Mother’s Day Sermon (May 14, 2017)

Now We Are God’s People
Sermon on 1 Peter 2:1-9 and John 14:1-14
Jennifer Garrison Brownell
May 14, 2017

In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, weary along with the nation of the bloodshed of the civil war years, wrote the original mothers’ day proclamation. This was not a card of sentimentality, but a call to action.

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

However we approach this mothers day individually – in joy or in grief, with love or with resentment, with hope or with hopelessness – however our relationships with our own mothers, or our experience of motherhood has touched us – Julia Ward Howe speaks to us, because she imagined mother’s day not as a day for nuclear families, but for the human family.
She called all women:
Go out from your
homes and safe places.
Gather together.
First grieve.
And then act.

The first mother’s day was not a day for brunch, but a day to create a table where all would be fed. The first mothers’ day was not a day for flowers, unless they were the flowers scattered on the fields of the dead, scattered along with the promise that there would no longer be war. The first mother’s day was a communal day, a worldwide day, a day, 150 years ago (before we talked much about interfaith dialogue) when Howe imagined a gathering with all women, all over the world, whether they were Christian (baptized with water) or not.

1 Peter also is a letter to the world. Unlike many of the other New Testament epistles which are addressed to particular congregations, situations, even individuals, this epistle is a circular letter, a kind of magazine, addressed to (as he calls them at the beginning of the book) “exiles of the Dispersion” “elect resident aliens” scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.

You, he says, are living stones. Of you, the temple is built.

Let’s pause to consider how ridiculous an assertion this was. The temple was obviously only in ONE place and that one place was Jerusalem. The temple was a building, an edifice, a mighty structure that showed off God’s power and purpose, that was the center of education, of religion, of politics.

But 1 Peter knocks that assertion right down. No longer is the building created from bricks, meant to sit in a single place. Now the building is made from individuals. No one can create the holy temple, but together, we – the people of God – are living stones. We, the people of God, gathered together are able to make God’s house in the world.

Like Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation, this is not about one individual acts of kindness but a communal response to injustice, to grief, to all the brokenness of the world.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in NYC and I had a chance to attend a May Day rally in Union Square. I walked around, taking it in. There were some speeches and some music from the stage, and OFF the stage people making theater and music and speeches of their own. There was every kind of costume and sign imaginable.

And then, I saw an African-American man, passed out on a sidewalk. I know he was passed out and not just sleeping, because his friend was trying to wake him up. His friend was shaking the man, and patting him on the face, telling him urgently to “wake up, wake UP, man.” I had just come from a sermon, in which the fabulous Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis had exhorted us “not to step OVER the homeless people in our neighborhood like they are PART of the ARCHITECTURE.”

I was holding a half drunk water bottle so I knelt down and offered it to the friend.
The friend poured some on the man’s head, tried to help him drink some, told him to go home before the cops came. I sat down on the sidewalk, not at all sure what to do, and regretting (not for the first time) untaken first aid classes. People walked by with signs, talking into phones, squinting up at the sun. If they did look at the man on the ground, at the man trying to revive him, their eyes held…what was it? Mild disinterest. Pity, maybe. Or contempt. The cops did come. And they called an ambulance, which I understood from the friend would cost the man $2000.

I joined the effort to wake him, shaking him, talking to him. He looked up at us a couple of times, one time even sat up for a minute, then fell over again before we could catch him. And in that whole crowd, I wrote later, no one stopped. No one in that crowd of activists, lovers, human rights proponents offered to help. No one touched him.

But as I was preparing to tell you this story, I re-read what I had written and remembered that was not how it happened at all. I remembered that another woman HAD stopped, had looked at me and the men, had asked “is he ok?”
“yeah, I had said, he’s fine – help is coming.”

When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics were loading him onto the stretcher, he looked up at the face of his friend and spoke for the first time.

“You. I don’t like you.”

“Yeah, I don’t like you either,” the friend replied without rancor.

And then he was gone, loaded into the ambulance. An unlikeable drunk. A child of God.

“All I had left was questions,” I wrote later. “Could I have learned his name? Could I have prayed out loud? Could I have tried to get help from the people passing by? And what kind of help was needed anyway? What happens to a guy with no money when he gets carted off to dry out in a hospital somewhere? Could I have gone with him to the hospital with him to find out? Could I have tried to pay the ambulance bill, which was just a little more than it cost to frolic in the city for a week?”

Re-reading it, I realized, I was asking the wrong questions, because my questions all began with I. What could WE have done? How could WE have helped? How could I have invited that one person who asked into the little circle on the sidewalk? How could we have invited another and then another? How could one brick on another, one living stone together with a whole wall of other living stones, have built right there on a busy corner of Manhattan, a living temple?

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