A family was driving in the car on a trip. The little girl, who I will call Sally, insisted on standing up right behind her father’s head. Finding this distracting he asked her to sit down. And she did for a few minutes but then she forgot and hopped up behind his head. Finally he stopped the car and turned around, sat her down and told her to stay there. He resumed driving. In a little while a little voice was heard from the back seat. It said, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”
Sally points to the dilemma in which all human beings live – that our insides and our outsides do not match up all that well. We can put on a good front (in public) but under our facade – there is pain and brokenness. That is the human condition.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells a parable. A parable, by its’ very nature, is a story which contradicts and brings into question a commonly held belief. Jesus says, “What do you think? A man had two sons. He said to the first – go and work today. The son said, ‘No,’ but later he went and worked. The man said to his second son, go and work today. The son said, ‘Yes, I’ll go.’ But he never go there. Which one did the will of the father.” “The first one.” “I tell you that harlots and tax-collectors will go into the Kingdom of God before you.” That harlots and tax-collectors would make it into the Kingdom at all was a shock. But that they would get in before the good religious folk was a deeply contradictory thought for them.
God’s call to us, as it was to them, is a call to attentive consciousness. Religious people are qualitatively no different from sinners. Nobody’s insides really match their outsides. The difference was that the sinners were conscious of their brokenness and the religious folk were not. Frederick Beuchner says that, “the Gospel is always bad news before it is good news.” The bad news is that the Kingdom of God is not ours on our terms. The Good News is that the Kingdom’s terms are better. What does this say to us? We Christians find it fairly easy to make our outsides look good (at least when we think folks are looking). But that is the easy part. In our honest moments we admit that each of us is broken – that in us are deep contradictions – the dark and the light, good and evil, sin and virtue. In the midst of our very best intentions we find the shadow.
St Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “ 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
Now, to our way of thinking, when we hear the word, “form” we think in terms of shape. The form of something is the shape it takes. This was not so for the Greeks. To their way of thinking, the word, “form” refers to the outward expression a person gives to his or her innermost nature. This is not assumed or varnished on the outside but proceeds from the inside, so that the outward form is a genuine expression of the inner reality. What Paul is saying is that the glory of the Father is a genuine expression of Jesus’ nature but that he put aside the outward expression of glory and by his birth as a human being he put on the outward expression of servant hood. He was not pretending to be a servant, but rather servant-hood was as much a genuine expression of Jesus’ inner nature as glory.
For example, what Paul describes in his letter to the Church at Philippi is the opposite of what happened to Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Jesus and three disciples went up the mountain. There as Jesus prayed he was transfigured. For a moment the outward expression of a servant was replace by glory. In this computer age we might say, his outward form of servant defaulted to the outward form of glory. The account says that his face and clothing were brilliantly bright. Both glory and servant-hood are genuine expressions of who God is in Christ Jesus. Jesus was consistent all the way through his being – without contradiction.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
How do we have this mind? The most basic and continuing step is to become conscious of who we are and who we are not. Then the process of integration begins and continues. We must be conscious of our inner contradiction. This is painful and our natural reaction is to avoid such a state of being.
The story is told by Carl Jung of a pastor who came to see him. The man was overworked and burned out. Jung told him to work eight hours a day and then spend the evenings alone by himself. In a couple of weeks the pastor returned no better and perhaps worse off than before. Jung said he was surprised that there was no improvement and inquired about the man’s following his instructions. The man said that he had worked eight hours and that in the evenings he had listened to Mozart and read Shakespeare. Jung replied that the man had misunderstood his instructions. He was not to spend the evenings with Mozart and Shakespeare but to spend the evening alone with HIMSELF. The man said that he couldn’t imagine anything worse that that. To which Jung said, “The very person you can not stand to be with is the very person you are inflicting on everyone else every day!”
When faced with our inner brokenness we often do one of two things: We ignore or deny our condition. Grace comes not by denial or ignoring. Graces comes when we face our brokenness, acknowledge our shadow. The tension of facing our contradictions opens a crack in the shell of our ego and grace seeps in. We bring ourselves, the good and bad, to the Holy One and ask for healing. The process of healing/salvation is that over time our insides and outsides can both reflect the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
That is what happens at this Eucharist. We come bringing all our stuff with us and present the gift of our lives at the altar. We, all the parts of us, meet the risen Christ, here in this bread and wine – and we go from here a little more whole than we arrived. The Gospel is always bad news before it is good news. The bad news is we all will die. The good news is that we don’t have to die sick. Come risen Lord and be known to us in the breaking of the bread. Amen
Constance and Her Companions, Martyrs of Memphis
14 SEPTEMBER 2008
One hundred thirty years ago this month, a group of people were martyred in Memphis, Tennessee. Their dying was the consequence of their choice to remain in the city, during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, to nurse the sick and dying. Who were these people?
1. Constance was an Episcopal nun of the order of the Sisters of St. Mary. She had come to Memphis as Sister Superior of a new ministry in the South. Sister Constance was reared a Unitarian in Boston. You can imagine that her family had been less than pleased when she had been baptized in the Episcopal Church. They were extremely opposed to her becoming a nun. In 1878 She was thirty-three years old and by all accounts a talented artist, an able teacher and linguist, a beautiful attractive woman.
Other sisters served in Memphis:
2. Sister Thecla, a native of Georgia recently professed, worked in the school.
3. Sister Hughetta, twenty-five, still a Novice, was a member of the eminent Snowden family in Memphis, helped in the school.
4. Sister Ruth was the daughter of a County Judge in Newburgh NY.
5. Sister Clare
Two priests are also commemorated:
6. Charles Carroll Parsons is a favorite of mine. His grandsons and daughters, great-grandchildren, and great great grandchildren were members of The Chapel of the Cross where I was once Rector. He was an 1861 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. He was in the famous class that graduated in the Spring of 1861 and fought each other that Summer. He fought at Shiloh and many other battles. He had commanded the Union artillery at Perryville, Kentucky. At Perryville, his entire gun crew was killed. When the confederate forces came up the hill, realizing that he could not escape, Parsons drew his sword and stood at parade rest awaiting his impending death. The Southerners were so impressed by his courage that they allowed him to walk off the battlefield untouched.
After the war, Parsons served in the West and was George Custer’s defense counsel when Custer was court-martialed. While an instructor at West Point, Parsons had been present in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, and heard Bishop Quintard preach on repentance and the divine life. The result was his confirmation and ordination. In the 1870’s he came as Rector of St. Lazarus Parish in Memphis. It was at this time he married the granddaughter of the Johnstones who built the Chapel of the Cross. When the yellow fever epidemic came in 1878 he stayed in Memphis unwilling as always to abandon his post.
7. Mr. Schuyler was of aristocratic background, a Roosevelt on his mother’s side, and son of the Rector of Christ Church, St. Louis. He was only twenty-seven, and his family violently opposed his coming to Memphis. By his own account, when he learned that all the priests in Memphis were sick with the fever he felt a call to come to help. He worked around the clock for four days and then contracted the fever.
A close friend of Charles Parsons, Major Belton Mickle wrote, “Mr. Parsons had faced death many times in the Civil War, never more bravely than now. All the other priests were sick with the fever so he read for himself the commendatory prayer for the dying and, shortly before he died at 10:30, murmured the words of the first Christian martyr, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Sister Hughetta wrote later that Sunday, September 8, was the darkest day of all. Some two hundred new cases were reported, and as many deaths. She felt herself growing weak and feared she would die before sister Constance. Late in the evening she was put to bed with a raging fever, and at mid-night heard Sister Constance in the next room exclaim “Hosanna!” again and again until her voice trailed off. It was her last word. (The words Alleluia Hosanna on this altar table commemorate her last words.) At ten on Monday morning Sister Constance died. She was robed in her habit and carried to chapel, in her arms some white roses that Dr. Harris and received and wanted her to have. The hymn, Christ is Made the Sure Foundation, which we will sing at the retiring procession today, was sung at the burial office of Sister Constance.
Mr. Schuyler read the burial office, and Sisters Frances, Clare and Ruth, with Mrs. Bullock, drove out in a raw drizzle to Elmwood Cemetery where Dr. Dalzell read the interment prayers. The body had to be placed in Mrs. Bullock’s family vault until the following day, for the demand for graves exceeded the diggers’ ability to supply them. On Thursday Sept. 12, Sister Thecla entered into rest, and late in the day Mr. Schuyler was put to bed with a high fever.
The remainder of the story is awful in its brevity:
Saturday, September 14, Dr. Armstrong died.
Monday, September 16, Mrs. Bullock died.
Tuesday, September 17, the Rev. Mr. Schuyler died.
On the same day, a few hours later, Sister Ruth died.
On September 17, the Rev. Charles R. Huson arrived from Florida to assist; he was stricken with fever in a few days, but recovered. Sister Frances fell victim to a second attack of fever on October 1, and on October 4 (Feast of St. Francis) died. She had labored against overwhelming odds, with twenty to thirty children desperately ill and nurses difficult to find, even at the highest wages. Nineteen of her charges died, and she went to her bed from her God-child’s grave. All but four of the children at the Church Home had the fever.
Sisters Clare and Hughetta recovered sufficiently to put the Home to rights. When frost finally came, 5,150 persons were dead and Memphis itself died, the city’s charter was revoked, and for many years Memphis was merely a taxing district in the State of Tennessee. High and low were taken. The toll included Dr. Paul Otey, son the first Bishop of Tennessee; … toward the end of the epidemic, Jefferson Davis, Jr., only son of the President of the Confederacy.
We call these people saints because we see in them God’s grace strikingly revealed. We call them martyrs/witnesses, because they died for the faith.
But dying is not the only way to be a martyr. St. Clement of Alexandria, “The most perfect martyrdom is that of a person who, for love of Christ, have loved their fellows. … a life, lived before Christ, in self-control and love.”
HOW DID THEY DO THIS?
Someone has said that, “Suffering is the one promise life always keeps”. That is true. HOW we respond to what happens to us is more important than WHAT happens to us. Let us reflect on the Gospel reading for today. In the Gospel reading for today we hear the essence of John’s Gospel. In “Verses 23-24, Jesus declares, “I tell you, most solemnly, unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.
J. Sanford MYSTICAL CHRISTIANITY p. 247 “Hidden in each grain of wheat is en potentia (as a potential) the whole plant of wheat. As long as the grain is just a grain it remain just a single reality. “But if the grain dies, then in its dying there is released those forces that bring the plant to fruition,. and from that plant comes a future multitude of seeds. Thus the death of the single grain brings about the emergence of a great abundance. Christ uses this image to reveal the mystery of his own death. By dying on the cross great forces are unleashed that spread throughout the spiritual world. One could say that with the death of the physical incarnation of Christ there emerges the Cosmic Christ, the new consciousness that spreads throughout the world and takes root in the souls of countless people.” For those baptized into the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising from the dead, the protection of our own ego and its limited existence is no longer to be our ultimate concern. St. John shows us the root of the Christian response to the suffering life brings, “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”. Does this mean that you hate your life? No, I don’t think so. What I believe is that it points to a life rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Since the resurrection our hope is not based merely on ourselves. Our future is in the hands of the one who died and rose from the dead. We give up that which we cannot keep in order to gain that which we cannot lose. We are called to the life-long process of depending on God as we respond to the challenges of life. In matters of faith, like many other things in life, it’s not what you know, it’s WHO you know that matters.
The best most of us can mange is to give God our problems is to give God our problems, one at a time when they have become too much to bear. We call God in when we can’t handle life and then go on as before controlling everything around us.
Human beings learn very early that some things in life can’t be FIXED. We also learn that we do not want to experience the pain of loss so we become very, very careful to avoid situations where we will get hurt. What we cannot avoid we try with all our might to control. We live as if we us we think that God helps those who help themselves and further believe that WILL-POWER is the key to happiness. It isn’t. The key to happiness is SURRENDER!
It is really simple. God doesn’t just want our problems. He wants us! He wants us to surrender and give ourselves to Him. “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” Surrender is a process that will not be completed in this life. To the degree we surrender, the energy/grace comes from beyond us and we learn to pick-up and put-down with courage everything is no longer dependent on us. Through the death of our control the single grain does bear all sorts of wonderful and unexpected fruit!
None of us have yet faced the crisis that those Christians faced 130 years ago here in Memphis. Yet life being what it is challenge will come our way.
The Martyrs of Memphis learned the lesson of dependence on God on the battlefield and in the discipline of the convent. They gave up marriage and family and comfort and any number of things. In their death the Martyrs of Memphis are a sign to us that we need not fear. The one who loves us most said that he would never leave us or forsake us. That’s good news. Perhaps this week we can relax and risk a little bit. It’s a process. It’s a process that leads to life, and that life everlasting.
All too often in my life, I have seen the Gospel used like a blunt weapon. I recall that in a congregation of a denomination that shall remain nameless there was a cantankerous old woman who gave the folks there trouble from time to time. At least once or twice a year she would be thrown out of the church – turned out for loudly disagreeing with the preacher and leadership of the church. And the Gospel reading for today is the very passage they used on her. My friend (I was in high school at the time) would keep score of the proceedings with great glee and give me a blow-by-blow account. The entire warfare was waged with great vigor. [I suspect that the people would have been disappointed had she ruined their day by behaving.]
So out she would go, only to be let back in when she repented or at least made noises that passed for repentance. That old lady may well have been one of those folks who had learned all the words but never knew any of the music. But then I never heard much singing of the music from the congregation either.
It occurs to me that how this passage is interpreted or implemented says as much or more about the community than it does the person who is tossed out.
What is Jesus up to here? Here as so often I am indebted to Robert Farrar Capon. He points out a few things that I think give clarity to the reading. First we need to look at the context: where is this passage? What happens before it? What happens after it? How does this fit into the economy of the scriptures? As Capon says, this is a passage (among others) which the Church has based the long-running love affair with excommunication.
The story just before this one is the story of the man who left behind 99 sheep in order to go out and find the one who was lost, which when he finds it he rejoices over it more than over the 99 that were never lost. Why would he in the very next breath impose a three strikes and you’re out rule? Skip over today’s reading and in the next passage we find Peter asking if he should forgive someone who has sinned against him 7 times? And Jesus, that spoil sport, says, “Don’t forgive him 7 times but 70 times 70.” Go figure. At the very least he seems to be saying that if the unity of the community is to be broken, then work to stay connected with the offender and if someone is going to leave let them leave you.
70 times 70
But, wait, what is it that Jesus says to the disciples? He says, “Let those who sin against you be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” We know what Jews of the period thought of Gentiles and tax collectors. But is Jesus a typical Jew of the first century? No, I don’t think so? If you think about it, Some of Jesus’ best friends were tax collectors! The writer who recorded this was a tax collector. Jesus was amazed by the faith of the Gentile woman from Sidon. Jesus ate, drank and partied with sinners, tax collectors and such. You can tell a lot about a person by who they will eat with. People are often judged by the company they keep. Jesus certainly kept some questionable company. So what is he getting at?
Well after the three strikes and you’re out past the passage gets even more obscure. Whatever is bound in heaven is bound on earth and whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. And if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father. For where two or three are gathered in my name. I am there among them.”
As Capon says, it appears that the primary reference of the entire chapter is the way that forgiveness seeks out the lost. So the company of the faithful who follow Jesus are to be characterized, not by excommunication as soon as we get the third strike, but rather by a commitment to forgiveness. The Father in Heaven will ratify and confirm that forgiveness with all his grace. In addition, when 2 or 3 gather in Jesus’ name there Jesus, the Good Shepherd – the friend of tax collectors and sinners will be discerned to be among them.
So what are we called to by our Lord, the Good Shepherd, the lover of the lost, least and the sinful? Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Pay what is owed, says Paul, and then owe no one anything except to love one another.
God has shown his unmotivated love, by that I mean that God’s love is not based our being lovable or pitiful. God’s love is a choice God makes that is not influenced by anything outside God. It is this kind of love God exhibits by giving his son while they were yet sinners. …Nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus [as Paul writes in another place in this letter to the Romans…] If God’s love – his willing them (and us) the good and abundant life – has created them as a community, then on the principle of acting follows upon being, they must be a community characterized above all by the same quality and are indeed “obliged” to a community that “walks in agape/God’s love.”
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. What would happen if this described the parish of Saint John Memphis, Tennessee? I don’t know about you but I’d like to have that kind of a reputation and I’d like to live in such a community.
We are called to be a sign to the world. A sign is a symbol that transmits that which it represents. A hundred dollar bill is a sign. It is a symbol of the economy and it transmits that economy. People take that specially prepared piece of paper in exchange for goods and services. The church is to be sign: We are to be God’s people – his hand and feet transmitting the love that animates us. We are to be the Good News!
We are to proclaim to anyone, who will listen, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
All too often, to our profound shame, we have not been the sign we are called to be. As Capon puts it, “We have “’rules for limited forgiveness’ – that could have been written by the Committee for the Prevention of Wear and Tear on the Righteous.” We have forgiven less than we have counted strikes.
The story is told of a knock on the door. A woman opens the door only to be greeted by a poor man. He said, “I’m in trouble and have nothing. I would like to do some work, if your have something I could do to earn a little money.” The woman said, “Well I do have something you can do. Here’s a can of paint. Go out behind the house, there’s a porch that needs a coat of paint. When you’re finished, I’ll pay you twenty dollars. A couple of hours passed and there was a second knock at the door. The man said, “I’ve finished.” She gave him twenty dollars. He turned to walk away, stopped, turned back and said, “Oh, by the way, that’s a Ferrari not a Porsche!”
Years ago I studied communication skills called Neuro-Linguistic Programming. The motto of that movement was, “the quality of your communication is the response that you get.”
What response are we getting? It matters. It matters for eternity.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Early Christians at worship — William Hole
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
Paul in his letter to the Christians at Rome