A Shepherd on Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day officially became a holiday in the U.S. in 1914. Anna Jarvis is credited with founding it. Mother’s Day began as an antiwar protest. Women were encouraged to gather in churches or social halls to listen to sermons, sing hymns, pray, and present essays all in the name of promoting peace.

Well, here we are in church 100 years later. We’ve got the sermon, hymn, and prayer part down. But I imagine most Mother’s Days will also include brunch and cards and gifts too. Jarvis saw that coming. In the 1920’s she wrote, “To have Mother’s Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure. If the American people are not willing to protect Mother’s Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having a Mother’s Day—and we know how.” Clearly, she did not know how. And I’m glad! I hope all you mothers out there get some great gifts today.

Setting aside a day to recognize the self-giving love that a mother epitomizes is a good thing, and is rightly rooted in a church setting. Every mother, like every human being, fails to live up to the ideal, of course, but the ideal clearly points to the love of God we see in Psalm 23. We’ll come to that in a minute.

As I said, even the best mothers fail to live up to this kind of love. One such mother was Grace Hemingway, the great author’s mother. When Ernest turned 21, his parents wanted him to get a real job (writing didn’t count). He was always out hunting and fishing. Their patience finally blew on the night of his 21st birthday dinner. His mother handed him a letter telling him to get out of the house. In the letter, she compared a mother’s love to a bank account.

She wrote: “As a baby and a toddler the child draws heavily on the account, but withdrawals properly become smaller and less frequent as the child grows up, learns to take care of himself, and, crucially, begins making deposits to the account by bringing Mother cards or flowers . . . and attempts to soften Mother’s load”.

Her letter concludes: “Unless you, my son Ernest, come to yourself; cease your lazy loafing and pleasure seeking; borrowing with no thought of returning; stop trying to graft a living off anybody and everyone . . . stop trading on your handsome face to fool little gullible girls, and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior, Jesus Christ; unless, in other words, you come into your manhood, there is nothing before you but bankruptcy – you have overdrawn.” . . . Love, Mom.

It’s no wonder Earnest went on to seek for solace in adventure, women, and alcohol. It’s also no wonder that he eventually found the end of his own shotgun. This is an extreme example, but conditionality and bookkeeping are at least part of every version of human relationship. We say we love someone unconditionally, we hope to love someone unconditionally, we strive to love someone unconditionally, but in reality there are always conditions attached and ledgers that are kept. Condition and bookkeeping always create distance. There is a New York Times cartoon of a King inside his castle talking on his telephone. He says, “You are the reason for the moat, Mother!”

The only love that has burned up the books and done away with the accounts is the love of God. I hope that you have a mother, had a mother, are a mother, or know a mother whose love reflects that kind of love. The kind of love that “does not keep a record of wrongs”, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13.  If not, you can remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, who said, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! (says the Lord)”.

With the Lord, who is your shepherd, there is no overdrawing your account. There is a reason that Psalm 23 is the most beloved psalm in the Psalter. There is a reason people memorize this psalm and read it in times of trial. There is a reason the congregation says this psalm in unison at funerals. It points us to the One way love of God.

So let’s have another look at this Psalm. You can even pretend you’re a Presbyterian and follow along in your bible for this next bit. It was written by David, who was a shepherd as a boy – so it’s a kind of insider’s view of the sheep to shepherd relationship.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul and guides me along right pathways for His Name’s sake.  Green pastures and still waters and right pathways with restore me soul; it seems the Lord knew about Forest Bathing – the Japanese art of healing by immersing oneself in nature – well before it became trendy. And yet we are not alone in the forest, we are safe in the care of our Shepherd.

Note that all through this psalm God is the actor.  God makes me lie down, God leads me beside, God restores my soul, God guides me along right pathways. There is not a hint of our “duties to God and Jesus Christ” or “coming into (our) manhood.” All there is is our sheep-hood and the Lord’s Shepherd-hood.

Lest this beautiful psalm seem disconnected to reality, notice the turn it now takes. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.  You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil. My cup is running over. 

Valleys, shadows, evil, enemies, and death – and all in 2 verses! It is impossible in this world to be separated from strife and hardship, and from that which opposes us. Even if we try to create an Eden in this earthly life, we will fail. Just as expecting unconditional love from another human -even from a mother – will lead to disappointment. And that’s because we are in our own Eden and at times we are the center of our own undoing. So we need to be saved in our trouble rather than from our trouble. And that is what our shepherd does.

Did you notice that when trouble appears, David starts to address God directly? “He” leads me to still water, but “You” are with me in the valley of the shadow of death.  You can be in the presence of my enemies as long as you are not alone. And you are not alone – your shepherd is there with his rod and staff.

A rod and a staff may not signify much to us in our urban life; it helps to know what they were used for. It’s good to know context. Just like it helps to know if the speaker is British or American who says, “I’m mad about my flat.” If you’re British, you are enthused about your living quarters. If you’re American, you are upset about the puncture in your tire.

The shepherd used his rod to protect his sheep from predators – coyotes or wolves or even sheep stealers. It was a weapon. He used his staff, on the other hand, to gently crook a wayward sheep and guide it back to safety. Sheep wandered off and found trouble; as I just said, sometimes we are the cause our own undoing. So our Shepherd protects us not only from our enemies, but from ourselves.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. In the world of the scripture, goodness and mercy have a specific name – Jesus Christ. His love is the unconditional love we all long for. Hundreds of years after David wrote this psalm, Jesus called Himself the “Good Shepherd.” He laid down His life for His sheep. The accounts are all torn up. His death destroyed the shadow of death. And He was raised from the dead so you and I could dwell in the house of the Lord forever.      Amen.