No Greater Love

May 13, 2012

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I’m preaching on Jesus’ words to his disciples from today’s gospel lesson: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

On this Mother’s Day I am reminded that a loving mother is one of the most powerful examples of what laying down your life for someone else looks like.

Mothers begin laying down their lives for their kids during pregnancy.  Even the most empathetic dads will never have a clue about what it’s like to have another human being living inside of you for nine months—every second, minute, hour, day for nine months.  And not only is another human being living inside you, he or she is growing as well.

And then there’s giving birth.  Until the advent of modern medicine it was not uncommon for a mother to die in childbirth, to literally lay down her life for her baby.  Again, dads will never have a clue about what labor and delivery actually feel like.  Dads can be in the delivery room and try to be encouraging—“Breathe…you’re doing great, honey!”—and offer an occasional ice chip, but that’s about it.

And pregnancy and birth are just the beginning of mothers’ laying down their lives for their children.  Then come the years and years of loving care—of hygiene and cooking and being a taxi driver and laundry and field trips and school shopping and being a team mom and serving on the PTA and more hygiene and cooking and packing lunches and navigating the demonic behavior of two-year olds and the hormonal insanity of teenagers and still more hygiene and emergency trips to the doctor and getting poster board for a school project at 10PM the night before its due…it never stops.

In my honest opinion I think being a mom is the most important and most difficult job in the world.  Motherhood involves literally laying down your life for your family.  There is nothing metaphorical or figurative about it.

Motherhood can be the most stressful job as well.  On our refrigerator at home there is a magnet with the following request from a stressed out mom: “I’ll have a café mocha vodka valium latte to go, please!”J

Mothers often feel unappreciated.  Mary Chapin Carpenter has a powerful song called He Thinks He’ll Keep Her (1992) that describes this:

“She makes his coffee, she makes his bed
She does the laundry, she keeps him fed
When she was twenty-one she wore her mother’s lace
She said ‘forever’ with a smile upon her face
She does the car-pool, she PTA’s
Doctors and dentists, she drives all day
When she was twenty-nine she delivered number three
And every Christmas card showed a perfect family
Everything runs right on time

Years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines

He thinks he’ll keep her…

He thinks he’ll keep her”

Motherhood is often a thankless job.  I’ve never heard a mom complaining, “I wish my husband and kids would stop thanking me all the time J.”

One of my favorite memories of my mom involves her coming to my rescue in the midst of a very awkward situation.  When I was in eighth grade, I was riding the bus to school on a gorgeous spring Friday morning, cramming for a Latin test because I had been too busy to study the night before because Magnum P.I. and The Rockford Files were on TV—priorities J.

We had assigned seats on the bus and sitting next to me was a kid who was nice enough but let’s just say his elevator did not go to the top floor.  All of the sudden this kid regurgitates his breakfast all over me—partially digested peaches and oatmeal and other items that defied identification covered my shirt and jeans and Latin book and backpack.  I was stunned.  Then he did it again.  Now I was drenched in vomit.  It was so gross.  Some kids on the bus were laughing, others were turning green and trying not to follow suit.

When we finally arrived at school I stepped off the bus, clothes soaked with vomit and walked across the lawn toward the school.  Of course I had to walk right by this girl named Kelly whom I had a crush on, trying to be nonchalant about entering school with vomit all over me.  I went immediately to the office and called my mom.

She stopped what she was doing and rushed to the school.  We made a trade—I gave her nasty, vomit-soaked eighth-grade boy smelling clothes and she gave me neat, folded, clean clothes.    And I ended up having a great day after all—not only did the Latin test go fine, but I got to sit next to Kelly at lunch too J.  And of course when I arrived home, I found my “vomit outfit” was washed and folded and waiting for me on my bed.  I never forgot that.

It’s no secret that mothers leave a lasting impact on their children.  Sigmund Freud observed that “Someone who has been the indisputable favorite of their mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror.”  Of course the corollary is that those who never sense their mother’s favor often struggle with self-confidence and feel like the conquered.

