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Mothers of the Movement (Sermon)

Scripture: Genesis 17:15-17

The video you just saw was an introduction to some of the current Mothers of the Movement today, mothers who have lost children to gun violence, police interactions, and a system that too often devalues certain kinds of lives over others. It is not a group that one desires to be in – it is a group that was formed by acts of injustice, trauma, and loss. And sadly, it’s number that rises as more and more mothers (and parents) bury their children far too early.

The Mothers of the Movement have a saying: just because their babies were taken from them doesn’t mean they’ve stopped mothering. In all they they do, they carry the legacies of their children with them, be it speaking their names at a rally for justice or urging an elected official to address the issues that led to their child’s, and other children’s, deaths.

Their witness is one that inspires me and makes me long from the depths of my soul for a world where our societies don’t produce such victims and circumstances.

And yet history is often filled with these kinds of “Mothers” – women of faith, women of strength, women who have chosen to grieve and protest publicly, women who have been placed in circumstances outside of their control and chosen to do something about it.

From Mamie Till, mother of Emmitt Till, to Jochebed, Mother of Moses – their names and their courage filter down to us through history, forcing us to look again at the stories often left untold, to reexamine scripture, to think about who we are and how we got here.

Even in the story of Church of the Foothills, even in the story of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, which we are proud to be a part of, our history often dwells on those influential men who opened doors and led with faith – but there were always women too. Sometimes, they didn’t get their names put up on the church sign or in the meeting minutes, but without them, there would be no church sign and no meeting to take minutes for. Sometimes, it is they who pastored better than the pastor. Sometimes, some of them who were not “biological mothers” ended up “mothering” generations of young people into the love and care of God.

It is important that we learn their stories – and by doing so, we imagine ways of being a faith community where those stories are not forgotten or pushed to the background… but made central into who we are and into what God is up to.

Who are the mothers of our movement for wholeness and unity?

Who are the mothers of our faith, going back generations and generations?

What do they teach us about where God is still speaking and leading?

In our scripture today, we hear about the story of one of the Jewish tradition’s great mothers – Sarah.

Of course, even in our ancient texts, the subtle temptation is to treat Sarah as sort of a sidekick to the main character, Abram. It is Abram who receives this call from God “to get up and go to a land that I will show you.” It is Abram who is promised to “be the ancestor of a multitude of nations”. The same Abram who is no spring chicken, who is up there in age, who hasn’t had a child yet.

And the same Abram that some of us grew up going to church camp or Sunday School singing, “Father Abraham, had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham, and I am one of them, and so are you…” (If you don’t know that song, it’s okay.)

But, at least according to my limited study of biology, for Abram to have many sons, it takes at least two to tango.

Enter Sarah, Abram’s wife. Is she just a sidekick? What does it look like to go back into the history of these stories and think about what God was doing through her vantage point? What if we could ask her what she said to Abram when he told her about this mystical, divine call from God to uproot their lives and move to a new nation – a move without even a GPS coordinate of where they would go? Just God promising, I’ll show you when you get there? How do you think Sarah responded? Did she wonder how safe the neighborhood would be? Or how highly rated the schools were going to be?

Or how do you think Sarah responded when Abram told her, God said we are going to have descendants… and Sarai was aware that he was 99, and she was ten years younger? The ancient world might not have known as much about science as we do, but 89 year old women were smart enough to know that you typically didn’t start a family at such an age.

When the strangers, often depicted as angels come by their tent, Sarah laughs when they tell Abraham that they will have a baby soon. Sarah is criticized for it – and by the way, when Abram laughs earlier in the face of God, God is quiet. What courage it took for Sarah to be her full self in that moment, not the respectful, meek person that so often society wants all of us to be? And God still used her.

Sarah’s story with Abram is complicated and messy – as life often is.

For example, sometimes Sarah gets to speak. And sometimes she doesn’t.

Dr. Wil Gafney in her book, Womanist Midrash, points out how women of the Bible can often be present and yet silent, leaving us to fill in the blanks or wonder at what stories and accounts are missing.

For example, Abram and Sarah are technically siblings. Yikes.

