Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
The closest I’ve ever felt to living the idealized life of a priest in the English countryside was when I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. I would bring my English cocker spaniel with me to the church office, and we’d take a break most afternoons by walking out of the Parish House and heading down Duke of Gloucester Street. At this time of the year, we’d walk past Bruton Parish Church and lots of other things to find the most spectacular sight — the first lambs of the year, frolicking around pastures marked off by white wooden fences and old brick walls, parts of which dated to the 18th century.
Those sheep date to the 18th century too. Not any of the individual sheep, of course. I’m talking about the breed — the Leicester Longwool, which goes back to about 1755 in Leicestershire, England. George Washington raised hundreds of sheep and used this breed to improve his stock. But it’s now a rare breed. They died out in America probably around 1920.
So how did those little lambs make it to Virginia? Well, more than three decades ago, their ancestors — eight ewes, one ram, and six lambs — were sent there from Australia. Now about 50 of their descendants still live in Williamsburg, with cousins scattered across about 120 Leicester Longwool flocks today in the United States.
So here’s the thing. They’re beautiful. They’re thriving and flourishing. They bring joy to children who see those little lambs learning how to walk awkwardly in the spring. But they didn’t get there on their own. They didn’t engineer their own comeback. They didn’t build a safe pasture within which they can feast to their hearts’ content and stay together as a flock, as kind of a community. They needed enormous amounts of help, far beyond their own ability to help themselves. They need protection. They need a shepherd.
And so do we. Help and protection and shepherding are things we need too. As much as we hate to admit it, I really do think the human condition is wonderfully summed up in a 30-second video that’s been making the rounds on social media. It was posted on YouTube just last Sunday and starts off showing a boy trying to rescue a sheep which had gotten itself stuck in a ditch. All on its own, this poor animal ended up in about as dire a situation as possible, head down, straight down in a really narrow ditch.
So the boy pulls mightily on one its hind legs, finally liberating it. In that exhilarating moment your heart leaps for joy as you see a creature being given its freedom. But in merely five seconds of that freedom, this sheep bounces through the grass and takes one giant leap for sheep-kind, landing right back in the same ditch, in the same position.
Who hasn’t felt like that sheep somewhere along the way? If you haven’t, you will. That image of being brought out of a place of constriction and into a broad place where one is able to breathe freely and deeply and joyfully reminds me of these words from Psalm 31:
I hate those who cling to worthless idols, *
and I put my trust in the Lord.
I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy; *
for you have seen my affliction; you know my distress.
You have not shut me up in the power of the enemy; *
you have set my feet in an open place.
Hopefully after we’ve more than once become unstuck, no thanks to our own efforts, we’re able to be self-reflective enough, if only momentarily, to realize God is with us, and always has been. Think of the boy rescuing that sheep and remaining nearby, even if the sheep doesn’t see him as it’s gleefully exercising its free will by choosing to run away.
Well, I resemble that remark, and you probably do too. It’s not that we don’t have free will. It’s that we have a tendency not to use it very well. That tendency as human beings, even more than our individual poor choices, is what we call sin. It’s what binds us, trips us, sends us hurtling into the ditch as a result of either what we do or what others do.
But that’s not the end of the story.
As the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm remind us:
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; *
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; *
for thou art with me . . .
With us. God is with us. God is with us now and always. God is with us in whatever ditch we find ourselves hopelessly stuck in, even if it seems like hell to us. That awareness of God’s presence is the key which unlocks the door to the room in which we’ve hidden ourselves out of fear. It’s what breaks apart the gates of hell through the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
. . . though I walk through the darkest valley . . . you are with me.
That’s where we stop talking about God in the third person and start speaking to God directly. That’s where the words of the 23rd Psalm drop down from the head to the heart. That’s where a conversation happens and a relationship begins. That’s where the marrow of this beloved psalm is discovered in its very bones. In the original Hebrew, the phrase “you are with me” is literally in the middle of this psalm with 26 words before it and 26 words after it. God’s presence stands at the center of it, just as it stands at the center of your life, within and beyond all those ditches.
As Christians, we look to Jesus as the Good Shepherd who rescues us, who lays down his life for us. We describe Jesus as Emmanuel, which means God with us. We come to know Jesus in the fellowship of the church as the one who runs to us, embraces us, befriends us, even when we feel godforsaken, when we feel as if no one else in the world could possibly want to love us.
The good news of this Easter season is that the face of Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, is turned toward you even if you are turned away from him, even if you are running away from him as fast as you can. And what will pursue you all the days of your life isn’t condemnation and rejection from someone who is your enemy but only goodness and mercy, as promised in the 23rd Psalm, from someone who is your friend.
That’s what will eventually catch up with you — goodness and mercy rushing through the labyrinthine passageways of your past and washing over you like the waters of baptism. I’m not talking about a little sprinkle of water. I’m talking about a wave of goodness and mercy, a cup that is running over with forgiveness, even if you’re only able to recognize it after this life, when standing face to face with the Lord in the life to come.
But most of us won’t have to wait until then. Most of us have moments, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, when we pause to grieve the loss of someone we’ve loved. Standing at the edge of the grave brings a lot things into sharp focus. Some of us realize in the midst of our tears that we can’t make our way through such deep grief on our own. By grace we’re able to see that God has been reaching out to us all along in the lives of those whom we’ve loved and those whom we’ve met — not through idealized lives but through lives that were real and imperfect and just like our own.
Even beyond the grave, their love, which finds its source in God, has unstuck us time and time again from lots of different ditches. Although we miss them, as the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann would say:
They are present to [us and unforgotten], because in their love [we] became free and can breathe in wide spaces.
And death can’t take that away from us.
To that I will only add this, hearkening back to the words of the 23rd Psalm: We shall be reunited with them and dwell in the house of Lord for ever. This I believe. This is the joy of Easter. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
2 BACK TO POST George Washington, in a letter to Arthur Young, June 18-21, 1792, writes that “Bakewells breed of Sheep [i.e., Leicester Longwool] are much celebrated, and deservedly I presume . . .” After noting that British law prohibited the importation of this breed and that ship captains who attempted to do so could face “serious consequences,” he continued:
Others however, less scrupulous, have attempted to import English Rams with Success, and by this means our flocks in many places are much improved—mine for instance, ’though I never was concerned directly nor indirectly in the importation of one, farther than by buying lambs which have descended from them. the average weight of the fleeces being 5 lbs.
4 BACK TO POST Psalm 31:6-8 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).
5 BACK TO POST Psalm 23:1-4 (King James Version).
6 BACK TO POST Psalm 23:4 (New Revised Standard Version).
9 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008) 382. I’ve adapted words he used to describe himself in order to describe us all.