The Rector’s Report and Steps Forward

THE RECTOR’S REPORT

DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 24, 2021

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

I often pray those words before a sermon because they reflect the mission statement of our church “to know and share the love of Jesus Christ.” And that is what we’ve done as a congregation over the past year, in spite of the unforeseen and unprecedented challenges that arose last March.

In the middle of that month, in the middle of the season of Lent, we made a lightning fast shift from what most of us think of as “normal” church to gathering only online. We had less than two days to prepare for that change, which most of us had no idea would last this long. From inside the church that next Sunday, with some of the lights turned off, painter’s tape holding a less than adequate camera steady on top of an aluminum step ladder, and no one to be seen in the pews from the pulpit, it felt like the distant shadow of a wartime broadcast from the heart of London during the Blitz.

Today’s sermon is actually my report as the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church on the day our Annual Parish Meeting. I first want to thank everyone who works on my staff at Palmer, everyone who serves in leadership here, and those who’ve volunteered in ways seen and unseen.

You all have kept our parish moving forward through this wilderness. We’ve worshiped together. We’ve prayed together. We’ve studied the scriptures together. We’ve discussed and debated issues facing us and the world together. We’ve laughed and cried, experiencing joy and sorrow together.

One example of that joy was our experience of Christmas. Our traditional Christmas Eve service was offered online. Our usual worship with holy communion on Christmas morning was held outdoors and attracted a lot more people than had registered ahead of time. That’s because many people saw it happening as they passed by the church and stopped to join us.

And our most non-traditional Christmas Eve service, of course, was our first drive-in service in a parking lot near Rice Stadium. Far more of you and your friends showed up for that than we expected. Rice officials were amazingly generous and helpful, you were patient and gracious, and the local news told our story in their reports that night and the next morning.

The last thing I did in that parking lot was to pray with a woman being treated for cancer in the medical center and with her family, including her grandchildren. Surprised to find our service on their walk, they watched it until the last carol had been sung and said it was a special gift to them.

In the days leading up to those celebrations, Palmer’s Alternative Gift Giving invitation raised nearly $19,000 for outreach agencies and programs, far surpassing our previous record high in recent years. The largest donation was given in support of PAR, which stands for Palmers Assisting Reentry. This is one of our own ministries and is dedicated to reducing recidivism among former inmates by supporting them in various ways and partnering with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and, soon, the Texas Jail Project. More details about all of that will be forthcoming this year.

Those days leading up to Christmas also brought hope to us and the world in a different way. The first day vaccines began to be administered locally to physicians, nurses, and others across the street in the Texas Medical Center, there were photos posted online each passing hour to show that we had crossed a new threshold — a hopeful one.

I was surprised how emotional it made me to see those images, including the faces of people I know personally, including some of you. And now I see from time to time photos with the masked smiles of other Palmers who’ve just received their first shot. Those of us who are still waiting for ours rejoice with you and give thanks for your public witness.

It’s a witness not unrelated to your Christian faith. That’s because it’s not only about loving yourself but also about loving those for whom you care the most and loving everyone else in our congregation and throughout this great city. And here at Palmer, we believe that God is the ultimate source of the wisdom and intellect, creativity and curiosity, and scientific methods that have led us to this moment. Those dots are connected for us.

So we give thanks in our prayers as individuals and as a community for the graciousness of God and for the heroic diligence of scientists, public health experts, and medical professionals. And as an outward sign of those prayers, our church bells ring daily for those healthcare workers.

Along the same lines, at the meeting of Palmer’s Vestry last June, the physicians who are members of the Vestry affirmed that looking for specific medical milestones as we move into different chapters of regathering as a church is prudent for the health and safety of our congregation. And one of them proposed the following motion, which was passed:

The Palmer Vestry supports the phased reopening of Palmer Memorial Church based on achieving medical milestones that have been recommended by public health officials and following the stated recommendations of the Diocese of Texas.

That’s exactly what we have done, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

As the COVID-19 test positivity rate started to get closer to 5%, we began offering outdoor worship services on the south lawn of the church last September in addition to our prerecorded online Sunday liturgies. Once that positivity rate stayed below 5% for at least 14 days, suggesting community control of the spread of the virus, we moved one of those services inside the church with the various limitations required by the COVID-19 protocols approved for use in our setting by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

As soon as we reach that milestone again, we’ll repeat that shift and include an indoor service. At the moment, however, we’ll remain outdoors for worship since the positivity rate posted on the TMC website is nearly 13% and the positivity rate for all of Houston and Harris County is nearly 20%.

The reason for being especially careful right now was explained not only by Dr. Anthony Fauci at the White House just a few days ago but also by our own medical professionals here at Palmer earlier this month. Simply put, the new strain of the virus is much more contagious, which means that shorter exposure times and being less than six feet apart could lead to a higher risk of infection. So physical distancing remains important.

I know it’s hard. I know it seems like it will never end. But it will end, and we’ll see one another face to face. And we’ll know, even without words, the joys and the sorrows that too often remain hidden behind a mask or that feel too distant behind a screen. We need to use the masks and the screens right now, out of love. But a new day is indeed coming.

Looking down the road, there are three important things I want to highlight as we think about putting our best foot forward on the other side of this pandemic and walk together with confidence through an altered landscape as the community of Jesus in this place — this particular place.

The first is the Membership Task Force that I appointed last fall. Its purpose is to think creatively about our own context here at Palmer, specifically as our staff and leadership look ahead to regathering differently later this year and inviting the whole congregation to make an intentional recommitment to growing our church in what one might aptly describe as a New World.

At the moment we’re doing a series of mini-interviews with a variety of churches here and elsewhere, both like us and not like us, to learn about their practices and strategies for inviting and incorporating new people into the life of their churches. And we’ll have a more extensive conversation with a few of those church leaders and our whole task force at some of our upcoming meetings this year. So please keep this work in your prayers.

Some of the recommendations of this task force will relate to our use of technology. By next fall, for example, we might be able to transition from prerecorded to livestreamed services inside the church. That’s something we’ll continue to do long after things feel a lot more normal to most of us.

It will help others to be able to glimpse the glory of God we encounter within these walls and keep us connected to one another when we’re traveling or sick at home or confined to our house because of physical limitations. And the church needs to have the right kind of equipment to make that a quality offering. In the same way, our Bible studies, which have thrived during the pandemic, will gather again at the church at some point. But the rooms they’ll use can be equipped in such a way that others will still be able to join the conversation online, which is helpful not only for Palmers who live far away from the church but also for new people who are curious about us.

More important than technology, however, we envision a regularly offered workshop for Palmers, new and not-so-new, young and not-so-young, to help them learn how to give their testimony, broadly defined, about God in their lives and the connection of that to Palmer. Inviting others to come and see what God is doing here in this particular place will always be the most effective thing we can do as individuals to grow our congregation in the present moment and post-pandemic. But each of us needs to be equipped to do it well. So this should be a high priority for us going forward.

Perhaps less interesting but still important is Palmer’s Code of Procedures, which outlines how we organize our common life as a parish community. During my tenure here, they’ve already been changed once, partially, because the way we were doing a few things on the ground didn’t match the way the Code of Procedures was actually written.

But now, I believe, is the time to take a comprehensive look at the Code of Procedures so that we’ll be organized in the best possible way going forward. For example, the councils that specifically derive their authority from our Vestry should have clear rules about membership, membership rotation, and leadership rotation. Not having that blurs lines of authority, makes it difficult for new people to participate, and simply isn’t healthy.

Two important things relating to the organization of the Vestry, the collective body with the most authority in any Episcopal parish, have to do with its size and the manner in which new members are elected.

Ours has 15 elected members. My previous parish in Minnesota had even more and went through a process that reduced the size of its Vestry from 18 elected members down to 12. That’s the most common size for reasons that are hopefully obvious since Jesus called 12 disciples, including Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as we heard in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark.[1] But it was also a practical recommendation from the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes because larger vestries don’t result in better decision-making processes but do inhibit discussions.

Regardless of the size of a vestry, there is more than one way to elect new members. I have served parishes that hold elections just like Palmer does, with a slate that has twice as many candidates as there are slots to fill. I have also served congregations that use a different nominating process to produce a slate with the same number of candidates as there are slots to fill.

Many of our peer congregations have shifted from the former to the latter for their elections. We have discussed this here before publicly, and I know doing things the way we do them currently is how the first women were able to be elected to the Vestry here at Palmer. That is a really important part of our history. But our present reality is that it’s very difficult to expand the diversity of our Vestry today because of that same election process.

On a practical level, with each passing year, it takes longer to produce a full slate of ten candidates for our Vestry election. We can find people to serve on various councils. We can find people to serve in leadership. But finding twice as many people to serve in leadership in any given year isn’t easy.

And on a pastoral level, there are many active Palmers who share the pews with us and would bring so many wonderful and unique gifts to the table who are hesitant to step forward as candidates because of a perceived winner/loser aspect to our elections. No amount of explaining how that’s not what this is about will change their minds. As a priest, I will also tell you that it bothers a lot of people who participate in the process more than they ever thought it would. And that breaks my heart as their pastor.

So today I am appointing a Code of Procedures Task Force to consider these things and lead us through a process to discuss them in the coming months and eventually to vote on its recommendations, probably next September.

The members of this new task force are: Kristie Van Arsdel, a lawyer and Palmer’s outgoing Junior Warden, who will chair the task force; John Wallace, an attorney and one of Palmer’s former senior wardens; Barbara Hass, a member of the Vestry who is rolling off this year and who, as many of you probably know, helped to write Palmer’s current Code of Procedures; and Michael Chambers, an attorney who serves as Palmer’s Chancellor. I’ll also serve on the Code of Procedures Task Force as an ex officio member.

Finally, as you will hopefully recall, our annual meeting last year included a description by Greg Hambrick, one of Palmer’s former senior wardens, of what was then a new Property Development Task Force and an interesting idea that was being explored by knowledgeable people who love very deeply this place and this people, which is to say all of us in this congregation.

They had been invited to think creatively about the use of our property, which, although limited, is uniquely situated. In other words, are there ways to envision its use that would enhance the life and ministries of our church while simultaneously giving us an opportunity not only to grow our congregation but, more importantly, expand our mission in a powerfully significant and truly lasting way here in the City of Houston?

Could something be built both physically and spiritually that you could lift up your eyes to see and be a part of and know that it would bring life to this church and this community long after my lifetime and your lifetime? And what would that look like in our specific location as the gateway to the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest medical complex in the world?

