“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.”
Happy Mother’s Day!
As a way of paying homage to the mothers who are with us this morning and all those other mothers, living and deceased, who are not present but who, in one way or another, have blessed us on our way, I invite you to ponder the question: What is a good mother?
Now just to clarify, I’m not talking about the Hallmark mother, the ideal mother, the fantasy mother, the perfect mother; no, I’m talking about an actual, flesh and blood mother who has problems, needs, and issues, a fallible, human mother with all sorts of limitations who gets frazzled, cranky, and, at least occasionally, blows her top—in other words, a real mother!
Well, without further ado, let me offer my own short-hand definition of “a good mother”; a good mother is one who is ready, willing, and able to comfort.
On a flight from the West Coast several months ago, I witnessed two mothers who were supremely accomplished at comforting.
Across the aisle was a mom with two boys, a three year old and a six month old infant—the older boy pretty much entertained himself with a portable DVD player which the mother periodically re-supplied—but the baby fussed and howled for five hours—the mother cradled him the whole time—she was constantly in motion, up and down, walking around when the seat belt sign was off, performing this marathon feat of non-stop rocking and cooing—and, what was equally impressive, this expression of imperturbable calmness never left her face.
In the seats in front of me were a mother and her teen-age autistic daughter—throughout the trip, the daughter directed a steady stream of questions and comments at her mother—“Mother, the plane is starting to move.” “Mother, is every seat filled?” “Look, mother, they’re passing out drinks.”—and meanwhile this mother exhibited a Guinness World Book of Records kind of patience as she responded pleasantly and tirelessly to almost every one of her daughter’s utterances: “Yes, dear, we’ll be taking off soon”— “Yes, dear, it looks like we have a full plane”—“Yes, dear, they’re serving drinks and a snack”—and at the same time the mother was carrying on an animated conversation with the passenger next to her—and when we got to our destination and people were retrieving their articles from the overhead bins, this mother stood up and, with a grin, announced to those of us nearby, “Now you know what a fifteen year old autistic girl is like!”
The good mother is one who comforts.
In Elizabeth Buchan’s novel, “Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman,” Rose Lloyd is a 47 year old book editor for a weekly London paper; for 25 years Rose has been performing a precarious balancing act of pursuing a high-pressure career while at the same time tending to a husband and two children.
On the way home from work, she’s gotten in the habit of stopping off at St. Benedicta’s Church and slipping into the Lady Chapel where a plaster statue of the Madonna with a deep blue cloak has been placed beside the altar.
Rose describes the statue as “a rough, crude creation…with (overly) pink plaster hands…raised in blessing”…and yet, in spite of its crudeness, she finds this statue strangely touching and appealing.
Although Rose does not belong to this church and doesn’t consider herself religious, she is drawn to this sanctuary of silence and especially to the figure of Mary who she calls “the mother of all mothers, whose duty it is to protect and comfort.”
What would it have been like, I wonder, to be the mother of someone like Jesus?
Of course, we can only conjecture—somehow I see Mary as a seventeen year old Jewish peasant who already has a few creases in her face from growing up hard and lean and who, in the last days of her pregnancy, is on the road, riding a donkey, trying to shield herself from the heat and dust—have you ever ridden a donkey for any distance?—what would it be like to be jostled and jarred on the back of a donkey while dealing with the first pangs of labor?!
And then this very young woman goes through the harrowing, life-threatening business of giving birth in circumstances that are both primitive and highly unsanitary.
So I imagine that Mary’s introduction to motherhood was pretty rocky.
After the birth narratives, the few references to Mary in the gospels suggest that that in later years she might have often worried herself sick about what this son of hers was up to—there’s the time, as my seminary professor put it, “Jesus was mean to his mother,” when the twelve year old Jesus turned up missing for three days, and when his parents finally found him in the Temple, his mother asked him, “Why have you done this to us?”
There’s the time Jesus went back to his home village—and we’re told that when a large crowd gathered around him, Jesus’ family, and maybe Mary was among them, “tried to restrain him” because the report had come to them that “he was out of his mind.”
Evidently Jesus’ family was thoroughly baffled by his shockingly unique career move.
And we might guess that by the time his life came to a sudden and brutal end, Jesus’ mother would have been intimately acquainted with whatever joy, bewilderment, happiness, and anguish it’s possible for a mother to know.
Maybe this is why, for many, the figure of Mary represents ”the mother of all mothers,” the mother who has been through it all and can be counted on to understand and comfort.
Most of the Biblical images of God are masculine—God is pictured as Lord, King, Judge, Ruler, Father— and there are texts in which God comes across not so much as fatherly but as tyrannical, stern, endlessly demanding, impossible to please, touchy about his own reputation, and rather constantly in a bad mood.
These passages in the Bible that make God out to be a tyrannical taskmaster cause a lot of people problems, especially if they grew up in a tyrannical and oppressive household or in a church where they were browbeaten with a perverted, comfortless version of the good news that was really bad news.
