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]

AMEN

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.

In the Middle of the Night, Easter Arrives

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 17, 2022

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

Have you ever stumbled onto something that was completely unexpected, and only later realized there was more going on than what you could see? Photographers do this when they spot something which makes them stop and ponder what’s right in front of them, perhaps moving a little or a lot to change their perspective, then capturing in one picture an extraordinary moment that didn’t seem to exist in the world a few seconds earlier.

Sometimes you walk into a crowded room and hear on the other side of that threshold one of many conversations already in progress. And then maybe you cringe internally — or externally — once you realize the person whose voice you hear going on and on about this or that isn’t aware of other nearby realities in the same room — a struggling spouse in recovery from alcohol addiction, a mother whose heart is overflowing with joy over her gay son’s upcoming wedding, a friend who’s just lost a job but only told a handful of people about it. If the person holding court knew of these or any number of other realities in that same room, the conversation might be different.

There are a lot of hidden realities this morning in this room. Some of you don’t want to be here, having been dragged along by a significant other or a grandparent. I see you, and also have sympathy for you. (Know that your grandmother loves you very much, and I love you too!) Others sitting in the pews today have hearts weighed down by grief over the death of a loved one, perhaps over the past year, or perhaps from long, long ago. Many are still trying to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle that is the small part of the world in which we live fit together on this side of the pandemic. You might be worried about that but afraid to say anything about it to anyone else.

Imagine yourself as Mary Magdalene, who came to the tomb of Jesus “while it was still dark,” or the unnamed “other disciple” running with Simon Peter to that same tomb on the first Easter morning.[1] As they encountered the room that is the empty tomb, a sense of joy, a sense of wonder, a sense of divine majesty, wasn’t part of the experience. Something was very wrong. That’s why Mary ran back to tell the others that the body of Jesus had been stolen. What she had seen just compounded the trauma that had followed the events of Good Friday and the silence on the sabbath day.

Only when Mary, while overwhelmed and weeping outside the tomb, heard herself being addressed by name did she recognize Jesus standing in front of her. She had mistaken him for the gardener. Yet it was Jesus, who had died, and who now was alive — alive but also somehow very different, and known but only because he had made himself known.

“I have seen the Lord,” she would later say.[2]

For Mary, being called by her name changed everything in an instant — the identity of the person in front of her, whom she had already seen with her own eyes, the meaning of the empty tomb, and the movie playing over and over in her head about what had happened in the middle of the night.

Something terrifying had indeed happened, but not in the way Mary had first imagined. It was instead terrifying in the sense that the voice of the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon, and in the darkness that same voice brought Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, over from death to life, setting free all those imprisoned by sin and death, and giving to us a glimpse of our own resurrection in the world to come — in the world beyond our fears and our failures — a new creation that transforms tears of sorrow into tears of joy and, yes, tears of laughter.[3] How could there not be laughter with God?

Is it possible — just possible — that even this very small part of the world in which we live is much larger than we have imagined it to be? Is it possible there’s a lot more going on around us and within us than we can see?

Right outside the front doors of Palmer, on the other side of Main Street, is the campus of Rice University. (The church building in which you’re sitting, by the way, was built in 1927 to be a chapel for the Rice Institute before becoming the home of an Episcopal congregation in 1929.) This whole area is one of the most beautiful parts of the City of Houston — the live oaks, the azaleas, and the wildlife — squirrels, of course, and rabbits, an occasional possum, and lots of birds — grackles, mockingbirds, bluejays, and owls, which seems appropriate for Rice. (I’m even wearing owl cufflinks today!)

But even if you take time for a walk around the Rice campus, even if you pause to notice, with a sense of awe and wonder, all the other forms of life that surround you, including, of course, the students too — even then you’re only seeing a small fraction of what’s really happening there.

Houston is on what’s called the Central Flyway, and the Rice campus is essentially like a Buc-ee’s for many birds on their way to and from the tropics. But mostly they’re flying overhead, while you’re either sleeping soundly in your own bed or wide-awake and worried, staring up at the ceiling. And we know a lot about them thanks to a man named Cin-Ty Lee. He’s a professor of geology at Rice University, but he’s passionate about birds and has been observing them on Rice’s campus for 20 years.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Cin-Ty and a few others thought that might be a good time to try to record the sound of birds at night.[4] Ambient noise, because of reduced traffic, had gone down significantly. So they set up a microphone, initially in a lemon tree but now on a 20-foot pole, and waited to find out what exactly was going on during the night.

Well, that turned out to be a big ol’ disappointment.

In the beginning, in March of 2020, they heard nothing. And they actually thought they were doing something wrong. It was like their own experience of Holy Saturday, waiting and wondering what had happened. But then everything exploded in late April, when there were suddenly thousands — thousands — of birds passing overhead each night.

They weren’t even hearing all of the birds because some fly too high to be heard and others don’t call out to each other while they’re flying. But they heard thousands of them nevertheless. And those recordings added about 30 new species to the list of birds already known to be present at different times of the year on the Rice campus. That total is now at least 262 species.

Have you seen them all? Do they exist even if you haven’t seen them?

To be clear, I don’t think the meaning of the empty tomb should be reduced to springtime observations in the Northern Hemisphere. But nature does give us hints that there is more to this world than meets the eye. There is so much that we don’t see at all, that we see only partly, or that we see dimly, whether off in the furthest reaches of the universe or — perhaps even more amazingly — right here, right across the street, in this small part of the world in which we live and work, in which we love and grieve those we’ve lost, in which we learn and become curious about the things God has made.

What I want to suggest to you is that you’re only experiencing a small fraction of what’s really happening in the world around you. There are mysteries here that are visible but unseen, and there are mysteries here that are invisible too. What happened last night, so to speak, what happened in the darkness before the first Easter morning, was a mystery.

But Mary Magdalene and the rest of those closest to Jesus believed they had seen him raised from the dead. Perhaps the most mysterious thing of all was that the risen Christ, the one who called Mary by name and revealed himself to her, showed them, and shows us too, that God is for us, not against us.

And just as the risen Christ saw Mary weeping and had compassion on her, “God shall [one day] wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”[5] They are passed away because of what happened in the middle of the night. And one day, having fallen asleep in Jesus, we shall awake in the light of his resurrection.

My friends, there’s more going on in this world, more going on in this very room, more going on in your own life, right now, than what you can see.

ALLELUIA! ALLELUIA! ALLELUIA!

BACK TO POST John 20:1-10.

BACK TO POST John 20:18.

BACK TO POST Psalm 29:5.

4 BACK TO POST Cin-Ty Lee in an interview on the podcast City Cast Houston, “Recording the Night Skies of Houston,” April 11,2022.

BACK TO POST Revelation 21:4. I quoted this familiar verse from the Book of Revelation using the King James Version, which can be heard in composer Eleanor Daley’s powerful anthem “And God shall wipe away all tears.”

Christmas: The Fine House That Love Is

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021

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

For most of us, Christmas is the emotional center of Christianity. Easter may be “The Queen of Feasts,” but Christmas hits us right here [hitting chest with a fist], tugging at our hearts in so many different and powerful ways, some of them unexpected, catching us off guard. Whether we choose to call it holy, regardless of who we are or where we have been or where we find ourselves now, even if we’re sitting outside on the grass rather than in the pews, this night brings back, unbidden, lots of memories of home.

Perhaps those are happy memories from your childhood — a Christmas tree decorated with silver tinsel or those giant, colorful, old-fashioned lights; wrapped presents that you shook to guess what was inside; that one special toy you held in your hands, which just seemed too good to be true.

I can still remember holding, in the late 1970s, a more-than-one-foot-tall action figure of a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. After putting in batteries, an eerie sweeping “eye” in the helmet could light up bright red. You might have your own version of a memory like that, even if you never share it.

Then there are memories of beautiful carols and candlelight in a church. Later, at home, did you get to place Jesus in the manger in a nativity set? Or were you the kid constantly rearranging the shepherds and their sheep?

Maybe some of you are thinking about how you took for granted the ways you gathered with family and friends a couple of years ago. I know some of us, including me and my family, canceled trips planned for next week, each of us praying for a light to shine on our path and show us the way. Sadly but understandably, relatives have canceled trips to come and see us too.

More than a few of us find our minds flooded with memories of the physical places that we or loved ones have called home — a house we still go back to visit now and then; a bungalow that was sold long ago; a neighborhood that has slowly aged with its residents, where adults rather than children now ride their bikes down the street; a grandparent’s farm; a divorced parent’s apartment; a large back yard where we played with cousins.

Or you might be thinking of experiences that happened in those places — the way your grandmother set the table in the dining room just so before you arrived for a feast, wanting everything to be special for you; that awkward time your Christmas gift for someone was, let’s be honest, a real flop; a parent who was filled with joy simply because you were happily lost in wonder; the warmth of the family you had to choose for yourself, perhaps from people in this church, perhaps people here tonight, when your own family seemed to shut the door on you in one way or another.

When we think of home on this night, we think of nearly as many things as there are people here right now. That word means something different to each of us. And what did it mean to Jesus, who was raised in the village of Nazareth, born on the road under less than ideal circumstances, hit the road as an adult after he was baptized in the River Jordan, named as his family — as his brother and sister and mother — those who do the will of God, and said he, unlike the birds with their nests, had no place to lay his head?

I believe the answer to that question has everything to do with this night, which I do call holy. Many of those around you right now believe that Love came down at Christmas in the birth of Jesus — Love with a capital “L” — for you, for me, for the whole world. And it’s not imprisoned in the past.

That Love was present not only in the events described in the pages of the Gospel of Luke but also in many of the memories of home you’ve brought with you this evening — the wonderful memories of when your life overflowed with abundance, hopeful things that somehow emerged out of the hard times, or maybe new traditions that don’t reflect your bad experiences of the past. Whether you think of home as one place, or many places, or no place at all, what makes it a home, what makes it your home, what makes this church our home is Love with a capital “L,” manifested not in wooden beams, not in bricks and mortar, not in stained glass windows, but in relationships through the years that go back to the manger.[1]

The Love that flows from one generation to another, however it finds a way to do that, even if it comes to you through the cracks and the brokenness of your life, has a divine source. And the babe in a manger, crying out in the darkness, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, even if you don’t believe that to be true. That’s what makes this night truly magical, in the sense of something that’s beautiful and filled with awe, something that continues to have the power to change the world, beginning with your own heart.

How would your life be different if it were true?

The poet Jack Gilbert has a short poem that acknowledges the passing away of things, and our weeping over them as they decline into the earth. But it celebrates whatever among those things is present with us in this moment, “what abounds,” as he puts is. Amazed by that daily, his last line refers to:

My fine house that love is.[2]

I don’t know what he means entirely by that beautiful phrase. But his use of the word love refers to God for me on this night, and on all the other nights of the year. Home is my fine house that Love has built, that God is building, for me and for everyone else created in God’s image. That includes you.

We long for home, we have a yearning for it, because we long to be accepted, embraced, and loved. That’s something each of us wants, even if we’ve never experienced it, or if we think we don’t deserve it. The story of Christmas is about the coming of God to those who least expect it, to those sitting in the shadows, to those who feel left out, to the shepherds you kept rearranging, with their sheep, in that old moss-covered nativity set.

In this place, among this people, on this night called holy, you are accepted and embraced and loved by the same Jesus whose birth we remember each Christmas, including this one. Jesus came to set us free from the things that keep us from accepting, embracing, and loving others. Jesus came to invite us to the feast at this Table, inside the fine house that Love is. There will always, always, always be room here, just for you. So welcome home.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

BACK TO POST This whole discussion of home and what it means was inspired by an interview with Christian Wiman on the podcast For the Life of the World, “95. Christian Wiman / Finding Home Through Exiles’ Eyes,” November 27, 2021.

BACK TO POST Jack Gilbert, “Singing in My Difficult Mountains” in Home: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2021) 9.

Stoplights and Christmas PJs

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Advent III, December 12, 2021

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

As some of you know, Advent is my favorite season of what we call the Church Year — how we mark time on the liturgical calendar in our worship and in our prayers, which is different than how we mark time on a secular calendar in much of our day-to-day lives. Although one of the shortest seasons, Advent is really how we live most of our lives as Christians — looking back to what God has done in the past, crying out for God to come among us in the present, and watching, actively watching and waiting, for God to act and right all wrongs, not only around us but also within us.

And we’ll greet that Day of the Lord with joy, not fear.

Now having said that, I really feel like I need to confess something. I feel like I need to tell you that Christmas, which is surely coming and for which Advent always prepares us, is already sneaking a little bit into Palmer’s Rectory, where the Willards live, dispelling some of the shadows, here and there. I’m not talking about the lighting of our Advent wreath, hand-made with Topo Chico bottle caps, on which candles are gradually lit to remind us of the coming of Christ into the world. I’m not even talking about our beautiful Christmas tree, brightly illuminated and visible through one of the front windows. What that tree represents — family history, faith in Christ, fun and laughter through the years, and hopefulness — is what we need, what we all need, throughout this new Church Year.

No, what I want to admit to you today is that there was an explosion of Christmas pjs at the Rectory. I’m not going to say how many of us were wearing them. I’m just going to say that several of us were and that it was a joyful preview of the fun part of Christmas — like the storm clouds of the world around us parting and allowing a few rays of sunshine to break through for a moment. It sure seems like most of us — all of us, really — need a moment like that to surprise us, to lift our spirits, and to fill us with hope. Folks are stressed out at home, at work, and apparently at every intersection in Houston as drivers increasingly speed through red lights.

We want something to break through all of that, not like running a red light, but like a divine intervention. We want God to act. At the very least, we want God to explain why we keep taking two steps forward and one step back, even when we’ve tried to do the right things for ourselves and our neighbors over the last couple of years. Maybe there are also parts of your life where you feel as if you keep taking one step forward and two steps back. You want God to show up and help out. For you, Advent’s very real this year.

In a strange way, today’s reading from the Book of Zephaniah is like an explosion of Christmas pjs, however you want to imagine that or some other unexpected metaphor. That reading comes amid the traditional themes of Advent, which usually point us to some pretty weighty matters related to last things or God’s coming judgement. Surrounded by that heaviness, here is this super-rejoice-y fireworks display of hope, with God himself in our midst, as our redeemer, as a mighty warrior on our behalf who will renew us in his love and even break forth into loud singing over us.

But that’s not how the Book of Zephaniah begins. It begins with a warning about a disaster on the horizon, a judgement from God himself. The second verse of the first chapter puts it bluntly:

I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord.[1]

The prophet wants those listening to change their ways in the present, to stop speeding through all of the red lights on the crowded road to doom. All of that was meant to be heard before the catastrophe happened — change, change, change, before it’s too la . . . 

[Announcer’s voice:] This ruin is brought to you by idolatry and oppression.[2]

That’s the Cliff notes version of the Book of Zephaniah.

But maybe there’s still time to change the channel, to watch a show with different sponsors, like righteousness, like humility. The prophet urges them — and us — to seek those things in order to be hidden from the wrath that will wash over everyone like tidal wave.

Well, spoiler alert, not much, if anything, changes and the bad things do happen — not a natural disaster, like those devastating tornadoes, at least 30 of them, that bulldozed through six states on Friday night and Saturday morning. That was awful. What the Book of Zephaniah described was awful too, but it was brought about by the rulers, the judges, the priests, and the prophets — most of the other prophets, that is — false ones.[3]

The part of the Book of Zephaniah that was read this morning is the last part — the final and most surprising words. They were probably meant to be heard while the catastrophe is unfolding, or perhaps afterwards, while looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the destruction in its wake.

It’s a different kind of message for a different kind of landscape — a landscape that has been altered. But it turns out that not everything has been swept away from the face of the earth. Those who had been oppressed and those who had suffered, the lowly and the outcast — they’ve been saved and gathered together as the remnant of Israel, and the Lord will bring them home and dwell in their midst. So they are told they should rejoice.

It’s not unlike the words of Mary’s song, known as the Magnificat, from the Gospel of Luke:

My soul doth magnify the Lord . . .
He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.[4]

It’s not unlike the words of today’s collect — that prayer which collects our thoughts for this particular Sunday:

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us . . .[5]

That used to be the prayer for the last Sunday of the Church Year — a prayer for God to stir things up throughout the coming season of Advent. In the Episcopal Church, we now pray it during Advent. It’s always a timely prayer, no matter what day of the year we cry out, pleading with God to stir things up, to come among us, and to help us . . . now.

But are you really expecting something to happen? Are you expecting a highway in the desert, a bridge over a deep divide, the restoration of a friendship, the rebuilding of your faith, however slowly, or the renewal of the gift of joy and wonder we ask God to give to those newly baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah?

Here, whenever you share with others the peace of Christ, if there isn’t anything that’s being overcome in that moment, in that experience before we gather around this Table, then it’s not really the peace of Christ. You don’t need the grace and forgiveness of Christ to overcome something that isn’t a problem, isn’t difficult, isn’t too much for you to handle.

That isn’t to say everything will suddenly be ok on the other side of the passing of the peace. I mean, let’s face it, sometimes only Jesus himself is able to make that a true moment. And it is true because we’re not the sponsor of that moment, Christ is. But that’s the point of the Advent season. We need help, and we need it right now, and our redeemer has be God.

Advent also reminds us that we need not be afraid when the Day of the Lord is at hand and Christ comes again, with power and great glory. Standing with those in the shadows who are suffering and excluded and broken-hearted and world-weary, we know the One who is coming will bring mercy, healing, and forgiveness, causing the shadows to flee.

In the meantime, how are we to live now, especially if we’re not looking in the rear view mirror at the chaos behind us but intensely feeling chaos surrounding us in the present? I like something the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota wrote recently, something which I’ve continued to ponder as part of my own Advent reflections this year. He said:

As followers of Jesus, we don’t need to see the whole map of the rugged landscape before us, we simply have to take the next step, which is always loving the next person, saying the next prayer, turning outward toward God’s outrageous promises, because God is faithful.[6]

My friends, the promises of God are indeed outrageous, as outrageous as an explosion of Christmas pjs amid the seriousness and the heaviness of Advent, amid the seriousness and the heaviness of world in which we’re living. Holding firmly to those promises — or rather being held by them — and knowing that mercy awaits us, we can say, with hope,

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.[7]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Zephaniah 1:2.

BACK TO POST Zephaniah 1:4-6; 3:3-4.

BACK TO POST Zephaniah 3:3-4.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 65.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 160.

BACK TO POST Craig Loya (@MinnesotaBishop), Twitter, November 28, 2021. https://twitter.com/MinnesotaBishop/status/1464957201936572416?s=20.

BACK TO POST This popular saying is based on Revelation 22:20.

My Last Will and Testament, Part III

Today is the anniversary of the marriage between a woman named Susan Campbell and a man named William York on September 23, 1852, in Randolph County, North Carolina. They are my great-great-grandparents. Both were born into slaveholding households in that same county. At least three out of four of their grandparents’ households enslaved Africans in the North Carolina counties of Randolph, Chatham, and Orange. The household which Susan and William would create was a slaveholding household too.

William enslaved a Black woman, who was 65 years of age when that fact was recorded in the 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedules. Several years earlier, after his father had died in 1855, William was the administrator of the estate and “filed a petition to sell the slaves of Semore York.”

That group of enslaved Africans may have included the five human beings listed in the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedules beside the name of William’s father, whose first name was spelled variously as Semore, Seymore, or Seymour. The youngest was a one-year-old girl described in that official record not as “B” for “Black” but as “M” for “Mulatto,” which referred then to someone who shares both African and European ancestry.

At the time that youngest child was conceived, Semore would have been married and about 44 years of age. William would have been single and about 22 years old. Two of William’s younger brothers would have been single and teenagers. The presumed mother of the enslaved girl would have been about 33 years old then and, as an enslaved person, a victim of sexual violence. So it’s surely within the realm of possibility that my great-great-grandfather sold either his half-sister, his niece, or perhaps even his own daughter, as human property at some point after Semore’s death.

In 1862, a decade after William and Susan were married, Susan’s father David Campbell died. His will directed that part of his estate, including 13 human beings he enslaved, be equally divided between his eight children. The estate inventory includes their names, ages, and monetary value.

It then describes which of the eight children of David Campbell received which lot of human property, and also what amount of cash was added to that lot from a sibling whose own lot was more valuable. The Yorks received lot “no. 6,” with 14-year-old Tamar, valued at $650, and 55-year-old Malinda, valued at $200, and also $25 from one of Susan’s brothers to make the total value equal to everyone else’s share, which is to say, $875.

In addition to Tamar and Malinda, the other names on that list of enslaved human beings were: Nancy, 19 years of age, $750 in value; Alfred, 32 years of age, $800 in value; Marticia, 32 years of age, $575 in value; Hannah, 29 years of age, $675 in value; Jacob, 26 years of age, $1,100 in value; Betty, 12 years of age, $550 in value; Sarah, 6 years of age, $400 in value; Martha, 6 years of age, $400 in value; Libby, 4 years of age, $350 in value; Harriott, 4 years of age, $350 in value; and John, an infant, $200 in value.

What distinguishes Susan and William York within the more than three dozen direct ancestors of mine who were slaveholders is the fact that they are the closest in time to me. Their household was the only slaveholding household among my great-great-grandparents. But the striking part of that statement, of course, is the harsh truth that I have great-great-grandparents who inherited people and then, presumably, continued to enslave them. (Although it should be noted that Susan’s sister and brother-in-law Isabelle and Steven Kivett had no prior history of slaveholding and would, in fact, name one of their sons Ulysses Grant Kivett in 1868.)

