TEXTS: Acts 1:1517; 21-26; John 17:6-19
Today is the final Sunday in the season of Easter – and it also happens to be Mother’s Day. While other national holidays and “Hallmark Card moments” are often ignored by the church, there’s something about Mother’s Day that the church really finds hard to resist. I don’t even know what day of the year Grandparent’s Day is. I would probably miss Secretary’s Day if weren’t for TV ads around that time. The church could care less about Columbus Day (except for my denomination, which has renamed the holiday “Indigenous People’s Day”). Even days that the church once called Saint’s Days such as St. Patrick’s and St. Valentines days have been secularized and largely ignored by Protestant churches. A good many churches even let Father’s Day slide right by without much fanfare. But Mother’s Day is different. It seems that Mother’s Day has to be recognized in some way, at least to some degree.
When I was a kid, my denomination proclaimed Mother’s Day Sunday the “Festival of the Christian Home” allowing us to celebrate Mother’s Day without calling it that. I asked my Lutheran and Episcopal colleagues about that this past Monday and found that none of them had ever heard of such a thing. In any case, there does seem to be a tacit understanding in most congregations that if the pastor and preacher doesn’t throw some sort of sermon tidbit out to Mother’s in the Congregation, there’s going to be big trouble.
Now, having said that, I’m going to tell you right now that I am one of those preachers who believes in sticking with the text of the day as much as is humanly possible. I am one of those preachers who does not work at inserting elements into a sermon just to satisfy those who believe that certain secular events should show up there. And, having said that, I must admit that a thought came to me as I was preparing this sermon which does seem to me to offer the opportunity to preach about the Gospel of John and mention motherhood in my preaching.
The gospel lesson today is a continuation of the weeks past in which we are exploring the long discourse offered by Jesus in the gospel of John in and around the last supper, that final meal just before Jesus was arrested, tried and executed. Our reading today from the 17th chapter of John picks up in the midst of a lengthy concluding prayer which Jesus offers to God and which concludes the last supper discourse. If we have the tenacity to wade through John’s convoluted language, with all the “I in you and you in me and I in them and they in me, therefore they are in you because I am in you” we find that Jesus asks God for many things. (And as I noted to the Tuesday afternoon Bible Study group – if you think this is bad, try it in the King James translation with all its Thees and thous.) Most of the requests that Jesus makes are that God grant certain things to his disciples, presence, unity, protection, joy, even sanctification.
Jesus also offers a sort of public testimony in his prayer that he has taught his disciples what they need to know about the good news of the gospel and about his relationship to God the Father. Jesus assures God (and through his prayer assures his disciples as well) that his followers belong to God. In this prayer we get once more the duality which only John’s gospel proclaims, a duality of God and world. Jesus asserts that a person cannot be both of the world and of God. Jesus proclaims in his prayer that while the disciples may continue to live in the world, because of him and because of gospel message, they are no longer of the world. Jesus then proclaims that he is speaking these things while he himself is still physically in the world so that his joy might be made complete in his disciples, so that the joy of Jesus, joy of divine service, joy embedded in the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, might not only enter into the disciples, but be made complete in them.
This is the joy which is spoken of by the author of the letter to the Hebrews when he proclaimed, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him (Christ Jesus) endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” If we read through the New Testament, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, it seems that the disciples did receive joy and that the joy of Christ was made complete in them. And I remind you that Joy and happiness are not the same thing. Joy can lead to happiness, but joy is something that begins within us and moves outward. Joy is not caused by or even subject to what is happening around us. Again, I refer to the book of Acts which tells us that Paul and Silas were praising God and singing hymns – generally showing themselves to be in a deep state of joy; and this after they had been severely beaten and put in shackles in prison!
It was when I was thinking about joy being immune to one’s environment and from the actions of those around us that mothers and motherhood popped into my head. So I ask the mothers among us, “Was the birth of any and of your children a joyous occasion?” “Have you found joy in your children since their birth, whether those children be still in your care or out on their own, whether they might even have children or grandchildren of their own?” (I see a lot heads nodding. I see a good many smiles out there.) Now, at the same time, I have been informed by many, including my own good wife, that childbirth is a really, really painful experience. I can say, I believe with a good deal of confidence, that there have been times when our children have brought their mothers sorrow, pain, anger, grief and consternation. And yet; and yet, mothers by and large look upon the birth and experience of children with joy and upon their own roles as mothers with the same joy.
Over the past two days, I have been down in New Brunswick at the Annual Assembly of the New Jersey Synod, a gathering that was filled to the brim with joy. Now, during my time at the Assembly I also heard about struggles that many congregations were experiencing as they strive to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a rapidly changing world. I heard about the struggles that the Synod itself is experiencing as it strives to provide support to its 160+ congregations while its own sources of funding have dropped. I heard about all sorts of difficulties and consternations in and around the synod from frustrated members and pastors and synod staff, and even from social ministries organizations. And all this in the midst of a joyous celebration of the grace of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Savior. I saw in real time the Joy of the father made complete in current day disciples through Jesus Christ their Savior.
I saw this because the joy that we have does not come from how easy or difficult our lives might be, or from how easy or difficult the work of our congregations might be, or from how easy or difficult the environment of the world around us might be. The joy that we have comes instead from Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. I saw the joy that is proclaimed in the old children’s Sunday school song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!”
So, on this final Sunday in the season of Easter, on this day that the secular world designates as Mother’s Day, I encourage each one of you to rediscover and embrace the joy of God Almighty made known us and given to us through Jesus Christ our Savior. And when you find that joy, when you embrace that joy, then I encourage you to express that joy. Dump the dour Lutheran image, the stoic sufferer image that Garrison Keeler would always joke about in his stories from Lake Woebegone. Let us prepare ourselves for the coming of Pentecost with a resurgence of joy in the face of whatever the world might throw at us; because joy doesn’t come from the world; because, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are no longer of the world even though we continue to be in the world.
Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ rules forever in God’s eternal kingdom! Let us rejoice and be glad! Amen.