My good friend Seonwoong invited me to preach a Mother’s Day sermon for the youth he pastors at Nashville Korean United Methodist Church. My texts were Isaiah 49:13-16 and Luke 23:39-43.
I am mommy to two little girls. Debbie is two years old, and Gabby is eight months old. Being a mom has changed everything about my life. For example, it used to be that using a public restroom was no big deal. Now, that’s a different story. Over Christmas, my family was driving up to Wisconsin. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel for dinner, because they have one of the five foods my daughter Debbie likes to eat—mac and cheese. After dinner, I took her into the women’s restroom with me. I was washing my hands when Debbie darted away from me and poked her head under the door of one of the locked stalls. “Mommy,” she yelled, “People pooping in here!” I wanted to vanish from sheer embarrassment. And then, to make things even worse, a very dignified older lady walked out from the stall, tight-lipped and annoyed. “I can tell that one is a handful,” she said to me about Debbie, who was grinning ear-to-ear, so pleased with herself. Public restrooms will never be the same for me again.
Being a mom has also changed the way I see God. Being a mom—and knowing how I would do absolutely anything to serve my two little girls—has shown me how much God must really love us. I started thinking about how God is like a mother one night when Debbie was little. You’ve probably heard from your parents or know yourself from having younger siblings that often, babies don’t sleep very well. Debbie had a habit of waking up at about 3 AM and refusing to go back to sleep. She would cry and cry if I set her back down, and often, I would just end up holding her all night. From a certain point of view, that was really not fun, because I love to sleep. On the other hand, though, it in those hours, spent rocking my sweet baby to sleep, that I began to encounter God’s love for me in a new way.
While I was sheltering my little girl in my arms, whispering, “It’s okay, Debbie, I’ve got you. I love you so much, and I’m never going to let you go,” it was like I could hear God whispering as well: “It’s okay, Susannah. I’ve got you. I love you so much, and I’m never going to let you go.”
Now, no mom is perfect. Moms are not the same as God. And sometimes moms are emotionally unhealthy and make bad choices that cause us pain. The Bible tells us that we shall have no other gods before him…and that includes making idols of our parents. Moms aren’t God…but the Bible tells us that there’s something about loving, good moms that can teach us about God’s heart for us. Let’s look again at our reading from the prophet Isaiah to find out more.
14 But Zion [that’s another name for the city of Jerusalem] said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.’
15 Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Isaiah wrote these words during the exile. You might remember that the Israelites were God’s chosen people, bound to him with a covenantal love. But a lot of things happened to mess up that covenant. Long story short, Isaiah’s people ended up being taken over by a big powerful kingdom called Babylon. Many people were killed or taken into exile, away from their homeland, away from the land that God had promised them. It was during that awful, dark time in history that a lot of the books of the Bible were written. That’s because when bad things happen, people start to question everything. Many people asked, “Why is this happening to us? Where is God now?”
Have you ever asked questions like that? I know I have. The Bible is a great place to go when we’re asking those questions. Some biblical writers thought that their people were suffering because they sinned. Some thought that God was being unfair and allowing harm for no good reason. Some even got angry at God. And I want to take a minute here to say, all of those responses to pain are OK. Sometimes the bad choices we’ve made have played into our suffering. For example, if I cheated on a test, I deserve to fail that test, even though that consequence makes me unhappy. If I drive under the influence, I deserve to have my driver’s license taken away. But there are many other times when the suffering we face just doesn’t make sense. Bad things happen to good people. In the 9/11 terrorist attacks, good people died. They didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to them. Jesus himself rejects the idea that suffering just happens to people who sinned. In John, when he sees a man who was suffering from blindness, the disciples ask him whose fault it was that the man was blind…who sinned? Jesus says, “Neither this man sinned nor his parents.”
So sometimes we just don’t know why bad things happen to us. Sometimes the simple answers just don’t make sense. Then, it seems like God has forgotten us. That’s the moment we catch the prophet Isaiah in during our reading for today. Isaiah gives the city of Jerusalem a speaking role in the drama he is writing. The city, speaking like a woman, says, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” In other words, this woman is suffering, and she’s trying to figure out why. She believes that the reason for her pain is that God has forgotten about her. She thinks her struggles don’t matter to God any more.
