AP News: “The truth is still out there.”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, June 27, 2021

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

Among last week’s very important news, of course, was the release of an unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on UFOs, which the government seems to want to call Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. And according to the most recent Gallup poll about all of this kind of thing, which was taken two summers ago, one-third of Americans believe that some of those UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets and galaxies. Now putting that fascinating information side by side with the fact that only about one percent of the American population identifies as Episcopalian begs the question: What do the aliens know about getting their message out that the Episcopal Church doesn’t?

Reading news articles about that DNI report made me feel like a child again, as if I was watching reruns of the 1970s TV series Project U.F.O. based on the Air Force’s real-life Project Blue Book, which investigated these strange sightings in the 1950s and 1960s. The bottom line, according a recent article by the Associated Press, is this intriguing but unsatisfying conclusion:

The truth is still out there.

On the flip side, there’s still lots of wonder left in the universe, even wonder about angels and archangels and other Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

There’s still lots of wonder left on the good Earth too — lots of things that make us want to say to the people around us the words of the psalmist today, while inviting enthusiastically with our hands both them and even complete strangers to join us: “Sing to the Lord, you servants of his; give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.” Or as the down to earth version in the Message puts it: “All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank [God] to his face!” In other words, let’s praise God together.

The rejoicing into which the psalmist waves us isn’t that time when she felt like she was having a mountaintop experience. I mean, [*whispers*] just between you and me, this psalmist was rather insufferable back then. As the seventh verse of Psalm 30 says, “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed. You, Lord, with your favor, make me as strong as the mountains.” Most of us were somewhere else, down in the valley, when she was shouting at us from on high. And what we heard were these words from the Message version: “When things were going great I crowed, ‘I’ve got it made. I’m God’s favorite. [God] made me [queen] of the mountain.” Or maybe those were the awkward words we were saying to others below us.

Not surprisingly, all that self-righteousness came to an end in a gloriously spectacular crash. Everything fell apart, and the crowing from the mountaintop suddenly ceased. The terrifying image for that both here and elsewhere in the Bible is of God’s face being hidden from us. It’s the opposite of the priestly blessing of Aaron, brother of Moses, from the Book of Numbers, when we say over a living congregation or at the grave, literally over one of our own who has died and been lowered into the ground:

The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you . . .

This is how the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes what’s happening at this deeply upsetting moment in Psalm 30. “It is the way of a small child,” he writes, “who is frantic but is suddenly okay when she see’s her mother’s face. But if mother turns away or is absent or is unavailable or is unresponsive, the world is immediately a place of threat. When God’s face of blessing was hidden, ‘I was in dismay.’”[1]

But from that gut-wrenching moment, the one speaking, whether you or me or someone else, did not cease crying out to God, making her case about her connection, her abiding relationship, with the Holy One of Israel:

“Can you sell me for a profit when I’m dead?
auction me off at at cemetery yard sale?

When I’m ‘dust to dust’ my songs
and stories of you won’t sell.

So listen! and be kind!
Help me out of this!”

[And] you did it: you changed wild lament
into whirling dance;

You ripped off my black mourning band
and decked me with wildflowers.

I’m about to burst with song;
I can’t keep quiet about you.

God, my God,
I can’t thank you enough.

At least that’s how the version of Psalm 30 in the Message tells the rest of the story. Usually we hear part of it this way: “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” But you have your own words and your own stories to tell about the presence of God in your life or in the lives of those around you, including many of us here today.

In some cases, your own stories will follow the pattern of this psalm, this prayer. That moment of rescue occasions its opening words of praise and thanks. When the voice of the psalmist proclaims to God, “You have lifted me up,” she’s not talking about being lifted up to her mountaintop experience. No, she’s referring to having been lifted up out of the grave, raised up out of the pit, pulled up into an open place where she can breathe.

So when she invites those around her to join her, to sing to the Lord, to come together as the Lord’s people, she’s talking to them face to face, not shouting down at them, not separated from them out of pride or a sense of superiority. She’s on their level, grateful to be alive rather than six feet under. There’s a genuine humility in her invitation to us.

At other times, however, when we want God to be near to us, when we want God to rescue us, our honest prayer ends with the same words as a very different psalm, which says “darkness is my only companion.” Those are the surprising final words of Psalm 88. Sometimes that’s all we can say.

So don’t be afraid to describe things as they really are in your own prayers. And don’t cease crying out to God. Be persistent, like the psalmist today, watching for God, even when — especially when — the divine countenance seems hidden by the most intense and frightening storms of life.

Many of you will recall hearing echoes of some of this in a parable Jesus told hundreds of years later. It’s the story of the importunate or persistent widow. This widow doesn’t cease to ask for justice until the judge finally does something about it. The judge’s countenance might be turned away, but hers most certainly is not. Her gaze is fixed on that judge’s seat.

“The point of the parable,” according to Brueggemann, “is to carry the nightmare to God and insist that God should deal with it and then to trust your life to the God of all nightmares.”[2] Otherwise you will just sit there in silence, removed from the congregation and seemingly removed from God, growing cynical about everything under the sun and everyone around you. But according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told his disciples that parable about a widow so that they would “pray always and . . . not lost heart.”

So what if you choose not to embrace those words?

Well, if you get settled into that metaphorical recliner of cynicism and stay seated there, using your remote to click through the channels of this life and judging them all, I declare this to you as a minister of the gospel: The truth is still out there. And even if you take that cynicism with you to the grave, someone like me will stand over you and speak the truth, remembering that joy comes in the morning, at the general resurrection, and say,

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious unto you.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 182.

BACK TO POST Brueggemann 185.

