Today is Mother’s Day, and when I got assigned to preach on this day, I was a bit anxious. I grew up in a non-denominational, evangelical, church, and so I always expected to hear a a sermon that valorized mothers and motherhood on Mother’s Day. I felt a bit panicky because in the last six years of being a mother, I’ve had times of feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve worried that I’ve not spent enough time with my children, that I’ve lost my cool too often, or worse, that I’ve not taught them to love. So what could I possibly say about being a mother? When I became a mother, I felt very unprepared. I was in the very beginning of my graduate career, preparing for a long journey towards getting a PhD at UNC. I had envisioned late night discussions about Derrida over coffee, not late night diaper changes. Besides never having changed a diaper before in my life, what I was most anxious about was the fact that I didn’t feel morally prepared – I didn’t feel like I had the emotional resources to care for another human being. How could I possibly love in the way that would be needed?
This is not a sermon about “Mother’s Day,” or about what it means to be a mother. Because I learned early on that simply donning the role of mother didn’t transform me into a walking miracle of grace and love. I want to talk about something much more important than the conference of any role: that is, Jesus’ vision of love for a changed world. As I thought more about the scriptures for today, I realized that they could speak to some of the questions and anxieties that I felt and still feel, as someone with others in my charge. What Jesus has to say in John 15 applies to every single one of us.
Love is a mode of being with a sense of ownership at its core. At the crux of Jesus’ vision for a changed world is a recalibrated understanding of love. In reading over John 15, I was struck by the simple and matter-of-fact way that Jesus demonstrates ownership over the disciples. He repeatedly says that he loves them, and in this passage, he urges the disciples to stay near to him and near to love. He eagerly desires for them to experience joy, he calls them friends and says that he chose them. He commands them to love others in the same self-sacrificing way that he has loved them, so that they might all be joyful. Jesus clearly considers the disciples to be his – in his family, his circle, without any explanation for why this might be the case. He loves them and assumes ownership over them, without explicit reason, and because he loves them, he will sacrifice for them.
Most of us probably cringe at the idea of suggesting that ownership could be part of a healthy relationship, and for good reason: “ownership” brings to mind the ways that people in power have shackled and manipulated others. We tend to associate love for others with letting them be free of us, but I wonder if in our haste to distance ourselves from a sense of “ownership” over others, we sometimes miss this other kind of ownership that Jesus was talking about.
I brought the children’s book, called “You Are Special” by Max Lucado with me because I think it illustrates well the vision of love as simple ownership that Jesus is talking about in John 15. The story is about a wooden doll named Punchinello who lives in a town with other dolls. The dolls spend all day giving each other either black dots or gold stars, based on how they feel about one another. The dolls with great talents get awarded gold stars by other dolls, while the dolls with scars and no apparent talents are given black dots. Punchinello is given black dots all day, no matter how hard he tries to get gold stars. He meets a doll one day with no dots or stars on it, and finds out that this doll has no marks because she visits the carpenter who made all of the dolls in the village. So anyway, Punchinello, tired of his dots, goes to see the carpenter, who tells him that he is special. The thought of this – that he is special – has never occurred to him before, and he’s trying to understand why. This is an excerpt from the book:
Punchinello laughed. “Me, special? Why? My paint is peeling. Why do I matter to you?”
Eli looked at Punchinello, put his hands on those small wooden shoulders, and spoke very slowly.
“Because you’re mine. That’s why you matter to me.
You are mine. That is why you matter to me.
This profound sense of ownership is the central axis of the love that Jesus is talking about. In the John 15 passage (and before and after), Jesus is telling the disciples that they are his – not only that they come from him (as the branches from the vine), but that he has taken ownership of them such that he is willing to give his whole self to them. And he’s telling them to do the same for others. Clearly, this type of ownership is not like the slavemaster over a slave, or even like the ownership of an educator over a student. That is a traditional paradigm, a rational paradigm that builds systems and “properly” manages people.
But this ownership goes much further, much deeper, in that the person bestowing ownership is personally invested in sacrificing for the one owned. Furthermore, this ownership is unconditional – it is simply granted, not because one could jump high, or was smart or particularly likeable. This is what Jesus is telling us to do when he says to love others as he has loved us: he is telling us to say to others “you matter to me because you’re mine,” end of story. There are no conditions attached, no further reasons given for why one might be owned. In this passage, Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that he loves them because they’re good people, or because one is smart, or because one is good looking. He just says, “I love you as my Father has loved me.” This is simple ownership, and it is how love works. Then, he tells them to go and do the same for others.
Most likely, we have all wrestled with the question of why we might be loved, and underneath it is the anxiety that perhaps, we are unlovable. My children have wondered this aloud to me before. They want to know what it is that redeems their existence; what makes them worthy of love. But the answer that pacifies them is not what they’re seeking. They are looking for lists of all of their likeable attributes, the things that might reasonably compel others to love them, to own them. But the answer that sooths them has nothing to do with lists. What offers relief is the simple assurance that we own them – that we are with them, no matter what the circumstances, and for no particular reason other than for love’s sake. And this is what we all want in the end, I think. To know that we matter because we are owned, with no explanations or qualifications.
What I’ve been getting at here is that Jesus’ vision of love took the traditional transactional element out of it, and that is what makes this kind of love risky and even irrational. In his stark sense of ownership, the responsibility to act and to give falls on the one claiming the ownership, with no expectations of payment. When Jesus says to love others as he has loved us, he is talking about owning others in whatever form they may be in. He is not talking about the kind of ownership that controls others, but about the kind that demands controlling your own self, of surrendering. This view can be hard to rectify in a modern world that emphasizes flourishing, and quality of life, and self-preservation. Jesus tells us that we must emphasize and grow in ourselves a mode of being of ownership over and above one of personal flourishing.
To be honest, I find this portrait of love as simple ownership incredibly difficult. Sometimes it is difficult for me to own even my own biological children sometimes, let alone other people. I’ve had moments when the house was filthy, both kids were screaming, my personal hygiene was suffering, and I’ve wanted to abscond to an imaginary sound-proof box and pray for Mary Poppins to descend. Instead of saying “I own you and this whole messy situation,” I’ve wanted to flee and preserve myself.
I find it’s a little easier to own my own biological children than other people – there are many strings pulling me to own them. Today I want to think about the people in our lives who have owned us in the way that Jesus was talking about. I want to celebrate the people who have inspired us to love – the people who have owned and loved, especially without any clear kinship ties and with no apparent good reason. For that is the love that Jesus is talking about – it’s an unqualified, risky love, a love that specifically seeks out the unloved and the unowned.
Love is Found in Messiness – Jesus’ life demonstrated that his understanding of love was that that it grew most effectively in messy conditions. This is where he flips the paradigm of the world on its head: where we might see a mess, Jesus would see opportunity. When thinking about Mother’s Day, I wondered when my wins as a mother have been. I realized that my moments of successful parenting came not when the house was clean (which admittedly, was not terribly often) and the kids were quiet and obedient, but when it felt like everything was going wrong and I felt depleted and uncertain, and yet I managed to keep calm and handle my children gently. It is in those messy situations specifically, where love can grow. Love grows not despite messy circumstances, but because of them.
I can’t help but think of Baltimore when considering “messy circumstances.” I read some news article that likened the situation in Baltimore to scenes out of the Lord of the Flies novel. The author had argued that the incidences of rioting in Baltimore could partly be explained by the absence of older men in the city. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know, but those youth have been abandoned by society and crippled by a white world. Lord of the Flies is the classic tale of what happens when people are abandoned and not owned. When people are not owned, accepted, cherished, it can be easy to let fear and anger reign.
But in John 15 Jesus is telling the disciples that they cannot live that way. The situation in Baltimore is complicated, and the route to amelioration will be multi-faceted. Still, I think that part of the solution in Baltimore and across the United States will only be found when various communities – especially white communities – say to those youth in particular, “you matter to me.” And because love is love the most when it is grown in the midst of messiness, it is especially important to say “you are mine” to these youth when it looks unlikely that anyone else wants to own them.