Imagine all sorts and conditions of folks being drawn to cross the threshold of the doors of our church because of our mission in this city and because, quite frankly, we made it easier for them to get here. What they would find in this particular place is beauty — beauty not only in this historic building but also in the music and the prayers and the preaching and the people.

They’d find beauty in God’s grace for them.

David Robinson serves on Palmer’s Vestry, faithfully attends our Tuesday morning Men’s Bible Study, and also has a seat, as most of you know, on Houston’s City Council. He’ll give us an update with details related to these wonderings and conversations later this afternoon at the annual meeting.

If such a path presents itself to us, and we make the decision to walk down that path, believing God is calling us to do so, one of the most important and exciting things we would get to do as a congregation is to dream together about what the expansion of our mission would be.

It might be something that addresses an issue related to the area of public education. It might be a way to invest in early childhood development, which is one of the stated goals of the Episcopal Health Foundation and, in fact, its most specific goal because of the impact it makes. It might be an idea that connects us directly to the healing that takes place in the Texas Medical Center or the caregivers of its patients or the people who work there and absorb all of the stress and the grief and the anxieties thrown at them.

I don’t know what that expanded mission would be, opening our arms wider to share the love of Jesus Christ. What I do know, however, is that it would reveal itself as we walk together, talk together, pray together, even wrestle together with God, like Jacob does in the Bible, to receive a blessing. For me it brings to mind a quote from one of our Great Wednesday Webinar guests last fall, Miroslav Volf. A theologian at Yale Divinity School, he once said:

Every act of grace is a stepping into an unknown land.

And that’s why, he also said, “you don’t know what’s going to happen.” But it’s like answering the call of Jesus to follow him. We heard about Simon, Andrew, James, and John answering that call this morning. And we prayed in the Collect of the Day that we, too, would “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ” so that “we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.”[2] What is he calling us to do next? Whatever that might be, the good news is that we can trust the one calling us by name. 

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Mark 1:14-20.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 215.

The Epiphany in Washington, D.C.

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, 2021

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

A few days after Thanksgiving, we started a new year together in the life of the Church on the First Sunday of Advent. It was the beginning of a several-weeks-long season to prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Our first reading on that Sunday opened with the thunderous words of the Prophet Isaiah as he cried out to God, saying,

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.[1]

Isaiah pleaded for God’s face, God’s countenance, God’s lovingkindness not to remain hidden from God’s people, not to remain hidden from us.

Those words came rushing back to me as I read in the Gospel of Mark the description of the baptism of Jesus. His cousin John, called the baptizer, the plunger, was fearsome in the presence of those who came out from their cities and villages to the wilderness and dared to wade in the waters of the Jordan River and stand before this man clothed in the hair of camels.

But John wasn’t fearsome in the presence of Jesus. The one whose birth we celebrated at Christmas stood there and waited for this wild man, surely more than a little hesitant, to pour water over his head. In doing so, Jesus got into the muddy water with all of us, with all of humanity.

Although spartan, as usual, with its words in describing this scene — more spartan, in fact, than the summary I just gave you — Mark’s Gospel paints a surprisingly vivid picture of Jesus coming up out of the water. It says that “he saw the heavens torn apart” as the Spirit of God descended on him.[2] Try to imagine divine love flooding through that breach, strengthening Jesus for the ministry to which he would soon turn his attention.

The word used to describe the heavens being torn apart is schizomenous in Greek. You can hear in that pronunciation the distant echo of part of another word, a word from the world of medicine, schizophrenia in English — a splitting of the mind. Not surprisingly, there are many kinds of tearing, like schizophrenia, that can be destructive and harmful and painful to ourselves and those around us. It can happen not only to our minds, but also our bodies, our spiritual lives, our relationships with family and friends.

It can also happen to our political fabric as a nation. It has happened.

We saw that in tatters this past week, watching in real time the events that unfolded inside the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Doors were barricaded, weapons were drawn, and men and women were terrified, afraid for their lives, inside the People’s House. And all of that happened on the Christian Feast of the Epiphany — a day that usually brings to mind images of light and glory, brightness and illumination.

But the image that’s seared into my memory this year is a photo of the west side of the Capitol as the sky’s beginning to darken and clouds of chemicals above the mob outside are backlit by some kind of enormous flash that seems as brilliant as the sun. Looking at the photo, one could easily mistake the orange glow from inside the rotunda as a fire, which harkens back to British soldiers burning our symbol of democracy in the War of 1812.

In contrast to that, today’s feast — The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ — reminds us that there are other kinds of tearing apart that are liberating, that empower us, not to do our own will, but to do God’s will. We see that in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as Jesus stood up in the Jordan River.

One might say that our own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus tears open our hearts as each of us emerges from that sacramental bath, washed in waters of mercy, forgiveness, and rebirth as God’s children. The Holy Spirit makes a way where there is no way, setting us free from the bondage of sin, flooding our hearts, and overflowing into the world.

One way to keep our hearts open, breached to be filled with love rather than hate, is through prayer. You’ve probably noticed, and perhaps even been confused by, language that points to one of the main prayers we use in our worship on Sundays. It’s printed in the bulletin as “The Collect of the Day.” Now you wouldn’t be the first person in the history of the world to think we’re about to take up an extra collection at the beginning of the service.

Although, in a way, that is exactly what we do. It’s about “collecting up” the concerns of each of the members of the congregation, this congregation, into one prayer — a prayer for that particular Sunday. And these collects, which can easily be found in the Book of Common Prayer, are a great treasury of spiritual riches for all of us, mostly from Thomas Cranmer.

He was Archbishop of Canterbury and architect of the English Reformation in the 16th century. A handful of these prayers he composed on a blank canvas, so to speak. Most of them, however, he tweaked from the Latin prayers he inherited. What I mean is that he made sure the em-PHA-sis fell on the right syllable, so that each prayer pointed not to what we do own our own, but to what God is doing in us and through us as Christians. What we then do is motivated by that grace, that love, that mercy.

Today’s collect, which doesn’t come from the 16th century, asks God to strengthen us to “keep the covenant [we] have made” at our baptism as Christians and “boldly confess [Christ] as Lord and Savior.”[3]

One of my favorite collects, which Cranmer wrote himself, asks God to help us “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the holy scriptures so that, “by patience and comfort of [God’s] holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which [God] hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”[4]

A few of the collects describe quite plainly what all the rest are really trying to say. One begins this way:

O God, forasmuch as without thee, we are not able to please thee, mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.[5]

Another that we’ll pray in the season of Lent, in the weeks leading up to the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection on Easter Day, asks God to help us “love the thing which [God] commandest, and desire that which [God] dost promise, that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.”[6]

If we can’t do that on our own, why wouldn’t we at least ask God to help us, to bring us home to himself again by turning our hearts toward him?

Some will hear me saying this and think to themselves that I’m somehow discouraging informal, extemporaneous prayer. To that I say, “Far from it.” Becoming familiar with these collects in the Book of Common Prayer can expand your own vocabulary of prayer, as some of these beautiful phrases in them become folded into your own prayers, in your own words. They can teach you how to put the right emphasis on the right syllable.

And for those who are maybe a little or a lot anxious about a conversation with God, even though merely breathing in and out can be a form of that, do not despair. Let these collects, these prayers, be your own prayers.

In his short story called “A Father’s Story,” Roman Catholic fiction writer Andre Dubus wrote about someone who sincerely wants to be able to focus his attention on the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. But he’s too easily distracted and fails every time. At least it feels that way.

This character, who is just like so many of us, then says: 

. . . I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.[7]

That last image is stunning — a dance allowing the tongue-tied person a ceremony of love. And that’s what the collects invite us to experience as the tongue-tied followers of Jesus. Their words ask God to keep our hearts open, as they were torn open at our baptism, renewing in us as individuals and as a community the gift of wonder in the Holy Spirit’s presence among us — yes, even now, in the midst of all the things that are happening.

My prayer for you is that you’ll reach out for that gift. Actually, no, it’s not.

I need to say that differently because my prayer for you is that God will grant you that gift, reaching out to you and enabling you to receive it anew. And my prayer for this American commonwealth of which we are a part is found in the words of the Collect for the Nation in the Book of Common Prayer:

Lord God Almighty, who hast made all the peoples of the earth for thy glory, to serve thee in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with thy gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord . . .[8]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Isaiah 64:1.

BACK TO POST Mark 1:10.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 163.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 184.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 182.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 167.

BACK TO POST Andre Dubus, “A Father’s Story” in Selected Stories (New York: Open Road Media, 2010). There is no pagination in this book.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 207.

Feeling Left Out This Christmas

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020

Jesus, you are the Morning Star, and on this holy night,
we ask you to fill our hearts with light divine. Amen.[1]

A year ago we could’ve never imagined this night would be much different than all the other magical nights before Christmas throughout the entire lives of most of us. Yet here we are. Together, but not in the same way.

We’re missing not only walking into a crowded church to sing carols of hope and joy, with children and elders and everyone in between, but also entering a mystery, something larger than ourselves — that often overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by the Love that came down at Christmas. It causes us to smile at the whimsical ways that people often dress when they come to church on this holy night and reminds us that we’re not alone.

But it’s hard not to feel alone this year, right? Have you ever felt this way before, at some other time? You know, somehow finding yourself on the outside looking in, excluded through circumstances beyond your control from whatever important things happen to be taking place, wishing you could be there to witness them, to play a part in them?

Some of you will recall the now-infamous Willard happy family trip to Washington, DC, nearly three years ago. We left home right after Christmas that year. And we did have a great time in our nation’s capital, but it wasn’t exactly the trip we had planned. There were near-record-breaking cold temperatures. And although our family had survived many harsh winters in Minnesota before moving to Texas, even we thought any kind of outdoor activity was pretty miserable. So there were things on our itinerary that were quickly dropped and others that, quite frankly, should’ve been.

And then . . . and then immediately upon our return, all four of us had the flu. We had to isolate at home. That sure did seem wild at the time.

I know, I know, it was quaint by today’s standards. But we were really sad to miss the Rev. David Wantland’s ordination to the priesthood here at Palmer. We missed it because, following doctor’s orders, we were stuck at home.

How many experiences have you had to miss this year? They include major life celebrations, visits from family and friends, simply watching the hustle and bustle of the city, and gathering weekly around this Table within these particular walls. We’ve been left out of so much, waiting for the pandemic to end, waiting for vaccines to be distributed, waiting for friendships and family ties to be strengthened, or even repaired, after so much distance.

It’s true that for most of us there are Christmas lights and presents and for all of us there is the promise of God’s coming. But in so many ways, it does feel like we’re on the outside looking in this year, doesn’t it?

That place where we’re standing, that place where you are right now, is the place where Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, was born. The familiar story of his birth in the Gospel of Luke puts us on the world stage.

But there’s no room for this Messiah in the world.

There’s no room in Rome, so go to the edge of the empire.[2] There’s no room in Jerusalem, so go to the little village of Bethlehem. There’s no room in the inn, so go to the detached garage where the animals are parked. Sorry the shop heater by the tool bench out there is broken. As someone once said:

Out, out, out. The Messiah is the one left out.[3]

Later in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself will say to an anonymous man who wants to follow him, perhaps to you, perhaps to me,

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head.[4]

Jesus, of course, would reach out to others who were also left out, eating with tax collector and sinners, healing diseases, casting out demons, even forgiving sins, something which only God can do.

The story of Christmas reminds us that the true seat of power isn’t found in Rome, or Jerusalem, or Washington, or Austin. It’s found, unexpectedly, in a baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and cushioned only with a pillow of hay in a feeding trough. This holy child in the manger “brings the Spirit of the Lord, so that it fills the whole earth.”[5] So what we celebrate tonight is nothing less than “the hidden beginning of [a] new creation.”[6]

We’re often tempted to look at the scene of the Nativity through a kind of kaleidoscope — through Christmas glitter mixed with little statues carved out of olive wood and a sentimentality that substitutes for faith. But the story of Mary and Joseph is a personal story, a real story, a difficult story.

They aren’t ready for all of this to happen. They definitely aren’t ready for this to happen on the road. There’s no mother-in-law hovering about to help with a colicky baby. There aren’t gift cards waiting to be redeemed on Amazon.com. There aren’t groceries from HEB being delivered by an Instacart driver. Yet this is how God chooses to enter into the life of the world and into our common humanity, in great humility, in the real lives of Mary and Joseph, in our real lives too.

Those of us who take the message of Christmas seriously have, listening to this story many times over through the years, learned to look for the presence of God in unexpected places. The real action isn’t limited to great things happening somewhere else. God is also at work in the little things — the encouragement of a good friend, a handwritten note about, well, anything at all, a hug from your most difficult child, a cat that just shows up at the Rectory, the unseen beauty and, yes, even the challenges that await you. These things happen not in some far off, exotic place, but wherever you dwell right now, even in the mess that is 2020.

And the mess is always where God shows up.

A lot of us come from places not unlike Bethlehem, Nazareth, Navasota, or Nacogdoches. But even if we now live in Rome, Jerusalem, New York, or right here in Houston, we live in particular neighborhoods, on a particular block, on a particular street. That’s where God comes to meet us. The writer Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

The work of salvation is always local . . . When God fashioned a universal gospel ‘for all the world,’ he became incarnate on a few square mile of Palestinian hills and valleys. An accurate street address is far more important in the proclamation of the gospel than a world map.[7]

We believe that Love came down at Christmas. And it comes to us again tonight wherever we are, wherever we’re living physically or emotionally. It’s Love with a capital “L,” Love that has the power to save us. This Messiah who was always left out, this Messiah who takes us by the hand precisely when we feel left out — he would later quote Psalm 118 while standing in the temple during the last week of his life, saying,

The very stone which the builders rejected
has become the head of the corner.[8]

Jesus was referring to himself as the cornerstone of something that will endure forever, a love that will never let us go. And the mystery of that is just as real this year as in any other since the first Christmas.

I don’t know how all the loose ends of 2020 will get tied up in the year ahead of us. Some of them won’t. But I do believe God is at work in the little things.

I believe that’s true for you, for me, for the whole world. I believe we get a glimpse of that tonight in the little hands of a baby who reaches out not only for his mother Mary but also for us, always, not to condemn us but to save us. This child has been born for us, “and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”[9] He is Christ the Lord.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”

BACK TO POST I have adapted some of the phrasing here to describe the Messiah’s movement to the manger, far away from Rome, from Gil Bailie, quoted by Paul Nuechterlein in Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary for Christmas Eve/Day

BACK TO POST Bailie.

BACK TO POST Luke 9:58.

BACK TO POST Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 85.

BACK TO POST Moltmann 73.

BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 190.

BACK TO POST Psalm 118:22 (Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:6.

Looking Down, Around, and Up

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 28, November 15, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

Last weekend, Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, died on the Jewish Sabbath before the sun rose. He was someone easy to listen to, someone who could explain complex things in ways that are both meaningful and understandable. And he had a spirit of generosity, a willingness to see what is honorable in religious “others.”

Rabbi Sacks was once invited to a meal at the house of the President of Yale University. There he was asked to offer a blessing for the food, but first he told the other guests and their host a story.[1] He said once he was about to have dinner with a group of Christians, and they asked him to give a blessing before anything had been served and placed on the table.

That left him in a difficult spot. He hesitated, because in Judaism one prays over the food — food already there on the table, not food on its way from the kitchen. So he looked around and focused on the flower arrangement. And in the beauty of that which God had created, what one of God’s own children had carefully tended, Rabbi Sacks saw something that evoked food. With that in mind, he offered a blessing. Then he said to everyone:

You Christians have more faith than we do; we want to see the food.

I love that story. And, quite frankly, this Christian wants to see the food too. Thou shalt not bless proleptically. The strange word prolepsis means a representation of something that’s going to happen in the future as if it’s a present reality, as if it’s already here, as if it’s achieved its certain goal.

And while we do every Sunday, if not every day of the week, say the Lord’s Prayer, asking for our share of fresh daily bread to sustain us, to give us life, most of us don’t give thanks for it until it’s in our hands, placed there like the Bread of Heaven itself in Holy Communion.

Sometimes what we as human beings need is, in reality, close by, but we’re just looking in the wrong direction, focusing on the wrong things. Or maybe that’s just me, not you! Rabbi Sacks described this when he was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to address an occasional gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world called the Lambeth Conference.

He began by imagining a story that he said could have easily begun in Westminster, a place where he and these Anglican bishops had participated in a march several days earlier.[2] He imagined going on a walk with his granddaughter, starting there, in order to show her some of the sights.

Outside the buildings of Parliament, he imagined his granddaughter asking him what happens there. He’d say, politics. She’d ask what that’s about, and he’d say it’s about the creation and distribution of power.

From Westminster, they’d walk into the City of London, into the heart of the financial district, and see the Bank of England. He imagined her asking him what happens there. He’d say, economics. She’d ask what that’s about, and he’d say, the creation and distribution of wealth.

On their way back, they’d pass St. Paul’s Cathedral. Again, he imagined his granddaughter asking him what happens there. He’d say, worship. She’d ask what that’s about, what does it create and distribute?

And he would say to her, that’s a good question.

Rabbi Sacks went on to talk about how much our lives have been dominated by politics and economics. We can make people act in certain ways, either forcing them with power or paying them with wealth. We can even share widely both power and wealth. When we do that, we end up with less power or wealth than we started with, maybe a lot less. (Sometimes that’s o.k.)

“But now suppose,” said Rabbi Sacks:

. . . that you decide to share, not power or wealth, but love, or friendship, or influence, or even knowledge, with nine others. How much do I have left? Do I have less?

“No,” he said:

. . . I have more, perhaps even 10 times as much.

Why? Because love, friendship and influence are things that only exist by virtue of sharing. . . . the more I share, the more I have. . . .

Where do we find covenantal goods like love, friendship, influence and trust? [3]

“They are born,” he said:

. . . not in the state, and not in the market, but in marriages, families, congregations, fellowships, and communities.[4]

In other words, they’re found in places like Palmer, in this gathering for worship, in our Bible studies and our youth group, in our mission and outreach together, in focusing on Jesus and seeing how the Holy Spirit works through us so that strangers become friends, so that others can set down their burdens and find rest here, so that we can do that too.

Worship helps us to focus on God, raising us up to orient ourselves in a confusing world, so that we don’t have to roll around like lost balls in high weeds. And doesn’t it feel that way right now?

I mean, would someone please press the fast forward button so that we can get to the other side of the pandemic, the political chaos, and the end of this school year, and the disconnection that we feel not only from our extended families but also from a lot of our friends, people just as overwhelmed as we are? God, could you go ahead and press that fast forward button now?

That’s it. That’s it. That’s another place we can look — not just at what’s right in front of our nose, not just scanning the horizon for something, anything, to remind us to keep the main thing the main thing. We can also look up, as we were reminded in the words of today’s psalm:

To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.[5]

It encourages us to keep looking “to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.”[6] Sometimes our hands are empty and tears obscure our sight as we look for help in every direction across a landscape stripped of grace, whether that’s a strained friendship, a stressed marriage, worries about your job, or fears about the state of the world.

Sometimes there’s no other place to look but up.

And it’s o.k. to face God in that way, even shaking your fist if you feel like it, and saying to God, as the psalmist does, that:

. . . [you] have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.

Wall Street and Washington, as it were, economics and power, or whatever it is in your life, your real life, that seems to draw a circle around itself while leaving you helpless on the outside.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.[7]

I’m going to keep my eyes on you until you show us your mercy. And I’m doing this because I know that you’re merciful. You’ve shown that to your people in every generation. You’ve shown that to everyone in Jesus, the Lamb, who takes away the sin of the whole world and has destroyed death.

I just need to see a little of that mercy with my own eyes, here and now.

Lord, I need to see it.

It’s important to be able to say that, to be able to be honest with God. But I want you to notice something about this short prayer known as Psalm 123. It starts personally. It starts wherever you are at this moment, with the word “I.” Then it immediately moves from the singular to the plural, from the individual to the community. Its words bring you back home, back here to Palmer, back to the Lord’s Table and the Lord’s people.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.[8]

And we’ll keep saying those words together, and watching expectantly, side by side, for God to act until we see God’s mercy with our own eyes, not only in the world to come, but also in this world, the world as it is.

This I believe. . . . This we believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST This story, including the quote that follows, was shared by Greg Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School, in a post on the Facebook page of Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut, November 9, 2020.

BACK TO POST This story, as it is retold here, is partly paraphrased and partly quoted from Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:1.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:4.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:4.

For All Saints: Where Are the Dead Now?

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

My Daddy’s mother died when he was 16 years old, so I never knew her. But I did know, at least a little, my other grandmother. I have memories of riding in the car with my parents to visit her in a nursing home. But mostly I remember things from when she died, when I was seven years old. I remember vividly details from the funeral home — the metal casket, the smell of the flowers, even the chill in the room. But I wasn’t afraid.

I grew up in a time, a culture, and a Christian tradition in which my family would attend the funeral of church members just because they were church members. It didn’t mean we were necessarily close to the person who had died. We were part of the same church family, so that’s why we were there. But my grandmother’s death was different. It was the first time death came close enough to feel that the world had changed, that my world had changed, and to wonder what had happened and what was happening.

Two months before my grandmother died, in another part of the world, the philosopher Ernst Bloch died in Tübingen, Germany. He lived in the same neighborhood as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who walked over to visit Bloch’s wife as soon as he heard about his friend’s death. Carola Bloch came toward Moltmann and simply asked him, “Where is he now?”[1] And she asked that question, a heart-wrenching question from any human being who’s ever felt left behind, while her husband’s body was still lying there.

Where are they now? Where are the dead?

Some say no where beyond what will return to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Early Christians, however, believed there was something more than that. They were known for having torn down the wall between the living and the dead, so to speak, unafraid to approach the places of the dead because of their belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the hope that they, too, would share in his resurrection. It gave them courage to experience life before death, amid struggles here.

I’ve always loved seeing on some older Moravian headstones the simple declaration, “Asleep in Jesus.” That’s not meant to be a euphemism to avoid speaking of the awful reality of death. No, it’s claiming this isn’t the end.

This person rests in Jesus, awaiting something, the General Resurrection. The implication, of course, is that the resurrection to eternal life, the resurrection of the body, is a future event. I mean, it has to be, right? That grave isn’t empty. As the words of the Prayer Book put it so beautifully:

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness . . .[2]

As a priest in Williamsburg, Virginia, I would often read on Sundays before the opening procession into Bruton Parish Church an unusually long and dramatic inscription on a particular chest tomb. It was just outside the church, proclaiming to those who passed by these sad but hopeful words:

Here sleeps in Jesus united to Him
by Faith and the Graces of a christian
life, all that was Mortal of Mrs. Ann Burges
once the tender and affectionate Wife
of the Rev’d HENRY JOHN BURGES,
of the ISLE OF WIGHT: She died 25th
December 1771 in giving Birth to an
Infant Daughter, who rests in her Arms.
She here waits the transporting Moment
when the Trump of God shall call her
Forth to Glory, Honour & Immortality.

Oh DEATH were is thy Sting?
Oh GRAVE where is thy Victory?

The confidence of those words near the end is inspirational, although most of us don’t really talk that way. We love it when listening to Handel’s Messiah, as a bass voice sings the words of Saint Paul, words to the Corinthian Christians about how “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”[3]

However, in contrast to that, a lot of us have gotten used to talking about life after death using the language of immediacy. Loved ones are with God right now, which is a comforting thought. But we’re not sure how that connects with the resurrection of the body, words we recite in the creed. So we don’t know what to do with their bodies, our bodies, or any body for that matter. “Some bright morning when this life is o’er,” we’ll just fly away.

It’s not that the language of immediacy isn’t found in the New Testament. We hear it on the lips of Jesus himself, from the cross, as he answers the thief beside him, who is also being executed and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Jesus famously says to him,

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.[4]

And on this All Saints’ Day we heard in the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, a stunningly beautiful and glorious description of those standing before the throne of God, not in the future but now. Did you notice, by the way, that they’re all Palmers, said to be holding palm branches in their hands? And they’re “a great multitude that no one could count . . . from all tribes and peoples and languages.”[5] Their past suffering, all of it, has come to an end; and because of Jesus who also suffered, the Lamb who was slain, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[6] That last part always reminds me of Jürgen Moltmann saying,

God weeps with us, so that we may someday laugh with him.[7]

So what are we to make of this tension within the Bible itself between the present and the future? Where are the dead?

Some believe, together with the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther and 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, that it’s about the difference between our experience of time and God’s perspective.[8] So here in this life, it appears as if those who have died are waiting for the resurrection. But at our own death, our experience of the resurrection will seem immediate and as if everyone is experiencing it at the same time.

Luther says as soon as our eyes have closed in death, we’ll be awakened. And it will be like those moments when we wake up in the middle of the night, with no idea how long we’ve been asleep. Whether a half hour or a thousand years, it will seem sudden, happening in the twinkling of an eye.[9]

That weird thing about time is why we can think of resurrection as a future event but also have a very real sense of the communion of saints gathered around the throne now, cheering us on as we walk through the sufferings they’ve already been through, praising God together as we say “holy, holy, holy” at the Lord’s Table, knowing that a crown of glory awaits us through the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we shall see face to face.

The truth is that it’s a mystery. And there are other ways many faithful Christians have described that mystery because, as a friend of mine said a few days ago, “We’re always peering into hidden things when it comes to death.”[10] Even so, in this election year, I’m voting with Martin Luther.

I’d say we’ll find out who won, who got most details right, when the Day of Days arrives not only for us and but also for the whole world. But here’s the thing: It won’t matter at that point because we’ll be in the presence of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars,” the same Love that’s already taken us by the hand now and will have raised us to new life then.[11]

What I know with certainty is that All Saints’ is one of my favorite festivals of the church year. It’s when Carrie and I had both of our children baptized. Rowan, our oldest son, was bathed in the font the same year my Daddy died. All of that came together in that moment — the waters of baptism, death and resurrection, the communion of saints. But that All Saints’ celebration also enfolded my grandparents, the two I knew and the two I never met.

Those circles of love ripple out from there. They encompass people you’ve known, who showed you when they were alive what Jesus is like through small acts of love. They draw a line around a great multitude of human beings around the world who have died as a result of COVID-19.[12] How is it not possible to remember them on All Saints’ this year, to pray for them, to pray for those staring at an empty seat around a kitchen table?[13]

My friends, those whom we love are not lost in death. They are not.

Where are the dead?

They are held in the love of Jesus, which surrounds them and us, always.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Carola Bloch, quoted by Jürgen Moltmann in In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 109.

BACK TO POST From the additional prayers at the end of the liturgy for the Burial of the Dead, Rite II, in the Book of Common Prayer (1979).

BACK TO POST 1 Corinthians 15:52 (KJV).

BACK TO POST Luke 23:43.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:17.

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, quoted by Philip Yancey in “God Behind Barbed Wire,” Christianity Today, posted online August 29, 2005.

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, on page 112 in his book In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), states that other Catholic theologians joined Karl Rahner in discussing the idea of “the resurrection at death” but that “in 1979 Joseph Ratzinger, in his first declaration as cardinal, had these ideas rejected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, because they make indulgences and Masses for the dead superfluous, and are therefore contrary to the [Roman Catholic] Church’s practice.” (That would have strengthened Martin Luther’s belief in it.)

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 111-112.

10 BACK TO POST Jacob Smith, Rector of the Episcopal Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in New York, New York, on the Mockingbird podcast Same Old Song, “All Saints’ (A): Grandpa Joe, Supervillain,” October 26, 2020.

11 BACK TO POST Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 145.

12 BACK TO POST As of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020, according to the the COVID-19 Dashboard of Johns Hopkins University, more than 1.1 million people have died globally as a result of COVID-19.

13 BACK TO POST Although not the subject of this sermon, the Feast of All Saints is an appropriate time to ask why Anglican Christians around the world and through the centuries have offered prayers for the dead. The best answer I’ve heard in response to that question comes from an unlikely source, an evangelical New Testament scholar and bishop in the Church of England quoting an evangelical lay member of the Church of England.

N.T. Wright, on pages 74-75 in his book For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (New York: Morehouse, 2003), writes this:

Many years ago, the General Synod of the Church of England was debating the question of prayers for the dead. Professor Sir Norman Anderson, one of the most senior and respected laymen in the church of his day, and known as a leading evangelical and Protestant, rose to speak. You might have supposed that he would take the traditional line and denounce prayers for the dead as irrelevant nonsense, indicating a lack of assurance or a belief in purgatory. But Sir Norman and his wife had had three lovely children, a boy (of exceptional brilliance) and two girls; and all three had died in early adult life. And he had come, in his own experience, to realize that it was perfectly in order to continue to hold those beloved children before God in prayer, not to get them out of purgatory, nor because he was unsure about their final salvation, but because he wanted to talk to God about them, to share as it were his love for them with the God who had given them and had inexplicably allowed them to be taken away again. When I read his speech I realized not only how much I respected his nobility of mind and heart, but how much theological sense it made. Once you get rid of the abuses which have pulled prayer out of shape, there is no reason why prayer should not stop just because the person you are praying for happens now to be ‘with Christ, which is far better’. Why not simply celebrate the fact?

“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 24, October 18, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

One of my favorite things I’ve seen recently, something I’m sure some of you have seen too, is spooky, nighttime video footage of a man and a woman walking up to a house, where the man starts ringing the doorbell, repeatedly, before quickly knocking on the door, repeatedly, and even trying to turn the doorknob, without success. It was locked, and he immediately starts ringing the doorbell again and knocking on the door and then calling out the name Paul, who presumably lived there. No answer. So he begins ringing the doorbell again and knocking on the door, and you, worried about Paul, start to think it’s the beginning of a horror movie.

Either something really bad has already happened or will any second, right? It’s after two o’clock in the morning. No good can come of this.

Finally, Paul’s voice can be heard through the speaker. And the man outside says to him, “Paul? It’s Bob Wilson, you’ve won the Nobel Prize. And so they’re trying to reach you, but they cannot. They don’t seem to have a number for you.” Then the woman chimes in, saying, “We gave them your cell phone number.” Paul says, “Yeah, wow. Yeah, ok.” “Will you answer your phone,” pleads the woman before laughing aloud as he answers, “Yes.” Bob replied, “You need to let them be able to call you.”

Paul Milgrom is the name of the man who was awakened in the middle of the night; and Robert Wilson is his neighbor and longtime colleague, who also won a Nobel Prize. In fact, they won that award in economics together. It turns out that Bob had been hard to reach, too, having unplugged his landline after not recognizing the number and thinking he was getting a spam phone call from some political campaign at home late at night.

But imagine for a moment if you had been in that kind of situation, except there wasn’t a Nobel Prize to be handed out but rather a need to be met, a cry to be heard, and you kept ringing the doorbell and banging on the front door, and there was no answer.

What comes to mind for me is the time when the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings watched the priests of Jezebel try to rouse the Canaanite god Baal. It doesn’t work, so Elijah mocks them, suggesting their god must have unplugged the landline or be meditating or has fallen asleep and needs to be awakened. Psalm 121, by contrast, says the One “who keeps watch over Israel,” who “watches over [us],” “shall neither slumber nor sleep.”[1]

And the psalm we heard today, Psalm 99, tells us that the Lord answered Moses and Aaron and Samuel, and presumably other priests and prophets, who called upon the Lord’s name. Then that same assertion is repeated later, as the psalmist speaks directly to the Lord our God and says,

You answered them indeed.[2]

Some of you hearing my voice could easily repeat those words in your heart as a prayer of thanksgiving today. Maybe you recently had an experience of being heard by the One who sustains your life, gives you breath, and sends you forth to face another day.

But there are surely others here this morning who would like to say, who are saying, those same words in a very different tone. Yes, you believe God answered Moses and Aaron and Samuel, but you’d very much like God to answer you, too, and sooner rather than later.

Maybe you want there to be justice and judgment, divinely meted out, which almost certainly means you want those things to be visited upon other people. (We’ve all been there, or are there right now.) After all, Psalm 99 states clearly that God executes those things as a “lover of justice.”[3] It’s part of what makes God holy, part of what makes God great and fearful.

The psalmist takes us to Mount Zion in Jerusalem and into the very heart of the temple, where the Lord is enthroned upon the cherubim. These angelic creatures aren’t what the Jewish scholar Robert Alter humorously describes as “the dimpled darlings of Christian iconography.”[4] No, they are fierce, carved in radiant gold, with “the body of a lion, large wings, and a human face.”[5] Their wings, outstretched toward one another atop the Ark of the Covenant, in the Holy of Holies, formed a seat for the Holy One of Israel.

That is where God was present, in a real way. Mysterious, yes, but actually there. And the force, the movement, in the words of this psalm is that God will continue to do today what God has done in the past, that those who’ve followed in the footsteps of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel will cry out and their prayers will be answered.

But praise the Lord that justice and judgement aren’t the only things ascribed to God in this psalm, this prayer, which is also our own prayer in our own day. I mean, it’s not that I don’t want God’s righteousness to be established on the earth or in this nation. I do. I really do, the sooner the better. It’s just that one of the things too often in the way of that is me.

So I love that God’s most important answer to the prayers of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel on behalf of the people is that God forgave them. That’s the first thing mentioned after the palmist turns to God, addressing God directly, praising God for answered prayers. Yes, they endured the consequences of things done and left undone, but God forgave them, God carried the burden of their disobedience, of our disobedience, of my disobedience.

That incredibly good news is just as true today as it was then. God forgives you, even though the temple no longer stands, even though the mercy seat above the wings of the cherubim no longer exists. The glory of the Lord has gone out from there to be with his people, wherever they may be, whatever their circumstances may be, which means the glory of the Lord is here.

When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain of the temple that hid from view the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies was torn asunder, not because mercy had somehow vanished, but because mercy was being poured out on the whole world. And the good news is that you don’t have to depend upon me for God to answer our prayers here. That’s because Jesus is our great high priest, “our only Mediator and Advocate.”[6]

Jesus is interceding for us, and we are forgiven.

And if you happen to be one of those people pointing a finger at God, for any number of very understandable reasons, while praying, “You answered them indeed,” remember this: Remember that Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed intensely and waited in the silence for an answer. It seemed as if God had gone away from him, as if he’d been abandoned, as if the house was completely empty, as if no amount of ringing the doorbell or banging on the front door would summon the voice of a friend.

But God answered with a thunderous yes, raising Jesus from the dead, taking the door of death off its hinges, so to speak, and leaving behind only the shattered gates of hell so that no one would ever be shut out from his mercy and his forgiveness. Not even those who feel godforsaken are beyond the reach of his saving embrace. He will take them by the hand with love.

I really believe that. I believe that for you, for me, for everyone. Jesus is alive, and his presence and his love are what you will receive today at the time of holy communion, whether you receive the consecrated bread, the Body of Christ, in your hands here at the church or say the words of the prayer for spiritual communion in your home.

Those things received in holy communion are given to you personally, and they’re given to me personally. But they are received as God’s people together, in a community of prayer and praise. They are received communally, in a congregation where our own imperfections don’t keep us out, but draw us in to approach the throne of grace with boldness.

And there, as Psalm 85 describes it so beautifully, mercy and truth meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other, and somehow — at the last day — all wrongs will have been righted, not only those around us but also those within us. And God, having reconciled the world to himself in Christ, will finally be all in all. This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Psalm 121:3-4 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Psalm 99:8 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Psalm 99:4 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Robert Alter, commenting on Psalm 99 in The Hebrew Bible, Volume 3: The Writings (New York: Norton, 2019) 233n.

BACK TO POST Robert Alter, commenting on Psalm 99 in The Hebrew Bible, Volume 3: The Writings (New York: Norton, 2019) 233n.

BACK TO POST From the Prayers of the People in the liturgy for Holy Eucharist, Rite I, in the Book of Common Prayer (1979).

God Makes a Way

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 19, September 13, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

I don’t really know how I got the idea. I mean, I had never owned a seersucker suit in my entire life. But I was living in the Low County of South Carolina, it was hotter there than I was used to as someone who grew up closer to the mountains in North Carolina, and I was serving a church that expected some formality in attire year-round, even though we were just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean and even fewer steps away from Legends theater, where Elvis, Cher, Madonna and other celebrity impersonators performed daily. Neil Diamond was there, too, covered in sequins.

Anyway, I opened up the box and sat there, staring at my new suit for what seemed like an eternity. Honestly, my first thought was, “I can’t wear these clothes in public. I’ll just die if I walk around dressed like this.” But I tried it on, inside the safety of my little apartment, with a black clergy shirt, a clergy collar, and white bucks.

And then I did something counterintuitive. Still dressed up and feeling extremely ridiculous, I drove a few miles up Kings Highway to Myrtle Beach, to a place I knew would be packed with tourists at the height of summer. There, at Broadway at the Beach, I walked in a straight line from one end to the other, right down the middle of the main path outdoors. And, lo, I did not die as the wall to wall crowd before me parted like the waters of the Red Sea. A lot of people stared at me, but I didn’t die.

Now that’s a silly example of how we think about ourselves or our worries, whether real or imagined, about how others might judge us. But there are plenty of other things that we come face to face with, genuine struggles with our own health and wellness, with our friends and relatives, with our parents and children, with our jobs and our choices, past and present, or the choices of others. And sometimes the path before us doesn’t magically reveal itself because of our striking fashion, the intensity of our willpower, the strength of our achievements, or whatever luck or advantages have been our companion up until that specific moment.

That’s in a real sense what happens to the children of Israel in today’s reading from the Book of Exodus. The Lord hears the cries of his people, enslaved by the Pharaoh of Egypt, and with a mighty hand delivers them out of their bondage after Pharaoh finally relents. But Pharaoh recants, so to speak, and sends forth his army to pursue the Israelites in a last ditch effort to bring them back. And when these newly freed people find themselves between the waters of the Red Sea and the chariots of Egypt, they’re terrified. They complain to their leader Moses, going so far as to tell Moses they never wanted to leave the Land of Egypt in the first place. Now they’re trapped.

The Old Testament scholar Gerald Janzen, commenting on all of this, says that:

Faith is not the absence of fear. Faith is fear that takes itself to God, and there finds the freedom and the voice both to call for God to act and to give reassurance to others whose own fear leads them only backward.[1]

Or as a friend of mine put it recently:

Faith often looks like feeling afraid and still taking a step to move forward.[2]

Isn’t that word of encouragement something each of us longs to hear? There are so many things we’re afraid of right now, and we want to be delivered, to make it to the safety of the other side, the other shore.

In Birmingham, Alabama, the sun rose on the morning of Easter Day in 1963 with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the same jail from which he would later write his famous letter to moderate white Christian ministers who were just like me. So civil rights leaders planned a march to that city jail in the afternoon from a local Baptist church. People first worshiped together there and in other churches, proclaiming to the world an empty tomb and a risen Lord, knowing that death will never have the last word, believing that God makes a way where there is no way.

And then they stepped out in faith, as Easter people, dressed in their Sunday best, about five thousand total by the time the march started at that Baptist church.

What this procession of mostly Black Christians came face to face with were police officers and firefighters, the latter with water hoses in their hands and fire engines behind them. With no path forward, no way through the barricades, Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, said defiantly to these Christians, “Turn this group around!” And the Lord’s people in front of him — our Lord’s people — stopped and waited. In his book An Easy Burden, Andrew Young, who would later become the Mayor of Atlanta, describes that very moment. He writes:

I can’t say we knew what to do. I know I didn’t want to turn the march around, whatever the consequences. So . . . I asked the people to get down on their knees and offer a prayer.[3]

And that’s what happened. Thousands dropped to their knees and began to pray until eventually a Black minister, a pastor from the church where they had started:

. . . jumped up and hollered, “The Lord is with this movement! Off your knees! We’re going on . . . Stunned at first, Bull Connor yelled, “Stop ‘em, stop ‘em!” But none of the police moved a muscle. . . . Even the police dogs that had been growling and straining at their leashes . . . were now perfectly calm.[4]

Andrew Young goes on to write that:

I saw one fireman, tears in his eyes, just let the hose drop at his feet. Our people marched right between the red fire trucks, singing, “I want Jesus to walk with me.” . . . [Bull Connor’s] policemen had refused to arrest us, his firemen had refused to hose us, and his dogs had refused to bite us. It was quite a moment to witness: I’ll never forget one old woman who became ecstatic when she marched through the barricades. As she passed through, she shouted, “Great God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one mo’ time!”[5]

Wow.

Now it would be very easy, too easy, to stop right there, shout “Hallelujah,” and leave inspired, at least momentarily. But I believe we have to ask ourselves to think about those times when there’s a very different ending, when we’re bathed not in tears of joy but in tears of pain. Because we all know, or will come to know, that happens.

It was an occasion of grace for me this past week, a surprise, to hear from a rabbi, of all people, on Twitter, of all places, a reflection on the Pietà — that sorrowful image from the middle ages of Mary holding the dead body of her son Jesus after his crucifixion. Most of us think of Michelangelo’s later sculpture of this from the Renaissance, but there are lots of other representations of it by different artists.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg had been reading a book about Mary by a Roman Catholic author, which caused her to tweet these words:

The Christian image of Pietà really took off around the time of the Black Death. It wasn’t safe for the grieving Europeans to embrace their (contagious) loved ones — but Mary could. I find that so powerful. And [it] makes me think about how our longings now are taking shape.”[6]

The responses to her tweet were powerful too — from memories of how this image was popular during the AIDS crisis and honesty about missing human touch right now, to all sorts of pictures —

. . . the limp body of Father Mychal Judge, a Roman Catholic priest, being carried away from the Twin Towers by firefighters on 9/11,

. . . a Black mother holding her son in her arms in front of a Target store with its symbol above her head as both halo and bullseye,

. . . Jesus as a COVID-19 patient being held by doctors in the armor of protective gear, like so many professionals across the street in the Texas Medical Center,

. . . and a famous painting by Titian from 1576, a personal plea for Mary to pray for him and his son to be spared from the plague in the City of Venice.