When Abram and Sarah head to Egypt, Abram essentially, in the words of Dr. Gafney, pimps out Sarai out to the Pharaoh, hoping to gain favor of this rich ruler, claiming rightfully that she was his sister and not his wife. In return, Abram comes away with wealth, livestock, and resources to take with him on his journey. I wonder what Sarah thought of that arrangement? Does this make her a victim of domestic violence, of abuse?

In another painful episode, Sarah, perhaps feeling the pressure to make God’s promise come true, forces her slave Hagar to bear her husband’s child. And then after the child Ishmael is born, desires to send them away into the desert to disappear – if not for God hearing Hagar’s cries. Here, Sarah becomes a part of the very oppressive forces that have silenced her own voice so often in an unforgiving world.

Sarah then is complicated – she too bears the call of God. She leaves her homeland behind. She risks everything. She laughs in the face of God in the midst of doubt. She is victimized and abused. She participates in the oppression of those beneath her. And God’s call is not possible without her existence and participation. Abram cannot have descendants without her participation and her witness.

In other words, “Mother Sarah, had many sons, many sons had Mother Sarah, I am one of them and so are you…”

Sarah has many children scattered throughout the biblical stories that challenge us to listen anew and seek to understand

the courage of Queen Esther to risk her life to speak up for her people

the courage of Ruth, a foreign woman, to follow her mother-in-law and make a life with a strange people

the deep prayers of Hannah who was ridiculed for not being able to bear a child and then gave the child to God as a prophet

the weeping of Mary, mother of Jesus, watching her son crucified

These stories are all complex, often inspiring, often messy. And without them, we are not who we are and where we are.

In our own church history, we acknowledge this complex history – that we are called to act in faith and work as a community for justice and healing even recognizing the ways some of us have been victims and some of us have participated in injustice. We can look back at those times when we have fallen short and those times when we have acted with incredible courage to meet the moment.

And in all of those moments, we give thanks for those mothers who were there, complicated and messy themselves, but without whom we as a community of faith and we as people would not be here.

What can we take from re-examining the life of Sarah? What do we need to learn from the Mothers of the Movement today, those who march and cry out for justice to be done, for their children and lives not to be in vain?

Dr. Renita Weems suggests one lesson – solidarity and sisterhood.

Solidarity and sisterhood imagines Sarah refusing to send Hagar way, refusing to participate in a way of life that lets women slaves be used as vessels for their husband’s procreation, that turns and asks questions of God – how can this be? That rejects a way of life where women are treated as objects to curry favor with powerful people? That yearns for new relationships – that yearns for a world free of violence and oppression, where stories are minimized and silenced.

Sisterhood and solidarity challenges each of us then to notice those stories not being shared and those people being overlooked in our own families and workplaces.

I ask of each of us on this Mother’s Day and this week – how might we live out a solidarity and sisterhood this week? Who are we being asked on a daily basis to overlook or ignore? What would it be like to be a church with a vision to listen to those who have been used and wounded by our society? And even more so, to be a community that envisions an alternate kind of life and family?

After worship, you will have an opportunity to purchase flowers to support the Western Service Workers Association. Among those workers who clean many homes across this county, staff hotels and entertainment venues, who do the gardening and farming to tend the green and fruit around us, many are women who have experienced the bitter complexity of our way of life – of being seen as expendable, of being seen as nameless or a nuisance, of being overlooked for adequate pay and care. I am grateful that we get to partner with WSWA to build networks of solidarity to imagine something else. To be in relationship in a new way.

According to Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Church in NYC, Mother’s Day’s roots was actually in an anti-war movement – women demanding a world where their sons did not have to go off and die in a foreign land, a world of peace. And so there is a strong deep connection of spirituality on this day that draws us to see the Mothers of the Movement today, the Mothers of the Movement in scripture, and our own need to continue to be in solidarity and personhood with each other as one long movement of justice and peace. We can use this day to celebrate our own families as we may – but we can also use to do the risky thing of imagining a world where no mother has to bury her child due to gun violence again.

When I ask a question in my sermon, I actually would love to hear from you – what stories and leaders have been overlooked? Who are the mothers of the movement that deserve a spotlight? Who are those calling us to live into that vision of sisterhood and solidarity?