Mother’s Day, for all the hearts and corsages, is a minefield. Absolutely we should acknowledge and express gratitude to our mothers who labored and nourished and nurtured us, who loved us and gave sacrificially of themselves, so that we might have life. Absolutely, although not just on one day of the year.
But sometimes the ones who did all that for us weren’t our biological mothers. Some-times, for a whole host of reasons, our biological mothers were unable to “mother” us, and so other people did, other women, even some men. Sometimes our mothers were so young, so wounded, so sick that our association with the word is very complicated. Some of us today are missing and grieving our mothers who are no longer physically with us. And that’s just looking in one direction, down the line of those who mothered us.
Then there’s the other direction, down the line of succession: those we have mothered–or didn’t. For some women, this day has painful associations–perhaps we’ve never been able to or chose not to give birth. Perhaps we’ve lost a child–or more than one. Perhaps we’ve given up a child, to adoption or foster care. Perhaps, like most of the women in the bible who were childless, we’ve been made to feel shame, or been pitied, because we weren’t “mothers.”
So “Happy Mother’s Day” is a loaded expression. …Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it, just please think about it first. It may not be quite the sweet sound you assumed it to be.
“Good Shepherd Sunday,” which this year is the same day as Mother’s Day, is another one of those days that sounds sweet and innocuous, especially if you’ve never known or been a shepherd, but, like other’s Day, Good shepherd Sunday has a bit more ‘bite” to it than it may seem. All the pictures and stained glass windows of Jesus as the Good Shepherd show him holding adorable lambs with happy sheep crowding around him. That probably wouldn’t have been the image that came to mind to the folks to whom Jesus told he was the Good Shepherd. Remember the Christmas story? The shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, out in those fields, because nobody wanted them any closer. They were the unsavory, marginal characters whom no one else but God would think of entrusting good news to.
One commentator reminded me of another image–that of the shepherds in the movie “Brokeback Mountain.” They were cowboys, she said, rugged, horse-riding, independent,[ and, of course in that movie, gay.] Nothing sweet or innocuous about them or about the nature of the business they were in.
In the 10th chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus uses a couple of different sheep-related images–”I am the gate for the sheep,” he says. “I am the good shepherd.” And he talks about the dangers of thieves and imposters.
In what is sometimes called “The Shepherd’s Psalm,” Psalm 23, the psalmist writes about having a table spread in the presence of enemies, and walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
And finally, in the reading from Acts, we hear about the early Christian community in a way that many people think is probably idealized. They all lived together, shared everything in common, spent their days praying and worshiping, adding loads of people to their numbers each day and held in high regard by everyone. Really? Some 40 or 50 years later, which is when Acts was written, that may have been how Luke imagined it, but chances are, like every other human community, things were not quite so perfect.
So, in addition to being a lot grittier than we have sometimes been led to believe, what else do these texts for Good Shepherd Sunday have in common? The notion of sufficiency. “The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” “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.” “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come and go out and find pasture…I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” One could even argue that the challenge of motherhood is the challenge of enoughness–how do we provide children with what they need–for health, for wholeness, for discovering their true identity–
without giving them too much.
Of course, our culture has certain ideas about sufficiency and “enoughness,” and the main lesson is, You can never have too much. You can never be enough. You hardly ever hear about “enough.” If a little is good, a lot must be better, right? Our food is engineered so that we crave more and more. “Bet you can’t eat just one,” the Lay’s Potato Chip commercial used to say, and they’d have a pretty good bet–all that fat and salt that most of us have become addicted to? It’s impossible to stop at “just one.” And, clothes, toys, gadgets, …the one who dies with the most toys wins, right? Or maybe just dies.
Of course, it’s money that we’re sure will make us happier if we get more and more. But actually, unless you’re at a sufficiently low level of income that you still need money to take care of basic needs–food, shelter, clothing– it has been shown that levels of happiness do not increase over the long term with more and more money. Ask folks who’ve won the lottery or Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Usually, if they were happy before they won, they’ll end up being about as happy. If they were unhappy before they won, they’ll end up being just as unhappy. Sometimes it’s a nightmare.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the pro-ceeds to all, as any had need.” Every December we witness the seemingly endless amount of stuff that we as a community have accumulated. It’s called the Serendipity sale. And there’s nothing like moving to discover just how much stuff you have. We as Americans are being buried by our stuff, and our landfills and storage units grow literally into mountains. While the Serendipity Sale is a great way to recycle some of that stuff, might we also think about establishing a kind of sharing system where we could commonly own–or at least use–items and appliances that we don’t all need to have all the time? Rototillers, snowblowers, sewing machines, carpet shampooers, chainsaws, camping equipment, maybe trucks or cars? The Time Bank is another example of exchanging and sharing time and talents. Our loan fund, in which we could pool more of our resources, might become a resource for those who want to purchase energy-efficient appliances but need a little help with their extra upfront costs. And of course, thinking of our air, water, soil, our ecosystem as held commonly might be a start in making sure the generations who come after us will have enough–to breathe, to drink, to grow food, to live.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” Despite the pastoral setting, it sound pretty stark. Does living in the sufficiency of God have to be sparce, bare, bland, colorless? “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus said. Really? What kind of abundance is he talking about? Author Cynthia Bourgeault writes,
What seemed disconcerting to nearly everybody was the messy, freewheeling largeness of [Jesus’] spirit. Abundance and generosity bordering on extravagant seemed to be the signatures of his teaching and his personal style….[In many of his parables] the thing that sticks in people’s craws is in each case the display of a generosity so beyond comprehension that it can only be perceived as ‘unfair.’ But as we look further, that extravagance is everywhere…
…the feeding of the five thousand, with 12 baskets of leftovers…the seed that falls on good soil yields 30-fold, 60-fold, 100-fold…the jar of priceless nard, poured over Jesus’ head and feet.
“It was not love stored up,” Bourgeault writes, “but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the kingdom of heaven. Over and over, Jesus lays this path before us. There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing.” (Wisdom Jesus, pp. 69-70)
The secret to abundant life is simply letting go of everything, allowing yourself to be emptied. We might even say, allowing yourself to be “enough.” Because we live in such an abundance of Love, when we trust in the Source of that Love and don’t cling to or grab anything, Love flows freely through us and we ourselves become sources of love and life. It’s that simple. Easy, it’s not…maybe even a bit like “asking elephants to fly,” as Bourgeault points out, but she goes on to say, “It is not a matter of believing in flying elephants so much as of purifying the heart.” (The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, p. 52)
The practice of self-emptying which Jesus embodied “is not a stoic stance against a pitiless reality,” she writes; “rather it is a direct gateway into a divine reality that can be immediately experienced as both compassionate and infinitely generous. Abundance surrounds and sustains us like the air we breathe; it is only our habitual self-protectiveness that prevents us from perceiving it.” (Ibid., p. 104)
“I came that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and have it abundantly.” Greed and grasping and hoarding only stop up the flow of Love. “I am the gate,” Jesus said. “Whoever enters by me–by the way of self-emptying, embracing and letting go–will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture….The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.”
We know that there are any number of false shepherds luring us to what they say are greener pastures, but they are thieves and bandits, as Jesus said. We and our children are bombarded by calls to come over where the grass is greener. Buy this. Eat this. Be this. Don’t be a fool and believe all that God and Love stuff. Look where it got Jesus.
Where it got him is resurrected. It got his band of sorry, clueless followers filled with the Spirit of Love and Life and Power that changed their lives and countless generations after them, not, granted, with a flawless record, but the abundant life he offered them is still offered to us. “The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” “I am the gate”–that gate is the way to life for us and ultimately for the whole world. The Good Shepherd, God our Mother, a community that cares for all who have need, all of them more complex, more challenging, but ultimately more life-giving than any Hallmark card could ever portray. “I am the gate,” Jesus said. May we enter through that gate and find abundant life. Happy Good Shepherd’s Day!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark