The text for this week’s sermon is John 15:9-17
A small girl, maybe a toddler, maybe a preschooler, stands still watching a group of older girls. Their bright laughter and whispers drew her attention and she is enamored. She begins moving a little closer to the big girls, hoping they will notice her. She smiles when they laugh—wants to be in on the joke. Her mother watches from a few feet away, proud that her daughter is taking initiative, making new friends.
Finally the older girls begin to notice their small observer. At least one of the girls is kind–whispers to her friends how cute the little girl is. But a couple of the oldest girls take a quick glance and then turn their shoulders, ignoring the small girl and blocking her out of the circle. The small girl stands, watching, for a few more minutes and then gets tired of being ignored and walks back to her mother. Her mother sees it—sees the change. Her bright, confident, spontaneous child has developed her first insecurity, and the mother wants to give those older girls a piece of her mind—wants to make them be nice—wants to wrap her little girl up in love so strong she will never doubt herself again, no matter what other people say or do.
In the long run, the incident affects the mother much longer than it affects her daughter—the three-year-old shakes it off, enjoys a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and doesn’t think of it again. The mother tells me about it a week after it happened, and the emotions are still fresh.
I’m learning that part of being a mother is letting go—letting your children gradually venture further into the world—further out of the safe, relatively controlled sphere of parental love and influence into a world where they make their own decisions, where they seek out love and attention and affirmation from others, where they may experience rejection or pain, where they will develop insecurities, but where they will grow and learn and become adults.
In this farewell speech Jesus is giving his disciples, it feels a little bit like Jesus is mothering them—preparing them for a venture out into the unknown of the world, where they may not feel his love as keenly—where they may second-guess themselves—where they may experience rejection and pain. So he tells them again and again—abide in my love. Rest there. Live there. Make my love the home you carry with you into the unknown. I cannot prevent bad things from happening to you, or to me, but I can assure you that my love will be with you no matter what.
It’s not uncommon to associate motherly images with God. We all know that God is not male or female—that God is bigger than gender and gender roles. One of the primary words for God’s mercy in the Hebrew scriptures is a word that is derived from the word for womb. There is a growing recognition that feminine images and language for God are very present in scripture despite the fact that we’ve ignored them for a lot of Christian history. Many churches are veering away from using exclusively male pronouns—he, him, his—to refer to God. For Jesus, however, it makes sense to stick with male language—he was a human being with gender, after all. But it is also not unheard of for Jesus to be compared to a mother.
In the middle ages a number of different authors and mystics connected Jesus to mothering language and motherly images. They saw his saving role as a mothering role—the role we often think of in terms of paying a price, or substituting himself—they spoke of it in terms of giving birth—giving birth to a new spiritual life in us, and nurturing that life. They even pointed to the eucharist and said—Look, Jesus feeds us with himself, just like a mother feeds her children with her own body.
Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who lived in the latter part of the 1300s went so far as to say of Jesus, “This fair, lovely word, mother, is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things.” I’ll admit that, even though it is a 700 year-old quote, it’s a relatively new idea to me—Jesus as the ultimate, or true mother—the prototype that all the rest of us emulate.
I think it’s a really helpful idea, though, when we approach this section of John. This whole passage from John pulls into focus when we view it through the lens of motherhood, or parenting. When we see Jesus as that mother watching her young daughter experience rejection and insecurity and self-doubt for the first time. All the layers of images and repetition and abstract ideas in this section of John can start to feel confusing. This is not a passage that is set up in neat points leading to a closing argument. It’s also not a nice narrative structure with action and conflict and resolution. No, this is just a jumble of images and imperatives. You are this. I am that. Do such and such and you shall know that I am that and you are this. Before too long it all starts to bleed together and sound like the adult voices in a Peanuts cartoon. Mwaaawaahwhaaawaaawhaaaaa.
But if we stop looking for a plot or an argument, and start looking at it as an emotional farewell, I think it begins to make sense. This is like a father’s choked up, “Now, you look after each other, okay?” as his kids wait for the bus on their first day at a new school. It’s like a mother’s firm, “Call any time you need, too, sweetie. You’ve always got a place here,” right before her son drives off to college.
Abide in my love. Love one another. Do what we’ve talked about. Everything will change, but these things will stay the same. Remember that you always have my love with you.
So what do we do with this picture of Jesus, reaching out with a motherly love to his disciples, and ultimately, through the centuries to us? What difference does it make in our lives?
Does it inspire and comfort us in our own parenting, as we watch our children venture into the world, knowing that all we can really give them is our love? Does it prompt us to give thanks for our own parents—for the love we’ve known from them? Does it help us let go of the pain and bitterness of not having the parents we wish we did, or not being the parents we wish we could become? Can we trust that abiding in Jesus’ love is enough—enough mothering to make up for all of our human short-comings?
Thinking back to that small little girl and her venture into the sometimes hostile world of big-girl relationships, I wonder whether we can hope to respond to God’s love the way she did to her mother. After the subtle, but still cruel rejection from the older girls, this small child returned to her mother, confident that her mother loved her, would not turn her away, and very soon she forgot the slight altogether. Instead of wallowing in the hurt, she simply shifted her attention to the caring love of her mother. Can we carry around a similar confidence about God’s unconditional love for us? Can we abide in Christ’s love in a way that helps wounds heal and disappointments roll off of our backs? In a way that empowers us to care well for others—to love them just as fully as we have been loved?
I don’t know if we can abide in that love completely—live with such an awareness of God’s love that we never forget it, but I can say that every time I slow down and listen—every time I bare my insecurities before God and listen for a response, the response I hear is clear—you are my beloved. You are mine. So, let’s start listening. I’ll have a moment of silence following this sermon, and it that silence, imagine God, or imagine Jesus sitting with you, holding your hand. Ask, “how do you see me? What do you call me? Who am I to you?” And listen. Rest in God’s love, even just for a moment, and listen.
I have said these things, that your joy may be complete.