But neither he nor his son would be spared.

Does that mean they were abandoned by God when trapped between that cruel disease and the Red Sea, so to speak? Were those who died loved less than those who lived? I don’t believe that for them. I don’t believe that for us. I don’t even believe that for the Egyptian soldiers who died as victims of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. As the rabbis later wrote, they, too, were God’s handiwork.[7]

What Mary offers Titian, who is depicted in his own painting, is the body of her son. And Titian, the old man, gently holds the hand of his Savior, the answer to his prayer. There are hints of resurrection in this work of art, but the fear is real. It is palpable, like it was on the near shore of the Red Sea, like it might be for you.

Yet Titian had already been led through the waters of baptism. He was a Christian believer, and he knew that whatever happened next, God would have the last word — a word that brings new life, a new creation, a new beginning.

And that is good news for both you and me. Whatever it is that we’re looking at over our shoulder, whatever it is that we’re afraid of, God will make a way where there is no way. Not even the chariots of sin and death will be able to keep us, as children of God, from reaching the other shore, with a land of milk and honey in the distance, awaiting us, awaiting all of us. We, too, have been brought through the waters of baptism, bathed in forgiveness, clothed in Christ. Thus well arrayed, we need not fear at the last, when we awake, once and for all, held in his eternal loving embrace.

AMEN

BACK TO POST J. Gerald Janzen, Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 101.

BACK TO POST Aaron M.G. Zimmerman, Rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas. Zimmerman shared this on the Mockingbird podcast Same Old Song, “Pentecost 15 (A): The Forgiveness Episode,” September 8, 2020.

BACK TO POST Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2008) 222. I was first introduced to this story and Young’s book in Fleming Ruledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

BACK TO POST Young 223.

BACK TO POST Young 223.

BACK TO POST Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR), Twitter, September 8, 2020. https://twitter.com/TheRaDR/status/1303512325761228801?s=20. The book that Ruttenberg had been reading was Sally Cunneen’s In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol (New York: Ballantine, 1996).

BACK TO POST b. Sanhedrin 39b. Commenting on this scene and the fate of the Egyptians, it says: “At that time the ministering angels desired to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: My handiwork, i.e., the Egyptians, are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me? Apparently, God is not gladdened by the downfall of the wicked.”

And, yes, I am well aware of the theological statement in the prelude to this scene that it is God who hardened the heart of Pharaoh in order to bring glory to God’s own self. That’s a mystery to acknowledge and wrestle with in a different sermon.

The Fourth of July & Confederate Statues

Photo of Alamance County Courthouse in Graham, North Carolina, by Photojournalist Bob Karp

It’s not uncommon to hear people whose skin color looks similar to mine say that if your family history was deeply rooted for many generations in a small Southern town, you’d understand what the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse for that county represents. Two of my grandparents are buried in Alamance County, North Carolina, as many other relatives have been through the years. I even have a fourth-generation slaveholding cousin who was named in the 1914 dedicatory speech for the Confederate statue that stands in front of the Alamance County Courthouse in the center of the Town of Graham. He led a company of Confederate soldiers from that county, where he is also buried. So I know what it represents. African Americans whose ancestors were only emancipated after the defeat of the Confederacy know too. That’s why I believe there’s a moral imperative to move it.

The atmosphere in which that dedication took place is well illustrated by the front page of the Greensboro Patriot newspaper from May 11, 1914. One article describes a district meeting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that had recently been held in Guilford County. The chapter from Graham reported that a monument to the Confederate soldiers of Alamance County had been completed and would be unveiled the following weekend. The article trumpets these words like a fanfare:

Nearly every month sees a new Confederate monument erected. A most important undertaking of the various chapters relates to the preservation of the true history of the Confederacy. This feature is to be stressed even more in the future than it has been in the past . . .[1]

The column beside those words has a report about a proposed movie theater that an association of Black churches wanted to establish on property owned by a well-known African American in the City of Greensboro. According to that newspaper article, “a storm of protest arose from the white residents of the community.” They signed a petition opposing the proposal, showed up at a public forum with their “fighting clothes on, figuratively speaking,” and were represented by two attorneys. For example, the article describes at length one public comment, stating that:

. . . one of the good ladies who addressed the commissioners asserted that the common run of negroes care nothing for a moving picture show, anyway, and asked why should they go to see pictures of people cutting and shooting folks when they could engage in this pastime in reality.[2]

That is a very embarrassing but real testimony from the racist world in which the Confederate monument in neighboring Alamance County would be celebrated by a cheering crowd of white citizens five days after those words were printed on the front page of a newspaper. The guest speaker on that occasion was Henry A. London from nearby Pittsboro. A week after the Wilmington “Race Riot” of 1898, in which an armed white mob took control of the City of Wilmington and expelled African American elected leaders, London published these words in the Chatham Record:

Wilmington is once more ruled by respectable white men and all her citizens are now safe and secure in their lives, liberty and property.[3]

In his speech sixteen years later in front of the county courthouse in Graham, London went out of his way to note that the soldiers of the Union army included “186,097 negroes” and that some of the Confederate veterans listening to him in the audience who had been prisoners of war:

. . . may, (I am telling the truth about it), have been guarded by negro soldiers who would shoot your comrades down without any excuse.[4]

In contrast to that, London was standing there in Graham, as the local Ku Klux Klan founder and leader who introduced him put it, to praise “the achievements of . . . our own race and blood,” something “in which we all have a common interest.”[5]

That was a rallying cry for white supremacy.

There’s an irony which should not be overlooked in London’s soaring rhetoric following the introduction of him as he described the “brave and gallant men” who marched off to war in rebellion and “the dangers and the hardships” they endured, which “the young people of to-day . . . cannot imagine.” It turns out that London wasn’t engaging in false modesty entirely when he said at the beginning:

I do not deserve to have been selected to address you on this occasion.[6]

Although described in the newspaper as a major, that rank had been bestowed upon him not by an army but by a veterans’ organization. London had been a private, serving only for the last several months of the war after he was forced to do so. Before that he had been a college student at the University of North Carolina and made this honest confession in a letter which he wrote to his sister in early 1864:

I would not care much if they did [conscript me], as I hate the idea of skulking, as it were, out of the army, when my Country needs my services so much, but yet when an exemption is proffered a man, he can scarcely be blamed for taking it.[7]

This crowd saw an exaggerated man, who sounded like a preacher as he thundered:

. . . and oh! what soldiers they were; men of Alamance, women of Alamance, children of Alamance, remember through all your lives to honor the living Confederate soldiers as well as the memory of the dead ones. Oh! it is a beautiful thing, eminently fit and proper to erect a monument in front of every court house throughout our Southland in memory of the Confederate soldiers.[8]

Those statues would be painful reminders to African Americans passing by that they would not be treated equally under the law inside those buildings, which were supposed to be symbols of justice for the entire community, including them.

Seventy years before those front-page articles were printed in the Greensboro Patriot, that same newspaper published the names of Whig candidates standing for election in various counties throughout North Carolina.[9] One of them was my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., who was a candidate in 1844 to represent Chatham County, where London lived, in the North Carolina House of Commons. Hackney was a slaveholder in Chatham County, as was his father and grandfather. To the immediate right of his name in that list was this public notice:

To those who are citizens of Alamance County or places like it, please think about what you want your courthouse to say about your community. What, for example, will future generations read in archived news reports that are recording how we think about these things today? Is it a “self-evident” truth for you on this national holiday “that all [human beings] are created equal,” including Black lives?[10]

If you proudly display an American flag outside your home every Independence Day, what does that symbol mean to you as you consider the wellbeing of your neighbors, including the American descendants of those whose Black bodies were once sold on courthouse steps? Many of their families, like my own, are “from here,” wherever that might be throughout the South. And they have just as much right to be included in “our” history as people who look like me. Of that I am certain. So take down these statues, and if you decide to move them somewhere else, tell the whole story.

BACK TO POST “Daughters of Confederacy: District Meeting Held in This City Showed Good Work Accomplished,” The Greensboro Patriot, May 14, 1914.

BACK TO POST “Negro Moving Picture Show: White Folks Wouldn’t Stand for Its Location in Their Vicinity,” The Greensboro Patriot, May 14, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, editorial, The Chatham Record, November 17, 1898.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Jacob A. Long, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted by Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2020) 48.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST “Whig Candidates,” The Greensboro Patriot, June 15, 1844.

10 BACK TO POST The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. The preamble includes these words that are familiar to many Americans:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“Cast out this slave woman . . .”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 7, June 21, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

I don’t really know how old he was. A young teenager, I guess. What I do know is that he was laughing with his new friend, well, his brother, actually, half-brother.[1] They were part of the same family. They had the same father. His mother, born in Africa, was a slave in the household. His half-brother’s mother wasn’t from Africa and, as she would probably have said with indignity, was most certainly not a slave.

Somewhere along the way, he had gone from being a cute boy who played with her son to representing some kind of threat in her mind. And this was the day when she couldn’t take it any more. This was the day when seeing him laugh with her son — it was just too much. This needed to be dealt with. They needed to be put in their place and completely cut off the family tree.

Worried about the family inheritance, wanting her own boy, who was younger, to have it all, she went to her husband and said to him,

Cast out this slave woman with her son.[2]

So her husband arose before dawn, handed some bread and water to this slave, and sent her with her child away from his home forever and into the wilderness.

After there was nothing left to drink, she stopped to lay down her son under a bush before walking away, unable to bear watching him slowly die. And she wept, loudly, wailing as one who feels abandoned, even by God.

It’s remarkable that so much is written in the Bible about Hagar, the Egyptian slave, and her son Ishmael.[3] The other woman, Sarah, and their shared husband, Abraham, are the main characters at the beginning of the story of faith in the Book of Genesis. It would have been so easy to cut out the story of Hagar and Ishmael from the pages of the Bible just as Sarah wanted to cut them out of the will. But God wants us to hear their voices in the same way that God heard the cries of Hagar in the wilderness — at the moment Hagar thought she would soon be left to die alone.

God wants them and their story to live.