For some people Mother’s Day is a happy celebration; for others, not so much.  I read the following this past week in The New York Times:

“Not all feelings about Mother’s Day fit on a Hallmark card…It is perhaps the most complicated of relationships, keeping many a therapist in business. It shapes not only who we become as people, but as parents.  So much of what we do once we have children is either exactly the way we were raised or a rejection of how we were raised – but either way we are responding to our mothers” (May 9, 2012).

Some people have loving mothers who for the most part were present, kind, supportive, nurturing.  Others have mothers who were often absent or who withheld their affection and approval or in some cases were even abusive.  Some people have mothers who call a lot; some have mothers who never call at all.

Some have over-controlling mothers who can be suffocating.  The British band Pink Floyd captured this in their song “Mother” from their landmark 1979 album The Wall as David Gilmour sings as a mother to her son:

“Hush now baby, baby don’t you cry
Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you
Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing
She won’t let you fly but she might let you sing
Mama will keep baby cozy and warm”

Yes, Pink Floyd could be just a little dark , but this dynamic is not uncommon.

But most mothers simply try to do the best they can for their kids, even if things do not always go as planned.

In his 2006 book, For One More Day, Mitch Albom recounts the longings of a man named Charley Benetto to have one more day with his mom who had passed away years earlier.  He wishes he could thank her in person for all she did for him.  In this book Charley recounts several episodes from his childhood that he calls, “Times I Did Not Stand Up for My Mother.”  Here is one of them:

I am six years old.  It is Halloween.  The school is having its annual Halloween parade.  All the kids will march a few blocks through the neighborhood.

“Just buy him a costume,” my father says.  “They have ‘em at the five-and-dime.”

But no, my mother decides, since this is my first parade, she will make me a costume: the mummy, my favorite scary character.

She cuts up white rags and old towels and wraps them around me, holding them in place with safety pins.  Then she layers the rags with toilet paper and tape.  It takes a long time, but when she is finished, I look in the mirror.  I am a mummy.  I lift my shoulders and sway back and forth.

“Oooh, you’re very scary,” my mother says.

She drives me to school.  We start our parade.  The more I walk, the looser the rags get.  Then, about two blocks out, it begins to rain.  Next thing I know, the toilet paper is dissolving.  The rags droop.  Soon they fall to my ankles, wrists, and neck, and you can see my undershirt and pajama bottoms, which my mother thought would make better undergarments.

“Look at Charley!” the other kids squeal.  They are laughing.  I am burning red.  I want to disappear, but where do you go in the middle of a parade?

When we reach the schoolyard, where the parents are waiting with cameras, I am a wet, sagging mess of rags and toilet paper fragments.  I see my mother first.  As she spots me, she raises her hand to her mouth.  I burst into tears.

“You ruined my life!” I yell.  (p. 39-40).

When Charlie was a few years older his parents got divorced and he ended up living with his mother, who was still always there for him.  Charley recounts other episodes that he calls, “Times My Mother Stood Up for Me,” including this one:

I am fifteen and, for the first time, I need to shave.  There are stray hairs on my chin and straggly hairs above my lip.  My mother calls me to the bathroom one night after (my sister) Roberta is asleep.  She has purchased a Gillette Safety Razor, two stainless-steel blades, and a tube of Burma-Shave cream.

“Do you know how to do this?”

“Of course,” I say.  I have no idea how to do it.

“Go ahead,” she says.

I squeeze the cream from the tube.  I dab it on my face.

“You rub it in,” she says.

I rub it in.  I keep going until my cheeks and chin are covered.  I take the razor.

“Be careful,” she says.  “Pull in one direction, not up and down.”

“I know,” I say, annoyed.  I am uncomfortable doing this in front of my mother.  It should be my father.  She knows it.  I know it.  Neither one of us says it.

I follow her instructions.  I pull in one direction, watching the cream scrape away in a broad line.  When I pull the blade over my chin, it sticks and I feel a cut.

“Oooh, Charley, are you all right?”

She reaches for me, then pulls her hands back as if she knows she shouldn’t.

“Stop worrying,” I say, determined to keep going.

She watches.  I continue.  I pull down around my jaw and my neck.  When I am finished, she puts her cheek in one hand and smiles.  She whispers, in a British accent, “By George, you’ve got it.”

That makes me feel good

“Now wash your face,” she says (95-96).

Most of us can relate to Charley Benetto because most of us can recall times when our mothers stood up for us and times when we did not stand up for them.

