Today is Mother’s Day which is usually a day of platitudes and greeting card sentimentality presented in a way that reinforces binary heteronormative assumptions about families and without any references to Planned Parenthood. However, this morning I want to talk about the more radical implications of motherhood.
On May 25, 2020 George Floyd cried out for his mother when a policeman had a knee on his neck. In the aftermath of his death protests broke out in cities all over the world. During one protest in Portland, Oregon, a group of 30 mothers formed a human shield to protect demonstrators. One woman held up a sign that read, “When George Floyd called out for his mama all mothers were summoned.”
We rarely associate Mother’s Day with political protests or anger or rage or ferocity. And yet these too, are the emotions of motherhood. I will always remember that moment many, many years ago when my friend Tandy Scheffler was holding her baby in her arms when she said, “If we could all love every baby the way I love this baby then we would beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and study war no more.” A few weeks later Tandy was holding the same baby in her arms and she said to me, “If someone walked through that door with the intention of harming my child the mama bear in me would come out and I would rip him limb from limb.” This is the paradox of motherhood, an experience that engenders both overpowering love and ferocious protective instincts. Indeed, anyone who hikes in the Smokies knows (or should know) you do not get in between a mother bear and her cubs.
In 1910 the Universalist minister, the Reverend Julian Stearns, wrote a hymn called the Motherhood of God that captures both the toughness and tenderness of this maternal impulse. The first verse reads…
Motherhood, sublime, eternal, lives in God’s great heart of Love;
Ever holds us, safe enfolds us, underneath, around, above;
This first verse is mostly gentle but in the next verse we get the sense that there may be a divine iron hand in that velvet glove. The second verse reads…
Ev’ry wrong will sure be righted; ev’ry evil swept away;
Truth upspringing, justice bringing, ushers in the brighter day;
This kind of motherlove is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, the love that empowers us to transform the world through acts of love and justice. Of course, our church is not the only faith tradition to possess this love. When I think of ferocious motherlove I think of the Mothers of the Movement, the mothers who have lost children and become involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. I think of Mother Pollard, an elderly woman who refused to ride the bus during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the civil rights movement because she wanted justice and fairness for every mother’s child. When she was asked if she ever got tired of walking to work at her advanced age she said, “My feet are tired but my soul is rested.”
Mother Pollard reminds us that mothering is tiring work where the weariness of our bodies may contrast with the contentment of our souls. Speaking of my own mother I can say, “When I was hungry she gave me food. When I was thirsty she gave me something to drink. When I was naked she clothed me. When I was sick she looked after me.” One of the radical implications of mothering is that we are all called to do this work regardless of our gender identity. There are some theologians that tell us that the word God is a verb. I would argue that the word mother is also a verb for we are all called to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and take care of the sick. Our church, and every church, is called to embody a mother’s love.
In this sense of the word, our music director, Dr. Reginald Houze has lived into that verb. When he was living in Charlotte, North Carolina and his son was living here in Knoxville he drove 4 hours to see his son perform in a 25 minute show and then got in his car and drove 4 hours home again. My father would never have done that. I am not complaining because my dad had 5 children and he did other things. Now, my mom might have done it. She put a lot of miles on her car keeping up with her children and grandchildren. All I can say is that when Dr. Houze talks about his son – I can feel something that feels like my own mother’s love.
When I think of the more fierce impulses of motherhood I think of the labor activist Mother Jones who should be the patron saint of Mother’s Day. She once summed up her theology by urging others to “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Indeed, she was so passionate in her advocacy for worker’s rights that one newspaper described her as “the walking wrath of God.”
Before Mother Jones was an activist she was a dressmaker, a wife and mother living in Memphis when the yellow fever hit in 1867, killing her husband and all four of her children (Ours is not the first generation to experience pandemic.) Heartbreakingly unable to save her own family she embarked on a mission to save the working people of America. She had a mother’s heart for anyone weak or defenseless in need of protection.
The labor movement was her religion and union organizing was the work of salvation. For her willingness to fight the good fight she was called the Joan of Arc of labor and for her fiery temper reminiscent of a famous abolitionist she was called John Brown in petticoats.
Like the Hebrew prophets Mother Jones exercised her right to question God. She told one group of workers on the picket line, “I am going to tell you that if God Almighty wants this strike called off for his benefit and not for the workers, I am going to raise my voice against it.” Like a modern Abraham or Moses she reserved the right to question and challenge the authority of the Almighty. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus in Catholic tradition, she was willing to intercede on behalf of the workers, an intermediary between the human and the divine, willing to plead their cause.
Mother Jones dressed like a traditional Victorian woman in a long black dress, with a decorative white lace collar and a Sunday-go-to-meeting hat with a smart bow on it. From all outward appearances she seemed to affirm every societal notion of womanly propriety.
However, looks can be deceiving. Her activism broke every convention of feminine decorum. One biographer wrote, “She tailored her appearance to match every sentimental notion about mothers. Then she subverted the very idea of genteel womanhood.” Victorian women were not encouraged to be independent, have strong opinions, travel alone or lecture men. She did all of these things.
One of her more dramatic departures from traditional Victorian womanhood was her colorful language. When people praised her for her humanitarian work she would say, “Get it straight. I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hellraiser.” When people remonstrated her for her profanity she replied, “I long ago stopped praying and started swearing. If I pray I will have to wait until I am dead to get anything: but when I swear I get things here.” The union newspapers described her as the incarnate spirit of motherhood, God’s great ministering angel. If so, she was a ministering angel who could raise some hell.
Mothers of the Movement, Mother Pollard and Mother Jones remind us of the radical implications of motherhood, a tradition carried on by the mothers in Portland, Oregon. When George Floyd called out for his mama all mothers were summoned. Although my mother is no longer alive I can’t help but feel that she is one of the mothers who is summoned at such moments because I can feel the energizing and electrifying power of her love in those actions.
All around us we see the radical implications of motherhood. Many of us were moved when we saw the pictures of mothers responding to refugees from the Ukraine by pushing empty strollers to the train stations to welcome the children who’d lost everything to war. Many people don’t know this but Mother’s Day began as an anti-war movement. The Unitarian activist Julia Ward Howe organized women for a peace conference in 1870 with the hope that one day mothers would unite to protect every mother’s child from the scourge of war. A similar movement is afoot now with Ukrainian mothers appealing to Russian mothers through social media to work together for peace and to educate the world about the true costs of war. We should remember these Ukrainian and Russian mothers on Mother’s Day.
As the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe Vs. Wade, we should also remember my friend who was a mother of two children when her doctor informed her that her health was so precarious that her next pregnancy would end her life. After practicing all the birth control methods that were consistent with her faith she found herself pregnant again. What would you do in those circumstances? She made the choice that allowed her to live and be a mother to her two children. She became pro-choice. She chose to be a good mother and I honor her decision and the decision of every other woman faced with difficult choices. This minister is pro-choice. Barney Frank once said, “There are some on the religious right who seem to think that life begins at conception and ends at birth.” However, every mother can tell you that after birth the work of mothering begins in earnest.
The radical implications of motherhood do not always make the headlines. The work of mothering often goes unseen. In 1930 Langston Hughes wrote his poem The Negro Mother about how the unseen spirit of the ancestors is present in the struggles of this moment int time. Speaking in her voice, a mother’s voice, the poet wrote,
I nourished the dream that nothing could smother
Deep in my breast — the Negro mother.
I had only hope then, but now through you,
Dark ones of today, my dreams must come true:
All you dark children in the world out there,
Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair.
Remember my years, heavy with sorrow —
And make of those years a torch for tomorrow.
This fierce love from the past empowers positive action for change today. That old Universalist hymn captures this kind of fierce love with these words…
God is love, and love forever in the motherheart is blest;
Lives the longest, lifts the strongest, far outreaching all the rest;
We feel that motherlove when we see people growing vegetables in our church’s community garden that will later be delivered to food deserts of our city. We feel that motherlove when we see people carrying groceries on a cart on the way to replenish our free food pantry. We feel that love when we see the children walking by our windows during the service knowing that volunteers have come forward to create outdoor programming to keep our kids safe in what we hope is the last stage of this pandemic. We feel that love when we support mothers whose children are in the hospital undergoing treatment for cancer. We feel that love when we see people volunteering for Justice Knox, rallying people to work for systemic change to end gun violence, stop the school push out, create more affordable housing and more accessible transportation. We feel that motherlove in the energy we take out into the community when we leave church on Sunday morning, energy that helps us transform our world. The activist Dorothy Day spoke with the wisdom of a mother when she said, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”And I agree with her, so let me conclude this message by saying to you, we live in challenging times. We must all find our way to make a difference. As my friend Vivian Shipe says,“A little bit from each of us is a whole lot from all of us.” None of us can afford the luxury of hopelessness. There is too much work to do. All mothers are summoned.
(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday May 8, 2022)