David’s Last Words

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

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

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

Me mother did it.[2]

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

%22Refuses to Talk%22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

You shall not die.[9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you anyway.

No, scratch that. God will say,

I love you.

Period. This I believe.

AMEN

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

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

BACK TO POST Glass.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:1-2.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:3-4.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:5.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 7:16.

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

BACK TO POST II Samuel 19:23.

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

11 BACK TO POST Psalm 132:13.

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

13 BACK TO POST Luke 23:34 (KJV).

Camels Through the Eyes of Needles

Camels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

BACK TO POST Mark 10:23.

BACK TO POST Mark 10:24-25.

BACK TO POST Mark 10:17.

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

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

“Let the words of my mouth . . .”

%22Let the words of my mouth%22

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 21, September 27, 2015

“Let the words of my mouth . . . be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” Amen.

On the evening of January 7, 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords wrote an email to an old friend. Giffords, a Democrat in Arizona, was writing to Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State, Trey Grayson. Earlier that day, it had been announced that Grayson would be resigning to become the Director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Giffords congratulated her friend on this wonderful news and hoped that, after he got settled there, she could talk with him about working together because “we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”[1]

The very next morning, at a constituent meeting in the parking lot of a supermarket in suburban Tucson, Giffords was shot through the head at point-blank range. Eighteen others were also shot by the same gunman, and six of them died, including a 9 year-old-girl.[2] Giffords survived with some permanent physical limitations but eventually resigned her seat in Congress to focus on her long-term recovery.

Many of you will probably recall that the commentary swirling around the media like a hurricane soon made a direct connection between those killings and militant political rhetoric. On the one hand, it was unfair to connect those dots too quickly in the absence of facts about this horrifying example of gun violence. But I do think it’s appropriate, even necessary, for Christians to reflect on the ways that our speech can and does have an effect on the people around us. I think about that daily as someone who tries, however imperfectly, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

In the 15th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus gathers a crowd and says to them,

Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.[3]

It’s not hard to see, therefore, that Christians have a particular obligation to use words carefully, regardless of how others might choose to use them recklessly.

“How do we use language? In many ways,” notes preaching professor Tom Long:

. . . to tell jokes, to cry out in loneliness, to calculate the speed of light, to gossip about a neighbor, to speak of love, to sing joyfully, to curse our back luck, to call somebody else a hurtful name, to cheat people out of what is rightfully theirs, to establish justice, to comfort someone in distress, to declare war, and to proclaim peace. We have an almost infinite capacity to use words for good or ill, but Christians believe that we are truly human only when we use words like Jesus used them: to bless and not to curse, to build up and not to tear down, to point to the mystery of God pervading all of life and not to refer only, always, and incessantly to ourselves. What we want is to do nothing less than the psalmist’s plea, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).[4]

Christian ethicist and native-Texan Stanley Hauerwas loves language, including more than a little salty language. I’m excited about the fact that he’ll be one of the main speakers next month at the clergy conference for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. And this is what he has to say about our use of words as people of faith:

Christians are . . . committed to plain speech. We seek to say no more or no less than what needs to be said. Speech so disciplined is not easily attained. Too often we want to use the gift of speech as a weapon, often a very subtle weapon, to establish our superiority. To learn to speak truthfully to one another requires that we learn to speak truthfully to God, that is, we must learn to pray. That is why the Psalms are the great prayer book of the church because they teach us to pray without pretension. The Psalms allow us to rage against God and in our rage discover God’s refusal to abandon us.

The Psalms, moreover, train us to speak truthfully because they force us to acknowledge our sins or at least to have our sins revealed. Jesus is God’s psalm . . .[5]

Throughout this week, the image of Jesus as God’s psalm, revealing our sins and allowing us — through the scandalous forgiveness of the cross — to speak truthfully, has remained with me as a welcome companion in this broken world. Thus the quote from the final verse of Psalm 19 at the beginning of this sermon, words that were also appointed to be read this morning in worship:

Let the words of my mouth . . . be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.[6]

That seems like the right introduction to speak from the pulpit and, quite frankly, to speak from anywhere else. It’s not just a prayer for members of the clergy to use for ceremonial purposes to adorn things like a flower arrangement. It’s a beautiful and necessary prayer for all of us — no matter who we are, no matter where we are.

Several years ago there was a public conversation with Stanley Hauerwas on “Being a Christian in Today’s World” that was sponsored by the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. The conversation was led by the Rev. David Crabtree, a local news anchor in Raleigh, North Carolina, who’s also a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Here’s how he wrote about what happened after they had talked about everything that he’d expected to talk about on that particular evening:

Then the hammer fell. As I sat, spellbound and favored to be directing the queries for the evening, this astute servant of God looked me squarely in the eyes. His countenance was pleasant but stern. His voice soft yet solid. His message direct and piercing: “David, if you really want to live as a Christian in today’s world . . . never lie . . . never lie.”

After that, I don’t remember what was spoken by either of us in the closing comments of the conversation. Those two words kept reverberating. Why? We’re taught that lesson as early as we can begin to process right from wrong. But my ears heard it differently this time. “Never lie.” Those two words touched me deeply in a way I never expected.

Stanley Hauerwas has become a dear and trusted friend. We have talked numerous times since then of the challenge of those two words. “You know David, sometimes to avoid lying, you just have to be quiet,” he says. “It’s amazing what you can hear in the quietness.”[7]

I don’t know about you, but I look forward to the moments of silence that follow the sermon and the invitation to confession in the liturgy here at Palmer. They are moments of hesitation before we feebly attempt to speak the truth about God and about ourselves. They are also moments of holiness, pregnant with the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is evident in those moments of truth that God’s love, which is stronger than death, can set us free to come to this Table at peace, reconciled with our sisters and brothers in Christ, forgiven by God and forgiving of others.

So today embrace the words of Psalm 19 as your words too. Regardless of what the politicians and the pundits and the people around you are screaming at full volume, let the words of your mouth — uttered carefully, thoughtfully, and truthfully — be acceptable in the sight of the Lord, your strength and your redeemer.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Eric Lach, “Giffords Sent Email on Eve of Shooting Calling for Toned Down Rhetoric,” Talking Points Memo, January 10, 2011.

BACK TO POST Sam Dolnick and Marc Lacey, “Tuscan Pauses in Grief for the Youngest Victim,” New York Times, January 13, 2011.

BACK TO POST Matthew 15:10-11.

BACK TO POST Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004) 5.

BACK TO POST Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) 71.

BACK TO POST Psalm 19:14.

BACK TO POST David Crabtree, “Never Lie,” Perspectives 2010-2011 (Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina) 3.

First Anniversary as Palmer’s “Number 6”

One year ago tonight, during the Celebration of a New Ministry, I signed the original parish register for Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, a rather imposing book that goes back to 1929, as its Sixth Rector. I did so in the presence of the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of Texas, and family and friends and members of the congregation. I wrote about that experience in a post titled “Number 6 Signs In,” which is worth taking a moment to read if for no other reason than to watch the opening sequence from the 1960s British TV series called “The Prisoner.”

Parish Register 2

Our guest preacher for that occasion was the Rev. John Maxwell Kerr, who retired at the end of last year as the Episcopal Chaplain to the faculty, students, and staff at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Father Kerr viewed his ministry there as encompassing everyone, not just Episcopalians or students. For his service to that community and “loving spirit” toward those of faith and non-faith alike, Father Kerr received the Sullivan Award at the 2014 Commencement.

Born in Scotland, Father Kerr is a graduate of the Universities of Toronto, Leeds, and Nottingham. After graduation, he served a Short Service Commission in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Flying Officer. He has taught chemistry, physics, logic, and theology in various academic settings in the United Kingdom and the United States.

