Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Greatest Mother Ever” (1 John 5:11-13)
May 13, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
On this Mother’s Day I am preaching a sappy sermon about mothers, with no apologies. Being a mother is the hardest, most demanding job on the planet. There is no close second. After literally having their growing child living in their bodies twenty-four hours a day, one hundred sixty-eight hours a week, for eight or nine months, mothers give painful birth to their child, which never leaves their bodies the same. And of course then a mother’s job is only just beginning.
Children require twenty-four-hour-a day care. They never stop eating, never stop needing things (especially clothes), and never stop making messes, ever. That isn’t enough, so add rides to school and the doctor and sports practice and the orthodontist, add PTA meetings and helping with homework and hugging them when a bully makes them cry, add birthday parties and holiday traditions and trying not to engage with the never-ending one-upping with other mothers, and add thousands of other demands. Regardless of whether or not a mother also has a job outside her home, regardless of how many children a mother has, children, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Any vacuum of time, money, or energy will be immediately filled by needy children. It is no wonder that I once heard a mother make the following request, “I’ll have a café mocha vodka valium to go, please!”
My mom managed to rear me without ever being committed to an institution, which in and of itself is proof to me that not only was she a great mom, there must be a God. One of my favorite memories of my mom happened on my sixteenth birthday. She let me skip school, which itself was a great present, and took me to the DMV so I could get my driver’s license. Then she took me to lunch and gave me my birthday present, a dual cassette boom box with auto reverse and dubbing capabilities. For a sixteen year old in 1984, it could not get any better than that.
Sometimes fathers just don’t cut it, and children want and need their mothers more. In his Netflix comedy special Don’t Never Give Up Kevin James tells a story about his youngest daughter:
Our little new one, she’s not a daddy’s girl right now. I wish she was. The other day she was crying, standing in the hallway late at night. I told my wife, “Let me go deal with this. It’ll give me a chance to bond with her.” So I walked down the hallway and I’m like, “What’s the matter, sweetheart, is everything all right?” And she goes, “I want my mommy. I don’t want you. Go downstairs.” The first thing she said threw me the most…“I want my mommy,” like “I don’t even know who the (heck) you are.” Then in case I’m confused, she makes it very clear, “I don’t want you. I don’t even want you on the same floor as me. You need to be a floor below me.”
I am a big fan of Amy Poehler, who spent eight years on Saturday Night Live and then seven seasons on the hit comedy Parks and Recreation. In her 2014 book Yes Please she includes the following “poem and story” she wrote as a child:
Parents although sometimes mad they get, I would always bet, that they do it from love. If so happens they punish you, and you wish you could punish them too, they do it out of love. They may yell at you and make you mad, but when they yell it makes them sad (I think). That’s why parents are the best. Mine are better than all the rest. The end (204).
Among the many things Amy Poehler writes that her mother taught are: “Always have a messy purse …Dye your hair constantly…(and) Love your kids and hope they do better than you did” (204, 205). Amy Poehler idolizes her mother.
Mothers often have to navigate very challenging circumstances that kids do not understand. In his 2006 book For One More Day Mitch Albom writes about a middle aged man named Charles Benetto whose life has fallen apart and who longs to spend one more day with his mom who had died years before. In one of the several episodes entitled “Times My Mother Stood Up for Me” Albom writes:
It is three years after my father’s departure. In the middle of the night, I awaken…My mother is suddenly in my room, whispering loudly, “Charley! Where’s your baseball bat?” “What?” I grunt, rising to my elbows… “A bat,” my mother says. “Why do you want a bat?” “Shhh!” my sister says, “She heard something.” “A robber’s in the house?” “Shhh!” my sister says. My heart races. As kids, we have heard of cat burglars (although we think they steal cats)…
“Charley? The bat?” I point to the closet. My chest is heaving. She finds my black Louisville Slugger, and my sister lets go of her hand and jumps into my bed…My mother eases out the door. “Stay here,” she whispers. I want to tell her that her grip is wrong. But she’s gone…I hear footsteps. I imagine a big, ruddy beast of a man coming up the stairs for my sister and me. Then I hear something real, a smash…I want to run downstairs. I want to run back to bed. I hear something deeper—is it another voice? A man’s voice? I swallow. Moments later, I hear a door close. Hard. Then I hear footsteps approaching.
My mother’s voice precedes her. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” she is saying, no longer whispering, and she moves quickly into the room and rubs my head as she passes me to get to my sister. She drops the bat and it clunks on the floor. My sister is crying. “It’s all right. It was nothing,” my mother says. I slump against the wall. My mother hugs my sister. She exhales longer than I have ever heard anyone exhale before. “Who was it?” I ask. “Nothing, nobody,” she says. But I know she is lying. I know who it was (91-93).
