Psalm 23 and the Complexity of Mother’s Day

Homily, Psalm 23 and the Complexity of Mother’s Day
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C, 2022
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

In 1908 a woman and daughter named Anna Jarvis, seeking to honor the life and dream of her late mother organized a gathering of 400 people in Grafton, West Virginia and 15,000 people in Philadelphia, PA to celebrate the loving dedication of mothers everywhere. Thus was the first official Mother’s Day and it caught on like wild fire. 

The very next year the celebration was observed in 42 states and only six years later, Congress officially designated the second Sunday in May as a national holiday. It seemed the desire to honor mothers and their work resonated deeply with people across the United States.

And yet, for all its popularity, from its conception Mother’s Day was also a controversial celebration. For one thing, there was the battle of who founded Mother’s Day. Yes, it was Anna Jarvis’ campaign which put Mother’s Day on the map, but the idea of Mothers’ Day was advocated for half a century earlier by a number of others who also organized various local events.

Then there was the question of how to celebrate and where to put the apostrophe in “Mothers Day”. The possessive plural implied a public day for mothers to unite as an advocacy group. The possessive singular implied a private day for each family to honor their own mother.

Finally, because of its popularity the day quickly became so commercialized that the price of carnations, chocolates, and cards skyrocketed, creating a shadow over Anna Jarvis’ original intent for the day. 

In the end, Anna Jarvis, the one who had worked so hard to put Mother’s Day on the map started a new campaign to get rid of it. 

Of course while Ms. Jarvis’ first campaign was overwhelmingly successful, her second fell flat. Today we continue to celebrate Mother’s Day in full force. For many it’s a day full of joy and reverence as we tell stories, behold memories, and embrace one another. In the United States, Mother’s Day is second only to Christmas in gift-giving and many other countries have also taken it up as a holiday. For many, Mother’s Day is a special day.

And yet many continue to wrestle with the holiday’s complexity as well. For many, Mother’s Day is a day of mixed feelings and grief. How do you celebrate mother’s day when your mother has died? How do you celebrate as a mother when you’ve lost a child? How do you celebrate when the relationship between mother and child is strained or broken? How do you celebrate when you’ve longed to be a mother but it hasn’t happened? How do you celebrate when you feel pressure to be a certain kind of mother or shamed for not being a mother?

And so even for us, Mother’s Day continues to be a complicated day full of complicated emotions. We have to be gentle with one another. Some of us in this room will be having a joyous and fun-filled day. Some of us in this room are wondering how we will make it through the day.

With all that in mind, I’d like to draw your attention then to the psalm appointed for today. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.” 

Today also happens to be Good Shepherd Sunday, our parish matronal feast day. And every year on Good Shepherd Sunday we read this beloved and well-worn Psalm. As is the case this year, often Good Shepherd Sunday and Mother’s Day coincide and I think Psalm 23 is just the Psalm for this day. 

There are, after all, a lot of similarities between shepherds and our notion of mothers, aren’t there? Both watch over and protect. Both lead and guide. Both of them seem to always have clothing smeared with something gross and unknown.

There’s something quite motherly about this Psalm then, isn’t there? If you changed the word “shepherd” to “mother,” most of it would still make sense. “She makes me lie down.” “She guides me along right paths.” “She prepares a table before me.”

We don’t too often think of the Lord as our mother. After all, we’re so used to praying the words Jesus taught us, “Our Father.” And yet there is something that just makes sense about God being our mother as well, an idea often expressed in Scripture itself and Church tradition.

Psalm 131 describes being in God’s presence like a child being nursed. In Isaiah 66 God speaks to Israel saying, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Just a few weeks ago Fr. Doug preached on the image of Jesus in the gospels as a mother hen and the epistles often speak of Christians as those being born or birthed of God. 

In the first centuries of the Church, saints such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and John Chrysostom described the blood of Christ as a mother’s milk to nurture us, Anselm called Jesus a mother gathering her children, and finally Julian of Norwich, a saint and mystic from the 14th century, whose feast day just so happens to also be today, wrote, “God chose to be our mother in all things…Christ came in our poor flesh to share a mother’s care.”

With such a long history of seeing God as mother then, looking at Psalm 23 as a motherly Psalm may not be such a far stretch. 

And for that reason Psalm 23 is such a perfect Psalm for this day. And not only because it can be seen as motherly, but also because of its ability to carry us in this day’s complexity. There’s a reason Psalm 23 is so often read at funerals and communal celebrations. It’s a Psalm in which we can place our grief and our joy. 

Whatever complicated feelings we are carrying on this Mother’s Day, Psalm 23 can bear the weight. Whatever we feel today, whether it be joy and celebration or grief and despair or a mixture of many emotions, this Psalm invites us to walk with the Lord our Shepherd—to walk with the Lord our Mother—through both green pastures and dark valleys. And to be comforted in God’s presence. Whatever relationships we have with our mothers today this Psalm allows us to rest in the relationship we have with our Mother God.

So my prayer on this Mother’s Day morning, is that you might receive this Psalm as an opportunity to offer your Mother’s Day emotions to God. If you are feeling joyful, joyfully proclaim that your cup is running over. If you are feeling grief, rest in God’s comfort. If your feelings are too complicated to name, walk in silence with God along the quiet stream. This morning let God not only be your shepherd, but your mother. 

I invite you then to take your bulletins, and let us pray again this psalm together. 

Let us pray.

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Amen.