Like a Mother

“Like a Mother,” Susan Ryder


Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Some moms are incredible. So are some fathers, but since this story is about a mother, and because it’s Mother’s Day, we’ll stick with incredible moms this morning. Let me say that I do realize Mother’s Day, and relationships with mothers, is complicated for some of you for any number of reasons, chief among them that not all mothers are incredible. Some fall short for a variety of reasons, and their children suffer for it. But this morning I’d like us to consider some of the mothers who got it right; the moms who were on a mission for the sake of their children, driven by love for their child, who went to incredible lengths to accomplish amazing things. Like the kind of mom we hear about in Matthew 15 – when Jesus is approached by the Canaanite woman.

This woman has a brief part in the larger, overarching story of the gospel. She appears only in these 7 verses, and we don’t know much about her, not even her name. But we know that her daughter was tormented. She watched day after day as her daughter’s life was torn apart by something that could only be described as evil, “a demon.” Imagine the deep sadness – the constant hurt – of a mother watching her child suffer, feeling powerless to offer any help. A mother like that will look for any possible way to make it all stop. So, on a mission for the sake of her child, she risked everything and went to Jesus for help. And as a result, not only was her daughter healed, but this one mother, using her one voice to seek healing for her child, was also responsible for a profound change in Jesus mission, as he expanded it beyond the Jews as a result of their encounter. THAT is a powerful story.

When I say she risked everything to go to Jesus for help, what I mean is that we know in that culture it was considered inappropriate for women to address men in public. In fact, women were to stay at least two arms’ distance from men. So it’s remarkable that she went to such great lengths to approach Jesus in broad daylight – breaking all social mores. Additionally, as Peter Hawkins wrote in “Christian Century” magazine, Matthew took pains to paint Jesus as the Messiah who came in fulfillment of Jewish law and prophets – Jesus was ISRAEL’S hope and consolation. He had his own sheep to attend to – “let the Canaanites deal with the Canaanites.” So this Canaanite woman was the archetype of the “other” – she was not a member of the house of Israel, and was in fact considered a pagan. And just as bad, or even worse, she was a woman. Which means that Jesus would be putting her on equal footing with himself by responding to her in any way; it was something a Jewish man would just NOT do. But because of her determination, he did respond to her, at first in a very cold and exclusive way, and then by referring to her as a dog. He relented when she continued to persist, pointing out that even the dogs under the master’s table occasionally get some of the crumbs, finally responding with the compassion we expect from Jesus, saying, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed.

Some mothers have been fighting for their children from the beginning of time. And contrary to popular belief, Mother’s Day was not founded to make money for Hallmark, florists, and restaurants. Ann Jarvis founded Mother’s Day in 1858 to promote sanitation in response to high infant mortality in the Appalachian community in which she lived. After two of her children died before the age of three, she asked doctors to teach her and other mothers how to prevent disease. On Mothers Work Day, and in Mothers Day Work Clubs, those mothers then taught other mothers how to prepare food properly and clean their homes, etc., which all gradually improved the health of their families. A few years later, the Civil War began, and since she lived near a major battlefield between Union and Confederate armies, Ann declared Women’s Friendship Day, convincing local mothers to care for soldiers from both sides, treating the wounded and teaching them about sanitation and disinfection.

Inspired by Ann Jarvis, Julia Ward Howe joined the U.S. Sanitary Commission with her husband. Born in New York City in 1819, Howe’s family was well respected and wealthy, and she became a published poet, abolitionist, and co-publisher with her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, of the anti-slavery newspaper “The Commonwealth.” A Unitarian who resided in Boston, she was active in the peace movement and women’s suffrage.  In 1861, after a visit to a Union Army camp, Howe wrote the poem that came to be called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” after she witnessed some of the worst effects of the war. More men were dying from disease in prisoner of war camps and their own army camps than then were dying in battle. The Sanitary Commission helped reduce those deaths. From her work with the widows and orphans of soldiers on both sides of the war, she realized that the effects of war go beyond the killing of soldiers in battle. She also saw the economic devastation of the Civil War and the financial crises that followed as a result of restructuring the economies of both the North and South.

After the war, Julia wanted an end to war, and equality for all people, regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality. So she wrote her Mothers Day Proclamation, calling mothers to leave their homes for one day a year and work for peace in their communities. Distressed by her experiences with the realities of war, determined that peace was one of the two most important causes of the world (the other being equality) and seeing arms about to be taken up again as the Franco-Prussian War began, in 1870 she called for women to rise up and oppose war in all its forms. She wanted women to come together across national lines, to recognize what we hold in common above what divides us, and commit to finding peaceful, non-violent resolutions to conflict.  She issued her proclamation, hoping to gather together women in a congress of action as she pleaded, “We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs ….The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” And while she is not recognized as the founder of Mother’s Day in the US, her ideas influenced and compelled other women to take up the cause. In June 1872, the first Mother’s Peace Day was celebrated in Boston, Massachusetts, continuing across the country for the next 30 years.

