(Sermon can be found at 15:15 minute of the video.)
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2020
“Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears!” Thus begins the speech of the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, lamenting the carnage of the civil war. You likely know Julia Ward Howe as the poet who wrote the word to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but she also is the woman who in 1870 authored the impassioned plea I just read: “Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears!” Howe’s proclamation is part of the beginning of Mother’s Day.
As with all things, this holiday has morphed over the years, but I hope we can at least hold on to the fact that what is now a sweet and sentimental day to remember and recognize our mothers, this day actually began as a serious justice movement: her proclamation goes on to say,
“In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality be appointed…to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, in the great and general interests of peace.” Women, who had no vote, no agency, were called into counsel with one another. Howe’s work was inspired by the founder of the 1858 Mothers Work Day, Ann Jarvis, who created this day to combine efforts to combat childhood death, teaching lessons of better cleanliness and health, in an age when vaccinations for most childhood diseases were not available and children died at an astonishing rate. In a day when women had no vote, no official power, they followed their hearts to create change for the better.
As a mom, and a healthy grown child of a sweet mom, I’m grateful to these women…yes, for the flowers and cards on Mother’s Day, but really for taking the initiative in their Christian calling and for believing they had agency.
The founders of Mother’s Day believed the words of Jesus that we read today: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
Jesus’ disciples believed and the Christian movement, became a reality. The followers of Jesus continued to challenge Roman oppression and religious marginalization, and they helped people to understand that Jesus’ kingdom has room for all.
Saint Luke tells us in the book of Acts that before the Jesus movement was called Christianity, it was called, The Way. Luke calls it this time and time again—which reminds us that when Jesus says, I am the Way the Truth and the Life, he is telling his disciples that they are to be about creating abundant life for people in the here and now.
For a couple of summers, a few years ago, I volunteered at a day camp established by the Diocese of Alabama in an area of the state 45 minutes south of Tuscaloosa, a significantly impoverished area of our state. St. Luke’s has had a few youth work at this camp in the past too… Sawyerville Day Camp has been operating for over 25 years. For several weeks every summer, the camp brings together youth and adults from all over this diocese with local youth and leaders in Hale County to offer free summer programs and mentoring, with the mission to serve God, improve race relations in Alabama, and enrich the lives of those living in poverty.
Like any camp, Sawyerville offers children swimming time and group play. Campers learn about Jesus, and eat good old camp food. The times I’ve been on Staff, I’ve been the Camp mom—which means that I run errands, help prepare/serve food, occasionally tend to scraped knees or headaches, AND I do the laundry!
Every afternoon, when the day camp staff says goodbye for the day to the campers, and the counselors gather for chapel and quiet time, I would collect the staff t-shirts and head to the local laundromat. So parents & kids can know who works at camp, the staff wear identical t-shirts every day, the same t-shirts, day after day. My camp-mom job is to launder the shirts every afternoon.
Summer in Hale County is hot! Only in Haiti can I say I’ve ever been hotter. At Sawyerville, there is no air conditioning in the gym where the big kids play, and little air anywhere else. I got used to being wet down to my skivvies, as my dad used to say.
There is no AC in the laundromat either-I know I looked a sight carrying the baskets of t-shirts in to the coin laundromat, the pockets of my shorts bulging with rolls of quarters, and my sweaty hair stringy wet. One afternoon, while I was at the laundromat, I was switching the hundred or so t-shirts from all the washers one by one to the dryers—had to remember which ones actually heated up and dried and which ones you’d lose your quarters in. A man was there doing his laundry and he watched me, load all those wet t-shirts, sticking quarters in the machines to get them fully dry…he kindly asked, “you a coach? Got lots of team shirts there.” I smiled, and said, no sir. These are camp shirts. I told him about Sawyerville Day Camp, he said he’d heard about it, “been doing that for years, huh?” Yes, about twenty now. “It’s a good thing,”
I told him about the older kids from this area who used to be campers and now served as counselors. I told him about this one young man who was in college now, studying journalism, who’d been a Sawyerville camper and counselor, and who’d shared some of his writing with us the night before. A great part about day camp is that the young kids go home and the counselors and adult staff stay together overnight, organizing, eating together, planning, and playing together. The night before I met this man in the laundromat was staff talent night, and the counselors were having great fun, singing, dancing, showing off their gifts. Near the end of the night one young man came up on stage and started reading a composition of his. He began telling us just how impactful Sawyerville has been for him. All his life he’d been told things like, “you ain’t gonna make nothing of yourself,” and “the man is gonna keep you down,” and he believed it…most of the time. But Sawyerville, summer after summer, told him something different. This camp, its counselors and chaplains, the friends he found here through the stories they shared and the games they’d played, told him something very different. Sawyerville told him, he was special—that he had the right to run and play and be joyful, and is steadfastly called by a loving God to dream for his future. Through the gospel, these years at camp told him he was loved just for who he is, and, too, that God has given him abundant love to share with others. On that night, he was doing just that–sharing. The young man quietly read his story of truth with such courage and openness, as the rest of us on staff listened intently—the room was silent–I remember sending him quiet prayers of encouragement, as he paused several times, struggling with his emotions. Eventually, the tears overwhelmed him. and he couldn’t finish telling his story. After a long pause, finally, one of the girls who’d grown up with him there at camp, walked up on the stage and sat down beside him. She held him, hugging him, and asked him if she could continue reading for him. And she did. She read the beautifully written story of a boy whose life was transformed by love.
Back at the laundromat, the man next to me said, “sounds like a team to me—God’s team.” Yes, I agreed, “you are right.”
Clad in worn out t-shirts, singing, playing, handing out high-fives to every single camper when they arrive and when they leave each day, Sawyerville is God’s team, sharing the love of God. This camp is one fine example of the way, the truth, and the life that Jesus is talking about. It is evidence that Christian community is, in fact, possible. In a world full of selfishness, hatred, and exclusion, it is too easy to believe the narratives around us—that there is nothing we can do to change the trajectory of life around us. The gospel witnesses against that. We can do greater things, Jesus says, if we’ll just follow the way.
Thanks be to God.