Welp, it’s Mother’s Day… so I’m going to retell y’all one of my favorite Mother’s Day parables… one that concerns this very Parish. Once upon a fine spring morning, as I turned off Bradford Street onto the St. James’ campus, I saw something a little unusual: a fair-sized possum crossing the gravel driveway headed from the area of the Parish House towards the wood line on the edge of the property. Now, seeing a possum isn’t all that unusual in this part of the country… they’re pretty common. What made this particular possum encounter a little uncommon was, first and foremost, the time of day: possums are generally nocturnal. And, second, as the possum crossed the drive (it was moving pretty quickly, because it saw me coming), it made a little “hop” about mid-way across the gravel before disappearing into the undergrowth. As I looked more closely, I could see something else: small and gray and furry moving on the gravel about where the “hop” had taken place. When I got out of the car to see what it was, I found that it was a baby possum, not more than five inches from nose to rump, making its way with great difficulty across the gravel toward the wood line following what I realized must have been its mama. The “hop” was probably more of a forceful nudge. The baby’s coat was thin… just beginning to grow in, and its eyes were not fully-open. Too big to be in the pouch… too small to be on its own. As it moved, it made a continuous “chuh… chuh… chuh…” sound almost like a prolonged series of stifled sneezes. Perhaps it was sick, I thought. In any case, the way things were looking, it probably wouldn’t be long before it was snapped up by a hawk… or a cat. Even a churchyard can be a dangerous place for a baby possum separated from its mother. Looking past the baby towards the wood line, I saw mama watching and waiting in the shadow of the undergrowth. She wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t want to touch the baby, partly because it I didn’t want to frighten it, and partly because I didn’t want to transfer my scent to it. So, I found a small bit of twig that had fallen from a tree, allowed the baby to grab ahold of it with its little pink claws and then, gently, carried it to the edge of the undergrowth and lowered it to the ground within a few feet of its mother. The baby had been pretty quiet during its airborne transit from the driveway to the wood line, but as I walked away, I could hear it starting up that odd “chuh… chuh… chuh…” sound again. Later, I Googled “possum sneezes” and learned that baby possums, known as “joeys,” don’t mewl or squeak like many other baby mammals. They call out to their mothers by making that “chuh… chuh… chuh…” sound. Who knew, right? I’m glad I was able to help reconnect mom and baby, and I hope they are doing OK. God loves possums too.
I tell you this story to illustrate the point that we all need help sometimes, some mothering, or nudging, or “shepherding,” if you will, to make it from where we are… to where we need to be. Jesus once spoke of wanting to “gather the children of Jerusalem together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34 and Matt. 23:37). And both the Old and New Testaments are full of metaphors that invite us to compare the relationship between God and God’s people with that of a flock of sheep and its shepherd. Isaiah, one of the prophets most-often quoted by Jesus, describes the way God cares for his people: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom. . .” (40:11). Both Moses and David had some early shepherding experience before they became famous, and David used a sheep metaphor in writing the words of our Psalm today: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (23:1). Chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel is positively brimming with metaphors of Jesus as Shepherd. We only read a smidgen of the chapter today, but in it Jesus refers to himself as the “gate keeper,” protecting the entrance to the sheepfold and ensuring that the sheep are not led astray by false shepherds (vv. 1-10)… and as the “Good Shepherd” who freely places himself between the sheep and the wolves, willing to lay down his life for the sake of the sake of the flock (vv. 11-18). Some of these metaphors made folks back in the day scratch their heads. “He has a demon!” said some. While others wondered, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (vv. 19-21). In the end, Jesus had to spell it out for them: “Everything I do, I do in my Father’s name… that’s Father with a capital ‘F.’ We are together. My sheep get it… they’re saved. You guys… not so much.” So, they tried to stone him… again (10:31-39, cf. John 8:59).
Jesus was pretty insistent about the importance of the flock following the voice of the shepherd. Flocks exist for a purpose, and an effective shepherd leads them in the way of that purpose. When sheep stray, they’re not living into the purpose for which they were created… and that’s when things inevitably begin to go wrong. Elsewhere in the Bible, we read of the consequences of sheep straying, and being led astray, by false shepherds. Ezekiel railed against “shepherds” who were leading their “sheep” astray in Judah in the years leading up to the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Captivity (34:7-16). Later, after the Jews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple, the prophet Zechariah warned that God would take a sword to the (ineffective) shepherd and (once again) scatter the sheep… so that the flock could be culled and then rehabilitated over time (13:7-9). You’d think God’s people would have learned from their experiences in Babylon, but they apparently still had some work to do. Later, the Apostle Paul would urge the elders of the nascent church in Ephesus to keep careful watch over themselves and the “flock” with which the Holy Spirit had entrusted them, in order that the wolves might not come and prey upon it (Acts 20:28-29).
Peter referred to the Church as a “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:4-10). As such, we are all shepherds… and we are all sheep. Like the elders of Ephesus, we must guard ourselves—and one another—from the predations of the Evil One… from the wolf who seeks to scatter and separate us from each other and from God. And with that in mind, I’ve come to believe that the real danger is less in our straying from religious tradition and orthodoxy—whichever flavor happens to suit our fancy—and more… much, much more… when we become estranged from God and from our neighbor. Like the Hebrews of Biblical times, when we stray from The Way of faithfulness to God and to each other—that’s when things begin to go wrong.
Love God. Love your neighbor (and everyone’s your neighbor). And don’t judge. It seems so simple… and yet, success in following these commandments so often eludes us. The Good News is that we have Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to help keep us straight… leading us in The Way of God’s righteousness—strengthening us with words of comfort and guidance… and showing us The Way to live into the purpose for which we were created… if only we will listen! We know his presence. We know his voice. And just as we know his voice, so too does the Good Shepherd know our voices: the emanations of our hearts and souls and minds, as we make our way… sometimes with great difficulty… through this life, half-blind, yet straining forward, hungry for a truth greater than this world can ever satisfy. And just as mama possum stayed close by her struggling joey as it made its way from a place of danger… to the safety of the wood line, so too will Jesus be with us every step of our earthly sojourn, with all of its valleys and shadows. No matter how dark it gets, no matter how difficult the road, we will never be left to face our perils alone.
Thanks be to God!