A Sermon for Sunday, May 13, 2018
John 17: 6-19
I am always at a bit of a loss as to how we, in the church, are called to find synergy in the Gospel message and secular, cultural celebrations. I know I am called to the love of all people – which, on a day like today, means remembering a friend who did not go to church on Mothers Day for forty years, because she was a mother for only four months before her baby died. It means remembering those who could not become mothers when they wanted to – and those who did not choose to do so. It means remembering another friend in a grief support group, who only realized after allowing herself to become totally vulnerable, that she was grieving the mother she never had rather than the one she did. It means honoring those who have buried their children, and those who are estranged from their children. It means honoring those who have suffered neglect, and abuse, from their own mothers. It means, for me, weeping at this time every year for the past 16 years with my nieces, whose mother died when they were little girls, yet whose annual tributes to her express both their longing and their gratitude for the brief time she was their mom.
It was in this frame of mind that I read John’s gospel for this morning…and I have never encountered the words before in such a bittersweet way.
Jesus has, for the past few weeks in our readings, been spending the end of his time on earth with his disciples. Although our attention has not been drawn to it, the readings take place at the time of the Last Supper. The disciples don’t know this will be their last night with Jesus, but Jesus knows. And he has set about preparing them to continue what he has begun. He didn’t do anything attention getting. He performed no dazzling miracle to remember him by…provided them no riveting metaphor to keep his message in focus…two things he was really good at. The disciples were to continue Jesus’ life – just as we are called to do – when he was no longer physically there. But how?
Jesus got up from the table, took a basin of water and a towel, and proceeded to wash the feet of the disciples. Peter objected, but Jesus overrode him and continued the washing. Then Jesus began to talk, and he talked a long time. This is the longest conversation of Jesus we have in the New Testament. He tells the story of the Vine and the branches, and invites us all to live in him. He gives a new commandment – to love one another, and make ourselves at home in his love…to put our lives on the line for our friends.
And then Jesus prays. He prays to his Father, our Father – his Mother, our Mother – in heaven, asking God to fuse his life and work with the life and work of his disciples…with our life and work. And in his words is a poignancy we don’t hear in other passages and other writings…the sadness of a man who is about to leave those he holds so dear…those who have put such trust and faith in him. He prays to God to “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” asking God to help them have trust and faith in one another when Jesus is no longer with them. “ “While I was with them,” he prays, “I protected them…I guarded them…I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them.”
Jesus knows God’s love as parent – just as he has, in his way, parented the motley crew of men and women who have given away all that they had and all that they knew because they recognized in him the love that is from God…whether they could name it or not. And Jesus’ prayer was asking God to wrap God’s love around them as they faced what came next in their lives…to keep them safe, to keep them strong, to keep them in the love they felt for one another and for the one who loved them into being.
And that’s it – that’s how Jesus chose to spend that last evening with his disciples, preparing for the transition from Jesus present to Jesus absent. He began by washing the feet of his disciples, down on his knees before each of them, getting his hands dirty with the dirt of their feet. He ended by praying to his Father and their Father that what they continued to do would be in harmony with what he had been doing. That God would protect them, and that God’s love would live through them.
The pattern holds for us, as well: Whatever we do in Jesus’ name, we begin on our knees before our friends and neighbors and, indeed, before all God’s children and conclude looking up to heaven praying to our Father. Washing dirty feet and praying to the Holy Father of us all bookend our lives.
Lest you think I’ve strayed away from Mothers’ Day…and perhaps landed on Fathers’ Day…I don’t think so. What John’s words in the Gospel tell me of Jesus is that he was many things to, and for, his disciples…and one of those things was parent. None of the twelve were his biological children, and Jesus certainly doesn’t have the gender qualifications to be called Mother. Yet what this passage opens up is the notion that some of us may find ourselves the children of loving mothers, may hope ourselves to be loving mothers to our offspring…and yet all of us have the capacity – and the calling – to be loving in the way God loves to all whom we encounter.
I had a really awesome mother…but she wasn’t the only mother in my life. She wasn’t the only person I was blessed to meet who taught me what love is, what love looks like, how love feels. Some of the best mothers I’ve encountered are men. And when it comes right down to it, some of the most unconditional love we ever encounter – are ever blessed to receive – comes not from mothers or from fathers but from little children. Jesus shows us in his plea to his father, on behalf of his own “children,” that God’s love fills us all with the capacity to teach and to learn, to guide and to follow, to protect and to be protected by God’s children whether they live on our family tree or not.
Every year, the author Anne Lamott brings out a column she wrote ten years ago explaining (in her humorous, but on point way) her argument with Mothers Day. In it she admits that there were times she could have literally died of love for her son Sam, and she admits (and I quote) “I’ve felt stoned on his rich, desperate love for me.” She takes issue with the celebration of a day solely for mothers – at the exclusion of all those I spoke of earlier – because, she says, “it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat…You want to give me chocolate and flowers? (asks Anne) Great. I love them both. I just don’t want them out of guilt, and I don’t want them if you’re not going to give them to all the people who helped mother our children. But if you are going to include everyone, then make mine something like M&Ms, and maybe some flowers you picked yourself, even from my own garden, the cut stems wrapped in wet paper towels, then tin foil and a waxed-paper bag from my kitchen drawer. I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain.” This, I believe, is what God asks of each of us.
I used to tell my children that we can never know what pain is in the hearts of those we meet. Because my children are now far wiser than I, they often say the same to me. And I also told them we can never imagine how much love is in the hearts of those we meet. In their own beautiful way, they remind me of that quite often, too. Being mother, father, sibling, child – biological or not – are relationships full of pain and full of love. It is the love of God – something beautifully plain – that holds it all together – that holds us all together – that helps us find our best mothers (male and female) in so many places and helps us be the best mothers (female and male) to so many others in the world. May this Mothers’ Day be yet another reminder – another celebration – that God’s love is alive in the world – it is there for the taking and it is there for the giving away.