Our Best Intentions
with Rev. Alex Lang
May 14, 2023
This Sunday we celebrate the mothers that brought us into the world. Come and enjoy the opportunity to show love to those who loved us first!
25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
2 A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. 3 The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. 4 Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. 5 You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”
Read the Full Text
I want to begin by saying Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there! First of all, let’s be honest and admit that this holiday is definitely one of the most sacred for many women. I remember hearing a woman at my gym once say, “Aside from my birthday, Mother’s Day is the day I look forward to most every year.” When I heard that, I was like, “I did not realize how important this day was! I better up my game.”
Ever since, I have noticed how we tend to have a good turnout on Mother’s Day at church. So I just want to acknowledge how much I appreciate the fact that on this special day you flex that Mother’s Day muscle and force your family to come to church. Thank you for that! I love that I am the beneficiary of your leverage, and I am sure that your family has planned out some wonderful celebration for you after church, haven’t you? (I know some of you are thinking, “I thought coming to church was my gift? She can’t expect me to suffer all day!”)
But before we dive into my sermon, I want to begin with a poem from one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, Kahlil Gibran. If you’ve ever taken the time to read any of Kahlil’s work, you will find it to be quite profound and inspiring. His poems are an amazing amalgamation of both Eastern Arabic thought and Western Christian thought. It’s like he was able to take the best of both worlds and distill it down into these beautiful little musings on life that apply to everyone, which is perhaps why so many people were drawn to them.
Kahlil wrote his most famous book The Prophet in 1923, but it only became really popular after his death when Elvis Presley, The Beetles, and Johnny Cash all utilized The Prophet at certain points when writing their songs. The poem that we are focusing on today is called On Children, which I thought was kind of perfect because what makes a mother a mother is her children. Let’s take a listen.
Now, we are going to come back to this poem later on in the sermon, but I want to begin by going back to the scripture we read this morning from the book of Judges that talks about the mother of Samson, a man who is considered to be one of Israel’s greatest warriors. The scripture we read begins with Samson’s mother who is barren, meaning she cannot have children.
Barrenness is a consistent theme throughout the Bible because, unlike today where we live in a world that is overpopulated, in the ancient world, offspring were critical to the survival of a family. On the one hand, for men in the ancient world, no children meant they had no one to carry on the family lineage and inherit their wealth. On the other hand, a woman’s worth in the ancient world was defined by the number of children she bore for her husband, particularly male children.
When a woman, like Samson’s mom, could bear no children at all, then the social repercussions would have been horribly demeaning to her sense of self-worth as she would be judged by the women around her. Therefore, when she is visited by an angel who tells her that she will bear a son, you know that this is welcome news. The angel tells Samson’s mother that she needs to observe the rituals of the Nazarite. The word Nazarite in Hebrew literally means one who is separated or one who is set apart.
Basically, there are three requirements of the Nazarite: 1) She cannot drink wine or strong drink 2) She cannot eat anything that is unclean and 3) She cannot cut his hair…ever. The angel tells her that if she abides by the code of the Nazarite, her son will grow up to become a great warrior who will defeat the Philistines, the enemies of the nation of Israel.
Although these three requirements might seem simple enough, the first one is actually the most difficult because in the ancient world, water was often laden with harmful bacteria. In order to kill all of the organisms in the water, they would combine it with alcohol. What this means is that people drank water mixed with wine literally all the time simply to stay hydrated and not get sick. This also means that nearly 100% of women drank alcohol while they were pregnant.
Today, we know that even small amounts of alcohol can have seriously detrimental effects on a developing fetus. In fact, there are some scholars who have suggested that the reason why we have seen such a massive leap forward in our society over the last 150 years is due to the introduction of germ theory and the realization that water needed to be purified. By not drinking alcohol during pregnancies, human brains could fully develop, allowing our minds to reach their full potential.
This brings us back to Samson’s mother who took a vow not to drink alcohol while pregnant with Samson. According to the story, Samson grows up to be super strong, but ironically, not super smart. In fact, he’s so not smart that his lover, Delilah, attempts to have him killed twice and he never quite puts together that she’s the one behind it (by the way, she succeeds on the third try when he reveals that cutting his hair will relinquish his strength).
Now, what I love about Samson’s story is that the trajectory of his life is the trajectory that many mothers witness with their own children. Most every mother I have ever known has desired to give her child the best possible start at life. Most mothers I know, from the moment they become pregnant, they start focusing on their health. They quit drinking. They start eating healthy because they know how important the next 9 months will be for the development of their child.
This is exactly what Samson’s mother did for her son. Then once Samson was born into the world, she did everything she could to give him the best possible life. I know that’s what every mother in here tried to do for their children. You worked tirelessly to give your child the best possible foundation. But then, there’s a point when you can no longer be the director of your child’s destiny. At some point they start to take over and make their own decisions.
I am in that phase right now. My boys are 10 and 12 years old. Currently, everything they do in their life has to be cleared with us. They do not have the autonomy to make their own decisions. They can’t just walk out of the door whenever they want without telling us where they’re going. For my eldest son, he’s starting to become conscious of the constraints placed on him by us.
Whereas he was previously happy to comply with our rules, he now wants the freedom to leave the house at will. He wants the freedom to play on his devices as long as he wants. He wants the freedom to eat junk food for every meal and not eat anything healthy. As a result, he’s constantly pushing the limits of our boundaries.
