Sermon / May 14, 2017 / Mothers’ Day / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / John 14:1-14 /
I want to talk about Mothers’ Day in terms of what Jesus told us: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
This is Jesus’s core teaching. Note that it is not the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s more challenging than the Golden Rule because the standard for behavior in the Golden Rule is us, and how we feel people should treat us. Jesus’s standard is God, and how God has treated us. A much higher bar.
And so we believe that the standard for all human love, including mothering love, is “Love one another as God has loved you.” Which means with passion and guts and constancy and hope. And Jesus said that when we do that, we are his friends.
I like to think of mothers as friends of God. Being a mother is the hardest job in the world (Is that the best-kept secret ever?). It’s also the best job in the world. Yet in my work as a woman priest and mother and grandmother, I have seen, especially in the last 15 years or so, increasing pressure and anxiety among women about what a “good mother” is.
I think one of the reasons this has all become so complicated is that sometimes we do not know who we ourselves are as women and as daughters of God. This is the greatest challenge women face – even greater than the challenge of getting equal pay for equal work. To be a mother of children, you have to know who you are as a human being and as a child of God. A lot of us women just skip this inner work. We go right from the extended girlhood of a prolonged education or employment into marriage and then into motherhood without ever having really grown up ourselves in the interior sense. Many of us never ask why God has put us on this earth, what our gifts are, what it is we prefer and believe, who we really want to live with (if anyone), what our dreams and goals are, and how we will participate in God’s creative work. This is real labor, just as difficult as the labor of childbirth, and to engage in it is to be friends of God the life-giver.
But sometimes we’re afraid of this labor, and so we just plunge into taking care of others, postponing or ignoring our own personhood. This feels like self-sacrifice, but it’s really self-immolation. And so as a woman it’s completely possible to reach old age and still die a little girl, tremulous and trivial and dependent and un-free, living within a kind of fabricated reality that doesn’t align with the real world. Churches have their share of this kind of woman, women who believe that the church should be the place where their untended psychic and spiritual wounds should be magically healed by the esteem they demand from others, and the worth they have been too afraid to establish on their own in the larger world should be awarded to them on the basis of their toil on behalf of the church. The fierce dysfunction inflicted on a church by these kind of women is fearful to behold.
As we all know, our culture does not honor women except insofar as we conform to media-generated, sexualized standards of beauty, body shape, hair color, and acquisitiveness. We women have to look right, and we have to want the right things and have the right things. Rebel against this and you are a real outlier. And so there is an enormous lack of cultural integrity around femininity itself.
I think most of us seriously underestimate the power of these cultural standards in our lives, especially if we live in a context of privilege like Brooklyn Heights, where perfection is always the unspoken expectation. This makes life really tough, really constricting – both for us and for our kids, whom we always expect will turn out to be smart, successful, and polite by virtue of our unrelenting effort to make them so. I recall a poignant moment in another parish I served, when we hosted a screening of the documentary “Race to Nowhere”, a film that explores the desperation of the high school experience as it pertains to the college admission process. During the discussion that followed the screening, many parents lamented the frenzy of schoolwork and extracurricular activities that were exhausting their children. One young father spoke up. He said, “My kids have way too much to do. But I’m afraid that if we pull them out of some things, we’ll be disappointing the community.” In that comment, you can see the enslaving power of a cultural standard.
Smart, successful, and polite is great – but it is only a penultimate goal, and in and of itself, uninformed by other, larger values, it produces a child who believes the world revolves around him or her and so squanders the love of God that has been infused into him or her as their birthright. It does not create friends of God, who love others as God has loved them. And, as most of us discover as our kids get older, our kids are basically strangers related to us by blood. There is no way to ensure that any child will be “successful” according to anyone’s standard, no matter how hard you try to engineer success for them. Kids will become who they will become. Our kids have their crosses to bear. Let them bear their cross. It’s the only way they will become real people.
I want to suggest another model for being a woman and a mother. It’s this: As women we are people who have engaged the on-going struggle to become adults and friend of God in the real world so passionately that we can raise our children to be not only smart, successful, and respectful in their own little worlds, but much more importantly, to be wise, loving, and strong in the service of this very big world.
We don’t talk much about Mary, Jesus’s mother, in the Episcopal Church tradition as a whole. And everywhere, Mary has been made into a statue – a frozen woman, so conventionally beautiful as to be a blank, dressed in pastels, her face expressionless, and her head cast down in servility. You know the image. But she had to have been one of the most powerful and alive women ever. Because she raised a child who never had two nickels to rub together, who never took the SATs, and who nevertheless remained in possession of himself so securely that he was able to give himself away in a life of self-sacrifice so powerful, so freeing, that it saved the world.
Interestingly, we have only a few words from the mouth of Mary in the entire New Testament. (She was edited out.) Her first words come when the angel asks her if she is wiling to become the mother of God and she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Now this may sound like submission to you, but it’s not. Mary had a choice. She did not mysteriously find herself pregnant one morning. God didn’t work some kind of magic on her. God came to her and made a proposal and she said “yes”. She let go of her fear and she let go of the life she thought she was going to have and she becomes a friend of God in God’s creative work. Notice the words she uses: “Let it be”, the same words God said at the creation. “Let there be light”. She speaks the words of creation – “Let it be” – and Jesus, the light of the world, begins his journey toward us.
There is a certain irony in those words, because if you look at what lay ahead for Mary, you see that she was going to have to keep saying “Let it be” to a whole lot of other things that she might not have wanted to happen. Jesus was not exactly your model child. He was a heartbreak and a disappointment to his parents. He got into as much trouble as it was possible to get. Mary had to watch him suffer and die. Over and over again, she had to say, “Let it be.” I don’t think her ability to do this was fatalism. I think it was trust.
As mothers we can learn from Mary’s trust. Because when we are untrusting as mothers, when we anxiously over-parent and over-nurture our children as if their survival depended upon our minute-by-minute attention and commentary and endless provision of products and experiences, then we are failing to teach them that life is a generally trustworthy place all on its own. We are failing to teach them that if they are going to be real human beings and not human robots, they have to experience their lives as truly open to the future, as Mary did, unencumbered by us and our expectations and even in some sense unencumbered by our love. We need to let them be and let them go.
And we need to keep doing that their whole lives through, even as they become adults and as we get older. As your kids grow up, your relationship with them needs to grow up. Parents and kids need to keep setting each other free.
I have always been struck by what happens when we last see Mary. It’s at the cross, where she watches her son being executed.
Jesus doesn’t tell her he loves her. He doesn’t try to justify to her what he has done with his life. He doesn’t worry about her. He does give her into the care of his best friend John, just as he gives John into her care. This is not a personal arrangement that Jesus is making simply for the welfare of his mother. It’s the beginning of the church itself, the family that is made up of people who (like Mary and John) are not related by blood and in whose hands lie the care of the world in God’s name. That family, the church, is always for us Christians the larger reality we live in. It’s a life-saving reality too, because that larger community gives our own small families breathing space and perspective and a powerful kind of nurture through worship and prayer and the sacraments. That’s why we call it “mother church.”
Let us pray.
Dear God, our heavenly father and mother,
You have given each of us life from within the womb of your creation.
Be with us today and always in your life-giving Spirit.
If our lives are stillborn, raise them up.
Liberate us from whatever keeps us from becoming your sons and daughters.
Send down your blessing on all mothers, that we may give birth to ourselves as well as to our children.
Help all of us, women and men and children, to love others as you have loved us.
And set us free to become your friends: wise, loving, and strong.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our brother and mother and friend.