An Embrace & An Old Confession

Two things happened last Wednesday that have really shaken me. The first was the remarkable scene in a courtroom after former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, a white woman, had the previous day been convicted of murdering Botham Jean, an African American man. The following day, during the sentencing phase, Botham’s brother Brandt Jean, a faithful Christian, took the stand and, without having told his relatives beforehand, stated that he forgave Amber and said to her, “I love you just like anyone else and I’m not going to hope you rot and die. I personally want the best for you.” Then he asked the judge for permission to hug Amber, which he did.

People are mad. People are mad at Amber. People are mad at Brandt. People are mad that white Christians have lauded this hug while continuing to remain deafeningly silent about police violence against African Americans. People are mad that Botham Jean was slain at home. People would surely have been mad if the members of the jury had convicted Amber of a lesser charge. People are mad at those jurors anyway since they sentenced Amber to only 10 years in prison. People are mad that radical examples of forgiveness, like this hug, simply can’t be untangled from Christianity.

And, yes, I understand that other religions have very different understandings of forgiveness, who can offer it, and under what conditions it works, so to speak. I also understand that many Christians, liberal and conservative alike, would prefer that Christianity only proclaim forgiveness after both remorse and restitution. Jesus, however, forgave his torturers from the cross without their prior repentance. Now I don’t know what happened to those Roman soldiers after they had executed an innocent man in the name of law and order. But either their sins were forgiven or they weren’t. Either it’s true or it’s not. As a Christian, I believe what Jesus declared is true and that their sins were forgiven. I believe it’s true for them and for me too.

The Book of Common Prayer suggests that true repentance comes on the other side of forgiveness. It’s like the embrace of the parent in a famous parable told by Jesus who runs toward his wayward son, embracing him before he even gets to the house and before he can begin the speech of confession that he had practiced while at his lowest point. The son thought he was sorry then, but he’s surely more overwhelmed on the other side of that loving embrace, which was undeserved and unexpected.

Brandt’s forgiveness doesn’t unlock the door of the prison cell in which Amber now sits. And I want to be clear that I don’t think it should alter her sentence. What his forgiveness unlocks is the door of the prison cell in which he could easily have sat — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — for the rest of his life. As Brandt said in an interview about what he did in that courtroom, “This is what you have to do to set yourself free.” He also said, “We don’t know what’s going to happen [in the future].”

That reminded me of the words of the Christian theologian Miroslav Volf:

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

And it’s a great deal more costly for someone like Brandt to take that first step under these circumstances than it would be for me. That’s because of the history of African Americans in this country. I was made painfully aware of that on the day he spoke in that Dallas courtroom not because of his mother’s passionate plea for justice beyond her murdered son’s case, which I only read later, but because of another killing.

Before I fell asleep that same night, I read a disturbingly matter-of-fact confession that was signed by John Green Lea a century ago in the summer of 1919. His father “owned” 58 enslaved Africans in 1860. His grandfather — my 5th great-grandfather — “owned” 74 enslaved Africans in 1830. So we’re first cousins, five times removed.

John supported the Confederacy as a corporal in Company C, 3rd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry. That fight, however, didn’t cease for him after the end of the Civil War. While he was still in his 20s, John organized and headed the Ku Klux Klan in Caswell County, North Carolina. His sister Ann was also a member of that white supremacist organization. She sewed the robes behind which Klan members hid their identities while performing acts of racial terrorism. Ann stored their robes in secret at Leahurst Plantation, where she and John were both raised as children and where the Klan now gathered, as needed, to put on that clothing of hatred.

Leading up to the 1870 election, there were two notorious political assassinations in the region. The first was the lynching of an African American named Wyatt Outlaw in neighboring Alamance County. Wyatt had gone from being enslaved to having been appointed to the Graham Town Council and later as a constable there as well. He also served as president of the county chapter of the Union League of America. On the night of February 26, 1870, Wyatt was dragged from his home and hanged from a tree outside the county courthouse to show the Klan’s contempt for civil law.

The other was the murder of North Carolina State Senator John W. Stephens on May 21, 1870. This white politician was, like Wyatt, a member of both the Republican Party and the Union League of America. His popularity among African American voters in Caswell County and his work on their behalf are what angered the Klan. So the senator was assassinated, not outside the Caswell County Courthouse but inside it, and not under the cover of darkness but during the day. The confession that John Green Lea signed a hundred years ago contains no hint of remorse because it wasn’t written to ease the burden of his conscience nearly a half century after he had arranged and participated in the murder. Astonishly, it was written at the request of the North Carolina Historical Commission and sealed until his death in 1935. Here’s how he describes in great detail what happened to the senator in that courthouse:

To the right is the obituary for John Green Lea that appeared on the front page of The Bee newspaper in Danville, Virginia, on September 30, 1935. John’s confession is mentioned in the second paragraph. A separate notice at the bottom of that front page heralds in large print the solving of a 65-year-old mystery, stating that “a group of Ku Klux Klan members who knew the truth agreed never to tell until the last one was dead” and promising to publish John’s “hitherto sealed affidavit” the next day.

The obituary goes on to praise John’s devotion to the Confederacy and the fact that he “died a rebel.” His funeral in Danville was presided over by not only the Pastor of First Baptist Church but also the Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany. Note that there was a wreath of flowers provided by the United Daughters of the Confederacy for John’s “flaming spirit” both during the Civil War and during Reconstruction. They clearly saw that his fighting as a Confederate soldier to continue the enslavement of Africans and his later fighting as a member and leader of the Ku Klux Klan to minimize the freedoms of African Americans were part of the same brutal political philosophy.

And the cherry on top of the sundae, so to speak, was the fact that “upon the bier reposed the battle flag of the Confederacy.” One can see here the roots of how that symbol would become weaponized in the 1960s in support of white supremacist ideology and in opposition to racial desegregation. And there are people who are still using that symbol in this way to intimidate their non-white neighbors.

In the midst of the trial of Amber Guyger, and more than a thousand miles away from Dallas, protesters who are upset that the Board of Commissioners in Chatham County, North Carolina, voted to remove a Confederate monument on the front lawn of the old county courthouse erected a large Confederate battle flag directly across the street from Horton Middle School. It was previously a high school for African Americans during Jim Crow segregation, and it is named for George Moses Horton, a formerly enslaved man whose poems were published before his emancipation.

So when Brandt Jean walked across that courtroom in Dallas to embrace Amber Guyger, he was also walking across hundreds of years of white supremacy and racial hatred that have, unfortunately, continued into our own day. There was a great cost to the forgiveness that he offered. It was certainly unmerited. But he knows that he has received forgiveness in his own life, and he hopes that she might receive the gift of true repentance, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, in the next chapter of her life.

Admit One, Please

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 18, September 8, 2019

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

More than a decade ago, weeks after my daddy’s burial, a recumbent headstone of white marble was placed on his grave. It’s four inches high, twenty inches wide, and twenty four inches in length. I know that because his headstone is exactly the same size as all the other headstones for adults who are buried in that church cemetery, which in the Moravian tradition is always referred to as God’s Acre. There in God’s Acre, those asleep in Jesus await the dawn of a new day — the Last Day — when the dead shall be raised, when wrongs, including the ones within us, shall be righted, and God shall be all in all. There in God’s Acre, we need not fear our coming Judge.

Daddy’s headstone is the same size as the one for his cousin Robert Tucker, who once paid me more in cash than he should have for my first and, more importantly, last day ever of working on a tobacco farm. Daddy’s headstone is the same size as the one for a 47-year-old father of two boys who was killed on his daily commute by a drunk driver in 1979. Daddy’s headstone is the same size as the headstones for my great-grandparents who were buried there after their double funeral in the church in 1949. Daddy’s headstone is the same size as the one for a man named John Lewis Johnson, a physician who was a founder and leader of a Unionist secret society that resisted the Confederate government of North Carolina during the Civil War.

Whether at a large church or a small church, out in the country or in the middle of a city, there’s a peacefulness about God’s Acre that comes from its uniformity and simplicity. The headstones represent equality within the community of the church and the fact that God shows no partiality. Saint or sinner, rich or poor, famous or not, everyone is loved and redeemed, and will one day be raised, in the same way, by the same God. It’s as if the God who created us, and more wonderfully redeemed us, has drawn a circle of divine love around the whole congregation, where all are safe.

Having described the power of that symbolism, you can imagine my disappointment and confusion the first time I was old enough to walk alone around the outside of another Moravian church, which sits right on Main Street in my hometown. At first glance, that God’s Acre looks the way it should look. But at one edge is a somewhat triangular section, separated from the rest of the graveyard by a brick wall.

Peering over the wall, I could see that only members of the Körner family, for whom the Town of Kernersville is named, were buried inside. My religious idealism was, if not shattered, at least bruised. I wasn’t so naive not to understand this was how things normally worked in the world — prominent people get the spotlight shined on them both in life and in death. But I didn’t expect to see that in God’s Acre, which was supposed to reflect how things worked in a kingdom not of this world.

Since then, I’ve come to learn, as most of us eventually do, that there is sometimes an enormous difference between the truth and the whole truth. And the whole truth about that brick wall behind Kernersville Moravian Church relates to the life and death of a woman named Clara. A descendant of both Africans and Native Americans, Clara was enslaved from the moment of her birth in 1820. When she was 14 years old, she was hired out to help the family of a man named Philip Körner.

Although Philip had been raised in the Moravian Church, his wife’s family were Quakers. And it was because of the Quaker convictions within his heart that Philip, several years later, purchased Clara, not to own her as a piece of property until her dying breath, but to make possible her eventual freedom.[1] Clara continued to work for the Körners, taking their name as her own, and became especially close to the youngest son named Jule after his mother died when he was only two years old. My fourth great-aunt became Philip’s second wife, but Clara was Jule’s second mother.

That little boy grew up, and he built a house on the other side of the street from the Moravian church, ridiculed by others as Körner’s Folly — a nickname Jule embraced with glee. It’s an amazing example of extravagant Victorian architecture, with 15 fireplaces, no two doorways or windows alike, a ball room on the second floor, and a theater on the third floor with a beautifully painted ceiling that soars as high as 25 feet. A local newspaper said Jule was an “uncompromising Lincoln abolitionist,” and each year on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, black swags were hung across the windows and porches of the house, partly in respect for Clara, who lived nearby. The theater was built for children to create and present performances on a stage, complete with a chamber orchestra. So this fanciful house was really open to the community. And it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say it was like a church, especially since Jule believed art and music were human expressions of the divine.

In fact, a large crowd gathered on the lawn of Körner’s Folly for a funeral in 1896. Both the crowd and the ordained ministers present included whites and African Americans. They were there to give thanks to God for the life of Clara Körner. And they were standing in that yard on the other side of the street from a church that had refused to allow this formerly enslaved woman to be buried in God’s Acre.[2]

The Körner family, especially Jule, was furious about that. So he purchased a strip of land that bordered the cemetery, adjacent to the graves of members of his family. And Clara — that is, Clara Körner — was buried beside them, with a recumbent headstone of white marble that looks just like my daddy’s headstone. Later a brick wall was built around those graves to enclose the plot of land where, to this day, members of the Körner family, including some of my own relatives, are buried next to Clara. It’s as if Jule drew a circle of love in brick to say to the whole world, “This is what our family looks like, and it’s also what God’s family is supposed to look like.”

That’s what Saint Paul was trying to say in his letter to Philemon and to the rest of the house church that met under the roof of Philemon’s own Körner’s Folly. That letter was read to us this morning in its entirety, just as it would have been read to them. Paul was writing on behalf of Onesimus, a man enslaved by Philemon in an era and under conditions that were different than slavery in nineteenth-century America. Nevertheless, it was a brutal institution for the majority of those trapped in it. Slavery in the ancient world also existed with the absence of any kind of abolitionist movement or any thought that such a movement was even possible.

Yet it would be possible for Philemon to welcome Onesimus back into his household in the same way that Philemon would have welcomed Paul himself — as a sibling in Christ, a beloved sibling in Christ. Paul might even be strongly hinting not only in his earlier words but also at the very end of his letter that Philemon should grant Onesimus his freedom so that he could return to Paul as an assistant during Paul’s imprisonment. Most of the circumstances that occasioned this letter aren’t really clear. But what is clear is that the circle of divine love that has been drawn around us by God in Christ has changed the relationships between us. And that’s true even if we don’t see it, like it, or admit it. As a community of Christians, we live within the boundaries of a kingdom not of this world. And love and mercy are signs of it.

To be clear in my own words, my prayer for each of us is not that we’ll leave to draw circles of love with bricks or walls. Rather, I ask the Holy Spirit to work through us today in small, concrete acts of love and mercy, and to help us remember that a glorious day is coming when wrongs will be righted, including our many mistakes, including the injustices of this world in every generation, and God shall be all in all.

A verse from a well-known Christmas carol, referring to Jesus, puts it this way:

Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love, and his gospel is peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother;
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

This I believe.

AMEN

 1 BACK TO POST This sentence is carefully worded because it’s unclear to me when Clara Körner was legally freed. The official website of Körner’s Folly states that she was manumitted by the Körner family and implies that she helped to raise the six children of Philip and Judith Körner as a freed woman. According to the personal recollections of the Körners’ grandson Jules Gilmer Körner, Jr., in his book Joseph of Kernersville, Philip “owned” several other enslaved persons, abhorred the system of slavery, “opposed secession in every way he could,” and “advocated the gradual emancipation of slaves with legal guaranty [sic] of their rights as freedmen.”

The grandson further states that Philip had a succession of wills prior to 1865 that “always provided that upon his death his slaves should be transported to a free state and given their freedom.” He specifically states that Philip’s will of June 14, 1860, makes that very provision for Clara “unless it can be so provided for her that she may have her full freedom here.” His final will, signed post-emancipation in 1873, lists his second wife Sallie, who is my fourth great-aunt, his children, and Clara as beneficiaries. In a related indenture, also signed in 1873, Philip refers to his wife, children, and Clara as “composing my family.” That same document later requires money in the amount of one half of the appraised value of a mill to be divided into eleven equal parts, with one share each going to his wife, his children, and Clara.

So there is definitely a trajectory toward freedom in these stories and documents, although some confusion remains about when Clara was granted that freedom.

BACK TO POST It does seem to be the case that Clara Körner was denied burial in God’s Acre on the basis of her racial heritage. And with respect to the wider cultural landscape, over the next few years, racism would again be enshrined in the laws of North Carolina in ways that might not have been imagined during Reconstruction. The “other side” of the story is that Clara wasn’t a member of that church, which was the stated reason for refusing the burial. However, the church could have allowed it. One is reminded here of the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law.

Inside the Box

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 25, 2019

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

Earlier this month, a group of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth from Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the United States gathered at Camp Allen in Navasota for two of the summer programs of Jerusalem Peacebuilders. As most of you know, the Houston office of Jerusalem Peacebuilders — or JPB — is right next door to the Rector’s study here at Palmer. It’s work is connected to our witness to God’s love.

JPB’s presence is important both to me and to our congregation. It’s also important for the real world in which we live, especially here in Houston, because JPB helps us, like it does these youth, know our own tradition more deeply and learn how to live with and love our neighbors who are different from us. To be invited to share with someone else what Christianity is and to describe for them what it’s like to be a follower of Jesus is a good thing. It forces us to say the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” aloud. Those are words we need to repeat not only to strangers but also to ourselves.

Rabbi Steve Gross is a friend of mine here in Houston and a friend of this church, and he represented the Jewish tradition at JPB this year. At the beginning of one of his talks to these young people, he placed an empty cardboard box in the middle of the room. It was the kind of box that’s often filled with printer paper, so there was a lid on it that could be removed easily. And after he did this and had also introduced himself, Rabbi Gross said to everyone in that room:

What if I told you that God and the answer to everything you ever wanted to know about God was in that box? If those things were really true, would you open it up and look inside? Tell me why you would or wouldn’t open it.

This is the title of episode 144 of The Twilight Zone, which originally aired on March 13, 1964.

That’s a really great way to start a conversation about God and about our fears and our beliefs and, yes, our hope as people of faith. Now I’ve seen Rabbi Gross do this before, and it’s fascinating what people will tell him. But I’m most fascinated by the fact that someone will inevitably say exactly what I’m thinking the whole time:

I’ve seen the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So I know what happens when you take the lid off. I’m not taking the lid off.

As many of you surely remember, the Nazis try to harness the power of the Ark of the Covenant in that Indiana Jones movie. But when they remove the lid from the ark, they’re all horribly melted away.

While that final scene is extreme in its presentation and not suitable for young children, and while it does what all of us do when we’re in charge of religion — placing people neatly into categories of good and evil so that only the evil people will be completely wiped off the face of the earth just before the credits roll, it does touch on something deep within us. And it’s genuinely scary, because if that’s how we think we want the universe to come to an end, if that’s what’s really inside the box, what does it mean if the dividing line between good and evil isn’t out there but in here, inside each of us, running straight through the human heart?

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews picks up on some of this. It takes us back to Mount Sinai, back to the very place where the Lord spoke to the children of Israel after bringing them out of their bondage in Egyptian slavery. They’d been set free not to go their own way but to become God’s chosen people and a blessing to all the nations the earth. But what was this encounter at the mountain going to be like — an encounter between the Source of holiness and men, women, and children like you and me? Moses ascends the mountain on behalf of these folks like us, and the author of Hebrews imagines Moses, a sinner, being so terrified to be in God’s presence, to stand near the box, so to speak, with the top slightly ajar, that he says,

I tremble with fear.[1]

And the truth is that there are people here this morning — maybe you — who came into this church with fear, as though you’re standing in the very spot where Moses stood on Mount Sinai. You see the chasm between God’s holiness and your own. To you the author of Hebrews writes of another mountain. This is Mount Zion, which represents in this letter “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”[2] There we’re surrounded not by terror, but with grace. There we find not trepidation, but mercy and forgiveness. There we come face to face with Jesus, who embraces us.

What’s been melted away, so to speak, is the sin of the world. What doesn’t remain in that embrace is whatever is separating you from God — your stony heart, the grudges you grip tightly, your indifference to human suffering, a desire for mercy only for yourself and judgment — nay, double judgment — for everyone else, your [fill in the blank . . . whatever it is]. And that happens not because you are hated, but because you are loved. And it brings not death and destruction, but life and a new creation. What remains, what cannot be shaken is Jesus’ love for you.

And because of what Jesus has done for you and for me, we can, as the author of Hebrews said earlier in his letter, “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”[3] So we can stand in this church, each of us, with our imperfections, with our many mistakes, and know there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like wideness of the sea.

Here you can find rest in the arms of a loving Savior, in spite of what you thought God was like, in spite of what other people — what even, or especially, people in the church — think you should be like. Here you can find an embrace when you feel unloved or unlovely. The lid is off the box, not because you dared to take it off, but because Jesus, raised from the dead, smashed it to pieces and is taking you by the hand and leading you home. You are held in that grace not only in death but also in life. And the love you share with others on the way home comes from God.

There’s a story I think about a lot, one that I’ve shared with many of you and perhaps shared from this pulpit somewhere along the way. It’s an experience that a friend once described to me years ago. She found herself sitting in a circle of chairs in a room, and she told me they were discussing God’s mission. And they went around the room, taking turns to describe for everyone else how they were participating in what God is doing in the world. Some had probably been on mission trips, or led retreats, or prayed without ceasing. Others had spent countless hours volunteering to help people who were living in poverty. A few, I’m sure, were important leaders in their churches and other groups throughout the wider community.

Now there was one woman in that circle of Christians — in that circle of church folk — whose spirit seemed more and more defeated as those voices came around to her. And when it was time for her to speak, she said something like this:

I hear these incredible stories, and you have no idea how much I wish, how much I pray, that I could participate in God’s mission like y’all have done. But I can’t because my mother has been so sick, and she has no one else to care for her but me. And this has become my whole life, and I am so tired, and there is nothing left over for me to give back to God.

Friends, that poor woman had been participating in God’s mission all along. And she had given everything back to God — everything — like the widow whom Jesus once saw put her last two mites, her last two coins, into the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem. And although she didn’t know it, although she couldn’t see it, she was standing on Mount Zion, close to the heart of Jesus, and Jesus’ love for her was the same love that overflowed into her care for her mother.

And everyone who was sitting in that circle of chairs with her was on that mountain too. Each person in that circle — just like each person here today — was and remains forever a child of God. On this Rally Day or any other Sunday, what others seem to be doing or not doing for God’s mission, from our very limited perspective, isn’t something for us to judge. We’re here to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and to listen, with the love of Jesus, to the stories of the people around us. When listening to them rather than judging them, we can help one another catch a glimpse of Mount Zion. And when that happens, hopefully we’ll realize that God’s love surrounds us, and always has. And that same love spills out into the world around us daily in a million different ways, proclaiming “mercy” and “forgiveness,” often without using words. But it all starts here in our own hearts.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:21.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:22.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 4:16.

Joy and Mirth at the Feast of the Lamb

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 11, July 21, 2019

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

Ernestina and Harrison Reid lived on a farm near their church in Forsyth County, North Carolina. Friedland Moravian, where they were members, is just down the road from another country church, a sister congregation, where I was baptized as an infant. That is to say I was bathed in the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus, and made a Christian. Friedland, by the way, means “Land of Peace” in German. With that name framing their life, the Reids often hosted Sunday School picnics, and their home was described in 1884 as a place “where joy and mirth . . . frequently reigned supreme.”[1]

Friedland Moravian Church, c.1895 (Photo Credit: Old Salem Digital Forsyth)

Henry Swaim was a white tenant who lived with his wife on the Reid farm that year. It was the same year he was lynched by “a crowd of between seventy-five and [a] hundred men, many of whom were masked.”[2] They had arrived at the county jail at 2:00 a.m. When the sheriff opened the front door to talk to them, the mob rushed past him and broke the lock to the second floor. These men wanted vengeance.

In the meantime, the mayor of the City of Winston had appeared. And the mayor appealed to them to stop in the name of God, the law, and good citizenship. But that didn’t work. Instead, someone cried out, “Hand me the crow bar.”[3] And they used their tools to destroy the locks on the cell that held Henry Swaim.

Henry was in his 20s and not well-educated. He was the only suspect in the murder of Ernestina Reid, the wife of the farmer on whose land Henry worked. Less than 48 hours earlier, Mr. Reid thought he heard a child screaming as he headed back to the farmhouse. As he got closer, he saw it was his wife, who stumbled toward him, covered in blood. When he asked who had attacked her, she whispered the name of Henry Swaim three times. So he carried her into the house, where she quickly died.

Headstone of Ernestina Reid in God’s Acre at Friedland Moravian Church

In the darkness, as the armed mob escorted Henry from the jail through the streets of Winston, they were careful to avoid the bright lights in front of the Central Hotel. There was no need to be seen and recognized on their way to the lynching tree. When they got there, they held a mock trial, and Henry told them how he had killed Mrs. Reid while he was looking for money in the house. It was gruesome, and he went down to the creek to wash the blood off his hands afterwards.

Now, facing his own death, he wanted his sins washed away too. Henry pleaded for someone to pray for him before he was put to death. When a man did that and asked him afterwards if he was penitent, he didn’t know what the word meant. When Henry then sputtered out his own prayer, repeating the same words over and over, he was ridiculed by the crowd, which had to have been mostly filled with Christians.

As reported in a local newspaper with all these other details, the last sentence of Henry’s prayer, which he said many times over, was something like this: “I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!”[4] Surely each of us could pray those same words this morning as we think about mistakes we’ve made, cruel thoughts we’ve had, harsh words we’ve spoken, and relationships with friends and family that we’ve strained to the breaking point. Surely each of us wants our own sins to be included in the sins of the world that the Lamb of God has taken away. Surely each of us clings to that hope; and I pray we wouldn’t be ridiculed for it.

Yet Henry Swaim was mocked and essentially cast into hell not by a divine decree but by an enraged mob. It was as though there was in that moment the kind of “famine on the land” that the Prophet Amos described — “not,” as he goes on to say, “a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”[5]

Even the minister who would many years later officiate at the wedding of my grandparents, the parents of my father, was a character in this unholy drama. At the time he was a teacher at a boys school in the Town of Salem. He and another man found Henry when he was on the run. They turned him over to the sheriff, but not before debating among themselves “whether . . . to string [him] up on the spot.”[6]

That’s what the mob eventually did, although they hanged him improperly. So Henry didn’t die right away. The rope holding him by the neck had to be restrung over a limb on the tree to draw his body “high up above the heads” of the spectators. It remained there afterwards, and “great crowds” came to see it later that same day.[7]

Click on the image for a better view of this map from 1891 with several locations relating to the murder of Ernestina Reid and the lynching of Henry Swaim highlighted by the Forsyth County Public Library.

What happened to Henry in this sordid affair was in no way “justice” either from my perspective as an American or, more importantly, from my perspective as a Christian. And yet I’m painfully aware of how easy it is to lose that perspective and to find myself in the mob, having forgotten my identity as one of God’s children.

As the hymn says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” And it washes over us with forgiveness when we look in the rear view mirror and recognize that we’ve been in the crowd, shouting at others. And the times when we find ourselves standing in the midst of the whirlwind, on the receiving end of the chanting and the name-calling, we can rest assured that Jesus stands beside us.

We can know that because Jesus has been there before. According to the Gospel of John, after the Roman governor Pilate sparred with Jesus about who he really was, he famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?”[8] Jesus the Jew was then tortured as he was beaten with a whip by Pilate’s soldiers. They mocked him as the “King of the Jews” and would eventually nail his hands and feet to the wood of the cross.

Before that, however, Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd that had gathered outside his headquarters, and said to them in Latin, “Ecco homo,” which means, “Behold the man!” The people standing before their governor were not all the citizens of Jerusalem or all the Jews of that holy city. But they were just like you and me, many devout and some not so much. And those people just like you and me, as the NIV translation puts it, shouted, “Take him a-way! Take him a-way!”[9]

So that’s what happened. Pilate, who feared that Jesus represented a threat to the Roman peace and to the Roman emperor, ordered his soldiers to take Jesus beyond the walls of the city. And there they crucified him. That’s when “the land [trembled],” as described by the Prophet Amos, and when the sun was blotted out, “[darkening] the earth in broad daylight.” Of that day, the Lord said to Amos, “I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it [bitter].”[10]

When the sun sets on our own experience of Good Friday, that’s what remains with us — bitterness and sadness and disappointment. Jesus himself experienced that feeling of separation and rejection and abandonment. Yet we’ve not been forsaken by God just as Jesus wasn’t forsaken. And that’s just as true for Henry Swaim as it is for Ernestina and Harrison Reid and as it is for you and me. It’s also true for those who ridiculed Henry and those who, centuries earlier, chanted before Pilate.

“For in [Christ Jesus],” as we heard in our reading this morning from the Letter to the Colossians, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”[11] My friends, God is somehow reconciling all things to himself, righting all wrongs both within us and around us.

The Old Farm of Ernestina and Harrison Reid, c.1895 (Photo Credit: Old Salem Digital Forsyth)

As one of my favorite theologians puts it: “God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him.”[12] The joy and mirth that once echoed across the fields of the Reid farm will return at the Feast of the Lamb, where no one will be excluded. Now I don’t know how that will happen, because it’s a great mystery. But it will happen, and that is good news for everyone here today, wherever we might find ourselves standing in the unholy dramas of our own day. This I believe.

AMEN

 1 BACK TO POST “A Heinous Crime: The Wife of Harrison Reed Foully Murdered,” The Western Sentinel, Winston, North Carolina, May 8, 1884, 3.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung: Taken From Jail by a Mob and Lynched,” The Western Sentinel, Winston, North Carolina, May 15, 1884, 3.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST Amos 8:11.

BACK TO POST “Swinging into Eternity: Part 3,” The North Carolina Collection, Forsyth County Public Library, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, July 31, 2014.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST John 18:38.

BACK TO POST John 19:15.

10 BACK TO POST Amos 8:8-10.

11 BACK TO POST Colossions 1:19.

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

The Peace of Christ

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

There’s a t-shirt that I don’t actually own myself but that I love. It’s a simple design with bold letters that create a short, three-word sentence: Abide no hatred. Folks made it in the disturbing aftermath of the white nationalists who marched nearly two years ago with torches at night through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.[1] Those who marched were chanting, among other things, “Jews will not replace us.” And in recent months, as many of you know who can bear to listen to the news these days, synagogues have been attacked with bullets and Molotov cocktails in the United States, Muslims at prayer were targeted horrifically in New Zealand, and Christian churches were bombed in Sri Lanka on Easter Day.

Clearly a t-shirt has no power in itself to overturn hatred or racism or what seems like a total absence of love. But the people who made the one I just described have spoken and written words against all of those things. Yet the message to abide no hatred does have a real power, for me at least, as a kind of prayer — a prayer about our hope for the future and something we might be allowed to glimpse now and then, by God’s grace and mercy, within our own sinful hearts and in the broken world around us.

I also love that their message uses the word “abide.” It’s a word that catches me off guard because it sounds old fashioned in my ears, as if only spoken by someone who just stepped out of a 19th-century oil portrait. Like a fine but rare wine, it does pair nicely with the phrase “fast falls the eventide” in the first line of the Victorian hymn “Abide with me.” And yet there’s a fullness to the word that’s quite reassuring, more than simply waiting around for something to happen or a bad experience to pass.[2]

Now surely there are also a few here this morning who, having heard that word “abide,” immediately thought not of the 19th century but of the 1990s. That’s when the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski was released. In that cult movie, the actor Jeff Bridges plays the role of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, who remains his casual self in the midst of the chaos of the world around him.

At one point, he says, “The Dude abides.” Those words about himself are spoken to the actor Sam Elliot, who plays a mysterious stranger in a white cowboy hat. The stranger smiles, repeating the same words to himself, “The Dude abides.” He then breaks the fourth wall between the actors and the audience, looking directly at us, the viewers, and saying to us, “I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowing he’s out there. The Dude. Taking ‘er easy for all us sinners.”

In that exchange between the stranger and the viewer, abiding — at least a certain kind of abiding — takes on the meaning of something we all need, something deeply theological, something biblical. And it is. Variations of the word for abide appear some 40 times throughout the Gospel of John, and then many more times in three letters elsewhere in the New Testament that bear John’s name.[3] It’s the Evangelist’s favorite word to use about our relationship with Jesus, who abides with us.

We see a shadow of all of that in today’s reading from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. There we are promised that God will make a home among those who love Jesus. We’re also promised that we whose hearts are filled with so much fear and anxiety — and rightly so because of the crazy things that are happening both within us and around us — will be given the gift of peace. Who doesn’t long for that gift?

I cling to that promise every time I walk out the front doors of this church, and I hope you will too. We walk beneath that promise whenever we leave through those doors because the lintel bears these words of Jesus from the King James Version of the Bible: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you . . . Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”[4] It’s a promise to those who abide here.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’ll feel at peace all the time or even most of the time after we cross the threshold of the church onto Main Street. But we do have glimpses of it now and then — when a good friend or maybe a stranger sits with us in our anxiety, when the chaos around us goes into slow motion as we put one foot in front of the other like the children of Israel walking right through the middle of the Red Sea, when we find we can breathe in wide open spaces because of the love we’ve received from those whom we see no longer. The dead abide with us in that love.

Odd as it may sound, perhaps that promise from the lips of Jesus means the most to people for whom those experiences of peace are few and far between. They can find hope in knowing that Jesus, crucified and risen, will have the last word. And when that final word is spoken on the last day — a divine “yes” in the face of humanity’s cruel “no” — there will be nothing accursed either within us or around us as we continue to abide with him for ever. Raised to life in God’s new creation, and surrounded by divine love, we’ll enjoy a peace that can never be broken — a peace that will guard our hearts and banish from them eternally both fear and hatred.

On the cover of his book Abiding, which has really shaped this sermon, author Ben Quash put a work of art by English painter Norman Adams called Christ’s Cross and Adam’s Tree. He said he likes it because there’s both suffering and glory in the image at the same time, “but the glory is in the ascendant.” And he goes on to write that:

The cross on which Christ hangs — so often described as a ‘tree’ — is at the same time the untrumpable declaration of a love and a life that abide — of a God who will absolutely not go away and leave his people comfortless.

Norman Adams’ bright colours, and elemental shapes suggest the resurrection breaking through the veil of pain, announcing that even the tree of shame has its roots in the eternal abiding of God’s own life; that this life courses through its veins and will make it a fruitful tree. . . .

In its own way, this image, too, shows the primacy of peace. Adam’s tree sprang up in Eden. When that tree became the source of a fall into a violent order, a second ‘tree’ was planted to restore the paradise that had been lost. In some legends, the cross was made from the same wood as the tree from which Adam ate, and was planted in the same place. . . . The painting shows the ultimate abiding of God with us: an abiding in and through death.[5]

The Gospel of John leaves us with its own image at the foot of the cross of Jesus. There we find Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing with several other women. And standing beside her is someone who is described only as “the disciple whom he loved.”[6] As he dies, Jesus says to his mother:

“Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.[7]

In other words, “Jesus bestows them on one another, and enjoins them to abide with one another.”[8] They are to draw from the wellspring of his own abiding with them.

And who is that disciple, the one whom Jesus loved? We often think of him as John, and that’s certainly the claim of tradition. But the Gospel of John is written in way to suggest that, on a different level, the disciple is meant to be each of us. The disciple whom Jesus loves, who reclines next to Jesus at the Last Supper, stands beside his mother at the foot of the cross, and later runs to see the empty tomb, is really you.

