While we customarily locate ourselves at the origin of the journey Jesus commends in this morning’s Gospel appointment, this month’s General Convention of The Episcopal Church has made central Texas a destination for many of our fellow sojourners, and, closing my eyes, I see clearly the holy one descending to meet with us here in Austin. He and his band of disciples have traveled from town to town and city to city, bringing good news to poor and rich alike. A troublemaker, over these many years he has often run afoul of the authorities, but, though they have sought his arrest, he has managed to slip their grasp. Yes, and while we Episcopalians – whether those of us who live here, or those we welcome as our guests and friends – while we gathered across the city on a rainy Fourth of July, he stands before the throng, glowing: sun-bleached skin, long hair, and beard, and vested in a single tunic (a simple black vest) he smiles, raises his hand to signal his brood, and blessing the crowd, counts off, pleading to heaven … “Whiskey River, take my mind! Don’t let her memory torture me.”
Indeed, I speak of none other than the Hill Country prophet, Willie Hugh Nelson [who else could I have been describing?!] and while this week’s 35th edition of Willie’s Fourth of July picnic might not have seemed like church at first glance, take another look: Michael Hall of Texas Monthly explains, “His [faithful do] come for the music and the ritual: ‘Whiskey River’ first…[and] gospel songs at the end” – you know, that’s how I’m hoping this sermon is going to go, too: ‘Whiskey River’ first, and Gospel at the end – “but mostly [Willie’s parishioners] are there just to be in the same space as [he is],”[i] and, for a time, to be enraptured in a moment more hopeful and more united than their uneven experience in this tired world … Now, that does sound like church.
So, how could it possibly come to pass that this red-headed, Texas stranger would one day sing duets with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa to Snoop Dog? In a reflection penned for his 65th birthday – now 20 years ago, Willie turned 85 this April – his longtime friend, Gary Cartwright, remembers, Willie “wrote ‘Crazy’ and ‘Night Life’ in the same week, driving in the early morning hours [of the middle 1950s] from the Esquire Club on the east side of Houston, where he was playing six nights a week, to the apartment in Pasadena where he lived with his first wife, Martha Jewel Mathews, and their three kids …
“[He] worked by day selling vacuum cleaners or encyclopedias door-to-door … Whatever it took to survive, Willie did. He sold all the rights to ‘Night Life’ (including claim of authorship) for a measly $150 … [O]ne of the greatest blues numbers of all time[, it’s] been recorded by everyone from B.B. King to Aretha Franklin, but Willie … had to use [an] alias … the first time he recorded [the song he had written]… [But songw]riters were like painters, Willie believed: An artist sells a creation as soon as it is finished so that he will have enough money to create again”[ii] … An artist sells a creation as soon as it is finished so that he will have enough money to create again.
Now, I don’t want to pull the string too tight between Willie and Jesus, but that ethos – commending fidelity to a vocation and trusting that such faithfulness will produce any necessary provision – does find Gospel attestation this morning, as when Jesus “orders [his disciples] to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.”[iii] Their faith, he commends, will be enough.
Faithful to his music (if not his marriage vows), Willie moved to Nashville with his next wife, Shirley Collie, and, as Cartwright explains “By the mid-sixties everyone was recording Willie’s songs, but no one was buying Willie’s records. Disillusioned, [Nelson] bought a farm outside of town and determined to be a gentlemen farmer-songwriter. He smoked a pipe, wore overalls, raised weaner pigs with fellow musician Johnny Bush, and gained thirty pounds on Shirley’s good country cooking. By 1968, however, he was on the road again, and…[as] Willie [writes] in his book, he and Shirley “were boozing” and “swallowing enough pills to choke Johnny Cash.”[iv]
Not long after this marriage ended, his home in Ridgetop, Tennessee burned to the ground. Discerning a call for change, in 1970 Willie Nelson moved back to Texas, this time to Austin, where a new homemaking would begin and take special hold at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Located only a stone’s throw from last night’s “Episcopal Revival” at the Palmer Events Center, the ‘Dillo was a onetime National Guard armory just behind The Skating Palace, a venue, Cartwright recalls, that hosted a “wonderfully weird convergence of hippies and rednecks that would change music history”[v] and Texas history, forever. Willie would play there for the first time on August 12, 1972, headlining a new kind of crossover music and community – “cosmic country” as Gram Parsons, front-man of The Flying Burrito Brothers, would call it.[vi]
Though the Armadillo World Headquarters closed in 1980, its spirit can still be found at Willie Nelson concerts even now, and natives who know will point to those assemblies and declare, “That is Austin, Texas.” See, Willie still attracts the survivors, those who first saw him in the early 70s, and whether in the intervening decades they’ve swapped barrooms for courtrooms (on either side of the bench) does not matter. Willie calls, too, to the nostalgia-seekers of my generation, those whose parents dropped the needle on his long-players in our childhood living rooms and pushed his 8-track cartridges into the tape decks of our avocado-green Oldsmobiles. He brings together cannabis-advocates and hand-waving Evangelicals, stiff-shirted politicos and blue-collared roughnecks, punk-rock guitarists and cowboy fiddlers, all of them waiting to hear Willie bend a string and stoke their belief in a movement greater than themselves: a past that seemingly almost was, and a future that still might be.
Steering back into the Gospel – its past that seemingly almost was, and its future that still might be – I wonder if Jesus were glad to come home. Having been away for a long while and having been busy with everyone’s needs but his own, I wonder if the promise of an evening with his family and in the joyful company of his oldest friends reassured him during exhausted nights, that when he laid his head down on distant soils he imagined his father and mother and brothers and sisters.
Even so, “He could do no mighty work there”[vii] … could do no. Perhaps a prophet’s hometown is not like Superman’s kryptonite, but that Jesus’ weakness was a function of his own heart, and not of God’s order. That is, having been hurt by these who grew up with him and whom he loved, perhaps Jesus simply could not muster the will for “deeds of power,”[viii] for as he sought reunion, he found jealousy and suspicion, dismissal and meanness.
While Willie played The Circuit of the Americas last Wednesday, we at Good Shepherd hosted two events: one here, and one at our second campus, Good Shepherd on the Hill. On this campus, we began with a Texas barbeque welcoming the international guests of General Convention. These dignitaries arrived on a giant bus – not much smaller than Willie’s Honeysuckle Rose – and as they processed into the Parish Life Center, our parish greeted them with brisket, potato salad, and cold beer.
The original plan then expected the whole busload to make their way to The Hill, where we would all watch the fireworks over downtown. However, the weather conspired with what had been for them a very long day, and some of our guests retired early to their hotel, leaving only a faithful remnant to join us in the dark drizzle on Woodland Avenue.
Greeting them at the bottom of the trail, I met the Most Reverend Nathaniel Oematsu, Primate of Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the Anglican Church of Japan. As he and I walked, he shared that he had graduated from the Seminary of the Southwest here in Austin, just as I had. Moreover, while in seminary, he and his wife attended Good Shepherd, and he told me the story of their first Sunday here.
He explained that, in those years, his wife’s English was not yet as strong as his, and after their mid-morning worship at this altar, they stood in line at the main, west doors, to greet Mr. Baxter, the rector who served here from 1954 to 1985. With slow and labored speech, Mrs. Oematsu greeted Sam with a bow and announced, “Good evening.” Bishop Oematsu remembered noticing Sam notice her error, before, after a short pause, Mr. Baxter turned to her and warmly replied, “Good evening. It was lovely to worship with you.”
“That’s when I knew this church would be our home,” Bishop Oematsu happily recalled.
Whenever and wherever we assemble for a reunion – even a legislatively-based one, like General Convention – we experience homecoming, gathering with many of those who have known us best and longest.[ix] Anticipating that time together, we ready ourselves with healthy and important musings on our common life – the practical labor of Convention – and then we choose: either to open a tender access to our hearts, braving our best dreams of making a difference and kindling friendships; or to wall ourselves, hiding behind fear, posturing, and the rules of debate.
As we convene as a Church, let us gather in the Austin, Texas of the Armadillo World Headquarters, and dance with unlikely partners.
As we convene as a Church, let us choose to sow the very ordinary kindness of meeting one another without judgment, and making room for those different than ourselves.
As we convene as a Church, let us choose to reunion in vulnerability and love – for in a world threatening a new disaster every morning, such community stands not as indulgence, but as prophesy! – and enraptured in a moment more hopeful and more united than our uneven experience in this tired world, may that Gospel river never run dry.
In the name of God,