This morning’s Gospel reading is John 10:11–18:
“I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”
Nearly seven years ago, I had the unfortunate experience of getting lost far from home while on the road. I was working in Iowa covering the opening rounds of the 2012 presidential election, attending the 2011 Ames straw poll and the Iowa state fair, both of which are a straight shot down I-35 from the Twin Cities where I live. Even I couldn’t get lost for long from there, especially since I had a phone with GPS and Google Maps capability. In fact, I could go anywhere and find my way back home.
Or so I thought. While in Ames, we discovered that Rick Perry would address a political meeting in Waterloo on the eastern side of Iowa, competing directly against Michele Bachmann in her home town. I decided to saddle up and make my way out to Waterloo, with my trusty cell phone as my GPS guide, which worked perfectly … for that trip, anyway. We covered the event on that Sunday evening, which ran well past eight PM. I finally packed up my equipment and went to my car to plug in my home address into the GPS, and it was at that point I discovered that my carrier didn’t have service in Waterloo, Iowa. That meant I couldn’t get access to the Internet, and could not load Google Maps and get directions for the drive home. I had no way of knowing which way to drive, and there wasn’t any place open on the part of town for me to get directions.
I was in the middle of nowhere, driving in the dark, and other than knowing the general direction in which I was driving, I had no way to tell whether I was going toward home or farther away from it.
Sometimes, I think of that night in terms of sin and salvation. Not that there’s anything sinful about getting caught in unfamiliar territory hundreds of miles from your home without first considering whether you know how to get back. (Stupidity isn’t in itself sinful, after all.) But it is easy to get lost in sin, to get lost in worldliness and the priorities of our own lives without preparing ourselves for our true journey, our journey to the Lord and to our true home with Him. We rely on our own cleverness to save us, only to realize just how far we can wander away from Him when we do so.
The story of salvation overflows with reminders of this human failing, sometimes more literally than others. The Israelites balk continuously at God’s Word in the desert and spend forty years wandering in the desert before finally coming to the Promised Land. The Lord sends prophets and judges to help guide Israel to fulfilling its mission to be a nation of priests to the world, only to have the Israelites demand a king so that they can be more like all of the nations they’re supposed to be converting. The kings end up getting corrupted by the desire for power and human authority and fall into the very idolatry they’re supposed to overcome. Israel falls and its people are lost to exile. Judea falls and its people are also exiled; when the Judeans repent, they are restored to their land — but eventually the cycle starts all over again.
All the while, the Lord keeps calling His people back to Him. He sends prophets and works miracles, but we keep to our own compasses and stubbornly remain lost. Finally, God sends His Son to call back His people once and for all time, which Jesus describes beautifully in terms of a shepherd and a flock. It’s no accident that the Good Shepherd became one of the earliest representation of Christ. Not only do we all feel lost without a map at times in our lives, we all need that good shepherd who will not rest until every lamb in His flock is found and saved.
Sin is what separates us from the flock in the first place. Sin — the rejection of the Lord’s authority and leadership — is what gets us further lost and stranded. Without assistance from the Good Shepherd, we might even find ourselves so mired in the unknown that we lose our own sense of being lost, simply accepting our fate. We need to listen for the call of that Good Shepherd to remind ourselves who we are, and to whose flock we truly belong. Only then can we allow ourselves to be found by the Lord and led back into God’s fellowship and love.
So … how did I get back home that night in the summer of 2011? I certainly prayed a lot, and kept reading road signs until I found names I recognized. As it happens, I ended up on a shorter and quicker path through Rochester than if I’d taken the route back to I-35 through Albert Lea, but that was sheer luck … and, I think, no small amount of undeserved grace. Being lost in a wilderness is not pleasant, which is why our Good Shepherd stands ready to rescue us from it — even when we stubbornly persist in believing we can make our own way through it.
The front-page image is from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (425-50 AD).
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.