Life on the 400 Block of the Church

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 5, June 6, 2021

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

Some of you will remember scenes from around the world last year when people in cities and towns either opened their windows or stepped out onto their balconies at the same time each evening. In Italy, they sang together to boost morale. In the City of Atlanta, they cheered loudly from high rises when healthcare workers were changing shifts to thank them for risking their own lives to save others. Here at Palmer, our church bells are still playing hymns in the morning and in the evening for those walking into and out of the largest medical complex in the world across the street from us.

But most of those communal gatherings that brought people outside of their homes and connected them with one another stopped long ago. Most, but not all. The folks who live in the 400 block of East 118th Street in New York City are still going at it more than 400 days after starting this ritual.[1]

Ivette Rodriguez never misses a night. She moved to that block with her mother back in 1965. Her husband sets an alarm to make sure they don’t forget. At 7:00 p.m., Ivette puts on a jacket and steps outside. Some of her neighbors are already out there, with pans or whatever else they can find that can be used to make noise. A few kids wave flashlights too.

One of Ivette’s neighbors is Frances Mastrota. She’s in her eighties and moved to the block in 1959 as a bride. Widowed since 1975, she’s still there. She’s actually Dr. Mastrota, a retired oncology researcher. A lot of the people on that block, in fact, were healthcare workers. So that’s one of the reasons they still cheer on their former colleagues. But it’s not really the main reason they keep stepping outside at the same time.

When asked about this by an interviewer, Dr. Mastrota says:

Because we are a very special block, and we watch out for each other. If they don’t see [me] come out at 7:00, they look for me. . . . If I don’t come out, this lady comes, that lady comes, the people over there come. . . . If I don’t come out at 7:00, if I don’t pick up my New York Times paper at 6:00, they look for me. They know I’m alone.[2]

The interviewer, Ira Glass of public radio’s This American Life, then asks her:

Some nights, do you just feel tired, and you don’t want to come out?[3]

And she replies with a laugh:

I have to. I have to. They will come here![4]

In other words, the 400 block of East 118th Street maintains the bonds of community by showing up for one another and by looking out for their neighbors. They did it in different ways before the pandemic. And they will continue to find new ways of doing it in the future, I am sure, because they have love for one another. To be clear, that can be a true statement even if they don’t always like each other. They have regard for the humanity of those who live beside them and those who live across the street. From our Christian perspective, we would say they recognize those neighbors, both new and old, as human beings who have been created in God’s image.

Palmer, like any other church, is meant to be like the 400 block of East 118th Street. We don’t come together every day, although we can certainly join together daily in prayer for one another. But we do gather as a community of Christians on Sunday mornings — to remember that the circle of grace keeps flooding over the banks of our experiences only and to hear again and again and again that there is more to this world than we can see at the end of our noses. It’s important to look directly at what’s there, right in front of us — the suffering within us and around us from which others turn away. But it’s also important to know that’s not the last word. And that’s why we come here, regardless of how we feel, “so we do not lose heart,” as St. Paul writes in today’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians.[5]

We can not only look out for those who live on our block, who belong to our church, but also for those who would find a home here, a place where they can be sheltered not only during a pandemic but also in all the other storms of life — a safe harbor. The truth is that the block on which we live as followers of Jesus, crucified and risen, extends far beyond our own walls.

I don’t usually remember my dreams, but I did remember one a couple of weeks ago on a Friday morning. In that dream, while on a trip, perhaps a vacation, my family and I made a Sunday visit to a congregation very much like Palmer. Folks there were recalling with joy the time same-gender marriages had begun within that Christian community.

The sense of encouragement and interdependence and love for one another, rooted in God’s first love for us, was intense in my dream. It reminded me that people don’t have to be merely tolerated in the pews. They can belong to parishes where LGBTQ people serve on the church staff, as members of the clergy, and as congregational leaders. They can even donate flowers for the altar to the glory of God in thanksgiving for a wedding anniversary — a simple, ordinary act which reveals a lot about just how welcoming a church really is or isn’t. They don’t have to hide or believe God is completely hidden and far away, keeping them at arm’s length rather than embracing them.

This I have come to believe, wholeheartedly, as a Christian.

After I woke up, a bit disoriented from the vividness of my dream, one of the first things I read that morning were these words from an interview with the actor Billy Porter:

The first thing that is taken away from LGBTQ people . . . is our spirituality.[6]

What he said is too often true, but it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone. We can open wide the gates and doors of our houses of worship, as we do at Palmer, walking through them beside our LGBTQ friends and neighbors and family members. And we don’t have to pray for them in the third person, as if they are somewhere else, because they are here. As a Christian young adult named Mary Grahame Hunter puts it:

Queer people are part of Church’s first person plural, the great ‘we’ that begins the Nicene Creed.[7]

I love her use of that phrase — “the great ‘we’ that begins the Nicene Creed” — because it includes all of us here today. It carries us along, within something much larger than ourselves, when we’re strong, when we’re struggling, when we feel as if we can trust God with every fiber of our being, and even when, perhaps especially when, we’re not so sure about that.

Reflecting on all of his various conversations with the folks who live on the 400 block of East 118th Street in New York City, Ira Glass, said:

It’s the dailyness of the 7:00 get-together, the fact that it happens every single day. That’s what makes it mean so much to all of them. They made this part of the day a little life raft that they gathered on during this terrible, dangerous year that made it like a daily prayer.[8]

Glass then confessed:

I personally haven’t prayed every day since I was a little boy. But somebody who does it as an adult tells me that it’s the fact that the . . . rituals never change day to day that gives comfort. He has days when the prayers mean less to him and days when they mean a lot more. And feeling that difference from day to day also tells him something [about himself].[9]

In a moment, we’ll stand before the divine mystery in this life raft, this church, and together acknowledge God as the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is,” including not only things “seen” but also things “unseen.”[10] As we heard in our reading from Second Corinthians:

. . . we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.[11]

And surely among those things that are eternal is love. It’s not something we can put under a microscope or place our finger on directly. Like the wind, however, we can see its effects and point to those places where and those people in whom we have felt it when we most needed it.