He was ordained Deacon and Priest in Oxford Diocese in the Church of England 38 years ago, serving his title as Curate to the Rector and Queen’s Chaplain in Windsor in Oxford Diocese. Father Kerr was one of the founders and second Warden of the Society of Ordained Scientists. He is an active member of the North American Province of the Society. He also has a great sense of humor as evidenced by this photograph at the Fabergé exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Kerr Photo

Here is what he had to say at my official institution as the parish’s Sixth Rector:

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend John Maxwell Kerr, BASc, MSc, PhD, DipTh
The Celebration of a New Ministry, September 30, 2014

Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” (John 15:16)

It is, it really is, the greatest possible privilege to have been invited here to preach this evening.

Palmer Memorial Church has called the wise and energetic Neil Willard to be your new Rector: how very astute of you!

The church called, and Neil accepted, and with very considerable joy. But thanks be to God, somewhat earlier in his life, our Lord Jesus Christ chose Neil and he responded. Our Lord appointed Neil that he should go, spatially, from North Carolina, to South Carolina, to Virginia, to Minneapolis, and now to what is called in these here parts, “the Great State of Texas.”

So what wisdom might we need to hear and take to heart this evening?

First:

Christ will make you into the sort of priest that Christ is calling you to be.

Christ chooses us and, in anybody’s ministry new or old, Christ leads us and accompanies us every step of the way, thanks be to God, or nothing we might try to do could possibly abide or bear fruit.

Christ will make you into the sort of priest that Christ is calling you to be.

But how are we to know?

Ask. Question. Enquire. Scrutinize. Examine. Cross-examine. And then listen. Just Listen. To God. To the people. To children.

This was said to me just before my ordination in Oxford all those years ago, by a Brother of the Society of St John the Evangelist. It remains true for Bishop Doyle, and it is true for Neil. And it’s true for all the other diocesan clergy who are here. Christ will make you into the sort of priest, or deacon, Christ is calling you to be. Christ chooses us, not the other way ‘round, as we heard in St John’s Gospel, and then Christ tells us to go, to go to the place to which our Lord will call us and set us to work at being spiritually-fruitful ministers. But being called is not instant one-stop shopping, in fact it is rather more like becoming married.

Ministry is like becoming married. In marriage, there’s a celebration of a new relationship, an exchange of rings, a certificate (suitable for framing). But nobody just “gets married,” as if the wedding ceremony is the beginning and the end of it: many of us know better. It is a faithful life-long journey together and it starts long before that sacramental celebration of a new relationship in church. Our legacy drawn from the marriages of our parents and grandparents, is the inheritance we bring to marriage, before a couple has even met. But in marriage, God takes these years of preparation and makes something entirely new.

The same is true with New Ministry.

Letter of Institution

Neil has been in the wings preparing for fulfilling God’s call to serve Christ here for all his life. Not explicitly but nevertheless in the providence of God becoming the priest Christ is calling him to be here, in this place. After this ceremony in church, it will take time: there will follow the task of growing into the covenant of becoming the Church Christ is calling you to be together.

CALL. COMMUNITY.

I find that we celebrate a new ministry in the same spirit of apprehension and hope and joy as we do a new marriage. But there is this: Neil, we are assured that Christ is calling you to enter this covenant with your people in your new ministry in this place. And Christ says, keep on going!

Well, suppose you are not a minister, new or old, not married. What then? What’s this got to do with you? Exactly the same principle holds for the Vestry of Palmer Memorial Church. And it holds for this congregation: we all are called to become, over time, in a covenant of faith and love, the people of God Christ is calling us to be.

We are celebrating a new ministry for Neil among you tonight. It will be a new and renewed ministry tomorrow morning, and new every day after that. God says,

Behold, I make all things new.

And God, being Church of England, says it just like that.

CALL. COMMUNITY. TIME.

Now comes the interesting bit. We priests may, up to a point, choose the place where we may exercise our ministry: we may choose a parish or be chosen by a parish, and move about in space from diocese to diocese, from church to church, but what we are not free to choose is the unique time in which we are called to serve our Lord. Our God is the creator of time and space: the historical epoch with its unique challenges and threats and yes, moral issues in which we are born and live and have our being, is not ours to choose. Cometh the hour, cometh the man (or woman), we trust. We cannot choose that hour: time is God’s independent variable and time is the fire in which we all burn.

Out there on Highway 59, we are free to choose to speed up (except in rush hour), or slow down, or to overtake another car, or to slip off onto an exit ramp.

BUT.

We move into God’s future at one second per second. Never faster than anyone else, never slower: we may never stop. We move into God’s future at exactly one second per second.

Christ calls us to become his people in holy covenant, a church community. That’s what Christ is creating here, this evening. But our common growth into fruition takes time. Isn’t that a breath-taking thought? The fresh, exciting wind from God’s future is already blowing in our faces, full of strange and wonderful fragrances. God’s future: that’s where we are all going. All must go: there is no turning back. It’s probably best not to walk into God’s future looking backwards into the dusty past.

Now it’s time to go forward and get down to work! New Ministry, like Old Ministry, is worth celebrating tonight. It will still be worth celebrating, together, in the weeks and months and years to come, even as it lurches and swoops and soars and goes into a spin and is, at times, frankly all a bit much. We are all in it for the long haul. Christ tells us, calls us, appoints us to go wherever we go in space: but Christ calls us to go where we must in time: forward.

Although Neil’s name is on the Order of Service, this celebration is for a shared ministry in the Spirit. Therefore, there is one more matter to address.

CALL. COMMUNITY. TIME. And now, ETERNITY.

Neil’s call to this ministry has been affirmed by Bishop Doyle and by the Vestry. But just before Neil saddles up and gallops off in all directions at once, as you might like him to do, we need to pause.

Terribly difficult, this galloping off in all directions at once, by the way. Tried it myself once. Complete disaster.

That’s why I would just like to pass along a piece of the best advice I have ever been given.

By an Anglican nun: a Mother Superior in fact, the formidable Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford.

I was a frantically-busy new priest but also trying to make a success of a new academic appointment as a Professor. So, I showed up at the Convent exhausted, and asked MMC to help me with prayer.

So what did Mother Mary Clare have to offer? What wise words did she say? What might everybody here need to hear her say before life gets too busy in all this new ministry?

She looked at me and smiled, as Mothers Superior do, and said,

You know what you need to do, Kerr? You need just to go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God.

What holy wisdom. Christ is calling us to sabbath rest too: no sabbath rest, no bearing fruit that will abide. When it all becomes too much, remember Mother Mary Clare, and go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God.

Christ will make you, Neil, into the priest Christ is calling you to be and is now and always will be doing so. Any time you need to remember what that should feel like, go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God. You’ll find Christ waiting for you there. Such is the blessing of Eternity.

CALL. COMMUNITY. TIME. ETERNITY.

God bless us all.

AMEN

Learning to Pray in Glorious Technicolor

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 23, 2015

“Pray in the Spirit at all times . . . and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:18)

photo-3I love to come into this church when the sunlight is streaming through these windows, illuminating and intensifying the colors of the stained glass. It’s the vivid red and blue colors that capture my attention. But you’ll notice that it’s mostly the blue stained glass that dominates these scenes. That’s what makes them come alive and ignite our imaginations.

Several years ago I learned something about that color in particular that I’m still trying to comprehend. It turns out that “seeing” blue in the world — thinking about it and talking about it — is something that I take for granted, and so do you. As language evolves in a culture and moves beyond words for black and white, red is without exception the first prismatic color to be named and added to the vocabulary. It’s not only the color of blood but also the easiest color for human beings to create artificially and, therefore, to use in art and design.

419fkMJSuYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Not so with blue. It’s added much later, if at all, as a language grows and expands. It’s also rare in nature and very difficult to produce. These insights come from Guy Deutscher’s Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. One of the fascinating stories in that book is about William Gladstone in 1858, at the age of forty-nine, a decade before he would become the prime minister of Great Britain. That’s when his more than seventeen hundred page, three volume study of the poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey was published.

Gladstone was a man of deep faith for whom the words of Homer, the famous poet of ancient Greece, were the next best thing to the words of the Bible. At the end of his last volume, there’s an odd chapter called “Homer’s perception and use of color.” There Gladstone notes the curious fact that Homer, who was only blind according to legends, refers to the wine-dark sea and violet wool and green honey. But here’s the strangest part. Gladstone also notes that something is missing. He writes that:

Homer had before him the most perfect example of blue. Yet he never once so describes the sky. His sky is starry, or broad, or great, or iron, or copper; but it is never blue.[1]

Blue is also missing in other ancient poetry. In the fall of 1867, an Orthodox Jew and philologist named Lazarus Geiger addressed a gathering of natural scientists in Frankfurt, Germany. He described at one point a remarkable fact about poems from ancient India in Vedic Sanskrit. Listen to one of the things he noticed about them:

These hymns of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, cloud and lightening, the air and the ether, all of these are unfolded before us over and over again, in splendor and vivid fullness. But there is only one thing that no one would ever learn from those ancient songs who did not already know it, and that is that the sky is blue.[2]

You and I, and nearly everyone else we know, assume that across the centuries and throughout the world there’s a timeless question a child will eventually ask a parent:

Daddy, Daddy, DA-DEEEEE!

(That’s how our oldest son used to introduce something very, very important.)

A_Paramount_Picture_Color_by_TechnicolorDaddy?

Yes, Rowan, I’m listening.

Well, umm, why is the sky blue?

 

Rowan could ask a question like that because he had been given the words to do so. But it turns out that in many cultures, past and present, blue is merely a shade of black or, more commonly, a shade of green. So that question about the color of the sky isn’t as obvious as we imagine it to be. We learn to talk about color in the world, and that affects the way we see the world and the way we experience it. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a real sense in which you don’t “see” blue until you have a word for it.

A few minutes ago we heard a passage read from Ephesians, an ancient letter in the New Testament. It doesn’t talk about the color blue or any other color of the rainbow. But, like Homer, it does use language in an odd way that might be confusing. This passage borrows an image — the warrior garb of a Roman soldier — that would have been very familiar to the people who first heard these words in the first century. Ephesians uses that image as a metaphor for the Christian life in the midst of a hostile world. It’s an ironic use of language in which the hostility of the world is met with the gospel of peace.

We’re able to do this as Christians, not in the power of the soldier’s master, the Roman Emperor, but in the power of our master, the Lord Jesus Christ. One uses force to maintain a human empire, while the other uses love to extend a divine kingdom. And this is where we come to learn the language whose words brightly color that kingdom. One of the most important things we’re asked to do, through the strength of Christ’s presence, is to pray. We are to pray constantly, not only for ourselves but for “all the saints,” for all of you here today, for sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world. Learning to pray in glorious Technicolor, however, doesn’t always happen in the life of a Christian the way that we think it does.

%22Color by Technicolor%22One night in the middle of a very cold Minnesota winter, when Rowan was three years old, my wife and I were sitting in the room next to his bedroom, and we heard him recite the Lord’s Prayer. Now I know what you’re thinking: He’s the son of a priest, so what’s the big deal about the fact that he knew the words of the Lord’s Prayer. The big deal is the fact that, at the time, we hadn’t taught him those words. He learned them in the pews of my last church, while supposedly “not paying attention” in worship. That’s where he overheard the language of love and began to see the world differently, in its full color. Now he and his little brother overhear that same language of love together in these pews. It will change the way they see things.

%22Not Paying Attention%22

Here’s how the pastor and poet Eugene Peterson explains that. He writes:

Unselfconsciously we acquire fluency in our mother tongue long before we enter a school, simply by being talked to and talking with our parents and siblings and the neighborhood children. When we keep company with Moses and his stories, David and his psalms, the preaching of Isaiah, our Lord himself in his parables and prayers, pastors and priests who lead us in the church’s common worship, singing hymns with Wesley and Watts, we are praying and learning to pray even when we aren’t aware of it.

. . . We are in a community, these baptized men and women, “the saints” whose names we know, brothers and sisters in Christ. Human relationships require alert and persevering maintenance. Begin with these saints, the people that in Christ you have the most in common with, and then move outwards. That many of them don’t behave or look the way we think saints should is no concern of ours. They are saints by virtue of the way God looks on and treats them.[3]

And that’s what happens here at Palmer as young and old alike are baptized in this font. We look on them as God looks at them. We call them saints and pray for them constantly to see in the world the brilliant colors of the glory of God. My hope is that you’ll also see in this world those those brilliant colors . . . today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST William Gladstone, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, quoted by Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Picador, 2010) 34.

BACK TO POST Lazarus Geiger, “On the Color Sense in Primitive Times and Its Evolution,” quoted by Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Picador, 2010) 42-43.

BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 267.

Dreams and the Divine Presence

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 15, August 16, 2015

The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principle high place  . . . At Gibeon, the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” (I Kings 3:4-5)

One night years ago, while I was serving on the Bishop Search Committee for the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, there was — not surprisingly — something on my mind, something that I couldn’t seem to get my head around. That probably doesn’t happen to you, but it does happen to me from time to time. Anyway, I managed to go to sleep with all of that swirling around in my head.

At about 2:00 a.m., I suddenly awoke. I didn’t get out of bed, but I did see in my mind’s eye those things that were bothering me with much greater clarity. I could somehow see down the road a bit further than before. Miraculously, I not only went back to sleep but also remembered what had come to me in the middle of night after waking up to the sound of the alarm clock.

Now where did that clarity come from? What was its source: the subconscious, the random firing of neurons, my own intellect taking advantage of a little insomnia? Do you think it might have been God speaking to me in a dream? Or is that just crazy talk? Do you ever wonder about that, about God tilling the soil of your subconscious and allowing an insight to take root there while you’re asleep?

The world most of us have created and inhabit by choice doesn’t waste time thinking about dreams and the divine presence. The last thing we want is for voices in the night to disrupt our own little worlds that we maintain and control so carefully. We want to silence them or to drown them out with our own voices. Sure, there are things that bother us now and then, things that keep us up at night. But we can figure them out on our own. The only divine intervention we think we need is a little more caffeine. “We do well in our management while we are awake,” observes the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:

. . . and we keep the light, power and control on 24/7.  Except, of course, that we must sleep. We require seasons of rest and, therefore, vulnerability. Our control flags. We become open to stirrings that we do not initiate. Such stirrings come to us in the night unbidden. Dreams address us. They invite us beyond our initiative-taking management. The ancient world and the biblical tradition knew about dreams. The ancients understood that the unbidden communication in the night opens sleepers to a world different from the one they manage during the day. The ancients dared to imagine, moreover, that this unbidden communication is one venue in which the holy purposes of God, perplexing and unreasonable as they might be, come to us.[1]

Maybe you’re willing to concede that God might be able to wiggle his way into the human psyche but only in the case of an important and pious person, a person such as King Solomon. After all, God probably has a lot on his plate. If that’s the case, if that’s what you really believe, you don’t know much about Solomon or the kinds of people in the Bible — or outside the Bible — whose lives are interrupted by the Holy One of Israel.

This morning’s reading from the First Book of Kings began just after a description of Solomon’s political alliance with the Pharaoh of Egypt. Solomon was ambitious, and marrying the daughter of Pharaoh was a quick and easy way of getting ahead in a world of military might. He had already ordered the execution of his rival brother Adonijah, the execution of Shimei to avenge his father David, and the execution of Joab who had done David’s dirty work in making sure that Uriah the Hittite wouldn’t return alive to his wife Bathsheba. Joab had fled to the altar, grabbing onto its horns and seeking sanctuary. But even that traditional, holy boundary wouldn’t be able to sheath the sword of Solomon’s vengeance. There, clinging to the altar, Joab was slain at the hands of someone doing Solomon’s dirty work.

With those three troublemakers in their graves, his father’s high priest Abiathar in exile, and an Egyptian queen, Solomon could finally make his humble religious retreat at the ancient shrine at Gibeon. This was the equivalent of visiting a historic church during a presidential campaign. Solomon would have arrived there with his own entourage — a few hundred slaves — and even a contribution to the potluck supper after worship — a thousand animals for sacrifice. And according to my old college Hebrew professor, this is how it worked:

Following the local custom, the king was to offer his sacrifices and then spend the night in the sanctuary where, if he is really the divine king anointed by heaven, he would be visited in a dream by the god of Gibeon. We can be sure that Solomon would not come out for breakfast without his vision [. . . and that] he turned on the royal charm to schmooze the Gibeonites into his royal corner: kiss a few babies, admire some second-rate architecture, and make himself as comfortable as he could in the temple of the god of Gibeon for the night. Such was the life of an Iron Age politician.[2]

Solomon had the campaign trail and political posturing all figured out, other things afterwards not so much. Most of his own subjects from the northern tribes would end up as slaves of his government. This forced labor was required to carry out Solomon’s building plans for military defenses, a royal palace with luxurious quarters for Pharaoh’s daughter, and a glorious temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Although the ends might have justified the means in the eyes of his imperial father-in-law, things fell apart, quite literally, after Solomon’s death. The kingdom he had inherited from his father David was divided into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.

So we might be tempted to view with suspicion the report from Solomon’s lips about what took place on that night many years earlier in Gibeon. He said that God appeared to him in a dream and declared that he could have anything he wanted. He said that he asked for wisdom, “a heart that hears,” and that God granted not only that but also riches and lifelong honor. Was it all just a sad example of shameless, religious sloganeering? Was it all a profane hoax?

This is what I love about the Bible. You can’t read the Bible — actually read it — and not ask these kinds of questions. That’s because the Bible:

. . . doesn’t spare Solomon from its merciless truth-telling. . . . Despite his manifest shortcomings, Solomon was a hero in the way the Bible makes heroes. Solomon was a hero because of the God of Gibeon, who, perhaps to everyone’s surprise, turned out to be none other than the LORD of Hosts. In the Bible heroes are heroes, not because they possess Superman’s strength or Batman’s courage but because God ennobles them, because God speaks to them, because God chose them. They are not heroes because of their exalted morality or goodness or mercy, their fame, their money, their patriotism or their piety. They are heroic because God enters their lives at surprising moments and honors them with the divine presence, makes their lives, indeed, impossibly important, by participating in them. Whatever jaundiced cynicism we bring to Solomon’s little retreat at Gibeon, the Bible is sure that God spoke to the king there.[3]

God made Solomon into the wise person who has been remembered in every generation down through the ages. Solomon was still a flawed human being, hence the problems that he struggled with. You and I struggle with our own problems. The good news is that God doesn’t have to wait for us to figure out those things on our own before interrupting our lives and making our lives important. That happened to Solomon in the temple at Gibeon; and it can happen to us when we least expect it.

Nearly a thousand years later, another descendant of the house of David would also carry many burdens to his bed and fall asleep. The outward marks of royalty and wealth and privilege, however, belonged to the distant past. This was the simple bed and the deep sleep of a man who worked with his hands. During the nighttime:

. . . an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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.”[4]

image

AMEN

BACK TO POST Walter Brueggemann, “Holy Intrusion: The Power of Dreams in the Bible,” in The Christian Century (July 28, 2005) 28-31.

BACK TO POST From an undated sermon by the Rev. Fred Horton, Ph.D., at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Professor Horton taught me Hebrew and Aramaic at Wake Forest University. Interestingly, we were also students together at Wake Forest University for two semesters of Akkadian, the ancient language of the Assyrian Empire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we were the only two students in that class. Professor Horton was also the first Episcopal priest that I came to know both as a mentor and a friend.

BACK TO POST Horton.

BACK TO POST Matthew 1:20-21.

 

Texas Tuesday: The Bishop Visits Palmer

The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of Texas, visited Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church last Sunday to confirm and pray for some of our youth and adults who made a public affirmation of their faith or who, having already made a public affirmation of their faith, were received into the Episcopal Church from another tradition. He also preached an interesting sermon entitled “Mother’s Day Is Complicated,” which is worth a few minutes of your time to ponder as you reflect on your relationships.

Confirmation, Spring 2015

At the end of this liturgy, having prayed for those who needed our prayers and our words of welcome, having gathered around the Lord’s Table to give thanks for it all, and having received the gift of Holy Communion, the Bishop offered a blessing that included the words of Phillips Brooks. Better known as the author of the words to the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Brooks was the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston after the Civil War before serving briefly as the Bishop of Massachusetts. He was also one of the greatest preachers in America in the 19th century. In a sermon entitled “Going up to Jerusalem,” Brooks wrote these words, the first paragraph of which Bishop Doyle adapted slightly to use as his blessing:

O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men [and women]! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks! Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come in you by the grace of God. . . .

May God let us all first see our Jerusalem and then attain it. What is that prayer but the great prayer of our Collect in the Prayer Book — that by his holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by his merciful guiding may perform the same, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Breaking Through the Glass Wall

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter V, May 3, 2015

[The Ethiopian eunuch] had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (Acts 8:27-29)

Before she retired, my mother, who has a nursing degree, worked as the office manager for four OB-GYN doctors in High Point, North Carolina. Once in a blue moon, I’d get to ride along in the car with her as she drove to work and hang out at the doctors’ office. But the most interesting part for me, each time, came on the way there. I’d put my face against the car window, anticipating something that we’d always pass by. It was the Bentley dealership on Main Street.

There, behind a facade of glass, several Bentley and Rolls Royce motor cars were guaranteed to be on full display, brightly illuminated. And even though that’s as close as I ever got to a Rolls Royce, it was still a bit of a thrill, a brief glimpse at something very much out of the ordinary for a young boy from a nearby small town.

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, Philip, who was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, has a similar experience. He wasn’t, however, walking down Main Street in High Point and oddly seeing a Rolls Royce. Rather, he was walking down a road in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza. And what he sees there on the way is a chariot, not at arms’ length, behind glass, but up close and personal. The person of power and privilege in the chariot is an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Ethiopian queen, “in charge of her entire treasury.”[1] I’ll bet his robes were rather nice, too, especially compared to what Philip was probably wearing.

This would have been like hiking along a remote dirt road in West Texas and being surprised by the sight of a fully-charged Tesla parked off to the side. And sitting inside the Tesla is someone who turns out to be not only a person of color and a sexual minority but also the personal assistant of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The whole thing is actually pretty bizarre, long before you get to the part at the end about Philip vanishing, whatever that means. It would make a strange movie on the big screen, as though you had become lost on the road to the Twilight Zone. And yet, this entire scene — all of it — is somehow directed by the Spirit, by the mysterious presence of God at work in the world around us.

Our text tells us that Philip had been sent to travel south on that road by an angel, a messenger from God. And when he sees the Ethiopian eunuch reading the words of the prophet Isaiah from a scroll, the Spirit tells Philip to go over to the chariot. He had been reading about “a lamb silent before its shearer” that was humiliated and slaughtered and denied justice.[2] Philip asks him if he understands the meaning of those words. The Ethiopian eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”[3] And that’s when Philip, perhaps to his astonishment, is invited to climb into the chariot and sit down beside this exotic stranger from a distant land.

Philip talks to him about the good news of Jesus, who died innocently at the hands of religious and political leaders before being raised from the dead and vindicated by God.  In Jesus, God suffers like we do. In Jesus, God embraces not only our suffering but us too. And then things get even weirder. While they’re traveling in the chariot through the wilderness, the Ethiopian eunuch spots something. He says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[4] Well, actually, lots of things — things that many, many people, perhaps including Philip, would have said prevent him absolutely, in the name of God, from being baptized.

Author Rachel Held Evans has made her own journey through the wilderness that has brought her into the Episcopal Church, not out of but with her evangelical identity. In her newest book Searching for Sunday, which describes that journey of faith, she reflects at one point on this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Pondering his question about baptism, she writes:

We don’t know how long that question, brimming with such childlike joy it wrenches the heart, hung vulnerable as a drop of water in the desert air. At another time in his life, Philip might have pointed to the eunuch’s ethnicity, or his anatomy, or his inability to gain access to the ceremonial baths that made a person clean. But instead, with no additional conversation between the travelers, the chariot lumbered to a halt and Philip baptized the eunuch in the first body of water the two could find. It might have been a river, or it might have been a puddle in the road.

Philip got out of God’s way. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in. Nothing could prevent the eunuch from being baptized, for the mountains of obstruction had been plowed down, the rocky hills had been made smooth, and God had cleared a path. There was holy water everywhere.[5]

There are several things that are amazing to me about this whole story. The first is the devotion of this Ethiopian eunuch. He’s an outsider who’s interested in Judaism, as evidenced by the fact that he had gone up to Jerusalem to worship. We might be tempted to think of him as the first Gentile convert to Christianity. But that distinction goes to someone else in the pages of scripture, Cornelius the Centurian, who appears a couple of chapters later in the Book of Acts.[6]

So the Ethiopian eunuch is treated here more like a Jewish convert to Christianity. And his devotion is remarkable in light of the fact that the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, for example, strictly forbids a man who has been sexually mutilated from joining the assembly of the Lord and, presumably, from entering the inner courts of the temple.[7] He was too profane to be allowed to get too close. And yet he eagerly sought this God whose presence he could only experience from a distance and whose representatives ensured that he knew his place there on the outside.

I also marvel at the reality that there’s more than one conversion taking place here. It’s not just the Ethiopian eunuch who’s being converted but also Philip. In her memoir entitled Pastrix, Lutheran pastor and certified forgiven-sinner Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about this mystery that speaks, I think, to all of us here today:

Perhaps Philip, in this conversation with a gender-transgressive foreigner — which consisted only of questions — learned what seeking the Lord really looked like, in a way that could only be learned from someone who did it in the face of so much opposition and rejection.[8]

“I started to think,” she writes,

. . . that maybe I couldn’t actually understand what it meant to follow Jesus unless I, too, had a stranger show me.[9]

Whether you agree with Nadia Bolz-Weber about Philip’s conversion, it’s clear from the text that God, not Philip, is behind everything that unfolds in this story. I don’t know about you, but I find it to be exceedingly good news that a miracle like this comes from God’s strength rather than my own. I simply pray that I will be led by the Spirit in the same way that Philip was led and that, most importantly, I’ll trust the one who’s leading me, with or without a fancy chariot, on this wilderness road.

The most astonishing thing of all, of course, is the truth that not only does the Ethiopian eunuch get brought into the household of God but also me . . . and you, and the person sitting next to you, and the man across the aisle whom you admire, and the woman several pews in front of you whom you honestly don’t think deserves to be here, and the babies who cry out the way that we really want to cry out to God ourselves, and the children who get restless and ask questions and have the kind of faith that God requires of all of us.

The Spirit has somehow brought us together in this place and time to follow Jesus together, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when we can’t comprehend the wideness of God’s mercy that embraces us and the whole world in arms of the Crucified One — all of us, Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, those with a faith that runs deep and those with hardly any faith at all.

The Spirit is at work in our midst in ways that we can barely believe to be true. And yet it is true, breaking through the glass wall that separates us, not from a Rolls Royce, but from one another. And for that, we can only say, “Thanks be to God.”

AMEN

BACK TO POST Acts 8:27.

BACK TO POST Acts 8:32-33.

BACK TO POST Acts 8:31.

BACK TO POST Acts 8:36.

BACK TO POST Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nashville, Nelson Books, 2015) 39.

BACK TO POST Acts 10:1-48.

BACK TO POST Deuteronomy 23:1.

BACK TO POST Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013) 93.

BACK TO POST Bolz-Weber 93-94.

Being Set Free and Bearing Forgiveness

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 5, 2015

“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified . . . he is not here . . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Mark 16:6-7

On Good Friday, at the Jefferson County Jail in the state of Alabama, an official there with the sheriff’s office unlocked a cell door. And through that door walked a 58-year-old African-American man named Anthony Ray Hinton.

At the age of 29, Hinton was convicted of the 1985 murders of two Birmingham restaurant workers. Because Hinton was indigent, a lawyer was appointed to represent him. The lawyer mistakenly believed that he had only $1,000 to hire an expert witness for the proceedings.[1] The witness he hired wasn’t much of an expert. As for eye-witnesses to the two separate murders, there were none. As for fingerprints linking Hinton to the crime scenes, there were none. The only physical evidence was a questionable link between a set of bullets and a gun found in the home that Hinton shared with his mother.[2]

The jury deliberated for less than two hours before finding him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was sentenced to death row and spent most of the next 30 years locked in a 5-by-8-foot cell in solitary confinement. As he would later state to the public as a free man, “All they had to do was test the gun.”[3] When that finally happened, the case unraveled completely, and Hinton was set free. According to the New York Times, he said this about his time alone with his thoughts:

I witnessed other inmates’ time run out, and I’d be lying if I said you don’t ask yourself, “Wow, is that going to happen to me?”[4]

I’m guessing Hinton probably thought about death every day in that 5-by-8 foot cell. Most of us, by contrast, go to great lengths not to think about death at all. A lot of us even try to pretend we might never come face to face with it. Well, I have some bad news to share with you today: That’s not true! Of course there will be times for each one of us when death comes into sharp focus, like it did over and over again for Anthony Ray Hinton as he lay on his bunk and stared at the ceiling.

That’s how three women — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — come to the tomb of Jesus early on the first day of the week. With hearts broken by grief over the death he died, they come to complete his funeral by anointing his body. And what do they find? They find that the stone has already been rolled away from the entrance and that his body isn’t inside. Then they hear the words of a messenger from God:

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified . . . he is not here
. . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.[5]

Yet the women are frightened and distraught by the emptiness of the tomb. Make no mistake about it, we would be frightened too. Like them, we would be filled with Easter terror instead of Easter joy. Most biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with verse eight of chapter sixteen:

They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.[6]

It leaves us in a state of suspense, wanting to know what happened to them, wanting to know the rest of the story. Some of the most ancient manuscripts end this way. Other copies of the text make the conclusion nice and tidy in the same way that we might try to do in our own minds. After all, in spite of the many different kinds of expectations we bring into the church on this day, who comes desiring to run out of these doors afterwards filled with terror instead of joy?

But Mark’s Gospel is pointing us in the right direction – the direction in which Easter joy awaits us. The fact that the tomb was empty doesn’t tell us a thing about its meaning. What happened to our Lord Jesus Christ between the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Day no one saw.

There were no eyewitnesses to his resurrection, when God spoke a thunderous, “Yes,” in the face of humanity’s cruel, “No,” to Jesus. There wasn’t a reporter on the scene from the New York Times to describe the very moment when death — the enemy of life — was defeated by the power of God. The empty tomb points to the resurrection but doesn’t prove it. That’s why the women who came face to face with that emptiness are unsettled and shaken and fearful.

So where is Easter joy to be found? The messenger from God tells the women at the empty tomb that Jesus has been raised and that he is going ahead of the disciples to Galilee. That is where the risen Christ will gather his sheep who were scattered in the darkness of the crucifixion. That is where Easter joy awaits them. That is where the empty tomb finds its meaning.

Easter joy awaits us too. It breaks into our ordinary routines, disrupting ordinary expectations through small, concrete acts of love that make us less and less fearful as we come to know, more and more, that God will always have the last word — a word of life that has destroyed sin and death.

When Anthony Ray Hinton stood outside the front doors of Alabama’s Jefferson County Jail on Good Friday, this is part of the statement that he made to the press:

Good morning. The sun [does] shine. . . . I want you to know there is a God. He [sits] high but he looks low. . . . And I just want to thank him.[7]

And Hinton also acknowledged that this miscarriage of justice had affected not only him but also the families of the two victims who had been murdered in 1985. So he wanted to say publicly to them,

I will continue to pray for you as I have for 30 years.[8]

I can’t imagine how Hinton is feeling on this day — the Day of Resurrection. I do know that he headed to a cemetery after he left the jail. He went there to put flowers on the grave of his mother, who died in 2002.[9] I also know that, quite astonishingly and in some tension with a few of the other things he said outside the jail, Hinton has been thinking, perhaps with more than a little difficulty, about mercy.

That’s not to say there won’t be some kind of reckoning, some kind of compensation, for what happened to him. Surely there should be. Nevertheless, he said:

I’ve got to forgive. I’ve lived in hell for 30 years.[10]

Hinton seems to realize that it would be all too easy for him to continue living in hell has a free man — to choose to sit in the prison of bitterness and resentment and anger. But he wants to begin a new life. And when you get right down to it, isn’t that what we all want both for ourselves and for those whom we love — to walk out of those harsh prisons of our own making and to be truly free, bearing forgiveness because we have first found forgiveness here in the embrace of the Crucified One?

Many of you have probably seen the movie version of Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile. It’s a powerful story about the triumph of sacrificial love. But the movie version leaves out an important scene from Stephen King’s bestseller. The character narrating this story presides over executions in a Depression-era prison. After one of these executions goes badly, he has trouble going to sleep and begins to think about the churches of his youth. And this is what he remembers:

. . . the concept of atonement came up as regularly as the toll of the bell which called the faithful to worship. Only God could forgive sins, could and did, washing them away in the agonal blood of His crucified Son, but that did not change the responsibility of His children to atone for those sins (and even their simple errors of judgement) whenever possible. Atonement was powerful; it was the lock on the door you closed against the past.[11]

I like that as a description of Good Friday — the lock on the door you close against the past — and I think it gives us a good way to understand our celebration of the resurrection this morning. If Good Friday locks the door to the past, then Easter Day unlocks the door to the future. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has written:

When the fear of death disappears the fear of life disappears too . . . Hope for the resurrection of the body is not merely a hope for the hour of death; it is a hope for all the hours of life from the first to the last.[12]

Easter isn’t merely about a new life that begins after death. It’s also about a new life that begins right now. And that’s good news not only for Anthony Ray Hinton but also for you . . . today.

ALLELUIA

 1 BACK TO POST Alan Blinder, “Alabama Man Freed After Decades on Death Row,” The New York Times, April 3, 2015.

BACK TO POST Abby Phillip, “Alabama inmate free after three decades on death row. How the case against him unraveled,” The Washington Post, April 3, 2015.

BACK TO POST Phillip.

BACK TO POST Blinder.

BACK TO POST Mark 16:6-7.

BACK TO POST Mark 16:8.

BACK TO POST Melanie Posey, “Anthony Ray Hinton released after nearly 30 years on death row,” WBRC, Birmingham, Alabama, April 3, 2015.

BACK TO POST Posey.

BACK TO POST Phillip.

10 BACK TO POST Blinder.

11 BACK TO POST Stephen King, The Green Mile (New York: Scribner, 2000) 243.

12 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltman, The Way of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 266-267.

Meeting at the Table with King Jesus

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Epiphany V, February 8, 2015

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary . . . (Isaiah 40:28)

Those words were written for the exiles of ancient Israel — people who were on the verge of forgetting their own story. They felt overwhelmed by the forces of the world around them — the false gods of political power and military might, the experience of exile and loneliness, and the fear of abandonment. They had grown weary over many years away from home. And they were starting to forget the story of God’s faithfulness, the story of God’s steadfast love toward their ancestors. Having been dislocated geographically, they were now dislocated spiritually.

Surely that sense of disorientation describes a lot of us too. Our television and computer screens are filled with news of violence and brutality, including brutality against children, by ISIS in the Middle East and by Boko Haram in Africa. And then we woke up last Monday to hear on the local news about violence and brutality in our own backyard. The Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe, his wife Dorcus, and their youngest son, Israel, Jr., whom they called Jay and who was only five years old, had been murdered in their apartment — beaten to death.

Israel was a native of Uganda, where he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church of Uganda. He served both as a chaplain to the University of Houston and as the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. He also had, in addition to degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School, a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Rice University.

All of this was very much on the minds of folks on Tuesday morning at the Men’s Bible Study and our weekly staff meeting here at the church. That’s partly because some of you remember Israel from the time he was just beginning his studies at Rice. For his dissertation, Israel studied the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994, writing about the senseless killing of family and neighbor — by Christians — and the transformative power of the Torah to prevent a repetition of that kind of senseless killing. The fact that he and his family became victims of that very thing is horrifying.

As most of you know, Israel’s oldest son, Isaac, has been arrested and charged with capital murder in this terrible case. The only other surviving son, Emmanuel, is about to graduate from a prep school in California. So Isaac and Emmanuel will now walk through this valley of the shadow of death without their parents, without their youngest brother, and without traveling side by side on the long road that lies ahead of them. It’s a journey of grief, sorrow, pain, forgiveness, repentance, and — yes — justice that will exhaust them.

Albeit under different circumstances, most of us know what it’s like to be tired, weighed down by disappointment, disease, or death. We bring those burdens here, and wonder if God will hear our cry. We bring those burdens here, when we can no longer carry them by ourselves.

In the midst of our weariness, Isaiah reminds us that God “does not faint or grow weary.” He reminds us that God created the earth, stretched out the heavens, and yet still recognizes each star in the celestial canopy. Those things — those realities — point to the true seat of power in contrast to the claims of the princes and rulers of this world.

The God of creation will loosen their grip on the weak. According to Isaiah, “[The Lord] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” We’ve seen this take place in the story of Israel and in the story of the Church. We’ve also seen it happen in the stories of people around us, in our own friendships, in our own households, and here in our own parish family.

