Sixth Sunday of Easter
Scripture: John 15:9, 11-15a
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
I’m going to let you in on one of my most exciting discoveries during the pandemic. Here it is. You can have access to pretty much the whole Berkeley library through your smartphone. Some of you may have discovered this long ago. But it was the pandemic that shifted my joy of browsing in bookstores and libraries to my screen where I make lists of borrows and holds and categorize the books I want to read with tags. It’s incredibly simple to download an ebook or audio book to my phone. My phone tells me when my holds are ready and I get them with a simple “tap.” I can read them on my separate kindle or stream them through my phone to my car radio or my earbuds. I’ve begun looking forward to the dishes and folding so that I can listen to my latest audio book.
And here’s another secret which maybe you already know: you don’t have to live in Berkeley to have a Berkeley library card, though you do have to live in California.
I typically like to have 2-3 books going at once, with one of them being nonfiction or a memoir and one being fiction. A few days ago, I finished Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, which was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s ostensibly the story of a brother and sister who live in large house built by Dutch tycoons at the turn of the twentieth century in suburban Philadelphia. Their father, who has become wealthy, purchases the Gatsby-esque house, but through a series of events, they lose their father and the house before the younger brother is out of high school.
The house then becomes the object around which the rest of their lives orbit, hence the title. But while the book is named after the house, and the brother and sister dominate the dialogue, the book is really about something else. Or rather someone else who is omnipresent in her absence. That someone is their mother. The book is really about their mother, the feelings they have for her, and the impact she has on them even though she has done precious little mothering.
The story goes that there is a lot of coming and going by their mother when they are young—she’s there, then for days, she’s not there—until finally she leaves for good when the sister and brother are about 11 and 4, taking a boat to India to help the poor. Ann Patchett says she wrote the whole book then threw it away and started again. Why? Why did she do this? Well, Patchett says, “I wrote this book, got all the way to the end, read it, hated it, threw it away and started over. And I mean completely. What I realized in having it bomb so completely is that you cannot write a sympathetic character who leaves her children for ethical reasons. There is definitely a different standard for men and women, and I wanted to take that on. And I realized that I couldn’t. We sing songs about Odysseus, and we pray to the Buddha [both of whom left home], and nobody thinks about their children.” And so Patchett goes back to the writing of the book, and changes her approach to the character of the mother. What Patchett creates instead of a villain or saint is a very human, very complex character, who is also a mother.
The love of the mother in the story for her children is very real and true. But she also finds great meaning and purpose in serving, and feels called to give care and love to the whole world. She cannot conceive of how to do both. And so she responds to this inner pull, which leads to some other choices, which ultimately lead to her absence in her children’s lives. This causes her and her children great pain. There are some who might say, “She was not a good mother. She did not love her children enough.” But the story is so much more complex than the simple binary of good or bad.
Our scripture today from the gospel of John is about love. To describe and define love is always an elusive task. In this scripture, Jesus says, “As the Creator has loved me, so have I loved you, remain in my love.” When Jesus says, “as the Creator has loved me” does he mean like a parent loves a child? Or in the sense that Jesus and the Creator are the same, is it possible that he also means a kind of self-love, or self-compassion?
Another book I am enjoying reading is called Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, written by therapist Lori Gottleib about the goals of therapy and mental health. She says, “In therapy, we aim less for the answer to the self-esteem question, which is ‘Am I good or am I bad,’ and more for the answer to the self-compassion question, which is, ‘Am I human?’”
To move beyond ideas of good or bad and move into an acceptance of one’s humanness seems to be the height of what it means to love. Mothers, and our relationships with our own mothers, and our relationship to ourselves as a mother if we are mothers, are some of the most complex relationships in all of life. To think in terms of a good mother or a bad mother surely does a disservice to everyone. To say instead, “mothers are human” opens up a whole new way of understanding and relating, one that seems to get much closer to the kind of love Jesus is talking about in this scripture.
We talk a lot about the importance of God coming to us as a human, as God in Jesus being human, and what that means for us in terms of God’s understanding of what it means to live this earthly life, with its joys and disappointments, the times when we wish we could take back something we’ve said or do something differently, as well as the suffering of loss and the joy of connection.
But what we also need to remember when we talk of the importance of God being human is that in Mary, the mother of Jesus, God’s mother, was also human. The mother of God…is human. And if even God’s mother is human, what we are to understand is that there are no perfect mothers, just as there are no perfect people.
In preparation for this sermon, I asked my own daughter if she could think of any examples that showed how human I was. She couldn’t think of anything except for the time I accidentally closed the car door on her fingers. She escaped with some swelling and bruising, no breaks thank goodness, but it is something that can make me feel terrible still to this day. But short of that, she drew a blank.
Then about 30 minutes later, I was driving her to a lesson and I noticed she seemed pensive, withdrawn even. I asked her what she was thinking about. “Nothing,” she said. “Really?” I said, “Because you seemed like you were thinking really hard about something.” “Well,” she said, “When we were talking about fostering kittens I had something I wanted to say that was a bit off topic, but you said, ‘not right now’ because you wanted to keep talking about the kittens. Sometimes when I have something to say you say it’s not related but it is related, just in a distant way.” My plowing ahead, even for a purpose I thought was altruistic and for her, had cut her off, maybe even caused her to feel diminished.
These were two moments, one that I felt terrible about, and one that I wasn’t even aware of, that had done some measure of harm. So then I asked her, “Are there times when I’ve brought you joy?” And she said, “Every day.”
In the scripture, Jesus goes on to say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus has loved us as we are. As humans. And so if we are to love one another as he has loved us, we need to love in compassion and self-compassion, accepting the humanness in each of us. And then remain in that love.
On this Mothers’ Day, I hope you get to do what brings you joy, whether that is being in nature, sipping a cup of tea or browsing the Berkeley library on your phone. I hope you get to be with people who love you in all of your humanness. And I hope that in by remaining in this joy and love, you have love to share with yourself and the whole world. Amen
Order of Service (Bulletin) - Sunday, May 9, 2021
Sixth Sunday after Easter
GATHERING OUR STRENGTH
Prelude: "Jesu, Joy of Our Desiring" comp. Bach - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome and Dare to Dance Liturgy - Rev. Kristin Stoneking, Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Opening Hymn: "I Come with Joy" UM Hymnal #617 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson
Invocation - Steve Coambs
LEARNING THE STEPS
Scripture Reading: John 15:9, 11-15a - Eda Naranjo
Children's Message: "Dreamers" - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "Song for Judith (Open the Door)" - Danica Elliott & Judy Kriege
Message: "Mother's Day" - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
THE BODY MOVES IN RESPONSE
Hymn of Response: "For Everyone Born (A Place at the Table)" Worship & Song #3149 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Call for Prayer - Steve Coambs
Special Music: “Ave Maria" - Charles Lynch
The Prayer Jesus Taught (Lord's Prayer) - Eda Naranjo
Sharing Our Resources and our Energy - Deborah Crawford
Offertory: "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father" by Gillian Welch - Judy Kriege
STEPPING OUT INTO THE WORLD
Prayer of Dedication - Deborah Crawford
Closing Hymn: “You Shall Go Out with Joy (Trees of the Field)" The Faith We Sing #2214 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Go Out With Ever Joyful Hearts" comp. Karg-Elert - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To...
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Cathryn Bruno, Steve Coambs, Deborah Crawford, Danica Elliott, Melani Gantes, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Charles Lynch, Eda Naranjo
“Ave Maria” Images compiled by Orion Lacey & Jacob Wilbur
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Liturgy and Design © 2021 worshipdesignstudio.com, adapted by permission.
Prayer of Dedication © 2021 enfleshed
Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.
“Ave Maria” Images compiled by Orion Lacey & Jacob Wilbur