Both of these great-great-grandparents lived to see not only the end of the Civil War but also the end of Reconstruction. Both of them also lived to see a resurgence of white supremacist ideology in the election campaign of 1898, which culminated in the Wilmington coup d’etat that same year, a prelude to the disenfranchisement of Black voters throughout the Old North State.

Susan died at 74 years of age in 1901, and William died at 87 years of age in 1914. They are buried side by side in Chatham County, North Carolina. That simple act of charity in a cemetery, however, is something that more often than not was denied to enslaved African families, which were split apart both in life and in death. Had that been offered in the context of this story, some might be tempted to believe that William or someone else in his immediate family would have a larger circle of relationships represented at the grave. But we should know better than to embrace a fairy tale like that.

The context of this story won’t allow it from the point of view of a woman who was raped and her daughter, whose name is unknown and who would be enslaved from birth, regardless of the real identity of her white father.

What each of us can do is, first, to remember the past truthfully, as it really was, not as we wish it had been, and to work in our own day toward justice in this world. Then, certainly for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we can pray that God will right all wrongs, including not only hurtful things done to us but also those cruel things done by us, in the world to come.

Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.

King David (kind of): “I hope you dance.”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 10, July 11, 2021

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

I don’t know exactly how it started. But I do know she had left her mother’s side for just a moment as beautiful music sung by many voices washed over me from behind and continued toward her as she stood in the center aisle.

I think this little girl was dressed up as a ballerina, although I realize that sounds more like a dream than something real. But this was definitely real, a scene from my previous congregation in Minnesota, and I’m pretty sure she was dressed as a ballerina. I know without a doubt that she started her dance while I was preparing the Table for Holy Communion.

Her mother, as I recall, was a little embarrassed by the whole thing, but she shouldn’t have been. People there were watching that graceful dance as the bread and wine were placed “just so,” awaiting the prayerful dance of words that would ask the Holy Spirit to descend, in that hour, making ordinary food holy and ordinary people holy, not through anything we had done but through what God has and continues to do for the world.

All I can say is that most of us saw a little girl at home in the House of the Lord, dancing in the presence of the glory of God, giving thanks in her own way for the gifts that were about to be shared with everyone who had walked through those doors and been washed and refreshed and forgiven in the waters of baptism. Perhaps we were jealous, too, of the freedom she seemed to embody naturally and the joy and wonder she expressed. Those things sometimes get slowly squeezed out of us as we grow into adulthood.

But I’d like to think that growing into our Christian identity, as children of God, gathering together in this place, roots us continually in that kind of freedom, in the joy and wonder that the words of the Book of Common Prayer ask God to give to the newly baptized — to most of us here, whether we were baptized a few months ago, several years ago, or perhaps now many decades ago.[1] And if you haven’t been baptized but want to be, talk to me today right after this service. We’ll make sure you get baptized.

In our Old Testament reading from the Second Book of Samuel, there’s dancing too.[2] (And, yes, I’m well aware of the fact that there’s also dancing in our reading from the Gospel of Mark, but that would be a very different kind of sermon.[3]) Here we see David, already anointed as king over Israel, dressed not as a ballerina but in a linen ephod. That was a kind of sleeveless garment which was worn by the priests. It would have looked something like the chasuble our own priests wear to preside at the Table.

We’re told not once but twice that David “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[4] It wasn’t filled with the delicate and graceful moves I was trying to describe to you earlier, the ones I had seen in Minnesota. This was a total emersion in the sense of belonging to God, unrestrained, even scandalous, according the standards of the old guard.

Hence the reference to Michal who “despised [David] in her heart” after looking out a window at him “leaping and dancing before the Lord.”[5] She knew a thing or two about royal dignity because she was the daughter of the former king, Saul. But what makes Michal’s reaction really sting is the fact that she was also the first wife of the present king. Yes, she was married to David, who wasn’t acting with a shred of dignity in his jubilation.

Here we can see the enactment of the words of Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel, in the First Book of Samuel. Hannah sang a song to proclaim that “[the Lord] brings low, he also exalts. [The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust . . . to make them sit with princes.”[6] And remember that David had been a shepherd, and the youngest son of Jesse, someone who was obviously never meant to be a king in the eyes of the world.

To be sure, David was no saint. As I’ve said before from this pulpit, David was unfaithful, unforgiving, and unmerciful. Yet he was also an unlikely vessel of God’s grace, which, of course, means each of us can also be an unlikely vessel of God’s grace. It has been said that God, transforming our countless mistakes, writes straight with crooked lines. And that’s certainly true in the pages of the Bible whenever we read about King David.

But there’s another character in today’s story. Well, it’s really an object — the ark of the covenant. This wooden box held the stone tablets on which were written the ten words, the ten commandments, the self-revelation of God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Atop the lid were two angels, cherubim, and the glory of the Lord was enthroned above their outstretched wings.

Attached to two wooden poles, the ark could be carried to accompany God’s people. But it had been separated from them, having been captured in battle by the Philistines.[7] After the Philistines encounter some bad luck with the ark, it gets parked somewhere for about 20 years. That’s when David finally shows up with his entourage of thousands and the equivalent of an old coat check ticket to take the ark to its new home in Jerusalem.

So this wild parade into Jerusalem, known as the City of David, represents a different and much longer journey than the actual number of steps from the metaphorical coat closet where it had been left behind. The real movement, invigorating the whole scene, including David’s “Saturday Night Fever,” is the movement from despair to joy, from what seemed like the absence of God to an overwhelming sense of the presence of God.

It’s a preview of the journey the Israelites will experience in being sent into exile and then being brought back home. It’s a preview of the journey the followers of Jesus will experience in the disappointment of Good Friday and the surprise of Easter. It’s a preview of the journey we’ve made over the past year as Palmers, together with the rest of humanity, from separation to reunion within the walls of this church and around this Holy Table.

The reality of homecoming and our belief in the resurrection ought to overwhelm us like a flood with a sense of “the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty” of the Lord.[8] It ought to wash over us like the waters of baptism, like the music that washed over me in Minnesota, inspiring a little girl to dance before the altar.

There’s dancing taking place right now too. The children who processed out of the church before the sermon are talking about this story and dancing to music. And there was dancing last night, too, across the street in Hermann Park. Palmer’s own Carol Streatfeild and her son Theo were both dancing at McGovern Centennial Gardens. They were with a group of dancers in that public space performing art to the sound of a cello and other instruments. It might not have been the “lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” or “the sound of the trumpet,” the shofar, that accompanied the ark as it made its way toward Jerusalem.[9] But it captured the attention of those walking by, causing them to stop, if only for a moment.

They danced across the grass to the pool of water in front of the pavilion, pausing there before continuing their journey to a new location where people gathered to watch and listen and ponder. Now I don’t know what any of that meant to Carol and Theo and the other dancers and the musicians and those who experienced all of this. For me, the pool resembled baptismal waters and the rest was an announcement of peace to the City of Houston.

I believe peace and beauty and community are gifts that flow, like a dance, whether slow and graceful or fast and jubilant, from the presence of God. And I believe this is where we learn how to dance in the world, in response to the overwhelming mercy and forgiveness and acceptance we receive through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah.

So today I hope you’ll notice other Palmers, other Christians, other people created in God’s image and filled with the Spirit, dancing the world and not despise them in your heart but rejoice with them. In the words sung by country music star Lee Ann Womack:

Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.[10]

AMEN

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 308. This is the prayer which is said by a priest or bishop over those who have just been baptized:

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen

BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19.

BACK TO POST Mark 6:14-29.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:5, 14.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:16.

BACK TO POST I Samuel 2:1-10.

BACK TO POST I Samuel 4:1-11.

BACK TO POST II Chronicles 29:11. This is the translation in the Book of Common Prayer (1979), and here is the complete offertory sentence which a priest said at today’s worship services before the people’s gifts of bread and wine were placed on the Table for Holy Communion:

Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty. For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:5, 15.

10 BACK TO POST The words of this signature song of country music singer Lee Ann Womack were written by Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers. Womack also sang this song in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, which is my alma mater, during the funeral for Wake Forest’s Reynolds Professor of American Studies Maya Angelou.

AP News: “The truth is still out there.”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, June 27, 2021

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

Among last week’s very important news, of course, was the release of an unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on UFOs, which the government seems to want to call Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. And according to the most recent Gallup poll about all of this kind of thing, which was taken two summers ago, one-third of Americans believe that some of those UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets and galaxies. Now putting that fascinating information side by side with the fact that only about one percent of the American population identifies as Episcopalian begs the question: What do the aliens know about getting their message out that the Episcopal Church doesn’t?

Reading news articles about that DNI report made me feel like a child again, as if I was watching reruns of the 1970s TV series Project U.F.O. based on the Air Force’s real-life Project Blue Book, which investigated these strange sightings in the 1950s and 1960s. The bottom line, according a recent article by the Associated Press, is this intriguing but unsatisfying conclusion:

The truth is still out there.

On the flip side, there’s still lots of wonder left in the universe, even wonder about angels and archangels and other Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

There’s still lots of wonder left on the good Earth too — lots of things that make us want to say to the people around us the words of the psalmist today, while inviting enthusiastically with our hands both them and even complete strangers to join us: “Sing to the Lord, you servants of his; give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.” Or as the down to earth version in the Message puts it: “All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank [God] to his face!” In other words, let’s praise God together.

The rejoicing into which the psalmist waves us isn’t that time when she felt like she was having a mountaintop experience. I mean, [*whispers*] just between you and me, this psalmist was rather insufferable back then. As the seventh verse of Psalm 30 says, “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed. You, Lord, with your favor, make me as strong as the mountains.” Most of us were somewhere else, down in the valley, when she was shouting at us from on high. And what we heard were these words from the Message version: “When things were going great I crowed, ‘I’ve got it made. I’m God’s favorite. [God] made me [queen] of the mountain.” Or maybe those were the awkward words we were saying to others below us.

Not surprisingly, all that self-righteousness came to an end in a gloriously spectacular crash. Everything fell apart, and the crowing from the mountaintop suddenly ceased. The terrifying image for that both here and elsewhere in the Bible is of God’s face being hidden from us. It’s the opposite of the priestly blessing of Aaron, brother of Moses, from the Book of Numbers, when we say over a living congregation or at the grave, literally over one of our own who has died and been lowered into the ground:

The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you . . .

This is how the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes what’s happening at this deeply upsetting moment in Psalm 30. “It is the way of a small child,” he writes, “who is frantic but is suddenly okay when she see’s her mother’s face. But if mother turns away or is absent or is unavailable or is unresponsive, the world is immediately a place of threat. When God’s face of blessing was hidden, ‘I was in dismay.’”[1]

But from that gut-wrenching moment, the one speaking, whether you or me or someone else, did not cease crying out to God, making her case about her connection, her abiding relationship, with the Holy One of Israel:

“Can you sell me for a profit when I’m dead?
auction me off at at cemetery yard sale?

When I’m ‘dust to dust’ my songs
and stories of you won’t sell.

So listen! and be kind!
Help me out of this!”

[And] you did it: you changed wild lament
into whirling dance;

You ripped off my black mourning band
and decked me with wildflowers.

I’m about to burst with song;
I can’t keep quiet about you.

God, my God,
I can’t thank you enough.

At least that’s how the version of Psalm 30 in the Message tells the rest of the story. Usually we hear part of it this way: “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” But you have your own words and your own stories to tell about the presence of God in your life or in the lives of those around you, including many of us here today.

In some cases, your own stories will follow the pattern of this psalm, this prayer. That moment of rescue occasions its opening words of praise and thanks. When the voice of the psalmist proclaims to God, “You have lifted me up,” she’s not talking about being lifted up to her mountaintop experience. No, she’s referring to having been lifted up out of the grave, raised up out of the pit, pulled up into an open place where she can breathe.

So when she invites those around her to join her, to sing to the Lord, to come together as the Lord’s people, she’s talking to them face to face, not shouting down at them, not separated from them out of pride or a sense of superiority. She’s on their level, grateful to be alive rather than six feet under. There’s a genuine humility in her invitation to us.

At other times, however, when we want God to be near to us, when we want God to rescue us, our honest prayer ends with the same words as a very different psalm, which says “darkness is my only companion.” Those are the surprising final words of Psalm 88. Sometimes that’s all we can say.

So don’t be afraid to describe things as they really are in your own prayers. And don’t cease crying out to God. Be persistent, like the psalmist today, watching for God, even when — especially when — the divine countenance seems hidden by the most intense and frightening storms of life.

Many of you will recall hearing echoes of some of this in a parable Jesus told hundreds of years later. It’s the story of the importunate or persistent widow. This widow doesn’t cease to ask for justice until the judge finally does something about it. The judge’s countenance might be turned away, but hers most certainly is not. Her gaze is fixed on that judge’s seat.

“The point of the parable,” according to Brueggemann, “is to carry the nightmare to God and insist that God should deal with it and then to trust your life to the God of all nightmares.”[2] Otherwise you will just sit there in silence, removed from the congregation and seemingly removed from God, growing cynical about everything under the sun and everyone around you. But according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told his disciples that parable about a widow so that they would “pray always and . . . not lost heart.”

So what if you choose not to embrace those words?

Well, if you get settled into that metaphorical recliner of cynicism and stay seated there, using your remote to click through the channels of this life and judging them all, I declare this to you as a minister of the gospel: The truth is still out there. And even if you take that cynicism with you to the grave, someone like me will stand over you and speak the truth, remembering that joy comes in the morning, at the general resurrection, and say,

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious unto you.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 182.

BACK TO POST Brueggemann 185.

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.

Casting Lots to Discern God’s Will

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021

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

About six miles from the house where I grew up in North Carolina is a Moravian church called Friedland, which means “Land of Peace” in German. When a man named Tycho Nissen was sent there in 1775 from the nearby town of Salem (now Winston-Salem) to organize that country church, he had been married for less than a month. Although this will sound odd, 12 days before the wedding, he and future wife weren’t even a couple.

Tycho knew he was meant to marry a woman named Salome the same way everyone knew these things in Moravian religious communities in the 18th century — by the use of the lot. Church leaders used three pieces of paper. One indicated “yes” (Ja), another indicated “no” (Nein), and the third was blank, meaning “not yet.” Following prayer, one of those pieces of paper was picked out of a container. [picks a folded piece of paper out of a glass jar and reads it] Hmm, that’s interesting. Maybe I should try that again.

Because Tycho had been appointed to an official task on behalf of the church, organizing that rural congregation, which is why he was required to get married, how they used the lot was recorded in the church minutes.[1]

Church leaders had a discussion about Tycho’s marriage, first suggesting the name of a widow in the community. The lot said no. Then they suggested the name of another woman, and the lot again said no. Finally, they suggested the name of Salome, the daughter of a Moravian minister, and the lot said yes. Seven days later it was announced that Tycho and Salome would indeed be getting married. Five days after that they were.

Now, so everyone here won’t be kept in suspense and worry unnecessarily, just know things worked out for them. They would have four children, including a son named Christian, who is my 4th great-grandfather.

Everyone involved in what I’ve just described truly believed they were doing God’s will, following the biblical example of the early church. Moravians used the lot to make other important decisions too, like where exactly to lay out the town of Salem in 1765. But several years after that, they also used prayer and the lot to decide if it was acceptable in the eyes of God to purchase an enslaved teenager.[2] The lot said yes. Was that God’s will too?

How do you know what God’s will is for you? While growing up, or even as an adult, did you ever throw open a Bible and let the pages settle in the genuine hope that God would somehow speak to you, show you the way, lead you beyond whatever that thing was you were struggling with? Did you ever do it again and again to get a different answer — an answer that was more clear, more like what you wanted to hear? I’ll admit I did that.

Or did you retreat into an intense season of prayer, desperately bargaining alone with the Almighty? (If you give me what I want, if you tell me it’s ok to walk down this path, I’ll do anything for you, O Lord.) In those kinds of conversations, we tend to take up all of the oxygen in the room. And in the silence that follows, too often we jump to the conclusion that God’s will and our will are perfectly aligned. Throughout the years, I’ve witnessed people pray hard, really hard, about difficult things, drawing conclusions about God’s will for them that affect their families without having talked to their spouses or that affect their church membership without having talked to their priests. If you already think God’s on your side, no one will be able to say anything otherwise without seeming to be opposed to God.

There are times when a lot of heartache could’ve been prevented if others, including God, had been invited into those prayerful wrestlings. It doesn’t mean the answer would have been different, but it invites to the table God and those who care about you, who want the best for you, who love you.

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard about prayer in combination with the casting of lots to figure out what to do next. Drawing the short straw, picking a name out of a hat, throwing dice — whatever you want to call it — goes back thousands of years to the first books of the Bible. It’s how Moses distributed land to the tribes of Israel.[3] It’s how his brother Aaron picked the right goat to make a sacrifice to God.[4]

Aaron and the other high priests of Israel who would follow after him wore something called the “breastplate of judgement,” which held a couple of mysterious objects called the Urim and Thummim. Those words in Hebrew appear on the logo of Yale University, where they’re also translated somewhat expansively as “Light and Truth.”[5] Surely we’d like to have light and truth shining upon us while facing a difficult decision.

The Urim and Thummim were taken out of that breastplate when the priests needed to know the will of God. They were probably thrown like dice in a ritual to do that.[6] [throws dice on the floor and looks down at them] I have no idea what that means. I must have skipped that class in divinity school.

Anyway, after the death of Judas, the eleven remaining apostles cast lots after they reconvene in the upper room to discern the will of God and figure out the restoration of the twelve — meaning twelve apostles, those who are sent, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. It was an unusual election with two fully qualified candidates, but with only one presumably divine vote.

That’s how Matthias is chosen to be an apostle, someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning, from the moment of his baptism by John the Baptist. And he believed he was called to that new role, called by God, to be a witness to the resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

What’s important about the story of the calling of Matthias isn’t the casting of lots. The point isn’t the method but the posture.[7] Together as a community those gathered in that upper room turn toward the lovingkindness of the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Together they search the scriptures. Together they pray. And they finally loosen their grip, letting go, confessing their limitations, allowing God to speak to them.

And that’s the part I left out when describing 18th-century marriages in the Moravian Church. It was really about communal discernment, a form of semi-arranged marriages in which proposed matches were discussed after having been suggested either by the men or by the church leaders. A “yes” from the use of the lot merely gave a green light to proceed with that same process. The women could still say no, which they sometimes did.[8]

That’s a stark contrast to the time Moravians needed to make a decision about owning a human being as property. When that was put to the lot, the community wasn’t working together, they were divided.[9] There’s a sense in which the lot was used to break a tie, but not a tie between two equally noble choices as in today’s story from the Book of Acts.

In this case, I believe their trust was misplaced, focusing on the lot rather than on their relationships, including their relationships with the strangers in their midst — people like that enslaved teenager, who had a different language, a different history, a different color of skin. When the Moravian Church wanted to be released from the economic burden of caring for him, he was granted his freedom. By that time, however, he and his wife were older and would struggle to provide for their children.[10]

Earlier I mentioned my fourth great-grandfather Christian Nissen. His brother-in-law, John Vogler, was a Moravian artisan and silversmith. John sought permission to marry seven times in Salem from 1814 to 1818. Six times the lot did not say yes, and one time the woman said no.[11]

Then, in 1818, the Moravian Church stopped using the lot in this way for marriages, with the exception of proposed marriages for ordained ministers.[12] Only then did John ask a woman named Christina to marry him. She was who he had first wanted to marry four years earlier. Since he was a silversmith, he made her wedding ring, which had this inscription:

With God and Thee My Joy shall be.[13]

Well, hearing the words of that inscription, it’s clear John believed that God, beyond the use of the lot, would be very much at the heart of their marriage. Perhaps the Holy Spirit had been at work in a strange way throughout those four years — and still is today — showing us, at the end of the day, that love really does win in this or some other important part of our life.

And it’s important to know that there still remained a circle of prayerful discernment about that engagement, beyond John Vogler himself, which included the Christian community to which he and Christina belonged.

The truth is that we see in the Book of Acts many different ways in which the followers of Jesus open their hearts to God’s will for them. The casting of lots to set apart a new apostle in today’s reading erases the humiliation of the casting of lots for the clothing of Jesus by the Roman soldiers who were executing him. In that scene at the cross in the Gospel of Luke, it appeared that God was absent, that God either didn’t care or didn’t exit.

But as we’ll be reminded next Sunday, God did care. God didn’t leave empty either the building or the space between us after Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, returned from whence he came. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit would be poured out upon the followers of Jesus, filling each of their hearts and every corner of the world with the divine presence, with mercy and grace. The glory of God went with the people of God.

And once that happens, we never read again in the New Testament about the use of the lot to discern God’s will. It’s as if a page had been turned and a new chapter had begun. So I invite you to come back here next week to focus on the outpouring of the Spirit more than on the drawing of straws. The Spirit intercedes for us, even when we don’t know how to pray or how to throw dice, even when we’re unsure about what to do next, even when we get it wrong, helping us realize that, turning us around, drawing us back into a community of open hearts and open hands. This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Volume II, 1752-1775, edited by Adelaide L. Fries (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1925) 895.

BACK TO POST “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website.

BACK TO POST Numbers 34:13-15.

BACK TO POST Leviticus 16:5-10.

BACK TO POST Joel Baden, Twitter thread on Exodus 28:13-30, April 5, 2021. He is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

BACK TO POST Joel Baden, Twitter thread on Exodus 28:13-30, April 5, 2021. He is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

BACK TO POST Jerusha Matsen Neal, “Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26,” Working Preacher website, May 16, 2021.

BACK TO POST “The Relation of the Lot [to Moravian Marriages],” Bethlehem Digital History Project website.

BACK TO POST “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website. A newspaper article that explores the complexity of enslavement within the Moravian Church is “Hidden in History: Old Salem’s Hidden Town” by Kathy Norcross Watts, Winston-Salem Journal, February 1, 2018. Another one is “Slavery in Old Salem” by Susan Ladd, Greensboro News & Record, February 3, 1992. A book that explores this in depth is Jon F. Sensbach’s A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). While it’s true the enslaved teenager, whose Christian name would be Johann Samuel, wanted “to know the Saviour” and asked to be purchased by the Moravian Church, he was nevertheless bought as human property “by permission of the Lord.” Additional details can be found in the first link in this footnote from Historic Bethabara Park.

10 BACK TO POST  “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website.

11 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.

12 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.

13 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.

One Giant Leap for Sheep-Kind

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021

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

The closest I’ve ever felt to living the idealized life of a priest in the English countryside was when I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. I would bring my English cocker spaniel with me to the church office, and we’d take a break most afternoons by walking out of the Parish House and heading down Duke of Gloucester Street. At this time of the year, we’d walk past Bruton Parish Church and lots of other things to find the most spectacular sight — the first lambs of the year, frolicking around pastures marked off by white wooden fences and old brick walls, parts of which dated to the 18th century.

Those sheep date to the 18th century too. Not any of the individual sheep, of course. I’m talking about the breed — the Leicester Longwool, which goes back to about 1755 in Leicestershire, England.[1] George Washington raised hundreds of sheep and used this breed to improve his stock.[2] But it’s now a rare breed. They died out in America probably around 1920.

So how did those little lambs make it to Virginia? Well, more than three decades ago, their ancestors — eight ewes, one ram, and six lambs — were sent there from Australia. Now about 50 of their descendants still live in Williamsburg, with cousins scattered across about 120 Leicester Longwool flocks today in the United States.[3]

So here’s the thing. They’re beautiful. They’re thriving and flourishing. They bring joy to children who see those little lambs learning how to walk awkwardly in the spring. But they didn’t get there on their own. They didn’t engineer their own comeback. They didn’t build a safe pasture within which they can feast to their hearts’ content and stay together as a flock, as kind of a community. They needed enormous amounts of help, far beyond their own ability to help themselves. They need protection. They need a shepherd.

And so do we. Help and protection and shepherding are things we need too. As much as we hate to admit it, I really do think the human condition is wonderfully summed up in a 30-second video that’s been making the rounds on social media. It was posted on YouTube just last Sunday and starts off showing a boy trying to rescue a sheep which had gotten itself stuck in a ditch. All on its own, this poor animal ended up in about as dire a situation as possible, head down, straight down in a really narrow ditch.

So the boy pulls mightily on one its hind legs, finally liberating it. In that exhilarating moment your heart leaps for joy as you see a creature being given its freedom. But in merely five seconds of that freedom, this sheep bounces through the grass and takes one giant leap for sheep-kind, landing right back in the same ditch, in the same position.

Who hasn’t felt like that sheep somewhere along the way? If you haven’t, you will. That image of being brought out of a place of constriction and into a broad place where one is able to breathe freely and deeply and joyfully reminds me of these words from Psalm 31:

I hate those who cling to worthless idols, *
and I put my trust in the Lord.

I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy; *
for you have seen my affliction; you know my distress.

You have not shut me up in the power of the enemy; *
you have set my feet in an open place.[4]

Hopefully after we’ve more than once become unstuck, no thanks to our own efforts, we’re able to be self-reflective enough, if only momentarily, to realize God is with us, and always has been. Think of the boy rescuing that sheep and remaining nearby, even if the sheep doesn’t see him as it’s gleefully exercising its free will by choosing to run away.

Well, I resemble that remark, and you probably do too. It’s not that we don’t have free will. It’s that we have a tendency not to use it very well. That tendency as human beings, even more than our individual poor choices, is what we call sin. It’s what binds us, trips us, sends us hurtling into the ditch as a result of either what we do or what others do.

But that’s not the end of the story.

As the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm remind us:

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; *
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul; *
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his Name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; *
for thou art with me . . .[5]

With us. God is with us. God is with us now and always. God is with us in whatever ditch we find ourselves hopelessly stuck in, even if it seems like hell to us. That awareness of God’s presence is the key which unlocks the door to the room in which we’ve hidden ourselves out of fear. It’s what breaks apart the gates of hell through the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

. . . though I walk through the darkest valley . . . you are with me.[6]

That’s where we stop talking about God in the third person and start speaking to God directly. That’s where the words of the 23rd Psalm drop down from the head to the heart. That’s where a conversation happens and a relationship begins. That’s where the marrow of this beloved psalm is discovered in its very bones. In the original Hebrew, the phrase “you are with me” is literally in the middle of this psalm with 26 words before it and 26 words after it.[7] God’s presence stands at the center of it, just as it stands at the center of your life, within and beyond all those ditches.

As Christians, we look to Jesus as the Good Shepherd who rescues us, who lays down his life for us. We describe Jesus as Emmanuel, which means God with us. We come to know Jesus in the fellowship of the church as the one who runs to us, embraces us, befriends us, even when we feel godforsaken, when we feel as if no one else in the world could possibly want to love us.[8]

The good news of this Easter season is that the face of Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, is turned toward you even if you are turned away from him, even if you are running away from him as fast as you can. And what will pursue you all the days of your life isn’t condemnation and rejection from someone who is your enemy but only goodness and mercy, as promised in the 23rd Psalm, from someone who is your friend.

That’s what will eventually catch up with you — goodness and mercy rushing through the labyrinthine passageways of your past and washing over you like the waters of baptism. I’m not talking about a little sprinkle of water. I’m talking about a wave of goodness and mercy, a cup that is running over with forgiveness, even if you’re only able to recognize it after this life, when standing face to face with the Lord in the life to come.

But most of us won’t have to wait until then. Most of us have moments, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, when we pause to grieve the loss of someone we’ve loved. Standing at the edge of the grave brings a lot things into sharp focus. Some of us realize in the midst of our tears that we can’t make our way through such deep grief on our own. By grace we’re able to see that God has been reaching out to us all along in the lives of those whom we’ve loved and those whom we’ve met — not through idealized lives but through lives that were real and imperfect and just like our own.

Even beyond the grave, their love, which finds its source in God, has unstuck us time and time again from lots of different ditches. Although we miss them, as the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann would say:

They are present to [us and unforgotten], because in their love [we] became free and can breathe in wide spaces.[9]

And death can’t take that away from us.

To that I will only add this, hearkening back to the words of the 23rd Psalm: We shall be reunited with them and dwell in the house of Lord for ever. This I believe. This is the joy of Easter. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

AMEN

BACK TO POST “Leicester Longwool Sheep: History of the Breed,” Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association, Leicestershire, England.

