After God created Adam and Eve, one of the first things God said to them was “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” Adam replied.
“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.”
“Forbidden fruit? Really? Where is it?”
“It’s over there,” God said, wondering why God hadn’t stopped after making the elephants.
A few minutes later God saw the kids having an apple break and God was angry. “Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?” the first parent asked.
“Uh huh,” Adam replied.
“Then why did you?”
“I don’t know,” Adam answered.
God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own…
It is not easy to love even our own kids all the time, and as we know, not every parent does it well. Mother’s day can be a really hard day for a lot of people as they reflect on their childhoods. It can also be a hard day for a lot of women who wanted babies but couldn’t have them, or who lost them, or who raised kids but struggled to be good moms. Far too many children suffer abuse, neglect or simply an absence of love at the hands of their parents. While we cannot condone this behavior from any parent, I think there are moments in every parent’s experience when they might have just the slightest understanding of what might lead to the tragedies of abuse. Even the best parents suffer disobedience and rejection at one time or another at the hands of their children. When we tell our children “no” to something they really want, it is not uncommon for a child to strike out. Even toddlers push parents away with angry tears. For parents of many teenagers the words, “I hate you” are not unfamiliar. Jesus described this experience well when he said in the Luke passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!” And yet Jesus continued to act loving. Good parents continue to care and love their kids even when they are rejected, even when their children disobey. It is not easy, but it is part of parenting.
Parenting is hard for another reason. A good parent will risk anything, everything to protect their child. When we love, we want to protect them just as Jesus wanted to gather the children of Israel to himself as a hen with her brood, protecting them from the foxes in that society. And this protection is impossible. We cannot protect our children from every bad thing. There are horrible things out there; kids shooting other kids, pedophiles, murderers, kidnappers. More universally, all children get their hearts broken, get sick and suffer disappointments. Even though sometimes these trials help kids to grow and be strong, every time my child hurts, a part of me dies. We lose parts of ourselves daily in the process of loving as a parent. It is hard to love in this way, and as I said before, not every parent is capable of this kind of love for their children.
In todays’ passage from Luke, Jesus describes God’s love for us as the love of a mother hen gathering her chicks in to herself. In the John passage, Jesus refers to his followers as little children and then proceeds to ask them to love one another as he loved them. Jesus asks us to love one another with God’s love. The closest we can come to understanding the depth of this love is to compare it with the kind of love we have as parents for our children. Even a parent’s love falls short of what God asks, but it is the closest we have in human understanding for the kind of love God asks, and expects us to return to God by loving one another. But this is hard. It is hard to love our own children well, and it becomes increasingly challenging when we apply this to others, to strangers, to enemies, to people we fear. But it is something we are called on to do as Christians. It is also something we promise to do every time we baptize someone. We promise to help raise the child, or adult, in the way of Christ, a promise we can only keep by loving with the depth of love of a good parent. Even beyond the bounds of our membership and baptism, we are called to “love our neighbors” with the same love Jesus had for us; the deep love that we are closest to experiencing when we love our children. And in this way, because of those promises, every one of us is a parent, a mother, to everyone else in this room.
Barbara Brown Taylor shared a story about bringing home a Blue Silkie Chicken
because she had heard that they made good foster mothers. She shared about
her nervousness in letting a guinea chick be introduced into the pen with the silkie.
But everytime she would do this, the Silkie would invite the orphaned chick under
her wings. She pointed out that it was counterintuitive for the mother hen to do this.
In terms of preserving her own species, it did nothing to help these orphaned chicks
of other kinds. Still, without fail, the mother would always invite the chick under
her wings, care for it, nurture it, and raise it. She ended her story this way,
"'Jeruselm, Jerusalem, How often have I desired to gather your children
together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not
willing!' Jesus had chicken neighbors too, I guess, and from them he learned
about God's wings. Watching them he knew what he wanted to be and do.
One cluck from him, and I know too." (Barbara Brown Taylor, "Barnyard Behavior"
Christian Century. October 2006).
