The Fourth of July & Confederate Statues

Photo of Alamance County Courthouse in Graham, North Carolina, by Photojournalist Bob Karp

It’s not uncommon to hear people whose skin color looks similar to mine say that if your family history was deeply rooted for many generations in a small Southern town, you’d understand what the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse for that county represents. Two of my grandparents are buried in Alamance County, North Carolina, as many other relatives have been through the years. I even have a fourth-generation slaveholding cousin who was named in the 1914 dedicatory speech for the Confederate statue that stands in front of the Alamance County Courthouse in the center of the Town of Graham. He led a company of Confederate soldiers from that county, where he is also buried. So I know what it represents. African Americans whose ancestors were only emancipated after the defeat of the Confederacy know too. That’s why I believe there’s a moral imperative to move it.

The atmosphere in which that dedication took place is well illustrated by the front page of the Greensboro Patriot newspaper from May 11, 1914. One article describes a district meeting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that had recently been held in Guilford County. The chapter from Graham reported that a monument to the Confederate soldiers of Alamance County had been completed and would be unveiled the following weekend. The article trumpets these words like a fanfare:

Nearly every month sees a new Confederate monument erected. A most important undertaking of the various chapters relates to the preservation of the true history of the Confederacy. This feature is to be stressed even more in the future than it has been in the past . . .[1]

The column beside those words has a report about a proposed movie theater that an association of Black churches wanted to establish on property owned by a well-known African American in the City of Greensboro. According to that newspaper article, “a storm of protest arose from the white residents of the community.” They signed a petition opposing the proposal, showed up at a public forum with their “fighting clothes on, figuratively speaking,” and were represented by two attorneys. For example, the article describes at length one public comment, stating that:

. . . one of the good ladies who addressed the commissioners asserted that the common run of negroes care nothing for a moving picture show, anyway, and asked why should they go to see pictures of people cutting and shooting folks when they could engage in this pastime in reality.[2]

That is a very embarrassing but real testimony from the racist world in which the Confederate monument in neighboring Alamance County would be celebrated by a cheering crowd of white citizens five days after those words were printed on the front page of a newspaper. The guest speaker on that occasion was Henry A. London from nearby Pittsboro. A week after the Wilmington “Race Riot” of 1898, in which an armed white mob took control of the City of Wilmington and expelled African American elected leaders, London published these words in the Chatham Record:

Wilmington is once more ruled by respectable white men and all her citizens are now safe and secure in their lives, liberty and property.[3]

In his speech sixteen years later in front of the county courthouse in Graham, London went out of his way to note that the soldiers of the Union army included “186,097 negroes” and that some of the Confederate veterans listening to him in the audience who had been prisoners of war:

. . . may, (I am telling the truth about it), have been guarded by negro soldiers who would shoot your comrades down without any excuse.[4]

In contrast to that, London was standing there in Graham, as the local Ku Klux Klan founder and leader who introduced him put it, to praise “the achievements of . . . our own race and blood,” something “in which we all have a common interest.”[5]

That was a rallying cry for white supremacy.

There’s an irony which should not be overlooked in London’s soaring rhetoric following the introduction of him as he described the “brave and gallant men” who marched off to war in rebellion and “the dangers and the hardships” they endured, which “the young people of to-day . . . cannot imagine.” It turns out that London wasn’t engaging in false modesty entirely when he said at the beginning:

I do not deserve to have been selected to address you on this occasion.[6]

Although described in the newspaper as a major, that rank had been bestowed upon him not by an army but by a veterans’ organization. London had been a private, serving only for the last several months of the war after he was forced to do so. Before that he had been a college student at the University of North Carolina and made this honest confession in a letter which he wrote to his sister in early 1864:

I would not care much if they did [conscript me], as I hate the idea of skulking, as it were, out of the army, when my Country needs my services so much, but yet when an exemption is proffered a man, he can scarcely be blamed for taking it.[7]

This crowd saw an exaggerated man, who sounded like a preacher as he thundered:

. . . and oh! what soldiers they were; men of Alamance, women of Alamance, children of Alamance, remember through all your lives to honor the living Confederate soldiers as well as the memory of the dead ones. Oh! it is a beautiful thing, eminently fit and proper to erect a monument in front of every court house throughout our Southland in memory of the Confederate soldiers.[8]

Those statues would be painful reminders to African Americans passing by that they would not be treated equally under the law inside those buildings, which were supposed to be symbols of justice for the entire community, including them.

Seventy years before those front-page articles were printed in the Greensboro Patriot, that same newspaper published the names of Whig candidates standing for election in various counties throughout North Carolina.[9] One of them was my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., who was a candidate in 1844 to represent Chatham County, where London lived, in the North Carolina House of Commons. Hackney was a slaveholder in Chatham County, as was his father and grandfather. To the immediate right of his name in that list was this public notice:

To those who are citizens of Alamance County or places like it, please think about what you want your courthouse to say about your community. What, for example, will future generations read in archived news reports that are recording how we think about these things today? Is it a “self-evident” truth for you on this national holiday “that all [human beings] are created equal,” including Black lives?[10]

If you proudly display an American flag outside your home every Independence Day, what does that symbol mean to you as you consider the wellbeing of your neighbors, including the American descendants of those whose Black bodies were once sold on courthouse steps? Many of their families, like my own, are “from here,” wherever that might be throughout the South. And they have just as much right to be included in “our” history as people who look like me. Of that I am certain. So take down these statues, and if you decide to move them somewhere else, tell the whole story.

BACK TO POST “Daughters of Confederacy: District Meeting Held in This City Showed Good Work Accomplished,” The Greensboro Patriot, May 14, 1914.

BACK TO POST “Negro Moving Picture Show: White Folks Wouldn’t Stand for Its Location in Their Vicinity,” The Greensboro Patriot, May 14, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, editorial, The Chatham Record, November 17, 1898.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Jacob A. Long, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted by Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2020) 48.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST “Whig Candidates,” The Greensboro Patriot, June 15, 1844.

10 BACK TO POST The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. The preamble includes these words that are familiar to many Americans:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“Cast out this slave woman . . .”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 7, June 21, 2020

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

I don’t really know how old he was. A young teenager, I guess. What I do know is that he was laughing with his new friend, well, his brother, actually, half-brother.[1] They were part of the same family. They had the same father. His mother, born in Africa, was a slave in the household. His half-brother’s mother wasn’t from Africa and, as she would probably have said with indignity, was most certainly not a slave.

Somewhere along the way, he had gone from being a cute boy who played with her son to representing some kind of threat in her mind. And this was the day when she couldn’t take it any more. This was the day when seeing him laugh with her son — it was just too much. This needed to be dealt with. They needed to be put in their place and completely cut off the family tree.

Worried about the family inheritance, wanting her own boy, who was younger, to have it all, she went to her husband and said to him,

Cast out this slave woman with her son.[2]

So her husband arose before dawn, handed some bread and water to this slave, and sent her with her child away from his home forever and into the wilderness.

After there was nothing left to drink, she stopped to lay down her son under a bush before walking away, unable to bear watching him slowly die. And she wept, loudly, wailing as one who feels abandoned, even by God.

It’s remarkable that so much is written in the Bible about Hagar, the Egyptian slave, and her son Ishmael.[3] The other woman, Sarah, and their shared husband, Abraham, are the main characters at the beginning of the story of faith in the Book of Genesis. It would have been so easy to cut out the story of Hagar and Ishmael from the pages of the Bible just as Sarah wanted to cut them out of the will. But God wants us to hear their voices in the same way that God heard the cries of Hagar in the wilderness — at the moment Hagar thought she would soon be left to die alone.

God wants them and their story to live.

Whose stories do we set aside, dismiss as unimportant, bury deep in the ground to forget? Many African Americans, like their parents and grandparents, memorialize what happened 155 years ago about 50 miles from where I’m standing. It took place on June 19, one day after more than 2,000 Federal soldiers had arrived in Galveston. That’s when Major General Gordon Granger read aloud General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.[4]

General Granger read those words two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued. And so that date, June 19, became a holiday called Juneteenth. It celebrated the end of slavery within the Confederate states in rebellion. Texas was the most remote of those states and the last refuge of slaveholders who tried to retain what they considered to be their property.

By the time of Juneteenth, somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 enslaved people had been essentially herded like cattle westward into Texas as slaveholders tried to get beyond the reach of the Union army.[5] As Dr. Caleb McDaniel of Rice University writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Sweet Taste of Liberty:

No one was sure exactly how many came, but it was more than enough to make most of the state’s roadways impassable [as a result of heavy use].[6]

The Mayor of Houston said that before this Juneteenth, before last Friday, two Confederate monuments in our city would be taken down. One of them, honoring Dick Dowling, was located just a short walk down Cambridge Street from Palmer. It was moved there from another location in 1958.

I took both of my sons there on Wednesday afternoon as that was happening. I wanted them to see it and to know that Juneteenth wouldn’t be Juneteenth without Dick Dowling, but not in a good way. Enslaved Texans could have been freed two years earlier in the absence of his most famous Confederate victory, the one for which he’s remembered, the reason why there was a statue of him in his uniform.[7]

Because Dowling and his soldiers were all Irishmen, the Roman Catholic Church got to be front and center when his statue, which was the first publicly financed art in the City of Houston, was dedicated on St. Patrick’s Day in 1905. A Catholic priest offered the invocation, and it was a huge community event, with the governor as guest speaker. The governor referred to the President of the Confederacy as:

. . . the grand old man . . . [who had] lived through it all — through pain and through the shame of the shackels.[8]

He was referring to the pain and imprisonment of Jefferson Davis, not the pain of an overseer’s whip that made blood flow or chains that held black bodies in bondage.

When the other monument, “The Spirit of the Confederacy,” was dedicated three years later in Houston, a different member of the clergy was invited to give the opening prayer. He was introduced by a judge who recalled:

. . . the toil and the hardships of the journey from the valley of humiliation and weakness through darkness and oppression to the heaven-kissed heights of prosperity and power.[9]

Those are interesting words to have chosen to describe past adversity since he was referring to the humiliation and supposed oppression of white people only.

Anyway, he went on to say it was “meet and fit that we should invoke [God’s] blessing upon this assembly and these ceremonies” before inviting the Rev. Peter Gray Sears to do that.[10] The Rev. Mr. Sears was the Rector of Christ Church downtown, but about 20 years later he would become the first Rector of Palmer Memorial Church.

In his prayer, the Rev. Mr. Sears described those who fought in rebellion as having:

. . . [poured] out their heart’s blood in sacramental sacrifice for others who should come after them.[11]

Others would say similar things. One of the speakers embraced the title “rebel” as a rebellion against oppression, calling the war a battle for liberty that was not won but lost. He made no mention of the millions of black bodies that had been set free.

It’s not just that these statues don’t reflect the values of the whole community today. They never did, even when they were dedicated before cheering crowds, before cheering white crowds. The “our” in speeches given on those civic occasions was never meant to include African Americans, but it was intended to send a message. After Reconstruction and elections marked by voter intimidation, including threats of physical violence, African Americans and their political allies were kicked out of office and laws were enacted to disenfranchise them throughout the South.

It’s only after that happened, after the old order had been reestablished in a new form, after African Americans had, from the perspective of white supremacy, been put back in their place, that these statues began to appear in front of courthouses and in other public spaces. So I’m grateful they’re now being contextualized.

As a priest, I’m also aware of this truth about myself as a sinful human being: If it had been me instead of one of my predecessors who had been invited to pray over the crowd assembled in front of “The Spirit of the Confederacy,” I would have been there. It’s too easy to pretend otherwise, to imagine that I would have been different, to judge others while self-righteously pardoning myself. But that would be a lie.