I hope you’ll experience that today in the people around you right now, in ordinary bread made holy food and placed into your hands, in the small acts of love you will give and receive after being sent into world, and in the God who made you, redeemed you, sanctifies you, and thinks you’re fabulous, arrayed in the love of Jesus, our Savior. So do not lose heart, my friends on the 400 block of the Church. You are clothed in love, and always will be.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ira Glass, “The Daily,” This American Life, originally aired May 14, 2021.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST II Corinthians 4:16.

BACK TO POST Billy Porter, Tamron Hall Show, May 19, 2021.

BACK TO POST Mary Grahame Hunter, “By the Grace of God, Queer,” Earth & Altar, May 24, 2021.

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST Glass.

10 BACK TO POST The first sentence of the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer (1979), according to the use of the Episcopal Church:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all this is, seen and unseen.

11 BACK TO POST II Corinthians 4:18.

One Giant Leap for Sheep-Kind

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021

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

The closest I’ve ever felt to living the idealized life of a priest in the English countryside was when I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. I would bring my English cocker spaniel with me to the church office, and we’d take a break most afternoons by walking out of the Parish House and heading down Duke of Gloucester Street. At this time of the year, we’d walk past Bruton Parish Church and lots of other things to find the most spectacular sight — the first lambs of the year, frolicking around pastures marked off by white wooden fences and old brick walls, parts of which dated to the 18th century.

Those sheep date to the 18th century too. Not any of the individual sheep, of course. I’m talking about the breed — the Leicester Longwool, which goes back to about 1755 in Leicestershire, England.[1] George Washington raised hundreds of sheep and used this breed to improve his stock.[2] But it’s now a rare breed. They died out in America probably around 1920.

So how did those little lambs make it to Virginia? Well, more than three decades ago, their ancestors — eight ewes, one ram, and six lambs — were sent there from Australia. Now about 50 of their descendants still live in Williamsburg, with cousins scattered across about 120 Leicester Longwool flocks today in the United States.[3]

So here’s the thing. They’re beautiful. They’re thriving and flourishing. They bring joy to children who see those little lambs learning how to walk awkwardly in the spring. But they didn’t get there on their own. They didn’t engineer their own comeback. They didn’t build a safe pasture within which they can feast to their hearts’ content and stay together as a flock, as kind of a community. They needed enormous amounts of help, far beyond their own ability to help themselves. They need protection. They need a shepherd.

And so do we. Help and protection and shepherding are things we need too. As much as we hate to admit it, I really do think the human condition is wonderfully summed up in a 30-second video that’s been making the rounds on social media. It was posted on YouTube just last Sunday and starts off showing a boy trying to rescue a sheep which had gotten itself stuck in a ditch. All on its own, this poor animal ended up in about as dire a situation as possible, head down, straight down in a really narrow ditch.

So the boy pulls mightily on one its hind legs, finally liberating it. In that exhilarating moment your heart leaps for joy as you see a creature being given its freedom. But in merely five seconds of that freedom, this sheep bounces through the grass and takes one giant leap for sheep-kind, landing right back in the same ditch, in the same position.

Who hasn’t felt like that sheep somewhere along the way? If you haven’t, you will. That image of being brought out of a place of constriction and into a broad place where one is able to breathe freely and deeply and joyfully reminds me of these words from Psalm 31:

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

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

You have not shut me up in the power of the enemy; *
you have set my feet in an open place.[4]

Hopefully after we’ve more than once become unstuck, no thanks to our own efforts, we’re able to be self-reflective enough, if only momentarily, to realize God is with us, and always has been. Think of the boy rescuing that sheep and remaining nearby, even if the sheep doesn’t see him as it’s gleefully exercising its free will by choosing to run away.

Well, I resemble that remark, and you probably do too. It’s not that we don’t have free will. It’s that we have a tendency not to use it very well. That tendency as human beings, even more than our individual poor choices, is what we call sin. It’s what binds us, trips us, sends us hurtling into the ditch as a result of either what we do or what others do.

But that’s not the end of the story.

As the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm remind us:

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; *
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul; *
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his Name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; *
for thou art with me . . .[5]

With us. God is with us. God is with us now and always. God is with us in whatever ditch we find ourselves hopelessly stuck in, even if it seems like hell to us. That awareness of God’s presence is the key which unlocks the door to the room in which we’ve hidden ourselves out of fear. It’s what breaks apart the gates of hell through the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

. . . though I walk through the darkest valley . . . you are with me.[6]

That’s where we stop talking about God in the third person and start speaking to God directly. That’s where the words of the 23rd Psalm drop down from the head to the heart. That’s where a conversation happens and a relationship begins. That’s where the marrow of this beloved psalm is discovered in its very bones. In the original Hebrew, the phrase “you are with me” is literally in the middle of this psalm with 26 words before it and 26 words after it.[7] God’s presence stands at the center of it, just as it stands at the center of your life, within and beyond all those ditches.

As Christians, we look to Jesus as the Good Shepherd who rescues us, who lays down his life for us. We describe Jesus as Emmanuel, which means God with us. We come to know Jesus in the fellowship of the church as the one who runs to us, embraces us, befriends us, even when we feel godforsaken, when we feel as if no one else in the world could possibly want to love us.[8]

The good news of this Easter season is that the face of Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, is turned toward you even if you are turned away from him, even if you are running away from him as fast as you can. And what will pursue you all the days of your life isn’t condemnation and rejection from someone who is your enemy but only goodness and mercy, as promised in the 23rd Psalm, from someone who is your friend.