But there are some interesting exceptions in both testaments where God is spoken of in terms that are distinctly feminine, nurturing, and motherly—where God is pictured as comforter.
For example, the Book of Isaiah contains this verse: “For thus says the Lord: As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
And in the Book of Amos we read: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me…Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them….I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
There’s the passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul writes: “Blessed be the God of….all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort (others) who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted.”
And Jesus actually expresses quite a motherly sentiment when he cries out: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
And remember that other saying of Jesus: “Those who mourn shall be comforted.”
So scattered throughout the Scriptures are these images of God as motherly and comforting.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples as part of his farewell conversation, “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth….you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.”
Now the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which we use for our readings is often more accurate and understandable than the older versions.
But in this case the King James Version is distinctly superior—it gives us this translation of Jesus’ words: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever….ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave your comfortless; I will come to you.”
The good news for this morning is that the Comforter is among us.
Or maybe I should say the Comforter has been among us all along.
You have been comforted by the Comforter repeatedly, you know—we all have.
But because the Comforter soothes and comforts us in such a gentle, quiet, natural, and unobtrusive way without fanfare or fireworks, we may have failed to recognize and appreciate how the Comforter has revived and restored us again and again.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “I die every day!”
Well, without being melodramatic, I think we can say that as we try to make our way in this world, we suffer a succession of little deaths—little deaths of disappointment, estrangement, humiliation, loss—and some of these little deaths don’t seem so little.
I daresay that none of us has escaped being pummeled, roughed up, and hammered with some regularity by the world’s harshness.
Granted that we often creatively engineer our own misery—but whatever the sources of our trouble, I think it’s safe to say that there have been times when adversity has run over us at full throttle and we have felt like the man in Jesus’ story who was set upon by thieves and left by the side of the road, bruised and battered.
But just as the Samaritan came to the aid of this man and did not leave him desolate, so the Comforter comes to us and does not leave us desolate.
The Comforter appears in many guises.
The Comforter comes to us through the sacramental abundance of our world—a garden coming to life, the lushness of spring foliage, breathing in the freshness of a day that dawns bright and crystal clear, spending the balance of an afternoon on a sailboat leisurely tacking back and forth.
The Comforter comes to us through the company of a beloved animal, through savoring every last bite of a piece of apple pie made from scratch, through losing ourselves in an exhibit of Rembrandt drawings, through hearing Wynonna Judd on the car radio belting out “A New Day Is Dawning.”
The Comforter comes to us through some sudden turn of events that catches us completely by surprise—some invitation or opportunity or piece of good news that springs out of nowhere and rights the balance and restores our equilibrium.
And sometimes we are comforted by the Comforter without any reason or why—what a remarkable thing it is when things look bleak, and somehow, without our doing anything except just holding on, our despairing mood gradually gives way to a blessed upsurge in cheerfulness and hope—it’s as though our personal shock absorbers have been refurbished—it’s as though our spirit is enfolded in the bosom of the Comforter.
But, of course, most often, the Comforter comforts us through other human beings—true comfort usually requires the human touch.
How we have been comforted by gatherings with friends where laughter has reigned supreme!
How we have been comforted by persons in this place who have reminded us that we all live under the sign of mercy and forgiveness!
How we have been comforted by friends who have been considerate, helpful, and generous to us beyond all calculation!
Now we all know that comforting just seems to come more naturally to members of the female species.
Mothers and grandmothers and aunts and sisters, and females in general, have sort of had a corner on the market.
Here’s a case in point.
Nicki Hoff-Lilavois was riding a crowded bus that stopped in front of the Brooklyn Hospital Center where a young couple got on. “The woman carried a stroller. The man carried a 2-week-old baby swaddled in soft blue blankets. They were offered seats, one in front of the other.
When the bus started moving again, the baby began to wail. The new father appeared slightly befuddled and began to bounce the baby up and down, up and down.
At DeKalb Avenue, many passengers got off. As some space was cleared, an older, very majestic woman appeared and made her way toward the crying baby. Without a word she stretched out her arms, and without any hesitation the young father offered the woman his newborn. She held the child to her chest and slowly rubbed his back.
‘You must be gentle,’ she so matter-of-factly advised.
In a moment, the baby stopped crying. She handed the child to the father, thanked him for allowing her to hold him, and returned to her seat.
But the Comforter, the Spirit of all comfort, can even teach us obtuse, clueless males how to comfort.
One day I was in the produce department at Meijer, and a fellow in his 40s was pushing his son in a wheel chair—the young man had cerebral palsy—the father stopped and asked his son what fruit he wanted—as the son was struggling to get his words out, the father suddenly planted a big kiss in the middle of his forehead.
So you see—even we males can get it—even we can learn to comfort with the comfort with which we have been comforted!
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church