my sermon from Sunday on Psalm 23.
Today, of course, is Mother’s Day, but it is also a day in the life of the church we call Good Shepherd Sunday. The reason for this is that the scriptures assigned for this week, the 23rd Psalm and this portion of John’s gospel give us this image or metaphor of God and Jesus as the good shepherd.
I think that it is fitting that this year Good Shepherd Sunday falls on the same day where, as a culture, we celebrate and give thanks for mothers, both biological and those who have loved us with a mother’s love.
It’s fitting because sometimes each of these things: motherhood and the image of the good shepherd, are really, really layered and complex even if we have a simple image that we can conjure in our minds.
Let me explain. So usually when I think of this image of the good shepherd it brings to mind images of a beautiful pastoral countryside and a kind and gentle shepherd herding his sheep. It’s all this idyllic, peaceful scene.
Or like when I think of motherhood I think of a woman lovingly rocking a sleeping newborn while she sings a sweet lullaby, or a woman, beaming with love and joy, as she swings a toddler playfully up into the sky.
Of course these images are part of what it means to be a Shepherd or what it is sometimes like to be a mother, but the truth is they do not tell the entire story, right?
Being a mother, whether biological or not, is hard. Loving a child unconditionally is tough work. Raising a loving and responsible a human being is hard work. It takes patience, it take time, it means making mistakes and being wrong, it means celebrating those sometimes seemingly small things that go right and also feeling like you have no idea what you are doing- and in the end it requires an unbelievable amount of love, like the hard kind of love, the love that Jesus talked about over and over and over again.
Well the interesting thing about this image of the Good shepherd is that it is just as layered and complex. When I was in seminary I went to school with a woman who, before coming to study to be a pastor, raised sheep. She gave me some valuable insight into the world of being a shepherd. See, when I think of sheep I think of cute and animals who need a protector because they are so innocent and weak.
Well, according to my friend from seminary, sheep aren’t the smartest, they’re stubborn and strong willed. They are the type of animal that needs someone to look out for them because they will get themselves hurt or into trouble. She told a story about herding her sheep onto the back of a platform truck to transport them from one pasture to another. It was one of those tasks that almost seemed futile, you get 3 on and one runs and then they all break loose. It’s crazy because all of the sheep were in it for themselves and at the very same time they had this herd mentality.
All this is to say that for me as an urban guy, who really only sees sheep when I take my girls to the Cincinnati zoo, I miss out on the layers of meaning associated with this image. Of course the original audiences hearing these scripture passages would have picked up on these nuances and a deeper understanding of this relationship.
They would have understood that the image of the good shepherd is this image of a God, who loves and cares for us, who protects us and is near to us when we are struggling through the dark valley, when we need someone to help guide the way.
They also would have understood that the good shepherd is the one who gets us to move beyond our stubbornness, the one who saves us from our own stupidity, the one who risks their own safety for our inability to make the right decision. It seems like this metaphor of human being as sheep is pretty spot on, right?
Maybe this is one reason that these passages have resonated with us so much over the centuries. I mean think about these words of the 23rd psalm. They are so deep. The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he lead me to the still waters, restores my soul. These words brings us into a different way of being.
I think that these scriptures hit upon the reality of our lives, they hit on the reality that things are not always easy and smooth, things are not always honky dory.
There will be times when the ground falls out from under us. We will have times where we struggle through a day, a week, a month, a year. We will have times where we are hurt and where we suffer. We will have times when this is self-imposed and times when it is circumstantial.
Years ago when I was in seminary our professor took us through a bible study on this psalm, pointing out there is this shift in this relationship between the speaker and God in the psalm. In the beginning of the psalm the poet is speaking about God in the 3rd person. The poet is describing their understanding of who God is, God is a shepherd, leading me to water, restoring my soul , making me walk in straight paths.
Then there is this powerful shift, as the darkest valley is upon the poet, suddenly the poet is addressing God directly, not in the 3rd person, but in the 2nd person. Oh my God, you comfort me, you provide for me, in the face of my enemies your set a table for me, my cup overflows, my cup overflows. As we move through those darkest valleys, as we are staring our adversaries straight in the face, these are the times where our God is the most close, the times where God is comforting us with a rod and with a staff. This psalm is intimate; it is the relationship between a person and God, a relationship between a shepherd and one single sheep, it is a relationship of love, of mercy, of grace.
I was reminded of a video that circulated on Facebook of Pope Francis and this interaction he had with a little boy. The Pope took some time to answer questions of young people who are going through confirmation. One little boy named Emmanuel stood up at the microphone, but he was too shy to ask his question. The Pope invited him to come forward and to whisper it in his ear. The boy came and asked the Pope quietly if his father, who had just recently died and was not a believer, is in heaven or in hell.
The Pope told the boy that his father was a good man, he was a good father who loved his son, he was a good man who had his son baptized in the church and cared for him. The Pope asked the boy if he thought that God would ever keep a good man away from God? The boy said no. Then the Pope asked all of the confirmands, Emmanuel’s friends and peers that same question, would God ever keep a good man away from God? All of the children cried out, no!
What a witness to the love of our good shepherd. This motherly love which we celebrate this day in our human relationships. This the love of Jesus who was willing to lay down his life for his sheep.
This love which walks through the darkest valleys, when life hits us with things we never expected, when we find ourselves stuck in that same pattern or loop of self-destructive thinking or behavior, when we’ve turned away from love and goodness, especially in these moments this love which like a rod and staff comfort us and always draw us back into relationship with God, they draw us back into new and abundant life. We are members of the flock, every one of us, we are known and called by name, we are loved intimately before we even have the words to ask. That my friends is some good news. Amen.