Sam Todd has been lost for thirty years. Sam was a classmate of mine at Yale Divinity School. He and his brother were visiting friends in New York City for New Years Eve 1984. As the festivities were winding up, Sam said he was going outside to clear his head in the fresh air. He has never been seen again.
The press material that circulated said Sam was the son of Presbyterian missionaries, scholarly, introverted, a jazz lover. That he was committed to service to the poor and oppressed and believed the church was to be a vehicle for creating justice.
For me, Sam was a unique colleague and friend. We had taken Presbyterian required Greek and Hebrew and polity together for two years. Three months before his disappearance, we had passed our ordination exams together. Two months before, he was the brotherly voice that said, “I never saw what you saw in him,” when I was summarily dumped by a boyfriend. He is the only person who has ever said to me, “You have natural rhythm” and was giving me a few drum lessons. He was the first person I knew who ran for the pure pleasure running. He was running when he left a New York City loft on the first morning of 1984 and was lost.
Some of you, of course, know this story all too well. You have lost loved ones. You know what it is like not to know whether a child, a sibling, even a parent is alive or dead. Where they might be living or have been killed? Have they taken their own life? Did they leave of their own freewill? Or are they captive in some living hell?
People do get lost. Sometimes they are lost to us even when we know right where they live. Children are tragically lost to us through depression, disability, disease or drug use. Adults we know are lost to us through mental illness, physical incapacities, changing cognitive abilities, personal failings, obsessions. We see them. But the person they once were, the person we knew, is lost.
Most of us have spent some time lost somewhere. We have lost ourselves in relationships that took too much of us, work that demands too much of us, pursuits that we give too much to. We might be lost without a friend we can depend on, or lost in a marriage we have long been in. We spend too much, or eat too much or drink too much, or binge watch too much and our own life and self is lost.
In this way, we might fit the image of sheep. Sheep will drink water that will make them sick. Eat more food than is good for them. Wander into places they can’t find their way out of. Walk off into dangerous places where cliffs or predators might befall them. Left to their own devices, their coats – which ought to protect them – become so heavy that sheep will literally fall and not be able to get up. Sheep are easily lost in many ways.
The priest and prophet Ezekiel tells us of a God who is a shepherd.
Read Ezekiel’s words http://bible.oremus.org/
What’s a shepherd do? A shepherd lives with the sheep. It is not a 9-5 job. The shepherd leads the sheep. Finds still, clean water for the sheep to drink and grass to eat and safe places to rest. If a sheep is lost, injured, weak, the shepherd goes and searches and searches and searches until that sheep is found and back where it belongs.
This image of God as a shepherd is a shocking image of God really. God is not a grand exultant king, tucked away in the splendor heaven, housed in some place of worship and adoration, separated from God’s unidentifiable subjects and guarded by holy security. God is present. God is with the people. God cares for each of us. And seeks us out in whatever lost place we have gotten ourselves into or been taken into.
Human agents, Ezekiel says, may fail, have failed. Human agents will fail. God, the Good Shepherd, will not fail.
It took three days for the police to believe his family that Sam was really lost. By then the Divinity School was back in session and the students galvanized into action. 200 plus of us went from New Haven to New York City in cars, and buses and on the train, spreading out from a command center to ask anyone who would talk to us if they had seen Sam and looking anywhere that seemed likely or unlikely to find Sam alive or dead. Countless hours of were spent in street-by-street searches. Sam was placed thousands of fliers were posted. Multiple articles in the New York Times and other media appeared. We do not know what human frailty, folly or evil took Sam Todd away. He was never found, by those who looked for him.
His family, though, knows a better shepherd. George Todd, Sam’s father said to us – his friends – those many years ago and still affirms: “We are a family of faith. We believe in a love God who knows where Sam is. Sam is in God’s care, and we are, too.”
At a reunion, one of our classmates offered a poem remembering what was lost and found in those long hours of searching. “On a New Year’s Eve he stepped out for air. / Two by two we looked for him. / We looked for him out on the streets. / We followed him into the dark. / We looked for him among the lost. / We found so many lost.”1
There are so many lost. So many lost on the streets of our cities. So many lost on rural back roads. So many lost in countries with less stability and justice than our own. So many lost, and looking to be found.
While we searched for Sam among the lost, we found another young man, street-worn, disheveled, who said with awe, “I’ve been missing for two years. And no one has come looking for me.”
It is not so, says Ezekiel. It is not so, says God. It is not so, says the Son of God. It is not so, says the Good Shepherd. God out of great love for each of us and compassion for the lost goes forth. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will make them lie down. I will seek the lost and I will bring back the strayed and I will bind up the injured and I will strengthen the weak.”
The lost are in God’s care. And we are, too.
God, shepherd of the flock, we thank you that Jesus came to save the lost – lost sheep, lost sons and daughters, lost friends, lost loved ones, lost sinners, lost worshippers. Jesus came this way to seek us out, to seek those who are lost to us, and all that we have given up on or forgotten. Keep us near to him, until all your people are gathered to your fold. Amen.
1. From a speech choir by Steve Bonsey.