This was my message for the 4th Sunday in Easter, 14 May 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures are Acts 4:5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, John 10: 11 – 18. It was also Mother’s Day.
Today is Mother’s Day. As noted in the bulletin, today is an outgrowth of efforts by a Methodist woman some 90 years ago to honor her mother.
One should not think of the Methodist Church as solely the work of John Wesley or the combined efforts of John and his brother Charles. As with all efforts, there are always many factors that should be considered. The work of their mother, Susanna Wesley, in raising them had as much to do with the birth of Methodism as any other single factor.
Susanna nurtured their minds and spirits, tamed their wills without crushing their spirits. Patiently, she helped her children to learn at a pace best suited to their own ability. For their benefit, she wrote little books of instruction on religious themes. Later, after the children were grown, she was always there to offer counsel and guidance.
So, on this day when we honor our mothers, I hope that you will allow me the opportunity to speak about the two mothers most important to me — my own mother and my paternal grandmother.
Both my grandmother and my mother were officer’s wives, committed a life of following their husbands from one post or air base to another. As the burden of raising my father and uncle fell upon my grandmother’s shoulders, so also did the burden of raising my brothers, sister, and I fall to my mother.
My mother, Virginia Hunt Mitchell, was born in Lexington, N. C. “several years ago.” It comes as a surprise to many people when they find out that not only is my mother a grandmother but that she is a great-grandmother as well. That’s because she neither looks her age nor allows her age to dictate what she is going to do (though the artificial knee she has seems to think otherwise). That, by the way, was also a characteristic of my paternal grandmother as well.
For all the things that I could say about my mother, I think the greatest thing she ever did for me was to lay the foundation for my spiritual growth. She saw to it that I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington. Whenever my father was transferred to a new base, she sought out the closest church so that we could go to Sunday School and church every week. When I was in college and began to enjoy the freedom of getting to sleep in on Sunday mornings, I found something missing if I didn’t get up and get on over to church. Even now, something isn’t right if I am not in church somewhere on a Sunday morning, a legacy that comes from my mother caring about my upbringing when I was young.
My grandmother, Elsa Schüessler Mitchell, was just as interesting a person. While going to school in Kirksville, MO, the northeastern part of the state, it was easier for me to visit her in St. Louis than to go home to Memphis. And when I would visit her, my parents would always tell me to help my grandmother with the housework and the yard work, especially during those hot, humid Missouri summers. Yet, try as I might, I never could. For my grandmother would get up early in the day and spend an hour or so working on the yard, tending her garden and flowers before the day got too hot or humid.
And though my grandmother died in 1985, her memory lives on. The flowers and shrubs that she so tenderly cared for were transplanted to my mother’s yard in Memphis and continue to grow to this day.
And in all the memories I have of my grandmother, I remember her attending one church, a few blocks from her home in St. Louis. Though the church changed denominational affiliation at least twice, the core membership of the church were descendants of the German Lutherans who helped settled St. Louis and the surrounding area. The church was a central part of my grandmother’s life, providing her comfort and companionship in the years after my grandfather had died and her sons and grandchildren had moved far from St. Louis.
And when my father died in 1993, I learned something about my grandmother that was just as lasting a memory as the flowers, the shrubs, and the trees that were her avocation in life. We asked a particular pastor who knew my father through the Boy Scouts to officiate at the funeral. As he talked about my father and scouting in general, he recalled one night shortly before my father died. That night he asked my father if he knew Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. My father acknowledged that yes, he did know Christ in his heart. And then they prayed. When they were done, the pastor, a Southern Baptist, said that my father gave the sign of the Cross. Now, the way the pastor said it, you could tell that he did not understand my father’s actions. But my brothers, sister and I knew that my father had been raised a Lutheran and we knew how proud his mother, my grandmother, was to know that my father was coming home.
Neither my mother nor my grandmother was “easy” and I have many memories, unpleasant they are, of what happened when I crossed them. But I know that my grandmother loved me and that my mother still loves me. And perhaps it was that same sort of love that a mother or a parent has for a child that allowed Anna Jarvis to find a way to honor her own mother in 1907 so that we celebrate Mother’s Day this day. In so doing, we celebrate the presence of the family, both our immediate one and the greater one of the church to which we belong.
