Mother’s Day Sermon, Easter 6B on John 15:9-17 “Why Fairy Godmother?”

John 15:9-17

[Jesus said:] “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

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“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

In the fairy tales I heard when I was young, sometimes there was a fairy godmother.  For example, there is poor oppressed, abused, and despised Cinderella; utterly hopeless until the kind fairy godmother appears and changes her life.

As far as I can remember, there are no fairy godfathers.   In fact, “godfather” has an entirely different set of connotations for us.

It seems that when we need a character to be the essence of compassion, we turn to mothers.  This is mother’s day, and today we celebrate our mothers who bore us.  Most of us were lovingly nurtured by our mothers who loved us  and sacrificed so much for us.

It is a happy coincidence that the scripture texts of the lectionary are all about love.   Jesus said,

9 “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

God’s Mothering Character

Jesus refers to God as Father, not mother, but the characteristic of God that he is focusing on is not masculine power or strength, but the motherly characteristic of love.  As a Jewish person, Jesus knew well that the Hebrew word used for “compassion” in the Old Testament comes directly from the word “womb.”

Jesus knew the book of Isaiah very well where God is pictured as a mother in the moment of nursing her baby:

15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

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It is almost comical that there are people who get worried about what might happen to our faith if we thought of God as both Father and Mother, as if the mother image might weaken god and remove some essentially masculine quality.  In the ancient world, of Isaiah and in the world of the Roman Empire that Jesus lived in there were plenty of goddesses around.  Some were quite powerful, and sometimes violently brutal.  You didn’t want to cross them (ask the god Kingu about what goddess Tiamat did to him!  ouch!).

Nevertheless, the primary association we have with motherhood is compassion, caring love.  This is a perfectly appropriate way to think about God.

Flowers and Dead bodies

In the greeting card aisle stocked with mother’s day cards, the most frequent image, as far as I can tell, are flowers.  It seems normal.  Flowers are beautiful, which seems to suggest the beauty of motherly love.

And yet, we have already used a word, when describing what our mothers did for us, that seems to point away from flowers towards the image of a body lying dead.  The word we used is “sacrifice.”  That is the image that Jesus reflects on when he speaks of the depth of love he means.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

The word “friend” here comes from one of the Greek words for love.  We are now stuck with this weak word “friends” in English that sounds like the subject at hand is no deeper than Facebook.  But the English word “friend” actually does come from an Old English term (frēond) for love.  But since “friend” is now so weak, I think we can hear this better if we use “beloved.”

13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s beloved.”

The Pelican’s Sacrifice

When I lived in Europe, I saw an image in several Hungarian Reformed churches  which is quite startling when you see it for the first time.  It is of a mother bird, a pelican, in a nest

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surrounded by her chicks.  She is feeding them self-sacrificially, blood from the wound she has made in her own breast.   This image comes from Medieval Europe, I’m told, and in churches, it is an image of Christ’s self sacrificial love.  Jesus, pictured as a self-sacrificial mother.

When we move from the image of the womb as the place to see compassion, to the image of a self-sacrificing mother, we have moved from emotions to actions.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s beloved.”

From Amazing to Mandate

When we think about how much God loves us, that like the mother pelican, God lays down his life for us, it is truly amazing.  But it is more than merely amazing.  It is also a mandate.

We, who have been chosen by God’s initial act of love for us, have been given the mandate to be people of that same sacrificial love for one another.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

That little word “as” is huge: “as I have loved you.”  The measure of our love is Christ’s.  There is no way to weaken this to make it un-shocking.  This is our mandate; nothing less.

It is followed by another little word with huge implications; the word “if.”

14 “You are my friends if you do what I command you”

Or, as we said, we could read it better using the word beloved instead of “friends”

“You are my beloved ones if you do what I command you”

“If”  makes obeying Jesus’ command a test of the genuineness of our identity as his followers, his beloved.  So what is this command?

Jesus’ Command

Jesus famously summed up all of the commands of Torah, the Law of Moses with the dual mandate to love.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  38 This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”   (Matt 22)

It seems too demanding.  We look for exception clauses.  Maybe the phrase “love one another” refers exclusively to us, in our group of disciples.  Maybe the “neighbor” I am to love as I love myself is restricted to my people.

The follow-up question which was asked by someone looking for just such an exclusion to limit the love mandate is now famous.

“And who is my neighbor?”  (Luke 10:29)

To which the reply is the parable of the “Good Samaritan”.  Remember the story of the robbery victim and the people who passed by without helping?  Only one showed compassion; only one stopped to help.  Only one risked, even sacrificed for the robber’s victim on the side of the road.

The essential question is not “who is my neighbor?” but rather, as Jesus asks

“36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?””

The answer he gave was correct:

 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

From womb, where compassion appeared as a mother’s emotion, to self-sacrifice, where it becomes an action, back to mercy, which is compassion in action; even in sacrificial action on behalf of others.

Who is excluded from the love mandate?  Who is not a neighbor?  Who is not included in the “one another” we are commanded to love if we are Jesus’ beloved ones?

Our Own Kind

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It is not hard for us to love our own kind.  Even animals love and care for their own young.  Social animals will tend and care for their group.  Among chimpanzees, the adolescent primates will even sacrifice themselves defending their clan.

It is no great virtue to love those like ourselves.  It is nothing more than pure practical common sense to look out for those who are necessary for one’s own survival.

So, to love one’s family, one’s race, one’s nation is nothing more than pragmatism; our survival depends on them; of course we will love them.  It does not take a Christian to figure that out.

What Christians & Scientists Know

But what if the Christian insight is that there really is only one group, one clan, one  “us”?   What if, as scientists know, there really is only one human race?  That “all living humans belong to the same hominid subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens” and that “among humans, race has no taxonomic significance”?  What if  we actually are dependent on everyone on the planet for our mutual survival?

We would conclude: “of course we care for our own.”  “Can a mother forget her nursing child?”  We care for our own who are European, our own who are Hispanic, our own who are Asian, our own who are Arabic, our own who are African.  Of course we care for our own.

Beyond Self Interest

The Christian mandate goes beyond self interested care – even if it does expand the inner circle indefinitely.  The command of Christ is to love “as I have loved you.”  (which is about as opposite to the perspective of Ayn Rand as you can get).

How does this work?  On mother’s day, let our mothers be the starting point for our models.   What would our mothers have withheld from us that was in their power to give?

Would our mothers have left us hungry and not fed us?  Would they have left us outside the door to sleep on the street?  Would they have ignored our wounds or our illnesses?  Would our mothers have allowed us to be bullied because we were weak or abused for being different if it was in their power to intervene?  Would they not have sacrificed themselves for us?

Our mothers modeled for us, by emotion and by action, what our Lord has said:

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s beloved.”

“You are my beloved ones if you do what I command you”

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”

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