My prayer is that the places where we dwell with the family of Jesus, which are by no means limited to the walls of churches, will be places where we’re given a glimpse of the peace that’s been promised to us. So abide in his love and limitless mercy today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST The Bitter Southerner is the online publication that designed this t-shirt after its editor Chuck Reese wrote about the events in 2017 in Charlottesville, concluding: “White faces have to look straight into the eyes of other white faces and say: I will not abide your hatred.” Here is part of its stated purpose and mission:

[We promise] to call out those who would deny the rights of — or commit violence against — anyone they see as “the other.” We [pledge] . . . to try our best to understand our region better, even if that means confronting the distasteful. . . . Lord knows, most folks outside the South believe — and rightly so — that most Southerners are kicking and screaming to keep the old South old. But many others, through the simple dignity of their work, are changing things. We’re here to tell their stories.

One of those stories that often comes to mind for me is an essay with beautiful photographs of people standing in line to hear former President Jimmy Carter teach his Sunday School class in Plains, Georgia, on the Sunday after the last presidential election in 2016. At the end of his class, President Carter pointed those who had come there to the kind of love that Jesus embodied and noted how hard it is to do:

Loving people who don’t love us back. Loving people who are different from us, loving people who are unlovable.

BACK TO POST Ben Quash, Abiding (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) 1. This book, which the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams selected as his “Lent Book” for 2013, includes in its discussion of abiding the hymn “Abide with Me,” the movie The Big Lebowski, and the scene with Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross in the Gospel of John, all of which I’ve used to frame this sermon.

BACK TO POST Ben Quash, Abiding (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) 211-212.

BACK TO POST John 14:27 (King James Version).

BACK TO POST Ben Quash, Abiding (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) 223-224.

BACK TO POST John 19:26.

BACK TO POST John 19:26-27.

BACK TO POST Ben Quash, Abiding (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) 224.

“Worthy is the Lamb”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter III, May 5, 2019

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. (Revelation 5:12, KJV)

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

So a weird thing happened to me recently. Several months ago, I stumbled across a short list of papers that are in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They are some of the writings of John Philip Meurer, who was not only a Moravian minister but also my 6th great-grandfather. The list included a poem from 1744.

I was really curious about that and received an enthusiastic response from a young researcher who wrote back to me. He said it had apparently been miscatalogued because, as it turns out, it’s really a 37-verse hymn. The numbering skips from verse 24 to verse 26, so I guess there are only 36 verses. And it’s now been translated from German to English if we want to use this “shortened” version next Sunday as our processional hymn. Fear not, that won’t happen! However, I will quote part of it today, beginning with the second verse, which refers to Jesus Christ as the Lamb:

When I consider the previous time,
the trouble the Lamb has taken with me
when I brought him very little joy,
his heart still burned with love.

In love, he was always near to me . . .
His spirit and grace always surrounded me . . .

The dear Lamb redeemed me,
forgave me my sins.

That contrast between the Lamb and my 6th great-grandfather, or anyone else who is an imperfect human being, which is to say the person sitting next to you, is fully on display in this morning’s reading from the Book of Revelation. The one who is worthy to receive honor and glory and blessing is neither among “the myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of people who are singing nor on the throne of the Roman emperor who demands total loyalty and worship as a god. Only the Lamb is worthy to receive all of that, and the Lamb, as in Meurer’s hymn, is Jesus Christ.

Sadly, the Book of Revelation has been used to terrify people, filling them with fear about the news of the day. It’s meant to say that, yes, God will have the last word over all the terrible things that happen and will continue to happen in this world. But it’s also meant to provide encouragement for those who are struggling, even a sense of wonder that Christ’s death and resurrection — what Meurer later describes in his hymn as “our dear Lamb’s wounds” — are somehow able to untangle the knots within us and around us. Before receiving communion, we often proclaim the same message, singing that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The Book of Revelation, by the way, heartily endorses singing, as if to say that in the midst of humanity’s cacophony, and after all of that disharmony has ended, singing will have carried us through it and remain with us beyond it. There are more than 15 hymns sung in this book, surrounding us with encouragement from behind the curtain of materiality. Yes, some things are seen. Others, just as real, are unseen.

Near the end of the Book of Revelation, there’s another biblical image of the Lamb that appears, painting a vivid picture for us of what heaven is like. It’s the marriage supper of the Lamb — a wedding feast, which, in the ancient world, was a kind of dinner that went on for days, overflowing with abundance. There, at the end of the Bible, it’s a party hosted by Jesus. And it’s a party to which all of us are invited.

Angie and Stuart Kensinger, whose double funeral was held in this church last week, used to host fabulous dinner parties in their home. And they’d print menus for these fun events. Here’s one of them. The Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem attended this particular dinner, and he was invited to sign a copy of this so the Kensingers could keep it as a memento. That’s not surprising. But what is surprising is that the Kensingers asked every other person at the dinner to sign that menu, too, as though we were all celebrities. It was then framed and hung on a wall in their kitchen.

Those walls are filled with these framed menus. My wife Carrie had this to say about that in an essay posted on Mockingbird on the day of Angie and Stuart’s funeral:

Every time there was a new dinner party, a new menu would be printed, signed, and framed, and they would squeeze the other frames together and rearrange to make space for the new one. There wasn’t ever a sense that they’d run out of room for more menus, even as the walls filled with memories — they’d simply make more room. I imagine that the [Jewish, Christian, and Muslim] young people in Jerusalem Peacebuilders and [the girls] on Angie’s lacrosse teams felt the same way that I did — we all knew there was enough room in the Kensingers’ hearts for all of us. We all just squeezed together to make more room.

I imagine that the kingdom of heaven is not unlike Stuart and Angie’s kitchen, with its walls filled with signed menus. There will be someone who is always, always glad to see us and treat us as an honored guest. There’s no fear that the host will run out of room, and old friends will squeeze together to make room for new ones.

That’s a beautiful portrait, I think, of how our life together with God might look. Now and then we get to have a glimpse of it here, where our songs and laughter and feasting and friendship and small acts of love are like a thunderous chorus of praise to the Lamb who was slain. And sometimes we’re overwhelmed with a very real sense that those who have died, having fallen asleep in Jesus, are still with us, and not just in our memories. They are among “the myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,” encouraging us as they sing to the Lamb and surround the throne of God with their own Easter alleluias. That, my friends, is the communion of saints.

My first experiences of that happened as a child in North Carolina at the Moravian Easter sunrise service. The service always began in front of the church and ended in the graveyard as we stood with the saints, living and dead. I also felt it as a teenager when I crossed the threshold of an Episcopal church for the very first time at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, in New York City. That parish church moves from plainness to glory in two directions, from bottom to top and from the back to the front. And there at the front is one of the world’s largest reredoses — an ornamental screen behind the altar, brightly illuminated and highlighting a multitude of saints. It was while looking at them that I first heard an Episcopal priest sing these words:

Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy Glory.”

Last Sunday morning, my wife and I were in New York City and attended the 11:00 Festival Eucharist at St. Thomas. While hearing those now familiar words and looking at that reredos soaring heavenward, I thought about the past, just like John Philip Meurer did in the words of his hymn, and how Jesus has always been close to me in love, even when — especially when — I wasn’t aware of it. And I also thought about the saints of God here at Palmer who’ve died. We’ve buried three of them from this church during this season of Easter, with three more funerals to be held over the next couple of weeks. Others are mourning the loss of close family members. It’s too much to bear. Yet the love of Jesus sustains us as we sit in the shadow of death.

As a friend of mine recently said to me, “The love of Jesus precedes everything else, and the love of Jesus creates love within us.” And that divine love that fills our hearts within these walls is the same love that overflows into the world beyond these walls. That’s the love that goes with us today as we step onto Main Street. This I believe.

AMEN

In Memoriam: Angie and Stuart Kensinger

On the morning of Easter Day, among the crowds of people who came to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston were Angie and Stuart Kensinger, together with their son Philip, who was home briefly from college. This is what I said that morning about Jesus, raised from the dead:

[T]he last word belongs to the Risen Lord. He has destroyed death. He has broken down the gates of hell. And he will set us free from our exile, self-imposed or otherwise. The love of the Risen Lord will not fail us, and we can never find ourselves beyond its reach. . . . This is the joy of Easter.

Less than 24 hours later, Angie and Stuart were killed tragically in the crash of a small plane near the town of Kerrville in West Texas. Four other people were also aboard that plane, all of them friends of the Kensingers. There were no survivors.

Stuart owned a commercial real estate investment and development business. He was a member of the Rector Search Committee that brought me to the Lone Star State and was the Founding Director and Treasurer of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, wholeheartedly supporting its work and commitment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees for Camp Allen in Navasota and the Board of Trustees for Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Stuart was baptized as an adult by a friend from my time at that seminary, who wrote these words to me last week: “Who knew that Easter’s promise of eternal life to all who love the Lord Jesus would become so dear so fast this Easter Monday?”

Angie was the long-time Head Coach of the Varsity Girls’ Lacrosse Team at St. John’s School in Houston. She had an incredibly encouraging personality, like Stuart did, and made hospitality seem effortless as she opened the door of the Kensinger home to friends, neighbors, and students. I can’t imagine how devastating this loss must be to so many high school girls who played lacrosse and looked to Angie as a second mother through the years. Off the field, she helped them to grow as human beings beyond athletics and worked with her husband to support humanitarian efforts, including the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury throughout the Anglican Communion around the globe through the Compass Rose Society.

The person most devastated, of course, is their son Philip. He is being surrounded by the love of Jesus though the prayers and presence of so many throughout the City of Houston. I ask you to remember him in your prayers as we gather for the funeral of both of his parents this week. He is a wonderful young adult, in whom is reflected so much of Angie and Stuart — a very strong foundation that will remain with him.

In between hearing about the plane crash and writing this reflection, my wife and I were in New York City for a few days for the annual Mockingbird Conference. I was very aware of the fact that Angie’s great-grandfather, William Jay Gaynor, served as the 94th mayor of that great American city in the early 20th century. In that office, he was a reformer who stood up to political corruption and once wrote these words: “The world does not grow better by force or by the policeman’s club.” I had thought about visiting his grave in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. There was another place, however, beckoning to me in memory of Angie and Stuart — The Cloisters.

I have preached many times about a doorway in that museum that tells Christians a powerful story. It is a story I think the Kensingers embodied in their life together. Last year was the first time I had attempted to see this artistic treasure in person. Although I did make it there last spring, I couldn’t see the doorway because it was hidden from view while some work was being done in the room where it’s exhibited. Only this year, days after the plane crash, was I able to see this with my own eyes.

This beautiful, 12th century doorway comes from the Church of San Leonardo al Frigido in Tuscany, Italy. On the right side of the doorway, there is a sixth century saint named Leonardo, who is depicted as one who cares for those in prison.

The massive lintel across the top of the doorway depicts Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. You can tell it’s Palm Sunday because of the children holding palm branches and throwing garments in the path of Jesus, who is riding on a donkey.

Following Jesus are the twelve apostles plus one extra person. The one extra person is Leonardo, who joins the apostolic train and follows Jesus too. The message seems so simple: Those who pass through that doorway are invited to join the procession of those who follow Jesus. Those who do so are the saints of God. The saints aren’t only people who have died for their faith. The saints aren’t only people who happen to adorn the walls of medieval churches. The saints are people in need of forgiveness, just like you and me, who are willing to walk through that doorway, trusting that it’s better to walk with God, and with brothers and sisters in Christ, than it is to walk alone in this world.

Angie and Stuart were an important part of our congregation at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, and those who make it their spiritual home are called Palmers. While it’s true that the name of our church comes from a family name, the word Palmer also has referred historically to someone who had returned from the Holy Land with a palm frond or leaf as an outward sign of having gone on a pilgrimage. It’s a wonderful metaphor for our life as Christians. Stuart, of course, loved that image as he thought about the people in our church and as he led groups to the Holy Land.

The loss of the Kensingers is overwhelming for our church and the City of Houston. Yet I know both of them would want us to continue to work for peace in a world too often stripped of grace. May the witness of their lives to God’s mercy inspire us all.

Into paradise may the angels lead you.
At your coming may the martyrs receive you,
and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.

And through our tears we say, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

My Last Will and Testament, Part I

When Cornelia “Nealie” Dunevant was about 17 years old, she became pregnant by the son of a wealthy, slave-owning planter in Caswell County, North Carolina. It was a very likely scenario that I described in my earlier post “Bright Star and a Family Tree Secret,” which has been updated to reflect the fact that DNA testing seems to have confirmed the story. Nealie is my great-great-great-grandmother, and Weldon Edwards Williamson is my great-great-great-grandfather. About a year after the birth of their daughter Telula in 1855, Weldon, having moved on, married another woman. This man who lived to see the 20th century had 27 slaves in 1860, when he was 27 years old, and then fought for their continued enslavement as a Confederate cavalry officer.

Weldon’s father was “Royal George” Williamson, who “owned” 142 enslaved Africans as his personal property according to the 1850 United States Federal Census. The slave trade that began in British America and was enshrined in the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person, had flourished. Royal George’s great-great-great-grandfather Arthur Allen I created an estate in Surry County, Virginia, that illustrates well the growth of that awful trade in the buying and selling of human beings over nearly two centuries.

Arthur appears in Virginia in the middle of the 17th century. In 1665, as one of Surry County’s wealthiest men, he built a magnificent house that still stands today and would later become known as “Bacon’s Castle.” It’s the oldest brick dwelling in North America and one of only three surviving examples of High Jacobean architecture in the Western Hemisphere. The other two examples are on the island of  Barbados.

It was Arthur’s son, Arthur Allen II, my ninth great-uncle, who inherited this house. After the son had served for a second time as Speaker of the House of Burgesses, he was reelected in Surry County to that lower chamber of Virginia’s General Assembly but did not take his seat there in the spring of 1691 because he refused, “through Scruple of conscience,” to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. Since William and Mary had ascended the English throne after the Glorious Revolution, Arther Allen II wouldn’t take those oaths that were required of all public officials until 1702, after the death of the deposed King James II, when he was sworn in as a member of the governing body of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

Something that apparently did not trouble his conscience was his shift from the use of indentured servants to enslaved Africans on his estate. According to Preservation Virginia, which now owns Bacon’s Castle, there were four slaves on this plantation in 1675, 13 in 1700, 76 in 1830, and as many as 300 at the outset of the Civil War.

Although the Virginia roots of America’s original sin of slavery go back 400 years ago to Jamestown, with the arrival there in 1619 of “20 and odd” Africans who had been captured from a Portuguese slave ship, slavery as an American institution that was based on racial identity was really fueled by Bacon’s Rebellion. That was an armed rebellion, which included both poor Europeans and poor Africans, against the royal governor of Virginia in 1676. For four months of that year, Arthur Allen II’s house was occupied by 70 of these rebels, who plundered his belongings and destroyed his crops. So that is the origin of the nickname Bacon’s Castle. This video explains what all of that has to do with the history of chattel slavery and, in a real sense, the forging of the idol of white supremacy in British America and the United States:

While the title of this series of posts is “My Last Will and Testament,” I didn’t quote from anyone’s legal will, although I did refer to the large inheritance of a plantation. My next post, however, will contrast the will of Royal George Williamson and his great-grandfather William Eaton. One contains nary a word of religious language, while the other includes an introduction with some beautiful theological statements that I embrace wholeheartedly as a Christian. Yet both of those documents pass on human beings as property to the next generation. The one with Christian language does so, without any hint of conflict, as if dealing out cards in a game of poker.

Interestingly, my wife is a graduate of the law school at the College of Willam and Mary, and for six and a half years I served as Associate Rector at Bruton Parish Church, where we were married in 2003. We had wanted to do something a little different for our rehearsal dinner on the night before the wedding. So our family members and wedding party guests drove with us in a caravan from Williamsburg to the small town of Surry, taking a car ferry across the James River to get there.

I always found it impossible not to think about American history on that ferry ride. On one side of the river was the site of the Jamestown settlement. On the other side was Surry County, which, at least back then, had a landscape that surely didn’t look much different than it did in the 19th century. Eating and laughing at the Surrey House Restaurant, we were sitting about seven and a half miles from Bacon’s Castle without a clue about the history of that place and my connection to it (and without a clue about my wife’s connection to Jamestown), both as a member of the family into which I was born and as an American whose real white privilege is a result of that.

The next time I’m on that ferry and feel the wind in my face, I’ll be thinking about our rehearsal dinner and our wonderful years in Williamsburg, but I’ll also be thinking about all of this. I hope and pray that, by God’s mercy, my conscience will still be troubled by the latter and my love for others will have been shaped by it.

There’s a temptation to read the opening stanzas of William Cullen Bryant’s 1866 poem about the end of slavery’s “cruel reign” and believe the empty fields that still surround Bacon’s Castle, “seem[ing] now to bask in a serener day,” symbolize a promise fulfilled to African Americans after the Civil War. That freedom, however, eroded rapidly after the end of Reconstruction as the sun set on the 19th century. The effects of widespread lynching and other forms of violence inflicted upon African Americans, the voter intimidation and disenfranchisement of African Americans, and the white supremacist ideology frequently praised in the words of guest speakers before cheering crowds at the unveiling of Confederate monuments in the early 20th century sadly remain with us today. Lord, heal us and help us all.

