Blood & Guts

Notes from
Mothers Day Sunday May 13, 2018   
Trinity on Church UC Kitchener
Texts: Acts 1, 1 John 5

We all have one. Some of us, if we are lucky, get more than one. Mothers.

We don’t choose our birth mother. Despite Origen, the early Christian father who spoke of pre-existent souls choosing birth, our tradition doesn’t say we choose our mother.  Rather, we are members of a ‘lucky sperm club’.  What are the chances of being born in our place and time, in this culture and economy? We enjoy unprecedented privileges of life expectancy and capacity to choose.

We sit here feeling anxious, or judged, scared, or mad. We know we don’t deserve all this, no matter how hard we work to justify material advantages.  That’s WEIRD.  Weird, in this case, is an acronym, coined by Jonathan Haidt, ‘moral psychologist’: Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic.  I 

Our morality is falsely focused on individual autonomy, freedom, as if we came into the world as atomized tabula rasa, rights-bearing individuals.  We think we are self-made, acting with utilitarian cost/benefit calculations. That WEIRD worldview ignore emotion and intuition, loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, sanctity and degradation, liberty and oppression. 

Haidt’s book is called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”  You may prefer Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow”, about behavioural economics, or Sapolsky’s “Behave”, across the spectrum from biochemistry through anthropology and sociology.  In the end, as my mother used to say, ‘consider the barnyard’ – give your mother credit!

We all have one. Some of us, if we are lucky, get more than one. Mothers.

Much of the time our birth mother is also our primary caregiver in childhood - but not always. Some children are chosen, and adopted or fostered, and some children enjoy other caregivers, extended family, nannies  As the culturally appropriated African saying puts it, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’

Probably most of us in the room would have to say we had one. Our mothers have died. My own mother died a decade ago. They may die, but they are not gone. They can still push our buttons – after all, they installed them! She occupies space behind your forehead – after all, she paid rent up front for a life lease. God knows how much space you took up behind her forehead!

Mothers: we don’t use the word lightly. We don’t assume that we all mean the same thing by the word.  Imagine what was being remembered in the room today. It’s not all Hallmark cards, eh? These relationships can be fraught: of mothers and daughters, or of mothers and sons, in complex family systems. 

Most of us don’t get to be mothers. Start with the men, biologically unfit to try.  Then add all the women who do not give birth or choose to adopt or foster. But we might, at our best, learn from the models of motherhood and imitate them, 
to be more fully human. 

 We all have one. We could use another – or a few. And we all share one – God.

John Dominic Crossan routinely asked four questions for Christians back at the turn of the century:

1. What is the character of your God?
2. What is the content of your faith?
3. What is the function of your church?
4. What is the purpose of your worship?

1 John is written to oppose a faction that spiritualizes Jesus too much.  John can be read that way: ‘sent to earth’. But Jesus is no alien visitor, space invader, touchdown Jesus with no sweat on the cross.  John’s Jesus is big – in the beginning with God, and in the end with God. But 1 John won’t let factions make Jesus superhuman, above it all. What kind of Christians would buy that?

Jesus is incarnate, suffering, passionate. That full humanity can’t be lost, grounding the high Christology, the wide and high view of the person and work of Christ in John. This Jesus came ‘by water and by blood’, by baptism, and by birth and death. Mothers are carnal too. Birth can be bloody, and lethal.  ‘Silent Night’? As if! Mothers can bury their kids. It’s a lot of risk to be a mother!

Maternal models of God and of humanity can re-present complementary, balancing, completing elements, roles and characteristics. ‘God the Father’ can become hierarch, tyrant, distant, angry, or disengaged.  A maternal God, a carnal suffering sacrificing God, is greater.  She, loving her children, can be passionate – which is the origin of compassion, ‘passion with’.

This revelation of a model of God and model of humanity, motherhood, says Jesus comes by water and the blood and the spirit. Not just the spirit, above and beyond it all. Not just the water of changed mind and heart in the baptism of water, but also the blood of flesh and blood carnality in life and, ultimately and ineluctably, in death.

God is more than a good idea, inviting our own vague good intentions in response.  Humanity is more than a vehicle to be occupied by a spark of divinity, like an alien taking over a zombie carcass.  The hymns we sang today explored the implications of being birthed and embodied, participating in natural cycles of material and biological creatures.   Life is brief, fragile, and valuable.

Augustine tried to connect this water and blood with the story of the spear stuck in Jesus’ side in John’s version of crucifixion. Calvin and Luther tried to connect the sacraments of baptism and communion to it. Tertullian before any of it, and John Wesley after all of them, led our branch of the movement, Methodists, to read water as baptism, blood as crucifixion, grounding Jesus in life and in death.

We are beloved – chosen – mothered. Only that God, in and through that Jesus, 
could make this claim: ‘This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.’  If we pay attention to models of motherhood, we will name God better. If we aspire to those models of motherhood, we will aspire to become a better kind of Christian. 

We don’t simply choose the faith – nor are we chosen by our merit.  It’s more like Matthias – by lot.  Have you ever been on a hiring committee at a church? How about a ‘discernment committee’ for people feeling called to ministry?  Wouldn’t it be better, easier, and perhaps more effective, to draw from a deck of cards, or roll dice or draw straws?  

It’s WEIRD – and prideful – to claim to be worthy.  We don’t choose our mothers, and mothers are wise to qualify their claims of credit or blame for their children, who were entrusted to them for awhile.  ‘In our zeal to be blameless, we destroy our kids’, Jack Shaver often said.  Let’s give 99% credit to providence, and claim only 1% of our outcomes for prudence.  

Grace means we get far more providential blessing than we deserve, and mercy means that we get far less providential chastisement than we deserve.  I acknowledged that my reliance on this Calvinist wisdom, which Marilynne Robinson calls ‘The Givenness of Things’, makes me sound strange to people in our 21st century first-world subculture.  

Yes, I veered close to a Calvinist predestinarian position today, and one of you claimed confusion, given my enthusiasm for Methodism and it’s Arminian emphasis on the importance of our choice in response to God’s grace or mercy.  Yet the Wesleys were far more Calvinist than most who claim their name now.  Our choices matter, and make a difference – like children’s Mothers’ Day gifts!

We all have one.
We could use another – or a few.
And we all share one – God.

For that, today, we gave thanks.  Amen.