Today is Mothers’ Day, and I would like to invite you to think about your mother for a moment.
It was interesting to watch you as you were thinking about your moms – most of you seemed to light up, I saw smiles. But I also saw some more reserved expressions. And that’s to be expected. Yes, many have great memories of their mothers – but then of course a relationship with our mother can be complicated or downright difficult. And there are those who never got to know their mother, because they were given up at birth – and that’s more common than you think. Some may not know their mother because they lost her at a very early age.
So maybe for some this day – Mothers’ Day – is bittersweet. Or maybe just bitter.
I, for one, am grateful for my mother. And today I have a big smile on my face, not only because I have a good relationship with my mom, but also because she is celebrating her 70th birthday today. Happy birthday, Mama!
Now whether or not you have a good relationship with your mother, whether or not you have a relationship with your mother at all, one of the very first things you heard while still in her womb was her heartbeat – and her voice; and that happened when you were about 16 weeks old in utero.
In fact, your mother’s heartbeat gave you a sense for rhythm and has a lot to do with the fact that you like music, which is based in rhythm.
And hearing you mother’s voice gave you something to connect with and relate to her beyond the womb. We know our mother’s voice from the very start, and we are soothed by it. And I think we all have experienced that at some point or another, even though we might not be parents – a very young infant prefers mom, her touch, her smell, her voice.
And we will always remember what mom sounds like. My daughter claims she can make out my voice when she comes to one of my choir concerts and I am but one of 60 or so singers, which seems unbelievable – how is that even possible? But she says, ‘Mom, I am just so used to your voice, I know it! I hear you.’
Just take a moment and think about your mom’s voice.
And now think about all the words she spoke to you. If your mom is or was anything like mine, there were probably times when she comforted you, when she encouraged you, when she was tender with you, when she was silly with you. Then there were times she probably gave you some good advice, when she taught you about life. And then there were probably times when she scolded you or burst out in anger or frustration. I got into quite a bit of mischief when I was a kid and did many stupid things, and of course my mom would raise her voice and let me know that I had to get my act together.
And though I didn’t like these moments, and at times didn’t want to listen to her, I never doubted my mother’s love for me. And especially since I became a mom myself, I realized that love sometimes is tough love. We don’t do our kids a favor if we don’t set them straight once in a while or warn them in no uncertain means about dangers, when we don’t challenge them to become the best they can be.
Today, we don’t just observe Mothers’ Day, but also ‘Shepherd Sunday’. According to our church lectionary, Shepherd Sunday always is celebrated on the 4th Sunday in Easter, which, this year, happens to fall on Mothers’ Day. We prayed with the beautiful words of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ And in the gospel lesson from John, we heard Jesus talk about God, of himself, as a good shepherd – that’s an image that we are very familiar with.
Sheep, just like human beings, first hear their mother’s voice. And it is amazing how, in the baaing of an entire flock of sheep, a lamb is able to make out its mothers’ voice – and then, of course, the ewe, the mother sheep, knows her lamb’s voice as well.
But since domesticated sheep are tended and herded, they have to listen to the shepherd’s voice as well. Now maybe it isn’t as romantic or bucolic as we think it is. There are still shepherds in the world today, like in many places in Africa, who probably tend their sheep in the same way sheep were tended in Jesus’ days. Sometimes the flocks mingle, for example when their shepherds lead them to a water hole to drink. And so every shepherd has a very distinct call for his or her flock, something like ‘ayayay’ – something the sheep recognize. And it works! The sheep now their shepherd’s voice, and they follow.
We tend to think of sheep as dumb, but they are actually pretty smart. It has been proven that they even can distinguish facial features. In short: the sheep know their shepherd. And in general, they are smart enough to follow their shepherd. For he or she is the one who leads them to green pastures and fresh waters, who keeps them safe, who cares about their wellbeing. It is a voice they know they can trust.
So Jesus is not just making something up, but is drawing on the experiences of his audience. But in the context of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus’ words are actually quite challenging. Here Jesus is responding to the question: are you the Messiah? Are you the one we should follow? And instead of giving a straightforward answer, Jesus says: well, you oughta know that I am the one. For the sheep know their shepherd’s voice. I and the Father are one. And God wants the best for you: eternal life, life to the fullest. That’s what I want for you, and if you had listened to anything I said, you’d know.
God is our Father, God is our Mother, God is our parent who wants the best for us and who loves us in ways we cannot even imagine. And God speaks to us, all the time: through the Scriptures, through unexpected voices in our head and in our heart, sometimes through the mouths of people around us – familiar people and strangers alike. I for one have had a few moments in my life where God’s voice hit me as I was encountering strangers in random situations – and I like to call them angels, messengers of God. And for me, there was no doubt: this is God. Sometimes I know God’s voice when I hear it.
But then, of course, there are moments when I doubt whose voice I am hearing. There are many who speak in the name of God and claim to proclaim God’s will. In fact, there are many opposing voices who claim to speak in the name of God. And add all these voices to the all the other voices we hear in this world today – and the mass media and internet sure offer plenty of voices that lure us to follow them, to join this group, to sign on to that ideology.
How can we distinguish God’s true voice in all that? My daughter may claim that she can distinguish my voice even in a large group of singers, but I can’t always claim the same about God’s voice amid the sounds and cacophony of all the voices that surround me, that surround us.
To know God’s voice, to remember God’s voice unfortunately is now quite as easy as to know and remember our mother’s voice – it’s not as easy as it is for a sheep to recognize the very distinctive call of their shepherd.
No, when listening for God, we don’t only have to listen with our ears, but discern in our hearts as well. For me, a criterion if it’s really God’s voice I am hearing is the question:
Is it a voice that sometimes challenges me and maybe even annoys me, just like my mother’s voice and words sometimes challenged and annoyed me? For I know that a voice that just reinforces what I think and do anyway can’t be God’s voice, but rather the devil’s. God is love, and true love challenges us to be the best we can be – just like our mothers or others who raised us challenged and scolded us at times, because they wanted the best for us, because they loved us.
Is it a voice that is full of grace? A voice that encourages forgiveness? Is it a voice that proclaims life, eternal life, life to the fullest – and not only for me, but for my siblings in God as well. For God so loved the world, we hear in another chapter in the gospel according to John, so it’s not just about my personal salvation, but the salvation of the world. I am a sheep, and as such belong to a much bigger flock than I can imagine, with saints of all times and places.
I strongly believe that this is the voice we need to follow – a voice that speaks against division, contempt, hatred, and violence – and, just this past week, we experienced once more in this country how violence destroys and takes the lives of our children. And for us, it became very real as we lost one of our own, one who was baptized right here, Jackson Weller, grandson of Dorothy Praeger, to senseless violence.
We need to listen to and follow the voice that leads us and all into life. That’s what Easter is about: new life for all of God’s beloved creation.
Picture by Joseph D’Mello on unsplash.com