Your Spiritual Family Tree

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Sunday, October 2, 2022

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

Two weeks ago I stood in this pulpit and talked about prayer. The reading from the First Letter to Timothy had urged us to pray for everyone, and we pondered what it means to do that when we love someone, when we struggle with someone or with something we’ve experienced, and also when we’re in conflict with someone, whether in the world nearby or far away.

I said that the most simple way to think about Christian prayer, in all of these circumstances, is to imagine ourselves and those for whom we pray, and the space between us, as being surrounded by the love of Jesus. Try to picture a never-ending love, a love that flows from the very heart of God, at times encouraging some, at times challenging others, at times reaching out to those who are suffering, at times providing a shelter for us in our own time of need. Most recently, in the destructive aftermath of Hurricane Ian, I’ve been praying for friends and relatives in Florida and for the congregations I first served as a priest along the coast of South Carolina.

Today our reading from the Second Letter to Timothy assures someone — let’s just say it’s you — that you are being prayed for, that even your tears are not forgotten, that you are constantly, day and night, being held in the love of Jesus.[1] And the faith that you have, however small it is, however insignificant it may seem, even if merely a whisper of curiosity about the universe, has been handed down to you by people in your life. It may have come from your grandmother and your mother, as Lois and Eunice were described so tenderly in our reading.[2] It may have come from your chosen family if your own family has rejected you for some reason. It may have come from a minister, a teacher, a friend, a neighbor, even a stranger — someone who paused to look at you through God’s eyes.

When a Christian does that, I believe she is praying for you and surrounding you with the love of Jesus. And whether you’re laughing with your whole body, filled with tears of joy, filled with tears of sorrow, regretful about the past, hopeful about the present, or afraid of the future, you might be able to see yourself, in that moment, as a child of God.

I had a surprise like that over the summer, when I could almost touch the tears of someone, a child of God who had been held in the love of Jesus by the prayers of many. I had arrived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the doors of the Moravian Archives. The staff member who would be helping me learn about one of my ancestors immediately wanted to show me a register for a rural church in Lancaster County.[3]

He opened the book to part of the section recording funerals. All of the entries had been written by my 6th great-grandfather Johann Philip Meurer. He was the officiant for most of them, but not for one in the spring of 1757 — the funeral for his wife who died at the age of 39.

The staff member, since he could read German script, told me the death of Philip’s wife Christina was somehow related to the birth of their youngest daughter, which had taken place many months earlier. She knew her condition wasn’t improving and eventually said or sang these words: “O Savior, come take me soon to you.” Death came, tears flowed, and surely the love of Jesus was present in the midst of it all through the prayers of many people in many different Moravian churches.

As my fingers touched the words on those pages, I thought about how that love overflowed into the lives of those who came after them, how they also put their trust in a savior through whom death has been overcome. There were some detours along the way (there always are), but mercifully God writes straight with crooked lines, not only from generation to generation but also through the different chapters of our own lives.

How would you draw your spiritual family tree? I’m not talking about your family tree, which might be chaotic. I’m talking about your spiritual family tree, which I realize might also be chaotic — but it’s a different tree. And if someone were to take that drawing and look at it, how might they describe it back to you in a letter? How might they remind you that you’re always surrounded by the love of Jesus, day and night, and that the love of Jesus will continue to surround you beyond death?

It doesn’t matter if your drawing looks like a fragile Charlie Brown Christmas tree or a flowering tree with branches hidden by an explosion of blossoms or a sturdy and majestic oak. You see, they’re all majestic if Jesus stands at the center, the trunk, as it were, deeply rooted in the history of God’s people written in the scriptures and also in the history of the world recorded in poetry and prose, in the hearts of every generation that has ever lived, and throughout the universe in the book of nature. And then imagine all the branches reaching out through the history of the church, through people known and unknown to you, people related to you and to me, most importantly, though the Blood of Christ, shared in places like Palmer.[4]

Most people here, by a little more than a week from today, will have received in the mail a letter from Palmer with a pledge card. That card is for you to provide the church with an estimate of your giving to Palmer next year, in 2023. It’s true that it’s a way for the church leadership to make plans for the coming year. But it’s more true that it’s your invitation to see your blessings in the context of God’s whole creation, to know that what you have has been given to you, for a short time on this earth, partly for yourself and those you love, and partly to be shared with others, known and unknown to you, so that you can be a blessing to them, pray for them, and surround them with the love of Jesus.

Each of us is called to do that in certain unique ways, by the leading of the Holy Spirit. That I really believe. But I also believe we, as Christians, should give to our own church, whether that’s here at Palmer or somewhere else if you’re just visiting us today, our first and largest charitable gift among the many gifts we make to help the communities and the neighbors around us.

As one member of our Vestry has said several times in our public meetings, “I want Palmer to be here years from now for my children.” That starts with Palmer being here in the coming year for those children, and for the people sitting beside you in your pew, and for those who may be hearing for the first time right now that the great “we” of the creed includes them when other churches have excluded them.

Your returning to God a portion of what you have is also represented on this Holy Table each week. The bread and the wine are the gifts of the people gathered for worship. And the offering plates contain both the literal cash and checks we’ve brought with us as our offerings and the symbolic presence of the monetary gifts we have given in other ways, usually electronically. Each of those gifts is represented on the Holy Table during the Great Thanksgiving, when we ask God to bless them and to bless us, offering ourselves as a living sacrifice to the glory of God for the sake of the world into which we will be sent at the end of this service.[5] And we’ll step onto Main Street, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.

If there was a group of folks, a community of Palmers, who oriented their lives around the love of Jesus rather than themselves or rather than things that benefited only people just like themselves, and they wrote you a letter, literally or metaphorically, reaching out to you like the branches of a tree, reminding you that you’re being prayed for constantly and that even your tears are surrounded by the love of Jesus, how might that change you?

The hope in today’s reading is that it would “rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” which is “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”[6] Even if you don’t feel very powerful, even if you don’t feel very self-disciplined, you can rest in the love of Jesus, receive that love, and share it.

That spirit of love can be rekindled within you this very hour the same way you’ll receive communion — by unclenching your fist. That’s how you offer your hand to someone else, how you place your gift in the offering plate, how you give the gift of yourself to God for the sake of the world.[7]

It is good that we are here. It’s good that you’re here, even if you are here for the first time this morning, because God is here, and God loves you.[8]


BACK TO POST 2 Timothy 1:1-14.

BACK TO POST 2 Timothy 1:5.

BACK TO POST This was a church register for the Moravian congregation at Donegal/Mount Joy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

BACK TO POST The header photo at the top of this post is a detail from a larger piece of art titled “The Tree of Life.” It was commissioned in 1775 by Friedrich Von Watteville (1700-1777) for Frederick William Marshall (1721-1802), who was the administrator of a tract of land, originally 99,985 acres in size, owned by the Moravian Church in North Carolina called Wachovia.

The fruit shows it’s a grapevine rather than a tree, with leaves representing all of the Moravian congregations around the world at that time. The blood from Christ’s wounds, at the center of this image, nourishes each of them.

BACK TO POST Romans 12:1.

BACK TO POST 2 Timothy 1:6-7.

BACK TO POST The specific image I had in mind when thinking about our posture before God as we give our selves, our whole lives, to God as a living sacrifice was the way many priests hold their hands open, outward, and upward as they stand at the altar during the prayer for Holy Communion.

BACK TO POST Written across the top of the stained glass window above the altar at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, are these words: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” They are the words of Peter as he speaks to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in the Gospel of Matthew.

It’s important to remember that Peter and the others with him didn’t stay there on the mountaintop but went down into the valley and set their faces toward Jerusalem. They have an indescribable experience in the presence of Jesus, a glimpse of divine glory, then walk with Jesus through the world.

In the Middle of the Night, Easter Arrives

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 17, 2022

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

Have you ever stumbled onto something that was completely unexpected, and only later realized there was more going on than what you could see? Photographers do this when they spot something which makes them stop and ponder what’s right in front of them, perhaps moving a little or a lot to change their perspective, then capturing in one picture an extraordinary moment that didn’t seem to exist in the world a few seconds earlier.

Sometimes you walk into a crowded room and hear on the other side of that threshold one of many conversations already in progress. And then maybe you cringe internally — or externally — once you realize the person whose voice you hear going on and on about this or that isn’t aware of other nearby realities in the same room — a struggling spouse in recovery from alcohol addiction, a mother whose heart is overflowing with joy over her gay son’s upcoming wedding, a friend who’s just lost a job but only told a handful of people about it. If the person holding court knew of these or any number of other realities in that same room, the conversation might be different.

There are a lot of hidden realities this morning in this room. Some of you don’t want to be here, having been dragged along by a significant other or a grandparent. I see you, and also have sympathy for you. (Know that your grandmother loves you very much, and I love you too!) Others sitting in the pews today have hearts weighed down by grief over the death of a loved one, perhaps over the past year, or perhaps from long, long ago. Many are still trying to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle that is the small part of the world in which we live fit together on this side of the pandemic. You might be worried about that but afraid to say anything about it to anyone else.

Imagine yourself as Mary Magdalene, who came to the tomb of Jesus “while it was still dark,” or the unnamed “other disciple” running with Simon Peter to that same tomb on the first Easter morning.[1] As they encountered the room that is the empty tomb, a sense of joy, a sense of wonder, a sense of divine majesty, wasn’t part of the experience. Something was very wrong. That’s why Mary ran back to tell the others that the body of Jesus had been stolen. What she had seen just compounded the trauma that had followed the events of Good Friday and the silence on the sabbath day.

Only when Mary, while overwhelmed and weeping outside the tomb, heard herself being addressed by name did she recognize Jesus standing in front of her. She had mistaken him for the gardener. Yet it was Jesus, who had died, and who now was alive — alive but also somehow very different, and known but only because he had made himself known.

“I have seen the Lord,” she would later say.[2]

For Mary, being called by her name changed everything in an instant — the identity of the person in front of her, whom she had already seen with her own eyes, the meaning of the empty tomb, and the movie playing over and over in her head about what had happened in the middle of the night.

Something terrifying had indeed happened, but not in the way Mary had first imagined. It was instead terrifying in the sense that the voice of the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon, and in the darkness that same voice brought Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, over from death to life, setting free all those imprisoned by sin and death, and giving to us a glimpse of our own resurrection in the world to come — in the world beyond our fears and our failures — a new creation that transforms tears of sorrow into tears of joy and, yes, tears of laughter.[3] How could there not be laughter with God?

Is it possible — just possible — that even this very small part of the world in which we live is much larger than we have imagined it to be? Is it possible there’s a lot more going on around us and within us than we can see?

Right outside the front doors of Palmer, on the other side of Main Street, is the campus of Rice University. (The church building in which you’re sitting, by the way, was built in 1927 to be a chapel for the Rice Institute before becoming the home of an Episcopal congregation in 1929.) This whole area is one of the most beautiful parts of the City of Houston — the live oaks, the azaleas, and the wildlife — squirrels, of course, and rabbits, an occasional possum, and lots of birds — grackles, mockingbirds, bluejays, and owls, which seems appropriate for Rice. (I’m even wearing owl cufflinks today!)

But even if you take time for a walk around the Rice campus, even if you pause to notice, with a sense of awe and wonder, all the other forms of life that surround you, including, of course, the students too — even then you’re only seeing a small fraction of what’s really happening there.

Houston is on what’s called the Central Flyway, and the Rice campus is essentially like a Buc-ee’s for many birds on their way to and from the tropics. But mostly they’re flying overhead, while you’re either sleeping soundly in your own bed or wide-awake and worried, staring up at the ceiling. And we know a lot about them thanks to a man named Cin-Ty Lee. He’s a professor of geology at Rice University, but he’s passionate about birds and has been observing them on Rice’s campus for 20 years.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Cin-Ty and a few others thought that might be a good time to try to record the sound of birds at night.[4] Ambient noise, because of reduced traffic, had gone down significantly. So they set up a microphone, initially in a lemon tree but now on a 20-foot pole, and waited to find out what exactly was going on during the night.

Well, that turned out to be a big ol’ disappointment.

In the beginning, in March of 2020, they heard nothing. And they actually thought they were doing something wrong. It was like their own experience of Holy Saturday, waiting and wondering what had happened. But then everything exploded in late April, when there were suddenly thousands — thousands — of birds passing overhead each night.

They weren’t even hearing all of the birds because some fly too high to be heard and others don’t call out to each other while they’re flying. But they heard thousands of them nevertheless. And those recordings added about 30 new species to the list of birds already known to be present at different times of the year on the Rice campus. That total is now at least 262 species.

Have you seen them all? Do they exist even if you haven’t seen them?

To be clear, I don’t think the meaning of the empty tomb should be reduced to springtime observations in the Northern Hemisphere. But nature does give us hints that there is more to this world than meets the eye. There is so much that we don’t see at all, that we see only partly, or that we see dimly, whether off in the furthest reaches of the universe or — perhaps even more amazingly — right here, right across the street, in this small part of the world in which we live and work, in which we love and grieve those we’ve lost, in which we learn and become curious about the things God has made.

What I want to suggest to you is that you’re only experiencing a small fraction of what’s really happening in the world around you. There are mysteries here that are visible but unseen, and there are mysteries here that are invisible too. What happened last night, so to speak, what happened in the darkness before the first Easter morning, was a mystery.

But Mary Magdalene and the rest of those closest to Jesus believed they had seen him raised from the dead. Perhaps the most mysterious thing of all was that the risen Christ, the one who called Mary by name and revealed himself to her, showed them, and shows us too, that God is for us, not against us.

And just as the risen Christ saw Mary weeping and had compassion on her, “God shall [one day] wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”[5] They are passed away because of what happened in the middle of the night. And one day, having fallen asleep in Jesus, we shall awake in the light of his resurrection.

My friends, there’s more going on in this world, more going on in this very room, more going on in your own life, right now, than what you can see.


BACK TO POST John 20:1-10.

BACK TO POST John 20:18.

BACK TO POST Psalm 29:5.

4 BACK TO POST Cin-Ty Lee in an interview on the podcast City Cast Houston, “Recording the Night Skies of Houston,” April 11,2022.

BACK TO POST Revelation 21:4. I quoted this familiar verse from the Book of Revelation using the King James Version, which can be heard in composer Eleanor Daley’s powerful anthem “And God shall wipe away all tears.”

Stoplights and Christmas PJs

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Advent III, December 12, 2021

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

As some of you know, Advent is my favorite season of what we call the Church Year — how we mark time on the liturgical calendar in our worship and in our prayers, which is different than how we mark time on a secular calendar in much of our day-to-day lives. Although one of the shortest seasons, Advent is really how we live most of our lives as Christians — looking back to what God has done in the past, crying out for God to come among us in the present, and watching, actively watching and waiting, for God to act and right all wrongs, not only around us but also within us.

And we’ll greet that Day of the Lord with joy, not fear.

Now having said that, I really feel like I need to confess something. I feel like I need to tell you that Christmas, which is surely coming and for which Advent always prepares us, is already sneaking a little bit into Palmer’s Rectory, where the Willards live, dispelling some of the shadows, here and there. I’m not talking about the lighting of our Advent wreath, hand-made with Topo Chico bottle caps, on which candles are gradually lit to remind us of the coming of Christ into the world. I’m not even talking about our beautiful Christmas tree, brightly illuminated and visible through one of the front windows. What that tree represents — family history, faith in Christ, fun and laughter through the years, and hopefulness — is what we need, what we all need, throughout this new Church Year.

No, what I want to admit to you today is that there was an explosion of Christmas pjs at the Rectory. I’m not going to say how many of us were wearing them. I’m just going to say that several of us were and that it was a joyful preview of the fun part of Christmas — like the storm clouds of the world around us parting and allowing a few rays of sunshine to break through for a moment. It sure seems like most of us — all of us, really — need a moment like that to surprise us, to lift our spirits, and to fill us with hope. Folks are stressed out at home, at work, and apparently at every intersection in Houston as drivers increasingly speed through red lights.

We want something to break through all of that, not like running a red light, but like a divine intervention. We want God to act. At the very least, we want God to explain why we keep taking two steps forward and one step back, even when we’ve tried to do the right things for ourselves and our neighbors over the last couple of years. Maybe there are also parts of your life where you feel as if you keep taking one step forward and two steps back. You want God to show up and help out. For you, Advent’s very real this year.

In a strange way, today’s reading from the Book of Zephaniah is like an explosion of Christmas pjs, however you want to imagine that or some other unexpected metaphor. That reading comes amid the traditional themes of Advent, which usually point us to some pretty weighty matters related to last things or God’s coming judgement. Surrounded by that heaviness, here is this super-rejoice-y fireworks display of hope, with God himself in our midst, as our redeemer, as a mighty warrior on our behalf who will renew us in his love and even break forth into loud singing over us.

But that’s not how the Book of Zephaniah begins. It begins with a warning about a disaster on the horizon, a judgement from God himself. The second verse of the first chapter puts it bluntly:

I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord.[1]

The prophet wants those listening to change their ways in the present, to stop speeding through all of the red lights on the crowded road to doom. All of that was meant to be heard before the catastrophe happened — change, change, change, before it’s too la . . . 

[Announcer’s voice:] This ruin is brought to you by idolatry and oppression.[2]

That’s the Cliff notes version of the Book of Zephaniah.

But maybe there’s still time to change the channel, to watch a show with different sponsors, like righteousness, like humility. The prophet urges them — and us — to seek those things in order to be hidden from the wrath that will wash over everyone like tidal wave.

Well, spoiler alert, not much, if anything, changes and the bad things do happen — not a natural disaster, like those devastating tornadoes, at least 30 of them, that bulldozed through six states on Friday night and Saturday morning. That was awful. What the Book of Zephaniah described was awful too, but it was brought about by the rulers, the judges, the priests, and the prophets — most of the other prophets, that is — false ones.[3]

The part of the Book of Zephaniah that was read this morning is the last part — the final and most surprising words. They were probably meant to be heard while the catastrophe is unfolding, or perhaps afterwards, while looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the destruction in its wake.

It’s a different kind of message for a different kind of landscape — a landscape that has been altered. But it turns out that not everything has been swept away from the face of the earth. Those who had been oppressed and those who had suffered, the lowly and the outcast — they’ve been saved and gathered together as the remnant of Israel, and the Lord will bring them home and dwell in their midst. So they are told they should rejoice.

It’s not unlike the words of Mary’s song, known as the Magnificat, from the Gospel of Luke:

My soul doth magnify the Lord . . .
He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.[4]

It’s not unlike the words of today’s collect — that prayer which collects our thoughts for this particular Sunday:

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us . . .[5]

That used to be the prayer for the last Sunday of the Church Year — a prayer for God to stir things up throughout the coming season of Advent. In the Episcopal Church, we now pray it during Advent. It’s always a timely prayer, no matter what day of the year we cry out, pleading with God to stir things up, to come among us, and to help us . . . now.

But are you really expecting something to happen? Are you expecting a highway in the desert, a bridge over a deep divide, the restoration of a friendship, the rebuilding of your faith, however slowly, or the renewal of the gift of joy and wonder we ask God to give to those newly baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah?

