All Saints’, Dorval
May 8, 2022
Mosaic of Mary, Mother of the Good Shepherd (Order of Sisters of Jesus the Good Shepherd, “Pastorelle”)
The Gospel of John is, among other things, the record of a family feud. Written at least a couple of generations after Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, it reflects a messy, ongoing split between between Judaism and the emerging Christian community. Initially, Jesus’ followers hoped and believed that all Jews would come to believe, along with them, in Jesus as the Messiah. When this didn’t happen – and with the two communities both under severe pressure for refusing toe the line of their Roman rulers when it came to religion – resentment festered on both sides and was enshrined in the Christian community’s texts, particularly in John’s Gospel, which says nastier and more pointed things about “the Jews” than any of the others. Two or three centuries later, when Christianity came to power as the dominant religion of the late Roman Empire, this resentment took the form of active antisemitism which has, sadly, been a besetting sin of the church ever since.
You might not notice the traces of this dynamic in today’s Gospel reading unless you were looking for them, but they’re there: when Jesus tells “the Jews” who are interrogating him about his identity, that “I have told you, and you do not believe … you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
It was one thing for Jesus to say this to the people in power when he was in danger from them. It has since been weaponized by Christians against Jews in a way for which we must continue to atone. The family feud has had consequences far beyond where it started.
And let’s face it, all families have feuds.
This weekend is Mothers’ Day, an occasion when the prickly, complicated reality of family life is often sanded down to a simple cliché that can be encapsulated in a greeting card. Mothers are held up as the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love and gauzy Instagram-style perfection, and a lot of unwarranted generalizations are made about mothers, children, families, and relationships.
I wish I could preach a simple sermon about how mothers are like the Good Shepherd, who cares for the sheep, and we are all safe in their embrace, and how the gift of children is one of the great joys of life, and so on.
But some of us had mothers like that, and some of us … didn’t.
And some of us had the children we wanted, when we wanted them, and nothing but positive feelings about the experience; and some of us … didn’t.
In my own experience, I can say that my own mother is an amazing person whom I love deeply and whom I trust more uncomplicatedly than pretty much anyone else in the world … and my family is an extremely complicated entity full of profound pain as well as great joy.
We don’t need to compare mothers to Jesus, implicitly or explicitly. What we do need is to place all our families, the pain and the joy, within the circle of the Good Shepherd’s loving care.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Joyful mothers and well-loved children hear the voice of the Shepherd, and follow him, and will never be snatched out of his hand.
But so do those whose mothers abused them, or neglected them, or simply could not keep them safe and give them the love they needed: they hear the voice of the Shepherd, and follow him, and will never be snatched out of his hand.
So do those who desperately longed for motherhood but were never able to fulfil that longing.
So do those still hoping, or fearing, or trying to make decisions about whether to undertake the task of motherhood.
So do those affected, for good or ill and in many complex ways, by adoption, surrogacy, and reproductive technology.
So do those who have lost children, and children mourning the loss of their mothers.
So do those who have had abortions, for whatever reasons.
So do those who are estranged from their mothers, or their children.
So do single moms, stepmoms, moms partnered with other moms, and people raising children in all kinds of family configurations that don’t include moms.
So do chosen family of all kinds, who offer essential help with kids who aren’t their own.
So do people struggling to raise children despite their own trauma and wondering if they are messing up their kids.
So do people who have borne and fed and nurtured children but are not mothers because they are nonbinary or trans men.
So do all of us in complicated families – which is all of us. We hear the voice of the Shepherd, and follow him, and will never be snatched out of his hand.
Jesus’ love is big enough to hold all these experiences.
To remind you of your mother’s love, if your mother’s love was like green pastures and still waters.
To offer you the unconditional love you deserve, if your mother couldn’t give it to you.
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” say Jesus’ interlocutors. But things in families are rarely plain and simple. We recognize the voice of the Shepherd not because his message is plain and simple, but because it is true. True to our complexity, and to the greatness and power of God’s love.
God’s love, which is big enough to include every experience of motherhood, of childhood, and of family, because we are all part of the one family, the one flock, with the one shepherd.
And I trust that the Good Shepherd can reconcile the whole, big, fractured family – the family in John’s Gospel, as well as the families we live in now – in a way that is beyond our hope or understanding. That belonging to the Shepherd will one day outweigh the differences in what we believe. That there will be a time when we are no longer able to hurt each other; when we come to full comprehension of the depth of God’s love, the greatness of our need for it, the complexity of our stories, and the welcome that God offers for all of us, the trauma and the healing, the pain and the joy.
The Good Shepherd knows each of us, and we hear his voice, and none will be snatched out of his hand.
This is a beautiful sermon and speaks to me as I am estranged from my daughter. Thank you for your words of wisdom today.