The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the 5th Sunday of Easter
14 May 2017 (Mother’s Day)
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
To all our mothers, as well as those present who have been mothering figures to others in their lives, Happy Mother’s Day! Please be seated.
One of the fascinating things about John’s Jesus is that there are always several layers of truth in what Jesus says. John’s Jesus is a bit more cryptic, a bit more Gnostic in sharing secret insights with his disciples, and what I find particularly fascinating about this is that it doesn’t matter how many times I read John’s Gospel, there is always something new that I’ve never read in quite the same way before. There’s always something about where I am in my life and spiritual journey that reveals new perspective and meaning I hadn’t encountered before.
Growing up, there were several bible verses in the Lutheran church where I went to Sunday School every week that I was encouraged to memorize. This morning’s gospel was one of them, as was John 3:16, and enough others to earn me the “Good News” Bible I was working toward in my third grade class. But I had always thought of today’s gospel in terms of heaven—in terms of an otherworldly place of spiritually rich variety and abundance, where Jesus went as our expectant host to get ready for our arrival. Encouraged, early in my life, by my Assemblies of God cousins, the Baptist youth group I was part of for a couple years, and my Dad’s authoritarian view of scripture, I pictured Jesus being the way, the truth, and the life as a narrow path of right faith and right action—one fraught with the perils of temptation where the wrong music, the wrong leisure activities or games, and the wrong clothes could lure me away from my faith and I would be lost. And in “No one comes to the Father except through me,” I heard a warning that made me very concerned for my friends who weren’t Christian because I was sure they couldn’t know God if they didn’t know Jesus as their personal savior.
Other times in my life, I’ve read these same words as a comfort instead of a warning. That there are rooms in God’s house for all of God’s different people from around the world who love as God loves while calling God by different names, and that all who truly know God already know God’s word and God’s love, regardless of whether they call themselves Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Baha’is, Atheists, Pagans, or otherwise.
This week, however, is the first time I’ve read this gospel with an ear for hearing it in reference to God’s kingdom as it is brought to life in the here and now of our lives and world—not as a warning, not just as a comfort and otherworldly promise, but as a calling in the here and now of our lives.
Christ came to show us God’s inexhaustible, passionate, and prodigious love for us, and to teach us to love as God loves—as the truth of God’s way and God’s life of abundance, love, and care; as God’s way of drawing all of God’s children into God’s embrace, healing, forgiveness, and mutual relationship. As children of God’s household, WE are called to carry on as Christ’s hands and heart, continuing to bring God’s reign to life in our lives and world. In this, all who bring God’s love to life in the world are God’s many dwelling places right here, right now. With Christ’s physical absence from the world, a place is made for us to step into that calling and to become agents of God’s love and care, following in Christ’s example. No longer seeking for Christ, alone, to be the harbinger of God’s reign, in and around Galilee, but recognizing Christ in ourselves and one another, both within our tradition and in all the unexpected places we encounter the risen Christ outside of our tradition, and multiplying Christ’s love and care across the whole of the world.
In our Epistler’s idiom, we are called to become the spiritual building blocks, working in mutual relationship, living-stone by living-stone, to be built into a spiritual house as the many dwelling places of God.
Again, in our Psalmist’s idiom, we are called to commend our spirits—the labors and life-breath of our hearts and minds—to God. To allow God’s love to shine in the world through our own hearts, walking in accompaniment and mutuality with one another and with the promise and experience of God’s accompaniment through all the ups and downs of our lives.
Yet our Psalm this morning also calls us back to Good Friday, as Christ commended his Spirit to God on the cross, and which Stephen’s words echoed in this morning’s reading from Acts… a cry for God’s presence, grace, and support to stand courageously in the face of fear rather than shying away from living fully in God’s love.
We get very little of Stephen’s story in our Easter cycle. As the Acts of the Apostles chronicles the early church, the numbers of disciples continued to increase beyond the day of Pentecost when, as was reported in our reading from two weeks ago, three thousand of the crowd were converted. As the population of believers grew, including both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, tensions began to rise between the two groups about which group’s needy populations were receiving more care. Stephen and six others were chosen, at the apostles’ behest, to be in charge of making sure everyone was taken care of equally. In particular, Stephen is said to have done many great signs and wonders, and taught with the authority and wisdom of the Spirit until a group disagreeing with him was said to have fabricated charges of blasphemy against him. At his trial, where he had been accused of speaking against the temple, he recalled the whole of Israel’s relationship with God from Abraham through the time of Moses and the delivery from slavery in Egypt, through the time of the prophets and judges, and up to the time of Solomon and the building of the temple, “and yet,” he said, “God does not live in houses made by human hands.” He finished his oration by rebuking his accusers for placing their faith in a building rather than in Christ as a living dwelling place of God’s presence and love. Today’s reading picks up with the results of that encounter. His accusers dragged him out to be stoned, and Saul, whose conversion we’ll skip over between this Sunday and next, is introduced as an opponent of the early church who will himself undergo the transformation from opponent to one of the early church’s most important advocates as Paul.
Aside from mirroring and drawing our attention back to Christ’s courageous act of facing death rather than being cowed into silence or submission, Stephen’s conviction of God’s house not being a place made by human hands, and his experience both of being a dwelling place of God’s courage, love, and care, and of God’s accompaniment in his time of need draws us again back to the calling from today’s gospel to take the place prepared for us as agents of God’s kingdom.
I can honestly think of no better day to be talking about the courage to love boldly, prodigiously, and heedless of the consequences, than Mother’s Day. This doesn’t mean that all of us have necessarily experienced our mothers or mothering figures as examples of God’s courageous love. But I can certainly say, from my experience of two of my great-grandmothers, both of my grandmothers, my changing experience of my own Mom and the many other moms who helped raise me, from experiencing parenting with Jane, and from being in relationship with many other mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers in my adult life, that it is an experience that calls on every ounce of courage, patience, love, and determination parents can muster—and then some.
In my experiences of my own moms and grandmothers, and of parenting with Jane I have been remarkably lucky. In them, I have encountered some truly amazing examples of steadfast and courageous love overcoming the stumbling blocks and fears of their lives.
I think about my grandmothers, one of whom raised two boys in the 1940s and 50s after my grandfather walked out on them, and the other of whom finished raising six children while running the family farm after my mom’s dad passed away when she was 5. I think about Jane’s sister raising my nephew as a single-mom, and facing the fears and challenges of overcoming her developmental disabilities, figuring out how to go back to school and earn a degree, and finally becoming independent all while trying to help him overcome his own developmental disabilities. I think about my mom finally working up enough courage to take my brother and I out of an abusive household she had endured for sixteen years, only to have to do it again when my brother and I convinced her a year later to go back and we found that nothing had actually changed. And, of course, I think about Jane. As many of you already know, Jane has been Anthony’s champion in overcoming neglect, autism, and ADHD, in navigating first the California healthcare, mental health, social work, and school systems, and then those in Colorado as well. She has a published contribution in a book on raising children with Autism, and has taken on every challenge and overcome every fear and every stumbling block to help him thrive. She has done no less for Marie and Luke, each with their own challenges, and has yet had the grace, patience, and determination to be fully present in relationship with me as well. Parenting as a team with her, we have faced and overcome a lot as a family, and I am incredibly grateful for all that she has taught both our children and me about the importance of relationships.
Where this day of remembering all those who have been mothering-figures in our lives ties back to today’s readings for me is in having the courage both to learn from and to follow the examples I have encountered in relationship with these truly inspiring people who have meant so much in my life, and who have shown me a glimpse of God’s kingdom through the courage of their lives and loves.
Today, we are invited and called to give ourselves to God’s love and care. We are called to be encouraged and guided by Christ’s way, and to seek out God’s accompaniment and care in the face of the fears and stumbling blocks that stand in our way. We are called to seek always to live into that place prepared for us—to become dwelling places of God’s presence in our world. And we are called to the mutual support and relationship with one another that helps us become living stones in the building of God’s kingdom together—right here, right now, one day, one challenge, and one courageous moment at a time.
Like parenting, it may take all the courage, patience, love, and determination we can muster— and then some—but it will be worth every moment. May God’s love, grace, presence, and Spirit in us and through us give us all the strength we need.