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The Gospel of Auntie Mame

Speaker: Jake Joseph

May 10, 2020

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Mother’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going. John 14:1-4, revised

My younger sister, Jaime, and I both tell the same story. Now, none of you in Connecticut have yet to meet my mom. She was supposed to come this weekend with my grandmother for my Installation Service, which has been officially postponed for Labor Day Weekend. 

In really, however, none of us really knows when I will actually be able to see her. This is true for all of us with far away family. Gerhard and I cannot wait to show her Bishop’s Orchards, hike in the Westwoods, and share this new place I love so much and call home!

Petite and slim with long blonde hair and blazing blue eyes—after college, my mom was a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Brazil in the 1970’s where she started a school, she went onto have a career as a recruiter for Pan Am (an airline some of you may remember) through the 1980’s, and finally she retired from a career with hospice last year. Now, as a “retirement job”, she is a greeter at the hospital in the Emergency Department in my hometown hospital. She has been asked to also help clean equipment in the basement by the morgue during the Covid-19 crisis—because she cannot help but help others! I am a very proud son. 

But I have gotten ahead of myself. My sister and I both tell the same story—the story of being dropped off for our first day of Kindergarten. With oversized backpacks filled with school supplies, we remember our mom telling us, “Never forget, there is no such thing as normal. Be confident, and know that if anyone picks on you.” Looking me in the eye, “I want you to tell them that you have a big, strong mama at home and they better pick on someone else.” Low and behold, whenever we were picked on through those early years of elementary school, we would stand tall and declare to our detractors… “You better not… I have a big, strong mama at home!” You can imagine the scene…often in the principal’s office. 

Normal (new normal or old normal) has never been something my family has had any interest in pursuing—and if we ever needed back-up on that point—we knew who to call.

Our passage today is in the original Greek is limiting and normalizing. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…And you know the way to the place where I am going.” That is because in the context and time of the author of The Gospel of John, only fathers owned houses and were the heads of households. For modern readers, many miss the deeper power of the text because the parental metaphor doesn’t match their experience, and that is too bad. It is sadly disregarded.

This passage is a product of that era, but we know that the metaphor must adjust to meet our modern truths and experience! We don’t do this to undermine the Biblical canon, but we do it in order to help the Gospel and the Bible survive and thrive. It is our call, as the living, breathing, relevant Church, to adjust this to make it powerful for today with those from many households. For those of us with “big, strong mamas” and/ or “cool, sensitive, loving fathers,” or homes with others who have taken the role of parent and shelter provider— “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Parent’s, in my Mom’s house there are many dwelling places…And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

The metaphor in this passage must extend today to (yes) fathers, mothers, and parent figures of all kinds who open their homes and hearts (the many rooms)—because it is filled with so much hope. We all need that hope of abundance. None should miss out on it. We need this passage today and cannot let the patriarchy and purveyors of normal take it away from us. This must be a Mothers’ Day passage for 2020 because we need it.

We all need to hear: “Do not let your hearts be troubled… there is a place for you in the love and home of a mom-God, a parent-God, and yes still also (for those of us for whom this makes sense) a dad-God too.” There isn’t just one room, but there are many rooms and ways of being. Normal was never a requirement for lodgment.

Today, humanity is experiencing a collective existential crisis! We have experienced the death of normal...of one room. So, we need our Scripture today and must adapt it for Mother’s Day. The ultimate Existential Crisis in the Bible is, in my opinion, The Gospel of John! John was written for a community of people in crisis, living nearly 100 years after Jesus, looking for safety, seeing a home (a sheltering place) both physically and spiritually. They are not contemporaries of Jesus but people living in the new reality of exile from community that happened to his followers a generation later. They are a people in search of meaning! They are exiles from normal. All of the rooms, places of home that they knew are gone. They need a big, strong mama of love—the presence of that God to reassure them that normal was never the goal to begin with for the Christian life. “Do not let your hearts be troubled…there are many rooms.” The wisdom of a mother, mom-God is essential. They are free from the Cult of Normalcy. 

A professor at the University of Toronto School of Theology, Dr. Thomas E. Reynolds, coined this phrase in, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability. Reynolds writes, “Wholeness is not the product of self-sufficiency or independence, but rather of the genuinely inclusive [many rooms] communion that results from sharing our humanity with one another in light of the grace of God….there is a strange logic to Christian witness, one that gives testimony to a strength that comes through weakness, a wholeness that manifests itself in brokenness, a power that reveals itself through vulnerability. [Culture,] Rather than idealize vulnerability, it produces what I shall call… the false pretense of the cult of normalcy…This is the stuff of the cult of normalcy. And its effects are pernicious, setting up social mechanisms that either assimilate by enforcing conformity or exclude by preventing participation.”[1]

The Gospel for this moment, as I hear everyone pining for what was “normal” and hope for nothing but a “new normal” is that Normalcy is a Cult and an idol. We are the children of a Mother God whose house has many rooms and none of them has ever been normal. Maybe rather than a “new normal” the theological kernel I want to offer you this morning is a slight shift/ pivot of our vocabulary in these times to hope for a new and lasting exceptional, abundant, hope-filled way of living. Rather than hope for normal, we can hope for a new exceptional. 

I too am exhausted by the lack of predictable, desperate for stability and a calendar I can count on. I too am scared right now…terrified even about what all of this means for life and institutions I love like First Church. But what scared me most of all is a “new” and more sinister normal—further entrenching the patterns that take us further from the Realm of God. Instead of hoping for a normal—I have put all of my hope in a new exceptional!

And, perhaps keeping a sense of humor, we need to say this in Connecticut more than anywhere because Hollywood has made us the symbol, the mecca, the oasis, the homeland of the Cult of Normalcy and perfectionism—even if it isn’t actually true!

A quick survey of the history of film set in or filmed in Connecticut reveals that all, with the notable exception of Mystic Pizza (1988), of the popular culture cinematography reference to Connecticut are often way too flattering in an imagined Fairfield or Litchfield County (very white and perfect) unrealistic sort of way: Bringing-Up Baby (1938), Holiday Inn (1942) or The Family Stone (2005)! Those are the movies you watch and think, “Wow… that state has it all made! They must not have any problems there. It is so wildly…normal.”

On the other hand, there are the films that take that image of perfection and use it against us: Far from Heaven (2002), The Stepford Wives (1975 and 2006), The Land of Steady Habits (2018), and Auntie Mame (1958) to only name a few. Connecticut, we are used by Hollywood as a trope to represent the dark side of the American Dream and what “normal” should look like.

In the 2006 version of The Stepford Wives, Glenn Close’s character who is the mastermind behind the town  and a plan to convert everyone into robots declares of her plan to create a better world, “A world or romance and beauty… a perfect world…and then I asked myself, where would people never notice a town full of robots?” She gasps and looks around, “Ah! Connecticut!” 

In Auntie Mame, a favorite movie in the LGBTQ community starring Rosalind Russell, Mame is an eccentric aunt who becomes the mother figure to her orphaned nephew—taking him out of a “normal” uptight upbringing deep within the Cult of Normalcy and instead brings him into her many rooms abundance of love and diversity and arts and color (Bohemia). When he grows-up and becomes engaged to the daughter of a family from Connecticut, Mame goes to meet her new in-laws. They declare themselves to be “top drawer” type people. Mame and her nephew see the Cult of Normalcy for what it is… and return, fleeing to New York City. “Live! That is the message. Yes. Life is a banquet,” Mame declares, “and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

For this reason, I always write to my aunts on Mother’s Day! How many of us have had an Auntie Mame person in our lives who was more interested in all of the drawers than just the top drawer? If we in Connecticut, the national symbol of perfection and normalcy, can embrace the Gospel of a mother-God who calls us to reject this idol of normal, then maybe the rest of the county and world can too. 

We are in a moment when we are all part of a collective, human existential crisis experience!

Mostly stuck at home, removed from “normal”, we are all spending a lot of time reflecting on deeper meaning and/or panicking. As Ginger described in her Steeple article this week—we are all over the many stages of grief from existential euphoria (sewing and baking) to deep confusion and sadness. We just do not know where exactly to land emotionally or mentally, yet we know one thing for sure: We have said Adieu to Normal. Whatever comes next, we have the chance to make a better world with room, rooms, and rooms… for all… the “top drawer” people of Fairfield and Darien and the rest of us too… 

Like so many people around the country on this Mother’s Day, I don’t know when I will next see and spend time with my big, strong mama in person again. This is deeply sad. 

When you watch this…Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thank you for teaching me to have absolutely no interest in being “normal.”

Happy Mother’s Day to all those Auntie Mames (both women and men) who nurture a sense of the extraordinary, the possible, the endless many rooms of life. 

Happy Mother’s Day to all those with room, with dwelling places for the abundance of diversity who help us reject the Cult of Normalcy!

Do not let your hearts be troubled, indeed, for our Mother God is a big, strong, loving mama… who is here to help us overcome an end to normal and bring us safely into the dwelling place of the possible! Amen.

[1] Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2008), 18, 19, 75.

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