The header photograph for this post is a detail from the painting “Fire Houses” by Israeli-American artist Yoram Raanan. Sadly, 40 years of his artwork was destroyed in a fire that swept through the hills outside of Jerusalem in 2016, burning to the ground many homes and businesses, including his studio. Ranaan, however, was not dismayed. He was grateful that his family was safe, and he continued to paint. His work, however, shifted from bright colors to the use of more earthen tones on a black background, with streaks of gold shining through all of that like a new light, which he calls “The Light of Fire.” This painting, an example of that turning to a new chapter in his life, can be seen together with other recent artwork on his website.
The living testimony of this man, who lost much of his life’s work, stands in stark contrast to that of Charles Vance Miller, a Canadian lawyer who had everything, yet chose not to bless humanity in the world around him. The sad legacy of Miller is recounted in the following sermon, which reminds us that standing on holy ground is about something very different. I’ve also included, with permission of the artist, Raanan’s “Burning Bush, Moshe,” which was created in 2014. I love how the colors make alive the world in Raanan’s painting through the fire of the divine presence. Perhaps, like Moses, we’ll encounter that in the world of our ordinary life today:
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent III, March 24, 2019
Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.
Back in 2007, when this North Carolinian moved from Virginia to Minnesota, there were so many things that I wasn’t prepared for, so many things that were about to seem, at least to me, as though I had traveled with my wife to a foreign country. Although she was used to the harsh winters of the Upper Midwest, I was not.
Now when the church in Virginia gave me a gigantic parka, that I understood. I was grateful, and wore it religiously for seven years. But when they also gave me a snow brush, I was perplexed. The end with an ice scraper made sense to me. But why was the other end just a huge brush? Well, as it turns out, that’s handy when there is a foot of snow on your car and you can’t go anywhere until it’s all been removed.
The other thing that really stands out to me as a strange memory was the universal rule about removing your shoes immediately upon entering a house in the wintertime. It didn’t matter if it was your own house or the house of friend or the house of a stranger. Even at a nice Christmas party in a beautiful mansion at which all the guests are dressed to the nines, you take off your footwear as soon as you cross the threshold and, as if back in preschool, line up your boots neatly by the front door. Then the fancy people in their fancy clothes walk around in their socks. And no one thinks twice about it.
In the middle of one winter there, I remember going with an older priest who helped us out with pastoral care to visit a homebound widow and bring her communion. As soon as we walked into her home, I panicked because I realized that I had gotten so excited about my new, rather expensive snow boots that I had worn them exactly the way the manufacturer recommends wearing them for maximum warmth: barefoot.
So I sheepishly slipped them off, like you do, and sat in her living room with my bare feet as we talked and prepared ourselves to participate in the Lord’s Supper and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I felt more than a little embarrassed at first, but then it seemed ok. The experience was both humbling and holy.
That was probably the only time I’ve ever received bread and wine made holy food in bare feet, and I think about it every time I hear the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moses, a Hebrew man with an Egyptian name, had murdered an Egyptian and fled a life of royal comfort as an adopted grandson of Pharaoh. He was lying low in a foreign land, where he married a Midianite woman. There Moses was watching his father-in-law’s flock of sheep when he encountered a bush that was burning but not being consumed by the fire. And out of the burning bush, God spoke to Moses, calling him by name and telling him to remove his sandals. Why? Because, God says to him, “. . . the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Then Moses meets God not as Creator of the universe but as the One who was made known to his ancestors — to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Out of that relationship, a personal relationship, God has heard the cries of the Hebrews in Egyptian slavery. Moses is told that he is being sent to Pharaoh to bring them out of Egypt.
So Moses asks what he should tell them when they ask who has sent him. God says, “I am who I am.” Then God reveals his name to Moses — a Hebrew word that means something like “The One who is” or “The One who causes to be.” Many Jews and some Christians choose not to speak the divine name in Hebrew out of a reverence for the One who bears it, saying, instead, “The Lord.” The Lord has sent Moses.
The Lord has sent us too. And we’re just like Moses, the human being, not the great prophet. Moses the human made mistakes — big ones — and got angry and fell from his station in life and was unsure about his place in the world. Moses the human ran away, wanting and praying to fade into the woodwork, and being unsure and afraid of what God was asking him to do. Moses the human wasn’t a great public speaker and would later have to have his brother speak for him. That’s the imperfect human being, like you and me, whose name was called out from the burning bush.
What will be birthed from that encounter is the idea that God is not one of many gods, or the most powerful among the many, but the only God. When darkness descends upon Egypt, blotting out the sun for three days before the Hebrews begin their journey to the Promised Land, it’s obviously more than a solar eclipse or a cloudy sky. It’s a funeral of sorts — the defeat of the Egyptian sun god, the death of Ra’s divinity. The one God is not a force in nature but over it.
Another idea that will be birthed is love of neighbor, defined not narrowly but broadly. You are to treat the alien in your midst with compassion because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, where you were enslaved and treated with harshness and cruelty. Jesus, of course, brings all of this together, highlighting love of God and love of neighbor — God as one and neighbor as humanity — as the two greatest commandments in the Hebrew scriptures.
By God’s grace, those ideas have changed the world through God’s people. And that family tree was expanded when we Gentiles — strangers and aliens to the promises of God — were adopted into the household of God through Jesus. We, too, have been brought into freedom. We’ve been treated with compassion through forgiveness, a forgiveness that’s wider and deeper than the sea. This I believe wholeheartedly.
So that’s why we’re here. We have been forgiven because we are just like Moses. And, like him, we’ve been sent into the world. There, as Christians, we are to testify to the glory of God that we have seen reflected in the face of Jesus — Emmanuel, God with us — and to love, however imperfectly, the unloved, the unlovely, and the unlovable. Why? Because that’s how we all came to be here, in this place, in this time.
You can support this community and nurture it first and foremost through your prayers and your presence. That’s why worship is so important here at Palmer. This experience of beauty, this word of grace and mercy, the invitation to be fed at this Table isn’t the destination for our spiritual life but the beginning point. It’s how we orient ourselves to face the rest of the week beyond these walls.
You can also build up this Christian community with your financial support. Palmer has, generously speaking, about 600 households, and 283 of those households have made a financial pledge for this calendar year. That means they’ve let us know what dollar amount they intend to give to our church in 2019. Those pledges, which range from very small gifts to very large gifts, provide the vast majority of the funds that are allocated to support the people, programs, and buildings that make Palmer such a unique and inclusive witness to the love of Jesus here in the City of Houston.
I mention that because we’re still about $100,000 short on the pledge total for 2019 that we need to keep everything the way it is now. The good news is this: That’s less than 5% of our total annual budget, and I believe the resources to do that are present within our congregation. I appeal especially to those who haven’t yet made a financial pledge or who’ve never made one. Cards for that are in the pew racks. Or you can call the church to leave a confidential voicemail for our finance manager.
If you’re a guest with us today, give generously to the community of faith that’s your spiritual home, wherever that might be. You will be returning to God a portion of the many blessings you have received from God, and your gift now, whether large or small, will help to ensure that the place you’ll turn to in your time of need will still be there down the road when you need it. That place won’t be your alma mater or your country club or your fitness gym or Minute Maid Park. It will be whatever you consider to be your spiritual home. So don’t let that gift be an afterthought.
It’s true that the ways we shape the world around us are just a shadow of the ways the Lord has shaped us into his people and continues to shape us through his forgiveness and his loving embrace. Yet when we walk out the doors of this church, we are shaping the world, sometimes for the better, but not always.
Charles Vance Miller was a Canadian who worked as a lawyer in the City of Toronto. He died in 1926 at the age of 72. A wealthy man, he never had children and never got married. Public radio’s This American Life described Mr. Miller’s will as:
. . . an elaborate prank, as if he’d thrown a bunch of money out of a window to watch what would happen. He left stock in a brewery to Prohibitionist pastors. He gave his racing stock to people who didn’t believe in betting. He said he wanted to leave his vacation home in Jamaica to three other lawyers — a nice thing for them to share, except for the fact that the three lawyers all hated each other. But by far the clause that unleashed the most mayhem was the last one. It’s about all the rest of his money. . . . nine million Canadian dollars in today’s money or almost seven million U.S. dollars.
I’m not going to tell you the details of that last clause. Suffice it to say that he created a lot of human wreckage, chaos fueled by a rise in poverty in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression. It was pretty awful. His will also included a confession that is a sad testament for a human being to leave behind after death:
This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death, and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime.
Out of the burning bush, the Lord called Moses, called both Israel and the Church, and calls you and me today to look at the world around us differently than Mr. Miller did.
The Lord is sending us to love God as one and neighbor as humanity, to build up rather than tear down, to embrace with compassion those not like us, those less fortunate than us, those sitting in the shadow of death. And we ought not hesitate to remove our shoes — literally, if necessary — to stand beside them on ground that is called holy not because of who we are but because of Another:
The One who causes to be.
Holy is his name.
1 BACK TO POST Exodus 3:5.
2 BACK TO POST Richard Elliot Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 176.
3 BACK TO POST Richard Elliot Friedman, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2017) 182. This, along with Friedman’s discussion of both monotheism and love of neighbor, defined not narrowly but broadly, shaped this sermon deeply. I commend his book to those who are curious about the exodus.
4 BACK TO POST Stephanie Foo, “Babies Got Bank,” Act Two of “The Long Fuse,” Episode 668, This American Life podcast, February 15, 2019.
5 BACK TO POST Charles Vance Miller, quoted by Foo.