From the Rector #6

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, which is a federal holiday to remember those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Lots of Americans confuse it with Veterans Day, which is a different federal holiday to honor all United States military veterans. To add to that confusion, on our Veterans Day, many other nations observe Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, or Remembrance Day, remembering members of the military who have died in the line of duty.

Here are words from the Book of Common Prayer that can be your own prayerful act of remembrance on Memorial Day:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead: We give you thanks for all your servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them your mercy and the light of your presence; and give us such a lively sense of your righteous will, that the work which you have begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #5

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Next Sunday, May 29, our summer worship schedule begins. Through mid-August, our Sunday morning liturgies will include Holy Eucharist, Rite I, at 8:00 a.m. and Holy Eucharist, Rite II, at 10:00 a.m. That early service will be a complete traditional liturgy and not one of the shortened versions that we use for all of our traditional services throughout most of the year due to time constraints. The mid-morning service, which brings together most Palmers who don’t always see one another during the rest of the year, will include the summer adult choir, a sung psalm, and limited use of incense (i.e., not filling the church with it while the gospel is read).

In addition to those morning liturgies, there will also be a more informal service through mid-August at 5:00 p.m. in St. Bede’s Chapel. On most of those Sunday evenings, this service will include some bluegrass music from a banjo player. Individuals will have the opportunity to volunteer to participate, perhaps for the first time, in parts of the service as they arrive. Folks who do so might want to sign up for those ministries to serve at other services after the summer. This is a way of inviting people to offer part of their lives to the whole community gathered in worship and, above all, to the glory of God.

Without that last part, all of these things are merely a clanging symbol because love is absent from our hearts. Fill our hearts with love divine, Lord Jesus!

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Warning: “Here there be dragons”

Dragons

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Pentecost, May 15, 2016

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

Jean Mansel composed a universal, or world, history in French in the 15th century. The longer version of that history that appeared in about 1480 included an unusual world map.[2] It shows most of the world in a circle with Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden at the top of that circle. The rivers of Paradise flow down from there into the the rest of the world, where the holy city of Jerusalem stands at the very center. Around the circle of land is a kind of wall that seems to keep back the chaos of the ocean, which forms a ring around most of the world.

Scattered throughout that ocean are mythical islands and invented sea monsters. One of those monsters is a winged dragon. Underneath that winged dragon is the first known use of a familiar sounding warning in Latin, which means, “Here there be dragons.”[3] Most of us have heard that old-fashioned rendering of those words.

It’s a warning with roots not only in the human psyche but also in the pages of scripture. Leviathan is the name that is given to that sea creature in the Book of Job, where an entire chapter describes it in terrifying detail.[4] Job himself points out the futility of trying to subdue it. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Prophet Isaiah writes:

On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.[5]

While maps decorated with sea monsters symbolically brought our fears to the surface, they also — perhaps counterintuitively — empowered those who viewed them. Chet Van Duzer, the author of Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, puts it this way:

img_8343[T]he cartographer reveals . . . creatures which are normally concealed in the depths, allowing the viewer to participate in a privileged and supernatural view of the world. The monsters represent the revelation of hidden knowledge, and convey something of the wonder of Psalm [104: “Yonder is the great and wide sea with its living things too many to number, creatures both small and great. There move the ships, and there is that Leviathan, which you have made for the sport of it.”][6]

That sense of wonder in God’s world that surrounds us is something that we pray for in the lives of the newly baptized, just as we will do this morning. It comes powerfully with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into their hearts — into our hearts. We don’t need to be afraid of what lies beyond the walls that hold back the sea and the creatures that live in it. We don’t need to be afraid of what lies beyond the walls of this temple. The glory of God fills the whole creation, and we who have seen that glory in the face of Jesus Christ are called to follow in his footsteps, knowing that his peace goes with us into the world. The words above the doors that we see as we leave this church always remind us of that. I love that benediction.

Peace I Leave with You

So how are we to be the church on the other side of those doors? Palmer’s mission is to know and share the love of Jesus Christ. But what does that really look like as we go out into the surrounding neighborhoods? This Day of Pentecost, when the disciples of Jesus unlocked the door of the room where they had gathered, probably in fear, seems like the right moment to talk about my vision for this church as we go forward in faith. It’s about God’s work of reconciliation through the cross of Jesus Christ both in our hearts and in the world around us. It’s about proclaiming that.

I believe that we can be witnesses of God’s reconciliation in the world.

Peace CampEarlier this year I talked about Kids4Peace and the summer camp, which many Palmers have supported, that brings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth from the Holy Land to Houston. That summer camp experience will be continuing under the banner of Jerusalem Peacebuilders. Stuart Kensinger is a member of Palmer’s Vestry and also the co-director and treasurer of Jerusalem Peacebuilders. Participating in these kinds of interfaith conversations, as he will tell you, 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. It’s part of being  sent into the world in the name of Christ.

I think that Palmers can be role models for this and provide resources for people to learn about Christianity, especially Anglican Christianity, and to understand Christian faith in relation to other religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions.

Similarly, my hope is that Palmer will become a public platform to discuss important ideas that shape our world. Our church is situation directly across the street from Rice University and the largest medical center in the world. And the museum district reflects human creativity that we, as people of faith, believe is animated by the Holy Spirit. All of those institutions raise questions about our life together as human beings, and I think that we can offer a holy space in the public square to talk about these questions and these ideas civilly, even when we don’t agree on them, especially when we don’t agree on them. What a gift — a Pentecost miracle — it would be to show our society that civil discourse is possible today.

I also believe that we can be witnesses of God’s reconciliation in the City of Houston.

On the Third Sunday of Easter we came together for a combined worship service as one congregation. We called it Serve Sunday. And at the end of that liturgy, we were sent out as teams to serve the community that surrounds us. There were also opportunities to serve right here on Palmer’s campus, including kid-friendly ones that families could do together. It was a wonderful and powerful reminder that a church is not a destination in a life of faith but a starting point as we are sent out in the name of Christ. What we discovered is that the risen Christ, as promised, had already gone ahead of us into Galilee — into those places where we live and work and go to school, into the surrounding neighborhoods, and wherever uncertainty and anxiety and fear reign over the landscape of the human heart. Alleluia!

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Going forward, we’ll have a quarterly experience of Serve Sunday, with one of them always being in the season of Easter and patterned after our experience several weeks ago. The other three will be a bit scaled back and work within our regular three service Sunday morning worship schedule, with on-site, intergenerational activities in the Parish Hall and several opportunities to go off site as well. This will be built in to our Christian Formation schedule for the upcoming program year. And the next Serve Sunday, in fact, will be the first Sunday of that new program year on August 21. That should always be how we come back together at the end of the summer as God’s people — as witnesses of God’s work within us and around us.

logoPalmer’s rich history and continued support of recovery ministries is another way that we are witnesses of God’s reconciliation in the City of Houston. The Palmer Drug Abuse Program — PDAP — began here in 1971. Although PDAP eventually outgrew its space at Palmer, many of its alumni/ae remember this church as the place where they discovered a new life. Every five years, they gather for a reunion, and this year’s reunion will be held at Palmer on the first weekend in June. It will be a homecoming for them. That Sunday, June 5, there will also be a Recovery Eucharist here in the afternoon. My hope is that it will become an annual service at the beginning of the summer for those in recovery from addictions.

That story of love continues on our campus today through Archway Academy, a high school for teenagers in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Words truly fail me when trying to describe what it’s like to witness their seniors at graduation. It is, for me, an experience of Pentecost. Named or unnamed, the work of the Holy Spirit is what I see in the moments that lead to the joy of that night right here in these pews.

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And we are actively nurturing the relationship between the church and the school. For example, Palmer’s Director of Christian Formation and Parish Life, Roger Hutchison, leads a painting activity each month with newer students who are just starting their recovery. And this year a documentary — two years in the making — about adolescent recovery in Houston called Generation Found will be released. Not only does Archway Academy feature prominently in this film but also Palmer. Let’s continue to build on that foundation and to strengthen these ties with God’s love.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I believe that we can be witnesses of God’s reconciliation in our own lives as Christians.

Of all the things I’ve described, this is surely the most difficult one. As the Christian ethicist and native-Texan Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, today we pray for a quick and painless death in contrast to people in the Middle Ages who prayed not to die suddenly and unprepared. They did so in order to have plenty of time to be reconciled with their enemies, whom Hauerwas always humorously interprets as members of their own families. “Today we fear death. They feared God.”[7]

Personal reconciliation is hard to do and not without great risk, whether we’re reaching across the political aisle or the church aisle or the breakfast table. The struggle that so many of us obviously have with forgiveness, which is at the heart of the cross, isn’t something that will be resolved in this sermon or in our lifetime. At times it isn’t humanly possible, and God must do it for us. But that doesn’t mean that we should never attempt to make peace in our closest circles of relationships.

So what’s the map that we’ll use to walk through these doors into the unexplored regions beyond them? If you could find one and put your finger on those places, would you say to yourself, “Here there be dragons?” The good news is that God is already there. The glory of God fills the whole creation. God will be with us.

There are Christians who can testify to that reality and who will also stand with us if we are willing to make a serious commitment to reconciliation. They belong to the Community of the Cross of Nails, which I’ll be talking about in the Rector’s Forum today and which I have already discussed with the Vestry as something that I would like Palmer to join. Although it would really be a decision to rejoin this community because some here will recall that Palmer belonged to this community decades ago.

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As described on the front of your bulletin, the Community of the Cross of Nails is an international fellowship that seeks reconciliation over revenge and that began at Coventry Cathedral in England. The great medieval church that later became the cathedral in Coventry was destroyed by the Luftwaffe during World War II. Out of its ashes arose a powerful witness to Christian forgiveness that has inspired countless people around the world. That witness continues, and we can be a part of it.

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Think of it as a way of inviting people to imagine a new and wonderfully unique map of the world in which the Holy Spirit has been poured out into every corner of the earth so that we don’t have to be afraid of the dragons. That isn’t to say, of course, that Pentecost has magically taken away the dangers and the sufferings and the real woundedness that those sea monsters represent in our lives. Rather, it’s a way of telling the world that we do these things and we take these risks because we are followers of Jesus Christ, who has reconciled us to God and called us to the ministry of reconciliation.[8] I believe in that ministry, wholeheartedly. It is the work of God, and I look forward to sharing it with you here in Houston for many years to come.

AMEN

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

BACK TO POST Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London: The British Library, 2013) 60.

BACK TO POST Duzer 60-61. On the one hand, there’s a widespread myth that this warning appears frequently on medieval or Renaissance maps. On the other hand, there are numerous articles that dramatically claim it doesn’t appear on any maps at all. But it does, in fact, appear on this 15th-century map as Hic sunt dragones. It then appears as Hic sunt dracones — the only complete sentence — on “what may be the oldest globe, dated 1504, to depict the New World, engraved with immaculate detail on two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs.” It also appears on the 1510 engraved copper Hunt-Lenox globe, which is about five inches in diameter. The details on the copper globe are strikingly similar to those on the engraved ostrich egg, from which the copper globe might have been cast. So there may not be many, but there are indeed three historical examples of this warning on one map and two globes, respectively.

BACK TO POST Job 41.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 27:1.

BACK TO POST Duzer 12. In his book, Duzer quotes Psalm 104:26-27 from the Revised Standard Version. But I have substituted the translation of these verses from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which was used in our liturgy on this day.

BACK TO POST Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011) 154.

BACK TO POST See 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

Haiku Friday: Delis and Restaurants

Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen is an amazing place to eat here in Houston. The 2014 documentary Deli Man is about the owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s and also reviews the history of Jewish delicatessens in the United States. Miracle of miracles, he opened a second location very close to our neighborhood. We could walk there.

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Everyone in our family can find something good to eat at Kenny & Ziggy’s. There are guaranteed to be leftovers for the next day too. The manager of that second location now recognizes the family of the Episcopal priest who wears a seersucker suit (i.e., me). And the husband of a woman who is a rabbi at one of the other congregations that also border Rice University stopped to introduce himself to me recently on his way back to his table. It’s an interesting place to meet people and to watch people. Even more interesting is taking a look at all of that wonderful food in the glass case.

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I’m hungry now! So let’s write haiku about our favorite places to eat a delicious meal with family or friends, like Kenny & Ziggy’s. Your one verse only needs five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

Sandwich #1:
“Fiddler on the Roof of Your
Mouth.” Yum! Thanks, Ziggy!

From the Rector #4

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

November 14, 1940: The Luftwaffe bombs the City of Coventry in England. More than 500 German bombers had headed toward the city, dropping 500 tons of high explosives and nearly 900 incendiary devises. The relentless bombardment over more than 10 hours created a firestorm that destroyed most of the city centre, including Coventry Cathedral, and killed 568 people.

Christmas Day, December 25, 1940: From the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, the Very Rev. Richard Howard’s sermon is broadcast by the BBC:

We want to tell the world . . . that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge . . . We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ-child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.

Ash Wednesday, February 13, 1945: The Royal Air Force begins to bomb the City of Dresden in Germany. They were soon followed by American bombers. During four air raids between February 13 and February 15, 722 Royal Air Force heavy bombers and 527 United States Army Air Forces heavy bombers dropped 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devises on the city, killing up to 25,000 people.

Committed to both forgiveness and reconciliation, Coventry Cathedral eventually reached out to Christians in Dresden and gave birth to the Community of the Cross of Nails. Come to the Rector’s Forum today, beginning at 10:15 a.m. in Room A102, to learn more about this international fellowship and its hopeful Christian witness.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Haiku Friday: Hearts

Yesterday I was one of several parent chaperones for a field trip with my oldest son’s second grade class. We went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and spent the morning in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. These are canopic jars that held the mummified and wrapped internal organs of a person who had died. But I was most interested in the winged scarab and the heart scarab in the middle. Those amulets are inscribed on the back with a spell that commands the heart not to betray itself during the judgement of the dead person on his or her journey to the afterlife.

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That’s an important insight into our human nature. The problem of being human is equally distributed, even across millennia. Here’s how I put it in a recent sermon:

“If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” That is good news for those of us who are a tangled mess of the holy and the profane, which is to say all of us, no exceptions.

When our hearts condemn us, as they inevitably do, God is greater than our sin and our self-righteousness. Through the waters of baptism, we have been clothed in the righteousness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As my favorite Moravian chorale puts it: “Thus well arrayed I need not fear, when in his presence I appear.”

Traditional liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer conclude with a blessing that also speaks to the idea of shielding our hearts and is introduced with these words:

The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God . . .

The New Revised Standard Version of Philippians 4:7, which is the source of those words, says that the peace of God “will guard your hearts and your minds.” What a wonderful image that is: God, who is greater than our heart, will also guard it. So let’s write haiku about our hearts — how they break, how they love, how they hold our secrets, how they make themselves vulnerable, how they need to be protected, etc. Describe something about those experiences in a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

Nebseny, a priest,
was given this heart scarab
to live without fear.

From the Rector #3

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Before we crossed the threshold into the joy of this Season of Easter, we stood before a closed and locked door on Good Friday. It’s the least shallow day of the year, when Christians reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth at the hands of the Romans. The earth also seemed to offer its own lament over his suffering and death. According to the Gospel of Mark,

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land . . .

Although Christianity and forgiveness are mysteriously intertwined because of these terrible and frightening events, too many of us — of our own free will — choose to live in the darkness of unforgiveness. It brings to mind this reflection by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams:

One of the shocking things about the story of Jesus’ death on Good Friday is that he asks God to forgive his torturers when there isn’t even a chance of them saying sorry. ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing’. We talk flippantly sometimes about getting our retaliation in first; well, Jesus gets his forgiveness in first. And he does so, according to the Bible’s account, because those who are torturing him to death ‘don’t know what they’re doing’. They can’t apologise because they haven’t seen the problem. And part of what they don’t see is that they are doing damage to themselves as well as to others.

So the story of Jesus’ death tells us that even before we know what the problem is, God has taken the first step towards mending it. He doesn’t wait for an apology that sounds satisfactory. . . .

It’s the heart of the Good Friday message about God. And it’s the heart of the Good Friday challenge about us and what we think is possible. [The] story of Jesus’ crucifixion simply says, It can be done.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Haiku Friday: Travel

The Rev. Henry Strobel, Ph.D., is not only an Episcopal priest but also a professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at McGovern Medical School in the heart of the Texas Medical Center. Over the last 30 years, he has taken Houston medical students to China to learn about the Chinese medical community through its schools and hospitals. Dr. Strobel, who has celebrated Easter Day more often in China than in Texas, will be my special guest on Sunday, May 8, at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church for the Rector’s Forum, which begins at 10:15 a.m. in Room A102.

My conversation with him earlier this week reminded me of my first encounter with a culture that seemed radically different than the world of my childhood. It was 1984, and I was 14 years old. I was on a mission trip with my father and others from Union Cross Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Bethel, Alaska. Bethel is located 400 miles west of Anchorage on the Kuskokwim River and home to many Yup’ik people who are members of the Moravian Church, which dates to 1885 in that region. Bethel is only accessible by air or by river. When I was there, it was a dry town with a curfew from late night until early morning for children and youth.

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That experience changed the way that I looked at the world around me and my place in that world. I even met a friend named Adam, who was there with his father from Texas. They were members of the Unity of the Brethren in Texas, a family of Czech congregations that are related to the Moravian Church but with their own separate history in present-day Czechoslovakia that also looks back to the life and witness of the reforming priest John Hus, who was martyred in 1415. I’d never heard of them.

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Travel opens up new horizons, inviting us to see the world with fresh eyes, as though for the first time. So let’s write haiku about that. Compose a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line:

My America
embraces many peoples,
many histories.

Jamestown and the New Jerusalem

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter VI, May 1, 2016

And in the spirit [the angel] carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:10)

My wife Carrie and I met and married in Williamsburg, Virginia. Carrie had just finished her legal studies at the College of William & Mary and worked as an attorney in a local law firm, while I served as an Associate Rector at Bruton Parish Church in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg. That part of the country, as you can probably imagine, was a fascinating place to live. It’s part of what is often referred to as America’s historic triangle, which also includes nearby Jamestown and Yorktown.

The Jamestown communion silver, which dates to 1661, was actually used in our worship once a year at Bruton Parish on All Saints’ Sunday. Inscribed on that unusually large chalice and paten, and impossible not to notice, are these words:

Mixe not holy thinges with profane[1]

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It was humbling to be yet one more forgiven sinner in a line of thousands across the centuries to have received communion from them and to ponder those words.

On Sunday, May 13, 2007, Carrie and I had moved from Virginia to Minnesota, and I was preaching my first sermon in my new congregation in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. On that same day there was a huge celebration back in the Old Dominion. Now please note that it wasn’t because Carrie and I had finally left Williamsburg! Rather, it was because of an important event that had taken place four centuries earlier on a peninsula, which is now an island, near Williamsburg.

There, on May 13, 1607, along the banks of a river named for his king, a priest of the Church of England led a worship service from The Book of Common Prayer.[2] He arrived there with a company of men and boys who had survived a dangerous voyage across the Atlantic in three ships — the Discovery, the Godspeed, and the Susan Constant. Together they established a settlement that would be called Jamestown.

Rooted in the soil of Jamestown are the first chapters of not only our nation’s story but also our church’s story. Anglican Christianity has thus been blessed with a continuous existence in North America for more than four hundred years. Our presence here this morning is the fruit of that planting long ago and far away.

So today we give thanks for the work of the Spirit in the generations that preceded us. And let’s face it, then just as now, the Spirit had a lot of work to do! The idea that we should “Mixe not holy thinges with profane” is impossible to do. Yet, as we know through our faith and the pages of the scriptures, with God all things are possible.

The stories we tell ourselves as Americans often encourage us to look in the mirror and see ourselves as “a city upon a hill.” The image comes from the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.[3] It invokes the idea of divine favor upon our common life — a distant reflection, perhaps, of the New Jerusalem described in this morning’s second lesson. In that lesson, God’s creative Word describes the holy city coming down out of heaven and bringing healing for the nations.

It is truly awe-inspiring: a place where gates never shut anyone out, a place where divine glory illumines every corner, a place where the water of life flows right down the middle of the street like a river. These symbols are painted in our imaginations by the words of an ancient Christian prophet named John. They are recorded near the very end of the last book of the Bible — the Book of Revelation. They are almost the last word in that mysterious vision of life with God.

I’ve always found it interesting that John’s picture of life with God is the picture of a city. That surprises us, I think, because our society tends to view urban areas as ungodly territory. They bring to mind concrete canyons where someone can be surrounded by bustling crowds while feeling like the loneliest person on earth. They seem like barren landscapes desperately in need of God’s presence.

Yet John doesn’t take us out into the countryside or by the lakeside for this glimpse of the kingdom. He takes us, instead, into the heart of a redeemed city that brings people together rather than driving them apart. It is, in this picture, a place where people dwell in community, a place where divine love gives life to that community, a place where God has the last word and makes all things new.

The metaphor of a redeemed city reminds us that eternal life is relational. In other words, salvation brings us into community — into communion — not only with God but also with the people of God.[4] That’s why we gather around the Lord’s Table as a family even if we don’t have families of our own — especially if we don’t have families of our own. We belong here, in God’s house, as brothers and sisters.

Jamestown, of course, wasn’t set on a hill, but in the midst of a swamp. That’s an appropriate metaphor, too, since the settlers hardly embodied anything found in the Sermon on the Mount. Although the “propagating of Christian religion” featured prominently in their Royal Charter, peacemaking, love of enemies, and forgiveness of others weren’t on the cruise director’s agenda either during or after their voyage. Even the clergyman among them had set out to sea only after he had gotten into some serious ecclesiastical trouble back home.[5]

Needless to say, Jamestown also bore little resemblance to the New Jerusalem envisioned by John. Rather, the story of Jamestown is an earthy tale of violence, hunger, and the desire to make money. For example, once things got off the ground, it didn’t take long for slaves to be imported from Africa so that huge amounts of tobacco could be exported back across the Atlantic.

“Mixe not holy thinges with profane” the Christians of Jamestown were reminded, beginning in the 1660s, as their lips received the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet by that time African slaves had been present for decades in Jamestown. And in 1667, the Virginia General Assembly passed a statute that read as follows:

WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffreedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.[6]

In other words, at least some people at that time apparently thought that maybe a Christian shouldn’t own another Christian as property. This statute was not only an attempt to put their minds at ease but also an evangelical appeal for them to spread the gospel without restraint, only because it would be powerless to alter their world.

So it seems pretty obvious that we’ve never been very good at building the city of God on our own. We’ve never seemed to get our hands on the right blueprints for that kind of project. Besides, the city of God wasn’t meant to be constructed on empty lots but within human hearts. That’s why it must come down to us from God.[7] St. Augustine, the fifth-century bishop from North Africa, wrote that the New Jerusalem “has been coming down from heaven since its beginning” in the lives of those who have become children of God.[8]

The good news is that God has a remarkable way of bringing forth goodness despite our best efforts to thwart it! Christianity managed to survive the first Christians who arrived on this continent (whether Spanish or English or French). Even when Christianity became twisted beyond recognition, the power of the Spirit could not be kept in chains and held in bondage. As once pointed out by the late Peter Gomes, who was a black, gay, Republican, minister of the gospel in the Baptist tradition at Harvard, or — to say the same thing much more simply — a beloved child of God:

. . . it is instructive to examine how the religion of white slave owners became an instrument of liberation for slaves, rather than the instrument of docility the slave owners had hoped.

“The Christian faith was stronger than the Christians who used it,” he said, because [those] Christians could not corrupt Jesus’ truth.[9]

Indeed, none of us can corrupt Jesus’ truth! Amen? And the power of the Spirit is always greater than the weakness of our humanity. As the First Epistle of John reminds us: “If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.”[10] That is good news for those of us who are a tangled mess of the holy and the profane, which is to say all of us, no exceptions.

When our hearts condemn us, as they inevitably do, God is greater than our sin and our self-righteousness. Through the waters of baptism, we have been clothed in the righteousness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As my favorite Moravian chorale puts it: “Thus well arrayed I need not fear, when in his presence I appear.”[11]

That’s why the true reason for celebrating the heritage of Jamestown has nothing to do with English adventurers believing that they were taming and civilizing a New World. It has more to do with the New World that we’re in the midst of discovering here at Palmer. And it has everything to do with the New World that has appeared in this season of Easter. The empty tomb heralds the beginning of a new creation. And we invite you to catch a glimpse of that new creation around this holy table . . . today.

AMEN

 1 BACK TO POST These words are inscribed on both the chalice and the paten that were used for Holy Communion in the church at Jamestown, beginning in 1661. The photograph of those objects is part of “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” an online record of an exhibition at the Library of Congress in 1998.

BACK TO POST The Rev. Robert Hunt is the name of that priest, and he served as the chaplain for this expedition that founded Jamestown. He had offered a prayer of thanksgiving on April 29, 1607, when the settlers planted a cross at Cape Henry in present-day Virginia Beach. But the expedition continued about 40 miles up the river that the settlers named in honor of King James I. Their three ships arrived on May 13, 1607, at the peninsula, which is now an island, where they would establish the first permanent English colony in the New World. This is how one of those colonists, George Percy, described it:

The thirteenth day, we came to our seating place in Paspiha’s country . . . where our ships do lie so near the shore that they are moored to the trees in six fathom water.

Historical narratives about this note that the settlers did not actually disembark until the next day, May 14. So there is obviously more than one way to mark both the anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and the anniversary of the beginning of Anglican Christianity’s continuous existence in North America to the present. May 13, 1607, is not an unreasonable designation for both of those anniversaries. What would be unreasonable, however, is to believe that the Rev. Mr. Hunt did not on that date offer public prayers in thanksgiving for their safe arrival at their destination.

BACK TO POST Matthew 5:14.

BACK TO POST Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 414.

BACK TO POST Benjamin Woolley, Savage Kingdom: Virginia and the Founding of English America (HarperCollins E-Books, Kindle Edition) location 572:

During the ensuing row [over Hunt’s true religious convictions while the three ships awaited favorable winds for a month in the English Channel], certain rumours about Hunt’s past began to surface, like corpses from the deep. Hunt was by no means the Puritan in his own behaviour as he was now suspected of being in his religious beliefs. Three years before, he had been brought before the court of the archdeaconry of Lewes, the regional administrative body for Heathfield, to answer charges of ‘immorality’ with his servant Thomasina Plumber. He was at the same time proceeded against for absenteeism, and there were accusations that he had neglected his congregation, leaving his friend Noah Taylor ‘aquaebajulus’ (water bailiff or customs collector), to perform his duties.

BACK TO POST This statute is widely documented in both academic sources and histories of slavery in America, including online documents related to “Slavery and the Making of America,” a four-part series that was first broadcast on PBS in 2005.

BACK TO POST Reddish 412.

BACK TO POST Reddish 413.

BACK TO POST Mary Frances Schjonberg, “The future can be filled with hope, Moltmann and Gomes tell Trinity Institute,” Episcopal News Service, January 24, 2007.

10 BACK TO POST I John 3:20 (King James Version).

11 BACK TO POST These words were written by Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). He was a devout German noble and, in 1722, provided safe haven on his estate for a group of persecuted Moravians. Here is the rest of that chorale verse:

The Savior’s blood and righteousness
my beauty is, my glorious dress;
thus well arrayed I need not fear,
when in his presence I appear.

From the Rector #2

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

The Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP) began in 1971 here at Palmer when, as described on the PDAP website, the Rev. Charlie Wyatt-Brown “reached out to a recovering addict/alcoholic and offered him love, support, and hope. This man, in turn, began working with adolescents and parents in the community and began the first PDAP support group in the church basement. These men recognized there was a youth population afflicted with drug and alcohol problems and took it upon themselves to develop a treatment program based on acceptance, love, and kindness. Through their collaborative efforts, PDAP was established. The meetings followed a twelve-step program similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous, but designed to be peer driven.”

During the 1970s, one of the daughters of comedian Carol Burnett came to Houston and entered PDAP. Ms. Burnett talked about her daughter’s drug addiction openly in print interviews and on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She also mentioned PDAP and details about that struggle in a book that she co-authored with her daughter about their relationship.

PDAP eventually outgrew its space at Palmer. But that story of love continues on the campus of our church through Archway Academy, a high school for teenagers in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m pleased to announce that PDAP will hold a reunion at Palmer for its alumni/ae on the first weekend in June. And on Sunday, June 5, there will be a Recovery Eucharist in the church at 3:00 p.m. Alleluia!

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector