a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland Maine
Mothers Day Sunday May 10th, 2009
[extemp intro: Theodore Parker d. May 10, 1860 in Florence, Italy. “The Great American Preacher” and author of my customary benediction; Scholar and Theologian, Abolitionist and Social Activist - all subsequent Unitarian ministers have felt that they "must at least attempt what Theodore Parker achieved."]
I also thought that you all ought to know now that for the rest of my life now (however much longer that may turn out to be), I will always associate Mother’s Day with this congregation, and with the two years that I’ve been privileged to serve here as your minister. It was two years ago on this Mother’s Day Sunday that I first appeared in this pulpit as a candidate to become the called and settled minister of this Parish. The title of my sermon that morning was “A Warm & Welcoming Place in the Heart of the City,” a phrase I THOUGHT I’d cribbed from Jeff Logan’s letter of welcome in your congregational search packet, but now I can’t find it there, so maybe I actually did make it up all by myself after all. But I certainly wasn’t alone in taking that slogan (and the vision it articulated) and making it a living reality here at the head of Temple Street. That was something you took to heart and that we all did together, by embracing this ministry of radical hospitality to neighbor and stranger alike.
And what none of us knew at the time was that my own mother was in the hospital that Sunday out in Seattle, with a metastatic reoccurrence of her own earlier breast cancer (that would eventually take her life in a matter of only a few months), but that she had deliberately kept that information secret from me until after I had spoken here, because she didn’t want me to be distracted on what she know was a very important day -- not just in my life, but for all of us. Talk about selfless Motherly sacrifice!
And then last year, I was the one who was in and out of the hospital, fighting my own battle against cancer.
The previous week I had at last been formally installed as the Parish Minister here, in a very inspiring ceremony that included receiving the key to the city from then-mayor of Portland Ed Suslovic, and extensive greetings from State Representative Herb Adams; music from the Traveling Ensemble of the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus, and from our own First Parish Choir, including an original hymn by our Minister of Music Charlie Grindle. There were bagpipes and a bassoon; as well as messages from other local clergy: the Reverend Jennifer Emrich of Yarmouth, the Rev Lee Devoe in Augusta, and First Parish’s own “native daughter,” the Rev Barbara McKusick Liscord, who now serves our congregation in Milford New Hampshire.
And of course it was all topped off by a very inspiring sermon by my good friend the Rev. Ted Anderson of Nantucket, and the actual Act of Installation itself, in which we pledged “to walk together in all the ways of faith known or to be made know to us,” as we worked together at this sacred task of ministry.
And I was a little surprised to hear rumors, (sometime afterwards, thankfully), that there were actually a few folks who wondered why we were even bothering to hold an Installation at all, given the tenuous state of my health; or (worse) that it was all just something that was done to indulge and humor me, and to lift my spirits as I struggled with my disease.
And I hope those attitudes weren’t TOO widespread, because to my mind the Installation was NEVER really about me at all -- it was about all of us, and a reminder that the work we do together IS sacred -- and that no matter what challenges or adversity may confront us, no matter how difficult the work may seem, we are not going to give up and we are not going to give in, we’re not going to quit, or surrender, or throw in the towel, but instead we are going to come together as a community of faith and fight back -- survive, persist, endure, and (with God’s help) ultimately triumph. Don’t just “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Rather, make the best PLAN you can to make “the BEST” happen, then do what you must to minimize the potential downside if the plan doesn’t quite work out the way you’d planned it would
These are the kinds of values that my own mom tried to teach me when she was still alive, and which I’ve also tried to take to heart and teach to my own children and the children I am called to minister to here, and basically to everyone I come in contact with, regardless of their age. And they are values I have certainly seen demonstrated again and again in the past two years, as we have walked together through adversity after adversity that none of us could have envisioned two years ago.
Yet as powerful and important as my memories of these past two years are, my FAVORITE memory of Mother’s Day is from another time, from the semester that I spent abroad as a visiting Doctoral Fellow at Aalborg University in Denmark, almost a decade ago now.
Mother’s Day Y2K.
My mom had come over to visit and travel with me for a few weeks, so to celebrate Mother’s Day I took her for dinner at a silly little restaurant called “the Frigate” located on the decks of a model replica of an 18th century sailing vessel which floats on a small lake in the tiny but venerable Tivoli amusement park in central Copenhagen, situated on a 15 acre site right between the historic City Hall and the main train station.
And like a lot of things Danish, the Frigate was kind of surprising -- because the food there is FANTASTIC. We both had a lamb shank slow-cooked in an herb broth with various kinds of shellfish and other seafood, just the kind of “locovore” slow-food meal that really makes one want to linger at table in the refreshing, warm night air, sipping wine and watching the fireworks in a quaint, cozy, postage-stamp-sized and TRULY magical kingdom right in the heart of one of Europe’s most sophisticated capital cities.
