“You’ll meet her tomorrow. She did the best she could.” Those were words spoken to me about her mother by a bride-to-be some years back two days before a wedding. “She did the best she could” meant, of course, that the woman I was about to meet had not been “perfect” or “professional” as a mother, and if you have noticed a trend that I understate Mothers’ Day, it is not because not everyone has had the privilege of a near-perfect mother, it is because no one has had the privilege of a perfect mother.
I would like to read two additional Bible passages today that are, I think, always enjoyable to read, even though I chose them because of their connection to the secular observance of Mothers’ Day.
The first is highly idealized but beautiful, appearing near the opening of the earliest written work that appears in our New Testament, the Apostle Paul’s letter we know as 1 Thessalonians:
As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
What Paul was suggesting was that he and his co-workers had been like a “professional” mother caring for her own children; that they had been gentle and tender and caring.
The second reading has this incredible suggestion of the relation between a child and his or her mother and God:
The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.
The mother cried — and in her crying for her child, God heard the voice of the child! Awesome; absolutely beautiful. Mothers are vessels through which God hears children — and through whom children experience God!
Two excerpts from Scripture that offer us a wonderful concept of motherhood and mothers.
But wait! Not only does the story of Hagar and Ishmael paint perhaps an image of mothers that is a bit too saccharine-like perfect, but Hagar and Ishmael were in the frightening situation in which Hagar was crying because of . . . because of . . . because of the ungenerous behavior, motivated by jealousy, jealousy of another mother, Sarah. We did not read the passages in Genesis in which a barren Sarah had suggested to her husband, Abraham, that he have a child by Sarah’s servant, Hagar.
In other words, in Sarah — for whom I suppose we should cut some slack since she would have been ninety or ninety-one years old, — in Sarah we have the model of the imperfect mother which is carried further with Rebekah, the wife of Sarah’s own son, Isaac. Rebekah favored one of her sons, Jacob, over the other, Esau, and helped Jacob use trickery to deceive the blind Isaac, and to deprive her other son of his birthright.
Biblical mothers, like their biblical husbands, simply were not perfect and faultless; they were. . . they were human.
And what I want to emphasize on this Mothers’ Day is not so much that we should be aware that some of our mothers were not perfect, but rather that none of them were. Neither were — are — any of us, and that today is as good a day as any to give up on any of the resentments we might have for each of our own mother’s failures to have been like the professional mother Paul imagines in 1 Thessalonians, or to be as sensitive as was Hagar in our Genesis reading.
More than likely, although there are reasons all mothers at least somewhat fail at this, they did the best they could.
I have often stated on Mothers’ Day and on other occasions, that my opinion is that there is no human relationship more prone to difficulty than that between a mother and a daughter. That is not meant to be a sexist comment, but rather one that recognizes that probably at least some envy or jealousy — a bit different from yet related to Sarah’s jealousy or Hagar and Ishmael — is natural as the mother experiences aging and the daughter might be having the good times the mother missed . . . except that it is the daughter who suffers. I have seen too many examples and have had too many people more knowledgeable in psychology than I second my observations and opinion.
So I do not need to tell any of the women who are here that it’s not an easy situation, being a daughter.
Nor, I suspect, is it easy being the mother of a daughter. I am sure I do not need to say that to you who are yourselves mothers of daughters. I am sure it is true that, “My daughter does not know how difficult it was; of course I could not be perfect, but I did the best I could.”
Of course I could not be perfect. After all, if a mother or a daughter or a father or a son could be perfect, we would not be here worshipping because there would have been no need for Jesus. If we could be perfect, God could expect perfection of us; there would be no Christianity, because there would be those who do not need forgiveness — such as forgiveness for not being a perfect mother. We would have worshipped Friday night.
But forgiveness is, in one sense, what Jesus is all about for us.
And his message was not a wholly new one. It was told in a truly profound way centuries before Jesus in one of my favorite psalms that I use as an assurance of pardon with those attending at funerals and memorial services, Psalm 130:
Out of the depths I call You, O LORD. O Lord, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.
If You keep account of [errors], O LORD, Lord, who will survive? Yours is the power to forgive[,] so that You may be held in awe.
I look to the LORD; I look to Him; I await His word.
O Israel, wait for the LORD; for with the LORD is steadfast love and great power to redeem.
It is He who will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.
Is there a person among us who does not rely upon God’s forgiveness? Then why not adopt God as a model for how we need to forgive, and let us begin by forgiving the failings we find in how our mothers mothered us, and then let us forgive all others.
For many, I daresay for almost all, of us, our mothers are already with the Lord and are not suffering from any resentments we might feel for the shortcomings in how they raised or treated us, yet too many of us are still carrying resentment or maybe just regret for those shortcomings. We need to forgive, not for our late mothers’ benefit, but for our own benefit.
Forgiveness of another is a freeing thing for those who do the forgiving! It is, in the evangelical parlance, What Jesus Would Do, which, I hope, is the proper model for what we should do. For even though it may be that each of us did the best we could, as the writer of the epistle 1 John reminds us, “If we say the we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Because we need forgiveness, we should grant forgiveness.
So, yes, Mom is with the Lord; it is too late for her to feel from us the tenderness of “a nurse tenderly caring for her own children,” but are there not others, is there not another, for whom even as you know the purging and liberating sense of forgiving, he or she might wish to know that he or she is forgiven?
Then don’t just do “the best you can,” forgive; it will make for you a happier Mothers’ Day, and it is what Jesus would do.
. . . but I have to add a postscript, as this week I encountered a short psalm that never makes its way into our worship, and which expresses an image appropriate for today but perhaps uncomfortable both for those who deride the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament culture as too paternalistic and also for those who insist that God should be imagined exclusively with masculine characteristics.
In the delightful but brief Psalm 131 as translated by Robert Alter, we read this:
LORD, my heart has not been haughty,
nor have my eyes looked too high, nor have I striven for great things,
nor for things too wondrous for me.
But I have calmed and contented myself
like a weaned babe on its mother —
like a weaned babe I am with myself.
Wait, O Israel, for the LORD,
now and evermore.
From God we derive the peace of a child nursed and weaned at his or her mother’s breast. Thanks be to God, the Father — and Mother — of us all.
And in the name of the Son of God, Jesus, who tells us of God’s forgiveness, Amen.