That’s what will eventually catch up with you — goodness and mercy rushing through the labyrinthine passageways of your past and washing over you like the waters of baptism. I’m not talking about a little sprinkle of water. I’m talking about a wave of goodness and mercy, a cup that is running over with forgiveness, even if you’re only able to recognize it after this life, when standing face to face with the Lord in the life to come.

But most of us won’t have to wait until then. Most of us have moments, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, when we pause to grieve the loss of someone we’ve loved. Standing at the edge of the grave brings a lot things into sharp focus. Some of us realize in the midst of our tears that we can’t make our way through such deep grief on our own. By grace we’re able to see that God has been reaching out to us all along in the lives of those whom we’ve loved and those whom we’ve met — not through idealized lives but through lives that were real and imperfect and just like our own.

Even beyond the grave, their love, which finds its source in God, has unstuck us time and time again from lots of different ditches. Although we miss them, as the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann would say:

They are present to [us and unforgotten], because in their love [we] became free and can breathe in wide spaces.[9]

And death can’t take that away from us.

To that I will only add this, hearkening back to the words of the 23rd Psalm: We shall be reunited with them and dwell in the house of Lord for ever. This I believe. This is the joy of Easter. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

AMEN

BACK TO POST “Leicester Longwool Sheep: History of the Breed,” Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association, Leicestershire, England.

BACK TO POST George Washington, in a letter to Arthur Young, June 18-21, 1792, writes that “Bakewells breed of Sheep [i.e., Leicester Longwool] are much celebrated, and deservedly I presume . . .” After noting that British law prohibited the importation of this breed and that ship captains who attempted to do so could face “serious consequences,” he continued:

Others however, less scrupulous, have attempted to import English Rams with Success, and by this means our flocks in many places are much improved—mine for instance, ’though I never was concerned directly nor indirectly in the importation of one, farther than by buying lambs which have descended from them. the average weight of the fleeces being 5 lbs.

BACK TO POST “Welcome, Lambs,” Colonial Williamsburg, March 23, 2020.

BACK TO POST Psalm 31:6-8 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Psalm 23:1-4 (King James Version).

BACK TO POST Psalm 23:4 (New Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Psalm 23: God Is with Us,” Enter the Bible from Luther Seminary.

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008) 382. I’ve adapted words he used to describe himself in order to describe us all.

“Hymns of praise then let us sing . . .”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 4, 2021

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

Today we sing . . . together. Today we not only say the Easter proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead, we will sing as a congregation, “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!” It’s been so very long since we’ve done that. Sitting here on the lawn of the church by these beautiful live oaks, we’re surrounded by the noise of the city, surrounded by a cacophony of sounds from across the street at the the largest medical center in the world.

Those sirens rushing into the Texas Medical Center, pleading for mercy or wailing in grief, remind us daily of life and death. And there’s been so much death, so much loss, over the past year in this and other countries.

So whether we’ve come to this service with hearts filled with confidence or genuine joy or the heaviness of grief or hope that’s more than a wish or a thousand disappointments or a longing for the rumor of death’s destruction to be true or doubts overflowing in every direction, we can sing together once again as we bear one another’s burdens. And our words sung today beneath the canopy of a clear sky can be our own prayers — our own conversation with God that surrounds all of the noise, everything going on around us and also everything going on within us, with the love of Jesus.

And if you can’t think of that as prayer because you’re not sure about prayer or you wonder if anyone’s listening or the empty tomb seems empty of meaning, know that others are praying for you today, holding themselves and you, holding this church and the world, in a love stronger than death.

Regardless of what brings us here for Easter, each of us needs love, each of us needs mercy. We need these things in our own lives, and we hope for them in the lives of those closest to us, because we’re human. Religious or not, one way or another, we all seek these gifts that come from outside of ourselves and, hopefully, we share them with others as we are able.

Even when love and mercy appear like a life raft while in solitude, many of us here on this Easter morning would say that they come to us as divine gifts, that they really and truly and freely come to us from the risen Christ.

Maybe the physical distance we have endured for so long over these past months has made us at least a little more aware of our need for love and mercy. I hope that’s true and that we’ll remember, as things slowly return to a new normal, the wonder of how these divine gifts are experienced in community. If we share them as much as we so desperately want to receive them, that will surely be a blessing to ourselves, our church, and our city.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve unexpectedly found myself paying attention to things in ways I never could’ve imagined a year ago. When taking our dogs on a walk through the neighborhood with my family, or while walking around by myself, I’ve seen more than a few street blocks for the first time because they’re usually out of the way if just driving from point A to point B. I’ve greeted “new” neighbors and noticed a lot of details on different houses — houses that I’m seeing for the first time or others that I’ve passed by dozens of times in the past while focused on an errand or something here at the church or “things . . . left undone,” a phrase we say so often but sometimes unreflectively in our prayer of confession in worship.

On this Easter Day, the Fourth Gospel — the beautiful and poetic Gospel of John — offers us an even more remarkable new perspective on the world, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it pays attention to a lot of details. For example, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea petitioned the Roman governor for the body of Jesus. Nicodemus helped him remove the lifeless body and brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”[1] They wrapped his body “with the spices in linen cloths.”[2] Then, in a garden near the place where he had died, they placed Jesus in “a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.”[3]

Sunlight was swallowed up by the horizon at the end of that Good Friday, marking the beginning of the Sabbath — a day of rest for the body of Jesus, for the women who had stood near his cross, for the disciples who had fled from his sufferings, and for those who had condemned him in the name of God. Perhaps it was also a day of rest for his Roman executioners, a brief interlude between stamping out rebellion at the edge of the empire.

The writer of the Fourth Gospel draws us into this holy rest through silence in the text itself, but not before reminding us of something important. He hints that we should use this time reflecting on the meaning of the Jewish Passover. It was a time to retell the stories of Moses and the Exodus. It was a time to remember that God is greater than the pharaohs of this world and that the grip of oppression is weaker than the hand of deliverance. It was a time to remember that God makes a way where there is no way, as he did at the Red Sea. And it was a time to hear with the ears of the imagination the distant sound of Miriam’s tambourine. Her words of rejoicing still ring out:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.[4]

Perhaps the distance between Miriam’s song of victory, which is closer to the beginning of the Bible, and Mary Magdalene’s grief, which is closer to the end of the Bible, seems like an unbridgeable gap to you. If that diminishment of hope, that incongruity between God’s promise and your present is real for you this morning, whether from something happening in your own life or in the world, know this: Mary Magdalene weeps with you.

Today we heard that she came to the place where Jesus had been buried “while it was still dark.”[5] And in the darkness, she discovered that the stone no longer sealed the tomb and the body of Jesus was nowhere to be found. It must have been terrifying. Later that same morning, she stood there again, outside the tomb, weeping in solitude.

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, divine love fills the emptiness within Mary Magdalene’s heart, opening her heart to see the world differently, to see herself differently, as the risen Christ calls her by name. This is the detail that matters, that causes her to recognize who it is that stands before her. And one of the great mysteries of Easter is for you and me, for all of us, to stand before God fully known and yet, miraculously, fully loved. And that love will never let go of you, even in death.

In that moment Mary Magdalene becomes the first witness to God’s gracious rejection of the world’s dreadful rejection. In that moment she knew the power of God was bound neither by the stone in front of the tomb nor by the linen wrappings which had embraced the body of Jesus. “He arose from the kingdom of Death and carried away its spoils.”[6]

If that’s true — if Hell is indeed vanquished and Death has been destroyed — the world isn’t the same as it was. As one believer describes it,

In a world where everything seems to be going wrong, God has put something very right.[7]

Here’s more good news: You don’t have to wait until you’re standing in the middle of a pandemic or until things become a lot more normal to start looking at yourself or the world around you differently, to notice things, little things, small details, as if for the first time. You can do that after you leave today, walking away from this beautiful service in the light of the Resurrection. You can do it sooner, too, as we join our voices with Angels and Archangels, with Miriam’s tambourine and all the company of heaven.

And then you’ll be invited to receive love and mercy and forgiveness in your own hands — these divine gifts that fill all the hidden, wounded places in our hearts and make them overflow with the joy of Easter. And this year, this Easter Day, we get to burst into song about that great mystery . . . together.

“Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!”

AMEN

BACK TO POST John 19:39.

BACK TO POST John 19:40.

BACK TO POST John 19:41.

BACK TO POST Exodus 15:21.

BACK TO POST John 20:1.

BACK TO POST Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 237.

BACK TO POST Joanna Adams as quoted by John M. Buchanan, “Easter Revolution” in The Christian Century (April 5, 2003) 3.

Why’d it have to be snakes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

BACK TO POST Numbers 21:4-9.

BACK TO POST Numbers 21:6.

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

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

BACK TO POST Wolterstorff.

BACK TO POST II Kings 18:1-4.

BACK TO POST John 3:14-21.

BACK TO POST John 3:14-15.

A Sign of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God remembered . . .[4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God remembers them and us.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Genesis 6:6.

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

BACK TO POST Moltmann 39.

BACK TO POST Genesis 8:1.

BACK TO POST Genesis 9:11.

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

BACK TO POST Brueggemann, Genesis, 87.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 54:9-10.

BACK TO POST Genesis 8:6-12.

The Rector’s Report and Steps Forward

THE RECTOR’S REPORT

DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Mark 1:14-20.

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

The Epiphany in Washington, D.C.

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, 2021

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

A few days after Thanksgiving, we started a new year together in the life of the Church on the First Sunday of Advent. It was the beginning of a several-weeks-long season to prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Our first reading on that Sunday opened with the thunderous words of the Prophet Isaiah as he cried out to God, saying,

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.[1]

Isaiah pleaded for God’s face, God’s countenance, God’s lovingkindness not to remain hidden from God’s people, not to remain hidden from us.

Those words came rushing back to me as I read in the Gospel of Mark the description of the baptism of Jesus. His cousin John, called the baptizer, the plunger, was fearsome in the presence of those who came out from their cities and villages to the wilderness and dared to wade in the waters of the Jordan River and stand before this man clothed in the hair of camels.

But John wasn’t fearsome in the presence of Jesus. The one whose birth we celebrated at Christmas stood there and waited for this wild man, surely more than a little hesitant, to pour water over his head. In doing so, Jesus got into the muddy water with all of us, with all of humanity.

Although spartan, as usual, with its words in describing this scene — more spartan, in fact, than the summary I just gave you — Mark’s Gospel paints a surprisingly vivid picture of Jesus coming up out of the water. It says that “he saw the heavens torn apart” as the Spirit of God descended on him.[2] Try to imagine divine love flooding through that breach, strengthening Jesus for the ministry to which he would soon turn his attention.

The word used to describe the heavens being torn apart is schizomenous in Greek. You can hear in that pronunciation the distant echo of part of another word, a word from the world of medicine, schizophrenia in English — a splitting of the mind. Not surprisingly, there are many kinds of tearing, like schizophrenia, that can be destructive and harmful and painful to ourselves and those around us. It can happen not only to our minds, but also our bodies, our spiritual lives, our relationships with family and friends.

It can also happen to our political fabric as a nation. It has happened.

We saw that in tatters this past week, watching in real time the events that unfolded inside the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Doors were barricaded, weapons were drawn, and men and women were terrified, afraid for their lives, inside the People’s House. And all of that happened on the Christian Feast of the Epiphany — a day that usually brings to mind images of light and glory, brightness and illumination.

But the image that’s seared into my memory this year is a photo of the west side of the Capitol as the sky’s beginning to darken and clouds of chemicals above the mob outside are backlit by some kind of enormous flash that seems as brilliant as the sun. Looking at the photo, one could easily mistake the orange glow from inside the rotunda as a fire, which harkens back to British soldiers burning our symbol of democracy in the War of 1812.

In contrast to that, today’s feast — The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ — reminds us that there are other kinds of tearing apart that are liberating, that empower us, not to do our own will, but to do God’s will. We see that in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as Jesus stood up in the Jordan River.

One might say that our own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus tears open our hearts as each of us emerges from that sacramental bath, washed in waters of mercy, forgiveness, and rebirth as God’s children. The Holy Spirit makes a way where there is no way, setting us free from the bondage of sin, flooding our hearts, and overflowing into the world.

One way to keep our hearts open, breached to be filled with love rather than hate, is through prayer. You’ve probably noticed, and perhaps even been confused by, language that points to one of the main prayers we use in our worship on Sundays. It’s printed in the bulletin as “The Collect of the Day.” Now you wouldn’t be the first person in the history of the world to think we’re about to take up an extra collection at the beginning of the service.

Although, in a way, that is exactly what we do. It’s about “collecting up” the concerns of each of the members of the congregation, this congregation, into one prayer — a prayer for that particular Sunday. And these collects, which can easily be found in the Book of Common Prayer, are a great treasury of spiritual riches for all of us, mostly from Thomas Cranmer.

He was Archbishop of Canterbury and architect of the English Reformation in the 16th century. A handful of these prayers he composed on a blank canvas, so to speak. Most of them, however, he tweaked from the Latin prayers he inherited. What I mean is that he made sure the em-PHA-sis fell on the right syllable, so that each prayer pointed not to what we do own our own, but to what God is doing in us and through us as Christians. What we then do is motivated by that grace, that love, that mercy.

Today’s collect, which doesn’t come from the 16th century, asks God to strengthen us to “keep the covenant [we] have made” at our baptism as Christians and “boldly confess [Christ] as Lord and Savior.”[3]

One of my favorite collects, which Cranmer wrote himself, asks God to help us “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the holy scriptures so that, “by patience and comfort of [God’s] holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which [God] hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”[4]

A few of the collects describe quite plainly what all the rest are really trying to say. One begins this way:

O God, forasmuch as without thee, we are not able to please thee, mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.[5]

Another that we’ll pray in the season of Lent, in the weeks leading up to the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection on Easter Day, asks God to help us “love the thing which [God] commandest, and desire that which [God] dost promise, that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.”[6]

If we can’t do that on our own, why wouldn’t we at least ask God to help us, to bring us home to himself again by turning our hearts toward him?

Some will hear me saying this and think to themselves that I’m somehow discouraging informal, extemporaneous prayer. To that I say, “Far from it.” Becoming familiar with these collects in the Book of Common Prayer can expand your own vocabulary of prayer, as some of these beautiful phrases in them become folded into your own prayers, in your own words. They can teach you how to put the right emphasis on the right syllable.

And for those who are maybe a little or a lot anxious about a conversation with God, even though merely breathing in and out can be a form of that, do not despair. Let these collects, these prayers, be your own prayers.

In his short story called “A Father’s Story,” Roman Catholic fiction writer Andre Dubus wrote about someone who sincerely wants to be able to focus his attention on the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. But he’s too easily distracted and fails every time. At least it feels that way.

This character, who is just like so many of us, then says: 

. . . I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.[7]

That last image is stunning — a dance allowing the tongue-tied person a ceremony of love. And that’s what the collects invite us to experience as the tongue-tied followers of Jesus. Their words ask God to keep our hearts open, as they were torn open at our baptism, renewing in us as individuals and as a community the gift of wonder in the Holy Spirit’s presence among us — yes, even now, in the midst of all the things that are happening.

My prayer for you is that you’ll reach out for that gift. Actually, no, it’s not.

I need to say that differently because my prayer for you is that God will grant you that gift, reaching out to you and enabling you to receive it anew. And my prayer for this American commonwealth of which we are a part is found in the words of the Collect for the Nation in the Book of Common Prayer:

Lord God Almighty, who hast made all the peoples of the earth for thy glory, to serve thee in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with thy gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord . . .[8]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Isaiah 64:1.

BACK TO POST Mark 1:10.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 163.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 184.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 182.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 167.

BACK TO POST Andre Dubus, “A Father’s Story” in Selected Stories (New York: Open Road Media, 2010). There is no pagination in this book.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 207.

Feeling Left Out This Christmas

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020

Jesus, you are the Morning Star, and on this holy night,
we ask you to fill our hearts with light divine. Amen.[1]

A year ago we could’ve never imagined this night would be much different than all the other magical nights before Christmas throughout the entire lives of most of us. Yet here we are. Together, but not in the same way.

We’re missing not only walking into a crowded church to sing carols of hope and joy, with children and elders and everyone in between, but also entering a mystery, something larger than ourselves — that often overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by the Love that came down at Christmas. It causes us to smile at the whimsical ways that people often dress when they come to church on this holy night and reminds us that we’re not alone.

But it’s hard not to feel alone this year, right? Have you ever felt this way before, at some other time? You know, somehow finding yourself on the outside looking in, excluded through circumstances beyond your control from whatever important things happen to be taking place, wishing you could be there to witness them, to play a part in them?

Some of you will recall the now-infamous Willard happy family trip to Washington, DC, nearly three years ago. We left home right after Christmas that year. And we did have a great time in our nation’s capital, but it wasn’t exactly the trip we had planned. There were near-record-breaking cold temperatures. And although our family had survived many harsh winters in Minnesota before moving to Texas, even we thought any kind of outdoor activity was pretty miserable. So there were things on our itinerary that were quickly dropped and others that, quite frankly, should’ve been.

And then . . . and then immediately upon our return, all four of us had the flu. We had to isolate at home. That sure did seem wild at the time.

I know, I know, it was quaint by today’s standards. But we were really sad to miss the Rev. David Wantland’s ordination to the priesthood here at Palmer. We missed it because, following doctor’s orders, we were stuck at home.

How many experiences have you had to miss this year? They include major life celebrations, visits from family and friends, simply watching the hustle and bustle of the city, and gathering weekly around this Table within these particular walls. We’ve been left out of so much, waiting for the pandemic to end, waiting for vaccines to be distributed, waiting for friendships and family ties to be strengthened, or even repaired, after so much distance.

It’s true that for most of us there are Christmas lights and presents and for all of us there is the promise of God’s coming. But in so many ways, it does feel like we’re on the outside looking in this year, doesn’t it?

That place where we’re standing, that place where you are right now, is the place where Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, was born. The familiar story of his birth in the Gospel of Luke puts us on the world stage.

But there’s no room for this Messiah in the world.

There’s no room in Rome, so go to the edge of the empire.[2] There’s no room in Jerusalem, so go to the little village of Bethlehem. There’s no room in the inn, so go to the detached garage where the animals are parked. Sorry the shop heater by the tool bench out there is broken. As someone once said:

Out, out, out. The Messiah is the one left out.[3]

Later in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself will say to an anonymous man who wants to follow him, perhaps to you, perhaps to me,

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head.[4]

Jesus, of course, would reach out to others who were also left out, eating with tax collector and sinners, healing diseases, casting out demons, even forgiving sins, something which only God can do.

The story of Christmas reminds us that the true seat of power isn’t found in Rome, or Jerusalem, or Washington, or Austin. It’s found, unexpectedly, in a baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and cushioned only with a pillow of hay in a feeding trough. This holy child in the manger “brings the Spirit of the Lord, so that it fills the whole earth.”[5] So what we celebrate tonight is nothing less than “the hidden beginning of [a] new creation.”[6]

We’re often tempted to look at the scene of the Nativity through a kind of kaleidoscope — through Christmas glitter mixed with little statues carved out of olive wood and a sentimentality that substitutes for faith. But the story of Mary and Joseph is a personal story, a real story, a difficult story.

They aren’t ready for all of this to happen. They definitely aren’t ready for this to happen on the road. There’s no mother-in-law hovering about to help with a colicky baby. There aren’t gift cards waiting to be redeemed on Amazon.com. There aren’t groceries from HEB being delivered by an Instacart driver. Yet this is how God chooses to enter into the life of the world and into our common humanity, in great humility, in the real lives of Mary and Joseph, in our real lives too.

Those of us who take the message of Christmas seriously have, listening to this story many times over through the years, learned to look for the presence of God in unexpected places. The real action isn’t limited to great things happening somewhere else. God is also at work in the little things — the encouragement of a good friend, a handwritten note about, well, anything at all, a hug from your most difficult child, a cat that just shows up at the Rectory, the unseen beauty and, yes, even the challenges that await you. These things happen not in some far off, exotic place, but wherever you dwell right now, even in the mess that is 2020.

And the mess is always where God shows up.

A lot of us come from places not unlike Bethlehem, Nazareth, Navasota, or Nacogdoches. But even if we now live in Rome, Jerusalem, New York, or right here in Houston, we live in particular neighborhoods, on a particular block, on a particular street. That’s where God comes to meet us. The writer Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

The work of salvation is always local . . . When God fashioned a universal gospel ‘for all the world,’ he became incarnate on a few square mile of Palestinian hills and valleys. An accurate street address is far more important in the proclamation of the gospel than a world map.[7]

We believe that Love came down at Christmas. And it comes to us again tonight wherever we are, wherever we’re living physically or emotionally. It’s Love with a capital “L,” Love that has the power to save us. This Messiah who was always left out, this Messiah who takes us by the hand precisely when we feel left out — he would later quote Psalm 118 while standing in the temple during the last week of his life, saying,

The very stone which the builders rejected
has become the head of the corner.[8]

Jesus was referring to himself as the cornerstone of something that will endure forever, a love that will never let us go. And the mystery of that is just as real this year as in any other since the first Christmas.

I don’t know how all the loose ends of 2020 will get tied up in the year ahead of us. Some of them won’t. But I do believe God is at work in the little things.

I believe that’s true for you, for me, for the whole world. I believe we get a glimpse of that tonight in the little hands of a baby who reaches out not only for his mother Mary but also for us, always, not to condemn us but to save us. This child has been born for us, “and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”[9] He is Christ the Lord.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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

BACK TO POST I have adapted some of the phrasing here to describe the Messiah’s movement to the manger, far away from Rome, from Gil Bailie, quoted by Paul Nuechterlein in Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary for Christmas Eve/Day

BACK TO POST Bailie.

BACK TO POST Luke 9:58.

BACK TO POST Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 85.

BACK TO POST Moltmann 73.

BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 190.

BACK TO POST Psalm 118:22 (Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:6.

Looking Across the Aisle . . . in Church

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 23, 2020

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

It was about 25 years ago. That Sunday morning in Richmond, Virginia, my alarm clock went off in the darkness. I was Bishop’s Clerk in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and part of my job was to travel with the Bishop of Virginia on his parish visitations. So we drove to Northern Virginia in time to arrive well before the 8:00 a.m. worship service at St. John’s Church in McLean. I was sitting in one of the pews near the back, as always, probably on the verge of dozing off by that point, hours after waking before sunrise.

It was the traditional liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, a spoken service, simple and beautiful. Everyone else was sitting closer to the front of the church, at least that’s what I thought. Only as we knelt that morning to confess our sins, admitting the burden of our misdoings and asking for mercy, did I realize that sitting directly across the aisle from me, or kneeling rather, was General Colin Powell. We were the only two people in the back of the church, and in that moment we were equal — two sinners in the presence of the God who had redeemed each of us. And that was also true for everyone else — the Bishop, the priest, the person who always sat in the front row, Republicans, Democrats, and those who check “other.”

Then as we gathered at the Lord’s Table, and the Bishop prayed with and for all of us, we were reminded that Jesus Christ, having taken away the sin of the world, brought an end to sacrifice as we usually think of it. But that word “sacrifice” comes back in that traditional liturgy, used in a new way. The prayer says we offer a sacrifice not of animals but of “praise and thanksgiving” and ultimately present our whole selves, “our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto [the Lord].” That language of being a “living sacrifice” echoes from the pages of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, which we heard read today.

But what does Paul really mean when he writes these words:

I appeal to you . . . by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.[1]

Is he asking us to sell all of our possessions or perhaps to try to be perfect Christians because we’ve now heard about Jesus? Is it some kind of psychological sleight of hand, in which Paul simply declares success, hoping we’ll work harder to be holier? What’s going on here?

Some of the most amusing things I’ve discovered while researching and reading old wills have nothing to do with houses and furniture and bank accounts. No, these curiosities have everything to do with relationships, not as they are in that moment but as someone wants them to become later.

In 1862, for example, a man named Thomas Powell said in his will,

I wish my Daughter Donna Versa to be respectful, obedient & Kind to her Mother . . .[2]

That was apparently meant to draw a contrast with how he perceived the past behavior of his older children.

And forty years before that, in 1822, a man named John Flintham threw into his will, as a last resort, an outright bribe to try to guide someone’s choices. Referring to a woman who was probably his step-daughter, he said,

I give unto Nancy Carr the sum of twenty-five dollars if she will come into this county & visit her relations, if she will not come in, then she is to receive nothing.[3]

I somehow doubt that fixed whatever was broken there.

Those are silly examples, somehow funny and not funny at the same time because there is clearly a lot of sadness behind them. But how do you move people to a place where they can flourish? How do you create a new future that will replace a shattered present?

Well, first of all, Paul isn’t trying to bribe us with heavenly rewards or to coerce us into being something we’re not. He’s not saying that it’s up to us to be holy in order for God to accept us, as if we’re just constantly putting quarters into a vending machine. That quickly becomes exhausting.

Secondly, there’s one little word that I left out earlier when I quoted the beginning of our reading from Romans. Paul writes to us, his siblings in Christ, and says, “I appeal to you therefore . . .” And it’s always good to stop when you hear that last word, asking yourself, “What’s the word ‘therefore’ there for in this passage?” And, of course, it’s pointing you back to something that came previously, something that you didn’t hear today.

In earlier chapters, Paul described what God is doing through Christ for the whole creation, which is groaning in labor pains for something new to be born. He described what God is doing through Christ for you, what God has done for you. You’ve been saved, accepted, forgiven, not in your strength but in your weakness. And you’re not alone. God is very near to you.

The Spirit intercedes for you with sighs too deep for words when you don’t know what to say, when you don’t know how to pray, when you’re kneeling in a church beside a general, or when you are the general. And nothing in the whole universe, not even a pandemic, “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[4]

Each time we gather together in worship, we’re brought back to that deep well of mercy. But what does Paul mean when he talks about spiritual worship? I mean, did he just throw “spiritual” into that sentence to make the word count come out right? No, not at all.

After the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire, only two streams of Jewish life emerged from the ruins and survived. One became rabbinic Judaism. The other is what we of course know as Christianity.

The rabbis believed that studying God’s commandments about sacrifices and reflecting on their meaning was the equivalent of offering them in real life.[5] It was a form of “spiritual worship.” Communal prayer in the synagogue was also described in this same kind of way. It was the best God’s people could do in light of the harsh realities of the world — the world not as they wished it to be, but as it actually was, as it actually is still today.

And if you think about it, there’s a shadow of that in how we’ve been worshiping over the last several months. We’ve continued to recall the story of salvation at the Lord’s Table, blessing the bread and the wine as Jesus commanded us to do. But in this moment, we can only participate in that ritual as a community through a prayer for what’s called spiritual communion, asking God to make real in our hearts what we’re missing.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul uses this same language, the language of his own tradition, the language of our theological cousins, to describe our offering as Christians in light of our belief that Jesus Christ has ended atoning sacrifices, once and for all. In other words, our sacrifices don’t wash away sin because Jesus has already done that for you and for me.

As Christians in the Anglican tradition, we can only offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We offer that not only with our lips but also in our lives. What we say and what we do can become our “spiritual worship,” our own expression of gratitude for what God has already done for us.

So we don’t have to think only about ourselves, only about our relationship with God and how we’re going to climb up a ladder to reach God. Instead, we can live for the sake of our neighbor. We can offer our whole selves to God in worship, thankful for the love that surrounds us and overflows from our hearts. And the liturgy of worship can become for us a liturgy of life as we’re sent out into the world. That’s what it means to be a living sacrifice, not because we bear perfection but because we bear forgiveness and mercy.

That’s what we take with us. That’s what we have to offer other people. That’s what they need, what we all need, whether we have no stars on our clothing or four of them. All of those distinctions fade away when we kneel at the foot of the cross and see a beloved child of God, whether looking at someone across the aisle or just looking in the mirror. This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 12:1.

BACK TO POST Thomas B. Powell is my third great-grandfather and signed his will on April 2, 1862, in Caswell County, North Carolina.

BACK TO POST John Flintham is my fourth great-grandfather and signed his will on August 20, 1822, in Orange County, North Carolina.

BACK TO POST Romans 8:39.

BACK TO POST Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 190.

“Cast out this slave woman . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God wants them and their story to live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

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

BACK TO POST Genesis 21:10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 BACK TO POST Exodus 32:1-35.

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

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

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

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

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

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