Why’d it have to be snakes?

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2021

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

On the Friday before the Big Freeze here in Texas, I was standing outside, waiting to pick up my youngest son at the end of the school day. It was already pretty cold. So I turned up the heat after we got in the car, and that’s when my son immediately noticed a thin crack in the front windshield.

I had noticed it, too, earlier that day. And upon closer inspection, I could see where it started — a little round chip, like a small crater on the surface of the moon. I have no recollection of when that happened. I don’t remember a piece of gravel, or whatever it was, bouncing off my car with that distinctive sound that makes me wince for just a second or two. But that’s definitely where it started before stretching to the left and to the right across most of the breadth of the windshield. And then, as temperatures continued their descent into hell, the crack traveled in multiple zigzag directions.

That serpentine crack came to mind as I read this puzzling story about snakes from the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament.[1] Many Christians have never read this book or never made it to the end if they tried to read it. And rarely do we hear its words spoken aloud in public worship. There’s a beautiful blessing that the Lord, through Moses, gives to Aaron and his sons to use as priests to bless the Israelites. So we hear about that, we hear a strange story about prophecy, and we hear this weird memory of snakes in the wilderness. But that’s all we get if we’re just listening on Sundays.

Here the Israelites have been delivered from Egyptian slavery by the Lord’s hand. Food has also been provided for them so they’ll live. That food, called manna, is a daily miracle in the wilderness. This isn’t too hard for us to picture, right? We have been walking through a wilderness of restrictions.

Yet in the midst of that, the Lord has set a Table for us. Looking back, we can say that the Bread of Heaven hasn’t ceased to appear in this church, and it hasn’t ceased to be received by God’s people at our in-person services with Holy Communion over the last six months. That which gives life to the world is waiting to be given to you and other Christians as more and more of us feel we’re able to return safely with the measures we have in place. It’s as if a beautiful flower is about to start blooming through the rest of the year.

But the Bread of Heaven? It’s been here all along, and it’s available now.

That was true for the children of Israel, too, although the food provided for them was for physical sustenance rather than spiritual strength. But they complained about it. Yes, it was a miracle, but they complained nevertheless. At one point they yelled at Moses about not having meat, and the Lord gave them quail in abundance. Now they’re grumbling against Moses and God, basically saying, “These two? They don’t know what they’re doing. And this so-called food they keep giving us? Disgusting!”

What happens next is probably, for most of us, the unsettling part of this distant memory. It’s like that little chip in my windshield. I wasn’t exactly sure how it got there, but it just got worse and worse over time, to the point that someone with skills far beyond my own was needed to do something about it. There’s absolutely no way I could’ve fixed that problem myself.

Our translation of this text from the NRSV says “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”[2] It implies that God was the direct source of a deadly judgement in response to their prickliness — a harsh sentence for a sour attitude.

At least one Jewish translation takes a step back, saying passively that “[the Lord] let fiery snakes go among the people.”[3] Maybe if they had respected venomous snakes a little more than they respected both God and Moses, they wouldn’t have been harmed. Maybe their carelessness wrought that.

Some folks take two steps back, saying these snakes are really a metaphor. Perhaps in the midst of a temper tantrum these wanderers in the desert began striking one another verbally with sharp tongues, infecting everyone with the all-too-deadly human poison of rumors and back-biting.

Whatever brought that about, whatever caused that chip in the glass, things got worse.  Those cracks began to spread, and people were suffering, people were dying. They needed something beyond their own abilities to help them, to heal them. Only when they were able to see that, and finally open their hearts, did they ask Moses to plead to the Lord on their behalf.

Now we would probably want this painful scene to be ended quickly through something like a healing wind from God that comes over the encampment. But in the pages of the Bible, the important part is also the weird part of this story. Moses is instructed to make a serpent of bronze and set it on a pole so that those who’ve been bitten by a snake can look at it and live.

How primitive! Can you seriously imagine walking into a doctor’s office in the 21st century and finding an image of a snake wrapped around a pole?

Wait a second . . . you can see snakes wrapped around poles throughout the Texas Medical Center. Whether it’s the Hebrew symbol of the bronze serpent of Moses or the Greek symbol of the rod of Asclepius, that image has represented healing and medicine for millennia and still does today.

Perhaps it’s related to taking something that can be dangerous and making it, counterintuitively, into something else that brings health. Think of snake venom being used to create a medicine, a scalpel being wielded to remove a tumor, a pathogen being transformed into a vaccine, or merely information about a virus being used to make an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

I don’t know what bronze-age people knew about snakes and healing. But I do believe God has been just as much at work in all these things, even in our own day, as God was when Moses lifted up that serpent in the wilderness.

And we have experiences of this healing in many other ways too. Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher who comes from a small town in Minnesota. He was one of my professors in divinity school. A couple of years ago, he said the most moving experience of teaching he’s ever had came not in a classroom at Yale University or inside a church building but at a prison.

Wolterstorff is mostly known for a small book called Lament for a Son, an unvarnished reflection on the death of one of his adult children. He says he had a curious sense while writing it that the words came to him, that he wasn’t searching for them, that they were plucked from the air, as it were, reminding me this week of Moses receiving something from God.[4]

Anyway, a group of prisoners was reading that book. And because he lived nearby, they invited Wolterstorff to come speak to them. So he did, talking for a few minutes and having them respond. This is how he described it:

Twenty guys in the room. Seventeen of them are in for life. . . . For ten minutes I’m utterly perplexed by what’s going on. They read a passage, and then make some comments. And I saw no connection between the passage that they read and their comments.

And then it occurred to me: Oh, they’re not reading this as Nick Wolterstorff’s lament for his son. They’re reading this as their lament. They were using my words for their lament. That’s what was going on. . . . And they were open. They didn’t conceal the fact that they had murdered their best friend, and that they ruined all their relationships. . . .

[They] could use my words to express [their] grief.[5]

The healing power of God was present inside that prison in the same way it was present in the wilderness when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent.

Now there are two footnotes to this snake story. The first comes centuries later in the Old Testament’s Second Book of Kings.[6] Apparently this bronze serpent, a symbol of healing, was preserved by the Israelites and later erected in Jerusalem, perhaps in the Temple itself. King Hezekiah had it destroyed finally because the people had been burning incense to it. So the material object through which the Holy One of Israel healed them had been turned into a kind of graven image forbidden in the Ten Commandments.

When I dropped off my car to get the windshield replaced, they very cleverly gave me a brand new car, same model, to drive around for a few days. It had an updated navigation system with a 3-D map. Here and there a random building was raised up on that map to use as a landmark. Memorial Hermann Medical Plaza, across the street, was the one of them. And just like in real life, day or night, I always know where Palmer is when I see it.

On a spiritual 3-D map, we might choose to raise up our church building instead. That would be a great landmark, a place where we are reoriented in a broken world and rediscover our relationship to God as beloved children.

The key is not to worship the building itself, forgetting that its beauty, like the beauty of the music that fills it and the rituals that animate it, creates a frame around the source of all of that beauty, which is nothing less than the presence of Christ — in the Word proclaimed, the Sacrament received, and the Body of Christ gathered, whether we are inside or outside its walls.

And that brings me to a second footnote from the New Testament’s Gospel of John.[7] We heard it in the words of Jesus this morning. He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[8] Jesus also said he had come not to condemn the world but to save it.

Jesus would be lifted up on the cross in another godforsaken place, so that all those suffering in a different kind of wilderness — all of us — can be healed. So look up to him, and know there’s mercy for each of us . . . today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Numbers 21:4-9.

BACK TO POST Numbers 21:6.

BACK TO POST Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (New York: HarperOne, 2003) 499.

BACK TO POST Nicholas Wolterstorff, interviewed by Scott Jones on “Episode 151: In this World of Wonders, with Nicholas Wolterstorff,” Give & Take Podcast, October 1, 2009.

BACK TO POST Wolterstorff.

BACK TO POST II Kings 18:1-4.

BACK TO POST John 3:14-21.

BACK TO POST John 3:14-15.

A Sign of Hope

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent I, February 21, 2021

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

On the day my wife Carrie and I first met in Williamsburg, Virginia, she also met, not surprisingly, my dog. Georgia was an English Cocker Spaniel with blue roan markings. Georgia’s tail was in constant motion, at least it often seemed that way. It was so much fun to take Georgia on a long walk through the streets of Colonial Williamsburg because she loved the attention she got from tourists and thought the fifes and drums were for her and her alone.

Less fun, at times, was eventually taking her for walks in the park near our house. There was a walking path around it, and sometimes, late at night, Georgia would suddenly decide that she had gone far enough. She would just stop and lie down on the ground, and no amount of coaxing could get her to move even an inch. I’d have to carry her in my arms, and she felt heavier with each step back to the house. It must have been quite a sight to behold.

I’m guessing a lot of us have felt that way ourselves at some point during the truly awful events of the past week, with all 254 counties in the State of Texas under a winter storm warning and dangerous, record-breaking low temperatures. Here in Houston, that extreme cold, combined with no electricity for one, two, or three or more days, which for most of us meant no heat, left us on edge. If you were starting to panic as Wednesday arrived with no apparent end in sight to the misery and no good alternative place to find shelter with warmth or water, you weren’t alone. A lot of us felt that way. And there were and will continue to be thousands of Houstonians living in homes less insulated from the cold than our own. That’s scary.

Surely we’re all tired of living in historic times, tired of enduring historic events. We’d like nothing more than to lie down right where we are, to be picked up in someone else’s arms and carried home, to have the electrical grid fixed, and the laundry folded, and the dishes washed, and the pipes unfrozen, and the loose ends at work tied up neatly, and children reassured — and, yes, ourselves too — that the world isn’t coming to an end.

But if it isn’t coming to an end, if the world is sticking around, we’d like a divine work crew to come into the wreckage of our lives, a metaphorical building with untold, and perhaps unseen, water-damage and unreliable power, to clean up the mess because we’re too tired to do it ourselves.

Whenever my wife and I used to take our dog on a walk around that park at night, our way was always guided by the bright lights around Kidsburg. That was the name of an amazing community-built playground in the middle of the park. And what stood at the heart of it was an impressive structure that resembled a boat. Even in the darkness, it remained an illuminated place of safety against the backdrop of a vast celestial sea. It always reminded me of Noah’s ark — a place of safety, a vessel of salvation — and of the idea at the heart of that odd story in the pages of the Bible that a living community, created by and dependent on God’s grace, is able to renew the earth.

Now if we’re being honest about things, the story of Noah is more than a little unsettling and not really meant for children. After all, this story, which appears in the first book of the Bible, describes a flood that nearly destroys everything. What this and other stories in the opening chapters of Genesis give us is a theological interpretation of the world as we actually experience it. They also remind us of God’s involvement in that reality right now.

In the words of Genesis, the great flood comes after violence and corruption have spread over the face of the earth. This story — again, not a children’s story — unfolds with the most terrifying theology we can possibly imagine:

And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind . . .[1]

What happens next brings us to the edge of many people’s greatest fear — that God “might turn away from [creation] and allow it to sink into chaos.”[2] Maybe you’ve worried about that over the past year. Maybe you’ve worried about it, silently, this past week. It would be a catastrophe not only for the earth and all living things, but also within God himself.[3]

Yet we know from the rest of the story, of course, that creation doesn’t experience God’s total eclipse. As the rains fell and the waters rose and the storm increased, some were saved. Noah, his family, and all the animals with them were gathered together in the ark. This boat, which God had commanded Noah to build, kept them all safe from the violence outside.

Eventually the violence of humanity was overcome by the violence of nature. Then both gave way to the silence of the floodwaters covering the face of the earth. There would be plenty of time for uneasy reflections about what had taken place because the silence outside continued for months.

Many of you have been there yourselves, in the real lives you’ve lived, after tremendous personal trials in the past. Some of you are dwelling in that deafening silence right now. Only then do we hear the climax of the story:

God remembered . . .[4]

God remembered Noah, his family, the living creatures around them. At that moment chaos receded with the floodwaters and creation was renewed.

God said, “Never again,” and made a covenant between himself and the whole earth.[5] It’s not an agreement between two parties, but “a sheer promise from God” that is universal and unconditional.[6] There’s nothing here about what we are supposed to do in our disorientation and total exhaustion. This promise shines in the darkness as a beacon of hope for those who are weary and heavy-laden. God alone takes on the obligation of the promise, assuring us that chaos won’t have the last word.

And it’s not a story that finds meaning only in the lives of primitive human beings. The people of Israel understood that. When they were sent away into exile in present-day Iraq, the story of the flood became a reality in their own lives. It was for them “the collapse of the known world.”[7] Yet a remnant was preserved and saved for a new life that God would lead them back to.

God remembered them just as he had remembered Noah in the story of the flood. Isaiah the prophet testified to this miracle of salvation, this rescue, at the end of their captivity. In the Book of Isaiah, we read these words:

This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah
would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.[8]

Christians also understand new beginnings in catastrophes. When Jesus was crucified, darkness covered the earth, and the storm of God’s wrath against sin was overwhelming. The hiddenness of God was real that day, and the silence which continued into the evening was absolutely devastating.

But God remembered Jesus. And God remembers us too, bringing new life out of the waters of baptism. Notice, again, how God does all the heavy-lifting, bearing our burdens, offering us rest, adopting us as his children, welcoming us into his household, bringing us home at last to himself.

With the assurance that God remembers every living creature in the colors of the rainbow, we gather around the Lord’s Table to remember as well.

Here we remember those mighty acts of God that are bringing forth a new creation. Jesus was not forgotten . . . and neither are you . . . and neither are those who are still suffering. The window of the ark has been opened, and a dove has brought back, as the story of Noah puts it, “a freshly plucked olive leaf.”[9] That small but tangible sign of hope for all of us this morning can be seen in power restored last week, in food and safe drinking water being distributed throughout the city this weekend, and in our prayers arising this hour for God’s universal and unconditional mercy for all living creatures.

God remembers them and us.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Genesis 6:6.

BACK TO POST Jurgen Moltmann, In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 39. I have substituted “creation” for “the earth” in this quote.

BACK TO POST Moltmann 39.

BACK TO POST Genesis 8:1.

BACK TO POST Genesis 9:11.

BACK TO POST Terence E. Fretheim, “Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17,” First Sunday in Lent, Working Preacher, Luther Seminary, March 1, 2009.

BACK TO POST Brueggemann, Genesis, 87.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 54:9-10.

BACK TO POST Genesis 8:6-12.

The Rector’s Report and Steps Forward

THE RECTOR’S REPORT

DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 24, 2021

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

I often pray those words before a sermon because they reflect the mission statement of our church “to know and share the love of Jesus Christ.” And that is what we’ve done as a congregation over the past year, in spite of the unforeseen and unprecedented challenges that arose last March.

In the middle of that month, in the middle of the season of Lent, we made a lightning fast shift from what most of us think of as “normal” church to gathering only online. We had less than two days to prepare for that change, which most of us had no idea would last this long. From inside the church that next Sunday, with some of the lights turned off, painter’s tape holding a less than adequate camera steady on top of an aluminum step ladder, and no one to be seen in the pews from the pulpit, it felt like the distant shadow of a wartime broadcast from the heart of London during the Blitz.

Today’s sermon is actually my report as the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church on the day our Annual Parish Meeting. I first want to thank everyone who works on my staff at Palmer, everyone who serves in leadership here, and those who’ve volunteered in ways seen and unseen.

You all have kept our parish moving forward through this wilderness. We’ve worshiped together. We’ve prayed together. We’ve studied the scriptures together. We’ve discussed and debated issues facing us and the world together. We’ve laughed and cried, experiencing joy and sorrow together.

One example of that joy was our experience of Christmas. Our traditional Christmas Eve service was offered online. Our usual worship with holy communion on Christmas morning was held outdoors and attracted a lot more people than had registered ahead of time. That’s because many people saw it happening as they passed by the church and stopped to join us.

And our most non-traditional Christmas Eve service, of course, was our first drive-in service in a parking lot near Rice Stadium. Far more of you and your friends showed up for that than we expected. Rice officials were amazingly generous and helpful, you were patient and gracious, and the local news told our story in their reports that night and the next morning.

The last thing I did in that parking lot was to pray with a woman being treated for cancer in the medical center and with her family, including her grandchildren. Surprised to find our service on their walk, they watched it until the last carol had been sung and said it was a special gift to them.

In the days leading up to those celebrations, Palmer’s Alternative Gift Giving invitation raised nearly $19,000 for outreach agencies and programs, far surpassing our previous record high in recent years. The largest donation was given in support of PAR, which stands for Palmers Assisting Reentry. This is one of our own ministries and is dedicated to reducing recidivism among former inmates by supporting them in various ways and partnering with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and, soon, the Texas Jail Project. More details about all of that will be forthcoming this year.

Those days leading up to Christmas also brought hope to us and the world in a different way. The first day vaccines began to be administered locally to physicians, nurses, and others across the street in the Texas Medical Center, there were photos posted online each passing hour to show that we had crossed a new threshold — a hopeful one.

I was surprised how emotional it made me to see those images, including the faces of people I know personally, including some of you. And now I see from time to time photos with the masked smiles of other Palmers who’ve just received their first shot. Those of us who are still waiting for ours rejoice with you and give thanks for your public witness.

It’s a witness not unrelated to your Christian faith. That’s because it’s not only about loving yourself but also about loving those for whom you care the most and loving everyone else in our congregation and throughout this great city. And here at Palmer, we believe that God is the ultimate source of the wisdom and intellect, creativity and curiosity, and scientific methods that have led us to this moment. Those dots are connected for us.

So we give thanks in our prayers as individuals and as a community for the graciousness of God and for the heroic diligence of scientists, public health experts, and medical professionals. And as an outward sign of those prayers, our church bells ring daily for those healthcare workers.

Along the same lines, at the meeting of Palmer’s Vestry last June, the physicians who are members of the Vestry affirmed that looking for specific medical milestones as we move into different chapters of regathering as a church is prudent for the health and safety of our congregation. And one of them proposed the following motion, which was passed:

The Palmer Vestry supports the phased reopening of Palmer Memorial Church based on achieving medical milestones that have been recommended by public health officials and following the stated recommendations of the Diocese of Texas.

That’s exactly what we have done, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

As the COVID-19 test positivity rate started to get closer to 5%, we began offering outdoor worship services on the south lawn of the church last September in addition to our prerecorded online Sunday liturgies. Once that positivity rate stayed below 5% for at least 14 days, suggesting community control of the spread of the virus, we moved one of those services inside the church with the various limitations required by the COVID-19 protocols approved for use in our setting by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

As soon as we reach that milestone again, we’ll repeat that shift and include an indoor service. At the moment, however, we’ll remain outdoors for worship since the positivity rate posted on the TMC website is nearly 13% and the positivity rate for all of Houston and Harris County is nearly 20%.

The reason for being especially careful right now was explained not only by Dr. Anthony Fauci at the White House just a few days ago but also by our own medical professionals here at Palmer earlier this month. Simply put, the new strain of the virus is much more contagious, which means that shorter exposure times and being less than six feet apart could lead to a higher risk of infection. So physical distancing remains important.

I know it’s hard. I know it seems like it will never end. But it will end, and we’ll see one another face to face. And we’ll know, even without words, the joys and the sorrows that too often remain hidden behind a mask or that feel too distant behind a screen. We need to use the masks and the screens right now, out of love. But a new day is indeed coming.

Looking down the road, there are three important things I want to highlight as we think about putting our best foot forward on the other side of this pandemic and walk together with confidence through an altered landscape as the community of Jesus in this place — this particular place.

The first is the Membership Task Force that I appointed last fall. Its purpose is to think creatively about our own context here at Palmer, specifically as our staff and leadership look ahead to regathering differently later this year and inviting the whole congregation to make an intentional recommitment to growing our church in what one might aptly describe as a New World.

At the moment we’re doing a series of mini-interviews with a variety of churches here and elsewhere, both like us and not like us, to learn about their practices and strategies for inviting and incorporating new people into the life of their churches. And we’ll have a more extensive conversation with a few of those church leaders and our whole task force at some of our upcoming meetings this year. So please keep this work in your prayers.

Some of the recommendations of this task force will relate to our use of technology. By next fall, for example, we might be able to transition from prerecorded to livestreamed services inside the church. That’s something we’ll continue to do long after things feel a lot more normal to most of us.

It will help others to be able to glimpse the glory of God we encounter within these walls and keep us connected to one another when we’re traveling or sick at home or confined to our house because of physical limitations. And the church needs to have the right kind of equipment to make that a quality offering. In the same way, our Bible studies, which have thrived during the pandemic, will gather again at the church at some point. But the rooms they’ll use can be equipped in such a way that others will still be able to join the conversation online, which is helpful not only for Palmers who live far away from the church but also for new people who are curious about us.

More important than technology, however, we envision a regularly offered workshop for Palmers, new and not-so-new, young and not-so-young, to help them learn how to give their testimony, broadly defined, about God in their lives and the connection of that to Palmer. Inviting others to come and see what God is doing here in this particular place will always be the most effective thing we can do as individuals to grow our congregation in the present moment and post-pandemic. But each of us needs to be equipped to do it well. So this should be a high priority for us going forward.

Perhaps less interesting but still important is Palmer’s Code of Procedures, which outlines how we organize our common life as a parish community. During my tenure here, they’ve already been changed once, partially, because the way we were doing a few things on the ground didn’t match the way the Code of Procedures was actually written.

But now, I believe, is the time to take a comprehensive look at the Code of Procedures so that we’ll be organized in the best possible way going forward. For example, the councils that specifically derive their authority from our Vestry should have clear rules about membership, membership rotation, and leadership rotation. Not having that blurs lines of authority, makes it difficult for new people to participate, and simply isn’t healthy.

Two important things relating to the organization of the Vestry, the collective body with the most authority in any Episcopal parish, have to do with its size and the manner in which new members are elected.

Ours has 15 elected members. My previous parish in Minnesota had even more and went through a process that reduced the size of its Vestry from 18 elected members down to 12. That’s the most common size for reasons that are hopefully obvious since Jesus called 12 disciples, including Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as we heard in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark.[1] But it was also a practical recommendation from the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes because larger vestries don’t result in better decision-making processes but do inhibit discussions.

Regardless of the size of a vestry, there is more than one way to elect new members. I have served parishes that hold elections just like Palmer does, with a slate that has twice as many candidates as there are slots to fill. I have also served congregations that use a different nominating process to produce a slate with the same number of candidates as there are slots to fill.

Many of our peer congregations have shifted from the former to the latter for their elections. We have discussed this here before publicly, and I know doing things the way we do them currently is how the first women were able to be elected to the Vestry here at Palmer. That is a really important part of our history. But our present reality is that it’s very difficult to expand the diversity of our Vestry today because of that same election process.

On a practical level, with each passing year, it takes longer to produce a full slate of ten candidates for our Vestry election. We can find people to serve on various councils. We can find people to serve in leadership. But finding twice as many people to serve in leadership in any given year isn’t easy.

And on a pastoral level, there are many active Palmers who share the pews with us and would bring so many wonderful and unique gifts to the table who are hesitant to step forward as candidates because of a perceived winner/loser aspect to our elections. No amount of explaining how that’s not what this is about will change their minds. As a priest, I will also tell you that it bothers a lot of people who participate in the process more than they ever thought it would. And that breaks my heart as their pastor.

So today I am appointing a Code of Procedures Task Force to consider these things and lead us through a process to discuss them in the coming months and eventually to vote on its recommendations, probably next September.

The members of this new task force are: Kristie Van Arsdel, a lawyer and Palmer’s outgoing Junior Warden, who will chair the task force; John Wallace, an attorney and one of Palmer’s former senior wardens; Barbara Hass, a member of the Vestry who is rolling off this year and who, as many of you probably know, helped to write Palmer’s current Code of Procedures; and Michael Chambers, an attorney who serves as Palmer’s Chancellor. I’ll also serve on the Code of Procedures Task Force as an ex officio member.

Finally, as you will hopefully recall, our annual meeting last year included a description by Greg Hambrick, one of Palmer’s former senior wardens, of what was then a new Property Development Task Force and an interesting idea that was being explored by knowledgeable people who love very deeply this place and this people, which is to say all of us in this congregation.

They had been invited to think creatively about the use of our property, which, although limited, is uniquely situated. In other words, are there ways to envision its use that would enhance the life and ministries of our church while simultaneously giving us an opportunity not only to grow our congregation but, more importantly, expand our mission in a powerfully significant and truly lasting way here in the City of Houston?

Could something be built both physically and spiritually that you could lift up your eyes to see and be a part of and know that it would bring life to this church and this community long after my lifetime and your lifetime? And what would that look like in our specific location as the gateway to the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest medical complex in the world?

Imagine all sorts and conditions of folks being drawn to cross the threshold of the doors of our church because of our mission in this city and because, quite frankly, we made it easier for them to get here. What they would find in this particular place is beauty — beauty not only in this historic building but also in the music and the prayers and the preaching and the people.

They’d find beauty in God’s grace for them.

David Robinson serves on Palmer’s Vestry, faithfully attends our Tuesday morning Men’s Bible Study, and also has a seat, as most of you know, on Houston’s City Council. He’ll give us an update with details related to these wonderings and conversations later this afternoon at the annual meeting.

If such a path presents itself to us, and we make the decision to walk down that path, believing God is calling us to do so, one of the most important and exciting things we would get to do as a congregation is to dream together about what the expansion of our mission would be.

It might be something that addresses an issue related to the area of public education. It might be a way to invest in early childhood development, which is one of the stated goals of the Episcopal Health Foundation and, in fact, its most specific goal because of the impact it makes. It might be an idea that connects us directly to the healing that takes place in the Texas Medical Center or the caregivers of its patients or the people who work there and absorb all of the stress and the grief and the anxieties thrown at them.

I don’t know what that expanded mission would be, opening our arms wider to share the love of Jesus Christ. What I do know, however, is that it would reveal itself as we walk together, talk together, pray together, even wrestle together with God, like Jacob does in the Bible, to receive a blessing. For me it brings to mind a quote from one of our Great Wednesday Webinar guests last fall, Miroslav Volf. A theologian at Yale Divinity School, he once said:

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

And that’s why, he also said, “you don’t know what’s going to happen.” But it’s like answering the call of Jesus to follow him. We heard about Simon, Andrew, James, and John answering that call this morning. And we prayed in the Collect of the Day that we, too, would “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ” so that “we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.”[2] What is he calling us to do next? Whatever that might be, the good news is that we can trust the one calling us by name. 

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Mark 1:14-20.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 215.

“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.

BACK TO POST

BACK TO POST Romans 8:39.

BACK TO POST

BACK TO POST I Peter 2:10.

BACK TO POST I Peter 2:9.

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.

Admit One, Please

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I believe.

AMEN

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

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

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

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

Inside the Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tremble with fear.[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:21.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:22.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 4:16.