Mothers and “Moms”
Commandments and Love
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
May 13, 2012
“Jesus said to his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:18
At what point did mothers become moms — stay-at-home moms, tiger moms, working moms, single moms, married moms? –
Even though my kids called me “mom”– as I did my mother, I never thought of myself as a “mom”. I was a mother.
Not only is “mother” a more formal term than “mom,” it might also connote a different emphasis in parenting. I think I gave my girls fewer choices about certain
things than my daughter gives her young sons; I know I was NOT tolerant of things like sister fights in the middle of stores, resorting quickly to escort the offenders out by the
hands using what one of them now calls “the grip of death.”
I think there has been a progressive loosening of formal authority that began with my own generation who would not force our children (as some of us were forced) to sit
there at the dinner table until we had eaten “every single one of those lima beans” (like that worked) or were guilted into finishing the meat loaf because there were children
starving in China.(Why China, I always wondered, what about India — although raising that point wouldn’t have been strategic).
The word “obedience” was definitely in my parents’ vocabulary, but when I googled the word this week, the main cites that came up were for dog training.
So if mothers are now moms, and fathers are dads, what about how we think about God (in the male sense, at least)? We refer to God the Father, but the
Aramaic equivalent of dad or daddy actually appears in Scripture, when Jesus prays in desperation in the Garden of Gethsemane, calling out for “Abba,” translated as the very
One of the constants of any kind of parenting is love, and Jesus addresses that in today’s Gospel, to parents and non-parents alike: “This is my commandment, that you
love one another as I have loved you.”
Frankly, I’m not sure you can command love. You can command obedience, or certain behaviors, but love is a matter of the heart. Those of us who have tried to love someone and failed – or know someone who tried to love us and couldn’t – know this. So without digressing into the different kinds of love, let’s take the term at face value and look at what prompts love? What can we do to be more loving people? I’ll focus on two main ideas: attention, and memory.
One of the most successful things I did in my 26 years at the Blake School was in my Women’s Studies classes. I had students bring in a picture of their mother when she
was the age they were presently (17 or 18). Then I asked them to spend an hour writing about what they saw in the picture: What did they think their mother was like at that age?
What were her hopes and dreams? What parts of her present self were already revealed in
Then I wrote to the mothers and asked them to do the same exercise with their daughter’s picture and mail it to me. I put it all together in a booklet and gave it to the
daughters to give to their mothers on Mother’s Day.
Because of the pride and love that spilled off the pages, there were always dozens of letters and phone calls from the mothers, effusively thanking me, and sometimes years
later, from the girls.
I came to understand that what I was doing through this assignment was requiring that everyone stop and pay attention, and then express what they felt. They were given
permission — if not commanded — to see the other, in all of their complexity and beauty.
When we really pay attention, however, of course we encounter what we consider imperfection or limitations in the other. To move beyond these qualities can be challenging, but sometimes simple acceptance is what is needed. Buddhist master and activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to the monk and writer Thomas Merton in 1966:
“We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready it until they stop slamming doors.”
Unfortunately, it seems that our ability to pay sustained attention is being compromised. My friend Mariann Budde, Bishop of Washington, notes that our culture has adopted “the standard of instant response. No longer is there time for measured reflection, a chance to think before reacting. We expect answers right away.” This can
result in a rhythm of electronic interruption in our daily life that many people are used to, but dilute the kind of sustained attention to which we are called.
Besides attention, a second factor that can prompt love is memory. It is sometimes only after time passes that we can access a kind of love we couldn’t earlier.
One of my closest friends lives in New York and is a poet and wrote this about her daughter’s wedding:
“I see her today for what she is…
coming down the aisle on her brother’s arm
(Her father, step-father not invited)
she manages the train, the gait
completely on her own.
I am consumed by loss of privilege.
All those growing up-years when she was
Too much troubleThe colic, the cutting…
In my fury to hide how ill-prepared I was
To be her mother,
I took too little pleasure,
If I could have
For one day
Seen her then as I see her now –
How quietly I would have held her—
And how long.”
Memory – carefully and intentionally practiced — can be one of the most powerful impulses to love in the present. Our memories are part of what we celebrate this Mother’s
Jesus commands us to love, but when we are given commandments or orders, there is a natural impulse to draw back and be reduced to an almost childlike state, hearing a powerful parent lay down the law (literally). Many of us will forever hear the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Scriptures in the voice of actor Charlton Heston:
“Thou shall have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet…
But what if we heard the commandments in a different tone of voice: that of a loving parent who wanted the best for us:
Have no other gods before me.
Do not kill
Do not steal
Do not commit adultery
Do not lie
Do not covet.
Love can command with love, and loving is our most god-like human possibility. But writer Richard Rohr reminds us that those we must be most wary of are the ones
who “remind us of our incapacity to love,” not only our friends and families, but all members of the human race.
Many of us many not be parents but we all have or had a mother, and Mother’s Day has everything to do with the injunction of Jesus to love. Although President
Woodrow Wilson did not proclaim the second Sunday in May to be observed as Mother’s Day until 1930, its real origin was much earlier.
Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War Mother’s Day was organized by women who had lost their sons in the War, as a day of protest against the carnage of that war, and to honor the inherent passivism that they believed exists in all women. Mother’s Day was not for mothers, but an occasion when mothers called on those in this
country to love each other, and also to love those in countries other than this one. It was a remarkable reflection of the Gospel.
Here is part of the original Mothers Day Proclamation written by the writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia War Howe in Boston, 1870:
“Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: we will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to
allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let
women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great
human family can live in peace…Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not
of Caesar, but of God.”