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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tolerating God (a sermon)

Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. 
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
~W. S. Merwin
May 13, 2012
by Katie Mulligan

For my Grandma
I know I didn't get the story quite right, but it was complicated, eh Grandma? And love you, Mom. Thanks, Sis.

Scripture Readings: 

A dangerous day to preach in our culture: Mother’s Day.

As I began to write this sermon earlier in the week, I procrastinated as I often do by spending time on Facebook and Twitter. Since I am connected to a lot of pastors and church folk through social media, I began to see advice and commentary posted about Mother’s Day in church. There were stories of people who had lost their mothers and stories of people who had lost their children. There were people who did not have children and who grieve this terribly and there were people who did have children and who grieve this terribly. Pictures and stories of perfect mothers appeared along with plans for the perfect Mother’s Day banquet. Stories of abusive mothers surfaced, mostly without pictures. Several people on Facebook said, “Mother’s Day is everyday, but here’s a shout out to mothers of all kinds.” A woman named Amy Young wrote an open letter to churches about Mother’s Day. She gave several suggestions about how to go about being church on Mother’s Day—in particular she asked that we discontinue the practice of asking mothers to stand and be acknowledged on this day. She writes, “Do away with the standing. You mean well, but it’s just awkward. Does the woman who had a miscarriage stand? Does the mom whose children ran away stand? Does the single woman who is pregnant stand? A.w.k.w.a.r.d.” At the end of her post she says she’ll be in church today, Mother’s Day, “but if you make us stand, I might just walk out.” How many church committees gathered this month to plan a Mother’s Day service? At how many of those committee meetings did someone say, “If we don’t acknowledge Mother’s Day, I’m walking out of church”?

In the middle of all of those posts on facebook and twitter, a friend of mine wrote, “Colleagues, please choose your words carefully for Sunday.” I had to laugh, because nobody needs to tell me to be careful to choose my words in the pulpit. Most of us pastors, we always choose our words carefully. The threat of people walking out of church is real, and we are tasked with the job of providing comfort and challenge at the exact same time in the way you need it. Nobody needed to tell me to choose my words carefully for Mother’s Day in the church, because I come here with my own complicated story as somebody’s daughter and as the mother of two young men—two young men who happen to be sitting here. Some days I am the best mother in the world—notably those are days when we have ice cream for dinner. Some days we play a different game: “You’re the worst mother in the world” they say. And I answer back, “Tell me who you want to trade with, and I will make that happen.”

Mother’s Day is what a friend of mine calls a soup sandwich. Or in other words, a hot mess.

This morning we gather as a congregation to lift our hearts and minds to God. It is tempting to conflate our cultural image of the perfect mother with our dearest hopes for who God is. We could, this morning, shove the inconvenient complexity of family relations under a rug and pretend that here in this room we all love our mothers and children unconditionally and that everyone who wanted children got them and got to keep them. But the reality is that in this room on this day there are people who have children and people who don’t. Some of our mothers are still alive and others have died. Some of our children have died. Some of us love being a mother more than anything else in this world, and some of us wish we had never given birth. Some of us long for children and will never have them. Some of us are totally indifferent to this day. There are men in this room who would give their right arm to be a mother. There are people who didn’t come to church today because they can’t stand the grief of this day—and they too are present among us.

Frankly, I wondered what to do with this day, with these scriptures, because I am new to you as a preacher. I’ve been your youth minister for just a little over a month. I’ve loved every minute of it—the pizza, the games, the two hour drive to camp. I like making the flyers and baking the brownies—I like getting the phone calls from parents and the emails from students. And more than that, I really need this job. So nobody needed to tell me to choose my words carefully on a day like this one, full of the hidden traps of people’s stories. I had resolved, actually, to avoid speaking of Mother’s Day entirely.

Except that when I turned to the scriptures again I caught on the words “Abide in my love.” I invite you, as I continue to speak, to simply be in whatever state you are in this morning with regards to Mother’s Day. Just be. If you are celebrating, we celebrate with you. If you are grieving, we grieve with you. We are a community, made up of complex individuals with stories that overlap and contradict and complement one another—and we are strong enough, I hope, to abide in God’s love and love one another.

