The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one that brings comfort to many people.  When I taught Sunday school a few years back, the program that I used, called “Godly play”, believes that the image of the Good Shepherd is so important and so moving, that it dedicates three distinct lessons to it throughout the year.

One of my favorite images of the Good Shepherd was in a stained glass window in the chapel of St. Francis medical center in Evanston, Illinois.  The window was in the back of the Chapel.  I spent many hours sitting by that window the summer I spent as a chaplain there.  I was the chaplain to the inpatient cancer unit and the chapel was right next door.  A very wise and convenient placement, I always thought. 

I think about that window every time I hear psalm 23.  I always appreciated being able to sit by that window when I needed a little extra strength to get through the day.  And believe me, there were many of those days.

That image is especially important to us when death is near.  Part of the message of Easter is that Jesus goes with us wherever we are, even to our deaths; and in his rising to life again, he has transformed the darkness of death to eternal life lived with God.  Even in this dark place, we will hear Jesus call each of us by name; and I am convinced that we will hear his voice and know him when he calls us to new life.

As I thought about the Good Shepherd and the readings for today it was part of our Epistle from first John that first caught my eye:  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  

 This pretty much says it all doesn’t it?  God has continually shown God’s love for humankind through action.  God’s very act of creation is an act of love; I daresay that God’s actions are always actions of love.   The great commandment, spoken by Jesus to his disciples the night before he died, was to love one another as he had loved them.  He acted in many concrete ways that night to remind them and to give them examples of how they should love one another.  But really if we look at the whole of Jesus’ life, wasn’t it lived as one continuous example of love?

If I had to boil the gospel down to a simple sentence it would be “Jesus is love.”  The problem with that sentence is that much of the world has overused the word love so much that we have lost sight of just how radical a concept it is.  We get so caught up in the emotional pieces of love that we sometimes forget that love goes much deeper.  Love, when it is lived out in its fullest, isn’t full of warm, feel good emotions.  Loving another as Jesus loved is hard work for the soul, the heart and sometimes the hands.  It is love that doesn’t stand still, but rather is constantly ill at ease because there is so much for it to do. The Epistle from 1 John tells us that those of us who have goods and means are required to act on behalf of others;  I think, if we are to love as Jesus loves, we must look at his example at the Last Supper and Good Friday.  The language is in the prayers we hear Sunday after Sunday:  He took bread, he broke the bread which he told them was his body; his body was certainly broken that next day; broken so that the whole world without exception might be brought into God’s eternal embrace.  It is there that he meets us, it is there where we must meet others.  Loving as Jesus loves isn’t simply a matter of giving out of our abundance, but it is also loving out of our brokenness, loving out of those dark places of pain and fear that we all have, and reaching out to another who is alone and afraid.  When we love out of our brokenness, Easter joy is ours.  It is loving, truly loving from our souls, from that place that pushes us to act when we think we can’t do one more thing that brings us out of the darkness and into the light.  For it is there that we see him, it is there when darkness is banished; that is part of the message of Easter;  Yes, death is conquered, but telling someone who is hurting that life is better in heaven, or that Jesus loves them without acting upon that love is empty and worthless.  Loving when we think we have nothing else to give, is when we find we have more than we ever thought possible.

When I think about shepherds, I think about those incredible people who have been my shepherds, those who have taught me what it truly means to love; and those lessons often came through places of struggle;  but the beauty of shepherding another, is that struggle is also transformed into strength and into resurrection joy.  I am certain that Jesus often gave of himself from those places of struggle; certainly, we know that Good Friday was the hardest and most painful struggle of all; but there were also those days when the crowds pushed against him, hoping for some word or touch of hope and healing; and even when he tried to get away, he noticed, he spoke, he touched, he fed,  he protected, he gave…

  Those Sunday School lessons that I taught about the Good Shepherd were some of the best times the children and I had together.   In one of the lessons, we got to give names to the sheep, and the children decided to name some of the sheep after themselves.  The storyteller then moves the figure of the shepherd through dark, rocky and dangerous places, leading each of the sheep through to the other side.  Almost instinctively as the toy figures move, the children come close to holding their breaths.  There are audible sighs of relief when all the sheep are through the dark places, reunited with each other and their beloved shepherd beside the spring of cool water, and the sheep can drink and can graze on the green grass.   This is not just a children’s story; it is our story as well.  Even in my time in chaplaincy, I was told that my purpose as chaplain was always to point toward God who would take each of my patients by the hand and lead them through the darkness of death.  I certainly needed to feel the presence of the Shepherd at those bedsides, which is why that chapel window was so important to me.  It is our story to love and lead others through the darkness, whatever that darkness may be so that they can come to the other side, whole and refreshed.  The children would sometimes ask if the shepherd was afraid; I would tell them that yes, I think sometimes the shepherd is afraid.  I know that sometimes I am afraid.  But the shepherd learns the way through so that the dark and scary places aren’t so scary; and he knows the name of each of the sheep so that they can follow his voice to safety.  When we share of ourselves with another, when we share from those dark places, we are saying, “Yes, I know the way… it will be OK.  We will get through it together…”  I wonder… who are each of us being asked to lead through dark places?  What are those places of brokenness that need to be healed?  Can we see through our own brokenness to reach out to another?  Perhaps the question for each of us today is how are each of us going to love another as Jesus has loved us, in all truth and in holy action?