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 North 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 North 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.

A Different Kind of Glory at Christmas

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018

Loosen a little our grip, O Lord, on our words and our ways, our fears and our fretfulness, that finding ourselves found in you, we may venture from the safety of the shore and launch afresh into the waters of grace with Christ, the Morning Star, as our guide.[1] Amen.

When I was in college, I remember attending Christmas Eve services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina. One of the head ushers always stood out on that holy night. And I would have been disappointed if he hadn’t been there. He could be seen marching up and down the aisles in some of the most wonderfully outrageous Christmas trousers you’ve ever seen. It was surely the only time of the year that he would’ve dared to wear such clothing in that church. Of course, he wasn’t alone. There was lots of other playful attire in the pews on people who would normally be dressed rather conservatively, to say the least.

My former boss, who is now the Bishop of Southern Virginia, has a similar, fond memory of a guy who would wear the same socks to one of his former churches every Christmas Eve, showing them off at the door as he greeted the clergy. They were green, with little silver bells all over them, so he would jingle as he walked around. Christmas brought out something playful in him, something of the joy and wonder we see in children and ask God to give to newly baptized Christians.[2]

More than a few of you here tonight understand that sense of playfulness. As usual, our decoy ducks in the fountain in Palmer’s courtyard are all dressed up for the Christmas season with bright red bows around their necks. I’m also sure that there are candy cane neckties, bow ties with lights, Santa pins that play music, and red and green sparkling earrings out there in the darkness, waiting to be noticed with a little grin and a wink. At the last service, two brothers were wearing matching red sweaters with Christmas trees and lights that could blink and sitting together in the first pew, right in front of the pulpit. At this service, one of our ushers is sporting corduroy pants with black Labrador Retrievers adorned with Santa hats on them.

For some people, all of this is a kind of false religion, a form of escape from sadness, sickness, disappointment, and the darkness of the world. For the rest of us, however, it’s a reminder that true joy can be found in the midst of those harsh realities and that, as Isaiah declared, “on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”[3] Yes, the darkness is great, but not greater than God.

The light that dispels our night is Jesus, who came from “the realms of glory” as Emmanuel, which means God-with-us.[4] He has come to share our life not as we wish it to be, but as it really is. He’s forgiven us in spite of our failures and our hard-heartedness. Only a love that comes from above, embracing the unlovely, the unlovable, those who are suffering, those who are lonely, and those who’ve been forgotten is able to make real and everlasting the enchantment of this holy night.

And we believe Jesus embodies that love.

Earlier today at the first Eucharist of Christmas, our beloved Associate Rector, the Rev. Liz Parker, came with her boys, who are young adults, and sat near the front on the Nativity side of the church. As many of you know, she was away from Palmer throughout the season of Advent because her husband, the Rev. Andy Parker, was hospitalized multiple times over the last several weeks due to complications from cancer. Andy died a week before Christmas Day, and his funeral will take place later this week, in this church, while it’s still decorated for this holy season.

At the end of November, after having waited with Andy in the emergency room for 11 hours, Liz said she cried out to God as they sat there, praying, “God, where are you? I need to see you here!” And when they finally got moved into a hospital room, Andy’s nurse introduced himself to them, saying, “My name is Emmanuel.” The same Love that came down at Christmas was in the room with them, surrounding them, comforting them, reminding them of Jesus.

The miracle isn’t that we are only able to see the love of Jesus reflected in a nurse named Emmanuel, but that we also see the love of Jesus in the face of a nurse named Mary, a janitor named Ronnie, a teacher named Eleanor, a waiter named Joseph, a priest named Mollie, a doctor named Carlos, a police officer named Yolanda, a UPS driver named Gabe, a stranger sitting next to us in the pew, and a parent named Clyde, Shirley, Dale, or Linda. Those are real people, by the way, and there are real people in your own life who have shown you the love of Jesus when you needed it.

And the promise isn’t that every story will have a magical ending before the dawn of Christmas morning. No, the promise of the gospel is that God came into the world in a very real way and will always and forever embrace us even through — especially through — our darkest night. What makes this night magical is the belief that “God has intervened” and is, as Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has written, “[creating] a new kingdom where no evil and no disappointment can ever enter.”[5]

Whenever I think back to the times that my sons, as babies, fell asleep on my chest, I’m reminded of Mary’s newborn child in the manger and that God chose to appear among us not in a blaze of imperial glory but with a different kind of glory, that of an infant. That’s the mystery of the incarnation, which we celebrate tonight.