Of course, I have no idea what I might have said, especially if my own father had fought in defense of slavery and my childhood had been shaped to remember that in a particular way. I hope I wouldn’t have referred to blood shed as a “sacramental sacrifice for others” unless talking about our Lord Jesus Christ, whose mercy and love embrace the whole world, including black lives. But I have no doubt that I would have made a racist idol with my words, like Aaron the priest placating the people at Mount Sinai, albeit with poetic subtlety.[12] And I surely do that now, participating in structures that have extended privileges to me time and time and time again.

One of the things that makes the Bible unique in the ancient world is its willingness to look at the underbelly of history, to see things as they really are, not as we wish them to be. The Bible invites us to make a true confession, to lament our sins and the suffering that far too many people endure in this world, not only in past centuries but also now, and to reach out to those whom we’ve hurt. That invitation is extended to everyone from ordinary people of God to the kings of Israel, from the disciples who followed Jesus to you and me, who are trying to follow Jesus too. 

The Bible also reminds us to make room for others, bringing them into wide spaces where they can breathe and where their voices can be heard, just as the Bible itself creates space for the voice of Hagar and the laughter of Ishmael.[13] And I think that’s part of our calling as a church in this time of social unrest and protest.[14] Just as Hagar cried out in the wilderness, a lot of people are crying out for justice today.

They might not be speaking to God. Some might not even believe in God. But surely the God of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham hears their cry. And if we’re willing, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help them and their story to live, we might find that one of the persons who is set free and able to breathe in wide spaces is ourself.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Some translations say Ishmael was mocking his half-brother Isaac. Others say he was playing with him. The Hebrew word can also mean laughing.

BACK TO POST Genesis 21:10.

BACK TO POST Genesis 16:1-16, 21:4-21.

BACK TO POST Michael Davis, “National Archives Safeguards Original ‘Juneteenth’ General Order,” National Archives News, June 19, 2020.

BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 148.

BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 148.

BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, “Opinion: Houston is right to choose Juneteenth over Dick Dowling Confederate monument,” Houston Chronicle, June 12, 2020.

BACK TO POST Samuel Willis Tucker Lanham, quoted in “Unveiling Ceremonies Were Impressive,” Houston Daily Post, March 18, 1905.

BACK TO POST Norman G. Kittrell, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.

10 BACK TO POST Norman G. Kittrell, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.

11 BACK TO POST Peter Gray Sears, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.

12 BACK TO POST Exodus 32:1-35.

13 BACK TO POST That image of being brought out of a place of constriction and into a broad place where one is able to breathe comes from these words in Psalm 31:

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

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

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

14 BACK TO POST The Rev. Christopher L. Epperson, who is the Rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, wrote a message to his congregation yesterday that explained how the stories of African Americans have too often been considered less important to the writers of history and included this paragraph:

In the days to come, we will remove the boards from our church windows, which were placed there in the face of real threats. I hope that we, like our beloved church, can lower the armor we use to protect ourselves. I hope the scales will fall from our eyes so we see the suffering and needless injustice around us. I hope we will see how we participate in and perpetuate injustice. I hope we can remove the stuffing from our ears, and hear the stories and experience of our black neighbors.

 

Pentecostal Tears, Rain, and a River

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020

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

The song “Fire and Rain” was James Taylor’s first hit, and it still seems timeless:

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again.[1]

That last line refers to a friend of his who died unexpectedly when they were both 19 years old. Taylor didn’t find out about it until months after the fact.

Those words reminded me of an article in the New York Times about Sally Rowley. She died of COVID-19 at the age of 88 a couple of weeks ago.[2] Nearly six decades earlier, she had been arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, along with other Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom Riders traveled in mixed racial groups on interstate buses. They went through Southern states which were ignoring Supreme Court rulings that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. As the end of her life drew near, Rowley had to say her final goodbyes to family members through a window at a nursing home. Surely they thought they’d touch again.

I also thought of George Floyd, an African American who grew up in Houston’s Third Ward and played football at Jack Yates High School. He had moved from the Lone Star State to the North Star State “to be his best self.”[3] Most of us only know his name because of a video of a Minneapolis police officer, previously disciplined more than once, with a knee on Floyd’s neck while face down in the street.[4]

He told the officer he was in pain and couldn’t breathe. Then his eyes shut, and his pleas stopped, and an hour later he was pronounced dead at the age of 46.

Floyd lived in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It’s the same first-ring suburb where my family and I lived for seven years in the Twin Cities. It’s also heavily Jewish. That’s because of the long history of anti-Semitism in Minneapolis, which accelerated Jewish migration to St. Louis Park in the postwar years. Most nearby suburbs had placed restrictions on Jewish access to housing, and Jews felt safe there. But citizens, then and now, ought to feel safe in neighborhoods throughout our cities.

Floyd’s girlfriend said, “He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away. We prayed over every meal, we prayed if we were having a hard time, we prayed if we were having a good time.”[5] Surely she thought they’d pray again. Surely she knows the plague of racism has been threatening black lives for much longer than COVID-19, from our beginnings, when the Constitution counted a slave as three-fifths of a human being.

After a prayer service on January 4, 1861, my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., co-wrote this resolution in a church in Chatham County, NC, where he had served as a deacon.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Those words could easily be the prayer of many African Americans today who are angry, who are weary, who are afraid for their children. For James Taylor, his words described his own struggle with heroin addiction. But he wasn’t looking to the Savior. Taylor doesn’t believe in that. Jesus, for him, was nothing more than “an expression of [his] desperation . . . just something you say when you’re in pain.”[6]

Of course, his words can be a prayer. They can be your prayer in your anger, in your weariness, in your fears. They can be your prayer this week in your pain, your struggles, your desperation. And I would go so far as to say Taylor’s words were received as prayer, were heard as prayer, not because he turned to Jesus, but because Jesus turned to him long before those words were written. I believe that.

Today is the Day of Pentecost. It’s one of the great festivals of the Christian Church when we recall the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus. Jews from many different lands were in Jerusalem for a harvest festival known as the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of 50 Days or the Feast of Pentecost, a Greek word that means “fiftieth.” Jesus’ disciples were there too, although probably behind locked doors and not in the streets. Crucified and risen, Jesus had returned from whence he came. Jesus had not been abandoned by God. But what about Jesus’ disciples? Surely they could be forgiven for feeling as if they had now been abandoned.

There were so many things going on in the world around them, so many reasons to be afraid, so many uncertainties. It would’ve been easy to have forgotten that Jesus had promised he wouldn’t leave them comfortless. We heard one of those promises in today’s reading from the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John. The festival it talks about isn’t the Feast of Pentecost because in this passage we’re hearing Jesus at an earlier time talk about a future event. On the last day of this different festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus says to all of the people around him:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”[7]

During the Feast of Tabernacles, Jews remembered God’s provision for their ancestors in the wilderness, that time of wandering between slavery in Egypt and a new life in the Promised Land. Jesus is promising an outpouring of God’s Spirit greater than water in the wilderness, which had quenched thirst only temporarily.

Jesus uses this metaphor at a festival that included water rituals.[8] Each morning a priest would draw water from the Pool of Siloam. Accompanied by musicians and singers, he then followed a road that ascends to the Temple Mount. Finally the water was poured into a bowl beside the altar as the priest prayed for the blessing of rain.

An evening celebration was also associated with all of this. Golden lamps on high pedestals that could only be reached by ladders brightly illuminated the outer courtyard of the Temple. Dancers carried torches, musicians played instruments, and people gathered there to praise the Lord with songs. As the Mishnah puts it:

He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life.[9]

It’s as if Jesus was saying everything you’ve seen here — the joy and the dancing and the abundance — is just a foretaste of the blessing you’ll receive when God’s Spirit is poured out. And you won’t have to travel great distances to have that experience here on the Temple Mount because the Holy Spirit will be poured into the hearts of believers wherever they’re gathered, overflowing into the world around them. And that gift will be carried to the ends of the earth like a mighty river, quenching your thirst, flowing through all the desert places, bringing life where there was no life.

