A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 8, 2022 - Mother's Day
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We know these words from Psalm 23. Attributed to King David, himself a shepherd at the beginning of his life, this image of a shepherd continues to enliven our imaginations and teach us about who God is and what God is like. Jesus, who calls himself the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, says in our reading from John, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Granted, we don’t know a lot of shepherds today. We don’t have them in our world in the same way they were in Jesus’s world. Shepherds were often a metaphor for kings. Shepherds were overseers, watching over and caring compassionately for the sheep, or the people. And yet, even with this princely association, they were despised, held at arms’ length, rejected and excluded and marginalized and kept in their place. The shepherds at Jesus’s birth, smelly and lowly as they were, were not welcome in royal palaces.
David knows this negative side when he calls the LORD his shepherd. But he calls God a shepherd anyway, because God, like a shepherd, gives himself, cares for the sheep, sacrifices his very body if necessary. Jesus, also, leans into this metaphor, knowing full well both sides of this shepherd image–the good and princely, the bad and despised. But he calls himself the Good Shepherd, the watchman, the protector when enemies are around, the provider in the valley of death, the One who leads us to what we need for life, the compassionate One who lays down his life and gives up everything for the sake of the flock, the Church, us.
Shepherds: both princely and despised. It’s a powerful contrast. Christ the King is mocked as a criminal. The Sacred Head is sore wounded with grief and pain weighed down. The Word who calls creation into being is rejected by that very creation. The Good Shepherd, the pinnacle of princely images, is despised, marginalized, cast out, slaughtered.
Today in the secular calendar, we commemorate Mother’s Day. It’s not a church feast, but it’s a good day to give thanks for and celebrate the mothers in our lives. Mothers of all kinds: biological, adoptive, foster, emotional, spiritual. It is also a day to remember and care for those who desire to become mothers or who cannot become biological mothers. We remember and support those who have difficult relationships with their mothers or their children. We remember mothers who have lost a child, and children who have lost their mothers. For all of these, this day can be supremely painful. If that’s you, I hope you’ll hear this: God loves you, and so do we.
On this Mother’s Day, I wonder if something from what I have said about shepherds sounds familiar. I cannot help but to see some parallels. On this day of all days, motherhood is extolled as a princely estate, a pinnacle of human vocation. And while not all mothers are good, if you had a good mother, you can identify with that. Mothers give of themselves wholly. Indeed, they give of their very bodies to give life, sacrificing who they are, sometimes painfully, for another.
I was once at a lecture with a renowned theologian, a very learned, wise, and holy man. During the Q&A, he noted something along the lines of how mysterious it was that God would sacrifice himself, his very life, his very body, in Christ Jesus, and all for us. A profound theological thought. Later, I heard a classmate of mine, at the time nursing her child, respond. It didn’t seem so mysterious to her. She was, after all, sacrificing her very body for the life of this infant. What was perhaps mysterious for the theologian was natural to this mother-priest. Perhaps that is why some say, if you want to know more about the love of God, look at the love of a mother for her children.
This insight was also shared by St. Julian of Norwich, an English mystic and the first woman to publish a book in the English language. In her Song of True Motherhood, she said this:
God chose to be our mother in all things
and so made the foundation of his work,
most humbly and most pure, in the Virgin’s womb.
Christ came in our poor flesh
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.
- Julian of Norwich, "A Song of True Motherhood" (EOW 1, 40)
And yet, just as with shepherds, mothers, this pinnacle image of goodness and nurturing love, can be vilified, marginalized, despised, cast out. As with shepherds, mothers receive both messages. Consider how women are sometimes ridiculed for nursing their children in public. Or take, for instance, my own mother. When I was a toddler, we took a trip on a Greyhound bus. I was fussy, as you might expect a toddler to be on a bus or, indeed, anywhere. After about an hour, another woman on the bus rushed forward, grabbed mother by the arm, and shouted, “Get that baby to shut up! Mothers these days don’t know what they’re doing!” Something embedded in the bedrock of our society gave that woman permission to do that–to approach another woman struggling with a toddler in the middle of the night on a bus, not to offer help, but to accost her. Not one passenger said a thing.
Side bar: If I ever hear of something like that happening in this church, we’re going to have a problem. This church belongs to our youngest members just as much as it belongs to you or me. And if they want to praise God by making some noise, we had better not stop them. I hope we can all be like Bebe Townsend, who reportedly said to Leah Carter while she was trying to sootheFinley, then an upset infant, “That baby is not bothering anyone.”
If you want to know what the love of God is like, look at the love of a good mother. Look at her compassion, her care, her selflessness, the way she won’t give up on her children. Look at how she sacrifices herself, her very body, to feed her children, to protect her children, to help her children grow. Christ, the Good Shepherd, is also like a mother. Jesus gives us himself, sacrifices everything, to redeem us and to feed our souls: This is my Body, this is my Blood. Do this in remembrance of me. And all because of love–a mysterious yet natural love. As Julian of Norwich said, “Christ came in our poor flesh to share a mother’s care.”
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