Speaking to a church community on Mother’s Day can feel a bit like walking through a field full of landmines. You step carefully, for you never know what is underneath. Families gather in the sanctuary, some together and others sitting apart. Far apart. What do you say?
Traditionalists tend to expect a sermon focused on mothers. To stay in your present series on, say, “What Everyone Should Know About Hell” would be right down there with speaking on “Financial Security” on Easter Sunday or “Sexual Purity on Advent”…or “The Prayer of Jabez” on Good Friday.
As I am about to leave my study, I realize some faces will not be familiar (or maybe it was last May I saw them). They have forfeited their time at Starbucks, or the extra hour of sleep, to please mom. After all, it is Mother’s Day and it is Sunday, and there is this family ritual. Hopefully, the sermon will not be too long—or invasive. If cornered by the pastor afterwards, a “Nice sermon” will do. Can we leave now for brunch?
I am also fully aware that preaching on mothers may be reassuring and affirming. Hopefully it will complement a day full of joy and laughter and good memories. I am graced with a mom who has been a great mom, and I am married to a woman who has excelled at shaping the lives of our kids. But I am mindful that today may resurrect feelings that one would like to leave in the grave. For some, there are memories of a parent who was abusive—or absent. After our morning service, an older man may come up (he did) to share how much he wished his mom had been there for him when he was young. Sadly, he ended the conversation with, “To this day, I don’t know how to receive love.” Most likely, he was also not quite sure how to receive my sermon.
Scattered out there are also those who would like to be moms but cannot. Church on Mother’s Day can have the feel of wearing a Scarlet Letter. There is some shame, self-imposed, in not being able to stand up and be recognized with the other women. I could go on. I am pretty sure there were some mothers who, today, felt more deeply the pain and weight of failure—of not being the parent they should have been. But most likely, most of these moms stayed home. This likely explains some of the empty spaces in the pews. I have been told by more than one woman that this is the hardest service of the year to attend.
And then there is this mother—perhaps the one I think about most. She would like to hear what I am saying, but she is struggling with a sadness that borders on bitterness. It interferes with her attention. She is saying to herself, “Though I wasn’t perfect (who is?), I did take this parenting task seriously. I determined to live out those Mother’s Day sermons. I did take Proverbs 31 earnestly. I rose up in the night and provided food for my household. I gave my child to the Lord right from the start, instilled the way of wisdom best I could, and never withheld my love…and to this day, he hates me.” She might be sitting next to a mother whose pain is even more severe. Her thoughts end with, “I never withheld my love…and she took her life.”
After thirty-two Mother’s Days in the pulpit, I know all of these people—and more. I still think of one mother whose son took his life on Mother’s Day. Parenting has its pain. Will Willimon, in his book, Who Will Be Saved?, relates this story:
“Our son has been putting us through hell,” she said. “Didn’t even know where he was for months until last night. My husband and I were eating dinner, and suddenly, without warning, he bursts through the front door and begins cursing us, demanding money, refusing to join us at the table. After an ugly scene, he stormed down the hall and slammed the door to his room.”
“Well, my husband gets up, goes over to the kitchen, pours himself a drink, turns on the TV, and slumps down in his chair. That’s how he handles these moments. I walked down the hall and said, ‘Son, can we talk? I just want to talk.’ I could hear him curse me from inside his bedroom. I tried to open the door. It was locked. So I went into the garage, got a big hammer, walked back in, stood before my son’s bedroom door, drew back, and with only one blow was able to knock the doorknob clean off the door. Took about a third of the door with it. Then I lunged at my surprised-looking son, grabbed him around the throat, and said, ‘I’m not going to put up with this s—- anymore. You are better than this! I gave birth to you, went into labor for you, and I’m not giving you away!’
I really think something important happened for us last night. I think he heard me. We’re on a new track,” she said.
Some of us have our own hellish version. I did preach on mothers, and yes I chose Proverbs 31. But I focused on the woman most sermons overlook—the mother of King Lemuel (vv 1-9). The mother whose overwhelming love and fierce protectiveness speaks into her son’s life. With the force of a hammer, she intrudes into his professional and personal choices, hoping to get on a new track. Moms are called to do this from time to time. She can see his life is descending into self-indulgence and poor choices. He is on the fast track to becoming a fool. She cannot remain silent.
She too wonders–“Have I devoted my life and spent all of this energy for nothing?” He is the son of her womb. He represents her vow. She tells him her parenting is far more than propagation—it is promise. She has abandoned him to God that he might abandon himself to God. Parents have to do this. It is too much to own our kids. We are the stewards–they belong to God. This gets me through the night. But this does not suggest non-involvement. She speaks to the issues parents should speak into—sexual choices and addictive behaviors. Shrewd parents bring their kids—even if they’re adults—even if they are really important adults (like kings)–back to reality. They remind them that their choices bring others down with them. There is no glory in bragging about your sexual exploits—or the last time you were hammered. You have left behind damage.
The real failure I find today is moms (and dads) who don’t have the courage to speak. Or maybe it is the energy. Too many indulge their kids, overlooking their boozy misadventures or sexual escapades, just hoping they won’t end up in jail or dead. More and more moms and dads are hesitant to draw the lines for the sake of keeping their kids happy. Others have checked out due to their own needs and wants. And as a result, too many kids are navigating an ocean without a compass.
But some moms–and some kids–are getting it right. There is honor and respect, and sometimes loving confrontation. There is profound love and something of God seriously at work. And there is hope–that one day all things wrong will be made right. The tears will be replaced with joy. And this wakes me up to preach another Mother’s Day.