“Mother and Child Reunion,” 2.27.11, Ordinary/Epiphany 8A

[Note: we’ve posted the last two sermons out of order! Oops! But now we’re all up to date again.]

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 49:8-6a, Psalm 131

“No I would not give you false hope, On this strange and mournful day;

But the mother and child reunion, Is only a motion away, oh little darling…”

So sings Paul Simon in his 1972 solo release, “Mother and Child Reunion,” from which I took this morning’s sermon title. There are many theories about the meaning of this song. Is it about a mother who has given up her child or received news that her son won’t return from Vietnam? Is it about someone comforting a child who has lost her mother? Those are just the most basic interpretations I found. But the truth “behind the music” is a bit less romantic. Turns out, Paul Simon saw the phrase “mother and child reunion” naming a dish on a menu at a Chinese restaurant and knew an evocative turn of words when he saw it![1]            

And he was right. I think the song is powerful because the image of the “Mother and Child Reunion” puts a finger on what is simultaneously a profound hope and sorrow in human experience. Whatever our actual experience, we seem to always harbor the hope that we might find that place of homecoming, where we are drawn back into the secure embrace of unconditional love and abundant provision.

But there is also that basic grief. As one preacher puts it, [E]ven if we have a home with people we love, we never quite reach that true destination, that place where our souls are fully connected, and we know the full meaning of home is all its shapes and contours. In this life, we remain in a kind of exile.”[2]

“Exile” is a generally appropriate metaphor for that existential grief rooted in being born, growing up, and individuating from one’s parents, realities which always have spiritual dynamics as well. Yet many of us also experience more specific kinds of exile, finding ourselves in relationships broken by addiction or abuse, trudging through bouts of depression or times when purpose and meaning seem absent, journeying ourselves or with a loved one through a long illness, or trying out a different mode of faith than we learned as children. In any of these experiences, we might feel like strangers in a strange land, alienated from “home.”  In any of these experiences, we might feel like we inhabit an empty space and wonder if God has left us out here to make it on our own.

Today’s reading from Isaiah addresses a people who were living in a very specific, historical exile, after the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians. Thousands of Judah’s people had been deported from Palestine to ancient Babylon, current-day Iraq. These people expressed their grief in words like Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…”

But Isaiah 49 strikes a different chord. Through the prophet, God speaks an invigorating word of hope, a huge vision which makes extravagant claims not only for what God will do, but for what God has already done. “I have answered you, I have helped you, and I have kept you,” God tells his Servant. Furthermore, “I have given you as a covenant to the people.” Promising that the homeland will be rich and abundant again, that the desolate places will bustle with new life, the Servant is empowered to liberate prisoners and call out those who hide in shame to identify themselves anew as God’s free people. All will be led home by God, who like a compassionate shepherd, will provide every necessity and make the roads smooth and straight. Isaiah’s Word of the Lord culminates in an imperative of praise: “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.”

It is as if, in the very announcement of what God intends, God has already accomplished it.[3] But how do the people respond to this bracing call to action and empowerment, this great vista of new possibility? Our text tells us, “But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’” As preacher Doug King comments, “What would a grand a powerful gesture by God be if we did not respond with a whine?”[4]

And yet, can we really blame these folks for their unenthusiastic response? The first time I read this passage, it seemed that commanding the exiled people to “sing for joy” is like telling someone in clinical depression, “Cheer up! Get out there and enjoy the sun!” To a person who feels like they are drowning, two hundred feet below the surface, the sun seems like a false hope. Another author notes, “Israel cannot see beyond the present boundaries of Babylon, yet God speaks as if they are already home.”[5] Homecoming may be on God’s horizon, but to Israel, it feels like just another day in Babylon.

Yet we also need keep in mind, Isaiah is not addressing the original victims of the catastrophe, heartlessly telling them to “get over it.” This text—and most of Isaiah 40 through 55—were probably written about fifty years after the great disaster and deportation. Isaiah is speaking to a new generation. They still carry the memory of their people’s pain, but not as a fresh wound.  The collective grief of separation has become a shrug of complacency, as they have acquiesced to the ways of Babylon. And after what happened to the earlier generation, why would they want to risk acting on God’s magnificent vision of homecoming?

