(a sermon for May 12, 2019, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30)
Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my brain is the memory of one summer on the lake when I was very young and we had this ancient wooden rowboat.
As I recall, that boat was in sad shape: it leaked like a sieve, for one thing; there was lots of patching that needed to be done; there were boards in the hull in serious need of repair, if not replacement; and the bottom line is that it probably shouldn’t have been in the water at all! But as I also recall, that didn’t matter at all to ten year old me, and I had pestered my father all summer about getting that boat in the water until he finally relented! I know I spent as much time bailing it out as I did rowing; and friends, this was no speedboat! But it floated – kinda (!) – and for me at the time it represented true freedom and great adventure; so as far as I was concerned, that boat was perfect!
And one sunny morning, my two friends and I decided that we were going to set out on just such an adventure; and properly outfitted with oars, life-jackets and a Clorox-bottle bailer for every passenger, we started rowing. However, we’d only gotten about halfway across the lake when we were met by five other, older kids “tooling around” in their 85-horsepower, inboard engine, luxury speedboat! These were teenagers well known on our lake for being troublemakers: they were the visiting grandchildren of one of the camp owners across the lake and basically, they were spoiled, obnoxious and… mean! After shouting out a number of insults upon my humble rowboat they then proceeded to drive their boat, full throttle, in circles around ours; in the process making waves that risked swamping the boat and very nearly capsized us! Remember, we’re just little kids; so given our situation there was very little that we could do except scream, cry and yell, which we did with great gusto!
As I remember it now, it could have been kind of a dangerous situation; except that in the midst of everything that was happening suddenly we heard the sound of another approaching boat. And there, with a look in her eyes I had never seen before and would only see a handful of times again, was my mother!
You need to understand here that ordinarily neither of my parents were given to jump in and fight all my battles – I was taught at an early age to stand up to bullies, to be strong and embrace my own individuality – but this was different; our safety had been threatened and that not only scared my mother, it made her mad! And she let loose with a verbal assault on those kids unlike anything I’d ever heard before; letting them know in no uncertain terms that if she ever saw them out on the lake doing something like this to anyone ever again, she’d call the game warden… and their grandmother! Things got real quiet after that (!); and when it was over they put-putted away in their speedboat as we were being towed ashore.
Now, my reaction to this was two-fold. Of course, being 10 years old, I was mortified that my mother had come out to save us in front of everybody on the whole lake! But what I also remember is that deep down I was very relieved that in a moment of trouble, she’d somehow appeared out of nowhere. Looking back on it now, I know what she was doing: my mother was willing to let us kids be independent and explore our world even if that involved a slightly leaky rowboat, yet all the while keeping her eye out, sitting unnoticed on the shoreline; ever watching so if there ever was a threat she could be right there to protect us.
I suppose that’s what being a mother is all about, isn’t it; something I was blessed to see expressed time and time again growing up. For that matter, I remember seeing the same kind of look in my father’s eyes the night in high school when our band bus broke down on the highway and we were half the night getting home. I heard it in both my parents’ voices on the other end of the phone on those snowy days and nights when I had no business being on the road but still was driving back and forth to seminary! And yes, it’s been a voice that has echoed in the ways that Lisa and I were – and sometimes still are – in parental mode with our three children (at times, I suspect, much to their dismay)!
Anyone who’s been there knows that taking care of the people you love the most involves a great deal of risk; it takes self-sacrifice; it means putting your whole self on the line for their well-being; it’s all about the joy and the struggle of watching them become the people that by God’s grace they’re meant to be. It’s in the best and truest sense caregiving, centered on this indescribable and sometimes painful mixture of holding on and letting go; and it’s all fueled by unconditional love. It’s the willingness to entrust these people you love to the world out there but at the same time keeping at the ready; always prepared to snatch them up and out of danger should the need arise.
That’s certainly the kind of loving relationship we celebrate and honor on this Mother’s Day; indeed, today’s a reminder of the great importance of the ties that bind us together: the unspoken bond between a mother and her child; the unity of traditional and wonderfully non-traditional families; the glory of relationships formed, nurtured and sustained over the course of a lifetime. Blest be those ties that bind (!), but may I suggest to you this morning that there’s also one even greater than these; one tie that binds us all together, one family of which each one of us is a part. For the good news we have as a people of faith is that just as children are cared for and protected with the fierce love of a parent, so we are watched over with infinite love by one who is and has always been, as the Psalmist sings with such comfort and joy, our truly good shepherd.
