Nurture Preserve

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

This year, at the Oscar Awards, there were nine films nominated for the Best Picture. One of these films portrayed a woman’s search for her son.

The movie is entitled, Philomena; it’s based on a true story. Philomena is an elderly woman who seeks the help of an unemployed journalist who himself is looking for something to write about. The woman wants the journalist to help her find a son who was born out of wedlock decades earlier. The son had gone to America and Philomena never had contact with him again.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, and I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen the movie by giving away the ending.

But I will tell you that in the film the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland doesn’t look good. Apparently, during the 20th century, some orders of nuns sheltered unmarried girls who became pregnant. The nuns cared for the girls until they gave birth; the girls were given work to do in the convent after their babies were born.

But the nuns also allowed American couples to travel to Ireland and adopt the children—without even consulting the poor mothers! While the nuns received donations from the couples, the unwed mothers weren’t even allowed to say goodbye to their children!

In the film, the nuns are cruel. This is particularly disturbing to the viewer: shouldn’t Christians – especially Christians! – go out of their way to support mothers?

After all, Jesus once compared God to a mother hen—a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wings to protect them. And on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we remember how Christ compared himself to a shepherd who cares for his flock.

In today’s Second Lesson, for instance, Jesus says that a shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Christ’s reference to shepherds, of course, is really about God. God loves us and cares for us. We refer to ourselves as “children of God.”

Yet many of us understand the idea of divine nurturing because we first experienced the human form. Indeed, the main reason mothers are honored every year on this day is because they are nurturers. We want to give thanks for the countless hours mothers spend caring for their children and helping them grow up.

Yet just as you don’t have to be a shepherd to care for people, so you don’t have to be a mother in order to nurture. For example, if you aren’t yourself a parent, there are still lots of ways to help children—from teaching Sunday School, to babysitting a neighbor’s kids, to contributing to charities that work with children—like our own Incarnation Camp.

So, too, we try to do our Christian duty to love our neighbors who are adults. That means that we try to help them when they’re struggling.

Such encouragement demands the skills of a shepherd. It takes, for example, patience.

Sheep need to be told more than once what they’re supposed to do. Jesus notes that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice; he could have added that they know it because they have heard him yelling at them! The shepherd has warned the sheep so many times not to go in the wrong direction that his voice is very familiar.

And like sheep, people who need help often resent well-meaning attempts to help them. You know this if you have ever tried to help someone who is struggling with an addiction. You encourage him to go to a Twelve Step Group. You listen to him for hours, as he complains about his problems.

Despite all your efforts, though, your friend may persist in his bad habit. Or he may go into recovery, give it up, only to relapse and succumb to his addiction again a few months later. If you’re going to help him conquer his addiction, you’ll need to stand by him and stick up for him, again and again.

Yet that’s exactly what loving your neighbor demands! As a shepherd directs his sheep away from the edge of a cliff and guides them toward a field of grass, so we help our friends to avoid temptation. When we offer ourselves to others in this way, we do the work of the Good Shepherd.

However, this informal nurturing can be tiring! No wonder that we find all kinds of excuses not to do it! While we respond immediately to the wailing of a hungry baby, we pretend not to notice the personal issues of the adult we know.

Still, at one time or another, everyone wants a helping hand. Even if things are going great right now, there will be moments later in your life when you’ll need someone to share your troubles.

One of the best examples I have ever seen of Christian nurturing involved a woman named Gertrude Macomber. Mrs. Macomber was a retired widow who was living near here, on Park Avenue. She had no church connection and no living relatives. Because she was also a solitary and independent person, she also had few friends.

For some reason—perhaps out of loneliness, Mrs. Macomber began attending Incarnation from time to time. She eventually became part of an informal group of women in our parish who were friends and often went out to dinner together. After a few years, Mrs. Macomber went to our Inquirers’ Class and decided to be confirmed.

A year or two after that, the woman’s connection with our parish family became even more important to her. She was diagnosed with cancer.

Her illness eventually disabled her in various ways and she became dependent on the friends she had made at Incarnation. Those friends ministered faithfully to her until she died.

And there’s an interesting postscript to this story of caring and shepherding. After Mrs. Macomber died, she left her entire estate to the church: a legacy of more than a quarter of a million dollars. As she had wanted, the gift formed a restricted endowment fund. To this day, income from the Macomber Fund supports major capital work on our church buildings.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd made this promise to his disciples: “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” And so the Good Shepherd inspires us in his church to help others to find full, rich abundant life.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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