Sermon on 4 Pentecost C: Isaiah 66:10-14 and Psalm 131 primary, other texts support. Preached at Bethany, Escanaba on July 7, 2019 by Pastor Dave Van Kley
In Our Mother’s Arms
Today’s Old Testament texts—from Isaiah and the Psalms—offer a picture of the beginning of human life: a child in the arms of a nursing mother. As he nurses, the child’s face is upturned toward his Mom’s, eyes searching out her eyes, tiny fingers exploring the contour of her cheeks. Between them, a powerful bond of warmth and trust. The mother lovingly cradles her child, admiring his features, dreaming his future. The child knows instinctively the one person to whom he can trust his very life. No doubt, the father also will play a crucial role. But in the beginning, the child is dependent on the one who literally provides food from her own body, the same body which carried him or her safely into the world.
This sweet and familiar picture of a dependent child contrasts sharply with the theme of this holiday weekend. While the Fourth of July is defined by firecrackers, cookouts, and family reunions, it celebrates independence. Not just our nation’s independence from England in 1776, but our independence as individual people.
As Americans, we value our freedom to do whatever we want, without interference from others. We take pride in creating our own lives. If we want to build onto our existing home or buy a camp in the Hiawatha, we can do that—as long as we have enough money to pay for it! We apply ourselves in school and continue to learn as adults in hopes of landing a better paying job or earning a promotion—which supposedly is in everyone’s grasp. We reshape our bodies with this diet or that exercise plan. We do what we want to do.
Oh, we may work with others to effect change in our communities and in the world. We may affiliate with one party or another. Join a union. Run for the city council or school board. Raise our voices in protest. Above all: we vote. And nobody tells us how.
We worship where we want, when we want, in beautiful structures like this, built with our money and our hands. We share our convictions with our neighbors, without fear of reprisal.
This is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
And yet, as we go about our independent way of life, we discover limits to our freedom.
While checking the obituaries in several local papers this week, I learned that two friends in congregations I served had died, one of natural causes and the other in an automobile accident. Meanwhile, two other friends, about my age, called to say they had been diagnosed with recurring cancer. One will soon be facing major surgery in Rochester, Minnesota, the other is receiving strong chemotherapy for stage 4 metastasized cancer. As I grow older, I sometimes feel like a member of the dwindling cast in the TV series Survivor. Ironically, we learned all this as we took care of our two grandchildren, ages 10 and 9. So our emotions pinballed through the week, from joy to sorrow, laughter to tears. We saw the world through the eyes of the very young, to whom all things seem possible. And then came crashing down to earth, to the reality of sickness and death, which none of us can escape.
Also last week, my wife reminded me that I am a person of restless mind and heart. There is within me this sense of imperfection, this impulse that there is something else always to be done in order for things to be “right.” I think: I can make myself better if only I try hard enough. I can make others better—indeed, I can make the world better—if only I try hard enough. But I keep discovering, painfully, that effort can only take me so far. For when I reach one goal, there are two more beyond my grasp. And when I fail—which is often—it’s easy to feel defeated.
In some respects, we control so little in life. We are not as free as we think.
Today’s Old Testament lessons were given to God’s people in a state of deep disappointment. Two generations earlier, Israel had been overrun by hostile and brutal armies. Many people were killed, others taken captive. Years of exile followed, in a foreign land. Finally, when King Cyrus of Persia, a Gentile, allowed the refugees to return home, they found Jerusalem—their Washington DC—a hollow shell. The temple of the Lord and the palace of the King were destroyed. The homes of their ancestors were occupied by strangers. Standing in the ruins of Jerusalem, they didn’t know which way to turn, what to do.
To them, this picture of maternal love is given. One day soon, Jerusalem will be like a mother to you, dandling you on her knees, feeding you at her breast, caring for your every need. Standing in these ruins, fix that image in your heart. Jerusalem will be like a mother to you, Israel, because I, the Lord your God, am your mother. I will nurse you when you cannot feed yourself. I will teach and direct and guide you when you do not know what to do. Don’t occupy yourself with things too great for you. Hold onto me, as if you were an infant in her or his mother’s arms. At this moment, this is enough for you.
Friends, this image is also meant for us. Even though none of us here are nursing babies anymore, we always can return to that place in our hearts. Do not be afraid, says the Lord God. Don’t occupy yourselves with things too great for you. Hold onto me as if you were an infant in your mother’s arms. At this moment, this is enough for you.
Even today, we declare our independence, we are invited to confess our dependence. In Christ, God accepts us as we are—helpless, broken, sinful, mortal. We are invited to accept ourselves in that same way.
You are my child, says the Lord. You may be male or female, highly educated or not educated at all, American or immigrant—documented or not—millennial or baby boomer. You may be wealthy or poor, black or white or Indian, working or retired, gregarious or shy, filled with faith or barely believing. But in the end, what matters is this: through your baptism into Christ Jesus, you have become my child. And today, I will feed you with my own body and my own blood, through the very Word which breathed life into you. I am like a mother to you.
This does not mean we should cease striving to become better people—more faithful and loving people. Or that we should give up on making the world a better place. Certainly not! It just means that we cannot live into God’s dreams for us, unless we first die to our naked ambition. As Christ died and rose from the dead, so we must also die and be raised. Jesus said, “you can do nothing apart from me.” St. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Christ is always reshaping us and the world, by love, for love.
To become a babe in our Mother’s arms, we must give up our illusion of independence. For many of us, it is one of life’s most difficult assignments. Enough to keep us busy for a lifetime.
We will not be able to do it, fully, until the end of life, which is also its beginning. One day, we will not have a choice. We shall be as helpless as babies. If we are fortunate, we will be lying in bed at home or in a nursing home or the hospital, surrounded by people who love us, who will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Christ Jesus will be there, too, like a nursing mother, birthing us once again into newness of life.