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Into the Backcountry

Long walks have a way of transforming your heart and mind as a well as your body.  Growing up in the country meant wandering around the land we owned in central Mississippi as a boy in all four seasons and often alone. I would finish chores and head out for the day.

Those years of wandering around the wilderness along streams and old echoes of homesteads gave me a love of story and history, but it also gave me time to think and feel and come to know things that I am afraid cannot be taught.

Here is one such thing: There are rules, and there are laws. Rules make life easier; laws keep you alive.  At least that is how I tried to articulate this knowledge to my son.

The rules we share with each other in liturgy are about common life and common prayer, how we relate to each other before God. They are pretty easy and few. You can learn them in a workshop with a verger.  On the other hand, the law that tells us how to live before God is knowable but hard to articulate exactly because God is not a force like gravity.  God is alive.

God is described as a person in the Bible, which is hard to read because God is not always merely happy with us but is angered by injustice and frustrated with our indifference to other people’s suffering. We want to separate this from Jesus’s Abba, who is loving and compassionate.

But, they are not separate. God has a law, and Jesus says, “Not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away.”  The Big Ten are a good place to begin to articulate that law, but Jesus makes it even easier. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This isn’t a rule. It is a law.

So in the wilderness, if you forget your water filter or your fire starter there is a danger because Giardia and hypothermia are ever present dangers. The mountain is indifferent to your suffering. But we are not called to be mountains.

The man who coached me in backpacking twenty years ago told me often about how to care for people I might meet on the way. He taught me how to pack and how to wrap a splint and how to calm down someone going into shock.

When I asked him why he had all of this care of others in the wilderness training, he replied, “When you follow the Great Shepherd, you become a shepherd to His sheep. You are never not a shepherd anymore. When you find His lost sheep, you will bring them home.” 

This week, as I was bringing out all my backpacking stuff, I found that quote on a battered piece of paper stuck into my cook kit. 

You may think you go out alone, but you are never off duty as God’s child. You are shepherd to His flock wherever you find them. The man who taught me that law was a layman, and he did not know that I was ordained. This is not about a job, but it is about who we are as God’s people.

This is the turn of Jesus that you should never forget. God still cares about His sheep even when they are lost. When we find them, we make sure they get home safely in God’s name. 

Since your baptism, you have been set aside as His hired hand. Your wages have already been paid, so do not neglect your work.  The wilderness is everywhere.

At your job or in your home, in Paradise Valley or the valley of the shadow of death, you are sent out to care for the flock of the Great Shepherd.  You are never alone, and you should not leave a lost sheep without care or a word from God.

This is what it means to be a people of the Way of Jesus. You are part of the team, a member of God’s staff, and you have a job to do.

Join us Sunday as we explore God’s world together.

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards

Christ Church of the Ascension

Paradise Valley, Arizona