There is some insightful theology in the words of a little girl who learned the 23rd Psalm in Sunday School. When called upon to recite it, she began, The Lord is my Shepherd; that s all I want.
When your image of God and your experience converge, then faith has meaning. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the oldest and dearest pictures of God in the New Testament. It really doesn t matter that there are few shepherds around for us anymore, because we know at least this: that a shepherd looks for the lost sheep. We do not need to know shepherds to grasp that image that Jesus will find us when we lose him. It is for us an image of God s love for us in our loneliness, abandonment, and desperation.
Whenever I think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, I remember a sunny summer Saturday when I was about 12. I had gone to play with the usual gang of friends about four miles out of town, on a big old hill that we used to think was a mountain. I spent a lot of time on that hill in my youth. It was filled with old stone walls built by someone years and years ago. A ruined house stood there with enough walls left to still be haunted. There were caves to explore, forts to build, and, if you knew the right spot. you could see the Hudson River displayed magnificently a few miles to the East. This was no ordinary hill, but a place of wonder filled with the sheer magic of childhood.
On this particular day, I was admonished by my father to meet him at the bottom of the hill at exactly 3 o clock. There was something important happening, although I no longer remember what it was. All I do remember was the feeling that I had better be there when he got there.
The day wore on and as usual I tried to stretch every minute out of it. Finally I knew I had better leave. I started off alone down the path we used. Then it happened. I still don t know how. I had walked that path a thousand times. My mind must have drifted which wasn t unusual, and suddenly I found myself on a strange path I didn t recognize. I tried going back. And the more I walked, and then ran, the more lost I became. The more lost I became, the more afraid I was. I don t know how long I wandered that undulating hillside trying to get back and succeeding only in getting further away. I knew I was in trouble, big trouble, there was no way I was going to be there on time. Even worse, my imagination began to click into high gear. I began to remember stories about bears in these woods. And, like children everywhere, we had told our stories of crazy people who looked for lost children, and I was now in that category.
Finally I sat down under a tree not knowing where I was. I had gotten down the hill, but on a side that I had never been before, and where there was a deep ravine, and more forest. I didn t know the time or how long I had wandered. I wanted to cry, but I was too scared. I just sat there.
This would be a great Good Shepherd story if I told you that at that very moment my Dad came out of the woods to find me and bring me home, but it didn t happen that way. What did happen was that I remembered a mural of Jesus on the wall in a Sunday School room. It was a picture of the Good Shepherd and the lost sheep. It seemed odd to me even then that, as close to panic as I was, I would remember that picture. I was not the kind of boy who spent much time thinking about the walls in my Sunday School, and this particular mural was probably in a second grade classroom that I had attended long before. I remember to this day, as clearly as I see you, that image on the wall cutting through my fear. And so I said in my desperation out loud to Jesus, Please find me. I am lost, I am really lost Jesus and I don t know how to get home.
No miracle happened. Nobody came through the woods. No angel flew in, no cavalry to the rescue not Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, or any of those things that happen in the movies. Except something did happen inside me that I still count today as an encounter with Jesus. Some place deep inside, below my fear and trembling, I felt His touch, His presence. Alone as I was, I knew I was not ultimately alone. Whether a bear or monster came out of these unfamiliar woods, I was not alone. Nothing changed, I was still lost and late. But I felt Jesus there. I knew I was going to be fine. I got up and started to walk again. Not far from where I was sitting I came upon an old dirt road. It wasn t a road I knew. I wasn t sure which direction to go. So I took my best guess. After what seemed an endless walk, I began to recognize where I was and the way I should go.
Finally rounding the bend, I saw my father s car. And I remembered how late I was. Part of me wanted to run back into the woods, not because he would be so angry, but because I had let him down. When I reached the car he wasn t there, but shortly he came down the path I should have taken. He had been looking for me. We looked at each other. I said, I m sorry. Maybe it was the look of tension on my face, maybe he just knew, but he simply put his arm on my shoulder and said, Let s go pal, we re late.
That turned out to be one of the formative religious experiences of my life, though I didn t know it till years later. I know deep in my soul the Good Shepherd is real and that I am not alone not on that hillside or anyplace else. I found out that day what it was like to be a sheep, lost, scared, alone. I have never forgotten that feeling. And it has stayed with me in other difficult situations.
There are times when all of us are lost sheep. You don t have to be in the woods to be lost. You don t even have to be on unfamiliar terrain. Some of us are lost in relationships that don t work anymore. Some of us are lost in jobs that don t lead anywhere. Some of us have lost our faith. Some of us are more alone than we have ever been in our lives. Some of us are scared about our futures. Some of us are just plain lost and wandering.
There are parts of every life when loneliness or despair can overwhelm us, even threaten to break us. Places where tears won t come and even if they did they wouldn t suffice. When we are lost and alone our focus becomes pre-eminently ourselves. We tend to look at our toes or search the world for where the danger might appear. The more lost we are, the more difficult it becomes to see where we ought to be going.
None of us escapes being lost sheep. There is no magic, religious or otherwise to bring us home again. Life doesn t come with a road map in the glove compartment, and even if it did, it would be out of date.
At the bottom of the dark nights, the loneliness, the despair, there is something beyond ourselves. What is there is a Voice. Small and quiet, deep beneath the darkness, through our anguish, it speaks and says I am with you. In reality and in mystery, I am with you. I will not leave you here. I will bring you home, if you can lay your fear and mistrust on me. I will help you find your way. It is faith that allows us to say, I am not alone.
For me the most important part of that story was when I finally found my father. Every lost sheep wonders what it will be like to come home again. He could have yelled at me and told me I was late or stupid or something. But I think he was as glad to see me as I was to see him. And you know I will always remember him in that moment for he took my fear and treated it with love.
William Sloane Coffin once said, The difference between a Boy Scout and a Christian is that a Boy Scout is always enjoined to speak the truth, while a Christian is enjoined to speak the truth in love. It is that in love part that makes shepherds of us all. The willingness to respond to people, to each other, and not just the situation. The willingness not to blame the lost sheep for getting lost, but to welcome him home. Jesus is a welcomer. Someone who is not only glad to see you, but one who goes out to find you. Jesus doesn t worry much about the purity of our faith, but cares more for the integrity of our love.
Will Campbell, the clever Southern Baptist writer and minister, says, We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway. And we are all sheep, with smelly parts, dumb parts, and a passivity for holy things, but God, God loves us anyway. And the Good Shepherd never, never leaves us alone. No matter who we are, or how far we have strayed away, we are always welcome home.
Let Us Pray:
You know where we are and where we are lost.
We cannot get home alone.
We don t know the right way, or have the right words.
We don t even know which direction to turn.
Sometimes we just want to sit here and die.
But Lord, we know you won t let that happen.
We know that when we trust you, you find us.
We know that when you are walking with us,
we are on the right path.
Find us in our fears, our loneliness, our despair,
and bring us out of the dark depths of our sadness.
Penetrate and possess us so utterly that our lives
will shine with the radiance of your presence.
Let us praise you in the way you love best:
by shining on those around us,
and reaching out to those who are lost.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.