My mother died on Mother’s Day. And on that Mother’s Day she, once again and finally, got the last word on me. She was at Wesley Woods Geriatric Center, where I’d placed her for evaluation following the death of Daddy, one month and one day earlier. Mother had a lot of problems, most of them medical but a few of them directly the result of her being just plain ornery. And at the end of her life there was the problem that she had only one drink a day. You see, if you refresh the drink before the glass is empty, technically it’s still one drink.
So I arrived at Wesley Woods that day in the company of a lady I’d been dating. In fact, we’d been dating seriously enough that it was time she was introduced to mother, scary as that might be for her. My mother, apparently, sensed that this relationship was serious. She said to the woman who, in a few months, would be my wife, (now let me translate her words into PG language), “Don’t take any male cow manure off him.”
We talked a bit more. And then my mother brought up the subject we’d been avoiding for weeks. She said, with grit and determination in her voice, and with that look on her face that long ago my brother and I had learned to interpret as a signal to shut up or be stomped, “You think you’re going to put me in a nursing home; but I’ll show you.”
That’s the last thing she said to me. Mother got the last word. I never put her into that nursing home. I didn’t get a chance. The nurses told me later that, twenty minutes or so, after she’d spoken those words to me she called them. She gave the nurse her wedding rings and said, “Give these to my son; he’ll know what to do with them.” Five minutes later my mother died. She got the last word.
Today my daughter-in-love, the mother of two of my precious grandsons, in Connecticut, wears those rings. I did know what to do with them.
You’ll forgive me today, upon our celebration of the Festival of the Christian Home, as I remember my mother.
Our Gospel lesson this morning, taken from John 10: 1-10, speaks of Jesus being the Good Shepherd. “Let me set this before you as plainly as I can,” said Jesus. “If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good – a sheep rustler!”
No one was going to rustle up my mother’s lambs. Why? Because she was in the pen with them, physically wrestling with the best of us and making us cry uncle. And I’m not talking about when I was a small child. Even when I was in high school, mother could take down the most competent athlete and pin him to the ground. Her petite body belied the strength that controlled the muscles in that once competitive gymnastic lady.
I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons my brother, Bill, and I turned out to be fairly decent people (and despite the fact I had to struggle with the reality that it seemed Mother always did love Bill best), was that Mother was truly the shepherd herding her lambs.
Looking back on it, I’m truly grateful that Mother guarded the gate and kept us safe, and from time to time came into the enclosure to make us feel special.
There are so many things I could tell you about my Mother. I could tell you about all the embarrassing things she did to me, like the time she asked Carole Memory, just before our first date, if she planned to swap spit with me. I could tell you about all the times she said, “Someday, you’ll understand,” and how, now, I understand. I could tell you about the times she said, “Someday, you’ll be sorry.” And today I’m truly, truly, sorry.
But what I really want to share with you today is my Mother’s insistence on me being in church. In the lesson from Acts, this morning, there’s a description of the church immediately after Christ’s resurrection. “They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God.”
Truth is, I have a lot of unresolved issues surrounding my Mother. There’s the issue of me searching for and finding my biological father. There’s the issue of her becoming more reclusive in her later years. There’s the issue of her one-drink-a-day, as well as some others.
But there’s one thing that is not an issue. It’s the one thing that shaped my life more than any other. Back in 1996, Bishop Lindsey Davis called me and asked me if I’d like to be considered to become pastor at the historic Epworth Church in the inner city of Atlanta. I said, “Yes.” He asked me if I wanted to know the salary. I told him, “Not particularly.” What Bishop Davis did not know was that church was only a few blocks from where I was born. What he did not know was my earliest memory in life is crawling up the steps of that church.
You see, my Mother took me to church before I could walk. I cannot remember a time, prior to getting my driver’s license, when my mother did not take me to church. And, when in later years, we joined a different church where there was no youth group my Mother formed the youth group.
So many, many memories of my Mother are centered about church. Sunday after Sunday sitting beside my mother, from knee pants to 1950s black slacks and pink shirt, every Sunday I was in church.
And so here I am today, in church, preaching to you, telling you about the first church where they were daily at the Temple and at home, praising God. And telling you about my Mother, so dedicated to her children, so conflicted in her being, so concerned that her kids go to church, and who always got the last word. And if from time to time, I seem a little overly dedicated to the church, to praising God, to the public worship and the daily prayers, you can blame my Mother.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.