Whose stories do we set aside, dismiss as unimportant, bury deep in the ground to forget? Many African Americans, like their parents and grandparents, memorialize what happened 155 years ago about 50 miles from where I’m standing. It took place on June 19, one day after more than 2,000 Federal soldiers had arrived in Galveston. That’s when Major General Gordon Granger read aloud General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.[4]

General Granger read those words two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued. And so that date, June 19, became a holiday called Juneteenth. It celebrated the end of slavery within the Confederate states in rebellion. Texas was the most remote of those states and the last refuge of slaveholders who tried to retain what they considered to be their property.

By the time of Juneteenth, somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 enslaved people had been essentially herded like cattle westward into Texas as slaveholders tried to get beyond the reach of the Union army.[5] As Dr. Caleb McDaniel of Rice University writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Sweet Taste of Liberty:

No one was sure exactly how many came, but it was more than enough to make most of the state’s roadways impassable [as a result of heavy use].[6]

The Mayor of Houston said that before this Juneteenth, before last Friday, two Confederate monuments in our city would be taken down. One of them, honoring Dick Dowling, was located just a short walk down Cambridge Street from Palmer. It was moved there from another location in 1958.

I took both of my sons there on Wednesday afternoon as that was happening. I wanted them to see it and to know that Juneteenth wouldn’t be Juneteenth without Dick Dowling, but not in a good way. Enslaved Texans could have been freed two years earlier in the absence of his most famous Confederate victory, the one for which he’s remembered, the reason why there was a statue of him in his uniform.[7]

Because Dowling and his soldiers were all Irishmen, the Roman Catholic Church got to be front and center when his statue, which was the first publicly financed art in the City of Houston, was dedicated on St. Patrick’s Day in 1905. A Catholic priest offered the invocation, and it was a huge community event, with the governor as guest speaker. The governor referred to the President of the Confederacy as:

. . . the grand old man . . . [who had] lived through it all — through pain and through the shame of the shackels.[8]

He was referring to the pain and imprisonment of Jefferson Davis, not the pain of an overseer’s whip that made blood flow or chains that held black bodies in bondage.

When the other monument, “The Spirit of the Confederacy,” was dedicated three years later in Houston, a different member of the clergy was invited to give the opening prayer. He was introduced by a judge who recalled:

. . . the toil and the hardships of the journey from the valley of humiliation and weakness through darkness and oppression to the heaven-kissed heights of prosperity and power.[9]

Those are interesting words to have chosen to describe past adversity since he was referring to the humiliation and supposed oppression of white people only.

Anyway, he went on to say it was “meet and fit that we should invoke [God’s] blessing upon this assembly and these ceremonies” before inviting the Rev. Peter Gray Sears to do that.[10] The Rev. Mr. Sears was the Rector of Christ Church downtown, but about 20 years later he would become the first Rector of Palmer Memorial Church.

In his prayer, the Rev. Mr. Sears described those who fought in rebellion as having:

. . . [poured] out their heart’s blood in sacramental sacrifice for others who should come after them.[11]

Others would say similar things. One of the speakers embraced the title “rebel” as a rebellion against oppression, calling the war a battle for liberty that was not won but lost. He made no mention of the millions of black bodies that had been set free.

It’s not just that these statues don’t reflect the values of the whole community today. They never did, even when they were dedicated before cheering crowds, before cheering white crowds. The “our” in speeches given on those civic occasions was never meant to include African Americans, but it was intended to send a message. After Reconstruction and elections marked by voter intimidation, including threats of physical violence, African Americans and their political allies were kicked out of office and laws were enacted to disenfranchise them throughout the South.

It’s only after that happened, after the old order had been reestablished in a new form, after African Americans had, from the perspective of white supremacy, been put back in their place, that these statues began to appear in front of courthouses and in other public spaces. So I’m grateful they’re now being contextualized.

As a priest, I’m also aware of this truth about myself as a sinful human being: If it had been me instead of one of my predecessors who had been invited to pray over the crowd assembled in front of “The Spirit of the Confederacy,” I would have been there. It’s too easy to pretend otherwise, to imagine that I would have been different, to judge others while self-righteously pardoning myself. But that would be a lie.

Of course, I have no idea what I might have said, especially if my own father had fought in defense of slavery and my childhood had been shaped to remember that in a particular way. I hope I wouldn’t have referred to blood shed as a “sacramental sacrifice for others” unless talking about our Lord Jesus Christ, whose mercy and love embrace the whole world, including black lives. But I have no doubt that I would have made a racist idol with my words, like Aaron the priest placating the people at Mount Sinai, albeit with poetic subtlety.[12] And I surely do that now, participating in structures that have extended privileges to me time and time and time again.

One of the things that makes the Bible unique in the ancient world is its willingness to look at the underbelly of history, to see things as they really are, not as we wish them to be. The Bible invites us to make a true confession, to lament our sins and the suffering that far too many people endure in this world, not only in past centuries but also now, and to reach out to those whom we’ve hurt. That invitation is extended to everyone from ordinary people of God to the kings of Israel, from the disciples who followed Jesus to you and me, who are trying to follow Jesus too. 

The Bible also reminds us to make room for others, bringing them into wide spaces where they can breathe and where their voices can be heard, just as the Bible itself creates space for the voice of Hagar and the laughter of Ishmael.[13] And I think that’s part of our calling as a church in this time of social unrest and protest.[14] Just as Hagar cried out in the wilderness, a lot of people are crying out for justice today.

They might not be speaking to God. Some might not even believe in God. But surely the God of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham hears their cry. And if we’re willing, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help them and their story to live, we might find that one of the persons who is set free and able to breathe in wide spaces is ourself.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Some translations say Ishmael was mocking his half-brother Isaac. Others say he was playing with him. The Hebrew word can also mean laughing.

BACK TO POST Genesis 21:10.

BACK TO POST Genesis 16:1-16, 21:4-21.

BACK TO POST Michael Davis, “National Archives Safeguards Original ‘Juneteenth’ General Order,” National Archives News, June 19, 2020.

BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 148.

BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 148.

BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, “Opinion: Houston is right to choose Juneteenth over Dick Dowling Confederate monument,” Houston Chronicle, June 12, 2020.

BACK TO POST Samuel Willis Tucker Lanham, quoted in “Unveiling Ceremonies Were Impressive,” Houston Daily Post, March 18, 1905.

BACK TO POST Norman G. Kittrell, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.

10 BACK TO POST Norman G. Kittrell, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.

11 BACK TO POST Peter Gray Sears, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.

12 BACK TO POST Exodus 32:1-35.

13 BACK TO POST That image of being brought out of a place of constriction and into a broad place where one is able to breathe comes from these words in 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.

14 BACK TO POST The Rev. Christopher L. Epperson, who is the Rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, wrote a message to his congregation yesterday that explained how the stories of African Americans have too often been considered less important to the writers of history and included this paragraph:

In the days to come, we will remove the boards from our church windows, which were placed there in the face of real threats. I hope that we, like our beloved church, can lower the armor we use to protect ourselves. I hope the scales will fall from our eyes so we see the suffering and needless injustice around us. I hope we will see how we participate in and perpetuate injustice. I hope we can remove the stuffing from our ears, and hear the stories and experience of our black neighbors.

 

Pentecostal Tears, Rain, and a River

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

The song “Fire and Rain” was James Taylor’s first hit, and it still seems timeless:

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again.[1]

That last line refers to a friend of his who died unexpectedly when they were both 19 years old. Taylor didn’t find out about it until months after the fact.

Those words reminded me of an article in the New York Times about Sally Rowley. She died of COVID-19 at the age of 88 a couple of weeks ago.[2] Nearly six decades earlier, she had been arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, along with other Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom Riders traveled in mixed racial groups on interstate buses. They went through Southern states which were ignoring Supreme Court rulings that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. As the end of her life drew near, Rowley had to say her final goodbyes to family members through a window at a nursing home. Surely they thought they’d touch again.

I also thought of George Floyd, an African American who grew up in Houston’s Third Ward and played football at Jack Yates High School. He had moved from the Lone Star State to the North Star State “to be his best self.”[3] Most of us only know his name because of a video of a Minneapolis police officer, previously disciplined more than once, with a knee on Floyd’s neck while face down in the street.[4]

He told the officer he was in pain and couldn’t breathe. Then his eyes shut, and his pleas stopped, and an hour later he was pronounced dead at the age of 46.

Floyd lived in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It’s the same first-ring suburb where my family and I lived for seven years in the Twin Cities. It’s also heavily Jewish. That’s because of the long history of anti-Semitism in Minneapolis, which accelerated Jewish migration to St. Louis Park in the postwar years. Most nearby suburbs had placed restrictions on Jewish access to housing, and Jews felt safe there. But citizens, then and now, ought to feel safe in neighborhoods throughout our cities.

Floyd’s girlfriend said, “He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away. We prayed over every meal, we prayed if we were having a hard time, we prayed if we were having a good time.”[5] Surely she thought they’d pray again. Surely she knows the plague of racism has been threatening black lives for much longer than COVID-19, from our beginnings, when the Constitution counted a slave as three-fifths of a human being.

After a prayer service on January 4, 1861, my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., co-wrote this resolution in a church in Chatham County, NC, where he had served as a deacon.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Those words could easily be the prayer of many African Americans today who are angry, who are weary, who are afraid for their children. For James Taylor, his words described his own struggle with heroin addiction. But he wasn’t looking to the Savior. Taylor doesn’t believe in that. Jesus, for him, was nothing more than “an expression of [his] desperation . . . just something you say when you’re in pain.”[6]

Of course, his words can be a prayer. They can be your prayer in your anger, in your weariness, in your fears. They can be your prayer this week in your pain, your struggles, your desperation. And I would go so far as to say Taylor’s words were received as prayer, were heard as prayer, not because he turned to Jesus, but because Jesus turned to him long before those words were written. I believe that.

Today is the Day of Pentecost. It’s one of the great festivals of the Christian Church when we recall the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus. Jews from many different lands were in Jerusalem for a harvest festival known as the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of 50 Days or the Feast of Pentecost, a Greek word that means “fiftieth.” Jesus’ disciples were there too, although probably behind locked doors and not in the streets. Crucified and risen, Jesus had returned from whence he came. Jesus had not been abandoned by God. But what about Jesus’ disciples? Surely they could be forgiven for feeling as if they had now been abandoned.

There were so many things going on in the world around them, so many reasons to be afraid, so many uncertainties. It would’ve been easy to have forgotten that Jesus had promised he wouldn’t leave them comfortless. We heard one of those promises in today’s reading from the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John. The festival it talks about isn’t the Feast of Pentecost because in this passage we’re hearing Jesus at an earlier time talk about a future event. On the last day of this different festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus says to all of the people around him:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”[7]

During the Feast of Tabernacles, Jews remembered God’s provision for their ancestors in the wilderness, that time of wandering between slavery in Egypt and a new life in the Promised Land. Jesus is promising an outpouring of God’s Spirit greater than water in the wilderness, which had quenched thirst only temporarily.

