Fifth Sunday of Easter – Genesis 2.4-9, 15-17, Psalm 8; Love Your Mother – It is sometimes said that the mother is the child’s first god. There is truth in those words. The mother, most often, grows, nourishes, warms, comforts, embraces, encourages, delights in her child. And the child is so enfolded by that love that, at least in the beginning, nothing else even seems to exist nor needs to. I remember when our children were newborns and my wife would nurse them, how utterly content and peaceful and complete they were with her. Frankly, I was sometimes a little jealous, but only for a moment, and then the beauty of that enfolding oneness overwhelmed me.
I begin this way not only because it’s Mother’s Day, but because that sense of oneness known by a child in the womb or at its mother’s breast seems to me to catch most accurately and profoundly our relationship with God. Remember when Jesus said, “you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you”? As the Reverend Ann Bemrose-Fetter puts it, “the good news [is that] God will never leave us because we are in God, like a child living and growing in the womb.” Think about that for a moment. The choice is not between God being out there, somewhere, far away nor in here buried somewhere deep inside. No, we are in God, to use Jesus’ words, like a child living and growing inside a mother. We are enfolded, immersed, bathed in God’s love. That’s a comforting image and deeply good news. The Reverend Denise Griebler writes:
After my son was born, I remember getting up in the wee hours of the morning to nurse him. I would never turn on the lights, preferring the quiet darkness. In the first few months after Ben was born, this became my favorite time to hold and cuddle him as he nursed; I would sit in the rocking chair in the living room with Ben in my arms. Sometimes I would listen to quiet music, sometimes to silence. One night as I held my son in my arms, I snuggled into the rocking chair, closed my eyes, and just enjoyed feeling his breathing and the warmth of his body. I enjoyed feeling him rest in my arms. In that moment, I knew that God was holding me in the same way I was holding my son. God had found me in the darkness, and I rested in God’s care.
That’s an image to hold fast, Mother’s Day and every day.
Do you know how Mother’s Day began? No, it wasn’t invented by Hallmark like a good number of pseudo-holidays. Mother’s Day was born of the grief of our Civil War. Although called for as early as 1870 by Julia Ward Howe, it was born some years later in a Methodist church in Crafton, West Virginia. Some writers say families in the Border States suffered the most in the Civil War as some went north and some went south to fight. Brother fought against brother, cousin against cousin, fathers against sons. And afterwards, church cemeteries like the one in Crafton filled over the years with church members who had fought one another. Some thought the wounds inflicted by those so close could never be healed.
But Ann Marie Jarvis, the wife of the minister of the Crafton Methodist Church, thought differently. She tried various activities to get the people of that broken community back together, but nothing worked. Union and Confederate loyalties lingered long after Appomattox, as did old hurts. Finally, Ann Marie Jarvis realized that one thing many of the women had in common was that they were mothers, mothers who had lost sons in the war. And so, she organized a tea for mothers. The widowed and grieving mothers came and ate, and talked, and laughed, and wept together. And life began again. Ann Marie Jarvis died in 1905, and it was her daughter Anna who organized the first Mother’s Day, one hundred and ten years ago. Anna spent much of her life promoting Mother’s Day and trying to keep it from being commercialized and romanticized lest it lose its grounding in an act of healing for mother’s whose sons had slain one another. Maybe she longed for mothers to have children who would never learn to kill one another.
For that to happen, we need to know that we belong to something larger than our selves or our possessions or our goals or our political opinions. In her book The Flight to Objectivity, Susan Bordo suggests that over the last three hundred years, western people like us have made a journey away from our larger belongings in a process of radical individuation, a sort of flight from the mother. Mother church and mother earth have been lost in this flight. How tragic that the beautiful, evocative word ‘mother’ is now used in phrases like “the mother of all battles” or “the mother of all bombs” when it should be reserved not for the destructive, but for the creative, the birthing, the nurturing. The contemporary world thinks of itself as unattached and free, but it did not thereby expand; it shrank. We retreated deeper and deeper into ourselves, and forgot that to which we belong. And as the twenty first century unfolds, we find ourselves looking for home, for a place to belong, for mother. Too many are like the Facebook user who noted she had 347 friends on Facebook, but no one to talk to. Some mistakenly look in nostalgia, some in economic security, some in nationalism. But only God, mother and father of us all, is large enough to hold us, to embrace us, to enfold us, to be home for us, to give us the mothering we need to face the world in which we live.
Once upon a time, I ran a store called “Love Your Mother” in Three Rivers, just a bit south of here. It was a variety store in which all the goods were made from recycled, natural or organic materials. On the shelves were cleaning products, paper goods, glassware, clothing, greeting cards, personal care items. If I do say so myself, it was great fun to share with people the possibilities for using products made so as to minimize their negative impact on the earth. My intent was to help people find tangible ways to love our mother. Because perhaps what we need is to expand our understanding of Mother’s Day to include the mother of us all. Then we might treat our mother earth as we do our own mothers, not cavalierly nor carelessly, but as if our lives depended upon her, as they indeed do.
