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)