I like preaching on Mother’s Day. And even better that it falls on Pentecost. The combination of these two celebrations meet in an incredibly Gospel (dare I say Holy Spirit) moment.
Pentecost happened when peoples of many different nationalities who might well have been at war were able to understand one language as if it were their own and were able to receive together the gift of the Holy Spirit. Mother’s Day ( beyond Hallmark and a nice brunch) was born out of a deep yearning for peace in a war filled world or perhaps in theological language for a great desire to return to a place of Holy Spirit and common language of peace.
Pentecost and Mother’s Day also have in common that they each often suffer from the kind of sentimentality that hides the real message. We are encouraged to wear red—like the tongues of fire and celebrate the birthday of the church with Happy Birthday and and giant sheet cake. I like red and depending on the amount of butter, sheet cake can be pretty tasty too!
But the deep underneath of Pentecost is about the hard work of reconciliation and what my friend Melanie May calls “Bonds of Difference”.
Pentecost, it has been said is the reversal of the tower of Babel--- that time when the one language of all was confused and different peoples could no longer understand each other. The story told in Acts, of Parthians and Medes and Elamites among others coming together, all understanding the Gospel message in their native tongue, while it was a reversal of the confusion of Babel, it was not a return to the one language. The wonder of that day was that the differences remained yet each had the ability to speak and understand the language of the other. The tongues of fire and the spirit which descended upon those gathered was not the creation of some celestial and inunderstandable word , or a new Esperanto, spirit which allowed the those in the marketplace to hear the Gospel in their own tongue.
If this day was the birthday of the church-- God’ Spirit made real not only to that small band who had followed Jesus but to the diverse crowd, then the picture of the Church of Parthians, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Phyrigians, Cappodocians, Egyptians, Libyans, all worshipping together is certainly a place for The Episcopal Church in the US ( and indeed most mainline churches) in its Sunday morning segregation, to return to.
The writers of the Gospels understood multi-culturalism before it became an overused word, lived the diversity of gifts and the unity of the one spirit before it was fashionable, knew that it takes many voices, many different sounds to create the harmony we continue to seek today. The Church when it became the Church contained the variety of human beings which made up the world the disciples knew. It went from being a small band of homogenous disciples into the marketplace, into the midst of daily life, full of the differences and similarities that culture and language can bring.
The church (and this country! I would say) was not meant to be a melting pot but a place where all human nature and creation is sought and celebrated. Paul, for once, gets it. In speaking of unity of the Body of Christ he understood well: There are many gifts, the same spirit, many parts, one body. There is no unity, he implies, unless the diverse parts are present. The groundwork of our unity or our common life in Christ is neither conformity nor uniformity but the richness of difference coming together for a common purpose. Our differences are not overcome but rather celebrated even as we do the hard work of truly trying to understand the language of the other. We are not all alike under the skin or on top. Thank heavens. The gift of Pentecost on that day, and I hope on this day is that of reconciliation.
We have a long way to go of course. Which is why each year we remember these texts. And today, beyond Hallmark, we are reminded of the yearning for peace by Julia Ward Howe ( of Battle Hymn of the Republic Fame). As Jone Johnson Lewis in About. Com wrote: “Seeing war again on the horizon, Howe called in 1870 for women to rise up and oppose war in all its forms. Hoping to get a formal recognition of a Mother’s Day for peace, she issued a Declaration to gather women in a congress of action:
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
We know that Anna Jarvis, remembering her own mother’s work for peace during the Civil War, is the one who later was successful in celebrating a day for mothers in churches and finally in 1912 the day was declared a national day by President Woodrow Wilson.
Lost throughout the years, as Hallmark and sentimentality have ruled, has been the activist origin of this day of remembrance. Many however have not forgotten. And even among those who have, the language of mothers whose sons and now daughters are sent increasingly to war has been to seek another way. And this year more than ever we repeat the call of Julia Ward Howe to Arise and seek peace.
I wonder, could not that Holy Spirit somehow be returning to us. I see my own young adult daughters uninterested in the racial and cultural divisions which so divided us in the past. We have only to look at the current Presidential political campaign to know that a new language and public discourse is attempting, however slowly and with many bumps, to emerge. Perhaps this is what Easter or indeed Pentecost hope is all about: One more time: Let us heed the call of the spirit to understand the language of the other, to celebrate the Gospel calling us together to seek peace and pursue it!
Mission Leadership Center
The Episcopal Church