Mothers and Sons

Sermon for Sunday, January 17, 2016 || Epiphany 2C || John 2:1-11

mothersandsonsI love my mother with all my heart. For thirty-three years and five days, she has never wavered in her steadfast love for me, support of me, and delight in me. She delivered me in the middle of a Maine snowstorm; she endured through my advanced childhood self-centeredness; and she never let her own demons keep her from being my nurturer, advocate, mentor, and friend. I get my love of reading from her. I get my precociousness from her. And I get my ability to be quiet and listen from her. When I had my first ever bona fide moment with God, it was my mother who held me and rocked me – her seventeen-year-old baby boy – while I bawled my eyes out, overwhelmed by the immensity and clarity of it all.

As I said, I love my mother with all my heart. I’m saying this aloud today for two reasons. The first is to say “thank you” to my mother, who will be reading this tomorrow, I have no doubt. If she were here right now, I’d give her a big hug, and my chin would rest snugly on top of her head. The second reason is to locate myself on the continuum of relationships between mothers and sons. I am an unabashed “momma’s boy,” and proud of it. I would never think to call my mother by her first name, Edna. It just wouldn’t feel right. And while I now tend to call her “Amma” (her chosen grandmother name), I will always cherish the way my heart feels when I address her as “Mom.”

So when I read the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, I tend to focus on the relationship between Jesus and his mother. If you were paying attention, you might have noticed that the Gospel writer does not name her. She is not called “Mary” in this story. She is simply known as “the mother of Jesus.” In her only other appearance in the Gospel of John – at the foot of the cross – she is also only identified as Jesus’ mother. No name, just a relationship. This isn’t a fluke, as another recurring character in the Gospel of John is given the same treatment, someone mysteriously known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Tradition tells us this disciple is “John,” but the story never names him. The relationship to Jesus is what matters.

Identifying people by their relationships to us is commonplace. Who’s that? “Oh, that’s my boss. Oh, that’s my best friend from high school. Oh, that’s my first cousin once removed.” (By the way, if you ever want to confuse my mom, try to explain the difference between first cousins once removed and second cousins. It’s really funny.)

When you were a kid, you more than likely fell victim to this tendency to identify via relationship. You were behaving badly and one of your parents identified you as the child of the other parent, right? “Tell your daughter to pick up her shoes.” “Tell your son to eat his zucchini.” (It’s possible that second example is personal – I do eat zucchini now, as long as it’s in soup.) In our language we stress our relationships. If a stranger asked me who is the vertically challenged woman with the beautiful smile and the heart of gold, I wouldn’t just say, “Edna.” I would surely add, “My mother.”

Yes, in our language we stress our relationships. We use possessive grammatical constructions quite a lot. My mother. Jesus’ mother. “There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’” Now, he sasses her here, calling her, “Woman.” I’ve read that in Jesus’ day such an appellation was not considered rude, but I’m not sure I buy that. Jesus seems a mite petulant here; perhaps a bit of childhood regression for the Son of God. I know that I would never get away with it if I called my mother “Woman,” so I’ve never tried.

By calling her “Woman” instead of “Mom,” Jesus plays down the relationship. He doesn’t really want to be bothered. He just wants to keep a low profile and enjoy himself. But his mother is having none of that. She pushes him to help the wedding planners retain their hospitality. She pushes him to be his best, to reveal his glory. Just like a mother, right? – wanting her kid to shine. And, of course, Jesus gets over his momentary petulance and does what she says. So their mother-son relationship remains intact: she coaxes him to be brilliant, to be extraordinary. And he is.

By never calling her by name, the Gospel writer tacitly tells us to focus on this relationship. She is the mother of Jesus. Focusing on this relationship begs the question: Who are we? Yes, we have our names, which later on in the Gospel the Good Shepherd will speak as he leads us out of the sheepfold. Yes, we have our names, but who are we?

Well, to answer that question, we must quote the famous Christian axiom, “It’s not who you are that matters. It’s whose you are.” So whose are we? Last week, we spent the whole sermon answering this question. We are God’s beloved children. If we believe that, we have the starting point for every relationship that matters in our lives.

Who are you? I’m a child of God. Each of us is “child of God.” That’s the beginning. That’s the spark. That’s the soul. Every other meaningful relationship springs from this one. That’s why the marriage vows begin, “In the name of God.” That’s why the solemn, scrunched up faces of our infant children make us fall to our knees in gratitude to the Giver of all life. That’s why every difficult or inconvenient encounter can be transformed by remembering the other person is a child of God, too.

Indeed, the good news of Jesus Christ resounds with the beauty of relationships based in God’s own connective tissue. Today’s story happens at a wedding, after all! Over and over again in the Gospel, Jesus invites people into deep and abiding relationships with him. “I am the vine,” he says, “and you are the branches.” And just to make sure we get the point of all this, when Jesus’ mother appears for the second time, at the foot of the cross, in the moments before Jesus’ death, do you know what he does? With his last few ragged breaths, he stitches together a new family. He gives the two people who have no names into the other’s care: his mother and the disciple whom he loved. “Here is your son. Here is your mother.”

That’s what God’s story is all about: stitching us and all people and all creation more deeply into the fabric of God’s love. So the next time you see someone with whom you have a deep and abiding relationship – perhaps your own mother or your spouse or your child or your friend – give thanks to God for that relationship. And notice how the love of God strengthens that relationship. And notice how that relationship strengthens your love for God.

Image: Groom and Mother of the Groom dancing at mine and Leah’s wedding. A lovely memory, dancing with my mom.

It’s not easy being green

The following post appeared Monday, May 3rd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

Every February of my college years, the entire student body suffered from a mass case of seasonal affective disorder. The campus of Sewanee is one of the top five most beautiful spots on the planet, but the beauty of the Domain was difficult to appreciate during that dreadful month. What neophytes mistook for simple fog, veterans of Sewanee winters knew was in reality a low-hanging raincloud that hovered over the campus, sapping students of the will to do anything besides curl up under a blanket and nap. The weather lasted for weeks, and when the sun finally broke through the clinging barrier, we students discovered our vigor once again, as if by some sudden leap in evolution, we had developed the ability to photosynthesize.

A version of this same seasonal affective disorder hits Episcopalians every year within a few weeks of Pentecost. We look out over the vast expanse of the upcoming liturgical calendar, and we see nearly a month of Sundays with seemingly no variation, with nothing peculiar to distinguish one day from the next. It’s a sea of green, and without the concurrence of wedding season, the Altar Guild would forget where the paraments are stored.

We call it the season after Pentecost – even the designation gives it the sound of an afterthought. At first glance, those legendary church year framers seem to have measured the year wrong. They only programmed six months! What’s there to do with the rest, those twenty-odd Sundays after Pentecost that stretch on interminably during the dog days of summer and into the heart of autumn? Truly, we blanche at the long months and wonder if the Holy Spirit has enough juice in those Pentecost batteries to get us to the first Sunday of Advent.

The other liturgical seasons are nice and short; indeed, no other season creeps into double digits. Epiphany gets the closest, sometimes reaching as high as nine (watch out 2011!), but it can’t quite get there. And the short seasons always (and satisfyingly) lead somewhere: Advent moves to Christmas Day; Christmas season to the Epiphany; Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday; Lent to Easter Day; Easter season to Pentecost. Each season is like crossing a river or lake to the next feast or fast on the other side. But the season after Pentecost is an ocean, and Christ the King Sunday is in the next hemisphere.

So what do we do to combat the spiritual lethargy that can result from so many Sundays of unvarying green vestments? Well, we could try to split it into more liturgical seasons. So, starting with the Sunday after Pentecost, we’d have the season of the Trinity until mid-August. Then, beginning on August 15th, we’d have the season of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the end of September. Then, we’d have Michaelmas until Advent. There: three more manageable seasons for us modern people with our tweet-sized attention spans.

While this divvying up of the calendar has a certain appeal (especially to all the Anglo-Catholics reading this), I doubt the Church would go for it. So, where does that leave us? Our churches are still stuck in six months of monotonous green! The seasonal affective disorder will attack. Parishioners will fall away! (I know, I know – mostly because of summer holidays, but just go with me on this whole long liturgical season thing.)

Instead of lamenting the six months of green, let’s use the green season to our advantage. Don’t completely shut down program for the summer. Rather, take your cue from the liturgical color. Spend time each week or each month discussing how both the church and the individual can become more environmentally friendly. Devote education time to the intersection between theology and environmental sustainability. Set goals for the parish to meet by the end of the season after Pentecost to reduce consumption. Go paperless for the entire season to cut down on waste. Move service times to earlier in the day and turn off the A/C. Encourage people to bike to church or carpool. Have a light bulb changing party and replace all the lights with CFLs (the curlicue ones). Check out websites like nccecojustice.org for more ideas.

By taking positive steps to live into God’s pronouncement that we are stewards of creation and by staying active through the long days of the season after Pentecost, we can stave off that seasonal affective disorder. Even when the liturgical color hasn’t changed in four months, each Sunday is still a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. Every Sunday we worship God, who through the Word brought all creation into being. The best way to praise God for that mighty creative act is by preserving it so countless generations to come can also praise God for God’s creation.

It’s a good thing the Green Season is so long. There sure is a lot to do.

The garden and the wasteland

(Sermon for January 3, 2010 || Christmas 2, RCL || Luke 2:41-52)

They say that every therapist should be in therapy. Likewise, every priest should participate in spiritual direction. Without trained professionals helping us priests notice God’s movement in our lives, one of two things happens. We either forget to rely on God, thus emptying ourselves of all nourishment even though a feast is perpetually spread before us. Or we decide we don’t need to rely on God, because we are doing just fine on our own (thank you very much!) and the same starvation results. We priests are a rather thick bunch, usually quite stubborn when faced with the Almighty, because the Creator-of-All-That-Is rarely seems to fit the predictions of our seminary studies.

When I was in seminary, my spiritual director diagnosed my particular case as a combination of failing to notice God’s presence and deciding I didn’t need God anyway. I’m glad I could offer her such a potent mixture of blindness and stupidity. Needless to say, our sessions were never boring. Over our two years together, she taught me many things, but one stands above the rest. You can basically separate the events of your life into two categories, she said. There are moments of consolation, and there are moments of desolation. Both will happen and ignoring one will make the other that much harder to define. In this morning’s Gospel, Mary runs the gamut from desolation when she loses Jesus to consolation when she finds him again. Then she treasures “all these things in her heart” because she knows that the emptiness of desolation and the joy of consolation combine to form the trajectory of her life.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

Usually, people want the bad news first, so we’ll begin with the emptiness of desolation. Desolation is the nuclear winter of the soul. Desolation makes the soul a wasteland – arid, parched, rendered uninhabitable by events in the life of the very person who must inhabit the internal desert.

Sometimes, we bring desolation on ourselves: a man cheats on his wife, and she doesn’t even catch him. He expects to feel the thrill of adventure, of subterfuge. Instead, he feels the pain of a broken promise. He doesn’t realize he is a moral person until he fails to live up to his own unexamined values. And his failure eats away at his soul. Sometimes, external events bring desolation upon us: the pregnancy has been difficult, but the doctors have managed to stay positive. If she can hold on just a few more weeks…but the contractions start, and she delivers a tiny life. The infant’s underdeveloped lungs struggle for breath. He lives for four days, and her soul dies with him. Sometimes, desolation happens not in these large events but in the accumulation of small frustrations and disappointments. They hired the other guy. The repair cost more than the estimate. Another D-minus. Chicken for dinner – again. Each frustration erodes the soil of the soul, nutrients leach out, and eventually only the wasteland remains.

In these times of desolation, we do not look for the presence of God because we think God can’t possibly be there. We abandon ourselves to despair, so we expect that God has abandoned us too. We may even stop believing in God, while paradoxically blaming God for our situations. When we are desolate, we don’t live: we merely subsist. And we fail to realize that our very ability to survive through the torment of despair is a manifestation of God’s awesome power and love.

While our desolation happens when we think God is gone, Mary’s desolate moment happens when she literally loses Jesus. The family has been attending the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem. They start their journey back to Nazareth, and Jesus is not with them. But they’re not worried because the caravan is peopled with family and friends; surely, he’s wandered off to chat with some favorite uncle. A day out, Mary and Joseph realize Jesus is missing. They rush back to Jerusalem, frightened, anxious. They search for three frantic days. As someone who has only experienced the combination of harsh words and fervent embraces that accompany a parent finding a lost child, I can only imagine the desolation that those three days brought to Mary’s soul.

On the third day, Mary’s search brings her to the temple. And there she finds Jesus, safe and sound and unaware of the years his absence has shaved off his mother’s life. Desolation gives way to the warmth, the electricity of consolation. What was lost, Mary now has found. They travel to Nazareth without incident, and Luke assures us that Jesus is obedient to his parents.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

Whereas desolation makes the soul a wasteland, consolation makes the soul a garden in full bloom. In consolation, the roots of our souls grow deep in the rich soil of God’s presence. We are aware of the persistent activity of creation, and we revel in the joys that life has to offer.

Sometimes, our determination brings consolation to us: a young girl is told she’ll never become a concert pianist. Her hands are too small, her technique mediocre, pedestrian. But she practices and practices and practices. Her joy is in the vibration of hammer on string buzzing up through her fingertips, in the notes transferred from black dots and squiggles to tones of weight and beauty. She may never play at Carnegie Hall, but the music is inside her soul. Sometimes, as with desolation, external events bring consolation to us: the city-dweller finds himself in rural woodland at night. The sky is clear, the moon a sliver. He lies on his back and gazes up at the stars. He didn’t know there were so many. The subtle band of the Milky Way brings shape to the clutter. The innumerable points of light in the darkness bring light to his soul. More often than not, consolation happens when we gather together all of the small blessings in our lives. A good night’s sleep leads to energy and cheerfulness. An unexpected phone call comes from an old friend. The house is warm. Chicken for dinner again! Each blessing enriches the soil, in which our souls thrive, and our gardens bloom with unrestrained life.

In these times of consolation, we notice God filling us to overflowing. We cannot possibly hold any more grace, so it spills from us, hopefully landing on those around us. Our joy prompts us to invite others to gather up their blessings and notice God’s presence in their lives. We form communities to share our joy, and these communities help sustain those who inevitably fall into periods of desolation.

You see, desolation and consolation are the extremes of life – the subsistence and the abundance. Most of the time, we exist somewhere along the spectrum between the two. Luke tells us that Mary treasures “all these things in her heart” – both the empty time of desolation when Jesus was lost and the joyful time of consolation when she found him again. Mary takes both categories into her heart and ponders them. Her life, like all our lives, brings together experiences both of desolation and consolation. As faithful people of God, we try with God’s help to lead lives that trend toward consolation on the spectrum.

As we begin a new year and a new decade, I invite you to take stock of where you fall on the spectrum between desolation and consolation. If your trajectory is moving toward consolation, rejoice, and continue to gather your small blessings and keep a weather eye out for God’s presence in your life. If your trajectory is moving toward desolation, I pray that God grants you the courage to turn around. You may still be stuck in the wasteland, but you will be facing the right direction – out of the desert and toward the garden.

Finally, may God grant you the grace to survive when you are desolate, to thrive when you are overflowing, and to treasure all these things in your hearts.