Beautiful & Terrible Things Will Happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week has been exhausting.[5]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be afraid. I am with you.[9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I believe.

AMEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BACK TO POST Psalm 124:1, 4-5.

BACK TO POST Psalm 124:6.

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

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

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

11 BACK TO POST Psalm 124:8.

Places in the Heart and a Road Trip

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 18, September 9, 2018

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

A couple of years ago, on Memorial Day, my family and I took a detour on our way back to Houston from Dallas. We wanted to see the courthouse in Waxahachie, which is the county seat of Ellis County. It appears in the opening shots of the 1984 movie Places in the Heart,  which is set in Waxahachie in the middle of the Great Depression. Places in the Heart is an amazing film about reconciliation, both its presence and its absence, with a decidedly Christian frame around that theme.

As we drove up to the courthouse, I could hear with the ears of my imagination the words of an old hymn that’s familiar to many of us being sung in a slow tempo:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.

It’s the first thing on the film’s soundtrack as a series of images appear on the screen — the county courthouse; people leaving a church; folks who are poor and homeless; a long, empty dirt road in the country; rusty hopper cars at the edge of town; and a field of bluebonnets that extend all the way to the distant horizon.

Because it was a holiday, the downtown was mostly deserted. So we just walked around the outside of the courthouse, which the author James A. Michener once described in one of his novels as “a fairy tale palace” and “one of the finest buildings in Texas.”[1] Not surprisingly, we walked past a monument on the grounds of the courthouse with a statue of a Confederate soldier at the top of it.

As our two boys walked past that monument without much thought about it, my mind drifted back to the opening of Places in the Heart. With the hymn being sung in the background, another powerful image that one sees are two different families, one white and one black, both sitting down to a meal in their respective homes and giving thanks for the food that is set before them. All of them are dressed in their Sunday best, obviously having gone to worship earlier that morning, albeit within the walls of separate, segregated churches.

As the music fades, the next scene shows another white family doing the same thing. It doesn’t take long for the father to be identified as the local sheriff. He gets called away from his Sunday lunch with his wife and their two children to deal with an emergency down at the rail yard. He takes a couple of biscuits with him, putting them in one of the outer pockets of his suit jacket as he rushes out the door.

By the railroad tracks he finds a young African American boy who had somehow found a bottle of liquor and a pistol. They know one another, and have a friendly conversation. The biscuits and liquor are strange shadows on the Lord’s Day of a kind of holy but incomplete and separate communion.

When the young boy, unsteady on his feet, throws the bottle in the air to try to shoot it, he accidentally shoots the sheriff instead, killing him. Within hours, the young boy would be dead too. Armed white men will tie a rope to him and drag his body through town behind a truck before hanging him from a tree. As the African American singer Billie Holiday recorded in 1939, with lyrics by a Jewish teacher:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Today’s psalm is a different song, assuring us that “the Lord stand[s] round about his people” as “the hills stand about Jerusalem.” It goes on to say that “the scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway over the land allotted to the just.”[2] And yet there are moments in history, in the lives of people we love, and in our own experiences when an honest assessment of the facts on the ground makes that hard to believe. So we cling to the words that follow: “Show your goodness, O Lord . . .”[3] And we add our own words to that prayer, even if we don’t feel brave enough to speak them aloud:

Show your goodness, O Lord, because I can’t see it right now, and I need to see it . . . right . . . now.

More than 4,400 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950 have been documented. Distinct from other acts of extrajudicial violence, these murders were part of a campaign to reinforce white supremacist beliefs and to terrorize black Americans.[4] You can learn more about this shadow side of American history at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

I recently traveled there with Rabbi Oren Hayon of Congregation Emanu-El, Pastor Michael Dunn of First Christian Church, and Pastor Duane Larson of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Our four congregations, of course, are the four communities of faith that border the campus of Rice University. There are details about that pilgrimage of lament in an article in today’s issue of the Houston Chronicle. But I want to share a story that’s not in the article, which I have permission to retell.

My colleagues and I flew into Birmingham, then rented a small SUV to drive down to Montgomery. While Rabbi Hayon was getting the keys to our vehicle, Pastor Larson and I were standing behind it. So we had a good view of the license plate after the hatchback door was closed. Actually, there wasn’t a license plate. There wasn’t even an official looking cardboard temporary license “plate” that you might see on a new car. No, it was just a sad, slightly curled piece of heavy card stock that said “Tags Applied For.” Immediately, I turned to Pastor Larson and said, only half-jokingly:

You know we’re going to get pulled over for that.

Well, as we drove into Montgomery in the dark of night, we did.

The blue lights came on, flashing in the rear view mirror, and we made our way to the brightly lit nearby parking lot of Goodwill, with Rabbi Hayon in the driver’s seat. So the African American police officer found himself shining his flashlight onto us four white guys. After he heard that it was a rental car, I leaned forward in the back seat to explain that we were a rabbi and three Christian ministers who had traveled together from Houston to visit the new lynching memorial. I even told him what I had said to my Lutheran colleague, pointing to him in the passenger seat, that we were almost certain to get pulled over. Soon enough, we were on our way again.

Later, while we were still heading to the hotel, Rabbi Hayon broke the silence with words that were initially addressed to me. He said:

I’ve been thinking about that conversation with the police officer, and I couldn’t help but notice how natural it was for you to self-disclose your religious identity. I would never do that.

So that’s what we talked about as we continued down the road in the darkness. For me, explaining who we were was almost involuntary, lowering my own anxiety and sincerely trying to help everyone, including the police officer. However, the truth is that I’ve never really had to worry about what kind of prejudices another human being might secretly harbor. But I need to be a lot more aware of others who do.

The Book of Proverbs says that “the rod of anger will fail.”[5] But what if it doesn’t in this one particular instance while I’m on the receiving end of it? Proverbs also assures me that the Lord pleads the cause of the afflicted at the gate of the city. But what if I’m too far away from the gate of justice in the land of the living?

That was our collective reflection on the eve of our seeing the lynching memorial. It was an unanticipated but helpful prelude. There are so many articles that describe the visual impact of the memorial that I won’t try to do that here. I’ll only mention a few of the words that are part of a statement of purpose on a wall on the inside:

For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember.

For me, the words of African American theologian James Cone also came to mind. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he reflects on the death and resurrection of Jesus, together with the violent murders of these African Americans, and says:

The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross. . . .

It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor.[6]

 

In Places in the Heart, the sheriff’s widow soon finds herself and her two children teetering on the edge of losing everything. And those who mistakenly thought that she’d be happy about the lynching don’t come rushing to her aide. Eventually, she welcomes into her household an African American named Moses, who knows about farming, and a blind man whose extended family no longer wished to be responsible for him. These unlikely companions, each of them, including the children, at a different place on the margins of society, can only survive together. So they create a community that is nothing less than a true reflection of God’s coming kingdom.