That meal wasn’t exactly inexpensive either, although fortunately the bill came in kroner, which helped me to persuade my mom that all those zeros didn’t REALLY add up to as much money as she thought they did. But how else might you express your gratitude to someone who carried you around inside her body for nine months, and who fed you from the same? -- who washed you and clothed you and taught you how to walk and how to speak, how to brush your own teeth and tie your own shoes, not to mention (at some point along the way, one hopes) the difference between right and wrong?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course; there are LOTS of different things we can do to show our mothers, and our grandmothers, and our stepmothers and those who have been LIKE mothers to us just how much we love them and appreciate all that they have given to us. A fantastic meal is just the LEAST that I could have done; I only wish now that I still had the opportunity to do it again and again, not just on Mother’s Day, but every chance that I can find.
Not long after that my Mom returned home from Denmark, and I packed up my own things in preparation for an extra month of travel at the end of the semester through France, Italy, and Germany. Basically, the same summer trip that a lot of college students get to make in their 20’s, I finally had a chance to take in my 40’s -- and I’ll tell you this in all honesty, having waited twenty years only made it all the better.
And as you might imagine, I visited a lot of churches while I was there. Notre Dame and Sacre Couer in Paris; the Cathedral at Chartes; Mont. St. Michel (what an amazing place THAT is!); Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, along with countless other smaller and less famous places too numerous to recall.
Mostly I was going to see the art and the architecture, but I also rarely failed to at least light a candle, or to offer up a little prayer about whatever happened to be in my heart at the moment. And I also climbed an awful lot of steeples, each time swearing that this one was the last one, and that I would never be doing THAT again
But it was in Germany, during my visit to the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site Cologne Cathedral, that something very small and unexpected happened which gave me an entirely new perspective and insight into what I was really doing there and why. Because of some poor planning on my part, I only had about an hour between trains to visit the cathedral, which is located only a few hundred yards from the train station -- but still, I had all my luggage with me and was feeling the pressure about missing my connection -- and then when I arrived at the church I was disappointed to discover that (except for the Narthex), everything was closed to tourists because there was a worship service going on!
Now under ordinary circumstances this wouldn’t have been a problem for me; I would have just gone on in and joined in the worship, and then done my sightseeing afterwards. But as it was, I had all this baggage with me, and I had this train to catch, so that option didn’t really seem appropriate. And at that moment, as I was standing outside the sanctuary under the statue of Saint Christopher trying to decide what to do, I overheard a sentence from the homily, as clearly as if someone standing next to me had spoken directly into my ear -- “Wir Alles sind Gotts Kinder” -- We ALL are God’s Children” -- a five-word sermon I have preached myself many times in the past thirty years, and which pretty much sums up the essence of everything I’ve had to say in three decades of ministry.
Wir Alles sind Gotts Kinder....
Ordinarily, I like to explore some of the other aspects of this message when I preach it, such as the part that we are also all brothers and sisters to one another -- it’s a lot more tangible and down to earth, plus it avoids the problem that not all of us enjoyed especially good relationships with our own parents, which tends to get in the way of exploring a similar kind of relationship with a Deity we may or may not actually believe in....
But today I just want you all to know that the Eternal Spirit of Life, which Scripture tells us created the Universe and everything in it, loves each and every one of us just as deeply, just as fiercely, just as PROFOUNDLY, as a mother loves her child. And once you have FELT that love yourself, if only just once, if only for a moment, you will know the truth of it in your heart in a way that transcends all need for any kind of rational “proof” or “evidence.”
Because Faith is not an irrational belief in things we know aren’t true. Rather, it is the CONFIDENCE to TRUST the non-rational experience of God’s profound love for us, and to respond to that love by loving our own neighbors (and strangers) as if they were our brothers and sisters. Which, in fact, they are, at least in some sort of abstract, metaphorical, metaphysical way.
Now as I mentioned earlier, I know that not everyone has enjoyed a perfect relationship with their own parents...in fact, I wonder whether any of us really have. And not all of us will be fortunate enough to experience the power of God’s extraordinary love for us firsthand either. But when we act in faith to love our neighbors, we also make it possible for them to experience God’s love through us! We become “Angels of the Gospel” -- or in plain English, messengers of God’s Good News that God is Love, that we are all loved by God, and that we should express this love by loving one another. So simple, and yet so profound. So why does it seem like we need to remind ourselves so frequently of these very basic truths?
Remember, those Truths that are universally and absolutely true are going to continue to be true regardless of whether or not we choose to believe them. And likewise, none of us is ever going to know “the Absolute Truth” perfectly and completely. It’s just more than any mortal being can handle. And it’s a long and often difficult journey from cradle to grave, with plenty of opportunities for our own ignorance to trip us up; we need the help of others to guide us on that journey, and at times will also be pressed into service as guides to others, who need to benefit from the hard-earned lessons we have already learned on our own.
The goal and purpose of life-long learning is a search for Wisdom; not just for more knowledge or information, or even “truth and meaning,” but for the maturity and good judgment and perhaps even the courage to use the things that we have learned wisely, both for our own benefit and for the benefit of those who will follow after us.
And even if by some good fortune one of us should come to know and understand everything there is to know and understand, in a matter of years...perhaps a few decades at most...they will have passed away, and the process will continue all over again.
With each new birth and with each rising generation we face the same challenge that has been faced by all humanity since time immemorial. And thanks to churches like this one, we successfully meet it, generation after generation after generation.