By Melody Kroeger
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; you abide in my love.
It is fitting that we hear these words today on Mother’s Day, for the command to love is central to the Gospel of John. But I think we miss an opportunity if we only acknowledge mothers today. For many of us – it’s a dad, sister, brother, or grandmother who bears the responsibility – and the joy – of raising us up. Regardless of who that person is – we all have someone – who has left indelible imprints on our young lives, showing us the way and loving us into adulthood. John’s gospel today – to abide in love – speaks to those people.
The central word of our Christian faith is love. Love is mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible. John mentions the word 9 times in the short gospel text we read this morning.
So it begs the question, how did Jesus show love in his earthly ministry? Much like a parent does – he took care of people’s physical needs. First, Jesus fed people – he fed a tired and hungry crowd of 5,000 on the lake shore near Bethsaida and he gave them living water to slake their thirst. Second, Jesus healed the sick and wounded – the royal officials dying child, Jairus’ daughter, and the widow’s only son.
God still breaks into history in persons acting in great love – the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles and grandparents who pour out their love on the young – bearing witness to the message of God’s great love in visible and inspiring ways.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor credits her mother’s “almost fanatical emphasis” on a higher education, pushing her children to become fluent in English. Her mother worked as a nurse in a methadone clinic – struggling to afford a set of encyclopedias to give her son and daughter proper research materials for school. Sonia’s grandmother’s apartment in the south Bronx became a safe harbor, away from her father’s drinking and her parent’s quarrels. It was, Sonia writes, a place of music and the “happiest smells” of garlic and onions.
Love is not an easy carefree journey and the pathway we walk together, as parent and child, isn’t well marked. It’s rutted with obstacles. There are dead ends. It’s normal to breakdown or stop and check the map. It’s certainly not a Hallmark card – especially when we love a child with unique needs.
Preparing for today, I remembered a favorite painting from the late 14th century. Created in egg tempura and gold leaf, the Italian artist Simone Martini’s small jewel of a painting hangs in an art gallery in Liverpool. The painting shows a petulant 12 year-old Jesus, arms crossed and brows knitted together in annoyance. You might recall that as a child, Jesus abandoned his parents during a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem and stayed behind to teach among the scholars there. Mary and Joseph’s reactions are refreshingly honest, and unrestrained: there is that mix of anger, relief and love which any parent would recognize. His mother’s words on finding him again are written in Latin on the book she holds: ‘Son, why have you dealt with us like this?’
Was Jesus an awkward child? Mark tells us that when Jesus enters a synagogue in his home town and begins to teach…”many who heard were ‘astounded’, and that they were offended, asking “is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Amazed at the community’s lack of belief in him, Jesus responds that “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown.” Indeed his neighbors were so angry they got up, drove Jesus out of the town, and took him to the top of the hill, in order to throw him down the cliff.
How his parents must have worried about their child. How all of us worry about our children.
But the good news is that love gives us the vision to see possibilities in the young. Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson’s father Harry, nurturing the potential in each boy, pushed his sons to reach for the sky, teaching them that “you don’t have to settle for being good enough because the work will allow you to be better.”
Parenting requires that we see the potential in our children and we intuitively understand that “love is blind” is a proverb that is only partially true. Love is the only reality that sees us for what we really are and what we can become. It calls into being what is hidden, but nonetheless real. “Judging others” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer “makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating…God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world.” To see the good in a child is to sow and cultivate a relationship into the budding stage. But to love a child is to nurture that relationship into a full blossom.
I met a friend at SU – Sr. Anthony from Uganda. Sr Anthony will graduate this spring with her MBA, largely due to her late mother. Her mother’s family couldn’t afford the tuition for even the most basic elementary education in Uganda So, she sat outside the school house, and listened, so she could learn to read and write. Sister’s mom, like Sotomayor’s mom, was also fanatical about educating her 5 daughters in a country and culture that doesn’t always value education for girls.
For those of us for whom the water between parent and child is rough and full of rapids, it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t believe anyone – or any relationship – was beyond redemption – every person was potentially worthy no matter the gulf between their present and their potential. His love helped bring that worthiness to light. He saw the good in Zacchaeus, the dishonest tax-collector and Zacchaeus became honorable. Jesus loved Mary of Magdala and when the disciples abandoned him at the last hour, Mary was one of the women who stayed with him, even to the Cross. She was present at the tomb, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the first to preach the “Good News” of that miracle.
The great Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich writes, “The first duty of love is to listen.” How much better would we be if we looked beyond the troubled present of our cast-aside children and instead listened to their wants and needs and narrowed our focus on their hidden future potential – the goodness that resides in every child?
So for all those moms and dads, aunts and uncles, or grandparents who bore the responsibility – and the joy – of raising us up – all those left their indelible imprints on our young lives, poet Billy Collins reminds us that between loved and beloved, parent and child, the equation will never be even.
Here is his poem.
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I , in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.