The Abiding Mother-Love of Jesus

A Sermon for Mother's Day

I suspect today is the first time some of you will not be celebrating Mother's Day with your mother or your grandmother. That's true for the children and grandchildren of Dunbar Ashbury, whose wife Barbara we laid to rest yesterday. Dunbar's father “Deac” Ashbury was one of my predecessors as rector here at All Saints', and today, I am grateful to be able to call both Barbara and Dunbar my friends. I hope you will find a way to extend your condolences to the Ashbury family, if you have not already done so.

Growing up in the Momberg family, Mother's Day was always a big deal. After all, the German word “Momberg” means “city of Mom.” A teenager in one of the parishes I first served gave me the nickname “Father Mom,” which I've always loved. Here at All Saints' one of our teenagers gave me a new nickname, a more 21st century version: “Padre Madre.” Mothers and grandmothers often have nicknames, too.

Mothers are important to us. They are, for most of us, the ones who taught us important things – how to tie our shoes or brush our teeth, how to learn vocabulary words or multiplication tables, how to settle our differences with an apology, a handshake or a hug. As the great Anglican priest George Herbert once put it, “A good mother is worth hundreds of schoolmasters.” Without a shadow of a doubt, our mothers teach us a lot about how to live – even about how to die. And for most of us, they are usually the ones who teach us, in their own, perfectly imperfect way, how to love.

This Week's time magazine has a lead story about “The Man who Remade Motherhood” (May 21, 2012). In the last thirty years or so, Dr. Bill Sears has replaced Dr. Spock as the guru many mothers and fathers now follow, using a model called “attachment parenting.” In this model, the mother spends as much time with a child in the first several years as she possibly can. Actually, one father who strongly subscribes to this “attachment” model says that it's really “attachment mothering,” and that he tries to balance their parenting with “detachment fathering.” Of course, there are healthy and unhealthy versions of both attaching and detaching with children, not to mention with everyone else we meet in our lives. We need “the wisdom to know the difference.”

But what does love have to do with all of this? Is the love that Jesus has been talking about, both last Sunday and today, actually have anything to do with motherhood, fatherhood or family? Jesus may not have been a father, but at least one mystic in the 14th century and one 21st century Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church got themselves into trouble when they named Jesus as mother. “Jesus,” Dame Julian of Norwich first said 700 years ago, “is our true Mother in nature, by our first creation, and (Jesus) is our true Mother in grace, by his taking our created nature.”

Was Jesus, not Dr. Sears, the man who REALLY remade motherhood? I don't know about that. What I do know is that Jesus had everything to do with remaking love. There's a way in which the life, death and resurrection of Jesus remade love for all adults, whether parents or not. Because we, just like Jesus, are all children. We, just like Jesus, are somebody's child. Motherless or fatherless we may be, but we, just like Jesus, are still God's precious, beloved children. And Jesus – who may not be our mother or father but is certainly our brother – brother Jesus shows us, fellow-children-of-God, how to be truly adult, loving children of God. If – If we choose to grow up into adult Christian children, into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), then we'll learn just what kind of love Jesus has been talking about. No matter how old we are, wouldn't that be a great Mother's Day gift to give our mothers, our grandmothers and the world?

Last Sunday, in the first eight verses of John 15, Jesus talked, in that metaphorical, symbolic way he so often uses, about the vinegrower, the vine and the branches. “I am the vine, you are the branches” (15:5), he tells his friends, in that beautiful image that reminds me of my grandparents and their glorious grape arbor that towered high above me as a child. This metaphor, this image is just a way of talking about the kind of love that God the vinegrower creates through Jesus the vine. It is an abiding, never-ending love, a love that flows freely, a love that makes its home, its abode, in Jesus' friends', the branches. That would be US, too, right? Now, WE are the branches, and it's up to us to learn how to let that free-flowing love flow right through us, out into the world, and bear much fruit. Jesus used the word “abide” eight times in those eight verses last week. That's the root system of the adult love he's talking about. Unless we first, last and always abide and stay rooted in Jesus, as Jesus and God abide in us, we will not be able, truly, to be his adult sisters and brothers. Unless we abide in the love of Christ, we cannot become the grown-up friends of Jesus – and one another – Jesus calls us to be.

So. . .just what does that kind of adult love Jesus is talking about look like? It's not romantic love, what the Greeks called eros. It's not strictly collegial, not just sisterly or brotherly love, what the Romans called filios, although we are sisters and brothers in Christ. No, the word for love Jesus uses and teaches and preaches and lives until he dies and then lives again is the word agape. Agape is a self-sacrificing, self-giving, self-emptying love. It's like the grown-up love parents and grandparents try, albeit imperfectly, to give to their children. Agape is the love that Jesus perfectly loved. His New Commandment is that we love one another as HE loves. Not as I might choose to love. Not as you would prefer to love. We are to love as Jesus loves, with agape love.

Today we hear, in the next nine verses of John 15, the New Commandment of Jesus set forth in three parts: (1) Abide in Jesus' love; (2) Love one another, as Jesus loves; and then, (3) Go, bear fruit. Jesus is telling his friends, then and now, to go out into the world and love like he loves, so that, as a contemporary Christian song puts it, “they'll know we are Christians by our love.” Unfortunately, in the 21st century, far too many people know we are Christians by the things we have done in the name of Christ that are in no way loving, let alone loving as Jesus loves. Skepticism and even disdain for Christianity is especially prevalent in our daughters and sons who are called the Millennials – those under thirty years of age. A Washington Post article on Thursday called “Make Way for the Millennials” said that “it is undeniable that America is in the midst of a large, consequential shift in the attitudes of the rising generation. A recent poll. . .found Millennials to be less religiously affiliated than their parents. A majority thinks that government 'is getting too involved in the issue of morality.' While accepting that Christianity 'has good values and principles,' millennials often describe it as 'judgmental,' 'hypocritical' and 'anti-gay.' The pace of these changes,” the article goes on to say, “is so rapid that sociologists are having a hard time keeping up. In. . .2006. . .25 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds described their religious preference as 'none.' (In) 2011. . .it was 33 percent. In five years, support for gay marriage in that age group went from 48 percent to 60 percent” (Michael Gerson, May 10, 2012).

Jesus says nothing about gay marriage. He says painful things for us to hear about the true nature of Christian community and how, ultimately, community is more than who your mother or your father is. It's clear throughout the Christian scriptures that Jesus' love does not discriminate, based on families of origin or choice or anything else. Jesus has a whole lot to say about love and about not judging others, unless we stand ready to be judged (Matthew 7:1). As my mother once put it, “I'm going to leave the judgment up to God.” Judgment and hypocrisy do not bear love's fruit. Maybe our young adults are trying to teach us or remind us of something many parents first taught their children. Maybe some of our Millennials are more adult and Christian than we are.

In closing, I want to share two more images with you. The first is one that a famous artist once created to describe what some think was his own relationship with his mother. (My copy of Picasso's “Mother and Child,” the original of which is in the Baltimore Museum of Art, is unveiled.) In 1922 Pablo Picasso painted several variations of mother and child, this being the best known. The love this mother and this child have for each other is palpable. And when you look closely, you can see the mother and child share something else. It looks like what is sometimes called a “transitional object.” Many of us had our little “blankie,” a comforter that helped us detach from mom and dad in a healthy way, as we made our transition from daytime to bedtime. Sometimes, even as adults, even as adult children, we may need a real, tangible, comforting transitional object. That's where a prayer shawl can come in handy. (I put mine on.)

At every service here today we will bless prayer shawls that have been lovingly made by All Saints' women. Prayer shawls help us, even when we don't think we're sick. I remember when the women of the church I served in Memphis gave shawls to all the clergy and this one to me. I wear it during my morning prayers, and when I put it on, I feel like I'm all wrapped up in God's abiding mother-love. Prayer shawls are works of sacrificial, agape love. Those who make them don't know who will get them, and those who receive them are blessed with the gift of real, tangible evidence of God's abiding love, the healing love of Christ shared with another, the fruit of the labor of adult love.

On this Mother's Day, let us give thanks for all who have been mothers to us. And let us give thanks to God for Jesus, our true vine, our brother, our friend, our healer, our savior – and our mother, who wraps us all up in agape and send us out into the world.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
May 13, 2012