As some of you know, many years ago I attended All Saints’ Missionary School in Enugu, Nigeria. In our travels during the six-year stay in West Africa, my family and I occasionally saw a herdsman or herds-boys. Invariably they carried one or more sticks to help them tend and protect the animals.
Today is commonly called Good Shepherd Sunday, when we hear Jesus talk about being the Good Shepherd. We also pray together the beautiful twenty-third psalm on this Sunday. When reciting, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” we can easily visualize a shepherd’s crook, like this one, which I was given when first ordained. Bishops carry such a staff as a liturgical symbol of their office.
However, we seldom think of the shepherd’s rod, and we might even be scandalized should a bishop process into church carrying a rod, even though it’s an equally important tool for shepherding. For the rod is a cudgel used to protect the sheep. We read in First Samuel that the shepherd boy David killed lions and bears, and we can easily imagine that he used a rod, as well as the slingshot with which he killed Goliath. Curiously, several paintings show David wrestling a lion barehanded, depicting him pulling the lion’s mouth open. Evidently, the artists forgot about the rod.
Our Good Shepherd certainly carried both a staff and a rod. The rod Jesus consistently used was to speak the truth fearlessly, for instance, when calling the politicians and clergy a brood of vipers. His Sermon on the Mount is a rod-event that still inspires and, if we listen carefully, scares us today. In calling himself the Good Shepherd, as well as the Gate, the Bread of Life, and the Way, Jesus employed the rod of truth. The other rod Jesus wielded was much bigger: it was the cross. The Good Shepherd endured the blows of his enemies when he laid down his life for the sheep. He accepted the blows of the enemy on the cross in order to transform human self-righteousness into redemptive love, and to call us to a ministry of reconciliation.
On Good Shepherd Sunday we easily and comfortably think of ourselves as Jesus’ sheep, and so we are. Indeed, many paintings of the Good Shepherd show Jesus carrying a sheep around his shoulders. But this motherly love of the Good Shepherd lacks the challenge and urgency of his rod. For he not only leads us to green pastures and carries us through the valley of shadows, but also claims us as his apprentice shepherds.
As apprentices of the Good Shepherd, we carry both his rod and his staff. Last week someone asked, “But how do I know that God loves me, if he does not rescue me from my suffering?” So I took out the shepherd’s rod of truth and told her of God’s love made real through Jesus Christ. I explained that God communicates through nature, various religions, and different cultures, but that Jesus is the one perfect expression of God’s love. On your behalf I explained how the Good Shepherd suffered for us on the cross, and now suffers with us.
At your spiritual birth of baptism, the Good Shepherd, or if you will, the Good Mother, gave you both his staff and his rod through the gift of the Holy Spirit. On behalf of his rod of truth, this week I posted on our Facebook page an invitation to sign a petition for the world community to rescue the Nigerian students who were abducted. Their plight touches me in part because of the Nigerian girls who were my fellow students at All Saints’ Missionary School. Those girls are now grandmothers, and my heart aches with them in their fear and outrage. Though Enugu is several hundred miles from the village in question, those former classmates must surely be immensely impacted by this injustice, and justifiably outraged. You are welcome to add your voice by going to the All Saints’ Parish Facebook page.
In addition to the rod, we also carry his shepherd’s staff, and we’re privileged to carry sheep on our shoulders. We use the staff of our apprenticeship when we feed the poor, as we do throughout the week, and when we hold the wonderful Small Bites evening to raise funds for food. We use the shepherd’s crook when parishioners visit the sick and lonely, or when the altar guild sets the table for our Eucharistic meal. Today we use our shepherd’s staff by honoring mothers.
The Good Shepherd is the ideal of motherhood. Ideally, every mother carries both the rod and the staff of the Good Shepherd, even if the days of “spare the rod and spoil the child” are gone. Of course, we honor our mothers out of love and respect, not because they were perfect. We honor them because honoring is what apprentice shepherds do. For in honoring others, we follow the Good Shepherd, Jesus. Let us undertake our apprenticeship by taking up both the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd, and let us begin by engaging in the Holy Mystery here at the altar, and then by honoring all mothers.
The Rev. Rick Matters, preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel