In Memoriam: Angie and Stuart Kensinger

On the morning of Easter Day, among the crowds of people who came to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston were Angie and Stuart Kensinger, together with their son Philip, who was home briefly from college. This is what I said that morning about Jesus, raised from the dead:

[T]he last word belongs to the Risen Lord. He has destroyed death. He has broken down the gates of hell. And he will set us free from our exile, self-imposed or otherwise. The love of the Risen Lord will not fail us, and we can never find ourselves beyond its reach. . . . This is the joy of Easter.

Less than 24 hours later, Angie and Stuart were killed tragically in the crash of a small plane near the town of Kerrville in West Texas. Four other people were also aboard that plane, all of them friends of the Kensingers. There were no survivors.

Stuart owned a commercial real estate investment and development business. He was a member of the Rector Search Committee that brought me to the Lone Star State and was the Founding Director and Treasurer of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, wholeheartedly supporting its work and commitment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees for Camp Allen in Navasota and the Board of Trustees for Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Stuart was baptized as an adult by a friend from my time at that seminary, who wrote these words to me last week: “Who knew that Easter’s promise of eternal life to all who love the Lord Jesus would become so dear so fast this Easter Monday?”

Angie was the long-time Head Coach of the Varsity Girls’ Lacrosse Team at St. John’s School in Houston. She had an incredibly encouraging personality, like Stuart did, and made hospitality seem effortless as she opened the door of the Kensinger home to friends, neighbors, and students. I can’t imagine how devastating this loss must be to so many high school girls who played lacrosse and looked to Angie as a second mother through the years. Off the field, she helped them to grow as human beings beyond athletics and worked with her husband to support humanitarian efforts, including the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury throughout the Anglican Communion around the globe through the Compass Rose Society.

The person most devastated, of course, is their son Philip. He is being surrounded by the love of Jesus though the prayers and presence of so many throughout the City of Houston. I ask you to remember him in your prayers as we gather for the funeral of both of his parents this week. He is a wonderful young adult, in whom is reflected so much of Angie and Stuart — a very strong foundation that will remain with him.

In between hearing about the plane crash and writing this reflection, my wife and I were in New York City for a few days for the annual Mockingbird Conference. I was very aware of the fact that Angie’s great-grandfather, William Jay Gaynor, served as the 94th mayor of that great American city in the early 20th century. In that office, he was a reformer who stood up to political corruption and once wrote these words: “The world does not grow better by force or by the policeman’s club.” I had thought about visiting his grave in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. There was another place, however, beckoning to me in memory of Angie and Stuart — The Cloisters.

I have preached many times about a doorway in that museum that tells Christians a powerful story. It is a story I think the Kensingers embodied in their life together. Last year was the first time I had attempted to see this artistic treasure in person. Although I did make it there last spring, I couldn’t see the doorway because it was hidden from view while some work was being done in the room where it’s exhibited. Only this year, days after the plane crash, was I able to see this with my own eyes.

This beautiful, 12th century doorway comes from the Church of San Leonardo al Frigido in Tuscany, Italy. On the right side of the doorway, there is a sixth century saint named Leonardo, who is depicted as one who cares for those in prison.

The massive lintel across the top of the doorway depicts Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. You can tell it’s Palm Sunday because of the children holding palm branches and throwing garments in the path of Jesus, who is riding on a donkey.

Following Jesus are the twelve apostles plus one extra person. The one extra person is Leonardo, who joins the apostolic train and follows Jesus too. The message seems so simple: Those who pass through that doorway are invited to join the procession of those who follow Jesus. Those who do so are the saints of God. The saints aren’t only people who have died for their faith. The saints aren’t only people who happen to adorn the walls of medieval churches. The saints are people in need of forgiveness, just like you and me, who are willing to walk through that doorway, trusting that it’s better to walk with God, and with brothers and sisters in Christ, than it is to walk alone in this world.

Angie and Stuart were an important part of our congregation at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, and those who make it their spiritual home are called Palmers. While it’s true that the name of our church comes from a family name, the word Palmer also has referred historically to someone who had returned from the Holy Land with a palm frond or leaf as an outward sign of having gone on a pilgrimage. It’s a wonderful metaphor for our life as Christians. Stuart, of course, loved that image as he thought about the people in our church and as he led groups to the Holy Land.

The loss of the Kensingers is overwhelming for our church and the City of Houston. Yet I know both of them would want us to continue to work for peace in a world too often stripped of grace. May the witness of their lives to God’s mercy inspire us all.

Into paradise may the angels lead you.
At your coming may the martyrs receive you,
and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.

And through our tears we say, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

My Last Will and Testament, Part I

When Cornelia “Nealie” Dunevant was about 17 years old, she became pregnant by the son of a wealthy, slave-owning planter in Caswell County, North Carolina. It was a very likely scenario that I described in my earlier post “Bright Star and a Family Tree Secret,” which has been updated to reflect the fact that DNA testing seems to have confirmed the story. Nealie is my great-great-great-grandmother, and Weldon Edwards Williamson is my great-great-great-grandfather. About a year after the birth of their daughter Telula in 1855, Weldon, having moved on, married another woman. This man who lived to see the 20th century had 27 slaves in 1860, when he was 27 years old, and then fought for their continued enslavement as a Confederate cavalry officer.

Weldon’s father was “Royal George” Williamson, who “owned” 142 enslaved Africans as his personal property according to the 1850 United States Federal Census. The slave trade that began in British North America and was enshrined in the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person, had flourished. Royal George’s great-great-great-grandfather Arthur Allen I created an estate in Surry County, Virginia, that illustrates well the growth of that awful trade in the buying and selling of human beings over nearly two centuries.

Arthur appears in Virginia in the middle of the 17th century. In 1665, as one of Surry County’s wealthiest men, he built a magnificent house that still stands today and would later become known as “Bacon’s Castle.” It’s the oldest brick dwelling in North America and one of only three surviving examples of High Jacobean architecture in the Western Hemisphere. The other two examples are on the island of  Barbados.

It was Arthur’s son, Arthur Allen II, my ninth great-uncle, who inherited this house. After the son had served for a second time as Speaker of the House of Burgesses, he was reelected in Surry County to that lower chamber of Virginia’s General Assembly but did not take his seat there in the spring of 1691 because he refused, “through Scruple of conscience,” to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. Since William and Mary had ascended the English throne after the Glorious Revolution, Arther Allen II wouldn’t take those oaths that were required of all public officials until 1702, after the death of the deposed King James II, when he was sworn in as a member of the governing body of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

Something that apparently did not trouble his conscience was his shift from the use of indentured servants to enslaved Africans on his estate. According to Preservation Virginia, which now owns Bacon’s Castle, there were four slaves on this plantation in 1675, 13 in 1700, 76 in 1830, and as many as 300 at the outset of the Civil War.

Although the Virginia roots of America’s original sin of slavery go back 400 years ago to Jamestown, with the arrival there in 1619 of “20 and odd” Africans who had been captured from a Portuguese slave ship, slavery as an American institution that was based on racial identity was really fueled by Bacon’s Rebellion. That was an armed rebellion, which included both poor Europeans and poor Africans, against the royal governor of Virginia in 1676. For four months of that year, Arthur Allen II’s house was occupied by 70 of these rebels, who plundered his belongings and destroyed his crops. So that is the origin of the nickname Bacon’s Castle. This video explains what all of that has to do with the history of chattel slavery and, in a real sense, the forging of the idol of white supremacy in British North America and the United States:

While the title of this series of posts is “My Last Will and Testament,” I didn’t quote from anyone’s legal will, although I did refer to the large inheritance of a plantation. My next post, however, will contrast the will of Royal George Williamson and his great-grandfather William Eaton. One contains nary a word of religious language, while the other includes an introduction with some beautiful theological statements that I embrace wholeheartedly as a Christian. Yet both of those documents pass on human beings as property to the next generation. The one with Christian language does so, without any hint of conflict, as if dealing out cards in a game of poker.

Interestingly, my wife is a graduate of the law school at the College of Willam and Mary, and for six and a half years I served as Associate Rector at Bruton Parish Church, where we were married in 2003. We had wanted to do something a little different for our rehearsal dinner on the night before the wedding. So our family members and wedding party guests drove with us in a caravan from Williamsburg to the small town of Surry, taking a car ferry across the James River to get there.

I always found it impossible not to think about American history on that ferry ride. On one side of the river was the site of the Jamestown settlement. On the other side was Surry County, which, at least back then, had a landscape that surely didn’t look much different than it did in the 19th century. Eating and laughing at the Surrey House Restaurant, we were sitting about seven and a half miles from Bacon’s Castle without a clue about the history of that place and my connection to it (and without a clue about my wife’s connection to Jamestown), both as a member of the family into which I was born and as an American whose real white privilege is a result of that.

The next time I’m on that ferry and feel the wind in my face, I’ll be thinking about our rehearsal dinner and our wonderful years in Williamsburg, but I’ll also be thinking about all of this. I hope and pray that, by God’s mercy, my conscience will still be troubled by the latter and my love for others will have been shaped by it.

There’s a temptation to read the opening stanzas of William Cullen Bryant’s 1866 poem about the end of slavery’s “cruel reign” and believe the empty fields that still surround Bacon’s Castle, “seem[ing] now to bask in a serener day,” symbolize a promise fulfilled to African Americans after the Civil War. That freedom, however, eroded rapidly after the end of Reconstruction as the sun set on the 19th century. The effects of widespread lynching and other forms of violence inflicted upon African Americans, the voter intimidation and disenfranchisement of African Americans, and the white supremacist ideology frequently praised in the words of guest speakers before cheering crowds at the unveiling of Confederate monuments in the early 20th century sadly remain with us today. Lord, heal us and help us all.

O THOU great Wrong, that, through the slow-paced years,
Didst hold thy millions fettered, and didst wield
The scourge that drove the laborer to the field,
And look with stony eye on human tears,
Thy cruel reign is o’er;
Thy bondmen crouch no more
In terror at the menace of thine eye;
For He who marks the bounds of guilty power,
Long-suffering, hath heard the captive’s cry,
And touched his shackles at the appointed hour,
And lo! they fall, and he whose limbs they galled
Stands in his native manhood, disenthralled.

A shout of joy from the redeemed is sent;
Ten thousand hamlets swell the hymn of thanks;
Our rivers roll exulting, and their banks
Send up hosannas to the firmament.
Fields, where the bondman’s toil
No more shall trench the soil,
Seem now to bask in a serener day;
The meadow-birds sing sweeter, and the airs
Of heaven with more caressing softness play,
Welcoming man to liberty like theirs.
A glory clothes the land from sea to sea,
For the great land and all its coasts are free.

Standing Barefoot on Holy Ground

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Exodus 3:5.

BACK TO POST Richard Elliot Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 176.

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.

BACK TO POST Stephanie Foo, “Babies Got Bank,” Act Two of “The Long Fuse,” Episode 668, This American Life podcast, February 15, 2019.

BACK TO POST Charles Vance Miller, quoted by Foo.