A sermon preached on May 9, 2021 – Mother’s Day – based upon John 15:9-17 entitled, “The Love that Involves a Deep Knowing.”
An odd little memory of my mother arose from my unconscious this week as I was pondering the Gospel lesson and wondering what I might say that would have some bearing on this day we call “Mother’s Day”. The memory dates back nearly sixty years to the beginning of my second grade in school. My teacher – Mrs. Maclay, I think was her name – wasn’t particularly mean but she definitely didn’t have what I talked about a couple of weeks ago – that is, a true sense of calling – or vocation — to the work of being a teacher. The memory that popped into my mind involved the traditional “Back to School” night that occurs in September maybe three weeks into the school year when parents come into the classroom to hear their child’s teacher talk about the coming school year.
My mother wasn’t by nature a particularly critical person – but I remember that when she got home something Mrs. Maclay had said had clearly irked her. It was an off handed comment the teacher made to the parents assembled before her – that she had not yet learned all the kids’ names. My mother was appalled, “There’s only twenty-five of you – how could she not have learned your names yet!”
Odd, as I said that this memory would pop up for me. I suspect the memory was brought to mind by way of the Holy Spirit for I think it provides some illumination to our Gospel lesson. I’ll come back to this little story in a moment. But first…
Everybody knows “love” is an important, and most of us also realize that it can be a confusing word since we use the word in so many different ways: We speak of loving music, of falling in love, of the love of a parent for a child, and that of a child for a parent. We speak of the love of friends and of God’s love and aspiring to love like Jesus. It’s confusing all the different ways we talk of love.
Love is a mystery that can be contemplated from different angles.
We all know that the word “love” shows up a lot in the New Testament. In the passage we just heard, Jesus speaks of love nine times, and thirty-nine times in all in this Gospel. The word shows up a lot in Matthew, Mark and Luke as well but not quite as frequently as John uses it.
In the other three Gospels we hear Jesus say some really challenging things regarding love, like “Love your enemies.” We hear about welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner. In Luke when Jesus is asked what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”, he tells the story of the man beaten up and left dying at the side of the road in which the hero of the story is a stranger from another tribe – a Samaritan who would generally have been considered an enemy of the Jews. The Samaritan comes upon this complete stranger and has compassion on his suffering, giving him very practical aid: cleaning his wounds and paying for his accommodations at an inn where the battered man can rest and recover.
This is, of course a very important part of what “Christian” love is about, but when love is talked about in John’s Gospel it is seen from another angle. “Love one another” is the command we hear Jesus say repeatedly — including twice in this morning’s passage. The emphasis is on the quality of care with which those who make up the Christian community are to have for one another. “This is how people will know that you are my followers,” Jesus says in one place, “that you love one another.” The witness the church has to the world includes showing people what a community of people looks like where people truly care for one another. And since in its ideal form the Christian community isn’t a group of people who are strangers to one another – the focus here is more of what we might call the “intimacy” of love.
In John’s Gospel we don’t hear so much about self-sacrifice, though making sacrifices as a part of love is certainly implied. What we hear instead is love as “self giving” as in the most famous verse in John’s Gospel (3:16), “God so loved the world that he gave his own son” by which God gave God’s self in order that people might come to know the very heart of God.
Something that occurs frequently in John’s Gospel that doesn’t really ever occur in the other Gospels are intimate, one-on-one, private conversations between Jesus and particular individuals. There’s Jesus and Nicodemus and there’s Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, among others. The Gospel ends with a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and Peter during which Jesus tenderly helps Peter work through the profound sense of failure and shame he feels so Peter can embrace his calling to be an apostle.
Another word that we hear a great deal in John’s Gospel is the word “know” and the concept of being known. After her conversation with Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman goes and tells the people of her village her amazement that she just met a guy who knew everything she’d ever done.
In the passage we just heard Jesus says a striking thing. He tells his disciples that from now on he’s not going to call them “servants”, he’s going to call them “friends.” Why? Because having spent three years together in such intimacy, they’ve really gotten to know him — know what he cares about in this world, what he doesn’t like in this world, and that in knowing Jesus they know God as well because Jesus takes his cues from God.
