I can’t go looking for it at this late hour, but ages ago I blogged about how much I hated Mother’s Day. I probably did it multiple years in a row. As far as I can remember, I rattled on and on about living in the crucible of daily life, about hating what a bad mother I certainly was, that I was, of course, grateful to have children at all, but that the heaped-up expectations by the world to “enjoy your special day” or otherwise be happy because the calendar commanded it was almost too much to bear.
Never mind that Mother’s Day is always a Sunday, and that’s a complicated day enough, without being invited to sit and existentially ponder my own disappointments and failures with a flower in my hand. Isn’t that what motherhood even is, I probably wondered, just another opportunity to see all my mistakes and lost opportunities.
Of course, recent political and cultural events have shed rather a different light on the whole matter. My Twitter feed is full up of strangers tweeting that they are so thankful their mothers—who had been right on the cusp of getting an abortion—decided at the last moment not to. Many of these short 270 character testimonies have included the admission that they, the tweeters, never were able to know their mothers, or that the relationship was complicated, or filled with other problems. Nevertheless, the deep gratitude for getting to live at all outweighed all the grief.
Intermingled among those tweets are video clips of people gathering outside the various Supreme Court Justices’ homes, the mood brooding and ugly. The “right” not to have to give birth to the child who, either by one’s own selfishness or the sin of others, has come to be, has grown, has taken shape, has built a residence in the imaginations and consciences of many, many men and women alike.
Of course, on the liturgical side of things, this day is actually Good Shepherd Sunday, and the lections are not about the relative failures of mothers. Rather, they are about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who is faced with a growing, angry opposition because he has spoken a truth entirely outside the realm of human imagination and knowledge. John tells us that it was winter, not spring, and that Jesus was walking in the colonnade of Solomon, and that the Jews “gathered around him.” It doesn’t seem like a friendly gathering for they say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” But he has been telling them in many and sundry ways, not least by performing miracles, and by teaching with authority. The problem is that they know what he has been saying and they don’t like it, not that they don’t understand.
And that’s how it is with all of us, unless God himself comes and breaks through our stubborn pride. It takes a miracle to bring life out of a stone, to raise the dead, to shed light on the human heart so that it can see and accept the Truth.
What is so offensive about this little text for us today is, I think, very similar to what made that ancient gathering so angry. Listen to what Jesus says next: “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” And then, just to really stick it to them, “I and the Father are one.”
Not “one” in the sense that many women try to claim about their own pregnancies—my body, my choice. The baby is in my body and is therefore un-distinct and lacking a differentiated personhood. I can do whatever I want because it is not even a baby. But even if it was, it is my body. No, the Son and the Father are differentiated from each other. They are not the same Person. They are of the same substance, and as such share a complete unity of will and love and mind and purpose. Jesus is claiming to be God along with the Father.
That was offensive for its apparent blasphemy—not real, but assumed by the crowd. It’s offensive now because God calls himself Father. What is that, like a Patriarch? Does his fatherhood allow him to make certain claims on those who live in his household? Jesus, as you can see in the text, says yes. The Father gives certain sheep to the Son and they belong to him forever. Those sheep are obedient, even into eternity. They hear the voice of the Shepherd and follow him.
Babies, sheep, either way, it’s a helpless and desperate proposition. Either way, you’re at the mercy of other people to make up their minds about whether you will find water and food and pasture, or whether you will go into a howling wilderness. And unfortunately for us, and for the babies, this isn’t a culture that puts a high value on the helpless getting picked up and taken care of.
What discourages me is that when you get rid of the Father, eventually you don’t have any intellectual or emotional or spiritual room for the work of the mother, and then the child gets chucked by the way as well. Imagining that God the Father has nothing to say, no gift to give to the Son, doesn’t bring about a gracious, nor a “flourishing” life for women. On the contrary, it is the way of death. It leads to the very thing almost everyone wants to avoid—isolation, darkness, and ruin. Why is this? Because the Father, though we cannot see it, is good and all his work is sure.
Look at another of the texts for this morning. John, alone on the island of Patmos, wondering if God has abandoned him, sees a series of visions. He writes:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’
Some people have wondered where this great multitude that no one can number comes from when Jesus says that the way is narrow and few find the path to eternal life. If the crowds are all busy rejecting him, where does this great crowd come from? Other people have answered that the human family has killed a lot of babies—too many to number—and that all these who have been slain, who have been cast out, who have not been counted worthy of our care and love, that these are there around the throne, gazing upon the One who took their place, who united himself to them in their suffering, who became the Lamb that was slain. John hears the strains of a glorious hymn: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” It’s a strange motherly image. The Lamb, wiping away the tears—all of them.
Whatever tears you happen to be trying to beat back on your own, however impossible it seems to imagine that God the Father could so order, could so care for his creation in this difficult and heartbreaking way, if you hear the clear, bright, cheerful voice of the Shepherd calling you, get up and go to him. As you go along, stumbling down the path, occasionally having to be picked up and carried, you will find that all your failures and disappointments come to naught, that the glory and honor and power and wisdom of his words, his very self is enough for you.