God’s good despite all

RCL Year C, 7 Easter

Last year for Mother’s Day Frances made my lunch after church, slipping off to take her nap and leaving me a lovely cheese sandwich when I walked in the door. Breakfast in bed is nice, but it doesn’t work in our household on a Sunday – so this was a pretty great alternative. Today I’m hoping for a really big lunch, because I ran a long trail race yesterday, and I’m already hungry for lunch. I don’t need flowers – I just need food. That’s what I want for Mother’s Day.

So Happy Mother’s Day! A few years ago I got curious and looked up the history on this day. It’s sort of convoluted: Early on in Christian tradition, the fourth Sunday of Lent became Mothering Sunday, which had two meanings: remembering Mary the mother of God, and reminding people to return to their mother church, the church where they had been baptized. In the 1600s the idea was broadened to include real mothers, and it became a day to allow the working classes time off to visit their own mothers and families – a rare time of respite for laborers and household staff. (This is still the holiday in the U.K. and other parts of Europe.) In 1872, Julia Ward Howe – the one who wrote ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ – established a Mothers’ Day of Peace in the U.S., responding to the bitterness of the Franco-Prussian War and the end of the Civil War. Despite the words of her hymn, she was disgusted with all the violence of war, so she offered the commemoration as a day to uphold women’s role in peace and in the political arena as well as in the household. In 1914 Anna Jarvis successfully persuaded President Wilson to sign Mother’s Day into law in the US, honoring mothers and peace – a goal she had pursued for several years.  And then in the 1930s, Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace, because she went out to protest the commercialization of the holiday she’d promoted. So now, descending from all of those strands of history, Mother’s Day is the most popular day of the year to dine out in a restaurant (usually brunch), and it accounts for $2 ½ billion in flower sales and $68 million in greeting card sales every year. Anna Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe would be so proud.

Now, don’t go out of here thinking, that preacher trashed all over Mother’s Day! But this particular bit of history does raise some questions. Here’s a day originally meant for the pursuit of peace and for deepening relationships in the church and the family…but instead, the focus of the day has largely shifted to sentiment and purchased products. It’s a familiar storyline. Think Christmas, Easter, and so on. That’s not all it is, of course – many of you use a day like Mother’s Day to inspire you to better relationships in your families, and more thoughtful connections to your neighbors. There’s been a campaign to use Mother’s Day as a day to focus on healthcare and education for women, and there have been other attempts along those lines to use the symbolism of Mother’s Day for a greater good. But the commercializing and the trivializing seem more than a little symptomatic of something wrong at a deeper level among us.

Thinking about this brings us, by a big leap, to the reading from Acts – another story of wonderful things that are somehow not as great as they could be. It is in many ways an amazing story of freedom and deliverance. Paul and Silas come across a slave girl who is oppressed and exploited – by the demon or spirit within her and by her owners who use her powers to turn a profit. Without stopping to confer about whether it’s the right thing, Paul turns and calls the spirit out of her on the spot. For this act of deliverance – for messing up the profit margin – he and Silas are tried and imprisoned – and then they are delivered and set free by a mighty earthquake. But instead of escaping, they stay, and so save the jailer from doing himself in. And then you could say that they set the jailer free, the one whose job it was to keep them captive, offering him and his whole household baptism and inclusion in the body of Christ. Paul & Silas and all the followers of Jesus are about God’s mission in the world, and God is a God of deliverance. Where and when they can, they offer that deliverance.

Except the story isn’t entirely all that. Paul is able to exorcise the girl through the power of Jesus Christ – but his motivation for doing so is not because he sees her as oppressed and exploited, but because he’s annoyed by her. And Paul doesn’t do anything about her being a slave – she’s freed from her demons, but not from her owners. So now that she’s not profitable to her owners, who knows what they’ll do with her. Whatever next step there could have been to truly free this girl is never taken. So there’s amazing deliverance in this story – but not exactly with good intentions. And the opportunity to do more is lost.

I suppose we have in both this story and in the story of Mother’s Day another illustration of the fact that human motives are always mixed. We often seem to do things that are not purely good or not purely for the right reasons. Paul frees the slave girl – a good thing – but for the wrong reasons, his irritation. And then he doesn’t follow through with her to make her truly free. Mother’s Day was created for good and noble reasons, and it is still celebrated for good – but the turn to profit and sentimentality has corrupted it for many. It doesn’t do what it could do.

To paraphrase Brother Lawrence, this is the state we are in, when we are left to ourselves. The church celebrated the Ascension on Thursday, and now in the storyline we are in the time we really live in all the time – the living out of God’s revelation through Jesus, but without Jesus around to show us how. We long for the good but we sabotage it at the same time. We let convenience and baser motivations overrule our nobler selves. Just as surely as that slave girl, we are captive – held captive by our laziness, or our reluctance to rock the boat, or our limited vision of what can or should be. We can be held captive by our own selfishness and desire for things to be just the way we want them. And certainly we are held captive by our unwillingness to love and honor one another.

This is why Jesus prayed for us, that we would know God’s love for us and through us. The good news is that God is a God of deliverance – who doesn’t just save us out of exasperation, but out of love. Despite ourselves, God sets us and others free – through the promptings of our better selves or others who are better than ourselves; through healing power when we are in need; even through large-scale social campaigns and movements. We are not left to ourselves. God’s Spirit is active and alive in our world, in ways we recognize and ways we don’t. Despite all of our problems, God’s love for us is constant.

Our challenge, then, to work with God’s Spirit rather than against it – to try to listen to God’s desires and live them out in this world, to change what is wrong and fight against what is evil, to love deeply and universally and put our own stuff aside in the service of others. Mostly that boils down to remembering above all that we are God’s children and so is everybody else. And yes, we fail, and we mess things up and are shortsighted and put our priorities in the wrong place and all of it. But God redeems us constantly, from all of it through love, by love, for love of us. Alleluia.