On Mothers’ Day, I always like to look out over the congregation, inevitably there are a few new faces. Mothers can exert a powerful influence in our lives. I always like to see who might be here on this day, because mom said: “For Mother’s Day this year, I’d like you to come to church with me.” I don’t know this congregation well enough to know if that is the case for any of you. So don’t worry, I won’t make anyone raise their hands.
But if this is you, good for you. It’s good to do something for your mom. She’s done a lot for you. I want to assure you, you’re not alone. I suspect that many of us who are regular churchgoers owe some of our pattern of attendance to our mothers. I know I do. My mom, after all, is an Episcopal priest. Church was not really an option in my household growing up.
Before I go further, I want to say I have an exceptional mother. I know that I am blessed. When I talk about mothers and motherhood, I know that I am speaking from my particular experience. I know your experience may be different. When I talk about motherhood as an archetype and an ideal, you may need to translate. You may need to think of the people in your life who have showed you mothering love. Nurture takes all sorts of shapes in our lives, and that is a blessing Maybe your relationship with your mother was or is more complicated. Feel free to translate.
That said, I need to explain that in addition to church, I go to a lot of concerts. I get my concert-going from my mom, just like my churc-going. A few weeks ago I went with a seminary friend to the Sufjan Stevens show at the Peabody Opera House. Sufjan is sort of a mystic Episcopalian folk rock star. (I’ll let you parse that one). In the middle of his concert he broke from the music for a bit of dialogue.
Sufjan started his speech by saying this: “If parenthood is sainthood, then motherhood is martyrdom.” Again, I’ll let you make your own judgements about Sufjan. I’ll tell you, I love his music and I think he’s a little odd. But he explained his theology a bit, and it caught my attention. Sufjan Stevens said he thinks mothers are martyrs because give up their bodies, literally, in carrying a child. Then they give of themselves to give birth. Mothers suffer in order to bring life into the world. I’ve been chewing on that idea for a little while now.
When I read the Gospel we have today to prepare for this sermon, Sufjan’s statement came back to me. “Motherhood is martyrdom.” Jesus tells us that to love is to lay down your life. In fact, “No one has greater love than this.” Does Jesus only mean a literal martyrdom? I don’t think so. In many ways, I think, mothers often teach us about this kind of love, the love that asks you to lay your life on the line for someone else. Mothers know about the day in and day out martyrdom of great love.
I’m struck by this martyrdom because these days, I am surrounded by new moms. Ellis and I are at the stage of life when we have a lot of friends having babies. Our first night in our new house, two kids under a year old were in tow with friends helping us move in and bless our home. My sister gave birth to our first niece just last July. There are a lot of pictures of us on Facebook holding babies, and people are joking that Ellis and I have baby fever. Well, maybe. I’ll say there is something wonderful, probably even hormonal, about holding a baby, but for now I also enjoy handing them back to their moms or dads.
Being surrounded by new moms, moms who are my own age, has been a new window for me into parenthood generally, and motherhood specifically. Before the last year or two, I just didn’t know how scary it was to be a mom. Maybe part of the job of a mother is to make her kids think she is fearless. I do think kids can smell fear. I also think a little son or daughter often needs a momma bear to protect them. I guess I had always seen mothers’ emotions from afar. Now my sister and my good friends have started having babies. I’ve seen for the first time how being a mom is scary.
Laying down your life, risking your life, letting go of control of your body, it’s not easy. Love, life-giving love, is costly. Moms know that well. Mothers who worried about why a baby was kicking, or not kicking; mothers who know what its like to have a screaming kid that you can’t calm down at three in the morning; mothers who know what it is like to fear for your teenager who is on a first date, or performing a solo, know that love is scary. Love costs a great deal.
Love will always be costly, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the price of being a mother is too high today. Too many mothers have lost a child to violence. Too many mothers have too much to fear. Love is too costly in this city, and we have work to do.
But whatever we do to limit the violence, I don’t believe we can totally mitigate the cost of love. Love always costs us something. There’s no way around it. No matter how strong a momma bear or papa bear you are as a parent, you can’t protect your children from everything. And that’s scary. You’ll pay the cost of love in worried nights, in frustrating conversations with teenagers. You’ll pay the cost of love in anxiety because you don’t know the right answer, or worry that you haven’t been a good parent.
I’ve been preaching through the archetype of motherhood, but as I said before, you can translate. Whether we’re talking about the love between two romantic partners, or siblings, or close friends, love always costs us something, or it isn’t love. Loving someone means you worry about them. Loving someone means trying to protect them, and running up against the frustrating limits of our fragile humanity. Loving is costly.
Into the midst of this anxiety and fear, comes another word of Jesus. Today’s Gospel has one of the most important words in the whole Bible. That word is “Abide.” We’ve actually had that word in the last several weeks’ Gospels. It’s funny. I’d challenge you to think of a time outside of church, outside of the Bible or the hymnal, when you use the word “abide.” People used to say, “I can’t abide that,” but they don’t much anymore. We tend only to use “abide” in scripture and church.
Which is a shame, because abide is a great word. In Greek the word is “meinein.” If we’re looking for a way to explain “abide” today, you could say, “hang in there.” If we translated that way, our Gospel would read “You will hang in there in my love.” My former rector, Luis Leon, used to point out that “there’s a big difference between hanging in there, and hanging on.” You hang on with your fingernails. Hanging on is something desperate. Hanging in there, is something else. Abiding is something else. A lot of new moms could use some abiding.
Jesus invites us to abide, to hang in there. Christ knows, love is costly. As well as anyone, Jesus knew what it was to lay his life on the line for the sake of love. Our God is willing to pay the cost of loving us. When loving others is costly, through sleepless nights, and the anxieties of trying to care for another person, God invites us to hang in there. God will be there with you, hanging in there with you. God knows the cost of love.
And God invites us to abide with one another, to hang in there together through the thick and thin of costly love. It’s part of why your mom might have invited you to church. She wanted you to have some people to abide with, to hang in there with, because what is church if not a community that tries to hang in there together?
We often talk about God as a Father, because Jesus called God father. But Jesus talked about himself as a “mother hen” and God’s care and nurture for creation, God’s costly love, make me think that God is our mother as well. God knows what it is to hang in there through the cost of love.
This Mother’s day, give thanks for your mothers, divine, biological and otherwise. Give thanks for those who gave of themselves for you. Give thanks for those who know the cost of love. Give thanks for those who abide, who hang in there with you. May God bless you with love that costs you something, because love is worth the cost.