Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 19, September 13, 2020
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
I don’t really know how I got the idea. I mean, I had never owned a seersucker suit in my entire life. But I was living in the Low County of South Carolina, it was hotter there than I was used to as someone who grew up closer to the mountains in North Carolina, and I was serving a church that expected some formality in attire year-round, even though we were just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean and even fewer steps away from Legends theater, where Elvis, Cher, Madonna and other celebrity impersonators performed daily. Neil Diamond was there, too, covered in sequins.
Anyway, I opened up the box and sat there, staring at my new suit for what seemed like an eternity. Honestly, my first thought was, “I can’t wear these clothes in public. I’ll just die if I walk around dressed like this.” But I tried it on, inside the safety of my little apartment, with a black clergy shirt, a clergy collar, and white bucks.
And then I did something counterintuitive. Still dressed up and feeling extremely ridiculous, I drove a few miles up Kings Highway to Myrtle Beach, to a place I knew would be packed with tourists at the height of summer. There, at Broadway at the Beach, I walked in a straight line from one end to the other, right down the middle of the main path outdoors. And, lo, I did not die as the wall to wall crowd before me parted like the waters of the Red Sea. A lot of people stared at me, but I didn’t die.
Now that’s a silly example of how we think about ourselves or our worries, whether real or imagined, about how others might judge us. But there are plenty of other things that we come face to face with, genuine struggles with our own health and wellness, with our friends and relatives, with our parents and children, with our jobs and our choices, past and present, or the choices of others. And sometimes the path before us doesn’t magically reveal itself because of our striking fashion, the intensity of our willpower, the strength of our achievements, or whatever luck or advantages have been our companion up until that specific moment.
That’s in a real sense what happens to the children of Israel in today’s reading from the Book of Exodus. The Lord hears the cries of his people, enslaved by the Pharaoh of Egypt, and with a mighty hand delivers them out of their bondage after Pharaoh finally relents. But Pharaoh recants, so to speak, and sends forth his army to pursue the Israelites in a last ditch effort to bring them back. And when these newly freed people find themselves between the waters of the Red Sea and the chariots of Egypt, they’re terrified. They complain to their leader Moses, going so far as to tell Moses they never wanted to leave the Land of Egypt in the first place. Now they’re trapped.
The Old Testament scholar Gerald Janzen, commenting on all of this, says that:
Faith is not the absence of fear. Faith is fear that takes itself to God, and there finds the freedom and the voice both to call for God to act and to give reassurance to others whose own fear leads them only backward.
Or as a friend of mine put it recently:
Faith often looks like feeling afraid and still taking a step to move forward.
Isn’t that word of encouragement something each of us longs to hear? There are so many things we’re afraid of right now, and we want to be delivered, to make it to the safety of the other side, the other shore.
In Birmingham, Alabama, the sun rose on the morning of Easter Day in 1963 with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the same jail from which he would later write his famous letter to moderate white Christian ministers who were just like me. So civil rights leaders planned a march to that city jail in the afternoon from a local Baptist church. People first worshiped together there and in other churches, proclaiming to the world an empty tomb and a risen Lord, knowing that death will never have the last word, believing that God makes a way where there is no way.
And then they stepped out in faith, as Easter people, dressed in their Sunday best, about five thousand total by the time the march started at that Baptist church.
What this procession of mostly Black Christians came face to face with were police officers and firefighters, the latter with water hoses in their hands and fire engines behind them. With no path forward, no way through the barricades, Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, said defiantly to these Christians, “Turn this group around!” And the Lord’s people in front of him — our Lord’s people — stopped and waited. In his book An Easy Burden, Andrew Young, who would later become the Mayor of Atlanta, describes that very moment. He writes:
I can’t say we knew what to do. I know I didn’t want to turn the march around, whatever the consequences. So . . . I asked the people to get down on their knees and offer a prayer.
And that’s what happened. Thousands dropped to their knees and began to pray until eventually a Black minister, a pastor from the church where they had started:
. . . jumped up and hollered, “The Lord is with this movement! Off your knees! We’re going on . . . Stunned at first, Bull Connor yelled, “Stop ‘em, stop ‘em!” But none of the police moved a muscle. . . . Even the police dogs that had been growling and straining at their leashes . . . were now perfectly calm.
Andrew Young goes on to write that:
I saw one fireman, tears in his eyes, just let the hose drop at his feet. Our people marched right between the red fire trucks, singing, “I want Jesus to walk with me.” . . . [Bull Connor’s] policemen had refused to arrest us, his firemen had refused to hose us, and his dogs had refused to bite us. It was quite a moment to witness: I’ll never forget one old woman who became ecstatic when she marched through the barricades. As she passed through, she shouted, “Great God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one mo’ time!”
Now it would be very easy, too easy, to stop right there, shout “Hallelujah,” and leave inspired, at least momentarily. But I believe we have to ask ourselves to think about those times when there’s a very different ending, when we’re bathed not in tears of joy but in tears of pain. Because we all know, or will come to know, that happens.
It was an occasion of grace for me this past week, a surprise, to hear from a rabbi, of all people, on Twitter, of all places, a reflection on the Pietà — that sorrowful image from the middle ages of Mary holding the dead body of her son Jesus after his crucifixion. Most of us think of Michelangelo’s later sculpture of this from the Renaissance, but there are lots of other representations of it by different artists.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg had been reading a book about Mary by a Roman Catholic author, which caused her to tweet these words:
The Christian image of Pietà really took off around the time of the Black Death. It wasn’t safe for the grieving Europeans to embrace their (contagious) loved ones — but Mary could. I find that so powerful. And [it] makes me think about how our longings now are taking shape.”
The responses to her tweet were powerful too — from memories of how this image was popular during the AIDS crisis and honesty about missing human touch right now, to all sorts of pictures —
. . . the limp body of Father Mychal Judge, a Roman Catholic priest, being carried away from the Twin Towers by firefighters on 9/11,
. . . a Black mother holding her son in her arms in front of a Target store with its symbol above her head as both halo and bullseye,
. . . Jesus as a COVID-19 patient being held by doctors in the armor of protective gear, like so many professionals across the street in the Texas Medical Center,
. . . and a famous painting by Titian from 1576, a personal plea for Mary to pray for him and his son to be spared from the plague in the City of Venice.
But neither he nor his son would be spared.
Does that mean they were abandoned by God when trapped between that cruel disease and the Red Sea, so to speak? Were those who died loved less than those who lived? I don’t believe that for them. I don’t believe that for us. I don’t even believe that for the Egyptian soldiers who died as victims of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. As the rabbis later wrote, they, too, were God’s handiwork.
What Mary offers Titian, who is depicted in his own painting, is the body of her son. And Titian, the old man, gently holds the hand of his Savior, the answer to his prayer. There are hints of resurrection in this work of art, but the fear is real. It is palpable, like it was on the near shore of the Red Sea, like it might be for you.
Yet Titian had already been led through the waters of baptism. He was a Christian believer, and he knew that whatever happened next, God would have the last word — a word that brings new life, a new creation, a new beginning.
And that is good news for both you and me. Whatever it is that we’re looking at over our shoulder, whatever it is that we’re afraid of, God will make a way where there is no way. Not even the chariots of sin and death will be able to keep us, as children of God, from reaching the other shore, with a land of milk and honey in the distance, awaiting us, awaiting all of us. We, too, have been brought through the waters of baptism, bathed in forgiveness, clothed in Christ. Thus well arrayed, we need not fear at the last, when we awake, once and for all, held in his eternal loving embrace.
1 BACK TO POST J. Gerald Janzen, Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 101.
2 BACK TO POST Aaron M.G. Zimmerman, Rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas. Zimmerman shared this on the Mockingbird podcast Same Old Song, “Pentecost 15 (A): The Forgiveness Episode,” September 8, 2020.
3 BACK TO POST Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2008) 222. I was first introduced to this story and Young’s book in Fleming Ruledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).
4 BACK TO POST Young 223.
5 BACK TO POST Young 223.
6 BACK TO POST Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR), Twitter, September 8, 2020. https://twitter.com/TheRaDR/status/1303512325761228801?s=20. The book that Ruttenberg had been reading was Sally Cunneen’s In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol (New York: Ballantine, 1996).
7 BACK TO POST b. Sanhedrin 39b. Commenting on this scene and the fate of the Egyptians, it says: “At that time the ministering angels desired to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: My handiwork, i.e., the Egyptians, are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me? Apparently, God is not gladdened by the downfall of the wicked.”
And, yes, I am well aware of the theological statement in the prelude to this scene that it is God who hardened the heart of Pharaoh in order to bring glory to God’s own self. That’s a mystery to acknowledge and wrestle with in a different sermon.