By Paul Koch –
So today is Mother’s Day; a day of flowers and “Thank You” cards and restaurants booked from brunch to dinner. It is a day set aside for mom and it is one of the most troubling days to go to church – as a pastor this day unlike any other. All the other special Sundays throughout the year; Easter or Pentecost, The Baptism of our Lord and Trinity Sunday are easy and straightforward. The themes are well established and preaching on them feels natural and at times even effortless. But not Mother’s Day, oh no Mother’s Day is a dangerous minefield of unexpected twists and turns.
Part of the problem I suppose is that this is not an observance of the church. There are no assigned readings or a traditional Collect for Mother’s Day. This is an observance established by the Nation. It is more closely related to the 4th of July than Palm Sunday. But that is just the beginning of the difficulty. You add to this that there is a terrible track record of preachers making a mess of Mother’s Day. Either they preach about a version of a mother that no real earthly mother could live up to, so on Mother’s Day most moms leave feeling inadequate and hurting, or they preach about our failure to love and honor our mothers as we should leaving many with doubts and pain wondering why they came to church in the first place. And it’s not because we don’t want to love our mothers but not all mothers are equal. Our relationship with our mothers may be one of love and honor but it may very well be one of hostility or disappointment or hurt and pain. It is impossible to navigate the various twists and turns of this day – yet here we are.
Now I suppose we could just ignore Mother’s Day in the church, we could just skip it, but it is hard to bypass something the rest of the nation is observing. And I think we all know that there is something about mothers that is not easy to ignore. Our mothers weather good or bad, gracious or bitter, have a hold upon us that is unlike any other relationship we’ve ever had. Sometimes that is a wonderful and nurturing thing, sometimes it can drive us to the brink of insanity but nevertheless there remains something about mom that cannot simply be ignored. The miracle of our coming into the world, the 9 months of radical growth and nurture in the womb of our mother, the life changing moment of birth binds us forever together.
Perhaps it is here in the power of birth itself that we find our way through the minefield. For us, for the Saints of God, our birthday is not the only birth we know. As we have been born of our mothers so we have been born again, born from above, born of God himself. St. John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” Because of our new birth we are given a new relationship with all those who have likewise been born of the Father. For us then, who confess our faith together, we are brothers and sisters born of God.
Now according to John this life we have together is one that gives guidance and hope even for a celebration of Mother’s Day, for it is a union that is defined by love. Love of the Father, love of the one who gave us this new birth is also love of each other. The gift of faith that declares us born of God produces love. You are the baptized, you have been washed by water and the Word, and you are declared free and called then to live in the freedom of that love.
And so we do. We head out on this Mother’s Day to love, to love as we are free to do, to love as we love our Father who gave us this new birth. But do we ever seem to really pull it off? Not that we don’t try to love, but there is so much that gets in the way. I mean if we struggle with love toward our own mothers, if that relationship can be marred by guilt or regret or anger how much more so our relationships with each other. Just as we can easily find mothers and their children often times at odds with each othe,r so we find those born of God fighting against that relationship. John may say that, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” but it often does not look like it.
I’ve been around long enough now that I have heard the stories and even witnessed the tragedies of our failure to love. Churches running off their pastors, pastors suing their congregations for back pay, members leaving because of rude remarks said about their children during the service, families using their money and influence to direct the congregation to support their agendas, gossip from one click against another. On all sides forgiveness is withheld and the Gospel is stifled as those hurt by the church are wounded deeply. Our world is full of people who used to go to church, people who were too often pushed out when they needed love the most.
So when we seek to love as we ought we don’t always find what we are hoping for. Just as the love of a mother on Mother’s Day is not a perfect and uniform thing so our love from the one who gave us new birth faces great opposition. As we redouble our efforts and try and rid ourselves of those things that inhibit our love we don’t seem to get any better. The deeper we look within ourselves, examining our motives, our desires and our deeds we find an ever expanding list of things we should do, or could do, or need to do if we are to love rightly. Every time we think we have solved the problem there is another lurking right behind it.
This is because the way to perfect love is not found within us. The victory that will overcome the world is not a product of our emotions or desires; it is not within our ability or strength to acquire. In fact, according to John the victory that overcomes the world is not our work or love but our faith. He says, “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” And then he makes it perfectly clear for us. He says, “This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood.” Not by water only but by water and the blood.
The baptism given by John the Baptist was one of only water. It was one of repentance. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” he said. The water was a symbol of a new life; the water was to show your contrite heart to give an outward sign of the desire to rightly love as the Father had first loved you. But the water is not enough; the water alone is not our hope. To just look within and feel sorry for your sins, to repent and promise to try and do better, to love better, to forgive more freely is not enough.
No, our Lord is the one who comes not by water only, but by water and the blood. On Calvary’s cross our Lord’s beaten and battered body hangs lifeless after he cried out, “It is finished,” and then gave up his spirit. The Roman soldiers begin to break the legs of the other criminals, but when they come to our Lord they pierce his side with a spear instead, just to make sure he was really dead. And when they do out flows a rush of blood and water. The one who comes in water and blood is the one who comes bearing your sin, the one who suffers and dies in your place, the one binds up the brokenhearted and sets the captives free.
To overcome the world is not possible by trying harder, but only by dying and rising with your Lord – He alone is your victory. In the new birth of your baptism you have been united with the one who comes by water and the blood. There he speaks into your ears his words of forgiveness; there he calls you brothers and sisters, made so by the water and the blood.
I recently heard a story about a mother and daughter. The daughter didn’t have a great relationship with her mom; it was adversarial at best. Her dad was out of the picture for most of her life and her mom remarried early on to (at least from her perspective) what was a real jerk. Her mother began a long and slow drift toward alcoholism. She never treated her daughter with much care, seemed indifferent to her struggles and simply wasn’t there for her as she grew and became a woman and soon a mother herself. If it was the alcohol or simply her personality, it didn’t much matter for she was mean and self-centered. The wounds that she left in her daughter were profound and perhaps would never fully heal.
Not too long ago the mother was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. The complications that followed along with her unwillingness to give up the bottle caused her kidneys to fail. No one gave her much time to live, but she managed to hang on for far longer than anyone expected. Even as her body was weakened through dialysis she seemed to simply linger. Her daughter wanted to know why, why would this woman who had hurt and wounded her, why wouldn’t she just die? Why drag it all on for so long?
She was told by a trusted friend that perhaps she needed to be forgiven. Perhaps she lingered; this broken and dying mother, so that her daughter might speak the Gospel to her. And somehow, by the grace of God she did just that. This one born of her mother and yet born of God managed to speak the words of Christ to her mother, with tears in her eyes and a quaking voice, she looked her in her tiered and weary eyes and said, “I forgive you.” She died 12 hours later.
This is a life marked by water and blood. It is a life where forgiveness goes forth; forgiveness from mothers to their children, from children to their mothers, forgiveness from brother to sister, forgiveness for you today. By the water and the blood, I forgive you all of your sins. Go now – for you are free!