The central theme in the Scriptures today is about the love that we have for each other as members of one family. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to its very end, the focus was always on the family. From the very beginning of Jesus’ life, his family was a part of the story.
Jesus was born at a family reunion.
In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kin; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child. While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. (Luke 2: 1 – 7)
When Jesus was twelve and the family was returning from Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph did not worry about their son not being with them because they thought that he was with other members of the family.
When the festive season was over and they set off for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know of this; but supposing that he was with the party they traveled for a whole day, and only then did they begin looking for him among their friends and relations. (Luke 2: 43 – 44)
And when Jesus began his ministry and performed his first miracle, as we heard from Bob Pinto two weeks ago, it was at the wedding of a family friend.
Yes, there were times when it seemed that Jesus ignored his own brothers and sisters but Jesus knew that His family, with God as the Father, were all those who believed in Him and followed Him.
“His mother and his brothers arrived but could not get to him for the crowd. He was told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, and want to see you.’
He replied, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it.” (Luke 8: 18 – 21)
Some might say that Jesus was cruel to ignore His family in such a way, but Jesus saw that the every one was a potential member of His family, not just those with whom he grew up.
And though Jesus might have had difficulty with his own family because they didn’t always understand his ministry, He never forgot His own family. Even on the cross, at the point of near death, His own thoughts turned to His mother.
Seeing his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, Jesus said to her, “Mother, there is your son”, and to the disciple, “There is your mother”; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 26 – 27)
John, in the second reading for today, speaks of the love that God, our Father, has for each of us, his children. And how that love should be given to others as a sign of the love that God has for us. It is that same love that mothers have for their children. It is the same love that would have a daughter seek to honor her mother and all mothers.
It is a very difficult task in this day and age to take care of one’s own family, let alone the whole word. What parent today would calmly go about their business if they did not know where their twelve-year-old was, as Mary and Joseph did?
The challenge before us this day, on this day when we celebrate what our mothers mean to each of us, is to show the world that we are all part of God’s family. The work of the church in the community today is a family business.
When the church becomes a part of the community, its impact goes beyond measure. Some years ago I met the Reverend Rose Sims at the Red Rock Camp in Minnesota. As we talked, we found that we shared a number of things in common. It turned out that she got her doctorate from the University of Missouri at the same time that I received my Master’s degree. And not only that, her primary advisor served on my graduate committee. And her path to the ministry began with small churches in rural Missouri and lay speaking.
When she came to Minnesota to speak and evangelize that summer, she was coming from a small church in Florida that many had given up for dead. She had been asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was in the part of Florida that some have described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the district considered the church closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet when she came to Red Rock that summer in 1994, the church had grown to over 350 members and had become the central strength of a small town. George Lane, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, wrote the best description of her work. He wrote
“Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida, America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best. (New Life for Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)
The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by the work of the church in the community. In his first letter, John wrote of turning that we have, the love that God has for us into more that just words or speech but into truth and action, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3: 18)
When we were young and we needed help, we called our mothers. Maybe it was something simple like fixed a cut on our knee, or as we got older to fix a button on a shirt. Later, after we left home, we might call back to get a recipe for something to eat. We know that we can always call on our mothers.
Now we are older and perhaps we are the ones who take care of our mothers. And this we do, not because we have to do it, but because of the love that we have for our mothers.
Using the analogy of the shepherd and the flock was deliberate on Jesus’ part. Since the people who heard the story knew shepherds and the devotion they had for their flocks, they could understand what Jesus was saying. They understood that the sheep in a flock understand the shepherd’s voice and would respond to that voice.
On this day when we celebrate our mothers and what they mean to us, when we celebrate what the family means to us, we know that we are a part of a much larger family, the family with God as our Father.
When we needed to, we could call on our mother and she would be there. Now, when we need to, we know that God will always be there, like the shepherd tending his flock. And for others who are lost and seek guidance, we, as the church and members of God’s family, will be there to help them.