“Thus says our God … As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” I speak to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all.
A couple of weeks ago I had a pretty good idea of the sermon I wanted to preach today. Luke’s Gospel lesson offers a perfect opportunity to address how skittish we Episcopalians are about the “E-word,“ that is, evangelism. Several of us got to hear our Presiding Bishop on that subject last month, and following up on that made good sense. Plus I had some material from a sermon on this lesson that I preached elsewhere exactly 18 years ago—minus one day—that I could recycle with a little tweaking.
Evangelism is a great subject. The welcome people find here should not be a well-kept secret. That’s a topic worth revisiting more than once. And it can be fun to look at our predictable skittishness. But I have to confess that this morning, in spite of my delight and excitement at yesterday’s announcement of a new Rector, my heart is still too heavy for that lighthearted topic after the last week-and-a-half. This isn’t the first time that events in our common life have interfered with planning a sermon too far in advance. And apparently it won’t be the last time either.
It’s been a little over a week since the personal lives of many of us here have been thrown into turmoil. Some of our most intimate and morally complex choices about our own bodies and our families can now be decided for us by a less-than-well-informed local government.
The Biblical writers, Jewish and Christian thinkers over the centuries, and other people of faith and goodwill, have offered a whole variety of thoughtful convictions about just when a natural bodily process presents us with the immeasurable mystery of a fully human person, or soul. Some said it was at the moment of conception, others somewhat later, others still later, and others not until birth. Our own Episcopal Church honors this diversity of conviction, and in most of my lifetime we have been calling on governments to do the same, to refrain from establishing one conviction by law when people of faith and goodwill continue to disagree.
We have also been working to dismantle habits and structures that leave straight, cisgendered, white men in control of the bodies of women, people of color, adults who love each other differently, and people who do not experience gender as an either/or label. We believe that the Baptismal Covenant we frequently reaffirm demands that we keep working at all of this dismantling.
All of these efforts and convictions, dear to so many of us here, were dealt a major blow by last week’s Supreme Court decision. Despite feeble assurances to the contrary, it seems clear that the majority’s style of legal reasoning opens the door for local governments to control, not only women’s bodies, but the bodies and intimate relationships of all of us whose dignity was not even considered back in, say, 1868. One Justice was honest enough to point this out, although he seems not to have noticed that his own interracial marriage might also be invalidated by the same arguments.
Now, let’s take a breath. I don’t mean to turn this homily into a political diatribe, well, at least not any more than I’ve done up to now. I’m not expecting everybody to agree with everything I have just said. I’m just trying to explain why many of us here have been thrown into turmoil, and not without reason.
And it’s because of all the turmoil that I’m in over this that I have found myself drawn over and over again to the comforting, hopeful words and imagery of our first lesson. Our Church has actually adopted it officially as a cantacle that we are encouraged to use in our daily prayers. It’s “Canticle E: A Song of Jerusalem Our Mother,” from Enriching Our Worship. It’s a slightly different translation from what we heard, so bear with me as I recite it to you again. And hear what it says to those of us who are in turmoil.
Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her *
all you who love her,
Rejoice, rejoice with her, *
all you who mourn over her,
That you may drink deeply with delight *
from her comforting breast.
For thus says our God, *
“I will extend peace to her like a river,
the wealth of nations like an overflowing stream.
“You shall nurse and be carried on her arm, *
and you shall nestle in her lap.
“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; *
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
“You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice, *
you shall flourish like the grass of the fields.”
Most scholars today believe that these words were written soon after exiled Jews had finally been allowed to return from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem, only to find the city in shambles and its people largely forgetful of the richness of their own heritage. This was not the Jerusalem of their songs and recollections, a city on a hill destined to become a source of enlightenment and healing for all nations. Instead the city they found wasn’t even living up to its own past, much less the promise of its future.
These words were written to encourage people who hoped for a better day, to counsel them not to despair. “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her … all you who mourn over her, That you may drink deeply with delight from her comforting breast.” Jerusalem, both as a city and as a symbol of the destiny of all God’s children, was not over and done with yet. Nor, today, are our dreams of this nation as it might be, despite ample evidence to the contrary. I take encouragement from that on this day before our celebration of Independence.
But what speaks to me even more intimately these days is how God here identifies, not with males in control, but with empowering women. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” It’s one of several indications in the Bible that the experiences of women, and indeed the experiences of all who have found themselves disenfranchised and rendered invisible, are at the very heart of God’s own self-image. There’s still room there, of course, for the experiences of men as well. But the experiences of others are just as vital if we want to know the God who knows us so intimately.
God knows intimately what it is like to be told that because of your gender you have little to no voice in the affairs of those in power, and that you cannot make your own decisions about the well-being of your body. God knows intimately what it is like to be told that because of your ancestry you are still counted, at least secretly, as 3/5 of a person. God knows intimately what it is like to be told that your love, no matter how self-giving, is not worthy even of speaking its name, much less of being recognized in holy matrimony. God knows intimately what it is like to be told that you cannot question or change the identity others have assigned you.
And be assured, this God, who knows and comforts you as a mother comforts her child, is also the God who like a mother is not settling for any of that … stuff (let’s call it)! And God will not let you or me settle for it either. Like so many of our mothers, this comforting God is also just as relentlessly nagging.
So let us take comfort as we are sent out to do the work God has given us to do. We will see setback after setback, so we will need God’s motherly comfort over and over. But God will keep nagging, and changes we had not thought possible will happen. We have not heard the last word.
“Thus says our God … As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” I speak to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all. Amen.