The 23rd Psalm is quite possibly the most familiar passage in all of Holy Scripture; and for good reason. These are words that speak with great power and which bring a much needed word of comfort in those moments of grief and pain. And moreover, it paints a beautiful picture: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” It’s so peaceful that even in what follows – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” – there’s something utterly serene and idyllic in being able to proclaim even in the midst of such darkness that “I fear no evil; for you are with me.”
It’s an eloquent affirmation of God’s great presence and love in the midst the worst that life brings us. But then comes another affirmation; one that seems to stand in utter contrast to what stands before: “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
The rod and the staff; the primary tools of a shepherd. The staff you’re probably familiar with: it’s that long stick with a crook at the end, designed to reach out to pull and guide a wandering sheep back in the right direction. The rod, however, is something different; essentially a long club that the shepherds of David’s time would carry with them as a way of defending the flock from wolves and other predatory animals. Such a rod could be used to chase such animals away or even beat them over the head if necessary.
The point here is that a good shepherd loved and cared for the sheep of his flock; and that meant doing anything necessary to assure that nothing snatched those sheep out of his hand. If that meant “keeping watch over the flocks by night,” good; and if that meant moving that flock to where the grass was green and the water still and plentiful, absolutely! But if caring for the flock also meant standing at the ready to beat off the wolves with the rod at all hours of the day and night, even at the risk of life and limb then so be it! Such, as scripture describes it, is the great love that a good shepherd has for his sheep; and conversely, this is why those sheep will know and hear his voice amid and above all others. They know his voice and they follow!
And “the Lord is [our] shepherd,” our good shepherd, and we shall lack for nothing. The Lord is our shepherd… and yes, we are the sheep.
And that’s important, because even in the abundance of life’s many blessings, there are wolves; plenty of wolves that are constantly seeking to snatch us away, wolves that given the slightest opportunity would gnaw at our very souls. Some wolves come right at us: the sudden and unexpected piece of bad news that changes everything and knocks us for a loop; the overwhelming grief that hits in the wake of a tragedy; the incredible weariness that comes in simply trying to hold it all together. Those wolves come at us full and furious, but at least we know what we’re dealing with; there are those other predators that circle around and sneak up on you quietly, almost unnoticed, only to go for the throat: the small manageable problems that eventually get out of hand; the little resentments that have hardened into grudges and now threaten to destroy healthy relationships.
Oh, yes… there are wolves… and if you listen carefully, you can hear them howling. But even amidst the howling we take comfort in knowing that we are the sheep of the Good Shepherd; one who carries a staff in one hand so to hold us together, and holds a rod in the other so to chase away the wolves that threaten us, taking care of us even when that care comes at the risk of his own life. Our good shepherd will not abandon us even as walk through valleys of shadows and death. We are not afraid because, as the Message translates this, “Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.”
In our gospel reading this morning, some of those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Dedication asked Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” I suspect that Jesus might have smiled wearily as he answered them, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Everything I’ve done shows you plainly, but you don’t believe it. But, Jesus goes on to say, those of my flock, they know. Just like sheep, they know my voice when they hear it; I know them, and they follow me.
And that’s what we need to remember, beloved; that we are part of that flock to which Jesus refers. We are God’s own beloved sheep; we are part of that that one great flock, that one family of faith that God, in the person of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, has gathered us to be… and if we will listen for his voice we will know to follow him into all safety.
Granted, there are times for all of us when for all the competing voices out there, it’s hard to hear that voice as clearly as we’d like; and, if we’re being honest, there are times when we’re really not listening all that well.. which are the times and situations that wolves like the best! But such is the fierce love of our good shepherd and his utter determination to keep us in the fold, that he won’t stop calling our names… no matter what.
Actually, it’s worth noting that in that very last verse of the 23rd Psalm – “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” – it turns out that our English word “follow” doesn’t really do justice to the original Hebrew. The word used is radaph, which more accurately translates as “pursue.” So it’s really that “goodness and mercy will pursue me… chase me all the days of my life,” which, when you think about it, is exactly the kind of relentless, fiercely loyal and loving shepherd you and I have in God! And that’s what we need, beloved; that no matter what our wanderings or how far we have veered away from him from time to time, the truth is that we are never far from God’s sight. In any and all dangers that confront us, God is there with the rod and the staff to comfort us, to protect us… and then, to lead us home.
The Lord is our shepherd, and we lack for nothing; we’ve only to listen for the sound of his voice to know goodness and mercy is ours today and always, beloved.
And so unto the one who even now calls us unto his flock, thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry