Luke 13 | God as Mother

What comes to mind when you think of ‘mother?’

It might be things like:

  • Why haven’t you called me back?

  • Mind your manners!

  • Good home cooking

  • A safe place

  • Judgment

  • Unconditional love

  • Norman Bates (yikes!)

It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think we tend to separate motherhood from fatherhood in our minds. But really, the job descriptions aren’t all that different, are they? Both parents can love and care and discipline (and hopefully do). Both wake up in the middle of the night and change diapers and play and read bedtime stories. And today more than ever, dads are welcomed and even expected to play an active role in parenting their children. I see more and more stay at home dads around Austin and I think it’s wonderful and really healthy.

But for all the similarities, there is something DISTINCT about a father’s love and presence and a mother’s love and presence.

There’s something different about the bond between a mom and her kids, especially early on. She is the first heartbeat they hear other than their own. The first voice. She nourishes literally from her own body for 9 months and longer if she’s able to breastfeed. I’ll never forget holding Torey for the first time. Her whole face seemed taken up by these huge eyes looking up at me.

Last weekend we got a chance to celebrate the life of Kyle’s beautiful and wise and very spunky grandmother. She was 90 when she passed away. And it was hard but beautiful to watch her two daughters say goodbye to her and begin to process her loss.

Whether your connection to your mother is life giving or hard, I believe it is something really central to who we are and touches the core of how we relate with the world. All of which reminds me of a time when Torey was about 8 or 9. We had taken a trip to Sea World and Kyle decided that this would be a perfect time to introduce Torey to her first roller coaster. I wasn’t so sure about it. She was barely tall enough and it looked pretty scary.

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But in the end, Kyle convinced Torey to ride it and me to let her. Kyle and Torey got in one car. I got in a few cars up. The guy working the ride came and helped us buckle our seatbelts. And there was that jerk as the ride started. We were moving up the first hill. And there was that agonizing pause that you always have where you’re looking down at all these crazy twists and drops that you’re about to go on. And I heard Torey behind me doing a little second guessing…And we were off—whoosh—down the first hill. And there Torey was with her strong and loving dad right next to her holding her hand.

But all the way down Torey was yelling MOM?!?! And she yelled for me down every hill and on every curve. Here we are in our 90stastic overalls after the ride. As you can see, she made it safe and sound. And later that afternoon, she tried another roller coaster and loved it and she’s never looked back. Here she is a few years ago on another roller coaster.

We need people in our lives to push us to risk and be daring like Kyle did for Torey that day, don’t we? But there has to be a balance, too. Sometimes, we just need a mom to hold us and keep the scary stuff away and tell us things are going to be ok. We need both.

And I think the same is true with God.

We need to be inspired to be bold and daring and to stand up for justice. We need boundaries and black and white and guidelines. But sometimes God is painted as only caring about those kinds of things. We also need nurturing and security and protection. We need it when life hurts. When work or family or not having a family is hard. We need it when we read the latest about ISIS and Boko Haram. We need it when 50 years after Selma, Ferguson is happening.

And what if God always notices and cares? What if it was God’s desire all along to mother us as well as father us—to love and comfort as much as admonish and instruct and inspire? That’s the question we’re going to lean into today.

We are in the season of Lent—a time to prepare for the mystery and pain and beauty of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Our text is Luke 13:31-35.

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Jesus is traveling through the countryside villages and towns, healing and teaching as he goes. There were some Pharisees who were actually supportive of Jesus. And they warn him that Herod, who had already killed John the Baptist by this time, wanted him dead, too. But Jesus is not nearly as concerned as they are. He actually gives them a little snark about Herod.

His response must have been the last thing the Pharisees expected. He’s not changing his plans—he knows he’s got a lot of work to do and not much time left to do it in. He destination is Jerusalem—the heart of Israel in every way—and he knows that he’s going to die there. Today we’re going to be focusing specifically on his lament over his people in verse 34 to discover what Jesus wants to offer, why he would want to offer it, how he does it.

So, what does Jesus want to offer?

34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)

God’s people were called to be a holy nation and to be a kingdom of priests. But they’d worshipped other gods, taken advantage of the poor, even practiced slavery. God has been calling them back and warning them of judgment if they continued in the way they were going. But instead of listening and changing their ways, they usually ended up arguing with God’s messengers. And they’d killed lots of them, too. And Jesus is headed to the very city where a lot of it happened.

But instead of getting mad that the very people he’s helping want to kill him, he cries for them. He cries over what he’s wanted to offer that they haven’t been able to receive.

And he hadn’t desired it once or twice but often—repeatedly. He’s wanted to gather his people like a hen gathers her brood.

He wanted to mother his children.

Tozer wrote “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” In other words, the thoughts and images we have of God are the most formative, the most fundamental, the most consequential of any thoughts we could think.