Our scriptures today are full of soup sandwiches—people whose lives were messy and complicated. We have Elijah, a prophet of the Lord. We have King Ahab, who had forsaken the commandments of the Lord and gathered about him some 850 prophets of other Gods. We have Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, who had a bit of a temper. The prophet Elijah had a reputation for speaking hard words of truth, and so one day, Elijah appeared before Ahab to confront him with his sin. Ahab saw Elijah and said, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And Elijah responded, “I have not troubled Israel, but YOU have.” In the scenes that followed Elijah challenged Ahab’s prophets to a duel of power, and when it was done, Elijah had the prophets put to death.

This is the point in the story when Jezebel became enraged, and threatened Elijah. “SO may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of them by this time tomorrow.” Or in other words, “May the gods kill me and worse if I do not kill you by tomorrow afternoon.” Elijah, not afraid to face down 850 prophets, suddenly felt fear. Or perhaps he felt shame. Or perhaps he felt disgust at the heavy price of righteousness. So he ran into the wilderness, fleeing for his life. After a day’s journey he laid down under a tree and gave up. “You might as well kill me now, Lord. I’m not any better than my ancestors.” Then he went to sleep.

This is where the story could end, and this is where the stories of many communities do end. “If you make us stand for Mother’s Day, I will walk out of church.” “If you do not celebrate Mother’s Day the way I like it, I will walk out of church.” If you say the right words, O Prophet, O Teacher, O Elder, O Deacon, O Mother, O Father, O Child, then I will be satisfied. But if not, I will take my ball and go home, I will die under a tree in the wilderness, I will chase after you with vengeance, I will break community with you. We humans are a long history of fractured community and families. Our trepidation over Mother’s Day testifies to this.

But the story goes on, and the angel of the Lord tells Elijah to eat and take a further journey to the mount of God. Forty days and forty nights Elijah journeyed until he got to a cave. And while he was on the mountain, there was a great wind that split the mountains and broke the rocks into pieces. And there was an earthquake. And there was a fire. Elijah waited through all of that chaos, and he did not find God in any of it. But after the fire there was sheer silence, and Elijah covered his face, went out of the cave, and found the voice of God in that silence.

Abide in my love. What does it mean to abide in God’s love? We are offered God’s love as a model for the love we offer one another, but what does that look like? On this day we might say, “God’s love is like a mother’s love!” And then perhaps we might project onto “mother love” all of our longings and desires we dare admit to ourselves. Mother love is unconditional! It is ever patient. Perhaps mother love is soft and gentle like a mother’s touch for a child. Mothers are protective and nurturing, we say. Mothers are about comfort food and June Cleaver. Perhaps we lift up Mary, Mother of Jesus. Or Naomi. Or Hagar.

Disillusioned, so many of us might snap back that not all mothers fit the hallmark caricature—in fact, we might dare say, none of us do! Back and forth we can go in the church, slaying the false prophets of motherhood, chasing each other down, running into the wilderness to lick our wounds, refusing to be in community with one another. We do this in the church, over and over, until exhausted we might fall silent. And in the silence we might hear God say, “Abide in my love.”

Abide in my love. Easy enough, isn’t it? All we have to do is love one another as God has loved us. All we have to do is abide in God’s love. That’s all.

I looked up the definition of “abide” as I was getting ready for today. I figured it must mean “to live in” or “to dwell”. And it does mean those things. But it means other things to. Abide means “to wait for” or “to endure without yielding.” It means “to bear patiently” or “to accept without objection.” As in “I will abide by your decision.” It means “to remain stable or fixed in a state.” To stay, to dwell, to hang around, to remain, to stick around, to tarry.

This morning as we gather in whatever state as mothers and not mothers as those without mothers and those who still have them whether they like it or not, we are a soup sandwich of a congregation, a hot mess, a complicated gathering of people with complicated stories. We are not called to be perfect, nor to devise the perfect image of motherhood. We do not have to create a pedestal of motherhood for the Almighty to sit upon while we mindlessly worship. We are called to bring the fullness of our lives into the presence of the Lord, and to offer up our deepest longings, joys, sorrows, angers, celebrations, and fears in this place. We are called to wait a while and to tolerate the love of God. Elijah himself, that great prophet, could barely stand to do this—he covered his face when he went out into the silence of God. But he went. And he stayed a while.

Abide in my love. Tolerate my love. Dwell in my love. And as I have loved you, love one another. Abide with one another, tolerate one another, dwell with one another. Abide in my love. Let us gather our stories under this tent this morning and offer them to God. Let us feel the absence of those who could not be here today, and let us offer that to God too. For a moment in this hurried, complicated, frightened life, let us sit still with the fullness of our lives and the fullness of God’s love, and let us tarry awhile. Let us abide in God’s love.

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