"The Greatest of These..."
 — Kathie Cook

May 14, 2017
Fifth Sunday of Easter

I Corinthians 13:1-13
Matthew 22:34-40

When Phil asked me last Sunday night to fill in for Dawn who was originally subbing for Phil, I was excited to have the opportunity to preach once again. In the cold light of Monday morning, with the realization that this is Mother’s Day, it was too late for second thoughts. Phil did tell me that I could choose any scripture and any topic. As you know, Phil has been preaching a series of “Be the Church”, but I elected to follow my own path. At the end, this sermon will be all about love, which is at the heart (no pun intended) of all of the exhortations set forth on the “Be the Church” banner.

Preaching about love on Mother’s Day may seem like an easy task, but it is a challenge to speak about motherhood in a way that does not exclude anyone. Before I saw the litany provided by Phil (via the CE Board as I understand it), I had already resolved to speak today about the women in this church, past and present. While men, women and children make up this wonderful community that is our church, there is a unique quality in the relationships between women and between women and children. As the litany reminded us, it does not require a blood or legal connection form a mother-child bond.

A passage I did not include in the readings really spoke to me about the bonds between non-related “mothers” and “children”. John Chapter 19, verses 26-27 brings us back to the crucifixion. “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son’, and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” Imagine, at that moment, Jesus’ thought is only of his mother and what would happen to Mary when he was gone. And for the disciple, to accept without question, that Mary should become a part of his family.

I chose the passage from 1 Corinthians this morning for many reasons. While it is often a part of a wedding ceremony (mine included), it also seems appropriate for today. The comparisons of what love is and what love is not can seem as challenge at times, but so much of it speaks to how to mother and to be mothered: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” And especially: “ It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Doesn’t that just capture every part of that relationship?!

For those who grew up in Charlotte or in any place where there was a tight-knit neighborhood, mothers, especially working mothers, depended on one another to keep an eye on the kids. For me, I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that not only included my own dear mother, but two grandmothers, one of whom who lived a block away. My aunt Jerre lived a block in the other direction, and she and my mother operated as a team. My two older sisters and a host of neighbors filled in when one of them was not around.   I knew I always had someone to turn to, and that SOMEONE was always watching!!

I remember my cousin Connie telling her daughter, Sarah, when they had moved to Charlotte, “Everyone knows who you are, so if you do something, I will know about it!” When Chuck and I moved back here from a place where I knew only a few neighbors, I told my sons much the same thing. For parents it is a relief to have a ““village” helping to raise their children, for kids it can feel like a curse.

Beyond related family, I grew up in this church and there were so many women who provided shoulders to cry on, sage advice, stern discipline, strong morals and great examples of leadership and ethics. It has been a comfort to return to this church in adulthood and find the same was true for my own children. How many Sundays have we stood up for the children in this church, both figuratively and literally? These children know that they are “mothered” by many women in this congregation no matter what their “real” relationship may be.

From Grandma Gert to Grandma Jo to Grandma Pam there have been many women who stood in for those not with us, either because of death or distance. Sometimes the distance is only from the choir loft or the basement or the Sunday School rooms to the pews. How many times have I seen children snuggled up next to Carol Monroe?

By naming a few I risk missing many, but I trust that you will find yourselves in one or more of my examples and know that you are included even if not specifically named.

I have to say, too, that it warms my heart when Hailey arrives in church on Sunday with her GG, and she takes time to hug many of the other women, especially those who like to sit near the back!

One more from my own experience; my mother-in-law Nancy passed away when my children were in middle and elementary school. We lost my mother a month before Rob graduated high school. When he left for CMU, Sandy Maatsch began baking snickerdoodle cookies for him. She told him that while she could never replace his grandmother, she knew that sending him cookies was something Evelo would do. A simple gift but it filled a hole. Then when Jim Maatsch died, Rob baked her cookies.

Isn’t one of the images of “family”, loved ones gathered around the table for a meal? We joke about “if you feed them they will come”, but food is so interconnected with the life of this church. I am old enough to remember that the church had a food booth at the Eaton County Fair. I logged a lot of hours washing dishes in a tiny sink at the back of the booth. The women of this church prepared all the meals in the kitchen and then drove them down to the fairgrounds. Ask Donna W. Johnson for a truly hilarious story about one of her deliveries. That fair booth gave our church a place in the community and women were at the heart of it.

