In the Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, part of that wonderful series of books written by CS Lewis about the land of Narnia, we read about Aslan the Lion, the Christ character in the series. After the Pevensie children learn about Aslan on their first trip to Narnia,
Lucy, the youngest, asks, "Is he safe?" Mr. Beaver replies, "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."
I love that description of Aslan that He isn’t safe but he is good. What if we thought of Jesus in that way, as the Good Shepherd, he isn’t safe but he is good. Now some of that goes again the grain. Like when we hear and read the 23rd Psalm, a Psalm often recited at funerals, and we feel comforted by the words…
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
It is a very reassuring image of God as our shepherd. Likewise, Jesus as the Good Shepherd presents us such a lovely, pastoral, calm images of Jesus and his sheep (see our stained glass window). And certainly such loving, caring images are part of our faith and there are times when we really need to hear them in our lives. But there is more to Jesus as the Good Shepherd and his care of the sheep.
As Alice Camille writes, “Jesus says his sheep hear his voice, which means we are all called. Whether we listen is another matter. But the call is issued broadly. We are called into union with God. We are called into relationship with each other. We are called to work for the harvest and to produce the work of our hands… for each of us receives the invitation to holy living. How we live that out will vary greatly, but that doesn't mean God desires any one of us less than another. Which means our lives matter — a lot. What we do with our time and energy and love matters. Our decisions count. We ought to be on a spiritual journey and not be halfhearted about it. God isn't a hobby but our ultimate destiny.” (“Hear My Voice" by Alice Camille, 2001)
Jesus contrasts his call and his role to that of the hired hand, who does it out of money, who does it for self but not out of love for others, who flees when the going gets tough. Responsibility, honor, faith only play a role as it benefits the hired hand. But the Good Shepherd who died on the cross does not expect payment, what he expects is a relationship, a relationship not based on fear or reward but on love, hope, faith.
We don't follow Jesus the Good Shepherd for a reward, we do it to find wholeness in our relationship with God and one another, we do it because we know that in God's eyes we are all children of God. We also know that by serving others, seeking out the best for them, we are serving God. And that is part of the call to follow Jesus. It does not lead us down the safe and easy path.
As we heard in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John were arrested for teaching about Jesus and the resurrection and they also helped heal on the Sabbath. In following the Good Shepherd, the apostles helped heal and continued to witness to their faith which put them in confrontation with the leaders who did not believe in Jesus or his works.
The Good Shepherd cares for the sheep and will lay down his life for the sake of the sheep. Likewise his apostles followed his path for the sake of the other sheep. Jesus and his way are not safe but he is good! It is this humility and compassion that we are also called to live if we follow the Good Shepherd. For our love must be not just mere words, but something active and genuine.
As we live in this of the H1N1 Flu pandemic, I think back to 1878 and those who followed the Good Shepherd in the midst of a horrible epidemic of that time.
In August, 1878, Yellow Fever invaded the city of Memphis for the third time in ten years. By the month’s end the disease had become epidemic and a quarantine was ordered. While 30,000 citizens had fled in terror, 20,000 more remained to face the pestilence. As cases multiplied, death tolls averaged 200 daily. When the worst was over ninety percent of the population had contracted the Fever; more than 5,000 people had died. In that time of panic and flight, many brave men and women, both lay and cleric, remained at their posts of duty or came as volunteers to assist despite the terrible risk. Notable among these heroes were Constance, Superior of the work of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, and her Companions. The Sisters had come to Memphis in 1873, to found a Girls School adjacent to St. Mary’s Cathedral. When the 1878 epidemic began, George C. Harris, the Cathedral Dean, and Sister Constance immediately organized relief work among the stricken. Helping were six of Constance’s fellow Sisters; several local priests, three physicians, the Sisters’ two matrons, and several volunteer nurses from New York. The Cathedral buildings were located in the most infected region of Memphis. Here, amid sweltering heat and scenes of indescribable horror, these men and women of God gave relief to the sick, comfort to the dying, and homes to the many orphaned children. Only two of the workers escaped the Fever, and Constance and many others died. They have ever since been known as “The Martyrs of Memphis,” as have those of other Communions who ministered in Christ’s name during that time of desolation. (from Lesser Feasts and Fasts)
We are called to follow the Good Shepherd and his example, not to be the hired hand who has no relationship, no connection with others, but to go even when others or danger would tell us not to, not expecting a reward, but living out of the love that God has shared with each of us with a willingness to share that love with others even in the midst of a pandemic.
The stained glass window is beautiful but we can't let the Good Shepherd remain there. He's not a tame lion [of Aslan] Mr. Tumnus remarks at the end of the book, LWW: to which Lucy replies: No... but he is good.
Jesus will not be tamed but he is good and if we follow the Good Shepherd, we will find life, a life full of hope, love and faith. It may not always be the safest or easiest journey, but on that path we will find life and find it abundantly. Let me end with the prayer that is said September 9 to commemorate Constance and her companions, the martyrs of Memphis. Let us pray.
We give you thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the heroic witness of Constance and her companions, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death: Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us, our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.