I thought about Isaiah’s bold statement last Thursday, as friends and colleagues of the Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe gathered across the street in Rice Memorial Chapel to remember him and his family. There we sang the familiar hymn Amazing Grace, with some of us believing its words to be true, while others — perhaps in exile from an earlier life of faith — might have wished, if only for a moment, that they could believe its message in the midst of things that none of us can understand.

Singing that hymn brought to mind a commercial for the Salvation Army that I saw years ago and have never forgotten. The words were spoken by the people whom the Salvation Army serves – individuals too often forgotten by society but not forgotten by God. And this is what they said:

Amazing Grace
How Sweet the Sound

That saved . . .
A Crack Head
Drug Addict
Alcoholic
Meth Freak
A Wretch
Like Me.

I once was . . .
Homeless
Broken
SadJust Lost

But now I am . . .
Sober
Happy
I’m found

Was blind but now I see.

Then, at the very end, the voice of a narrator says:

Every day shattered lives are restored, thanks to the goods you donate to the Salvation Army.

It was, in many ways, like an ad for the reign of God. It represented the kind of diversity that’s described in the biblical vision of the heavenly banquet.

And something else came to mind too – an unusual poem about the founder of the Salvation Army, a man who became blind late in life. That poem, entitled “General William Booth Enters Heaven,” describes the old man being reunited with those to whom he had reached out with Christian compassion. Here’s the part that reminds me of the community invited by Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, to feast with him:

Jesus came from out the court-house door,
Stretched His hands above the passing poor.
Booth saw not, but led his queer ones there,
Round and round the mighty court-house square.
Then in an instant, all that blear review
Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new,
The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled,
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world. . . .

He saw King Jesus; they were face to face,
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

My friends, the Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe was washed in the blood of the Lamb, who has taken away the sins of the world. And he believed in this biblical vision of the heavenly banquet. He knew that his God, in the words of Isaiah, “does not faint or grow weary.” As he told his bishop, our bishop, the last time they met, “I am filled with great hope.”

I first heard about Israel’s study of the Rwandan genocide from a professor of Hebrew Bible who spoke at the memorial service last Thursday. That professor also shared with us a prayer from St. Augustine’s book The Confessions:

Creator God, O Lord of all,
who rule the skies, you clothe the day
in radiant color, bid the night
in quietness serve the gracious sway
of sleep, that weary limbs, restored
to labor’s use, may rise again,
and jaded minds abate their fret,
and mourners find release from pain.

That’s a beautiful prayer. It brings to mind the words of Isaiah about God, who not only “stretches out the heavens like a curtain” but also renews the strength of those who wait for him here beneath the starry sky. Even when overwhelmed by grief and sorrow . . .

. . . they shall mount up with wings as eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Yesterday afternoon, a little north of Houston in The Woodlands, the 166th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas adjourned. Our clergy and lay delegates from Palmer sat directly behind the folks from the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston.

166th Diocesan Council

So the Rev. Israel Ahimbisibwe should have been sitting at the table in front of us. But I will meet him at another table, face to face with King Jesus. This I believe.

My God “does not faint or grow weary,” so I am filled with great hope. Let us pray:

O God, who brought us to birth, and in whose arms we die, comfort us in our grief and shock at the violent deaths of Israel, Dorcus, and Jay. Surround us, the people of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, the Episcopal students at the University of Houston, and both Emmanuel and Isaac with your love; give us all hope in our confusion and grace to release Israel, Dorcus, and Jay into the embrace of your mercy; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

AMEN

The Rector’s Report in Poetry and Prose

Parks and Recreation

Last Sunday was a special experience for me at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. It was the day of my first Annual Parish Meeting as the Rector, which was held in the parish hall immediately after a combined worship service in the church. Following all of that, there was a festive lunch with fried chicken and all the fixings, plus a tower of 250 cupcakes. It was a lot of fun. Seriously.

Events with an annual meeting at the heart of them are not something that most people look forward to. The Rev. Tim Schenck , an Episcopal priest in Hingham, Massachusetts, explains this well in his blog post “Annual Meeting Haiku,” which concludes with a poetic description of this yearly ritual that the canons require:

Budget blah, blah, blah
Something about Jesus Christ
Please up your pledges.

So I was inspired to write a haiku about my remarks last weekend at Palmer:

I compared the church
to Parks and Recreation.
Love, in the end, wins.

That’s the short version. The long version is the Rector’s Report:

THE RECTOR’S REPORT

DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 25, 2015

Today’s sermon is actually my report as the Rector of Palmer Memorial on the day of our Annual Parish Meeting. Needless to say, these are exciting times in our life together. I’m still able to call myself the new Rector, and we still have a chance to dream and pray together about the future.

Because we believe that future is in God’s hands, moments like today are important as we seek out the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to know where we’re headed, even when storms arise on our journey, as they inevitably do. So we bring our little boat into the safety of the harbor on this day in order to mend our nets like James and John, the sons of Zebedee.[1] Now is a good time for us to reflect on the future of the fishing profession.

As most of you know, last fall a series of cottage meetings were held with parishioners so that folks could meet me and hear some of my thoughts about this wonderful church, which is, of course, a particular place but, more importantly, a particular people. It is, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams describes the church, a solidarity not of our own choosing.[2]

In other words — and you can probably guess where I’m headed with this — it’s like finding yourself inside an episode of the television series Parks and Recreation. A lot of you, I know, are fans of that show, whose quirky characters range from Leslie Knope, “the good-government liberal,” to the infamous Ron Swanson, “the skeptical-of-government libertarian.”[3] They work together, ironically, in small town government. And although they don’t always see eye to eye, they really do care about one another. They might not admit it, but it’s true nonetheless.

As Linda Holmes, the editor of NPR’s entertainment and pop-culture blog wrote this past week about a recent episode of Parks and Recreation:

When Ron wouldn’t talk and Leslie was ready [to talk], she employed an escalating series of discomforts to force his hand. He withstood a fan blowing on his ear, being covered in Post-its and having water dripped on his mustache, but when Leslie blasted “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and made up her own lyrics . . . he broke. . . . So they talked.[4]

“This is not,” Holmes assures us,

. . . the obvious kind of “love conquers all,” but it is a love story nonetheless — earnest and unpredictable and built on the same series of advances and retreats as any love story in fiction. And it was a story with higher emotional stakes than the great majority of romances that television and film will ever come up with, to be honest. Rather than futz around with the ridiculous question of whether men and women can be friends (spoiler alert: yes), Parks has devoted itself to the specifics of this relationship, these people, this office and this town, and the fact that they matter to each other.[5]

I love that series, and it does remind me — in all its glorious humor — of life in the church. Here at Palmer, in a solidarity not of our own choosing, we matter to each other. We gather in this place to attend to the specifics of those relationships in this small corner of God’s kingdom between Fannin and Main, in the institutions of the neighborhood that surround us, and in this amazingly and increasingly diverse urban environment, the fourth largest city in the United States.

But the reason we matter to each other over the long haul, from one generation to the next, is that we matter, first and foremost, to God. The welcome of this congregation, to the people like Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson who sit beside us in the pews and to the stranger who crosses our threshold in a desperate search for hope, should be as wide as the outstretched arms of the Crucified One.

In order to do that, as I said in the cottage meetings last fall, I believe it’s necessary for Palmer to make a major recommitment to children and families. Now that’s not at all meant to take away from those who don’t have children in their households. The reality is that we haven’t devoted much in terms of human resources to those ministries and most of our losses in membership over the last several years have been among families.

More importantly, however, all of us promise at the baptism of every young child to do all in our power to support that child in his or her life in Christ. My wife Carrie and I make that promise for teenagers, even though we don’t have teenagers in our household. And many of you make that promise for young children, even though you don’t have young children in your household. Together we promise to nurture in them the love of Christ.

