In fifth and sixth grade, my whole class would spend a few days in Williams Bay. Our focus was outdoor education. I loved tromping around the woods and splashing in the lake… it was a pretty great alternative to sitting in a classroom! One thing we learned was orienteering.
(image: OeilDeNuit http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1253374)
Mr Swanson would hand us all a compass and instructions: 20 paces north, 5 paces west, 1 south, 2 west, 1 north… sometimes we’d have to scoot around a tree, and you’d better hope you were measuring your paces correctly or you’d get stuck on the wrong side of an obstacle.
I was never terribly good at those exact measurements, so I’d be the one who did a funny little circle out in the middle of an open field and then got trapped by the hundred year old oak in the middle of a straight west stretch.
Our outdoor ed adventures progressed so that by the time I was a sophomore, our class was split into small groups and sent off to backpack in the Porcupine Mountains. This time we had a map. I do better matching my surroundings with the squiggles on the paper than I do counting my paces. Still… in the middle of the woods, removed from the oriented sound of the great lake, it’s easy to get twisted around and begin following what once looked to be a well-groomed path and soon fades into the underbrush.
There was one day that our guide sent us off with a staggered start, so that we would be finding our way to the next campsite alone. I was pretty freaked out. It was supposed to be a fairly safe exercise in self-sufficiency. It was controlled independence. If something were to happen, twisted ankle or whatnot, another student or the guide would be coming down the path in fifteen minutes or so. Just a short time to wait for help to arrive. That is, if you managed to have stayed on the path.
We were also given instructions on what to do if we ever did get far off the path. Our guide told us, “If you get really lost, stop right away, and sit down. Don’t keep walking. You might pass right by someone looking for you, or simply end up getting more and more lost.”
It’s pretty common to hear people using the metaphor of a path when speaking of their spiritual journey, and also for people to talk about being lost when they’ve stepped away from religious community or morality. Whether it’s being lost in the woods, or lost in a more poetic sense, I associate being lost with feeling alone, disconnected, afraid, unable to trust myself, and uncertain of what to do next.
We pick up the Gospel of John to hear that Jesus is sitting at the table with his disciples. He’s trying to prepare them for what is about to come: his arrest and crucifixion. Although he’s warned them earlier that he will die, they’ve never really understood. Jesus knows they’re about to enter a time in which it will be easy to become lost. Nothing will look familiar, and they won’t know the way in which to go. Today we hear a piece of Jesus’ final teaching as he tries to build up the disciples’ faith and confidence so they will have some foundation of strength during the difficult time they are about to enter.
As I hiked through the woods, I didn’t get lost. But I can easily imagine myself getting lost, and, just like in a movie scene, huddling up next to a tree, missing home, imaging wolves and bears coming to attack me, and then suddenly, hearing a voice of someone calling my name, looking for me, then when they finally break through the woods jumping up and running into their arms, overjoyed that I am no longer alone.
Jesus speaks of his death and ascension as leaving the disciples for a short time, but not abandoning them. He leaves so that he can blaze the trail ahead of them. Jesus declares, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (14:3).
Doing more than blazing the trail and expecting the disciples to follow it on their own, Jesus promises to come to them, and take them along with him. This isn’t just my forest rescuer shining a strong light towards me and asking me to push through the brush to find my way to safety. This is the one who comes all the way to me, and smiles at the strength of my grip on his hand as we walk home together.
Jesus’ promise to his disciples is true for us today. Jesus has died, was raised, and is ascended, to be in the Father’s presence forever. Having come so fully towards us in becoming fully human, Jesus doesn’t step back from us as he takes his place in glory with the Father. Jesus sends the Spirit to us, so that we would walk each day of our lives, not alone, not lost, but holding God’s hand and traveling in God’s path. Jesus was faithful to his promise to be with the disciples, and he is faithful in being with us through our entire life journey.
Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). The disciples sitting around the table with Jesus aren’t being asked to go anywhere they haven’t already been. There is no secret path they need to find, no divine knowledge they have to obtain, nothing more they have to do. They have already been living in community and working alongside Jesus. Jesus will die, and they will experience him leaving. But the Spirit will still give them an experience of Jesus and help them to continue living and working as they have been.
When Jesus calls himself the way, he is not narrowing down the path so that only few can travel on it. Rather, Jesus is the way in that he is the one who created the path. Jesus’ faithfulness led him to die so that an unbroken path might be formed between us and God. Jesus’ faithfulness leads him to guide, accompany, and encourage us as he steadfastly travels with us. Early Christians called their religion the Way. Christianity is meant to be lived out today, during life’s journey; it is not only about the destination. We join Jesus and show the world this Jesus who is the way- paving a path, walking alongside, holding hands with people as they come to know the one who comes to them.
Today we have a special guest to share with us about Family Promise, a ministry that is expanding into our area. Our noisy offering will provide a gift towards their work. They provide housing and support to families experiencing homelessness. Those who work in this ministry mirror and join Jesus in his life-giving Way. They walk alongside those who are navigating through bumpy stretches in their lives. They reach out with Jesus’ reassuring hands of love that strengthen against the fears of being lost and alone.
Living in the Way, as followers of the Way, sojourners on the Way, we travel through life with Jesus guiding us. Jesus’ path leads towards a greater connection with God, because it ends in our finding a place in God’s home. We live and travel this day always accompanied by Jesus and encouraged to join in Jesus’ work. We follow the examples of saints and disciples before us, who, even though they often had their own times of being lost, overwhelmed, and overcome by fear, were inspired by the Spirit to continue on. They continued to join Jesus in declaring God’s love for all people and all creation, healing the sick, caring for others, and praying.
To travel with Jesus, on Jesus’ path, is a life-giving gift rather than a demand. Jesus draws us in to life lived in and through God. This is not a path to be travelled by legalistic paces, but to be travelled joyfully and confidently, assured that the one who created the path will lead you with sure steps into love, service, and meaning-making, and ultimately, to rest and reside in God’s presence forever.
Thanks be to God, our guide and path.
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