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Sixth Sunday in Easter: “Mother Love”

The Collect

1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17                                                                


Happy Mother’s Day! To all great-grandmothers, grandmothers, everyone who mothers, of all genders and in all ways: by childbirth, by adoption, by generosity of heart, I salute you. And to everyone present, please take a flower this morning for yourself; your mother, wife, or partner; your auntie, sister, or teacher . . . anyone you’d like to honor today.

I told my daughter Julia I was preaching this morning and that all our readings were about love. Admitting I was a bit stumped, she offered, “Why don’t you speak about your mom?” Well, I did that two weeks ago. “How about your grandmother?” I told her story on All Saints’ Day. “Well, I guess you’ll have to talk about yourself, Mom.” So this morning I share in a way that’s very personal, but that connects to the Divine Mother of us all. To the way Jesus calls us all to be mothers to the world.

Our God of Love is above gender and form.[1] But it’s right today to speak of the aspect of the Divine expressed in female power. I believe we can clearly hear a mother’s firm voice in Jesus’ commandment, saying to his disciples and us: “This is how you have to do it, kids. You have to love.”

I read quite a few commentaries on today’s readings attributed to John: the Gospel and First Epistle. Many are highly historical: establishing that the community of Christians the author addressed at the end of the first century was split by suspicion and instability. They needed to know what love was—not in the abstract, but in action. Yet many commentaries for today were highly abstract. I want to keep this exploration about love very centered in the body and in the heart.

Anyone can hear that our two readings from John describe a cycle of love that includes God, Jesus, us, our community, the world. Listen again to this cycle our collect: “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire.”

To break it down: In the literature of John, God is love.[2] God through Jesus commands us, as disciples, to love. When we do this, more love pours into us. And when we share this love with others, we are transformed. We become more loving; we discover in action what it means that God is love; and we become more aware of God’s love in the world. Which then makes us better able to love.[3]

If this sounds complicated, Jesus says to his disciples: “Simply love the way I have loved you. Like a mother. I’ve cared for you; fed you; washed your feet; made you into a true family of friends. Do this for others―without exception. Complete the circle between God, me, your community, the world. Keep the love flowing. This is my Way.”

As the wise priest Henri Nouwen reminds us: “We’re called to love Jesus, and to love the way Jesus loved.”[4]

I first truly understood this cycle of love and my place in it when I became a mother. My daughter Jane contracted a life-threatening infection at birth. Until it was diagnosed, she bravely held on, with an army of Stanford ICU doctors and nurses doing their best. What I could do, what I alone could do, as her new, inexperienced mom, was to nurse her. Through a miracle of nature, feeding her with my body, giving her my strength, and creating a deep spiritual bond between us.

My milk was the gift from Divine Mother: to heal my child, answer her cries, help her survive. And she did survive—beautifully.

I share with you this example of a mother feeding her child as the most striking, earthy example of the cycle of love I know. A mother takes into her body the blessings of this good earth—the Divine Mother’s bounty of healthful food and drink. In a natural miracle, equal to turning water into wine, she is able to transform this nurturing love from Divine Mother into the perfect substance to nourish her child. Not through her will or obedience to a commandment, but through her compassionate care for herself and her connection to the Source of all that is. This milk pours into her.

And her child, eager not only for the sustenance, but for the touch, the comfort, the connection, the love, drinks it in. The moment is a perfect meditation on love. A complete cycle between the Divine Mother who provides; the nursing mother who shares all that she has and all that she is—who lays down her life for her child; and the child who receives this love, grows in love, and becomes better able to love the world and the One who created it all.

And the beauty of this cycle? The more milk a child takes, the more the mother is able to produce. Her capacity to nurture grows in this love relationship: love in action produces more love.

Yet there’s a subtle trigger for this whole beautiful system to work: the “let-down reflex.” A mother’s body not only needs good nutrition. Her brain must also be engaged for her milk of loving-kindness to flow. There’s a hormone in mammals I’ve talked about before—oxytocin; often called “the bonding hormone”―that allows her milk to release.[5] Associated with maternal behaviors, but present in men and women, oxytocin can bring about feelings of peace, calmness, and relaxation.[6] And it can be triggered not only by a mother’s own baby crying, but also by a picture of her baby—or even by the cry of another hungry child in the world.

Why bring up this hormone-triggered “let-down reflex”? Well, it can be blocked by fear, stress, pain, or exhaustion.[7] The same kind of factors that block our natural flow of compassion for others can get in the way of this natural cycle.

We can’t produce any form of love if we haven’t first physically cared for our bodies, our selves. And we can’t produce love if we are blocked in spirit, unable to let our natural capacity to love flow outward to others. Fearful or stressed or constricted, we can’t be mothers feeding the world, answering its cries, the way Jesus loved.

Let me connect this necessary “let-down reflex” to an experience I had this week. Our community coalition United for Action called a meeting to bring together our members planning an emergency warming center at Camp Noel Porter in Tahoe City and the neighbors living around the camp who are strenuously objecting. This was sure to be a contentious meeting. And I agreed to be the facilitator.

In some sense, I knew, I was to be the mother of this meeting, faced with angry people I didn’t know, but with a strong desire to help everyone listen to each other and complete a cycle of love. Connecting the love of God to love in our compassionate hearts to allow more love to pour toward our homeless neighbors—in turn generating more love in our community, which would teach us more about who the God of Love is. Jesus was saying, “You can do this, kids.”

But how could I set the stage for love to flow in a room full of suspicion and instability—a community like our Gospel writer faced? What would allow the “let-down reflex” of compassion? I posted the primary meeting guideline: “Assume good will.”

For the milk of loving-kindness to flow, we had to get our own suspicions and fears out of the way. We had to start to bond with some trust, some foundation of good will. Believing that if we share the bounty of what we have, there will be enough for all. That if we release and let go into the flow of Divine Mother’s abundance and loving-kindness, we will be able to bring our neighbors in out of the life-threatening cold next winter.

Did all go smoothly at our meeting? No. Did all hearts open? No. But we did make a start toward connecting with a bit more trust and good will. I think our mother Jesus was proud of our baby steps.

And so I ask you, what do you need to shift within you to let your milk of loving-kindness flow? What habit of heart or underlying fear do you need to let go of so that you can love others, without exception, in the Way of Jesus?

Divine Mother gave each of us a nature of compassion. Complete the cycle of love in Her name. Amen.

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

May 10, 2015


[1] See Mirabai Starr, “Indwelling Presence: The Feminine Face of the Divine,” in God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing, 2012), pp. 153–70.

[2] 1 John 4:16.

[3] Ron Allen, “Sixth Sunday of Easter” (May 10, 2015) [http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2015-05-10/sixth-sunday-easter]

[4] Quoted in Kathryn Matthews (Huey), “Sermon Seeds” (May 10, 2015) [www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_10_2015]

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin; Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (New York: Random House, 2010), p. 19.

[6] http://breastfeeding.about.com/od/CommonProblems/a/The-Let-down-Reflex.htm

[7] http://breastfeeding.about.com/od/CommonProblems/a/The-Let-down-Reflex_2.htm