There is a scene in the film Legends of the Fall, in which Tristan Ludlow, a Montana rancher, rides out into big sky country to check the perimeter of his ranch. As with every scene in the movie, which won the Academy Award for cinematography in 1994, the viewer is drawn into the magnificent and sublime visual imagery. Vistas are broad, colors are stunning, and (Jill would add) the fact that Tristan Ludlow is played by Brad Pitt only adds to the sweeping canvas. The mythos of Montana is captured, with its soaring big sky, and the viewer is very nearly drawn out of the everyday world.
But in this scene, the viewer is dragged back to earth so quickly that the experience is wrenching. Tristan Ludlow, checking on the perimeter of his ranch, comes upon a bleating young calf, completely tangled and bloodied in a mess of barbed wire. The calf struggles to get free, but with each movement it draws the razor wire in on itself, increasing its entanglement and pain. We don’t know how the calf became tangled. Most likely it wandered from the herd, only to be chased by a wolf or some other predator. The how doesn’t really matter. The calf is lost. It is trapped. And with each attempt to pull itself free, it causes itself greater injury.
To at least a very few of you—those with exceptionally good memories—this story is familiar. It is the story with which I began my first sermon from this pulpit on September 16, 2007. By my count, that was 280 Sundays ago, 1040 Sunday Eucharists ago. By a measure of years, that’s not a lot of time, but by the measure of our shared lives together, it is season upon season.
I still recall with clarity my struggle to write that first sermon and to identify the illustration that would aptly capture both our human condition and the experience from which St. John’s Church was at that time emerging. The Rev. Anne Hallmark has done remarkably faithful work as the interim rector of this place, but even so, there were many who came to see me in my initial days here, before I stood in this pulpit. They shared stories of estrangement from this place or from their Christian brothers and sisters here. They felt lost—like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, which was the Gospel text that day—but theirs was not a mere wandering in the woods. It was constricting and suffocating; it was painful; it reminded me of Tristan Ludlow’s calf.
Trusting you’ll forgive me for straying from the lectionary, I appointed the Parable of the Lost Sheep as our Gospel text for today, as a bookend to our ministry together. And so, Jesus asks, “Wouldn’t any of you,” Jesus asks, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you found it?”
I think we usually read this passage assuming the scribes and the Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking would have nodded in agreement with his proposition. But that’s not so. In an impoverished place like first century Palestine, a landowner with one hundred sheep was a rare, rare thing. And there’s no way such a landowner would endanger 99% of his wealth in order to save the remaining 1%. When Jesus asks his question, the response of the scribes and Pharisees is undoubtedly, “Are you crazy? Leave ninety-nine sheep to save one lamb? What kind of sense is that?”
Indeed, it makes no sense by the calculus of the world, so long as we imagine ourselves as the shepherd with ninety-nine well-tended sheep securely in their pen. But then, we’re not the shepherd, are we? That’s not where we’re to be found in this parable. We’re not, most of us, the one with the neatly ordered life who has it so together that we scarcely need take notice when a single sheep goes astray.
Despite outward appearances, we know in the deepest recesses of their hearts that there is no such thing as the neatly ordered life. Those whose lives appear to be neatly put together—whether we’re talking about the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day or Episcopalians in our own—are often those who, just beneath the surface, feel hurt and tangled up spiritually and emotionally, like that hundredth lost sheep, or that calf caught in barbed wire.
Jesus knows this, too, because he, like all the rest of us, experienced it. As a youth, he struggled with parents with whose expectations for him he disagreed. As an adult after his baptism, he was tormented and tempted in the wilderness by the Devil himself. And later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was so pained at the thought of the coming cross that he sweated drops like blood.
Jesus has been, in his own way, that hundredth sheep. He may not have sinned, but he surely knows what it feels like to be starkly, desperately alone. He knows what it feels like for cords of death to wrap ever more tightly around him. He knows what it feels like to hang on the cross and pray to God for deliverance. And because of this, he knows that there is nothing more important in the life of faith than seeking out the lost sheep and bringing it home. This is what he does for us, because he is also the shepherd, and this is what he calls us to do for one another, because we are his Church.
In Legends of the Fall, Tristan Ludlow rides upon the calf caught in the barbed wire. Indeed it is, by the world’s calculus, an insignificant thing: one small calf among hundreds of head of cattle. It would be easy to draw away and pass the calf by. But Tristan leaps from his horse without hesitation and struggles with all his strength to loosen the cords that cut and strangle this frightened and hurting animal. What makes the difference? Why does Tristan value this single and seemingly doomed creature?
Those who have seen the Legends of the Fall know that, though Brad Pitt may be beautiful, Tristan is utterly human. He has suffered incredible pain and loss in his life. In other words, he knows what it is to be pursued by wolves, to be constricted with razor wire that draws in upon him at every movement. He knows what it is, and so in a moment of his strength he responds, seeking to be a blessing to one in desperate need.
When we experience circumstances in life that affect us like emotional or spiritual barbed wire and every attempt to struggle free only brings more pain, Jesus seeks to find us and bring us home. And when we are strong, Jesus makes shepherds of us and commissions us to become the bearers of grace to the lost sheep.
I said most of these things in anticipation and hope five and a half years ago. 280 Sundays ago, I claimed that Jesus’ faith, and the faith to which he calls us, is the faith that is drawn to the lost sheep and the tangled calf. And friends, we have been faithful.
We have shared God’s grace with one another in these walls, especially when those among us felt lost and alone and experienced the barbed wire of life entangling us. We have ridden out to the perimeter of our community to seek those who were lost there, too, just as Tristan Ludlow rode to the very edge of his ranch. We didn’t ride alone. Jesus himself went with us, because he knows what it is to be lost and alone, just as he knows what it is to be strong. And though I’m headed to different ranches (populated by longhorns), Jesus still goes with you. He goes with you. Continue to be the Church that seeks the hundredth sheep. Be the Church that untangles the barbed wire of life. Because Jesus seeks you when you are lost, seek and find one another. And when you do, rejoice. Amen.