I remember the first time my mother didn’t send me a birthday card. It’s not that my birthday is such a big deal, but my Mom never forgot anything, especially a child or grandchild’s birthday. Her forgetfulness was small and insignificant at first. The name of an old neighbor. Whether she was driving to her Women’s Bible Study or being picked up by another. We paid those lapses no attention—we all forget things like that. But one of her children’s birthdays? That was a memory loss of a different order.
The Missing Birthday Card Episode occurred four years ago. I remembered it this week as I celebrated my birthday—without any acknowledgement from my parents. But I didn’t expect to hear from them. They have other things to think about. Fortunately, I was able to spend time with them last weekend—a quick unplanned trip because my father’s health has taken a dramatic turn. (Thank you for understanding my need to be away from you last Sunday.) And while a birthday greeting would have been nice, it was gift enough to see them.
But her forgetfulness is haunting. Can a mother forget her children? I didn’t think it was possible, but now I know it is. And I find myself a little at loose ends. Suffering a bit of anticipatory grief, trying to imagine a world without my parents in it. And feeling, as Jesus would say, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Sunday’s scripture texts indicate that that feeling of helplessness, of aimlessness, is nothing new. As they set out on their wilderness journey, God offered the people of Israel assurance that, even as they wandered sans GPS they would be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples.” (Exodus 19.2-8a) The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, acknowledging the inevitability of trouble: “we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance . . . “ (Romans 5.1-8) And in the gospel reading (Matthew 9.35-10.23) Jesus himself was overwhelmed by the trouble around him. Everywhere he went he was accosted by crowds in need of something—food, shelter, forgiveness, healing. He realized he could not care for them alone, so he commissioned the twelve disciples to do what he did. Everywhere he looked, Jesus saw need. Sheep without a shepherd. Followers without a leader. Students without a teacher. Children without a mother.
Please join us Sunday morning for a special event in our life together. We have invited the shepherds and flocks of St. James the Less Episcopal Church and Northfield Community Church to our pasture this Sunday. We will worship together in the sanctuary at 10 a.m. We have assembled a joint choir. Our nursery will be staffed for little children, and children ages 3-8 will be invited to “Children’s Church” during the sermon. My colleagues Pastor Lisa Senuta and Pastor Duayne Meyer and I will share leadership and preaching. Afterward, we invite you to stay for an indoor picnic (the weather is threatening). But the joy and hubbub of being together in ministry will be shadowed by the “harassed and helpless” ethos in which we live.
Who can forget the image of our elected leaders, most accustomed to lobbying bills and sometimes lobbing balls, dodging bullets on Wednesday? Who can imagine the grief of Londoners recovering from fire or the citizens of Kabul enduring yet more terrorist attacks? Every day’s local news reports on more domestic and neighborhood violence. How do we measure the helplessness in our own lives—the sorrow and need we each endure? We certainly cannot forget it.
Last Sunday morning, before my husband I and started the seven-hour drive home from Titonka, I said good-bye to my father, perhaps for the last time. I was crying as I left his room, speechless and unable to hide the tears. Just as I was about to leave the building, I heard someone call my name. It was Phyllis, a long-time neighbor from the farm and member of my home church who now lives in the care center with my parents. She beckoned me over and, without a word, opened her arms to me. I knelt beside her wheel chair and laid my head on her shoulder. She patted my hair as I cried, whispering, “I know. I know.” And she does. She knows what it is to be harassed and helpless. She also knows what it is to be comforted. And remembered. By Jesus, whom she has followed all her life, and by those whom Jesus sends on his behalf.
Today I give thanks for Phyllis, and for my Mom and Dad who raised me in the faith, and for countless others who bring Jesus’ hope and healing to sad children like me. I hope to see you Sunday, but if you are traveling, I pray you will not be “harassed and helpless” but loved and nurtured, remembered by God and by us.
Another year older and grateful for it,
Pastor JoAnn Post