For us news junkies, there were plenty of headlines this week. Voters in France and Greece threw out their governments. J.P. Morgan Chase lost a couple of billion dollars. President Obama changed his position on same sex marriage. Governor Romney was reminded of some bad behavior in high school. As big as these stories were, however, they didn’t come close to the one that touched Kathy and me the most. On Tuesday, Maurice Sendak, the celebrated children’s author and illustrator, died. Sendak’s genius—displayed in books like Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen-- was that he was able to tap into both the beautiful and terrifying parts of the child’s imagined world. He believed, as I have come to believe, that where children are concerned, honesty is always the best policy. Both his parents were Holocaust survivors, but they never talked about their experience. Sendak always regretted their reticence. He said: "Do parents sit down and tell their kids everything? I don't know. I don't know. I've convinced myself — I hope I'm right — that children despair of you if you don't tell them the truth."
This week, NPR rebroadcast several interviews that Terry Gross did with Sendak over the years on her program Fresh Air. Here is my favorite anecdote—a story about growing up as a Jew in a multi-ethnic New York neighborhood:
And we lived in a part of Brooklyn which was teeming with immigrants, either other people from Eastern Europe, Jews - or Sicilians, and I couldn't tell the difference. . . . We lived next to the Sicilians . . . And I used to run across the hall because they had un-Kosher food, which was much better, much better than Kosher food because it was - it was pasta. It was great Italian cooking. And they laughed, and they drank wine, and they grabbed me, and I sat on their laps, and they had a hell of a good time. And then you come back to my house and you have this sober cuisine and not so rambunctious family life. And I really did have a confusion that Italians were happy Jews, that they were a sect. And that I would have a choice - that I would have a choice after my bar mitzvah to belong to either the sober sect or the happy sect. [Fresh Air 2003 Interview, published May 8, 2012]
Now this may strike you as a curious way to begin a Mother’s Day sermon, but Maurice Sendak’s announcement that “children despair of you if you don't tell them the truth," along with his exuberant childhood verdict that “Italians were happy Jews”—both these observations strike me as profound insights about the pain and joy of being human, and they remind us that the Gospel’s truth comes to us precisely within, and not in spite of, the deep truths regarding the stuff of life. Samuel Johnson said, “Love is the wisdom of fools and the folly of the wise.” If that’s true, then we see love’s foolish wisdom enacted most obviously within the sphere of the family. That does not mean that our earthly mothers and fathers are perfect. But it does mean that it is possible for us, even amid evidences of parental imperfection, to discover the depth and breadth and height of what it means both to love and be loved.
Today is the Sixth Sunday of Easter, a day on which we continue to live into the resurrection and its implications for our lives. Today is coincidentally Mother’s Day, a holiday our culture sets aside to honor mothers and to thank all of those who, of whatever gender, have nurtured us on our life’s path. As we gather on this Sunday, I invite you to think about Mother’s Day from a new perspective, from Jesus’s angle of vision. We often tend to use this day as a time to think about our own mothers, to remember their strengths and shortcomings, and to recall how we have either been cared for or neglected as we grew into maturity. Today I would like to ask us to reverse that process, and to think not so much about how we have been mothered but rather about what kind of mothers we--both women and men--can be ourselves. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” At the heart of God’s call to follow Jesus is a call to be a giver, a doer of love. If Mother’s Day makes any sense to us at all in 2012, it does so as a warrant for loving engagement with those we find in our own households and beyond.
The adult Jesus did not live in a nuclear family. Instead, he gathered a community of companions—men and women who shared his ministry and his table. It was a new kind of community: egalitarian, mutual, and compassionate. It rejected the hierarchical social arrangements of both Rome and Palestinian Judaism. In today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus tell his companions what the most important aspect of life in this new community must be. He tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus does not mean this in any sentimental way. In saying that his companions should love one another, Jesus is setting out the most important quality of any household. A family, a Christian community--these are fellowships held together not merely by common ancestry, associations, values, or goals. What makes a family or a household Christian is the presence of love. The kind of love Jesus talks about is the kind of love witnessed in his love for his companions. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Love, in Jesus’s terms, has little to do with warm, gooey feelings. Love, in Jesus’s terms, has everything to do with acting--either in wise folly or foolish wisdom--on behalf of another, with putting another’s welfare first, with seeing another’s happiness and well-being as central to one’s own. “Love one another as I have loved you” is at once the noblest and hardest commandment there is. A family is a place where people may disagree, may argue, may not even like each other at times. A family can be exuberant or sober. But a family is a place where the highest and most authentic kind of human love can bloom because it is a place where parents and children--as complicated as their relationships may be--it’s a place where parents and children can enact their deep and improbable love for one another.
So as we think about Jesus and his companions and what they have to say to us on Mother’s Day, the first point is this: our job, as Jesus says, is to love each other the way he has loved us. Speaking to each of us as adults, Jesus suggests that our job is to love each other the way parents love their children: selflessly, sacrificially, sometimes foolishly. Speaking to each of us as children, Jesus means that our job is to love each other the way children love their parents: trustingly, creatively, generously. On a day when our culture asks us to be thankful of and respectful towards our mothers, our Gospel goes us one better: it asks us all to see ourselves as mothers, to realize that if we want to follow Jesus and know God, the surest way to do that is to be agents of generous, selfless, risky love. To some extent each of our earthly parents lets us down: no human being can ever live up to the expectations which we as children project on them. But the way forward to a free and joyous and abundant life does not involve trying to make up for all the nurture we may not have gotten when we were small. The way forward into hope and happiness lies precisely through the hearts of those whom God has given us to love in the here and now. “Love one another as I have loved you” is not just a commandment, it is a gift. We repair our hearts not by revisiting the past but by reaching out in the present. We are all of us called, this Mother’s Day, both to thank those who have nurtured us, and to forgive those who haven’t. But more than that: we’re called to live out God’s love towards those we encounter in the here and now. In following that commandment, we will be given a joy and peace which transcend whatever it is we may not have gotten in the first place.
“Love is the wisdom of fools and the folly of the wise.” We are gathered this morning both as a human community and as a group of Christians who seek transformation into the joyful risen image of Jesus Christ. The One in whose name we gather has given us a new commandment: we are to love one another, just as he has loved us. The first thing that means, as I have said, is that we are all called to be loving mothers of each other, just as our own mothers, and Jesus in his own way have lovingly mothered us. And here’s the second thing that means: that along with Jesus and his companions, we are being asked by God--no, we’re being commanded by God--to expand the circumference of the circles we would draw around our families, our community, our world. “Love one another” is not just a commandment for the household, the church, or those with our values. Jesus’s commandment is not a demand that we love those who are like us, genetically, politically, or culturally. Jesus’s commandment is a demand that we break open those circles, that we seek to mother not only those near us but those who are far off: the people in our workplace, the people in our city, the children in our schools, even those who look and act like our enemies. Only a dose of the most authentic love, the love which children and parents have for each other, will redeem and transform our community, our nation, and our world.
Whether you live in a family that hides or tells the truth, whether you inhabit a household of somber or happy people, love will continue to be the wisdom of fools and the folly of the wise. May each and all of us, in the wisdom of our folly, and in the foolishness of our wisdom, love each other as mothers love their children, as Jesus loves his companions, as his companions have gone on to love and serve each other and the world. In so doing we will be acting as Jesus would act in a broken world. In so doing we will be following, finally, the only commandment we have that really matters. Amen.