Your Spiritual Family Tree

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Sunday, October 2, 2022

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

Two weeks ago I stood in this pulpit and talked about prayer. The reading from the First Letter to Timothy had urged us to pray for everyone, and we pondered what it means to do that when we love someone, when we struggle with someone or with something we’ve experienced, and also when we’re in conflict with someone, whether in the world nearby or far away.

I said that the most simple way to think about Christian prayer, in all of these circumstances, is to imagine ourselves and those for whom we pray, and the space between us, as being surrounded by the love of Jesus. Try to picture a never-ending love, a love that flows from the very heart of God, at times encouraging some, at times challenging others, at times reaching out to those who are suffering, at times providing a shelter for us in our own time of need. Most recently, in the destructive aftermath of Hurricane Ian, I’ve been praying for friends and relatives in Florida and for the congregations I first served as a priest along the coast of South Carolina.

Today our reading from the Second Letter to Timothy assures someone — let’s just say it’s you — that you are being prayed for, that even your tears are not forgotten, that you are constantly, day and night, being held in the love of Jesus.[1] And the faith that you have, however small it is, however insignificant it may seem, even if merely a whisper of curiosity about the universe, has been handed down to you by people in your life. It may have come from your grandmother and your mother, as Lois and Eunice were described so tenderly in our reading.[2] It may have come from your chosen family if your own family has rejected you for some reason. It may have come from a minister, a teacher, a friend, a neighbor, even a stranger — someone who paused to look at you through God’s eyes.

When a Christian does that, I believe she is praying for you and surrounding you with the love of Jesus. And whether you’re laughing with your whole body, filled with tears of joy, filled with tears of sorrow, regretful about the past, hopeful about the present, or afraid of the future, you might be able to see yourself, in that moment, as a child of God.

I had a surprise like that over the summer, when I could almost touch the tears of someone, a child of God who had been held in the love of Jesus by the prayers of many. I had arrived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the doors of the Moravian Archives. The staff member who would be helping me learn about one of my ancestors immediately wanted to show me a register for a rural church in Lancaster County.[3]

He opened the book to part of the section recording funerals. All of the entries had been written by my 6th great-grandfather Johann Philip Meurer. He was the officiant for most of them, but not for one in the spring of 1757 — the funeral for his wife who died at the age of 39.

The staff member, since he could read German script, told me the death of Philip’s wife Christina was somehow related to the birth of their youngest daughter, which had taken place many months earlier. She knew her condition wasn’t improving and eventually said or sang these words: “O Savior, come take me soon to you.” Death came, tears flowed, and surely the love of Jesus was present in the midst of it all through the prayers of many people in many different Moravian churches.

As my fingers touched the words on those pages, I thought about how that love overflowed into the lives of those who came after them, how they also put their trust in a savior through whom death has been overcome. There were some detours along the way (there always are), but mercifully God writes straight with crooked lines, not only from generation to generation but also through the different chapters of our own lives.

How would you draw your spiritual family tree? I’m not talking about your family tree, which might be chaotic. I’m talking about your spiritual family tree, which I realize might also be chaotic — but it’s a different tree. And if someone were to take that drawing and look at it, how might they describe it back to you in a letter? How might they remind you that you’re always surrounded by the love of Jesus, day and night, and that the love of Jesus will continue to surround you beyond death?

It doesn’t matter if your drawing looks like a fragile Charlie Brown Christmas tree or a flowering tree with branches hidden by an explosion of blossoms or a sturdy and majestic oak. You see, they’re all majestic if Jesus stands at the center, the trunk, as it were, deeply rooted in the history of God’s people written in the scriptures and also in the history of the world recorded in poetry and prose, in the hearts of every generation that has ever lived, and throughout the universe in the book of nature. And then imagine all the branches reaching out through the history of the church, through people known and unknown to you, people related to you and to me, most importantly, though the Blood of Christ, shared in places like Palmer.[4]

Most people here, by a little more than a week from today, will have received in the mail a letter from Palmer with a pledge card. That card is for you to provide the church with an estimate of your giving to Palmer next year, in 2023. It’s true that it’s a way for the church leadership to make plans for the coming year. But it’s more true that it’s your invitation to see your blessings in the context of God’s whole creation, to know that what you have has been given to you, for a short time on this earth, partly for yourself and those you love, and partly to be shared with others, known and unknown to you, so that you can be a blessing to them, pray for them, and surround them with the love of Jesus.

Each of us is called to do that in certain unique ways, by the leading of the Holy Spirit. That I really believe. But I also believe we, as Christians, should give to our own church, whether that’s here at Palmer or somewhere else if you’re just visiting us today, our first and largest charitable gift among the many gifts we make to help the communities and the neighbors around us.

As one member of our Vestry has said several times in our public meetings, “I want Palmer to be here years from now for my children.” That starts with Palmer being here in the coming year for those children, and for the people sitting beside you in your pew, and for those who may be hearing for the first time right now that the great “we” of the creed includes them when other churches have excluded them.

Your returning to God a portion of what you have is also represented on this Holy Table each week. The bread and the wine are the gifts of the people gathered for worship. And the offering plates contain both the literal cash and checks we’ve brought with us as our offerings and the symbolic presence of the monetary gifts we have given in other ways, usually electronically. Each of those gifts is represented on the Holy Table during the Great Thanksgiving, when we ask God to bless them and to bless us, offering ourselves as a living sacrifice to the glory of God for the sake of the world into which we will be sent at the end of this service.[5] And we’ll step onto Main Street, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.

If there was a group of folks, a community of Palmers, who oriented their lives around the love of Jesus rather than themselves or rather than things that benefited only people just like themselves, and they wrote you a letter, literally or metaphorically, reaching out to you like the branches of a tree, reminding you that you’re being prayed for constantly and that even your tears are surrounded by the love of Jesus, how might that change you?

The hope in today’s reading is that it would “rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” which is “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”[6] Even if you don’t feel very powerful, even if you don’t feel very self-disciplined, you can rest in the love of Jesus, receive that love, and share it.

That spirit of love can be rekindled within you this very hour the same way you’ll receive communion — by unclenching your fist. That’s how you offer your hand to someone else, how you place your gift in the offering plate, how you give the gift of yourself to God for the sake of the world.[7]

It is good that we are here. It’s good that you’re here, even if you are here for the first time this morning, because God is here, and God loves you.[8]


BACK TO POST 2 Timothy 1:1-14.

BACK TO POST 2 Timothy 1:5.

BACK TO POST This was a church register for the Moravian congregation at Donegal/Mount Joy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

BACK TO POST The header photo at the top of this post is a detail from a larger piece of art titled “The Tree of Life.” It was commissioned in 1775 by Friedrich Von Watteville (1700-1777) for Frederick William Marshall (1721-1802), who was the administrator of a tract of land, originally 99,985 acres in size, owned by the Moravian Church in North Carolina called Wachovia.

The fruit shows it’s a grapevine rather than a tree, with leaves representing all of the Moravian congregations around the world at that time. The blood from Christ’s wounds, at the center of this image, nourishes each of them.

BACK TO POST Romans 12:1.

BACK TO POST 2 Timothy 1:6-7.

BACK TO POST The specific image I had in mind when thinking about our posture before God as we give our selves, our whole lives, to God as a living sacrifice was the way many priests hold their hands open, outward, and upward as they stand at the altar during the prayer for Holy Communion.

BACK TO POST Written across the top of the stained glass window above the altar at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, are these words: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” They are the words of Peter as he speaks to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in the Gospel of Matthew.

It’s important to remember that Peter and the others with him didn’t stay there on the mountaintop but went down into the valley and set their faces toward Jerusalem. They have an indescribable experience in the presence of Jesus, a glimpse of divine glory, then walk with Jesus through the world.

2 thoughts on “Your Spiritual Family Tree

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s