A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 12, 2013
Matthew 20:20-28 NLT
She was born to a poor family in The Bronx, New York City. At first they lived in a South Bronx tenement. At the age of seven, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and she began taking daily insulin shots. Her father, an alcoholic who only had a third-grade education, died at the age of 42 of heart problems when she was only nine years old. From a young age she had her heart set on going to college and becoming an attorney. Somehow she was able to go to Princeton University on a full scholarship, graduating summa cum laude. From there she went to Yale Law School. She worked as an assistant district attorney in New York before entering private practice. A few years later she was nominated to the U.S. District Court, then the U.S. Court of Appeals. She taught at the New York University School of Law and Columbia Law School. Then in 2009 she was nominated to the Supreme Court of the U.S., becoming the first Hispanic and only the third woman to serve in that capacity. The pertinent point of this woman’s story for today is this: Sonia Sotomayor has credited her mother with being her “life inspiration.”
Now, we must admit that there are a lot of unknown variables in Sonia’s story. Her drive, her intelligence, breaks she may have gotten along the way. But the fact that she credits her mother with being her “life inspiration” should not go unnoticed. “Life inspiration” can come in many forms and fashions. How many of us, like Sotomayor, could credit our mothers with being a life inspiration? There is a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that perhaps has been overdone and has become a cliché: “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” I am not sure if Lincoln was referring to his birth mother, who died when Abe was at a young age, or his step-mother. But it really doesn’t matter. A mother-like life inspiration can be exerted by any of us. Perhaps that quotation has become so popular because it has rung true with so many women and men of the world.
I have read what I find to be an interesting story involving Jesus and two of his disciples, James and John, and their mother. The name of the mother is not even given. She is simply referred to as the wife of Zebedee or the mother of Zebedee’s sons. But the story goes that this mother asked a favor of Jesus for her two sons. Perhaps believing that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who was about to usher in a new age, she hoped that her sons could be Jesus’ right-hand advisors. Often this story is read in a negative light. Jesus seems to be scolding James, John, and their mother for asking such a thing. They have misunderstood, according to Matthew (and also Mark), the nature of Jesus’ mission. Their aim should not be a place of honor—to be served—but rather to give themselves in service and sacrifice for others.
But what if we looked at this story from another angle, from the angle of a loving mother? A mother who was proud of her two sons and the path they had chosen in giving up their fishing business and following this itinerant preacher and prophet? She should not be faulted for that, should she?
Motherhood has not changed much in this regard, has it? All of us have seen those bumper stickers on the back of mini-vans that say something like “Proud Parent of a Middle School Honor Student.” Or the one that reads, “Proud Mother of a U.S. Marine.” There is nothing at all wrong with a mother showing pride in the accomplishments of her child. In fact, that is one of the positive traits of motherhood, isn’t it? If the truth be told, many of us who are parents could have and perhaps should have done an even better job than we did of showing our pride for our children and their accomplishments. Maybe that is at least one lesson we can learn from the mother of James and John.
This mother of James and John was also a mother who wanted only the best for her sons. To sit with Jesus as his closest advisors when he came into his kingdom, that is all she wanted. It is only natural for a loving mother to want her child to land the best position, go to the best school possible, to receive the honor or recognition that her child has earned and deserves.
I think of another biblical story, the story of baby Moses. As the ancient story goes, the mother of Moses was willing to let her son go and be raised in the palace of the Egyptian Pharaoh because at least there he would be safe and have a good life that he would not have otherwise. Sometimes It is hard for a mother to let go of her child in order that he or she may have a better life. But such is a part of parenthood.
And this mother of James and John was a mother who was willing to go out on a limb, even suffer embarrassment, if it meant improving the lot of her sons. You know, it took a lot of gumption for this woman to approach Jesus in front of others and ask such a favor. She risked being scolded, scorned, and ridiculed. But such didn’t matter to her. Achieving something good for her children was what mattered most.
Today I think of a young mother of 33 who has faced more challenges with her children than any mother should have to face in an entire lifetime. A special needs child. Twelve weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and at least one incident of cardiac arrest. Numerous surgeries. More late night trips to the emergency room and more hospitalizations than any of us could ever hope to count. Going to meetings with the school system to get the services her child needs and deserves. Meeting with doctors and sometimes even educating and training nurses and doctors on her child’s medical condition and proper method of care. And on several occasions standing her ground to be heard, even when it meant risking being belittled, scolded, condescended, and intimidated. When I look at her, I admire the mother that she is for being willing to go out on a limb to improve the lot of her children. And I would still admire her, even if she were not my daughter.
As actress Jessica Lange put it, “The natural state of motherhood is unselfishness. When you become a mother, you are no longer the center of your own universe. You relinquish that position to your children.” The ironic thing is that motherhood epitomizes the exact point that Jesus was trying to make about what constitutes true discipleship—being a servant to others. That is what most mothers do every day, isn’t it? Give their lives in service to others.
And a mother’s love and a mother’s role is not just about success and wanting the best places of honor for her children. It is also about accepting her children as they are and showing unconditional love and admiration, even if they don’t excel to the highest places of honor. The roles of a mother servant are many and varied. Often it is not an easy role. But there is none other like it in the world.
And so, we set aside one day out of the year to celebrate mothers; mothers who show pride in their children, who want what is best for their children, and who are willing to go out on a limb for their children when necessary. But also mothers who show unconditional love and acceptance for their children, regardless of their successes or lack thereof. Today we celebrate mothers who live the role of faithful servants to others each and every day. Amen.