Not your usual Mother’s Day sermon

Some of us feel conflicted about our mothers, confused about love, and coerced by Mother’s Day. Thankfully, Jesus shows us what love is, and draws us into his family. (Listen.)

Today is Mother’s Day. Some of us have enjoyed breakfast in bed, and hugs, and chocolate, and flowers. Some of us have celebrated with big family luncheons. Some of us have spent time with a mother who has become a good friend: and these are all things to be thankful for and to celebrate. And yet for many of us, this is a day flecked with pain.

Because some of us are acutely aware of the children we were never able to have, or the lives which died in the womb, or our choice to be child-free which has not been respected. Some of us are grieving the death of our mother, and the absence of mature women who support, encourage and guide us; while others of us are grieving that our mother never provided the love we so desperately needed. Some of us have had to become mothers to our mothers, containing their outbursts, managing their emotions, setting clear boundaries, or caring for their physical needs. Some of us are grappling with manipulative mothers, needy mothers, mothers who have turned a blind eye to our suffering, even abuse, mothers who, like my own, all too often flayed me with the sharp edge of her tongue. In fact, for some of us, our mother has been our greatest accuser, our worst enemy, the person who, despite years of therapy, we still find difficult to love.

And so for so many of us, Mother’s Day is fraught. Surrounded as we are by images of happy families, we feel like we ought to be celebrating; we feel like we ought to be overflowing with love; but some of us are overflowing with grief or rage or shame instead. For although most of us will say we come from a loving family, for many of us the care and affection we have received has been so muddied with dysfunction that we have struggled to thrive.

In our culture, especially in churches, we tend to assume that families, especially mothers, are naturally loving. But these days I find myself wondering: Is it possible that many very normal mothers know almost nothing about love? And then I wonder, what is love, anyway? Is it natural? Is it a warm fuzzy feeling, a sense of identity and belonging, or is it something else?

In the first letter of John, the author writes that all who trust in Jesus as Christ are God’s children. Everyone who loves the parent loves the child; and we love God’s children when we love God and follow God’s instructions for right living. Indeed, he writes, the love of God is this: that we obey God’s commandments.

These words should shake us: because we live in a culture which suggests love is natural, automatic, a warm feeling, a fuzzy emotion, something that can never be defined. But here we learn that we love people when we love God, and we love God when we are obedient. We learn also that love is an orientation and an action. It’s an orientation towards God and God’s children; and it’s the action of putting God’s commandments into practice. It means love is an act of will: it’s something we choose to do.

Of course, the particulars of how we love, that is, how we obey God’s commands, will vary from person to person, household to household, city to city and culture to culture. But we know from Jesus what the essentials are.

Through Jesus, we know that love is shown through hospitality. We love when we reach out to the stranger, the sufferer, the social outcast, and share food, and friendship, and a non-judgemental listening ear. Yet many of us have grown up in families which have felt inhospitable. Perhaps we were born female, when our parents desperately wanted a son. Perhaps we were born gay, and our parents could not accept it. Perhaps we were born autistic, and nobody understood. Perhaps we were the unplanned child, shunted around to various caregivers while our parents got on with their lives. In these and so many other ways, I suggest, some of us rarely experienced love in action through hospitality.

Through Jesus, we know that love is also shown through being generous with our time and possessions, using them not simply for our own gratification but to nurture others. Yet many of us grew up in homes where time and possessions were fiercely guarded, rather than generously shared. For example, my own parents worked long hours, and by the time I was a teenager I could go days without seeing them. I was often asleep before they got home from work, and I learned to feel like an interruption. Others of us have known economic hardship at times when our parents enjoyed luxury holidays; or we grew up in comfortable homes which were largely closed to visitors. In these and so many other ways, I suggest, some of us rarely experienced love in action through generosity.

Through Jesus, we know that love is shown when we work for justice and engage in peace-making: globally, locally, and within our own households. Yet many of us grew up in families which were dictatorships. Children were never consulted on decisions which affected them; conflict was the order of the day; and violent words, even actions, were considered normal and acceptable. In these and so many other ways, I suggest, some of us rarely experienced love in action through justice and peace-making.

Hospitality, generosity, justice and peace-making are central to following Jesus. Therefore they are central to loving and obeying God, and central to loving people. Yet to put it bluntly, some of us, perhaps many of us, grew up in households where, despite ever-present words of love, and despite much care and affection, love as active obedience to God’s will was pretty rare.

For whatever reason, the adults around us were not always able to extend themselves in the ways modelled by Jesus. They were not always able to nurture life and growth and wholeness in their children; they were not always able to love. And so it’s no wonder that many of us feel conflicted about our mothers, and confused about love, and coerced by the social expectations and advertising around Mother’s Day.

Of course, these things are difficult to name, and they will be difficult for some of us to hear. But if we are to be set free, we must first understand what binds us; if we are to be healed, we must first identify our wounds. This is why I have named the lack of love in many lives. But this lack isn’t the end of the story: for tonight’s readings imply some wonderful things.

The first is this: If love is about orientation and action, then love is an act of will, and so it can be learned and it can be practiced. In other words, our past does not dictate our future. We might not have experienced much love in action in our family of origin, but we can choose to orient our lives towards God, and we can choose to live by God’s commands. We can choose to practice hospitality, generosity, justice, and peace-making in every sphere of life; and this way of choosing will gradually fill us with joy.

We know it will fill us with joy because, in the gospel according to John, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Then he tells them to love one another in the same practical and self-giving way: and why? “I have said these things to you,” says Jesus, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

So even if you grew up in a family with very little love, love can be learned. Even better, Jesus promises that the practice of it will lead to fullness of joy.

The second piece of good news we heard before, and that is this: All who trust in Jesus as Christ are God’s children. This means that you are God’s child, and you belong to a family which is much bigger and more loving and more robust than your family of origin.

One day, Jesus was teaching when his mother and brothers came to the door; they tried to extract him from the crowd. Word filtered in to Jesus that his family was seeking him. But … “Who are my mother and brothers?” Jesus asked. Then he looked at those who were sitting around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35).

I invite you to look at the people sitting around you now. Here are your brothers and sisters and mother: this motley group that you probably wouldn’t choose, the people known as Sanctuary. Here are people who seek to do the will of God, who are trying to love not just with their words but through their actions. Here are people who, in their annual covenant, commit to hospitality, generosity, justice and peace-making.

We are your family. I am your mother, and you are mine. And so, no matter how toxic your biological mother is, no matter how fraught your family of origin, as your mother and sister in Christ I’d like to wish you a very blessed, and ultimately very healing, Mother’s Day. In the name of Jesus, our most gracious brother: Amen. Ω

Reflect: How could you practice love today? That is, what is one act of hospitality, generosity, justice or peace-making that you could do for your family of origin, or for your current household, today? Identify it, then do it.

A reflection on 1 John 5:1-6 and John 15:9-17 by Alison Sampson, given to Sanctuary on 9 May 2021 (Easter 6B, Mother’s Day) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

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