The last scene of the movie takes place inside the white church. In the half-filled pews, the congregation can be heard singing the final refrain of “Blessed Assurance.” After the people sit down, the minister reads the famous words of St. Paul about love in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. During that, a man and a woman whose marriage has been strained discretely hold hands. The unspoken gesture of forgiveness brings with it a physical sigh of relief.

Later the minister recalls the words of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper on the night before his crucifixion. While he’s speaking, the camera follows each member of the congregation passing the bread and wine to the person beside them. What you don’t notice right away is that the pews are now completely filled. All sorts and conditions of people from the town are there, saints and sinners alike.

And the last thing you see is the sheriff’s widow receiving communion from her children. She passes the silver tray that holds the individual cups of wine to the person beside her, whom we’re surprised to see is her husband. He does the same, passing the tray to the young boy who had shot him. And then you see the boy looking directly into the eyes of the sheriff and saying to him, “The peace of God.”

Robert Benton is the man wrote and directed Places in the Heart, and he was born in Waxahachie. He wanted no other ending to the film and once said this about it:

There are certain things images can explain and words cannot. There is something in the image of the man who has been killed handing the communion plate to the boy who killed him that seems very moving to me in ways I cannot explain.

I had the ending before I ever finished the screenplay . . .[7]

As that final scene of his movie suggests, there are some things that get sorted out in this life and lots more that only get sorted out in the life to come. Nevertheless, sometimes we’re granted a glimpse on earth of things that we believe will only be seen in heaven. The sinfulness of the world seems to keep them beyond our reach.

An example of heaven reaching to earth comes from the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He’s also an African American whose Baptist father came to church with his Episcopalian mother when they were still dating and living in the heart of segregated America in the 1940s. His father watched his mother walk to the front of the church for communion, kneeling beside white people and drinking from the same cup that they did. His father had never seen whites and blacks drink from the same glass or even the same water fountain.[8]

I hope each of us gets a glimpse of that today. There’s room for us all at this Table. By coming to it week after week, I hope we’ll receive whatever courage we need to look at ourselves and the world around us not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. And I hope, more and more, this household will resemble the household of the sheriff’s widow. That’s what the household of God looks like, a place where the doors of the church are open as wide as the arms of the Crucified One.

We are all related through his blood.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST James A. Michener, Texas: A Novel (Dial Press: New York, 2014) 1088. Here is the full quote that describes the county courthouse in Waxahachie:

[James Riley] Gordon had built a fairy-tale palace ten stories high, replete with battlements and turrets and spires and soaring clock towers and miniature castles high in the air. It was a bejeweled treasure, yet it was also a sturdy, massive court of judgments, one of the finest buildings in Texas.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:2-3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:4.

BACK TO POST That statistic about documented lynchings of African Americans was highlighted at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. I was grateful to learn that Forsyth County, North Carolina, where I was raised, isn’t represented by a steel monument at the memorial. However, “other acts of extrajudicial violence” that fall outside the scope of the memorial did take place in the only documented lynching in Forsyth County. Henry Swaim was a white tenant on the farm of Harrison and Ernestina Reid, and he was lynched in 1884 by “a crowd of between seventy-five and one hundred men, many of whom were masked.”

The only reason that I read about this story is because I was checking to see if there really was no documented lynching of an African American in Forsyth County. The surprising discovery is that Harrison Reid is my first cousin, five generations removed. His wife Ernestina was murdered on May 5, 1884, but whispered three times the name of Henry Swaim as the identity of her attacker before she died.

“Swinging into Eternity” offers a thorough account of what happened in this sordid affair and points out that the circumvention of due process was in no way “justice.” It is worth taking a moment to click on the original newspaper report here or within the account linked above about the lynching of this 25 year old man. He pleaded for someone to pray for him before he was put to death. When someone did and asked him afterwards if he was penitent, he didn’t know what that word meant. When he then sputtered out this prayer on his own, repeating it over and over, Swaim was ridiculed by the crowd, a crowd that I’m sure was mostly filled with Christian men:

Oh Lord take me from this world once more!
Oh Lord save this poor sinner’s soul once more!
I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!

Swaim was hanged improperly, so he died of strangulation and, therefore, didn’t die immediately. The rope that was holding him by the neck had to be restrung over a limb on the tree to draw his body “high up above the heads” of the spectators. It remained there afterwards, and “great crowds” came to see it later that same day.

BACK TO POST Proverbs 22:8.

BACK TO POST James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2011) xviii, 161-162.

BACK TO POST Robert Benton, quoted by Aljean Harmetz in “How Endings Have Affected Two Recent Movies,” New York Times, October 8, 1984.

BACK TO POST Michael Curry tells this story about his parents in a YouTube video called “Eucharist” from June 6, 2014.

Learning How to Sing in the World

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 15, August 19, 2018

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

As you came into the church this morning, there were probably a few things that caught your eye, like the brand new, bright yellow lines in the south parking lot and glorious sunflowers shining over the altar on both sides of the cross and festive t-shirts worn by many of our members who will be sent out at the end of worship in groups to serve our neighbors on Serve Sunday. Some of the shirts say “God Thinks You’re Fabulous,” which, for us, is another way of saying that we believe God looks at people, who’ve been created in his own image, with the eyes of Jesus and loves them. We are all forgiven, embraced, and accepted in the merciful arms of our Savior.

But there’s one other thing. Unless today is the very first time you’ve ever walked into this beautiful house of worship, you probably also noticed, and perhaps keep staring at, the baptismal font. That’s the impressive stone bowl on a pedestal where people, young and old, are baptized with water and adopted into the household of God. Yes, it has indeed been moved. That is the truth. The whole truth, however, is that it’s been moved back to where it used to be. So the balance between Water and Word, which is to say the font and the pulpit, has been restored at the front of the church. Now we’ll pass through both of those things that are constantly shaping our Christian life as we come to the Table in the middle to bless the bread and the wine for holy communion. I’ll say more about the baptismal font in a moment.

But, first, a story. The first ordained minister that I can remember at Union Cross Moravian Church in Forsyth County, North Carolina, wasn’t the one who baptized me as a baby but the pastor who followed him. He was the Rev. Edward T. Mickey, and we called him Mr. Mickey, in the same way that Episcopal priests used to be addressed universally in past generations in America. He was just as talented, if not more so, in the realm of music as he was well-read in the area of theology.

Mr. Mickey had once been the Pastor of Grace Moravian Church in Mount Airy, which is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And that’s where, on a Wednesday afternoon in 1942, he heard the sound of a bicycle come to a sliding, screeching stop at the back door of the church. Riding that bike was a 16 year old boy who saw Mr. Mickey sitting there on the back steps and wanted to know if he was the preacher. He said that he was. The teenager then asked Mr. Mickey if he could teach him how to play a trombone so that he could lead a swing band.

That teenager turned out to be the future actor Andy Griffith, who did learn all about music in that church — how to read it, how to play it, how to sing it. That was a real turning point in the life of Mr. Griffith, who would later major in music in college at Chapel Hill before the start a well-known career in entertainment.

I thought about that story when I read today’s assigned passage from the Letter to the Christians in Ephesus. Although a lot of people reduce these words to a lesson about the virtues of temperance, it’s not meant to forbid those who don’t struggle with addictions from enjoying a festive drink with a little pink umbrella atop the glass. That’s very different than orienting your life around the drunken orgies of the worship of Dionysius, the god of wine, in the Asiatic world of the ancient Ephesus.

In the letter that slowly made its way to that city, those Christians are simply being reminded that their community of faith ought to be oriented around something else, something that is life-giving not only for themselves but also for others:

. . . be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

And is it not here, within these walls, where we learn how to sing in the world? For us, that begins at this font, which the infant Jesus, being held in the arms of his mother, now overlooks and blesses. Can’t you hear, if only faintly, the song of his mother, the song of Mary? Out of the baptismal waters, her words become our own:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. . . .

He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek. . . .[2]

And when we go out these doors to serve others, it’s just an extension of singing this and other songs we’ve learned in one another’s presence. But it all begins, for us, at this font, and I love how the author and pastor Eugene Peterson describes that:

Baptism marks a radically new way to understand ourselves and one another: not by race, not by language, not by parents and family, not by politics, not by intelligence, not by gender, not by behavior. All of these various ways of accounting for ourselves are significant, but none is definitive. Holy baptism defines us as holy, as saints. Baptism is definitive . .

We continue to maintain this identity by keeping company with people who have firsthand knowledge of who we are . . . These same [men and women] embarrass us with their haphazardness, exhilarate us with their joy, offend us by their inconsistent lives, comfort us with their compassion, [badger] and criticize us, encourage and bring the best out of us, bore us with their blandness, stimulate us with their enthusiasm. But we don’t choose them. God chooses them. We keep company with the men and women God chooses. These saints.[3]

The font in a church ought to invite exploration, not be half-fenced off as ours often seemed like it was when it was in front of the pulpit. Now you can freely walk around the entire font. And so not only children are encouraged to come and do that but also adults. If you have little ones, lift them up so they can see with their own eyes the inside of the bowl. Then take a look at the symbols outside that basin and notice, in particular, the eight sides of the base. It’s important for that not to be obscured.

That octagonal shape was a symbol in early Christianity of the resurrection, with the Lord’s Day, Sunday, being not the first day of the week, as we usually think of it, but the eighth day of creation. It reminds us of a new creation, a new song, that began at the empty tomb on Easter morning and that begins, for us, at this font as people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, are baptized, bathed in forgiveness, washed lavishly in God’s grace, named publicly as God’s beloved children.

On Friday afternoon, as I was driving both of my boys to their music lessons, the radio in the car was tuned in to NPR and the first thing that I heard was the classical violinist Yo Yo Ma was being interviewed. Actually, what I heard first was him playing the gently rolling prelude to the first of Bach’s six Cello Suites. Mr. Ma started violin lessons at four years of age, and the first several notes of that prelude are what he learned on his first day. The next set of notes are what he learned on his second day, and so on and so forth. He learned all of it slowly, incrementally.

The music of Bach’s six Cello Suites have been his companion for the last 58 years. That music, like the Book of Psalms in the Bible, is, as NPR put it, “two-and-a-half hours of sounds that map humanity in all its triumphs, joys and sorrows.”[4] Mr. Ma has played that music at the weddings of his friends and also at their funerals. He played it after 9/11 and on very different kinds of celebratory and joyous occasions.

I think that’s a beautiful image of how we learn to sing the right notes throughout the different chapters of our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of our neighbors. And how could I speak of singing on this Lord’s Day without mentioning, with R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Aretha Franklin, who died on Thursday in the City of Detroit?

I loved this title of an article in the New York Times last week: ‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church.[5] Her father was a Baptist minister, and, not surprisingly, she used to sing gospel music in his church. Although the Times piece was about a particular album called Amazing Grace, there’s something about the way Ms. Franklin sang that carried much of that out into the world, even if the words she was singing weren’t religious in any way, shape, or form. There was a sense that we were going to church. And when she sang at the Presidential Inauguration in 2009, she wore a magnificent hat, as though she had dressed for church on that day.

Now some of you are thinking to yourself, “I’m never going to be like Yo Yo Ma on the cello or the Queen of Soul with my voice,” even metaphorically.  So I want to tell you the part of the story about Mr. Mickey and Andy Griffith that usually gets left out. In his own retelling of it, Mr. Mickey said he was sitting on the back steps of the church that afternoon in 1942 at what seemed like a real low point.[6] He had just finished his weekly band practice with his volunteer players, and they hadn’t practiced and didn’t seem very interested. And so he was feeling sorry for himself as he sat there.

In The Player: A Profile of an Art, which is a 1962 collection of reflections by actors, Mr. Griffith wrote these words:

For three years, he gave me a free lesson once a week. Ed Mickey taught me to sing and to read music and to play every brass instrument there was in the [church] band, and the guitar and the banjo besides. I was best at playing the E-flat alto horn.

When I was sixteen, I joined the church, together with my mother and daddy. . . . I was very happy with the Moravians. All the other band members accepted me. They didn’t ever make fun of me.[7]

Those lessons were mentioned in Andy Griffith’s obituary in The New York Times, along with the painful memory of having been called “white trash” as a child.[8] The band members at the church, including Mr. Mickey, embraced him with the love of Jesus. They showed him what the love of Jesus looks like in the world around us, what the love of Jesus looks like in our lives, not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. That’s the real music he was learning there — the music of divine love.

And that’s what each of us can share with others, the song that each of us, being filled with the Spirit, can sing in the world beyond these walls. . . today.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ephesians 5:18-20.

BACK TO POST “The Song of Mary,” The Book of Common Prayer (The Church Hymnal Corporation: New York, 1979), 65.

BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2010), 83-84.

BACK TO POST Mary Louise Kelly and Tom Huizenga, “Yo Yo Ma, A Life Led with Bach,” NPR, August 17, 2018. See also the transcript of that interview.

BACK TO POST Wesley Morris, “‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church,” New York Times, August 17, 2018, 216-217.

BACK TO POST Edward T. Mickey, Jr., “The Andy Griffith I Know,” The Wachovia Moravian, February, 1968.

BACK TO POST Lillian Ross and Helen Ross, The Player: A Profile of an Art (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), 216-217.

BACK TO POST Douglas Martin, “Andy Griffith, TV’s Lawman and Moral Compass, Dies at 86,” New York Times, July 3, 2012.

Patriotism, Piety, and Romans 13

In my lifetime, I’ve been a member of both the Republican and Democratic parties. I am an Eagle Scout and proudly served as an Assistant Scoutmaster during my years in college. My ancestors were Patriots and Loyalists, members of the established Church of England and dissenters, including Puritans in Plymouth Colony. I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, which presumes to call its cathedral in Washington, D.C., the National Cathedral and includes Independence Day on its church calendar.

I have participated in plenty of “state religion,” having preached numerous times on the Fourth of July at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, and having both organized and presided over an interfaith prayer service in that same historic church on the morning that Governor-Elect Tim Kaine was sworn into office in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2006. Yet I understand why Mennonite and Amish Christians reject these expressions of state religion and refuse either to salute the American flag or to say the Pledge of Allegience. They don’t want others confused about the fact that their first loyalty is to God and that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted passages from the Bible, including Romans 13, in defense of the President’s immigration policies, which until recently included the separation of children from their parents after crossing the border. People can and do have a variety of opinions about immigration policies, and those opinions should be debated in the public square. However, unnecessary separation of children from their parents and the invocation of the Bible to justify that isn’t something that should be done in the name of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth extended a special welcome to little ones, asking his followers to do the same, and reserved harsh words for those who would put a stumbling block before them.

Nevertheless, the words of Romans 13 remain a source of anxiety among those who struggle with the idea that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” and that we should quietly be “subject” to them.[1] So I thought this sermon on Romans 13 from several years ago might be helpful to some folks in light of current events and the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. Here’s what I had to say about it:

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper for the Nation, July 5, 2015

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)

Yesterday was obviously the Fourth of July, otherwise known as Independence Day. And I doubt there’s too much confusion this morning over the meaning of our most popular national observance. Last night there were fireworks and cookouts and gatherings of all kinds, both public and private, to celebrate not only our national independence but also the individual liberties that we enjoy as American citizens.

Those ceremonies and rituals take on added significance in cities like Williamsburg, Virginia, where I once served on the clergy staff of Bruton Parish Church. In that congregation, which dates back to 1674, one can’t help but feel the weight of American history while just sitting in the pews there. It’s one of those places where the history of the church is very much intertwined with the history of the nation.

But that can also be confusing, right? Today, for example, is the Lord’s Day, a holy day that begins each new week on the calendar of the Church Universal. This is time set aside to worship the living God. That’s always our highest purpose for being here. Even in those years when the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday, it’s still the Lord’s Day. That takes precedent. But there’s often a temptation in those moments to confuse something of great importance — national honor — with something of the greatest importance — divine honor. And our failure to distinguish between those two categories of importance can easily lead us into the greatest sin of all — idolatry.

Let me give you an example.

I spent one summer during divinity school at home in North Carolina. While I was there, an old college friend called me up. He had been asked to preach a sermon on the Fourth of July in a rural church of another denomination. Thinking that would be a really great way to observe the holiday, I drove out into the middle of nowhere in order to worship with that small congregation. I knew that my friend would give thanks for our independence as a nation and proclaim our dependence upon God’s grace. So I walked into that little church expecting to encounter God.

But I was shocked to discover that, outside the sermon itself, God had been forced to observe the holiday by taking the afternoon off. And that’s because every symbol of the transcendent, anything that might have pointed someone to God, had been visually obliterated by the Stars and Stripes. If the preacher had been replaced by a politician, it would have been a perfect display of Americana.

And that’s my point. It would have been a completely different experience in the town square. But inside that little church it seemed almost cartoonish — as though we were looking to Captain America rather than Jesus, “the Captain of [our] salvation,” as he’s described in the Letter to the Hebrews.[2]

As a minister of the gospel, I’m called to remind us to love the right things in the right order. God always has the first claim on our life and our loyalty. Many years ago, a stranger gave me a simple image for that on my way to a conference down in Orlando. Traveling south from the Carolinas on the I-95 corridor is like going into a funnel as all the traffic begins to converge on the State of Florida. I’ll always remember a small pickup truck that passed me on the interstate there. It had a cover over the truck bed and a homemade message on the window above the tailgate. The message was actually a short list:

1. GOD

2. USA

3. FSU [i.e., Florida State University]

I took that as the driver’s personal revision of the old slogan: “For God, for country, and for Yale.” However, I thought this stranger had improved upon the old slogan because he had clearly ranked these different claims on his life and his loyalty. To make them all equal would be to create an unholy trinity and to adulterate the worship that properly belongs to God and God alone.

1662 Book of Common Prayer (1762 edition)

How then are faithful Christians to understand the relationship between love of God and love of country? Simply put, how are we to understand our own relationship to the State?

One answer has already been given in this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. The opening verses of chapter 13 would seem to suggest that Christians are subject to ruling authorities in all places at all times under all circumstances.

But the absolutizing of Paul’s words in that passage has caused severe difficulties in the past. It contributed to a crisis of conscious in the 18th century among Anglican clergy serving the American colonies at the time of the Revolution. After the Revolution, in the 19th century, it was used to claim that chattel slavery in this new republic was ordained of God. In the 20th century, it diminished the resistance of German Christians to the Nazi regime. And it even served as a divine endorsement of apartheid policies by the white supremacist government in South Africa, which only came to an end in the early 1990s.[3]

Part of an 1850 editorial in a North Carolina newspaper about “The Fugitive Slave Law.”

It has to be understood that Paul wrote those words during the early years of Nero’s reign as emperor. The imperial government had not yet persecuted Christians living in Rome. And Paul was certainly not going to counsel Christians to hasten their own persecution. So, in this case, the State’s toleration of Christianity nurtured Christianity’s benevolent view of Roman imperial power. But there are other voices in the New Testament also speaking to the question at hand.

Toward the end of the first century, the Book of Revelation foresaw the inevitable clash between true allegiance to God and coerced allegiance to the emperor. The latter involved an act of worship in the emperor cult as a sign of ultimate loyalty to the State. However, for Christians, that kind of loyalty, the kind expressed in worship, can only be given to God. The Führer of the Third Reich would demand that same kind of ultimate loyalty, forcing German Christians to make a choice.

So, in this context, Roman imperial power was seen as demonic. It was to be resisted because it sought to usurp the place of God in the life of the Christian. This is the opposite view of Romans 13. But these two views do have something in common. They share a message conditioned by particular circumstances. And that realization brings us to a third and final answer to our question about love of God and country.

This third view represents a via media, a middle way. It comes from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, which are two volumes by the same author. Here one finds a general deference to the ruling authorities unless their actions directly conflict with allegiance to God. Here the Church stands at a critical distance from the ruling authorities. In other words, the Church must be ready to respond to the State in a manner determined by the State’s own actions.

At times the Church will be chaplain to those in authority. Perhaps you watched on television President Ronald Reagan’s state funeral at the National Cathedral. At times the Church will be challenger to those in authority. Maybe you’ve heard about the time that President Lyndon Johnson was sitting in the pews at Bruton Parish Church while the Rector, Cotesworth Lewis, wondered aloud from the pulpit about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Although it should be noted that news reports made it sound like that was the theme of the whole sermon, which it wasn’t.

At all times the Church thus seeks to serve the good of our society, loving our neighbors, even debating them, for the sake of the gospel. We should be grateful that the American experiment in liberal democracy embraces such a dialogue. Far too many of our Christian brothers and sisters endure suffering in countries where there is no freedom to speak to those in power on behalf of “the least of these.”[4]

For two years my brother lived in one of those countries on the African continent. He worked for the State Department in the land-locked and poverty-stricken country of Chad. There he oversaw the buildings of the American embassy in the capital of N’Djamena. The people who lived in that city were forbidden from even catching a glimpse of their president being driven through the streets.

My brother had a fairly large staff drawn entirely from the local population. At some point he realized that one of the few women on his staff was clearly the person who was most likely to get things done. So, acting like a good American pragmatist, my brother appointed that women as his most important supervisor.

However, the men quietly protested that this was not how they did things there. And my brother responded by saying, “Welcome to America! When you walk into this compound you’re walking onto American soil. And this is how we do things here.”

What I would like to suggest is that the image of an embassy is a good way to think about the role of any parish church in America. When you walk through the doors of the church into this sacred space, you are walking onto the soil of the Kingdom. It is the place where heaven and earth touch as we join our voices with Angels and Archangels. It is the place where the power of God transforms ordinary bread and wine into holy food, and ordinary men and women into holy people. It is truly an outpost of another country, a heavenly one. And we are citizens of that heavenly country. Here we are invited to catch a glimpse of the One whose Kingdom this is, and to bring the burdens of the nation and the world before the throne of grace.

I think that understanding of the Church disengages us in a healthy way from endless debates about how “Christian” America really is (or ought to be). Quite frankly, I’m less concerned about preserving an appearance of “Christian-ness” in the civic life of America, like a bouquet of flowers that’s soon tossed aside, and I’m more concerned about preserving a depth of “Christian-ness” in the daily life of the Church, like a meal that sustains us each day across a lifetime of joys and sorrows.

Some of you may be familiar with the name of the late Father Richard John Neuhaus. He was a conservative Roman Catholic priest who often commented on the role of religion in American public life. While I didn’t always agree with his opinions, I did and still do agree with his critique of America as a Christian nation.

Here’s what he wrote about that:

I count myself among the many Christians, perhaps the majority of Christians in America, who have the gravest reservations about the idea of “Christian America.” It makes sense to speak, always cautiously, of America as a Christian society in terms of historical forces, ideas, and demography. But no society is worthy of the name of Christ, except the society that is the church, and then it is worthy only by virtue of being made worthy through the grace of God in Christ.[5]

In making that observation, I believe Father Neuhaus was loving the right things in the right order. That’s why my hope on this Fourth of July weekend is that we will render thanks to the Almighty for the freedom to worship, that we will exercise that freedom week in and week out here at Palmer, and, most importantly, that in our worship we will always respect the sovereignty of the One who reigns over not only this nation but all the nations of the earth. “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.”[6]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 13:1.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 2:10, King James Version.

BACK TO POST Charles H. Talbert, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Romans (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 307. Talbert’s presentation of the biblical material covered in the next three paragraphs takes place on 295-298.

BACK TO POST Matthew 25:40.

BACK TO POST Richard John Neuhaus, “Democratic Morality: A Possibility,” an unpublished paper noted by Stanley Hauerwas in “A Christian Critique of Christian America,” in The Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) 470.

BACK TO POST I Timothy 1:17.

Snow White and the Ten Commandments

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent III, March 4, 2018

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . . (Exodus 20:1-2)

Yesterday, my wife Carrie and I enjoyed spending the afternoon with some friends at the Hobby Center downtown for the musical Memphis. The lead male character is a fictionalized version of the pioneering disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. As a DJ, he introduced black music to a wider — and whiter — audience on the radio. Down the road, and beyond the scope of the musical, he would become famous as the first person to play on air a recording of Elvis Presley. That young Elvis would be taken around town by this white man to complete his musical education by meeting African American club owners and music stars.

In the musical, set in the segregated South of the 1950s, one of the main things that’s painful to watch is the racism that provides tension throughout the story. However, as if that’s not enough, there’s a jarring dissonance in Memphis between Christianity as it’s meant to be, like the image in the last book of the Bible of “a great multitude which no [one] could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne” of God, and old rules about how good Christian white people were supposed to act in the South.[1] It was an inversion of the biblical image in which a perversion of Christianity reinforced the walls between the races.

I’ve been wrestling with that same dissonance within my family tree over the last six months or so. As some of you heard me share during a recent Faith Forum on the theme of reconciliation, my wife strongly suggested to me last summer that I should find something else to do in my spare time other than checking the latest political news constantly. Fair enough, I thought. So one night when I was having trouble falling asleep, I decided that it might be a fun distraction to explore the past through Ancestry.com. And it was fun to discover in my wife’s family tree a truly delightful scoundrel who spent some time as a prisoner at the Jamestown Colony and four Unionist hell-raising cousins in my family tree who broke out of jail multiple times in Confederate North Carolina, barely escaping the hangman’s noose the last time.

But I didn’t expect to meet Daniel Hackney, Jr., my great, great, great, grandfather. He became a Baptist deacon in 1833 in Chatham County, North Carolina. After the Civil War, he was licensed preach in 1866 and then ordained as a minister of the gospel in 1871. He, too, was a Unionist throughout his political career as an elected representative in North Carolina’s General Assembly during the 1840s and 1850s.

But Hackney was a pro-slavery Unionist, believing, like many of the conservative politicians of his day, that secession would ultimately be the surest and quickest path to the destruction of the institution of slavery. That, of course, is exactly what happened. So I guess we can all agree he was right about that one thing at least.

The 1860 United States Federal Census included slave schedules that reveal the fact that Hackney, just like his father before him, owned slaves. It doesn’t include their names because they are simply counted as property under Hackney’s name. 14 in total, most of them children, including a one-month-old baby. 13 were black, one was biracial. There were eight males and six females. None were fugitives or had been manumitted. Together they lived in three slave houses. The dissonance between that harsh reality and Hackney’s complete devotion to the work of Baptist churches after the war without seeming to regret the past is astonishing, although it’s important to acknowledge that he would have been raised not to hear that.[2]

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That sentence introduces what we Christians traditionally refer to as “The Ten Commandments,” which we’ve been reciting together at the beginning of our liturgies each Sunday throughout this season of Lent. But the Bible itself refers to this collection not with that familiar title but as “The Ten Words” or “Decalogue.” Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, that sentence is neither an introduction nor a prologue to everything that follows but stands alone as the First Word.

As an aside, yes, there’s more than one way to divide up this familiar-sounding text into ten parts. In fact, there are three different ways to count those Ten Words. I’ve already mentioned the traditional Jewish way that counts the first sentence alone as the First Word before moving on to count not having other gods and not making idols, together, as the Second Word. Roman Catholics and Lutherans also combine no other gods and no idols as their First Word and split the commandment against coveting into not coveting a neighbor’s spouse as the Ninth Word and not coveting a neighbor’s possessions as the Tenth Word. Anglican, Orthodox, and Reformed Christians keep all that coveting together as the Tenth Word and count not having other gods as the First Word and not making idols as the Second Word. Got that?

So counting to ten can be more difficult than we often imagine! Back in 2006, Lynn Westmoreland, who’s a member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia, co-sponsored a bill that would have declared the Ten Commandments to be “fundamental principles” and “the cornerstones of a fair and just society” and also would have required them to be clearly displayed in the United States Capitol. He believed people needed “to understand and to respect” these commandments. But when Westmorland was interviewed about this, he stumbled when he was asked,

What are the Ten Commandments?[3]

“Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Ummmmm.” And then he admitted, “I can’t name them all.”[4] Now to be fair, as my wife told me, that’s like asking Americans to name the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White. You might come up with Sleepy, Bashful, and Sneezy, while completely unable to recall Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, and Doc.

The issue with Westmoreland wasn’t the fact that he stumbled when he was asked to list the commandments. After all, there are different lists. Rather, it was the sanctimonious way he wanted to impose this on everyone without fully embracing it himself. And make no mistake about it, these ten words are spoken directly to Jews and, by extension, to Christians who accept the Hebrew Bible. They presume a redeemed and worshiping community like the one that surrounds us right now.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That First Word in the Jewish reckoning isn’t a commandment at all. Rather, it’s a “statement of who God is and what God has already done for Israel.”[5] That one sentence really summarizes most of the Old Testament — using God’s revealed name, “I am Yahweh your God,” and reminding us of that God’s liberating actions, which are not merely anchored in the past but are a continuing reality in the lives of God’s people from generation to generation, including our own.

It’s easy to miss the plain reading of the text that God didn’t just bring those people from long ago out of the land of Egypt, God brought you . . . and me out of the land of Egypt. God brought us out of bondage. As Christians, we might say with the late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”[6] This God brings life out of death, good out of evil, and sets us free. Each of us needs to be set free from something.

Occasionally we get to see that deliverance in dramatic ways in the world around us. I’m grateful, for example, that people in the 1860s saw the end of the institution of slavery throughout the United States and that people in the 1960s witnessed the Civil Rights Movement. America’s original sin was enshrined in the words of the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person. And I hope the shadows of that, which linger in our own time, will one day be dispelled by the light of God’s love — the same love that we have seen in the face of Jesus Christ, who healed the afflicted and, from the cross, forgave his tormentors. Those in bondage to hatred aren’t really free, even if they seem to be.

But I know that even if a miraculous shift like that happens in our society while I’m still on this earth, the dissonance between my personal life and the words of the Decalogue will remain and never go away. That’s part of living, breathing, and being human. That’s part of knowing that we need to be forgiven and embraced and loved. And it’s important for me, spiritually, to listen for that dissonance, even if I’ve been taught not to hear it or the people around me don’t want me to acknowledge it.

I thought about that while reading Larry Parsley’s review of the novel Godric, which was written by Frederick Buechner. The book takes its title from the name of the story’s main character who observes that “nothing human’s not a broth of false and true.” Parsley says that “Godric’s early life breaks most of the Ten Commandments.” Eventually, however, he settles into the life of a Christian hermit whom people, for whatever reason, seek out for healing. And this is how Parsley’s review ends:

In Godric’s latter days, an obsequious monk named Reginald of Durham is dispatched to write Godric’s hagiography. As Reginald tries to pretty up the often ugly past of his subject, he justifies himself: “. . . for the sake of him who is himself the Truth, I leave some small truths out.” But Godric opposes the literary airbrushing techniques of Reginald at every turn. When Reginald tries to tell Godric his name is Saxon for “God reigns,” Godric corrects him and says his name literally means “God’s wreck.”

Over the course of reading this book, I was struck by my deep and persistent temptation to serve as my own Reginald, to tell stories of my life in such a way that the ugly parts are excised and the good parts are magnified. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I, too, am “God’s wreck.” Thankfully, though, I am God’s. And sometimes, God even moves through me . . .[7]

I don’t know about you, but I love the oddly comforting image of being God’s wreck. That’s something I share with my great, great, great grandfather and why it’s o.k. to talk about his life not as I wish it to be but as it really was. It’s o.k. for me to be honest with God about my own life too. God hears the dissonance, even the parts that I do not, taking those notes and composing something new that’s beautiful and eternal.

And that’s the invitation each one of us has received today — to bring our true selves to this Table, to be fed here, to be loved here, to be forgiven here, knowing that God will one day right all wrongs, those done not only to us but also by us. This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9 (Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST I also didn’t realize until last month that the same dissonance is present in the history of my alma mater, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Founded in 1834 to educate Baptist laity and men entering the ordained ministry, and named Wake Forest College in 1838, it was originally located near Raleigh in the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. According to Twitter’s @WFUHistory, which highlights the six-volume History of Wake Forest College:

In 1860 Wake Forest was given the estate of Mr. John Blount for sale, which they sold for $12,153.19 Confederate dollars. All the money was invested in Confederate bonds, which were worth nothing by the time the college reopened in 1865. Of this $12,15319 over $10,000 came from the sale of Mr. Blount’s [16] slaves by The Board of Trustee’s Treasurer, Mr. J. S. Purefoy. The money from his estate was to be part of the college’s endowment.

BACK TO POST Bob Allen, “Baptist Congressman Can’t Name Ten Commandments,” Ethics Daily, June 22, 2006.

BACK TO POST Allen.

BACK TO POST William Johnstone, Exodus 20-40, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2014) 23.

BACK TO POST Robert Jenson, quoted by Stanley Hauerwas in “How to write a theological sentence,” ABC Religion & Ethics, September 26, 2013.

