Happy Mother’s Day! It is so good to be with you on this glorious day. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia, and I am your travel guide through the wonderful journey of seeking your next priest. Every now and again, I have the privilege of being with you as the one who leads worship and preaches, and it is my delight whenever I do so.
So as I said, it’s Mother’s Day. It’s one of those really sticky challenges for us preachers – to take the lessons we have been given for a particular Sunday and somehow acknowledge the secular holiday without taking away the awesome power of these Eastertide readings. We don’t want to forget those we honor but we don’t want to twist the scripture into a pretzel to serve that end.
But today, the creators of the schedule of readings – the Lectionary – have given us a gift.
All of these readings are about how God cares for us as a loving parent, invites us all into his love, baptizes us into relationship regardless of where we came from, and instructs us to share the love we have learned from all this.
Seems to align pretty nicely with our ideal vision of motherhood, doesn’t it? Just like on the cards we may have given our mothers, or have received, at breakfast this morning.
All the Hallmark cards talk about motherly love and gratitude and sharing and appreciation of love given and lessons learned.
But love is a complicated thing, and so too mother love.
Some of us may have had the painful experience of wanting to be a mother, and having nature refuse to cooperate. All that love, and the plan to have children in the time-honored manner goes awry. What to do with that love?
Some of us may have had the equally painful experience of having lost our mother early, or never having known our mother at all. I think of my husband’s uncle, whose mother died giving birth to him. That’s a complicated sort of love – love mixed with gratitude mixed with guilt.
A few may have had mothers who, for whatever reason, were unable to give love.
Something was broken in their hearts, and they couldn’t be that Hallmark card mother. How to love someone who couldn’t love them back in the way that mothers are supposed to? It seems an impossible situation.
Others of us had the gift of a mother who was the embodiment of love. Not perfect love, to be sure – none of us are perfect – but heartfelt endearing caring. The quotidian tasks of motherhood were hard to be sure, and you might get snapped at if you misbehaved, but still you never doubted the love.
What are the lessons of the infinite variations of love that are possible within the overall rubric of motherhood?
First, love is rarely perfect, except the love of God. Mother love may occasionally come close, but even mothers do not do it perfectly. Mothers are human. My grandmother had a notorious temper and a sharp tongue. Woe be to her children if they misbehaved! Sometimes she was right to get so angry – they were not the easiest of children – and sometimes it was disproportionate to the crime. Looking back now, over a few decades and knowing more of her story, I understand why she was that way. Her children didn’t doubt her love but sometimes they were hurt by her outbursts…and yet I know she loved them in spite of it all. Would that she could have found better targets for her anger, but in her small world, there was nothing else. But even imperfect love is a start. This is why Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another." He knew we needed to be reminded to love one another, because sometimes we forget. Sometimes we don’t do it very well.
Second, love sometimes comes in an unusual package. My mother was 44 years old when she and my father adopted me. She looked like a grandmother, not like my friends’ moms. But her love was as fresh and intense – in some ways more, since she had to work so hard to get me. She wasn’t the normal package, but she loved deeply and well. A friend who is married to another woman recently gave birth to their first child. It is not necessarily the way some of us may be used to seeing mother love – two moms – but seeing them with their child, there is no doubt that there is deep mother love from both of these dear women for this child. This is what Peter was talking about in the reading from Acts, when some people questioned whether the Gentiles should be baptized as Jewish Christ-followers were. In their eyes, the Gentiles weren’t the right people. They didn’t look and act like Jews. But Peter said "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" The package that love and faithfulness comes in may vary. Love does not.
Third, love each other because God loves each of us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel so lovable. I may be cranky and short-tempered if I’ve worked too many days in a row without a break. And if one of my children call me with a problem or a question, I may be short with them. I’m not a perfect mother, not by a long shot. But when I see them, even at my worst or their worst, I can see a little bit of the light of God in them. I know God loves them. It reminds me that God loves me, too, in all my crankiness, in all my short-tempered comments, in all my imperfection. God loves me in spite of my failings. Jesus says so in the Gospel: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” I’m not the only mother like that. Maybe your mother was like that, maybe you were, too. But God still loves us and encourages us, and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to keep reminding us of divine love, the love we are to share with others, and how it marks us with that divine light to change the world.
Lastly, love can change the world. If your mom ever told you when you brought home a less-than-A+ paper from school “you can do it. You can do anything you set your mind to,” you know what I mean. Mother love at its best is all about building up one another, saying “yes, you can do it. I believe in you.” That is precisely what we hear in these readings today: God, through his son Jesus Christ, lets us know in a thousand different ways that God believes we have the capacity to love as God loves, a love so vast and all-encompassing that it can change the world. God gives us the tools to remember that love and to share it, to get back into the habit of love when we have fallen out of it, to offer it even to others who seem unlovable in the moment.
That’s the kind of love that can truly change the world.
Remember that story about when Jesus was twelve and slipped away from his parents to go and teach in the temple, and scared his parents out of their wits? When they found him, his mother said “where were you? We were looking everywhere for you.” He replied, as only a smarty-pants 12 year old boy can “I was busy doing what God wanted me to do.” In Scripture, we don’t hear anything more from that mother of that unusual boy, but in my heart, I can hear her saying, “we were so frightened. We love you so much. Please don’t run off like that without telling us. You can do anything, accomplish anything, but just don’t forget to tell us where you’re going.”
Jesus tells us where we should go – to the place of the heart where we love each other as a mother loves a child, as his mother loved him, as his heavenly father loved him, as he loves us. And sometimes, he even uses the language of a mother to remind us of his love: “How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings.”
If we remember nothing from this day when we honor mothers, remember how mothers love, how deeply and fiercely, remember how Jesus loves us even more deeply and fiercely, and remember Jesus’ wish: that we love in the same way, with the same passion, even loving the ones who are sometimes unlovable or who don’t look like the “right” people to love, or who cannot return our love. Love them all. Change the world. Because Jesus loved us and changed the world and each of us with nothing more than love.