Life on the 400 Block of the Church

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 5, June 6, 2021

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

Some of you will remember scenes from around the world last year when people in cities and towns either opened their windows or stepped out onto their balconies at the same time each evening. In Italy, they sang together to boost morale. In the City of Atlanta, they cheered loudly from high rises when healthcare workers were changing shifts to thank them for risking their own lives to save others. Here at Palmer, our church bells are still playing hymns in the morning and in the evening for those walking into and out of the largest medical complex in the world across the street from us.

But most of those communal gatherings that brought people outside of their homes and connected them with one another stopped long ago. Most, but not all. The folks who live in the 400 block of East 118th Street in New York City are still going at it more than 400 days after starting this ritual.[1]

Ivette Rodriguez never misses a night. She moved to that block with her mother back in 1965. Her husband sets an alarm to make sure they don’t forget. At 7:00 p.m., Ivette puts on a jacket and steps outside. Some of her neighbors are already out there, with pans or whatever else they can find that can be used to make noise. A few kids wave flashlights too.

One of Ivette’s neighbors is Frances Mastrota. She’s in her eighties and moved to the block in 1959 as a bride. Widowed since 1975, she’s still there. She’s actually Dr. Mastrota, a retired oncology researcher. A lot of the people on that block, in fact, were healthcare workers. So that’s one of the reasons they still cheer on their former colleagues. But it’s not really the main reason they keep stepping outside at the same time.

When asked about this by an interviewer, Dr. Mastrota says:

Because we are a very special block, and we watch out for each other. If they don’t see [me] come out at 7:00, they look for me. . . . If I don’t come out, this lady comes, that lady comes, the people over there come. . . . If I don’t come out at 7:00, if I don’t pick up my New York Times paper at 6:00, they look for me. They know I’m alone.[2]

The interviewer, Ira Glass of public radio’s This American Life, then asks her:

Some nights, do you just feel tired, and you don’t want to come out?[3]

And she replies with a laugh:

I have to. I have to. They will come here![4]

In other words, the 400 block of East 118th Street maintains the bonds of community by showing up for one another and by looking out for their neighbors. They did it in different ways before the pandemic. And they will continue to find new ways of doing it in the future, I am sure, because they have love for one another. To be clear, that can be a true statement even if they don’t always like each other. They have regard for the humanity of those who live beside them and those who live across the street. From our Christian perspective, we would say they recognize those neighbors, both new and old, as human beings who have been created in God’s image.

Palmer, like any other church, is meant to be like the 400 block of East 118th Street. We don’t come together every day, although we can certainly join together daily in prayer for one another. But we do gather as a community of Christians on Sunday mornings — to remember that the circle of grace keeps flooding over the banks of our experiences only and to hear again and again and again that there is more to this world than we can see at the end of our noses. It’s important to look directly at what’s there, right in front of us — the suffering within us and around us from which others turn away. But it’s also important to know that’s not the last word. And that’s why we come here, regardless of how we feel, “so we do not lose heart,” as St. Paul writes in today’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians.[5]

We can not only look out for those who live on our block, who belong to our church, but also for those who would find a home here, a place where they can be sheltered not only during a pandemic but also in all the other storms of life — a safe harbor. The truth is that the block on which we live as followers of Jesus, crucified and risen, extends far beyond our own walls.

I don’t usually remember my dreams, but I did remember one a couple of weeks ago on a Friday morning. In that dream, while on a trip, perhaps a vacation, my family and I made a Sunday visit to a congregation very much like Palmer. Folks there were recalling with joy the time same-gender marriages had begun within that Christian community.

The sense of encouragement and interdependence and love for one another, rooted in God’s first love for us, was intense in my dream. It reminded me that people don’t have to be merely tolerated in the pews. They can belong to parishes where LGBTQ people serve on the church staff, as members of the clergy, and as congregational leaders. They can even donate flowers for the altar to the glory of God in thanksgiving for a wedding anniversary — a simple, ordinary act which reveals a lot about just how welcoming a church really is or isn’t. They don’t have to hide or believe God is completely hidden and far away, keeping them at arm’s length rather than embracing them.

This I have come to believe, wholeheartedly, as a Christian.

After I woke up, a bit disoriented from the vividness of my dream, one of the first things I read that morning were these words from an interview with the actor Billy Porter:

The first thing that is taken away from LGBTQ people . . . is our spirituality.[6]

What he said is too often true, but it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone. We can open wide the gates and doors of our houses of worship, as we do at Palmer, walking through them beside our LGBTQ friends and neighbors and family members. And we don’t have to pray for them in the third person, as if they are somewhere else, because they are here. As a Christian young adult named Mary Grahame Hunter puts it:

Queer people are part of Church’s first person plural, the great ‘we’ that begins the Nicene Creed.[7]

I love her use of that phrase — “the great ‘we’ that begins the Nicene Creed” — because it includes all of us here today. It carries us along, within something much larger than ourselves, when we’re strong, when we’re struggling, when we feel as if we can trust God with every fiber of our being, and even when, perhaps especially when, we’re not so sure about that.

Reflecting on all of his various conversations with the folks who live on the 400 block of East 118th Street in New York City, Ira Glass, said:

It’s the dailyness of the 7:00 get-together, the fact that it happens every single day. That’s what makes it mean so much to all of them. They made this part of the day a little life raft that they gathered on during this terrible, dangerous year that made it like a daily prayer.[8]

Glass then confessed:

I personally haven’t prayed every day since I was a little boy. But somebody who does it as an adult tells me that it’s the fact that the . . . rituals never change day to day that gives comfort. He has days when the prayers mean less to him and days when they mean a lot more. And feeling that difference from day to day also tells him something [about himself].[9]

In a moment, we’ll stand before the divine mystery in this life raft, this church, and together acknowledge God as the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is,” including not only things “seen” but also things “unseen.”[10] As we heard in our reading from Second Corinthians:

. . . we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.[11]

And surely among those things that are eternal is love. It’s not something we can put under a microscope or place our finger on directly. Like the wind, however, we can see its effects and point to those places where and those people in whom we have felt it when we most needed it.

I hope you’ll experience that today in the people around you right now, in ordinary bread made holy food and placed into your hands, in the small acts of love you will give and receive after being sent into world, and in the God who made you, redeemed you, sanctifies you, and thinks you’re fabulous, arrayed in the love of Jesus, our Savior. So do not lose heart, my friends on the 400 block of the Church. You are clothed in love, and always will be.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ira Glass, “The Daily,” This American Life, originally aired May 14, 2021.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST II Corinthians 4:16.

BACK TO POST Billy Porter, Tamron Hall Show, May 19, 2021.

BACK TO POST Mary Grahame Hunter, “By the Grace of God, Queer,” Earth & Altar, May 24, 2021.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST Glass.

10 BACK TO POST The first sentence of the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer (1979), according to the use of the Episcopal Church:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all this is, seen and unseen.

11 BACK TO POST II Corinthians 4:18.

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