Vanishing Love


A sermon preached on May 8th,  2011 (Mother’s Day) based upon Luke 24:13-35

When I’m not sure what’s what, the passage of scripture I return to is 1Corinthians 13 — the great love chapter — which is often read at weddings, but I sometimes read it at funerals as well.  It’s the one that begins, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am nothing.” In the end, love is the only thing that matters, or endures.  In our heart of hearts, I think we all know that.

But here is the confusing thing:   How do we identify “love?”   What I mean is, love comes in a variety of forms.  Some are easy to recognize, others not so easily recognizable.

As many of you know, I was born in Mississippi, where my mother had lived her whole life.  My first five years were spent on a quiet residential block in the city of Jackson.   In the summer of 1961, however, just before I was to enter first grade, my family moved to Long Island, at least in part because my father had taken a job in New York.

School didn’t go so well for me that year.  I don’t remember making any friends.  I was often teased, and I didn’t really understand why.

Looking back, I came to realize that it had something to do with the thick Mississippi accent I brought with me to Long Island.  It also may have had to do with the fact that at that precise point in our country’s history, Mississippi had become something of a pariah in our country.

Recently, there’s been a lot on the news about this month being the 50th anniversary of the courageous trips made by the freedom riders, the black and white young people who road in the front section of buses, side by side into the deep south, challenging the ugly segregation that existed there. In Mississippi, the brave freedom riders experienced some of the most severe violence to which they were subjected, and the news reports horrified folks up North.

Our arrival up north occurred within a month of the bus rides of the  freedom riders.  My mother told me that after we moved north, and before we had gotten the Mississippi license plates removed, on at least one occasion rocks were thrown at our car.  At the age of five, I had no clue about all this.

One day I was walking home from school at lunch and some boys from my class were walking behind me, taunting me. I flew into a rage and ran at the boys, swinging my jacket.  The metal zipper of the jacket hit the ringleader in the face, drawing blood.

That afternoon, after word got around, I became something of a pariah myself at the school.  The kid’s mother must have called the school, and the teachers questioned me about what I had done.

I knew that my mother had gotten a call telling her what had happened.  But when I got home, all I remember is that my mother didn’t say much – she just rocked me in her rocking chair.  I knew I was loved, even if, it seemed, everybody else was rejecting me.

My mother rocking me – keeping me safe from the threatening world outside –that was love for sure.

A few years back my mother read somewhere about the cub-raising patterns of momma grizzly bears, and she turned it into a poem.

From early on, a momma bear will train her cub that when –  at a time of danger — she gives the sign – the cub is to immediately stop whatever he is doing and climb the nearest tree.  With the cub safely out of reach from harm, the momma bear goes off to investigate the danger.

The cub is taught to wait up there at the top of the tree until momma returns to tell him all is safe, at which point the cub climbs back to earth to accompany momma bear in whatever it is bears do.

The bear cub knows that his mother’s love will protect him.  Though momma disappears for a time – she will eventually always return.

In the story we just heard from the Gospel of Luke, two cubs find themselves living in a time of great danger.  All hell has broken loose, and the momma bear has disappeared.  The cubs have become pariahs in Jerusalem, and so they are heading out of town, traveling down that dusty road to a place called Emmaus.

The momma bear has been killed.   But the momma bear had promised, “I will not leave you orphaned.  I will come to you.”

And sure enough, the momma bear returns.  But they don’t recognize her at first.  They mistake her for a stranger who comes alongside to walk with them as they make their way down the road, their hearts heavy with sadness, disappointment and rejection.

It’s not surprising the moment at which they finally recognize momma bear.   It’s the moment when she begins to feed them, of course – making sure once again her cubs get a good supper.  She takes bread, blesses it, and breaks it, and their eyes are opened.  It’s momma!

Momma loves her cubs.  She will never forsake them.

In my mother’s poem, the thing that caught my mother’s attention regarding the cub-rearing patterns of momma bears is the peculiar twist that eventually takes place.  The day comes in the life of every grizzly bear cub when his momma gives the sign for danger, as she has so many times before.  The cub immediately stops what he’s doing, climbs the nearest tree just as momma has always taught him to do.