To that end, as I wrote in a letter to the parish last month, I have called to join our church staff this summer, in a newly created full-time position, one of the best non-ordained ministers for children and families in the Episcopal Church. I can’t share that person’s name with you just yet, but I can share with you my hope that you’ll have a chance to meet this person face to face before Easter Day. I can also share with you my conviction that this person will plan events that will enhance our parish life across the board and build relationships between all of us. One of those future events will be a parish retreat at Camp Allen, our diocesan camp and conference center. I know that a lot of you are already looking forward to that idea becoming a reality, hopefully this year.

In the meantime, our search for a third full-time priest continues. I’m in conversation with Kai Ryan, Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Texas, about a few upcoming interviews. The person called to this position will be in charge of our extensive pastoral care ministries and oversee, together with lay leaders, what we call the “serve vessel,” which includes not only pastoral care but also the various outreach ministries that are shepherded by our deacon, Linda Shelton. But I will not fill this position until there is the right fit. Acting in haste, out of anxiety, doesn’t usually produce a satisfactory result.

So have patience and pray for me, pray with me. Better yet, get to know me in the months ahead through some of things that I wrote about in a letter to the parish last week. If you didn’t receive that letter, copies of it will be available at the doors of the church and in the parish hall at our Annual Parish Meeting. Those things include an ongoing series called “On the Road with the Rector” and two Lenten series, one of which will be “Conversations with the Rector” on Sunday mornings in Lent and the other of which will be Wednesday evening classes during Lent, beginning with a discussion of the movie Selma on Wednesday, February 25.

You can even organize an outing to watch that movie with friends, as the Palmer Young Adults are doing. However you get there, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that, in the end, love wins, even when the facts on the ground testify otherwise? Then, on February 25, we’ll talk about the movie versus the march. In the following weeks we’ll look at the lives of three martyrs of the twentieth century who believed that the answer to that question is, “Yes, love conquers all,” not sentimentally as we often see on TV, but sacrificially as we always see on the cross.

This morning I also want you to know that I’ll be creating three task forces, each led by a lay person in our congregation, to help me — to help us — think about three important areas of our life together that flow from our mission to know and to share the love of Jesus Christ. Some of you will be asked to be a member of one of these task forces, and all of you will receive a pastoral letter from me at a later date with the names of those members, including the head of each task force. At the conclusion of their work, each task force will make various recommendations either to me, as the Rector, or to the Vestry, as our governing board, depending on the nature of that task force’s charge.

The first task force will work with our new staff member for children and families, long before that person begins employment here next summer, to think about our various options for building a new leadership team for our youth ministries. In the meantime, we are so blessed that Courtney Daniell-Knapp and others have stepped up to the plate to provide interim leadership for our youth groups and activities.

The path forward to new leadership for our youth ministries will include not only conversations with our new staff member for children and families, someone who has the right professional background to be able to supervise a new leadership team, but also feedback and input from our youth and their parents. That will be part of a larger assessment of our needs in terms of youth ministries which will take advantage of the resources offered through the Diocese of Texas. Quite frankly, Palmer hasn’t always used those resources in the past, but we will going forward because we’re part of the larger church.

The second task force will consider the document “Unity in Mission” that was published in 2012 and written by the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, in cooperation with many others, including former Secretary of State James Baker III, who wrote the preface to that document. I actually read this impressive monograph long before I had ever heard of Palmer Memorial. It contains, among other things, guidelines from Bishop Doyle for congregations that are considering the blessing of same-gender relationships. As I said at the cottage meetings last fall, I believe it’s time for us to have that conversation at Palmer.

Your priests have been called to care for everyone in this community of faith in the name of Christ, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. So together we need to reflect on our call to be one in Christ, in spite of our many differences, and what it means to be, in the words of Isaiah, “a house prayer for all people.”[6]

Bishop Doyle has articulated well in “Unity in Mission” the reason why brothers and sisters in Christ who are considering the blessing of same-gender relationships should be willing to take a moment to have these kinds of important conversations with one another. “I am requiring this preparation,” he writes,

. . . out of my pastoral concern for individuals seeking the Church’s blessing and who deserve when blessed within the Church to have the community stand and support their commitment to God and to one another. The promise of the congregation in the liturgy to support the new couple is an important one and a promise that the community cannot make without having discerned its meaning.[7]

So the work of this task force is an invitation to help all of us have an honest discussion about this. It’s really a conversation about this simple question: How then shall we live together as God’s people? Praying for one another, especially for those with whom we are in disagreement, is always a good place to start. It’s also a healthy spiritual practice to prepare ourselves to come to the Lord’s Table, where all of God’s children are welcome. This I believe.

The third task force will shift our attention from looking inward to looking outward. This group will be charged with dreaming about opportunities for outreach and mission, broadly defined, in addition to the Way Station, our feeding ministry to the homeless, and Archway Academy, a high school for teenagers in recovery that’s located on our church campus. Those ministries ensure that our church buildings are not empty between worship services, and that is a wonderful thing that many churches would envy. But how are we — or, more precisely, how can we — reach beyond these walls and connect to the surrounding neighborhood.

As most of you know, Jesus was once famously asked in the Gospel of Luke, “And who is my neighbor?”[8] So perhaps this task force might begin by asking Jesus a similar question: “And what, exactly, is our neighborhood?”

Surely it includes the Texas Medical Center, Rice University, the Museum District, and Hermann Park. But do we really know what’s found in each of those directions and where God is already at work in them, circulating in the neighborhood and inviting us to join God’s mission? That’s something we should really pause to consider on a periodic basis, even if we end up simply recommitting to or perhaps expanding the scope of what we’re already doing.

Or maybe something will surprise us. After all, the Bible assures us that Christians worship a God of surprises. How do I know that? I know that because long ago two fishermen, the sons of Zebedee, were in their boat mending their nets along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus walked by them and called them away, just as he had called another set of brothers, Simon and Andrew, to leave behind their nets and come with him.

I sometimes wonder if they got along like the quirky characters on Parks and Recreation. I’d like to think so.

We are, surprisingly, their companions in this solidarity not of our own choosing. We are companions of the people sitting around us today. And we are companions of those who will join us over the coming year after hearing the call of Jesus, who says to each and every one of us, “Follow me.” That’s why we’re here.

AMEN

BACK TO POST The gospel reading appointed for use on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in the Revised Common Lectionary is Mark 1:14-20.

BACK TO POST Rowan Williams has expressed this idea in numerous writings, including the John Coventry Memorial Address, which he gave on March 20, 2010. In that address, he said, “Our baptismal solidarity with Jesus Christ means that we are in solidarity with all the fellow Christians we never chose to be in fellowship with (always one of the most difficult bits of Christian identity) . . .”

BACK TO POST Linda Holmes, Parks and Recreation Shows the Beating Heart of Its Great Love Story,” Monkey See: Pop-Culture News and Analysis from NPR, January 21, 2015.

BACK TO POST Linda Holmes, Parks and Recreation Shows the Beating Heart of Its Great Love Story,” Monkey See: Pop-Culture News and Analysis from NPR, January 21, 2015.

BACK TO POST Linda Holmes, Parks and Recreation Shows the Beating Heart of Its Great Love Story,” Monkey See: Pop-Culture News and Analysis from NPR, January 21, 2015.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 56:7.

BACK TO POST C. Andrew Doyle, Unity in Mission: A Paper on Common Mission and the Challenge Posed by Division, Episcopal Diocese of Texas, April 16, 2012.

BACK TO POST Luke 10:29.