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So how about it? When you think of God, what comes to your mind? What do you picture? A bright light or dove? Is it an old man with a white beard? Is God loving or angry? Do you imagine Jesus? Is he pale and European looking? I hope he’s not weird and scary like this Jesus? Do you ever imagine Jesus smiling and joyful and looking like he’d be fun to hang out with? Does anyone think of Alanis Morrissett doing cartwheels? Or a dapper Morgan Freedman? Are any of you old enough to remember this one? I think I was about five when it came out—George Burns played a sarcastic cigar smoking God in this film which also starred John Denver. How about this one? Do you ever imagine God with a womb? A nursing mother gazing down at a beloved child. Do you think of God as mothering? That one tends to make a lot of us squirm a bit for some reason, doesn’t it?

But a lot of our spiritual older brothers and sisters were really comfortable with God in this role. They were familiar with Jesus as one who had wanted for so long to gather his children like a mother hen does. There was this 4th century monk who took the pseudonym Marcarius in honor of another monk who had lived about a century before him. He wrote this: “A babe has no force to accomplish anything…and makes a noise, and cries, seeking after its mother. The mother meanwhile pities it and rejoices that the little one seeks after her with pains and crying… [the mother comes to the child] …and takes it up, and cherishes it, and nurses it with great affection. That is what God does…” 

And then there was Hildegard of Bingen. She was an 11th century genius. She was a composer, a prolific spiritual writer, and pastor. She wrote a strong rebuke to the emperor because he was promoting disunity in the Body of Christ. And over a thousand years before Tolkien, she created a book in a language she’d created complete with its own alphabet just for fun. She wrote : “…through this fountain of life came the embrace of God’s maternal love, which has nourished us unto life and is our help in perils and is the deepest and sweetest charity and prepares us for penitence.”  

How do these images meet you? I have to be honest; I’ve gotten comfortable over the years with God as a teacher and guide; as a loving Father. One whose forgiveness and grace I need and want. With a God I want to honor with my life. But as I’ve bumped against this idea of God mothering in the past, it always seemed a stretch…It didn’t fit with God I’d experienced. That had a lot to do with my own journey…but it also had something to do with how God was painted in a lot of the churches I’ve been a part of. Maybe that’s true for you, too. See if this sounds familiar: Yes, God is forgiving and loving and kind. But what God is REALLY interested in is me getting my act together and reminding me when I didn’t.

But in some really painful seasons in the past several years, I got to a place where the ways I’d always known and interacted with God began to be revealed as incomplete. It became clear that God was inviting me to go deeper…And what I began to see is that Pseudo-Marcarius and Hildegard are connecting with God in ways that God actually describes God. What would it look like to receive a mothering Jesus and have that Jesus present to us when we prayed and made decisions and lived our lives?

Why would Jesus want to offer motherhood?

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Let’s look at the text again. Why would Jesus want this for us?  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)

They’d been waiting for the promised Messiah who would restore everything that Jerusalem represented. Jerusalem was the home of the King. And it was where the temple was. It was the place where worship and forgiveness and fresh starts happened. It was the place where God lived among in his people—his very presence inside the Holy of Holies.

And they thought they understood…they expected another king like David or Solomon who would kick out the Romans and purify the rebuilt temple that Herod was still adding flourishes to. But that wasn’t Jesus’ plan. And what he’s saying here is that it wasn’t God’s plan all along.

Why is that? Why would Jesus want to gather them? Why would Jesus want to offer motherhood? In the 1940s, the germ theory was increasingly understood. Hospitals were incorporating it into their health practices, and it was saving lives. Rene Spitz studied orphanages that were also starting to apply this new knowledge. Nurses were encouraged to keep the infants well fed, warm, and clean; diapers were changed. But they were encouraged to touch the babies as little as possible. They figured the less contact they had with the babies; the less likely they’d be to catch various illnesses. Makes sense, right?

But it’s not what actually happened. Fully 75% of the babies in these hygienic institutions died—in one case it was 100%. And the diseases they were hoping to protect the babies from? 40% of the institutionalized babies who contracted the measles died while less than 1% in the larger population did. They are actually videos of these babies—they’re tiny for their age and they just lie there looking at their fingers.

What these orphanages accidentally discovered is that humans have a physical need for touch and play and connection. That we actually die without it. This is what Jesus was talking about. What he always knew… When Torey was in her first semester of college, I got a call. No crisis—just a hard day. Her dorm room was tiny and dusty and old. Her roommate was awkward—she was the only college freshmen I’ve ever heard of that went to bed before 11pm. She was missing home. She had projects and papers due. So, she asked, ‘Could I please come visit for a weekend?’

So, I went. And we didn’t really DO anything. We stayed in a hotel and did facial masks. We ate pizza. We watched movies. We took selfies on her computer. But even though not much happened, it’s one of our favorite memories from her college days. It was meaningful and it was important. I got to be present for her and love her.

And Kyle was often there for her in similar ways. They’ve always been close. But in that moment, Torey needed a mom. She needed me to provide a sense of connection and comfort and belonging in a way that was similar but distinct from the way Kyle loves her as a father. There was a time when Israel was also feeling alone. They were far from home and they felt abandoned.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
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.
(Isaiah 49.14-15)

They feel overlooked and ignored by God. And God’s response is, ‘You know what mother’s are like? You know how they have this deep unbreakable bond with their children? That’s what I’m like. ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child? Can she show no compassion to the child of her womb?’

What’s the answer? Of course not. Never in a thousand years. But God says—Let’s imagine the impossible. Let’s say a mother could forget a nursing child. God is saying here--even if the impossible happens—even if a mother could forget the child that’s crying with hunger a few feet away—I will never forget you.

And this is one of those situations when reading it in the original language would be even richer. Because the word for compassion is a form of the word womb. Raw-kham’ is how you say the Hebrew word. It means to love deeply, to have mercy, to be compassionate. It’s a word that speaks of a deep love.

The same kind of love Jesus was expressing. Why would Jesus want to gather us? Because he knows we need closeness and connection. He knows that we will wither without it. He knows we need mothering. And it’s a need he wants to abundantly meet.


How does Jesus mother us?

Let’s look at our text again. How does Jesus want to mother us? With Herod breathing down his neck, Jesus isn’t thinking of how to save his own skin. He’s remembering all the times when he reminded Zion of his compassion.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-35) 

They thought they could solve things with political or military power or if they found just the right way of applying the ceremonial law. They were praying desperately for the Messiah to come but they missed him because he looked and acted so differently than they expected. And they had their inheritance in way— “see your house is left to you” ...They were back in Jerusalem and back in the temple. But it would all turn out to be empty without God’s presence and power.  

But Jesus hadn’t given up. He hadn’t given up on healing them, covering them, protecting them, saving them. There is tenacity in motherhood, isn’t there?

Mothers tend to have a softness that fathers don’t. But that tenderness shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness. There is something strong and protective underneath the nurturing. I’ll never forget the day I learned I was expecting Torey—something changed inside me. I knew that I’d do whatever it took to love her as well as I could and to provide for her and guard for her. It was a feeling of overwhelming love and there was something fierce about it, too. If you who are a mom, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And if you’ve known the adoptive moms I’ve known, you’ll know that biology isn’t the point here. Mothers are mothers.

Which brings us to why Jesus chose this metaphor. A hen with chicks would have been a really familiar sight to everyone hearing Jesus. Even more familiar than it is in East Austin.

When a hen is raising chicks, she has a particular call to draw the chicks to her. The chicks aren’t able to regulate their temperature well at first, so she’ll share her body heat with them. And if she senses a threat, she’ll call them then, too. She’ll cover them with her wings and puff herself up so that she looks more intimidating. .

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And this is what Jesus is evoking. A mother who shares her life and guards her children. And if there was a teacher who really got what Jesus was trying to say here, it was Julian of Norwich. She had a series of visions in the spring of 1373 and spent literally the rest of her life praying and studying Scripture and pondering what God had shown her. Most of that time was spent alone in a single room connected to the church in Norwich.

With reference to the Trinity, she wrote, I saw “three properties: the property of the fatherhood, and the property of the motherhood, and the property of the lordship in one God.” She also wrote, “So Jesus Christ, who opposes good to evil, is our true Mother. We have our being from him, where the foundation of motherhood begins, with all the sweet protection and love which endlessly follows. As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”

She understood Jesus as maternal in participating with the Godhead in the creation of humanity. She saw him as maternal in his incarnation as he took on human nature as the first step to the possibility of rebirth that he first spoke of to Nicodemus. She saw him as maternal in his sacrifice as our Savior. She described the Eucharist as Jesus feeding us as a mother would with the covenant meal—in remembrance of his own body and bloodshed.

There is a mystery here that Julian spent her life pondering. Because God is creator and sustainer of a vast universe. Holy. Wholly other. A mighty warrior. When humans meet God in his glory they tend to fall on their faces. Isaiah was terrified. Even John the beloved disciple fell face down when he met Jesus in glorified form in Revelation.  

And. God wants to know us and always has. God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. God wrestled with Jacob. Jesus came and took on human form. And through it all, God has been revealing that he is father and mother. Jesus’ love is gentle and it’s also tenacious and steadfast. As Julian understood so well, Jesus mothers us by gathering us for comfort and connection and protection. That was his desire for Israel. And it’s still his desire for us today. And like the best of mothers, he was willing to sacrifice himself for the children he loves. Jesus mothered us by laying down his life for us. What if we received Jesus as a God whose life and death and resurrection revealed that he was the long-awaited Messiah—our Savior—AND as one who is the perfect expression of motherhood?

If you’ve taken a college psychology class, you’ve heard about Harry Harlow’s experiments from the 1950s.

He took young monkeys from their mothers and offered them a choice of two surrogates. One was a wire mesh mother with a something resembling a head with a bottle inside. And the other was a similar mother covered with soft terry cloth without a food source.

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And what happened? The monkeys stayed with the ‘wire mother’ only long enough to eat. Sometimes not even that long. But every time the monkeys treated the cloth-covered figure as mother. They touched her; they squealed at her; they embraced her; they hid behind her when they were scared; they cuddled with her for comfort. They didn’t have to be taught to want a mother— to seek one out. They just did.

Harlow found what Jesus knew—that we—and most of creation with us—are made to be mothered. And he knew that mothering was much more than food and physical care. Sometimes we need to be inspired and pushed to risk. Sometimes we need boundaries and black and white. We need God to Father us. And sometimes we need womb love. We need connection and covering and compassion. We need to be held and comforted. We need someone to keep the scary stuff away and remind us that someday all will be well. And that we are loved in the meantime. We need God to Mother us.

And it has always been God’s desire to do—to be—both.

And so Jesus came and took on flesh and spent a lifetime doing what he’d long been doing— gathering his children as a mother would.

And then he lay down his life for them—for us.

And I wonder…

How often has Jesus wanted to gather you?

What has stopped you from being willing?

What would it look like to risk receiving Jesus love, grace, and sacrifice?

What if we let ourselves be comforted by a Savior who is Friend, King, and who loves us as a Mother?

 

Let’s pray.

Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you; 
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.

You weep over our sins and our pride and
tenderly draw us from hatred and judgement. 

You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, 
you nurse us in sickness, and feed us with pure milk.

Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life; 
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy. 

Your warmth gives life to the dead, 
your touch makes sinners righteous. 

Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us; 
in your love and tenderness remake us.

In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness, 
may your love prepare us for the beauty of heaven.

Gather your little ones to you, O God,
as a hen gathers her brood to protect them.
[1]

 

[1] Based on writings of St. Anselm. http://re-worship.blogspot.com/search?q=god+mother

John 13

Good morning. I’m so glad to be here with you all today. My name is Terra McDaniel and I’m a spiritual director and pastor of New Table. We’re a justice focused liturgical and contemplative house church community here in Austin.

Today is the fifth Sunday of Easter. We’re exploring what resurrection means in this season. Our text is from John 13. It’s the story of when Jesus gathered with his closest friends to prepare them for what was about to happen and give them instructions for after he was gone. He tells them he’s giving them a new commandment. And it’s to love one another.

Julian of Norwich had a series of visions in the 14th century. She wrote, “[God] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball…I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”

So, it sounds like love is pretty important.

But here’s the thing—I’ve got to be honest with you—I’m not sure I’m the most qualified person here to talk about love. Not because I’m secretly an ax murderer or anything. But I have this tendency to overthink things and to be cynical and safe, thinking it makes me smart. Believing it will keep me from getting hurt. Anyone with me?

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Let me give you an example. My husband and I are high school sweethearts—we’ll celebrate 30 years in August. We got to know each other in our church youth group. After we’d gone out on maybe one or two dates, I let him read some poetry I’d written. And in the interest of disclosure, I’ll tell you it was bad. But Kyle read the poetry and he thought it was great because he thought I was great. And for him, that was it. He knew in his bones that I was the one. And he had to tell me. It was the middle of the night, but it didn’t matter. He put on his shoes and ran across our small town to my house. He tiptoed across my yard and knocked on my window. And I stumbled over to the window and saw it was him. I was confused but I opened the window. And he poured his heart out. He explained he knew hadn’t been dating long but that he knew. He told me loved me. He was sure. I was shocked. Here was this great guy. He was kind and handsome and smart and strong. So, I did the only thing I could do. I told him— “No, you don’t. We can’t know that yet.” I’m a true romantic, y’all. Poor Kyle. Not the response he was hoping for. I guess what I’m saying is, there is no one who needs to hear what Jesus has to say about love more than me.

And, I want to pause and say that if you’re single here this morning, marriage and romantic love are wonderful, but you don’t have to be married to experience real love. Pretty sure Jesus and Paul are with me on that.

Ok, here’s our text:

31 When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:31-35).

A feedback loop of glory between God and the Son of Man

This is the night before Jesus’ arrest. He’s just washed their feet. My community had a beautiful Maundy Thursday service this year and I believe you had one here as well. It’s powerful to wash feet because it’s so human and real and raw. It’s humbling to do and it’s humbling to receive. And Jesus washed the feet of everyone there that night. Including those who would betray him. Judas, who would hand him over to those who wanted him dead. And Peter, who would deny he’d ever even met Jesus 3 times before dawn.

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Judas has gone out into the night. The disciples think it’s because he’s getting ready for the Passover or giving a gift to the poor. But Jesus knows what he’s up to. So now he can reveal something really important: The Son of Man has glorified God and now God will glorify him and it’s all going to happen fast. Just one question, though. Who in the world is the Son of Man? Ok, a little backstory. The Son of Man shows up in the book of Daniel. Daniel worked for foreign kings after he and his friends were taken to Babylon as slaves. You might remember his friends Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego from the story of the fiery furnace. And Daniel’s the guy from the lion’s den, right? Daniel saw this series of visions and in one of the them he saw a being called the Ancient of Days on a throne. The Ancient of Days was calling for judgment against arrogance and oppression. The kind associated with power hungry political leaders.