O THOU great Wrong, that, through the slow-paced years,
Didst hold thy millions fettered, and didst wield
The scourge that drove the laborer to the field,
And look with stony eye on human tears,
Thy cruel reign is o’er;
Thy bondmen crouch no more
In terror at the menace of thine eye;
For He who marks the bounds of guilty power,
Long-suffering, hath heard the captive’s cry,
And touched his shackles at the appointed hour,
And lo! they fall, and he whose limbs they galled
Stands in his native manhood, disenthralled.

A shout of joy from the redeemed is sent;
Ten thousand hamlets swell the hymn of thanks;
Our rivers roll exulting, and their banks
Send up hosannas to the firmament.
Fields, where the bondman’s toil
No more shall trench the soil,
Seem now to bask in a serener day;
The meadow-birds sing sweeter, and the airs
Of heaven with more caressing softness play,
Welcoming man to liberty like theirs.
A glory clothes the land from sea to sea,
For the great land and all its coasts are free.

Standing Barefoot on Holy Ground

The header photograph for this post is a detail from the painting “Fire Houses” by Israeli-American artist Yoram Raanan. Sadly, 40 years of his artwork was destroyed in a fire that swept through the hills outside of Jerusalem in 2016, burning to the ground many homes and businesses, including his studio. Ranaan, however, was not dismayed. He was grateful that his family was safe, and he continued to paint. His work, however, shifted from bright colors to the use of more earthen tones on a black background, with streaks of gold shining through all of that like a new light, which he calls “The Light of Fire.” This painting, an example of that turning to a new chapter in his life, can be seen together with other recent artwork on his website.

The living testimony of this man, who lost much of his life’s work, stands in stark contrast to that of Charles Vance Miller, a Canadian lawyer who had everything, yet chose not to bless humanity in the world around him. The sad legacy of Miller is recounted in the following sermon, which reminds us that standing on holy ground is about something very different. I’ve also included, with permission of the artist, Raanan’s “Burning Bush, Moshe,” which was created in 2014. I love how the colors make alive the world in Raanan’s painting through the fire of the divine presence. Perhaps, like Moses, we’ll encounter that in the world of our ordinary life today:

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent III, March 24, 2019

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

Back in 2007, when this North Carolinian moved from Virginia to Minnesota, there were so many things that I wasn’t prepared for, so many things that were about to seem, at least to me, as though I had traveled with my wife to a foreign country. Although she was used to the harsh winters of the Upper Midwest, I was not.

Now when the church in Virginia gave me a gigantic parka, that I understood. I was grateful, and wore it religiously for seven years. But when they also gave me a snow brush, I was perplexed. The end with an ice scraper made sense to me. But why was the other end just a huge brush? Well, as it turns out, that’s handy when there is a foot of snow on your car and you can’t go anywhere until it’s all been removed.

The other thing that really stands out to me as a strange memory was the universal rule about removing your shoes immediately upon entering a house in the wintertime. It didn’t matter if it was your own house or the house of friend or the house of a stranger. Even at a nice Christmas party in a beautiful mansion at which all the guests are dressed to the nines, you take off your footwear as soon as you cross the threshold and, as if back in preschool, line up your boots neatly by the front door. Then the fancy people in their fancy clothes walk around in their socks. And no one thinks twice about it.

In the middle of one winter there, I remember going with an older priest who helped us out with pastoral care to visit a homebound widow and bring her communion. As soon as we walked into her home, I panicked because I realized that I had gotten so excited about my new, rather expensive snow boots that I had worn them exactly the way the manufacturer recommends wearing them for maximum warmth: barefoot.

So I sheepishly slipped them off, like you do, and sat in her living room with my bare feet as we talked and prepared ourselves to participate in the Lord’s Supper and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I felt more than a little embarrassed at first, but then it seemed ok. The experience was both humbling and holy.

That was probably the only time I’ve ever received bread and wine made holy food in bare feet, and I think about it every time I hear the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moses, a Hebrew man with an Egyptian name, had murdered an Egyptian and fled a life of royal comfort as an adopted grandson of Pharaoh. He was lying low in a foreign land, where he married a Midianite woman. There Moses was watching his father-in-law’s flock of sheep when he encountered a bush that was burning but not being consumed by the fire. And out of the burning bush, God spoke to Moses, calling him by name and telling him to remove his sandals. Why? Because, God says to him, “. . . the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”[1]

Then Moses meets God not as Creator of the universe but as the One who was made known to his ancestors — to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Out of that relationship, a personal relationship, God has heard the cries of the Hebrews in Egyptian slavery. Moses is told that he is being sent to Pharaoh to bring them out of Egypt.

So Moses asks what he should tell them when they ask who has sent him. God says, “I am who I am.” Then God reveals his name to Moses — a Hebrew word that means something like “The One who is” or “The One who causes to be.”[2] Many Jews and some Christians choose not to speak the divine name in Hebrew out of a reverence for the One who bears it, saying, instead, “The Lord.” The Lord has sent Moses.

The Lord has sent us too. And we’re just like Moses, the human being, not the great prophet. Moses the human made mistakes — big ones — and got angry and fell from his station in life and was unsure about his place in the world. Moses the human ran away, wanting and praying to fade into the woodwork, and being unsure and afraid of what God was asking him to do. Moses the human wasn’t a great public speaker and would later have to have his brother speak for him. That’s the imperfect human being, like you and me, whose name was called out from the burning bush.

What will be birthed from that encounter is the idea that God is not one of many gods, or the most powerful among the many, but the only God. When darkness descends upon Egypt, blotting out the sun for three days before the Hebrews begin their journey to the Promised Land, it’s obviously more than a solar eclipse or a cloudy sky. It’s a funeral of sorts — the defeat of the Egyptian sun god, the death of Ra’s divinity.[3] The one God is not a force in nature but over it.

Another idea that will be birthed is love of neighbor, defined not narrowly but broadly. You are to treat the alien in your midst with compassion because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, where you were enslaved and treated with harshness and cruelty. Jesus, of course, brings all of this together, highlighting love of God and love of neighbor — God as one and neighbor as humanity — as the two greatest commandments in the Hebrew scriptures.

By God’s grace, those ideas have changed the world through God’s people. And that family tree was expanded when we Gentiles — strangers and aliens to the promises of God — were adopted into the household of God through Jesus. We, too, have been brought into freedom. We’ve been treated with compassion through forgiveness, a forgiveness that’s wider and deeper than the sea. This I believe wholeheartedly.

So that’s why we’re here. We have been forgiven because we are just like Moses. And, like him, we’ve been sent into the world. There, as Christians, we are to testify to the glory of God that we have seen reflected in the face of Jesus — Emmanuel, God with us — and to love, however imperfectly, the unloved, the unlovely, and the unlovable. Why? Because that’s how we all came to be here, in this place, in this time.

You can support this community and nurture it first and foremost through your prayers and your presence. That’s why worship is so important here at Palmer. This experience of beauty, this word of grace and mercy, the invitation to be fed at this Table isn’t the destination for our spiritual life but the beginning point. It’s how we orient ourselves to face the rest of the week beyond these walls.

You can also build up this Christian community with your financial support. Palmer has, generously speaking, about 600 households, and 283 of those households have made a financial pledge for this calendar year. That means they’ve let us know what dollar amount they intend to give to our church in 2019. Those pledges, which range from very small gifts to very large gifts, provide the vast majority of the funds that are allocated to support the people, programs, and buildings that make Palmer such a unique and inclusive witness to the love of Jesus here in the City of Houston.

I mention that because we’re still about $100,000 short on the pledge total for 2019 that we need to keep everything the way it is now. The good news is this: That’s less than 5% of our total annual budget, and I believe the resources to do that are present within our congregation. I appeal especially to those who haven’t yet made a financial pledge or who’ve never made one. Cards for that are in the pew racks. Or you can call the church to leave a confidential voicemail for our finance manager.

If you’re a guest with us today, give generously to the community of faith that’s your spiritual home, wherever that might be. You will be returning to God a portion of the many blessings you have received from God, and your gift now, whether large or small, will help to ensure that the place you’ll turn to in your time of need will still be there down the road when you need it. That place won’t be your alma mater or your country club or your fitness gym or Minute Maid Park. It will be whatever you consider to be your spiritual home. So don’t let that gift be an afterthought.

It’s true that the ways we shape the world around us are just a shadow of the ways the Lord has shaped us into his people and continues to shape us through his forgiveness and his loving embrace. Yet when we walk out the doors of this church, we are shaping the world, sometimes for the better, but not always.

