Shuck and Jive

Sunday, May 09, 2010

When the Spirit Says Do: A Sermon

When the Spirit Says Do
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15
John 14:23-29

May you have a blessed Mother's Day.

Mother's Day is a day of interesting challenge for those of us who prepare worship services. It is not technically a church day. My father dismisses it as yet another day the stores made up to sell us stuff. My mother kind of likes it, though. She knows she will get phone calls for sure.

I have found that it is one of the higher attendance days. For some reason Mother's Day inspires people to go to church. On the other hand, some people avoid church particularly on Mother's Day. We should be aware of why that is so.

Churches have tended to use Mother's Day as a platform to promote particular values and roles for women. You know, the godly woman. Author Anne Lamott, herself a mother, wrote a piece for Mother's Day, entitled "Why I Hate Mother's Day."

She wrote:
It celebrates the great lie about women: That those with children are more important than those without.
She goes on to say:
I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See's. There is no refuge — not at the horse races, movies, malls, museums. Even the turn-off-your-cellphone announcer is going to open by saying, "Happy Mother's Day!" You could always hide in a nice seedy bar, I suppose. Or an ER.
I do love the way Anne Lamott writes about painful things by making us laugh. I think it is important to acknowledge that this day can be a particularly painful day especially in a religious setting. If there is anything the church does well is lay on the guilt. We can make you feel guilty for just getting out of bed and using carbon. Think of what we can do with Mother's Day.

As with everything, we can try to ignore it, avoid it, fight it, or transform it.

Since we are celebrating the via transformativa, the way of justice-making and compassion, let's see what we can do with Mother's Day. I first realized that it was possible for church communities to transform Mother's Day into a day of justice-making and compassion when I visited a church in Dobbs Ferry, New York. I was just out of seminary in my first call and was attending a conference for new ministers in Stony Point, New York. We attended worship at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry. It was at the time, and I suppose it still is, a progressive, social justice type of church.

It happened to be Mother's Day. Above the entrance to the church, an old stone building, was a huge banner. The banner read:
Celebrate Mother's Day: End Racism.
I thought now that is a different idea than simply giving out a flower arrangement to the mother who has the most children. It was an interesting congregation. In the fellowship hall you could have coffee and sit around tables writing letters to your congressperson. The social justice committee supplied the paper. Obviously, this church ten miles north of the city was helping the larger community be aware of issues of racial and economic injustice. The message was if we are going to be about motherhood, let us work for justice for all mothers.

Before Hallmark turned Mother's Day into a sentimental money-maker and before the certain forms of Christianity turned it into a so-called "traditional values day" Mother's Day was all about social justice.

Julia Ward Howe in response to the horrors of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 began a one-woman peace crusade. She issued a manifesto of peace. It is considered to be the original Mother's Day proclamation.
In 1872, she went to London to promote an international Woman's Peace Congress. She began promoting the idea of a "Mother's Day for Peace" to be celebrated on June 2, honoring peace, motherhood and womanhood.
Julia Ward Howe's proclamation is worth repeating at least in part on Mother's Day:
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
Now that is the via transformativa. That is path of passionate and compassionate action.

Julia Ward Howe was inspired by another woman, Ann Marie Jarvis.
Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who, starting in 1858, had attempted to improve sanitation through what she called "Mothers Friendship Day"… She organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides and in 1868 she began work to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors. Ann was instrumental in saving thousands of lives by teaching women in her Mothers Friendship Clubs the basics of nursing and sanitation which she had learned from her physician brother James Reeves, M.D.
It was the daughter of Ann Marie Jarvis, Anna Jarvis, who started Mother's Day as we know it today. She wanted a day to "honor mothers, living and dead." In 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia, the first Mother's Day Service was held in Andrews Methodist Church.

It appears that Mother's Day is a natural for an Earth-centered spirituality, a spirituality dedicated to justice, peace, and compassion.

In Hebrew the word for compassion is rechem. That same root word is translated as womb. Compassion is literally womb-love. That is not sentimental. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution does not lead to sentimentality. There is no sentimentality, no Hallmark Card love, for womb-love. It is fierce protection for the brood. You don't mess with a mama's babies of any species. That is the sense of protective compassion that our ancestors projected onto God or Goddess. Womb-love is divine, fierce, strong love for all creation.

Men also can experience this womb-love and act from it. Jesus embodied and taught this womb-love and invited his disciples, male and female, to embrace it. Perhaps that is the peace he gives "not as the world gives" in today's reading from John's gospel.

If "the world" is the normalization of civilization with its standing armies, with its dualism of matter and spirit, male and female, humanity and creation, with its economic abstractions that divide us from one another and from Earth, exploiting others and Earth's gifts, then womb-love is the peace the world does not know.

Womb-love comes from as Julia Ward Howe said, "the bosom of a devastated Earth" outraged at the abuse of Earth and its life, and in response, rising up and protecting the vulnerable, giving voice to the silenced, in-spiriting our lethargy, opening our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts.

Womb-love is creativity birthed within us, all of us, that surprises us, changes us, moves us, and takes us places we would have never imagined. This is the creative Spirit in Acts that we read about today. The characters are almost passive. They are not. They are active, but responding to the real actor. The actor is Spirit who calls them to action. They follow.

This is the language we use when we are caught up in something that is bigger than individuals or even the sum energy of individuals. When creativity synchronizes toward something beautiful we feel as though we are acted upon. That presence of Spirit is so present and active. All we can do when the Spirit says do, is do.

This creative feeling can happen in destructive ways to be sure. That is why discernment is so vital as well as keeping that circle of conversation as large as possible and giving voice to those without voice. The via transformativa is the shaping of that creativity toward justice and compassion for all of Earth and its life.

The via transformativa is the spiritual path of action.

Since it is commencement season, a quote that will be heard--and should be--many times this year comes from a commencement speech given by Albert Schweitzer. He told a graduating class:
I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.
Schweitzer is a good example of someone who embodied womb-love. After finishing his major work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, he left the formal study of theology behind. His real study had just begun. He followed Spirit, the womb-love he learned from Jesus, to Africa in order to heal bodies.

I am good for celebrating Mother’s Day. Perhaps like the church in Dobbs Ferry, New York, each of us can make a banner for the way we see Spirit or womb-love at work on Mother’s Day.

Celebrate Mother’s Day: End racism.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: End sexism.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: End war.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Heal bodies.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Hug a tree.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Promote dignity.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: (You fill in the blank)…

Whatever Mother’s Day might mean for you, let it also be a reminder that womb-love is real and within you and is embracing you and is inspiring you to embrace with fierce tenderness all of life.


  1. Reminds of of Mrs. Linott's speech in "The History Boys" (which you must see if you have not yet). She's a history teacher:

    "Can you, for a moment, imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude?

    History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket."

    Despite the few exceptions (e.g. Sarah Palin), I tend to vote for women, because I suspect if women were in charge, in general we'd be better off.