Our Gospel reading for this week comes just two verses after the reading from last week, and the two work together. Last week we heard about Jesus’ call to us to follow him, no matter what the cost. This week our reading is about what happens when we fail to heed Jesus’ call. If we don’t follow Jesus, we are like the lost sheep or the lost coin.
Now, I have had some experience with being lost.
I went on two backpacking trips last summer. The first was on the Appalachian Trail in Maine with my son Benjamin. The Appalachian Trail is well-blazed, and thousands of hikers walk it each year. I struggled to keep up with a very fit twenty-two year old. But we were never in danger of getting lost.
My other trip was on the considerably less well-blazed and less heavily-trafficked Cohos Trail. My poor brother joined me on that one. Neither of us knew what we were getting into.
We started at the Canadian Border at a Border Patrol Station. A helpful border guard pointed us towards the Trail, and we set off. Thirty minutes later, we realized we had gone wrong, so we returned to the Border Patrol Station. The guard again pointed us towards the Trail, and we set off a second time. We had only gone a couple of minutes when he called to us over the loudspeaker. “You are still going the wrong direction. You are heading towards a sheer drop. Turn around now!” We did, and this time the exasperated guard walked us right to the Trailhead and told us to go there. I suspect he also alerted law enforcement to be ready for a distress call from a couple of incompetent hikers.
It was a fitting beginning for three days during which we were only on our Trail about half the time. At one point, we found ourselves wading through heavy undergrowth in a buggy, boggy area with no idea where we were. We finally just turned around. I was so irritated that I abandoned my brother and basically ran until I found the Trail.
The next day we found ourselves on the wrong side of a lake, which added several miles. Later on the same day, we took a wrong turn and had to walk on roads for another several miles.
The worst was our last day. We couldn’t find the Trail, so we bush-wacked through thick, wet undergrowth for three or four miles. We were beside a lake, so we knew we would come to a road eventually. But it was brutal.
When we finally found the road, we saw an attractive young woman hiking towards us. I looked at my brother and was embarrassed by what I saw. He was soaked with sweat. He stank. He was filthy. Unfortunately I was even worse. Among other things, the undergrowth had shredded the leg of my hiking pants. I took some consolation in the fact that we looked very tough. It turned out this young woman had hiked 140 miles to get there. We had hiked thirty. So much for tough.
After all that, I consider myself an expert on being lost. And I am here to tell you, it is not great.
Most obviously, when you are lost you don’t make progress towards the place you want to go. My brother and I planned to cover thirty miles in three days. That seemed like enough. But when we had to backtrack or to detour, we added miles to our trip.
Worse still, the extra miles were slow and hard. The walking was more challenging than it otherwise would have been, and we had to keep stopping to make sure we were heading more or less in the right direction. The dramatic contrast between us and the woman who had hiked so much farther than we had was a visual illustration of the physical cost of straying off trail so much.
But the worst toll of all was not physical. I think about the time I left my brother in the bog with the bugs because I just wanted to get out. I wasn’t such a jerk the rest of the trip. But I definitely was not the ray of sunshine I should have been.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Despite getting lost, we enjoyed the trip enough that we plan to go again next year. But that is at least in part because we were never lost for more than a few hours at a stretch. If we had been lost much more than we were, we wouldn’t go back.
Knowing that, I think about the people who are lost in their lives, who may be lost for years at a time. I have been there. At a relatively young age, my parents made it clear they wanted me to go to college. I worked reasonably hard, and I had help, and eventually I got to college. And almost immediately I felt at a loss. I had been working to get to college. What now?
My life was good in most ways. But I was lost. And I began to do what a lot of lost people do. I engaged in self-destructive behavior, particularly with alcohol. Thankfully, after a few years, I felt a call to study religion and teach or preach. That call gave me direction and may well have saved my life.
Looking around at our country today, it seems clear that a lot of people are lost, that a lot of people have no satisfying sense of direction and no healthy way to cope with that.
And being lost takes its toll. All around us there is an upsurge in drug abuse and violence and suicide. People are acting out in public, without any concern for the common good. People are working hard without getting anywhere. People are ignoring the needs of their fellows to pursue what they think are their own interests. People are abusing each other and the natural world without considering the long-term consequences. That’s what happens when we are lost.
Our reading is the answer to our culture of “lostness.” Our good shepherd comes looking for us. Our good shepherd calls us by name, and invites us to come to him, and promises to show us the right way forward. And if we can heed his call, if we can turn to follow him, there will be joy in heaven.
That means we have to do two things. One is to help the many people around us who are lost to find their way, to tell them that Christ offers a reliable way forward. It is our job, as people who have been found by Christ, to point others to Christ and to encourage them to listen for Christ’s call.
And, of course, that means that we have to listen for Christ’s call to us. We have to immerse ourselves in the practices that help us to hear Christ: prayer; worship; study; loving service.
Sometimes our direction is clear. There may be challenges on the way, but at least we know where we are going. That is like walking on the Appalachian Trail.
But other times are more like my trip on the Cohos. We can get so lost it seems like we’ll never get back on track. In those times, we rely on the promise of our Gospel that Christ will find us, that Christ will call us back to him, that Christ will lead us in the direction we need to go. Thanks be to God for that!
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan