Scripture: JOHN 15:9-17
Eleven years ago to the day, on May 9, 2010, my mother stood in this very pulpit and preached the Mother’s Day sermon. She preached a characteristically marvelous sermon that some still remember and remind me about. She lightly ribbed me, entirely appropriately. And I was roundly kidded by many of you for getting my own mother to do all the work on Mother’s Day. What kind of a son was I?! On this Mother’s Day, it is a delight for me to honor her with the deepest thanksgiving and joy.
You may well wonder what specifically it is that I honor in her—what it is in her that fills me with gratitude and joy. How do I count the ways?! As is so often the case, I take my lead this morning from the scripture we’ve been given and in which we find our truest bearings. It’s about as simple a text as we’re likely ever to hear: “As God has loved me,” says Jesus, “so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). Or, as the evocative paraphrase, The Message, renders it, “I’ve loved you the way [God] has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.”
One of the simplest and strangest truths of life is that we are only capable of love because we ourselves have been loved. Who of us can’t think of people who have been brought up in homes of stingy love and who have developed into stingy lovers themselves? If your parents withheld affection when you were a baby, or your peers rejected you when you were a child, how in the world are you ever going to have any sense of how to give yourself away in love? When the love in your home is miserly, how do you store up for yourself the emotional and spiritual savings account that is then able to share that sort of care with others? We are able to love only because we have first been loved ourselves.
Of course, as people of faith, we know that the absence of human affection is not a death knell for our own ability to love. Just as Jesus was filled by God’s love for him, so also can we be blessed and fortified by the transforming love God has for all of us. In a sense, this is the deep gift of prayer: in going to the well of God, we are reminded that no matter how ignored or maligned we may have been by other human beings, the One who gave us life loves us with a fierce and relentless love. As Jesus knew, it is fundamentally God’s love that is the source of all human capacity to love.
All the same, though, it certainly makes it easier to perceive that foundational holy love when we’ve been held in arms of human affection. Some of you, I know, have been the recipients of that human love, and some of you haven’t, or you’ve received only a paltry amount. And to be fair, of course, even the best parents fall short at one time or another. If I have to be graded as a father based only on a perfect score on some sort of love test, I’m always going to fall short. The same is true of all our parents. They have “erred and strayed” and have fallen short of the glory of God. Such failure is inevitable. It’s universal.
For most of us, though, there have been at least glimmers of light, and sometimes a remarkable radiance, that has come from our mothers. So today is a day to bask in the maternal sparkle of grace that has held us in its light. For most of us, there is at least a glimmer, in our mothers, of luminescence.
What sticks out to me today is that the nurturing images I have of my own mother are almost invariably of the average, every-day sort. It’s not a trip to Disneyworld that showed her love for me—we never went there. It wasn’t week-long ski trips in the Alps or a car for a birthday present—neither of which I ever got—it wasn’t those things that revealed her love for me. No, it was in moments of everyday ordinariness that I knew my mother adored me. And nothing could be more important.
When I was growing up, for example, my mother and father would tell the story of my birth. “On a clear, cold night in January, Hamilton was born. And Mommy was glad, and Daddy was glad, and everybody was glad!” And then they would gleefully clap their hands.
One of the stories my mother tells to this day was that when I was two years old, she was giving me a bath one evening. I was splashing water all over the place, and when some of that water got her wet, she spanked my bare bottom. I let out a huge wail, and forever after, she regretted that. A thousand times she has said to me, “You were just being two. I should never have spanked you, and I never did it again.” I learned in that story that my mother didn’t just assume she was always right. The story was a form of confession that conveyed a kind of humility.
As I grew up and played various sports, my mother and father were at every game. Sometimes they were the only, or among the few, parents there. But my memory is that they never missed. There was something about their presence that was a profoundly reassuring gift.
Some of what I now treasure about my mother, though I undoubtedly didn’t at the time, was her conveying clearly that there were limits about what was appropriate for me to do. When I talked back to a middle school teacher, she made me go apologize. When I sassed her or my father, or treated my brother meanly, I was sent to my room. She did me a huge favor in teaching me that not anything goes.
I knew from an early age that my mother trusted me. She didn’t snoop in my room. She didn’t put tight restrictions on my life as though she were always expecting the worst. When I was fifteen, my family lived in Cambridge, England, for a year when my father was on a sabbatical. My best friend there was another teenage ex-pat named John Childs, whose father, incidentally, like my own father, was a scholar of the Bible. In the middle of my sophomore year of high school, my mother and father gave their OK to a trip John and I planned to take to Scotland, just the two of us. We hitchhiked there, and explored, and together played a round of golf at the magisterial Old Course at St. Andrews, later eating fish and chips looking out at the North Sea. I’m certainly not saying that’s what every parent should allow their child to do, as though that era were comparable to this one. It’s only that, for that time in my life, it was an amazing gift they gave me, trusting me to strike out on my own.
My mother loves music, and when I was growing up, music was always playing in the house. Often it was Haydn’s Creation or Bach’s Mass in B minor or Mozart’s horn concerti. But often, too, it was ridiculous ditties. “After the ball was over, Molly took out her glass eye, put her peg leg in the corner, corked up her bottle of dye, put her false teeth in the water, hung up her wig on the wall. And what was left went to dreamland, after the ball.” Now what life is complete without knowing that ridiculously memorable song, a song I now sing to my grandchildren!
After I left college, as many of you know, I struggled with a sense of identity and vocation. My mother knew it, too. She could see I was lost. Years later, she told me she and my father had gone to see a counselor so they could figure out how best to support me in those confused and searching years. She didn’t just try to write me off, or give me overly-simplistic advice, or, worse yet, tell me what to do—“just buck up and stop moping” or something equally unhelpful—God forbid!
No, while a lot of those years are lost to my memory, one thing stands out when I look back. On day, my mother sent me a card on which she had written some words of the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke died nearly 100 years ago, but he also had a peculiarly contemporary sensibility. These are the words of his that my mother copied for me: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . .. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer” (from Letters to a Young Poet). No better words could have been sent to a young man searching for some sense of meaning and purpose.
One of the things I have so valued about my mother is the way she has gone about seeking to love even those who have not returned the favor. For some fifteen years or so, she was a parish pastor. This was in the days when women ministers were exceedingly rare. In fact, when my mother first sought a pastorate in a local church, no one—not a single church—would even interview her for a position as a pastor. So she began in a position as a Sunday School director. She loved that work, but she also felt called to be a pastor. When a position as associate pastor finally opened up in that church, the church called her. Some six years later, when the senior minister left, she was called as senior minister. As far as I know, she was the first woman senior minister in this country—I’ve never heard of anyone who was earlier. Hardly surprisingly, there were a number of “no” votes when the congregation voted on her candidacy, negative votes cast simply because she was a woman. What I remember vividly, though, was that my mother went and visited those who had voted against her, just to keep that connection and to show she loved them. She was not going to let those “no” votes be the last word.
One final image. Even now, in her senior years, at 94, and with what she describes as a somewhat compromised memory, she continues to support me with remarkable sensitivity and enthusiasm. Whenever I call her—and I talk to her every day—without exception, she answers the phone with an excited “HI!!!!!” And then: “It’s my favorite first-born son!” To which I always reply, “And you’re my favorite mother, bar none!” My mother’s love is palpable, and I rejoice in it.
None of us is perfect, of course. No mother, and, in this case, no son. We, too, both of us, can fail to do as we might wish. That goes without saying. My mother, though, is supremely forgiving. She lets go easily the slights and failings that might otherwise impede the mother and child relationship. I have learned from her how to forgive and start over.
Years ago, she told me the story of Lorraine Hansberry’s luminous play, A Raisin in the Sun. It’s the story of a family whose patriarch dies, a family who, in the wake of that death, struggles mightily, financially and otherwise. The son Walter, in a bid to achieve financially security, takes the family’s insurance settlement and wastes it on a fool’s errand. His sister, Beneatha, is furious, livid at her brother’s reckless irresponsibility, and she virtually writes him off, claiming, essentially, that she can never love him again. Beneatha, in her disdain for her brother, though, has not counted on their mother’s pointed and bracing correction. When Beneatha can’t forgive her brother, this is what Mama says to her daughter to set her straight: “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”
Those, friends, are the words of a mother who knows the deepest of all truths, that to forgive is divine. By grace, many of us, including me, have learned that very lesson from our own mothers. On this Mother’s Day, may we remember that God has treasured us with an undying love, and set us free to live in buoyant grace. And may we remember, too, that our own mothers have time and again been the vessels of that utterly transforming and reassuring love. Ordinary moments in the midst of ordinary lives. That, so often, is where their love has shined through. And in those very moments, the love of God shimmers and makes us whole. Thanks be to God.