Sermon by Katie Mulligan
I recorded the sermon on my laptop. It's not the greatest recording, but for those of you who prefer to listen than read...click here
Perhaps you are not a “mother” in the sense of the word normally permitted to us. Perhaps you are a man. Perhaps you have not birthed or adopted or raised or parented a human child. I welcome you here still. For what makes a mother goes far beyond our reproductive capacity. To mother is to birth life into existence, to sustain life, and to mourn life as it ends. Perhaps you have mothered a ministry,
a project, a home, a neighborhood—maybe you are the neighborhood mother on the porch--, an ideal. I know you can mother a project, because I was working on a project last week, birthing something into existence. And someone came along and tried to kill it, and I turned into a fierce mother bear! The disciples went to Jesus and asked, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and he said, “One who becomes like this little child. And woe be to any who become a stumbling block for such a child.” As I read it, we are called to be mothered and to mother, to be nurtured and to nurture. I welcome here today all of you who respond to that call to be and birth life, in whatever form that takes.
I especially welcome my trans sisters and brothers and all who have rebirthed themselves around gender and sexuality. Those who have been told they cannot or should not be mothers, for whatever reason. I welcome you too here today, as one who births life into existence.
I welcome here today, my mother, born Anna Jean Tischhauser, and her mother Ann Tischhauser, and her mother Anna Tischhauser. Anna was married to Ernst Tischhauser, and they came here to the U.S. as immigrants from Switzerland. He was a pastor, my great-grandfather, and they were poorer than church mice with six children plus my mother to feed. They bought their flour in bulky flour sacks, and from the flour sacks, my great-grandmother made the childrens’ dresses.
My great grandmother had a saying, “Long thread, lazy girl.” She was an embroiderer, and she taught my grandmother, who taught my mother, who really tried to teach me! Long thread, lazy girl—what this means is that as you are embroidering, you clip off a thread and when you are done with the thread you have to tie a knot in the back. And the threads are such a pain to knot! So the temptation is to take a longer piece of thread so you don’t have to tie as many knots. But the thread gets tangled in the back and then you have to take out the thread and do it again, with a shorter piece of thread. Long thread lazy girl. What I learned from that is in our work everywhere we must take short threads and knot them carefully in the back. Oh the things we can learn from our mothers and grandmoms!
A mother is someone who can make something from nothing, and I welcome here today all of you who have created something from nothing, you who have stretched meals to feed more mouths than you thought you could, you who have found joy, even in the midst of sorrow and difficulty. You are welcome here today. Welcome mothers, one and all. Welcome children one and all.
A few years ago, my oldest son surprised me with a Mother’s Day gift. He called and told me not to come home for a couple of hours because he was working on something. I asked if that something was burning down the house. He promised it was a good something, so I went to a coffee shop to wait for the text that said I could come home.
Two hours later I walked in the house, where he had gathered every picture of our family he could find and placed them artfully on the table, around a vase of flowers. There were candles lit, and a card filled with I love yous, music was playing in the background. My son was beaming with pride for himself, for me, for our relationship.
It was The Perfect Mother’s Day.
Last weekend, that same son of mine picked a fight with me, and as he cursed me out in the way that only loved ones can do sometimes, this scripture of Elisha and the bears and the 42 boys came to mind. In that moment, sitting in our car, I may have also said to the Lord, “You deal with this child, I just CAN’T with him.”
I’m grateful the Lord sent us a cup of tea instead of two she-bears.
This mothering gig is a messy business.
It occurred to me, as I sat in the car and wondered what on earth to do with this child, that with the power to birth and sustain life, we also, as mothering humans, have the capacity to destroy it. And not only that, but sometimes we have the desire to.
Elisha the prophet had just left a town where he had performed an incredible miracle! The people were thirsty, but their community water was bad. Out of that water came death and miscarriage—what life is possible if the water is bad? So they came to Elisha, and he asked them for salt, and then he blessed the water in the name of the Lord, and from that day forward the water was clean and healthy. No longer would death come from the water, but life.
I imagine Elisha was satisfied with a good day’s work that day.
As he left town, perhaps whistling a tune, along the road he ran into a large group of boys. They came after him and called him “Baldhead!” They told him to go away—ungrateful little wretches! And in a moment of aggravation, Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord, and out of the bushes came two mama bears, and those mama bears attacked 42 of the boys.
I am so fascinated by this scripture and how people have attempted to justify this event. As I read about the scripture, this is what I found:
--there must have been many more than 42 boys—it was a mob!
--the boys were really young man—more like 20 years old!
--Baldhead was a scathing insult—perhaps implying disease and illness!
--The children were really saying “Go on up!” not just “Go away!” They must have been implying that Elisha should “go on up” like his mentor the prophet Elijah—in other words they were telling him to go die!