Church dinners began upstairs and then moved downstairs after the creation of the basement. I learned about cooking in large quantities, about properly serving, and a lot more about the inner workings of the church than I realized at the time. Cooperation and respect were vital to keep order in an incredibly busy and fairly small space. Those dinners, from Harvest Feast to Easter Dinner to the Bazaar Luncheon, and a multitude of coffee hours and other gatherings in between, feed not only the bodies but the souls of those gathered in fellowship.

How many women spring to mind when you walk into the church kitchen? Nettie Cook, church housekeeper for years and phenomenal cook, Edna McDermid, creator of the Harvest Feast, Dot Yoder, maker and collector of scrumptious pies, Mary Normand, successor to Edna in the Harvest Feast… I could go on and on but I am sure to leave so many out. At the Bazaar, don’t you just know who made what in the “Kitchen” section?

Funeral luncheons again provide far more than food to the friends and families. Rachel Harvitt and Katherine Johnson are the latest in a long line of coordinators, and likely every woman here has provided either food or helping hands.

Christian education has brought another element of motherly influence. From the pulpit to the nursery to women’s retreats, the women of this church have brought a different perspective. When I was in college, I joined a book study during the summer. I still recall the book, the Shalom Woman, and the other participants were B.D. Colson, Ruth Waybrant, Ruthann Kyle, and I believe one or two others whose names are lost to memory. That book study helped me clarify my future plans and led me down the path I still follow today. In that group, it felt safe to lay bare confusion and uncertainty. They may never have known how they mothered me in those weeks, but I do.

Retreats planned by the women of this church have created new friendships and long-standing relationships. From Sister Elizabeth to the Red Tent series planned by Chris Reist and Sandra Field, women have been given the opportunity to join together to “dive deep” into the topics away from all the constraints of the day; to meditate and pray freely and fully.

Youth groups led by Laura Cooper and Judi Cates are still talked about today, and Judi has joined in again to help with the youth. Most of the teachers in Sunday School have been and are women. Without belittling any of the men who have and will continue to step up to serve, this church has been blessed with the presence of so many dedicated women providing Christian education to the children. Just like all school teachers, they expend time, talent and treasure far beyond the time during the Church service to bring an entertaining, inspirational and educational program.

Lest I forget, with music such an integral part of our ministry, how grateful are we to have an accomplished and remarkable woman at the piano and organ – Ramona!

And, while there may not be gender equity in our country in many respects, there has never be any question that women have been accorded rights in this church. Far back in church history, women have held leadership positions, some elected and many behind the scenes. Even in times where married women were referred to only as “Mrs. Husband’s name”, they influenced the selection of ministers, served in and headed many of the Boards and Committees, served as Moderator, were involved in the location and construction of the church, even creating a basement where none was planned. My grandmother was a force to be reckoned with!

And sometimes, I swear I still see Mary Alice Tibbett, volunteer extraordinaire, in the back pew. How many other tireless volunteers are still here serving without fanfare? Outreach calls to many, and our church’s reach into the community grows through their efforts. Eileen Harrison has represented this church for years at many levels of the UCC Conference. Again, there are so many more I have not named.

Our women’s circles have shrunk until only one remains, but the women of Blanche Moyer continue the tradition of providing support to the programs and the operating budget of this church. And Women’s Fellowship, through the Bazaar, provide a significant gift each to the Endowment Fund of the Church as well as many community and church projects and programs. The gathering of women in both those organizations provides an outlet for sharing concerns in life and in the church.

But, I think what our church women do best is to serve as a cheering section for our youth. We celebrate the successes and do our best to help children find their way through the inevitable defeats and setbacks. We teach them to always trust, always hope, always persevere.

We can serve as models of faith, following Jesus’ encouragement to remember that of all the Commandments, the greatest is to love God, with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as you are loved. If we and the children of this church can follow that admonition, then we can truly make a difference in our lives, in our community and in the world.

May it be so.