“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” John 17:18
Let’s acknowledge up front that Mother’s Day can be emotionally complicated. Of course we want to lift up those women in our lives who have guided us and nurtured us – although I hope we will do that more often than once a year. If your mother has revealed God’s grace and love to you, give thanks for that. I know some of you are grieving that your mother is no longer here to be celebrated today. Or you’re worried about your mother’s health as she grows older and more fragile.
We also know that many people have had difficult relationships with their mothers – or with their children. Others struggle to have a child or have lost a child. Still others struggle to help a child held captive to addiction or depression or a thousand other things that terrify us. This life is messy, and the work of mothering is messy. What we know is that God is with us in all of it – in the joys and in the heartaches and everything in between.
In a curious way Jesus is doing some mothering in today’s gospel. Today’s piece of John’s gospel comes from a long prayer that Jesus offers on the night that he is arrested, just before his crucifixion. He knows that his time with the disciples is growing short, so how does he spend those final hours? He spends a lot of that time in prayer – a prayer offered up to God on behalf of these people he has loved with all his heart, people he chose from different backgrounds and places – none of them glamorous – and shaped into people of holy purpose.
A lot has already happened this night. They’ve shared a meal together. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, doing the work of a servant. He’s watched Judas slip away into the night to betray him. He knows that a few hours later Peter will deny knowing him.
So if you’ve ever had a family meal turn weird, if you’ve ever had to do something pretty gross for someone you love, if you’ve ever been disappointed or betrayed by a family member – well, then, you have a sense of what brings Jesus to this moment of prayer.
Jesus knows he’s about to leave them. And he must send them out into the world, a world that will not embrace them with open arms. Jesus knows that the world can be a dangerous and painful place.
That’s the work of mothering too – preparing kids to live without you. Sending them into a world that is not always safe. Mothers always remember the first time you left your kid in someone else’s care…the first time your kid fell or got hurt…the day your kid started kindergarten…the first school dance…the driver’s license…the beginning of college…the first job…it goes on and on. So many milestones, so many fears.
I sense that Jesus feels some of that fear and worry in this moment. He pleads with God: Protect them in your name…so that they may be one, as we are one.
Protect them from the evil one, Jesus says. Protect them from all of those things that might hurt them. The ways that the world will break their hearts. The people who will come after them with weapons of every kind because the disciples are proclaiming a message of God’s powerful love.
Jesus knows the world is dangerous. He’s about to be put to death because the world is threatened by a love that demands justice and peace for all people.
Jesus says it plainly: The world has hated them. In John’s gospel the “world” often stands for those powers that do not understand what Jesus is about and actively oppose him. Those forces won’t go away after he dies. They will sometimes seem to grow stronger. The people who hear John’s gospel for the first time will have already seen the temple, their place of worship, leveled by the Romans. The people hearing this gospel know how destructive hate can be.
But Jesus also knows in this moment what the disciples will only know later – that fear and death and destruction will not win the day. There’s resurrection on the horizon. God’s triumph of life over death means that the world does not have the ultimate power.
How do we send children out into the world in spite of our fear? We do exactly what Jesus is doing here. We pray for them. We remember that while we love the children in our lives, we do not possess them. Their lives are a gift from God too, and we owe it to them to let them find their own paths. We trust in resurrection hope.
And so, whether we have given birth to children or not, we can all share in the work of mothering – by surrounding children and youth with an unconditional love that reflects God’s own unshakable love for them. By caring for them in ways big and small. By preparing them to head off into the world on their own, ready to face whatever they find there.
We do these things following the example of Jesus, whose love for his first disciples and for each of us, his disciples now, is both fierce and tender. A love that prays without ceasing, teaches through words and actions, and gets down on the floor to wash feet.
None of us does the work of mothering perfectly. We are not perfect people. But we rely on a Savior who mothers us too – and offers forgiveness when we have fallen short.
My friend Kimberly, whose own path to motherhood was not an easy one, admits that, even now, as the mother of two children, she finds Mother’s Day bittersweet. She offers this reflection:
Maybe we should embrace all of the emotions of Mother’s Day for exactly what they’re worth: poignant reminders that the deepest and most intense relationships in our lives are an undeniable part of our personal stories. Reminders to hope and reminders to reflect. Reminders to cherish and reminders to grieve. Reminders that Mother’s Day isn’t about celebrating someone perfect, but rather celebrating those who do the best they can to love the best way they know how in the midst of their own imperfection. And that might look a little bit different for all of us, but that’s okay. Let’s celebrate mothering on this Mother’s Day – in whatever way and whatever place you pour love out of your imperfect self onto those around you. Let’s celebrate that.[i]
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