Sunday, May 11, 2008
Here's my "Mother's Day on Pentecost" homily. There are no cats in this one, which is a break from tradition, but it's hard to fit them in with tongues of fire and rushing wind. Those weather conditions would terrify the poor beasts.
Pentecost eight years ago, in addition to being my own baptism, was also the first time I preached (at the invitation of one of our regional vicars, a job that, sadly, doesn't exist in the diocesan hierarchy anymore). That first homily wasn't quite as bad as "Bloop the Retarted [sic] Prairie Dog," but I've definitely improved since then.
And yes, I know that the title of that early story was terribly politically incorrect, but hey: I was only, like, eight or something.
In case you don't already know the Pentecost story, here it is.
Good morning, and happy Mother’s Day!
Today, the Feast of Pentecost, is the birthday of the church. Before Pentecost, the disciples were a ragtag and unruly group. They loved and followed Jesus, but often misunderstood what he told them; and they were often in turmoil. They were devastated by his death, terrified and awe-struck by his resurrection, and bereft after his ascension. The flesh-and-blood Jesus who had led them was really gone this time. What were they going to do?
Jesus himself had told them that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to protect and guide them, but we have to wonder if they had any idea what that meant. How could they? When the rushing wind and tongues of flame showed up, they must have been as frightened and on edge as we in Reno have been these last few weeks, dealing with earthquakes.
The disciples quickly realized that they had nothing to fear. The Spirit allowed them to do wonderful things: to speak and understand any language and to act on their own inner gifts, the ones that would allow them to continue Jesus’ work. Empowered by the Spirit, the ragtag, disorganized disciples transformed themselves into the early church. They baptized, healed, taught, and cared for the sick and lonely. They loved each other and the people around them, sharing everything they had.
It’s fitting for Pentecost to fall on Mother’s Day, because the Holy Spirit is often considered the divine feminine, the Mother Spirit who balances God the Father and Christ the Son. Some of us, when we recite the Nicene Creed after the homily, refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” although the baptismal covenant we’ll be using this morning won’t give us that chance. Honoring Mother God, though, we might want to begin the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our Mother, Who Art in Heaven.” After all, this is the day when we honor all our mothers: the ones who gave birth to us, the ones who raised us, and the ones who have helped us develop our gifts.
For some of us, all those mothers are the same person; others, whose mothers have died or who have suffered estrangement from biological family, have been nurtured by people, both women and men, who are not blood relatives. But all of us, to quote the motherly Mr. Rogers in his blue cardigan, have someone “who has loved us into being.” God, both Mother and Father, is the first and earliest source of that love, the One who loved the whole creation into being. None of us would be here this morning, though, if our fellow humans hadn’t shared the task.
I invite you, then, to think about mothering. How has God mothered you? How have other people mothered you? What gifts have God and the people who love you encouraged you to develop, and how have you used those gifts to mother the world?
As some of you know, I’m very close to my own mother. She was, and is, fiercely devoted to me and to my older sister. I needed that devotion. Although some members of my family disagree, I remember myself as an awkward, skinny, painfully self-conscious kid. I got frightened easily, cried even more easily, was absolutely terrible at sports or anything else involving physical coordination -- a trait that has persisted to this day -- and spent a lot of time being bullied and teased. Through it all, though, I knew how much my mother loved me.
Somewhere along the way, I discovered a source of exhilarating joy: books. Although I’d come to reading late, I more than made up for lost time. I read constantly. The day I got my first library card was a gala occasion, and my mother told me solemnly that I could go to the library all by myself, even though I had to be very, very careful when I crossed the street. I made the trip every day or two, staggering under armfuls of books in both directions, and soon I discovered that I not only wanted to read stories, but wanted to write them. When I got an idea for a story, it felt like a rushing wind, bringing a beam of light and energy flooding into my head. I couldn’t wait to get all those dancing, sparkly words on the page. Writing felt wonderful.
My moments of inspiration are still like that; now, I recognize them as visits from the Holy Spirit, and I’ve come to believe that writing is my way of speaking in tongues. But as a child in a non-religious and unchurched family, I didn’t understand any of that. All I knew was that my stories somehow came from outside me, and that when I was writing, I felt valuable. When I was writing, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t hit a softball, that other kids laughed at me, and that I’d never quite gotten the knack of making friends. Telling stories made me feel whole. I didn’t know to call my hobby “healing” when I was a child, but it was.
And Mom encouraged me. My handwriting and spelling were both terrible, but she still has my first effort, a two-page epic called “Bloop the Retarted [sic] Prairie Dog,” complete with illustrations of an animal that looks like a lima bean with fangs. With practice, my stories got better, although my handwriting never did. When I was in college, Mom supported my choice to major in English, although she was afraid I’d never get a job. After college, she saw how miserable I was in a full-time office job and offered to let me live at home and work part-time so I’d have more time to write. One birthday, she and my sister gave me a bright red filing cabinet, with other brightly wrapped gifts inside. Mom read and critiqued my manuscripts and, when I started submitting my work for publication, learned to recognize the stamped, self-addressed envelopes that contained rejections. On November 9, 1984, I was coming home from a temp job when I saw her standing in our living room window, holding up an envelope and jumping up and down. “Susan,” she yelled out the window, “you sold a story!” When the business-sized, windowed envelope had arrived in the mail, she’d held it up to the light and figured out that there was a contract inside, although she’d resisted the urge to open it.
Since then, I’ve published three novels and enough stories to fill a slim collection. I know now what to call the rushing wind that brings me my ideas, the wind I can neither control nor predict. I thank Mother Spirit for these gifts whenever I receive them, just as I thank my human mother for her steadfast faith in her ungainly, socially challenged child; and just as I thank the many other people, relatives and otherwise, who’ve believed in my gift even when I haven’t.
I’ve learned that our gifts have effects we could never have planned, and that God sometimes uses us as instruments of grace. I’ve often had the experience, as I’m sure all of you have too, of being moved or inspired or heartened by something a stranger has said or done or made. Whenever someone else’s work gives us new insight or energy, the Holy Spirit is on the move. And if we’re very lucky, we may sometimes catch glimpses of how our own work has touched others. I have a small collection of letters from readers telling me how my writing has helped them, always in ways I never could have predicted or planned. We do not create our gifts ourselves; they have been bestowed by the Giver, and their full workings are always a mystery.
Because of my experiences with the Holy Spirit, Pentecost is my favorite feast of the church year. It’s the day I chose for my own baptism, eight years ago, and I’m delighted that we’re baptizing a baby this morning. As we do so, let us pray that Mother Spirit will visit him often, bearing wonderful gifts, and that his human parents -- and his wider family and community, meaning all of us -- will help nurture those gifts. And let us pray that he will use those gifts wisely, to the glory of God and to the enrichment of God’s good creation.