Sunday, May 10, 2009

Abiding: A Sermon for for Mother's Day on John 15:1-8


Once upon a time, there was… a nothing, a collection of cells, a point suitable for the head of a pin. It was you, it was me. We were that small. We were that contingent. We were that fragile, that the tiniest puff of a breeze could blow our tiny selves all to smithereens, to kingdom come. But… you and I, long before we had agency or identity, we had something going for us. We had a nest. We had a place to rest. In technical terms, our blastocyst selves found an endometrial wall into which we were able to implant. We found a place to live, a place to grow, a place to abide. That place was inside a mother.

When I hear Jesus’ words in today’s passage, when he tells us, “Abide in me,” I can’t help thinking of the place, the person in which each one of us was able to abide, our biological mothers. Who abides more truly and literally in someone than a baby abides in the womb that carries and nurtures it for nine months? Abide in me, says Jesus, and I think, “Like a baby abides in its mother.”

It is still Easter! We are in the fifth week of the resurrection season, and our understanding of resurrection keeps unfolding, as week after week we hear stories and words designed to help us move more fully into awareness of what that means. What is the resurrection life? Interestingly, the words we read from the gospel of John this morning are words spoken by Jesus before his death. This is from a passage that scholars call “the Farewell Discourse,” several chapters in which Jesus is talking to his friends, giving them all his wisdom, just prior to his arrest.

It might be worthwhile to say a bit here about the gospel of John. There are four gospels, and scholars usually group three of them, Matthew, Mark and Luke, together; those three are called “the synoptic gospels,” meaning, they all have roughly the same outlook. There are differences, to be sure, but essentially, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are connected. They share sources, they share many of the same stories and parables, miracle accounts and timelines. One of the most interesting things about the synoptics is how they portray Jesus. They show us a Jesus who doesn’t say a whole lot about who he is, and when others try to talk about it he hushes them up, especially the Jesus of the gospel of Mark.

Then there is the fourth gospel, the gospel of John. It is strikingly different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. It contains many stories that are not found in those gospels. It has a three-year timeline, as compared with their single year. And, in what I find to be the single greatest difference between John and the synoptic gospels, Jesus talks about himself. A lot. In fact, in John, we have a Jesus who is constantly making these “I am” statements. “I am the vine.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the gate.” “I am the living water.” Far from trying to keep his identity, his nature, on the down-low, the Jesus of John is all too ready and willing to shout it from the rooftops—or in the temple courtyard. That’s what gets him in trouble, in the end. It’s not an identity people are comfortable with.

There’s something else I believe to be true about the gospel of John. I think John’s portrayal of Jesus is saturated with the resurrection, all the way through. John’s Jesus is a Jesus who seems already to have lived the whole story, and come out the other side. He has all the answers. I think this is why, in this year focused mostly on the gospel of Mark, the lectionary provides us with these passages from John during the Easter season. As we are opening ourselves to trying to understand what the resurrection means, how and why it matters, we have Jesus’ words from John spelling it out for us.

Abide in me, says Jesus, as I abide in you. One truth about the resurrection, then, is this: now we have an opportunity for a connection with Jesus, a relationship with him, which goes beyond the superficial. We are invited, in and through the resurrection, to go beyond following Jesus, beyond imitating him or emulating him, to go beyond wanting to be close to him. We are invited to literally welcome Jesus into our very selves. And that relationship goes both ways. We welcome Jesus into us, and Jesus welcomes us into him.

This is a relationship that bears such intimacy, frankly, it makes us, many of us, just a little uncomfortable. What does it meant to abide in Jesus? What does it mean that he abides in us? Maybe a return to that metaphor of motherhood can help.

Julian of Norwich is revered as one of the great Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. In the year 1373 Julian was just 30 years old, and she became gravely ill, a “sickness unto death.” On May 8th of that year, the 3rd Sunday after Easter, she was visited by her priest, who had given her the last rites. After this visit, the pain left her and she experienced a series of something she called “showings,” what we might call visions. For twelve hours she received 15 visions of God’s love. Here is what she has to say, describing some of these “showings.”

It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good.

Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him ­ and this is where His [Motherhood] starts ­ And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother. [1]

The gentle protection and guard of love. According to Julian’s vision, it is the fact that Jesus overcame evil with good, gently protecting us from that evil—that makes him our mother. Later, she extends that metaphor by pointing out that, just as a mother feeds her baby, Jesus feeds us with his own body and blood in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. [2]

I recognize that Mother-language for God tends to make us a little nervous. Mother-language for Jesus is certainly unexpected! But any language we use in trying to describe God, and our relationship with God is, by definition, going to slip quickly into the realm of metaphor and approximation. The language of God as Father, though it more comfortably on our ears by virtue of its familiarity, is still the language of metaphor. God is bigger than our language, so big that we need to bring God a little closer to our human experience. God is like a father, God is like a mother. And a shepherd, and a rock, and a fortress. All rough attempts to speak of something that is, ultimately, indescribable.

But we’ll keep trying. Abide in me, says Jesus. Abide in me, as I abide in you. We can abide in Jesus, Julian suggests, because we can trust Jesus to overcome evil with good, to offer that gentle protection of love. We can abide in Jesus, because we can depend on Jesus to provide us with sustenance, bread for the journey. Turn these same ideas around, and we can see how Jesus can abide in us. Who here has recently had an opportunity to overcome evil with good? It happens more often than we think. Just think of the last time you were in the presence of someone who was really, really angry. A deep breath, a pause, a quick prayer of “help,” and we are ready, in a situation like that, to try to overcome anger with gentleness. And in so doing… we have availed ourselves of an opportunity to abide in Jesus, to participate in his holy actions of peacemaking. Who here has recently had an opportunity to feed the hungry? These occasions are all around us, whether we’re volunteering at one of the soup kitchens in our community, or bringing our own canned goods for CHOW, or dropping off a casserole to someone who’s been in the hospital, or even picking up the tab for the lunch of someone we know is struggling. And we’ve done it again: participated in Jesus’ sacred actions of feeding the world with his love made flesh.

If we are talking about essentials of motherhood, and how Jesus may embody them, I don’t think we can get away from one of the things for which Jesus is best known: teaching. On the day the popular culture sets aside to honor mothers of all varieties, it should be getting clearer and clearer to us (if it wasn’t already) that mothering is not and cannot be limited to a biological function. There are many who mother who have never carried a child in their womb; I would have to count my own mother in that category. And there are many who mother who were never birth-mothers or adoptive mothers. I can think of countless women and men whom I could easily place in that category, as well as my children’s father. And, of course, biological motherhood—as grateful as we all are for it—is no predictor of giftedness for the task of mothering.

You may know that Mother’s Day did not always have the meaning and message it does today. Its original inception was as a day for women, mothers in particular, to rise up and demand peace. The original Mother’s Day Proclamation was written by Julia Ward Howe, known as a suffragist, abolitionist and poet. In the aftermath of the Civil war, this author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” wrote, in one line,
“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.”

A mother—a true mother—teaches her children. By word and by example. As a dear friend of mine says, “They are always watching us, everything we do.” Indeed they are. So those of us privileged to mother—whether our children are those born of us or children who have come to us by adoption or affection, or those hundreds we have taught in the classroom, or those hundreds we have taught in the Sunday School classroom or those hundreds we have coached on the playing field—we are on notice. We teach even when we have no intention of teaching. But if we abide in Jesus… our teaching is that much more likely to come from a place of love and goodness.

Abide in me, as I abide in you. In this resurrection season the resurrection continues to unfold… and we find that it truly inhabits us. Now we have an opportunity for a connection with Jesus, a relationship with him, which goes beyond the superficial. We are invited, in and through the resurrection, to go beyond following Jesus, beyond imitating him or emulating him, to go beyond wanting to be close to him. We are invited to literally welcome Jesus into our very selves, even as Jesus welcomes us into his heart. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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[1] Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter LIX. As translated at http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20010807_giuliana-norwich_en.html.
[2] Ibid., Chapter LX.

5 comments:

Suzer said...

We missed church this morning, and so I am blessed to have come here and been fed by this sermon. Thanks, Mags!

Lisa said...

Sorry for being off topic, a little, but I wanted to wish you a happy mothers day.

Sophia said...

Lovely as always, Mags, and just what my heart was longing to hear yesterday (my rector was actually decent but not doing God the Mother on this day and with these readings is a tragic missed opportunity). Your folks are so lucky to have you in the pulpit.

Gannet Girl said...

You write such amazingly beautiful sermons.

Jan said...

Your sermons are beautiful. And I'm thinking much about abiding, with the lectionary readings for the past few weeks.