On Mothers and Shepherds
John 10: 1 – 10 and Hosea 11: 1 – 4
Last August my eighteen year old nephew died in a tragic scuba diving accident. My thoughts and prayers are with my sister-in-law Cheri who will today be struggling through her first Mother’s Day without her son, Mikey. One of my favorite Mikey stories happened just after he was born.
Now to get this story you would have to know that David, my brother and I have very similar attributes. Some in school who didn’t know us very well actually would walk up to David and ask him stuff that only I would know and I was talked to on several occasions by people who thought I was David. We’re not twins, but that brotherly mannerisms and looks are definitely there.
After Mikey was born, my brother took a job working on a fishing vessel in the Bearing Straights. It was his job to count different varieties of fish and catalogue their age for the fish and wildlife service. So he was gone for months at a time.
When David returned from one of these stints on the fishing boat, my other brother Steven and I convinced him to go on a weeklong hiking, spelunking, and road trip that would take us from our house in Michigan to Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. On the day we returned we did the all night ride from North Carolina to Michigan and we arrived very haggard and tired.
I was the first person to walk through the door. My sister-in-law was sitting on my mother’s couch holding a nearly one year old Mikey and she said to him, “Who is it?” And Mikey got this bouncing thing going on and he looked up at me with these beautiful baby blue eyes. He had so much joy and love and energy directed right toward me. Cheri repeated, “Mikey who is it?”
And I said, “Hey Mikey!”
As soon as I opened my mouth a couple of things happened nearly simultaneously. Mikey got this look of utter revulsion – It looked like he had just swallowed a sour grape, then he started to wail and cry uncontrollably.
At that moment, my brother David came into the house and rescued baby Mikey from the sobs and sadness. You see Mikey had grown to know his daddy by his voice – and while my brother and I look alike, we do not sound the same. As soon as I said his name, Mikey knew that I was not my brother.
Today as I think about that story I don’t really remember the sobbing or the sadness, I’m more taken by that look he gave me. He looked at me with so much joy and love that it was palpable and it filled the room. Since then I have seen that look on my own children’s faces when they were little and they screamed, “Daddy’s home!” and then they try to fling themselves at me.
But the first one to look at me that way was Mikey, and I thank him for that gift.
Who was the first person to look at you that way? Who was the first one to see you as a gift of joy and love? Who looked at you so beautifully and tenderly that you knew that you were the apple of their eye and the person who loved you unconditionally and cared for you like no other could?
For most of us that person probably was a mother. When you were born your mother anticipated your birth, prepared for it, and when you were born she held you and fed you and kissed your eyes, ears, cheeks, toes, fingers and blew raspberries all over your belly. For many of us Mothers loved us unconditionally and gave us the gift of affection and kindness that has stuck with us through our lives.
But for some of us our mother was not the person who gave us that kind of love. A friend of mine has a mother who has used love to manipulate and coerce him. She has lied to him and his family and she is a rather difficult person for anyone to be around.
I’ve found in my experience that often these folks who use love in this way are either people who have been neglected and not been showered with the attention of someone who loves them, or they have been overly indulged all of their life and they find loving anyone particularly difficult. Instead love is a way to get things and to get ahead in life. Love is not free, it always comes with a cost.
In the book of Hosea, we find that God comes to us as a loving mother. When Israel was a child I loved him, says God… but no matter how much God loved her son, we spurned that love in favor of idols.
The text tells us that it was God who taught us to walk. It was God who took us in her arms. It was God who healed us. It was God who led us with cords of human kindness. It was God who lifted us to her cheeks and bent down to feed us. God came to us with eyes of love and we chose to look for love in all the wrong places choosing to follow the voices of idols who lured us away from God’s love in favor of cheaper sentiments. While we long for love, instead they gave us trinkets that leave us feeling used and abandoned, never arriving at the promise of love that they offered in the advertisement.
In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen recounts an experience he had in New York City. He says, “Sitting on the subway, I am surrounded by silent people hidden behind their newspapers or staring away in the world of their fantasies. Nobody speaks with a stranger, and a patrolling policeman keeps reminding me that people are not out to help each other. But when my eyes wander over the walls of the train covered with invitations to buy more or new products, I see young, beautiful people enjoying each other in a gentle embrace, playful men and women smiling at each other on a sailboat, proud explorers on horseback encouraging each other to take brave risks, fearless children dancing on sunny beaches, and charming girls ready to serve me in airplanes and ocean liners. While the subway train runs from one dark tunnel into the other, I am nervously aware where I keep my money. All the while the images decorating my fearful world speak about love, gentleness, tenderness and the joyful togetherness of spontaneous people.”
The advertisements all around Nouwen offered promises of the life of love that Hosea says is a life lived with God, yet the product rarely lives up to the hype. Instead of finding what the product promises, we find ourselves unfulfilled and looking for something else to give us the love and grace we so desperately want and need.
Turning to the Gospel of John, Jesus says, the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.
In our world we are inundated by voices that offer us promises. Each voice seems to say that we can have an uncomplicated and undramatic life filled with security, safety, love and joy. Invest here. Do this. Don’t do that. You want happy children, buy Tide because happy children are clean children. Go to Disney World and you will find the inner Lion King. Make these decisions, and your problems will dissolve.
These voices are strong and persistent, but often the realities of life prove them to be wanting. Like Baby Mikey many of us think we have the real McCoy but when the voice is heard it leaves us feeling like we’ve just eaten sour grapes.
Some say that happiness can be bought. That contentment can be found in a new car. You want joy, it can be found in dish soap. The voices seem to be strong and so many people seem to be following them that often the voice of our good shepherd is blocked out.
But the voice of the Good Shepherd is persistent. Just like our mothers who call us in for dinner after a hard day of playing in the sand lot, they will continue to call our name until we come home. We come home dirty and haggard and roughed up, and she looks at us and says, “Would you look what the dog drug in, go wash up.” Supper is on the table and Mom bows her head and holds your hand to say an evening prayer. In her prayer she thanks God for the gift that you were to her and she prays for you to have all the happiness and love that life can possibly give you. After the amen is said, she smiles at you and you know that this is more than just a habit. Love has become real.
The kind of love she has for you will find you when you’ve wandered away. Her love will stick with you when the world gets tough. Her presence will go with you to the edge of destruction just to prove what real love is. She holds your hand for a brief moment and she smiles because she knows that one day, you too will be able to show this kind of love to someone else.
And even if your relationship to your mother was complicated and you find yourself without a role model for unconditional love, we know that God loves us more than anyone can. God’s love will drive her to lay down her life for her sheep – it comes to us freely, without cost. She will heal you with her tender kindness and her acts of mercy. She will reach out with bands of love until all of the hurt and all of the bitterness and all of the anger is loved away. She will feed you with food that will last and fill your soul with nourishment for eternity. She will love you until all that remains in your life is God.
And God looks at us with the look of little Mikey. It is filled with such joy and love that it overflows into how you treat other people. It comes out in acts of kindness and compassion for people you don’t even know.
We enter into God’s living room and we hear our name called and we know it because she has made it a point to know us and love us throughout our lives. In the words of the prayer that is often prayed at funerals: whether we live or whether we die we are in God. God’s love permeates us, fills us, motivates us, and will one day call us home. There we will find the great Mother of our Souls, the Shepherd of the sheep, our God who has given her life for us and we will return God’s look of love with our own.
When God looks at us in love and we return that look in love, all the other voices fade away. It’s background noise that eventually dies away. There in the gaze, in the tender moment of grace, we will find what our soul longs for and we rest totally in God.
Until that day, learn to love each other. Feed each other. Clothe each other. Share with each other. Be tender with each other. Care for the least, the broken, the poor, the outcast, because in loving others, you will find the face of God. Amen.