Here’s where the Son of Man comes in. He’s going to put the Ancient of Days’ plan into motion. The son of man comes from heaven, but he looks human. And he’s given authority and power and glory and the worship of people everywhere. He’s given an eternal kingdom. All this sounds a little like God the Father and Jesus as God in the flesh, doesn’t it?

The Son of Man was actually Jesus’ favorite way to describe himself. Sometimes people thought it was just a weird way of saying “me.” But it actually had more to do with distancing himself from common expectations of the Messiah as someone who would revive the Davidic kingdom and make Israel great again.

And now Jesus is saying that the Son of Man has been glorified and God glorified in him. And this has already happened and also, it’s going to happen. It’s this chain reaction, this feedback loop of glory. I love the way the Message puts it:

“Now the Son of Man is seen for who he is, and God seen for who he is in him. The moment God is seen in him, God’s glory will be on display. In glorifying him, he himself is glorified—glory all around!” (John 13:31-32, the Message).

But God and the Son of Man wouldn’t be glorified by marble palaces or golden crowns or by the traditional trappings of power. They weren’t famous for the 1st century versions of things like the tallest stacks of cash or the most success or the coolest friends or the biggest platform or the most followers on Twitter or the most Instagram-worthy vacation. The Son of Man came to serve. He came to eat with outcasts. He’d been given the kind of authority that belongs to God to forgive and restore and offer rest. This is the kind of glory Jesus and his Father shared with each other. It’s the glory Jesus had demonstrated by washing their feet and that would be embodied in his submission to a humiliating death on an instrument of state-sponsored torture. Because, like he’d just said , “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:23–24).

He’s leaving beloved friends

Jesus knows his time is short. And he’s anything but cold and above messy emotions. He’ll be asking a few of his closest friends to sit up with him while he sweats it out with God later on. Because he doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to suffer. But right now, in this moment, what he’s most concerned about is how they’re going to go on without him there. He wants to prepare them for life without him.

And so he tells them:

33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’

Jesus was constantly pointing to children as ideal members of God’s family, telling us to learn from them. But “little children” is a term of endearment here. Kyle and I refer our daughter and son in law as ‘the kids’ not because we think they’re immature. It says something about how precious they are to us. And Jesus is speaking tenderly to his disciples here. Because he knows these are his last moments with them. He knows he’s about to return to the Father (for now at least). He knows he’s going to be separated from them.

And he knows it’s not going to feel anything like glory in the moment for any of them.

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Earlier this month, Christian author and speaker Rachel Held Evans died. She was only 37 years old. Her children are 3 and 1. She was fine and healthy one day and then she came down with the flu. An everyday illness. But she had a horrible reaction to the medicine she was prescribed and had to be hospitalized. She died surrounded by her husband and friends who were left shocked and heartbroken. One of her friends remembered her saying in one of her last sermons, “There are times we hold our faith and times our faith holds us.” Her friend wrote, “what I want to be able to say is that Rachel's faith is finally holding her. But it is just too sad that she is gone…What will we do without her?” A friend from seminary wrote, “All I can think…is that heaven must be one amazing place, otherwise [if it were me] I'd be begging every day to come home to my babies.”

Jesus knows his friends are going to be hurting. He knows they’ll be confused. He knows they’ll feel like orphans. But unlike Rachel’s, his death didn’t come out of nowhere. In this moment, Jesus is more like a man who’s entered hospice. He knows his time is short. Every moment is precious. Each word is carefully chosen.

What he wants them to know when he’s gone

And this is what he chooses to tell them:

34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

These are his instructions for when he’s gone. For those who knew him best. But not just for them. He’s speaking to us, too. Because, he also said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14). But what’s new about this command? Because loving one another is implied in commands like not stealing, killing, or being envious of others, right? And Jesus had taught that the greatest command was loving God wholeheartedly. And that just behind that one was loving our neighbor as ourselves. He’d taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44b).

Enemy love is so important at this moment in history, isn’t it?

The truth is, Jesus’ command was BOTH new AND not new at the same time.

In this moment, Jesus is telling them how essential it is to love each other. Because they’re going to need each other. Like we need each other. And the reality is that it’s hard to love close up. It’s hard to love over time. It’s hard to love people who don’t think like us, talk like us, live like us. But that’s what He wants for them—and for us.  

He wants us to love ‘just as he’d loved them.’ And that’s a huge part of what’s new about this command.

So we have to ask: How had he loved them?

