Mother’s Day
May 13, 2018

Mother’s Day

Passage: John 17:6-19

Earlier this week I had some time to kill before a meeting in Olympia, so I decided to wander around and explore downtown. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. And it didn’t take very long before I found a bakery. It was really good. I stood gawking at the display case for ages before finally settling on a piece of this fabulous, custardy, Italian cake. I got a double espresso to go with it.

And this is all to say, that I was so wooed by its deliciousness, I could have fallen in love with anything at that moment. And as I sat there, nibbling and sipping, I started reading the free little arts paper that was on the counter. And there was a painting in it of a mother sea otter, floating on her back, with her arms wrapped around a little baby sea otter. (And who doesn’t love sea otters? They’re so cute.) And the quality of the art was good, too. And then I saw the name of the painting: Mother and Peace.

And I got all choked up. I thought I was going to start crying right then and there.

And like I say, the cake and the sunshine had already primed the pump (as it were), and the otters were cute, but it was the title that pushed me over the edge – that this mother’s protective arms were wrapped around peace itself. And who did I see in this mother? but God, who is the source of all life, all truth, all goodness. And in this moment God was our mother, nurturing and protecting her child, Peace.

For all the chaos in this world, for all the threats and fears and Russian meddling in the election, in this moment I perceived the deeper assurance that God is holding peace and that peace shall survive. She is safe and warm in her mother’s arms as they bask together in the sun, their eyes closed as they float along the waters.

Perhaps you might even say that we are that child in God’s arms, and that our name is Peace, for in love did God bring us forth as children, and through Christ there is no enmity between us. Sin is overcome and we have been lifted up.

Call us “Peace” – and so may we live in this world.

Today is Mothers’ Day. It’s not a liturgical holiday. And yet I’m mindful of the intrinsic link between motherhood and godliness. It’s not to say that our mothers were perfect (as we would say of God), but the fundamental aspects of motherhood are absolutely consistent with what we believe of God.

We were conceived and formed in our mothers’ wombs, just as we live and move and have our being in God.

We were nurtured at our mothers’ breast, just as we are nurtured in God.

We were protected by our mothers’ love, just as we are protected by God.

And although it’s always been in the margins of scripture, if you look for the metaphors of “God as mother” you can find them. How could it not be? After all, the scriptural foundation of our human identity is declared right at the beginning of the Bible: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

It’s extraordinary. No other surrounding culture made such egalitarian claims that men and women equally represented the Godhead.

Unfortunately, despite this unprecedented insight, Jewish culture in the Ancient Near East developed along the same patriarchal lines as all the surrounding cultures, so the scriptures tend to reflect this same bias and lean toward male language for God. But our founding narrative insists on a far broader, far more complex understanding of God’s nature. Whatever is holy and true of our mothers must also be true of God, for it is in God’s image that they were made, and in God’s name and Spirit that they function.

Not all of us are mothers ourselves, but all of us have mothers, or have had. There was a time in each of our lives when there was no one more important, more essential to us than our mother. She was the one without whom we could not survive. Our existence was utterly dependent on her existence.

And we need to think about that for a minute – to consider the enormity of what it means.

We know that ultimately our existence is rooted in God. But in our physical formation, it’s as if God subcontracted the job: I choose you, dear woman, to form this child in your womb, in my stead. We had no existence apart from our tethered existence within our mothers. This is how God has made this world to be. And in this, there is a deep holiness.

And then, of course, this work of God extends far beyond the womb. Our mothers continued to do God’s work with us: feeding, bathing, cuddling, whispering words of affection and delight. And all of this beyond our memories. Our earliest, most formative experiences happened within the tiny universe of this woman’s embrace.

This alone is more than enough to make for a day of singing and thanksgiving.

But let’s go on.

What’s less common is to consider Jesus as mother. Now obviously he was a man. You can go right ahead and say “he” and “him” when you’re talking about Jesus, without any fear of liberal censure! But there has been a strand of Christian mysticism that has perceived in Jesus attributes of motherhood. Most famously, Julian of Norwich wrote of “Jesus our true mother.”[1]

And as I read the gospel reading today, I’m mindful of the mothering nature of Jesus in a distinctive way. To be clear, I don’t think this was the gospel writer’s intention, but Jesus’ behavior here is nonetheless really “mom-like:”

The story takes place at Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. He knows that he’s about to leave them. For three years they’ve been constant companions and they’ve looked to him as their leader. But now they’re about to be left alone.

And so he prays for them. It’s a long prayer, in which he asks God for many things. But beneath it all is the clear recognition that he loves them: he’s taught them, he’s guided them, he’s protected them…he’s done everything he could for them, and now his time is running out and he needs to hand them over to God.

All mine are yours, he prays, and now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me….While I was with them, I protected them…I guarded them… But now I am coming to you…I ask you to protect them from the evil one.

There’s kind of a mama bear thing going on here. Mama’s going to do everything in her power to protect her children. I once hear of a mother who flung herself off the second deck of a shopping mall and crashed on the floor below, stood up and started chasing the man who was kidnapping her child. It was only after he was caught that she discovered she’d broken several bones.

That’s what mothers do, right? With one hand they’re holding us and nursing us, and with the other hand they’re protecting us from any and every harm. They’re always scanning the horizon for any threat.

And yet, in one way or another, from the moment our mothers gave birth to us, they were also preparing us for the inevitable good-bye. Every act of love was an investment in our eventual need to survive beyond them.

For some of us, this came far too early. Some in this room were put up for adoption. Some of our mothers divorced our fathers and left. Some died when we were still children. And in most of the cases, surrogates stepped in who continued this work on our mothers’ behalf. Perhaps that’s what “stepmother” means, “I step in to finish this work of love.”

But for most of us, we had our mother’s nurturing, protective love for our entire childhood. But the day came when we moved out of the house, moved away from her protection. And I can only imagine what wrenching pain she felt with each step of independence we took. Cherie, our parish administrator, dropped her 19 year old son off at the airport this week to spend three months exploring Japan, and she was kind of a wreck for the days leading up to his departure.

But this is what mothers do once they’ve raised a healthy child.

And for most of us in this room, not only have our mothers let us leave the nest, they’ve left the nest of this life themselves and have died. They’ve reached that same place where Jesus was in the story: God, I’ve done everything I can for them. I’ve protected them with my own life. But my days in this world are soon ending. Protect them, God. Protect them from the evil one, for now they are wholly yours.

For all the ways they succeeded, our mothers prepared us to recognize the face and nature of God.

For all the ways the failed, they prepared us to meet the grace of God.

And so our mothers, for better or for worse, have done their job with us. We exist because they existed for us, and now we are God’s alone. And God’s we shall remain. The task before us now is to move beyond the immediate knowledge of our mother’s love, into the deeper, eternal love of God – to grow in our trust that God is our mother, and that we shall dwell in God all the days of our lives.

And as we so dwell, so we discover our own calling to be: to live into the likeness of the motherhood of God. Some of you are mothers, with children still at home, and your daily nurture and protection is a holy and divine work. But the nature of this work belongs to us all: to feed and nurture those who hunger; to protect the vulnerable, to believe in and be champions for the timid. And to do so with an abiding, sacrificial compassion.

As we have received, so we are called to be, for our name is Peace. Alleluia.

[1] So Jesus is our true Mother by nature at our first creation, and he is our true Mother in grace by taking on our created nature (Chapter 59).

A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself… The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side (Chapter 60).