Here, whenever you share with others the peace of Christ, if there isn’t anything that’s being overcome in that moment, in that experience before we gather around this Table, then it’s not really the peace of Christ. You don’t need the grace and forgiveness of Christ to overcome something that isn’t a problem, isn’t difficult, isn’t too much for you to handle.

That isn’t to say everything will suddenly be ok on the other side of the passing of the peace. I mean, let’s face it, sometimes only Jesus himself is able to make that a true moment. And it is true because we’re not the sponsor of that moment, Christ is. But that’s the point of the Advent season. We need help, and we need it right now, and our redeemer has be God.

Advent also reminds us that we need not be afraid when the Day of the Lord is at hand and Christ comes again, with power and great glory. Standing with those in the shadows who are suffering and excluded and broken-hearted and world-weary, we know the One who is coming will bring mercy, healing, and forgiveness, causing the shadows to flee.

In the meantime, how are we to live now, especially if we’re not looking in the rear view mirror at the chaos behind us but intensely feeling chaos surrounding us in the present? I like something the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota wrote recently, something which I’ve continued to ponder as part of my own Advent reflections this year. He said:

As followers of Jesus, we don’t need to see the whole map of the rugged landscape before us, we simply have to take the next step, which is always loving the next person, saying the next prayer, turning outward toward God’s outrageous promises, because God is faithful.[6]

My friends, the promises of God are indeed outrageous, as outrageous as an explosion of Christmas pjs amid the seriousness and the heaviness of Advent, amid the seriousness and the heaviness of world in which we’re living. Holding firmly to those promises — or rather being held by them — and knowing that mercy awaits us, we can say, with hope,

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.[7]


BACK TO POST Zephaniah 1:2.

BACK TO POST Zephaniah 1:4-6; 3:3-4.

BACK TO POST Zephaniah 3:3-4.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 65.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 160.

BACK TO POST Craig Loya (@MinnesotaBishop), Twitter, November 28, 2021.

BACK TO POST This popular saying is based on Revelation 22:20.

My Last Will and Testament, Part III

Today is the anniversary of the marriage between a woman named Susan Campbell and a man named William York on September 23, 1852, in Randolph County, North Carolina. They are my great-great-grandparents. Both were born into slaveholding households in that same county. At least three out of four of their grandparents’ households enslaved Africans in the North Carolina counties of Randolph, Chatham, and Orange. The household which Susan and William would create was a slaveholding household too.

William enslaved a Black woman, who was 65 years of age when that fact was recorded in the 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedules. Several years earlier, after his father had died in 1855, William was the administrator of the estate and “filed a petition to sell the slaves of Semore York.”

That group of enslaved Africans may have included the five human beings listed in the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedules beside the name of William’s father, whose first name was spelled variously as Semore, Seymore, or Seymour. The youngest was a one-year-old girl described in that official record not as “B” for “Black” but as “M” for “Mulatto,” which referred then to someone who shares both African and European ancestry.

At the time that youngest child was conceived, Semore would have been married and about 44 years of age. William would have been single and about 22 years old. Two of William’s younger brothers would have been single and teenagers. The presumed mother of the enslaved girl would have been about 33 years old then and, as an enslaved person, a victim of sexual violence. So it’s surely within the realm of possibility that my great-great-grandfather sold either his half-sister, his niece, or perhaps even his own daughter, as human property at some point after Semore’s death.

In 1862, a decade after William and Susan were married, Susan’s father David Campbell died. His will directed that part of his estate, including 13 human beings he enslaved, be equally divided between his eight children. The estate inventory includes their names, ages, and monetary value.

It then describes which of the eight children of David Campbell received which lot of human property, and also what amount of cash was added to that lot from a sibling whose own lot was more valuable. The Yorks received lot “no. 6,” with 14-year-old Tamar, valued at $650, and 55-year-old Malinda, valued at $200, and also $25 from one of Susan’s brothers to make the total value equal to everyone else’s share, which is to say, $875.

In addition to Tamar and Malinda, the other names on that list of enslaved human beings were: Nancy, 19 years of age, $750 in value; Alfred, 32 years of age, $800 in value; Marticia, 32 years of age, $575 in value; Hannah, 29 years of age, $675 in value; Jacob, 26 years of age, $1,100 in value; Betty, 12 years of age, $550 in value; Sarah, 6 years of age, $400 in value; Martha, 6 years of age, $400 in value; Libby, 4 years of age, $350 in value; Harriott, 4 years of age, $350 in value; and John, an infant, $200 in value.

What distinguishes Susan and William York within the more than three dozen direct ancestors of mine who were slaveholders is the fact that they are the closest in time to me. Their household was the only slaveholding household among my great-great-grandparents. But the striking part of that statement, of course, is the harsh truth that I have great-great-grandparents who inherited people and then, presumably, continued to enslave them. (Although it should be noted that Susan’s sister and brother-in-law Isabelle and Steven Kivett had no prior history of slaveholding and would, in fact, name one of their sons Ulysses Grant Kivett in 1868.)

Both of these great-great-grandparents lived to see not only the end of the Civil War but also the end of Reconstruction. Both of them also lived to see a resurgence of white supremacist ideology in the election campaign of 1898, which culminated in the Wilmington coup d’etat that same year, a prelude to the disenfranchisement of Black voters throughout the Old North State.

Susan died at 74 years of age in 1901, and William died at 87 years of age in 1914. They are buried side by side in Chatham County, North Carolina. That simple act of charity in a cemetery, however, is something that more often than not was denied to enslaved African families, which were split apart both in life and in death. Also distant from one another after death, and certainly not unique to this particular story, were members of the York family and a Black enslaved woman who was raped and her daughter, whose name is unknown and who would be enslaved from birth, regardless of the real identity of her white father. I wish it was possible to undo all of that.

What each of us can do is, first, to remember the past truthfully, as it really was, not as we wish it had been, and to work in our own day toward justice in this world. Then, certainly for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we can pray that God will right all wrongs, including not only hurtful things done to us but also those cruel things done by us, in the world to come.

Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.

King David (kind of): “I hope you dance.”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 10, July 11, 2021

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

I don’t know exactly how it started. But I do know she had left her mother’s side for just a moment as beautiful music sung by many voices washed over me from behind and continued toward her as she stood in the center aisle.

I think this little girl was dressed up as a ballerina, although I realize that sounds more like a dream than something real. But this was definitely real, a scene from my previous congregation in Minnesota, and I’m pretty sure she was dressed as a ballerina. I know without a doubt that she started her dance while I was preparing the Table for Holy Communion.

Her mother, as I recall, was a little embarrassed by the whole thing, but she shouldn’t have been. People there were watching that graceful dance as the bread and wine were placed “just so,” awaiting the prayerful dance of words that would ask the Holy Spirit to descend, in that hour, making ordinary food holy and ordinary people holy, not through anything we had done but through what God has and continues to do for the world.

All I can say is that most of us saw a little girl at home in the House of the Lord, dancing in the presence of the glory of God, giving thanks in her own way for the gifts that were about to be shared with everyone who had walked through those doors and been washed and refreshed and forgiven in the waters of baptism. Perhaps we were jealous, too, of the freedom she seemed to embody naturally and the joy and wonder she expressed. Those things sometimes get slowly squeezed out of us as we grow into adulthood.

But I’d like to think that growing into our Christian identity, as children of God, gathering together in this place, roots us continually in that kind of freedom, in the joy and wonder that the words of the Book of Common Prayer ask God to give to the newly baptized — to most of us here, whether we were baptized a few months ago, several years ago, or perhaps now many decades ago.[1] And if you haven’t been baptized but want to be, talk to me today right after this service. We’ll make sure you get baptized.

In our Old Testament reading from the Second Book of Samuel, there’s dancing too.[2] (And, yes, I’m well aware of the fact that there’s also dancing in our reading from the Gospel of Mark, but that would be a very different kind of sermon.[3]) Here we see David, already anointed as king over Israel, dressed not as a ballerina but in a linen ephod. That was a kind of sleeveless garment which was worn by the priests. It would have looked something like the chasuble our own priests wear to preside at the Table.

We’re told not once but twice that David “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[4] It wasn’t filled with the delicate and graceful moves I was trying to describe to you earlier, the ones I had seen in Minnesota. This was a total emersion in the sense of belonging to God, unrestrained, even scandalous, according the standards of the old guard.

Hence the reference to Michal who “despised [David] in her heart” after looking out a window at him “leaping and dancing before the Lord.”[5] She knew a thing or two about royal dignity because she was the daughter of the former king, Saul. But what makes Michal’s reaction really sting is the fact that she was also the first wife of the present king. Yes, she was married to David, who wasn’t acting with a shred of dignity in his jubilation.

Here we can see the enactment of the words of Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel, in the First Book of Samuel. Hannah sang a song to proclaim that “[the Lord] brings low, he also exalts. [The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust . . . to make them sit with princes.”[6] And remember that David had been a shepherd, and the youngest son of Jesse, someone who was obviously never meant to be a king in the eyes of the world.

To be sure, David was no saint. As I’ve said before from this pulpit, David was unfaithful, unforgiving, and unmerciful. Yet he was also an unlikely vessel of God’s grace, which, of course, means each of us can also be an unlikely vessel of God’s grace. It has been said that God, transforming our countless mistakes, writes straight with crooked lines. And that’s certainly true in the pages of the Bible whenever we read about King David.

But there’s another character in today’s story. Well, it’s really an object — the ark of the covenant. This wooden box held the stone tablets on which were written the ten words, the ten commandments, the self-revelation of God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Atop the lid were two angels, cherubim, and the glory of the Lord was enthroned above their outstretched wings.

Attached to two wooden poles, the ark could be carried to accompany God’s people. But it had been separated from them, having been captured in battle by the Philistines.[7] After the Philistines encounter some bad luck with the ark, it gets parked somewhere for about 20 years. That’s when David finally shows up with his entourage of thousands and the equivalent of an old coat check ticket to take the ark to its new home in Jerusalem.

