We all enter the world in pretty much the same way, surrounded by water and pushed through a birth canal, which means – among other things- that we all have at least one thing in common: we all have a mother. However, what happens after that experience of being born, and what kind of relationship we have to the person who gave birth to us, varies widely.
Many of us were examined by doctors in those first moments, cleaned up and then laid in our mothers’ arms, as fathers and other family members waited nearby. Some of us were taken to incubators to help protect us as we continued the unfinished work of growth that usually happens in the womb. Others left the arms of that first mother almost immediately to be introduced to new parents, people who had chosen us in advance to be their children. So the journey begins, and heads off in too many directions to count, but in the beginning we were all surrounded by a mother’s waters.
And here it is again, Mother’s Day, which is one of those days when preaching gets a little trickier than usual – first of all because the scriptures we read from have no knowledge of this holiday, which comes from outside the church and only in the last hundred years or so; and secondly because we all have different relationships to the idea of motherhood and our mothers, some good and some painful. So I wade into these waters aware of all that, trying to be faithful to the scriptures we’ve heard, and still hoping this morning to give mothers the honor and respect so many so clearly deserve.
That said, it’s a little ironic that, on Mother’s Day, the gospel wants to make such a big deal out of Jesus’ relationship to God, whom he calls his Father, “those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Jesus goes on to name his relationship to God, the Father, three more times in the next six verses. So we go looking for mothers this morning, only to find fathers instead.
But then there is the passage from Acts, which does just the opposite. The sixteenth chapter of Acts begins with the apostle Paul joining up with a disciple named Timothy, who becomes his traveling companion. Paul and Timothy are traveling through what we would now call Turkey and Greece, trying to connect with the Jews in those places to bring them the story of God’s reconciling love in Christ Jesus, but in the verses just before the ones we heard this morning they have been blocked twice – not by people, but by the Holy Spirit. Backing up a couple of verses we are told,
“they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”
Then we pick up with the verses assigned for this morning. During the night, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man pleading with him and saying, “come over to Macedonia and help us.” So Paul makes his way to Philippi, a Roman colony in Macedonia, and on the Sabbath he and Timothy go outside the city gates to the river, where they would have expected to find people worshipping and praying, presumably also expecting to find the man who had called out to Paul in his vision. Instead they find a woman, Lydia.
Lydia is mentioned by name only twice in the Bible, both times in the sixteenth chapter of Acts, but in the two verses that tell her story we are given such a wealth of details that we can begin to sketch out a rough portrait of this interesting woman of faith. We are told that she is both a worshiper of God, and a dealer in purple cloth. A woman of faith, and a business woman. We’re reminded of the story of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha, the woman who sits at his feet and is told she has chosen the better part, and the woman who stayed in the kitchen, doing the work that was needed to make the household run. Lydia seems to be both at the same time, balancing work and worship.
The purple cloth is a clue as well. Purple cloth, which was only worn by nobles, was expensive to make and costly to buy. It means Lydia was most likely a woman of means. That would have placed her in the upper class, a smaller segment of the city’s populace, but Lydia’s experience is still more unique. After she hears Paul’s gospel, the scriptures say she and her household were baptized, in language that indicates that she was the head of the household. In patriarchal Roman culture that was the kind of decision normally reserved for the male head of household, but Lydia has her entire household baptized, and then she invites Paul and Timothy back to her home. They came to the river looking for a nameless Macedonian man, whom they never encounter, and they instead find Lydia, an extraordinary woman.
Pardon me if it feels like I’m stretching the texts a little bit too much here, but Mother’s Day can sometimes feel like this as well. Not that we go looking for nameless men – but that we are fed generic stereotypes of what a mother is, or should be, when the reality is that true motherhood is found in all the interesting details that make up each mother’s experience.
The mothers we read about on the inside of greeting cards are like Paul’s vision, it’s the vision we’re taught to go searching for, the sentimental vision of motherhood. But the mothers we grew up with, the mothers we discovered out here in the real world, are so much more complicated: they are balancing work and worship, home and office, children and spouses. They are running households, with or without the support of a partner. They are dealing with the demands of a sexist culture that pays them less than what a man earns for doing the same work, and they’re making ends meet. I feel like Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin here, because sisters are doing it for themselves – standing on their own two feet, and ringin’ on their own bells. This Mother’s Day, I can celebrate that.
But Mother’s Day is as much for those of us who are someone’s children as it is for those of us who are someone’s mother. And, like Paul and Timothy, the journey to find a mother whose house we can call our own has not always been easy. Sometimes we have had to travel from the homes in which we were raised to find a mother who could love us well. Sometimes we have been blocked, even more than once, in our search for that mother. Perhaps it has been the Holy Spirit herself that has intervened and pushed us on, when we would have wanted to stay put, and forced us to keep looking for that place where the waters that surrounded us before birth could be experienced again in a mothering kind of love coming from someone we never would have expected to fill that role.
Perhaps this is where the gospel pushes up against our sentimental views of motherhood the most. Unlike a Hallmark card, Jesus in the gospels does not assume that there is, or will be, peace in the home – especially once the gospel has been heard. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says,
“do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)
Jesus doesn’t privilege bonds
of blood over bonds of love. In fact, he recognizes and warns his followers that discipleship means learning to love the whole world as if each person were already a member of your family – the kind of love that will change the world as it is, and will divide households that would prefer to keep their circle of concern so much smaller. It is a gospel that challenges every kind of sentimentality because it is the kind of love that demands that world as it is be transformed.
Maybe that’s why Lydia is able to hear the good news in Paul and Timothy’s preaching. Even though she was a woman of means, she was also a female head of house in a man’s world, and she knew that things needed to change. So she and her entire household are baptized. She and her household enter once again into the waters that surrounded us at birth, and she emerges reborn. We don’t know who her mother was, but after that moment there is no doubt who her mother is: God. In those mothering, baptismal waters, Lydia joined the same family that each of us who have been baptized have been joined to. On that day, Lydia became one of our sisters, Paul and Timothy became her brothers, and so she invited them to come home with her.
This Mother’s Day, as we celebrate the hard work and sacrifice of so many mothers, as we grieve the loss of mothers who have passed away, as we despair over the relationships we may never have had the time to build, or to heal, finally we can give thanks for the one who has given life to us all, who has held us in birthing waters, and who has made us all members of one family. The God of creation, who is Mother of us all.