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]

AMEN

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.

AMEN

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.

AMEN

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 16 years old, 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 Rev’d HENRY JOHN BURGES,
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.

AMEN

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.

AMEN

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]

Wow.

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.

AMEN

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. https://twitter.com/TheRaDR/status/1303512325761228801?s=20. 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.

My Last Will and Testament, Part II

Joel Cannon, my fourth great-grandfather, was a farmer in Caswell County, North Carolina. His wife, and mother of their five children, died before he signed his last will and testament in 1829. Joel had the means to leave something for all of them. Each of his three daughters, however, received an extra gift. To his daughter Sally, he bequeathed “One Negro Boy named Patrick,” and to his daughter Dorcas he bequeathed “One Negro Boy named Wilkes.” In each of those cases, his instructions were very clear: After the death of their respective mistresses, the enslaved person was “to be sold and the profits equally divided among all the children of the said [daughter] or their legal representatives.” The rest of his estate was to be sold and equally divided among his children, “except Anne Powell, to whom property has heretofore been advanced.” Anne, the youngest of his three daughters, is my great-great-great-grandmother and had married a man named Thomas B. Powell.

Anne’s father had established for her “sole and separate use” a trust, which owned three enslaved Africans — Peggy and her two children, Milly and John. Anne was supposed to receive the proceeds from hiring them out. For the most part, that didn’t happen. So the proceeds held by the trust grew to about $1,500 by the 1850s. Additionally, after her death, these enslaved persons and any children they might have were to be divided between Anne’s children. Samuel M. Cobb, a distant cousin of mine, became the administrator of Anne’s estate after she died in 1855 without a will. He was also one of her sons-in-law and sought legal advice together with Anne’s other two sons-in-law. The opinion of the lawyer they hired was that Anne’s children were owed not only Peggy, Milly, and John but also the accrued funds in the trust.

Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, the lawyer thought it would be best to have Anne’s widower sign a deed to clarify this. So a legal document to that effect was taken by Samuel from the courthouse to the home of a witness about ten miles away. And there Samuel got both his father-in-law Thomas and the witness to sign the deed Old Testament-style, as if reenacting a story about the patriarchs from the pages of Genesis, because “it being night, and there being no light at hand, they were not able to read the paper, and it was never read to or by [his father-in-law] at all.” Truth be told, it didn’t really matter for Thomas. He could neither read nor write.

There would eventually be conflicting testimony in court about who said what to whom that night. In addition to summarizing for his father-in-law the legal opinion that had been given to the children, Samuel thought that, completely separate from the contents of the legal document, he probably told his father-in-law that Peggy would be able to work for him some to do housekeeping. But the witness heard Samuel say “that if he signed that paper he would sign away all of his interest in the estate finally and forever, and we have all agreed to give you the old Negro woman Peggy.” The witness went on to say that Thomas was fine with that because “he only wanted her to cook and wash for him” and that Samuel told his father-in-law that Peggy would have to come back to the children after his death. That was agreeable to Thomas, so he signed the paper, stating his belief that the lawyer would never harm him. The children would later repudiate the way Samuel obtained that signature.

Once it became evident to Thomas that Peggy would not be given to him, he sought out legal counsel, whereupon he came to believe he was entitled to the $1,500 or so which had accrued in the trust. Then, claiming that his signature on the deed had been obtained improperly and that the trustee should have paid him the money anyway, Thomas sued the trustee, his four children by his late wife, and his three sons-in-law. The case went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which invalidated the deed in 1856, awarding the money to Thomas and declaring that his children from Anne were entitled to Peggy, Milly, and John as their  property.

That was the legal side of things, which was pretty straightforward. But there was a darker side to this story beyond the unseemly fact that it was about profits earned from the labor of enslaved Africans and the movement of human beings from one household to another as property. These details are known only because the North Carolina Supreme Court made another ruling in this case, which was referenced in legal footnotes as late as 1961 in Rules of Practice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina, about the striking of “scandalous, impertinent, and irrelevant matter.”

The four children of Anne Powell believed there were other reasons why their father should not be entitled to the possession of Peggy, Milly, and John. They claimed:

. . . that he had abandoned his family and taken up with women of ill-fame; that at one time he had left his wife and children for eighteen months and gone to Louisiana, not having made any provision for them; that [he] was dissipated, careless and wasteful, and was a spendthrift; that he had beaten his wife with a horsewhip, and that a certain negro woman, named Peggy, had often protected her mistress from the brutal violence of [their father].

They also said that their father was never dissatisfied with the arrangement until:

. . . [he] had married one of his kept mistresses, when he became very anxious to get a negro to wait on his wife, and her children who had the misfortune to be born out of wedlock.

At the beginning of 1856, Thomas had married a woman named Mary Ann Combs, who was 30 years younger than his first wife. The 1860 United States Federal Census shows them living in the same household with an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. Those children were born before Anne’s death, and both of them had been given the surname of Powell. Also living with them was a 16-year-old “idiotic” boy named William Poteat. While I don’t know what happened to the eight-year-old boy, the daughter, Donna Versa Powell, was definitely alive when Thomas signed his will in April of 1862. In that will, Thomas provides for his second wife Mary to use his property for the rest of her natural life, with everything eventually going to his daughter Donna. He then states the following, as if contrasting his hopes for Donna with his disappointment in his “lawful children,” as he describes them elsewhere:

I wish my Daughter Donna Versa to be respectful, obedient & kind to her mother & that with the assistance and advice of my Brother John to give her such advantages as my circumstances will allow. Now in regard to my children from my first wife . . . I leave them and their heirs nothing more than I have left them before.

I can’t help but wonder, of course, if my great-great-great-grandmother Anne Powell was murdered as a direct result of domestic violence. And I imagine that Peggy, and perhaps her two children, also experienced brutality at the hands of a man who wasn’t really their master but merely the spouse of their mistress. In her book Our Common Affairs: Texts from Women in the Old South, historian Joan Cashin notes the bond between Anne and Peggy because of “a common enemy in the household” and that such an alliance, although created out of shared trauma, was rare for the time.

Thomas signed his will less than three weeks after enlisting to serve North Carolina as a Confederate soldier in the cavalry. Less than two and a half years later, he died in Virginia as a patient in a Confederate hospital during the Siege of Petersburg. My great-great-great-grandfather is one of about 30,000 Confederate soldiers buried in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery, and his grave is among the minority of those burials that are known and identified. Would that the graves of Anne, Peggy, Milly, and John were also known so that I could visit them to pay my respects, grieving their suffering in this world and praying for their consolation in the world to come.

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

The Last Supper in a Confederate Hospital

Years ago I arrived early to officiate at a graveside funeral in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, and had plenty of time to walk alone through a nearby section with more than 18,000 graves of enlisted Confederate soldiers. Even though I do not embrace or glorify the Confederate cause, as some of them who were conscripted also surely didn’t, I just stood there silently, overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all.

South of Richmond, in the City of Petersburg, is a less well-known burial ground called Blandford Cemetery, second in size in that commonwealth only to Arlington National Cemetery. In the section for Civil War soldiers there at Blandford are buried about 30,000 Confederates, of which only about 3,700 have names and other information attached to them. Those burials are grouped by the states from which they came, row after row of mostly anonymous graves, and row after row of grief.

Even the identified graves at Blandford have the same generic headstones as the anonymous graves, without any names on them. They look like this one, which marks the grave of Thomas B. Powell, who is my great-great-great-grandfather. On March 14, 1862, he enlisted and served as a private in the “Caswell Rangers,” which later became Company C, 3rd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry (also known confusingly as the 41st Regiment, North Carolina Troops). He was buried here on August 23, 1864, which was the same day he died in a hospital during the Siege of Petersburg.

Powell had been a patient at the Confederate States Hospital, only one of numerous Confederate hospitals in Petersburg that cared for wounded soldiers. Inside that hospital were hundreds of beds across three floors of a building that had previously been a tobacco factory. This photograph of it was taken at some point in 1865.

Nearly six months after Powell died in that hospital, a Confederate cavalry officer named George William Beale was admitted there. After the war, he wrote a book that included a chapter about his experience as a patient. This is what he saw:

. . . there were those in every stage of convalescence and others in every stage of physical decline and approaching dissolution. Many from horrible wounds were suffering intense pain, with no heart-rending screams, but with clinched fingers and grim writhings of face and heavily suppressed moans and groans that bespoke horrible agony.

Beale, who later took his meals at his bed, finding that his appetite decreased daily, describes in the quote below his first — and last — communal supper there:

That which impressed me most during this meal was not its poverty, scantiness and meanness, so much as the feeble motions, trembling limbs, wan and cadaverous appearance of those who partook of it. Sidney Smith tells of a corpulent person, who, suffering from the intensity of the heat, wished that he might divest himself of his flesh “and sit in his bones.” Most of my comrades at that hospital table had nearly reached the attenuated state of such a wish. Their cheeks were hollow, their eyes sunken, their countenances dejected and forlorn, and a ghastly pallor appeared in their faces. A few feeble candles lit up the gathering darkness of the long room, cast a pale and sickly light on the group, and made me feel much as though I had entered some dim Plutonian chamber and was breaking bread (that was all there was to break) with pallid shades of the dead.

As an Episcopal priest, I cannot read these words without imagining it as a kind of prelude, however strange, to the heavenly banquet, with an unexpected guest list — all of them wounded and sitting in the shadow of death, many of them very much ungodly and unloving in the cause for which they fought, some of them desiring freedom from earthly tortures while still believing the torture of enslaved Africans was divinely ordained within the pages of the Bible. Good Lord, deliver them and us from ourselves, and be our guest at this table that we, however undeserving, might be guests at your Table, the wrongs within us and around us having been righted.

I know that sounds offensive not only to those who refuse to see white supremacy woven into the fabric of the Confederacy but also to people who are only able to conceive of God’s justice purely, without mercy and forgiveness and the power to dismantle, destroy, and conquer forever the evil that resides within a human heart. Yet this passage from the Epistle to the Christians in Rome often comes to mind:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then . . . will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.[1]

Beale observed that when a patient had taken a turn for the worse and was deemed almost certain to die, a yellow card was placed on his cot over his head. When death had become the last visitor to a such a man lying in great weakness, four black men, enslaved or free, would bring a stretcher and bear the body away for burial. He said that once, late at night, a soldier dying near him asked them to sing hymns so that, as Beale described it, he would depart from this life “on the wings of holy songs that he loved.” I have to wonder if those singing could imagine true freedom not only in the world to come but also in this world — for themselves and their families.

Another time, closer to the early morning, Beale was awakened by the rattling of the apothecary bottles that were stored near him on shelves. A delirious man lying on the cot next to his own, with a yellow card hanging over his head, had apparently decided to take matters into his own hand. By morning’s full arrival he was dead. Then, as they did for saint and sinner alike, for patients who treated them well and those who didn’t, the usual crew of four came to take away his body, finally at rest.

I don’t know how my great-great-great-grandfather died within those walls. But I do know a lot of other things about him. That’s because of a legal case, Powell v. Cobb, adjudicated by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1856. One of the rulings in that case about striking “scandalous, impertinent, and irrelevant matter” appeared in legal footnotes as late as 1961 in Rules of Practice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina. And here’s a reference to it from 1950 in The North Carolina Law Review:

So, yes, it’s true what you’re thinking. There is indeed scandalous behavior by Powell that shall be revealed in my next post, which I am delighted to know you will now read in its entirety. The whole situation was unseemly, even biblical. Yet in the spirit of 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, I think it is important to see things not as we wish them to be, but as they really are, including things in our own lives today.

BACK TO POST Romans 5:6-10.

An Embrace & An Old Confession

Two things happened last Wednesday that have really shaken me. The first was the remarkable scene in a courtroom after former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, a white woman, had the previous day been convicted of murdering Botham Jean, a Black man. The following day, during the sentencing phase, Botham’s brother Brandt Jean, a faithful Christian, took the stand and, without having told his relatives beforehand, stated that he forgave Amber and said to her, “I love you just like anyone else and I’m not going to hope you rot and die. I personally want the best for you.” Then he asked the judge for permission to hug Amber, which he did.