So returning to the odd little memory that I believe the Holy Spirit brought to mind regarding my mother and her strong negative reaction to Mrs. Maclay, my second grade teacher and the fact that three weeks in she hadn’t learned all her students names: I think my mother’s reaction had to do with recognizing that a teacher of a young child is a kind of surrogate mother and central to that role is to care enough to pay attention to each one of the children in order to get to know them as individuals – to come to know their distinctive personalities – their gifts and weaknesses – in order to help the students grow in their year together. In reflecting on this memory, I realized that the reason it stayed with me sixty years later is that my mother truly knew me – knew that I was a shy and rather unusual kid – one that could easily be overlooked in a classroom by a teacher who wasn’t paying attention.
So, Mother’s Day is always a challenge to address, because everybody’s experience in relation to their mothers is different and as a result, broad sweeping generalizations about mothers can be painful for some. In spite of what Hallmark cards my say, there is no such thing as a perfect mother, because we are all broken sinners whose capacity for love is deeply flawed.
Last year preaching from the Gospel of John I offered a “bottom line” quality of a mother which was that as flawed as a mother may be, a true mother is one who if called to do so would lay down her life for her child.
This year, again preaching from John, I offer another such definition. God alone know us thoroughly, but in terms of the knowledge of human beings, a mother (and maybe a father as well) is the person who knows her child best — the child’s distinctive qualities, what comes easily to them, what doesn’t, what situations will bring them joy, and what situations will be inherently difficult. The mother sees something of the potential – the hidden gifts inside the child that the rest of the world overlooks.
This kind of “knowing” is a primary form of love. One of the saddest fates a person can endure is to go through life without experiencing this kind of love.
Circling back to the Gospel of John and Jesus’ fundamental command to us as the church to love one another, I believe he’s pointing to this same kind of intimate love that involves caring enough to truly know one another on a deep level. It isn’t easy to come by in this world. It requires an atmosphere of great trust and vulnerability, because there is in all of us, just as there was in Peter some degree of shame that resists allowing ourselves to truly be known by another.
We fear rejection. We feel as though if people truly got to know us – our flaws and the darker parts of ourselves – they would reject us. So we keep our distance.
But if Jesus really is the center of our life together, then the church is a community of extraordinary grace. It’s a place where – having acknowledged that we are all flawed – all sinners saved by grace — we can put our guards down because our salvation has nothing to do with striving to maintain an image of perfection to project to other people.
You might say the church is to be a community of motherly love — or at least the love of true friends who have come to know one another well.
It’s been a tough year in this regard. To get to know another person requires spending a lot of time in their company, and that’s exactly what we haven’t been able to do. A lot of the social media we’ve resorted to hasn’t been helpful. The self we present on social media is a highly managed self. Often, we know far more about another person’s political views than we know about the person themself, the result being a lot of hate gets generated.
Brene Brown has a helpful saying: “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”
The church should be the community where we “move in” close to one another. It’s the place where we feel free to acknowledge our deepest joys and fears and sorrows to one another. As a community established on trust we share our wounds with one another, and as Jesus’ healing grace lives among us we find healing friendships, just as peter led Peter into a healing of his deep and wounding shame.
I read a story a pastor told about a woman who came to see him about joining the church. She said her doctor had sent her. Recently she had a facelift and when her doctor dismissed her he gave her this advice: “My dear, I have done an extraordinary job on your face, as you can see in the mirror. I have charged you a great deal of money and you were happy to pay it. But I want to give you some free advice. Find a group of people who love God and who will love you enough to help you deal with all the negative emotions inside of you. If you don’t, you’ll be back in my office in a very short time with your face in far worse shape than before.” (from “There’s a Lot More to Health Than Not Being Sick”, by Bruce Larson)
So in John’s Gospel the disciples have spent three years in Jesus’ company, getting to know him.
God’s love a. Sometimes we speak of love as if it were primarily a feeling and sometimes we talk about it as primarily as something we do – particular actions that convey love.
So it’s confusing, and to add to the complication in the New Testament the word gets used in different ways. The word shows up nine times in the passage we just heard from John’s Gospel, and 39 times altogether, more than any other Gospel.
And the way the word is used in John’s Gospel is somewhat different from the other Gospels, which simply reflects the varied facets of love.
But when Jesus talks about the command to love in John’s Gospel the way he repeatedly puts it is, “love one another.”
The ways in which love is talked about in the BibleO vary as well, which isn’t to say there is only one right way. But rather all valid.