Now some of you will appreciate the fact that our gospel reading isn’t set in the very moment when that happened. It’s a description of a promise waiting to be fulfilled. With everything that’s happening around us these days, maybe the best Pentecostal hope you can muster is a prayer of frustration, a demand for God to show up, to do something, and to come quickly. Maybe that’s how you honestly feel right now. I get it — and that would be an honest confession, a prayer of grace, a plea for help.

But I can’t stop thinking about something that happened last Sunday night. That’s when an Episcopal priest in Arizona invited friends to join her on Zoom for an agape meal — a shared meal within a community of Christians that isn’t Holy Communion. It’s something the early church practiced, and it’s something Christians can practice today, even while separated from one another physically. In the midst of the feast, another priest offered a brief sermon. The preacher said,

God’s grace doesn’t have an expiration date. Christ is as close to you now as at the moment you last left the altar rail.[10]

And the host of that agape meal, reflecting later on those words, said,

This, for me, is what it means to say that all things are possible with the Holy Spirit. The jar of meal and the jug of oil will not fail until the famine has ended. And God has promised to send rain.[11]

My Pentecostal hope is that the solemn prayer of the priests in the Temple will come true in our own lives in surprising ways, as the blessing of rain comes in its proper time. My Pentecostal hope is that we’ll also embrace the accidental prayer of James Taylor, as Jesus looks down upon us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, helps us to make a stand, perhaps standing first in front of a mirror to face our own racism.

My own prayer is for us to see in the rear view mirror that the Holy Spirit has been with us, even when we doubted it, and that the promise of Jesus fulfilled on this day will unlock the doors of our hearts, replacing fear with Pentecostal tears, rain, and a river of love, giving us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.

AMEN

BACK TO POST James Taylor, “Fire and Rain.” Anywhere Like Heaven, Warner Bros., 1970.

BACK TO POST Simon Romero, “Sally Rowley, Jewelry Maker and Freedom Rider, Dies at 88,” New York Times, May 21, 2020.

BACK TO POST Stephen Jackson, quoted by Alisha Ebrahimji in “George Floyd is remembered as a ‘gentle giant’ by his family and friends,” CNN, May 27, 2020.

BACK TO POST Dakin Andone, Hollie Silverman, and Melissa Alonso, “The Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck had 18 previous complaints against him, police department says,” CNN, May 29, 2020.

BACK TO POST Courteney Ross, quoted by Alisha Ebrahimji in “George Floyd is remembered as a ‘gentle giant’ by his family and friends,” CNN, May 27, 2020.

BACK TO POST James Tayor, quoted by Stuart Werbin in “James Taylor and Carley Simon: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, January 4, 1973.

BACK TO POST John 7:37-38.

BACK TO POST “Water-Drawing, Feast of,” Jewish Encyclopedia: The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

BACK TO POST Mishnah Sukkah 51a.

10 BACK TO POST Kara Slade @KaraNSlade, quoted by K.D. Joyce @MtrKDJoyce in The part of @KaraNSlade‘s sermon that’s going to stay with me for a long, long time is ‘God’s grace doesn’t have an expiration date. Christ is as close to you now as at the moment you last left the altar rail.'” Twitter, May 24, 2020. 5:22 p.m.

11 BACK TO POST K.D. Joyce @MtrKDJoyce, “*This*, for me, is what it means to say that all things are possible with the Holy Spirit. The jar of meal and the jug of oil will not fail until the famine has ended. And God has promised to send rain.” Twitter, May 24, 2020, 5:26 p.m. The reference to meal and oil and the promise of rain comes from the story of the Prophet Elijah and a widow in I Kings 17:8-16.

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

BACK TO POST

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.