What I love about this text is God’s next response. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” Of course it won’t surprise you that I zeroed in on this imagery given my current state of affairs! But what I like is that God hears Israel’s complaint and recognizes that something more basic is at stake than a simple lack of initiative. History and experience have taught the people a suspicion and distrust of God’s dreams and grand hopes. What they need right now is something more elemental.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson used the words “basic trust” to describe the bedrock confidence that a baby comes to have in a primary caregiver—usually the mother—that she will be reliably attentive to the baby’s needs, even when the baby cannot see her. From this basic trust in the mother, the baby comes to have confidence that the world is also stable and reliable. [6]  The trust forged in the earliest years between children and their primary caregivers is the foundation for later growth and freedom.

This is the kind of relationship with God the author of Psalm 131 describes. “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” The word translated “weaned” here can also mean “fulfilled” or “ripened;” the sense is of a child who has been reliably given everything he or she needs to grow. Walter Brueggemann submits, “To be fully human, so Israel testifies, is to have a profound, unshakable, elemental trust in Yahweh as reliable, present, strong, concerned, engaged for; and like Erikson’s child, to live and act on the basis of that confidence, even when Yahweh is not visible and circumstance attests to the contrary.” [7] Because a weaned child is no longer totally dependent for full nourishment from the mother’s body, he or she has more freedom to venture out to explore the world.

Yet what kind of explorations does a weaned child take? Nothing too high or grandiose, as the Psalmist notes. They start small. Little, baby steps. One theologian describes her daughter’s explorations of a pre-kindergarten room: “Despite the teacher’s urgings to explore the surroundings, my daughter found my lap the best spot from which to view the classroom. After a bit, though, she slipped down and moved away to study an aquarium, while I continued to converse with the teacher. Then she returned to my lap, where I welcomed her. In time, she ventured out again to see what the shelves on another side of the room might hold. This pattern continued until she had seen every corner of the classroom.”[8]

Israel’s basic trust in God’s reliable presence and provision has been shaken. So, before the people can leap into the great vision of homeland restored, Israel must learn anew the baby steps of trust in God. For God’s word in Isaiah proclaims the good news. Israel is not forgotten, can never be forgotten. Though a nursing mother might forget, God will not and cannot forget God’s people. Now, a nursing mother will likely not forget her child, not primarily because of their emotional bond, but because of the biological imperative: when the milk is there, you gotta give it away or suffer the consequences! And it is that biological imperative that the prophet is drawing on in this metaphor. “God is intimately connected to us, intensely aware of our experience and our needs and incapable of forgetting,” writes one theologian.[9] God cannot forget us, God says, because God has inscribed our names on the palms of God’s hands.

And so, it is not false hope, my friends, little darlings! “The mother and child reunion is only a motion away!” And God has already taken the first motion. God has chosen to make God’s people part and parcel of God’s very identity and being, and those hands will faithfully provide all that is necessary for the journey home from any kind of exile. So how will we respond? The next move is ours. We are not as helpless, hopeless or abandoned as we may have presumed, and we have been empowered by God to make a choice.[10]

Even in the darkest moments of our lives, even when home seems unbearably far away, we can choose to trust. And it is not so much that we must take a great, flying “leap of faith” to throw ourselves back into God’s arms. All it takes is that first baby step. The quietest, whispered prayer begins a new life with God. The smallest, most tentative act initiates the journey home. Just do that next righteous and loving thing, trusting in the God who is our true home beyond anything we’ve experienced and imagined. All Glory Be to God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer! Amen.


[1] These and other interpretations found at http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1997.

[2] Could not find name of the author of this sermon posted at: Knox Presbyterian Church

http://knoxpasadena.org/podcast/archives/index.php?id=8909646939291369975

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching Year A, p.155.

[4] Doug King, quoted by Kimberly L. Clayton, “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 49:8-16a,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Gen. Eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 389.

[5] Kimberly L. Clayton, as above, 387.

[6] Erikson’s theory paraphrased from Walter Brueggemann’s use of it in Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press, Minneapolois, 1997, 466.

[7] Brueggemann as above.

[8] Ellen J. Blue, “Theological Perspective on Psalm 131”, (394).

[10] Clayton, 387.

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