Sarah and Abraham, and Elizabeth and Zechariah. And even in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have a story of motherhood that has some very difficult factors. Yes, we clean it up big time for Christmas and present a sweet little story, but let’s face it: Mary is unmarried.  Her announcement of pregnancy and motherhood won’t be met with joy by everyone.  She is at risk for divorce, shame, a life of being an outcast and resulting economic instability, and perhaps even her life. I wonder what “Mothers Day” would have felt like to a young, pregnant Mary?

I am thankful that our Scriptures don’t skip over the complexities of the story. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that Hannah prays in bitterness of soul, and it doesn’t just skip ahead to her son Samuel becoming the important prophet that he is. I am thankful that we’re told that Sarah (and Abraham too) laughs at God when he tells her she will have a child. I am thankful that we are told repeatedly that Elizabeth is “well along in years” before she becomes pregnant with John. And I’m thankful that Mary speaks up and questions an angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” God doesn’t skip over the stories of mothers, and he doesn’t skip over their complexities. After all, God could have chosen to enter this world in absolutely any way we could imagine, and God chose to be born of a woman.

Now I certainly don’t want this to become a lesson of “if you just wait long enough, and pray hard enough, then God will give you what you want.” That is another topic that is well above my theological knowledge and understanding. Maybe one of you with advanced Bible degrees can solve that dilemma for me. But, we have all personally lived too many stories of disappointment to know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And that brings me back to my complicated feelings about this day. For every proud and joyful mother today, who can wholeheartedly sing along with Mary that “my soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”, or with Hannah that “my heart rejoices in the Lord…I delight in your deliverance”, there is another mother who grieves the loss of her child. Another who continues to hope for a family and children of her own with seemingly no answered prayer in sight. Another who has just learned her body is unable to have her own biological children. Another who has a complicated, to say the least, relationship with her mother.  And another whose life was turned upside down by his mother’s death. I know this is true because I know these people. They’re my friends. And very likely, you know them too. How can we fit this all of this joy AND grief into just…one…day?

Of course, this is bigger than just Mother’s Day, isn’t it? To me, simultaneously holding space for grief and joy is one of the biggest complexities about our faith, about our human experience, about our God. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We seem to do a much better job rejoicing with others than we do mourning with them. What we often don’t acknowledge, I think, is how frequently in life we find ourselves rejoicing and mourning at the same time, and how difficult that can be too.

I definitely don’t have the solution here. I don’t have an outline or a three point sermon or a foolproof plan on how to do this. For me, one of the most powerful words I’ve learned to embrace in the last few years is the simple word “AND.”  Well, I really should say I’m learning to embrace it; I haven’t mastered it in the slightest.  We celebrate AND we grieve. We hope, but oh, AND we despair. We hold joy AND sadness. We laugh AND we cry. We love fiercely AND we have our hearts broken.  I used to think that the point of all this was to get rid of the hard part, to connect those statements with the word OR instead of AND, and then move to the happy side of the OR statement as quickly as possible. Now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, or at least not always. But now I believe that the word AND is holy and sacred. To me, that simple word AND represents the mysteries of being a human, that holding space for both the grief and joy is in the very nature of God. God doesn’t ask us to get rid of our grief or sadness; instead, like a loving mother, our God promises simply to be with us in it.

We are still in our Easter season: today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. I did not grow up with Liturgical calendar, but I am so glad it found me, because I appreciate so much that it sets aside the time for the longing, for the grief, for the sacrifice, before the joy and celebration.  The holidays of Christmas and Easter have grown incredibly more meaningful to me because of the seasons of Advent and Lent. It holds us to a rhythm that reminds me that we are all in constant cycles of death, burial, and resurrection.  We don’t just skip straight to the end of the story, but rather we experience all of it…AND, sometimes even at the same time. Our God is a God of redemption, of making all things new, of new creations, of hope…even when we pray in the bitterness of soul, laugh in the face of God, or ask God “how can this be?” And so today we honor the women in our lives who have mothered us, who have been instrumental in making us new creations, or making all things new in our lives. After all, mothers literally bring new life into the world. May our Mother God bless you and keep you today… in your joy and in your grief.

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