It is part of our family lore that every time we went on a family trip, my son Sam would get lost. The County fair, the beach, Disney World, the supermarket. Every time we went on a trip, Sam got lost. It wasn’t that I was a bad mom…it was just that I had five kids who all went in different directions, and Sam was particularly adept at going off in a different direction than the rest. So there would be a moment of “…wait, where’s Sam?” then the panic, the mad search, and finally the finding and the tears and the “don’t you ever do that again.” Of course, he did do that again – he’s a curious adventurous soul, and he just can’t help himself, or at least that’s what he tells us. Thank goodness he’s a grown man now and I don’t have to worry…much.
Now, in contrast, consider the story of my nephew Peter. A few summers ago, the extended family went down to Millennium Park in Chicago to wander around and enjoy a picnic. Millennium Park is a sprawling complex, including a huge band shell designed by Frank Gehry, a great big sculpture called the Cloud Gate, but more familiarly known as “The Bean,” and a gigantic fountain, beloved of all small children, who run through it with glee. On the day our family went down to Millennium Park, it was packed with lots of folks enjoying the sun and warmth and beauty of the day. We had several children with us, ranging in age from 2 to pre-teen. It’s a challenge to herd a group of kids in the best of circumstances, and having this disparate group of children in a crowded park was an almost impossible task. Everyone had their particular thing they wanted to look at, and our little group began to split into mini-groups as kids went to look at the Bean or the fountain or the mime on the street. We weren’t worried – we knew we would all rendezvous in a particular spot to eat the picnic lunch in a bit.
“Where’s Peter?” My sister-in-law Christine’s voice had just a bit of an edge to it as she asked the question. We weren’t all gathered together for the picnic yet – Laurie and Jim and little Trevor were still at the fountain – but it was clear that Peter had gotten separated from his parents and his sister.
“Where did you see him last?” one of us asked. “I don’t know.” It was clear she was starting to get very worried. This park is in the heart of the city. Not everyone there is a warm and safe family-type person. A pre-teen boy lost in the park was probably safe, but still…
“Peter knows what to do.” The calm voice of Joel, Peter’s dad, cut through the tension. “We’ve trained the children for when we go camping. They know if they can’t see us, to just sit down wherever they are and to wait for us to find them. They are not to move. They are to wait. They know that.”
What a difference from the hysteria whenever Sam got lost! Sam, who would dart from place to place frantically looking for us! And a search that would take twice as long because we were going in one direction and he was going in another. Imagine…a lost child staying put, so that the parent could work back to where he or she last saw the child, searching systematically. What a concept!
When Peter got lost, his parents and aunts and uncles fanned out from where we last saw him, and within minutes found him sitting calmly under “The Bean,” waiting for us to find him.
He didn’t move when he realized he was lost.
He didn’t run around in mad circles.
He simply waited to be found.
He trusted his parents, and he trusted their plan for him.
He didn’t doubt the efficacy of the plan.
He waited to be found…and he was found. And afterwards, after we breathed a silent prayer of thanks, we celebrated with ice cream.
This story bears more than a passing resemblance to the story that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. Jesus is defending himself against the accusation of the Pharisees – there go those Pharisees again! – saying that he is eating with sinners. He reminds his listeners, including the Pharisees, that the sinners are precisely those with whom he should eat, precisely those who are in need of him. They are lost. He is there to find them and teach them the way.
They may not even realize that this is what Jesus is doing, but it doesn’t matter. Jesus has a plan. He will find these people, these ones who might be sinners, these ones who are lost sheep, and he will bring them back to the safety of relationship with the God who loves them. And when they are found, and brought back into that relationship, all of heaven will rejoice.
Now, I’d like to direct your attention to something very important in this story. The “lost sheep” doesn’t go looking for the Shepherd. The Shepherd goes looking for the sheep. That’s the Shepherd’s job. The lost sheep doesn’t search high and low for the rest of the flock. He simply hangs out in whatever pasture he has wandered to and waits.
Rather like my nephew Peter.
The sheep knows that the Shepherd will come for him. The sheep trusts that, in the way of sheep and shepherds since the beginning of time, the plan is for the sheep to stay put and the shepherd to do the finding…and the shepherd will usually go looking first in the place he last saw the sheep.
Rather like the plan my sister and brother in law instituted with their children if the children got lost.
Now, you and I, we get lost on a regular basis. We forget what’s important and wander off to look at something that catches our fancy. We stop talking to God because we think he’s not answering us quickly enough, or we stop going to church because we don’t like the sermons or the music or something. We feel spiritually dry or empty, and we automatically assume that it’s our sole responsibility to fix that. And like a sheep, we wander away from the rest of the flock.
And then we get nervous. We start looking around in all sorts of places for what we’re missing. We go to other churches, we try a new exercise plan, we go sit on the beach, we decide to sign up for Match.com…we know we’re missing something. Somewhere in the midst of this, we start saying things like “I’m not much into organized religion – I’m just sort of a spiritual kind of person,” as if we can be in relationship with God all by ourselves, without the community that is the Body of Christ. We run around in circles, frantically hoping to find the thing that will bring us a sense of peace, of wholeness, of being found.
Meanwhile, the Shepherd is looking for us.
But we’re off running around in circles.
The late Cistercian monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton talked about this manic search for the I-Don’t –Know-What:
You can’t just immerse yourself in the world and get carried away with it. That is no salvation. If you want to pull a drowning man out of the water, you have to have some support yourself. Suppose somebody is drowning and you are standing on a rock, you can do it; or supposing you can support yourself by swimming, you can do it. There is nothing to be gained by simply jumping in the water and drowning with him. (The Asian Journals, 341)
What does that immersion give us? Merton diagnosed it:
Everyone of is us shadowed by a false self. This is the [person] I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love…[a]nd such a self cannot help but be an illusion. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 33)
His recipe was the same one that Jesus offers in today’s Gospel:
The message of hope … is not that you need to find your way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God: but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, [abides with] you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light. (The Hidden Ground of Love, 157-158)
When we are feeling lost or confused, when we feel that we are not connecting with God, if we are willing to risk staying put, trusting the plan, trusting the Shepherd, this is the Good News: the Shepherd will come and find us.
So, what if, when we felt lost and out of touch with od, we simply sat down where we were and waited for the Shepherd to find us wherever our souls had wandered to? What if we stayed put in the place where we had last encountered the Shepherd and trusted that the plan would work, that he would find us and we would be found, and all heaven would rejoice? What if we finally understood that he will always come looking for us, so why not wait at the last place we spent time with him?
This is the place.
This is the place where we can sit down and rest and wait. We may not get all the answers, but if we sit and wait and pray and hope, the Shepherd will be there, loving us, rejoicing in our presence, giving us what we need to heal, to hope, to believe.
Merton was right, just like Peter’s parents were, just like Jesus was.
Trust the plan.
The Shepherd is here, looking for us. The Shepherd loves us and will never abandon us.
Thanks be to God.
Picture above is "The Bean" or more properly, "Cloud Gate" at Millennium Park.