One Giant Leap for Sheep-Kind

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021

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

The closest I’ve ever felt to living the idealized life of a priest in the English countryside was when I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. I would bring my English cocker spaniel with me to the church office, and we’d take a break most afternoons by walking out of the Parish House and heading down Duke of Gloucester Street. At this time of the year, we’d walk past Bruton Parish Church and lots of other things to find the most spectacular sight — the first lambs of the year, frolicking around pastures marked off by white wooden fences and old brick walls, parts of which dated to the 18th century.

Those sheep date to the 18th century too. Not any of the individual sheep, of course. I’m talking about the breed — the Leicester Longwool, which goes back to about 1755 in Leicestershire, England.[1] George Washington raised hundreds of sheep and used this breed to improve his stock.[2] But it’s now a rare breed. They died out in America probably around 1920.

So how did those little lambs make it to Virginia? Well, more than three decades ago, their ancestors — eight ewes, one ram, and six lambs — were sent there from Australia. Now about 50 of their descendants still live in Williamsburg, with cousins scattered across about 120 Leicester Longwool flocks today in the United States.[3]

So here’s the thing. They’re beautiful. They’re thriving and flourishing. They bring joy to children who see those little lambs learning how to walk awkwardly in the spring. But they didn’t get there on their own. They didn’t engineer their own comeback. They didn’t build a safe pasture within which they can feast to their hearts’ content and stay together as a flock, as kind of a community. They needed enormous amounts of help, far beyond their own ability to help themselves. They need protection. They need a shepherd.

And so do we. Help and protection and shepherding are things we need too. As much as we hate to admit it, I really do think the human condition is wonderfully summed up in a 30-second video that’s been making the rounds on social media. It was posted on YouTube just last Sunday and starts off showing a boy trying to rescue a sheep which had gotten itself stuck in a ditch. All on its own, this poor animal ended up in about as dire a situation as possible, head down, straight down in a really narrow ditch.

So the boy pulls mightily on one its hind legs, finally liberating it. In that exhilarating moment your heart leaps for joy as you see a creature being given its freedom. But in merely five seconds of that freedom, this sheep bounces through the grass and takes one giant leap for sheep-kind, landing right back in the same ditch, in the same position.

Who hasn’t felt like that sheep somewhere along the way? If you haven’t, you will. That image of being brought out of a place of constriction and into a broad place where one is able to breathe freely and deeply and joyfully reminds me of these words from Psalm 31:

I hate those who cling to worthless idols, *
and I put my trust in the Lord.

I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy; *
for you have seen my affliction; you know my distress.

You have not shut me up in the power of the enemy; *
you have set my feet in an open place.[4]

Hopefully after we’ve more than once become unstuck, no thanks to our own efforts, we’re able to be self-reflective enough, if only momentarily, to realize God is with us, and always has been. Think of the boy rescuing that sheep and remaining nearby, even if the sheep doesn’t see him as it’s gleefully exercising its free will by choosing to run away.

Well, I resemble that remark, and you probably do too. It’s not that we don’t have free will. It’s that we have a tendency not to use it very well. That tendency as human beings, even more than our individual poor choices, is what we call sin. It’s what binds us, trips us, sends us hurtling into the ditch as a result of either what we do or what others do.

But that’s not the end of the story.

As the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm remind us:

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; *
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul; *
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his Name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; *
for thou art with me . . .[5]

With us. God is with us. God is with us now and always. God is with us in whatever ditch we find ourselves hopelessly stuck in, even if it seems like hell to us. That awareness of God’s presence is the key which unlocks the door to the room in which we’ve hidden ourselves out of fear. It’s what breaks apart the gates of hell through the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

. . . though I walk through the darkest valley . . . you are with me.[6]

That’s where we stop talking about God in the third person and start speaking to God directly. That’s where the words of the 23rd Psalm drop down from the head to the heart. That’s where a conversation happens and a relationship begins. That’s where the marrow of this beloved psalm is discovered in its very bones. In the original Hebrew, the phrase “you are with me” is literally in the middle of this psalm with 26 words before it and 26 words after it.[7] God’s presence stands at the center of it, just as it stands at the center of your life, within and beyond all those ditches.