Charles Vance Miller was a Canadian who worked as a lawyer in the City of Toronto. He died in 1926 at the age of 72. A wealthy man, he never had children and never got married. Public radio’s This American Life described Mr. Miller’s will as:

. . . an elaborate prank, as if he’d thrown a bunch of money out of a window to watch what would happen. He left stock in a brewery to Prohibitionist pastors. He gave his racing stock to people who didn’t believe in betting. He said he wanted to leave his vacation home in Jamaica to three other lawyers — a nice thing for them to share, except for the fact that the three lawyers all hated each other. But by far the clause that unleashed the most mayhem was the last one. It’s about all the rest of his money. . . . nine million Canadian dollars in today’s money or almost seven million U.S. dollars.[4]

I’m not going to tell you the details of that last clause. Suffice it to say that he created a lot of human wreckage, chaos fueled by a rise in poverty in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression. It was pretty awful. His will also included a confession that is a sad testament for a human being to leave behind after death:

This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death, and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime.[5]

Out of the burning bush, the Lord called Moses, called both Israel and the Church, and calls you and me today to look at the world around us differently than Mr. Miller did.

The Lord is sending us to love God as one and neighbor as humanity, to build up rather than tear down, to embrace  with compassion those not like us, those less fortunate than us, those sitting in the shadow of death. And we ought not hesitate to remove our shoes — literally, if necessary — to stand beside them on ground that is called holy not because of who we are but because of Another:

The One who causes to be.

Holy is his name.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Exodus 3:5.

BACK TO POST Richard Elliot Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 176.

BACK TO POST Richard Elliot Friedman, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2017) 182. This, along with Friedman’s discussion of both monotheism and love of neighbor, defined not narrowly but broadly, shaped this sermon deeply. I commend his book to those who are curious about the exodus.

BACK TO POST Stephanie Foo, “Babies Got Bank,” Act Two of “The Long Fuse,” Episode 668, This American Life podcast, February 15, 2019.

BACK TO POST Charles Vance Miller, quoted by Foo.

No Adjournment on February 22, 1868

Presidents’ Day is officially a federal holiday established by an Act of Congress in 1879 to observe the birthday of the first President of the United States, George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732. But it’s clear that February 22 was important to many Americans before that honor was mandated by legislation. For example, on Saturday, February 22, 1868, a delegate from Chatham County to the Constitutional Convention of the State of North Carolina introduced this resolution:

Resolved, That in respect to the memory and in honor to the distinguished services of General George Washington, he, who was “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” this Convention adjourn until 10 o’clock, A. M., Monday next.

My fourth great-uncle, Elijah B. Teague, was a delegate from Forsyth County to that same Constitutional Convention. He had been elected to that position in November of 1867 as a Republican. That election was held at the direction of the United States Congress, in which North Carolina was not represented at the time because of its secession during the Civil War, and by the Commanding General of the Second Military District of the United States Army. The purpose of that convention was to write a new constitution so that the state could be readmitted to the Union.

On that Saturday morning, only 16 delegates voted in favor of adjourning to honor our country’s first president on his birthday. 75 delegates, including Teague, voted against it. A differently worded resolution was then adopted by a majority vote:

Resolved, That with profound reverence for the memory of George Washington, we will honor the day of his birth, not by adjourning, but by proceeding to engraft upon the Constitution the great principles of justice and liberty, which have made his name illustrious.

It is fitting, I think, that they immediately took up the Report of the Committee on Suffrage for the rest of the day. In other words, they would eventually have to decide who was eligible to vote in state elections and what would disqualify someone from holding public office. Four days earlier, the delegates had received the Report of the Committee on Suffrage, along with several minority reports from members of that committee. Two delegates, for example, invoking the words “tyrannical and unjust” to describe the demands of the Federal government, wrote that by resisting “negro suffrage and negro equality” until it is forced, “we will not have consented to our own humiliation, and will at least, have preserved our honor and self-respect.”

Another minority opinion had been expressed at the beginning of February in the form of a motion to add the following words to the section of the state constitution that described the Executive Department:

No person of African descent or of mixed blood, shall be eligible to the office of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or any other Executive office.

11 delegates supported that motion. 83 delegates, including Teague, opposed it. Also rejected by 83 delegates, included Teague, in early February was a motion to add these words to the section of the state constitution that described the state militia:

. . . white and colored persons shall be organized into separate commands, and no white man shall ever be required to obey a negro officer.

The Report of the Committee on Suffrage included a recommendation that anyone who had been elected to public office should be required to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of North Carolina, “not inconsistent therewith.” The final form of the state constitution that would be adopted took that same minimal oath and required voters to take it too. There were several attempts, however, to expand that oath, such as swearing that:

I am truly and devotedly attached to the Union of all the States, and opposed to any dissolution of the same, that I entertain no political sympathy with the instigators and leaders of the rebellion, or with the enemies of the Union, nor approbation of their principles or purposes, that I will neither by word or act encourage or countenance a spirit of sedition or disaffection towards the government of the United States or the laws thereof, and that I will sustain and defend the Union of these States, and will discourage and resist all efforts to destroy or impair the same.

26 delegates, including Teague, voted in favor of that expanded version. 73 delegates voted against it. So my fourth great-uncle didn’t always vote with the majority at this Constitutional Convention. But the end result was a pretty amazing document for its time and the second of only three constitutions in the history of North Carolina.

That second constitution declared that the people of North Carolina are grateful to God “for the preservation of the American Union.” It further stated “that there is no right on the part of this State to secede” and “that every citizen of this State owes paramount allegiance to the Constitution and Government of the United States.” And the list of rights near the beginning of that constitution included these words:

Slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than for crime whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and are hereby, forever prohibited within this State.

Universal male suffrage was a major feature of this constitution. Those voting rights, however, would be severely restricted after the Democratic Party regained control of the General Assembly of North Carolina and many public offices across the state in the election of 1898 through violence and voter intimidation. Once in power, conservatives in the General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment in 1899 that would impose a poll tax and a literacy requirement for male citizens to be able to vote. That constitutional amendment was ratified by a popular vote in 1900 that was marked by further violence and voter intimidation to ensure that it passed.

In 1900, nearly 30% of male voters in the state were illiterate, and disproportionally African American. That African American voters were the intended victims of this constitutional amendment is evidenced by the fact that it also also included a grandfather clause. The clause allowed an illiterate male to vote if he registered by 1908 and was a direct descendant of someone who had been registered to vote prior to Reconstruction. Sadly, it would take the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to restore much of this deliberate erosion of the voting rights of African Americans.

In the meantime, the guest speaker for the 1905 dedication of Forsyth County’s new Confederate monument in Winston, North Carolina, was the Honorable Alfred Moore Waddell, Mayor of Wilmington, North Carolina. I’ve written previously about his white supremacist views and his leadership in the only successful coup d’etat in American history within the borders of the United States. That was in 1898, when an armed white mob seized control of the City of Wilmington, murdering innocent citizens and forcing the mayor, board of aldermen, and chief of police to resign.

Another important figure in the organized plot to exploit racial tensions in North Carolina to benefit the Democratic Party in the election of 1898 was Robert B. Glenn, whom I’ll write about separately. He would become the Governor of North Carolina in 1905, and a high school would eventually be named in his honor. I know that since I was Valedictorian of the Class of 1988 at Robert B. Glenn High School in Forsyth County, North Carolina. I wonder what my fourth great-uncle, Elijah B. Teague, who publicly affirmed “the great principles of justice and liberty,” would think of that.

On the Road with the Rector #12

Added LaneLiving in the City of Houston provides us with incredible opportunities to participate in cultural and intellectual events. Throughout the year, I’ll invite you and your friends and neighbors to join me in some of these activities that might either strengthen or challenge us as Christians.

The next “On the Road with the Rector” event will take place on Thursday, January 10, in the Law Building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which is located at 1001 Bissonnet Street. This is free lecture from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. is titled orrible ’istory: A Lighthearted Look at 400 Years of the British Monarchy.” The museum website describes it this way (and notes that seating will be first-come, first-served):

Taking a . . . tongue-in-cheek look at this parade of merrie monarchs are two Brits in Houston: St. John Flynn and Helen Mann, whom many Houstonians may remember as commentators on Houston Public Media’s Manor of Speaking, the talkback show that followed episodes of the PBS series Downton Abbey.

St. John Flynn is the arts and culture director at Houston Public Media, and Helen Mann is the former vice consul for public affairs for the British Consulate General in Houston. The latter is also a fan of Evensong at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church.

This lecture is being presented in connection with the unprecedented exhibition “Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol” that will remain at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through Sunday, January 27, 2019.