Jesus uses this metaphor at a festival that included water rituals.[8] Each morning a priest would draw water from the Pool of Siloam. Accompanied by musicians and singers, he then followed a road that ascends to the Temple Mount. Finally the water was poured into a bowl beside the altar as the priest prayed for the blessing of rain.

An evening celebration was also associated with all of this. Golden lamps on high pedestals that could only be reached by ladders brightly illuminated the outer courtyard of the Temple. Dancers carried torches, musicians played instruments, and people gathered there to praise the Lord with songs. As the Mishnah puts it:

He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life.[9]

It’s as if Jesus was saying everything you’ve seen here — the joy and the dancing and the abundance — is just a foretaste of the blessing you’ll receive when God’s Spirit is poured out. And you won’t have to travel great distances to have that experience here on the Temple Mount because the Holy Spirit will be poured into the hearts of believers wherever they’re gathered, overflowing into the world around them. And that gift will be carried to the ends of the earth like a mighty river, quenching your thirst, flowing through all the desert places, bringing life where there was no life.

Now some of you will appreciate the fact that our gospel reading isn’t set in the very moment when that happened. It’s a description of a promise waiting to be fulfilled. With everything that’s happening around us these days, maybe the best Pentecostal hope you can muster is a prayer of frustration, a demand for God to show up, to do something, and to come quickly. Maybe that’s how you honestly feel right now. I get it — and that would be an honest confession, a prayer of grace, a plea for help.

But I can’t stop thinking about something that happened last Sunday night. That’s when an Episcopal priest in Arizona invited friends to join her on Zoom for an agape meal — a shared meal within a community of Christians that isn’t Holy Communion. It’s something the early church practiced, and it’s something Christians can practice today, even while separated from one another physically. In the midst of the feast, another priest offered a brief sermon. The preacher said,

God’s grace doesn’t have an expiration date. Christ is as close to you now as at the moment you last left the altar rail.[10]

And the host of that agape meal, reflecting later on those words, said,

This, for me, is what it means to say that all things are possible with the Holy Spirit. The jar of meal and the jug of oil will not fail until the famine has ended. And God has promised to send rain.[11]

My Pentecostal hope is that the solemn prayer of the priests in the Temple will come true in our own lives in surprising ways, as the blessing of rain comes in its proper time. My Pentecostal hope is that we’ll also embrace the accidental prayer of James Taylor, as Jesus looks down upon us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, helps us to make a stand, perhaps standing first in front of a mirror to face our own racism.

My own prayer is for us to see in the rear view mirror that the Holy Spirit has been with us, even when we doubted it, and that the promise of Jesus fulfilled on this day will unlock the doors of our hearts, replacing fear with Pentecostal tears, rain, and a river of love, giving us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.

AMEN

BACK TO POST James Taylor, “Fire and Rain.” Anywhere Like Heaven, Warner Bros., 1970.

BACK TO POST Simon Romero, “Sally Rowley, Jewelry Maker and Freedom Rider, Dies at 88,” New York Times, May 21, 2020.

BACK TO POST Stephen Jackson, quoted by Alisha Ebrahimji in “George Floyd is remembered as a ‘gentle giant’ by his family and friends,” CNN, May 27, 2020.

BACK TO POST Dakin Andone, Hollie Silverman, and Melissa Alonso, “The Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck had 18 previous complaints against him, police department says,” CNN, May 29, 2020.

BACK TO POST Courteney Ross, quoted by Alisha Ebrahimji in “George Floyd is remembered as a ‘gentle giant’ by his family and friends,” CNN, May 27, 2020.

BACK TO POST James Tayor, quoted by Stuart Werbin in “James Taylor and Carley Simon: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, January 4, 1973.

BACK TO POST John 7:37-38.

BACK TO POST “Water-Drawing, Feast of,” Jewish Encyclopedia: The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

BACK TO POST Mishnah Sukkah 51a.

10 BACK TO POST Kara Slade @KaraNSlade, quoted by K.D. Joyce @MtrKDJoyce in The part of @KaraNSlade‘s sermon that’s going to stay with me for a long, long time is ‘God’s grace doesn’t have an expiration date. Christ is as close to you now as at the moment you last left the altar rail.'” Twitter, May 24, 2020. 5:22 p.m.

11 BACK TO POST K.D. Joyce @MtrKDJoyce, “*This*, for me, is what it means to say that all things are possible with the Holy Spirit. The jar of meal and the jug of oil will not fail until the famine has ended. And God has promised to send rain.” Twitter, May 24, 2020, 5:26 p.m. The reference to meal and oil and the promise of rain comes from the story of the Prophet Elijah and a widow in I Kings 17:8-16.

Literal and Living Stones

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter V, May 10, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

My father had an electrical contractor’s license, and I often rode in the pickup with him on our way to the church when he would stop by there for an hour or two to fix things. So I spent a lot of time as a kid running around that church in North Carolina where I was raised. Let’s just say this global pandemic isn’t the first time I’ve stood behind a pulpit in front of empty pews. It was great fun to be an explorer there.

Once I opened a storage closet and was surprised to feast my eyes upon a detailed architectural model of the whole campus. It didn’t include the tobacco fields that bordered everything on two sides of the church property. But it did include one building I had never seen — a church that wasn’t there in real life, a church in a spot where there was only grass. In this miniature, magical scene, I was seeing how the future had been envisioned long before I was baptized in that congregation.

The worship space that was familiar to me was on the first floor of a two-story building. It had beautiful dark wooden pews, and it looked like a traditional church on the inside. But all of that was meant to be temporary. Although forgotten by many, or even unknown to them, the idea had always been that, down the road, there should be a “real” church beside it. That idea came back to the surface in the late 70s, when my father was asked to serve as chair of the building committee.

The church that stands there now doesn’t look like the one in the model. It’s actually prettier than that one, and it was the last piece of a puzzle, completing the picture. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t really hard for some people to move just a few feet away from one space to the other. Temporary or not, that old church interior was the one I had always known, where children were baptized, where tears were shed at funerals of friends and family, where prayers were offered for the forgiveness of sins. It’s also where bread and wine — well, red grape juice at least — became holy food and farmers and factory workers, nurses and teachers became holy people.

I was ten years old when the groundbreaking took place. That Sunday Daddy would get to use a brand new shovel, of course. But first we gathered inside the old church, and these are some of the words we sang in those pews from the Moravian Hymnal:

With joyfulness and longing, we look to thee, O Lord;
receive us in thy mercy, and cheer us with thy Word.
Crown us with loving kindness and promises of grace,
and let thy benediction abide within this place.

The years have all been crowded with tokens of thy love;
and many who here sought thee now worship thee above.
But we, O Lord, still need thee our pilgrim feet to stay,
for evil often triumphs as faith to fear gives way.[1]

I want you to know it’s ok to grieve being away from this building and the people who make it come alive, being away from everything you can see behind me, including this Table where we are reminded that God’s mercy embraces not only us but the whole world. It’s true that the real church is a congregation. But in order to be that, to be God’s people, we have to be gathered somehow. We can do that in the middle of a field or inside someone’s very large house, I suppose, or within these walls. We can do it this way too, although, between you and me, I think we both know this isn’t like singing together in the same room with everyone else. But we’re still God’s people, even in exile, still “a royal priesthood,” as we heard in the First Letter of Peter.[2]

That letter very much wants to turn our gaze from a building to a person, from the Temple in Jerusalem, made with literal stones, to Jesus Christ, a living stone that the builders rejected, that the world rejected. The good news of this Easter season is that God has graciously rejected our dreadful rejection, that God has said yes to us when we said no to him. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to miss all the places we’ve gathered through the years to hear that good news, longing to return to them.

Just a few days ago, downstairs in our columbarium, I officiated for the first time in my ordained ministry at a committal service alone. In the vestments I’m wearing now, I placed the ashes of someone’s mother in their final resting place, within this temple made of concrete and wood and plaster, paint and carvings and candles, things you can see and touch and even smell, with the aroma of incense that lingers in the air like the prayers of one generation after another still ascending to God.

Before I began that interment, I took a moment to stand there, surrounded only by silence. And I have to be honest with you, it didn’t seem real. It felt, instead, like I was about to practice something before the actual service, the one that would surely start later under different circumstances. Maybe over the last couple of months you’ve felt that way too. Maybe you’ve been wondering what’s real, whether seen or unseen, in the world beyond the walls of your house, or wondering what’s real as you find yourself sitting on your couch, pausing for a moment to worship in this hour within the safety of your home, hoping God is still near to you and not far away.

But then I opened the book in my hands and started to say the familiar words, words I knew had been said by generations before me, words I knew would be spoken by others that very same day in many places also nearly empty throughout the world:

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer;
but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty,
O holy and merciful Savior,
thou most worthy Judge eternal.
Suffer us not, at our last hour,
through any pains of death, to fall from thee.[3]

I knew in that moment I wasn’t alone, and neither are you. The words of Saint Paul came to mind, reminding me that nothing is “able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[4] The words of Sister Monica Joan came to mind too. She’s my favorite character in the BBC series Call the Midwife. “The liturgy,” she says, “is of comfort to the disarrayed mind. We need not choose our thoughts, the words are aligned like a rope for us to cling to.”[5] So that’s what I did. I held the rope.

Sister Monica Joan’s disarray is her own dementia. Your disarray might be inside your head too with your work or your relationships or your daughter’s homeschool project or your father’s unwillingness to put on a face mask in public. Or maybe disarray is literally surrounding you in your living room as you hear my voice now.

Whatever form chaos has taken in your life, there is something for you to cling to in the words of our prayers today. And most wonderfully of all, there is Someone who will catch you when you can’t hold on any longer. “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”[6] Of this we have been assured.

Together in Christ, we are — like him — living stones. And here, even now, in this very moment, we are being built into a spiritual house. That house described in First Peter, of which Christ is the cornerstone, is more real than concrete and wood and plaster, more real than things you can see and touch, more beautiful than this church. You have received mercy and forgiveness and the embrace of a loving Savior, “who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” and will never, never, never let go of you, either in this world or in the world to come.[7] This I believe.

AMEN

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BACK TO POST I Peter 2:9.

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BACK TO POST Romans 8:39.

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BACK TO POST I Peter 2:10.

BACK TO POST I Peter 2:9.