24 December 2008

Saint John’s Episcopal Church

Memphis, Tennessee

In what in some-ways was prophetic Michael Martin, writing in The Christian Century twenty-two years ago distilled the cluttered cultural Christmas that we know so well,

“Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar in August that everyone should be taxed so that the deficit would not get too big.  Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem.  Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother.  He blushed so at the thought that his nose glowed red.

Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay. (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and the press of tourists was crushing.)  as they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the innkeeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash.

His figure appeared so nimble and quick

They knew in a moment his name must be Nick.

“Nick,” said Joe, “we need a place to stay.”

“Joe,” said Nick, “there just ain’t no way.”

“But we have Visa and Jerusalem Express!”

“Joe,’ said Nick, “there’s no way unless You’re willing to stay in a donkey stable,

And from the looks of the Mrs., I’m not sure she’s able:

“Nick, you’re a saint,” Joseph said. “The hay will make a dandy bed.”

Rudolph, however, was not filled with glee—-

“Uh Uh, that loose woman ain’t staying with me!”

Mary responded pleadingly, “Do this good deed, Rudolph, and you’ll see

You’ll probably go down in history.”

Rudolph relented and all slept in the stable:

A baby was born and Joseph was able To fashion a crib from manager and straw.

And all watch the baby with wonder and awe.

Meanwhile in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel’s Messiah. At the end of the concert they were told to stand up (that, by the way, has become a tradition even to this day) and to go to Bethlehem.  So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy.  When they arrived at the stable, they met Joseph, Mary, the child and a fat little man made famous in song, Round John Virgin.

While the shepherds worshiped, the little drummer boy insisted on playing his drum, Rum a bum bum! Rum a bum bum! Rum a bum bum! —- for hour after hour, until finally the baby was crying, the mother was sick, and Joseph was so agitated that he picked up a stick and smashed the little pest’s drum!

That night three men arrived bearing gifts.  They introduced themselves as the three kings from Orientare. They warned Joseph that a local evil king, Muammar el- Quaddafi, wanted to kill the baby.  So the little family boarded a flight to Egypt. And you guessed it, Ponitus was the pilot.

Eventually they were able to return to Nazareth where the baby grew up and became such a bad carpenter that he had to make a living by going around telling inspiring tales.  He is still revered today because people always like a good tale.”

That about covers the bases for the celebration that is going on around us in the culture.

What we celebrate is much more radical than sentimental.  We celebrate tonight/today the sacrifice of God that began by the birth of the only son of God as a babe in Bethlehem. It is not sentimental so much as impossible!  In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen advises Alive to practice believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast.  It’s good advice.  Unless we practice believing in the impossible daily and diligently, we cannot be Christians, those strange creatures who proclaim to believe that the Power that created the entire universe willingly and lovingly abdicated that power and became a human baby.

This is the season of “impossible things,” of:

A Word that was with God from

the beginning, and is now flesh,

dwelling among us

a baby who is born to be King

paths being forged though the wilderness

a virgin who is also a mother

a coming that is past, present, and future


the opportunity to know

God the Father, though the One who is

and was and shall be forever.

The impossible began that night in a little town of Judea, Bethlehem, which means in the Hebrew tongue, “House of Bread,” Bethlehem was the place that God chose to send the bread of heaven.  Tonight we celebrate the reality that earth is not cut off from heaven. As Saint Augustine once said, ”it is God who descends from heaven  by the weight of his love.” We are clothed in weight of His love and since that night, 2008 years ago heaven and earth are joined.  God has come and dwelt among us in the flesh.

We are not alone.  C. S. Lewis once wrote, “what a terrible place the world would be, if it were always winter and never Christmas”.  It is winter and it is also now Christmass — and we are not alone.  Alleluia, Alleluia!!




December 2008

Saint John’s

Memphis, Tennessee

John W. Sewell

John the Baptizer was a remarkable man.

He spent 30 years preparing for a ministry that lasted nine months.  It took that long to get ready.  A great undertaking takes a long and careful preparation.  Apparently, he had learned to listen in the desert and he knew who he and knowing who he was enabled him to know who he was not.  And all of us who have any maturity at all know how difficult it is to know where we end and other people begin.