So this wild parade into Jerusalem, known as the City of David, represents a different and much longer journey than the actual number of steps from the metaphorical coat closet where it had been left behind. The real movement, invigorating the whole scene, including David’s “Saturday Night Fever,” is the movement from despair to joy, from what seemed like the absence of God to an overwhelming sense of the presence of God.

It’s a preview of the journey the Israelites will experience in being sent into exile and then being brought back home. It’s a preview of the journey the followers of Jesus will experience in the disappointment of Good Friday and the surprise of Easter. It’s a preview of the journey we’ve made over the past year as Palmers, together with the rest of humanity, from separation to reunion within the walls of this church and around this Holy Table.

The reality of homecoming and our belief in the resurrection ought to overwhelm us like a flood with a sense of “the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty” of the Lord.[8] It ought to wash over us like the waters of baptism, like the music that washed over me in Minnesota, inspiring a little girl to dance before the altar.

There’s dancing taking place right now too. The children who processed out of the church before the sermon are talking about this story and dancing to music. And there was dancing last night, too, across the street in Hermann Park. Palmer’s own Carol Streatfeild and her son Theo were both dancing at McGovern Centennial Gardens. They were with a group of dancers in that public space performing art to the sound of a cello and other instruments. It might not have been the “lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” or “the sound of the trumpet,” the shofar, that accompanied the ark as it made its way toward Jerusalem.[9] But it captured the attention of those walking by, causing them to stop, if only for a moment.

They danced across the grass to the pool of water in front of the pavilion, pausing there before continuing their journey to a new location where people gathered to watch and listen and ponder. Now I don’t know what any of that meant to Carol and Theo and the other dancers and the musicians and those who experienced all of this. For me, the pool resembled baptismal waters and the rest was an announcement of peace to the City of Houston.

I believe peace and beauty and community are gifts that flow, like a dance, whether slow and graceful or fast and jubilant, from the presence of God. And I believe this is where we learn how to dance in the world, in response to the overwhelming mercy and forgiveness and acceptance we receive through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah.

So today I hope you’ll notice other Palmers, other Christians, other people created in God’s image and filled with the Spirit, dancing the world and not despise them in your heart but rejoice with them. In the words sung by country music star Lee Ann Womack:

Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.[10]


BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 308. This is the prayer which is said by a priest or bishop over those who have just been baptized:

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

BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19.

BACK TO POST Mark 6:14-29.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:5, 14.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:16.

BACK TO POST I Samuel 2:1-10.

BACK TO POST I Samuel 4:1-11.

BACK TO POST II Chronicles 29:11. This is the translation in the Book of Common Prayer (1979), and here is the complete offertory sentence which a priest said at today’s worship services before the people’s gifts of bread and wine were placed on the Table for Holy Communion:

Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty. For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.

BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:5, 15.

10 BACK TO POST The words of this signature song of country music singer Lee Ann Womack were written by Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers. Womack also sang this song in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, which is my alma mater, during the funeral for Wake Forest’s Reynolds Professor of American Studies Maya Angelou.

Casting Lots to Discern God’s Will

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021

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

About six miles from the house where I grew up in North Carolina is a Moravian church called Friedland, which means “Land of Peace” in German. When a man named Tycho Nissen was sent there in 1775 from the nearby town of Salem (now Winston-Salem) to organize that country church, he had been married for less than a month. Although this will sound odd, 12 days before the wedding, he and future wife weren’t even a couple.

Tycho knew he was meant to marry a woman named Salome the same way everyone knew these things in Moravian religious communities in the 18th century — by the use of the lot. Church leaders used three pieces of paper. One indicated “yes” (Ja), another indicated “no” (Nein), and the third was blank, meaning “not yet.” Following prayer, one of those pieces of paper was picked out of a container. [picks a folded piece of paper out of a glass jar and reads it] Hmm, that’s interesting. Maybe I should try that again.

Because Tycho had been appointed to an official task on behalf of the church, organizing that rural congregation, which is why he was required to get married, how they used the lot was recorded in the church minutes.[1]

Church leaders had a discussion about Tycho’s marriage, first suggesting the name of a widow in the community. The lot said no. Then they suggested the name of another woman, and the lot again said no. Finally, they suggested the name of Salome, the daughter of a Moravian minister, and the lot said yes. Seven days later it was announced that Tycho and Salome would indeed be getting married. Five days after that they were.

Now, so everyone here won’t be kept in suspense and worry unnecessarily, just know things worked out for them. They would have four children, including a son named Christian, who is my 4th great-grandfather.

Everyone involved in what I’ve just described truly believed they were doing God’s will, following the biblical example of the early church. Moravians used the lot to make other important decisions too, like where exactly to lay out the town of Salem in 1765. But several years after that, they also used prayer and the lot to decide if it was acceptable in the eyes of God to purchase an enslaved teenager.[2] The lot said yes. Was that God’s will too?

How do you know what God’s will is for you? While growing up, or even as an adult, did you ever throw open a Bible and let the pages settle in the genuine hope that God would somehow speak to you, show you the way, lead you beyond whatever that thing was you were struggling with? Did you ever do it again and again to get a different answer — an answer that was more clear, more like what you wanted to hear? I’ll admit I did that.

Or did you retreat into an intense season of prayer, desperately bargaining alone with the Almighty? (If you give me what I want, if you tell me it’s ok to walk down this path, I’ll do anything for you, O Lord.) In those kinds of conversations, we tend to take up all of the oxygen in the room. And in the silence that follows, too often we jump to the conclusion that God’s will and our will are perfectly aligned. Throughout the years, I’ve witnessed people pray hard, really hard, about difficult things, drawing conclusions about God’s will for them that affect their families without having talked to their spouses or that affect their church membership without having talked to their priests. If you already think God’s on your side, no one will be able to say anything otherwise without seeming to be opposed to God.

There are times when a lot of heartache could’ve been prevented if others, including God, had been invited into those prayerful wrestlings. It doesn’t mean the answer would have been different, but it invites to the table God and those who care about you, who want the best for you, who love you.

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard about prayer in combination with the casting of lots to figure out what to do next. Drawing the short straw, picking a name out of a hat, throwing dice — whatever you want to call it — goes back thousands of years to the first books of the Bible. It’s how Moses distributed land to the tribes of Israel.[3] It’s how his brother Aaron picked the right goat to make a sacrifice to God.[4]

Aaron and the other high priests of Israel who would follow after him wore something called the “breastplate of judgement,” which held a couple of mysterious objects called the Urim and Thummim. Those words in Hebrew appear on the logo of Yale University, where they’re also translated somewhat expansively as “Light and Truth.”[5] Surely we’d like to have light and truth shining upon us while facing a difficult decision.

The Urim and Thummim were taken out of that breastplate when the priests needed to know the will of God. They were probably thrown like dice in a ritual to do that.[6] [throws dice on the floor and looks down at them] I have no idea what that means. I must have skipped that class in divinity school.

Anyway, after the death of Judas, the eleven remaining apostles cast lots after they reconvene in the upper room to discern the will of God and figure out the restoration of the twelve — meaning twelve apostles, those who are sent, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. It was an unusual election with two fully qualified candidates, but with only one presumably divine vote.

That’s how Matthias is chosen to be an apostle, someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning, from the moment of his baptism by John the Baptist. And he believed he was called to that new role, called by God, to be a witness to the resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

What’s important about the story of the calling of Matthias isn’t the casting of lots. The point isn’t the method but the posture.[7] Together as a community those gathered in that upper room turn toward the lovingkindness of the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Together they search the scriptures. Together they pray. And they finally loosen their grip, letting go, confessing their limitations, allowing God to speak to them.

And that’s the part I left out when describing 18th-century marriages in the Moravian Church. It was really about communal discernment, a form of semi-arranged marriages in which proposed matches were discussed after having been suggested either by the men or by the church leaders. A “yes” from the use of the lot merely gave a green light to proceed with that same process. The women could still say no, which they sometimes did.[8]

That’s a stark contrast to the time Moravians needed to make a decision about owning a human being as property. When that was put to the lot, the community wasn’t working together, they were divided.[9] There’s a sense in which the lot was used to break a tie, but not a tie between two equally noble choices as in today’s story from the Book of Acts.

In this case, I believe their trust was misplaced, focusing on the lot rather than on their relationships, including their relationships with the strangers in their midst — people like that enslaved teenager, who had a different language, a different history, a different color of skin. When the Moravian Church wanted to be released from the economic burden of caring for him, he was granted his freedom. By that time, however, he and his wife were older and would struggle to provide for their children.[10]

Earlier I mentioned my fourth great-grandfather Christian Nissen. His brother-in-law, John Vogler, was a Moravian artisan and silversmith. John sought permission to marry seven times in Salem from 1814 to 1818. Six times the lot did not say yes, and one time the woman said no.[11]

Then, in 1818, the Moravian Church stopped using the lot in this way for marriages, with the exception of proposed marriages for ordained ministers.[12] Only then did John ask a woman named Christina to marry him. She was who he had first wanted to marry four years earlier. Since he was a silversmith, he made her wedding ring, which had this inscription:

With God and Thee My Joy shall be.[13]

Well, hearing the words of that inscription, it’s clear John believed that God, beyond the use of the lot, would be very much at the heart of their marriage. Perhaps the Holy Spirit had been at work in a strange way throughout those four years — and still is today — showing us, at the end of the day, that love really does win in this or some other important part of our life.

And it’s important to know that there still remained a circle of prayerful discernment about that engagement, beyond John Vogler himself, which included the Christian community to which he and Christina belonged.

