A tongue-in-cheek website called Book in a Minute Bedtime stories tells the story of PD Eastman’s little bird that does not get properly imprinted, Are You My Mother, like this:
A Little Bird: Are you my mother?
A Bunch of Animals that Aren’t his Mother: No
His Mother: Yes.
But of course there’s more to that discovery. There is that indubitableness of mother; that certain je ne sais qua about a mother. It’s not just that the bird asks his mother if she is his mother — he exclaims “You are my mother.” I suppose it is easy to read the point of that story that there is something mysterious and supernatural between a mother and her baby and that that is what we celebrate in that book and what we should be celebrating today. Now, perhaps men shouldn’t be pondering on this point, but if motherhood, and indeed, any human relationship marked by the qualities we reserve for mothers, whether or not they are always and every where instantiated then it is because a particular relationship has taken on those qualities. Certainly when a child is born the relationship between the mother and child is asymetrical. The infant, having little if any opportunity for reflection on his or her relationship with the mother, cannot have the same depth of feeling the mother has, whose pregnancy has been marked by all sorts of opprotunity for reflection, who has, in most cases created this child in her own loving relationship with another partner whose love will also be forever tied up in their relationship. Despite the anti-abortionist position, a fetus is not a a person, and an infant, not a child. Those things that allow for the little bird’s exclamation take more time.
Jesus’ question to the people gathered about him was reflective of this reality. His answer is not to be read as though he were anti-Mother’s Day. On the contrary, his question gets at the heart of the little bird’s exclamation. The question, “Who is my mother?” is not a dismissal of his mother standing out in the crowd, but an inkling that motherhood has more to do with a relationship based on that which affords us the basic confidence in life, than it does with biology. When Jesus suggests to the gathered crowd that his mother and his brothers and sisters are whoever does the will of God, I suggest to you that this is what he means.
Sadly, for many Christians, who embrace a kind of exclusive Christianity where personal salvation is the utmost importance, this story is taken as proof that the saved out not really intermingle with the unsaved. I know from experience that these words in Mark have sometimes been used not to build up the family, but to tear it down. Such thinking stands in complete contradiction to the gospel of Jesus. I heard these kinds of words spoken at a funeral recently. The excuse given for such harsh treatment of one’s fellow citizen and family member, is that to do otherwise is to go against God’s will, and to risk one’s reward in heaven. I cannot see how, given all the stories we have of Jesus, anyone can suggest that Jesus’ main point would be to “gain future rewards at the expense of present relations.”
III. Theology of Mother’s Day
So what is going on in this story from Mark? Mother’s Day may not be a Christian holiday, but it does provide the church on opportunity to reflect on relationships in general and “mother-type” relations in particular. Here’s what I want us to reflect on: We properly try not to anthropomorphize God — that means that we try not to speak of God as a human being. But this is not to say that our language about God is somehow given to us from above, or that our language about God has no rootedness in our human world and our very humaness. The only way not to anthropomorphize God is to be intentionally theological — is to know what you mean when you pray to “Our Father,” as we do in the Lord’s Prayer or to the “Mother of us all,” as I ask us to do when we baptise children. And what we mean is that in our best relationships, in those about which, when we reflect on them, we can see important things in new ways and be brought by them to higher creative interchange, we are aware of something that is, to quote the great English Essayist, Matthew Arnold, “a righteousness not of our own making.” To be able to name a relationship a “mother-relation” or a “father-relation” is possible because we know, based on our connection and our purpose with the ultimate reality, what such a relationship should be. In other words, the ultimate relationship and the directionality of our understanding is with God and from that ground of all becoming and creativity, we can then name what a mother or a father ought to be. Note that it is an asymetric analogy. Because we know what mothers are from our experience of that One who is pure and excelling love, does not mean that we know who God is by our experience of mothers, no matter how loving they may be in our lives.
Oliver Wendel Holmes famously commented on the essence of why we celebrate Mother’s Day, “Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall; A mother’s secret hope outlives them all.” When we celebrate the constancy of a mother’s secret hope, it is not because mother’s provide for us the best model of such hope, but because that hope is modeled after the hope which springs from the root of all our being — from our loving God whom to know is to know how our human relations should be structured.
Jesus explicitly teaches in our reading from John today that that structure is relational. “We need to stay attached to one another.” This is the most important part of that passage. And yet how often this simple and organic imperative is overlooked in favor of the introductory verse, “I am the True Vine and my Father the Vinedresser.” When that becomes the point of the passage, we miss the relationality of the simple farmer’s analogy and the passage tells that relatively new story of violence at the center of the gospel. We cannot be the vine, but by sacrificing a few limbs, we can please God.
But violence was never at the center of Jesus’ gospel. Relation was. A real relationship works as a refiner, a pruner, because the quality of the relationship leads the creative interchange between the related ones, to higher ground.
And so it is that we hold up and celebrate those mothers who have prunes us to be better people.
IV. Truth Personified
Last month the United States Congress unveiled the bust of Sojourner Truth in the Capital Building. She is the first Black Woman to have a memorial in the halls of federal government.
Truth was born into slavery in New York State. In her childhood she was ripped away from her family and sold into bondage with different enslavers. She was beaten, brutalized, and forced to labor in unimaginable conditions. She fell in love, but her husband of choice was stripped from her and she was forced to “breed” with another man. She had many children, but as an enslaved woman she had no parental rights and endured having them forcibly removed. When the state of New York began gradual emancipation Truth sought her own freedom and the liberation of her children.
But her own freedom was not enough. Through her quick intelligence, her unbending moral courage, and her tireless labor Sojourner Truth became one of the nation’s most powerful abolitionist voices and women’s rights advocates.
She is perhaps most remembered for a speech before an audience of mostly women in Akron, Ohio, in the mid 19th century. In that speech, she challenged the status quo that held that women could not vote because women were too fragile to engage in public life. She said:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place, and ain’t I a woman? … I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me — and ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear the lash as well — and ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen most all sold off to slavery and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me — and ain’t I woman?
I was reminded, as I was learning about this new memorial, that Sojourner’s bust is not the first memorial of a black woman proposed for Washington, DC. In 1923 some southern senators proposed, in a moment noted, even in a time of great racial perversity, for serious offense, a national mammy monument on the mall.
The monument was eventually defeated by, several Black women’s organizations, one of which is responsible today for the Sojourner Truth memorial. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of political science at Princeton University, writes that:
Because of their efforts, instead of a monument to the mythical figure of a happy, faithful, feisty, loyal black woman slave, America will today memorialize a dedicated, serious, freedom-fighting black woman. In commemorating Truth the nation invests in remembering the deeply human and complicated stories of the lives of black women.
Let us continue asking that greatest of all questions: Are you my mother? Because as we ask it, we clear away the chaff of our relationships and come closer to that which sets us free. Amen.