Saint John’s Episcopal Church – Memphis, Tennessee
I want to tell you a story I heard this week. It happened in one of the Episcopal parishes in Memphis last Sunday. The clergy and staff were busy preparing for the service when a man came in from the cold. A staff person saw him and introduced himself. The man’s hands were rigid, clammy cold. He was welcomed in given coffee and a place to warm himself.
Later the Rector learned the back story. The man had tried to get the Union Mission but they were dangerously full. He could find no place to be so he walked through that night because to stop, rest, perchance to sleep, was deadly in 22 degree weather. By morning he had walked a long way and happened upon that parish.
Everyone gathered themselves for church and one of the clergy invited the man to church and he came, sitting near the front behind a parish family. They invited him to communion and he went. The service ended as Episcopal Eucharist does with the congregation dispatched to do ministry in the name of the Lord. As everyone in Church busied themselves preparing to go off to lunch as folk in Memphis have done for generations, the man from the pew in front of the guest asked if he had a coat. “No.” He took off his own overcoat and put it on him.
And the Kingdom came near that parish that morning. And that parish, beloved was this parish, your parish, Saint John’s.
I was listening to Bishop NT Wright a few days ago as I walked in my neighborhood. He spoke directly to me about these men when he spoke of the empowering nature of the Eucharist, giving those that receive it the energy to become the occasion where Jesus’ incarnation breaks out again.” The moment that coat left its owners back and was slipped on the man Jesus was in-fleshed again – We know what Jesus would have done if he had been there because he WAS there!
While I was in York, I heard Dr. Anthony Campolo lecture in the choir of York Minster.
Britain is in a national debate about these very concerns. Dr. Campolo launched his lecture from Genesis 4: 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
People rather love quoting Cain. It distances them from any genuine connection. Even in the Church we rather like to quote Cain, of all things? That being as it may, the real answer Dr. Campolo announced is, “You are not your brother’s keeper. You are your brother’s brother!”
That is my very theological point about the encounters in the film and in Saint John’s nave. It is one thing to give, even vast sums of money, from a safe distance and from a higher position. A story from my years in Mississippi is illustrative. The Stew Pot was inter-faith soup kitchen in Jackson. People from lots of religious communities had volunteers who went to serve food at the daily noon meal. That was all well and good until a new director was appointed. He decreed that food would no longer be served at the counter but that the volunteers would serve the homeless at their table and then when they had waited their table sit and eat with the people they served. I don’t need to report the sad fact that when people had to come from behind the safety of the counter, serve as waiters and then break bread with the same people …. they were never seen again.
E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist Missionary to India, was a great friend of Mahatma Gandhi. He once asked Gandhi what Christians should do? Jones then writes the following: “The greatest living non-Christian (Gandhi) asks us not to adulterate it or tone it down, not to meet them with an emasculated gospel, but to take it in its rugged simplicity and high demand. But what are we doing? As someone has suggested, we are inoculating the world with a mild form of Christianity, so that it is now practically immune against the real thing.” (E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road, “The Great Hindrance.)
Which leads me to ask me and you the question: If we do not contract a lethal strain of Christianity, how can we die to self as The Holy Spirit penetrates our history and existence…
- How can those who do not believe contract the full influenza of grace?
- How can those with just enough Christianity to have an allergic reaction;
- How can those who contracted a comfortable Christianity, whose martyrdom is mild embarrassment;
- Or God forgive us, those who contacted certainty leaving them twisted and almost invincibly immune from the faith as we have received it;
If we, you and I do not get up from breaking bread and be bread… If we have been fed and refuse to be bread, For God’s sake who will?
This city is starving to death for the very bread that only you and I can be…
That is why when I began to hear from a great distance the new life that was springing up among you as you read the scriptures, how Bible studies were organized not from the corner of Greer and Central but in offices and businesses and homes. When I heard how new energy infused Sunday School as the daily feeding quickened the life force of faith within you, I gave thanks.
As I wandered the streets of York, knelt in Churches where human knees have bent for a 1000 years I prayed for you. I stood near the spot that Constantine was proclaimed Emperor and went from that spot to relieve the Church from persecution and there I prayed, I asked the Almighty to give us vision for the freeing of the souls of Memphians from poverty and despair. As I sat in the Quire of the Great Cathedral of Saint Peter, the Prince of Apostles, who failed Jesus yet followed him anyway, and listened to the choir chant ancient Psalms there I asked God to give us strength for the living of these days.
Now that I am among you again, I see that the rumors of your quickening faith are not exaggerated and I give thanks.
What is the way forward? Please join with me in praying. The renewal team continues to meet, your staff and vestry pray and will take counsel together in the days ahead. What I ask of you is that you consider adding the ancient practices into the living of rhythm of your days. Some physicians among us will coach us as we take up fasting. We will offer this before Lent. There are valid ways of anyone to fast. Resources, companions and a map will be provided anyone who will. That is all required. The Renewal Works process will continue as a way of life here.
Before I close, let me speak to you who signed a card in September and now find yourself wandering with the Children of Israel somewhere in the Wilderness of Numbers or Leviticus, if you have read a sentence more scripture than you would have done otherwise that is good news. My philosophy is that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. So take up you Bible and read. This is not a sprint it is a long distance. No one will be left behind. We are in this together.
To Him be glory, now and forever. Amen.