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
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.” 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.”
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.
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.
2 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:
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.
3 BACK TO POST Matthew 5:14.
4 BACK TO POST Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 414.
5 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.
6 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.
7 BACK TO POST Reddish 412.
8 BACK TO POST Reddish 413.
9 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.