I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a hard time figuring out how to live out my faith. For a while, as a zealous teenager, I stood on street corners and proclaimed that the end was near. I felt responsible for and indeed like I had authority over people’s eternal destiny. But, after a while that didn’t feel quite right, so I took a different path. I took to heart the words attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words.” I became very quiet. And people would say, “Helen! You’re becoming a priest! Tell us more!” And I would be reluctant to speak about my faith, concerned that I would say the wrong thing or say it the wrong way.
Well, in our second reading this morning, Paul is writing on behalf of his colleagues who have been travelling the country preaching the gospel. Paul is writing to the Thessolonians, a community trying to sort out how they might demonstrate their faith. Although Paul’s world is a far cry from our own, there’s a lot we can relate to here. You, maybe, have also longed for a way that your belief in God and your life in the world can be knit together.
It strikes me that Paul could have chosen any number of images to illustrate how the Thessolonians ought to live out their faith. He could have said, “Be absolutely certain. Be a mighty fortress. Don’t let them see the cracks.” He might have offered, “Take care of yourself first. Self-preservation is key.” Instead, looking to the example of those around him, Paul writes, “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”
When I picture Paul and his friends living out their faith, I picture the healthcare worker, the scholars and research workers, the teachers and administrators who offer their labour in the world and then offer it again when they get home. I think of the second shift---of parents trying to join a Zoom meeting, laptop in one hand, child or teenager in the other. I think of the single folks, and the couples who could not bear children, and those who choose not to have children, and I see them caring for elderly parents, putting in overtime to mentor a coworker, opening their homes as a safe place for a struggling friend or a neighbour.
And I think of the apostle Paul, who had every opportunity to be paid for his labour among the Thessolonians---who could have charged a fee as was common for travelling teachers of his time. But instead Paul borrows maternal language and says, “this is my second shift...I come among you like a nurse coming home from work at the end of a hard day to care for her children, those who have been given of her very own self.”
I’ve often wondered if Paul picked this image of nurse and mother because this is how Jesus offered himself to the world. I’d like to read for you now a poem by Allison Woodard. See if you can spot where the life and ministry of Jesus shows up.
This is “To be a mother” by Allison Woodard.
To be a Mother is to suffer;
To travail in the dark,
stretched and torn,
exposed in half-naked humiliation,
subjected to indignities
for the sake of new life.
To be a Mother is to say,
“This is my body, broken for you,”
And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,
“This is my body, take and eat.”
To be a Mother is to self-empty,
To neither slumber nor sleep,
so attuned You are to cries in the night—
Offering the comfort of Yourself,
and assurances of “I’m here.”
To be a Mother is to weep
over the fighting and exclusions and wounds
your children inflict on one another;
To long for reconciliation and brotherly love
and—when all is said and done—
To gather all parties, the offender and the offended,
into the folds of your embrace
and to whisper in their ears
that they are Beloved.
To be a mother is to be vulnerable—
To be misunderstood,
For the heartaches of the bewildered children
who don’t know where else to cast
the angst they feel
over their own existence
in this perplexing universe
To be a mother is to hoist onto your hips those on whom your image is imprinted,
bearing the burden of their weight,
rejoicing in their returned affection,
delighting in their wonder,
bleeding in the presence of their pain.
To be a mother is to be accused of sentimentality one moment,
And injustice the next.
To be the Receiver of endless demands,
Absorber of perpetual complaints,
Reckoner of bottomless needs.
To be a mother is to be an artist;
A keeper of memories past,
Weaver of stories untold,
Visionary of lives looming ahead.
To be a mother is to be the first voice listened to,
And the first disregarded;
To be a Mender of broken creations,
And Comforter of the distraught children
whose hands wrought them.
To be a mother is to be a Touchstone
and the Source,
Bestower of names,
Influencer of identities;
For me, when I read Allison Woodard’s poem, I see Jesus’ maternal love, Mother who “suffers . . . travails in the dark, stretched and torn, exposed in half-naked humiliation . . . .”
Jesus as Mother who says, “This is my body, given for you” and “This is my body, take and eat.”
Jesus as Mother who longs to “gather all parties, the offender and the offended, and whisper in their ears that they are Beloved.”
Mother, who is “vulnerable . . . mender of broken creations . . . Comforter of the distraught . . . life giver . . . healer . . . Original Love . . . Source”---Jesus the Word of God.
Jesus is Mother who longs for those in her care to offer outwardly the love they have received inwardly. That Paul refers to himself and his co-workers as nurses and mothers tenderly caring for their own children, this tells me that when it came to living out their faith they understood Jesus’ call to inhabit the Motherhood of God: to be vulnerable, to be gatherer, mender, comforter.
Julian of Norwich, a great English mystic once wrote “As truly as God is our Father so just as truly is God our Mother.” To live out your faith is to be Mother as Jesus was Mother.
So I leave you with a question this morning as you consider as the Thessolonians once did, how we ought to live out our faith in the world. The question is this:
As Paul and his friends did, in what way do you hold space in your life for the motherhood of God, allowing you to show up in the world with maternal love as your strength and your power?