Sermon 8/18/2019: Complicated Relationships with Mothers

Pr. Craig Mueller

Mary, Mother of Our Lord

August 18, 2019

Complicated Relationships with Mothers

How many of you would say you have a complicated relationship with your mother? You may be sitting by your mom right now and are going to keep your hand down whatever you feel. Plenty of folks talk about their mothers—and their fathers, for that matter—in therapy. Some mothers are smothering, others critical, others distant.

The most famous mother in history is Mary, mother of Jesus. And Lutherans—and Protestants, in general—have a complicated relationship with Mary. We love her in our nativity sets at Christmas. We love her sweet lullaby’s sung to her son. But we remember the Reformation’s appropriate warning: she is not God. Some Protestants have an inner Mary-meter that goes off when we hear about prayers to Mary, rosaries, apparitions and things we don’t understand. Give us Jesus only, please.

Except. Except for two thousand years the vast majority of Christians have had a deep devotion to Mary. Our Protestant Mary minimalism is a minority opinion. And Luther called her Mother of God—and wrote of her with much affection and profound reverence.

I have to confess that the more I delve into history and spirituality and diverse cultures, the deeper my devotion to the Blessed Mother. And for a Lutheran church . . . we’ve got several icons of her. “Blessed” Mary is mentioned first among the faithful departed at the conclusion of the prayers. “All generations will call me blessed,” we hear in today’s gospel. So we observe the feast day of Mary each summer on the Sunday nearest August 15. For Roman Catholics, the feast is the Assumption of Mary. For Orthodox, it is the Dormition of Mary—the falling asleep of Mary.

On our recent trip to the Balkans to see Byzantine churches and monasteries, I was struck by Mary’s significance to Eastern Christians. Scenes from the life of Mary are on the walls of the churches. Some stories are from apocryphal books, traditions that arose in the first four centuries after Christ. One is the dormition, or falling asleep of Mary, pictured on the bulletin cover. The apostles—filled with love and devotion—gather around Mary as she dies and is raised to heavenly glory At the top is Jesus receiving the soul of his mother at her death—a tender reversal of icons with Mary holding Jesus.

You’ve probably noticed that Mother’s Day in May doesn’t get a lot of attention in liturgical churches. Maybe this is our Mother’s Day, when we celebrate Mary as Mother of God, mother of the church, mother of the living, and mother of those on the margins.

Let’s start with Mary as Mother of God. When the Church in the fifth century declared Mary as Theotokos, the God-bearer, it was making an important theological point about the incarnation. Early Christian antiphons speak of Mary’s womb as the shrine that holds the Lord of heaven and earth. Mary’s very body becomes the container of the uncontainable God.

But Mary is also Mother of the church. We sing of her as the first disciple. The one who says “yes” to God’s “yes.” The one who opens her life to mystery, to the unknown, to the call to be a vessel of her people’s hopes and dreams.

But as we sing the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, we proclaim that Mary is the Mother of those on the margins. There is an image of Mary from Central America with the title Madres de los Desaparecidos, meaning Mother of the Disappeared. Mary is shown with dark skin and represents the mothers of those who have been kidnapped and killed. And we know of the devotion of many on this continent to Our Lady of Guadalupe. “You have cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” Mary sings. As one author (David Richo) notes, Mary, the fierce tigress of justice is one of us—for the least of us. “She doesn’t support a privileged, white ego. She is best pictured as a black Madonna, the creatively erotic earth mother who keeps her promise to guide and protect our planet.”

Christians through the ages have turned to Mary in times of great loss and sorrow, recalling her broken heart as she stood at the foot of the cross. Following the Asian tsunami in 2004 in which 230,000 were killed, folk singer Eliza Gilkyson wrote a Requiem song of comfort, addressed to Mary. There is a choral version of the song that brings me to tears as it expresses a tender prayer on behalf of a wounded, suffering humanity:

mother mary, full of grace, awaken
all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken
taken by the sea
mother mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy . . .

Maybe some of our complication with Mary is that we reduce her to a historical figure. Mary is also an archetype of the divine feminine. Clarissa Pinkola Estés has spent many years gathering and sharing stories of the Divine Feminine across cultures and religions. In her book Untie the Strong Woman she writes: “She is known by many names and many images, and has appeared in different epochs of time, to people across the world . . . She wears a thousand names, thousands of skin tones, thousands of costumes to represent her being patroness of deserts, mountains, stars, streams, and oceans. If there are more than six billion people on earth, then thereby she comes to us in literally billions of images.”

Well-known spiritual writer Richard Rohr adds that we are terribly imbalanced and that we are “witnessing an immense longing for relational, mutually empowering feminine qualities at every level of our society—from our politics, to our economics, in our psyche, our cultures, our patterns of leadership, and our theologies, all of which have become far too warlike, competitive, individualistic.” The Great Mother—in all its guises, is a gift sorely needed. But what does Mary have to do with my life, you may be asking.

I heard of a church where the question of who would play Mother Mary in the annual children’s Christmas pageant consumed the girls—and even the parents—for months before the part was announced. Parents would take brownies to the pageant director to bribe her. It got pretty complicated, actually. And there were always a lot of brokenhearted little girls who got relegated to play sheep and stars. So one year the director had an idea: let all the girls play Mary. They were beside themselves with joy when the parts were announced. When the pageant came, down the aisle walked sixteen Mary’s clutching little baby Jesus dolls. To the great bafflement of an awkward Joseph at the front of the church.

Mary is the Mother of all the living. Yet through baptism God calls us to be mothers as well. Everybody gets to be Mary. We are all full of grace. All highly favored. All called to be God-bearers, bringing to birth justice and joy in the world. Whether we have been mothers or not, whatever our gender, whatever complicated relationship we have or had with our mother. And like Mary—at our falling asleep, at our death—God promises to bring us to the glory of our eternal home.