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Behold, Your Mother!

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
May 8 2016


Today is Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day, Moms.

Today is Mother’s Day … but here’s the thing: Mother’s Day can be complicated.

Mother’s Day was born in rage and outrage against men’s wars. It was birthed by Julia Ward Howe who was outraged, beside herself, undone because we were sending into war, into harm’s way our sons, our children … sending bright youth to fight old men’s battles. Bright youth who too often returned—when they did return—damaged and broken.

Mother’s Day is complicated. Julia Ward Howe birthed it. It was for a Julia Ward Howe a call to arms, a call to action.

Hear these words from her original Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870: Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Let us meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let us 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!”

Strong stuff. But something happened. Over the years since 1870, Mother’s Day morphed and mutated into Ozzie and Harriet and Mother Knows Best … into flowers and chocolates, cards and lunch.

Nothing wrong with those … Not one thing wrong with flowers and chocolates, cards and lunch. I am a fan of all four.

But you have to admit that today’s Mother’s Day is a vast distance from that to which Julia Ward Howe had given birth.

Which is kind of a good metaphor for giving birth. Because once you have given birth your child may grow and change and evolve in ways over which you have no control … becoming something or someone you never imagined.

Mother’s Day is complicated. It’s complicated if you don’t have a great relationship with you mother. Or if, as a mother, you are estranged from a child. Or if you have lost a child. Or, if you wanted to be a mother in the worst way, but couldn’t. Or, if you are grieving. Or … well, there are a million ways in which Mother’s Day can be complicated.

If Mother’s Day had been around in the first century of the Common Era, it would have been pretty complicated for Mary and Jesus.

Maybe you recall, in Luke’s Gospel, Mary is a new young mother. She brings Jesus to the Temple to be blessed. The baby Jesus is fat and young and perfect … the way babies are perfect

The aged prophet Simeon lifts the child and says what you’d hope he’d say: he says the child is perfect and the child is from God.

But then he goes on and he says: “By the way, Mary, a sword will pierce your soul.”

Welcome to motherhood, Mary.

Maybe you remember another story in the Gospels. Jesus is inside a home, teaching and healing. A messenger comes to him: “Jesus, your mother and brothers are outside looking for you!”

What does Jesus say? “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the Word of God and carry it out.” Ouch.

Although, on the cross, minutes before his death, Jesus gets it right: “John, he says, looking at Mary “Behold your mother.” And, “Mother,” he says, looking at John, “behold your new son, John.”

Mary isn’t the only biblical mother for whom motherhood was complicated.

There’s Eve. The first mother. Mother of Cain and Abel. One kills the other. The first fratricide.

There’s Rebekah who infamously loves her son Jacob more than her son Esau, and everybody knows it. She doesn’t even try to hide it.

There’s more, but you get the picture. Motherhood is complicated … so of course, is Mother’s Day.

Just to complicate it even more, allow me to introduce Phillis Wheatley, the mother of African American literature.

As a child of seven or eight years old she was ripped, stolen, torn from her mother’s arms. One second she is a carefree child, secure in her home and village, at play among the rolling, sandy plains of Senegal.

The next minute: catastrophe. She is the property of cold, brutish, indifferent strangers.

She is manhandled and thrown into a ship. She suffers the unbearable Middle Passage.

She arrives in Boston … quite alone, vulnerable, all but naked. She is purchased—God help us—by the Wheatley family.

We know that the child remembered her own mother, back home, in Africa, on the other side of the Middle Passage. The child remembered how in the mornings her mother would take water and pour it out onto the earth in oblation to the rising sun.

That’s pretty much all we know about her family.

We read in Phillis Wheatley’s writing that she thought of Susannah Wheatley like a mother.
But I have to think that if mothers and mothering are complicated under the best of circumstances … What’s it like if one of you owns the other?

There are stories, but no evidence, that Phillis Wheatley gave birth to three children, but that none of them, not one, survived infancy.

Motherhood is complicated and can be filled with unbearable pain.

Yet, if her children were still-born, Phillis Wheatley gave birth to something else, something grand and strong and fierce and free:

Phillis Wheatley gave birth to nothing less than African American literature. She gave birth to the voice of the enslaved … to the thoughts and feelings, the agency of enslaved people.

Today, on Mother’s Day, let us claim that Phillis Wheatley is the mother of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. She is the mother of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Phillis Wheatley is the mother of Zora Neal Hurston and Toni Morison and Maya Angelou.

In another sense, Phillis Wheatley is the mother of every single member of Old South Church in Boston, because we are different, this church is different, better, because of her.

Old South Church, on this Phillis Wheatley Sunday: Behold your mother!

And, not least, Phillis Wheatley is the mother of our honoree today, of Sarah-Ann Shaw. In Sarah-Ann Shaw we have with us today, on this Phillis Wheatley Sunday, a living legend: an early female African American television reporter. It was in the 1700s that Phillis Wheatley used the medium of her day (pen and parchment) to open eyes and hearts and doors! In the 1960s Sarah-Anne Shaw used the medium of her day (television) to carry on Phillis Wheatley’s legacy.

Today we celebrate how a teenager, a girl, an enslaved person living in the 1700s, gave birth to something grand and strong, fierce and free … she gave birth to the voice of the enslaved … to the thoughts and feelings, the agency of the enslaved.

At the same time, because Mother’s Day is complicated and because Phillis Wheatley’s life was complicated, there must be room, we must make room, for weeping, for sorrow, for confession … because, in the end, Phillis Wheatley died in poverty and obscurity. No one knows where her remains lay.

In the Bible, among all its writings, there is a genre called Lamentation. Lamentation is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow; weeping.

In the Biblical book of Lamentation (1:9) there is a verse that haunts me because it speaks of the end of Phillis Wheatley’s life:

“Her fall was astounding;
there was none to comfort her.”

Will you join me in an act of lamentation, of grief, of sorrow, of weeping for Phillis Wheatley?