People are mad. People are mad at Amber. People are mad at Brandt. People are mad that white Christians have lauded this hug while continuing to remain deafeningly silent about police violence against Black Americans. People are mad that Botham Jean was slain at home. People would surely have been mad if the members of the jury had convicted Amber of a lesser charge. People are mad at those jurors anyway since they sentenced Amber to only 10 years in prison. People are also mad that rare but radical examples of forgiveness, like this hug, simply can’t be untangled from Christianity.

Yes, I understand other religions have very different understandings of forgiveness, who can offer it, and under what conditions it works, so to speak. I also understand that many Christians, liberal and conservative alike, would prefer that Christianity only proclaim forgiveness after both remorse and restitution. Jesus, however, forgave his torturers from the cross without their prior repentance. Now I don’t know what happened to those Roman soldiers after they had executed an innocent man in the name of law and order. But either their sins were forgiven or they weren’t. Either it’s true or it’s not. As a Christian, I believe what Jesus declared is true and that their sins were forgiven. I believe it’s true for them and for me too.

That doesn’t mean we always have the ability, on our own, to reflect that same forgiveness in the world around us. In this situation, I probably would have had to turn the forgiveness part over to God before writing my own imprecatory psalm to hand my anger over to God too. I don’t think I could have done what Brandt did. Yet I do believe in the power of forgiveness.

The Book of Common Prayer suggests that true repentance comes on the other side of forgiveness. It’s like the embrace of the parent in a famous parable told by Jesus who runs toward his wayward son, embracing him before he even gets to the house and before he can begin the speech of confession that he had practiced while at his lowest point. The son thought he was sorry then, but he’s surely more overwhelmed on the other side of that loving embrace, which was undeserved and unexpected.

Brandt’s forgiveness doesn’t unlock the door of the prison cell in which Amber now sits. And I want to be clear that I don’t think it should alter her sentence. What his forgiveness unlocks is the door of the prison cell in which he could easily have sat — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — for the rest of his life. As Brandt said in an interview about what he did in that courtroom, “This is what you have to do to set yourself free.” He also said, “We don’t know what’s going to happen [in the future].”

That reminded me of the words of the Christian theologian Miroslav Volf:

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

I can’t underscore enough how much more costly it is for someone like Brandt to take that first step under these circumstances than it would be for me. That’s because of the history of Black people in this country. I was made painfully aware of that on the day he spoke in that Dallas courtroom, not because of his mother’s passionate plea for justice beyond her murdered son’s case, which I only read later, but because of another killing.

Before I fell asleep that same night, I read a disturbingly matter-of-fact confession that was signed by John Green Lea a century ago in the summer of 1919. His father “owned” 58 enslaved Africans in 1860. His grandfather — my 5th great-grandfather — “owned” 74 enslaved Africans in 1830. So we’re first cousins, five times removed.

John supported the Confederacy as a corporal in Company C, 3rd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry. That fight, however, didn’t cease for him after the end of the Civil War. While he was still in his 20s, John organized and headed the Ku Klux Klan in Caswell County, North Carolina. His sister Ann was also a member of that white supremacist organization. She sewed the robes behind which Klan members hid their identities while performing acts of racial terrorism. Ann stored their robes in secret at Leahurst Plantation, where she and John were both raised as children and where the Klan now gathered, as needed, to put on that clothing of hatred.

Leading up to the 1870 election, there were two notorious political assassinations in the region. The first was the lynching of a Black man named Wyatt Outlaw in neighboring Alamance County. Wyatt had gone from being enslaved to having been appointed to the Graham Town Council and later as a constable there as well. He also served as president of the county chapter of the Union League of America. On the night of February 26, 1870, Wyatt was dragged from his home and hanged from a tree outside the county courthouse to show the Klan’s contempt for civil law.

The other was the murder of North Carolina State Senator John W. Stephens on May 21, 1870. This white politician was, like Wyatt, a member of both the Republican Party and the Union League of America. His popularity among Black voters in Caswell County and his work on their behalf are what angered the Klan. So the senator was assassinated, not outside the Caswell County Courthouse but inside it, and not under the cover of darkness but during the day. The confession that John Green Lea signed a hundred years ago contains no hint of remorse because it wasn’t written to ease the burden of his conscience nearly a half century after he had arranged and participated in the murder. Astonishly, it was written at the request of the North Carolina Historical Commission and sealed until his death in 1935. Here’s how he describes in great detail what happened in that courthouse:

To the right is the obituary for John Green Lea that appeared on the front page of The Bee newspaper in Danville, Virginia, on September 30, 1935. John’s confession is mentioned in the second paragraph. A separate notice at the bottom of that front page heralds in large print the solving of a 65-year-old mystery, stating that “a group of Ku Klux Klan members who knew the truth agreed never to tell until the last one was dead” and promising to publish John’s “hitherto sealed affidavit” the next day.

The obituary goes on to praise John’s devotion to the Confederacy and the fact that he “died a rebel.” His funeral in Danville was presided over by not only the Pastor of First Baptist Church but also the Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany. Note that there was a wreath of flowers provided by the United Daughters of the Confederacy for John’s “flaming spirit” both during the Civil War and during Reconstruction. They clearly saw that his fighting as a Confederate soldier to continue the enslavement of Africans and his later fighting as a member and leader of the Ku Klux Klan to minimize the freedoms of Black Americans were part of the same brutal political philosophy.

And the cherry on top of the sundae, so to speak, was the fact that “upon the bier reposed the battle flag of the Confederacy.” One can see here the roots of how that symbol would become weaponized in the 1960s in support of white supremacist ideology and in opposition to racial desegregation. And there are people who are still using that symbol in this way to intimidate their non-white neighbors.

In the midst of the trial of Amber Guyger, and more than a thousand miles away from Dallas, protesters who are upset that the Board of Commissioners in Chatham County, North Carolina, voted to remove a Confederate monument on the front lawn of the old county courthouse erected a large Confederate battle flag directly across the street from Horton Middle School. It was previously a high school for Black students during Jim Crow segregation, and it is named for George Moses Horton, a formerly enslaved man whose poems were published before his emancipation.

So when Brandt Jean walked across that courtroom in Dallas to embrace Amber Guyger, he was also walking across hundreds of years of white supremacy and racial hatred that have, unfortunately, continued into our own day. There was a great cost to the forgiveness that he offered. It was certainly unmerited. But he knows that he has received forgiveness in his own life, and he hopes that she might receive the gift of true repentance, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, in the next chapter of her life.

My Last Will and Testament, Part I

When Cornelia “Nealie” Dunevant was about 17 years old, she became pregnant by the son of a wealthy, slave-owning planter in Caswell County, North Carolina. It was a very likely scenario that I described in my earlier post “Bright Star and a Family Tree Secret,” which has been updated to reflect the fact that DNA testing seems to have confirmed the story. Nealie is my great-great-great-grandmother, and Weldon Edwards Williamson is my great-great-great-grandfather. About a year after the birth of their daughter Telula in 1855, Weldon, having moved on, married another woman. This man who lived to see the 20th century had 27 slaves in 1860, when he was 27 years old, and then fought for their continued enslavement as a Confederate cavalry officer.

Weldon’s father was “Royal George” Williamson, who “owned” 142 enslaved Africans as his personal property according to the 1850 United States Federal Census. The slave trade that began in British America and was enshrined in the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person, had flourished. Royal George’s great-great-great-grandfather Arthur Allen I created an estate in Surry County, Virginia, that illustrates well the growth of that awful trade in the buying and selling of human beings over nearly two centuries.

Arthur appears in Virginia in the middle of the 17th century. In 1665, as one of Surry County’s wealthiest men, he built a magnificent house that still stands today and would later become known as “Bacon’s Castle.” It’s the oldest brick dwelling in North America and one of only three surviving examples of High Jacobean architecture in the Western Hemisphere. The other two examples are on the island of  Barbados.

It was Arthur’s son, Arthur Allen II, my ninth great-uncle, who inherited this house. After the son had served for a second time as Speaker of the House of Burgesses, he was reelected in Surry County to that lower chamber of Virginia’s General Assembly but did not take his seat there in the spring of 1691 because he refused, “through Scruple of conscience,” to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. Since William and Mary had ascended the English throne after the Glorious Revolution, Arther Allen II wouldn’t take those oaths that were required of all public officials until 1702, after the death of the deposed King James II, when he was sworn in as a member of the governing body of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

Something that apparently did not trouble his conscience was his shift from the use of indentured servants to enslaved Africans on his estate. According to Preservation Virginia, which now owns Bacon’s Castle, there were four slaves on this plantation in 1675, 13 in 1700, 76 in 1830, and as many as 300 at the outset of the Civil War.

Although the Virginia roots of America’s original sin of slavery go back 400 years ago to Jamestown, with the arrival there in 1619 of “20 and odd” Africans who had been captured from a Portuguese slave ship, slavery as an American institution that was based on racial identity was really fueled by Bacon’s Rebellion. That was an armed rebellion, which included both poor Europeans and poor Africans, against the royal governor of Virginia in 1676. For four months of that year, Arthur Allen II’s house was occupied by 70 of these rebels, who plundered his belongings and destroyed his crops. So that is the origin of the nickname Bacon’s Castle. This video explains what all of that has to do with the history of chattel slavery and, in a real sense, the forging of the idol of white supremacy in British America and the United States:

While the title of this series of posts is “My Last Will and Testament,” I didn’t quote from anyone’s legal will, although I did refer to the large inheritance of a plantation. A future post, however, will contrast the will of Royal George Williamson and his great-grandfather William Eaton. One contains nary a word of religious language, while the other includes an introduction with some beautiful theological statements that I embrace wholeheartedly as a Christian. Yet both of those documents pass on human beings as property to the next generation. The one with Christian language does so, without any hint of conflict, as if dealing out cards in a game of poker.

Interestingly, my wife is a graduate of the law school at the College of Willam and Mary, and for six and a half years I served as Associate Rector at Bruton Parish Church, where we were married in 2003. We had wanted to do something a little different for our rehearsal dinner on the night before the wedding. So our family members and wedding party guests drove with us in a caravan from Williamsburg to the small town of Surry, taking a car ferry across the James River to get there.

I always found it impossible not to think about American history on that ferry ride. On one side of the river was the site of the Jamestown settlement. On the other side was Surry County, which, at least back then, had a landscape that surely didn’t look much different than it did in the 19th century. Eating and laughing at the Surrey House Restaurant, we were sitting about seven and a half miles from Bacon’s Castle without a clue about the history of that place and my connection to it (and without a clue about my wife’s connection to Jamestown), both as a member of the family into which I was born and as an American whose real white privilege is a result of that.

The next time I’m on that ferry and feel the wind in my face, I’ll be thinking about our rehearsal dinner and our wonderful years in Williamsburg, but I’ll also be thinking about all of this. I hope and pray that, by God’s mercy, my conscience will still be troubled by the latter and my love for others will have been shaped by it.

There’s a temptation to read the opening stanzas of William Cullen Bryant’s 1866 poem about the end of slavery’s “cruel reign” and believe the empty fields that still surround Bacon’s Castle, “seem[ing] now to bask in a serener day,” symbolize a promise fulfilled to African Americans after the Civil War. That freedom, however, eroded rapidly after the end of Reconstruction as the sun set on the 19th century. The effects of widespread lynching and other forms of violence inflicted upon African Americans, the voter intimidation and disenfranchisement of African Americans, and the white supremacist ideology frequently praised in the words of guest speakers before cheering crowds at the unveiling of Confederate monuments in the early 20th century sadly remain with us today. Lord, heal us and help us all.

O THOU great Wrong, that, through the slow-paced years,
Didst hold thy millions fettered, and didst wield
The scourge that drove the laborer to the field,
And look with stony eye on human tears,
Thy cruel reign is o’er;
Thy bondmen crouch no more
In terror at the menace of thine eye;
For He who marks the bounds of guilty power,
Long-suffering, hath heard the captive’s cry,
And touched his shackles at the appointed hour,
And lo! they fall, and he whose limbs they galled
Stands in his native manhood, disenthralled.

A shout of joy from the redeemed is sent;
Ten thousand hamlets swell the hymn of thanks;
Our rivers roll exulting, and their banks
Send up hosannas to the firmament.
Fields, where the bondman’s toil
No more shall trench the soil,
Seem now to bask in a serener day;
The meadow-birds sing sweeter, and the airs
Of heaven with more caressing softness play,
Welcoming man to liberty like theirs.
A glory clothes the land from sea to sea,
For the great land and all its coasts are free.

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