The way that God responds to her is amazing. God compares himself to a mother. To the accusation that God has forgotten her, God insists that he still remembers because he is like a mother. For Isaiah, a mother is the best example of someone who isn’t going to forget you. I can relate to that. Ever since I became a mom, my children are the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. You know how they talk about mom-brain? It’s so real. I have mom-brain so bad, and I’m not sure it’s ever going to go away. I lose my car keys basically daily, I can’t remember acquaintances’ names, and I accidently stored the peanut butter in the freezer. But no matter how forgetful or disorganized I’ve gotten with my mom brain, I have never forgotten about my children.
Truthfully, though, I still mess up as a mom. Recently, I was taking my daughter Debbie out for a walk around our apartment complex. There are tons of stairs in the complex, and Debbie loves to go up and down them, over and over. She’s basically like my personal trainer. Now, up until this point, Debbie had gotten very confident going up and down stairs. So I stopped insisting that she hold my hand. On this particular occasion, we were about to walk down some stairs that were particularly steep and a little damp, and the railing was just a little out of her reach. But I wasn’t paying close attention to these things. I was distracted. I absentmindedly said, “Debbie, I think you should hold my hand going down those stairs,” and I reached out my hand to grab hers, but that wasn’t nearly enough. Debbie tripped on the top stair and fell, head over heels, down each one of the 15 concretes stairs. I know her fall probably took less than 3 seconds, but for me, those were probably the longest three seconds of my life. I stood frozen at the top of the stairs while my precious baby girl toppled down. She landed at the bottom of the stairs in a sad little heap. It took a few seconds before she started to cry. Her mouth opened first in a silent scream, and I knew what was coming. When she did start to cry, I felt like the sound was the condemnation of me as a mother. Fortunately and miraculously, Debbie was completely OK. But that’s probably the moment of being a mother that I’m most ashamed of.
The truth is, though, that I’m only human, just like every mother. I’m going to have moments that I wish I could redo. Beating myself up over my shortcomings is neither healthy nor helpful. And even though moms like me are imperfect, God honors us by comparing himself to us in Isaiah. Isaiah chooses mothers as the ultimate example of people who are least likely to forget. That makes sense to me. Imperfect though I am, I can’t forget my children, even when I make mistakes and my human failings show up.
In our Isaiah passage, God is saying that he is the perfect example of all the things that makes moms great—especially their inability to forget about their children. But all the parts of moms that are broken and sinful and imperfect are totally foreign to God. So God can love us perfectly and beautifully even if there are times when our moms fail to do so. As Psalm 27: 10 says, “If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.”
We need a God who remembers us like that, because being a young person is incredibly hard. There can be so much pressure to succeed…to get into the right college, to have the perfect GPA, for the right person to “like” you. And there’s so much crazy, terrible stuff happening in the world. This week in Colorado, there was another school shooting. A brave young man named Kendrick, a high schooler, died because he rushed at one of the shooters. Kendrick was a hero, but he should never have to be. He should have been able to walk at his graduation. He should have been able to go to college or get a job. Get married, have kids, be a father. And you know what? I can’t stop thinking about his mother, because this week, she lost her baby, and Kendrick won’t be able to get her a mother’s day card or make her pancakes for breakfast. That is unfair. It’s all so unfair. I think adults have a tendency to downplay unfairness by saying, “Well, kids, life’s not fair.” That’s true…but saying that doesn’t make it right, or God’s vision for the world. This isn’t the way God wanted things to be when he made this big, beautiful, awesome world. God had better dreams than this nightmare.