Reason and after reason why Elisha was in danger or why the Lord could not stand for a prophet to be insulted. But when you boil it all down, Elisha lost his temper and cursed these children, and then two bears came and ate 42 of them. Elisha, in his hands, held the power of life and death. We, as mothers, all of us, men and women, hold the power of life and death in our families and communities in our hands.
I’ve been reflecting hard on this passage with all that is happening in Baltimore in these last few weeks. And all that has happened in Ferguson and Staten Island and too many other places. I’ve been thinking about the murders that happen right here in our city of Trenton, blood spilling out on the sidewalks where we walk to school, to work, to the neighbors for a cup of sugar.
We had a prayer walk two weeks ago where we went to the places where six people have been killed this year in Trenton. We came to a woman’s home where a boy, a 20 year old young man, had been shot right in front of her stoop. She let us come and stand, all 50 of us, and we stood there and we prayed. The family was with us, mourning. Then this boy’s cousin laid himself out on the sidewalk where his cousin had been killed, there on the sidewalk. Blood crying out.
To justify the violent death of black and brown folks here and in too many other communities we talk about prior convictions and arrests, we exaggerate the size and age of black and brown youth, we tell stories to make sense out of what cannot make sense. But when we boil it down, our people are dying, they are thirsty and the water is bad, and we hold the power of life and death in our hands. What will we do about it? Will we curse in aggravation and watch as more die? Will we be a stumbling block? Or on this mother’s day, will we turn to our community, hold out our arms, and love and nurture people to life?
Sometimes motherhood surprises us—like a child who crawls in our lap when we weren’t looking. A few years ago, one of the churches I work with had a thanksgiving dinner for the community. They put out flyers inviting anyone and everyone to come. A young black girl came with her father to the dinner, and she met another child at the church and they played. Later that day, a church member offered to bring that child to Sunday school. She lived close by and did not have children of her own, but watching the children play together, her heart was moved.
The one girl brought her cousin. And then they brought their 3 friends. And for a year it was the 5 of them. They called themselves a squad. Other people might call them a crew or a gang. They are family, those 5.
After a year, those 5 started to bring siblings and friends, and now we have 20. They are not well connected to a church, they do not have a lot of resources, but they come whenever I can get them a ride. They call me on Saturday and ask if I am picking them up for church.
They are a squirrely bunch, this crew of children. They talk in church, they’re on their phones, they can’t sit still to save their lives. But they are fierce and devoted and loyal to one another, and they make me laugh all day long. One of the students last week said in the van, “I ain’t NEVER gettin’ married. Imma marry my CAT.”
They tease me and test me constantly, these kids. For three years one of them said to me every time he saw me, “Miss Katie, what happened to your WEAVE?” This group, my crew, they don’t make it easy on church folks. They don’t offer respect where it isn’t mutually given. If you don’t know their name and a little bit of their story, they don’t even know you exist. You’ll be trying to tell them to be quieter in church, and they’ll walk past you like they don’t even see you. But if you take the time and effort and risk to know them, they are beautiful beyond words.
A few months ago, I had to cancel a roller skating trip because I didn’t have enough chaperones. I posted the cancellation on facebook, and then the comments started rolling in. 25 comments from these kids I love saying, “You never do NOTHING for us. You cancel everything. Adults can’t be trusted. I’m DONE with you, do you hear?” And then two of them unfriended me on facebook.
I watched all of this with a mixture of amusement and exasperation and sadness. Two days later the kids needed something else from me and added me back on facebook. In that moment I had the power of life and death. WE could have reacted to their anger with our own anger. People could have got hurt. But instead we rode it out. We loved them instead of cursing them. We went roller skating finally two weeks ago.
I bring this to you, because these children are in need of love and affection from the church communities surrounding them, and you are one of those church communities. This group is currently without a church home. Most Sundays they wander with me wherever I go. If I am able to find an adult willing to spend a Sunday with us, then we go pick them up at their homes and head off to church. A lot of Sundays I can’t find anyone, and we cancel church. They aren’t an easy crew. They are disruptive and rowdy and often enough disrespectful. But they are thirsty for love. They are thirsty for good water. They are thirsty for life.
As you go about this Mother’s Day in your own way, I ask you to think about how you might mother our community. What life might you birth into Trenton? In your daily routine, are you blessing or cursing our community? In your wanderings through and around the City of Trenton, do you bring clean water or ravaging bears?
Some folks have decided I am an “urban youth evangelist.” It’s an interesting title. But I believe that these children are evangelizing our churches by bringing the question of the gospel to your doorstep.
Life or death. It’s in each of our hands. The power of motherhood.