BACK TO POST George Washington, in a letter to Arthur Young, June 18-21, 1792, writes that “Bakewells breed of Sheep [i.e., Leicester Longwool] are much celebrated, and deservedly I presume . . .” After noting that British law prohibited the importation of this breed and that ship captains who attempted to do so could face “serious consequences,” he continued:

Others however, less scrupulous, have attempted to import English Rams with Success, and by this means our flocks in many places are much improved—mine for instance, ’though I never was concerned directly nor indirectly in the importation of one, farther than by buying lambs which have descended from them. the average weight of the fleeces being 5 lbs.

BACK TO POST “Welcome, Lambs,” Colonial Williamsburg, March 23, 2020.

BACK TO POST Psalm 31:6-8 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Psalm 23:1-4 (King James Version).

BACK TO POST Psalm 23:4 (New Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Psalm 23: God Is with Us,” Enter the Bible from Luther Seminary.

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008) 382. I’ve adapted words he used to describe himself in order to describe us all.

“Hymns of praise then let us sing . . .”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 4, 2021

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

Today we sing . . . together. Today we not only say the Easter proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead, we will sing as a congregation, “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!” It’s been so very long since we’ve done that. Sitting here on the lawn of the church by these beautiful live oaks, we’re surrounded by the noise of the city, surrounded by a cacophony of sounds from across the street at the the largest medical center in the world.

Those sirens rushing into the Texas Medical Center, pleading for mercy or wailing in grief, remind us daily of life and death. And there’s been so much death, so much loss, over the past year in this and other countries.

So whether we’ve come to this service with hearts filled with confidence or genuine joy or the heaviness of grief or hope that’s more than a wish or a thousand disappointments or a longing for the rumor of death’s destruction to be true or doubts overflowing in every direction, we can sing together once again as we bear one another’s burdens. And our words sung today beneath the canopy of a clear sky can be our own prayers — our own conversation with God that surrounds all of the noise, everything going on around us and also everything going on within us, with the love of Jesus.

And if you can’t think of that as prayer because you’re not sure about prayer or you wonder if anyone’s listening or the empty tomb seems empty of meaning, know that others are praying for you today, holding themselves and you, holding this church and the world, in a love stronger than death.

Regardless of what brings us here for Easter, each of us needs love, each of us needs mercy. We need these things in our own lives, and we hope for them in the lives of those closest to us, because we’re human. Religious or not, one way or another, we all seek these gifts that come from outside of ourselves and, hopefully, we share them with others as we are able.

Even when love and mercy appear like a life raft while in solitude, many of us here on this Easter morning would say that they come to us as divine gifts, that they really and truly and freely come to us from the risen Christ.

Maybe the physical distance we have endured for so long over these past months has made us at least a little more aware of our need for love and mercy. I hope that’s true and that we’ll remember, as things slowly return to a new normal, the wonder of how these divine gifts are experienced in community. If we share them as much as we so desperately want to receive them, that will surely be a blessing to ourselves, our church, and our city.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve unexpectedly found myself paying attention to things in ways I never could’ve imagined a year ago. When taking our dogs on a walk through the neighborhood with my family, or while walking around by myself, I’ve seen more than a few street blocks for the first time because they’re usually out of the way if just driving from point A to point B. I’ve greeted “new” neighbors and noticed a lot of details on different houses — houses that I’m seeing for the first time or others that I’ve passed by dozens of times in the past while focused on an errand or something here at the church or “things . . . left undone,” a phrase we say so often but sometimes unreflectively in our prayer of confession in worship.

On this Easter Day, the Fourth Gospel — the beautiful and poetic Gospel of John — offers us an even more remarkable new perspective on the world, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it pays attention to a lot of details. For example, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea petitioned the Roman governor for the body of Jesus. Nicodemus helped him remove the lifeless body and brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”[1] They wrapped his body “with the spices in linen cloths.”[2] Then, in a garden near the place where he had died, they placed Jesus in “a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.”[3]

Sunlight was swallowed up by the horizon at the end of that Good Friday, marking the beginning of the Sabbath — a day of rest for the body of Jesus, for the women who had stood near his cross, for the disciples who had fled from his sufferings, and for those who had condemned him in the name of God. Perhaps it was also a day of rest for his Roman executioners, a brief interlude between stamping out rebellion at the edge of the empire.

The writer of the Fourth Gospel draws us into this holy rest through silence in the text itself, but not before reminding us of something important. He hints that we should use this time reflecting on the meaning of the Jewish Passover. It was a time to retell the stories of Moses and the Exodus. It was a time to remember that God is greater than the pharaohs of this world and that the grip of oppression is weaker than the hand of deliverance. It was a time to remember that God makes a way where there is no way, as he did at the Red Sea. And it was a time to hear with the ears of the imagination the distant sound of Miriam’s tambourine. Her words of rejoicing still ring out:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.[4]

Perhaps the distance between Miriam’s song of victory, which is closer to the beginning of the Bible, and Mary Magdalene’s grief, which is closer to the end of the Bible, seems like an unbridgeable gap to you. If that diminishment of hope, that incongruity between God’s promise and your present is real for you this morning, whether from something happening in your own life or in the world, know this: Mary Magdalene weeps with you.

Today we heard that she came to the place where Jesus had been buried “while it was still dark.”[5] And in the darkness, she discovered that the stone no longer sealed the tomb and the body of Jesus was nowhere to be found. It must have been terrifying. Later that same morning, she stood there again, outside the tomb, weeping in solitude.

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, divine love fills the emptiness within Mary Magdalene’s heart, opening her heart to see the world differently, to see herself differently, as the risen Christ calls her by name. This is the detail that matters, that causes her to recognize who it is that stands before her. And one of the great mysteries of Easter is for you and me, for all of us, to stand before God fully known and yet, miraculously, fully loved. And that love will never let go of you, even in death.

In that moment Mary Magdalene becomes the first witness to God’s gracious rejection of the world’s dreadful rejection. In that moment she knew the power of God was bound neither by the stone in front of the tomb nor by the linen wrappings which had embraced the body of Jesus. “He arose from the kingdom of Death and carried away its spoils.”[6]

If that’s true — if Hell is indeed vanquished and Death has been destroyed — the world isn’t the same as it was. As one believer describes it,

In a world where everything seems to be going wrong, God has put something very right.[7]

Here’s more good news: You don’t have to wait until you’re standing in the middle of a pandemic or until things become a lot more normal to start looking at yourself or the world around you differently, to notice things, little things, small details, as if for the first time. You can do that after you leave today, walking away from this beautiful service in the light of the Resurrection. You can do it sooner, too, as we join our voices with Angels and Archangels, with Miriam’s tambourine and all the company of heaven.

And then you’ll be invited to receive love and mercy and forgiveness in your own hands — these divine gifts that fill all the hidden, wounded places in our hearts and make them overflow with the joy of Easter. And this year, this Easter Day, we get to burst into song about that great mystery . . . together.

“Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!”

AMEN

BACK TO POST John 19:39.

BACK TO POST John 19:40.

BACK TO POST John 19:41.

BACK TO POST Exodus 15:21.

BACK TO POST John 20:1.

BACK TO POST Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 237.

BACK TO POST Joanna Adams as quoted by John M. Buchanan, “Easter Revolution” in The Christian Century (April 5, 2003) 3.