Today is our oldest son Rowan’s birthday! Eight is great, and Benny’s Spaceship from the Lego Movie includes awesome Lego pieces that I remember from childhood. As Benny-the-1980-Something-Space-Guy says, “Spaceship! Spaceship! SPACESHIP!!!”
Birthdays are this week’s haiku theme. So write a short poem about presents, cakes, candles, and celebrations large or small, wonderful or not-so-wonderful. Just put it all into a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine about the best birthday gift that I can remember as a child — not wrapped, because it was an experience with my Daddy:
Tenth birthday. First flight.
Piedmont Airlines took Daddy
and me to D.C.
This is the sidewalk along Main Street in Houston, Texas, near the front doors of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. It reminds me that the path from there goes on and on and on through this world and that God is with us on the journey.
The East Coast is preparing for a dangerous winter storm that has caused blizzard warnings to be issued from northern Virginia to southern Connecticut. It brings back memories for me of the “Storm of the Century” in mid-March of 1993 during my first year at Yale Divinity School. Of course, I dealt with plenty of snow during the seven years that my family lived in Minnesota before we moved to Texas. Below is a photograph of the walkway to the front door of our first house there in St. Louis Park. It was no small task to clear that path and the sidewalk and the driveway.
It seems only right, therefore, to invite you to write haiku about snow. That could range from contemplating a single, unique snowflake to making a snowman as a child or describing your preparations for a snowpocalypse in the Great Blizzard of ’16. Since my family and I now live in Houston, we’re completely dependent on your imagination to remind us of what snow is like. So write your one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Then share that bit of creativity here. Here’s mine:
In the North Star State,
I became a kid again
with the first snowfall.
Last Sunday was a very important moment in the life of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. It was the day of our Annual Parish Meeting, which is a time to worship together and reflect on our place in this world as followers of Jesus Christ. As I have stated elsewhere under extremely different circumstances:
Love . . . became the thread that made a connection between all of us. It brought to mind the opening words of a beautiful antiphon that I didn’t quote in my remarks but have contemplated a lot: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est,” which means, “Where charity and love are, God is there.”
This I believe. With that in mind, here are the words that I spoke from the pulpit, with information about the celebration and blessing of same-gender marriages, which the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, has since granted his permission to conduct at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church:
THE RECTOR’S REPORT
DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 17, 2016
Today’s sermon is actually my report as the Rector of Palmer Memorial on the day of our Annual Parish Meeting. There comes a time when the new Rector becomes simply the Rector. I think it’s safe to say that at some point over this past year, we crossed that invisible line. To quote the words of Peter to Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew in the stained glass window above Palmer’s altar:
Of course, his words were spoken on the Mount of Transfiguration, and those who remember that story will surely remember that Peter and the others didn’t stay there on the mountaintop but went down into the valley and set their faces toward Jerusalem. They have an indescribable experience in the presence of Jesus, a glimpse of divine glory, then walk with Jesus through the world, not as they wish it to be but as it really is. That’s exactly what happens here at Palmer.
In a variety of ways, people encounter beauty in this church — in the building itself, in the art that surrounds us here, in liturgy and music, in friendships with deep roots, in the simple act of receiving together bread and wine made holy food by the promise of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a beauty, however, that comes from the perfection either of who we are or of what we bring to offer. To believe that to be true would be a form of idolatry. Whenever perfection becomes an end in itself, especially in the name of God, people are inevitably hurt because human beings, as it turns out, are imperfect 100% of the time.
As Lutheran pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber would say about her admittedly quirky congregation in Denver — The House for All Sinners and Saints — community is more important than perfection. Such beauty found together inside these walls, surrounded by crying babies and restless children and doubters and seekers and the unloved and the unloveable and those of us who are simply a mess, is a reflection of the God in whom we believe. We’re able to love one another because God loved us while we were still sinners. Without that love, all the rest of the things we do here are meaningless, “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” as Paul would write in his letter to Christians in the City of Corinth.
Just a few minutes ago, we heard other words read to us from Paul in that same letter. Describing a kaleidoscope of spiritual gifts, he assures those disagreeable Corinthians that “it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” I like what the late Baptist preacher Fred Craddock said about these gifts, which none of us created or possess alone. In a sermon about this passage from First Corinthians, he wrote:
Some years ago someone broke into the church, pried open the door to the room where the vocabulary is kept, and stole one of the richest words the Christian community possessed. The word was charisma. It was peddled on the street and soon came to be used by everybody for everything: an exciting personality, a particular hairstyle, photogenic face, stimulating speech, provocative style of leadership. The word is a form of charis, grace, from which we get eucharist, and is the background word for charity. Charisma is a gift, and it is Paul’s insistence that when we talk of these matters, we call them what they are — gifts of God. Apart from that association with God and grace, we might as well be discussing magic and horoscopes.
And the word for Paul is plural, charismata; there are varieties of gifts. By its repetition it can be assumed that diversity of gifts is Paul’s insistence.
In other words, we need one another, not in spite of but because of all of our God-given differences. Only together are we a community that can be called the Body of Christ. That image of the human body, with its many and varied parts, is the metaphor Paul will use next in his letter, reminding the Corinthians and us that “we were all baptized into one body” and that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” That’s easier said than done, of course, in the cultural landscape that surrounds us. But we belong to another kingdom, a heavenly country where God’s love reigns eternally.
Palmer is where we learn the grammar of that love, practicing it imperfectly and making mistakes, receiving not only forgiveness but also renewed strength for the journey. Over the past year, others have joined us on this pilgrimage. Indeed, the very word Palmer has referred historically to someone who had returned from the Holy Land with a palm frond or leaf as a sign of having undertaken a pilgrimage. Two of those new Palmers who are walking beside us are new faces on our church staff — the Rev. Alex Easley, our Curate, and Roger Hutchison, our Director of Christian Formation and Parish Life.
Alex was appointed by Bishop Andy Doyle of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas to serve our congregation as a curate for a period of two years. Last summer she was ordained as a transitional deacon at Christ Church Cathedral. Since then, many of you have gotten to know Alex through her work here in the areas of pastoral care, outreach, young adults, and youth. God willing, this Wednesday, January 20, Alex will be ordained to the priesthood at Palmer by Bishop Doyle. And you are all invited to that ordination service, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. and be followed by a festive reception.
Roger I’ve known for nearly 20 years. He came to Palmer after serving for 17 years on the staff of Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. As most of you know, Roger shapes Christian faith in the lives of young people and adults not only through stories and conversations but also through art. He’s the author of The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy and of another recently published book called Under the Fig Tree: Visual Prayers and Poems for Lent.
A week from this Wednesday, January 27, Roger and I will begin leading an evening series called Painting the Psalms. We’ll take a look at a selection of psalms, with me focusing on the poetry and theology while Roger leads us in an artistic response to that. More details about all of that will be forthcoming, and I hope you’ll join us.
This past year a group of Palmers, including me, were invited to a friendship dinner during Ramadan at the Turquoise Center in Houston to learn about the Turkish culture and Muslim faith of their members. We returned the favor, something that, quite frankly, doesn’t often happen, inviting them to a presentation in our church about our Christian faith. I talked with them about how that faith affects the way we look at the world after we are sent out from here in the name of Christ.
This past year, as they have done so before, a lot of folks from our congregation also supported the work of an organization called Kids4Peace. It brings together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth from the Holy Land for a summer camp experience in various locations throughout the United States, including Camp Allen, which is the camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Palmer’s own Stuart Kensinger is a member of our Vestry and a major supporter of Kids4Peace. As Stuart will tell you, participating in these kinds of interfaith conversations does not dilute one’s Christian identity but rather deepens it and brings it into focus. You have to bring your whole self to the table and be clear about who you are as a follower of Jesus Christ. And you can do that while building friendships across the boundaries of your own faith as a Christian. I think Palmers can be role models for this.
In fact, you can practice this today. Joining us at this service are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim participants in an interfaith program called Building Abrahamic Partnerships. This series of classes, led by Professor Yehezkel Landau of Hartford Seminary, began last Tuesday at the Turquoise Center and concludes this afternoon here at Palmer with a meal together and a final discussion in St. Bede’s Chapel.
As most of you probably know, welcoming refugees and helping them resettle in the City of Houston has long been a part of the work of this congregation. Last spring, Palmer completed the more than one year co-sponsorship of the resettlement of an Eritrean mother and child. Soon we will begin the co-sponsorship of a refugee family from the Congo. You’ll have the opportunity, as always, to share in this important ministry. So look for announcements that invite you to become involved in this holy work in the weeks and months ahead.
That begins today, in fact, for the children and youth who will gather in Holy Cross Chapel during our Annual Parish Meeting. They will be decorating fabric squares that will be made into a quilt and presented as a gift to a refugee family.
Last but not least, most of you will recall that I announced in my report last year that I would appoint members to three task forces to look at three important areas of our life together. The first was a Youth Task Force, led by our Junior Warden, Courtney Daniell-Knapp, which facilitated a diocesan assessment of our youth programs. The members of this task force are continuing to support Roger Hutchison in his first year of ministry at Palmer, and they are also working together with Roger to define the best leadership model for our youth programs going forward.
The second was a Mission-Beyond-Our-Walls or Outreach Task Force, led by Bill Kersten, which has been studying and reflecting on the numerous opportunities that we have as a church to connect with the neighborhoods that surround us. The continuing work of this task force is especially important because of the transition that happened at the end of the summer with the closing of the Way Station, our outreach to the homeless for more than 24 years, which included serving breakfast on this campus to our clients during the workweek. We are now working in partnership with the Star of Hope Mission, which has supported the homeless with transformational programs for more than a century in the City of Houston.
You can expect to receive a survey from this task force in the near future. You will also be invited to participate in something that I’m very excited about this spring — a day of service when Palmers worship together at a service like this in the Season of Easter before being sent to be the church out in the community. There will be all sorts of opportunities that you can sign up for beforehand from serving meals to the homeless to singing for the residents of nursing homes, making cakes for families in shelters, or perhaps going with a eucharistic visitor to bring communion to someone who can’t be with us here. Folks, of course, will also be able to choose to participate in an activity even if they didn’t sign up beforehand.
I’m really excited to see what might happen that afternoon. All of these kinds of things are about overcoming estrangement and isolation and are, therefore, a reflection of the reconciliation that the gospel brings to a broken world.
The third group that I appointed was a Unity in Mission Task Force. Unity in Mission: A Bond of Peace for the Sake of Love is the name of a paper that was written by Bishop Andy Doyle and includes opening remarks by former Secretary of State James Baker III. First published in 2012 to address the pastoral and theological issue of the blessing of same-gender relationships, it was revised in 2015 to address the blessing of same-gender marriages.
Palmer’s Unity in Mission Task Force, led by John Wallace, also included Jeanine Baker, Debbie Brassfield, Hal Gordon, Matt Kent, Allison Marek, Elizabeth Maynard, and Patrick Sermas. These sisters and brothers in Christ were asked to follow the guidelines set forth by Bishop Doyle in his revised Unity in Mission Policy for congregations that are considering the blessing of same-gender marriages.
The Unity in Mission Task Force spent the last six months in discernment together, studying materials with a variety of perspectives on the nature of marriage, receiving feedback from parishioners both as individuals and in small group discussions, creating helpful resources to share with the congregation, and praying with one another. That process convinced the members of the task force of three things that are noted in their report: “Reasonable people can hold differing good-faith views about this issue; this is not an ultimate issue; and no matter where an individual Palmer stands on this issue, we can move forward together in the bonds of grace, love, and mercy.”
That report continues with a unanimous recommendation:
. . . to the Rector and Vestry that Palmer embrace the celebration of same-gender marriages.
Last Thursday, I presented that report and recommendation to the members of the Vestry. What followed was a thoughtful discussion about what this would mean for Palmer, the importance of caring for everyone who sits in these pews, including those who disagree with us, and whether the Vestry should vote to affirm this, even though the guidelines from Bishop Doyle only require that the Vestry intend to support the Rector in the implementation of these liturgies. After that important discussion, Palmer’s Vestry did vote to affirm the task force’s recommendation.
Last Friday, as required in his revised Unity in Mission Policy, Bishop Doyle received separate letters about all of this from me as the Rector and from Tim Driggers as our Senior Warden. He also received copies of the report from the task force and of the resources that were created to supplement it. The decision to move forward with this will not become official until Bishop Doyle has approved it.
Those letters, the report of the task force, and its accompanying resources will be made available electronically on the church website this week and in printed copies both in the church office this week and after worship services next Sunday. When those documents become available to you, I strongly encourage you to read them in their entirety. I’ll later suggest additional materials that may also be helpful to you.
As I stated to you last year, your priests have been called to care for everyone in this community of faith in the name of Christ, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Pending the Bishop’s approval, that statement of mine can now be further clarified to include responding pastorally within the walls of this church to same-gender couples that desire boundaries of publicly declared faithfulness in marriage. I can assure you that it also embraces those who disagree with this. I want to state that clearly this morning. We will care for everyone in the name of Christ.
It seems obvious to me that our community here at Palmer cares deeply about the institution of marriage, that we genuinely desire to support one another in the commitments that healthy relationships require, and that we are willing to love those who sit beside us in the pews as sisters and brothers in Christ. I was pleased, therefore, by the additional recommendation of the task force “that Palmer create a system for strengthening and supporting marriages.” As the report goes on to state:
Marriage itself, as a secular institution and as a spiritual sacrament, is losing ground. It behooves all of us who believe in the fidelity of relationships — as icons of God’s fidelity in relationship with us and as laboratories for human growth in love — to support each other in that daily walk.
To that, I say, “Amen, amen, and amen.”
I believe the spiritual gifts needed to provide that strength and support are already here, not because we are perfect, but because we are present to each other in a community that seeks, in the words of our mission statement, “to know and share the love of Jesus Christ.” It is in Christ that we find our unity, that everyone in our church family is loved, and that our community of faith will truly become, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “a house of prayer for all people.”
One of the hallmarks of our congregation has been the ability to disagree openly, lovingly, and vigorously about all sorts of things, while still holding hands, so to speak, around the Lord’s Table. That’s a gift we can share joyfully with the whole world, as we come together to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” today.
I spent part of this afternoon with these two daughters of Benji, as I sometimes like to call them. They are loyal and loving friends named Birdie and Tippet.
Let’s write haiku this week about friends, whether canines or college roommates. Say something about them in one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line, like this:
We love you always,
constantly wagging our tails.
Wait . . . we’re at the vet?!?!
I think this week’s haiku theme is self-explanatory. Write about your grievances in one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. It could be anything from the silly to the serious:
As it is written:
Potholes and humidity
are not a blessing.
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015
Loosen a little our grip, O Lord, on our words and our ways, our fears and our fretfulness, that finding ourselves found in you, we may venture from the safety of the shore and launch afresh into the waters of grace with Christ, the Morning Star, as our guide. Amen.
I have a confession to make. Although I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, I have, in fact, watched “Antiques Roadshow” now and then on PBS. You know the program because you’ve probably sneaked a peek at it too. It’s where people bring in their unusual objects that were inherited or bought at a flea market or found in the attic of an old house in order to find out the true value of those things. Everyone hopes to have discovered a lost masterpiece of art or a rare item of tremendous historical importance. Needless to say, there are lots of disappointments.
Sometimes, however, the real treasure is hidden in the stories that come with an object that has been passed down from one generation to another. To know that a great-grandparent played with a toy as a child and loved it makes it priceless in the eyes of those who knew him or wish that they could have known him. Outside that context, it simply looks worn out and might even be starting to fall apart slowly. Yet it overflows with meaning because of the love that is passed down to children and grandchildren. Maybe you’ve been that child or that grandchild at some point.
Occasionally, someone brings a toy to an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” that’s unlike those worn objects — a toy that’s exceptional in appearance and nearly perfect. I’ve seen a couple of them on the show. One was a Kyser & Rex Monkey Bell Toy, circa 1880. It was cast iron and would have been pulled along by a small child to make a brightly dressed monkey in a red carriage ring the bell over and over again. Another was a Hans Eberl Toy Van, circa 1912. It bore the name of a real department store in Philadelphia and had a key to wind up the motor and make it go.
The stories behind those two toys were similar to one another and known to the owners who brought them. Each was a tragedy that led a mother or a father to put the toy away. An appraiser repeated the sentence that concluded one of those stories and explained what now seems so obvious but simply wasn’t obvious to me at the time. “They put the toy away. Often a sad story is involved,” he said, “when you find a toy in really, really nice condition.”
I was surprised how much that revelation affected me afterwards when I walked downstairs to the playroom in our house in Minnesota several years ago. That’s where I picked up a few of the wooden trains that my oldest son Rowan, who’s now seven, loved so much back then. This Christmas, for the first time, I had to go into the attic to find them. Each of them is like an old friend to Rowan and also to me.
They live, of course, on the Island of Sodor with Thomas the Tank Engine. Here’s Gordon (with his tender). He pulls the express coaches and is a little too proud of his own strength. Here’s James (with his tender). He’s rather vain and thinks about his appearance more than he should. And, finally, here’s Diesel-10. He’s got a scary claw, and, as most of you probably know, diesels can be devious.
In other words, these characters, created by a Church of England priest, are like a lot of people you know, like a lot of us here tonight with all of our imperfections.
When I picked up these little wooden trains, what I noticed — as though for the first time — were the worn edges. They’ve been played with for countless hours. They’ve endured, time after time, intentional derailments and falls from bridges. And they’ve been thrown into bins at the end of the day when it’s time to clean up so that new adventures can begin tomorrow.
My heart is filled with gratitude for the gift of love that can been seen, quite literally, in those worn edges. Diesel-10 is in rough shape because, like so many others on Rowan’s train table, it was given to us by another family. So it’s been played with by more than one child over the years and never been put away in a box for very long.
Those memories came back to me as I read about the recent third anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and similar tragedies that have followed it. In too many homes, a few toys will be put away forever this Christmas, just like last Christmas and the Christmas before that.
Those memories also reminded me of the treasure we have been given not only in the children here at Palmer, for whom this night is so magical and so special, but also in the love that has been poured into our hearts and overflows into the world.
The late Peter Gomes of Harvard’s Memorial Church once put it this way:
For those of us who believe that the greatest gift is the gift of love, Christmas is the ultimate and most intimate expression there is. The child in the manger . . . is the means whereby God’s love is presented to the people whom he loves.
“Christmas is God’s initiative,” he goes on to say,
. . . it is God’s work, when God begins to establish a relationship of love with us; and of this love Jesus is the sign, the substance, and the symbol. The gift of God for the people of God. The gift is the renewal of that love, and the maintenance of that love even against all the forces of this dark and cold and unremitting world.
Those who put toys away because of tragic circumstances have no choice in the matter. But you do have a choice about what to do with the gift of love that has been given to you on this holy night. You can receive it as an end in itself, treasuring most its perfection in the beauty of the prayers and of the carols tonight. That would be to put it aside intentionally in a little box and not to enjoy it again until next year.
Or you can receive that gift of love as the shepherds did. To those on the bottom rung of the ladder of power, poor shepherds at the margins of society and at the edge of an empire, the glory of the Lord was revealed. There, in the fields, in the darkness, it shone around them. There the shepherds heard the message of the angels, which they shared with Mary and Joseph in the presence of the Christ Child.
But notice what happens next in the familiar story of Christmas from Luke’s Gospel. The shepherds don’t stay beside the manger, but return to the fields where they spend their working days, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” The gift of love is meant to be shared with the world beyond these walls.
That gift has been given to people who are like Gordon and James and, yes, people who are like Diesel-10 too. When Rowan was four years old, the same age his little brother Ben is now, he and my wife Carrie had an interesting exchange about that.
Rowan said, “We need to talk about what to do about Diesel-10. He’s mean to the other engines on the Island of Sodor.”
Carrie said, “Well, we could teach him to be nice.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea,” replied Rowan.
“We could love him,” added my wife.
“Whoa. Um . . .” The four-year-old was left speechless.
For those who wonder if they, like Diesel-10, might be unlovable in this world, let me read to you something that was written by the late Austin Farrer, a priest and theologian in the Church of England:
How can I matter to [God]? we say. It makes no sense; he has the world, and even that he does not need. It is folly even to imagine him like myself, to credit him with eyes into which I could ever look, a heart that could ever beat for my sorrows or joys, and a hand he could hold out to me. For even if the childish picture be allowed, that hand must be cupped to hold the universe, and I am a speck of dust on the star-dust of the world.
Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts his hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men, and the folly of God proves wiser than men. Love is the strongest instrument of omnipotence, for accomplishing those tasks he cares most dearly to perform; and this is how he brings his love to bear on human pride; by weakness not by strength, by need and not by bounty.
So I hope you’ll hear those words — I mean really hear them — and be able to receive anew this night the love that came down at Christmas. It is a gift that’s supposed to have worn edges as the years go on, having been given to you to be shared. It is a gift that’s not an end in itself but the beginning of a life with God.
That’s the best adventure of all.
1 BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the last words of the Bible, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”
It’s New Year’s Day, marking the arrival of 2016! Lots of folks whom I admire make New Year’s resolutions. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But, personally, given what I know about human nature, I’m not a big fan of them. However, I did like a tweet by Christian theologian Miroslav Volf, who teaches at Yale Divinity School:
My New Year’s resolution: To bless daily the life God has given me and to try to cause others to bless theirs, too
In my own family, we made a decision to do wishes for the New Year. These were not wishes for ourselves but wishes for others in our household. Will that become our new tradition? We shall see. It was certainly fun to do and a great way to focus on the wellbeing and flourishing of those we love — an invitation to speak from the heart.
The New Year is a great theme for haiku. You could write about your resolutions, your wishes for those you love, your hopes for the world of tomorrow, your prayers for all sorts and conditions of humanity, etc. Whatever it is, put it into a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Mine is a prayer about the suffering we’ve endured and also caused:
On this New Year’s Day,
forgive us, abide with us,
God of the suff’ring.