Joe Neville

Psalm 23

I John 3:16-24



Let Us Love

We don't usually think of Mothers' Day as a religious holiday. However, the day does have connections to our faith and community life. The original mothers' Day began as a reaction against violence and was called Parents' Peace Day. Julia Ward Howe, the author of "the Battle Hymn of the Republic," experienced profound sympathy and grief for the parents who had lost sons during the Civil War. She believed that mothers should speak out against war and the carnage and madness and loss wars produce.

She set out on the first Mothers' Day, hoping to bring about a global decision to end brute force as a way of solving conflict. She also attempted to establish the Women's Peace Congress of the World, which was unsuccessful in its attempt to organize women to speak publicly and organize locally for peace.

It seems to me that this Mothers' Day is an ideal day to renew our commitment to the values we associate with parenting: caring for others, especially our children, pursuing peace and upholding nonviolence, working to improve the neighborhood and our communities so that the world, and certainly this country, may be safe for children.

Our Psalm this morning provides us with a peculiar image of a form of caring. The Good Shepherd is an odd symbol to use in the twenty-first century because it's almost entirely alien to the experience of most of us.  Rural images may be romantic to us, but they are hardly governing our relationships with each other.  I read a little vignette about some folks from the city who drove through the countryside. There were sheep along the way and they were being watched over by a donkey! One of the folk said upon looking at this event, "Now there is a new twist on an old image! How's that for a good shepherd?!"

The image of the Good shepherd is over-romanticized, but it does hold up for us a challenge of how we might think about love and caring.  Like a good parent, the shepherd is the one who gives from an unselfish, undemanding, unconditional heart.  How many of us have ever experienced this kind of love and acceptance in our lives?  Most people have not, and many of us do not see this kind of love as even desirable.  We want human relationships to have a lot more equality and give and take.  We expect that love will be self-serving and demanding.  We expect that if we are cared for or tended to, it will cost us something.  So the Good Shepherd is not exactly a realistic image for us when we think about the hard work of love.

I suggest that the most common sort of love today is Limited Love. Limited love can be very moving and persuasive.  Limited love is when the neighbor we love is limited to the "neighbor" as one's own people.  Historically, limited love has supported white supremacy, religious bigotry, and a "hate the sin, but love the sinner" mentality.  I recall the ministry of Archbishop John O'Connor in the 1980's.  He ministered to dozens of people dying of AIDS.  He was personally and profoundly compassionate.  But on Sundays, from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral, he condemned gays and lesbians as sinners and cast them outside of the church.

Actually, limited love is far more self-serving than it is generous.  The ministry of Jesus called for Unlimited Love, which goes a step further than most of us are willing to go.  This kind of love is the love which comes from God and is the love you give when you make a gift of yourselfĖno preconditions, no strings attached.  It comes to us in the traditional language of the scripture, "He laid down his life for us.  We ought to lay down our lives for another."

I read two amazing stories about mothers this week, as I attempted to prepare for this sermon. One was from a man who had a hard talk with his 98-year-old mother. They had not talked much in about 20 years. He wanted to protect her from some of the difficulties of his life, because he felt she was too frail, and telling her the truth would devastate her and press at the core of their relationship.  She asked him if he wanted her to pray for him.  He told her everything in his life that needed praying over.  She accepted it all and told him she loved him.  And she started praying with him right there.  She laid down her life for him.

The other story comes in a similar way.  A daughter has a difficult time loving a mother who has always been distant and judgmental.  It's hard to love a mother who is so self-righteous and unforgiving and judgmental.  But she is failing now and her beloved sister is dying.  The daughter discovers in herself a strong connection of love and forgiveness and drops everything to go to her mother's side in this hour of tremendous sadness and upheaval.  Even though she walks through the valley of shadows, she will not be afraid.  She will not walk alone.  Love will be with her.

The spirit of unconditional love lives within us. In both these stories of the heart, someone was willing to lay down their life in order that another might become free to live.

The gift of Unlimited Love teaches us that there is no "we" and "they," no sinner and self-righteous, no winners and losers.  Unlimited love teaches us that there is only a we and a we.

To love as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life does not turn us into a doormat to be walked over.  But it does mean returning evil with good, anger with peace, violence with nonviolence, hatred with love; striving to give to others not what they deserve, but what they need. // Thatís a tall order and it comes with the strength and grace of God.  If we canít find these places in ourselves, if we canít come up with the strength to love our enemies and not hate them,// we must try to hold them up to the light and countenance of God.  We can ask God to carry us when itís too much for us alone.

I wonder if I preach about love so often because I am trying to understand it myself.  I know that I was raised in a culture that pointed out the virtues of perfect love, while practicing the limits of it.  I think this is the culture we continue to live in today.  Now, Iím still on a pilgrimage toward understanding what was in the mind and heart of Jesus as he made his way through the world.  I believe the greatest challenge of the Christian in this beautiful, demanding world is to embrace the gospel of love, with all its complexity and demands.  Love in the life of Jesus wasnít empty talk or pious pretension.  It was truth and action.// Jesus attempted to live out fully God's command to love one another and he never gave up, not even to death on the cross.  Even his last words were about relationship, acceptance and forgiveness of his enemies and friends.

Many of us come to church on Mothers' Day with a certain amount of ambivalence mixed with gratitude.  We may miss our mothers now departed, we may be longing to make peace with mothers still living, and we may regret certain actions with our own children or grieve the loss of parenting in our life.  But I believe that somewhere in our deepest spirits, we also come with a common hope and a mutual longing for the unconditional love and acceptance we know comes first from God.

Let us pray to find the images, experiences and stories of God's unlimited love in this place. Let us pray to discover it among each other and within this community.  May we learn to parent and shepherd and care for each other without condition, knowing that the Spirit of God has been given to us so that we may know love in this life.

I found an ancient prayer for Mothers' Day from St. Anselm that I would like to pray today.

Let us pray:

Jesus, as a parent 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,

Tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.

You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds,

In sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.

By your dying, we are born to new life;

By your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.

Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness;

Through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.

Your warmth gives life to the dead; your touch makes us holy.

In your mercy, heal us;

In your compassion, bring us grace and forgiveness,

For the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.