While I was in San Antonio attending the Festival of Homiletics my favorite spot to relax was the Riverwalk. It’s a network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River that is one story beneath the streets of downtown. These interconnected walkways are filled with shops and restaurants, along with the plants and wildlife that call the Riverwalk their home. When I needed a break from an overload of information, I would grab my camera, head to the Riverwalk, and see what caught my eye.
My favorite subject to shoot was the mallard ducks who have adapted and thrive in this urban landscape. I dubbed them “San Antonio Pigeons” because there were so many of them. I was fortunate enough to be there after the ducklings had hatched and were exploring the world around them.
All I can say is “God bless those Mama Ducks!” Each of them had anywhere from 4-8 babies, who were darting across the water in all directions, exploring this fascinating new world with its enticing smells and sounds. These ducklings were completely unaware of the potential dangers that lurked around every bend of the river. Thankfully, their mamas were not! You’ve heard the phrase “herding cats,” Well, “herding ducklings” works just as well.
These mama mallards were amazing to watch as they lovingly but persistently quacked out orders to their overly-energetic children. As I watched them, I began to understand EXACTLY what they were saying: “Don’t you go running off all by yourself. You’re gonna get yourself hurt. I know that looks like fun, but you’re gonna get into trouble if you do it. If I have to tell you to come over here ONE MORE TIME!”
These mama mallards were tireless and vigilant in their care for their babies. Many times they would literally put their bodies between the ducklings and the tourist boats which passed by on a regular basis. I am certain that even at the end of the day, when all those little babies were tucked safely in the nest, their mamas still kept a watchful eye into the wee hours of the night.
At the beginning of the week, when I read Matthew’s description of Jesus in our gospel lesson, those mama ducks came to mind. Matthew says “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We love this description of Jesus because we would like to think that this is the way he cares for us.
Who among us has never felt harassed and helpless? Perhaps this is the way we’re feeling this morning. Maybe it’s because it took a Herculean effort to get our kids fed, dressed and ready for church. Maybe it’s because we had a crazy week at work that left us feeling depleted and exhausted. Maybe it’s because we got discouraging news from our doctor.
There are many things that cause us to feel harassed and helpless. I don’t need to name them all because they are familiar companions to everyone. The original Greek used here paints a picture of sheep running in every direction at top speed. They have no plan of where they’re going. They are oblivious to the dangers which surround them. Furthermore, they have no one to protect them and all this aimless wandering leaves them feeling worn out and exhausted.
This is how Matthew describes the way Jesus looks at the crowds who gather around him. It is the way that Jesus looks at us as well. Thankfully, he’s not content to leave us this way. He has compassion on the harassed and helpless. This doesn’t mean he feels sorry for us. It means he loves us so much that he’s not content to leave us in this pitiful condition. And so, like a mama mallard, he lovingly but persistently quacks out orders to his overly-energetic children:
“Don’t you go running off all by yourself. You’re gonna get yourself hurt. I know that looks like fun, but you’re gonna get into trouble if you do it. If I have to tell you to come over here ONE MORE TIME!”
Jesus has compassion on the harassed and helpless. He gives them his best wisdom for how to navigate the dangers that lurk around every corner. He shares with them the good news that a new kingdom, a new way of living, is possible. He heals their illnesses and injuries and liberates them from whatever demons are possessing us.
Who among us does not want Jesus to treat us the same way? Who among us does not want to experience the compassionate care of the Good Shepherd? Thankfully, Jesus promises that this care is available to those who call on him. Elsewhere in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Mt 11:28-30] And so, the harassed and helpless, find compassionate care in the arms of Jesus. The sheep find their shepherd and the ducklings have their mama to keep a watchful eye on them.
But this is not the end of the story. Our gospel lesson reminds us that the sheep are expected to embody the same compassionate care as the shepherd. Say what? You can’t be serious! How in the world can the harassed and helpless care for the harassed and helpless? Can’t we wait until we feel stronger or until we have some free time in our busy schedules? Can’t we just rest in the arms of our Shepherd FOREVER?
I hate to break it to you, but the answer to that question is “No.” It’s true Jesus’ compassionate care is always available to us when we need it. But, at the same time, we are expected show this same compassionate care to one another. The good news is that we don’t need to be strong enough to do it ourselves. Jesus is able to work through us, and use the harassed and helpless, to care for the harassed and helpless.
In the second portion of our gospel lesson, Jesus sends out the twelve to do the same work that he was doing: to share his wisdom for how to navigate the dangers that lurk around every corner. To proclaim the good news that a new kingdom, a new way of living, is possible. To help heal their illnesses and injuries and liberate them from whatever demons are possessing them.
I know you’re probably thinking, “Give me a break! They were Jesus’ original disciples. They were spiritual superstars who knew Jesus personally. But little old ‘harassed and helpless’ me? I don’t think I can pull it off.”
If you have any doubt that the harassed and helpless can care for the harassed and helpless, don’t forget that the original disciples were far from perfect. Peter, put his foot in his mouth numerous times in the gospels. Matthew, as a tax collector, carried with him the reputation of being a Roman sympathizer. Nearly all of the disciples fled the scene when Jesus was crucified. Mary Magdalene was previously possessed by seven demons. So you know she had a past. [Mt 16:9, Lk 8:2]
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Jesus’ original followers were far from perfect. Yet Jesus used these harassed and helpless disciples to continue the work of the kingdom; to show to others the same compassionate care they had received from Jesus. We are called to do the same. Baby ducklings are supposed to grow up and become mama ducks. It is the natural order of things.
But like I said earlier, the good news is that we do not have to do this holy work on our own. Pentecost reminds us that the power of the Holy Sprit goes with us. The wind and flame helps us to channel our inner mama mallard who calls out to our overly-energetic neighbors and friends: “Don’t you go running off all by yourself. You’re gonna get yourself hurt. I know that looks like fun, but you’re gonna get into trouble if you do it. If I have to tell you to come over here ONE MORE TIME!”
Friends in Christ, if you still have any doubt that God can use the harassed and helpless to care for the harassed and helpless, I offer you the words of one red-hot-mess of a disciple, St. Paul. Trust me, he wrestled wth more than his fair share off demons!
“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh…Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” [2 Cor 12:7-10] Trust me, we are equipped to do this work, because both Jesus and the Holy Spirit empower us to do it!
In a few minutes, we are going to baptize Lennon Gabriella-Elena Johnson. She may seem like a little overly-energetic duckling, but Jesus sees that within her lies the spirit of a fierce and protective mother mallard. It will take some time for this inner spirit to be revealed in her outer nature. But I have every confidence that she will get there, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the compassionate care of Jesus, and the love and support of her family, as well as all of us.
The harassed and helpless can change the world. Jesus thought we could pull it off. Let’s have the same confidence in ourselves as Jesus does in us! AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck