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 known as Easter, when the dead shall be raised, when wrongs, including the ones within us, shall be righted, and God shall be all in all. There in God’s Acre, we need not fear our coming Judge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I believe.

AMEN

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

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

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

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

Inside the Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tremble with fear.[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:21.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:22.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 4:16.

Joy and Mirth at the Feast of the Lamb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

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

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

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST Amos 8:11.

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

BACK TO POST “Swaim Swung,” 3.

BACK TO POST John 18:38.

BACK TO POST John 19:15.

10 BACK TO POST Amos 8:8-10.

11 BACK TO POST Colossions 1:19.

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

The Peace of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BACK TO POST John 19:26.

BACK TO POST John 19:26-27.

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

“Worthy is the Lamb”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter III, May 5, 2019

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. (Revelation 5:12, KJV)

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

So a weird thing happened to me recently. Several months ago, I stumbled across a short list of papers that are in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They are some of the writings of John Philip Meurer, who was not only a Moravian minister but also my 6th great-grandfather. The list included a poem from 1744.

I was really curious about that and received an enthusiastic response from a young researcher who wrote back to me. He said it had apparently been miscatalogued because, as it turns out, it’s really a 37-verse hymn. The numbering skips from verse 24 to verse 26, so I guess there are only 36 verses. And it’s now been translated from German to English if we want to use this “shortened” version next Sunday as our processional hymn. Fear not, that won’t happen! However, I will quote part of it today, beginning with the second verse, which refers to Jesus Christ as the Lamb:

When I consider the previous time,
the trouble the Lamb has taken with me
when I brought him very little joy,
his heart still burned with love.

In love, he was always near to me . . .
His spirit and grace always surrounded me . . .

The dear Lamb redeemed me,
forgave me my sins.

That contrast between the Lamb and my 6th great-grandfather, or anyone else who is an imperfect human being, which is to say the person sitting next to you, is fully on display in this morning’s reading from the Book of Revelation. The one who is worthy to receive honor and glory and blessing is neither among “the myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of people who are singing nor on the throne of the Roman emperor who demands total loyalty and worship as a god. Only the Lamb is worthy to receive all of that, and the Lamb, as in Meurer’s hymn, is Jesus Christ.

Sadly, the Book of Revelation has been used to terrify people, filling them with fear about the news of the day. It’s meant to say that, yes, God will have the last word over all the terrible things that happen and will continue to happen in this world. But it’s also meant to provide encouragement for those who are struggling, even a sense of wonder that Christ’s death and resurrection — what Meurer later describes in his hymn as “our dear Lamb’s wounds” — are somehow able to untangle the knots within us and around us. Before receiving communion, we often proclaim the same message, singing that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The Book of Revelation, by the way, heartily endorses singing, as if to say that in the midst of humanity’s cacophony, and after all of that disharmony has ended, singing will have carried us through it and remain with us beyond it. There are more than 15 hymns sung in this book, surrounding us with encouragement from behind the curtain of materiality. Yes, some things are seen. Others, just as real, are unseen.

Near the end of the Book of Revelation, there’s another biblical image of the Lamb that appears, painting a vivid picture for us of what heaven is like. It’s the marriage supper of the Lamb — a wedding feast, which, in the ancient world, was a kind of dinner that went on for days, overflowing with abundance. There, at the end of the Bible, it’s a party hosted by Jesus. And it’s a party to which all of us are invited.

Angie and Stuart Kensinger, whose double funeral was held in this church last week, used to host fabulous dinner parties in their home. And they’d print menus for these fun events. Here’s one of them. The Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem attended this particular dinner, and he was invited to sign a copy of this so the Kensingers could keep it as a memento. That’s not surprising. But what is surprising is that the Kensingers asked every other person at the dinner to sign that menu, too, as though we were all celebrities. It was then framed and hung on a wall in their kitchen.

Those walls are filled with these framed menus. My wife Carrie had this to say about that in an essay posted on Mockingbird on the day of Angie and Stuart’s funeral:

Every time there was a new dinner party, a new menu would be printed, signed, and framed, and they would squeeze the other frames together and rearrange to make space for the new one. There wasn’t ever a sense that they’d run out of room for more menus, even as the walls filled with memories — they’d simply make more room. I imagine that the [Jewish, Christian, and Muslim] young people in Jerusalem Peacebuilders and [the girls] on Angie’s lacrosse teams felt the same way that I did — we all knew there was enough room in the Kensingers’ hearts for all of us. We all just squeezed together to make more room.

I imagine that the kingdom of heaven is not unlike Stuart and Angie’s kitchen, with its walls filled with signed menus. There will be someone who is always, always glad to see us and treat us as an honored guest. There’s no fear that the host will run out of room, and old friends will squeeze together to make room for new ones.

That’s a beautiful portrait, I think, of how our life together with God might look. Now and then we get to have a glimpse of it here, where our songs and laughter and feasting and friendship and small acts of love are like a thunderous chorus of praise to the Lamb who was slain. And sometimes we’re overwhelmed with a very real sense that those who have died, having fallen asleep in Jesus, are still with us, and not just in our memories. They are among “the myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,” encouraging us as they sing to the Lamb and surround the throne of God with their own Easter alleluias. That, my friends, is the communion of saints.

My first experiences of that happened as a child in North Carolina at the Moravian Easter sunrise service. The service always began in front of the church and ended in the graveyard as we stood with the saints, living and dead. I also felt it as a teenager when I crossed the threshold of an Episcopal church for the very first time at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, in New York City. That parish church moves from plainness to glory in two directions, from bottom to top and from the back to the front. And there at the front is one of the world’s largest reredoses — an ornamental screen behind the altar, brightly illuminated and highlighting a multitude of saints. It was while looking at them that I first heard an Episcopal priest sing these words:

Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy Glory.”

Last Sunday morning, my wife and I were in New York City and attended the 11:00 Festival Eucharist at St. Thomas. While hearing those now familiar words and looking at that reredos soaring heavenward, I thought about the past, just like John Philip Meurer did in the words of his hymn, and how Jesus has always been close to me in love, even when — especially when — I wasn’t aware of it. And I also thought about the saints of God here at Palmer who’ve died. We’ve buried three of them from this church during this season of Easter, with three more funerals to be held over the next couple of weeks. Others are mourning the loss of close family members. It’s too much to bear. Yet the love of Jesus sustains us as we sit in the shadow of death.

As a friend of mine recently said to me, “The love of Jesus precedes everything else, and the love of Jesus creates love within us.” And that divine love that fills our hearts within these walls is the same love that overflows into the world beyond these walls. That’s the love that goes with us today as we step onto Main Street. This I believe.

AMEN

In Memoriam: Angie and Stuart Kensinger

On the morning of Easter Day, among the crowds of people who came to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston were Angie and Stuart Kensinger, together with their son Philip, who was home briefly from college. This is what I said that morning about Jesus, raised from the dead:

[T]he last word belongs to the Risen Lord. He has destroyed death. He has broken down the gates of hell. And he will set us free from our exile, self-imposed or otherwise. The love of the Risen Lord will not fail us, and we can never find ourselves beyond its reach. . . . This is the joy of Easter.

Less than 24 hours later, Angie and Stuart were killed tragically in the crash of a small plane near the town of Kerrville in West Texas. Four other people were also aboard that plane, all of them friends of the Kensingers. There were no survivors.

Stuart owned a commercial real estate investment and development business. He was a member of the Rector Search Committee that brought me to the Lone Star State and was the Founding Director and Treasurer of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, wholeheartedly supporting its work and commitment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees for Camp Allen in Navasota and the Board of Trustees for Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Stuart was baptized as an adult by a friend from my time at that seminary, who wrote these words to me last week: “Who knew that Easter’s promise of eternal life to all who love the Lord Jesus would become so dear so fast this Easter Monday?”

Angie was the long-time Head Coach of the Varsity Girls’ Lacrosse Team at St. John’s School in Houston. She had an incredibly encouraging personality, like Stuart did, and made hospitality seem effortless as she opened the door of the Kensinger home to friends, neighbors, and students. I can’t imagine how devastating this loss must be to so many high school girls who played lacrosse and looked to Angie as a second mother through the years. Off the field, she helped them to grow as human beings beyond athletics and worked with her husband to support humanitarian efforts, including the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury throughout the Anglican Communion around the globe through the Compass Rose Society.

The person most devastated, of course, is their son Philip. He is being surrounded by the love of Jesus though the prayers and presence of so many throughout the City of Houston. I ask you to remember him in your prayers as we gather for the funeral of both of his parents this week. He is a wonderful young adult, in whom is reflected so much of Angie and Stuart — a very strong foundation that will remain with him.

In between hearing about the plane crash and writing this reflection, my wife and I were in New York City for a few days for the annual Mockingbird Conference. I was very aware of the fact that Angie’s great-grandfather, William Jay Gaynor, served as the 94th mayor of that great American city in the early 20th century. In that office, he was a reformer who stood up to political corruption and once wrote these words: “The world does not grow better by force or by the policeman’s club.” I had thought about visiting his grave in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. There was another place, however, beckoning to me in memory of Angie and Stuart — The Cloisters.

I have preached many times about a doorway in that museum that tells Christians a powerful story. It is a story I think the Kensingers embodied in their life together. Last year was the first time I had attempted to see this artistic treasure in person. Although I did make it there last spring, I couldn’t see the doorway because it was hidden from view while some work was being done in the room where it’s exhibited. Only this year, days after the plane crash, was I able to see this with my own eyes.

This beautiful, 12th century doorway comes from the Church of San Leonardo al Frigido in Tuscany, Italy. On the right side of the doorway, there is a sixth century saint named Leonardo, who is depicted as one who cares for those in prison.

The massive lintel across the top of the doorway depicts Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. You can tell it’s Palm Sunday because of the children holding palm branches and throwing garments in the path of Jesus, who is riding on a donkey.

Following Jesus are the twelve apostles plus one extra person. The one extra person is Leonardo, who joins the apostolic train and follows Jesus too. The message seems so simple: Those who pass through that doorway are invited to join the procession of those who follow Jesus. Those who do so are the saints of God. The saints aren’t only people who have died for their faith. The saints aren’t only people who happen to adorn the walls of medieval churches. The saints are people in need of forgiveness, just like you and me, who are willing to walk through that doorway, trusting that it’s better to walk with God, and with brothers and sisters in Christ, than it is to walk alone in this world.

Angie and Stuart were an important part of our congregation at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, and those who make it their spiritual home are called Palmers. While it’s true that the name of our church comes from a family name, the word Palmer also has referred historically to someone who had returned from the Holy Land with a palm frond or leaf as an outward sign of having gone on a pilgrimage. It’s a wonderful metaphor for our life as Christians. Stuart, of course, loved that image as he thought about the people in our church and as he led groups to the Holy Land.

The loss of the Kensingers is overwhelming for our church and the City of Houston. Yet I know both of them would want us to continue to work for peace in a world too often stripped of grace. May the witness of their lives to God’s mercy inspire us all.

Into paradise may the angels lead you.
At your coming may the martyrs receive you,
and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.

And through our tears we say, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Standing Barefoot on Holy Ground

The header photograph for this post is a detail from the painting “Fire Houses” by Israeli-American artist Yoram Raanan. Sadly, 40 years of his artwork was destroyed in a fire that swept through the hills outside of Jerusalem in 2016, burning to the ground many homes and businesses, including his studio. Ranaan, however, was not dismayed. He was grateful that his family was safe, and he continued to paint. His work, however, shifted from bright colors to the use of more earthen tones on a black background, with streaks of gold shining through all of that like a new light, which he calls “The Light of Fire.” This painting, an example of that turning to a new chapter in his life, can be seen together with other recent artwork on his website.

The living testimony of this man, who lost much of his life’s work, stands in stark contrast to that of Charles Vance Miller, a Canadian lawyer who had everything, yet chose not to bless humanity in the world around him. The sad legacy of Miller is recounted in the following sermon, which reminds us that standing on holy ground is about something very different. I’ve also included, with permission of the artist, Raanan’s “Burning Bush, Moshe,” which was created in 2014. I love how the colors make alive the world in Raanan’s painting through the fire of the divine presence. Perhaps, like Moses, we’ll encounter that in the world of our ordinary life today:

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent III, March 24, 2019

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

Back in 2007, when this North Carolinian moved from Virginia to Minnesota, there were so many things that I wasn’t prepared for, so many things that were about to seem, at least to me, as though I had traveled with my wife to a foreign country. Although she was used to the harsh winters of the Upper Midwest, I was not.

Now when the church in Virginia gave me a gigantic parka, that I understood. I was grateful, and wore it religiously for seven years. But when they also gave me a snow brush, I was perplexed. The end with an ice scraper made sense to me. But why was the other end just a huge brush? Well, as it turns out, that’s handy when there is a foot of snow on your car and you can’t go anywhere until it’s all been removed.

The other thing that really stands out to me as a strange memory was the universal rule about removing your shoes immediately upon entering a house in the wintertime. It didn’t matter if it was your own house or the house of friend or the house of a stranger. Even at a nice Christmas party in a beautiful mansion at which all the guests are dressed to the nines, you take off your footwear as soon as you cross the threshold and, as if back in preschool, line up your boots neatly by the front door. Then the fancy people in their fancy clothes walk around in their socks. And no one thinks twice about it.

In the middle of one winter there, I remember going with an older priest who helped us out with pastoral care to visit a homebound widow and bring her communion. As soon as we walked into her home, I panicked because I realized that I had gotten so excited about my new, rather expensive snow boots that I had worn them exactly the way the manufacturer recommends wearing them for maximum warmth: barefoot.

So I sheepishly slipped them off, like you do, and sat in her living room with my bare feet as we talked and prepared ourselves to participate in the Lord’s Supper and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I felt more than a little embarrassed at first, but then it seemed ok. The experience was both humbling and holy.

That was probably the only time I’ve ever received bread and wine made holy food in bare feet, and I think about it every time I hear the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moses, a Hebrew man with an Egyptian name, had murdered an Egyptian and fled a life of royal comfort as an adopted grandson of Pharaoh. He was lying low in a foreign land, where he married a Midianite woman. There Moses was watching his father-in-law’s flock of sheep when he encountered a bush that was burning but not being consumed by the fire. And out of the burning bush, God spoke to Moses, calling him by name and telling him to remove his sandals. Why? Because, God says to him, “. . . the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”[1]

Then Moses meets God not as Creator of the universe but as the One who was made known to his ancestors — to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Out of that relationship, a personal relationship, God has heard the cries of the Hebrews in Egyptian slavery. Moses is told that he is being sent to Pharaoh to bring them out of Egypt.

So Moses asks what he should tell them when they ask who has sent him. God says, “I am who I am.” Then God reveals his name to Moses — a Hebrew word that means something like “The One who is” or “The One who causes to be.”[2] Many Jews and some Christians choose not to speak the divine name in Hebrew out of a reverence for the One who bears it, saying, instead, “The Lord.” The Lord has sent Moses.

The Lord has sent us too. And we’re just like Moses, the human being, not the great prophet. Moses the human made mistakes — big ones — and got angry and fell from his station in life and was unsure about his place in the world. Moses the human ran away, wanting and praying to fade into the woodwork, and being unsure and afraid of what God was asking him to do. Moses the human wasn’t a great public speaker and would later have to have his brother speak for him. That’s the imperfect human being, like you and me, whose name was called out from the burning bush.

What will be birthed from that encounter is the idea that God is not one of many gods, or the most powerful among the many, but the only God. When darkness descends upon Egypt, blotting out the sun for three days before the Hebrews begin their journey to the Promised Land, it’s obviously more than a solar eclipse or a cloudy sky. It’s a funeral of sorts — the defeat of the Egyptian sun god, the death of Ra’s divinity.[3] The one God is not a force in nature but over it.

Another idea that will be birthed is love of neighbor, defined not narrowly but broadly. You are to treat the alien in your midst with compassion because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, where you were enslaved and treated with harshness and cruelty. Jesus, of course, brings all of this together, highlighting love of God and love of neighbor — God as one and neighbor as humanity — as the two greatest commandments in the Hebrew scriptures.

By God’s grace, those ideas have changed the world through God’s people. And that family tree was expanded when we Gentiles — strangers and aliens to the promises of God — were adopted into the household of God through Jesus. We, too, have been brought into freedom. We’ve been treated with compassion through forgiveness, a forgiveness that’s wider and deeper than the sea. This I believe wholeheartedly.

So that’s why we’re here. We have been forgiven because we are just like Moses. And, like him, we’ve been sent into the world. There, as Christians, we are to testify to the glory of God that we have seen reflected in the face of Jesus — Emmanuel, God with us — and to love, however imperfectly, the unloved, the unlovely, and the unlovable. Why? Because that’s how we all came to be here, in this place, in this time.

You can support this community and nurture it first and foremost through your prayers and your presence. That’s why worship is so important here at Palmer. This experience of beauty, this word of grace and mercy, the invitation to be fed at this Table isn’t the destination for our spiritual life but the beginning point. It’s how we orient ourselves to face the rest of the week beyond these walls.

You can also build up this Christian community with your financial support. Palmer has, generously speaking, about 600 households, and 283 of those households have made a financial pledge for this calendar year. That means they’ve let us know what dollar amount they intend to give to our church in 2019. Those pledges, which range from very small gifts to very large gifts, provide the vast majority of the funds that are allocated to support the people, programs, and buildings that make Palmer such a unique and inclusive witness to the love of Jesus here in the City of Houston.

I mention that because we’re still about $100,000 short on the pledge total for 2019 that we need to keep everything the way it is now. The good news is this: That’s less than 5% of our total annual budget, and I believe the resources to do that are present within our congregation. I appeal especially to those who haven’t yet made a financial pledge or who’ve never made one. Cards for that are in the pew racks. Or you can call the church to leave a confidential voicemail for our finance manager.

If you’re a guest with us today, give generously to the community of faith that’s your spiritual home, wherever that might be. You will be returning to God a portion of the many blessings you have received from God, and your gift now, whether large or small, will help to ensure that the place you’ll turn to in your time of need will still be there down the road when you need it. That place won’t be your alma mater or your country club or your fitness gym or Minute Maid Park. It will be whatever you consider to be your spiritual home. So don’t let that gift be an afterthought.

It’s true that the ways we shape the world around us are just a shadow of the ways the Lord has shaped us into his people and continues to shape us through his forgiveness and his loving embrace. Yet when we walk out the doors of this church, we are shaping the world, sometimes for the better, but not always.

Charles Vance Miller was a Canadian who worked as a lawyer in the City of Toronto. He died in 1926 at the age of 72. A wealthy man, he never had children and never got married. Public radio’s This American Life described Mr. Miller’s will as:

. . . an elaborate prank, as if he’d thrown a bunch of money out of a window to watch what would happen. He left stock in a brewery to Prohibitionist pastors. He gave his racing stock to people who didn’t believe in betting. He said he wanted to leave his vacation home in Jamaica to three other lawyers — a nice thing for them to share, except for the fact that the three lawyers all hated each other. But by far the clause that unleashed the most mayhem was the last one. It’s about all the rest of his money. . . . nine million Canadian dollars in today’s money or almost seven million U.S. dollars.[4]

I’m not going to tell you the details of that last clause. Suffice it to say that he created a lot of human wreckage, chaos fueled by a rise in poverty in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression. It was pretty awful. His will also included a confession that is a sad testament for a human being to leave behind after death:

This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death, and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime.[5]

Out of the burning bush, the Lord called Moses, called both Israel and the Church, and calls you and me today to look at the world around us differently than Mr. Miller did.

The Lord is sending us to love God as one and neighbor as humanity, to build up rather than tear down, to embrace  with compassion those not like us, those less fortunate than us, those sitting in the shadow of death. And we ought not hesitate to remove our shoes — literally, if necessary — to stand beside them on ground that is called holy not because of who we are but because of Another:

The One who causes to be.

Holy is his name.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Exodus 3:5.

BACK TO POST Richard Elliot Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 176.

BACK TO POST Richard Elliot Friedman, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2017) 182. This, along with Friedman’s discussion of both monotheism and love of neighbor, defined not narrowly but broadly, shaped this sermon deeply. I commend his book to those who are curious about the exodus.

BACK TO POST Stephanie Foo, “Babies Got Bank,” Act Two of “The Long Fuse,” Episode 668, This American Life podcast, February 15, 2019.

BACK TO POST Charles Vance Miller, quoted by Foo.

On the Road with the Rector #12

Added LaneLiving in the City of Houston provides us with incredible opportunities to participate in cultural and intellectual events. Throughout the year, I’ll invite you and your friends and neighbors to join me in some of these activities that might either strengthen or challenge us as Christians.

The next “On the Road with the Rector” event will take place on Thursday, January 10, in the Law Building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which is located at 1001 Bissonnet Street. This is free lecture from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. is titled orrible ’istory: A Lighthearted Look at 400 Years of the British Monarchy.” The museum website describes it this way (and notes that seating will be first-come, first-served):

Taking a . . . tongue-in-cheek look at this parade of merrie monarchs are two Brits in Houston: St. John Flynn and Helen Mann, whom many Houstonians may remember as commentators on Houston Public Media’s Manor of Speaking, the talkback show that followed episodes of the PBS series Downton Abbey.

St. John Flynn is the arts and culture director at Houston Public Media, and Helen Mann is the former vice consul for public affairs for the British Consulate General in Houston. The latter is also a fan of Evensong at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church.

This lecture is being presented in connection with the unprecedented exhibition “Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol” that will remain at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through Sunday, January 27, 2019.

A Different Kind of Glory at Christmas

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018

Loosen a little our grip, O Lord, on our words and our ways, our fears and our fretfulness, that finding ourselves found in you, we may venture from the safety of the shore and launch afresh into the waters of grace with Christ, the Morning Star, as our guide.[1] Amen.

When I was in college, I remember attending Christmas Eve services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina. One of the head ushers always stood out on that holy night. And I would have been disappointed if he hadn’t been there. He could be seen marching up and down the aisles in some of the most wonderfully outrageous Christmas trousers you’ve ever seen. It was surely the only time of the year that he would’ve dared to wear such clothing in that church. Of course, he wasn’t alone. There was lots of other playful attire in the pews on people who would normally be dressed rather conservatively, to say the least.

My former boss, who is now the Bishop of Southern Virginia, has a similar, fond memory of a guy who would wear the same socks to one of his former churches every Christmas Eve, showing them off at the door as he greeted the clergy. They were green, with little silver bells all over them, so he would jingle as he walked around. Christmas brought out something playful in him, something of the joy and wonder we see in children and ask God to give to newly baptized Christians.[2]

More than a few of you here tonight understand that sense of playfulness. As usual, our decoy ducks in the fountain in Palmer’s courtyard are all dressed up for the Christmas season with bright red bows around their necks. I’m also sure that there are candy cane neckties, bow ties with lights, Santa pins that play music, and red and green sparkling earrings out there in the darkness, waiting to be noticed with a little grin and a wink. At the last service, two brothers were wearing matching red sweaters with Christmas trees and lights that could blink and sitting together in the first pew, right in front of the pulpit. At this service, one of our ushers is sporting corduroy pants with black Labrador Retrievers adorned with Santa hats on them.

For some people, all of this is a kind of false religion, a form of escape from sadness, sickness, disappointment, and the darkness of the world. For the rest of us, however, it’s a reminder that true joy can be found in the midst of those harsh realities and that, as Isaiah declared, “on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”[3] Yes, the darkness is great, but not greater than God.

The light that dispels our night is Jesus, who came from “the realms of glory” as Emmanuel, which means God-with-us.[4] He has come to share our life not as we wish it to be, but as it really is. He’s forgiven us in spite of our failures and our hard-heartedness. Only a love that comes from above, embracing the unlovely, the unlovable, those who are suffering, those who are lonely, and those who’ve been forgotten is able to make real and everlasting the enchantment of this holy night.

And we believe Jesus embodies that love.

Earlier today at the first Eucharist of Christmas, our beloved Associate Rector, the Rev. Liz Parker, came with her boys, who are young adults, and sat near the front on the Nativity side of the church. As many of you know, she was away from Palmer throughout the season of Advent because her husband, the Rev. Andy Parker, was hospitalized multiple times over the last several weeks due to complications from cancer. Andy died a week before Christmas Day, and his funeral will take place later this week, in this church, while it’s still decorated for this holy season.

At the end of November, after having waited with Andy in the emergency room for 11 hours, Liz said she cried out to God as they sat there, praying, “God, where are you? I need to see you here!” And when they finally got moved into a hospital room, Andy’s nurse introduced himself to them, saying, “My name is Emmanuel.” The same Love that came down at Christmas was in the room with them, surrounding them, comforting them, reminding them of Jesus.

The miracle isn’t that we are only able to see the love of Jesus reflected in a nurse named Emmanuel, but that we also see the love of Jesus in the face of a nurse named Mary, a janitor named Ronnie, a teacher named Eleanor, a waiter named Joseph, a priest named Mollie, a doctor named Carlos, a police officer named Yolanda, a UPS driver named Gabe, a stranger sitting next to us in the pew, and a parent named Clyde, Shirley, Dale, or Linda. Those are real people, by the way, and there are real people in your own life who have shown you the love of Jesus when you needed it.

And the promise isn’t that every story will have a magical ending before the dawn of Christmas morning. No, the promise of the gospel is that God came into the world in a very real way and will always and forever embrace us even through — especially through — our darkest night. What makes this night magical is the belief that “God has intervened” and is, as Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has written, “[creating] a new kingdom where no evil and no disappointment can ever enter.”[5]

Whenever I think back to the times that my sons, as babies, fell asleep on my chest, I’m reminded of Mary’s newborn child in the manger and that God chose to appear among us not in a blaze of imperial glory but with a different kind of glory, that of an infant. That’s the mystery of the incarnation, which we celebrate tonight.

It’s the unbelievable fact that God said to his creation: “I love you so very much that I’m willing to become like you. I’m willing to experience what you experience, to feel what you feel, to think what you think, to suffer as you suffer, and, yes, even to laugh as you laugh.” It is through becoming one of us that God draws us and the whole world to himself. It is Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

I close with a lovely meditation on the Nativity that I hope is personally meaningful for each of us in this church tonight and for all of those whom our prayers surround with the love of Jesus. It’s written by the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, who reminds us to laugh and to trust this newborn child more than we trust ourselves:

Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother . . . Look at the Child, knowing nothing. Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him. Doubt nothing. Watch him springing in the lap of the maiden. Laugh with him. Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to [men and women] than a babe. Are you affrighted? Then come to him, lying in the lap of the fairest and sweetest maid. You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to [humanity] than this, that Christ became man, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.[6]

To the words of that meditation, I say, “Amen,” and to you,

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!”

BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”

BACK TO POST From the baptismal liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer (1979):

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

BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:2 (New International Version 1984).

BACK TO POST James Montgomery (1771-1854), 1816:

Angels from the realms of glory
wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story
now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.

BACK TO POST Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018) 389.

BACK TO POST Martin Luther, excerpt from a Christmas sermon in Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by Roland H. Bainton (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997), quoted on the Mockingbird blog, December 24, 2010.

On the Road with the Rector #11

Added LaneLiving in the City of Houston provides us with incredible opportunities to participate in cultural and intellectual events. Throughout the year, I’ll invite you and your friends and neighbors to join me in some of these activities that might either strengthen or challenge us as Christians.

The next “On the Road with the Rector” event will take place across the street from Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church at Rice University. It’s a series of presentations about anti-Semitism. See below for details and an explanation of why this is timely.

Beautiful & Terrible Things Will Happen

If the Lord himself had not been on our side,
now may Israel say:
If the Lord himself had not been on our side,
when men rose up against us;
then they had swallowed us up alive,
when their wrath was kindled against us.
Then the waters had overwhelmed us,
the stream had gone over our soul:
Then the proud waters had gone even over our soul.

Blessed be the Lord,
who hath not given us
as a prey unto their teeth.
Our soul is escaped even as a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we are delivered.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.[1]

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 21, September 30, 2018

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

As of Friday, the historic port town of Georgetown, which is located about 25 miles south of where I used to live in what’s called the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, was still waiting . . . still waiting for the worst flooding to arrive from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. That town sits on Winyah Bay, where the Waccamaw River, the Pee Dee River, the Sampit River, and the Black River converge. Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber has called this slow-moving disaster a “silent assassin.”[2]

Further north in the town of Conway, which is the first town inland from Myrtle Beach, the Waccamaw River has already crested at nearly 10 feet above flood stage and was expected to taper off through today. Drone footage of one neighborhood near Conway appeared to show knee-high water in every house. As of 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, there had been 137 road closures and 11 dam breaches in the Pee Dee region.[3] Of course, there’s major damage in my home state of North Carolina too.

One meteorologist has calculated that Hurricane Florence was “forecast to dump about 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week over the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland.” That’s as much water as there is in the entire Chesapeake Bay or “enough to cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches . . . of water.” Believe it or not, that’s still far less water than the 25 trillion gallons of rain that fell over Texas and Louisiana last year during Hurricane Harvey because that storm “stalled longer and stayed [close] to the Gulf of Mexico.”[4]

Most of the floods that we experience, however, are metaphorical, not literal. But that doesn’t make them any less real. This past week, with respect to the national news, has been good example of that. Last weekend on Twitter, someone wrote,

Next week has been exhausting.[5]

I laughed at that, too, not because the things that people were reading, pondering, debating, and arguing about were funny, but because it was an accurate description of the world-weariness that many of us were feeling long before the political drama of the last several days. And setting aside everything that’s been taking place in Washington, D.C., painful stories from the survivors of sexual assault, too numerous to count, have overflowed into our personal and public conversations as Americans.

Many of those stories remain unspoken among the women and men of this church and within the circles of relationships that we have in our families and friendships. Just know those stories are often silent companions in the room with us. People we love, not only survivors of sexual assault but also children in our extended families and in this congregation, are listening to the language we use.[6] We don’t have to change our political affiliation or political philosophy to be careful with our words and to pray for those we love and, yes, for all the politicians too. As I’ve said before about praying the words of our mouths will be acceptable in the sight of the Lord:

Christians have a particular obligation to use words carefully, regardless of how others might choose to use them recklessly.

Some of the people for whom we pray face other kinds of raging waters that threaten to overwhelm them. Maybe you’ve felt like that in the past because of something you kept closely guarded in your heart. You might feel like that today, overwhelmed, as though a flood has overtaken your life and everything around you. It could be about all sorts of worries — the erosion of a marriage or a friendship, a child or a relative who struggles with mental health issues, the physical decline of a parent, the harsh reality of unfulfilled dreams, or an inability to forgive or even to receive forgiveness.

So where do we turn when the winds blow and the waters rise around us?

By 1999, I had moved from South Carolina’s northern most coastal county to its southern most coastal county. So I was living on Hilton Head Island when the entire coastline of South Carolina was evacuated ahead of Hurricane Floyd’s arrival. Trying to avoid the traffic jams that had clogged the interstates, I decided to leave the island at the very last minute. No one else was around in the complex where I rented a condominium, and I could hear the eerie sound of wind howling through rigging and ringing bells on boats in the intracoastal marina near my screened-in porch.

It was scary to be a lone car driving away as the sky darkened and rain poured down while two state troopers stood outside their cruisers on the mainland side of the bridge. You’d better believe I prayed for them, as rain baptized their plastic-covered Smokey Bear hats. And you’d better believe I prayed for myself because it’s terrifying to drive into the darkness on a stormy night, knowing it will only get worse.

Whenever that happens, whenever we feel alone like that, we come here to be in the company of others, to take a moment to get our bearings, and to discover where we are in the world. We come here to be reoriented toward the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ, to be reminded of the fact that God has been faithful to us, and not in an abstract way but in a very real way, in the journey of God’s people throughout the history of the human race. From the spoken words of the psalms to the unspoken words written on our hearts and read only by God, the people of God have brought these prayers into communities like Palmer from one generation to another.

This is where we are fed by God and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, become bread for others — the Body of Christ — blessed and broken for the world, perhaps for the world incarnated in the person who is sitting next to you right now. This is where all of us, from the youngest to the oldest, can find shelter when the rains come and the waters around us are rising. As the words of Psalm 124 have reminded us:

If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say . . .

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over us;

Then would the raging waters
have gone right over us.[7]

One of the things I love about this psalm is the way it describes things not as we wish them to be but as they really are. It doesn’t promise that there will be no storms or that the storms will not harm us if our faith is just strong enough. To the contrary, it reminds us that in the end strength is found neither in the flood nor even in our faithfulness. No, the final strength is the faithfulness of God, who “has not given us over to” the power of death.[8] That means when death comes, and it will come, the last word nevertheless belongs to God. As author Frederick Buechner once wrote,

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.

Don’t be afraid. I am with you.[9]

Although I do like those words, which describe the world as it is, I really like what another author, Anne Lamott, said several years ago in response to them:

But it is hard not to be afraid, isn’t it? Some wisdom traditions say that you can’t have love and fear at the same time, but I beg to differ. You can be a passionate believer in God . . . and still be afraid. I’m Exhibit A.

The temptation is to say . . . it will all make sense someday. Great blessings will arise from the tragedy, seeds of new life sown. And I absolutely believe those things, but if it minimizes the terror, it’s . . .

Well, she continues that thought about minimizing the terror with some language that I’ll not use from the pulpit. So I’ll just quote from the Lego Movie instead: It’s “a bunch of hippy, dippy, baloney.” Lamott goes on to say this:

My understanding is that we have to admit the nightmare, and not pretend that it wasn’t heinous and agonizing . . .

For the time being, I am not going to pretend to be spiritually more evolved than I am. I’m keeping things very simple: right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe; telling my stories, and reading yours. I keep thinking about Barry Lopez’s wonderful line, “Everyone is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together; stories and compassion.”[10]

Now I think this is one of the most important places where those stories are shared, either within these walls or walking together to and from this church. That means it needs to be here when we need to share our stories. It also means that we need to be here when others need to tell their stories. God, of course, is always listening. That’s true. But people long to see in a real community, in the faces of children and women and men, the divine love that surrounds the telling and hearing of their stories.

Psalm 124 is one of 15 “Psalms of Ascents” in the Bible. These songs accompanied pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Their walk upward into the city and then onto the temple mount was both a literal ascent and a metaphorical one. It represented a life that over and over reached toward the presence of God. And that’s what we do here at Palmer. What we come to realize, eventually, is that God has been reaching out to us, holding us in the grip of grace and raising us above mighty floodwaters.

Today’s psalm concludes with words that can be our own prayer in the midst of the storm, whatever that might be today, in this moment, for you or someone you love:

Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.[11]

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Our traditional worship at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, usually includes the singing of the psalm appointed for a particular Sunday either in plainchant or in Anglican chant. This past Sunday, in addition to that, the choir sang this anthem version of Psalm 124, which was not planned ahead of time to link to the sermon text. So I’ll chalk that up to the work of the Holy Spirit.

BACK TO POST Brendon Barber, quoted by Ray Sanchez in “Georgetown, South Carolina, braces for flooding seen as Florence’s ‘silent assassin’,” CNN, September 26, 2018.

BACK TO POST Michael Majchrowicz, “Ahead of Georgetown flooding, here’s how the rest of the Pee Dee is faring,” September 27, 2018.

BACK TO POST Seth Borenstein, “Florence could dump enough rain to fill the Chesapeake Bay,” AP, September 14, 2018.

BACK TO POST Jordon Nardino, who tweeted this @jnardino, September 23, 2018.

BACK TO POST Tricia Taylor is a licensed professional counselor in the State of Texas and has also been a guest workshop leader at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. Because of her professional experience, she made this point much better than I’m able to make it in a public Facebook post on September 22, 2018:

Friends, this is not political. I have no interest in debating current events. But I want to give you a window into my daily work: it is normal for people who have experienced a painful or traumatic event to remember parts of it in graphic detail and to forget other parts, especially those that turn out to be unimportant. And it is normal for girls and boys to keep those experiences to themselves and not tell anyone, especially authority figures. When you say otherwise — when you say that women lie, when you say that because a survivor can’t remember details or didn’t report the event, it didn’t happen, you signal to the women and girls in your life that they can’t trust you with their trauma. So when they are suicidal or falling apart in my office and I beg them to share their story with their family or friends and they tell me, “They won’t believe me; They will blame me,” I know they’re not just making that up. You have told them that a thousand times without meaning to. I’m not asking you to change your mind; I’m just asking you to think about what you say. People you love are listening.

BACK TO POST Psalm 124:1, 4-5.

BACK TO POST Psalm 124:6.

BACK TO POST Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993). This is part of a larger quote about grace that, like the shorter version, makes a point similar to the one that Psalm 124 makes, namely, that God is with us, even when terrible things happen:

Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

10 BACK TO POST Anne Lamott, Facebook post on her author page, April 17, 2013.

11 BACK TO POST Psalm 124:8.