The truth is that we see in the Book of Acts many different ways in which the followers of Jesus open their hearts to God’s will for them. The casting of lots to set apart a new apostle in today’s reading erases the humiliation of the casting of lots for the clothing of Jesus by the Roman soldiers who were executing him. In that scene at the cross in the Gospel of Luke, it appeared that God was absent, that God either didn’t care or didn’t exit.

But as we’ll be reminded next Sunday, God did care. God didn’t leave empty either the building or the space between us after Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, returned from whence he came. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit would be poured out upon the followers of Jesus, filling each of their hearts and every corner of the world with the divine presence, with mercy and grace. The glory of God went with the people of God.

And once that happens, we never read again in the New Testament about the use of the lot to discern God’s will. It’s as if a page had been turned and a new chapter had begun. So I invite you to come back here next week to focus on the outpouring of the Spirit more than on the drawing of straws. The Spirit intercedes for us, even when we don’t know how to pray or how to throw dice, even when we’re unsure about what to do next, even when we get it wrong, helping us realize that, turning us around, drawing us back into a community of open hearts and open hands. This I believe.


BACK TO POST Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Volume II, 1752-1775, edited by Adelaide L. Fries (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1925) 895.

BACK TO POST “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website.

BACK TO POST Numbers 34:13-15.

BACK TO POST Leviticus 16:5-10.

BACK TO POST Joel Baden, Twitter thread on Exodus 28:13-30, April 5, 2021. He is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

BACK TO POST Joel Baden, Twitter thread on Exodus 28:13-30, April 5, 2021. He is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

BACK TO POST Jerusha Matsen Neal, “Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26,” Working Preacher website, May 16, 2021.

BACK TO POST “The Relation of the Lot [to Moravian Marriages],” Bethlehem Digital History Project website.

BACK TO POST “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website. A newspaper article that explores the complexity of enslavement within the Moravian Church is “Hidden in History: Old Salem’s Hidden Town” by Kathy Norcross Watts, Winston-Salem Journal, February 1, 2018. Another one is “Slavery in Old Salem” by Susan Ladd, Greensboro News & Record, February 3, 1992. A book that explores this in depth is Jon F. Sensbach’s A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). While it’s true the enslaved teenager, whose Christian name would be Johann Samuel, wanted “to know the Saviour” and asked to be purchased by the Moravian Church, he was nevertheless bought as human property “by permission of the Lord.” Additional details can be found in the first link in this footnote from Historic Bethabara Park.

10 BACK TO POST  “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website.

11 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.

12 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.

13 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.

Looking Down, Around, and Up

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 28, November 15, 2020

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

Last weekend, Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, died on the Jewish Sabbath before the sun rose. He was someone easy to listen to, someone who could explain complex things in ways that are both meaningful and understandable. And he had a spirit of generosity, a willingness to see what is honorable in religious “others.”

Rabbi Sacks was once invited to a meal at the house of the President of Yale University. There he was asked to offer a blessing for the food, but first he told the other guests and their host a story.[1] He said once he was about to have dinner with a group of Christians, and they asked him to give a blessing before anything had been served and placed on the table.

That left him in a difficult spot. He hesitated, because in Judaism one prays over the food — food already there on the table, not food on its way from the kitchen. So he looked around and focused on the flower arrangement. And in the beauty of that which God had created, what one of God’s own children had carefully tended, Rabbi Sacks saw something that evoked food. With that in mind, he offered a blessing. Then he said to everyone:

You Christians have more faith than we do; we want to see the food.

I love that story. And, quite frankly, this Christian wants to see the food too. Thou shalt not bless proleptically. The strange word prolepsis means a representation of something that’s going to happen in the future as if it’s a present reality, as if it’s already here, as if it’s achieved its certain goal.

And while we do every Sunday, if not every day of the week, say the Lord’s Prayer, asking for our share of fresh daily bread to sustain us, to give us life, most of us don’t give thanks for it until it’s in our hands, placed there like the Bread of Heaven itself in Holy Communion.

Sometimes what we as human beings need is, in reality, close by, but we’re just looking in the wrong direction, focusing on the wrong things. Or maybe that’s just me, not you! Rabbi Sacks described this when he was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to address an occasional gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world called the Lambeth Conference.

He began by imagining a story that he said could have easily begun in Westminster, a place where he and these Anglican bishops had participated in a march several days earlier.[2] He imagined going on a walk with his granddaughter, starting there, in order to show her some of the sights.

Outside the buildings of Parliament, he imagined his granddaughter asking him what happens there. He’d say, politics. She’d ask what that’s about, and he’d say it’s about the creation and distribution of power.

From Westminster, they’d walk into the City of London, into the heart of the financial district, and see the Bank of England. He imagined her asking him what happens there. He’d say, economics. She’d ask what that’s about, and he’d say, the creation and distribution of wealth.

On their way back, they’d pass St. Paul’s Cathedral. Again, he imagined his granddaughter asking him what happens there. He’d say, worship. She’d ask what that’s about, what does it create and distribute?

And he would say to her, that’s a good question.

Rabbi Sacks went on to talk about how much our lives have been dominated by politics and economics. We can make people act in certain ways, either forcing them with power or paying them with wealth. We can even share widely both power and wealth. When we do that, we end up with less power or wealth than we started with, maybe a lot less. (Sometimes that’s o.k.)

“But now suppose,” said Rabbi Sacks:

. . . that you decide to share, not power or wealth, but love, or friendship, or influence, or even knowledge, with nine others. How much do I have left? Do I have less?

“No,” he said:

. . . I have more, perhaps even 10 times as much.

Why? Because love, friendship and influence are things that only exist by virtue of sharing. . . . the more I share, the more I have. . . .

Where do we find covenantal goods like love, friendship, influence and trust? [3]

“They are born,” he said:

. . . not in the state, and not in the market, but in marriages, families, congregations, fellowships, and communities.[4]

In other words, they’re found in places like Palmer, in this gathering for worship, in our Bible studies and our youth group, in our mission and outreach together, in focusing on Jesus and seeing how the Holy Spirit works through us so that strangers become friends, so that others can set down their burdens and find rest here, so that we can do that too.

Worship helps us to focus on God, raising us up to orient ourselves in a confusing world, so that we don’t have to roll around like lost balls in high weeds. And doesn’t it feel that way right now?

I mean, would someone please press the fast forward button so that we can get to the other side of the pandemic, the political chaos, and the end of this school year, and the disconnection that we feel not only from our extended families but also from a lot of our friends, people just as overwhelmed as we are? God, could you go ahead and press that fast forward button now?

That’s it. That’s it. That’s another place we can look — not just at what’s right in front of our nose, not just scanning the horizon for something, anything, to remind us to keep the main thing the main thing. We can also look up, as we were reminded in the words of today’s psalm:

To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.[5]

It encourages us to keep looking “to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.”[6] Sometimes our hands are empty and tears obscure our sight as we look for help in every direction across a landscape stripped of grace, whether that’s a strained friendship, a stressed marriage, worries about your job, or fears about the state of the world.

Sometimes there’s no other place to look but up.

And it’s o.k. to face God in that way, even shaking your fist if you feel like it, and saying to God, as the psalmist does, that:

. . . [you] have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.

Wall Street and Washington, as it were, economics and power, or whatever it is in your life, your real life, that seems to draw a circle around itself while leaving you helpless on the outside.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.[7]

I’m going to keep my eyes on you until you show us your mercy. And I’m doing this because I know that you’re merciful. You’ve shown that to your people in every generation. You’ve shown that to everyone in Jesus, the Lamb, who takes away the sin of the whole world and has destroyed death.

I just need to see a little of that mercy with my own eyes, here and now.

Lord, I need to see it.

It’s important to be able to say that, to be able to be honest with God. But I want you to notice something about this short prayer known as Psalm 123. It starts personally. It starts wherever you are at this moment, with the word “I.” Then it immediately moves from the singular to the plural, from the individual to the community. Its words bring you back home, back here to Palmer, back to the Lord’s Table and the Lord’s people.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.[8]

And we’ll keep saying those words together, and watching expectantly, side by side, for God to act until we see God’s mercy with our own eyes, not only in the world to come, but also in this world, the world as it is.

This I believe. . . . This we believe.


BACK TO POST This story, including the quote that follows, was shared by Greg Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School, in a post on the Facebook page of Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut, November 9, 2020.

BACK TO POST This story, as it is retold here, is partly paraphrased and partly quoted from Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:1.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:4.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:4.

For All Saints: Where Are the Dead Now?

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020

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

My daddy’s mother died when he was days shy of his 15th birthday, so I never knew her. But I did know, at least a little, my other grandmother. I have memories of riding in the car with my parents to visit her in a nursing home. But mostly I remember things from when she died, when I was seven years old. I remember vividly details from the funeral home — the metal casket, the smell of the flowers, even the chill in the room. But I wasn’t afraid.

I grew up in a time, a culture, and a Christian tradition in which my family would attend the funeral of church members just because they were church members. It didn’t mean we were necessarily close to the person who had died. We were part of the same church family, so that’s why we were there. But my grandmother’s death was different. It was the first time death came close enough to feel that the world had changed, that my world had changed, and to wonder what had happened and what was happening.

Two months before my grandmother died, in another part of the world, the philosopher Ernst Bloch died in Tübingen, Germany. He lived in the same neighborhood as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who walked over to visit Bloch’s wife as soon as he heard about his friend’s death. Carola Bloch came toward Moltmann and simply asked him, “Where is he now?”[1] And she asked that question, a heart-wrenching question from any human being who’s ever felt left behind, while her husband’s body was still lying there.

Where are they now? Where are the dead?

Some say no where beyond what will return to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Early Christians, however, believed there was something more than that. They were known for having torn down the wall between the living and the dead, so to speak, unafraid to approach the places of the dead because of their belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the hope that they, too, would share in his resurrection. It gave them courage to experience life before death, amid struggles here.