And again, about ownership – of course I’m not talking about the twisted and manipulative ways that white communities have tried to own black communities before – that’s what created the brokenness and anger that we see today. Jesus’ sense of ownership was not about dominion, but about self-sacrifice. Jesus’ ownership was about controlling the self out of a profound love for others; it wasn’t about controlling those others. Ownership in this sense is an embrace, a recognition of responsibility and a pledge of commitment to action on another’s behalf. There is something wonderful and profound in saying, you, even you who are surrounded by controversy and enemies – you are mine. This is the love that Jesus was talking about.
But what if you don’t feel big enough or adequate enough to say this? What if you just don’t know how to have this kind of ownership?
Love is Kinectic. In John 15, Jesus begins with a genealogy, so to speak: this is a few verses before our passage, and you’re likely familiar with it – he says, I am the vine, you are the branches. I am the source of your strength, of your strength to love and to give of yourself. A few lines later, he says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Then he spends much of the chapter convincing the disciples of the importance of loving others. Here we get a hint of how love works: love is kinetic. It moves, here, from God the father to Jesus to the world. More generally, it is not held in isolation, it is never captive.
This is instructive for me, because as an academic who works at home and is philosophically inclined, I am tempted to think that I can come into being a loving person all on my own, in the privacy of my own house. I think that modern notions about individual agency have contributed some to the tempting thought that I could grow gardens of love all by myself, in my basement. John 15 makes clear that love is love when it is passed around. I also hear the passage saying that we only have the strength to love when we are open to seeing love. If you feel unable or unwilling to own other people, perhaps the first step is being open to seeing the passages of love, and then open to being loved yourself.
But what about insecurities? I’ve already talked about how love as simple ownership soothes and ameliorates our own desires for approval. Jesus was urging such a picture of love because he knew that only a love that did not attach black dots or gold stars to people had the power to provoke joy. What if we feel insecure about our ability to love like this? Maybe I’m missing something, but I’ve never noticed that Jesus explicitly addressed those kinds of insecurities, just as he never cared to offer reasons for why he might love, other than that God loved him. He never said, “well, if you’re feeling a bit unstable, don’t bother with that loving stuff right now,” although he did place great responsibility on those to whom much had been given. But Jesus did seem to love paradox, and the idea that great strength comes from the weak runs throughout the scriptures. He also thought that most people were stumbling through life, never quite sure of what we’re doing, and we’ve all got egg on our faces. All have fallen short.
I think he might warn us to not mistake those moments of insecurity and confusion in our own lives as embarrassing marks of failure. Just as love can be most effectively grown when it applies ownership over messy people whom no one wants to own, the messy moments of inadequacy that we find ourselves in are opportunities. If we, in the midst of our own messiness, can begin to take ownership over others in their messiness, we can work towards being able to say, as Jesus said, “love others as I have loved you.” Jesus himself was in a messy situation when he said that. He was worried and anxious about what would happen to him, and perhaps he even feared that he would not be able to enact the ultimate sacrifice when the time came.
“Love others as I have loved you.” The boldness of this statement takes my breath away. Jesus pronounces that he has loved the disciples, and it is this that allows him to issue the command to love. He has authority and the ability to command because he has demonstrated great sacrifice – at that point, he had shown his disciples what it meant to love by sitting with the unlovable, the untouchable people in society. He didn’t just tell them to sit with the tax collectors – he did it himself. Furthermore, Jesus issues this command to love right before he was taken away to be crucified!
This kind of love is mind-warping, yet the fruit is joy, as John 15 says. Psalms 98 gives us a good picture of what this joy looks like, I think. I was struck by the imagery in this passage, which depicts a euphoric scene positively erupting with emotional fullness. Psalms 98 speaks of shouting for joy, bursting into jubilant song, making music with harps, there are trumpets and blasts from a ram’s horn, the seas and the rivers and the mountains all singing. And why? Because, as verse three says, “the lord has remembered his love and faithfulness.” This euphoria is the product of a world that has found what it means to be owned in this way. I think part of the joy comes from a release from a world of transactions, and lists: because Jesus’ love was about owning people because of their messiness, not despite it. This is the joy of a world that has learned that loving imperfectly, in the midst of our own messiness, is still real love. Psalms 98 speaks to the euphoria that is found when love is this simple – when it is as simple and as hard as saying to one another, “you matter. You matter to me.” And, “you are mine.”
 (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1997), 27.