The best preaching advice I ever got was from my mother, and it might help explain why I don’t like Mother’s Day sermons.
We had both listened to a sermon one Sunday (the content and impact of which I have since completely forgotten) and afterwards I asked for her impression. At this point in life I had begun taking the study of theology seriously, and wanted to analyze the ideas and doctrines that had been presented. Her response was to simply shrug and say, “didn’t change my life.”
I think about her when I think about Mother’s Day sermons. Everyone knows that mothers should be honored. It’s a national holiday, declared so that all might show “our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” Yet, even in the church, mothers (and women in general) go perpetually dishonored and often feel tremendously unloved. Well-meaning pastors notice this, and assume that they have an obligation on the second Sunday of every May to forego preaching the distinctives of the Christian story and to replace them with a sentimental appeal for all to honor mothers. Sometimes this will include a personal story, maybe about the preacher’s mother, or about an exemplary mother from history – sometimes there will even be mothers from the Bible included, or passages which are used to back up the pre-packaged thrust of the sermon, which is that of course all congregants should honor their mothers. We might ask, beyond the obligatory card/flowers/Sunday brunch, how often does this kind of exhortation change the lives of the people who hear it? By my own mother’s standards, can this kind of service be judged as anything other than a tremendous failure?
Part of this failure can be explained by the way we have come to understand ethical exhortations. Think of the last topical teaching you heard, and tell me if my description sounds familiar. Maybe it was on “forgiveness.” It would have probably started with “Webster’s defines ‘forgiveness’ as ‘the act of forgiving someone or something, or the attitude of someone who is willing to forgive other people.’” The speaker might have had the good sense to realize how tremendously unhelpful that was, and to go further: “Webster’s defines ‘forgive’ in three ways: “to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong), to stop blaming (someone), to stop feeling anger about (something), to forgive someone for (something wrong), to stop requiring payment of (money that is owed).’” Now that the congregation has that common foundation, the pastor will move on to give you the Hebrew or Greek word that (in his or her opinion) most approximates the idea of forgiveness, along with a quick rundown of how and where that word is used in Scripture. At some point there will be a story of a notable act of forgiveness, whether from personal experience, from history, from pop culture, or even (if they are really Christian) from the pages of Scripture. For the big finale, the preacher will bring home the point that, in the ultimate act of forgiveness (as defined by Webster’s) God has forgiven us, and that we should use this as our model to go into the world and do likewise.
These sermons present principles which everyone is expected to be familiar with, but which the congregation inexplicably does not exemplify. The underlying assumption is that, in order to become more forgiving, people mostly need a combination of information and motivation. William Cavanaugh has related the story of one bishop in Australia who told him that 90% of the sermons he had ever heard can be boiled down to two words: “Try harder.”
Under this premise, the expectation is that all people are rational, moral, individual actors who only need to summon the will or learn the proper techniques to do what is right. Preachers assume that their job is fundamentally to transform the behavior of individuals, rather than to proclaim the truth of what has been accomplished in Christ. So we emphasize the ethical imperatives, desperately (and understandably) wanting people to do a better job of being Christians. However, as Alan Torrance points out, “at the heart of the Christian faith stands not simply an ethic of forgiveness…what is presented is an ontology of forgiveness.” We are not these autonomous agents who simply need more information, or to have the stakes raised on our behavior. Instead, Christian formation is about shaping people into new realities, new “social imaginaries,” into the kinds of people who instead of merely being told to imitate Christ, are invited into the story of God and Israel, and into participation in the life of a distinctively Christian community.
Mother’s Day services tempt us to trade in the church’s calendar for an American one. As I have tried to make clear, simply giving people information (most of which they know, and could find in a Hallmark aisle) and motivation (GUILT!) might result in some short-term behavioral change. Normally inconsiderate children might be guilted into a Mother’s Day phone call. However, there is nothing to suggest that this kind of preaching shapes people into better Christians, or into people who really know what it means to honor mothers. That is because the message of Mother’s Day™ is a one-size-fits-all sentimental powerhouse, but has only tangential relationships to the story which Christians believe that we inhabit. In our rush to fill a perceived cultural obligation, we abandon the proclamation of our own story, and adopt a lesser one, one that seems incapable of fulfilling its own promises.
Christian proclamation shapes us into people who can rightly honor not only our mothers, but all women, and also single people, and children of women who were cruel or abusive. The generic message of Mother’s Day cannot do this work, in large part because it is focused on obligations and ethical imperatives, without much attention given to the kind of people we are to be to fulfill our obligations. Tragically and ironically, Mother’s Day sermons shape us into people who have relinquished our distinctively Christian story, and have no idea how to rightly honor anyone. Instead of Christian liturgies, we import secular ones, and wonder why we aren’t better Christians for it.
So here’s a challenge. This week the global Christian church has celebrated Ascension Day. The lectionary texts for this upcoming Sunday are Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, and John 17:20-26. If you are preparing a sermon, these may be good places to start. You may typically start your sermon preparation with a very clear idea of what you think your congregation needs to be doing better. This week, perhaps instead ask the Spirit how you can invite your congregation into the reality of what God has done and is doing among them. Jesus has ascended and is reigning (bodily!) at the right hand of the Father! Real (not merely metaphorical) slaves and prisoners have been freed! The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad! Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end – this Jesus is coming soon, and his glory has been given to us, so that we may be one, as the persons of the Trinity are one.
These texts are our sustenance and our inheritance as a community. They contain powerful, life-changing proclamations, the kind that might save us, that might make us Christian brothers and sisters and daughters and sons and fathers and mothers who know how to love and honor one another.