It’s the unbelievable fact that God said to his creation: “I love you so very much that I’m willing to become like you. I’m willing to experience what you experience, to feel what you feel, to think what you think, to suffer as you suffer, and, yes, even to laugh as you laugh.” It is through becoming one of us that God draws us and the whole world to himself. It is Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

I close with a lovely meditation on the Nativity that I hope is personally meaningful for each of us in this church tonight and for all of those whom our prayers surround with the love of Jesus. It’s written by the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, who reminds us to laugh and to trust this newborn child more than we trust ourselves:

Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother . . . Look at the Child, knowing nothing. Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him. Doubt nothing. Watch him springing in the lap of the maiden. Laugh with him. Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to [men and women] than a babe. Are you affrighted? Then come to him, lying in the lap of the fairest and sweetest maid. You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to [humanity] than this, that Christ became man, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.[6]

To the words of that meditation, I say, “Amen,” and to you,

“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 From the baptismal liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer (1979):

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:2 (New International Version 1984).

BACK TO POST James Montgomery (1771-1854), 1816:

Angels from the realms of glory
wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story
now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

BACK TO POST Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018) 389.

BACK TO POST Martin Luther, excerpt from a Christmas sermon in Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by Roland H. Bainton (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997), quoted on the Mockingbird blog, December 24, 2010.

On the Road with the Rector #11

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 across the street from Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church at Rice University. It’s a series of presentations about anti-Semitism. See below for details and an explanation of why this is timely.

Beautiful & Terrible Things Will Happen

If the Lord himself had not been on our side,
now may Israel say:
If the Lord himself had not been on our side,
when men rose up against us;
then they had swallowed us up alive,
when their wrath was kindled against us.
Then the waters had overwhelmed us,
the stream had gone over our soul:
Then the proud waters had gone even over our soul.

Blessed be the Lord,
who hath not given us
as a prey unto their teeth.
Our soul is escaped even as a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we are delivered.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.[1]

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 21, September 30, 2018

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

As of Friday, the historic port town of Georgetown, which is located about 25 miles south of where I used to live in what’s called the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, was still waiting . . . still waiting for the worst flooding to arrive from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. That town sits on Winyah Bay, where the Waccamaw River, the Pee Dee River, the Sampit River, and the Black River converge. Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber has called this slow-moving disaster a “silent assassin.”[2]

Further north in the town of Conway, which is the first town inland from Myrtle Beach, the Waccamaw River has already crested at nearly 10 feet above flood stage and was expected to taper off through today. Drone footage of one neighborhood near Conway appeared to show knee-high water in every house. As of 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, there had been 137 road closures and 11 dam breaches in the Pee Dee region.[3] Of course, there’s major damage in my home state of North Carolina too.

One meteorologist has calculated that Hurricane Florence was “forecast to dump about 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week over the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland.” That’s as much water as there is in the entire Chesapeake Bay or “enough to cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches . . . of water.” Believe it or not, that’s still far less water than the 25 trillion gallons of rain that fell over Texas and Louisiana last year during Hurricane Harvey because that storm “stalled longer and stayed [close] to the Gulf of Mexico.”[4]

Most of the floods that we experience, however, are metaphorical, not literal. But that doesn’t make them any less real. This past week, with respect to the national news, has been good example of that. Last weekend on Twitter, someone wrote,

Next week has been exhausting.[5]

I laughed at that, too, not because the things that people were reading, pondering, debating, and arguing about were funny, but because it was an accurate description of the world-weariness that many of us were feeling long before the political drama of the last several days. And setting aside everything that’s been taking place in Washington, D.C., painful stories from the survivors of sexual assault, too numerous to count, have overflowed into our personal and public conversations as Americans.

Many of those stories remain unspoken among the women and men of this church and within the circles of relationships that we have in our families and friendships. Just know those stories are often silent companions in the room with us. People we love, not only survivors of sexual assault but also children in our extended families and in this congregation, are listening to the language we use.[6] We don’t have to change our political affiliation or political philosophy to be careful with our words and to pray for those we love and, yes, for all the politicians too. As I’ve said before about praying the words of our mouths will be acceptable in the sight of the Lord:

Christians have a particular obligation to use words carefully, regardless of how others might choose to use them recklessly.

Some of the people for whom we pray face other kinds of raging waters that threaten to overwhelm them. Maybe you’ve felt like that in the past because of something you kept closely guarded in your heart. You might feel like that today, overwhelmed, as though a flood has overtaken your life and everything around you. It could be about all sorts of worries — the erosion of a marriage or a friendship, a child or a relative who struggles with mental health issues, the physical decline of a parent, the harsh reality of unfulfilled dreams, or an inability to forgive or even to receive forgiveness.

So where do we turn when the winds blow and the waters rise around us?

By 1999, I had moved from South Carolina’s northern most coastal county to its southern most coastal county. So I was living on Hilton Head Island when the entire coastline of South Carolina was evacuated ahead of Hurricane Floyd’s arrival. Trying to avoid the traffic jams that had clogged the interstates, I decided to leave the island at the very last minute. No one else was around in the complex where I rented a condominium, and I could hear the eerie sound of wind howling through rigging and ringing bells on boats in the intracoastal marina near my screened-in porch.

It was scary to be a lone car driving away as the sky darkened and rain poured down while two state troopers stood outside their cruisers on the mainland side of the bridge. You’d better believe I prayed for them, as rain baptized their plastic-covered Smokey Bear hats. And you’d better believe I prayed for myself because it’s terrifying to drive into the darkness on a stormy night, knowing it will only get worse.

Whenever that happens, whenever we feel alone like that, we come here to be in the company of others, to take a moment to get our bearings, and to discover where we are in the world. We come here to be reoriented toward the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ, to be reminded of the fact that God has been faithful to us, and not in an abstract way but in a very real way, in the journey of God’s people throughout the history of the human race. From the spoken words of the psalms to the unspoken words written on our hearts and read only by God, the people of God have brought these prayers into communities like Palmer from one generation to another.

This is where we are fed by God and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, become bread for others — the Body of Christ — blessed and broken for the world, perhaps for the world incarnated in the person who is sitting next to you right now. This is where all of us, from the youngest to the oldest, can find shelter when the rains come and the waters around us are rising. As the words of Psalm 124 have reminded us:

If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say . . .

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over us;

Then would the raging waters
have gone right over us.[7]

One of the things I love about this psalm is the way it describes things not as we wish them to be but as they really are. It doesn’t promise that there will be no storms or that the storms will not harm us if our faith is just strong enough. To the contrary, it reminds us that in the end strength is found neither in the flood nor even in our faithfulness. No, the final strength is the faithfulness of God, who “has not given us over to” the power of death.[8] That means when death comes, and it will come, the last word nevertheless belongs to God. As author Frederick Buechner once wrote,

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.

Don’t be afraid. I am with you.[9]

Although I do like those words, which describe the world as it is, I really like what another author, Anne Lamott, said several years ago in response to them:

But it is hard not to be afraid, isn’t it? Some wisdom traditions say that you can’t have love and fear at the same time, but I beg to differ. You can be a passionate believer in God . . . and still be afraid. I’m Exhibit A.

The temptation is to say . . . it will all make sense someday. Great blessings will arise from the tragedy, seeds of new life sown. And I absolutely believe those things, but if it minimizes the terror, it’s . . .

Well, she continues that thought about minimizing the terror with some language that I’ll not use from the pulpit. So I’ll just quote from the Lego Movie instead: It’s “a bunch of hippy, dippy, baloney.” Lamott goes on to say this:

My understanding is that we have to admit the nightmare, and not pretend that it wasn’t heinous and agonizing . . .

For the time being, I am not going to pretend to be spiritually more evolved than I am. I’m keeping things very simple: right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe; telling my stories, and reading yours. I keep thinking about Barry Lopez’s wonderful line, “Everyone is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together; stories and compassion.”[10]

Now I think this is one of the most important places where those stories are shared, either within these walls or walking together to and from this church. That means it needs to be here when we need to share our stories. It also means that we need to be here when others need to tell their stories. God, of course, is always listening. That’s true. But people long to see in a real community, in the faces of children and women and men, the divine love that surrounds the telling and hearing of their stories.

Psalm 124 is one of 15 “Psalms of Ascents” in the Bible. These songs accompanied pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Their walk upward into the city and then onto the temple mount was both a literal ascent and a metaphorical one. It represented a life that over and over reached toward the presence of God. And that’s what we do here at Palmer. What we come to realize, eventually, is that God has been reaching out to us, holding us in the grip of grace and raising us above mighty floodwaters.

Today’s psalm concludes with words that can be our own prayer in the midst of the storm, whatever that might be today, in this moment, for you or someone you love:

Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.[11]

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Our traditional worship at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, usually includes the singing of the psalm appointed for a particular Sunday either in plainchant or in Anglican chant. This past Sunday, in addition to that, the choir sang this anthem version of Psalm 124, which was not planned ahead of time to link to the sermon text. So I’ll chalk that up to the work of the Holy Spirit.

BACK TO POST Brendon Barber, quoted by Ray Sanchez in “Georgetown, South Carolina, braces for flooding seen as Florence’s ‘silent assassin’,” CNN, September 26, 2018.

BACK TO POST Michael Majchrowicz, “Ahead of Georgetown flooding, here’s how the rest of the Pee Dee is faring,” September 27, 2018.

BACK TO POST Seth Borenstein, “Florence could dump enough rain to fill the Chesapeake Bay,” AP, September 14, 2018.

BACK TO POST Jordon Nardino, who tweeted this @jnardino, September 23, 2018.

BACK TO POST Tricia Taylor is a licensed professional counselor in the State of Texas and has also been a guest workshop leader at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. Because of her professional experience, she made this point much better than I’m able to make it in a public Facebook post on September 22, 2018:

Friends, this is not political. I have no interest in debating current events. But I want to give you a window into my daily work: it is normal for people who have experienced a painful or traumatic event to remember parts of it in graphic detail and to forget other parts, especially those that turn out to be unimportant. And it is normal for girls and boys to keep those experiences to themselves and not tell anyone, especially authority figures. When you say otherwise — when you say that women lie, when you say that because a survivor can’t remember details or didn’t report the event, it didn’t happen, you signal to the women and girls in your life that they can’t trust you with their trauma. So when they are suicidal or falling apart in my office and I beg them to share their story with their family or friends and they tell me, “They won’t believe me; They will blame me,” I know they’re not just making that up. You have told them that a thousand times without meaning to. I’m not asking you to change your mind; I’m just asking you to think about what you say. People you love are listening.

BACK TO POST Psalm 124:1, 4-5.

BACK TO POST Psalm 124:6.

BACK TO POST Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993). This is part of a larger quote about grace that, like the shorter version, makes a point similar to the one that Psalm 124 makes, namely, that God is with us, even when terrible things happen:

Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

10 BACK TO POST Anne Lamott, Facebook post on her author page, April 17, 2013.

11 BACK TO POST Psalm 124:8.

Places in the Heart and a Road Trip

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 18, September 9, 2018

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

A couple of years ago, on Memorial Day, my family and I took a detour on our way back to Houston from Dallas. We wanted to see the courthouse in Waxahachie, which is the county seat of Ellis County. It appears in the opening shots of the 1984 movie Places in the Heart,  which is set in Waxahachie in the middle of the Great Depression. Places in the Heart is an amazing film about reconciliation, both its presence and its absence, with a decidedly Christian frame around that theme.

As we drove up to the courthouse, I could hear with the ears of my imagination the words of an old hymn that’s familiar to many of us being sung in a slow tempo:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.

It’s the first thing on the film’s soundtrack as a series of images appear on the screen — the county courthouse; people leaving a church; folks who are poor and homeless; a long, empty dirt road in the country; rusty hopper cars at the edge of town; and a field of bluebonnets that extend all the way to the distant horizon.

Because it was a holiday, the downtown was mostly deserted. So we just walked around the outside of the courthouse, which the author James A. Michener once described in one of his novels as “a fairy tale palace” and “one of the finest buildings in Texas.”[1] Not surprisingly, we walked past a monument on the grounds of the courthouse with a statue of a Confederate soldier at the top of it.

As our two boys walked past that monument without much thought about it, my mind drifted back to the opening of Places in the Heart. With the hymn being sung in the background, another powerful image that one sees are two different families, one white and one black, both sitting down to a meal in their respective homes and giving thanks for the food that is set before them. All of them are dressed in their Sunday best, obviously having gone to worship earlier that morning, albeit within the walls of separate, segregated churches.

As the music fades, the next scene shows another white family doing the same thing. It doesn’t take long for the father to be identified as the local sheriff. He gets called away from his Sunday lunch with his wife and their two children to deal with an emergency down at the rail yard. He takes a couple of biscuits with him, putting them in one of the outer pockets of his suit jacket as he rushes out the door.

By the railroad tracks he finds a young African American boy who had somehow found a bottle of liquor and a pistol. They know one another, and have a friendly conversation. The biscuits and liquor are strange shadows on the Lord’s Day of a kind of holy but incomplete and separate communion.

When the young boy, unsteady on his feet, throws the bottle in the air to try to shoot it, he accidentally shoots the sheriff instead, killing him. Within hours, the young boy would be dead too. Armed white men will tie a rope to him and drag his body through town behind a truck before hanging him from a tree. As the African American singer Billie Holiday recorded in 1939, with lyrics by a Jewish teacher:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Today’s psalm is a different song, assuring us that “the Lord stand[s] round about his people” as “the hills stand about Jerusalem.” It goes on to say that “the scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway over the land allotted to the just.”[2] And yet there are moments in history, in the lives of people we love, and in our own experiences when an honest assessment of the facts on the ground makes that hard to believe. So we cling to the words that follow: “Show your goodness, O Lord . . .”[3] And we add our own words to that prayer, even if we don’t feel brave enough to speak them aloud:

Show your goodness, O Lord, because I can’t see it right now, and I need to see it . . . right . . . now.

More than 4,400 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950 have been documented. Distinct from other acts of extrajudicial violence, these murders were part of a campaign to reinforce white supremacist beliefs and to terrorize black Americans.[4] You can learn more about this shadow side of American history at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

I recently traveled there with Rabbi Oren Hayon of Congregation Emanu-El, Pastor Michael Dunn of First Christian Church, and Pastor Duane Larson of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Our four congregations, of course, are the four communities of faith that border the campus of Rice University. There are details about that pilgrimage of lament in an article in today’s issue of the Houston Chronicle. But I want to share a story that’s not in the article, which I have permission to retell.

My colleagues and I flew into Birmingham, then rented a small SUV to drive down to Montgomery. While Rabbi Hayon was getting the keys to our vehicle, Pastor Larson and I were standing behind it. So we had a good view of the license plate after the hatchback door was closed. Actually, there wasn’t a license plate. There wasn’t even an official looking cardboard temporary license “plate” that you might see on a new car. No, it was just a sad, slightly curled piece of heavy card stock that said “Tags Applied For.” Immediately, I turned to Pastor Larson and said, only half-jokingly:

You know we’re going to get pulled over for that.

Well, as we drove into Montgomery in the dark of night, we did.

The blue lights came on, flashing in the rear view mirror, and we made our way to the brightly lit nearby parking lot of Goodwill, with Rabbi Hayon in the driver’s seat. So the African American police officer found himself shining his flashlight onto us four white guys. After he heard that it was a rental car, I leaned forward in the back seat to explain that we were a rabbi and three Christian ministers who had traveled together from Houston to visit the new lynching memorial. I even told him what I had said to my Lutheran colleague, pointing to him in the passenger seat, that we were almost certain to get pulled over. Soon enough, we were on our way again.

Later, while we were still heading to the hotel, Rabbi Hayon broke the silence with words that were initially addressed to me. He said:

I’ve been thinking about that conversation with the police officer, and I couldn’t help but notice how natural it was for you to self-disclose your religious identity. I would never do that.

So that’s what we talked about as we continued down the road in the darkness. For me, explaining who we were was almost involuntary, lowering my own anxiety and sincerely trying to help everyone, including the police officer. However, the truth is that I’ve never really had to worry about what kind of prejudices another human being might secretly harbor. But I need to be a lot more aware of others who do.

The Book of Proverbs says that “the rod of anger will fail.”[5] But what if it doesn’t in this one particular instance while I’m on the receiving end of it? Proverbs also assures me that the Lord pleads the cause of the afflicted at the gate of the city. But what if I’m too far away from the gate of justice in the land of the living?

That was our collective reflection on the eve of our seeing the lynching memorial. It was an unanticipated but helpful prelude. There are so many articles that describe the visual impact of the memorial that I won’t try to do that here. I’ll only mention a few of the words that are part of a statement of purpose on a wall on the inside:

For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember.

For me, the words of African American theologian James Cone also came to mind. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he reflects on the death and resurrection of Jesus, together with the violent murders of these African Americans, and says:

The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross. . . .

It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor.[6]

 

In Places in the Heart, the sheriff’s widow soon finds herself and her two children teetering on the edge of losing everything. And those who mistakenly thought that she’d be happy about the lynching don’t come rushing to her aide. Eventually, she welcomes into her household an African American named Moses, who knows about farming, and a blind man whose extended family no longer wished to be responsible for him. These unlikely companions, each of them, including the children, at a different place on the margins of society, can only survive together. So they create a community that is nothing less than a true reflection of God’s coming kingdom.

