I don’t know what kind of a week you all had last week, but I had the kind of week where I unexpectedly found myself crying in the card aisle at Walmart. I’m okay – I think it’s just a combination of feeling really exhausted and burnt out, and the fact that Mothers Day always seems to catch me by surprise every year. For some reason, this year it seems to be hitting me a little harder than usual – and, apparently, a couple weeks ahead of schedule.
I have been thinking about my mom a lot lately, though. She was a really cool person. She was a second grade teacher and an avid reader, known for her sense of imagination and for her big laugh. I was about six years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I remember how enthusiastically and optimistically we all prayed for her to get better.
That was what I had learned to do in Sunday school. I had learned about God from texts like the ones we read today. I learned that God was the Good Shepherd, who loves us like we’re all God’s own fuzzy little sheep. I learned that God would lead us to nice places like green pastures and still waters, and that God would fill our cups to overflowing – which sounded messy, but, you know, nice. And I learned that God would give us whatever we pray for – as long as we’re good and obey the commandments and stuff.
So when Mom got sick, we prayed – hard. And we had a whole community of people behind us, praying their hearts out that she would get well. We did everything that we were supposed to do. After all, my mom was barely 40 years old; she was a beloved teacher, a wife, and a mother to three young kids. We needed her. And I certainly thought, there’s just no way that the nice God that I learned about in Sunday school would ever let someone like her just die.
Of course, by now, most of you know me well enough to know that things didn’t turn out the way that we hoped or prayed. Mom died a few years after she was diagnosed, after a long, hard-fought battle. And my faith was shattered. Lots of very nice churchy people were quick to jump in and say nice things like, “She’s in a better place,” and “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God just needed another angel in heaven.” (Side note: please don’t ever say any of these phrases to anyone grieving the death of a loved one.) And I also remember reading nice, comforting psalms like Psalm 23 that we read again today. But all this niceness wasn’t enough for me anymore – I was angry and confused and desperately sad over losing my mother. I still had to keep going to church (I was nine; I didn’t have much of a choice), but in my heart, I was furious with God and so I chose to walk away from the church for the first time (and it definitely wouldn’t be the last).
Obviously, I did come back around eventually. And I got to spend more time with these texts as I grew more mature in my faith. And as I continued to read them, I began to notice more things beyond just the nice, feel-good bits about God. I began to see the shadows in these texts – the shadows between the green pastures and the goodness and mercy. Even as the scriptures point our hopes forward, to the coming of God’s kingdom, they don’t promise that life will be easier for believers living now. In fact, more often than not they tend to imply the opposite.
In our first reading, Peter and John have been arrested for preaching the good news and for healing a man who had been treated like an outcast his whole life because of his disability. The psalmist writes about evil and enemies and the valley of the shadow of death. Our second reading and gospel reading speak of people living in need and of the good shepherd having to lay down his life for the sheep, to protect them from being torn apart by wolves. God’s very promises of goodness and mercy and salvation assume that this world is both broken and heartbreaking – a world that is full of shadows.
And, paradoxically, it is that brokenness, those shadows, that makes God’s promises so powerful. God is not some fair-weather deity who promises us the world when things are going great and then abandons us and blames us for our failures when things start going wrong. No. God is with us even when the shadows are deep and we are drowning. God is with us in Christ on the cross, who enters fully into our deepest suffering, who promises us a kingdom and everlasting life with his literal dying breath.
In the same way, God’s promises mean the most to us when we are hurting or grieving – when we are most keenly aware of our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world. God’s promises are the most meaningful to the people in this world who are suffering, to those who are outcast and unloved, to those who are dehumanized and oppressed.
I think this is one of the reasons that the mainline church has been struggling so much in the past few decades. As the ELCA, we are one of the most affluent and comfortable churches in the country. And it’s been easy to get comfortable with the church as a nice place where nice people gather to sing nice songs and drink coffee – it gets messy sometimes, sure, but it’s nice. And it is nice. But I think we often see the hope of God’s promises in the same way we might see the light of candles on a birthday cake at a party. We ooh and aah and say it’s amazing, but in truth, it’s only when you carry those candles into the dark that you see how brightly they truly shine. God’s promises shine most brightly in the shadows.
And this is exactly what we have been called to do: to carry the light – the hope of God’s promises – to those who need it most. We are called to remember that Christ himself came most of all for the people living in the shadows – and that, as the body of Christ, we are likewise called to enter into the broken and suffering parts of this world with love and care: to affirm God’s love for the unloved, to proclaim God’s justice for the wronged, to share the hope of God’s life even in the midst of death.
Christ the Good Shepherd came especially to seek out the lost sheep of this world. And he reminds us that lost sheep don’t just need a shepherd – they also need the loving care and support of the rest of the flock. That’s why it’s important that we remember that the church is so much more than just the niceness we enjoy; it’s the love and the deep and abiding hope that we offer to each other and to the world.
Today, we send out two of our own with that same love and hope – and with the care and support of this flock. Hopefully you two won’t become lost sheep! But college can be a tough place, faithwise – a place where your faith will be tested. (And I speak from experience – in college was the second time I wandered away from the church!) But God’s promises will always remain trustworthy and true – because they depend not on our faithfulness, but on God’s faithfulness. And I’ve found that even in the times when you wander away from the fold, the Good Shepherd has a way of finding you and coming after you. (He has a very particular set of skills…)
This is the good news for all of us today: that Christ the Good Shepherd is good both in the nice times and in the hard times. And no matter where you might go, through sunshine or shadow, he will be with you. Always.