In the synoptic Gospels you hear about loving the stranger. The parable of the Good Samaritan. Matthew whenever you encounter the hungry, the stranger, you
In John’s Gospel, Jesus primarily talks about love he as being what the members of a church should hav one another. The phrase we hear over and over is “love one another” that is within the community of faith. These are people not far off but close at hand. People you should, in theory know.
This is how they will know you are my followers that you love one another, as we heard him say twice in this one passage. Which is to say, the focus is more on the relationships within the Christian community.
In the other Gospels you hear about loving the stranger, and loving the enemy, and you hear about self-sacrifice, and in some sense that might well apply within the Christian community, there could be people who are strange to us, or even seem like our enemy. And that’s all important
So in John’s Gospel love is related to intimacy. You don’t hear so much about self-sacrifice as of self-giving. You hear about being known.
In John’s Gospel you hear less talk about self-sacrifice as you do self-giving. God so love the world he gave his son…
Here in this passage Jesus refers to them no longer as servants, but as friends. When we call someone a friend, one of the primary things we are saying is that this is someone you know and someone who knows you. (imperfect as your knowledge may be)
Notice that such love isn’t based upon agreeing, or seeing eye to eye. But it does imply a sense of knowing someone.
First, we get less emphasis on loving the stranger, and more emphasis that the church – the beloved community – should be a place where people deeply love one another.
And along with this is the notion that love is intimate – that it involves being close to one another, of sharing oneself.
Friendship is a love that is intimate, the sharing of self.
A friend called me recently. He was on his way to be with the parents of young man who had taken his life. He was looking for some advice. Don’t talk to much. Just be the love of God.
In John’s Gospel we hear a lot about abide in my love. We hear about the first disciples spend an a day in Jesus’ presence, and it is after doing such that they conclude he is the savior. We have a number of intimate conversations described: Nicodemus, Woman at the Well, the blind man from birth, Mary Magdalene at the tomb. One on one. Mary and Martha. The Gospel ends with a one on one conversation between Jesus and Peter where two different words for love
Shame as a barrier to friendship.
People as irreplaceable. Mother loses a child, she may find comfort in having another child, but the child can’t be replaced.
There are many ways I can say that my wife Sarah loves me, but the most fundamental way is she knows me better than anybody else, with the primary rival in that regard – my mother having left the earth nine years ago.
As a pastor, I have something of a parent like relationship with you all, and when members of my flock feud, it hurts me.
As I’ve said before, Mother’s Day presents what is a challenge that ultimately a preacher can’t meet.
(The servant doesn’t know what the master is doing, but if we know Jesus then we know what God is up to in this world. What can we say about what God is up to? God is overcoming division, overcoming the attitude that some people aren’t worthy of care. God is about giving us opportunity to love as God loves. What is God not up to? Well, as hard as this may seem, God isn’t especially focused on making us happy. Which is to say, have things work out the way we want them to in this world. God I believe is interested in having us bear fruit as the image of the vine suggested, to use our particular gifts to express love. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is kind of a one trick pony. What’s it all about? Love. The woman quizzing her kids about the sermon. It was about love.
God is referred to as the Father, but God doesn’t actually have a gender. God can just as well be called a mother as a Father, though there are masculine and feminine qualities to God’s love.
From Frances Taylor Gench’s “Between Text and Sermon” on Jn. 15:12-17:
It is also worth noting another respect in which John’s language of love is “a different ethical language” from the language of discipleship explicated in the synoptic gospels. Gail O’Day provides incisive commentary on this point too, noting that John speaks of the fullness and abundance of love rather than of emptying self-denial and sacrifice: “Fullness and sharing of love characterize discipleship and faith. The Christian community is known by how much its members love one another, not by how much they deny themselves. The ultimate sign of this love remains the giving of one’s life, but it will be given in fullness of self, not in denial” (O’Day, 302-303). There is, to be sure, an important difference between “laying down” one’s life and having it “taken,” between self-gift and self-sacrifice or self-denial. As Jesus affirms in John 10:18, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” It is the same kind of self-giving love that Jesus prescribes for his disciples— love inspired by the one who came that we might “have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10)—love that spills out of the “fullness we have all received” from him, “grace upon grace” (1:16).
Giving oneself vs. withholding oneself
Robin Maas offers insight, “Few, if any of us, will be called to martyrdom; but all of us are called to a series of little deaths in the form of invitations to restrain or deny self….The sending of God by God was the sending of Love – a crucified Love willing to lay down its life for friends and enemies alike. Your mission and mine – which we can only perform insofar as we are in communion with God and with one another – is to submit, out of love for one another, to countless, daily ‘little deaths’ until we have yielded every least and last remnant of self to the purpose of Christ.” (Crucified Love, 98, 121).
