Sermon for 6 Easter B
Holy Cross, Weare
May 13, 2012
M. Lise Hildebrandt
Love is everywhere. In the Bible readings today. In the news: President Obama said the “L” word when explaining his position on gay marriage—saying that two people who love each other should be allowed to marry each other. Love is even in my fruit bowl: my bananas say, “I love your heart.” How sweet. Of course, it’s Mother’s Day, which lets loose a flurry of advertising, reminding us to go buy stuff and tell our moms how much we love them, because of course we all love our moms!
The truth is, the love between mother and child is the most complicated love on the face of the Earth. Fathers and children—that is also a powerful relationship fraught with danger—but, correct me if I’m wrong, mothers take the cake. It’s that relationship that keeps psychiatrists in business. Mothers are God to their children. Think about it. We look to God to provide what we need, to give us a sense of belonging, of being cared-for. We run to God when things go wrong and we need comfort. We ask God for direction. We need to know that we are loved—by God.
The first relationship is with our mother—before we are born, we know her, we are enveloped by her, fed by her. We even know her voice. Once we see daylight, she is usually the one who tends to our needs—feeding, changing, cuddling, soothing. We know security in her arms and by her sight and voice. She is the first person to teach us about relationships and the lessons that we can trust the world to take care of us, that we are cared-for, cherished, and loved. She truly is God.
But she is not. She is human, and will of course fail. Sometimes in only minor ways. Sometimes she fails in crucial ways that scar the child for life. One friend told me that her mother said, “Children are like waffles—you should throw away the first one.” My friend was the oldest of four children. Another friend grew up with alcoholic parents, who failed on many levels to care for her. Instead, from a young age, she would clean up after her parents when they were drunk, cover them up with blankets, and take care of her younger sister. Or a mother might beat her children or be in an abusive relationship and not protect them from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. My second mother, whom I’ll called and considered “mom,” generally took good care of her five children. But she had a wicked temper. My mother-god was both caring and benign and also a wild angry woman. I grew up fearing to fail her, fearing her anger. You can find that kind of thing in the Bible with the real God too.
So Mom love is imperfect love. At best. it is pretty good. Mom was there for you, didn’t screw up in any lethal way, managed not to pass on too much of the family baggage to you.
But there is another reason that mom-love is complicated. That’s because, to love your child properly, you always have to change HOW you love. When you have a baby, you—and others–absolutely have to take care of his every need. But if you are still spooning food into your kid’s mouth and wiping his butt when he is five, ten, or twenty, you have failed to do your job. Bring on the psychiatrist! Every year or three, your role changes. From the moment your child is born, the trajectory is all about the kid leaving, and about you helping her leave. It becomes less and less about physically caring for your child and protecting her, and more and more about education, support, encouragement, equipping, comforting. Kissing the boo-boos, but letting your child experience the world enough—in a controlled way—to get boo-boos.
Recently, I was astonished to find that my relationship with my kids has changed in a profound way. I’ve heard mothers say, “My kids and I are friends now.” And I thought, “Clearly this woman has abdicated her authority as mother by trying to be pals with her children.” Certainly being friends is not appropriate with your minor children. But I now find that my young adult daughters and I have become friends. And this was probably hastened by our divorce, which happened just as they went to college—but our relationship is much more equal now. I teach them, but I also learn from them. I support them, but they also support and encourage me. We are all in the process of changing, growing up, trying to make sense of a world that is in flux. I’m still mom, as in, “Waah, my boyfriend dumped me,” (“poor thing”) or “I need money” (“yes, I’ll send some”) or “I’m going to rent a ZipCar and drive to Providence in the dark” (“no, you’re not, that’s a bad idea”). But we are also, greatly friends. It’s not a part of mother-love that I ever imagined, and it is not something that I ever shared with my own mother.
Mother love is complicated. So is God-love. Amazingly, if you read through the Old Testament and into the New Testament, you see that God-love also changes. It isn’t clear if God actually changes over the centuries, or whether it takes all this time for the people to grow up in their capacity to know and love God. But there is real movement in the way God reveals himself/herself to the people. At first, God chooses one people, the family of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob to be the Israelites—they will be God’s people, God’s chosen children and God will be their God. And God smites people when they are bad and sometimes has the Israelites wipe out peoples and take over their land. But over time, God uses other nations to chasten the Jewish people, and then God gives a vision of all peoples and all Creation being included in harmony, salvation, restoration. Everyone as God’s beloved child. Even in the Old Testament, you see this theme.
Then with Jesus, you see not just that God loves the people she created, God is willing to suffer to death for God’s own beloved ones. Rather than fight off and kill the Romans and religious people who plotted to kill Jesus, God allows Jesus, God’s own son, to die. And then, Jesus came back to life, preaching not vengeance, but forgiveness. It’s a true change of how we understand God-mother-love.
And the most astonishing thing of all, perhaps, is what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. He says, “As the Father/Mother God has loved me, so I have loved you”—that is, I have loved you with this divine parental love—but then he says, “You are my friends. . . I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father/Mother God.” What could it mean to be friends with Jesus? Jesus is calling the disciples his friends—his equals—ones who know his mind and his heart—ones who share in his life and in his mission. Equally. Jesus says, “I have told you everything I heard from God.” They are friends with God, knowing God’s mind and heart as well.
Isn’t that amazing? And by extension, that means that we too could be friends with Jesus and friends with God. Not in a “Jesus in my pocket” or “God does everything I want” kind of way. But in a way that it is possible for us to know the mind and heart of God and to be co-creators with God, co-workers with God, friends-on-a-mission with God in the world.
This means, of course, that we have to grow up in our relationship with God and Jesus. It should give you pause. That although God will always be God, provider, guider, beloved, comforter, boo-boo kisser, forgive-us-our-messes-God, what God wants most of all is to be working beside us and through us as equals. Seems laughable, doesn’t it? Or even kind of terrifying—we’re supposed to do that??
There is a story about a monastery (“The Rabbi’s Gift,” M. Scott Peck, in A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Jack Canfield, Mark Hansen, 1995, Health Communications Inc., pp. 56-59) that had fallen on hard times. “There were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over 70 in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearly town occasionally used for a hermitage. . . As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”
“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving—it was something cryptic—was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? . . . one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly (he) is a holy man. . . a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. . . Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip . . . so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears at your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet sup-posing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for you, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with e extraordinary respect on the off-chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
(Now) . . . it happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even . . . go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends .
Then it happened that some of the younger men . . . started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So . . . the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
We are to grow up in love. Maybe we’ll never be friends with our mothers, but at least we can forgive them and be grateful for whatever good they were or are, whatever gifts they gave us. And ask for forgiveness from our children for our failings and give them our blessing as they ultimately need us less.
We are also to grow up in love with God. To let God infuse our very lives, our work, our relationships. To ooze out of us and work through us, so that we do great works with God. To dream big, act boldly. To treat each other as friends of God. Maybe even as the Messiah. Let us pray. AMEN.