Following the shepherd/Listening to our mothers

RCL Year A, 4 Easter

So I was meditating a little this week on the mash-up of themes we have today, Sunday May 11: it’s Mothers’ Day, of course – happy Mothers’ Day – and it’s also Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th Sunday after Easter when we wade into all the shepherd imagery in our scripture readings. We could tumble right into the sweet and sentimental, cuddling up with some fluffy lambs and apple pie, cozy and safe. That’s the image anyway of mothers we wave around on Mothers’ Day, and the image of the Good Shepherd we often see in the old Sunday School books, where all seems rosy. But no matter what the Hallmark cards today say, let’s be honest: mothering and being mothered aren’t always all that sweet and cozy, am I right? Anyone who has parented or taken care of another person, anyone who has been raised by someone else to adulthood, knows that there are a whole range of feelings and experiences involved in the process. Even when it’s loving, it isn’t always a cozy thing.

For that matter, shepherding isn’t always sweet and cozy either. There’s a lot of the rod and staff, at least metaphorically speaking; there’s a lot of sheep-dogging, there’s a lot of getting wayward creatures to head in the right direction…just like parenting. It’s not too surprising that shepherds and mothers are both images for God in scripture. Their jobs ultimately are about helping those in their care to grow and thrive. Which God wants for us as well, for us to grow and thrive through good and ill.

Three years ago when this Sunday’s texts came around, I was struck by the surprising riskiness of this shepherd imagery. I noted that the shepherd leads the sheep out of the sheepfold, out to find pasture and abundant life – rather than keeping them safe in the sheepfold with what is familiar and claustrophobic. This riskiness is scary for us, going out of our comfort zone/sheepfold is frightening – but it’s the only way we can live. We have to change, we have to risk, in order to have that life abundant Jesus is promising us.

Maybe that’s why abundant life sometimes proves tricky to lay hold of. There’s a challenge laid down in Jesus’ image of the good shepherd, you notice: he makes it clear that his sheep know his voice and follow him, no matter how many other thieves and bandits may come along and try to lead the sheep in other directions. Sheep know their shepherd’s voice and won’t follow somebody else. But sometimes we human sheep find it harder to focus on the right voice. Maybe sheep really are smarter than us after all.

Because we do hear and follow other voices. Just like we don’t always listen to our mothers, we don’t always listen to the shepherd. Instead we listen to voices that say other things entirely from what God is trying to tell us. The success voices: voices that persuade us that we’re not important unless we work 80 hour weeks; the voices that say we need the luxury goods; that our kids should be excelling in everything if we’re good parents. Or the not-in-my-backyard voices, that tell us that people in East San Jose or the homeless down the street aren’t our neighbors and aren’t our problem. Or the painful inner voices that tell us we’re not worthy of love because of something we’ve done or thought. All of those voices that speak against the gospel, in other words – against the words of love and forgiveness and the call to care for our neighbors. But how often we follow those voices instead.

And sometimes we ourselves are the other voices Jesus warns about. Sometimes we’re worse at this when we’re together with others. We rehearse old grudges against people, reigniting anger about past disagreements and conflict. We find others who think like us about not liking something, and we work ourselves up into indignation that we’ve been made to change our ways. We get into all the details of other people’s lives, not seeing that our caring has crossed the line into gossip. We tell somebody new that they’re not doing it right, making them unwelcome to join us. We complain and tear down and destroy – acting as thieves and bandits that take away what makes for life. This happens in our political arenas, this happens in our workplaces; this happens in our families and extended families. And this happens in our congregation. Maybe you know some of what I am talking about.

But listen to the description of the early church we heard today: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’ That’s a picture of sheep with abundant life, in other words. Sharing with others what is needed for life; having glad and generous hearts; attracting others by their joyful lives. The details of what abundant life means will look different for each of us. But I think we can all agree that gossip and slander and self-centeredness don’t make for life, for us or for our communities.

Listening for the shepherd’s voice – listening for the voice of the good mother, the good parent who wants what is best for us – takes effort on our part. Just as parents work to raise their children out of their natural selfishness into responsible adulthood, our shepherd, God, wants to grow us into better ways of living in this world. Which means we need to spur ourselves and others to better behavior, not worse – holding each other accountable to be more loving, not less. It’s work we need to engage in no matter what our age or stage of life – the teenager as well as the 40-something as well as the elder. Christians should look different and live differently from the world around us. Christian community should be a different thing than other communities. Otherwise we will find that we are following entirely the wrong set of voices – that we’re not in the good pasture God has for us, that we’re far away from the life abundant.

Practically speaking, this means that all of us in a congregation have a responsibility to parent and shepherd each other – all of us should help all of us to grow and thrive. We pay attention to what voices we are heeding and following in our own lives; we speak the voice of God’s loving call to others in our midst. God our good shepherd calls us each by name; our prayer is to listen for that, to follow, and go in the way of life. May we pledge again to live in love here in our church and as we go out from here in our lives.