Recognition that Recognizes

May 10, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Many congregations ask mothers to stand to be recognized on Mother’s Day. We should abolish this practice while finding other ways to recognize mothers – in church and outside of church. Raising the minimum wage would be a great start. Then all women – and their partners -- can have the means to support a family on one job, instead of the double shift adding to the load of the parent shift. Recognition doesn’t help with the exhaustion that works too hard for too long for too little.

When we separate the Saras and the Hagars, the ones who bear children and the ones who do not, we jump into a bucket of sentimentality that helps neither the mother nor the woman who is not a mother. Sentimentality is the difference between pink and purple, the deeper version of pink. Sentimentality is the way Hallmark makes its money but not the way women are honored.

In a time when young women are still carrying mattresses around Columbia University and NYU has hired a staff of 20 plus, reporting directly to the president to deal with violence against women on campus, in a decade where statistics remain accurately at one out of three women having been sexually violated at least once in her lifetime, sentimentality makes pink look bad.

Sentimentality applies to women’s experience of violence and the earning of 77 cents on the dollar compared to men in the same way that broth compares to soup. Setimentality is a pale version of sentiment or feeling, the kind that acknowledges suffering and the R E S P E C T that resolves suffering. I hope you can hear Aretha singing. Feeling for women is much more than remembering to send a card or being asked to stand up in church. Feeling respects what it feels.

When a pastor asks all the mothers to stand, you can easily be sitting by a woman who stands on one side and a woman who stays seated on the other. The standing ritual, well intentioned as it is, implies that the Hagars are better than the Saras, and we are not. We aren’t divided on our wages or the way we are regularly raped. Why be divided around our fertility?

Does the woman who has had a miscarriage or an abortion stand? Does the pregnant girl stand, the one whose mother doesn’t know yet? Does the woman who lost a child this year stand? Does the woman who threw her son out because he is gay stand? Does the woman whose daughter abandoned her because she wouldn’t stop gambling stand? Where does the standing start and the sitting stop, given the wide continuum of mothering and mothering that failed? Women, like men, need all the recognition we can get for the unique burdens and joys of our gender. Standing as mothers is just not good public or religious ritual.

We need rituals that honor the tending of mothers, rituals that recognize that many men are very good mothers. People love to say that fight and flight is the normal pattern of life. We also live in a world of tending and befriending and we do so as foster moms, mentoring moms, and coaches, don’t want to be moms, and infertile want to be a Mom so bad I can taste it. In the world of tending and befriending, many have warm and close relationships with their children and of course they celebrate when the Hallmark arrives or fails to arrive. For those who were abused by their own mothers, or neglected, or smothered, Mother’s Day conjures up a range of feelings that no greeting card can contain. For those who gave up their children for adoption, like my niece did at 14, mother’s day is strange enough, without the sentimental applause.

Mothering is one place on the spectrum of tending and befriending, as is gardening or searching every day for a cure to breast cancer – or prostate cancer – in a laboratory. Or learning how to play the violin.

Mother hens are found in many machine shops. Tending and befriending doesn’t pay well – but it takes a village to manage it, not just a mother. Annual “nanny” day would also help, if you thought annual days were enough appreciation for a year in the first place.

Jesus said, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Churches – and greeting cards – need to learn that there is a sneaky idolatry at the heart of Mother’s Day. We are obeying a commercial impulse, not the divine. Minimum wages for all who tend and befriend are a much better public ritual than standing up in church.

Which brings me to the text for the day. Sara mistook her value for her fertility. Hagar’s fertility was not her only value. When we overdo it with mothers, we participate in Sara’s mistake about her value. It takes a whole life to understand certain texts and this is surely one of them. It is a big fat text about women and about how women participate in our own undoing. Sara internalized a sense of shame about her early infertility. She then hurt Hagar. Abraham of course remains spotless here.

A little midrash may help. Note that the bible clearly does not define marriage as between one man and one woman, despite what the religious right claims. There is no blame for Abraham here. Secondly, note that the angel does not participate in the lack of sisterhood between the two women. Return, says the angel, to your mistress. I wonder if that meant work out women who are fertile and those who are not. I wonder what the angel had in mind. Surely it was not oppression.

Third note that this fat text like the binding of Isaac, the late born son of Sara, really says basically the hardest thing we will ever hear. Like Jesus saying don’t love your children more than you love me. Listen up, women, don’t love your children more than you love me. In other words, love nothing more than you love me. Hear it, Job? Hear it, Abraham? Hear it, Sara and Hagar? Nothing but God. Even children, even mothers are less worthy of respect than the love of God. We love to rush to the second part of the golden rule…love your neighbor as you love yourself. But the first commandment is to love God more than anything else and let the rest follow.

A few more observations. Abraham kind of disappears here, he gets a pass.

Likewise Joseph. We don’t hear much about Joseph after he sires Jesus. Or however that fatherhood happened. Instead Mary is at the wedding alone and orders the wine. She is in the temple alone and has to discipline Jesus on her own for turning over the tables. She is under the cross alone. Don’t you wonder where Joseph went? Or where Abraham took off to?

Third as we think about the surrogacy of Hagar, we might imagine other kinds of divinely permitted surrogacy. What if you are a lesbian and want a child? How do you get one?

Finally, I want to say a good word about mothers. Just because we don’t want to value women exclusively on the grounds of our fertility, we don’t want to undervalue them.

I had a big thing happen this week. My dog Kofe was put to sleep by my friend Nancy who has been keeping him for us the last three years. He was 14, he had cancer, he had a sweet death. When Kofe needed more attention than we could give him, we knew where to send him. To the woman who helped us raise our kids. When we had three kids in two years, due to the failure of nursing a child as birth control – right, it doesn’t work – and twins resulted from unprotected sex, we realized we had to go from man to man to a zone defense. We invited Nancy to live with us. Our biggest fight was always about her role: who am I to you? Am I a nanny or an aunt or a sister? Where do I fit in this family?

That is the huge spiritual question in this story about Sara and Hagar. Where did each fit in the family. I guess the scriptures will always perplex us and only suggest, never answer. But my hunch was that the angel was telling those two women to get along, fertile or not. Amen.

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