Hallmark and the Florists’ Association have done their best to make Mother’s Day into a mushy, sentimental day. We’ve all been to programs where they recognize the oldest mother present and the mother with the most children and so forth and so on. I mean, really, who wants to be recognized like that?
And it’s not a great day for everybody. There are women who do not have children for one reason or another. There are situations which haven’t turned out mushy and sentimental but conflicted and alienated. I’ve always felt that preaching on Mother’s Day is like walking through a minefield, which may sound ridiculous to you. It is like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day in that sense, where the primary cultural celebration is a mushy, sentimental patriotic fervor which is more interested in flag waving, barbecues, and lake parties and trips to the beach than actually remembering the painful, sacrificial service which has left scars of all sorts on those who went and those who stayed and has left the bodies of those who died far too young on every continent. My problem is not that I don’t take these days seriously, it is that I take them so seriously that I lack the words to express what needs to be said.
When I turned to the readings for today, the ones from John and I John seemed to attempt to express what the true love is that should be recognized on these special days, whether about parents or spouses or fellow Christians or servicemen and women. The readings take us to the love Jesus has for us and calls us to have for each other. Here are some of the relevant verses again: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” “We know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Does it surprise you to hear the words “love” and “commandment” together so much in these sentences?
I don’t think it should. In the major commitments of our lives, love is an obligation we take on which must push us on even when emotional love will not. I admire those countries which require a year of either military or some other sort of national service from young people. I think both of those things can help cultivate a love and appreciation of country and of those who serve both in the armed forces and in communities of vulnerable people.
I think when you take marriage vows that you promise to do the hard work that marriage requires and not just expect to reap the benefits. For many people, when the going gets tough they get out. Don’t hear me wrong, I’m not endorsing staying in an abusive relationship. But a mushy, sentimental view of marriage can’t hold up over the long haul.
And then we come to mothers, and fathers for that matter, but mothers have a special bond with the children who are literally bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. But it is not all sitting in the rocking chair cuddling with a baby, or making chocolate chip cookies for your child’s class at school, or beaming with pride at graduations and weddings. Being a mother means saying no when other mothers are saying yes sometimes. It means not automatically siding with your child who complains about how mean the teacher is. It means dusting your child off from a painful experience and giving a gentle prod to get back in the action and try again.
Later on, being a mother may mean having to forgive harsh words said in anger, foolish actions taken to assert independence, choices which you know will end up poorly. It may mean having to let your child have the humiliating and dangerous experience of spending a night in jail or going to rehab because you would no longer enable a habit. It may mean dealing with alienation that you can do absolutely nothing about. In a recent example, it might be seeing your son participating in a riot and going out and grabbing him by the ear and taking him home. That might not be the way you or I would do it, but it is an example of a mother taking a difficult action to show love for her child.
This is what true love is. It’s going to be there through thick and thin, through good days and bad, through devotion and rejection. This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Against this backdrop I’d like to spend some time looking at the relationship of love and commandments in these Bible passages on this day when we honor and value mothers who have loved, nurtured, and taught us so profoundly.
There are three statements I want to highlight. First, in the reading from John we hear these words from Jesus to his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is consistent about saying that the love commandments trump everything else, and Paul echoes that with his statement that love is the greatest gift and the other gifts are worth nothing if not exercised in love. When asked which commandment is most important, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and the second is you shall love your neighbor like yourself. All of the rest of the law and the prophets derive from these.”
So he tells us to love one another in the same way that he has loved us. That sets the bar very high, because he goes on to say, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus loves us so much that he did this very thing. He gave his life for us, defeating the powers of sin and death and making it possible for us to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life with him. He did not do this because we were worth saving. He did it “while we were still sinners,” because he loved us so much. That’s what true love is, and Jesus commands us to do it.
Think of a parent sitting in the courtroom with his or her child who has committed a heinous crime, enduring the hostility and the shame and the hurt because that’s what you do for your child. Think of a soldier putting his or her life on the line every day, serving under a president he or she does not like and a dysfunctional Congress that seems to just blow in the wind. Because that’s what you do for the country you love.
The second statement I want to highlight is from I John: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child.” This just talks about our relationship with fellow Christians, but that is more than enough. Listen to the progression again. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God…” There are no ifs, ands or buts. No other corollary things that people have to say or do or think to be in the family. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God. “And every one who loves the parent loves the child.” If you love God, then you will love God’s children. All of them. It doesn’t matter what denominational or political labels they have. We Christians just can’t seem to get this, and it is tragic beyond words. Remember, in the first statement we looked at, Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Not some of you but all of you.
The third statement I want to highlight is an eye opener, also from I John. It says, “We know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Before we allow that to plunge us right back into trying to follow the 613 laws of the Old Testament, let’s take a deep breath. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The law was referred to in Judaism as a yoke, which was used on oxen in farming. The farmer held the reigns and used the yoke to keep the oxen moving in a straight line for planting. The law was intended to keep people in line. But a yoke was a heavy, wooden, hated thing. Jesus invites people to a new way of living, a different kind of yoke to wear. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I John says the commandments are not burdensome, so he is pointing us to the way of Jesus.
That doesn’t mean following Jesus is easy. Loving, forgiving, sacrificing are not things that come naturally. But they can be seen to have value and importance, unlike not eating pork or cleanliness laws and so forth. The commandment we are to follow is the love commandment. True love is a commitment, an obligation. It frequently also pays off either long or short term with great pleasure and satisfaction.
Loving others is not always an easy thing to do, nor is love always returned. We are to love anyway, because it is the right thing to do. 1 John reminds us that Jesus came not only with water but also with blood. His love exacted a heavy cost from him, a cost paid in blood, but it was a cost he gladly paid. “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Thanks be to God for the mothers in our lives past and present, absent and in our midst, who have worked at loving their children with true love, not the shallow, indulgent love the world likes so much. May their tribe increase, and through their example may we all learn how to honor the major commitments in our lives with the same kind of true love we have learned from them.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
May 10, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church