The following is a sermon I preached on Mother’s Day at Clackamas United Church of Christ, near Portland, Oregon. The text was John 17:6-21. The video recording of the sermon is below, along with the text.
I don’t know about you, but Mother’s Day always brings a mixture of emotions for me. And I’ll tell you a little secret about pastors and Mother’s Day – many pastors avoid preaching on the topic of Mother’s Day. That’s in part because it’s difficult to do justice to the range of emotions people have about Mother’s Day.
For many of us, Mother’s Day is a grand celebration of motherhood. It’s a day marked with joy and flowers and cards and family and brunch.
But for others of us, Mother’s Day might not be so joyful. It could be marked by the loss of a beloved mother. Or it could be a reminder of a strained relationship with a mother. For some mothers, it might be a painful reminder of a lost child. We remember grandmothers and great-grandmothers who once again find themselves in the position of being a mother for a grandchild. And we think of those who are waiting and often struggling with pregnancy, and those are who are awaiting the long process of adopting, hoping for the day when they finally welcome their child home.
And so Mother’s Day is tricky. But I think the church is the place for us to come just as we are, with honest vulnerability, our joy, our sorrow, and our mixture of emotions. For I’ve come to believe that it’s only when we are honest about ourselves, our emotions, and our relationships that we come to see ourselves loved – warts and all – by God and by one another.
We are loved. Warts and all. I learned this important lesson from my own mother.
I grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday. But I don’t think that was because of my mother. My dad made sure we went to church. I remember complaining as a child one day about having to attend church on one particular Sunday. “Why do we have to go to church?” I whined. My dad responded, “Because it’s what we do.”
I hated that answer.
But now that I’m a dad, it’s the exact answer that I give to my children.
My mom didn’t seem to be very interested in church. She happily went every Sunday, but I got the impression that if it were up to my mom, we would be home on Sunday morning.
My mom would not have described herself as a religious person. I don’t even think she thought of herself as a spiritual person. She had the mouth of a sailor. She was a middle school English teacher. Her fellow teachers once told me that my mom was famous for being in administrative meetings and whenever the conversation would turn to bureaucratic nonsense she stop the meeting and told everyone that they were talking about bureaucratic nonsense. Only she used two very descriptive words that started with “B” and “S.”
My mom and I had a weekly ritual. She and my dad drove separate cars to church, usually because my dad had meetings afterward. During the worship service, my mom and I sat on the side of the sanctuary, near the back of the church. In that church, the sermon was delivered in the middle of the service. So, after the sermon, my mom and I would skip half of the service and sneak out the back of the sanctuary so we could go to Taco Bell for lunch.
I hope none of you get any ideas … Maybe this is why we have our sermon at the end of worship … But it was then that I realized you could meet God at church. But you can also meet God at a Taco Bell.
Well, when I was in fifth grade, my mom was struck with cancer. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I knew it was bad. She had chemotherapy and invited me to comb her hair. I remember the strands of hair falling off her head and into my hands until she was completely bald. My little fifth-grade self stared at this new version of my mom, not know what to say, so I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind, “Mom, you look beautiful bald.”
Fortunately, the chemo worked and my mom was cured. Or at least the doctors thought she was cured. When I was a freshman in high school, I overheard my mom on the phone telling my grandmother that, “It was back.”
I instantly knew what she meant. The cancer was back. For some reason, at that moment I knew that eventually this would take her life. I remember thinking, “Okay, Adam, you need to prepare yourself for your mother’s death.”
I was scared. I was scared for my mother and I was scared for my dad and for my two brothers and my sister. And of course, I was scared for myself.
My parents rarely talked with us about the cancer. It felt like a taboo, so my siblings and I never brought it up in a family discussion. But one day my mom and I were sitting at our dining room table watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island on TBS. Next to Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island was her favorite show. I don’t know why. I think the Skipper reminded her of her dad. Well, on this particular day, when the show ended, I turned off the television and then turned to my mom. I took a deep breath and said, “Hey mom. Are you ever afraid?”
Without any hesitation, she responded, “No. I know my Jesus will save me.”
I never expected that response. I don’t ever remember her talking about Jesus or God. I think she was more comfortable with the spirituality of Star Trek than with the spirituality of Christianity.
That conversation has always been a mystery to me. But it’s always felt true at the deepest level of my being. It was like a prayer where my heart was opened to Jesus and the presence of God.
In that moment I learned that salvation isn’t about us being good enough or saying the right things or believing the right things. It’s not about what we do. It’s about what Jesus has already done for us. And salvation, whatever it is, is not just for us; it’s for all of humanity. Indeed, all of creation.
About four years later, cancer took my mother’s life. She died on May 17 in the year 2000 at age 53.
I tell you this story because it’s the Mother’s Day story I was given. It’s a story of pain and heartache, but it’s also the story of faith and trust and of the loving presence of God.
And I tell you this story because of our Gospel passage today. This passage is known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.” The Gospels say that Jesus was close to God. In fact, our passage today says that Jesus and God were somehow one with each other.
There’s a lot going on in this prayer, but I want to make two brief points about it.
The first point is simply this: Jesus says that he has made God’s name known to his followers. That’s kind of a strange statement to make, isn’t it? I mean, isn’t God’s name God? Or Yahweh. Or Elohim. Or El Shaddai. Or any of the other names the Bible gives to God? Wasn’t God’s name made known before Jesus?
Well, yes and no. In the ancient world, to reveal someone’s name was to reveal their essence. It was to know them at the most fundamental level. Jesus makes God’s name known at the most concrete level. Jesus does this. Not Moses. Not Elijah. Not Isaiah. Not Paul. Not Peter. And not the Bible in a general sense. Sure, they might have important things to teach us, but if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.
This matters because Jesus reveals a God who does not condemn the world, but who loves the world. Jesus reveals that there is no condemnation within God. Jesus didn’t come to condemn my mother or any of us for not being holy enough. Rather, he came to save my mother. He came to save all of us.
Jesus reveals a God who saves. And so the condemnation isn’t within God. It is within us. We are the ones who condemn one another.
But Jesus didn’t come so that we would condemn one another. Christians who condemn Muslims or Jews or our LGBTQ siblings or African Americans or immigrants or Mexicans or the poor or the rich or anyone else are living in a way that goes against the way of Jesus.
Jesus came that we might be one in the spirit of love. This is part of the mystery that my mom pointed to when she said she knew her Jesus would save her. Jesus was one with her. Jesus is one with God and Jesus is one with us as he calls us to be one with one another.
And this leads me to the second point I want to make about this passage. It’s the reason that I’m here with you today and it’s the reason you are here today. At the end of our passage, Jesus prays on behalf of his first followers, but also on behalf of “those who will believe in [him] through their word.”
You see, Jesus’ followers told other people about him, and those people told more people about Jesus, and so on. Generation after generation. I’m here because my mom told me about Jesus. And you are here because someone told you about Jesus. Whether in word or deed, someone else introduced us to Jesus and that’s why we are here.
And I thank God that someone introduced you to Jesus. I thank God that you are here. Because, friends, we are on a mission together, an exciting adventure. The world seems more divided now than ever. I firmly believe that at this moment in history the world desperately needs more of us to reveal the name of God to people. That name is love. That name is unity. That name is justice. That name is forgiveness. That name is Jesus, who came not to condemn, but to save.
And so as we celebrate Mother’s Day, let us give thanks for all of the women and the men who have mothered us into the faith.
Let us pray for the spirit of unity and love to spread throughout our neighborhoods and the world.
And with joy, let us boldly move forward as we share God’s love with all we meet. Amen.