I’ve always loved seeing on some older Moravian headstones the simple declaration, “Asleep in Jesus.” That’s not meant to be a euphemism to avoid speaking of the awful reality of death. No, it’s claiming this isn’t the end.

This person rests in Jesus, awaiting something, the General Resurrection. The implication, of course, is that the resurrection to eternal life, the resurrection of the body, is a future event. I mean, it has to be, right? That grave isn’t empty. As the words of the Prayer Book put it so beautifully:

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness . . .[2]

As a priest in Williamsburg, Virginia, I would often read on Sundays before the opening procession into Bruton Parish Church an unusually long and dramatic inscription on a particular chest tomb. It was just outside the church, proclaiming to those who passed by these sad but hopeful words:

Here sleeps in Jesus united to Him
by Faith and the Graces of a christian
life, all that was Mortal of Mrs. Ann Burges
once the tender and affectionate Wife
of the ISLE OF WIGHT: She died 25th
December 1771 in giving Birth to an
Infant Daughter, who rests in her Arms.
She here waits the transporting Moment
when the Trump of God shall call her
Forth to Glory, Honour & Immortality.

Oh DEATH were is thy Sting?
Oh GRAVE where is thy Victory?

The confidence of those words near the end is inspirational, although most of us don’t really talk that way. We love it when listening to Handel’s Messiah, as a bass voice sings the words of Saint Paul, words to the Corinthian Christians about how “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”[3]

However, in contrast to that, a lot of us have gotten used to talking about life after death using the language of immediacy. Loved ones are with God right now, which is a comforting thought. But we’re not sure how that connects with the resurrection of the body, words we recite in the creed. So we don’t know what to do with their bodies, our bodies, or any body for that matter. “Some bright morning when this life is o’er,” we’ll just fly away.

It’s not that the language of immediacy isn’t found in the New Testament. We hear it on the lips of Jesus himself, from the cross, as he answers the thief beside him, who is also being executed and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Jesus famously says to him,

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.[4]

And on this All Saints’ Day we heard in the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, a stunningly beautiful and glorious description of those standing before the throne of God, not in the future but now. Did you notice, by the way, that they’re all Palmers, said to be holding palm branches in their hands? And they’re “a great multitude that no one could count . . . from all tribes and peoples and languages.”[5] Their past suffering, all of it, has come to an end; and because of Jesus who also suffered, the Lamb who was slain, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[6] That last part always reminds me of Jürgen Moltmann saying,

God weeps with us, so that we may someday laugh with him.[7]

So what are we to make of this tension within the Bible itself between the present and the future? Where are the dead?

Some believe, together with the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther and 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, that it’s about the difference between our experience of time and God’s perspective.[8] So here in this life, it appears as if those who have died are waiting for the resurrection. But at our own death, our experience of the resurrection will seem immediate and as if everyone is experiencing it at the same time.

Luther says as soon as our eyes have closed in death, we’ll be awakened. And it will be like those moments when we wake up in the middle of the night, with no idea how long we’ve been asleep. Whether a half hour or a thousand years, it will seem sudden, happening in the twinkling of an eye.[9]

That weird thing about time is why we can think of resurrection as a future event but also have a very real sense of the communion of saints gathered around the throne now, cheering us on as we walk through the sufferings they’ve already been through, praising God together as we say “holy, holy, holy” at the Lord’s Table, knowing that a crown of glory awaits us through the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we shall see face to face.

The truth is that it’s a mystery. And there are other ways many faithful Christians have described that mystery because, as a friend of mine said a few days ago, “We’re always peering into hidden things when it comes to death.”[10] Even so, in this election year, I’m voting with Martin Luther.

I’d say we’ll find out who won, who got most details right, when the Day of Days arrives not only for us and but also for the whole world. But here’s the thing: It won’t matter at that point because we’ll be in the presence of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars,” the same Love that’s already taken us by the hand now and will have raised us to new life then.[11]

What I know with certainty is that All Saints’ is one of my favorite festivals of the church year. It’s when Carrie and I had both of our children baptized. Rowan, our oldest son, was bathed in the font the same year my daddy died. All of that came together in that moment — the waters of baptism, death and resurrection, the communion of saints. But that All Saints’ celebration also enfolded my grandparents, the two I knew and the two I never met.

Those circles of love ripple out from there. They encompass people you’ve known, who showed you when they were alive what Jesus is like through small acts of love. They draw a line around a great multitude of human beings around the world who have died as a result of COVID-19.[12] How is it not possible to remember them on All Saints’ this year, to pray for them, to pray for those staring at an empty seat around a kitchen table?[13]

My friends, those whom we love are not lost in death. They are not.

Where are the dead?

They are held in the love of Jesus, which surrounds them and us, always.

This I believe.


BACK TO POST Carola Bloch, quoted by Jürgen Moltmann in In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 109.

BACK TO POST From the additional prayers at the end of the liturgy for the Burial of the Dead, Rite II, in the Book of Common Prayer (1979).

BACK TO POST 1 Corinthians 15:52 (KJV).

BACK TO POST Luke 23:43.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:17.

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

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, on page 112 in his book In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), states that other Catholic theologians joined Karl Rahner in discussing the idea of “the resurrection at death” but that “in 1979 Joseph Ratzinger, in his first declaration as cardinal, had these ideas rejected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, because they make indulgences and Masses for the dead superfluous, and are therefore contrary to the [Roman Catholic] Church’s practice.” (That would have strengthened Martin Luther’s belief in it.)

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 111-112.

10 BACK TO POST Jacob Smith, Rector of the Episcopal Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in New York, New York, on the Mockingbird podcast Same Old Song, “All Saints’ (A): Grandpa Joe, Supervillain,” October 26, 2020.

11 BACK TO POST Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 145.

12 BACK TO POST As of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020, according to the the COVID-19 Dashboard of Johns Hopkins University, more than 1.1 million people have died globally as a result of COVID-19.

13 BACK TO POST Although not the subject of this sermon, the Feast of All Saints is an appropriate time to ask why Anglican Christians around the world and through the centuries have offered prayers for the dead. The best answer I’ve heard in response to that question comes from an unlikely source, an evangelical New Testament scholar and bishop in the Church of England quoting an evangelical lay member of the Church of England.

N.T. Wright, on pages 74-75 in his book For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (New York: Morehouse, 2003), writes this:

Many years ago, the General Synod of the Church of England was debating the question of prayers for the dead. Professor Sir Norman Anderson, one of the most senior and respected laymen in the church of his day, and known as a leading evangelical and Protestant, rose to speak. You might have supposed that he would take the traditional line and denounce prayers for the dead as irrelevant nonsense, indicating a lack of assurance or a belief in purgatory. But Sir Norman and his wife had had three lovely children, a boy (of exceptional brilliance) and two girls; and all three had died in early adult life. And he had come, in his own experience, to realize that it was perfectly in order to continue to hold those beloved children before God in prayer, not to get them out of purgatory, nor because he was unsure about their final salvation, but because he wanted to talk to God about them, to share as it were his love for them with the God who had given them and had inexplicably allowed them to be taken away again. When I read his speech I realized not only how much I respected his nobility of mind and heart, but how much theological sense it made. Once you get rid of the abuses which have pulled prayer out of shape, there is no reason why prayer should not stop just because the person you are praying for happens now to be ‘with Christ, which is far better’. Why not simply celebrate the fact?

“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?”

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 24, October 18, 2020

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

One of my favorite things I’ve seen recently, something I’m sure some of you have seen too, is spooky, nighttime video footage of a man and a woman walking up to a house, where the man starts ringing the doorbell, repeatedly, before quickly knocking on the door, repeatedly, and even trying to turn the doorknob, without success. It was locked, and he immediately starts ringing the doorbell again and knocking on the door and then calling out the name Paul, who presumably lived there. No answer. So he begins ringing the doorbell again and knocking on the door, and you, worried about Paul, start to think it’s the beginning of a horror movie.

Either something really bad has already happened or will any second, right? It’s after two o’clock in the morning. No good can come of this.

Finally, Paul’s voice can be heard through the speaker. And the man outside says to him, “Paul? It’s Bob Wilson, you’ve won the Nobel Prize. And so they’re trying to reach you, but they cannot. They don’t seem to have a number for you.” Then the woman chimes in, saying, “We gave them your cell phone number.” Paul says, “Yeah, wow. Yeah, ok.” “Will you answer your phone,” pleads the woman before laughing aloud as he answers, “Yes.” Bob replied, “You need to let them be able to call you.”

Paul Milgrom is the name of the man who was awakened in the middle of the night; and Robert Wilson is his neighbor and longtime colleague, who also won a Nobel Prize. In fact, they won that award in economics together. It turns out that Bob had been hard to reach, too, having unplugged his landline after not recognizing the number and thinking he was getting a spam phone call from some political campaign at home late at night.

But imagine for a moment if you had been in that kind of situation, except there wasn’t a Nobel Prize to be handed out but rather a need to be met, a cry to be heard, and you kept ringing the doorbell and banging on the front door, and there was no answer.

What comes to mind for me is the time when the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings watched the priests of Jezebel try to rouse the Canaanite god Baal. It doesn’t work, so Elijah mocks them, suggesting their god must have unplugged the landline or be meditating or has fallen asleep and needs to be awakened. Psalm 121, by contrast, says the One “who keeps watch over Israel,” who “watches over [us],” “shall neither slumber nor sleep.”[1]

And the psalm we heard today, Psalm 99, tells us that the Lord answered Moses and Aaron and Samuel, and presumably other priests and prophets, who called upon the Lord’s name. Then that same assertion is repeated later, as the psalmist speaks directly to the Lord our God and says,

You answered them indeed.[2]

Some of you hearing my voice could easily repeat those words in your heart as a prayer of thanksgiving today. Maybe you recently had an experience of being heard by the One who sustains your life, gives you breath, and sends you forth to face another day.

But there are surely others here this morning who would like to say, who are saying, those same words in a very different tone. Yes, you believe God answered Moses and Aaron and Samuel, but you’d very much like God to answer you, too, and sooner rather than later.

Maybe you want there to be justice and judgment, divinely meted out, which almost certainly means you want those things to be visited upon other people. (We’ve all been there, or are there right now.) After all, Psalm 99 states clearly that God executes those things as a “lover of justice.”[3] It’s part of what makes God holy, part of what makes God great and fearful.

The psalmist takes us to Mount Zion in Jerusalem and into the very heart of the temple, where the Lord is enthroned upon the cherubim. These angelic creatures aren’t what the Jewish scholar Robert Alter humorously describes as “the dimpled darlings of Christian iconography.”[4] No, they are fierce, carved in radiant gold, with “the body of a lion, large wings, and a human face.”[5] Their wings, outstretched toward one another atop the Ark of the Covenant, in the Holy of Holies, formed a seat for the Holy One of Israel.

That is where God was present, in a real way. Mysterious, yes, but actually there. And the force, the movement, in the words of this psalm is that God will continue to do today what God has done in the past, that those who’ve followed in the footsteps of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel will cry out and their prayers will be answered.

But praise the Lord that justice and judgement aren’t the only things ascribed to God in this psalm, this prayer, which is also our own prayer in our own day. I mean, it’s not that I don’t want God’s righteousness to be established on the earth or in this nation. I do. I really do, the sooner the better. It’s just that one of the things too often in the way of that is me.

So I love that God’s most important answer to the prayers of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel on behalf of the people is that God forgave them. That’s the first thing mentioned after the palmist turns to God, addressing God directly, praising God for answered prayers. Yes, they endured the consequences of things done and left undone, but God forgave them, God carried the burden of their disobedience, of our disobedience, of my disobedience.

That incredibly good news is just as true today as it was then. God forgives you, even though the temple no longer stands, even though the mercy seat above the wings of the cherubim no longer exists. The glory of the Lord has gone out from there to be with his people, wherever they may be, whatever their circumstances may be, which means the glory of the Lord is here.

When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain of the temple that hid from view the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies was torn asunder, not because mercy had somehow vanished, but because mercy was being poured out on the whole world. And the good news is that you don’t have to depend upon me for God to answer our prayers here. That’s because Jesus is our great high priest, “our only Mediator and Advocate.”[6]

Jesus is interceding for us, and we are forgiven.

And if you happen to be one of those people pointing a finger at God, for any number of very understandable reasons, while praying, “You answered them indeed,” remember this: Remember that Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed intensely and waited in the silence for an answer. It seemed as if God had gone away from him, as if he’d been abandoned, as if the house was completely empty, as if no amount of ringing the doorbell or banging on the front door would summon the voice of a friend.

But God answered with a thunderous yes, raising Jesus from the dead, taking the door of death off its hinges, so to speak, and leaving behind only the shattered gates of hell so that no one would ever be shut out from his mercy and his forgiveness. Not even those who feel godforsaken are beyond the reach of his saving embrace. He will take them by the hand with love.

I really believe that. I believe that for you, for me, for everyone. Jesus is alive, and his presence and his love are what you will receive today at the time of holy communion, whether you receive the consecrated bread, the Body of Christ, in your hands here at the church or say the words of the prayer for spiritual communion in your home.

Those things received in holy communion are given to you personally, and they’re given to me personally. But they are received as God’s people together, in a community of prayer and praise. They are received communally, in a congregation where our own imperfections don’t keep us out, but draw us in to approach the throne of grace with boldness.

And there, as Psalm 85 describes it so beautifully, mercy and truth meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other, and somehow — at the last day — all wrongs will have been righted, not only those around us but also those within us. And God, having reconciled the world to himself in Christ, will finally be all in all. This I believe.


BACK TO POST Psalm 121:3-4 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Psalm 99:8 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Psalm 99:4 (1979 Book of Common Prayer).

BACK TO POST Robert Alter, commenting on Psalm 99 in The Hebrew Bible, Volume 3: The Writings (New York: Norton, 2019) 233n.

BACK TO POST Robert Alter, commenting on Psalm 99 in The Hebrew Bible, Volume 3: The Writings (New York: Norton, 2019) 233n.

BACK TO POST From the Prayers of the People in the liturgy for Holy Eucharist, Rite I, in the Book of Common Prayer (1979).

God Makes a Way

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 19, September 13, 2020

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

I don’t really know how I got the idea. I mean, I had never owned a seersucker suit in my entire life. But I was living in the Low County of South Carolina, it was hotter there than I was used to as someone who grew up closer to the mountains in North Carolina, and I was serving a church that expected some formality in attire year-round, even though we were just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean and even fewer steps away from Legends theater, where Elvis, Cher, Madonna and other celebrity impersonators performed daily. Neil Diamond was there, too, covered in sequins.

Anyway, I opened up the box and sat there, staring at my new suit for what seemed like an eternity. Honestly, my first thought was, “I can’t wear these clothes in public. I’ll just die if I walk around dressed like this.” But I tried it on, inside the safety of my little apartment, with a black clergy shirt, a clergy collar, and white bucks.

And then I did something counterintuitive. Still dressed up and feeling extremely ridiculous, I drove a few miles up Kings Highway to Myrtle Beach, to a place I knew would be packed with tourists at the height of summer. There, at Broadway at the Beach, I walked in a straight line from one end to the other, right down the middle of the main path outdoors. And, lo, I did not die as the wall to wall crowd before me parted like the waters of the Red Sea. A lot of people stared at me, but I didn’t die.

Now that’s a silly example of how we think about ourselves or our worries, whether real or imagined, about how others might judge us. But there are plenty of other things that we come face to face with, genuine struggles with our own health and wellness, with our friends and relatives, with our parents and children, with our jobs and our choices, past and present, or the choices of others. And sometimes the path before us doesn’t magically reveal itself because of our striking fashion, the intensity of our willpower, the strength of our achievements, or whatever luck or advantages have been our companion up until that specific moment.

That’s in a real sense what happens to the children of Israel in today’s reading from the Book of Exodus. The Lord hears the cries of his people, enslaved by the Pharaoh of Egypt, and with a mighty hand delivers them out of their bondage after Pharaoh finally relents. But Pharaoh recants, so to speak, and sends forth his army to pursue the Israelites in a last ditch effort to bring them back. And when these newly freed people find themselves between the waters of the Red Sea and the chariots of Egypt, they’re terrified. They complain to their leader Moses, going so far as to tell Moses they never wanted to leave the Land of Egypt in the first place. Now they’re trapped.

The Old Testament scholar Gerald Janzen, commenting on all of this, says that:

Faith is not the absence of fear. Faith is fear that takes itself to God, and there finds the freedom and the voice both to call for God to act and to give reassurance to others whose own fear leads them only backward.[1]

Or as a friend of mine put it recently:

Faith often looks like feeling afraid and still taking a step to move forward.[2]

Isn’t that word of encouragement something each of us longs to hear? There are so many things we’re afraid of right now, and we want to be delivered, to make it to the safety of the other side, the other shore.

In Birmingham, Alabama, the sun rose on the morning of Easter Day in 1963 with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the same jail from which he would later write his famous letter to moderate white Christian ministers who were just like me. So civil rights leaders planned a march to that city jail in the afternoon from a local Baptist church. People first worshiped together there and in other churches, proclaiming to the world an empty tomb and a risen Lord, knowing that death will never have the last word, believing that God makes a way where there is no way.

And then they stepped out in faith, as Easter people, dressed in their Sunday best, about five thousand total by the time the march started at that Baptist church.

What this procession of mostly Black Christians came face to face with were police officers and firefighters, the latter with water hoses in their hands and fire engines behind them. With no path forward, no way through the barricades, Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, said defiantly to these Christians, “Turn this group around!” And the Lord’s people in front of him — our Lord’s people — stopped and waited. In his book An Easy Burden, Andrew Young, who would later become the Mayor of Atlanta, describes that very moment. He writes:

I can’t say we knew what to do. I know I didn’t want to turn the march around, whatever the consequences. So . . . I asked the people to get down on their knees and offer a prayer.[3]

And that’s what happened. Thousands dropped to their knees and began to pray until eventually a Black minister, a pastor from the church where they had started:

. . . jumped up and hollered, “The Lord is with this movement! Off your knees! We’re going on . . . Stunned at first, Bull Connor yelled, “Stop ‘em, stop ‘em!” But none of the police moved a muscle. . . . Even the police dogs that had been growling and straining at their leashes . . . were now perfectly calm.[4]

Andrew Young goes on to write that:

I saw one fireman, tears in his eyes, just let the hose drop at his feet. Our people marched right between the red fire trucks, singing, “I want Jesus to walk with me.” . . . [Bull Connor’s] policemen had refused to arrest us, his firemen had refused to hose us, and his dogs had refused to bite us. It was quite a moment to witness: I’ll never forget one old woman who became ecstatic when she marched through the barricades. As she passed through, she shouted, “Great God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one mo’ time!”[5]


Now it would be very easy, too easy, to stop right there, shout “Hallelujah,” and leave inspired, at least momentarily. But I believe we have to ask ourselves to think about those times when there’s a very different ending, when we’re bathed not in tears of joy but in tears of pain. Because we all know, or will come to know, that happens.

