The Story of Jonathan Daniels

Today is marked on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church as a time for all Episcopalians to remember the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian who was murdered 52 years ago this Sunday during the Civil Rights Movement. In light of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, that included violence and death borne of racial prejudice, I’m sharing this sermon about his faith as a Christian that I preached at my previous congregation:

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 22, 2010

“And ought not this woman . . . be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When [Jesus] said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:16-17)

I love the image of Jesus noticing this unknown woman who was bent over and bowed to the ground for 18 long years. While teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath, a holy day of rest at the end of each week, Jesus has compassion on her, calls her to himself, and heals her. The woman stands up straight and begins to praise God, and eventually the crowd rejoices, too.

Before their rejoicing, however, a confrontation erupts between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue over the fact that an act of healing had taken place on the sabbath. Jesus observes that even animals are allowed to be untied and led to water on that holy day, so he believes that setting this woman free from her bondage is more than justified in the eyes of God.

This is the last time that Jesus teaches in a synagogue on the sabbath in the Gospel of Luke. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus visited the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There, on the sabbath, he read aloud the words of the Prophet Isaiah and said that these words had been fulfilled:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[1]

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann believes that Jesus was announcing the dawn of the messianic era, a time of endless sabbath, a life of endless feasting.[2] He goes on to describe the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, where he suffers, as his festival procession that brings liberation to humanity. The healing of the crooked woman is a foretaste of that freedom that enables us to stand before God with praise on our lips for the wonderful things that God has done.

Jonathan Daniels was the kind of person who was able to glimpse this endless sabbath with the eyes of faith and to live, therefore, as a bearer of hope, here and now. Daniels, a native of New Hampshire, was valedictorian of the class of 1961 at VMI, the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. He later enrolled in the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seeking holy orders in the Episcopal Church. In 1965, as a seminarian, he heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., appeal to white religious leaders like himself and others in the North to come to Selma, Alabama. King wanted them to participate in a march from there to the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery as part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jonathan Daniels wondered if he should go. He wondered if God wanted him to go. Here, in his own words, Daniels described what happened next:

I had come to Evening Prayer as usual . . . and, as usual, I was singing the Magificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. . . . I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining towards the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment” . . . Then it came: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things. . . .” I knew then that I must go to Selma.[3]

There he joined an integrated group of black and white Christians that tried to worship at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Barred from entering the doors, they held their own prayer service outside. Needless to say, controversies over what is and isn’t allowed on holy days aren’t limited to the first century or the pages of the Bible.

Jonathan Daniels was among the minority of white volunteers from the North who stayed for the weeks and months ahead. He joined the successful march from Selma to Montgomery and participated in another march that exposed him, for the first time, to the violence of the struggle for racial equality. He had been aware of his own anger and a natural desire to respond in kind with violence. However, reflecting on that pivotal moment, Daniels said:

I think it was when I got tear gassed . . . that I began to change. I saw that the men who came at me were themselves not free . . . Even though they were . . . hateful and my enemy, they were human beings, too. . . . I began to discover a new freedom in the Cross: freedom to love the enemy.[4]

He came to appreciate this freedom, a freedom that flows like a river from the self-emptying of Christ. Daniels wanted his enemies to be set free in the same way that he had been. He felt empowered to suffer with joy for the kingdom, a kingdom with open doors, where “a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stand before the throne of God.[5] As described so beautifully in the last book of the Bible:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. . . . They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . . and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.[6]

Daniels was eventually arrested with a group of demonstrators at a store in Lowndes County, Alabama, that was known to abuse black customers. They were soon transferred to a jail in the county seat of Hayneville and, suspiciously, released six days later without bail on August 20, 1965. After their release, Daniels and a few others decided to buy cold drinks at a small grocery store that was nearby. Waiting in the doorway of that store with a 12-gauge shotgun was a part-time sheriff’s deputy named Tom Coleman.

Walking in front of Daniels was a black teenager named Ruby Sales. She stepped up to the doorway, where they were confronted by Coleman. She heard Coleman threaten them and remembered being pulled from behind and hearing a shotgun blast. She saw Daniels fall to the ground, where he died. The man who pulled the trigger and killed him was tried in the Lowndes County Courthouse and swiftly acquitted of any wrongdoing by an all-white jury.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote these words about the death of Jonathan Daniels:

The meaning of his life was so fulfilled in his death that few people in our time will know such fulfillment or meaning though they live to be a
hundred.[7]

Daniels is also honored as a witness to the gospel in the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time in England’s Canterbury Cathedral. He once described the connection between his work in Alabama and his faith as a follower of Jesus Christ in this way:

We, too, may set our faces to go to Jerusalem as he has gone before us. . . . We go to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. We go to stand with the captives and the blind and the oppressed. We go in “active non-resistance,” not to “confront” but to love and to heal and to free.[8]

The teenager whom Jonathan Daniels pulled out of harm’s way is still alive. Today Ruby Sales directs a non-profit organization in Columbus, Georgia, encouraging diverse people to work together for justice and for spiritual maturity. Jonathan Daniels saved her life and lost his own. She once told The Washington Post that she’s asked herself the same question ever since:

What is the work I was saved to do and how do I do it?[9]

Ruby Sales saw with her own eyes how she had been rescued from death, if only momentarily. We may not look at our own lives in quite the same way, but we probably should. With each sunrise, we know that we have been rescued from death, if only momentarily, and believe that death will never have the last word because of the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. In him, together with the crooked woman in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, we have been made worthy to stand before God and freed from our bondage to offer our praises.

Jonathan Daniels and the martyrs of Alabama, our brothers and sisters in Christ who were killed in that state during the Civil Rights Movement, are remembered during an annual pilgrimage to Hayneville. A procession begins there in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse, before moving to the jail where Daniels and his friends were taken and then to the front steps of the store where he was murdered.

It concludes with a celebration of Holy Communion inside the same courthouse where justice had once seemed so elusive. There the judge’s bench becomes an altar, and black and white Christians share the Body and Blood of Christ. There Christ takes upon himself the sins of the whole world, healing the injustices done to us and the injustices that we have committed. There we are reconciled to God and to each other and given a foretaste of God’s eternal sabbath day, a feast that has no end. The good news is that the same feast is set before us . . . at this table . . . today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Luke 4:18-19

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 270.

BACK TO POST From a theological paper by Jonathan Daniels, which was written about a month before his death and read at his funeral. Interestingly, near the end of the paper, he also wrote these words:

I lost fear . . . when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had truly been baptized into the Lord’s Death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.

BACK TO POST Charles W. Eagles, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2000) 64.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:14, 16-17

BACK TO POST Larry Benaquist and Bill Sullivan, co-producers of the documentary film Here Am I, Send Me: The Journey of Jonathan Daniels (2003).

BACK TO POST Larry Benaquist and Bill Sullivan

BACK TO POST Julie Bourbon, “Chorale Celebrates Sacrifice” (The Washington Post: Virginia Extra, March 4, 2004) 1, 4.

The Akedah and the Godfather of Gloom

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, July 2, 2017

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. So Abraham rose early in the morning . . . and took . . . his son Isaac . . .” (Genesis 22:1-3)

Last fall the world mourned the death of the “high priest of pathos,” Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who was also known as the “godfather of gloom.” He was 82. Most people know him for his song “Hallelujah” from 1984, which was resurrected in the 1990s through a reverent version of it by American singer Jeff Buckley. “Hallelujah” became a kind of secular hymn.[1]

Not surprisingly, a deep and abiding spiritual life was important to Leonard Cohen. He believed that everything he wrote was liturgy.[2]

While some might recall his interest in Buddhism, to the point of becoming a Zen monk, Cohen himself thought of that as merely a discipline for meditation. “I’m not looking for a new religion,” he said in an interview in 2004. “I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”[3] Cohen’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents of the Montreal synagogue where he was raised and to which he maintained a connection for his entire life. His maternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar. “I had a very messianic childhood,” he once remarked. “I was told I was a descendant of Aaron the high priest.”[4]

His second album, released in 1969, included a song called “Story of Isaac.” Written by Cohen, it retells part of today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis:

Well, the door it opened slowly,
my father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
and his blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
and you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So we started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold.

Now the trees they got much smaller,
the lake was just like a lady’s mirror
when we stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over,
I heard it brake a minute later,
and he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle,
might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
he looked once behind his shoulder,
and I guess he knew I’d never hide.

As someone with blue eyes who also happens to be the father of a nine-year-old son, I can hardly read those lyrics without shaking, whether out of fear or out of anger. Most Jews refer to this story about Abraham and his son Isaac as the aqedah — the “binding.” Leonard Cohen’s version takes us right up to the point in the narrative when Abraham is about to tie up his son and place him on top of the wood on the altar that he has just finished by hand.

Most Christians oddly refer to this same story as the sacrifice of Isaac. That’s, of course, the very thing that doesn’t happen in the end. Regardless of the title we give it, this is a story that is gut-wrenching for Jews and Christians alike. It’s difficult to hear, whether we’re strong in our faith or struggling to believe that God exists.

In spite of the grace that appears at the last possible second like a sudden, life-giving rain in the desert, we find the prelude to all of that barbaric. What was truly barbaric, however, was the fact that child sacrifice was a common practice in many cultures throughout the Ancient Near East. Believe it or not, it’s the end of this story that would have surprised those ancient peoples.[5]

And we have more in common with them than we would surely like to admit. Leonard Cohen knew that because his song shifts gears from the biblical narrative to our own narrative. Cohen doesn’t sing of the binding or the saving. Instead he addresses directly those who stand where Abraham stood, singing:

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice our children,
you must not do it anymore.

His words bring to mind the anniversary yesterday of the worst date in British military history when 19,240 men fell at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.[6] In a ritual that had become routine during the trench warfare of World War I, the whistles sounded, and they went “over the top” for the last time. A survivor said, “It was hell let loose . . .” Another witness said, “There was nothing but brown earth, shell holes, and death. Nothing else.” One Scottish veteran would later recall that “[his] company went over 230 strong [that day], and only 11 privates survived.”[7]

And Cohen’s plea reminds me of the time I officiated at a graveside funeral at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Not only is the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, buried there, but also 28 Confederate generals and more than 18,000 Confederate enlisted men, including some 7,000 bodies reinterred there from Gettysburg battlefield.[8] The anniversary of that battle is also this weekend.

To describe all of those enlisted soldiers as “men,” however, is not to tell the whole truth. I had arrived at the cemetery a little early for the service, so I took a short walk to the nearby Confederate section. I soon found myself surrounded by the graves of hundreds and hundreds of soldiers. The headstones with dates on them testified to the fact that too many of those buried in the ground had been teenage boys when they left home to fight. They had their whole lives ahead of them.

An important difference between the hills of Hollywood Cemetery that overlook the James River and the unknown mountain in the land of Moriah from Genesis is that Abraham wasn’t cut off from his future as he stared, surely with grief, at the body of his son. The promise that his descendants would bless the nations of the earth had seemed like a flickering flame that was about to be extinguished. Yet it wasn’t. But Abraham hadn’t always been so trusting in the God who had called him to step out in faith. As Ellen Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, puts it:

You might remember those stories of Abraham passing off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister when they are traveling in foreign territory. So Sarah gets taken into the royal harem as a concubine, not once but twice . . . and Abraham gets protected status as her “brother.” God never told Abraham to do that. Abraham did it because he was scared; he might get killed if someone wanted Sarah, knowing she was his wife. Abraham put Sarah in that terrible situation because he did not trust God to pull them through the danger.[9]

Professor Davis, who would later reflect on the binding of Isaac in relationship to Jews who kept their faith during World War II in the ghettos and in the Nazi death camps, suggests that:

[T]his harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything they have ever received at God’s hand. . . .

This story appears front and center in Genesis, where no reader of the Bible can miss it, because the hard truth is that the world turns upside down for the faithful more often than we like to admit. . . .

The 22nd chapter of Genesis is the place you go when you do not understand at all what God allows us to suffer and, it seems, asks us to bear — and the last thing you want is a reasonable explanation, because any reasonable explanation would be a mockery of your anguish.

This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind.[10]

Just before the Jewish high holy days last fall, Leonard Cohen celebrated his last birthday. His gift to himself and to the Jewish world was the release of a new song, hauntingly beautiful, called “You Want It Darker.” Some of the words come from the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.[11] Others — and not for the first time in Cohen’s songs — might even hint at Jesus, at least to Christian ears:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.

Cohen seemed to acknowledge that he was in the sunset of his life as he sang:

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game.[12]

But he does so with a profound trust in the Lord, and looks back to the aqedah, which is read during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year Festival, at the beginning of the high holy days. The refrain for the song is the Hebrew word hineni, which means, “Here I am.” It’s what Abraham says to God and to his son and to the angel.

So Cohen sings:

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

Cohen lived through those high holy days and died a couple of weeks later. I, for one, expect him finally to see the face of the messiah for whom he was taught to long from his childhood. “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame,” Jesus embraces even those who stand where Abraham once stood and begin to wonder with fear and trembling if God will — or even can — make a way where there is no way.

As the prophet Isaiah says, “a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”[13] And that is good news not only for the “godfather of gloom” but also for each one of us, in the midst of whatever time of trial we may be facing. We’re neither alone nor unloved.

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ashly Fetters, “How Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah Became Everybody’s ‘Hallelujah,'” The Atlantic, December 4, 2012.

BACK TO POST Mordecai Finley, “Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi,” Jewish Journal, November 16, 2016.

BACK TO POST Gideon Zelermyer, “Leonard Cohen’s Temple Song,” The Globe and Mail, November 18, 2016.

BACK TO POST John Haydon, “Leonard Cohen releases ‘Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour,'” Communities Digital News, May 13, 2015.

BACK TO POST I’m aware of the fact that offering this as part of the interpretation of the story, although it does touch real history, is not embraced today by a majority of biblical scholars. That is say that I acknowledge that it might not have been what was originally intended when the story was first told, which is not to concede that peoples in the Ancient Near East would not have been surprised by the ending rather than the beginning of the story. That is true and worthy to be contemplated.

The Bible itself is a witness to the power of reinterpreting what has been received in light of the present realities facing the people of God. Prophetic literature such as Jeremiah 19:4-6 seems to put an emphatic divine thumb on the scale in favor of this part of the interpretation that I’ve offered. During the Babylonian Exile, which continued beyond the lifetime of Jeremiah, surely the children of Israel debated whether the Lord would sacrifice Israel or rescue his chosen people.

The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, believing wholeheartedly in the Christian witness to “the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead,” reinterprets the same story as God figuratively raising Isaac from the dominion of death by giving back to Abraham his son alive. In the same way, it suggests that we can always trust God, including those moments when the facts on the ground testify otherwise. The ultimate example of that, of course, is Good Friday. Neither sin nor death will have the last word, even if their shouting is the only thing we can hear.

BACK TO POST Matt Brosnan, editor, “What Was the Battle of The Somme?,” Imperial War Museums, undated.

BACK TO POST Christopher Woolf, “Why the Battle of the Somme sas the bloodiest day in British military history,” Public Radio International, July 1, 2016.

BACK TO POST “Hollywood Cemetery and James Monroe Tomb,” National Park Service.

BACK TO POST Ellen F. Davis, “Radical Trust,” Faith & Leadership, July 25, 2011.

10 BACK TO POST Davis.

11 BACK TO POST Zelermyer.

12 BACK TO POST Leonard Cohen sent a beautiful letter to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen, who was the inspiration for his songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire.” She died in Norway on July 29, 2016, at the age of 81. Two days earlier, these words from Cohen were read to her by a close friend:

Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

13 BACK TO POST Isaiah 42:3.

The Longest and Darkest of Nights

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Advent IV, December 18, 2016

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

This Wednesday, as many of you probably know, will mark the winter solstice. That means it will be the shortest day of the year with only 10 hours and 14 minutes of daylight here in Houston, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.[1] That also means Wednesday night will be the longest night of the year. Those who find that the darkness brings with it an unwelcome companion named seasonal affective disorder look forward to the extra sunlight that each new day will soon share with us, if only momentarily. Indeed, most of us want that light to invade the darkness.

But there are some people who actually celebrate the night. With the approach of winter, which all of us surely noticed is quite literally at our doorstep this morning, I’ve been  reading an interesting anthology, published a few years ago, that, in fact, does just that.[2] It’s entitled Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night’s Journey Into Day. The first part of that anthology is called “The Twilight Zone” and is appropriately introduced by a few words from Rod Serling.

For me, his name brought to mind the time when I begged my mother to let me stay up all night to watch a marathon of old black and white episodes of The Twilight Zone. That series, created by Serling, featured stories that often included an unexpected twist at the end. Those stories were usually a little scary, which is why boys like me liked them and also why I was glad to see the light of the rising sun coming into the room after that rerun marathon. It was the first time that I had stayed awake through the darkness and seemed like the longest night of my life.

alone_richard_byrd_autobiography_-_cover_artBurning the Midnight Oil also includes in its anthology a quote from the journal of Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, who died in 1957. He was a famous polar explorer, and one evening “close to midnight” in 1934, while alone in Antarctica, he wrote down these words:

As a rule it doesn’t take me long to go to sleep. But a man can live a lifetime in a few half-dreaming moments of introspection between going to bed and falling asleep: a lifetime reordered and edited to satisfy the ever-changing demands of the mind.[3]

I can relate to that, and I’m quite sure that you can too. Who here hasn’t stared at the ceiling in the middle of the night, reviewing the events of the day and piling on top of them worry upon worry about the days ahead? Who here hasn’t wanted to edit all of that and leave the mistakes on the cutting room floor?

Joseph surely must have felt that way in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. He led a quiet life in the sleepy town of Nazareth. He was a devout Jew, and he had met a nice Jewish woman named Mary, who would have been in her very early teens and was now betrothed to him. That, by the way, was a more complicated legal situation in the first century than engagement is in our own day. Perhaps the wedding plans had already been arranged, and Joseph was putting the finishing touches on their house. But everything falls to pieces when Mary goes off to the hill country for a three-month visit with cousin Elizabeth and comes home pregnant.

There you have it. In the eyes of the world, this is not a good thing. In the eyes of Joseph, this is not a good thing. Scripture is very clear that Joseph knows this is not his child. So, given the culture in which he lives, Joseph tries to do the right thing in the midst of a very awkward situation. They won’t get married, but Joseph will protect Mary from public disgrace.

Dear God, please help me figure out this mess that I suddenly find myself stuck in. Amen.

Are you familiar with that prayer? Well, you’re probably not familiar with it, but there’s 100% chance that the person sitting next to you uses that prayer a lot! I often imagine those are the words that Joseph prayed late one night when he couldn’t go to sleep. It surely must have felt like it was going to be the longest night of his life.

At least he had a plan. The book that was to describe the rest of his life together with Mary would be quietly closed and put away, never to be opened again, and life would go on. And since there was no thunder from the heavens, this must be what God would want him to do. It seems like the right thing to do, so it must be the right thing to do. Remember that Joseph, we are told, is “a righteous man.”[4]

Finally, he falls asleep, hoping his mind won’t be so restless when he wakes up the next morning. Little did he know that he was about to enter what could only be described in the world of our contemporary imaginations as The Twilight Zone!

Like most of us, the last thing Joseph probably expected was for God to answer that crazy little prayer. But God did answer his prayer that same night in a dream. The word spoken to him obliterated his carefully thought out plan. The word spoken to him opened wide the book that was to describe the rest of his life together with Mary. And words would be written in that book that far exceeded anything he might have asked for or imagined.

Sometimes the scariest thing of all is when God really does answer our prayers. Sometimes, when God answers our prayers, we wish that he hadn’t. All we really want is for God to rescue us on cue from the messes that we find ourselves in. The last thing we actually want is for God to change the course of our entire life. Who knows where that sort of meddling might lead? It would probably take us out of our little worlds we love and into the real world we fear. And that’s more than a little scary. But the man betrothed to Mary, the man who indeed would marry her, would always be able to remember these words from his dream:

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid . . .[5]

Joseph was chosen to be the guardian of the Christ Child. Joseph was given the honor of naming him Jesus, whose birth we remember at this time of the year. It’s a familiar story about a stressful situation with a twist at the end that brings the good news of salvation to all of God’s children, including you and me.

Recently I ran across another quote by Admiral Byrd, one that doesn’t appear in the anthology that I described earlier but does fit its theme. The time that he had spent alone on his second expedition to Antarctica, which nearly resulted in his death, had seemed, to him, like a failure. But there was something more to that experience, something he would later describe for audiences in this way:

And here I was, near the axis of the world, in the darkness where the stars make a circle in the sky. At that moment the conviction came to me that the harmony and rhythm were too perfect to be a symbol of blind chance or an accidental offshoot of the cosmic process; and I knew that a Beneficent Intelligence pervaded the whole. It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of a man’s despair and found it groundless.[6]

polesouthernrotation

Photograph at the South Pole by Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation

While that sounds beautiful and tidy, the only reason I’m able to affirm those last few words is because I don’t believe that God can only be heard in the music of the spheres. The message of Christmas, the message of what we’re about to celebrate next weekend, is that God did not remain distant from all of the ugliness and all of the untidiness in our real lives and in the real world that surrounds us.

I believe God came into the messiness of the world that we contemplate in the middle of the night, whether we’re staring at the ceiling or looking at stars. I believe God came into those stressful situations, and comes still, as a light shining in the darkness. There are many people sitting around you this morning who also believe that to be true. So I hope you’ll be open to the possibilities of that promise today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST “HOUSTON, TEXAS, Central Standard Time, Duration of Daylight for 2016,” Astronomical Applications Department, U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C.

BACK TO POST Even in Houston, it was unseasonably cold this particular weekend because of a polar vortex that affected the continental United States. One of our Sunday morning liturgies began while the temperature was in the mid-30s outside. Of course, I had to tell some of our acolytes that it was 17 degrees below zero at that moment in the Twin Cities, where my family and I lived for seven years before we moved to Houston. The last polar vortex was in January of 2014, our last winter in Minnesota, which turned out to be the coldest winter in the Twin Cities in 35 years and the ninth coldest winter there since 1872.

BACK TO POST Richard Byrd, quoted in Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night’s Journey Into Day, edited by Phil Cousineau (Berkeley: Viva Editions, 2013) location 904, Kindle edition. The date for this quote, however, seems to be wrong in this anthology. So the date I have used comes from Byrd’s own account, Alone on the Ice, from which these words derive.

BACK TO POST Matthew 1:19.

BACK TO POST Matthew 1:20.

BACK TO POST Richard Byrd, quoted in “People & Events: Richard E. Byrd,” Alone on the Ice, The American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service.

Warning: “Here there be dragons”

Dragons

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Pentecost, May 15, 2016

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.

Jean Mansel composed a universal, or world, history in French in the 15th century. The longer version of that history that appeared in about 1480 included an unusual world map.[2] It shows most of the world in a circle with Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden at the top of that circle. The rivers of Paradise flow down from there into the the rest of the world, where the holy city of Jerusalem stands at the very center. Around the circle of land is a kind of wall that seems to keep back the chaos of the ocean, which forms a ring around most of the world.

Scattered throughout that ocean are mythical islands and invented sea monsters. One of those monsters is a winged dragon. Underneath that winged dragon is the first known use of a familiar sounding warning in Latin, which means, “Here there be dragons.”[3] Most of us have heard that old-fashioned rendering of those words.

It’s a warning with roots not only in the human psyche but also in the pages of scripture. Leviathan is the name that is given to that sea creature in the Book of Job, where an entire chapter describes it in terrifying detail.[4] Job himself points out the futility of trying to subdue it. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Prophet Isaiah writes:

On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.[5]

While maps decorated with sea monsters symbolically brought our fears to the surface, they also — perhaps counterintuitively — empowered those who viewed them. Chet Van Duzer, the author of Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, puts it this way:

img_8343[T]he cartographer reveals . . . creatures which are normally concealed in the depths, allowing the viewer to participate in a privileged and supernatural view of the world. The monsters represent the revelation of hidden knowledge, and convey something of the wonder of Psalm [104: “Yonder is the great and wide sea with its living things too many to number, creatures both small and great. There move the ships, and there is that Leviathan, which you have made for the sport of it.”][6]

That sense of wonder in God’s world that surrounds us is something that we pray for in the lives of the newly baptized, just as we will do this morning. It comes powerfully with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into their hearts — into our hearts. We don’t need to be afraid of what lies beyond the walls that hold back the sea and the creatures that live in it. We don’t need to be afraid of what lies beyond the walls of this temple. The glory of God fills the whole creation, and we who have seen that glory in the face of Jesus Christ are called to follow in his footsteps, knowing that his peace goes with us into the world. The words above the doors that we see as we leave this church always remind us of that. I love that benediction.

Peace I Leave with You

So how are we to be the church on the other side of those doors? Palmer’s mission is to know and share the love of Jesus Christ. But what does that really look like as we go out into the surrounding neighborhoods? This Day of Pentecost, when the disciples of Jesus unlocked the door of the room where they had gathered, probably in fear, seems like the right moment to talk about my vision for this church as we go forward in faith. It’s about God’s work of reconciliation through the cross of Jesus Christ both in our hearts and in the world around us. It’s about proclaiming that.

I believe that we can be witnesses of God’s reconciliation in the world.

Peace CampEarlier this year I talked about Kids4Peace and the summer camp, which many Palmers have supported, that brings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth from the Holy Land to Houston. That summer camp experience will be continuing under the banner of Jerusalem Peacebuilders. Stuart Kensinger is a member of Palmer’s Vestry and also the co-director and treasurer of Jerusalem Peacebuilders. Participating in these kinds of interfaith conversations, as he will tell you, does not dilute one’s Christian identity but rather deepens it and brings it into focus. You have to bring your whole self to the table and be clear about who you are as a follower of Jesus Christ. And you can do that while building friendships across the boundaries of your own faith as a Christian. It’s part of being  sent into the world in the name of Christ.

I think that Palmers can be role models for this and provide resources for people to learn about Christianity, especially Anglican Christianity, and to understand Christian faith in relation to other religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions.

Similarly, my hope is that Palmer will become a public platform to discuss important ideas that shape our world. Our church is situation directly across the street from Rice University and the largest medical center in the world. And the museum district reflects human creativity that we, as people of faith, believe is animated by the Holy Spirit. All of those institutions raise questions about our life together as human beings, and I think that we can offer a holy space in the public square to talk about these questions and these ideas civilly, even when we don’t agree on them, especially when we don’t agree on them. What a gift — a Pentecost miracle — it would be to show our society that civil discourse is possible today.

I also believe that we can be witnesses of God’s reconciliation in the City of Houston.

On the Third Sunday of Easter we came together for a combined worship service as one congregation. We called it Serve Sunday. And at the end of that liturgy, we were sent out as teams to serve the community that surrounds us. There were also opportunities to serve right here on Palmer’s campus, including kid-friendly ones that families could do together. It was a wonderful and powerful reminder that a church is not a destination in a life of faith but a starting point as we are sent out in the name of Christ. What we discovered is that the risen Christ, as promised, had already gone ahead of us into Galilee — into those places where we live and work and go to school, into the surrounding neighborhoods, and wherever uncertainty and anxiety and fear reign over the landscape of the human heart. Alleluia!

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Going forward, we’ll have a quarterly experience of Serve Sunday, with one of them always being in the season of Easter and patterned after our experience several weeks ago. The other three will be a bit scaled back and work within our regular three service Sunday morning worship schedule, with on-site, intergenerational activities in the Parish Hall and several opportunities to go off site as well. This will be built in to our Christian Formation schedule for the upcoming program year. And the next Serve Sunday, in fact, will be the first Sunday of that new program year on August 21. That should always be how we come back together at the end of the summer as God’s people — as witnesses of God’s work within us and around us.

logoPalmer’s rich history and continued support of recovery ministries is another way that we are witnesses of God’s reconciliation in the City of Houston. The Palmer Drug Abuse Program — PDAP — began here in 1971. Although PDAP eventually outgrew its space at Palmer, many of its alumni/ae remember this church as the place where they discovered a new life. Every five years, they gather for a reunion, and this year’s reunion will be held at Palmer on the first weekend in June. It will be a homecoming for them. That Sunday, June 5, there will also be a Recovery Eucharist here in the afternoon. My hope is that it will become an annual service at the beginning of the summer for those in recovery from addictions.

That story of love continues on our campus today through Archway Academy, a high school for teenagers in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Words truly fail me when trying to describe what it’s like to witness their seniors at graduation. It is, for me, an experience of Pentecost. Named or unnamed, the work of the Holy Spirit is what I see in the moments that lead to the joy of that night right here in these pews.

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And we are actively nurturing the relationship between the church and the school. For example, Palmer’s Director of Christian Formation and Parish Life, Roger Hutchison, leads a painting activity each month with newer students who are just starting their recovery. And this year a documentary — two years in the making — about adolescent recovery in Houston called Generation Found will be released. Not only does Archway Academy feature prominently in this film but also Palmer. Let’s continue to build on that foundation and to strengthen these ties with God’s love.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I believe that we can be witnesses of God’s reconciliation in our own lives as Christians.

Of all the things I’ve described, this is surely the most difficult one. As the Christian ethicist and native-Texan Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, today we pray for a quick and painless death in contrast to people in the Middle Ages who prayed not to die suddenly and unprepared. They did so in order to have plenty of time to be reconciled with their enemies, whom Hauerwas always humorously interprets as members of their own families. “Today we fear death. They feared God.”[7]

Personal reconciliation is hard to do and not without great risk, whether we’re reaching across the political aisle or the church aisle or the breakfast table. The struggle that so many of us obviously have with forgiveness, which is at the heart of the cross, isn’t something that will be resolved in this sermon or in our lifetime. At times it isn’t humanly possible, and God must do it for us. But that doesn’t mean that we should never attempt to make peace in our closest circles of relationships.

So what’s the map that we’ll use to walk through these doors into the unexplored regions beyond them? If you could find one and put your finger on those places, would you say to yourself, “Here there be dragons?” The good news is that God is already there. The glory of God fills the whole creation. God will be with us.

There are Christians who can testify to that reality and who will also stand with us if we are willing to make a serious commitment to reconciliation. They belong to the Community of the Cross of Nails, which I’ll be talking about in the Rector’s Forum today and which I have already discussed with the Vestry as something that I would like Palmer to join. Although it would really be a decision to rejoin this community because some here will recall that Palmer belonged to this community decades ago.

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As described on the front of your bulletin, the Community of the Cross of Nails is an international fellowship that seeks reconciliation over revenge and that began at Coventry Cathedral in England. The great medieval church that later became the cathedral in Coventry was destroyed by the Luftwaffe during World War II. Out of its ashes arose a powerful witness to Christian forgiveness that has inspired countless people around the world. That witness continues, and we can be a part of it.

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Think of it as a way of inviting people to imagine a new and wonderfully unique map of the world in which the Holy Spirit has been poured out into every corner of the earth so that we don’t have to be afraid of the dragons. That isn’t to say, of course, that Pentecost has magically taken away the dangers and the sufferings and the real woundedness that those sea monsters represent in our lives. Rather, it’s a way of telling the world that we do these things and we take these risks because we are followers of Jesus Christ, who has reconciled us to God and called us to the ministry of reconciliation.[8] I believe in that ministry, wholeheartedly. It is the work of God, and I look forward to sharing it with you here in Houston for many years to come.

AMEN

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

BACK TO POST Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London: The British Library, 2013) 60.

BACK TO POST Duzer 60-61. On the one hand, there’s a widespread myth that this warning appears frequently on medieval or Renaissance maps. On the other hand, there are numerous articles that dramatically claim it doesn’t appear on any maps at all. But it does, in fact, appear on this 15th-century map as Hic sunt dragones. It then appears as Hic sunt dracones — the only complete sentence — on “what may be the oldest globe, dated 1504, to depict the New World, engraved with immaculate detail on two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs.” It also appears on the 1510 engraved copper Hunt-Lenox globe, which is about five inches in diameter. The details on the copper globe are strikingly similar to those on the engraved ostrich egg, from which the copper globe might have been cast. So there may not be many, but there are indeed three historical examples of this warning on one map and two globes, respectively.

BACK TO POST Job 41.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 27:1.

BACK TO POST Duzer 12. In his book, Duzer quotes Psalm 104:26-27 from the Revised Standard Version. But I have substituted the translation of these verses from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which was used in our liturgy on this day.

BACK TO POST Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011) 154.

BACK TO POST See 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

Jamestown and the New Jerusalem

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter VI, May 1, 2016

And in the spirit [the angel] carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:10)

My wife Carrie and I met and married in Williamsburg, Virginia. Carrie had just finished her legal studies at the College of William & Mary and worked as an attorney in a local law firm, while I served as an Associate Rector at Bruton Parish Church in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg. That part of the country, as you can probably imagine, was a fascinating place to live. It’s part of what is often referred to as America’s historic triangle, which also includes nearby Jamestown and Yorktown.

The Jamestown communion silver, which dates to 1661, was actually used in our worship once a year at Bruton Parish on All Saints’ Sunday. Inscribed on that unusually large chalice and paten, and impossible not to notice, are these words:

Mixe not holy thinges with profane[1]

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It was humbling to be yet one more forgiven sinner in a line of thousands across the centuries to have received communion from them and to ponder those words.

On Sunday, May 13, 2007, Carrie and I had moved from Virginia to Minnesota, and I was preaching my first sermon in my new congregation in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. On that same day there was a huge celebration back in the Old Dominion. Now please note that it wasn’t because Carrie and I had finally left Williamsburg! Rather, it was because of an important event that had taken place four centuries earlier on a peninsula, which is now an island, near Williamsburg.

There, on May 13, 1607, along the banks of a river named for his king, a priest of the Church of England led a worship service from The Book of Common Prayer.[2] He arrived there with a company of men and boys who had survived a dangerous voyage across the Atlantic in three ships — the Discovery, the Godspeed, and the Susan Constant. Together they established a settlement that would be called Jamestown.

Rooted in the soil of Jamestown are the first chapters of not only our nation’s story but also our church’s story. Anglican Christianity has thus been blessed with a continuous existence in North America for more than four hundred years. Our presence here this morning is the fruit of that planting long ago and far away.

So today we give thanks for the work of the Spirit in the generations that preceded us. And let’s face it, then just as now, the Spirit had a lot of work to do! The idea that we should “Mixe not holy thinges with profane” is impossible to do. Yet, as we know through our faith and the pages of the scriptures, with God all things are possible.

The stories we tell ourselves as Americans often encourage us to look in the mirror and see ourselves as “a city upon a hill.” The image comes from the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.[3] It invokes the idea of divine favor upon our common life — a distant reflection, perhaps, of the New Jerusalem described in this morning’s second lesson. In that lesson, God’s creative Word describes the holy city coming down out of heaven and bringing healing for the nations.

It is truly awe-inspiring: a place where gates never shut anyone out, a place where divine glory illumines every corner, a place where the water of life flows right down the middle of the street like a river. These symbols are painted in our imaginations by the words of an ancient Christian prophet named John. They are recorded near the very end of the last book of the Bible — the Book of Revelation. They are almost the last word in that mysterious vision of life with God.

I’ve always found it interesting that John’s picture of life with God is the picture of a city. That surprises us, I think, because our society tends to view urban areas as ungodly territory. They bring to mind concrete canyons where someone can be surrounded by bustling crowds while feeling like the loneliest person on earth. They seem like barren landscapes desperately in need of God’s presence.

Yet John doesn’t take us out into the countryside or by the lakeside for this glimpse of the kingdom. He takes us, instead, into the heart of a redeemed city that brings people together rather than driving them apart. It is, in this picture, a place where people dwell in community, a place where divine love gives life to that community, a place where God has the last word and makes all things new.

The metaphor of a redeemed city reminds us that eternal life is relational. In other words, salvation brings us into community — into communion — not only with God but also with the people of God.[4] That’s why we gather around the Lord’s Table as a family even if we don’t have families of our own — especially if we don’t have families of our own. We belong here, in God’s house, as brothers and sisters.

Jamestown, of course, wasn’t set on a hill, but in the midst of a swamp. That’s an appropriate metaphor, too, since the settlers hardly embodied anything found in the Sermon on the Mount. Although the “propagating of Christian religion” featured prominently in their Royal Charter, peacemaking, love of enemies, and forgiveness of others weren’t on the cruise director’s agenda either during or after their voyage. Even the clergyman among them had set out to sea only after he had gotten into some serious ecclesiastical trouble back home.[5]

Needless to say, Jamestown also bore little resemblance to the New Jerusalem envisioned by John. Rather, the story of Jamestown is an earthy tale of violence, hunger, and the desire to make money. For example, once things got off the ground, it didn’t take long for slaves to be imported from Africa so that huge amounts of tobacco could be exported back across the Atlantic.

“Mixe not holy thinges with profane” the Christians of Jamestown were reminded, beginning in the 1660s, as their lips received the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet by that time African slaves had been present for decades in Jamestown. And in 1667, the Virginia General Assembly passed a statute that read as follows:

WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffreedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.[6]

In other words, at least some people at that time apparently thought that maybe a Christian shouldn’t own another Christian as property. This statute was not only an attempt to put their minds at ease but also an evangelical appeal for them to spread the gospel without restraint, only because it would be powerless to alter their world.

So it seems pretty obvious that we’ve never been very good at building the city of God on our own. We’ve never seemed to get our hands on the right blueprints for that kind of project. Besides, the city of God wasn’t meant to be constructed on empty lots but within human hearts. That’s why it must come down to us from God.[7] St. Augustine, the fifth-century bishop from North Africa, wrote that the New Jerusalem “has been coming down from heaven since its beginning” in the lives of those who have become children of God.[8]

The good news is that God has a remarkable way of bringing forth goodness despite our best efforts to thwart it! Christianity managed to survive the first Christians who arrived on this continent (whether Spanish or English or French). Even when Christianity became twisted beyond recognition, the power of the Spirit could not be kept in chains and held in bondage. As once pointed out by the late Peter Gomes, who was a black, gay, Republican, minister of the gospel in the Baptist tradition at Harvard, or — to say the same thing much more simply — a beloved child of God:

. . . it is instructive to examine how the religion of white slave owners became an instrument of liberation for slaves, rather than the instrument of docility the slave owners had hoped.

“The Christian faith was stronger than the Christians who used it,” he said, because [those] Christians could not corrupt Jesus’ truth.[9]

Indeed, none of us can corrupt Jesus’ truth! Amen? And the power of the Spirit is always greater than the weakness of our humanity. As the First Epistle of John reminds us: “If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.”[10] That is good news for those of us who are a tangled mess of the holy and the profane, which is to say all of us, no exceptions.

When our hearts condemn us, as they inevitably do, God is greater than our sin and our self-righteousness. Through the waters of baptism, we have been clothed in the righteousness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As my favorite Moravian chorale puts it: “Thus well arrayed I need not fear, when in his presence I appear.”[11]

That’s why the true reason for celebrating the heritage of Jamestown has nothing to do with English adventurers believing that they were taming and civilizing a New World. It has more to do with the New World that we’re in the midst of discovering here at Palmer. And it has everything to do with the New World that has appeared in this season of Easter. The empty tomb heralds the beginning of a new creation. And we invite you to catch a glimpse of that new creation around this holy table . . . today.

AMEN

 1 BACK TO POST These words are inscribed on both the chalice and the paten that were used for Holy Communion in the church at Jamestown, beginning in 1661. The photograph of those objects is part of “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” an online record of an exhibition at the Library of Congress in 1998.

BACK TO POST The Rev. Robert Hunt is the name of that priest, and he served as the chaplain for this expedition that founded Jamestown. He had offered a prayer of thanksgiving on April 29, 1607, when the settlers planted a cross at Cape Henry in present-day Virginia Beach. But the expedition continued about 40 miles up the river that the settlers named in honor of King James I. Their three ships arrived on May 13, 1607, at the peninsula, which is now an island, where they would establish the first permanent English colony in the New World. This is how one of those colonists, George Percy, described it:

The thirteenth day, we came to our seating place in Paspiha’s country . . . where our ships do lie so near the shore that they are moored to the trees in six fathom water.

Historical narratives about this note that the settlers did not actually disembark until the next day, May 14. So there is obviously more than one way to mark both the anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and the anniversary of the beginning of Anglican Christianity’s continuous existence in North America to the present. May 13, 1607, is not an unreasonable designation for both of those anniversaries. What would be unreasonable, however, is to believe that the Rev. Mr. Hunt did not on that date offer public prayers in thanksgiving for their safe arrival at their destination.

BACK TO POST Matthew 5:14.

BACK TO POST Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 414.

BACK TO POST Benjamin Woolley, Savage Kingdom: Virginia and the Founding of English America (HarperCollins E-Books, Kindle Edition) location 572:

During the ensuing row [over Hunt’s true religious convictions while the three ships awaited favorable winds for a month in the English Channel], certain rumours about Hunt’s past began to surface, like corpses from the deep. Hunt was by no means the Puritan in his own behaviour as he was now suspected of being in his religious beliefs. Three years before, he had been brought before the court of the archdeaconry of Lewes, the regional administrative body for Heathfield, to answer charges of ‘immorality’ with his servant Thomasina Plumber. He was at the same time proceeded against for absenteeism, and there were accusations that he had neglected his congregation, leaving his friend Noah Taylor ‘aquaebajulus’ (water bailiff or customs collector), to perform his duties.

BACK TO POST This statute is widely documented in both academic sources and histories of slavery in America, including online documents related to “Slavery and the Making of America,” a four-part series that was first broadcast on PBS in 2005.

BACK TO POST Reddish 412.

BACK TO POST Reddish 413.

BACK TO POST Mary Frances Schjonberg, “The future can be filled with hope, Moltmann and Gomes tell Trinity Institute,” Episcopal News Service, January 24, 2007.

10 BACK TO POST I John 3:20 (King James Version).

11 BACK TO POST These words were written by Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). He was a devout German noble and, in 1722, provided safe haven on his estate for a group of persecuted Moravians. Here is the rest of that chorale verse:

The Savior’s blood and righteousness
my beauty is, my glorious dress;
thus well arrayed I need not fear,
when in his presence I appear.

The Rector’s Report and Unity in Mission

Last Sunday was a very important moment in the life of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. It was the day of our Annual Parish Meeting, which is a time to worship together and reflect on our place in this world as followers of Jesus Christ. As I have stated elsewhere under extremely different circumstances:

Love . . . became the thread that made a connection between all of us. It brought to mind the opening words of a beautiful antiphon that I didn’t quote in my remarks but have contemplated a lot: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est,” which means, “Where charity and love are, God is there.”

This I believe. With that in mind, here are the words that I spoke from the pulpit, with information about the celebration and blessing of same-gender marriages, which the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, has since granted his permission to conduct at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church:

THE RECTOR’S REPORT

DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 17, 2016

Today’s sermon is actually my report as the Rector of Palmer Memorial on the day of our Annual Parish Meeting. There comes a time when the new Rector becomes simply the Rector. I think it’s safe to say that at some point over this past year, we crossed that invisible line. To quote the words of Peter to Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew in the stained glass window above Palmer’s altar:

Lord, it is good for us to be here.[1]

Of course, his words were spoken on the Mount of Transfiguration, and those who remember that story will surely remember that Peter and the others didn’t stay there on the mountaintop but went down into the valley and set their faces toward Jerusalem. They have an indescribable experience in the presence of Jesus, a glimpse of divine glory, then walk with Jesus through the world, not as they wish it to be but as it really is. That’s exactly what happens here at Palmer.

In a variety of ways, people encounter beauty in this church — in the building itself, in the art that surrounds us here, in liturgy and music, in friendships with deep roots, in the simple act of receiving together bread and wine made holy food by the promise of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a beauty, however, that comes from the perfection either of who we are or of what we bring to offer. To believe that to be true would be a form of idolatry. Whenever perfection becomes an end in itself, especially in the name of God, people are inevitably hurt because human beings, as it turns out, are imperfect 100% of the time.

HFSSAs Lutheran pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber would say about her admittedly quirky congregation in Denver — The House for All Sinners and Saints — community is more important than perfection. Such beauty found together inside these walls, surrounded by crying babies and restless children and doubters and seekers and the unloved and the unloveable and those of us who are simply a mess, is a reflection of the God in whom we believe. We’re able to love one another because God loved us while we were still sinners. Without that love, all the rest of the things we do here are meaningless, “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” as Paul would write in his letter to Christians in the City of Corinth.[2]

Just a few minutes ago, we heard other words read to us from Paul in that same letter. Describing a kaleidoscope of spiritual gifts, he assures those disagreeable Corinthians that “it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”[3] I like what the late Baptist preacher Fred Craddock said about these gifts, which none of us created or possess alone. In a sermon about this passage from First Corinthians, he wrote:

Some years ago someone broke into the church, pried open the door to the room where the vocabulary is kept, and stole one of the richest words the Christian community possessed. The word was charisma. It was peddled on the street and soon came to be used by everybody for everything: an exciting personality, a particular hairstyle, photogenic face, stimulating speech, provocative style of leadership. The word is a form of charis, grace, from which we get eucharist, and is the background word for charity. Charisma is a gift, and it is Paul’s insistence that when we talk of these matters, we call them what they are — gifts of God. Apart from that association with God and grace, we might as well be discussing magic and horoscopes.

And the word for Paul is plural, charismata; there are varieties of gifts. By its repetition it can be assumed that diversity of gifts is Paul’s insistence.[4]

In other words, we need one another, not in spite of but because of all of our God-given differences. Only together are we a community that can be called the Body of Christ. That image of the human body, with its many and varied parts, is the metaphor Paul will use next in his letter, reminding the Corinthians and us that “we were all baptized into one body” and that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”[5] That’s easier said than done, of course, in the cultural landscape that surrounds us. But we belong to another kingdom, a heavenly country where God’s love reigns eternally.

Palmer is where we learn the grammar of that love, practicing it imperfectly and making mistakes, receiving not only forgiveness but also renewed strength for the journey. Over the past year, others have joined us on this pilgrimage. Indeed, the very word Palmer has referred historically to someone who had returned from the Holy Land with a palm frond or leaf as a sign of having undertaken a pilgrimage. Two of those new Palmers who are walking beside us are new faces on our church staff — the Rev. Alex Easley, our Curate, and Roger Hutchison, our Director of Christian Formation and Parish Life.

Alex EasleyAlex was appointed by Bishop Andy Doyle of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas to serve our congregation as a curate for a period of two years. Last summer she was ordained as a transitional deacon at Christ Church Cathedral. Since then, many of you have gotten to know Alex through her work here in the areas of pastoral care, outreach, young adults, and youth. God willing, this Wednesday, January 20, Alex will be ordained to the priesthood at Palmer by Bishop Doyle. And you are all invited to that ordination service, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. and be followed by a festive reception.

Roger HutchisonRoger I’ve known for nearly 20 years. He came to Palmer after serving for 17 years on the staff of Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. As most of you know, Roger shapes Christian faith in the lives of young people and adults not only through stories and conversations but also through art. He’s the author of The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy and of another recently published book called Under the Fig Tree: Visual Prayers and Poems for Lent.

A week from this Wednesday, January 27, Roger and I will begin leading an evening series called Painting the Psalms. We’ll take a look at a selection of psalms, with me focusing on the poetry and theology while Roger leads us in an artistic response to that. More details about all of that will be forthcoming, and I hope you’ll join us.

The Painting Table

This past year a group of Palmers, including me, were invited to a friendship dinner during Ramadan at the Turquoise Center in Houston to learn about the Turkish culture and Muslim faith of their members. We returned the favor, something that, quite frankly, doesn’t often  happen, inviting them to a presentation in our church about our Christian faith. I talked with them about how that faith affects the way we look at the world after we are sent out from here in the name of Christ.

This past year, as they have done so before, a lot of folks from our congregation also supported the work of an organization called Kids4Peace. It brings together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth from the Holy Land for a summer camp experience in various locations throughout the United States, including Camp Allen, which is the camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Palmer’s own Stuart Kensinger is a member of our Vestry and a major supporter of Kids4Peace. As Stuart will tell you, participating in these kinds of interfaith conversations does not dilute one’s Christian identity but rather deepens it and brings it into focus. You have to bring your whole self to the table and be clear about who you are as a follower of Jesus Christ. And you can do that while building friendships across the boundaries of your own faith as a Christian. I think Palmers can be role models for this.

Kids4Peace

In fact, you can practice this today. Joining us at this service are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim participants in an interfaith program called Building Abrahamic Partnerships. This series of classes, led by Professor Yehezkel Landau of Hartford Seminary, began last Tuesday at the Turquoise Center and concludes this afternoon here at Palmer with a meal together and a final discussion in St. Bede’s Chapel.

As most of you probably know, welcoming refugees and helping them resettle in the City of Houston has long been a part of the work of this congregation. Last spring, Palmer completed the more than one year co-sponsorship of the resettlement of an Eritrean mother and child. Soon we will begin the co-sponsorship of a refugee family from the Congo. You’ll have the opportunity, as always, to share in this important ministry. So look for announcements that invite you to become involved in this holy work in the weeks and months ahead.

That begins today, in fact, for the children and youth who will gather in Holy Cross Chapel during our Annual Parish Meeting. They will be decorating fabric squares that will be made into a quilt and presented as a gift to a refugee family.

Decorated Quilt Squares

Last but not least, most of you will recall that I announced in my report last year that I would appoint members to three task forces to look at three important areas of our life together. The first was a Youth Task Force, led by our Junior Warden, Courtney Daniell-Knapp, which facilitated a diocesan assessment of our youth programs. The members of this task force are continuing to support Roger Hutchison in his first year of ministry at Palmer, and they are also working together with Roger to define the best leadership model for our youth programs going forward.

The second was a Mission-Beyond-Our-Walls or Outreach Task Force, led by Bill Kersten, which has been studying and reflecting on the numerous opportunities that we have as a church to connect with the neighborhoods that surround us. The continuing work of this task force is especially important because of the transition that happened at the end of the summer with the closing of the Way Station, our outreach to the homeless for more than 24 years, which included serving breakfast on this campus to our clients during the workweek. We are now working in partnership with the Star of Hope Mission, which has supported the homeless with transformational programs for more than a century in the City of Houston.

Star of Hope Mission

You can expect to receive a survey from this task force in the near future. You will also be invited to participate in something that I’m very excited about this spring — a day of service when Palmers worship together at a service like this in the Season of Easter before being sent to be the church out in the community. There will be all sorts of opportunities that you can sign up for beforehand from serving meals to the homeless to singing for the residents of nursing homes, making cakes for families in shelters, or perhaps going with a eucharistic visitor to bring communion to someone who can’t be with us here. Folks, of course, will also be able to choose to participate in an activity even if they didn’t sign up beforehand.

I’m really excited to see what might happen that afternoon. All of these kinds of things are about overcoming estrangement and isolation and are, therefore, a reflection of the reconciliation that the gospel brings to a broken world.

9781514741436_p0_v1_s192x300The third group that I appointed was a Unity in Mission Task Force. Unity in Mission: A  Bond of Peace for the Sake of Love is the name of a paper that was written by Bishop Andy Doyle and includes opening remarks by former Secretary of State James Baker III. First published in 2012 to address the pastoral and theological issue of the blessing of same-gender relationships, it was revised in 2015 to address the blessing of same-gender marriages.

Palmer’s Unity in Mission Task Force, led by John Wallace, also included Jeanine Baker, Debbie Brassfield, Hal Gordon, Matt Kent, Allison Marek, Elizabeth Maynard, and Patrick Sermas. These sisters and brothers in Christ were asked to follow the guidelines set forth by Bishop Doyle in his revised Unity in Mission Policy for congregations that are considering the blessing of same-gender marriages.

The Unity in Mission Task Force spent the last six months in discernment together, studying materials with a variety of perspectives on the nature of marriage, receiving feedback from parishioners both as individuals and in small group discussions, creating helpful resources to share with the congregation, and praying with one another. That process convinced the members of the task force of three things that are noted in their report: “Reasonable people can hold differing good-faith views about this issue; this is not an ultimate issue; and no matter where an individual Palmer stands on this issue, we can move forward together in the bonds of grace, love, and mercy.”

That report continues with a unanimous recommendation:

. . . to the Rector and Vestry that Palmer embrace the celebration of same-gender marriages.

Last Thursday, I presented that report and recommendation to the members of the Vestry. What followed was a thoughtful discussion about what this would mean for Palmer, the importance of caring for everyone who sits in these pews, including those who disagree with us, and whether the Vestry should vote to affirm this, even though the guidelines from Bishop Doyle only require that the Vestry intend to support the Rector in the implementation of these liturgies. After that important discussion, Palmer’s Vestry did vote to affirm the task force’s recommendation.

Last Friday, as required in his revised Unity in Mission Policy, Bishop Doyle received separate letters about all of this from me as the Rector and from Tim Driggers as our Senior Warden. He also received copies of the report from the task force and of the resources that were created to supplement it. The decision to move forward with this will not become official until Bishop Doyle has approved it.

Those letters, the report of the task force, and its accompanying resources will be made available electronically on the church website this week and in printed copies both in the church office this week and after worship services next Sunday. When those documents become available to you, I strongly encourage you to read them in their entirety. I’ll later suggest additional materials that may also be helpful to you.

As I stated to you last year, your priests have been called to care for everyone in this community of faith in the name of Christ, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Pending the Bishop’s approval, that statement of mine can now be further clarified to include responding pastorally within the walls of this church to same-gender couples that desire boundaries of publicly declared faithfulness in marriage. I can assure you that it also embraces those who disagree with this. I want to state that clearly this morning. We will care for everyone in the name of Christ.

It seems obvious to me that our community here at Palmer cares deeply about the institution of marriage, that we genuinely desire to support one another in the commitments that healthy relationships require, and that we are willing to love those who sit beside us in the pews as sisters and brothers in Christ. I was pleased, therefore, by the additional recommendation of the task force “that Palmer create a system for strengthening and supporting marriages.” As the report goes on to state:

Marriage itself, as a secular institution and as a spiritual sacrament, is losing ground. It behooves all of us who believe in the fidelity of relationships — as icons of God’s fidelity in relationship with us and as laboratories for human growth in love — to support each other in that daily walk.

To that, I say, “Amen, amen, and amen.”

I believe the spiritual gifts needed to provide that strength and support are already here, not because we are perfect, but because we are present to each other in a community that seeks, in the words of our mission statement, “to know and share the love of Jesus Christ.” It is in Christ that we find our unity, that everyone in our church family is loved, and that our community of faith will truly become, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “a house of prayer for all people.”[6]

One of the hallmarks of our congregation has been the ability to disagree openly, lovingly, and vigorously about all sorts of things, while still holding hands, so to speak, around the Lord’s Table. That’s a gift we can share joyfully with the whole world, as we come together to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” today.[7]

Peace I Leave with You

AMEN

BACK TO POST Matthew 17:14.

BACK TO POST I Corinthians 13:1.

BACK TO POST I Corinthians 12:6-7.

BACK TO POST Fred B. Craddock, “From Exegesis to Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12:4-6,” Review and Expositor, volume 80, number 3 (Summer 1983) 423.

BACK TO POST I Corinthians 12:13, 21.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 56:7, as phrased in Noah Webster’s 1833 limited revision of the King James Version of the Bible.

BACK TO POST Psalm 29:2 (1979 Book of Common Prayer translation).

Diesel-10 and Worn Edges

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

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.

I have a confession to make. Although I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, I have, in fact, watched “Antiques Roadshow” now and then on PBS. You know the program because you’ve probably sneaked a peek at it too. It’s where people bring in their unusual objects that were inherited or bought at a flea market or found in the attic of an old house in order to find out the true value of those things. Everyone hopes to have discovered a lost masterpiece of art or a rare item of tremendous historical importance. Needless to say, there are lots of disappointments.

Sometimes, however, the real treasure is hidden in the stories that come with an object that has been passed down from one generation to another. To know that a great-grandparent played with a toy as a child and loved it makes it priceless in the eyes of those who knew him or wish that they could have known him. Outside that context, it simply looks worn out and might even be starting to fall apart slowly. Yet it overflows with meaning because of the love that is passed down to children and grandchildren. Maybe you’ve been that child or that grandchild at some point.

Occasionally, someone brings a toy to an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” that’s unlike those worn objects — a toy that’s exceptional in appearance and nearly perfect. I’ve seen a couple of them on the show. One was a Kyser & Rex Monkey Bell Toy, circa 1880. It was cast iron and would have been pulled along by a small child to make a brightly dressed monkey in a red carriage ring the bell over and over again. Another was a Hans Eberl Toy Van, circa 1912. It bore the name of a real department store in Philadelphia and had a key to wind up the motor and make it go.

The stories behind those two toys were similar to one another and known to the owners who brought them. Each was a tragedy that led a mother or a father to put the toy away. An appraiser repeated the sentence that concluded one of those stories and explained what now seems so obvious but simply wasn’t obvious to me at the time. “They put the toy away. Often a sad story is involved,” he said, “when you find a toy in really, really nice condition.”[2]

I was surprised how much that revelation affected me afterwards when I walked downstairs to the playroom in our house in Minnesota several years ago. That’s where I picked up a few of the wooden trains that my oldest son Rowan, who’s now seven, loved so much back then. This Christmas, for the first time, I had to go into the attic to find them. Each of them is like an old friend to Rowan and also to me.

They live, of course, on the Island of Sodor with Thomas the Tank Engine. Here’s Gordon (with his tender). He pulls the express coaches and is a little too proud of his own strength. Here’s James (with his tender). He’s rather vain and thinks about his appearance more than he should. And, finally, here’s Diesel-10. He’s got a scary claw, and, as most of you probably know, diesels can be devious.

christmas-eve-trains1

In other words, these characters, created by a Church of England priest, are like a lot of people you know, like a lot of us here tonight with all of our imperfections.

When I picked up these little wooden trains, what I noticed — as though for the first time — were the worn edges. They’ve been played with for countless hours. They’ve endured, time after time, intentional derailments and falls from bridges. And they’ve been thrown into bins at the end of the day when it’s time to clean up so that new adventures can begin tomorrow.

My heart is filled with gratitude for the gift of love that can been seen, quite literally, in those worn edges. Diesel-10 is in rough shape because, like so many others on Rowan’s train table, it was given to us by another family. So it’s been played with by more than one child over the years and never been put away in a box for very long.

Those memories came back to me as I read about the recent third anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and similar tragedies that have followed it. In too many homes, a few toys will be put away forever this Christmas, just like last Christmas and the Christmas before that.

Those memories also reminded me of the treasure we have been given not only in the children here at Palmer, for whom this night is so magical and so special, but also in the love that has been poured into our hearts and overflows into the world.

The late Peter Gomes of Harvard’s Memorial Church once put it this way:

For those of us who believe that the greatest gift is the gift of love, Christmas is the ultimate and most intimate expression there is. The child in the manger . . . is the means whereby God’s love is presented to the people whom he loves.[3]

“Christmas is God’s initiative,” he goes on to say,

. . . it is God’s work, when God begins to establish a relationship of love with us; and of this love Jesus is the sign, the substance, and the symbol. The gift of God for the people of God. The gift is the renewal of that love, and the maintenance of that love even against all the forces of this dark and cold and unremitting world.[4]

Those who put toys away because of tragic circumstances have no choice in the matter. But you do have a choice about what to do with the gift of love that has been given to you on this holy night. You can receive it as an end in itself, treasuring most its perfection in the beauty of the prayers and of the carols tonight. That would be to put it aside intentionally in a little box and not to enjoy it again until next year.

Or you can receive that gift of love as the shepherds did. To those on the bottom rung of the ladder of power, poor shepherds at the margins of society and at the edge of an empire, the glory of the Lord was revealed. There, in the fields, in the darkness, it shone around them. There the shepherds heard the message of the angels, which they shared with Mary and Joseph in the presence of the Christ Child.

But notice what happens next in the familiar story of Christmas from Luke’s Gospel. The shepherds don’t stay beside the manger, but return to the fields where they spend their working days, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”[5] The gift of love is meant to be shared with the world beyond these walls.

That gift has been given to people who are like Gordon and James and, yes, people who are like Diesel-10 too. When Rowan was four years old, the same age his little brother Ben is now, he and my wife Carrie had an interesting exchange about that.

Rowan said, “We need to talk about what to do about Diesel-10. He’s mean to the other engines on the Island of Sodor.”

Carrie said, “Well, we could teach him to be nice.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea,” replied Rowan.

“We could love him,” added my wife.

“Whoa. Um . . .” The four-year-old was left speechless.

For those who wonder if they, like Diesel-10, might be unlovable in this world, let me read to you something that was written by the late Austin Farrer, a priest and theologian in the Church of England:

How can I matter to [God]? we say. It makes no sense; he has the world, and even that he does not need. It is folly even to imagine him like myself, to credit him with eyes into which I could ever look, a heart that could ever beat for my sorrows or joys, and a hand he could hold out to me. For even if the childish picture be allowed, that hand must be cupped to hold the universe, and I am a speck of dust on the star-dust of the world.

Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts his hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men, and the folly of God proves wiser than men. Love is the strongest instrument of omnipotence, for accomplishing those tasks he cares most dearly to perform; and this is how he brings his love to bear on human pride; by weakness not by strength, by need and not by bounty.[6]

So I hope you’ll hear those words — I mean really hear them — and be able to receive anew this night the love that came down at Christmas. It is a gift that’s supposed to have worn edges as the years go on, having been given to you to be shared. It is a gift that’s not an end in itself but the beginning of a life with God.

That’s the best adventure of all.

Merry Christmas!

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

BACK TO POST Noel Barrett, “Kyser & Rex Monkey Bell Toy, ca. 1880,” Antiques Roadshow, Public Broadcasting Service, originally aired February 23, 2009. Here’s the exchange that he had with the current owner:

[APPRAISER:] I notice on the box it says “Kenner Ferguson.” Who is he?

[GUEST:] Kenner Ferguson was a child that would have been my great-grandmother’s uncle.

[APPRAISER:] Uh-huh.

[GUEST:] Unfortunately, he only lived to be three years old. He was born in 1881 and died in 1884. And they put the toy away.

[APPRAISER:] They put the toy away. Often a sad story involved when you find a toy in really, really nice condition.

BACK TO POST Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 195-196.

BACK TO POST Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 196.

BACK TO POST Luke 2:20.

BACK TO POST Austin Farrer, Said or Sung (London: Faith Press, 1960) 34-35, quoted by Lowell Grisham in “Omnipotent Love,” Speaking to the Soul, Episcopal Cafe, December 24, 2012.

Refiner’s Fire and Laundry Soap

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Advent II, December 6, 2015

Morning Star, my soul’s true light, tarry not, dispel my night:
Jesus mine, in me shine, fill my heart with light divine.[1] Amen.

Advent begins in the dark. In this holy season we light one extra candle each Sunday on the Advent wreath as we walk together through that darkness. What we want is for God to shine as a light, dispelling disappointments and diseases, suffering and sorrow, and the unending violence that humanity has unleashed in this world.

“Do something,” we pray.

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Wednesday’s massacre at a county health department holiday party in San Bernardino, California, is evidence enough of the darkness that surrounds us. Images of the couple who committed that act of terrorism — a bearded Sayed Farook and a head-covered Tashfeen Malik — filled the screen of my computer as I read some of the news reports about it. Much later I read about the 14 victims.

Among the dead from that tragedy were several women in their 20s; a gay man with “a larger-than-life personality” who loved to talk to strangers; a mother of three who “moved to the United States from Iran to escape religious persecution;” a father who came to California from Mexico in his 20s and put himself through college in this country; a man who shielded one of his younger co-workers from the bullets and told her, “I got you;” a daughter whose parents fled Vietnam when she was a child and whose large extended family gathered together for dinner every Sunday night; and an immigrant from Eritrea who “loved his new life in his new country.”[2]

On Thursday, as the daylight slowly began to fade away, I drove to Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative Building. As many of you know, every now and then I invite you and anyone else who wants to go “On the Road with the Rector” to join me in hearing a speaker or a panel discussion on something that might either strengthen or challenge our Christian faith. One of those events was Thursday night — a presentation and discussion of the largest multi-national study to date of scientists’ attitudes towards religion. There I would meet old and new friends alike.

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I parked in the underground parking garage of the same building where that study was being presented. As I walked from my car to the elevator, I got closer and closer to a woman who was wearing a hajib — the same head covering that I had just seen in photos of the female terrorist in California. She and her friend took the same elevator with me to the first floor. Soon after its doors opened again and we walked into the lobby, this woman in Muslim clothing extended her hand to me in greeting, introducing herself. We shook hands, and I mentioned that I was an Episcopal priest at the church down the street next to the university and the medical center.

That’s when she recognized me. It turns out that she belongs to the Turquoise Center here in Houston. A group of folks from Palmer, including me, had attended a friendship dinner there in order to learn more about that community’s Turkish culture and Muslim faith. And then we invited them to a dinner at Palmer to learn about Christian worship and how our Christian faith shapes our day to day lives.

Without-Apology-coverAfter I was seated in the auditorium for the presentation about scientists and religion, an older couple sat down in the row above and behind me. The wife noticed a book of sermons by the Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas that was on my lap. So we talked about him and introduced ourselves. They’re Methodists, and she wanted to know about our ministries to the homeless and how the context for those ministries had changed over the summer.

Another Christian, someone from India, came into the room and started talking to that older couple. He explained to them that his wife couldn’t make it because the Green Bay Packers were playing football. Well, I couldn’t stay out of that discussion. One thing led to another, and we discovered that we had both married women from Wisconsin. So we bonded over the devotion of Packers fans. “It’s amazing how loyal those people are,” he exclaimed. I assured him that I fully understood his situation.

I had a different connection to everyone that I talked to that night. But all of us looked to Abraham as our ancestor in faith, and most of us looked to Jesus as the one who reveals most clearly what God is like and is, indeed, Emmanuel, God-with-us. I drove out of the parking garage later into the darkness of a winter night. It was an unsettling reminder of Advent, and I longed to take with me some of the light that I had encountered inside that building in rich conversations and new friendships.

Surely everyone I had met on Thursday night would want God to appear in the darkness and right all wrongs in this world. That’s what the people to whom the Old Testament Prophet Malachi spoke wanted. They had returned home from exile, rebuilt the temple,  stone by stone, and renewed worship at its altar. Like them, we want our offerings to be pleasing to the Lord. We want the day of the Lord to appear — soon — to fix things. But the Prophet Malachi brings them a word that’s surprising, perhaps even offensive to those who think of themselves as devout:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. . . . But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?[3]

Malachi sees what the people have chosen not to see — neglected widows and orphans, workers robbed of a fair wage, marriages rocked by infidelity, and refugees cast aside because the people fear strangers more than they fear the Lord.

Yet that same Lord does not wish the death of these sinners. In spite of their mistakes, Malachi assures them that they have not perished. He tells them that the coming of the Lord will be “like a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap.”[4] Those images suggest God is not only strong but also tender. Those mistakes, those wrongs can’t survive in God’s refining presence. As one biblical scholar has noted, however:

. . . our sins and faults are part of us. We want to be pure, but we are not sure we want to be changed. . . . A refiner’s fire is terrifying and untouchable, but [the other image used by Malachi, laundry soap,] is close and personal — touching me and my most intimate clothing. . . . Malachi suggests that God is like the tribal mother washing the family’s clothes in a stream; she won’t rest until everything is clean and fresh. Hers is a hands-on labor of love, working to make sure that those she cares enough about to touch the dirt on their bodies can be clean and presentable to the world. God is like that, says Malachi — a washer-woman, bent on cleaning up her family.[5]

As Christians, we believe the messenger sent to prepare the way for this God was John the Baptist, son of the priest Zechariah. And we believe this same God suddenly came to his temple in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both strong and tender, washing us in his forgiveness and love, embracing us with his compassion and grace, accepting us in spite of our worst selves, our most hateful thoughts, our most exclusive actions. In him, we have been made worthy to stand before God.

One of my old parishioners, a former federal prosecutor in the City of Detroit who is now a professor of criminal law, wrote a brief reflection about the violent events of last week. It’s something that continues to haunt me. “[I]n many minds,” he said:

. . . terrorism of this sort is committed by people with names like “Syed,” not by people with names like “Tim,” or “James” or “Adam.” Which is true, until Tim blows up a federal building, and James shoots up a theater and Adam kills people in a church in Charleston.[6]

We could add the name of a woman named Tashfeen and too many others to that list. It would quickly represent a cross-section of humanity. There was also a cross-section of humanity among the victims last Wednesday and the people I met on Thursday. I don’t know how to right those wrongs for all of humanity. I want God to come here and do that soon. But I do know that the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap must first go to work on my own heart. And I believe that after that, love wins, even if the facts on the ground testify otherwise. History can be read more than one way, but I believe that Christ’s love, not Constantine’s sword, conquered the empire.

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And I believe that Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, in the words of our mission statement, will continue to “know and share the love of Jesus Christ” — ministering to people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth who come in search of healing at the Texas Medical Center; helping, as we have done for many years, to resettle those who come to the City of Houston as refugees from war-torn lands; and keeping our doors open for those who long for God to come suddenly to his temple, making right that which is amiss, beginning with their own hearts.

AMEN

 1 BACK TO POST It was only after I had preached this sermon that I thought of this prayer as the right introduction to the words that follow. Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.” In the Moravian Church, “Morning Star, O Cheering Sight!” is a beloved Christmas hymn that traditionally features a child soloist who sings antiphonally with a choir or a congregation. This prayer comes from the words of the final verse of that hymn.

BACK TO POST Faith Karimi, “San Bernardino shooting: Who were the victims?” CNN website, December 5, 2015.

BACK TO POST Malachi 3:1-2.

BACK TO POST Malachi 3:2.

BACK TO POST Frederick J. Gaiser, “Refiner’s Fire and Laundry Soap: Images of God in Malachi 3:1-4,” Word & World, Volume XIX, Number 1, Winter 1999, 88.

BACK TO POST Mark Osler, “Trump, and then another mass murder,” Osler’s Razor blog, December 3, 2015.

David’s Last Words

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Reign of Christ, November 22, 2015

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.

Arnold Rothstein was an American gangster most famously accused of conspiring to fix the 1919 Word Series. His last words came after being shot during a poker game in 1928. When asked who shot him, Rothstein said,

Me mother did it.[2]

In other words, in spite of the fact that he was close to death, Rothstein refused to cross a line and rat out his  attacker from the world of organized crime. This is who he was to the very end — a guy who wouldn’t rat. His last words were intended to convey that message to the police.

%22Refuses to Talk%22

That story about Rothstein introduced an episode of This American Life on public radio back in 1998. The episode was entirely about last words and why they matter to us. The host of This American Life, Ira Glass, went on to say:

. . . this is what we want from last words, let me tell you, this kind of summing up of who a person is. You know, sometimes you’ll see those collections of famous last words that were printed in the paper or in the Sunday magazine, and they all have this quality — they always do — of pretending to sum up an entire life. Bing Crosby, “That was a great game of golf, fellers.” WC Fields, “I’ve spent a lot of time searching through the Bible for loopholes.” Oscar Wilde, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” And you know, the fact is, Oscar Wilde didn’t even say that on his death bed. It’s a remark he made to a friend at a cafe a month before he died. That’s how much we want to believe in these things.

But, you know, we want our lives to mean something, and we want to believe that words can capture that meaning. And, seen in that way, last words, attempts at last words, a one final shot at figuring it all out, summing it all up, they have this way of asserting the fact of our existence at the exact moment of our annihilation.[3]

This morning we’ve already heard royal last words from the Old Testament. According to the Second Book of Samuel, here is the introduction of the final testimony of David — the second but most important king in the history and memory of ancient Israel:

The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.[4]

So these are really the words of Israel’s God, described as the Rock, who declares:

One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.[5]

David asks a rhetorical question in response, and, making it all very clear to the people who surround him in his final days, he connects what God has said to the promise that God made to him long ago:

Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.[6]

David is referring to the divine promise that his family will become a dynasty that “shall be made sure forever.”[7]

This old man, chosen of God, concludes with the assurance that the godless, being not only useless but also harmful to life will face destruction. Now that’s really interesting, if you take a moment to think about it, coming from the lips of someone who had an affair with Bathsheba and arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed on the battlefield and who also ignored the rape of his daughter Tamar, igniting a war with his son Absalom that nearly ended his reign.

image

It’s not surprising, therefore, that he has some additional last words for his heir to the throne — Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba. Think of these as footnotes that were not included in the royal press release about the dying king. But they do appear in the Bible, in the second chapter of the First Book of Kings. David opens with pious wisdom about walking in the way of the Lord. But his words quickly turn toward a different and more practical kind of wisdom about dealing with three individuals who pose a threat to Solomon’s future.

One was a wealthy landowner, who had been generous to David and to whom David’s family would remain indebted unless he was repaid. But the others would receive a different kind of repayment at the wrong end of a sword. Joab had been David’s “trusted general and hatchet man.” He had resolved the “Uriah question” for David.[8] Shimei had publicly insulted David but sought to be reconciled with him after Absalom’s failed rebellion. So David had given his oath to Shimei, saying,

You shall not die.[9]

It’s easy to imagine this as a movie about the mob. David, on his death bed, whispers into the ear of Solomon. As he tells his son what to do, the ominous background music intensifies and what you see is the future silently unfolding on the big screen. A briefcase full of cash is opened in front of the wealthy landowner, followed by a handshake. Then Joab is slain while seeking sanctuary by grabbing the horns of the altar. Finally, after three years of house arrest, Shimei is killed too.

But Solomon doesn’t stop there. Having learned from his father how best to run the family business, Solomon adds others to this list of those who might not remain loyal to him. So the circle of violence and bloodshed continues to widen — all in the name of establishing peace and security.

Yet David isn’t remembered primarily for being unfaithful, unforgiving, and unmerciful. He’s remembered instead as an unlikely vessel of God’s grace, which is always oriented toward God’s future. It has been said that God writes straight with crooked lines, bringing good out of evil and transforming our mistakes, which are many. That is certainly true here. The promise that the house of David would be established forever was “the beginning point of graciousness without qualification” in the experience of God’s people.[10]

Did you notice how that promise was remembered in today’s psalm? Because our human nature can’t stand it to be otherwise, Psalm 132 adds a conditional clause:

If your children keep my covenant and my testimonies . . .[11]

But that’s not how the promise was given. It was an unconditional pledge of love.

That promise would not be fulfilled through the perpetual unsheathing of swords and spilling of blood. It would not be fulfilled in an unbroken political dynasty with borders drawn as lines in the sand. It would come a thousand years later when another descendant of David, a simple carpenter named Joseph, went to bed worried about his future. In a dream, an angel told him not to be afraid to marry his pregnant fiancee. So she became his wife and bore a son, whom he named Jesus.

It is Jesus who reigns in love across the pages of the gospels as he forgives and heals those in need. It is Jesus who reigns in suffering from the cross as he embraces those who feel abandoned and godforsaken. It is Jesus who reigns now as the Prince of Peace, whose kingdom — both temporally and spatially — will have no end.

That kingdom of mercy includes not only a deeply flawed human being named David but also you and me and the person sitting next to you, the woman who really gets on your nerves, the stranger who scares you, and lots of other surprising folks. In his book Grace in Addiction, Episcopal priest John Zahl describes it this way:

Grace is the hope that seeks us out when we are at our worst. It looks forward to the long, hard road ahead. Grace is not worried, even if everything falls apart and everything goes wrong.

It is the love of God that does not let go. It brings good out of bad, and it sees hope where there is none. Grace always gives another chance. Grace waits. It stands when you have fallen; it leaves the door open.

Grace stays awake for you when you can’t keep your eyes open for another minute, even though you know you should.[12]

I love that last part about grace staying awake for you when you can’t keep your eyes open for another minute. I would only add this: Grace also stays awake for you when you close your eyes one last time and fall asleep in the arms of death, an embrace that neither gangsters nor anointed kings can escape. Grace comes from a love that’s stronger than death.

Our last words are not defiance before annihilation, as Ira Glass put it. They are the unvarnished thoughts of forgiven sinners. That is who we are to the very end — forgiven sinners. It’s either true or not true. I believe it’s true.

I hope our last words will be more charitable than David’s advice to Solomon. But let’s face the harsh truth: There’s alway the possibility that they might not be. Even then, remember some of the last words of Jesus, who said of those torturing him,

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.[13]

So David’s God, the Strong One of Israel, our Rock and our Redeemer, will take us by the hand and welcome us into his presence, saying to each one of us,

I love you anyway.

No, scratch that. God will say,

I love you.

Period. This I believe.

AMEN

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

BACK TO POST Ira Glass, “Last Words,” This American Life, originally aired October 23, 1998.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:1-2.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:3-4.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:5.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 7:16.

BACK TO POST Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2000) 27.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 19:23.

10 BACK TO POST Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997) 605.

11 BACK TO POST Psalm 132:13.

12 BACK TO POST John Zahl, Grace in Addiction (Charlottesville: Mockingbird Ministries, 2012).

13 BACK TO POST Luke 23:34 (KJV).

Camels Through the Eyes of Needles

Camels

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
“Sermon on the Amount,” October 11, 2015

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

We’ve just heard Jesus say to those around him: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”[1] And then, as if picking at a scab with his fingernail, he said it again: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”[2]

Those are unambiguous “red-letter words” for many of us in the pews today who were raised from childhood with Bibles that printed the words of Jesus in bright red ink. As those words were read aloud, there were probably more than a few people here who became a little nervous, thinking, “Jesus is speaking directly to me.” And there were probably lots of others who breathed a huge sigh of relief and prayed,

Thank you, Jesus, for speaking so clearly to the person sitting next to me. I’m so glad I came to church this morning to hear this. It’s guaranteed to be very entertaining.

Well, the truth is that Jesus is speaking to all of us this morning, so we should all be a little nervous at the moment. We’re not all that different from this man who runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. All of us want to know the answer to the same question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”[3] Maybe we haven’t used those exact words, but we want to know what we have to do to be o.k. with God, to be included, to be accepted, to be loved. At some point, all of us wonder about that, if only silently in our hearts.

Too many of us share with this rich man a belief that we’ve essentially earned our great reward and deserve a pat on the back. Looking at ourselves we see family trees, academic degrees, stock portfolios, and all sorts of achievements over a lifetime that suggest we’re well on our way to the promised land.

Of course, within these walls, we learn that the promised land is a gift — a gift from God. It can’t be reduced to something we’ve created with our own hands or framed and displayed on the wall of our office. And when we get a glimpse of that promised land, we start to value other kinds of investments — in time with family, in relationships with other people, in service to the community beyond these walls, and in support of this community — the community of faith here at Palmer. This is where we come together to share our joys, to bear one another’s burdens, to pray for the needs of the world, and to be fed with God’s grace.

Another word for “faith” is “trust.” And what happens in this encounter between Jesus and the rich man is that Jesus unmasks his lack of faith, his lack of trust. This man believes he’s kept the commandments. But, like all imperfect people, like all of us, this man doesn’t understand himself 100%. Yet he’s completely understood by Jesus. What’s so amazing and so wonderful is the fact that, in spite of being completely understood, warts and all, Jesus looks at this man and loves him.

Jesus loves him. And Jesus says to him, “Come, follow me . . . after you’ve had a yard sale.” Jesus is speaking to this man in particular, knowing that his great possessions are enthroned in his heart in the place of God. He’s honored the commandments that guide his relationships with other people, but he’s broken the first commandment to have no other gods but the Holy One of Israel. When the rubber hits the road, he trusts in what he has instead of who God is. And, of course, what he has is temporal and passing away. Those things won’t endure to eternal life, only God’s love can do that.

This man is recognized not only by Jesus but also by each one of us when we look in the mirror. That’s because each of us wrestles with something in our lives, something in our personalities, something in our past or present that keeps us from trusting God with our whole heart. The good news is that we don’t have to walk away sorrowful this morning as we leave this church. Jesus loves us and invites us to follow him as his disciples.

That’s why we come to Palmer, week in and week out, to remember the outstretched arms of the Crucified One, who embraces us with God’s love and shows us how to love the world around us. This great mystery confronts us in worship, when we gather around the Lord’s Table to hear the story of our salvation and to share a holy meal as a holy people. We pause here, in the midst of our busy lives, to be reminded that life is full of awe and mystery, full of joy and wonder, full of God’s love.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once described a picture of the church that’s only complete when we’re all here with hearts and hands open wide:

“Yes”, says Jesus; “Let go. Empty your hands. The future is not yours to control. You don’t own the world, and you can’t organise it.” But in the very moment when you let go, it is as if somebody else takes your hands, and says “I’ll carry you.” I have no power over my future. But someone else — indeed the whole family of Christ that I belong to — is holding me and helping me along. And that’s my task, as I try to let go — not simply to sink into apathy or despair, but to let go and say to God “Use me for the welfare of my neighbour.”

In this family of Jesus Christ, the cross we carry is one another.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that other people are consistently and invariably a source of pain and suffering to us . . . The French philosopher was wrong when he said “Hell is other people.” For the Christian, heaven is other people. The family of God, the other people God gives us in friendship and fellowship, they are our Heaven. And woe betide us if we forget that responsibility for one another and that willingness to be carried along by one another. The willingness to ask one another for help, to ask one another for prayer . . .

So the saints and martyrs are not there just to say to us “Look how wonderful and heroic individual Christians can be.” They are there to remind us that holy lives are lives in which people generously, trustfully, let go of their fears, their anxieties and their longing for independence, and let themselves be carried by the prayer and love of others, and above all by the love of God.[4]

That’s what happens at Palmer. This is where we wrestle with the question that the rich man and everybody else is asking. This is where, together, we meet Jesus. So it’s important for this community to be here for them to discover. It’s important for us to be here to welcome them with open hearts and open hands. We should want them to enjoy what we enjoy as people forgiven, redeemed, and embraced by the love of God.

One of the things that makes that possible is our generosity. Needless to say, our dollars alone won’t make it happen. But — and this does need to be said — it isn’t going to happen without our dollars. There’s just no way around the fact that following Jesus includes sharing our material resources. It’s part of the invitation. It’s as simple as that.

So I hope the words of Jesus, both to the rich man and to us, will encourage us to take seriously the stewardship of our money and of everything else in our lives. Too often the contrast between our beliefs (what we say) and our actions (what we do) is painfully clear to us and to everyone else.

For example, we quite openly try to outdo one another with the vacations that we take or the galas that we attend or the cars that we drive or the clothes that we wear. But rarely do we try to outdo one another in supporting financially this community of faith that most of us genuinely want to claim stands at the center of our lives.

That same struggle over loving the right things in the right order was evident in the sorrow of the rich man as he walked away from the invitation of Jesus. The subject of money in particular, as someone once put it, “sets us on ground that is delicate and holy at the same time.”[5]

Our decisions about giving to the church and to many other worthy causes are profoundly spiritual matters, and that’s why Jesus talked about money so much. If you don’t believe that statement, go back and read those “red-letter words” in the gospels. So take some time to pray about this in the coming days as you fill out the financial pledge form for next year that was recently mailed to you. What you return to God in gratitude will be transformed into something life-giving not only for you but for many people, and not only here but in many places. That’s really what I wish to say in this sermon, my second annual “Sermon on the Amount,” as I like to call it.

And by the way, in case you’re still a little nervous, only God can thread camels through the eyes of needles. And that’s how rich people and powerful people and prideful people and sinful people and all Gods people enter the kingdom. Make no mistake about it — it’s a real problem, and it’s a real problem for all of us. We need to leave some stuff behind us at the foot of the cross this morning. It’s the letting go part that’s so difficult. And it may feel like wrestling with God in the process. But there’s a blessing in the end — the freedom of life in the kingdom . . . today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Mark 10:23.

BACK TO POST Mark 10:24-25.

BACK TO POST Mark 10:17.

BACK TO POST Rowan Williams, “Sermon at the Eucharist in honour of St Alphege of Deerhurst,” The Priory Church of St. Mary, Deerhurst, England, July 20, 2012.

BACK TO POST Francis H. Wade, “Stewardship,” Bruton Parish Church, Williamsburg, Virginia, October 1, 2006.