It’s like Courtney and I have become professional negotiators, because that is how we spend most of our day—negotiating the terms of engagement. Yes, you can go off on your own for one hour, but not two. No, you cannot afford that. No, I will not split the cost with you, but yes, you can work for it. Yes, you can stay up late, but no, you can’t have ice cream. Why, because you already had ice cream. No, you cannot skip brushing your teeth. Yes, I know I’m the worst parent ever.
One day, they will have the autonomy they crave to make their own decisions without needing approval from us. What is currently standing in the way of their freedom is age and the trust that they can make the right decisions on their own. The age simply comes with time. It is the issue of trust that is more subjective and this is where I want to return to the poem we read earlier from Khalil Gibran because I think there’s some amazing wisdom in this poem about the struggles we face as parents.
The poem begins: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” The idea here is that parents often see their children as their property. They see their children as something they own. But what Gibran is trying to tell us is that, even though parents have a responsibility to care for their children, that does not mean that their children belong to them.
This is because your children belong to life itself. If we were to translate that idea into Christian terms, we would say that your children do not belong to you, they belong to God, which is why we say that we are all children of God. In this way, we are almost like surrogate parents. God is entrusting us with the responsibility of raising God’s children and releasing them into the world.
Now why does this way of thinking about children matter? It matters because it totally changes the way you think about your purpose as a parent. So often, parents want their children to be reflections of themselves. We want our children to think like us, act like us, believe what we believe. We want them to embody our morals and values. But as Gibran warns, “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts.”
Your children are not meant to be smaller versions of you. You are supposed to raise them to be independent, free-thinking individuals, which frankly, is very scary to many parents. It’s certainly scary to me. We have a lot of addiction issues in our family. I watched a lot of people in my life destroy themselves with drugs and alcohol.
It’s a big reason why I made a decision from a young age to never to drink alcohol or use any drugs. When I saw how many people in my family struggled with substance abuse issues, I decided, “You know what, I’m not even going to risk it.” And that decision has served me well in my life. I have an addictive personality, but I’ve made strategic decisions to get addicted to things that are good for me, like exercise.
Now, I worry that my boys have inherited those same addictive genes. If I’m being honest with you, I want them to choose my path because it’s a lot safer. But my boys are not me. They are their own people and they will make their own decisions and they will make their own mistakes. I will, of course, one day not long from now explain to them why I made my decision, but as Gibran says, I cannot force them to think the way that I think.
The fact is that your children are going to become their own person no matter what you do. The idea that you can make them a carbon copy of yourself is very illusory. As the poem indicates, the only thing you can do is show them love and attempt to nurture the best parts of who they are. The true irony of life is that if you try to control your children, they will quickly spin out of your control. Whereas if you simply love them, they will often respond by emulating the best parts of who you are.
Herein lies the paradox of life: The less you control the world, the more control you have. Whereas the more you attempt to control the world and the people around you, the more you will find yourself mired in chaos and discontent. Indeed, when you love your children rather than trying to control them, there’s an interesting role reversal that occurs. I always assumed that my job as a parent would be to teach my children everything I know. And it is true that I do teach them things, but that learning occurs mostly through osmosis rather than by intention.
The reality is that my children are teaching me more than I will ever teach them. I have learned so much more about life from them than I would have ever known on my own. They speak truths about life I would have never considered. For example, a couple of years ago we were driving around town and somehow we got on the topic of when they were born. Courtney asked Elijah, “Where do you think you were before you were born?” And Elijah said, “We are wind before we are born.”
I really loved that answer. In all my time contemplating questions about life/death/the soul, I had never thought of life in that way. In fact, I will admit his answer made more sense to me than all of the books I had read around the subject. This is what Gibran means when he says, “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” If I had tried to make Elijah a carbon of me, that answer would have never come out of his mouth.
And Jesus’ life is a testament to this reality. Imagine if Mary, a poor peasant girl of no education, had demanded that Jesus be a carbon copy of her? Imagine if she was jealous of his success? Imagine if she had demanded that he stay with her and remain a carpenter? What if she said, “It’s too dangerous out there; too chaotic! If you leave, you’ll be hurt and possibly killed.”
Instead, Mary allowed Jesus to enter into a very chaotic world. She allowed him to walk around Galilee and preach the gospel. She allowed him to speak all of this wisdom contained with him into the world. But, by letting him go, Jesus walked a path that led to his execution. In John’s gospel we read about how she stood before the cross, watching her child die. I’m sure everything inside of her screamed out, “If I had just been a better mother; if I had protected him more, none of this would have happened.”
Often, we feel as though the paths that our children take are a reflection of our success or failure as a parent. If our children grow into productive adults, then it reflects how we did a good job. If our children fail to thrive, then it reflects the faults and mistakes we made as parents. And here we come to the point of this sermon. The truth is we have very little control over the lives of our children and, in spite of our best intentions, our children will take their own paths whether we like it or not.
The closing lines of Khalil Gibran’s poem says, “The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.” If we translate this into Christian language, God is the archer that sends you out like an arrow into a chaotic world.
So to all the mothers in here, I want you to be reassured that you did your very best to set the arrow on the bow so that it could fly as straight as possible before it was let go. Thank you for giving us life and for sacrificing so much to give us the best possible start. Just know, we love you and I hope this day is special and celebrative of the foundation you’ve given to us. So as we end, I want you to listen to the whole poem, one last time and contemplate how letting our children take their own paths is what brings immense beauty to our world. Amen.