He’d loved sacrificially. He’d left heaven and lived as a poor teacher without a home of his own. He’d loved as a servant—washing feet and hanging out with outcasts. He’d loved with actions and he’d loved by speaking with honesty and truth. He’d loved without partiality—he didn’t play favorites with the rich or powerful, but they were welcome, too. He loved the least, the poor, women and children, Samaritans and Greeks and Romans. He didn’t just love people who looked or worshipped like he did. And, this is important, he was willing to receive love as well as give it. He was willing to ask for help. Mary and Martha’s house was his home base. He let them care for him. Wealthy women sustained his ministry. John was a soul friend. And he let a woman with a bad reputation anoint his feet. He didn’t keep himself detached or play it safe.

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What if we loved each other like that? What would it look like to practice his kind of love with our closest friends? With our families? Even the crazy ones? I’m not talking about enabling bad behavior, by the way. James Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” Like Ephesians 4:15 says, we’re to speak truth in love. And sometimes it can be safer for all if we love from a distance. Even so, we’re to LOVE.

What would it be like to practice LOVE with fundamentalists and with liberals? With those who voted for a candidate whose policies and politics we despise? What if we started with LOVE for those who are affirming AND those who aren’t? With those who have different perspectives on gender or abortion or climate change or anything else we care about passionately? Here’s my question for you: Who is the hardest for you love? Is there a face that you see in your mind? Is there a group that you’re thinking of? Where is God inviting you to enter the work of loving more fully? What could you do about that this week? What could you do in the future?

 What if we practiced love with those who call themselves Christians (or anything else) but practice hate?

A woman named Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in Westboro Baptist Church—that’s the church known for picketing things like veterans’ funerals holding signs about God’s wrath and vengeance. She took part in her first protests when she was only 5 years old. She was convinced she and her family were on the side of God and righteousness. She joined Twitter to take Westboro’s message to the digital world. And a crazy thing happened. Most people were just as awful as she expected. But some began to actually talk with her. And some of those conversations spilled over into real life. Over time, lifelong enemies became beloved friends. Friends who helped her see how toxic her world was. Which ultimately gave her the courage to leave it. Megan says, “they approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence.” This was love in action and it changed her life.

Because love is powerful.

The next time you’re with someone that’s hard for you to love because of your history together or because they annoy you or because they’re different in a way that makes it hard to be with them or because it’s past lunchtime and you’re hangry, try pausing and taking a breath and remember our invitation to LOVE. Love is how we interact with beings who are precious and delightful. That reflect God’s goodness and glory. It might help to picture how you’d treat an adorable baby who’s just learning to smile or a cute kitten or a fluffy dog.

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This is Edie. Don’t you wish she was here so you could pet her? Every time I take her for a walk, I know we’re going to make someone’s day better. People on the trail stop to pet her. City of Austin workers driving past slow down to get a better look and then drive off with huge grins on their faces. If Edie were here, you wouldn’t hurt her and you wouldn’t let anyone else hurt her, either. You wouldn’t be harsh or impatient with her. You definitely wouldn’t ignore her. If Edie were here, you would speak kindly to her. You’d be gentle with her. You’d want to give her treats but not too many because you’d want her to stay healthy. You’d take care of her and let her take care of you. That’s love. My point is, there’s a part of us that knows instinctively what love looks like.

 But, let’s be really, really clear. Love is not easy. It’s hard work. It’s hard to love close up. It’s hard to love over time. But it’s worth it. I wasn’t wrong to be hesitant back when Kyle knocked on my window all those years ago. Not because of anything about either of us that isn’t true of every human. But I had good reasons, even as a 16-year-old, to be cautious. I already knew that love can hurt and disappoint and worse. Because love is always risky. It’s always vulnerable. Civil rights lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur speaks of love like childbirth. She says, “…love is more than a rush of feeling that happens to us if we’re lucky. Love is sweet labor. Fierce. Bloody. Imperfect. Life-giving. A choice we make over and over again…In this era of enormous rage, when the fires are burning all around us, I believe that revolutionary love is the call of our times.”

Love is always an invitation to life, a chance to resist playing it safe, a chance to get our hands dirty for the good of those we live life with. Which ultimately overflows into goodness for us and around us, too.

And all of that shines a light on what Jesus came to accomplish. On what resurrection is meant for.

In some of Jesus’ last words for his friends, glory and suffering and loss and love are all wrapped up together. Just the way they are in real life. But I believe it’s love that has the last word. Now and for all eternity.


Jesus,

You praised work more than words,

Foundations more than fashion.

May we find our foundation

In the work of Love;

Demanding, tiring,

True and human and holy.

Because Love is the only foundation worth building on.

Amen.

(Day 12 prayer from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community)

Copyright © 2019 TerraMcDaniel.com. All Rights Reserved.

Genesis 12

We’re in the season of Lent; the season in the liturgical year when we looking toward Jesus’ final days and the death he knew was coming. The suffering he both willingly endured and dreaded with all of his being. It’s when we consider why it happened and how he expected his friends to understand it. And the passage we’re diving into today sheds light on Christ’s plan—on God’s plan—all along. And it reminds us why Jesus was loved and why he was hated.  

