Wisdom of the Church Mothers

You may have noticed a similar theme between last week’s reading in Gospel of Thomas and this week’s reading in Proverbs:

Thomas: Jesus said, “If you give birth to what’s within you, what you have within you will save you. If you don’t have that within you, what you don’t have within you will kill you.”


And then today in Proverbs. In Proverbs, Wisdom, personified as a woman, was right alongside God during the creation of mountains, oceans, heavens, soil. And Wisdom says,

“For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from God;
but those who miss me injure themselves;
all who hate me love death.”


Both texts are about finding what is life-giving—within yourself or in the wisdom that is imbued in all of creation.


And then we get this image of all of creation being like a hazelnut in your palm. Let me tell you a bit about Julian of Norwich. She lived in the 14th and early 15th centuries in Norwich, England, which is north and east of London. She lived through the Plague, when many, many people died—perhaps half the population of Norwich. Around age 30 she became very ill and was given last rites. In her illness she experienced visions. She made a complete recovery and wrote down these visions. We don’t know whether she was a mother, but we do know that sometime around age 50 she was made an anchoress and became immured, or walled into a cell adjoining St. Julian’s Church. She spent the rest of her many years there as a spiritual sage, an advisor, a church mother.


So here’s this vision about all of creation being like a hazelnut in your palm. We talked during children’s time about how a little hazelnut has all the information inside that little thing to make a whole tree. Likewise, we have all the wisdom in us, from the very beginning, to make an adult human body. Just like a hazelnut, we have atoms, cells, DNA. We are stardust, just like the rest of creation. And look at the vast variety of what stardust can become.


Look at your hand. Think of all the things your hands can do. And your body knew how to make these hands—knew how to string the blood vessels, where to put the bones and cartilage, how to connect the nerves, where to put muscles and tendons and skin so that you don’t even have to think consciously about moving your hands. You just decide to pick up the cup, and your hands know how to do it. What a miracle it is to be embodied in such a complex system.


God makes us. God loves us. And God keeps us, just like that hazelnut. These are tender images of God’s mothering love. But we can also talk about fierce mother love. In Ferguson, MO, when Michael Brown was killed by a police officer back in August 2014, people piled into the streets night after night after night. They were angry, outraged, fed up, grieving, pushed beyond their limits to endure the racism and the killings. Rev. Traci Blackmon, who was the keynote speaker at our Pacific Northwest Conference Annual Meeting two weeks ago in Bellingham and is one of the UCC’s three top officers, was at the time the pastor of a St. Louis church. She and other local clergy joined together to take shifts out on the streets to try and keep people safe, try to deescalate situations that risked getting out of control. Gov. Nixon convened a table to discuss the deeper issues of racism and police violence. 618 people applied to sit at that table; only 16 were selected, and Traci was one of them. She said that for 9 months they held uncomfortable conversations about how to make change for the better. Traci was waging peace by walking the streets at all hours, by sitting at the governor’s table, and by preaching wisdom from the pulpit.


She told us this story two weeks ago. She told us another story as well. There was a woman in the area who was waging peace through food. Everyone called her “Mother Cat,” and she loved to make food for people. She was always showing up and feeding people out on the street. One night, there was this tense standoff: young angry Black men on one side, police across the street, possibly in riot gear. Police in Missouri were going to Israel to be trained in suppression tactics. And young people in Ferguson were learning from Palestinians how to protect themselves from tear gas. It felt as if one match would just detonate everything.


Into this scene comes Mother Cat and her husband. They drive their van right in between the two sides. Mother Cat and her husband get out of the van, and without a word, they start setting up folding tables. The young men on this side are watching, not sure what’s happening. The police on that side are watching, not sure what’s happening. And then she pulled out big pots full of food. Finally she turned to all of them and said, “Y’all stop this and come and eat!” And they did. Can you imagine saying, “We interrupt this war to bring you dinner”? Police and young Black men sat and ate together. People who were ready to kill each other are now breaking bread together. Does that sound like a Jesus table or what?


The one time I was in St. Louis for a few days in 2006, I met a couple—two retired Black women—who were the grandmothers for all the kids in their neighborhood. I don’t know whether these women had children of their own, but what the children in the neighborhood knew was that their house was a safe space. They could show up there after school to do homework, to watch cartoons on TV in the basement, to get a snack, and to admire the colored glass collection in cabinets in the living room. These children knew they were loved just as they were. That’s another way to wage peace: raise children who know they are loved and accepted.


Perhaps you recall that part of the original impetus for founding Mother’s Day was as an antiwar statement. After the Civil War, mothers whose sons had fought—and some been killed—on both sides of the war would gather. They didn’t want any more mothers to lose their sons—or daughters—to war. So they waged peace by refusing to buy into the us-them dichotomy of war.


I walked out into the yard at Catherine’s farm, where there is a labyrinth mowed into a large patch of lawn. Three enormous apple trees surround the labyrinth, and their blossoms hang down over it, dropping petals into the grass as a breeze bobs the branches. So many pollinators are happily sipping the flowers that the trees themselves seem to buzz. Robins, juncos, chickadees, and hummingbirds flit through the leaves or pull worms out of the grass to feed their chicks. Across the outer orchard, sheep have gathered by a gate, wondering if it’s time yet for me to let them into a new pasture, because the grass is indeed greener on the other side. Rhododendron bushes are decked out in red, pink, and white. In one corner of the yard sit a number of plants in pots, waiting for me to get them in the ground so that they can set down roots and thrive in the humus built of composted coffee grounds, egg shells, fruit rinds, and sheep manure.


Julian of Norwich had a vision of something the size of a hazelnut sitting in her hand, and a voice saying, “It is all that is made.” I look around the yard and see that we have all come from seeds, and within each of us is the full DNA script to make us what we are. We are stardust; we are air and water and flesh; we are spirit. We are that hazelnut in God’s palm. A mothering God made us. God loves us. And God keeps us, like a mother hen tending her eggs, so that we may grow into our full selves. And we in turn are invited to mother the world, not in some dominion/ domination way of war and conquest, but with the nurturing, nourishing love that says, “Y’all stop trying to kill each other and come and eat.” Amen.

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