When it comes to your mother, some of you may echo Amy Poehler, who considers her mom “better than all the rest.” Some of you may not. Or like Charles Benetto, maybe your mom looked out for you and protected you in ways that you barely understood—others of you, not so much. Some of you may have a strained relationship with your mother—or no relationship at all. And of course it can go the other way too, right? Perhaps you are a mother who wishes you connected more with your children or got along easier with them, or is weary of their resentment. Or perhaps you never wanted children or never had children, or you had them and wondered if they came with a return policy.
In the gritty 2017 coming of age film Lady Bird Saoirse Ronan plays Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a senior in high school, who lives in a working class neighborhood in Sacramento, California. She is at a thrift store with her mom with whom she has a strained relationship. They are looking for a prom dress. She emerges from a fitting room wearing a frilly pink dress and looking very happy. “I love it,” she says, looking at her mom for approval. “Is it too pink?” her mom asks. Lady Bird silently goes back into the fitting room, obviously upset.
“What?” her mom says. “Why can’t you say I look nice?” Lady Bird replies. “I thought you didn’t even care what I think.” “I still want you to think I look good.” “I’m sorry,” her mom retorts, “I was telling the truth. Do you want me to lie?” “No, I just, I just wish that you liked me.” “Of course I love you.” Lady Bird emerges again from the fitting room, and looks at her mom, “But do you like me?” Her mom hesitantly replies, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself you can be.” Lady Bird simply asks, “What if this is the best version?”
The grace of God, the actual gospel of God’s unconditional love for you has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with your being “the best version of yourself you can be.” In today’s passage from the First Letter of John, the evangelist, the only one of Jesus’ disciples who stood at the cross as Jesus suffered and died, is very to the point about what the gospel is all about:
God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).
Jesus did not come to help you improve yourself, which is good news, because for many people the older they get, the more entrenched they become in behaviors that are the exact antithesis of self-improvement. Jesus came to give life, eternal life. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. And the greatest mother in the history of the world, Jesus’ mother Mary, played a vital role in this.
When the angel Gabriel told the young engaged Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God, Mary’s response was one of gentle humility and surrender, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). As she carried Jesus in her womb Mary had to endure the insults and gossip for carrying a child who was not Joseph’s. Mary gave birth to Jesus in a barn, and her job was only just beginning. Mary nursed him, and was there when he took his first steps, when he spoke his first words. Mary knew every line of his hands and feet. Mary adored her son. When the twelve-year old Jesus had wondered off unbeknownst to her, Mary sought him until she found him in the temple, where Jesus asked her, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Being the mother of the Son of God was the hardest job in the world.
Mary witnessed much of Jesus’ earthly ministry, saw his miracles, heard his preaching. Mary was even there at Calvary, where she stood up for her beloved son, and watched him suffer, the hands and feet she used to clean and coddle now nailed to a cross. And as Jesus’ final breath drew near, Mary listened to Jesus ask John to look out for her. And after Jesus’s chest finally stopped heaving, Mary heard her son exhale longer than she had ever heard anyone exhale before. And later Mary saw her resurrected Son too. Mary was there all the way through.
Back to the film Lady Bird for a moment…near the end of the film as Lady Bird is unpacking and settling into her college dorm in New York City she pulls out of her suitcase a manila envelope that is full of wrinkled, half started letters from her mom, each of which begins the same way, “I love you so much and I don’t know how to tell you that. I can’t communicate it to you in a way that…”
The next scene she is on the phone with her father, who had salvaged all his wife’s incomplete, wadded-up letters from the trash and put them in their daughter’s suitcase. He says, “She was worried that there would be errors, or mistakes or something, that you’d judge her writing abilities.” “I wouldn’t do that,” Lady Bird replies. “I thought you should have them,” her dad says, “I want you to know how much she loves you, but also don’t tell her I salvaged them, okay?” “Okay.” In the final scene of the film Lady Bird calls and leaves a message for her mom:
Hi Mom and Dad, it’s me, Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one. Dad, this is more for Mom. Hey Mom? Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you I love you. Thank you.
Lady Bird let her mom off the hook—and the good news of the gospel is that God has let you, and your mother, and all us, off the hook as well. On this Mother’s Day, the greatest mother ever, Mother Mary would want you to know how much God loves you. You see, God knows every bend of the road in your life, God knows the whole thing, and God loves you unconditionally. So today may the Holy Spirit reassure your heart that as John wrote, “You have eternal life.”