The last scene of the movie takes place inside the white church. In the half-filled pews, the congregation can be heard singing the final refrain of “Blessed Assurance.” After the people sit down, the minister reads the famous words of St. Paul about love in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. During that, a man and a woman whose marriage has been strained discretely hold hands. The unspoken gesture of forgiveness brings with it a physical sigh of relief.

Later the minister recalls the words of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper on the night before his crucifixion. While he’s speaking, the camera follows each member of the congregation passing the bread and wine to the person beside them. What you don’t notice right away is that the pews are now completely filled. All sorts and conditions of people from the town are there, saints and sinners alike.

And the last thing you see is the sheriff’s widow receiving communion from her children. She passes the silver tray that holds the individual cups of wine to the person beside her, whom we’re surprised to see is her husband. He does the same, passing the tray to the young boy who had shot him. And then you see the boy looking directly into the eyes of the sheriff and saying to him, “The peace of God.”

Robert Benton is the man wrote and directed Places in the Heart, and he was born in Waxahachie. He wanted no other ending to the film and once said this about it:

There are certain things images can explain and words cannot. There is something in the image of the man who has been killed handing the communion plate to the boy who killed him that seems very moving to me in ways I cannot explain.

I had the ending before I ever finished the screenplay . . .[7]

As that final scene of his movie suggests, there are some things that get sorted out in this life and lots more that only get sorted out in the life to come. Nevertheless, sometimes we’re granted a glimpse on earth of things that we believe will only be seen in heaven. The sinfulness of the world seems to keep them beyond our reach.

An example of heaven reaching to earth comes from the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He’s also an African American whose Baptist father came to church with his Episcopalian mother when they were still dating and living in the heart of segregated America in the 1940s. His father watched his mother walk to the front of the church for communion, kneeling beside white people and drinking from the same cup that they did. His father had never seen whites and blacks drink from the same glass or even the same water fountain.[8]

I hope each of us gets a glimpse of that today. There’s room for us all at this Table. By coming to it week after week, I hope we’ll receive whatever courage we need to look at ourselves and the world around us not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. And I hope, more and more, this household will resemble the household of the sheriff’s widow. That’s what the household of God looks like, a place where the doors of the church are open as wide as the arms of the Crucified One.

We are all related through his blood.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST James A. Michener, Texas: A Novel (Dial Press: New York, 2014) 1088. Here is the full quote that describes the county courthouse in Waxahachie:

[James Riley] Gordon had built a fairy-tale palace ten stories high, replete with battlements and turrets and spires and soaring clock towers and miniature castles high in the air. It was a bejeweled treasure, yet it was also a sturdy, massive court of judgments, one of the finest buildings in Texas.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:2-3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:4.

BACK TO POST That statistic about documented lynchings of African Americans was highlighted at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. I was grateful to learn that Forsyth County, North Carolina, where I was raised, isn’t represented by a steel monument at the memorial. However, “other acts of extrajudicial violence” that fall outside the scope of the memorial did take place in the only documented lynching in Forsyth County. Henry Swaim was a white tenant on the farm of Harrison and Ernestina Reid, and he was lynched in 1884 by “a crowd of between seventy-five and one hundred men, many of whom were masked.”

The only reason that I read about this story is because I was checking to see if there really was no documented lynching of an African American in Forsyth County. The surprising discovery is that Harrison Reid is my first cousin, five generations removed. His wife Ernestina was murdered on May 5, 1884, but whispered three times the name of Henry Swaim as the identity of her attacker before she died.

“Swinging into Eternity” offers a thorough account of what happened in this sordid affair and points out that the circumvention of due process was in no way “justice.” It is worth taking a moment to click on the original newspaper report here or within the account linked above about the lynching of this 25 year old man. He pleaded for someone to pray for him before he was put to death. When someone did and asked him afterwards if he was penitent, he didn’t know what that word meant. When he then sputtered out this prayer on his own, repeating it over and over, Swaim was ridiculed by the crowd, a crowd that I’m sure was mostly filled with Christian men:

Oh Lord take me from this world once more!
Oh Lord save this poor sinner’s soul once more!
I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!

Swaim was hanged improperly, so he died of strangulation and, therefore, didn’t die immediately. The rope that was 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.

BACK TO POST Proverbs 22:8.

BACK TO POST James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2011) xviii, 161-162.

BACK TO POST Robert Benton, quoted by Aljean Harmetz in “How Endings Have Affected Two Recent Movies,” New York Times, October 8, 1984.

BACK TO POST Michael Curry tells this story about his parents in a YouTube video called “Eucharist” from June 6, 2014.