One of the top goals, I presume, for anyone in the position of preaching from the Lectionary, as we do in the Episcopal Church, is to tie together the various readings that we have for any given Sunday. In our lectionary, that three year cycle of prescribed readings for each Sunday of the year, it used to be the case that the four readings were thematically tied together. The Old Testament reading, the psalm, the New Testament Epistle, and the Gospel reading were chosen to go together, typically to support the Gospel readings which were selected to be more or less chronological. We would hear the story of Jesus play out, and we would get supporting texts from the other readings of the day.
That all changed in 2006 when we got a new lectionary, and pretty much all of the readings were altered to be chronological, more or less, so the readings may be only incidentally related on any given Sunday. Tall order indeed to draw the texts together–except for days like today, which is the fourth Sunday after Easter: Good Shepherd Sunday!
But, lest we make it too easy on ourselves, it is also the second Sunday in May: Mother’s Day. So therein lies the challenge–to connect Good Shepherd Sunday to Mother’s Day. We’ll get there, I know the way.
The analogy of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one that we see drawn in Scripture in a few occasions in the life of Christ. In the words of Jesus to his disciples and his listeners, he portrays himself as the Good Shepherd, the one who cares for the sheep, and who lays down his life for the sheep.
This image of the Good Shepherd is in contrast to the hired hands of a flock, who watch over the sheep, but who flee when danger approaches. The Good Shepherd, rather, stays, and lays down his life for the sheep, because the Good Shepherd loves the sheep, cares for the sheep, provides for the sheep, and protects the sheep.
And, speaking of images of the Good Shepherd, one of the oldest paintings we have of Jesus, dated to the mid 3rd century, in the catacombs of St. Callixtus located in Rome, is of a young, beardless, dark-skinned Jesus, carrying a lamb over his shoulders and leading two others with a pail of water. Depictions of Jesus as a shepherd were, apparently, relatively common at this point.
And while that analogy, the shepherd, is a bit foreign to us and our non-agrarian lifestyles here in the modern-day United States, it would have been a familiar trope for Jesus’ listeners. Keeping animals was an important part of the lifestyle and economies of the small towns and villages that dotted the ancient near east. Two examples that immediately come to mind for me go back in the biblical narrative, first to the birth of Christ, whose birth was announced to the shepherds who were watching over their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem. It was to them that the angels first announced Jesus’ birth, and they were the first to attend to him, long before the Magi from the East arrived. The shepherds were the privileged ones to be able to go and see the Christ child that day.
But long before that, in the concluding pages of Genesis, the Jewish people are already shown to keep sheep and other animals as part of their culture and society. When the early ancestors of the Jewish nation–Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, and his 12 sons–were relocating to Egypt during the great famine that Israel’s son Joseph interpreted from Pharoah’s dream–advised the family to emphasize that they needed a place for their sheep to graze, as Pharoah and the Egyptians detested the animals and would give them land where they could live in peace and somewhat away from the rest of the Egyptian population. (of course that didn’t work out so well in the end, but that’s another story).
So we have this great analogy of Jesus, the Great Shepherd, who cares for the sheep. And in our reading from John’s Gospel this morning, we see an important point drawn: My sheep know me, they listen to my voice, they follow me, and I will give them eternal life. To be a part of Jesus’ flock means to know Christ, to listen to Christ’s voice, to follow Christ, and in doing so becoming the recipient of eternal life.
That is the picture that we have, then, in the reading from the Revelation according to John. In this vision, the author writes that he looked up and saw a multitude of people, from every tribe, tongue, and nation, standing before the throne, and praising the paschal Lamb who had been slain, the Lamb who has become their shepherd, and who will guide them to Drink of the water of life.
And here is where we make our connection to Mother’s Day.
This is going to become a thing for us, I warn you of that, because it already has: that on Mother’s Day we’re going to reflect on the original intention of the day, because it’s assuredly not what one would expect.
That’s because Mother’s Day has its roots in the late 1800’s in this country, when a woman named Ann Jarvis, who lived in Western Virginia, made it her mission to care for those wounded in the Civil War, regardless of what side they fought for. She encouraged her band of work clubs to care for these wounded from the battles, and her work here led her, her daughter Anna, and others to call for for a national holiday called Mother’s Day–a day to call for the women of the world to get involved in national politics and to use their voices to create a better world for everyone. This especially called for a world without war, and to settle disputes peacefully, which women were especially suited to do, because in her estimation, the process of giving birth, nurturing, and raising children made women much more reticent to send their children off to kill the children or other women.
And it is in this that I see the connection between the two. In the Church catholic, we are all part of the family of God, and will join with people of all tribes, nations, and languages around the throne of God, praising the Lamb who has become their Shepherd. We are all part of the same family of God, made in the same image of God, and will join together in the next life to love and serve the one God.
This, then, ought to have implications for this life, and how we relate with one another, regardless of tribe, nation, or tongue.
And to this, I will start to wrap up with the “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world” (later known as “Mothers’ Day Proclamation”) by Julia Ward Howe, given in 1870, which shows the spirit of the origins of this day:
“Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.
“Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.”My time is short, so I will conclude with this: If you wish to truly honor your mother today, and to honor all mothers of the world, let today be more than a day to thank her for her suffering and sacrifices made on your behalf. Let today be a day to reflect on what it is that we have to learn from them–that charity, mercy, and patience are virtues that have true power to change the world, just as these are virtues taught to us by Christ Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep. And let our lives, in ever-increasing measure, be characterized not by division, anger, or violence, but rather by a desire for peace and mutual affection, just as Christ loved us and showed us a better way.