Even in this crazy, messed up world, we can be sure that God remembers us. God doesn’t just remember you in a passive, “Oh, I’m so sorry you’re going through that” kind of way. God remembers in an empathetic kind of way. If you break down the word “empathy” into its roots, it literally means “feeling with.” God remembers you by feeling your pain with you—because God himself has experienced it in Jesus Christ. Betrayal by a friend? Peter betrayed Jesus before his death. Total humiliation in from of a crowd of onlookers? Jesus was kicked out of his hometown at the beginning of his ministry, and then later on, he was stripped and beaten. Loneliness? Jesus begged his friends to stay awake with him, but they couldn’t. Watching loved ones get sick and die? Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus died, and Jesus mourned for him. Fear of the future? Jesus asked God if there were any other way than for him to die.
Jesus’s experiences from birth to grave give him empathy for us, the ability to “feel with us.” Jesus remembers us because he’s gone through all the difficult things we go through. But the moment this becomes most clear is when Jesus is dying on the cross in our Gospel reading. He’s being crucified between two thieves. I think we’re so used to hearing the story of Jesus that we stop thinking about how plain unfair this is. Jesus had done nothing wrong; the Bible tells us he lived a completely sinless life, better than anyone else’s in the world. He had knowledge of the will of God in ways that are completely beyond the rest of us. He spent his whole life serving by teaching, healing, including, and breaking bread with the people around him. But it was like none of that mattered…he was still killed, treated like a criminal, and hung on a cross between two of them. All to redeem a bunch of sinners like us. How’s that for unfair?
And yet like the good mother God promises to be, Jesus still remembers us, down to his last dying breath. He even has a conversation with the thieves who are being crucified with him. One of them makes fun of him for being in this terrible situation. But the other thief gets real with Jesus. He’s scared, because he’s about to die, and he doesn’t know what’s coming next. Maybe he’s regretting the decisions that have led him to this point. Maybe if he had a second chance, he’d go back and change things. And so he has a question for Jesus. It’s a humble, embarrassing = question—the kind of question that shows insecurity, like a child asking a mother, “Mom, do you really love me even though I did that bad thing?” The thief pleads with Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
We all want to be remembered. In our last moments, I think we all, even if we haven’t thought about it yet, just to be loved, to be cared for. To have somebody there with us to hold our hands and whisper to us that we want to be loved. In our Gospel reading, that thief is probably pretty feeling pretty lonely, up high on the cross by himself. It’s often in those lonely moments, when we feel like the world has forgotten us, that we’re most open to God…a God who remembers us. And that’s exactly what Jesus promises to the thief to do. Honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed Jesus if he wasn’t in the mood for a Q and A session right then. He was in pain and couldn’t breath well. He was dying. And yet, as happened to Jesus throughout his life, people still wanted things from him. Kind of like a mom who doesn’t even have the privacy to go to the bathroom by herself without the kids banging on the door. If I were Jesus—and thank God I’m not—I might have just closed my eyes and pretended to be dead already, like an opossum playing dead or something, just so I wouldn’t have to waste my breath with talking.
But Jesus still remembered. Even as he was dying, he remembered the thief. The person who had actually done something wrong, something that, according to the law of the Roman empire, had actually earned him that position on the cross. Jesus replies with love to the thief. He says, “I’ll remember you, brother. Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”
Here’s what’s even more miraculous. The thief is like every single one of us in this room. We’ve all made mistakes in our lives. We’ve all done things that we regret. We all have hurts that are too deep for us to heal for ourselves. And just as Jesus saw the whole truth about the thief and loved him even so…Jesus sees us exactly as we are. All the mistakes in our lives that were our fault. All the painful things in our lives that aren’t our fault. And he says, to each one of us, “I remember you, too.”
Maybe today some of us are feeling like the thief who hung on a cross beside Jesus, stuck in a place that seems both hopeless and helpless. Maybe today the words in our Isaiah passage make sense to you: “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Maybe today you’re feeling alone. Then today, God has a word of hope for you. God says to you, “I remember you. I have known you and loved you before you were even born. I rejoice over you with singing. You are my beloved, and I delight in you. I remember you.”
Isaiah tells us the truth, a truth that Jesus repeats back to the thief when he promises to remember that man. God hasn’t forgotten us. God remembers us. God has given us Jesus to show that God has never and will never forget us. Because that’s what a good mother does. And God is even more than that.