H ERE WE ARE on Mother’s Day. This is one of the secular “holidays” that we almost treat as sacred. Not surprising… . Everyone here has a life because you had a mother! Happy Mother’s Day!
This is a day, however, with very “mixed” feelings. Not everyone had a perfect mother. Not every woman IS or has been a mother. So we experience this day in differing ways — feeling special, feeling left out, feeling hopeful, feeling resentful, feeling grateful for children and grandchildren, feeling deep grief over losses.
Our scheduled Scripture for this day, this Fourth Sunday of Easter, is Psalm 23. This psalm celebrates the steadfast care of God. It is the sort of “steadfast care” we would hope every mother — every family — might provide.
† † †
MAY I SAY that all who survive childhood — because of a good mother or in spite of an inadequate mother — likely do so as someone in their life cared for and loved and trusted them unconditionally. They say “It takes a village to raise a child.” Sometimes, that “village” steps in when moms cannot.
I never had children of my own. I have been privileged to nurture many students in my school social work days, to nurture young lives in my pastoral ministry days, to guide and care for stepchildren and their children. While I was never a “birth” mother, I have been privileged to be a grandmother. One grandchild, some years ago, in explaining to her mom which grandma she was talking about, referred to me as “Grandma Pastor.” It has remained one of my most cherished “titles.”
I remember a student I worked with from the time he was in second grade all the way through high school. He struggled so to fit in, to succeed, to learn. His mother’s deep despair made Mothering difficult for her. He had good reasons for his struggles. Eventually she found her way through … but in the meantime, this student needed lots of support from others to make it through each hurdle.
There are people in our lives who will thrive — in spite of their life circumstances — because of your genuine care for them. Listen to the lessons we learn in today’s Scripture about what that perfect caring can look like.
† † †
THERE IS FAR MORE than meets the ear and eye in Psalm 23:
■ Most often read for funerals as comfort for the grievers
■ Read as comfort in the face of death
■ It is used as much by people outside the church as it is used by people of the church.
In Psalm 23, daily activities like eating, sleeping, security are seen from God’s perspective. People are portrayed as sheep, the Lord as our shepherd. God does what a shepherd does: provides food and safety for the flock. The good shepherd keeps the sheep alive and safe.
I find great comfort in the images here. My father was a shepherd. Our fields were blessed with lambs in spring time. I saw the hard work but also gentle care Dad provided for his flock. One spring day, when I was in grade school, I was walking back in our fields and found a lamb tangled in the wire fence. I could do nothing, but I ran back to the house, shouting for Dad and ran back with him again, watching as he rescued that lamb. The lamb hung by that one leg, bleating in pain. As Dad approached, he talked and crooned gently — “c’dake, c’nany, c’nanny.” The lamb knew his voice… and quit struggling, waiting now for the shepherd to rescue it from the tangled mess. Dad gently lifted the lamb, getting its weight off the leg, and cut away the fence, unwrapped the wire. He carried the lamb back to the house, making a bed in a box in the house so we could nurse this injured leg. She healed. And was always, even as she grew, a sheep I could approach and pet. She had a “bum” leg, but she lived!
† † †
SHEPHERDS HAVE some hard work to care for the flock, but overwhelmingly, a good shepherd is a gentle shepherd … providing shelter and safety for the flock. This psalm is not about a peaceful, tranquil la-la land away from reality. We hear of God as one who provides “green pastures.” We know pastures — they are the all-you-can-eat buffet for animals. For a sheep “to lie down in green pastures” means one has food.
To be led beside still waters means to have plenty to drink. To be led in right paths means that danger is avoided. God keeps us alive. Every day of life we have occurs because of God’s provision. The sheep lack nothing because God is the Good Shepherd.
Verse 4 points out that even in the most life-threatening times, God’s provision is sufficient. Trouble is not ignored here. Faith does not mean we pretend there is no danger, no fear, no shadow. The psalmist declares:
even in the valley of the shadow of death I will not fear.
† † †
THERE IS A VALLEY of the Shadow in Palestine. I have heard it is a narrow notch in the mountains. The mountain rising 1,000 feet high on each side. The footing is treacherous. To take sheep through here calls for skillful shepherding. To even find the place through the mountains where this narrow notch is, requires someone to guide you.
To be in such a place without a shepherd is dangerous and life-threatening. With a good shepherd, we can go through the valley of the shadow, carefully. It may not be an easy journey, but we will survive.
Parents and grandparents carry a great deal of worry about the dangers and threats and temptations which will confront their children throughout their years of growing up.
Paul, in I Corinthians 10: 13 talks of challenges we face in life — temptations — but declares that the Lord will provide “a way out.” I recall my pastor, years ago, explaining that that ‘way out’ was better translated as “God will provide a mountain pass.” The “way out” is not always easy. Not a freeway or an express elevator. At times in life, the way out is difficult. But because of our loving God — our Good Shepherd — we do find a way through the trouble, over the mountain — in spite of the hazards.
Hazards. They appear at every turn in life. I recall a mother struggling to know what to do to help her young daughter. My advice was to first of all, cry with her. Let her know it is painful to face some issues. Don’t buck up and smile your way through. Face the reality — and this child will find the courage and wisdom to cope.
We live life as often in “the valley of shadows” as we do beside still waters. We do well to know that God is with us in both places.
The beauty of this psalm continues as we hear description of a table prepared for us — even in the presence of our enemies! Following that is talk of goodness and mercy — following us — not just today, but all the days of our lives!
Goodness [Hebrew] “tov” is associated with the very heart and character of God.
Mercy [Hebrew] “hesed”…. Is a rich word, pointing to God’s unconditional love and care for his own.
Goodness and mercy are provided — not because we are perfectly deserving, but because our Good Shepherd is perfectly loving and caring.
† † †
THERE YOU HAVE IT! A formula for a loving parent — the sort of loving parent God is to us … he also calls us to be toward others.
In a society where we want to trust ourselves and secure our own future, it is hard to put our trust in anyone else. It is hard to follow. We want to go our own ways. But, if we are like sheep, when we hit the valley of the shadows, we will be lost without God.
Here is my own paraphrase of this psalm:
The Lord is our shepherd
We shall not be in want.
He provides everything we need.
Even in the darkest valley of shadow
God is with us — taking charge, comforting us.
God provides a table for us.
Because of Jesus, our cup overflows.
Goodness and mercy is ours.
We are led in right paths.
We may indeed dwell in God’s flock and household for all the days of our lives.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
• • • • • •
BLESSINGS to the wonderful people of Swift Presbyterian. It has been a joy to share worship with you in recent months. To offer feedback, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.