These few weeks between Easter and Pentecost are a good time to read from the Apostle Paul – even though he’s a challenge in many ways. I think he is more pertinent now than ever, especially if we pay attention to how he said what he did, not just what he said. The two sources we have for information about Paul are the book of Acts and Paul’s own writing. Acts gives us the itinerary that puts his letters in context. So I’m going to give history and context along the way.
1 Thessalonians is the oldest New Testament writing. This serves as a reminder that the gospels were all written long after the stories they tell took place, based on the Jesus tradition that was passed along through first person accounts, oral history and letters and recollections that are mostly lost to time. Last week you heard Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. We don’t know the actual timing of it, but it happened months to a year after Jesus died. Paul himself was likely killed before the first gospel was written, so all of his writing, the interpretation of who Jesus was, comes first. The gospels tell us about Jesus and God; the letters Paul left behind tell us about the significance of the resurrection to the life of faith – at least for his context and time.
Paul had already been busy traveling and teaching by the time he wrote this first letter in the late 40’s. He had companions along the way, changing from time to time – Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, Phoebe and others. They were often run out of town by Jews offended at his message, or Romans offended for the sake of the emperor, and that is the catalyst for this letter. After hurriedly leaving Thessalonica, he eventually ended up in Corinth and stayed there for two years. From Corinth he sent Timothy back to check up on them, to see how the community was faring. The report was quite encouraging!
So we begin his letter to the church. (1 Thessalonians: 1-2)
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 14For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.
As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20Yes, you are our glory and joy!”
A word of God, a word of life….. thanks be to God.
Two things popped out at me as I read this.
First, is the format of the letter itself. There was an expected form for letters in the ancient world. I read about this in one of my seminary textbooks. What made me smile as I read it was remembering my mother’s instructions when she sat me down to write to my grandparents, or thank you notes for birthday and Christmas gifts. My mom used this same ancient formula.
Here it is from my textbook: “The general structure of a letter in antiquity began with the name of the sender, followed by the name of the receiver, and a greeting – often an inquiry or wish about their health. Then followed a personal section, often recalling some past association or fond memory, and next the reason for the letter, usually a request of some sort, or thanks for a gift given. Letters regularly ended with salutations to mutual friends and a closing wish.” Exactly.
I wonder how many of us learned the art of letters and thank you notes at the kitchen table under our mother’s tutelage. The second thing I locked in, and maybe only because I had Mom in mind at this point, was the reference Paul makes to wet nurses. He reminds the Thessalonians of their close connection: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” This is a lovely sentence, a tender theology, and quite unexpected for many of you (I imagine) coming as it is from Paul.
But this is a terrific example of what I meant when I said it’s important to hear how he writes, how he teaches, and not only what he says. Paul will speak in whatever way, whatever genre, whatever imagery he believes connects the message of Christ crucified and risen to his audience. He says he strives to be all things to all people – what he means by that is that he will do anything within his ability to get this message across, to help Gentiles and Jews, Greeks, Romans, and pagans, men, women, slave and free to understand that this Jesus, this God, this salvation and redemption is for them, that it is for all.
You may have also noticed that in the next paragraph, he talks as a father: “ 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
But today is Mother’s Day, so I’m sticking with that.
In the past, I’ve made a point of not preaching about it. I’ve mentioned Mother’s Day only in prayers of the people because I know how conflicted our parental relationships can be. But as I’ve gotten older in this job of preaching, I’ve gotten more interested in speaking to what actually connects to our lives, and less interested in preaching what is careful, pious, expected or recycled.
To that point, we have all had mothers. Some of you, I’m sure, identify with Paul’s comments: “We were gentle among you.… 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” Some of your mothers, some of you as mothers, or as surrogate mothers, are gentle, self-giving, tender-hearted. Some did not have mothers like that.
Mother’s Day is as often a painful reminder of loss, of heartache, of abuse, of distance as it is of joyful connection and gratitude. It’s hard to know what to say that won’t leave someone out or accentuate a painful memory. But we have those feelings and ignoring them doesn’t make them less real. Here in the congregation we have mothers who are estranged from children, who have lost a child. Some of you have lost your mothers too early or tragically or unexpectedly or after caring for them for a long time.
Death is grief and relief and guilt – there are stories or conversations or images that circle around, that are brought to mind with an unexpected scent of perfume or someone’s unknowing remark. How do we live with our mothers and how do we live without them? What wouldn’t we do for them and what have they done to us? How has the way we were mothered affected the relationships we’ve formed years later, our own parenting or partnering? How do we get over our mothers? How can we best support the mothers in our midst? How can we forgive and accept our own job of mothering?
Like many of you I find myself in the middle of all of these questions.
After church and a meeting today, I’m going to Minocqua to be with my 96 year old mom. Last weekend, I was in Duluth for a baby shower for our son and daughter-in-law and was given a wonderful gift when Andi walked over to me, took my hand and placed it on her 7 month pregnant belly, saying, “Here, can you feel her hiccups?”
I know I’ve made mistakes as a mother to my three children. I’m reminded of them now and then by said children, and there are some mistakes I know, but keep to myself, down deep out of the range of words. I’m aware of the effects of my mom’s generational style of mothering on me. I’ve also watched her change her opinions – enlarge her compassion for mental health issues, for gay and lesbian sexuality. She is able to look critically at her privileged white life. I admire that more than anything else about her. I learned, as I became a mom, to pray that I could be who each of my children needed me to be, that I would connect to each of them and their unique personalities, that I would listen to what they said and to what they weren’t saying, that I could be guided by what they needed and not what I expected them to be.
I know I’ve also made mistakes – lots of them – in mothering this congregation. You can’t possibly know the love and regard I have for you by my actions and inactions. But I’ve felt, do feel, that that’s part of my role here. To love you and offer what I have to give to help you grow – to help us all grow up in spirit and faith and hope.
Being a parent, (I can only speak to being a mother), isn’t easy. Neither is being mothered by the mother we were given. I kind of love that Paul brings this wet nurse imagery to his letter. There are men and women who nurture, who inspire, encourage, sustain us all along our lifespans in ways and at times our own mother’s couldn’t do. You all take on that role within your circle of influence and within the church.
I feel that I’m balanced in the center this year. I still have my mom, but sometimes I mother her. I have children who still need me, but sometimes – let’s be honest, it’s mostly Marnie – sometimes they mother me. I have a compassionate, lovely daughter-in-law who will hopefully have a healthy, safe birth in the next month – and, although I can’t get my head around it yet, our son will largely be a stay at home dad and will practice his mothering and fathering skills and continue the cycle of mistakes and love and trials and joy.
Anne Lamott is a writer who describes the difficulty of Mother’s Day in her characteristically humorous and blunt way. This is just a bit of what she writes:
“This is for those of you who are dreading Mothers Day, because you had an awful mother, or wanted but didn’t get to have kids, or your kids ended up breaking your hearts. If you love the day, and have or had a great mom, and kids who have brought you incredible pride and joy, maybe skip this:…
Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.
The illusion is that mothers are automatically happier, more fulfilled and complete. But the craziest, grimmest people this Sunday will be the mothers themselves, stuck herding their own mothers and weeping children and husbands’ mothers into seats at restaurants. These mothers do not want a box of chocolate. These mothers are on a diet.
Mothering has been the richest experience of my life, but I am still opposed to Mother’s Day. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that all parents are somehow superior to non-parents.
Don’t get me wrong: There were times I could have literally died of love for my son, and I’ve felt stoned on his rich, desperate love for me. But I bristle at the whispered lie that you can know this level of love and self-sacrifice only if you are a parent. We talk about “loving one’s child” as if a child were a mystical unicorn. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly feel that if you have not had and raised a child, your capacity for love is somehow diminished. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly believe that non-parents cannot possibly know what it is to love unconditionally, to be selfless, to put yourself at risk for the gravest loss.
But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing. And we are all mothers.
You want to give me chocolate and flowers? Great. I love them both. I just don’t want them out of guilt, and I don’t want them if you’re not going to give them to all the people who helped mother our children. But if you are going to include everyone, then make mine something like M&M’s, and maybe flowers you picked yourself, even from my own garden, the cut stems wrapped in wet paper towels, then tin foil and a waxed-paper bag from my kitchen drawers. I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain. Like everything else, it can fill me only if it is ordinary and available to all.”
That sounds to me a lot like incarnational love – ordinary, beautiful, and available to all. I know it’s hard for many to talk about the relationships that matter so much. I hope that whatever your connection to motherhood, you are able to lean into it today – not to wallow in the same old narrative, but perhaps look from a new slant, and find people who support you and love you and sit with you in the complexity of feelings and memory. I hope you will share your stories. This, too, is a way we love our neighbor as ourselves.