Everybody's Relationship with Mom Is Complicated
Autonomy, Gratitude, and Honor, Luke 2: 48-50, John 2:1-4, Mark 3:20-21, 31-34, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, May 11, 2014
Today Mother’s Day turns 100 years old as a national holiday. It’s the #1 day of the year for restaurants. In many churches it’s #2, right behind Easter. For florists, it’s ahead of Valentine’s day and not far behind the Christmas/Hanukah season. 133 million Mother’s Day cards are sold in the U. S. each year, more than 40 million more than for Father’s Day.
The woman who pushed to have a national holiday honoring mothers was Anna Jarvis, who started it to honor her mother, also named Anna Jarvis. The first Anna was a public health activist from West Virginia who organized mothers to bring sanitation and basic health practices to Appalachia. Being from a border state during the Civil War, she was also a peace activist who organized mothers to help the wounded soldiers of both sides without discrimination. Her daughter Anna organized a memorial celebration on the first anniversary of her mother’s death, which grew into larger public events for all mothers and then into a campaign for a holiday.
Even for Anna Jarvis, the holiday became too much. Too sentimental and too commercial, she said. She protested at a candy-maker’s convention. She saw a “Mother’s Day Salad” on a menu and ordered it so she could dump it on the floor in protest. She complained bitterly about Eleanor Roosevelt using the holiday to raise money for charities. She spent the last years of her life fighting to have Mother’s Day abolished by Congress.
For a lot of people, Mother’s Day can become too much. Maybe not if you’re a mother and can sit back and enjoy being recognized, but most mothers remember what it was like to be a child and remember that things were not always smooth with their own moms. I’ve talked with church members who couldn’t bear to come to church on Mother’s Day—sometimes because their grief was too intense, but more often because they had mixed feelings about their mothers—mothers who were alcoholics, mothers who left them, mothers who abused them, mothers with mental illness, mothers who were so strict they took the fun out of family life. In many churches—especially those whose method is to put a smiley-face sticker over the realities of life—Mother’s Day is a celebration of the Perfect Woman. For one day, every mom is flawless. Preachers fairly drip with high fructose corn syrup. It almost feels mandatory that you express the standard sentiments and remember your mother through carnation-colored glasses.
But the truth we need to remember on Mother’s Day is that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We know that, right? Mothers included. And the church is not a place where we celebrate perfection. Church is a “perfection free zone” where we acknowledge that we are all flawed. Mothers included. The grace that we experience from God through Jesus Christ and the grace we extend to one another is acceptance and love in spite of flaws—even in spite of deliberate wrongdoing.
I’m afraid that the soft-focus Breck girl image of Mom and the saccharine rhymes of at least the old-fashioned Mother’s Day cards leave some of us feeling inadequate. In a smiley-face church, we are left to wonder if we are the only ones who ever had any conflict with Mom. Was everybody else’s mother perfect except mine? Or is there something wrong with me that I don’t feel this pure undiluted sense of approval of everything my mother did? Are other people feeling a kind of love I’m missing out on?
My thesis this morning—stated in my title—may be a comfort to some of you: Everybody’s Relationship with Mom Is Complicated. That’s just a statement about reality. My evidence for this statement is the relationship between Jesus and Mary. Jesus is the only one of us who was ever perfect, so the way he treated his mother couldn’t have been substandard. And Mary, for her part, was a pretty good Mom; if you’re a Catholic, she was pretty much perfect. So what are we to make of these stories about Jesus and Mary that we read earlier?
The first story is the only one we have in the gospels about Jesus’ childhood. I think it means something that this is the one episode that made it into the book. Jesus is twelve. Maybe you can remember what twelve is like: seventh grade, puberty, a growing desire to be independent. Every year Jesus’ family made a spring break trip to Jerusalem for Passover along with a group of friends and relatives from Nazareth. Nowadays you can drive that distance in less than two hours, but in those days it probably would have been a three-day walk for families. It would appear that Jesus was no longer carefully supervised, because when the festivities in Jerusalem are over and the group heads home, Jesus’ parents assumed he was somewhere in the caravan with his friends. Only at the end of the day—maybe when they got ready to set up camp—did they discover that their son was missing. As you might expect, Mary was freaked out and they went back to Jerusalem to look for him.
You know where they found him: in the temple, sitting like a grown up student with the scriptural scholars, taking in their ideas and asking them questions. The teachers were impressed at the level of understanding of this twelve-year-old. Mary was not impressed. She yelled at Jesus: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Do you know what we’ve been through? You listen to me, young man, your father and I were worried sick. We’ve been looking everywhere for you and have been stressed out. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Now what would be the desired response from a twelve-year-old who decided to stay behind in the big city when his family went home? I’m thinking something like, “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. I just got interested in what these men were saying and I lost track of time. By the time I realized it—last night when the temple closed—I couldn’t think of anything to do but wait here and hope you came back. Forgive me?” Just maybe you could avoid grounding with a speech like that.
But what does this twelve-year-old say to his Mom? “Why were you looking for me?” Huh? Why do you think? You weren’t with us where you were supposed to be. We had no idea where you were. You could have been kidnapped or robbed, lying in a ditch. But there’s more from Jesus: “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” First he’s condescending: “Didn’t you know?” It’s like “15 minutes can save you 15% on car insurance.” Everybody knows that. How did my parents miss the memo? But second, he says, in effect, “That guy you refer to as my father is not really my father. Don’t you forget that my real Father is the one who is worshiped here. And my life is not going to be about staying with you in Nazareth; I need to be here at headquarters where I can amount to something.”
Well, that’s not exactly what Jesus says, but you can see this kid’s push for autonomy and to find his own identity separate from his parents and to discover his calling. It all makes for tension with your mother. I like the little comment from Luke in verse 50, one to which many parents of 12-year-olds can relate to: (in the Message it’s translated) “They had no idea what he was talking about.” Don’t you love it that the Bible is so real and not like a Hallmark card?
On to the second story. Jesus is all grown up and beginning his ministry. John tells the story of his first miracle—or “sign,” as John calls it, because it is a sign pointing to who Jesus really is. Jesus and his band of students go to a wedding, which in those days was even bigger than a Block Island wedding and could last several days. John says that Jesus’ mother was there—not necessarily that she was with Jesus and his group, but she showed up there. A major social crisis emerged because of the size of the crowd: the hosts were running low on wine. If they ran out it would bring shame upon the family. Mary comes and says to Jesus, “They’re just about out of wine,” with the subtext “Do something about it.” Jesus replies “Is that any of your business? Is it any of my business? It’s not my time yet to get involved in something like that. Don’t push me.” In the Greek, Jesus says “Woman, what is this between you and me? My hour has not yet come.”
It’s a different gospel, but suggests the same kind of dynamic between son and mother. The son says, “I have my own agenda. This is my life, not yours. Don’t tell me what to do.” Sound familiar from your own life or your own family? If you are over 18 and you’ve never said something like that to your mother, you need to. A Catholic priest once pointed out to me that at Cana Jesus wound up doing what his mother wanted him to do in spite of his protestations. Which is why, he said, we should pray to Mary. Jesus is still a Mama’s boy. I don’t think so. This sign story is very cool—especially for a Baptist who grew up in a T-totaling family—because the first sign of what Jesus is about in the world is that he makes wine for celebration. But it is also a cool story because it shows Jesus coming into his own as a young adult and telling his mother that she’s not the boss of him.
Is that relationship complicated enough for you yet? Well, the third story is the doozy. Jesus has gone back to Capernaum, which is now his home base rather than Nazareth, maybe based out of the home of Peter’s mother. The word is out that Jesus is a healer. He and his disciples go into a house to eat, but the people who want to see and touch Jesus push their way into the house and surround it. Mark 3:21 is one of those verses I never learned in Sunday School. It says that Jesus’ family “came to take control of him. They were saying, ‘He’s out of his mind!’” Mary seems to be wondering what has happened to her son. He’s gathered these hoodlums around himself, he’s followed by crazed fans, he’s convinced himself that he has power over demons. I’m worried about him. We need to get him home and get him back to himself. He may have lost it.
In those days they had no hospital to take him to, so they planned to take him home for his own protection. Mary and Jesus’ brothers (oh yeah, he had brothers! so I guess Mary and Joseph must have…you know) arrive in Capernaum at the house where Jesus is effectively trapped. They can’t even see Jesus, much less get his attention. They send a message into the house: “Tell Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside and need him to come out.”
Maybe Jesus knew what they wanted. In any case, he had a crowd around him of people who wanted to hear his message and follow him. He wasn’t about to be derailed by his family’s sense of caution. It’s still startling to me what Jesus said. When told that his mother and brothers were outside looking for him, Jesus asked, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” If Mary had heard that, she would have been certain that Jesus was out of his mind. But Jesus is making a point. He looked around at the disciples and seekers surrounding him and said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers.” This fellowship, this church as it were, is my new family. Can you imagine what Mary would have thought then? Was she no longer his mother?
How do we process that on Mother’s Day, on a day which makes everyone’s relationship to Mom seem straightforward? I think we admit that it’s complicated. If it was complicated for Jesus it’s going to be complicated for us. He was the Good Son, better than anyone ever was, and yet he understood that he had to be himself, and pursue his own mission, even if that meant tension with his Mom.
I have three words in the subtitle of this sermon: Autonomy, Gratitude, and Honor. These stories are about autonomy, about Jesus’ growing independence from his mother. That is the way parenting is supposed to work. That is how adolescents are made. The children we love most in this world have as their primary task in the world to separate from us. That isn’t easy. It’s complicated. Most of the trouble that comes to mothers and children—and, I’d say, especially mothers and daughters—has to do with this axis between protection and freedom, the struggle for autonomy and then for identity. I know there are other things that make our relationships with Mom complicated: addictions, sexual entanglements, being beaten by their own parents, abandonment, a whole host of things we can talk about in the privacy of my office. But every single one of us has had to negotiate the issue of autonomy—self-rule—or we are still negotiating it, whether Mom is alive or dead.
I listed autonomy, gratitude, and honor because I think there is a kind of progression from one to another over time. At some point the struggle to break free of Mom becomes secondary in our thinking and we become aware of our deep gratitude to her. For those of us who have been blessed with children of our own, that’s a huge trigger. All of a sudden it hits us just how much our parents suffered for our sake. But even if you don’t have kids of your own, once you stop fighting with Mom to get free of her you start to remember what she really did for you and gave you. Was there anything in the media this past week more touching than Kevin Durant winning the Most Valuable Player in the NBA and dedicating the award to his mother who went to bed hungry so that he and his brother could eat? He’s only 25, so I’d say he’s come to that deep gratitude earlier than some do, but obviously he’s had to grow up fast.
Mother’s Day is at least about that: saying thank you to Mom for all she did for you—even if she did it imperfectly. She gave her body for you, she suffered pain for you, and even the worst Mom does things for her baby that she would do for no one else. And most of us received the deepest love we knew anything about from our mothers, the kind of love that revealed to us what God is like and the way life is supposed to be.
The word “honor” in relation to mothers comes from the fifth commandment. It’s the word God uses to describe how we should treat our parents. Above all, treat them with respect, and make sure they are not disrespected in their old age. This commandment really has nothing to do with the verses we do learn in Sunday School that say “Children, obey your parents in the Lord.” Moses and Yahweh are giving these words on stone tablets to a community of adults. This is not addressed to children. How do adults honor their parents? And how do we avoid dishonoring them? Perhaps the promise that goes with the command gives us a hint: “so that your days may be long.”
The command to honor your parents is a command to take care of them when they get old, when the number of their days is long. If you take care of your parents, your own children will take care of you and you will live a long life. This, too, is complicated, when our parents are affected by illness and memory loss, but what is m ore obvious than the moral necessity of caring for those who cared for us when we were at our weakest?
And that’s the end of the Jesus and Mary story, too. Jesus did not live on this earth long enough to take care of his mother. But there is that scene at the cross. Whatever doubts Mary had earlier about this mission of his, Mary was there at the cross for Jesus, one of the few who did not run away. As Jesus nears death he sees his mother and his first concern, even as he has to lift himself up on the nail in his ankles to draw a breath to speak, is that he honor his mother. He says to the one who appears to be his best friend: “Take this woman to be your mother.” And to Mary he says, “Let this man be your son. Let him take care of you.”
Mother’s Day is complicated because we have to do all three of these things with our mothers. God wants us to separate and become autonomous so that we can give our first loyalty to God alone and seek the mission he has for us rather than the role Mom would assign us. But just as we are told to be thankful to God for all he has given, it is as natural as breathing to feel gratitude for the human one who gave us life and sustained us in our earliest days. And then, after we have come to feel that gratitude deeply, our mothers begin to fade from us and we have to transition from being thankful for what they have done for us to doing what we can for them. It’s all natural: to push away, to look back with thanks, and to life them up. But it’s complicated. May God bless you wherever you are in that journey.
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