John came up out of the wilderness preaching repentance of sins and proclaiming the coming of Messiah, “the anointed one”.  As an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual repentance, John baptized people in the Jordan River. The Jordan was a mystical river in Jewish culture and religion.  It was the boundary between wilderness and the land of promise.  It was the boundary between earth and heaven.  It was a boundary between sickness and healing.  Mobs of people flocked to John to be baptized on the border between the mundane and the divine.  And is the case when something speaks to the deepest concerns of the human heart, the movement really took off!

In today’s gospel the powers that be in Jerusalem send out their people to find out what is going on. Who are you?  Are you Elijah?  Are you the prophet?  Are you Messiah?  This was the ultimate test.    What is more important: the kingdom being preached OR John the Baptizer preaching the Kingdom?

Which is more important the message or the messenger?

Someone has said, “If you don’t care who gets the credit, almost anything can be accomplished!” There are those that being in control is more important than winning. And who among us could blame John.  He preaches and now someone has stolen his message and his method.  But this is not what happened. Albert Schweitzer once said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others – it is the only thing.”

Teddy Roosevelt’s eldest son once said of his father, “Dad loved to be the center of attention.  He wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”  Wanting to be the center of everything is not limited to the twenty-sixth President of the United States.  Egocentricity is evidence of our alienation from God. We deeply desire to be in control and to be the focus of attention.  We become anxious, ‘jealous of our rights and privileges, full of ourselves.  We are determined to be perfect and to use whatever substance or strategy needed to avoid the pain of this control disease we call sin.

The Remedy for “being full of ourselves” comes in three flavors.

1. Suffering

2. Coming to see a power greater than ourselves in the world.

3. Loving someone other than ourselves.

Out in the desert John the Baptizer very likely encountered all three remedies.  We hear this in his response to those who tell him that someone is trying to take his place.  John said, “No one has anything unless God give it.  You know I said that I am not the Messiah.  I’m the best man at the wedding.  I’m the one who introduced the groom and the bride.  And like a best man who is only there because of the groom.  I rejoice in my friend’s joy.  He must increase while I must decrease!”

John uses the word “Friend” to describe his relationship with Jesus, the Messiah.  What does that mean? Laurence Thomas writes in an essay, “Friendship and other loves”, that there are three features of companion relationships that are present in most relationships

CHOICE: You can’t choose your family or your boss, but you can choose your friends.  Being a friend requires each person to choose to be a friend.

CONTROL: Neither party to the relationship is under the authority of the other. They may not be equal to each other and they have influence on each other but they do not control each other. If they do it is not friendship.

TRUST:  There is an enormous bond of mutual trust between such friends. This is a bond cemented by equal self-disclosure and, for that very reason, is a sign of the very special regard that each has for the other.

In another gospel John uses the word friend to describe his relationship with Messiah.  He goes further and uses the expression: friend of the bridegroom or as we would call it, the best man.  The function of the best man at the wedding is to tend to the interests of the groom.  His greatest delight is in the joy of his friend.  He is at the wedding because of he chose to be a friend. He is there as a gift.  The point here of course is that the best man decreases/he doesn’t have to be the center of attention.  This happens as a token of his friendship and love for the groom.

Sergius Bulgakov in an essay,  “The Friend of the Bridegroom” writes,  “St John the Baptist was the first human being, after the fall, who repented of Adam’s sin and was ready for salvation, ripe for the Kingdom of God.  He transferred his centre from himself to God; he alienated himself from his own self and thereby became fit to be the friend of the Bridegroom.  And his soul entered into the joy of this friendship, as testified by the fiery words of the fourth Gospel: ‘the friend of the bridegroom which standeth and heareth him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled’  (John 3.29)”

Advent is the time to wait; to watch, to ponder, to do less, John the Baptizer calls us by example. The way to increase is by decreasing: less is more.  John the Baptizer calls us to transfer our center from ourselves to God.  There is a radical truth.  If we want to be made whole, we have to be empty first!  That is a message of hope, not a message of work harder, be good, and be nice.  The message of hope is let go, be empty, do less, be real: increase by decreasing.  This is a process.  So let us begin again to make a place for the coming Messiah.  As we decrease God promises us that new life will increase. That is good news.



A monastic community becomes a heaven not because its theory and structures are correct and its personnel are perfect, but because it is a zone of mercy. In Bernard’s view, spiritual life begins with self-knowledge, progresses via compassion or empathy, and finds its completion in the self-forgetfulness of contemplation.

Reflections On The Beliefs and Values Of The Rule Of Saint Benedict, Michael Casey, Monk of Tarrawarra