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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.
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:
[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.”]
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.
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.
Earlier 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!
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.
Palmer’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.
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.”
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.
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.
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. 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.
1 BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”
2 BACK TO POST Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London: The British Library, 2013) 60.
3 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.
4 BACK TO POST Job 41.
5 BACK TO POST Isaiah 27:1.
6 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.
7 BACK TO POST Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011) 154.