It was an occasion of grace for me this past week, a surprise, to hear from a rabbi, of all people, on Twitter, of all places, a reflection on the Pietà — that sorrowful image from the middle ages of Mary holding the dead body of her son Jesus after his crucifixion. Most of us think of Michelangelo’s later sculpture of this from the Renaissance, but there are lots of other representations of it by different artists.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg had been reading a book about Mary by a Roman Catholic author, which caused her to tweet these words:

The Christian image of Pietà really took off around the time of the Black Death. It wasn’t safe for the grieving Europeans to embrace their (contagious) loved ones — but Mary could. I find that so powerful. And [it] makes me think about how our longings now are taking shape.”[6]

The responses to her tweet were powerful too — from memories of how this image was popular during the AIDS crisis and honesty about missing human touch right now, to all sorts of pictures —

. . . the limp body of Father Mychal Judge, a Roman Catholic priest, being carried away from the Twin Towers by firefighters on 9/11,

. . . a Black mother holding her son in her arms in front of a Target store with its symbol above her head as both halo and bullseye,

. . . Jesus as a COVID-19 patient being held by doctors in the armor of protective gear, like so many professionals across the street in the Texas Medical Center,

. . . and a famous painting by Titian from 1576, a personal plea for Mary to pray for him and his son to be spared from the plague in the City of Venice.

But neither he nor his son would be spared.

Does that mean they were abandoned by God when trapped between that cruel disease and the Red Sea, so to speak? Were those who died loved less than those who lived? I don’t believe that for them. I don’t believe that for us. I don’t even believe that for the Egyptian soldiers who died as victims of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. As the rabbis later wrote, they, too, were God’s handiwork.[7]

What Mary offers Titian, who is depicted in his own painting, is the body of her son. And Titian, the old man, gently holds the hand of his Savior, the answer to his prayer. There are hints of resurrection in this work of art, but the fear is real. It is palpable, like it was on the near shore of the Red Sea, like it might be for you.

Yet Titian had already been led through the waters of baptism. He was a Christian believer, and he knew that whatever happened next, God would have the last word — a word that brings new life, a new creation, a new beginning.

And that is good news for both you and me. Whatever it is that we’re looking at over our shoulder, whatever it is that we’re afraid of, God will make a way where there is no way. Not even the chariots of sin and death will be able to keep us, as children of God, from reaching the other shore, with a land of milk and honey in the distance, awaiting us, awaiting all of us. We, too, have been brought through the waters of baptism, bathed in forgiveness, clothed in Christ. Thus well arrayed, we need not fear at the last, when we awake, once and for all, held in his eternal loving embrace.


BACK TO POST J. Gerald Janzen, Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 101.

BACK TO POST Aaron M.G. Zimmerman, Rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas. Zimmerman shared this on the Mockingbird podcast Same Old Song, “Pentecost 15 (A): The Forgiveness Episode,” September 8, 2020.

BACK TO POST Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2008) 222. I was first introduced to this story and Young’s book in Fleming Ruledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

BACK TO POST Young 223.

BACK TO POST Young 223.

BACK TO POST Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR), Twitter, September 8, 2020. The book that Ruttenberg had been reading was Sally Cunneen’s In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol (New York: Ballantine, 1996).

BACK TO POST b. Sanhedrin 39b. Commenting on this scene and the fate of the Egyptians, it says: “At that time the ministering angels desired to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: My handiwork, i.e., the Egyptians, are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me? Apparently, God is not gladdened by the downfall of the wicked.”

And, yes, I am well aware of the theological statement in the prelude to this scene that it is God who hardened the heart of Pharaoh in order to bring glory to God’s own self. That’s a mystery to acknowledge and wrestle with in a different sermon.

The Fourth of July & Confederate Statues

Photo of Alamance County Courthouse in Graham, North Carolina, by Bob Karp

It’s not uncommon to hear people whose skin color looks similar to mine say that if your family history was deeply rooted for many generations in a small Southern town, you’d understand what the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse for that county represents. Two of my grandparents are buried in Alamance County, North Carolina, as many other relatives have been through the years. I even have a fourth-generation slaveholding cousin who was named in the 1914 dedicatory speech for the Confederate statue that stands in front of the Alamance County Courthouse in the center of the Town of Graham. He led a company of Confederate soldiers from that county, where he is also buried. So I know what it represents.

Black Americans whose ancestors were only emancipated from slavery after the defeat of the Confederacy know too. And that is why I believe, as an American and as a Christian, there’s a moral imperative to move it.

The atmosphere in which that dedication took place is well illustrated by the front page of the Greensboro Patriot newspaper from May 11, 1914. One article describes a district meeting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that had recently been held in Guilford County. The chapter from Graham reported that a monument to the Confederate soldiers of Alamance County had been completed and would be unveiled the following weekend. The article trumpets these words like a fanfare:

Nearly every month sees a new Confederate monument erected. A most important undertaking of the various chapters relates to the preservation of the true history of the Confederacy. This feature is to be stressed even more in the future than it has been in the past . . .[1]

The column beside those words has a report about a proposed movie theater that an association of Black churches wanted to establish on property owned by a well-known Black citizen in the City of Greensboro. According to that newspaper article, “a storm of protest arose from the white residents of the community.” They signed a petition opposing the proposal, showed up at a public forum with their “fighting clothes on, figuratively speaking,” and were represented by two attorneys. For example, the article describes at length one public comment, stating that:

. . . one of the good ladies who addressed the commissioners asserted that the common run of negroes care nothing for a moving picture show, anyway, and asked why should they go to see pictures of people cutting and shooting folks when they could engage in this pastime in reality.[2]

That is a very embarrassing but real testimony from the racist world in which the Confederate monument in neighboring Alamance County would be celebrated by a cheering crowd of white citizens five days after those words were printed on the front page of a newspaper. The guest speaker on that occasion was Henry A. London from nearby Pittsboro. A week after the Wilmington “Race Riot” of 1898, in which an armed white mob took control of the City of Wilmington and expelled Black elected leaders, London published these words in the Chatham Record:

Wilmington is once more ruled by respectable white men and all her citizens are now safe and secure in their lives, liberty and property.[3]

In his speech sixteen years later in front of the county courthouse in Graham, London went out of his way to note that the soldiers of the Union army included “186,097 negroes” and that some of the Confederate veterans listening to him in the audience who had been prisoners of war:

. . . may, (I am telling the truth about it), have been guarded by negro soldiers who would shoot your comrades down without any excuse.[4]

In contrast to that, London was standing there in Graham, as the local Ku Klux Klan founder and leader who introduced him put it, to praise “the achievements of . . . our own race and blood,” something “in which we all have a common interest.”[5]

That was a rallying cry for white supremacy.

There’s an irony which should not be overlooked in London’s soaring rhetoric following the introduction of him as he described the “brave and gallant men” who marched off to war in rebellion and “the dangers and the hardships” they endured, which “the young people of to-day . . . cannot imagine.” It turns out that London wasn’t engaging in false modesty entirely when he said at the beginning:

I do not deserve to have been selected to address you on this occasion.[6]

Although described in the newspaper as a major, that rank had been bestowed upon him not by an army but by a veterans’ organization. London had been a private, serving only for the last several months of the war after he was forced to do so. Before that he had been a college student at the University of North Carolina and made this honest confession in a letter which he wrote to his sister in early 1864:

I would not care much if they did [conscript me], as I hate the idea of skulking, as it were, out of the army, when my Country needs my services so much, but yet when an exemption is proffered a man, he can scarcely be blamed for taking it.[7]

This crowd saw an exaggerated man, who sounded like a preacher as he thundered:

. . . and oh! what soldiers they were; men of Alamance, women of Alamance, children of Alamance, remember through all your lives to honor the living Confederate soldiers as well as the memory of the dead ones. Oh! it is a beautiful thing, eminently fit and proper to erect a monument in front of every court house throughout our Southland in memory of the Confederate soldiers.[8]

Those statues would be painful reminders to Black Americans passing by that they would not be treated equally under the law inside those buildings, which were supposed to be symbols of justice for the entire community.

Seventy years before those front-page articles were printed in the Greensboro Patriot, that same newspaper published the names of Whig candidates standing for election in various counties throughout North Carolina.[9] One of them was my great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., who was a candidate in 1844 to represent Chatham County, where London lived, in the North Carolina House of Commons. Hackney was a slaveholder in Chatham County, as was his father and grandfather. To the immediate right of his name in that list was this public notice:

To those who are citizens of Alamance County or places like it, please think about what you want your courthouse to say about your community. What, for example, will future generations read in archived news reports that are recording how we think about these things today? Is it a “self-evident” truth for you on this national holiday “that all [human beings] are created equal,” including Black lives?[10]

If you proudly display an American flag, Old Glory, outside your home on Independence Day, what does that symbol mean to you as you consider the wellbeing of your neighbors, including the American descendants of those whose Black bodies were once sold on courthouse steps? Many of their families, like my own, are “from here,” wherever that might be throughout the South. And they have just as much right to be included in “our” history as people who look like me. Of that I am certain. So take down these statues, and if you decide to move them somewhere else, tell the whole story.

BACK TO POST “Daughters of Confederacy: District Meeting Held in This City Showed Good Work Accomplished,” The Greensboro Patriot, May 14, 1914.

BACK TO POST “Negro Moving Picture Show: White Folks Wouldn’t Stand for Its Location in Their Vicinity,” The Greensboro Patriot, May 14, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, editorial, The Chatham Record, November 17, 1898.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Jacob A. Long, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted by Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2020) 48.

BACK TO POST Henry A. London, quoted in “Maj. London’s Address: Presentation of Confederate Monument to County and Acceptance,” The Alamance Gleaner, May 28, 1914.

BACK TO POST “Whig Candidates,” The Greensboro Patriot, June 15, 1844.

10 BACK TO POST The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. The preamble includes these words that are familiar to many Americans:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.