What we observe all these years later has no little or no connection whatsoever with its founding. The modern Mother’s Day emerged in the early 20th century, with Jarvis and Howe’s original intentions largely erased from mainstream consciousness. Their visions of mothers being called to action were watered-down into an annual expression of sentimentality and profitable opportunities for retailers. Of course, I don’t mean to besmirch mothers and their value in our lives, and I love brunch as much as anyone. But I prefer the more political, action-oriented origins of Mother’s Day, and am thrilled they are still being lived out.

Shannon Watts is a mother of five who was a stay-at-home mom and former communications executive. The day after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in December 2012, Shannon started a Facebook group with the message that all Americans can and should do more to reduce gun violence. The online conversation turned into a grassroots movement of Americans fighting for public safety measures that protect people from gun violence. Moms Demand Action has established a chapter in every state of the country, including our own McLean County Chapter started by our own Diane White and her friend Karen Irvin. As part of Everytown for Gun Safety, there are more than 5 million supporters. This Mother’s Day weekend, Shannon is once again receiving death threats from NRA members for her most recent efforts – her response? “I’ll never stop exposing your deadly agenda.” Her book, Fight Like a Mother, comes out later this month.

Mothers of the Movement is a group of women whose African American children have been killed by the police or by gun violence. Members of the group have appeared on various television shows, at award ceremonies, and political events including the 2016 DNC Convention and the Women’s March in January 2017, to share their experiences losing of a son or daughter to police violence and advocate for political change. The Mothers of the Movement was started by a group of moms as a result of the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman after he fatally shot and killed Trayvon Martin – his mother is one of the founding members. The women work to spread awareness of the police brutality crisis in the United States. They are using their grief to rally involvement in communities and highlight the injustice they’ve endured with the loss of their children’s lives. (from Wikipedia)

Years earlier, Candy Lightner took the personal tragedy of losing her daughter Cari and turned it into Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Lightner started MADD in her home on May 7, 1980, four days after her daughter was killed and just a day after Cari’s funeral. That’s when she discovered that the offender would probably not spend any time in jail for his crime, even though when he killed Cari he was out on bail after being arrested 3 days earlier for another drunk driving incident. “I promised myself on the day of Cari’s death that I would fight to make this needless homicide count for something positive in the years ahead,” Candy Lightner later wrote. Since its founding, designated drivers are considered mainstream, the legal definition of impairment was lowered to .08% blood alcohol level, and drunk driving deaths have been reduced by 50% – just to name a few of the accomplishments over the past almost 40 years.

It has been said that a woman’s outrage transforms to energy when channeled in positive directions. The Canaanite woman and the mothers who came before and after her are a testament to this. Even so, change requires patience. Over two hundred years ago on this continent, some women articulated their dissatisfaction with the status of a woman as a nonentity. Abigail Adams, left to manage farm, home, and family while her husband served in the Congress that established the United States, urged him to “remember the ladies,” noting that women “will not hold ourselves to be bound by any laws in which we have no voice.”  Some seven decades or so after Abigail’s plea for full citizenship in the new United States fell on deaf ears, Elizabeth Cady Stanton kicked off the women’s suffrage movement with a convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 in upstate New York. Unfortunately, she did not long enough to cast her vote when women were finally given that right in 1920. Hard to believe we’ll be celebrating our centennial year of voting next year – and still without passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Sometimes we look around and see all that’s wrong in the world – all the injustice and pain and poverty and war and hunger and devastation – and think to ourselves, “it’s too much.  There is too much wrong with the world.  What can I do, what can one person do to really make a difference?”  Perhaps honoring some of our foremothers like the Canaanite woman, Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna Jarvis, and Julia Ward Howe – along with modern day heroes like Shannon Watts, Candy Lightner, and the Mothers of the Movement – will  remind us of the power of one voice, one life, one touch, one world, and re-awaken the dream of the Mother God who resides within each of us.

There are obviously other women who have planted seeds for future harvest, some well-known, and others who may only be known by some in this room.  A mother or grandmother, a teacher, friend, sister, or aunt – someone who made an impact on your life in some way, without whom you wouldn’t be who you are, or where you are in your life. They may have never organized a march in Washington, or had a bill passed by Congress, but they made a difference in the world, in your life, and in the lives of those you now touch. Like a pebble tossed into a quiet pond, it’s difficult to foresee all the ripples which will emerge from its center, but our hope is that they will manifest the dreams of Mother God. And so in their honor – in the honor of the Canaanite mother and all who followed her – Happy Mother’s Day!