As Christians, we look to Jesus as the Good Shepherd who rescues us, who lays down his life for us. We describe Jesus as Emmanuel, which means God with us. We come to know Jesus in the fellowship of the church as the one who runs to us, embraces us, befriends us, even when we feel godforsaken, when we feel as if no one else in the world could possibly want to love us.[8]

The good news of this Easter season is that the face of Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, is turned toward you even if you are turned away from him, even if you are running away from him as fast as you can. And what will pursue you all the days of your life isn’t condemnation and rejection from someone who is your enemy but only goodness and mercy, as promised in the 23rd Psalm, from someone who is your friend.

That’s what will eventually catch up with you — goodness and mercy rushing through the labyrinthine passageways of your past and washing over you like the waters of baptism. I’m not talking about a little sprinkle of water. I’m talking about a wave of goodness and mercy, a cup that is running over with forgiveness, even if you’re only able to recognize it after this life, when standing face to face with the Lord in the life to come.

But most of us won’t have to wait until then. Most of us have moments, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, when we pause to grieve the loss of someone we’ve loved. Standing at the edge of the grave brings a lot things into sharp focus. Some of us realize in the midst of our tears that we can’t make our way through such deep grief on our own. By grace we’re able to see that God has been reaching out to us all along in the lives of those whom we’ve loved and those whom we’ve met — not through idealized lives but through lives that were real and imperfect and just like our own.

Even beyond the grave, their love, which finds its source in God, has unstuck us time and time again from lots of different ditches. Although we miss them, as the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann would say:

They are present to [us and unforgotten], because in their love [we] became free and can breathe in wide spaces.[9]

And death can’t take that away from us.

To that I will only add this, hearkening back to the words of the 23rd Psalm: We shall be reunited with them and dwell in the house of Lord for ever. This I believe. This is the joy of Easter. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

AMEN

BACK TO POST “Leicester Longwool Sheep: History of the Breed,” Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association, Leicestershire, England.

BACK TO POST George Washington, in a letter to Arthur Young, June 18-21, 1792, writes that “Bakewells breed of Sheep [i.e., Leicester Longwool] are much celebrated, and deservedly I presume . . .” After noting that British law prohibited the importation of this breed and that ship captains who attempted to do so could face “serious consequences,” he continued:

Others however, less scrupulous, have attempted to import English Rams with Success, and by this means our flocks in many places are much improved—mine for instance, ’though I never was concerned directly nor indirectly in the importation of one, farther than by buying lambs which have descended from them. the average weight of the fleeces being 5 lbs.

BACK TO POST “Welcome, Lambs,” Colonial Williamsburg, March 23, 2020.

BACK TO POST Psalm 31:6-8 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Psalm 23:1-4 (King James Version).

BACK TO POST Psalm 23:4 (New Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Psalm 23: God Is with Us,” Enter the Bible from Luther Seminary.

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008) 382. I’ve adapted words he used to describe himself in order to describe us all.

“Hymns of praise then let us sing . . .”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 4, 2021

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

Today we sing . . . together. Today we not only say the Easter proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead, we will sing as a congregation, “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!” It’s been so very long since we’ve done that. Sitting here on the lawn of the church by these beautiful live oaks, we’re surrounded by the noise of the city, surrounded by a cacophony of sounds from across the street at the the largest medical center in the world.

Those sirens rushing into the Texas Medical Center, pleading for mercy or wailing in grief, remind us daily of life and death. And there’s been so much death, so much loss, over the past year in this and other countries.

So whether we’ve come to this service with hearts filled with confidence or genuine joy or the heaviness of grief or hope that’s more than a wish or a thousand disappointments or a longing for the rumor of death’s destruction to be true or doubts overflowing in every direction, we can sing together once again as we bear one another’s burdens. And our words sung today beneath the canopy of a clear sky can be our own prayers — our own conversation with God that surrounds all of the noise, everything going on around us and also everything going on within us, with the love of Jesus.

And if you can’t think of that as prayer because you’re not sure about prayer or you wonder if anyone’s listening or the empty tomb seems empty of meaning, know that others are praying for you today, holding themselves and you, holding this church and the world, in a love stronger than death.

Regardless of what brings us here for Easter, each of us needs love, each of us needs mercy. We need these things in our own lives, and we hope for them in the lives of those closest to us, because we’re human. Religious or not, one way or another, we all seek these gifts that come from outside of ourselves and, hopefully, we share them with others as we are able.

Even when love and mercy appear like a life raft while in solitude, many of us here on this Easter morning would say that they come to us as divine gifts, that they really and truly and freely come to us from the risen Christ.

Maybe the physical distance we have endured for so long over these past months has made us at least a little more aware of our need for love and mercy. I hope that’s true and that we’ll remember, as things slowly return to a new normal, the wonder of how these divine gifts are experienced in community. If we share them as much as we so desperately want to receive them, that will surely be a blessing to ourselves, our church, and our city.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve unexpectedly found myself paying attention to things in ways I never could’ve imagined a year ago. When taking our dogs on a walk through the neighborhood with my family, or while walking around by myself, I’ve seen more than a few street blocks for the first time because they’re usually out of the way if just driving from point A to point B. I’ve greeted “new” neighbors and noticed a lot of details on different houses — houses that I’m seeing for the first time or others that I’ve passed by dozens of times in the past while focused on an errand or something here at the church or “things . . . left undone,” a phrase we say so often but sometimes unreflectively in our prayer of confession in worship.

On this Easter Day, the Fourth Gospel — the beautiful and poetic Gospel of John — offers us an even more remarkable new perspective on the world, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it pays attention to a lot of details. For example, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea petitioned the Roman governor for the body of Jesus. Nicodemus helped him remove the lifeless body and brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”[1] They wrapped his body “with the spices in linen cloths.”[2] Then, in a garden near the place where he had died, they placed Jesus in “a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.”[3]

Sunlight was swallowed up by the horizon at the end of that Good Friday, marking the beginning of the Sabbath — a day of rest for the body of Jesus, for the women who had stood near his cross, for the disciples who had fled from his sufferings, and for those who had condemned him in the name of God. Perhaps it was also a day of rest for his Roman executioners, a brief interlude between stamping out rebellion at the edge of the empire.

The writer of the Fourth Gospel draws us into this holy rest through silence in the text itself, but not before reminding us of something important. He hints that we should use this time reflecting on the meaning of the Jewish Passover. It was a time to retell the stories of Moses and the Exodus. It was a time to remember that God is greater than the pharaohs of this world and that the grip of oppression is weaker than the hand of deliverance. It was a time to remember that God makes a way where there is no way, as he did at the Red Sea. And it was a time to hear with the ears of the imagination the distant sound of Miriam’s tambourine. Her words of rejoicing still ring out:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.[4]

Perhaps the distance between Miriam’s song of victory, which is closer to the beginning of the Bible, and Mary Magdalene’s grief, which is closer to the end of the Bible, seems like an unbridgeable gap to you. If that diminishment of hope, that incongruity between God’s promise and your present is real for you this morning, whether from something happening in your own life or in the world, know this: Mary Magdalene weeps with you.

Today we heard that she came to the place where Jesus had been buried “while it was still dark.”[5] And in the darkness, she discovered that the stone no longer sealed the tomb and the body of Jesus was nowhere to be found. It must have been terrifying. Later that same morning, she stood there again, outside the tomb, weeping in solitude.

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, divine love fills the emptiness within Mary Magdalene’s heart, opening her heart to see the world differently, to see herself differently, as the risen Christ calls her by name. This is the detail that matters, that causes her to recognize who it is that stands before her. And one of the great mysteries of Easter is for you and me, for all of us, to stand before God fully known and yet, miraculously, fully loved. And that love will never let go of you, even in death.

In that moment Mary Magdalene becomes the first witness to God’s gracious rejection of the world’s dreadful rejection. In that moment she knew the power of God was bound neither by the stone in front of the tomb nor by the linen wrappings which had embraced the body of Jesus. “He arose from the kingdom of Death and carried away its spoils.”[6]

If that’s true — if Hell is indeed vanquished and Death has been destroyed — the world isn’t the same as it was. As one believer describes it,

In a world where everything seems to be going wrong, God has put something very right.[7]

Here’s more good news: You don’t have to wait until you’re standing in the middle of a pandemic or until things become a lot more normal to start looking at yourself or the world around you differently, to notice things, little things, small details, as if for the first time. You can do that after you leave today, walking away from this beautiful service in the light of the Resurrection. You can do it sooner, too, as we join our voices with Angels and Archangels, with Miriam’s tambourine and all the company of heaven.

And then you’ll be invited to receive love and mercy and forgiveness in your own hands — these divine gifts that fill all the hidden, wounded places in our hearts and make them overflow with the joy of Easter. And this year, this Easter Day, we get to burst into song about that great mystery . . . together.

“Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!”

AMEN

BACK TO POST John 19:39.

BACK TO POST John 19:40.

BACK TO POST John 19:41.

BACK TO POST Exodus 15:21.

BACK TO POST John 20:1.

BACK TO POST Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 237.

BACK TO POST Joanna Adams as quoted by John M. Buchanan, “Easter Revolution” in The Christian Century (April 5, 2003) 3.

Why’d it have to be snakes?

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2021

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

On the Friday before the Big Freeze here in Texas, I was standing outside, waiting to pick up my youngest son at the end of the school day. It was already pretty cold. So I turned up the heat after we got in the car, and that’s when my son immediately noticed a thin crack in the front windshield.

I had noticed it, too, earlier that day. And upon closer inspection, I could see where it started — a little round chip, like a small crater on the surface of the moon. I have no recollection of when that happened. I don’t remember a piece of gravel, or whatever it was, bouncing off my car with that distinctive sound that makes me wince for just a second or two. But that’s definitely where it started before stretching to the left and to the right across most of the breadth of the windshield. And then, as temperatures continued their descent into hell, the crack traveled in multiple zigzag directions.

That serpentine crack came to mind as I read this puzzling story about snakes from the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament.[1] Many Christians have never read this book or never made it to the end if they tried to read it. And rarely do we hear its words spoken aloud in public worship. There’s a beautiful blessing that the Lord, through Moses, gives to Aaron and his sons to use as priests to bless the Israelites. So we hear about that, we hear a strange story about prophecy, and we hear this weird memory of snakes in the wilderness. But that’s all we get if we’re just listening on Sundays.

Here the Israelites have been delivered from Egyptian slavery by the Lord’s hand. Food has also been provided for them so they’ll live. That food, called manna, is a daily miracle in the wilderness. This isn’t too hard for us to picture, right? We have been walking through a wilderness of restrictions.

Yet in the midst of that, the Lord has set a Table for us. Looking back, we can say that the Bread of Heaven hasn’t ceased to appear in this church, and it hasn’t ceased to be received by God’s people at our in-person services with Holy Communion over the last six months. That which gives life to the world is waiting to be given to you and other Christians as more and more of us feel we’re able to return safely with the measures we have in place. It’s as if a beautiful flower is about to start blooming through the rest of the year.

But the Bread of Heaven? It’s been here all along, and it’s available now.

That was true for the children of Israel, too, although the food provided for them was for physical sustenance rather than spiritual strength. But they complained about it. Yes, it was a miracle, but they complained nevertheless. At one point they yelled at Moses about not having meat, and the Lord gave them quail in abundance. Now they’re grumbling against Moses and God, basically saying, “These two? They don’t know what they’re doing. And this so-called food they keep giving us? Disgusting!”

What happens next is probably, for most of us, the unsettling part of this distant memory. It’s like that little chip in my windshield. I wasn’t exactly sure how it got there, but it just got worse and worse over time, to the point that someone with skills far beyond my own was needed to do something about it. There’s absolutely no way I could’ve fixed that problem myself.

Our translation of this text from the NRSV says “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”[2] It implies that God was the direct source of a deadly judgement in response to their prickliness — a harsh sentence for a sour attitude.

At least one Jewish translation takes a step back, saying passively that “[the Lord] let fiery snakes go among the people.”[3] Maybe if they had respected venomous snakes a little more than they respected both God and Moses, they wouldn’t have been harmed. Maybe their carelessness wrought that.

Some folks take two steps back, saying these snakes are really a metaphor. Perhaps in the midst of a temper tantrum these wanderers in the desert began striking one another verbally with sharp tongues, infecting everyone with the all-too-deadly human poison of rumors and back-biting.

Whatever brought that about, whatever caused that chip in the glass, things got worse.  Those cracks began to spread, and people were suffering, people were dying. They needed something beyond their own abilities to help them, to heal them. Only when they were able to see that, and finally open their hearts, did they ask Moses to plead to the Lord on their behalf.

Now we would probably want this painful scene to be ended quickly through something like a healing wind from God that comes over the encampment. But in the pages of the Bible, the important part is also the weird part of this story. Moses is instructed to make a serpent of bronze and set it on a pole so that those who’ve been bitten by a snake can look at it and live.

How primitive! Can you seriously imagine walking into a doctor’s office in the 21st century and finding an image of a snake wrapped around a pole?

Wait a second . . . you can see snakes wrapped around poles throughout the Texas Medical Center. Whether it’s the Hebrew symbol of the bronze serpent of Moses or the Greek symbol of the rod of Asclepius, that image has represented healing and medicine for millennia and still does today.

Perhaps it’s related to taking something that can be dangerous and making it, counterintuitively, into something else that brings health. Think of snake venom being used to create a medicine, a scalpel being wielded to remove a tumor, a pathogen being transformed into a vaccine, or merely information about a virus being used to make an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

I don’t know what bronze-age people knew about snakes and healing. But I do believe God has been just as much at work in all these things, even in our own day, as God was when Moses lifted up that serpent in the wilderness.

And we have experiences of this healing in many other ways too. Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher who comes from a small town in Minnesota. He was one of my professors in divinity school. A couple of years ago, he said the most moving experience of teaching he’s ever had came not in a classroom at Yale University or inside a church building but at a prison.

Wolterstorff is mostly known for a small book called Lament for a Son, an unvarnished reflection on the death of one of his adult children. He says he had a curious sense while writing it that the words came to him, that he wasn’t searching for them, that they were plucked from the air, as it were, reminding me this week of Moses receiving something from God.[4]

Anyway, a group of prisoners was reading that book. And because he lived nearby, they invited Wolterstorff to come speak to them. So he did, talking for a few minutes and having them respond. This is how he described it:

Twenty guys in the room. Seventeen of them are in for life. . . . For ten minutes I’m utterly perplexed by what’s going on. They read a passage, and then make some comments. And I saw no connection between the passage that they read and their comments.

And then it occurred to me: Oh, they’re not reading this as Nick Wolterstorff’s lament for his son. They’re reading this as their lament. They were using my words for their lament. That’s what was going on. . . . And they were open. They didn’t conceal the fact that they had murdered their best friend, and that they ruined all their relationships. . . .

[They] could use my words to express [their] grief.[5]

The healing power of God was present inside that prison in the same way it was present in the wilderness when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent.

Now there are two footnotes to this snake story. The first comes centuries later in the Old Testament’s Second Book of Kings.[6] Apparently this bronze serpent, a symbol of healing, was preserved by the Israelites and later erected in Jerusalem, perhaps in the Temple itself. King Hezekiah had it destroyed finally because the people had been burning incense to it. So the material object through which the Holy One of Israel healed them had been turned into a kind of graven image forbidden in the Ten Commandments.

When I dropped off my car to get the windshield replaced, they very cleverly gave me a brand new car, same model, to drive around for a few days. It had an updated navigation system with a 3-D map. Here and there a random building was raised up on that map to use as a landmark. Memorial Hermann Medical Plaza, across the street, was the one of them. And just like in real life, day or night, I always know where Palmer is when I see it.

On a spiritual 3-D map, we might choose to raise up our church building instead. That would be a great landmark, a place where we are reoriented in a broken world and rediscover our relationship to God as beloved children.

The key is not to worship the building itself, forgetting that its beauty, like the beauty of the music that fills it and the rituals that animate it, creates a frame around the source of all of that beauty, which is nothing less than the presence of Christ — in the Word proclaimed, the Sacrament received, and the Body of Christ gathered, whether we are inside or outside its walls.

And that brings me to a second footnote from the New Testament’s Gospel of John.[7] We heard it in the words of Jesus this morning. He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[8] Jesus also said he had come not to condemn the world but to save it.

Jesus would be lifted up on the cross in another godforsaken place, so that all those suffering in a different kind of wilderness — all of us — can be healed. So look up to him, and know there’s mercy for each of us . . . today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Numbers 21:4-9.

BACK TO POST Numbers 21:6.

BACK TO POST Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (New York: HarperOne, 2003) 499.

BACK TO POST Nicholas Wolterstorff, interviewed by Scott Jones on “Episode 151: In this World of Wonders, with Nicholas Wolterstorff,” Give & Take Podcast, October 1, 2009.

BACK TO POST Wolterstorff.

BACK TO POST II Kings 18:1-4.

BACK TO POST John 3:14-21.

BACK TO POST John 3:14-15.

A Sign of Hope

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent I, February 21, 2021

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

On the day my wife Carrie and I first met in Williamsburg, Virginia, she also met, not surprisingly, my dog. Georgia was an English Cocker Spaniel with blue roan markings. Georgia’s tail was in constant motion, at least it often seemed that way. It was so much fun to take Georgia on a long walk through the streets of Colonial Williamsburg because she loved the attention she got from tourists and thought the fifes and drums were for her and her alone.

Less fun, at times, was eventually taking her for walks in the park near our house. There was a walking path around it, and sometimes, late at night, Georgia would suddenly decide that she had gone far enough. She would just stop and lie down on the ground, and no amount of coaxing could get her to move even an inch. I’d have to carry her in my arms, and she felt heavier with each step back to the house. It must have been quite a sight to behold.

I’m guessing a lot of us have felt that way ourselves at some point during the truly awful events of the past week, with all 254 counties in the State of Texas under a winter storm warning and dangerous, record-breaking low temperatures. Here in Houston, that extreme cold, combined with no electricity for one, two, or three or more days, which for most of us meant no heat, left us on edge. If you were starting to panic as Wednesday arrived with no apparent end in sight to the misery and no good alternative place to find shelter with warmth or water, you weren’t alone. A lot of us felt that way. And there were and will continue to be thousands of Houstonians living in homes less insulated from the cold than our own. That’s scary.

Surely we’re all tired of living in historic times, tired of enduring historic events. We’d like nothing more than to lie down right where we are, to be picked up in someone else’s arms and carried home, to have the electrical grid fixed, and the laundry folded, and the dishes washed, and the pipes unfrozen, and the loose ends at work tied up neatly, and children reassured — and, yes, ourselves too — that the world isn’t coming to an end.

But if it isn’t coming to an end, if the world is sticking around, we’d like a divine work crew to come into the wreckage of our lives, a metaphorical building with untold, and perhaps unseen, water-damage and unreliable power, to clean up the mess because we’re too tired to do it ourselves.

Whenever my wife and I used to take our dog on a walk around that park at night, our way was always guided by the bright lights around Kidsburg. That was the name of an amazing community-built playground in the middle of the park. And what stood at the heart of it was an impressive structure that resembled a boat. Even in the darkness, it remained an illuminated place of safety against the backdrop of a vast celestial sea. It always reminded me of Noah’s ark — a place of safety, a vessel of salvation — and of the idea at the heart of that odd story in the pages of the Bible that a living community, created by and dependent on God’s grace, is able to renew the earth.

Now if we’re being honest about things, the story of Noah is more than a little unsettling and not really meant for children. After all, this story, which appears in the first book of the Bible, describes a flood that nearly destroys everything. What this and other stories in the opening chapters of Genesis give us is a theological interpretation of the world as we actually experience it. They also remind us of God’s involvement in that reality right now.

In the words of Genesis, the great flood comes after violence and corruption have spread over the face of the earth. This story — again, not a children’s story — unfolds with the most terrifying theology we can possibly imagine:

And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind . . .[1]

What happens next brings us to the edge of many people’s greatest fear — that God “might turn away from [creation] and allow it to sink into chaos.”[2] Maybe you’ve worried about that over the past year. Maybe you’ve worried about it, silently, this past week. It would be a catastrophe not only for the earth and all living things, but also within God himself.[3]

Yet we know from the rest of the story, of course, that creation doesn’t experience God’s total eclipse. As the rains fell and the waters rose and the storm increased, some were saved. Noah, his family, and all the animals with them were gathered together in the ark. This boat, which God had commanded Noah to build, kept them all safe from the violence outside.

Eventually the violence of humanity was overcome by the violence of nature. Then both gave way to the silence of the floodwaters covering the face of the earth. There would be plenty of time for uneasy reflections about what had taken place because the silence outside continued for months.

Many of you have been there yourselves, in the real lives you’ve lived, after tremendous personal trials in the past. Some of you are dwelling in that deafening silence right now. Only then do we hear the climax of the story:

God remembered . . .[4]

God remembered Noah, his family, the living creatures around them. At that moment chaos receded with the floodwaters and creation was renewed.

God said, “Never again,” and made a covenant between himself and the whole earth.[5] It’s not an agreement between two parties, but “a sheer promise from God” that is universal and unconditional.[6] There’s nothing here about what we are supposed to do in our disorientation and total exhaustion. This promise shines in the darkness as a beacon of hope for those who are weary and heavy-laden. God alone takes on the obligation of the promise, assuring us that chaos won’t have the last word.

And it’s not a story that finds meaning only in the lives of primitive human beings. The people of Israel understood that. When they were sent away into exile in present-day Iraq, the story of the flood became a reality in their own lives. It was for them “the collapse of the known world.”[7] Yet a remnant was preserved and saved for a new life that God would lead them back to.

God remembered them just as he had remembered Noah in the story of the flood. Isaiah the prophet testified to this miracle of salvation, this rescue, at the end of their captivity. In the Book of Isaiah, we read these words:

This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah
would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.[8]

Christians also understand new beginnings in catastrophes. When Jesus was crucified, darkness covered the earth, and the storm of God’s wrath against sin was overwhelming. The hiddenness of God was real that day, and the silence which continued into the evening was absolutely devastating.

But God remembered Jesus. And God remembers us too, bringing new life out of the waters of baptism. Notice, again, how God does all the heavy-lifting, bearing our burdens, offering us rest, adopting us as his children, welcoming us into his household, bringing us home at last to himself.

With the assurance that God remembers every living creature in the colors of the rainbow, we gather around the Lord’s Table to remember as well.

Here we remember those mighty acts of God that are bringing forth a new creation. Jesus was not forgotten . . . and neither are you . . . and neither are those who are still suffering. The window of the ark has been opened, and a dove has brought back, as the story of Noah puts it, “a freshly plucked olive leaf.”[9] That small but tangible sign of hope for all of us this morning can be seen in power restored last week, in food and safe drinking water being distributed throughout the city this weekend, and in our prayers arising this hour for God’s universal and unconditional mercy for all living creatures.

God remembers them and us.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Genesis 6:6.

BACK TO POST Jurgen Moltmann, In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 39. I have substituted “creation” for “the earth” in this quote.

BACK TO POST Moltmann 39.

BACK TO POST Genesis 8:1.

BACK TO POST Genesis 9:11.

BACK TO POST Terence E. Fretheim, “Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17,” First Sunday in Lent, Working Preacher, Luther Seminary, March 1, 2009.

BACK TO POST Brueggemann, Genesis, 87.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 54:9-10.

BACK TO POST Genesis 8:6-12.

The Rector’s Report and Steps Forward

THE RECTOR’S REPORT

DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Mark 1:14-20.

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

The Epiphany in Washington, D.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

BACK TO POST Isaiah 64:1.

BACK TO POST Mark 1:10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Left Out This Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the mess is always where God shows up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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

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

BACK TO POST Bailie.

BACK TO POST Luke 9:58.

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

BACK TO POST Moltmann 73.

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

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

BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:6.

Looking Down, Around, and Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But now suppose,” said Rabbi Sacks:

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

“No,” he said:

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

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

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

“They are born,” he said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, I need to see it.

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

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

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

This I believe. . . . This we believe.

AMEN

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

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

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

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

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:1.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:4.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:4.

For All Saints: Where Are the Dead Now?

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

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

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

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

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

Where are they now? Where are the dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are the dead?

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

This I believe.

AMEN

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

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

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

BACK TO POST Luke 23:43.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You answered them indeed.[2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is interceding for us, and we are forgiven.

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Makes a Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or as a friend of mine put it recently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Young goes on to write that:

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But neither he nor his son would be spared.

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

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

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

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

AMEN

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

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

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

BACK TO POST Young 223.

BACK TO POST Young 223.

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

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

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