Preacher: Jeff Davidson Scripture: 1 John 5:1-6
When I was a kid I don’t remember a whole lot about Mother’s Day Sunday at church. I remember Mother’s Day, of course. Along with everyone else we would go out to eat so Mom didn’t have to cook, and we would buy her a card and Dad would buy her flowers or candy or something. I suspect that if it was candy I probably ended up being more excited about it than she was, and eating more of it than she did too.
But the only thing I remember specifically about Mother’s Day at church on Sunday morning was that all of the mothers got a flower. I don’t remember the sermons or the songs or the scriptures, but I do remember the flowers. Sometimes it was a small corsage, sometimes it was just a cut flower, but all of the mothers got a flower. That seemed appropriate to me. It was Mother’s Day, and so mothers should get some kind of special recognition.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned more about mothers and motherhood, and more about the different and complicated and sometimes difficult relationships that people have both with their own mothers and sometimes with the whole concept of a Mother’s Day. It can be a day of sad feelings for people whose mothers have died, or for mothers whose children have died. It can be hard for people who wanted children and never had them.
I’ve talked before about being an adopted child, and I know some of you have heard some of what I’m going to share, but please bear with me. I know it will be new to some of you this morning.
I’ve always known that I was adopted, and about two years ago I reconnected with my birth family through a DNA test submitted to Ancestry.com. I still don’t know anything about my birth father, but my birth mother had four children after me, two sets of twins, each set a boy and a girl.
My birth mother wasn’t married when she was pregnant with me, which would have been most of 1958. I was born in January of 1959. Those of you who are in their 20s or 30s now might not understand what it was like to be pregnant and unmarried in the 1950s and 1960s. Children born to an unmarried woman were routinely referred to as “illegitimate.” For a woman to be pregnant and single was a really shameful thing. I watch a lot of “Perry Mason” reruns on MeTV, and it’s stunning how often the motive for murder on that show is a woman having a baby without being married, or a child learning that their mother or their fiancée’s mother wasn’t married. It’s the kind of thing that in the popular culture of that time, and of course before, leads to blackmail and shame and murder. Just last night I watched a TV show from 2016 where a part of the motive for the murder hung on a woman having a child in 1962 when she wasn’t married to the father.
My birth mother lived in the Dayton area, and went to stay in Cincinnati while she was pregnant with me so that no one would know about the pregnancy or about my birth. Of course she needed an excuse for being gone for several months, so she told people that she was at the state mental hospital in Cincinnati.
That, more than anything in popular culture, shows the level of shame that was attached to being a single mother. My birth mother’s name was Mary Ellen Gebhart, and she would rather that people thought that she was mentally disturbed to the point of needing hospitalization for an extended time than know that she was pregnant without being married.
That’s pretty scary. That’s also at least one of the points of our scripture reading this morning.
I’ve met three of my four half-siblings. Two live in Ohio, in the general area of Columbus and Springfield. One lives in Maine. She’s a reverse snowbird – she spends spring, summer, and fall in Maine but is the only person I know who goes to Ohio because the winters are milder. The one I haven’t met was a missionary in the Philippines for 25 years or so. His return to the US was delayed by the pandemic shutdowns so we haven’t gotten together yet. He lives in Iowa now.
When I first got together with the three siblings I’ve met, they talked about a little doll that was in their (and my) mother’s living room. I don’t remember now if it was just on the shelves or if it was in one of those glass bookcases, but I remember them saying they weren’t allowed to touch it. I don’t remember specifically if they talked about my birth mother dressing the doll or doing something in particular with it, but it was obviously a very special doll to her. That special doll that they were never allowed to touch made a lot more sense to them after they knew about me.
That was because they didn’t know about me, and their father didn’t know about me, and very little of her family overall knew about me. Maybe being pregnant and single remained a shameful thing for my birth mother, or perhaps she felt that it would be hurtful for her husband or her children to know about. Perhaps she thought it would lower her in their esteem. Perhaps it was just too hard a secret to give up.
That’s pretty sad. It’s also at least one of the points of our scripture reading this morning.
I’ve been careful this morning to refer to my birth mother, to distinguish her from the person that I think of as my mother, my mom. Mom died a year ago last February, so about a year and a quarter ago. When I think about her there are specific moments that come to mind, like the time she gave me an old Spencer Gifts catalog because it had a really pretty picture of a robin on the front, or the first day I took the bus home from school and she was waiting for me outside with something cold to drink and our dog Fritzie tied up to the lawn chair she was waiting on.
One of the things that I remember the most, though, isn’t just about her specifically. It’s about both of my parents, and it’s something that I mentioned way back near the beginning of this sermon. I mentioned that I’d always known that I was adopted.
There are some children who never learn that they are adopted. Maybe they’re my age, and the social stigma that was there for my birth mother was also there for the people who adopted them. Maybe the adoptive parents know something about the birth parents, and think that it’s something that needs to be hidden from the child. Maybe there’s just a fear that the child will not love them or will somehow think of them as less than their real parents.
Mom wasn’t worried about that. She’d always told me that I was adopted, was always there for me no matter what I needed, loved me as much as anyone could have, and was really excited that I’d reconnected with my birth family. When my father died about three months before she did, Mom got to meet my two sisters and one of my brothers. I’m glad she got to do that.
That’s pretty cool. It’s also at least one of the points of our scripture reading this morning.
In verses 2 and 3 from our scripture reading, John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” So what are God’s commandments? Well, in Matthew 22 Jesus says that the greatest commandment is found in Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” He goes on to say that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
There’s a way in which this starts out a little circular. What do we do if we love God? We obey God’s commandments. What is God’s greatest commandment? To love God. But then the second greatest commandment breaks that little circle – to love our neighbor as ourselves. So loving God is about obeying God’s commandments, and obeying God is about loving God, our neighbor, and ourselves. In other words, obeying God is about love.
The Rev. Dr. Judith Jones said it this way:
Truly Christian faith conquers the world not by military might or doctrinal arguments or coercion, but by love. Christians believe in the Son of God who, rather than shedding the blood of others to prove that he was the Messiah, allowed his own blood to be shed. God’s children triumph not by inflicting suffering on others or by avoiding pain at all costs but by allowing God to work within and through them even in their suffering.
God’s love has been made real in my life in many, many ways. Through the love of a woman who was frightened of what people would think of her, and who later may have been worried that her family would think less of her. Through the love of another woman who was willing to welcome someone else’s child into her home and her heart, and who had no fear of letting that child know that he had another mother biologically.
I hope that I live my life in a way that has touched other people with the love that these women had for me, that has made a difference in other people’s lives, that has reflected the love of God that they each had in their own lives.
My love, and my faith haven’t conquered or changed the world, and neither has theirs. Perhaps, though, their love for me and for others has changed a small part of the world and made it better than it otherwise would have been. I hope so.
What does love do? It overcomes shame. It overcomes fear. It welcomes others. Love conquers the world. Happy Mother’s Day. Amen.