I wonder if our Genesis lesson for today doesn’t invite us to ask: who was Adam’s mother? Yes, I know he and Eve were the only two people ever without belly buttons, but that doesn’t mean Adam didn’t have a mother. The earth was his mother; from the earth was he made. And in a very real sense, the earth is mother to each and every one of us. Maybe she deserves a bit more respect and care.
John 3.16 is among the most beloved of all scriptures, but I wonder if we catch its full significance. It says, “God so loved the world – the earth – that God gave his only begotten Son.” Too often we hear that in a diminished form, as if it says, “God so loved humanity; God so loved us.” But it is the whole creation God loves. And what God loves, we are to love.
After his creation, Adam is given a specific charge and responsibility. He is ‘to till and keep’ the earth. Why? For no less a reason than that his – and our – life depends on such tilling and keeping and caring. Thomas Berry, the Catholic priest and ecotheologian put the matter simply and bluntly when he said, “The destiny of humans cannot be separated from the destiny of Earth.” And as our psalm for today makes clear, as the steady warming of our atmosphere makes clear, our power over the earth is massive, even terrible. Continued abuse of the only planet we have will destroy not only it, but our future. Is that what we are called to? Are we tilling and keeping, or just doing whatever pleases us in the short run, regardless of its impact upon the children and grandchildren our mothers have borne?
Pope Francis has written an extraordinary encyclical entitled “Praise God: On Care for our Common Home.” A copy is in our church library, and I would encourage you to read it. It begins with these words:
Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister [and mother] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. Therefore, the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
St. Francis called all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of brother and sister; because he knew they had the same source as himself. And Pope Francis’ point is remarkable, that the very earth that gives us life is now to be counted among the poor for whom we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are surely called upon to care for.
Pope Francis makes many other crucial points about our relationship to Mother Earth, but I will note just two. The first is that it is economically poor people who will suffer first and most from global climate change. We may foolishly rejoice when spring comes early to Michigan while more and more Arctic ice melts away, but the poor lose life itself. Columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote:
In America, climate change costs families beach homes; in poor countries, parents lose their children.
For example, much of the country of Bangladesh will be flooded well before Miami Beach disappears, and with it, many of the poorest of the poor. This is Pope Francis’ point. Secretary of Defense James Matti’s testified before the Senate that “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.” Among these is Syria where an unprecedented, global climate change induced drought drove many rural people into urban areas where no services were available to them, and they turned to violence to seek redress of their grievances. Caring for mother earth is an ecological, a theological, a spiritual, a moral and a political responsibility.
Perhaps I am too full of questions today, but I have one more for us. It is this: what is the purpose of human beings? We are not created merely to produce and consume as we are emphatically and unendingly told every time we engage any kind of media. No, we are created to praise and serve God. That is the creatures’ purpose. As Father Richard Rohr put it:
Prayer is sitting in the silence until we are silenced, choosing gratitude until we are grateful, and praising God until we ourselves are a constant act of praise.
Pope Francis makes a second crucial point – that it is not just humans who are created to praise God. In fact, that is the purpose of every creature on the planet. Ant, elephant, jellyfish, turtle, wren, crab, even mosquitoes are exquisitely made to offer up a great symphony of praise to God. And so, when a species is eliminated, part of that symphony is silenced. Extinction is not just a biological tragedy; it is a theological lament. No longer can God receive the praise of passenger pigeons, and soon white rhinos, and frightening numbers of fish and birds and mammals and reptiles and insects and amphibians will follow into silence. Their destruction is not a matter of what humanity deems economic necessity or supposedly justified environmental abuse; it is a theological calamity. Hear Pope Francis on this point:
“It is not enough . . . to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
The book of Job (12.7-10) made this same point rather a long time before the current pope when it says:
If you would learn more, ask the cattle,
Seek information from the birds of the air.
The creeping things of earth will give you lessons,
And the fishes of the sea will tell you all.
There is not a single creature that does not know
That everything is of God’s making.
God holds in power the soul of every living thing,
And the breath of every human body.
I know most of us cherish our individual mothers, and that is good. I believe Jesus did, too. But my overriding question for us today is: will we cherish our common mother, the Earth itself? Will we till it and keep it not just for immediate gain but for long term health? Are we willing to sacrifice a bit of current comfort in order to bequeath a healthy and beautiful world to our children and grandchildren? Are we willing to overcome our apathy and start pressuring our leaders to address this concern that matters far more than any other? I pray so.
Let me close with this suggestion. The quotation at the top of the bulletin this morning says: We can only protect what we love, and we can only love what we know. Let me suggest that we all devote a lot more time to getting to know, and to love, our mother earth. Visit her. Rest in her. Delight in her beauty and abundance. Linger at sunrise and sunset and beneath the stars. Rest in forest glade and beach and bog and meadow and mountaintop to see what she brings to your senses. And maybe, just maybe, by doing so, we’ll find the nourishment, the inspiration and the commitment to do what is necessary to love her, to protect her and to save her.
Let those who have ears, hear. Amen