BACK TO POST Larry Parsley, “‘A Broth of False and True’: Frederick Buechner’s Godric,” Mockingbird, February 28, 2018.

Stories of Life and Death for Sept. 11

Here’s what I said on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which fell on a Sunday that year:

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 19, September 11, 2011

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:7-8)

For many of us, those words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans bring to mind the opening sentences of the burial liturgy. Perhaps you’ve been to a funeral in this church and heard them spoken by a priest as one of the saints who has died is accompanied on the last part of a pilgrimage — a lifelong journey toward God. Those words remind us that we are the Lord’s possession no matter what happens to us in life or in death. It seems appropriate, therefore, to contemplate that reality on this tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that forever changed us as Americans.

Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago? People stopped the ordinary activities of daily life to watch the news reports about those awful events. We watched them over and over again. Throughout the country, others were doing the same thing, experiencing the same emotions, and fearing for the safety of family and friends. For weeks churches overflowed with those who needed community and who had promised themselves that the most important things — their loved ones, their neighborhoods, and the grace that binds us together — would thereafter be the main focus of their attention.

As this solemn anniversary drew near, more than a few of us shared a very different kind of experience with friends and strangers. This one was a wonderful, almost magical event. It caught me off guard the way that grace-filled moments often do.

Mark Moller and Julia Gutz Moller are members of St. Stephen’s and have been waiting to adopt a child. Quite suddenly, that moment arrived and necessitated a road trip to Montana. Through the power of social media, a lot of us were able to follow this adventure online via Facebook as Mark posted status updates along the way. More and more people started making comments and offering prayers and describing their own tears of joy as all of this was actually happening. Several of the hotel’s staff members even remained in the lobby after the end of their shift on Friday night to witness these new parents welcome a tiny baby and name her Anna.

Both of these stories, one about death and the other about life, have a kind of power to concentrate the mind and cause most of us, as we think about our loved ones and about the dignity of every human being, to move in the direction of love. Both of them tell us that life is a precious gift that’s fragile. They make us want to focus on the most important things.

And yet the will to do so isn’t as strong as we often imagine it to be. Over time that resolve gradually fades away. Forgetfulness seems to be built into our DNA. So we need reminders of God’s grace in our day to day experiences.

That’s why baby Anna’s trip home to Minnesota won’t be her most important journey this year. She’ll soon undertake another one that begins at the baptismal font — the same font that confronted you as you entered the front doors of the church. That stone font hasn’t been used for years and years. Now it’s been moved to the center of things, where it belongs, and we’re going to use that font for the purpose for which it was created.

There baby Anna will be bathed in the waters of grace and marked as Christ’s own forever. There her parents and the rest of us will promise to remind her of the fact that she belongs to God and that the Holy Spirit is present in every act of love and every step of her pilgrimage home to God.

This is a photograph of Anna’s baptism on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2011. 

Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul describes this relationship with Christ that we have together as a community of the baptized:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.[1]

As you leave today, take a closer look at the outer rim of our “new” old font.  There are eight sides.  It’s octagonal.  That’s not a randomly chosen style.  The symbolism of that shape  goes back to early Christianity and hearkens back to the beginning, to Genesis.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The creation story then unfolds in the narrative over a period of six days.  On the seventh day, God rested.  On the eighth day, which is how early Christians described the resurrection of Jesus, God re-created the world. And it is through the waters of baptism that we enter into that new creation.

So, each time that you walk past that stone font, remember that you belong to God, too, and that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life and in our life together.

During my first summer at St. Stephen’s, my father-in-law and I attended, as we do most years, the Washington Island Forum in Wisconsin. The speaker was Tom Long, a seminary professor from Emory University. He reminded us that every Christian can share memories of God’s presence and that congregations need to hear these stories and celebrate them.

He told us about a young woman whose heartfelt words exemplified this. She was more graceful as a professional dancer than as a public speaker. But she shared one of these memories with a group from her church — her family in Christ:

She reminded [them] that she was raised in that particular church. She described the sanctuary, including the baptismal font, and she said that she was baptized as an infant right in that very font. She did not remember this, of course, but she told [them] that her father was very proud of that moment and that when she was a little girl, he would often tell her of the Sunday that she was baptized. He would describe the baptismal dress that she wore, he would remember what hymns were sung and what the minister had said in the sermon, and he always ended the story by clapping his hands together and exclaiming, “Oh, sweetheart, the Holy Spirit was in the church that day!”[2]

Her father would tell her that story over and over again. Yet something puzzled her about it. She wondered where the Holy Spirit really was in the church. Where could she find it? As a child, she thought it might be hiding in the building’s nooks and crannies. This is how Tom Long remembers the rest of her testimony of faith:

[S]he paused for a moment, and everybody in the room leaned forward to hear what she would say next. “As many of you know,” she continued, “I lost both of my parents to cancer in the same week, a terrible week, last winter. During that awful week, on a dark Wednesday afternoon, I was driving home from visiting my parents in the hospital, and I was passing by the church. I felt an intense need to pray, and so I came into the church and sat in one of the back pews and began to pray. The church was dark, and in the shadows, I prayed and poured out my grief to God, and cried from the bottom of my heart. A member of the church . . . was in the kitchen preparing a meal for a church meeting, and she saw me praying and knew what was happening in my life. She took off her apron, came and sat beside me in the pew, held my hand, and prayed with me. “It was then,” the young woman said, “that I knew where the Holy Spirit was in this church.”[3]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 6:3-5

BACK TO POST Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004) 127. This is the written version of the same story that he shared at the 2007 Washington Island Forum.

BACK TO POST Long 127-128.

Harvey’s Wrath & The Problem of Evil

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 17, September 3, 2017

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:9-13)

I love those beautiful words from the 12th chapter of Romans. And this community of faith has embodied them in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. You have embodied what it means to love one another, to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers. You have been patient in suffering. You have persevered in prayer. And as that passage goes on to say, you’ve shown what it is to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep.”[1]

You’ve turned to God, although that surely hasn’t been easy for everyone. Even an elderly Christian who showed no fear as she was rescued from rising floodwaters inside a nursing home concluded her statement to The Washington Post by saying, somewhat ambiguously, “God promised he’d never do this again.”[2]

Certain things unfold in the history of the world or in our own personal experiences that cause doubts not only about God’s goodness but also about God’s very existence. And those who rush to God’s defense often make matters worse with hurtful words of false comfort. At times they dishonor God’s holy name more than ecclesiastical outlaws who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering.

That kind of rage is often felt in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the human misery that we’ve seen in the wake of the storm here in Houston or recent news out of central Nigeria, where more than 100,000 people have been displaced because of flooding.[3] However, just like hurricanes and rains that seem like they will never come to an end, humanity itself belongs to the natural order. Our actions that allow others to suffer raise the same kinds of questions as natural disasters.[4] Why is this happening? How can this be? And, ultimately, where is God?

Lt. Jack Harvey of the Houston Police Department is also a member of Palmer
Memorial Episcopal Church and can be see in this video holding a small boy.

Whether looking in the face of nature’s violence, or sins of omission that make bad situations worse, or the flood of human evil that spreads inhumanity in every generation — in all these things people want to know where God is. And, in some cases, they want to know if God is.

But the truth is that it doesn’t take rising floodwaters to float such a question to the surface. Suffering that demands a response can be found all around us, all the time. Neglected children live unseen in many communities, including ours. Maybe friends we want to rescue have made decisions that place them beyond our reach. Battles with disease might be taking place within our own bodies. And all of us will face a time when someone we love becomes lost in the shadow of death.

These experiences compel us to wrestle with God like Jacob, who struggled until daybreak at the River Jabbok.[5] They force us to cry out and watch. And what we do next might make all the difference in the world for ourselves and for those whom God has entrusted to our care.

David Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian with some helpful thoughts about this. He’s the author of a book entitled The Doors of Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Although written as a reflection on the tragic deaths of more than 225,000 people in Southeast Asia at the end of 2004, his reflections are just as important today in the midst of thinking about the disturbing headlines about Hurricane Harvey in the media, the destruction that we’ve seen with our own eyes, or whatever trials we might be facing ourselves. Surely he is right to suggest that we should all remain silent at first.

Acting in generosity as soon as possible is one thing. And without question we ought to stand close to those suffering the experience of Good Friday. Palmers have done both of those things in remarkable ways, for friends and strangers alike, over the last week. You’ve helped one another clean up flooded homes, brought food to those who’ve needed a good meal, and cried together. But it’s almost blasphemous to seek out a greater meaning for it all before weeping with those who mourn.[6]

The storm that killed those whose bodies have completely filled the city morgue, and whom we’ll remember in our prayers today, isn’t divine retribution. And it isn’t part of some divine plan, as a few streams of Christian theology might suggest, in which someone’s pain is required to show forth the glory of God. We aren’t better people because tragedy of one kind or another didn’t befall us. And we most certainly aren’t better Christians when we stand at a distance and affirm that “everything happens for a reason.”

Reflecting upon that kind of response in the face of a father who lost four of his five children in the tsunami, David Hart states the obvious:

Most of us would have the good sense to be ashamed to speak such words . . . And this should tell us something. For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them . . .[7]

At the center of our faith stands the cross. So it should come as no surprise that right in the middle of the Nicene Creed we declare that Jesus Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate . . . suffered death and was buried.”

This statement anchors our faith not only in the pages of history but also in every experience of God-forsakenness. It brings our faith into the suffering of the world, where God himself has led the way. Perhaps to the surprise of many, we stand beside those who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering. That’s because what they protest isn’t God but things that are the enemy of God.

In one of his less familiar stories, J.R.R. Tolkien retells the beginning of all things at Creation.[8] And he includes a helpful image, I think, about the relationship between divine providence and the chaos we encounter loose throughout the world, whether we’re driving down the street of a neighborhood that was flooded or just looking at the hidden messes in our own lives. It reminds me of the final words of our reading from Romans about “[overcoming] evil with good,” which we’ve witnessed countless times in response to the natural evil of Harvey’s wrath.[9]

In the literary imagination of Tolkien, God is represented by Eru, also known as Iluvatar. And Iluvatar first created the Ainur, the Holy Ones, who are like the host of heaven. Iluvatar taught them about music and was very pleased as they began to sing. The more they listened to each other, the more they began to understand one another and to sing in harmony. Iluvatar then spoke to them about a great theme that would bring forth Great Music. And so it did. This Great Music spilled out into the Void, making it no longer a void.

But one of the Ainur, who had spent too much time alone in the void places before the Great Music, wanted to increase the importance of his own part. And these thoughts became part of his music, disrupting the harmony that surrounded Iluvatar. As Tolkien describes it: “the melodies . . . foundered in a sea of turbulent sound . . . a raging storm as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.”

And this is where Tolkien provides a helpful way to think about God’s interaction with the world. Iluvatar arose, smiled, and lifted up his left hand. A new theme with its own beauty evolved in the midst of the storm, but the discord grew more violent than before. So Iluvatar arose with a stern countenance and lifted up his right hand. Yet another theme arose above the confusion. The music without harmony could not overtake the other. In fact, in the words of Tolkien, “its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”

But the strife continued and rippled out into the silences that had never been disturbed. For a third time, Iluvatar arose and “his face was terrible to behold.” Iluvatar raised up both hands. He brought forth a single chord “deeper than the Abyss” and “higher than the Firmament.” Suddenly . . . the Music came to an end.

Iluvatar explained that it was impossible to destroy the Music. Anyone who attempted to do so would become another instrument in creating things yet more wonderful. Finally, Iluvatar took the Ainur into the Void and said, “Behold your Music!” And before them appeared a new World.

For me, that’s a helpful way to think about not only the world as it is but also the new creation that awaits us. In Tolkien’s story, God isn’t the source of discord — the chaos in the world and within us. And God is not pleased with such freedom abused. Yet God is able to create anew, bringing good out of evil and the chaos to an end.

For those who prefer less indirect speech about such weighty matters, I turn again to the words of David Hart. His final thought leaves nothing more to be said:

God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable . . . he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and . . . rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”[10]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 12:15.

BACK TO POST Kevin Sulliavan, Arelis R. Hernández, and David A. Fahrenthold, “At least 22 confirmed dead as Harvey pivots toward Louisiana,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2017.

BACK TO POST Associated Press, “More than 100,000 displaced by flooding in central Nigeria,” The Washington Post, September 1, 2017.

BACK TO POST David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 37.

BACK TO POST Genesis 32:22-32.

BACK TO POST Hart 6.

BACK TO POST Hart 100.

BACK TO POST J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, second edition, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York: Ballantine, 1999) 3-12. The quotes and the language that I adapted for the retelling of this story are taken from here.

BACK TO POST Romans 9:21.

10 BACK TO POST Hart 104.

The Story of Jonathan Daniels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

BACK TO POST Luke 4:18-19

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

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

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

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

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:14, 16-17

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

BACK TO POST Larry Benaquist and Bill Sullivan

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

The Akedah and the Godfather of Gloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Cohen sings:

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

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

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

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

AMEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 BACK TO POST Davis.

11 BACK TO POST Zelermyer.

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

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

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

13 BACK TO POST Isaiah 42:3.

The Longest and Darkest of Nights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

polesouthernrotation

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

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

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

AMEN

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

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

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

BACK TO POST Matthew 1:19.

BACK TO POST Matthew 1:20.

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