And even though no mother is perfect, mothers still often show us what it looks like to love someone by laying down your life for them.

In twenty years of ministry I have observed that often mothers not only feel underappreciated and overwhelmed, they also hold themselves to utterly impossible standards.  Some feel like they don’t measure up because they do not have the career success of Katie Couric and the homemaking skills of Martha Stewart and the beauty of Jennifer Aniston—and if only they could be as cool and hip as Lorelai Gilmore of the TV show The Gilmore Girls

And there are no guarantees for mothers.  Even when mothers lay down their lives for their kids some kids still resent them or blame them for their mistakes or get into serious trouble.  Some kids break their mothers’ hearts, leaving them asking themselves what they did wrong—and sometimes the answer is… nothing.

And then there are those whose relationship with their mother is so freighted with hurt and resentment and deep-seeded wounds that it is toxic, that the goal is simply to not become like Norman Bates of the Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho.

But there is good news, not only for mothers, but for all of you.

You’re off the hook.

God did not send His Son to load you down with impossible standards or guilt because your relationships with your mother or children are strained, but to save you instead, to give you grace and absolution and love.  Jesus Himself said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

Arguably the most loving mother in the Bible is Mary, the mother of Jesus.  As an engaged young lady, probably in her mid to late teens, an angel appeared to her to tell her she would be bearing none other than the Son of God.  How would you respond to that?  Her response demonstrated her willingness to lay down her life.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she told the angel, “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

There were many among Mary’s family, friends, and neighbors who I am sure did not believe Mary (would you?) and considered her Son illegitimate.  Scripture is silent about how she handled that, but I am sure Mary stood up for her Son.

In keeping with Jewish law, when Jesus was eight days old, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple for his circumcision and dedication.  At the temple an elderly man named Simeon who the Bible tells us was filled with the Holy Spirit took the infant Jesus in his arms and blessed him.  Then he looked at Mary and prophesied about Jesus’ life and concluded with these words, “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).

Mary appears a few more times in the Gospel accounts—finding Jesus in the temple teaching the elders at age twelve, witnessing Jesus’ first miracle in turning water to wine at a wedding, seeing Jesus on occasion preaching and teaching.

The years flew by and eventually Jesus was with His disciples at the Last Supper, telling them, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Later that same night Jesus was betrayed and arrested.

And the next day Mary, now in her late forties, found herself standing at the foot of the cross, gazing up at her Son, helpless to do anything to ease His suffering because it was not allowed by the Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion.

I wonder what she thought as she watched and listened to her Son suffer.  I wonder how she felt as people insulted him and would not leave him alone, even then.  Scripture is silent about Mary saying anything at that point, perhaps because all she could do was cry.

No doubt when Jesus was young, Mary had caressed His face and kissed His head, had washed and combed His hair many times.  And now her Son’s face was marred having been punched by Roman soldiers, His sacred head sorely wounded, a crown of thorns pressed into it, His hair matted with blood and sweat.

No doubt when Jesus was a baby Mary had examined his tiny fingernails and toenails in those quiet sacred moments of infancy.  No doubt when Jesus was a toddler Mary had held His hands as He learned to walk and had tickled His feet and laughed with Him as He giggled.  And now those hands and feet were pierced with nails, and a sword pierced her soul too.

And yet in spite of all this Mary still remained at the cross.  In spite of all this Mary still stood up for her Son as her Son stood up for the world.

No doubt Jesus knew the favor of His mother Mary, and in His death on the cross Jesus conquered the power of sin and death and hell by being Himself conquered.

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

That’s what Jesus did on the cross for you, because He loves you that much.

Jesus loves you so much He literally laid down His life for you.  There was nothing metaphorical or figurative about it.

And through His death on the cross Jesus makes a trade with you—you give him your filthy clothes of shame and sin and guilt and resentment, and He clothes you with grace and absolution and love—enough to cover you, to cover your relationship with your mother, to cover your relationship with your kids.

In other words, Jesus lets you off the hook.  That is the good news of the gospel,

And even if like Charlie Benetto you want just one more day to thank your mom who has passed away, don’t worry… someday in heaven you’ll get your chance.

Amen.

Bible References

  • John 15:13 - 13

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