Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Good Mother

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 11, 2014

Year A: The Fourth Sunday after Easter
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

The Good Mother
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            When we talk about God we use lots of symbols and images and metaphors. We have no choice since God is infinite and invisible. The best we can do is say God is like this. Or, God’s love is like that.
            Today we focus on, reflect on, one of the most beautiful and comforting and popular images of God and of Jesus.
            Today we celebrate what’s called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
            Sheep and shepherds were all over the place in ancient Israel – and there are still plenty of them in the Middle East today, too – so it’s no surprise that the Bible is full of sheep and shepherd imagery.
            In many places in the Old Testament, God is described as a shepherd. Probably the best-known and best-loved example is the 23rd Psalm, especially in the familiar King James Version:           
            “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
            On the other hand, the prophets were also often willing to accuse the leaders of Israel of being bad shepherds – leading the people away from God, leading the people to danger and destruction.
            So, naturally we would expect that Jesus would use sheep and shepherd imagery when he teaches the people – and especially when he teaches about who he is and what he does.
            Jesus teaches us that there are bad shepherds – there are thieves and bandits who want to steal and hurt the sheep, but Jesus is the good shepherd. The sheep know Jesus’ voice. And Jesus leads the sheep to abundant life.
            It’s a beautiful and comforting image that I’m sure still touches many of us today, especially if we’ve actually seen shepherds in action tending their sheep.
            For the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading a new book called Jesus: A Pilgrimage. It’s by James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author. In the book he tells the story of Jesus as he tells the story of his own recent pilgrimage in the Holy Land. It’s really good and I recommend it to you.
            Anyway, at one point in the book, Martin remembers driving in Kenya twenty years ago when suddenly a sheep darted across the road. Martin swerved and narrowly avoided hitting the sheep.
            A moment later a young Kenyan herdsman came running along, smiled and waved at Martin, and continued to chase after the runaway. Martin remembers then looking where the shepherd had come from and seeing the rest of the flock patiently waiting for the return of the shepherd and his runaway sheep.
            The author laughed out loud, recognizing the Parable of the Lost Sheep enacted right before his eyes.
            So, yes, they have sheep and shepherds in Israel and Kenya and lots of other places – maybe places where you’ve lived or visited. But, you know, I’m a city guy. I’ve never seen a sheep outside of a petting zoo. And, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a shepherd in person. So, while I appreciate the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, it’s not really part of my experience.
            Fortunately, Jesus isn’t teaching us about sheep and shepherds. He’s teaching us about love.
            So, I got to thinking.
            In his teaching, Jesus used images that people saw all around them in First Century Israel.
            So, what kind of images – what kind of metaphors – for God’s love, for Jesus’ love, would Jesus use if he were teaching us today here in 21st Century Jersey City?
            I got an idea while I was driving the other day.
            Now, if you drive around here during the week in the afternoon you know it’s just absolutely crazy – parents and others picking up kids who are running around like maniacs after school lets out, school buses idling, flashing lights, noise and so much traffic!
            And in the middle of it all is the crossing guard.
            Jesus the Good Crossing Guard.
            What do you think? Jesus cares for us and gets us across life in safety.
            I like that image but I guess it doesn’t quite match up with Jesus the Good Shepherd.
            Although crossing guards do sometimes get to know the kids and parents they cross every day, somehow that relationship just isn’t quite personal enough to be a modern equivalent of the Good Shepherd.
            So, what would be an image that most of us could relate to?
            The answer is obvious, right?
            The Good Mother.
            Some of us have been fortunate enough to know the love of a mother. And I bet most of us would agree that motherly love is the closest love to God’s selfless and self-giving love.
            Some of us have been fortunate enough to get a strong taste of God’s unconditional love from our mothers who carried us and nurtured us even before we were born. Others of us have blessed by that “I’d do anything for you” kind of love from a grandmother or an adopted mother or an aunt or an older sister or a friend or a neighbor.
            And, I’m sure that those of you are mothers have sometimes been surprised at the depth of the love you feel for your children.
            I remember one time visiting an elderly woman in the hospital who was drifting in and out of consciousness. At one point she looked at me with suddenly clear eyes and said, “I never knew I could love my children so much.”
            That kind of love is like God’s kind of love.
            That kind of love is like Jesus’ kind of love.
            God is both Father and Mother.
            And, Jesus the Good Shepherd is also Jesus the Good Mother.
            Now, before anyone flips out about using motherly language to describe Jesus, remember that Jesus himself uses that kind of language to describe himself and his love.
            In both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is remembered as having said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
            Think of that beautiful motherly image for a second.
            “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
            Jesus the Good Shepherd is also Jesus the Good Mother.
            And, over the centuries, Christian mystics have occasionally reflected on the motherly love of God, the motherly love of Jesus.
            The past Thursday we celebrated the feast of Julian of Norwich, the much-loved English mystic who lived around the year 1400. When she was about 30 she had a series of visions that gave her a profound glimpse of God’s love, a sense that all would be well no matter what.
            In one of her most famous quotes she said, “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”
            Jesus cares for us just like a shepherd cares for his sheep, protecting us, keeping us close and leading us to new and abundant life.
            And Jesus loves us with a mother’s love, loving us unconditionally, sacrificing for us, suffering pain for us, teaching us how to live, and holding us close when we are frightened or hurt.
            God is both Father and Mother.
            Jesus the Good Shepherd is also Jesus the Good Mother.
            And all of us Christians, mothers and fathers, men and women, boys and girls – all of us - whether we’ve known a mother’s love or not - are all called to love each other with a mother’s love.
            In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we get a little glimpse of life in the early church. We’re told that those first followers of Jesus shared what they had with one another and especially with those in need. We’re told that those first Christians enjoyed their meals together at home and ate with glad and generous hearts.
            Sounds like motherly love to me.
            God is both Father and Mother.
            Jesus the Good Shepherd is also Jesus the Good Mother.
            And all of us Christians are all called to love each other with a mother’s love, to love each other unconditionally, to love one another no matter what, to love one another as God loves us, to love with a love stronger even than death.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!