Of Mothers & Sheep
In the cycle of the church year the 4th Sunday after Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday. It doesn't matter that we are generations removed from such an agrarian culture, talking about Jesus as the Good Shepherd still has an emotional pull. If you grew up in the church then you've probably seen images of Jesus leaving 99 good sheep to go after the one black sheep that strayed. Or pictures of Jesus with a lamb in his lap or slung across his shoulders as he carries it home. These images actually say more about our romantic nature than they do about Jesus or sheep.
If I were to call you a bunch of sheep most of you would be insulted and the rest would wonder if I were going to "fleece" you. I tell the following story with apologies to our resident Brits. A couple of years ago my family was traveling in Great Britain. There was some discussion at that time about a change in currency. A shopkeeper described his frustration with the system to us. "Well, why don't you complain and do something?" we asked. "Because, we are a nation of sheep" came the reply.
Because you and I don't hang around sheep our pastoral images aren't challenged. The shepherd's staff isn't just used as a prop for support or to ward off threats but to yank errant sheep back into the fold. Barbara Brown Taylor related that she learned a chilling fact that took away the warmth from the image of the shepherd carrying the lamb across his shoulders. If a sheep strayed too many times it might be made lame. "Do that again", says the shepherd, "and I'll break your other leg." Which brings me to the subject of mothers ?good mothers that is.
Mother's Day isn't found on the church calendar ? it's a secular day. And it doesn't celebrate the fact that some women are mothers but that we have all had mothers or been mothered in some way. So let me try another image of Jesus on for size with you this Mother's Day. Jesus as the Good Mother, or the good parent if that sounds too PC for you.
I know my own and my own know me, Jesus says. The Good Mother knows the sound of her child's voice. Every morning as our parents drop off their children at our nurseries there are always one or two who stand just outside the door listening for the voice of their child. One cry is enough to tell them that that is the cry of frustration which will cease shortly or the cry of hunger or the cry that says I'm not going to stay in here and you better come get me. Even over the phone, my mother can tell by how I say the word Mama that's something's up. "What's wrong?" she'll ask before another word can be spoken. A Good Mother knows the sound of her child's voice and Jesus is the Good Mother.
A Good Mother loves unconditionally. Many of us grew up with the story of the Runaway Bunny read to us at bedtime. In this tiny classic by Margaret Wise Brown, who also wrote Good Night Moon, a baby bunny keeps trying to run away from his mother. "If you run away," said the mother, "I will run after you. For you are my little bunny." "I will become a bird and fly away from you." "If you become a bird and fly away from me," said his mother, "I will be a tree that you come home to." Finally the little bunny says, "Shucks, I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny." "Have a carrot," said the mother bunny. The Good Mother loves unconditionally and Jesus is the Good Mother.
The Good Mother loves unconditionally but not uncritically. "You can be anything you want to be, even president of the United States," says the Good Mother. "Now stand up straight, don't slouch and clean up your room. I'm not your personal maid," says the Good Mother. The Good Mother loves unconditionally but not uncritically and Jesus is the Good Mother. It's been said of Jesus that He loves us just the way we are but loves us too much to leave us the way He found us, to which all Good Mothers would say "Amen" as they ask if we are really going to school dressed like that.
I pray that all of you have had some experience of the Good Mother. She doesn't necessarily have to have been your biological mother and she doesn't have to still be with you on this earth. The Good Mother is always with us, informing us, shaping us, loving us. "What would Mama say?" or "What would Mama do?" or "Mama wouldn't like it if I did that" is a tape that forever plays in our minds.
No matter how old we get we are still our Mother's children, still in need of her and in want to her. It's a relationship that even death cannot end. But the ultimate goal of the Good Mother is not to produce children who always remain children but to raise children who one day become adults with the adult capacity to mother or father others, physically as well as spirituality. Jesus the Good Mother cares for us while we are spiritual infants but ultimately asks that we grow up, grow up in Christ so that we can be mothers to other spiritual infants.
"I know my own and my own know me", says the Good Mother. "I know my own and my own know me", says Jesus the Good Mother. Jesus, the one who knows the sound and timbre of our voices. Jesus, who loves us unconditionally but not uncritically. Jesus our mother who asks all of us to become the Good Mother in Christ.
The Rev. Cynthia Taylor
Church of the Holy Comforter, Augusta GA
May 11, 2003