A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Five years ago, Paula and I went to Italy. In Ravenna we saw churches that were over 1500 years old whose walls were covered with beautiful mosaics. One of the most memorable is a depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a young man with flowing hair, carrying a cross in his hand as a staff, surrounded by sheep, all looking to him for guidance and affection. It was quite moving, in part because it doesn’t look much like our modern, standard depictions of Jesus, and yet it is the same Jesus, our shepherd. The Good Shepherd was the most common image in early Christian art. There are even earlier examples than these mosaics from times when very few Christian artifacts were preserved. Early Christians recognized in Jesus, the characteristics that our psalm for today attributes to God:
He provides our needs; takes us to good places of nourishment and refreshment; guides us in the right paths; and when we are in danger and the presence of evil, he is with us comforting and protecting us; he welcomes us even when we are surrounded by trouble; he blesses us with goodness and mercy at all times.
The simple and steadfast goodness of Jesus was the day-to-day focus of the Christian community from its earliest days—just as it is now. In that mosaic, all six sheep have their heads turned in Jesus’ direction though they are in different parts of the picture, at different distances from him, and doing different things. Christ is their protector and guide in all things.
These images tell us something about God and about us, but they don’t limit God. If we turn to today’s reading from the Book of Revelation:
“A great multitude that no one could count, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…They will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd…”
Now, what we find is that God’s people are facing dramatic difficulties, just like we do today. But the peace and assurances of the 23rd Psalm are still in place as the passage in Revelations continues: “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Today on Mother’s Day, I realize how maternal that image is: God is a shepherd, but God is also our mother, holding the crying child, comforting her, and wiping away all those tears. God nurtures us and sees to our growth into adulthood.
Of course, most us aren’t shepherds, and don’t know that much about shepherds work in real life. But most of us do know a bit about mothers. Some of us here, indeed, are mothers. And you know the challenge of that job: how it is difficult and never-ending, how sometimes it seems like you never get thanked. We can understand the depth and intimacy of God’s love for us by looking at the love of mothers, but it is a mistake to think that being a real mother or a good mother is at all like the infallible goodness of God, or of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who died on the cross for his flock. Every mother is a distinct human being, with strengths and with failings. Some give all they have and more, others act as mothers and nurturers for children that they have not borne and take on all the demands of the needs of children who have not yet grown into responsibility. Indeed, motherhood doesn’t end when kids reach eighteen or twenty-one years old. Ask my mom: she’s still dealing with kids who need to grow into adulthood sixty-five years later.
Not everyone has an idealized experience of their mother—some indeed suffer abuse, or inattention. Motherhood is a state that women are immersed in, ready or not—a frightening reality of nearly infinite responsibility. It is not in ideal performance that a person is a mother—it is in accepting and cherishing the life that enters into yours, it is in making do, aspiring to love as best you can, of looking for those children to thrive. Motherhood is possible only as grace, God’s merciful presence leading, healing, guiding into health and sustenance. No one manufactures perfect children, that’s not what it means to be a mother. No. It is living in God’s mercy with those little ones entrusted to you, offering their possibility and aspirations up to God. It is such a challenge to live for children that way, never knowing what turns their lives will take. We honor mothers today, not for efficient achievement, but for dwelling in the unpredictable community with kids who don’t realize what gifts they’ve been given, until so much time has passed.
Our human communities survive only through the grace of God. Our own inclinations and failings would break us apart, were it not for God’s continuing presence and comfort. The Lord is patient when our patience breaks down, the Lord is generous when we’re tired of giving, the Lord guides us to enough when we’re are at the end of our human abilities.
On this Mother’s Day, listen once again to the words of our Psalmist:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me,
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.