My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)
A long time ago when kids still played games like Simon Says, and Red Rover for real entertainment, and actually to pass the time, most of us also participated at least once, but probably more often than that, in an egg carry race – maybe at a school fair or a church picnic or something like that. I expect that these pastimes have been replaced by other activities that are engaged on the Internet, but perhaps by the grace of God I am wrong about that, and children are still sometimes sent outside to play.
In any case, the rules of the egg carry (or the egg-and-spoon race, as it is sometimes called) remain simple: competitors are each given a spoon to hold, onto which an egg is placed, and they have to race to the finish line without dropping the egg. Sometimes the race is run as a relay. In the advanced version you put the handle of the spoon in your mouth and carry the egg that way. Mothers believe that this race should be run using hard-boiled eggs. Bolder children, especially boys, prefer the idea of using raw eggs that will crack and splat if dropped, bringing some of the thrill of the egg toss to the somewhat less treacherous egg carry. I suppose it can work either way.
Games with eggs, like the egg carry and the egg toss, are played almost entirely for fun; they are not meant to impart life lessons, and they almost certainly are not meant to convey theological truths. If stretched these games may teach simple lessons about fragility and risk. The challenge of the egg carry is that it is difficult to balance an ovoid object (with or without a liquid center) on the end of a spoon. Eggs will be dropped, and broken, but life goes on. After all, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, don’t you? Eggs are essentially disposable objects in American culture, their original galline function as the capsule of new life notwithstanding.
By way of contrast to the egg carry, there is the deliberately didactic exercise posed to high school students in some schools of caring for an “egg baby” (as they are called) as though it were your own infant child. This exercise is, I think, generally intended to discourage teenagers from advancing too quickly toward parenthood. The egg babies (also normally hard-boiled) are fragile and easy to neglect, and therefore represent a consummation devoutly not to be wished, to borrow an old phrase. Perhaps caring for an egg baby is really not so different from the egg carry – just the same thing in slow motion. In both cases, eggs are going to be broken, it’s largely a question of how many and how quickly.
You can learn a lot from an egg.
It is startling how often and how regularly these days we are jolted into the painful recognition that life is risky and fragile, and sometimes seems as nearly likely to be broken as an egg carried on the end of a spoon. This past week it was Boston, near the finish line of the marathon, and the smallest egg, the most adorable, and innocent, and fragile egg on that dreadful day was an eight-year-old boy named Martin Richard.
I know the tiniest bit, from spending time in the company of my twin nephews, who will turn eight this summer, how caring for children can seem like an egg carry. Some parents are more adept at it than others, some more or less anxious, some better resourced than others, and some children are more fragile than others, some more hard-boiled. But what can a parent, or an uncle, or a friend, or even an innocent by-stander do when someone is intent on knocking your egg off the spoon, or worse yet, blowing it to bits with a homemade bomb?
You look at the face of this child, as we looked at the faces of the youngsters so recently killed in Newtown, Connecticut, and you know that this is not a game, but that life is every bit as risky and fragile and precious – only ten-thousand times more so – as that egg you used to try to carry all the way to the finish line. And the lesson we seem to be being taught is similar to the lesson we learned at the school fair, the church picnic: eggs will be broken, and there isn’t always anything that you can do about it. But that lesson, translated to account for the life of an eight-year-old boy is now neither benign nor commonplace; it is tragic and heart-breaking in the extreme.
A person of faith might well ask why God has allowed things to develop this way. A parent who accepts the risk of raising her child – her egg on the end of a spoon – might ask why bullies are allowed to knock her egg off the spoon for no good reason? Why they are allowed to shoot at her egg with high-powered weapons? Why her egg was attacked by disease in the first weeks of his life? Or why, no matter how carefully she swaddles her egg with protection, it will always be susceptible to shrapnel?
And anyone who is truthful with you about religion will tell you the only honest answer to those questions: Nobody knows. Nobody knows why life is as risky and fragile as an egg being carried on the end of a spoon in a race to the finish line. And nobody knows why God allows so many of his eggs to be cracked, scrambled, smashed, ruined, broken to bits, even though they are the works of his own hands.
But if God does not provide the answers we want, he is not entirely silent, either. “Horatio,” says God (channeling Shakespeare) “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it another way, speaking for God, when he wrote, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” I should hope not.
We overheard some of God’s thoughts in the Gospel reading today: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
“No one will snatch them out of my hand, for your ways are not my ways," says the Lord.
God knows how like an egg carry life can seem to us. Lest we should doubt this, he sent his Son into the world with the expectation that he would be reviled, beaten, shamed, and killed – in a show of solidarity with all those who are at the riskier, more fragile end of life’s spectrum.
Although this is almost certainly not what the writer of John’s gospel was getting at when he was writing, it is my hope that in some ways that writer misunderstood things that Jesus said. And part of the message of Jesus’ teaching, and of his death and resurrection is this: Eggs are easily broken in your hands, my children, but no one will snatch them out of my hand.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.
We often speak sentimentally about being held in the palm of God’s hand, and this image remains only sentimental until we remember how risky and fragile life is in our own hands – indeed, how much life is like being balanced on an end of a spoon, clenched between someone’s teeth, while others try to knock you off the spoon with one or another explosive device.
We get to the end of a week like this one and there are broken eggs all over the place – blood spilled, limbs shorn off, and life taken, just like that – and what hope is there that next week will not be just another egg carry in which the riskiness and fragility of life are tested again? More poignantly, what words of comfort or consolation can be spoken to the injured and grieving parents of Martin Richard, whose son has just been snatched violently out of their hands?
Words of comfort and consolation are few in times like these, and many of those offered are cheap, as well. Those worth saying include this assurance from the Lord of Life: No one will snatch him out of my hand. This is God’s promise to us egg-carriers in a risky and fragile world. For Christ has already taken that fragile, easily broken egg and swaddled him in protective wool – just like the kids swaddling their egg babies with tissue paper and cotton balls.
Thus clothed, the egg has now been dubbed a lamb by Jesus, who is teaching him the sound of his voice, singing him gentle songs, I imagine, to soothe the transition into his new life. And he speaks the words in truth that every parent wishes they had the power to make true: “No one will snatch you out of my hand. No one.”
Faith in Jesus does not always provide answers to life’s difficult questions, like why life is so easily compared to a children’s game in which eggs are bound to be broken. But faith in Jesus does bring with it this promise: No one will snatch you out of my hand.
There are those, of course who will try, and they may do so armed to the teeth. But the Lord is your shepherd, and though you are fragile as an egg, you have been dubbed a lamb, too, in his eyes.
Each of us is riding through this life, cradled gingerly in the shallow bowl of a spoon, so often exposed to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And we discover, as we grow older, that even by taking up arms against a sea of troubles, we cannot, in this difficult and violent world, by opposing end them. Which is why it is good news to discover that we fragile eggs have all been dubbed lambs, that the Lord is our shepherd, and that no one will snatch us out of his hand.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
21 April 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia