Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent IV, March 22, 2020
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
I can still remember standing off to the side of the altar here in the church a few years ago with my eyes closed. It was on a Sunday morning, and I was the celebrant. That means it was my turn to be the priest who would say the words of the Great Thanksgiving at that Holy Table for Holy Communion. But that particular day, someone else was setting things out and getting it all ready for me, for us. So I was able in that moment, as I stood there, to pray. I was praying in the sense of listening for God to speak to me. And I was also able to hear the anthem the choir was singing so beautifully, as the music and the words washed over me. Something, as I stood there, seemed vaguely familiar but out of place, like a faint echo from the past.
The tune — it seemed like I had heard it somewhere before. The words, I suddenly realized, were similar but a little different from a hymn I had known as a child:
Jesus, lead the way,
Through our life’s long day,
And with faithful footsteps steady,
We will follow, ever ready,
Guide us by thy hand
To our Fatherland.
Now, even though there is a member of this church whose business card literally says “Rocket Scientist,” you don’t have to be one to figure out that’s probably a German hymn. I knew it as “Jesus still lead on.” And these days we would surely write something like “to the Promised Land” rather than “to our Fatherland.”
The German words were written by Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf — a bishop who also ordained my 6th great-grandfather as a pastor in the Moravian Church. They describe a whole life as one long day, a day of walking in the footsteps of Jesus on our way home to God. That’s a lovely picture of what it means to be a Christian.
But what I like about the first verse used in the anthem — a verse, by the way, which also appeared in our own Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1940 — is that you can easily transpose that image of a very long day into difficult chapter in your life. And the words of this hymn can become for you an appeal, a prayer, a cry for help, a plea for Jesus to lead the way through just such a time as this. Bring us, Jesus, to a new day on the other side of the fears and anxieties and uncertainties that are threatening to overwhelm us, whatever those things may be for you or for me this morning.
So when that music and those words surprised me a few years ago as we gathered here for Holy Communion, it made me weepy as I moved to where I could see your faces, your faces in these now-empty pews. That music connected me not only to my childhood, but also to the present and future. I knew then, as I do now, that God was, and is, and would continue to be the constant through all of our joys and sorrows.
Today we heard the words of the 23rd Psalm. For many Christians, it’s one of the most beloved parts of the Hebrew Bible. A lot of us, in childhood, memorized this psalm, this poem or prayer, in the language of the King James Bible:
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul . . .
In a similar way, there’s a favorite German chorale most Moravian Christians know by heart. It’s a paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm, and the first verse goes like this:
Jesus makes my heart rejoice,
I’m his sheep, and know his voice;
He’s a Shepherd, kind and gracious,
And his pastures are delicious;
Constant love to me he shows,
Yea, my very name he knows.
I’ve always loved those words because they remind us that if Jesus is our shepherd, we will know his voice and, most importantly, that he knows each of us by name and shows us what The Jesus Storybook Bible describes so awesomely and wonderfully as a “Never-Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”
And isn’t that what each of us longs for right now — whether silently or through a barely audible whisper or maybe even with a lot of very understandable shouting — that Jesus would calm the waters and make them flow gently through pastures of love and mercy where we can be fed, that Jesus would be present with us so that we don’t have to be afraid, that Jesus would bring us back to this Table, to sing once again, together, in the house of the Lord? And wouldn’t it bring a tear to your eye?
As a minister of the gospel, it’s counterintuitive for me to speak the truth on this Lord’s Day that each of us is loving our neighbor by keeping our physical distance from them. But that, at least for a season, is our reality. In the meantime, as I wrote to the parish last week, we as the people of God will have to learn how to sing together in new ways, how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, as another psalm puts it so memorably. Being physically distant doesn’t mean we really have to be socially distant. In many ways, by the grace of God, we might even grow closer.
Like me, I know many of you have been moved by seeing videos of Italians trapped at home for the most part who nevertheless found a way to do this. They found a way to sing together, not metaphorically but literally, by coming to open windows, standing on the rooftops, or going out onto balconies. The sound of their voices and their instruments has echoed through narrow streets in crowded cities, lifting the spirits of their neighbors, young and old alike, drawing them closer to one another. I love how Emma Santachiara, who lives in Rome, described it in a New York Times article last weekend. She’s 73 years old and said, “It’s not like we’re maestros. It’s a moment of joy in this moment of anxiety.” She discovered joy without denying the anxiety.
That article ends with Ms. Santachiara teaching an Italian classic to her 3-year-old granddaughter on a Saturday night. It’s a song the people on her street would be singing later that same evening. She does this with gratitude for the extraordinary work of professionals like the girl’s father. He’s “a doctor who has been putting in extra hours and covering shifts to make sure that people don’t go without primary care. He has been sleeping in his office where he [heats his food in a toaster].” And yet that grandmother somehow, in spite of all the things, still finds joy to share.
I’ve found glimpses of joy this past week — in talking with some of you on the phone, in watching parents of young children share ideas with one another and teachers offering resources for unanticipated home schooling. I have seen Palmers come together to make this kind of worship service possible and to get needed items from the pharmacy or the grocery store to our most vulnerable members in the safest possible way. I have talked to more neighbors — standing on the other side of the street, of course — within the past several days than I normally would over the same number of months. It’s been wonderful in the midst of things not so wonderful.
This past week, my family and I received a postcard in the mail. Do you remember what old-fashioned mail looks like and feels like? The one we received is handmade with “LOVE” written on one side and the words of a kind note on the other side.
Also this past week, my wife and our sons checked in with one of the elders here at Palmer who lives alone but not too far from the Rectory. They could even see her on a video through Facebook, which is really amazing to me. Technology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s not limited, of course, only to those who are younger.
Each of us can reach out to someone like that, even if it’s only through a few kind words that are spoken with love over the phone. I mean, it’s not all bad. It’s not like it’s the 1970s when some of us had to use a rotary dial on a phone with an actual cord. Back then you couldn’t walk around while talking. Many of those phones we were holding were the color of mustard or of pale green peas. That’s a different kind of tragedy, although one for which we would gladly trade right now. I know I would.
But since we can’t do that, remember this: Whether you’re imagining what this building is like in these strange times on Sunday mornings or looking around your home right now, the room is never empty. Jesus is present here, Jesus is present with you, Jesus is present in the community that has gathered together for this hour of prayer from the four corners of the earth. Jesus will lead the way as our shepherd, whose voice we know, and who calls us each by name. And goodness and mercy will pursue us all our days, until we return to the house of the Lord. This I believe.
1 BACK TO POST Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 36.
2 BACK TO POST Jason Horowitz, “Italians Find ‘a Moment of Joy in This Moment of Anxiety’,” New York Times, March, 14, 2020.
3 BACK TO POST Horowitz.