While I was on study leave at the beginning of this week I met a man who ended up telling me his story. He told me that he had grown up extremely poor in Mexico. His cousin invited him to come to the United States to help make money that he could then send to support his aging parents in Mexico. He was 16 years old when he came to the United States, he did not speak a word of English, and his cousin dropped him off at a restaurant where he was told he would work and live. He worked every day, 17 hours a day, no days off for a year before he knew enough English and finally had the courage to confront the restaurant owner and ask why he’d never seen a penny. The owner told him that he basically had been given to the restaurant owner as a slave to pay off his cousin’s debts, and that because of that, he would never see a dime. The man then beat him up and dumped him on the street. He was now 17 years old. After three days on the street with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep, he went back to the restaurant and asked the chef for help. The chef’s girlfriend was there who was fluent in Spanish and they agreed to take him in. They helped him gain citizenship, helped him enroll at the local college and helped him to get back on his feet. My new friend told me he would forever be grateful to that couple, who became surrogate parents for him, and truly acted with kindness, compassion and sympathy. This is in great contrast to the restaurant owner who had many opportunities for kindness but practiced none of them.
Michael Piazza quoted Dr. James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “When (Martin Luther) King agreed to act as the most visible leader in the civil rights movement, he recognized what was at stake. In taking up the cross of black leadership, he was nearly overwhelmed with fear. This fear reached a climax on a particular night, January 27, 1956 in the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott, when he received a midnight telephone call threatening to blow up his house if he did not leave Montgomery in three days ...” He went on to tell a story that Dr. King often told about what he called his "spiritual midnight," when he struggled with what could happen to him, his wife, and newborn baby girl. That night, after receiving the threat, Dr. King heard God say to him, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world." Three nights later, while Dr. King was at a bus boycott meeting, his house was bombed. Fortunately, his family escaped harm, having moved to the back of the house when they heard something land on the porch. When Dr. King was told at the meeting that his home had been bombed, he calmly asked about his family and then went home to comfort them. "Strangely enough," he said later, "I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it."
When I look at scripture what I see is a path of love that led Jesus to the cross. And Jesus told us to follow him in that path of loving, even to the cross – literally, not figuratively. Loving is not easy. While referring to his own love as that of a mother hen, Jesus refers to Herod in this passage as a fox. And as we know, the fox will get the chicken, foxes do get chickens that come in front of the, and Jesus was killed. If we too care about the world as a mother hen cares for her chicks, if we too would go out and meet the fox face to face to protect others, if we too would love to the point of putting ourselves in the path of a fox, we too risk death. Loving is not easy.
Many Sundays you participate in a benediction and charge which ends with the phrase; “Care for one another and love one another. It is all that easy and it is all that hard.” Mostly, I think, loving one another as Christ loves us, loving one another as a parent loves, is hard. We are called to see one another as we really are. WE are called to be good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed. We are called to lay down our lives for one another, even as Jesus laid down his life for us.
So where is the good news in this? The good news is that loving is itself the greatest most fulfilling experience we can be given by God. Loving as a parent loves a child is a deep love like nothing else one can experience. Loving my kids is truly the greatest gift I have been given. There is a woman I know who has been unable to conceive. Every mother’s day she avoids church because hearing about how wonderful mothers are reminds her of her own inability to become a mother. Her story is not unique. And she would not experience such despair and loss were it not the case that the deep love one experiences in being a parent is its own reward. I tell you this not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the gift of motherhood because we should. We do need, however, to celebrate that gift in a way that is still loving for individuals who find mother’s day a challenging holiday. And while I do not want to diminish her loss or the loss of others in her situation, I think that in spite of that loss we are still all called to love one another to the depth of a parent loving a child. And I believe that in every case where we learn to truly love to the depths of our being, the loving itself is more fulfilling and rewarding gift than we can imagine. Even when that love is not returned, real love is a gift to the lover.
Not only is the gift of loving its own reward. Also, when we are able to love like this, I believe we are given the ability to see God. We see God’s face in those we love, we experience God’s grace through the act of loving. We experience God’s resurrection. Every time I die a little in loving my children and experiencing their pain, I am born again stronger, with a greater ability to love my kids, with a greater ability to love others.
It is not easy to be a Christian. We are required to love with our whole beings, with our total selves. But loving and the ability to love ever more fully and deeply is its own reward and promise.