{Genesis 12:1-3}

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Here we are meeting Abram for the first time, before God changes his name to Abraham. And what we see in this story is God showing up and promising good things to Abram. We see God’s offering gifts that God gives generously and freely for Abram’s good and Abram’s joy. But the blessings are not meant to stop with him. They aren’t to be hoarded. They are to be shared among all peoples for the good of all creation. The people of Jesus’ day liked the first part of that—the blessing part. But they didn’t like the sharing with people not like us part. It went against everything they’d come to understand about who they were in God’s economy and how God worked in the world.  

{My (complicated) story of calling}

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 I like to think of myself as so different from all that but I am much more about doing what’s comfortable for me and what I want and protecting myself than I want to see sometimes. Our text is about Abram’s call—it’s got me thinking about my calling and purpose. I’m almost done with seminary. I’ve spent all this time; I’ve worked so hard; I’ve invested all this money. Kyle has had to pick up the slack while I’ve studied and traveled. And I feel like I should be so sure of everything at this point but the truth is that I still struggle with what my purpose is…what exactly I’m supposed be doing.

 I remember wrestling with these same questions way back in the late 90s. I was still in my 20s. I’d been studying shalom and was grasping for the first time how big and beautiful and holistic God’s idea of peace is. I was seeing that it was about undoing harm and rebuilding and about individual people living wholeheartedly. And that was a big deal for me. Because I’d grown up with abuse and abandonment. The idea that God wanted people, including me in particular, to be deeply and fully at peace was revolutionary to me. And it was a big deal because I had this idea that pleasing God was mostly about following rules and not making mistakes.


“To think that a big part of pleasing God was working to become more fully myself was incredible. It felt like freedom.”

I remember this moment one afternoon when I just laid down in the middle of my living room, staring at the ceiling trying to take it all in. I remember crying and feeling such joy. I remember feeling like these knots were being untangled in me.

I understood part of this call to be wholehearted as going back to graduate school because I’d be adding tools that would make me better, learning things I cared about. And I got my master’s in sociology and did good research and writing that I loved and am proud of. But. It never occurred to me or anyone else at that time that I should go to seminary—that I should be preparing to walk with people spiritually. And looking back, the main reason for that honestly is that I am a woman. In the context we lived in, no one thought to wonder if I might be called to pastoral ministry. But when we moved to Austin, it started getting clearer that was the case. And so instead of getting a job at UT and going on to get my PhD, I starting serving in the church. And I loved it. For the first time in my life, I felt I was doing what I was meant to do.

 I started realizing how few spiritual mothers there were around me. I saw firsthand what was lost and missing when there were only male voices in pastoral leadership.

 And even as I struggled to find my place, I started to see that God had given me these gifts and abilities for me to enjoy and be fulfilled by but it wasn’t just for me. I started realizing that if I let myself be held back from what I could be, it wasn’t just me who missed out. It wasn’t just about me! Who I am, what I do, and what I have to offer was never only for me.

 God said, I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

 {What does all that mean for God’s plan in the world? What does it mean for us, now?}

We live in a world that is wrestling with who deserves to belong.  Who deserves to flourish?  

There’s this epidemic of “othering,” of defining who we are against everyone else. We wall ourselves off from people who are different from us. And I think it’s because people are scared. We’re afraid there’s not enough good to around. We’re afraid that sharing means we’ll get left out. And we’re pinning real struggle and pain on ‘those people’ over there. The economist Robert William Fogel writes “the incredible rate at which the economy and society are changing causes people to lose their bearings. They fear not only for their safety but also for their livelihoods.” (quoted in Bass, 222). This is even more relevant today than when he wrote this almost 20 years ago.

 And so, in Seattle, a Sikh man was shot by a white male who was shouting ‘get out of our country and go back to where you came from.’ He was in his own driveway. A white couple in Georgia were sentenced to prison for shouting racial slurs and yelling death threats at the birthday party of an 8 year old African American kid. A white man in Kansas City shot and killed an Indian man in a sports bar. Witnesses say he yelled ‘get out of my country.’ All of this since February.

That’s not us. It’s hard to believe stuff like that is really happening. And we are very intentional and work really hard to be nothing like that and to actively fight hate. We try to listen to others. We voted. We marched. But we live a world that is geared toward keeping us distracted and hyper focused on what’s in front of us. On our choices and our careers and our fulfillment. We care. We do. But we also get tired.

And a lot of times rest ends up looking like: What show should I watch next? Where should I go for dinner? Or should I order in? And we worry, am I eating right? Working out enough? What about retirement? Am I saving enough? Can I pay off my debt? Where is my soul mate? And, if I’ve found him or her—why am I still not experiencing 24/7 bliss?

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with asking these kinds of questions. But so much of our world conspires to keep us focused, overwhelmed, by our choices and our fulfillment and our protection. It’s easy to forget in the daily-ness of life that it’s not just about us.  

God said, I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

{God’s plan was, and is, to bless the whole world.}

God in community created humanity in God’s image. We were created to reflect God’s way of being in the way we relate to each other. We were created to join God in delighting in, guarding, and stewarding the world.

But the first humans believed a twisted version of the truth and lost paradise. And before long, the whole world was filled with violence and corruption. And God sent these waves of judgment and cursing in response—a flood, confusion of languages. But even in judging a world filled with hate, God made ways for fresh starts. But humanity kept going back to old and broken patterns. What was God supposed to do with people who seemed hell bent on doing everything but what was good for them and others?

And Abram? He’d lost his brother. And his wife couldn’t have kids. If he didn’t have a child to pass his good name and his wealth to, there would be no one to remember him. No one to tell his stories. No son with his nose or daughter with Sarai’s eyes. And then his father died. And he was getting older. Things looked hopeless.

And what does God do?

“Even the best of humanity kept replaying the same old patterns and the worst of them were hurting each other and trying to play God. But instead of resorting to more punishment and cursing and correction, God takes a chance on doing the opposite.” 

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God asks Abram to leave the familiar behind. And God is going to show him where to go. And in that new home, God is going to give Abram his dream of becoming a father. The shame of not leaving a heritage behind is going to be wiped away. God is going to give him an honorable name. Instead of destruction, God promises blessing.  Here’s the thing about blessing. It’s become the high fructose corn syrup of religious language—overused, sickeningly sweet, and almost no resemblance to its original form and meaning. Blessing is an incredible thing. The Hebrew word for blessing is בָּרַךְ  (barak).  And it’s an idea that means flourishing in every possible way—physical health and strength; fertility; safety; success; abundance. That’s barak. And that’s what God promised to Abram and his family.

And Abram chooses to trust. He takes a leap of faith. As old as he was, he packs up his family and goes exactly where God told him to go. And God shows up there, too, letting him know he’s heading in the right direction.  

And Genesis 12 is the turning point. This is where God starts laying out God’s plan to turn the tide, which is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Whenever God shows up after this, he refers back to the promises he made here and acts to bring them increasingly to life.

{And this is the thing for us.} This is what we misunderstand with our Western individualism. We tend to think this is a story about God and one man—God’s chosen hero.

But this was never about Abram only. God’s grace and kindness and abundant provision for flourishing—barak—were never never never merely for Abram. They weren’t even just for Abram’s unborn children and grandchildren. God promised this:

 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

 So what does this mean for us? It means any good thing we have is meant for us to enjoy and for us to share. You matter—you are part of this story that begins here with Abram. It means that we aren’t intended to live as isolated individuals, trying to figure out peace and fulfillment on our own.  

I’ve seen a few stories about how universities are figuring out how to handle the aggressive recruiting by white supremacists that’s nothing like they’ve ever seen. The Anti-Defamation League says there’s “an unprecedented outreach effort to attract and recruit students on American college campuses.”  

But here’s what hit me—there’s actually something racists get right. They are right to be searching for a people, a nation to align with, to protect, to be loyal to. They get that we’re not meant to be atomized individuals hanging onto whatever good we can grab.  

Their problem is that they are wildly mistaken in believing that ‘their people’ are defined by nationality or skin color or where they were born. Abraham was blessed SO THAT he would be a blessing. We flourish SO THAT we can help others flourish. Ephesians 2 says “13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

God invites us to live in light of understanding that God’s gifts of flourishing and abundance are for us AND for our community AND for the world. There are times to live at all three levels—they all matter. But our world trains us to stay at level 1 or 2 at best. Marketing machines thrive by fostering us staying isolated and self-focused and not even realizing it. But God invites us into God’s ways of fostering unity and connection—that share God’s gifts of grace and flourishing—barak—with others. God’s flourishing is meant to be like ripples in a pond. 

{What can it look like to respond to this?} 

Here’s something I encourage you to try for the next 5 days: Every day, at least once a day, try to see someone at your ‘level 3’—someone other than you who is outside your community of trusted friends and family—as worthy of God’s flourishing. Try and see that person as someone God had in mind as part of the ‘all families of the earth being blessed’ when he called Abram. As part of the reason you have the good gifts and abilities that you have.  

And then I encourage you to act in light of that. You could give a donation to an aid organization.  You could have a conversation with someone you’d usually avoid. You could say a silent prayer for someone. You could take a deep breath and say something genuinely kind to a person who stands for something you can’t imagine supporting.  

You can take one of these globes…put it on your desk or in your bag or in your pocket to remind you that part of the reason you are blessed is so that you can be part of others flourishing. As a reminder that God’s gifts of blessing are to be enjoyed and shared on behalf of all peoples for the good of all creation. 

Let’s pray.

Copyright © 2019 TerraMcDaniel.com. All Rights Reserved.