“You get to choose your friends; you don’t get to choose your family.” On this day where the tradition of Mother’s Day challenges us to think about families and the forms in which love does or does not live there, Jesus talks about friendship. Friends, it seems are generally easier to love.
Not that God’s choosing us is a panacea, as if none of the difficulties of this life matter. Rather, knowing that God has chosen us, loves us, and will use us gives us the courage to face the challenges and renews our strength to do something about them
What does it take to set aside all that one believes about others, to set aside the prejudices that prevent or stifle friendship, in order to join others in being truly the Body of Christ? What would it take to set aside even for a moment the familiar and the cherished, whether simply beliefs or practices, in order to stand in for another, especially someone different, perhaps even someone on the margins? That might well be a form of laying down one’s life that a congregation that has been encouraged to embrace true diversity might be open to hearing or even doing.
Crucified love is not the warm fuzzies. Rather, it ultimately anticipates that our own bodies – individually and collectively as the church, the body of Christ – are a means by which God provides for the world if we’re open to and rest in the leading of the Spirit.
New York Times essay:
o I learned early on what a loaded holiday this can be. It’s terrible for those who mourn a mother now gone, and also for those whose mothers were just not equipped to nurture a child. It’s terrible for women who desperately wanted to be mothers but couldn’t be, and also for women who didn’t want to be mothers but are too often vilified for that perfectly reasonable choice. It’s beyond terrible for women who have lost a child.
I have family and friends who struggle on Mother’s Day for all these reasons. I think of them when I think, as I inevitably do on this day in May, of how much I miss my mother. The world has enough suffering in it without inventing a holiday that causes so much pain, and I would gladly eradicate it from the calendar if I could.
But painful as it can be, Mother’s Day also reminds me of how wondrously motherhood unites me with so much of the animal kingdom. My youngest child outgrew being a hip baby 20 years ago, but I have to stop myself from reaching out for a crying infant in the checkout line, and I swear I feel the urge to protect the hatchlings in my nest box as deeply as their mother does. We are partners in this enterprise of bringing baby bluebirds into the world, she and I, no matter that she doesn’t know it.
The need to protect and nurture young is a biological imperative shared by a surprising array of creatures. Ambivalence about the holiday notwithstanding, I will gladly play every cute-animal video and click through every cute-animal slide show that crops up on the internet at this time of year. Who could resist the lioness purring as she licks her cub’s belly, or a fox carrying her kit to safety by the scruff of its neck, or a giant-taloned hawk carefully nudging her curious eyas back beneath the safety of her breast?
I’m especially fond of the nurturing animals that we don’t associate with nurturing at all: the wolf spider carrying her tiny spiderlings on her back, the alligator tenderly carrying her baby in her mouth, the timber rattlesnake protectively encircling her hatchlings, the broad-headed skink silently guarding her eggs in the dark.
And as difficult as it is to stand witness to another’s grieving, it comforts me to be reminded of the universality of grief, to remember that we are not alone in our suffering, or in where we look for solace. I think of Rosamund Young’s delightful memoir, “The Secret Life of Cows,” and her story of the grieving young mother who sought her own mother for comfort, from three fields away, after the stillbirth of her calf. I think of the orca carrying her dead calf for 17 days, across a thousand miles of ocean, because she could not bear to let the baby go. (Last fall she gave birth again, this time to an apparently healthy calf.)
This week I will write notes to a friend who lost her only child to the pandemic, and to two others who lost their mothers. This holiday will be terrible for them all, and I suffer no illusion that my notes will bring them even the meagerest comfort. My only hope is to remind them that I am holding them close across the miles.
Mother’s Day is a saccharine invention, a national fairy tale in a nation that does almost nothing to support mothers. But it is also a day for contemplating the ways in which we’re connected to one another, through times of joy and times of sorrow, across time and across species. So my children will come over for brunch, and I will set out mealworms for the bluebirds to feed their babies.
I will cut a bouquet of antique roses and think of my mother and my grandmothers, the one I knew deep into my 40s and the one I never met. I will think of my great-grandmother, the steadfast center of my childhood, and of the mother and grandmothers who formed her sweet spirit, and of the mothers and grandmothers who formed them, too, going back longer than I will ever know.