Sermon for May 10th, 2015
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Beautiful Attitudes: The Magnificat
Your bulletin probably indicates that today's sermon is entitled "Beautiful Attitudes: The Persecuted." And you might expect that today we would come to the final beatitude in our series on God's Beautiful Attitudes. It's important to remember that here at First Presbyterian Church, the bulletin is merely a guide to things that may or may not actually occur in the worship service.
The original plan was to talk about the final beatitude today: "Blessed are those who are persecuted" but as you may have noticed, today is mother's day. I'm sure there are some mothers out there who feel persecuted, but I'd like to push that one back a week, and take a small digression today. I say "digression," but it is still quite related to the beatitudes Jesus preaches in his famous sermon on the mount. In fact, you might even think of it as an "origin story" that hints at where those famous beatitudes came from.
Today we're going to pause right in the middle of Jesus' sermon, and turn back the clock 30 years earlier (and six chapters earlier in the Gospel of Luke), to an encounter between two unlikely mothers, two pregnant women who weren't supposed to be pregnant. One is Elizabeth, who unexpectedly became pregnant well past her child-bearing years. Her son will be John the Baptist. The other woman is Mary, who shouldn't be pregnant because she isn't even married to her husband Joseph yet. Of course, we know that Mary's son will be Jesus. Mary and Elizabeth are cousins, though separated by several years in age. Listen to the story of their encounter from the first chapter of Luke (and listen for that word we've been hearing so often the past few weeks..."blessed"):
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Then Mary responds to Elizabeth, and her beautiful words have inspired countless songs, paintings, and poems. Her speech is known as the "Magnificat," after the Latin translation of it's first word. I'm going to read it to you, but what I want you to listen for are the echoes of all the beatitudes we've been studying for the past several weeks: Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the meek, the merciful, the purehearted, and so on...
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
If you listen closely, almost all of the beatitudes are there in some form or another. Notice too, that Mary does not consider herself blessed because of anything she has done: "Surely all generations will call me blessed for the Mighty one has done great things for me." God is the one with the beautiful attitude. Mary's attitude, her joy, is a reaction, a response to who God is, and what God has done, what God will do, not just for her, but for everyone.
Is it any surprise that 30 years later, the son of Mary would grow up to value these same ideals? That his mother's words would be so thoroughly reflected in one of his most famous teachings? If anyone doubts a mother's influence on her children, this connection should give us pause. Not even the Son of God is immune to his mother's voice lingering in his ears, shaping his core identity and purpose.
If the beatitudes, then, have their origin story in the life and words of Mary; the holiday we celebrate today--Mother's Day--has its own origin story that is worth retelling:
Anna Jarvis, who was (interestingly) not a mother herself, launched a campaign in the early 1900's to have Mother's day recognized as an official holiday. She did this to honor her own mother, who was a tireless advocate and organizer for public health reform.
Anna Jarvis was successful in her campaign, and Mother's day became a federal holiday in 1914, but later in life, after witnessing the increasing commercialization of the holiday by greeting card companies and florists, she regretted her role in the whole enterprise.
So Anna Jarvis was the one most responsible for establishing mother's day as an "official" holiday, but the idea for mother's day goes back even farther, although the original idea looked vastly different than what we celebrate today.
Julia Ward Howe is known to most of us as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But in her lifetime, she was known primarily as a social activist for peace and for women's rights--particularly the right to vote. She witnessed firsthand the devastating carnage of the American Civil war, and she believed that if women--and especially mothers--had a voice and a vote at the tables of power, that such violence would never happen. In 1870, just five years after the end of the war, she wrote an "Appeal to womanhood throughout the world" which would later come to be known as the "Mother's Day Proclamation." It is a bold proclamation, one that launched a movement, and in it she speaks of Christian teachings that echo the beatitudes. I'd like to read it to you:
Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.
Arise, then, Christian women of this day ! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears ! Say firmly : We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall 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, 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 the 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 vindicate 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 council.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at 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. --Julia Ward Howe
I'm afraid that in much of our culture today, Mother's Day has become an occasion to give once-a-year-lip-service to the importance of mothers and motherhood...while not always taking seriously the things they have taught us. In many churches here in El Paso today, pastors will invite mothers to stand up and receive carnations and applause. But when it comes to leading the church as elders or deacons, or from the pulpit as pastors, they are invited to sit down and let the men take over.
I am proud to serve in a church that not only recognizes women at every level of leadership, but actually requires us to have balance and equal representation in our leadership. And despite a few greatly misunderstood, misinterpreted passages in our Christian Bible, I'm proud to belong to a faith centered around a person--Jesus Christ--who didn't just honor his mother's principles with empty words or praise, but with his actions, his teachings, and the example of his life.
And so we return now to that image of Jesus, preaching the sermon on the mount in Galilee, a crowd gathered around him. From here, I'd like to take us forward in time a few years, to a different scene, on another hill, this time in the Gospel of John. The hill is Golgotha, outside city of Jerusalem. Here Mary, the mother of Jesus, heartbroken, endures the pain of watching her son struggling for breath, dying on a Roman cross. But despite the intense suffering of a broken and wounded body, despite the weight of the sins of the entire world bearing down upon his shoulders, we read that
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
True motherhood goes beyond blood, birth, and biological ties. It transcends gender and generation. It is more than greeting cards, candy and carnations can account for. It is a bold, powerful force for love and peace in our world, one that demands to be heard, that demands to be taken seriously and acted upon. As the example of Mary and Jesus teaches us, it can be learned, internalized, and passed on. If you have been mothered, by the one who gave birth to you, or anyone else who has filled that role in your life, that's something worth celebrating. More than that, it's something worth living, and worth passing on.