A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 19, 2015 (Proper 11, Year B)
“Free-range parenting” has been in the news recently. You may have heard about those two kids, ten and six-year-old siblings, in Silver Spring, Maryland, who were placed in the custody of Child Protective Services a couple months ago after they were spotted walking home alone from a neighborhood park.
The incident spurred nationwide debate over parenting practices and the appropriate degree of parental involvement in the lives of children. Free-range parenting is basically a reaction to the whole concept of “helicopter parenting,” where mothers and fathers hover over their over-protected and over-scheduled children. Or as my kids tell me when I unreasonably demand to know when they’ll be home, “stop being such a drone parent.” Which I guess is the next level up from helicopter.
There has certainly been a shift in the way parenting has evolved over the last couple of generations. Truth be told, by today’s standards, we were all neglected children — or at least anyone over the age of about 30. Left on our own to use our imaginations or to find our own friends to play with or, something my children literally can’t relate to, only being able to watch cartoons on Saturday morning. There was no 24-hour Cartoon Network! If you missed Saturday morning TV, you had to wait an entire week to watch the Flintstones. And it’s amazing any of us made it to adulthood, what with all those cribs that have since been declared choking hazards, no bike helmets, and the way we used to lie down in the back of the station wagon on long car trips.
Now, I’m not wading into the middle of this — and I don’t want this to turn into a “get off my lawn” rant — every family has a different situation and there’s probably an appropriate balance somewhere between the two extremes. But it does make you wonder where Jesus would be on this continuum. Was he more of a free-range shepherd or a helicopter shepherd? Did he just leave his disciples to wander around the countryside unaccompanied or did he follow them around watching their every move?
I guess I have sheep on the brain because this morning feels a bit like a mini-Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we get the full-blown deal. We hear Jesus proclaim “I am the Good Shepherd;” we sing the 23rd Psalm; sheep wander around all the readings; pastoral images abound in hymns like “The King of Love my Shepherd is” (which we’re actually singing this morning) and choir anthems like “Sheep Safely Graze” (which we’re not).
Today we’re not doing the whole sheep thing to quite that degree. But we do hear about Jesus looking with compassion upon a crowd that he compares to “sheep without a shepherd” and the prophet Jeremiah rails against the leaders of Israel who mismanaged their responsibility, comparing them to bad shepherds who lead their flocks astray where they are scattered and devoured. And we also get that 23rd psalm which reminds us that as the Lord is indeed our shepherd, we shall not be in want.
But the question remains, is Jesus a free-range shepherd or a helicopter shepherd? I mean he did send the disciples out two-by-two so, even if he did insist on the buddy system, there was at least a degree of independence. On the other hand his farewell discourse in John’s gospel goes on for five chapters so he’s not exactly trusting them to go it alone without any instructions.
Perhaps the point is that we have a shepherd who meets us where we are. One who goes after us like the lost sheep who has gone astray when we inevitably do stray from the fold. One who cradles us in his arms and comforts us in times of need or crisis. But also one who sends us out to do the work he has given us to do. The one who entrusts us to be the Church, his Church, even when we make a mess of it.
Like children, there are times when we need to be watched and cared for even when we seek to assert our independence. And there are times when we need space to make our own mistakes, to fail on our own terms, to be picked up, dusted off, comforted, and sent back out equipped with a new perspective and a lesson learned.
We vacillate between vulnerability and confidence in our daily lives just as we vacillate between faith and doubt in our relationship with Jesus Christ. As with parenting styles, our lives are lived on a continuum, and our spiritual needs change and evolve depending on the circumstances presented. It’s why the apostle Paul, in talking about spiritual maturity, uses the analogy of an infant transitioning from milk to solid food. There are times when we are not ready to be sent out on our own; when we need to be watched and nurtured. And there are times when we are able to handle greater demands and responsibilities.
If we think about God as a spiritual parent — and many of our images of God point in this direction — it’s helpful to think about the human parental relationship. The thing is, we don’t own our children. We are temporary stewards of them, yes, but ultimately they will become the people God has created them to be. We guide, protect, teach and generally do our best to share our values with them but in time they will need to make their own way in the world, just as we have done. In the same way, God has created us, provided for us, and yet sets us free to forge our own identities. In time we realize we can’t do this all by ourselves, that we can only experience true freedom “with God’s help,” as we proclaim in our baptismal vows.
And, look at that — coincidentally we just happen to have a couple of baptisms this morning. I love when things all comes together. Because at baptism, we initiate and mark that indissoluble bond between an individual and Jesus Christ. But Jesus doesn’t then stalk us for the rest of our lives. The invitation to relationship is always extended. But Jesus doesn’t hen peck or helicopter us to death. He so desires to be in relationship with us because he wants us to experience that incredible peace and freedom that comes through faith in him. Baptism reminds us that Jesus is always present in our lives; whether or not we always recognize him, he is there patiently and lovingly waiting for us to notice and to respond.
So I guess Jesus is a bit more free-range than helicopter in his relationship with us. We’re never neglected; we’re allowed to wander and fail, but we’re never forsaken or abandoned; we’re always welcomed home with arms wide open. It’s a relationship rooted in love, the perfect model for our own parenting and one that reminds us that in order to truly thrive, we all so need that Good Shepherd.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck