Literal and Living Stones

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter V, May 10, 2020

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

My father had an electrical contractor’s license, and I often rode in the pickup with him on our way to the church when he would stop by there for an hour or two to fix things. So I spent a lot of time as a kid running around that church in North Carolina where I was raised. Let’s just say this global pandemic isn’t the first time I’ve stood behind a pulpit in front of empty pews. It was great fun to be an explorer there.

Once I opened a storage closet and was surprised to feast my eyes upon a detailed architectural model of the whole campus. It didn’t include the tobacco fields that bordered everything on two sides of the church property. But it did include one building I had never seen — a church that wasn’t there in real life, a church in a spot where there was only grass. In this miniature, magical scene, I was seeing how the future had been envisioned long before I was baptized in that congregation.

The worship space that was familiar to me was on the first floor of a two-story building. It had beautiful dark wooden pews, and it looked like a traditional church on the inside. But all of that was meant to be temporary. Although forgotten by many, or even unknown to them, the idea had always been that, down the road, there should be a “real” church beside it. That idea came back to the surface in the late 70s, when my father was asked to serve as chair of the building committee.

The church that stands there now doesn’t look like the one in the model. It’s actually prettier than that one, and it was the last piece of a puzzle, completing the picture. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t really hard for some people to move just a few feet away from one space to the other. Temporary or not, that old church interior was the one I had always known, where children were baptized, where tears were shed at funerals of friends and family, where prayers were offered for the forgiveness of sins. It’s also where bread and wine — well, red grape juice at least — became holy food and farmers and factory workers, nurses and teachers became holy people.

I was ten years old when the groundbreaking took place. That Sunday Daddy would get to use a brand new shovel, of course. But first we gathered inside the old church, and these are some of the words we sang in those pews from the Moravian Hymnal:

With joyfulness and longing, we look to thee, O Lord;
receive us in thy mercy, and cheer us with thy Word.
Crown us with loving kindness and promises of grace,
and let thy benediction abide within this place.

The years have all been crowded with tokens of thy love;
and many who here sought thee now worship thee above.
But we, O Lord, still need thee our pilgrim feet to stay,
for evil often triumphs as faith to fear gives way.[1]

I want you to know it’s ok to grieve being away from this building and the people who make it come alive, being away from everything you can see behind me, including this Table where we are reminded that God’s mercy embraces not only us but the whole world. It’s true that the real church is a congregation. But in order to be that, to be God’s people, we have to be gathered somehow. We can do that in the middle of a field or inside someone’s very large house, I suppose, or within these walls. We can do it this way too, although, between you and me, I think we both know this isn’t like singing together in the same room with everyone else. But we’re still God’s people, even in exile, still “a royal priesthood,” as we heard in the First Letter of Peter.[2]

That letter very much wants to turn our gaze from a building to a person, from the Temple in Jerusalem, made with literal stones, to Jesus Christ, a living stone that the builders rejected, that the world rejected. The good news of this Easter season is that God has graciously rejected our dreadful rejection, that God has said yes to us when we said no to him. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to miss all the places we’ve gathered through the years to hear that good news, longing to return to them.

Just a few days ago, downstairs in our columbarium, I officiated for the first time in my ordained ministry at a committal service alone. In the vestments I’m wearing now, I placed the ashes of someone’s mother in their final resting place, within this temple made of concrete and wood and plaster, paint and carvings and candles, things you can see and touch and even smell, with the aroma of incense that lingers in the air like the prayers of one generation after another still ascending to God.

Before I began that interment, I took a moment to stand there, surrounded only by silence. And I have to be honest with you, it didn’t seem real. It felt, instead, like I was about to practice something before the actual service, the one that would surely start later under different circumstances. Maybe over the last couple of months you’ve felt that way too. Maybe you’ve been wondering what’s real, whether seen or unseen, in the world beyond the walls of your house, or wondering what’s real as you find yourself sitting on your couch, pausing for a moment to worship in this hour within the safety of your home, hoping God is still near to you and not far away.

But then I opened the book in my hands and started to say the familiar words, words I knew had been said by generations before me, words I knew would be spoken by others that very same day in many places also nearly empty throughout the world:

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer;
but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty,
O holy and merciful Savior,
thou most worthy Judge eternal.
Suffer us not, at our last hour,
through any pains of death, to fall from thee.[3]

I knew in that moment I wasn’t alone, and neither are you. The words of Saint Paul came to mind, reminding me that nothing is “able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[4] The words of Sister Monica Joan came to mind too. She’s my favorite character in the BBC series Call the Midwife. “The liturgy,” she says, “is of comfort to the disarrayed mind. We need not choose our thoughts, the words are aligned like a rope for us to cling to.”[5] So that’s what I did. I held the rope.

Sister Monica Joan’s disarray is her own dementia. Your disarray might be inside your head too with your work or your relationships or your daughter’s homeschool project or your father’s unwillingness to put on a face mask in public. Or maybe disarray is literally surrounding you in your living room as you hear my voice now.

Whatever form chaos has taken in your life, there is something for you to cling to in the words of our prayers today. And most wonderfully of all, there is Someone who will catch you when you can’t hold on any longer. “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”[6] Of this we have been assured.

Together in Christ, we are — like him — living stones. And here, even now, in this very moment, we are being built into a spiritual house. That house described in First Peter, of which Christ is the cornerstone, is more real than concrete and wood and plaster, more real than things you can see and touch, more beautiful than this church. You have received mercy and forgiveness and the embrace of a loving Savior, “who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” and will never, never, never let go of you, either in this world or in the world to come.[7] This I believe.

AMEN

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BACK TO POST I Peter 2:9.

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BACK TO POST Romans 8:39.

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BACK TO POST I Peter 2:10.

BACK TO POST I Peter 2:9.

My Last Will and Testament, Part II

Joel Cannon, my fourth great-grandfather, was a farmer in Caswell County, North Carolina. His wife, and mother of their five children, died before he signed his last will and testament in 1829. Joel had the means to leave something for all of them. Each of his three daughters, however, received an extra gift. To his daughter Sally, he bequeathed “One Negro Boy named Patrick,” and to his daughter Dorcas he bequeathed “One Negro Boy named Wilkes.” In each of those cases, his instructions were very clear: After the death of their respective mistresses, the enslaved person was “to be sold and the profits equally divided among all the children of the said [daughter] or their legal representatives.” The rest of his estate was to be sold and equally divided among his children, “except Anne Powell, to whom property has heretofore been advanced.” Anne, the youngest of his three daughters, is my great-great-great-grandmother and had married a man named Thomas B. Powell.

Anne’s father had established for her “sole and separate use” a trust, which owned three enslaved Africans — Peggy and her two children, Milly and John. Anne was supposed to receive the proceeds from hiring them out. For the most part, that didn’t happen. So the proceeds held by the trust grew to about $1,500 by the 1850s. Additionally, after her death, these enslaved persons and any children they might have were to be divided between Anne’s children. Samuel M. Cobb, a distant cousin of mine, became the administrator of Anne’s estate after she died in 1855 without a will. He was also one of her sons-in-law and sought legal advice together with Anne’s other two sons-in-law. The opinion of the lawyer they hired was that Anne’s children were owed not only Peggy, Milly, and John but also the accrued funds in the trust.

Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, the lawyer thought it would be best to have Anne’s widower sign a deed to clarify this. So a legal document to that effect was taken by Samuel from the courthouse to the home of a witness about ten miles away. And there Samuel got both his father-in-law Thomas and the witness to sign the deed Old Testament-style, as if reenacting a story about the patriarchs from the pages of Genesis, because “it being night, and there being no light at hand, they were not able to read the paper, and it was never read to or by [his father-in-law] at all.” Truth be told, it didn’t really matter for Thomas. He could neither read nor write.

There would eventually be conflicting testimony in court about who said what to whom that night. In addition to summarizing for his father-in-law the legal opinion that had been given to the children, Samuel thought that, completely separate from the contents of the legal document, he probably told his father-in-law that Peggy would be able to work for him some to do housekeeping. But the witness heard Samuel say “that if he signed that paper he would sign away all of his interest in the estate finally and forever, and we have all agreed to give you the old Negro woman Peggy.” The witness went on to say that Thomas was fine with that because “he only wanted her to cook and wash for him” and that Samuel told his father-in-law that Peggy would have to come back to the children after his death. That was agreeable to Thomas, so he signed the paper, stating his belief that the lawyer would never harm him. The children would later repudiate the way Samuel obtained that signature.

Once it became evident to Thomas that Peggy would not be given to him, he sought out legal counsel, whereupon he came to believe he was entitled to the $1,500 or so which had accrued in the trust. Then, claiming that his signature on the deed had been obtained improperly and that the trustee should have paid him the money anyway, Thomas sued the trustee, his four children by his late wife, and his three sons-in-law. The case went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which invalidated the deed in 1856, awarding the money to Thomas and declaring that his children from Anne were entitled to Peggy, Milly, and John as their  property.

That was the legal side of things, which was pretty straightforward. But there was a darker side to this story beyond the unseemly fact that it was about profits earned from the labor of enslaved Africans and the movement of human beings from one household to another as property. These details are known only because the North Carolina Supreme Court made another ruling in this case, which was referenced in legal footnotes as late as 1961 in Rules of Practice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina, about the striking of “scandalous, impertinent, and irrelevant matter.”

The four children of Anne Powell believed there were other reasons why their father should not be entitled to the possession of Peggy, Milly, and John. They claimed:

. . . that he had abandoned his family and taken up with women of ill-fame; that at one time he had left his wife and children for eighteen months and gone to Louisiana, not having made any provision for them; that [he] was dissipated, careless and wasteful, and was a spendthrift; that he had beaten his wife with a horsewhip, and that a certain negro woman, named Peggy, had often protected her mistress from the brutal violence of [their father].

They also said that their father was never dissatisfied with the arrangement until:

. . . [he] had married one of his kept mistresses, when he became very anxious to get a negro to wait on his wife, and her children who had the misfortune to be born out of wedlock.

At the beginning of 1856, Thomas had married a woman named Mary Ann Combs, who was 30 years younger than his first wife. The 1860 United States Federal Census shows them living in the same household with an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. Those children were born before Anne’s death, and both of them had been given the surname of Powell. Also living with them was a 16-year-old “idiotic” boy named William Poteat. While I don’t know what happened to the eight-year-old boy, the daughter, Donna Versa Powell, was definitely alive when Thomas signed his will in April of 1862. In that will, Thomas provides for his second wife Mary to use his property for the rest of her natural life, with everything eventually going to his daughter Donna. He then states the following, as if contrasting his hopes for Donna with his disappointment in his “lawful children,” as he describes them elsewhere:

I wish my Daughter Donna Versa to be respectful, obedient & kind to her mother & that with the assistance and advice of my Brother John to give her such advantages as my circumstances will allow. Now in regard to my children from my first wife . . . I leave them and their heirs nothing more than I have left them before.

I can’t help but wonder, of course, if my great-great-great-grandmother Anne Powell was murdered as a direct result of domestic violence. And I imagine that Peggy, and perhaps her two children, also experienced brutality at the hands of a man who wasn’t really their master but merely the spouse of their mistress. In her book Our Common Affairs: Texts from Women in the Old South, historian Joan Cashin notes the bond between Anne and Peggy because of “a common enemy in the household” and that such an alliance, although created out of shared trauma, was rare for the time.

Thomas signed his will less than three weeks after enlisting to serve North Carolina as a Confederate soldier in the cavalry. Less than two and a half years later, he died in Virginia as a patient in a Confederate hospital during the Siege of Petersburg. My great-great-great-grandfather is one of about 30,000 Confederate soldiers buried in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery, and his grave is among the minority of those burials that are known and identified. Would that the graves of Anne, Peggy, Milly, and John were also known so that I could visit them to pay my respects, grieving their suffering in this world and praying for their consolation in the world to come.

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

The Last Supper in a Confederate Hospital

Years ago I arrived early to officiate at a graveside funeral in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, and had plenty of time to walk alone through a nearby section with more than 18,000 graves of enlisted Confederate soldiers. Even though I do not embrace or glorify the Confederate cause, as some of them who were conscripted also surely didn’t, I just stood there silently, overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all.

South of Richmond, in the City of Petersburg, is a less well-known burial ground called Blandford Cemetery, second in size in that commonwealth only to Arlington National Cemetery. In the section for Civil War soldiers there at Blandford are buried about 30,000 Confederates, of which only about 3,700 have names and other information attached to them. Those burials are grouped by the states from which they came, row after row of mostly anonymous graves, and row after row of grief.

Even the identified graves at Blandford have the same generic headstones as the anonymous graves, without any names on them. They look like this one, which marks the grave of Thomas B. Powell, who is my great-great-great-grandfather. On March 14, 1862, he enlisted and served as a private in the “Caswell Rangers,” which later became Company C, 3rd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry (also known confusingly as the 41st Regiment, North Carolina Troops). He was buried here on August 23, 1864, which was the same day he died in a hospital during the Siege of Petersburg.

Powell had been a patient at the Confederate States Hospital, only one of numerous Confederate hospitals in Petersburg that cared for wounded soldiers. Inside that hospital were hundreds of beds across three floors of a building that had previously been a tobacco factory. This photograph of it was taken at some point in 1865.

Nearly six months after Powell died in that hospital, a Confederate cavalry officer named George William Beale was admitted there. After the war, he wrote a book that included a chapter about his experience as a patient. This is what he saw:

. . . there were those in every stage of convalescence and others in every stage of physical decline and approaching dissolution. Many from horrible wounds were suffering intense pain, with no heart-rending screams, but with clinched fingers and grim writhings of face and heavily suppressed moans and groans that bespoke horrible agony.

Beale, who later took his meals at his bed, finding that his appetite decreased daily, describes in the quote below his first — and last — communal supper there:

That which impressed me most during this meal was not its poverty, scantiness and meanness, so much as the feeble motions, trembling limbs, wan and cadaverous appearance of those who partook of it. Sidney Smith tells of a corpulent person, who, suffering from the intensity of the heat, wished that he might divest himself of his flesh “and sit in his bones.” Most of my comrades at that hospital table had nearly reached the attenuated state of such a wish. Their cheeks were hollow, their eyes sunken, their countenances dejected and forlorn, and a ghastly pallor appeared in their faces. A few feeble candles lit up the gathering darkness of the long room, cast a pale and sickly light on the group, and made me feel much as though I had entered some dim Plutonian chamber and was breaking bread (that was all there was to break) with pallid shades of the dead.

As an Episcopal priest, I cannot read these words without imagining it as a kind of prelude, however strange, to the heavenly banquet, with an unexpected guest list — all of them wounded and sitting in the shadow of death, many of them very much ungodly and unloving in the cause for which they fought, some of them desiring freedom from earthly tortures while still believing the torture of enslaved Africans was divinely ordained within the pages of the Bible. Good Lord, deliver them and us from ourselves, and be our guest at this table that we, however undeserving, might be guests at your Table, the wrongs within us and around us having been righted.

I know that sounds offensive not only to those who refuse to see white supremacy woven into the fabric of the Confederacy but also to people who are only able to conceive of God’s justice purely, without mercy and forgiveness and the power to dismantle, destroy, and conquer forever the evil that resides within a human heart. Yet this passage from the Epistle to the Christians in Rome often comes to mind:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then . . . will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.[1]

Beale observed that when a patient had taken a turn for the worse and was deemed almost certain to die, a yellow card was placed on his cot over his head. When death had become the last visitor to a such a man lying in great weakness, four black men, enslaved or free, would bring a stretcher and bear the body away for burial. He said that once, late at night, a soldier dying near him asked them to sing hymns so that, as Beale described it, he would depart from this life “on the wings of holy songs that he loved.” I have to wonder if those singing could imagine true freedom not only in the world to come but also in this world — for themselves and their families.

Another time, closer to the early morning, Beale was awakened by the rattling of the apothecary bottles that were stored near him on shelves. A delirious man lying on the cot next to his own, with a yellow card hanging over his head, had apparently decided to take matters into his own hand. By morning’s full arrival he was dead. Then, as they did for saint and sinner alike, for patients who treated them well and those who didn’t, the usual crew of four came to take away his body, finally at rest.

I don’t know how my great-great-great-grandfather died within those walls. But I do know a lot of other things about him. That’s because of a legal case, Powell v. Cobb, adjudicated by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1856. One of the rulings in that case about striking “scandalous, impertinent, and irrelevant matter” appeared in legal footnotes as late as 1961 in Rules of Practice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina. And here’s a reference to it from 1950 in The North Carolina Law Review:

So, yes, it’s true what you’re thinking. There is indeed scandalous behavior by Powell that shall be revealed in my next post, which I am delighted to know you will now read in its entirety. The whole situation was unseemly, even biblical. Yet in the spirit of 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, I think it is important to see things not as we wish them to be, but as they really are, including things in our own lives today.

BACK TO POST Romans 5:6-10.

The Sound of Sirens and Helicopters

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 12, 2020

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

On one of the first days we started recording these services in the church without anyone in the pews, I saw something that’s haunted me ever since. I was about to walk through the side door at the bell tower when I happened to look out toward Main Street, through the bars of the locked gate. Near the front of the church, I saw a solitary man standing there, looking unsure of himself. He was wearing a hospital mask over his face and seemed, understandably, a little lost in this strange new landscape. I mean, I was too. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to figure out if our church was open, or how to get somewhere in the medical center, or just waiting for someone to join him as he stared down the street. I don’t know if he was a patient or the loved one of a patient. I don’t know if he believed in God or would’ve understood anything about the meaning of Easter Day for Christians around the world.

Of course, Christians around the world, including us, are having to wrestle with the meaning of this day in circumstances that last year would’ve seemed unbelievable. Maybe that’s unsettled you. Maybe you or someone you know is plagued by doubt or filled with fear or overwhelmed by sadness like Mary Magdalene must have been as she came to the tomb, “while it was still dark,” on the first day of the week. Maybe we’re afraid these words from a poem by Erika Takacs, harkening back to the beginning of our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, will be a description of reality, a description of the truth, as we walk in the dark with Mary to the tomb of Jesus:

They say there will be no Easter this year.
No hats.
No hunts.
No hymning.
No lilies to fill a bright room
with a fanfare of pollen.
No garden, no angel,
no victory.

They say that our journey
born in sackcloth and ashes
will lead us at last
to nowhere.

And so we sit worried
that the tomb, this year,
will be found, for once,
still full.

That Mary and the others
will leave with their spices
and come back home with nothing.
That this year the women will finally end their work —
anoint and then
leave empty.[1]

Mary went to that tomb to complete the funeral. Like those who’ve died in recent weeks around the world, the circumstances under which Jesus died meant he had to be buried without all of the proper rites of his religious tradition. Left undone were things meant to treat his body respectfully after it had been so mistreated by those who tortured him, after he had been abandoned by his disciples, after he had been forsaken, hearing only divine silence in response to his cry from the cross.

In years past — or “the before times,” as one of my friends put it — I’ve always been struck by the jarring transition from our quiet and solemn reflection in worship inside these walls on Good Friday to what happens afterwards as soon as the front doors of the church are opened wide onto Main Street. There’s the rush of traffic coming in and out of the medical center, and not infrequently the wailing of a siren from a passing ambulance. But that’s only a contrast in sound, not in significance. Then as now, many of those people heading into the medical center are having their own experience of Good Friday, or fear they might feel abandoned by God if things don’t improve for themselves or for someone they love but cannot help.

Casey Cep, writing in The New Yorker magazine two Sundays ago, recalled watching her father serve as an usher in the rural Lutheran church where she was raised. He handed out bulletins to those who arrived for worship, of course, and passed the offering plates to them in the pews. He also rang the church bell, not only before and after the service each week but also in the middle of it, during the Lord’s Prayer. When she was old enough to wonder why he did that, why he rang the bell, and asked him about it, he reminded her of farmers who were absent because of the harvest and also of those who were homebound because of age or health:

We ring the bell for them, he told [her], so that they know when we have gathered and when we are sent back into the world, and so that, no matter how far they are from the [church], they can join us in reciting the words that Jesus taught us to pray.[2]

And so that became a powerful message for her. It can be a powerful message for us too — Christians being called together in prayer by the sound of church bells when they have to be apart from one another, often for reasons beyond their control. Years later, when Casey Cep was living in a city, a pastor offered her something to ponder each time she heard the blaring sound of ambulances in the streets:

Think of it as a kyrie, he said: a plea for Christ to have mercy. Many of us will be hearing more of those sirens than church bells in the weeks to come, [she writes,] but perhaps those, too, can call us to prayer, and to one another.[3]

Even though I hate what is happening in the world around us at the moment, I love that sense that we are being called together in prayer, even when we aren’t together here in the pews. We are surrounding the world with the love of Jesus, a simple way to think about what Christian prayer is, with many people from many nations.

In addition to sirens and our own church bells, there are others sounds that are heard daily here at Palmer. On the very same Sunday that Casey Cep’s essay was published in The New Yorker, some of you may have heard on the video of our worship service a Life Flight helicopter either landing or taking off across the street at Memorial Hermann Hospital. I’ve said to myself many times that I never want the sound of those helicopters to fade into the background like wallpaper. And now I think I’ll never hear it as anything less than “a plea for Christ to have mercy.”

That haunting sound, that heartfelt plea, came at the very moment I repeated the words that Jesus said at his last meal with his friends, while I was holding up the bread and the cup at this Holy Table. It came in the middle of a prayer called the Great Thanksgiving, which recalls the story of our salvation. That prayer is a reminder that God’s mercy enfolds not only us but also the whole world. And while we cannot feast together until we meet again face to face, we can receive God’s mercy on this, the holiest day of the year for Christians.

Each of us needs a love that casts out fear. Each of us needs forgiveness, a lot more than we realized before living under a stay-at-home order. Each of us needs for something to happen, something that’s unexplainable to happen, before we walk to the tomb with Mary Magdalene today in the dark. Otherwise, our cry, our plea for Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, to have mercy will have no effect, will not mean love is stronger than death, will not assure us that God has the last word. If God doesn’t, the ringing of Palmer’s bells tonight during the daily evening shift change for those walking into and out of the largest medical complex in the world will only be an act of thanks to them for their work but not also an act of prayer to the God who is present with them, with those who are suffering, with those living and dying.

But I believe it’s true, that love is stronger than death and has destroyed death, that hell’s gates have been trampled down forever by the risen Christ. I believe the stone that separates the living from the dead at the tomb has been rolled away. I believe the terrifying and confusing sight of that is given meaning when the emptiness of Mary’s heart is filled with divine love as the risen Christ calls her by name. And I believe the risen Christ will have the last word on the last day, calling us by name.

Erika Takacs believes that too. Her poem — the one I quoted earlier — is titled “A Coming Alleluia.” That’s a hint that it doesn’t end with despair and disappointment. It reminds us rather that whatever Easter is, it is God’s doing, and God’s alone. Our own belief or lack thereof doesn’t change it. And that is good news for all of us.

As she asks us in the voice of the risen Christ:

Did I not once prove
once for all
that there is nothing you can do,
no decision you can make
(for good or for ill)
that can stop
me
rising?[4]

That question is left for the reader, for us, to answer as we ponder with amazement that since the first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene, apostles, martyrs, and saints, including the saints here at Palmer, have said, “Yes, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

AMEN

BACK TO POST Erika Takacs, “A Coming Alleluia,” Earth & Altar, April 2, 2020.

BACK TO POST Casey Cep, “The Gospel in a Time of Social Distancing,” The New Yorker, March 29, 2020.

BACK TO POST Cep.

BACK TO POST Takacs.

Jesus, Lead the Way

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent IV, March 22, 2020

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

I can still remember standing off to the side of the altar here in the church a few years ago with my eyes closed. It was on a Sunday morning, and I was the celebrant. That means it was my turn to be the priest who would say the words of the Great Thanksgiving at that Holy Table for Holy Communion. But that particular day, someone else was setting things out and getting it all ready for me, for us. So I was able in that moment, as I stood there, to pray. I was praying in the sense of listening for God to speak to me. And I was also able to hear the anthem the choir was singing so beautifully, as the music and the words washed over me. Something, as I stood there, seemed vaguely familiar but out of place, like a faint echo from the past.

The tune — it seemed like I had heard it somewhere before. The words, I suddenly realized, were similar but a little different from a hymn I had known as a child:

Jesus, lead the way,
Through our life’s long day,
And with faithful footsteps steady,
We will follow, ever ready,
Guide us by thy hand
To our Fatherland.

Now, even though there is a member of this church whose business card literally says “Rocket Scientist,” you don’t have to be one to figure out that’s probably a German hymn. I knew it as “Jesus still lead on.” And these days we would surely write something like “to the Promised Land” rather than “to our Fatherland.”

The German words were written by Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf — a bishop who also ordained my 6th great-grandfather as a pastor in the Moravian Church. They describe a whole life as one long day, a day of walking in the footsteps of Jesus on our way home to God. That’s a lovely picture of what it means to be a Christian.

But what I like about the first verse used in the anthem — a verse, by the way, which also appeared in our own Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1940 — is that you can easily transpose that image of a very long day into difficult chapter in your life. And the words of this hymn can become for you an appeal, a prayer, a cry for help, a plea for Jesus to lead the way through just such a time as this. Bring us, Jesus, to a new day on the other side of the fears and anxieties and uncertainties that are threatening to overwhelm us, whatever those things may be for you or for me this morning.

So when that music and those words surprised me a few years ago as we gathered here for Holy Communion, it made me weepy as I moved to where I could see your faces, your faces in these now-empty pews. That music connected me not only to my childhood, but also to the present and future. I knew then, as I do now, that God was, and is, and would continue to be the constant through all of our joys and sorrows.

Today we heard the words of the 23rd Psalm. For many Christians, it’s one of the most beloved parts of the Hebrew Bible. A lot of us, in childhood, memorized this psalm, this poem or prayer, in the language of the King James Bible:

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 . . .

In a similar way, there’s a favorite German chorale most Moravian Christians know by heart. It’s a paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm, and the first verse goes like this:

Jesus makes my heart rejoice,
I’m his sheep, and know his voice;
He’s a Shepherd, kind and gracious,
And his pastures are delicious;
Constant love to me he shows,
Yea, my very name he knows.

I’ve always loved those words because they remind us that if Jesus is our shepherd, we will know his voice and, most importantly, that he knows each of us by name and shows us what The Jesus Storybook Bible describes so awesomely and wonderfully as a “Never-Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”[1]

And isn’t that what each of us longs for right now — whether silently or through a barely audible whisper or maybe even with a lot of very understandable shouting — that Jesus would calm the waters and make them flow gently through pastures of love and mercy where we can be fed, that Jesus would be present with us so that we don’t have to be afraid, that Jesus would bring us back to this Table, to sing once again, together, in the house of the Lord? And wouldn’t it bring a tear to your eye?

As a minister of the gospel, it’s counterintuitive for me to speak the truth on this Lord’s Day that each of us is loving our neighbor by keeping our physical distance from them. But that, at least for a season, is our reality. In the meantime, as I wrote to the parish last week, we as the people of God will have to learn how to sing together in new ways, how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, as another psalm puts it so memorably. Being physically distant doesn’t mean we really have to be socially distant. In many ways, by the grace of God, we might even grow closer.

Like me, I know many of you have been moved by seeing videos of Italians trapped at home for the most part who nevertheless found a way to do this. They found a way to sing together, not metaphorically but literally, by coming to open windows, standing on the rooftops, or going out onto balconies. The sound of their voices and their instruments has echoed through narrow streets in crowded cities, lifting the spirits of their neighbors, young and old alike, drawing them closer to one another. I love how Emma Santachiara, who lives in Rome, described it in a New York Times article last weekend. She’s 73 years old and said, “It’s not like we’re maestros. It’s a moment of joy in this moment of anxiety.”[2] She discovered joy without denying the anxiety.

That article ends with Ms. Santachiara teaching an Italian classic to her 3-year-old granddaughter on a Saturday night. It’s a song the people on her street would be singing later that same evening. She does this with gratitude for the extraordinary work of professionals like the girl’s father. He’s “a doctor who has been putting in extra hours and covering shifts to make sure that people don’t go without primary care. He has been sleeping in his office where he [heats his food in a toaster].”[3] And yet that grandmother somehow, in spite of all the things, still finds joy to share.

I’ve found glimpses of joy this past week — in talking with some of you on the phone, in watching parents of young children share ideas with one another and teachers offering resources for unanticipated home schooling. I have seen Palmers come together to make this kind of worship service possible and to get needed items from the pharmacy or the grocery store to our most vulnerable members in the safest possible way. I have talked to more neighbors — standing on the other side of the street, of course — within the past several days than I normally would over the same number of months. It’s been wonderful in the midst of things not so wonderful.

This past week, my family and I received a postcard in the mail. Do you remember what old-fashioned mail looks like and feels like? The one we received is handmade with “LOVE” written on one side and the words of a kind note on the other side.

Also this past week, my wife and our sons checked in with one of the elders here at Palmer who lives alone but not too far from the Rectory. They could even see her on a video through Facebook, which is really amazing to me. Technology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s not limited, of course, only to those who are younger.

Each of us can reach out to someone like that, even if it’s only through a few kind words that are spoken with love over the phone. I mean, it’s not all bad. It’s not like it’s the 1970s when some of us had to use a rotary dial on a phone with an actual cord. Back then you couldn’t walk around while talking. Many of those phones we were holding were the color of mustard or of pale green peas. That’s a different kind of tragedy, although one for which we would gladly trade right now. I know I would.

But since we can’t do that, remember this: Whether you’re imagining what this building is like in these strange times on Sunday mornings or looking around your home right now, the room is never empty. Jesus is present here, Jesus is present with you, Jesus is present in the community that has gathered together for this hour of prayer from the four corners of the earth. Jesus will lead the way as our shepherd, whose voice we know, and who calls us each by name. And goodness and mercy will pursue us all our days, until we return to the house of the Lord. This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 36.

BACK TO POST Jason Horowitz, “Italians Find ‘a Moment of Joy in This Moment of Anxiety’,” New York Times, March, 14, 2020.

BACK TO POST Horowitz.

 

Too Good to Be True

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019

Jesus, the Morning Star, our souls’ true light, tarry not, dispel our night. Amen.

Christmas always comes as a surprise. Don’t worry: I am not, as a priest, unaware that December 25th is marked on calendars as Christmas Day. I’m talking about the mystery, the majesty, and, yes, the magic of the story itself. No matter who you happen to be or what has brought you here tonight, even if it’s the emotional force of your mother or of baby Yoda from The Mandalorian series, there’s something wonderful about this night.

And we’re never really prepared for it, are we? I mean, that’s honestly true for all of us. Over the last several weeks, some of you have been watching for God, praying that a light would shine in the darkness, listening to music that lifts your hearts to heaven, and coming to church to ponder the coming of God. Some of you have been overwhelmed by the flood of national news that washes over you from your car radio. Some of you have been worried that the house or presents won’t be just right or that those who are coming home might not appreciate or notice the care and love that’s made them just right. Some of you have stopped looking for God because of difficult things going on in your life. And some of you aren’t sure God exists, or if God does, you aren’t sure he cares for the world, you aren’t sure he cares for you.

In the midst of all of that, each of us hears again, right here, as though for the first time, the story of the birth of Jesus. We hear once more the good news announced in the middle of the night to shepherds in the field. Those shepherds were, in many ways, like us, with their different and conflicting ideas about God.

But however it was that they expected God to act in the world, and argued about it among themselves, this wasn’t it. The Lord was high and mighty, enthroned upon the cherubim, not where sheep had been grazing. And yet that’s what makes this night so wonderful — that God would appear where we least expect to find him, in a way that seems beneath him, but when we most need him. That’s the miracle.

And that’s how a woman named Auburn Sandstrom received a glimpse of salvation in her life. 27 years ago, she found herself on the dirty carpet of a cluttered apartment. She was curled up there on the floor, in withdrawal from the drug that she was addicted to. She felt like she had been having a constant panic attack for the previous five years. Had it been possible, she “would have jumped out of [her] own skin and run into the streets.” She would later describe that moment, saying,

I’d never been in a more dark or desperate place as that night.[1]

Surely this woman never imagined she would end up there. After all, growing up, she took opera lessons and could speak French fluently. She was given an expensive college education, took a year abroad, and earned a master’s degree.

Then, like a modern-day friar, in solidarity with those who never had those kinds of privileges, she threw all of them away. But rather than helping others rise up, her life took a tragic turn. She met a man whom she would eventually marry and through whom she’d be introduced to the drug that threatened to destroy her life.

That worst night of her life, she was on parole, her husband was on probation, and their baby boy was asleep behind her. Sandstrom laid there on the floor holding an old folded up piece of paper. Written on that piece of paper was a phone number. It was a phone number her mother had sent to her at some point in the mail during the years they weren’t speaking to each other. Her mother thought that since her daughter wouldn’t call her, maybe she would call this person, a counselor who also happened to be a Christian. Neither the counseling part nor the Christian part meant anything to Sandstorm, but she was so desperate that she called the number.

It was about 2:00 a.m. when she heard a man on the other end of the line answer and say, “Hello.” And she replied, “Hi, I got this number from my mother. Umm, do you think you could maybe talk to me?” Sandstrom heard the man pulling sheets away from himself and turning off a radio in the background.

She said that she felt like he just became very present as he said to her, “Yes, yes, yes. What’s going on?” Sandstorm “hadn’t told anybody, including [herself], the truth for a long, long time.” But she did tell this stranger the truth — about being scared, about her failing marriage, about the fact that she might have a drug problem.

Sandstrom said, “This man didn’t judge me. He just sat with me, and was present, and listened, and had such a kindness, and such a gentleness. ‘Tell me more. Oh, that must hurt. Oh.’” And he stayed on the phone with her through the rest of the night. By sunrise, she felt calm enough to believe that she would be able to splash some water on her face and probably deal with that day. She eventually asked this man how long he had been doing this because he was so good at it. And she was surprised by his answer because he told her she’d called the wrong number.

More than two decades after that encounter with a complete stranger, whom she never spoke to again and whose name she never learned, Sandstrom reflected on everything that had happened, saying:

I need to tell you that the next day I experienced something that I’ve heard called peace that passes understanding because I had experienced that there was random love in the universe and that some of it was unconditional and that some of it was for me. And I can’t tell you that I got my life totally together that day, but it became possible. . . . This is what I know: In the deepest, blackest night of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.

Many of the people sitting around you tonight believe that to be true. They believe — we believe — the words of Isaiah, written long before the birth of Jesus, a promise that was read to us this evening, a message of hope for everyone here, a message of hope for you: “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. . . . For a child has been born for us . . . and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”[2] This, we believe, is Jesus, who comes unexpectedly to save us, who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was present to people just as that stranger was present to Auburn Sandstrom. He accepted them, embraced them, and healed them. He even forgave them, something that only God can do. And he forgave them freely and extravagantly, just as he forgives us. It seems too good to be true. Yet it is true. And that’s what makes this a holy night for Christians around the world from generation to generation.

The German pastor and 20th-century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words about Christmas, about this night when God reached out to touch humanity:

Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety — that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous.

And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. . . . God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in.[3]

My friends, to that, I say, “Amen.” And to you, the people
for whom the Christ Child was born, I say,

MERRY CHRISTMAS

BACK TO POST The quotes of Auburn Sandstrom and my retelling of her amazing story comes from her own recollection in the recording at the end of this sermon.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:2, 6.

BACK TO POST Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 22.

An Embrace & An Old Confession

Two things happened last Wednesday that have really shaken me. The first was the remarkable scene in a courtroom after former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, a white woman, had the previous day been convicted of murdering Botham Jean, an African American man. The following day, during the sentencing phase, Botham’s brother Brandt Jean, a faithful Christian, took the stand and, without having told his relatives beforehand, stated that he forgave Amber and said to her, “I love you just like anyone else and I’m not going to hope you rot and die. I personally want the best for you.” Then he asked the judge for permission to hug Amber, which he did.

People are mad. People are mad at Amber. People are mad at Brandt. People are mad that white Christians have lauded this hug while continuing to remain deafeningly silent about police violence against African Americans. People are mad that Botham Jean was slain at home. People would surely have been mad if the members of the jury had convicted Amber of a lesser charge. People are mad at those jurors anyway since they sentenced Amber to only 10 years in prison. People are mad that radical examples of forgiveness, like this hug, simply can’t be untangled from Christianity.

And, yes, I understand that other religions have very different understandings of forgiveness, who can offer it, and under what conditions it works, so to speak. I also understand that many Christians, liberal and conservative alike, would prefer that Christianity only proclaim forgiveness after both remorse and restitution. Jesus, however, forgave his torturers from the cross without their prior repentance. Now I don’t know what happened to those Roman soldiers after they had executed an innocent man in the name of law and order. But either their sins were forgiven or they weren’t. Either it’s true or it’s not. As a Christian, I believe what Jesus declared is true and that their sins were forgiven. I believe it’s true for them and for me too.

The Book of Common Prayer suggests that true repentance comes on the other side of forgiveness. It’s like the embrace of the parent in a famous parable told by Jesus who runs toward his wayward son, embracing him before he even gets to the house and before he can begin the speech of confession that he had practiced while at his lowest point. The son thought he was sorry then, but he’s surely more overwhelmed on the other side of that loving embrace, which was undeserved and unexpected.

Brandt’s forgiveness doesn’t unlock the door of the prison cell in which Amber now sits. And I want to be clear that I don’t think it should alter her sentence. What his forgiveness unlocks is the door of the prison cell in which he could easily have sat — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — for the rest of his life. As Brandt said in an interview about what he did in that courtroom, “This is what you have to do to set yourself free.” He also said, “We don’t know what’s going to happen [in the future].”

That reminded me of the words of the Christian theologian Miroslav Volf:

Every act of grace is a stepping into an unknown land.

And it’s a great deal more costly for someone like Brandt to take that first step under these circumstances than it would be for me. That’s because of the history of African Americans in this country. I was made painfully aware of that on the day he spoke in that Dallas courtroom not because of his mother’s passionate plea for justice beyond her murdered son’s case, which I only read later, but because of another killing.

Before I fell asleep that same night, I read a disturbingly matter-of-fact confession that was signed by John Green Lea a century ago in the summer of 1919. His father “owned” 58 enslaved Africans in 1860. His grandfather — my 5th great-grandfather — “owned” 74 enslaved Africans in 1830. So we’re first cousins, five times removed.

John supported the Confederacy as a corporal in Company C, 3rd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry. That fight, however, didn’t cease for him after the end of the Civil War. While he was still in his 20s, John organized and headed the Ku Klux Klan in Caswell County, North Carolina. His sister Ann was also a member of that white supremacist organization. She sewed the robes behind which Klan members hid their identities while performing acts of racial terrorism. Ann stored their robes in secret at Leahurst Plantation, where she and John were both raised as children and where the Klan now gathered, as needed, to put on that clothing of hatred.

Leading up to the 1870 election, there were two notorious political assassinations in the region. The first was the lynching of an African American named Wyatt Outlaw in neighboring Alamance County. Wyatt had gone from being enslaved to having been appointed to the Graham Town Council and later as a constable there as well. He also served as president of the county chapter of the Union League of America. On the night of February 26, 1870, Wyatt was dragged from his home and hanged from a tree outside the county courthouse to show the Klan’s contempt for civil law.

The other was the murder of North Carolina State Senator John W. Stephens on May 21, 1870. This white politician was, like Wyatt, a member of both the Republican Party and the Union League of America. His popularity among African American voters in Caswell County and his work on their behalf are what angered the Klan. So the senator was assassinated, not outside the Caswell County Courthouse but inside it, and not under the cover of darkness but during the day. The confession that John Green Lea signed a hundred years ago contains no hint of remorse because it wasn’t written to ease the burden of his conscience nearly a half century after he had arranged and participated in the murder. Astonishly, it was written at the request of the North Carolina Historical Commission and sealed until his death in 1935. Here’s how he describes in great detail what happened to the senator in that courthouse:

To the right is the obituary for John Green Lea that appeared on the front page of The Bee newspaper in Danville, Virginia, on September 30, 1935. John’s confession is mentioned in the second paragraph. A separate notice at the bottom of that front page heralds in large print the solving of a 65-year-old mystery, stating that “a group of Ku Klux Klan members who knew the truth agreed never to tell until the last one was dead” and promising to publish John’s “hitherto sealed affidavit” the next day.

The obituary goes on to praise John’s devotion to the Confederacy and the fact that he “died a rebel.” His funeral in Danville was presided over by not only the Pastor of First Baptist Church but also the Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany. Note that there was a wreath of flowers provided by the United Daughters of the Confederacy for John’s “flaming spirit” both during the Civil War and during Reconstruction. They clearly saw that his fighting as a Confederate soldier to continue the enslavement of Africans and his later fighting as a member and leader of the Ku Klux Klan to minimize the freedoms of African Americans were part of the same brutal political philosophy.

And the cherry on top of the sundae, so to speak, was the fact that “upon the bier reposed the battle flag of the Confederacy.” One can see here the roots of how that symbol would become weaponized in the 1960s in support of white supremacist ideology and in opposition to racial desegregation. And there are people who are still using that symbol in this way to intimidate their non-white neighbors.

In the midst of the trial of Amber Guyger, and more than a thousand miles away from Dallas, protesters who are upset that the Board of Commissioners in Chatham County, North Carolina, voted to remove a Confederate monument on the front lawn of the old county courthouse erected a large Confederate battle flag directly across the street from Horton Middle School. It was previously a high school for African Americans during Jim Crow segregation, and it is named for George Moses Horton, a formerly enslaved man whose poems were published before his emancipation.

So when Brandt Jean walked across that courtroom in Dallas to embrace Amber Guyger, he was also walking across hundreds of years of white supremacy and racial hatred that have, unfortunately, continued into our own day. There was a great cost to the forgiveness that he offered. It was certainly unmerited. But he knows that he has received forgiveness in his own life, and he hopes that she might receive the gift of true repentance, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, in the next chapter of her life.

Admit One, Please

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 18, September 8, 2019

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

More than a decade ago, weeks after my daddy’s burial, a recumbent headstone of white marble was placed on his grave. It’s four inches high, twenty inches wide, and twenty four inches in length. I know that because his headstone is exactly the same size as all the other headstones for adults who are buried in that church cemetery, which in the Moravian tradition is always referred to as God’s Acre. There in God’s Acre, those asleep in Jesus await the dawn of a new day — the Last Day — when the dead shall be raised, when wrongs, including the ones within us, shall be righted, and God shall be all in all. There in God’s Acre, we need not fear our coming Judge.

Daddy’s headstone is the same size as the one for his cousin Robert Tucker, who once paid me more in cash than he should have for my first and, more importantly, last day ever of working on a tobacco farm. Daddy’s headstone is the same size as the one for a 47-year-old father of two boys who was killed on his daily commute by a drunk driver in 1979. Daddy’s headstone is the same size as the headstones for my great-grandparents who were buried there after their double funeral in the church in 1949. Daddy’s headstone is the same size as the one for a man named John Lewis Johnson, a physician who was a founder and leader of a Unionist secret society that resisted the Confederate government of North Carolina during the Civil War.

Whether at a large church or a small church, out in the country or in the middle of a city, there’s a peacefulness about God’s Acre that comes from its uniformity and simplicity. The headstones represent equality within the community of the church and the fact that God shows no partiality. Saint or sinner, rich or poor, famous or not, everyone is loved and redeemed, and will one day be raised, in the same way, by the same God. It’s as if the God who created us, and more wonderfully redeemed us, has drawn a circle of divine love around the whole congregation, where all are safe.

Having described the power of that symbolism, you can imagine my disappointment and confusion the first time I was old enough to walk alone around the outside of another Moravian church, which sits right on Main Street in my hometown. At first glance, that God’s Acre looks the way it should look. But at one edge is a somewhat triangular section, separated from the rest of the graveyard by a brick wall.

Peering over the wall, I could see that only members of the Körner family, for whom the Town of Kernersville is named, were buried inside. My religious idealism was, if not shattered, at least bruised. I wasn’t so naive not to understand this was how things normally worked in the world — prominent people get the spotlight shined on them both in life and in death. But I didn’t expect to see that in God’s Acre, which was supposed to reflect how things worked in a kingdom not of this world.

Since then, I’ve come to learn, as most of us eventually do, that there is sometimes an enormous difference between the truth and the whole truth. And the whole truth about that brick wall behind Kernersville Moravian Church relates to the life and death of a woman named Clara. A descendant of both Africans and Native Americans, Clara was enslaved from the moment of her birth in 1820. When she was 14 years old, she was hired out to help the family of a man named Philip Körner.

Although Philip had been raised in the Moravian Church, his wife’s family were Quakers. And it was because of the Quaker convictions within his heart that Philip, several years later, purchased Clara, not to own her as a piece of property until her dying breath, but to make possible her eventual freedom.[1] Clara continued to work for the Körners, taking their name as her own, and became especially close to the youngest son named Jule after his mother died when he was only two years old. My fourth great-aunt became Philip’s second wife, but Clara was Jule’s second mother.

That little boy grew up, and he built a house on the other side of the street from the Moravian church, ridiculed by others as Körner’s Folly — a nickname Jule embraced with glee. It’s an amazing example of extravagant Victorian architecture, with 15 fireplaces, no two doorways or windows alike, a ball room on the second floor, and a theater on the third floor with a beautifully painted ceiling that soars as high as 25 feet. A local newspaper said Jule was an “uncompromising Lincoln abolitionist,” and each year on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, black swags were hung across the windows and porches of the house, partly in respect for Clara, who lived nearby. The theater was built for children to create and present performances on a stage, complete with a chamber orchestra. So this fanciful house was really open to the community. And it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say it was like a church, especially since Jule believed art and music were human expressions of the divine.

In fact, a large crowd gathered on the lawn of Körner’s Folly for a funeral in 1896. Both the crowd and the ordained ministers present included whites and African Americans. They were there to give thanks to God for the life of Clara Körner. And they were standing in that yard on the other side of the street from a church that had refused to allow this formerly enslaved woman to be buried in God’s Acre.[2]

The Körner family, especially Jule, was furious about that. So he purchased a strip of land that bordered the cemetery, adjacent to the graves of members of his family. And Clara — that is, Clara Körner — was buried beside them, with a recumbent headstone of white marble that looks just like my daddy’s headstone. Later a brick wall was built around those graves to enclose the plot of land where, to this day, members of the Körner family, including some of my own relatives, are buried next to Clara. It’s as if Jule drew a circle of love in brick to say to the whole world, “This is what our family looks like, and it’s also what God’s family is supposed to look like.”

That’s what Saint Paul was trying to say in his letter to Philemon and to the rest of the house church that met under the roof of Philemon’s own Körner’s Folly. That letter was read to us this morning in its entirety, just as it would have been read to them. Paul was writing on behalf of Onesimus, a man enslaved by Philemon in an era and under conditions that were different than slavery in nineteenth-century America. Nevertheless, it was a brutal institution for the majority of those trapped in it. Slavery in the ancient world also existed with the absence of any kind of abolitionist movement or any thought that such a movement was even possible.

Yet it would be possible for Philemon to welcome Onesimus back into his household in the same way that Philemon would have welcomed Paul himself — as a sibling in Christ, a beloved sibling in Christ. Paul might even be strongly hinting not only in his earlier words but also at the very end of his letter that Philemon should grant Onesimus his freedom so that he could return to Paul as an assistant during Paul’s imprisonment. Most of the circumstances that occasioned this letter aren’t really clear. But what is clear is that the circle of divine love that has been drawn around us by God in Christ has changed the relationships between us. And that’s true even if we don’t see it, like it, or admit it. As a community of Christians, we live within the boundaries of a kingdom not of this world. And love and mercy are signs of it.

To be clear in my own words, my prayer for each of us is not that we’ll leave to draw circles of love with bricks or walls. Rather, I ask the Holy Spirit to work through us today in small, concrete acts of love and mercy, and to help us remember that a glorious day is coming when wrongs will be righted, including our many mistakes, including the injustices of this world in every generation, and God shall be all in all.

A verse from a well-known Christmas carol, referring to Jesus, puts it this way:

Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love, and his gospel is peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother;
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

This I believe.

AMEN

 1 BACK TO POST This sentence is carefully worded because it’s unclear to me when Clara Körner was legally freed. The official website of Körner’s Folly states that she was manumitted by the Körner family and implies that she helped to raise the six children of Philip and Judith Körner as a freed woman. According to the personal recollections of the Körners’ grandson Jules Gilmer Körner, Jr., in his book Joseph of Kernersville, Philip “owned” several other enslaved persons, abhorred the system of slavery, “opposed secession in every way he could,” and “advocated the gradual emancipation of slaves with legal guaranty [sic] of their rights as freedmen.”

The grandson further states that Philip had a succession of wills prior to 1865 that “always provided that upon his death his slaves should be transported to a free state and given their freedom.” He specifically states that Philip’s will of June 14, 1860, makes that very provision for Clara “unless it can be so provided for her that she may have her full freedom here.” His final will, signed post-emancipation in 1873, lists his second wife Sallie, who is my fourth great-aunt, his children, and Clara as beneficiaries. In a related indenture, also signed in 1873, Philip refers to his wife, children, and Clara as “composing my family.” That same document later requires money in the amount of one half of the appraised value of a mill to be divided into eleven equal parts, with one share each going to his wife, his children, and Clara.

So there is definitely a trajectory toward freedom in these stories and documents, although some confusion remains about when Clara was granted that freedom.

BACK TO POST It does seem to be the case that Clara Körner was denied burial in God’s Acre on the basis of her racial heritage. And with respect to the wider cultural landscape, over the next few years, racism would again be enshrined in the laws of North Carolina in ways that might not have been imagined during Reconstruction. The “other side” of the story is that Clara wasn’t a member of that church, which was the stated reason for refusing the burial. However, the church could have allowed it. One is reminded here of the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law.

Inside the Box

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 25, 2019

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

Earlier this month, a group of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth from Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the United States gathered at Camp Allen in Navasota for two of the summer programs of Jerusalem Peacebuilders. As most of you know, the Houston office of Jerusalem Peacebuilders — or JPB — is right next door to the Rector’s study here at Palmer. It’s work is connected to our witness to God’s love.

JPB’s presence is important both to me and to our congregation. It’s also important for the real world in which we live, especially here in Houston, because JPB helps us, like it does these youth, know our own tradition more deeply and learn how to live with and love our neighbors who are different from us. To be invited to share with someone else what Christianity is and to describe for them what it’s like to be a follower of Jesus is a good thing. It forces us to say the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” aloud. Those are words we need to repeat not only to strangers but also to ourselves.

Rabbi Steve Gross is a friend of mine here in Houston and a friend of this church, and he represented the Jewish tradition at JPB this year. At the beginning of one of his talks to these young people, he placed an empty cardboard box in the middle of the room. It was the kind of box that’s often filled with printer paper, so there was a lid on it that could be removed easily. And after he did this and had also introduced himself, Rabbi Gross said to everyone in that room:

What if I told you that God and the answer to everything you ever wanted to know about God was in that box? If those things were really true, would you open it up and look inside? Tell me why you would or wouldn’t open it.

This is the title of episode 144 of The Twilight Zone, which originally aired on March 13, 1964.

That’s a really great way to start a conversation about God and about our fears and our beliefs and, yes, our hope as people of faith. Now I’ve seen Rabbi Gross do this before, and it’s fascinating what people will tell him. But I’m most fascinated by the fact that someone will inevitably say exactly what I’m thinking the whole time:

I’ve seen the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So I know what happens when you take the lid off. I’m not taking the lid off.

As many of you surely remember, the Nazis try to harness the power of the Ark of the Covenant in that Indiana Jones movie. But when they remove the lid from the ark, they’re all horribly melted away.

While that final scene is extreme in its presentation and not suitable for young children, and while it does what all of us do when we’re in charge of religion — placing people neatly into categories of good and evil so that only the evil people will be completely wiped off the face of the earth just before the credits roll, it does touch on something deep within us. And it’s genuinely scary, because if that’s how we think we want the universe to come to an end, if that’s what’s really inside the box, what does it mean if the dividing line between good and evil isn’t out there but in here, inside each of us, running straight through the human heart?

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews picks up on some of this. It takes us back to Mount Sinai, back to the very place where the Lord spoke to the children of Israel after bringing them out of their bondage in Egyptian slavery. They’d been set free not to go their own way but to become God’s chosen people and a blessing to all the nations the earth. But what was this encounter at the mountain going to be like — an encounter between the Source of holiness and men, women, and children like you and me? Moses ascends the mountain on behalf of these folks like us, and the author of Hebrews imagines Moses, a sinner, being so terrified to be in God’s presence, to stand near the box, so to speak, with the top slightly ajar, that he says,

I tremble with fear.[1]

And the truth is that there are people here this morning — maybe you — who came into this church with fear, as though you’re standing in the very spot where Moses stood on Mount Sinai. You see the chasm between God’s holiness and your own. To you the author of Hebrews writes of another mountain. This is Mount Zion, which represents in this letter “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”[2] There we’re surrounded not by terror, but with grace. There we find not trepidation, but mercy and forgiveness. There we come face to face with Jesus, who embraces us.

What’s been melted away, so to speak, is the sin of the world. What doesn’t remain in that embrace is whatever is separating you from God — your stony heart, the grudges you grip tightly, your indifference to human suffering, a desire for mercy only for yourself and judgment — nay, double judgment — for everyone else, your [fill in the blank . . . whatever it is]. And that happens not because you are hated, but because you are loved. And it brings not death and destruction, but life and a new creation. What remains, what cannot be shaken is Jesus’ love for you.

And because of what Jesus has done for you and for me, we can, as the author of Hebrews said earlier in his letter, “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”[3] So we can stand in this church, each of us, with our imperfections, with our many mistakes, and know there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like wideness of the sea.

Here you can find rest in the arms of a loving Savior, in spite of what you thought God was like, in spite of what other people — what even, or especially, people in the church — think you should be like. Here you can find an embrace when you feel unloved or unlovely. The lid is off the box, not because you dared to take it off, but because Jesus, raised from the dead, smashed it to pieces and is taking you by the hand and leading you home. You are held in that grace not only in death but also in life. And the love you share with others on the way home comes from God.

There’s a story I think about a lot, one that I’ve shared with many of you and perhaps shared from this pulpit somewhere along the way. It’s an experience that a friend once described to me years ago. She found herself sitting in a circle of chairs in a room, and she told me they were discussing God’s mission. And they went around the room, taking turns to describe for everyone else how they were participating in what God is doing in the world. Some had probably been on mission trips, or led retreats, or prayed without ceasing. Others had spent countless hours volunteering to help people who were living in poverty. A few, I’m sure, were important leaders in their churches and other groups throughout the wider community.

Now there was one woman in that circle of Christians — in that circle of church folk — whose spirit seemed more and more defeated as those voices came around to her. And when it was time for her to speak, she said something like this:

I hear these incredible stories, and you have no idea how much I wish, how much I pray, that I could participate in God’s mission like y’all have done. But I can’t because my mother has been so sick, and she has no one else to care for her but me. And this has become my whole life, and I am so tired, and there is nothing left over for me to give back to God.

Friends, that poor woman had been participating in God’s mission all along. And she had given everything back to God — everything — like the widow whom Jesus once saw put her last two mites, her last two coins, into the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem. And although she didn’t know it, although she couldn’t see it, she was standing on Mount Zion, close to the heart of Jesus, and Jesus’ love for her was the same love that overflowed into her care for her mother.

And everyone who was sitting in that circle of chairs with her was on that mountain too. Each person in that circle — just like each person here today — was and remains forever a child of God. On this Rally Day or any other Sunday, what others seem to be doing or not doing for God’s mission, from our very limited perspective, isn’t something for us to judge. We’re here to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and to listen, with the love of Jesus, to the stories of the people around us. When listening to them rather than judging them, we can help one another catch a glimpse of Mount Zion. And when that happens, hopefully we’ll realize that God’s love surrounds us, and always has. And that same love spills out into the world around us daily in a million different ways, proclaiming “mercy” and “forgiveness,” often without using words. But it all starts here in our own hearts.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:21.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:22.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 4:16.

Joy and Mirth at the Feast of the Lamb

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 11, July 21, 2019

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

Ernestina and Harrison Reid lived on a farm near their church in Forsyth County, North Carolina. Friedland Moravian, where they were members, is just down the road from another country church, a sister congregation, where I was baptized as an infant. That is to say I was bathed in the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus, and made a Christian. Friedland, by the way, means “Land of Peace” in German. With that name framing their life, the Reids often hosted Sunday School picnics, and their home was described in 1884 as a place “where joy and mirth . . . frequently reigned supreme.”[1]

Friedland Moravian Church, c.1895 (Photo Credit: Old Salem Digital Forsyth)

Henry Swaim was a white tenant who lived with his wife on the Reid farm that year. It was the same year he was lynched by “a crowd of between seventy-five and [a] hundred men, many of whom were masked.”[2] They had arrived at the county jail at 2:00 a.m. When the sheriff opened the front door to talk to them, the mob rushed past him and broke the lock to the second floor. These men wanted vengeance.

In the meantime, the mayor of the City of Winston had appeared. And the mayor appealed to them to stop in the name of God, the law, and good citizenship. But that didn’t work. Instead, someone cried out, “Hand me the crow bar.”[3] And they used their tools to destroy the locks on the cell that held Henry Swaim.

Henry was in his 20s and not well-educated. He was the only suspect in the murder of Ernestina Reid, the wife of the farmer on whose land Henry worked. Less than 48 hours earlier, Mr. Reid thought he heard a child screaming as he headed back to the farmhouse. As he got closer, he saw it was his wife, who stumbled toward him, covered in blood. When he asked who had attacked her, she whispered the name of Henry Swaim three times. So he carried her into the house, where she quickly died.

Headstone of Ernestina Reid in God’s Acre at Friedland Moravian Church

In the darkness, as the armed mob escorted Henry from the jail through the streets of Winston, they were careful to avoid the bright lights in front of the Central Hotel. There was no need to be seen and recognized on their way to the lynching tree. When they got there, they held a mock trial, and Henry told them how he had killed Mrs. Reid while he was looking for money in the house. It was gruesome, and he went down to the creek to wash the blood off his hands afterwards.

Now, facing his own death, he wanted his sins washed away too. Henry pleaded for someone to pray for him before he was put to death. When a man did that and asked him afterwards if he was penitent, he didn’t know what the word meant. When Henry then sputtered out his own prayer, repeating the same words over and over, he was ridiculed by the crowd, which had to have been mostly filled with Christians.

As reported in a local newspaper with all these other details, the last sentence of Henry’s prayer, which he said many times over, was something like this: “I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!”[4] Surely each of us could pray those same words this morning as we think about mistakes we’ve made, cruel thoughts we’ve had, harsh words we’ve spoken, and relationships with friends and family that we’ve strained to the breaking point. Surely each of us wants our own sins to be included in the sins of the world that the Lamb of God has taken away. Surely each of us clings to that hope; and I pray we wouldn’t be ridiculed for it.

Yet Henry Swaim was mocked and essentially cast into hell not by a divine decree but by an enraged mob. It was as though there was in that moment the kind of “famine on the land” that the Prophet Amos described — “not,” as he goes on to say, “a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”[5]

Even the minister who would many years later officiate at the wedding of my grandparents, the parents of my father, was a character in this unholy drama. At the time he was a teacher at a boys school in the Town of Salem. He and another man found Henry when he was on the run. They turned him over to the sheriff, but not before debating among themselves “whether . . . to string [him] up on the spot.”[6]

That’s what the mob eventually did, although they hanged him improperly. So Henry didn’t die right away. The rope holding him by the neck had to be restrung over a limb on the tree to draw his body “high up above the heads” of the spectators. It remained there afterwards, and “great crowds” came to see it later that same day.[7]

Click on the image for a better view of this map from 1891 with several locations relating to the murder of Ernestina Reid and the lynching of Henry Swaim highlighted by the Forsyth County Public Library.

What happened to Henry in this sordid affair was in no way “justice” either from my perspective as an American or, more importantly, from my perspective as a Christian. And yet I’m painfully aware of how easy it is to lose that perspective and to find myself in the mob, having forgotten my identity as one of God’s children.

As the hymn says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” And it washes over us with forgiveness when we look in the rear view mirror and recognize that we’ve been in the crowd, shouting at others. And the times when we find ourselves standing in the midst of the whirlwind, on the receiving end of the chanting and the name-calling, we can rest assured that Jesus stands beside us.

We can know that because Jesus has been there before. According to the Gospel of John, after the Roman governor Pilate sparred with Jesus about who he really was, he famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?”[8] Jesus the Jew was then tortured as he was beaten with a whip by Pilate’s soldiers. They mocked him as the “King of the Jews” and would eventually nail his hands and feet to the wood of the cross.

Before that, however, Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd that had gathered outside his headquarters, and said to them in Latin, “Ecco homo,” which means, “Behold the man!” The people standing before their governor were not all the citizens of Jerusalem or all the Jews of that holy city. But they were just like you and me, many devout and some not so much. And those people just like you and me, as the NIV translation puts it, shouted, “Take him a-way! Take him a-way!”[9]

So that’s what happened. Pilate, who feared that Jesus represented a threat to the Roman peace and to the Roman emperor, ordered his soldiers to take Jesus beyond the walls of the city. And there they crucified him. That’s when “the land [trembled],” as described by the Prophet Amos, and when the sun was blotted out, “[darkening] the earth in broad daylight.” Of that day, the Lord said to Amos, “I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it [bitter].”[10]

When the sun sets on our own experience of Good Friday, that’s what remains with us — bitterness and sadness and disappointment. Jesus himself experienced that feeling of separation and rejection and abandonment. Yet we’ve not been forsaken by God just as Jesus wasn’t forsaken. And that’s just as true for Henry Swaim as it is for Ernestina and Harrison Reid and as it is for you and me. It’s also true for those who ridiculed Henry and those who, centuries earlier, chanted before Pilate.

“For in [Christ Jesus],” as we heard in our reading this morning from the Letter to the Colossians, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”[11] My friends, God, in his mercy, is reconciling all things to himself, righting all wrongs both within us and around us.

The Old Farm of Ernestina and Harrison Reid, c.1895 (Photo Credit: Old Salem Digital Forsyth)

As one of my favorite theologians puts it: “God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him.”[12] The joy and mirth that once echoed across the fields of the Reid farm will return at the Feast of the Lamb, where no one will be excluded. Now I don’t know how that will happen, because it’s a great mystery. But it will happen, and that is good news for everyone here today, wherever we might find ourselves standing in the unholy dramas of our own day. This I believe.

AMEN

 1 BACK TO POST “A Heinous Crime: The Wife of Harrison Reed Foully Murdered,” The Western Sentinel, Winston, North Carolina, May 8, 1884, 3.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung: Taken From Jail by a Mob and Lynched,” The Western Sentinel, Winston, North Carolina, May 15, 1884, 3.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST Amos 8:11.

BACK TO POST “Swinging into Eternity: Part 3,” The North Carolina Collection, Forsyth County Public Library, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, July 31, 2014.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST John 18:38.

BACK TO POST John 19:15.

10 BACK TO POST Amos 8:8-10.

11 BACK TO POST Colossions 1:19.

12 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, quoted by Philip Yancey in “God Behind Barbed Wire,” Christianity Today, posted online August 29, 2005.

The Peace of Christ

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

There’s a t-shirt that I don’t actually own myself but that I love. It’s a simple design with bold letters that create a short, three-word sentence: Abide no hatred. Folks made it in the disturbing aftermath of the white nationalists who marched nearly two years ago with torches at night through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.[1] Those who marched were chanting, among other things, “Jews will not replace us.” And in recent months, as many of you know who can bear to listen to the news these days, synagogues have been attacked with bullets and Molotov cocktails in the United States, Muslims at prayer were targeted horrifically in New Zealand, and Christian churches were bombed in Sri Lanka on Easter Day.

Clearly a t-shirt has no power in itself to overturn hatred or racism or what seems like a total absence of love. But the people who made the one I just described have spoken and written words against all of those things. Yet the message to abide no hatred does have a real power, for me at least, as a kind of prayer — a prayer about our hope for the future and something we might be allowed to glimpse now and then, by God’s grace and mercy, within our own sinful hearts and in the broken world around us.

I also love that their message uses the word “abide.” It’s a word that catches me off guard because it sounds old fashioned in my ears, as if only spoken by someone who just stepped out of a 19th-century oil portrait. Like a fine but rare wine, it does pair nicely with the phrase “fast falls the eventide” in the first line of the Victorian hymn “Abide with me.” And yet there’s a fullness to the word that’s quite reassuring, more than simply waiting around for something to happen or a bad experience to pass.[2]

Now surely there are also a few here this morning who, having heard that word “abide,” immediately thought not of the 19th century but of the 1990s. That’s when the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski was released. In that cult movie, the actor Jeff Bridges plays the role of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, who remains his casual self in the midst of the chaos of the world around him.

At one point, he says, “The Dude abides.” Those words about himself are spoken to the actor Sam Elliot, who plays a mysterious stranger in a white cowboy hat. The stranger smiles, repeating the same words to himself, “The Dude abides.” He then breaks the fourth wall between the actors and the audience, looking directly at us, the viewers, and saying to us, “I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowing he’s out there. The Dude. Taking ‘er easy for all us sinners.”

In that exchange between the stranger and the viewer, abiding — at least a certain kind of abiding — takes on the meaning of something we all need, something deeply theological, something biblical. And it is. Variations of the word for abide appear some 40 times throughout the Gospel of John, and then many more times in three letters elsewhere in the New Testament that bear John’s name.[3] It’s the Evangelist’s favorite word to use about our relationship with Jesus, who abides with us.

We see a shadow of all of that in today’s reading from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. There we are promised that God will make a home among those who love Jesus. We’re also promised that we whose hearts are filled with so much fear and anxiety — and rightly so because of the crazy things that are happening both within us and around us — will be given the gift of peace. Who doesn’t long for that gift?

I cling to that promise every time I walk out the front doors of this church, and I hope you will too. We walk beneath that promise whenever we leave through those doors because the lintel bears these words of Jesus from the King James Version of the Bible: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you . . . Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”[4] It’s a promise to those who abide here.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’ll feel at peace all the time or even most of the time after we cross the threshold of the church onto Main Street. But we do have glimpses of it now and then — when a good friend or maybe a stranger sits with us in our anxiety, when the chaos around us goes into slow motion as we put one foot in front of the other like the children of Israel walking right through the middle of the Red Sea, when we find we can breathe in wide open spaces because of the love we’ve received from those whom we see no longer. The dead abide with us in that love.

Odd as it may sound, perhaps that promise from the lips of Jesus means the most to people for whom those experiences of peace are few and far between. They can find hope in knowing that Jesus, crucified and risen, will have the last word. And when that final word is spoken on the last day — a divine “yes” in the face of humanity’s cruel “no” — there will be nothing accursed either within us or around us as we continue to abide with him for ever. Raised to life in God’s new creation, and surrounded by divine love, we’ll enjoy a peace that can never be broken — a peace that will guard our hearts and banish from them eternally both fear and hatred.

On the cover of his book Abiding, which has really shaped this sermon, author Ben Quash put a work of art by English painter Norman Adams called Christ’s Cross and Adam’s Tree. He said he likes it because there’s both suffering and glory in the image at the same time, “but the glory is in the ascendant.” And he goes on to write that:

The cross on which Christ hangs — so often described as a ‘tree’ — is at the same time the untrumpable declaration of a love and a life that abide — of a God who will absolutely not go away and leave his people comfortless.

Norman Adams’ bright colours, and elemental shapes suggest the resurrection breaking through the veil of pain, announcing that even the tree of shame has its roots in the eternal abiding of God’s own life; that this life courses through its veins and will make it a fruitful tree. . . .

In its own way, this image, too, shows the primacy of peace. Adam’s tree sprang up in Eden. When that tree became the source of a fall into a violent order, a second ‘tree’ was planted to restore the paradise that had been lost. In some legends, the cross was made from the same wood as the tree from which Adam ate, and was planted in the same place. . . . The painting shows the ultimate abiding of God with us: an abiding in and through death.[5]

The Gospel of John leaves us with its own image at the foot of the cross of Jesus. There we find Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing with several other women. And standing beside her is someone who is described only as “the disciple whom he loved.”[6] As he dies, Jesus says to his mother:

“Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.[7]

In other words, “Jesus bestows them on one another, and enjoins them to abide with one another.”[8] They are to draw from the wellspring of his own abiding with them.

And who is that disciple, the one whom Jesus loved? We often think of him as John, and that’s certainly the claim of tradition. But the Gospel of John is written in way to suggest that, on a different level, the disciple is meant to be each of us. The disciple whom Jesus loves, who reclines next to Jesus at the Last Supper, stands beside his mother at the foot of the cross, and later runs to see the empty tomb, is really you.

My prayer is that the places where we dwell with the family of Jesus, which are by no means limited to the walls of churches, will be places where we’re given a glimpse of the peace that’s been promised to us. So abide in his love and limitless mercy today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST The Bitter Southerner is the online publication that designed this t-shirt after its editor Chuck Reese wrote about the events in 2017 in Charlottesville, concluding: “White faces have to look straight into the eyes of other white faces and say: I will not abide your hatred.” Here is part of its stated purpose and mission:

[We promise] to call out those who would deny the rights of — or commit violence against — anyone they see as “the other.” We [pledge] . . . to try our best to understand our region better, even if that means confronting the distasteful. . . . Lord knows, most folks outside the South believe — and rightly so — that most Southerners are kicking and screaming to keep the old South old. But many others, through the simple dignity of their work, are changing things. We’re here to tell their stories.

One of those stories that often comes to mind for me is an essay with beautiful photographs of people standing in line to hear former President Jimmy Carter teach his Sunday School class in Plains, Georgia, on the Sunday after the last presidential election in 2016. At the end of his class, President Carter pointed those who had come there to the kind of love that Jesus embodied and noted how hard it is to do:

Loving people who don’t love us back. Loving people who are different from us, loving people who are unlovable.

BACK TO POST Ben Quash, Abiding (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) 1. This book, which the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams selected as his “Lent Book” for 2013, includes in its discussion of abiding the hymn “Abide with Me,” the movie The Big Lebowski, and the scene with Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross in the Gospel of John, all of which I’ve used to frame this sermon.

BACK TO POST Ben Quash, Abiding (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) 211-212.

BACK TO POST John 14:27 (King James Version).

BACK TO POST Ben Quash, Abiding (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) 223-224.

BACK TO POST John 19:26.

BACK TO POST John 19:26-27.

BACK TO POST Ben Quash, Abiding (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) 224.