In the middle of last month, Kathy and I celebrated a wedding anniversary. As we were talking about how to observe it, I turned to Kathy and said, “You know, you have now spent just over half your life married to me.” A look of mock horror came over her face. “Is that all?” she replied. “It seems like forever!” I’ll let you be the judge whether in this case “forever” is a great deal or a life sentence.
The idea of “forever” is on my mind this morning, though, because our readings for today play with the contrast between that which is temporary and that which endures. In today’s passage from Revelation, we read that the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, will need no temple “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” In this morning’s reading from John’s Gospel we hear that the risen Jesus will soon leave his companions for good, but he counsels them not to fear his departure because “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Contrary to how we might think of things, the Bible suggests that even the Jerusalem temple and the earthly presence of Jesus are not fixed, final realities but have been given us as provisional, temporary aids to help us make our way on life’s journey. The temple may look like a structure built to last forever, but that appearance is an illusion. We will have it as long as we need it, but when its usefulness is ended, it too will pass away. The provisional will give way to the eternal.
The problem, of course, is that you and I always confuse the two; we regularly mistake the provisional for the eternal and have difficulty letting the temporary go. We erect buildings like this one thinking that they are meant to stand forever. We invest ourselves in human relationships believing that they will extend beyond time. But our passage from Revelation reminds us that the provisional is indeed temporary. Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a meal to celebrate together not for eternity but only until he comes again. In his teaching about marriage, Jesus tells us that even this most exalted human relationship exists only for time (“til death do us part”) but not for eternity. Like the church building, like the Eucharistic meal, our institutions of marriage and the nuclear family have been given to us as provisional structures to help us live life in a fallen world. The promise is not that buildings and rituals and families will last forever. The promise is that they are here, now, to help us live life abundantly. What finally abides is not the symbol of God’s love but the reality of God’s love. When all is said and done, when we come finally to stand together in God’s presence, we will need neither church building nor sacrament nor family structure. We will need not even the sun or the moon to light our way, for as John says in Revelation, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” That’s hard for us to take in. The sun and the moon, the fixed orbs in the sky, are merely provisional lights to us in the darkness. When God’s love is finally made perfectly manifest, we won’t need even them. And if the sun and the moon are only temporary, what else finally can stand?
But to say that these precious things we have come to love and depend on (marriage, the family, the church, human rituals and social organization) are temporary and provisional is not to say they are somehow less important than we thought they were. But it is to say that we are not to confuse even these good things with “the thing itself.”
We are finite, limited beings. We need the provisional things of life to equip us for the here and now and to school us for the eternal. And here is where parenthood comes in. Today is, of course, Mother’s Day, and both today and Father’s Day are always emotionally complicated because many of us inhabit both parent and child roles ourselves, and also because our flesh and blood mothers and fathers are complex creatures. Our parents are larger than life. From the crib they look like gods. As we age we see them in perspective. In God’s scheme of things, we have been set in families as temporary, provisional communities of love and nurture and support. We have been given parents, and some of us have become parents ourselves, in the service of teaching and habituating children in the structures and rhythms of life. Rightly understood, the parent-child relationship is a provisional relationship, intended as preparation for what Jesus would call “abundant life”. But because our parents are cut from the same cloth we are, because they are finite and fragile human beings like ourselves, they don’t always live up to our hopes for them. So people are often conflicted about this holiday. For many of us, Mother’s Day is a time gratefully to remember and celebrate the supportive nurture given by our parents that has enabled us to live abundant adult lives. For just as many others of us, though, these parental holidays are something else: a time to be healed and to forgive the people whose limitations got in the way of their own abundant living and so made them unable always to model and support it for us. Some of us are in both emotional places at once. Good parents are an incomparable blessing. Even bad parents did the best they could. Sometimes we have to leave it at that.
The problem with days like Mother’s Day is that our culture always confuses the provisional with the eternal. We confuse the symbol with what the symbol stands for. Because God loves us like a parent, motherhood and fatherhood are beautiful things, but parenthood is not an end in itself. Joyful, abundant living is. The nuclear family is a mixed blessing: for all of its intimacy and warmth, the household can also be a dangerous place. The Bible paints a complex picture of nuclear family life: to be sure, we have Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as the perfect image of the Holy Family; we also have Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel as our more realistic model of the way actual families often work. In our culture’s confusion over absolute values, we have elevated the nuclear family to almost divine status. But to make the nuclear family our default image of the ideal community creates as many problems as it solves.
Some of us have parents who gave of themselves heroically and sacrificially. Others of us have parents who were narcissistically self-involved. (I've been a priest long enough now to be able to say both things with confidence.) On Mother’s and Father’s Day we need to try to accept our parents and love them for who they are. Because, good or as bad as they may have been, our parents are with us only as custodians. The same goes for our children: they do not belong to us. They are with us as God’s charges to love and nurture and guide and support. To the extent that your parents loved you into being your authentic self, today is a day to give thanks. To the extent they saw you as a way to fulfill their own needs at your expense, it’s a day to rejoice that childhood does not last forever.
The goal of parenthood is not to foster continued dependence but a nurturing preparation for abundant adult living. As Christians, we are always asked to love life’s provisional structures for the way they lead us to love the eternal, not as ends in and of themselves. As it happens, today, as we observe Mother’s Day, we are also gathered on the Sixth Sunday of Easter. This day has perhaps the most profound Collect of the Day in our Prayer Book. The collect for today is one of my two or three favorite prayers in the church year, and it provides a way to understand the ultimate meaning of what God is up to. Do not confuse the provisional with the eternal. This church building is transcendently beautiful , but it will not last forever, and even it cannot begin to compare with the glory of God’s heavenly city. Your nuclear family may be warm and nourishing, but because it is made up of real human beings, it will never be able to match the deep and sacrificial love God has for you in Jesus. Accept your parents and your family for what they are, but do not ask them to be more than they can be. God has in store for you something that transcends anything you can even ask for or imagine. So put your trust in the real thing; do not settle for hopes and dreams that are too small. God has prepared for you good things that surpass your understanding and even your capacity for hope. Put your trust in God’s promise of those blessings and not in their provisional substitutes. Love them for their own sake and for what they show you of God and God’s love for you. Or, as the collect itself has it,
"O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire . . ."
This prayer is printed in your bulletin today. Take it home and read it daily until you get it. And when you get it, you can tear it up, live it, and let it go. Amen.