Scripture text: Luke 24:13-35 (NRSV)
It’s an interesting opportunity to preach today. Around the worship planning table, Matt (the senior pastor) suggested this date to me so that the new mom might lead on Mother’s Day. Since then, I’ve been wrestling with where to go with it.
I struggle with Mother’s Day. I don’t struggle with a day set aside to recognize mothers in all their varied appearances –by birth, by adoption, by marriage, by relationship and blessing. I struggle with the way Mother’s Day sometimes tries to press all these brilliantly and wonderfully diverse meanings of what it means to be a mother into a flat reality, as uninspired as some greeting cards. I don’t want to do that this morning, but I do want to speak from my authentic experience.
As I was expecting and after my son was born, I realized I’d been initiated into a new reality. Other women would give me knowing looks, listen to my story, and share their experiences and wisdom. It’s a sisterhood that was invisible to me before, but now I am learning my way around. It’s an important sisterhood because mother’s stories are not appreciated by everyone. Even in joking about this sermon, I would bandy around the idea of telling the story of James’ birth only to be met with eye rolls or protests of “TMI!”
I don’t like the feeling of having to leave parts of my story, parts of my life, parts of me out. I am a whole person. I’m who I am because of every bit of my story – from my own birth, to the family I grew up with, to the school I attended and the teachers I had, to the choices I made and the friends I made them with, and all the consequences that followed. That’s all me. And in the labor and delivery room – that was me, too.
And when I look back over my life, over the genetics and experiences that make me who I am – I catch a glimpse of God. It’s hard to see it in the moment – it’s easy to lose sight of the magnitude when you’re face to face with it. But I can see now that my times of struggle and pain are often also the times of growth.
That’s the case for these two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They’re in pain. They’ve given up. The execution of Jesus has left them stunned, wondering what to do next. So they’ve headed home, it seems, to try to find some way to resume life in the “real world.” And while Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and other women witnessed to the risen Christ, the apostles didn’t believe them. Our Scripture says, “these words seemed to them an idle tale.” Sometimes when you’re in pain, it’s hard to hear good news, it’s hard to imagine a possibility other than the one you are in right now. It’s hard to see the possibility of growth through the pain.
I remember as a child I would lie awake in my bed at night. I felt an aching pain in my bones that kept sleep away. I would cry in frustration and ask my mom why it hurt. Her explanation was that my bones were growing, stretching out, and that it hurt sometimes. Especially when the growth is quick, when a youth grows a foot over the course of the summer, there’s some degree of discomfort, as doctors tend to say.
A few weeks ago, when Matt preached on the torture and humiliation of Christ, I found myself sick to my stomach hearing the descriptions. It challenges me to hear of the pain that God bore for us. And by recognizing the amazing love of God that would go to that length to be reconciled with us, despite the cruelty that we are capable of, I grew. I grew in my resolve to not be a part of that kind of cruelty by my actions or inactions. I grew in awe of my God who loves all of creation, even me.
Now, I will also say that not all pain leads to growth. The abuse of a partner or child isn’t a life-giving opportunity for growth. Hunger pain that eats away at the body and spirit isn’t for growth. The pain a child with malaria experiences and those who love him experience as they stand helplessly by isn’t for the sake of growth. Those kinds of pain are life-stealing, and any growth that comes is by grace that works around it. The kind of pain I mean is that ache that comes about naturally. That stretching of mind or body or soul that leads to a new “aha!” – an epiphany of reality.
I will spare you the details, but I will say that it was this kind of pain I experienced as I labored to birth my son. I felt the remarkable changes in my body and knew that it was necessary and good. In retrospect, I recognize that God was with me the whole time, just as God always is. I know that God hovered around me in the persons of my mother and husband and nurses as I tried to flee the pain that was inescapable because it was a part of myself. I know that God guided the doctor as he encouraged me to do what seemed impossible. I know God was with me and within me as I brought forth life, participating for just a moment in the creativity of God.
At 3:05 am on September 4, 2010, I rested. I cherished the cries of my son as he experienced the pain of growth, too – taking his first breaths, experiencing the chilly air of the hospital room, being wiped down, measured, banded, and who knows what else.
I thought I had known love before. I thought I had loved my parents, my family, my husband, my God. But in that quiet darkness, interrupted only by my baby’s cries and the hum of measurements from the nurses, my heart felt like it was breaking to grow enough to capture the love I now had. It’s a love so big that it scares me. It’s the kind of love I’m pretty sure that would lead me fight a lion with my bare hands or step in front of a car or a bullet or any number of crazy things.
And I can’t help but wonder that if I’m this full of courageous love for my son, how much more does God love us? Like a mother, God gave birth to creation and knew it was good. When we turned away and our love failed, God was willing to experience unspeakable pain to bring us all into new life.
The good news of our Scripture reading is that God does not leave us alone in our pain and anguish, but calls us to grow. We may not recognize the face of God, even when God is standing right in front of us, but that doesn’t limit God’s love and care for us. In this Easter season, my hope is that we might be those who witness to the life-giving power of God, our eyes open and our hearts burning within us. Amen.