Momma leaves, but this time, momma does not return.  Momma has not been killed — no, momma has simply sensed somehow that the time has come.   She leaves and doesn’t look back.  She keeps on walking until she is certain that her cub will not find her.

The cub sits up in the tree for the longest time, waiting for momma to return, to give the sign she has given every time before that it is safe to come down.  Eventually — who knows how many hours, even days it takes? — the cub makes a decision.  It is the first real decision the cub has ever made.    He disobeys what momma has told her, and decides to climb down the tree.   He takes things into his own paws, so to speak.

Momma is not there, and the cub is no longer a cub.   From that moment on, he is a grown bear.  He begins living the life that momma has been teaching him to live since he was born.

One of the peculiar pieces to the story from Luke is that at precisely the moment at which the cubs recognize that their momma has indeed returned to reassure them, their momma vanishes!

We heard something similar on Easter Sunday.   At the precise moment at which Mary recognizes that the man she thought was the gardener is in fact Jesus — she reaches out to take hold of him.  At which point, Jesus says, “Do not hold me,” and proceeds to send Mary away – sends her off with a mission.

Love is a peculiar thing.  It takes many forms.

It is love that protects and reassures the frightened cub.  It is love that rocks the baby cub when the baby cub feels so unloved in this world.  This love is easy to recognize.  But it is also love that one day recognizes that the time has come to disappear — to get out of the way, so that the cub can go ahead and grow up – become what he was created to be.

It is love that leads Jesus to return to strengthen his broken disciples, but it is also love that leads him to quickly vanish as well.

It is love that led Kelly’s Mom to keep her safe and secure all the years of her growing up, and it is love, now, as hard as it is for her, to let her beloved daughter go off to Swaziland without her, to become all she can be, to allow her to become a blessing to this world.

The story of the momma grizzly bear and her cub was so poignant for my mother precisely because her own mother had such a difficult time letting her go.  My mother had lived her whole life in a small town, and then she’d gone off to college to begin the great adventure of life out on her own, where she dreamed of some day moving off to New York to pursue an acting career.

But towards the end of her junior year, my mother’s father died unexpectedly.    When my mother went back to college for her senior year, her mother came along with her.  My mother moved out of the dorm and took an apartment with her.

Later she got married in part in the hope that in doing so she would finally break loose from her mother.  But when she got pregnant with her first born child — my brother — my grandmother moved from the small town to the city of Jackson, so she could be constantly on hand to assist with his rearing.

And so that trip up north when I was five years old had another meaning beyond that of my father taking a new job.  It was my mother’s belated attempt to get out on her own.

Love involves a balance that is tough for any of us to maintain – a  balance between supportive reassurance and the strong push to the beloved to stand on their own two feet.  The purpose of mothers, as the saying goes, is to give their children both roots and rings.  But every mother, every human being stumbles in our attempts to embody this balance.

I am grateful that later in my life, my mother was there when I needed her to rock me once again.

I went off to college and soared, but in the year following my graduation, without a plan of what to do next, and a broken heart from a broken love relationship, I came crashing to earth.  I moved in with my mother in her York studio apartment, sleeping on a pull out mattress.

After six weeks, with my sense of self returning, she gently pushed me out the door to find a place of my own to live.

Ten years later, when my first marriage came crashing down, and I had a little boy to parent alone, my mother would come out on the bus once a week to give me a hand.

Now my mother is frail, living in an assisted living facility in PA. It’s two hours away.   She chose the place in part, I think, because she didn’t want to repeat what her mother had done.

She no longer travels.  I wish she lived closer.

We began the service with an unusual hymn that repeatedly referred to a “Mothering God.”  For some of us it this may have been a challenging, difficult image.   For others it may be very reassuring.

Know this:  we are loved by the One who gave us life.  The same balance of love is there in God’s love for each of us.   At times we are given signs of reassurance and comfort.   We are rocked in the arms of the Lord.   At other times, God may seem strangely absent, like a momma grizzly bear who has departed our part of the forest.

It is all love.  Now we see in a mirror dimly.  Then, face to face.

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