Ash Wednesday 2020

February 26,  2020                                                                                                                            6:30 AM, Noon, 6:00 PM

Today I preached three times at Hope Presbyterian Church here in Memphis, at the invitation of their pastor, Rufus Smith.  He and I have become very good friends as we worked together on the Executive Committee of the Memphis Christian Pastor’s Network.  I count it a high honor to preach there. This is what I said.

PRAYER fASTING ALSM

Today is Ash Wednesday, Forty days, not counting Sundays, until Easter Day!  People often ask where the ashes come from?  Well, often times we burn the palm branches from Last Year’s Palm Sunday. 

Thirty-six years or so ago,  early in my ministry,  I put on my robes, walked into the parish house kitchen to get the ashes for that Ash Wednesday,  only to discover that someone had thrown them  away.  Someone threw out the dust thinking it was what it was.  I had maybe 10 minutes before the service began.  The service went off on time and that year the faithful were “ashed” with a mixture of burned paper towel, contents of an ashtray, graphite from my pencil sharpener, bound together with a few drops of olive oil.  It was rich black.   How well it came off no one ever said.

  “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

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is a memento mori, a token of mortality.  We are formed from the basic elements of creation. Our spirit animates our bodies until we die. Our soul departs to God and our bodies to the dust.

Today, we mostly live in denial, comforting ourselves with illusions that we are more in control and more powerful than we really are. 

Since Eve shared the Apple with Adam, we have tried to be gods and we are simply not constructed to bear the strain of divinity.  The sin of our Ego-centeredness results in isolation, loneliness and separation.   This sad, terminal state, in which we find ourselves, has only ONE antidote.  That we be baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus, WHY?   Because death is the only reality we can be certain that every person who has ever lived have in common.  It is our common death that God in Christ saves us. IN Christ’s death all others find life, and that eternal.

Now, do not be deceived we can’t just put lipstick on our Ego-centeredness and call it a day.  Only death is enough.  We give up our so called life for new life in the redeemer.

 JESUS TELLS WHY AND HOW TO DO THESE THINGS

MATTHEW 6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [45] Concerning Prayer 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

These disciplines are ways to say No, to our EGO and Yes to God.

Prayer-Fasting-Almsgiving

So we practice:

  • Prayer for the good of our souls. – praying is facing who we are and who we are not. Rather than turning quickly away at the sight. Live with it.  It will give us humility, which comes from the word, humus or ground. There’s that dust again.
  • Fasting for the good of our bodies. Fasting is telling our bodies, No. No to our appetites. So, when the church quit fasting, the culture began to DIET, as a friend of mine once said.  What is a diet but a fast without spiritual content?   Remember the Fasts of the Rich are the Feasts of the poor.  Give food to the hungry these forty days.
  • Alms-giving for the good of our neighbor. Our Lord knew his principal enemy was not the devil but money.  Tell the almighty dollar that as important as it is, it is not our ultimate concern.  Give to those in need, remembering that all we have is a gift from God.  

THESE ARE THE SACRIFICES OF LENT.

 There’s that word.  The word Sacrifice is impoverished in our thinking. To sacrifice, we think, is to lose something and like a diet we feel instantly deprived and we want it stop right this minute.

Robert A. Johnson taught me that sacrifice is to “TAKE THE ENERGY OUT OF ONE LEVEL OF LIFE, PUTTING IT AT A HIGHER LEVEL OF LIFE IN SERVICE OF A HIGHER CONSCIOUSNESS!”

 Take marriage for example, “You get engaged, publicly testifying that this person and this one alone is your primary relationship.  We get righteously annoyed IF you continue to date other people.  That’s wrong and not true, say we.  It won’t be long before somebody sneaks around and informs your fiance’ the truth about the jerk they have committed themselves for life – is up too.  Farce Over! “

But if you have genuinely sacrifices all others for the love of this one. It will have and give life.  Not that there will not be challenge as anyone who has been married for thirty minutes can testify.  Sacrifice in this case gives us a partner who for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish when till you are parted by death.  Now, that is true and life-giving sacrifice.

So today:   

  • Embrace that Lent is about making room for God to BE God.
  • Gertrude Muller Nelson says that Carnival or Fat Tuesday is like emptying the dresser drawers out in the middle of the floor.
  • Lent is about sorting out the contents of our lives. That is why we are here.

Therefore I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent.

In the name of God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

Delicious Heresies or Junk Food for the Soul.

DaVinciCode

NOTE:  In 2003 I gave a talk at Saint Johns Memphis, Tennessee about the DaVinci Code the page turner by Dan Brown.  The piece below explains the adventure.  I came across this on the internet recently and thought it might be worth sharing.

I wrote this in 2006

Dear Friends

Below is an article I wrote for ExploreFaith.org. It remains topical two and a half years later.  Three years ago this November a quote from an interview I gave about the Da Vinci Code published in the Commercial Appeal was subsequently quoted by Dan Brown on his website, DanBrown.com. This citation opened a “minor career” on matters Da Vinci. Calls have come from La Monde Magazine, Paris, France, The Guardian, Sidney, Australia and even talk radio in Sacramento, California.  Now the movie is about to be released and I have agreed to respond to questions from the Commercial Appeal readers.  All this says a great deal less about my “authority” than about the ubiquitous nature of the Internet. Below you will find an article I wrote for the web page, Exploring Faith.  It continues to reflect my sense of the Da Vinci Code phenomena.

In November (2003) I led three conversations about issues raised in The Da Vinci Code. Months earlier, while browsing in a bookstore, the cover of the novel caught my eye, and because I have a long fascination with Leonardo (he is never called Da Vinci), I bought the book to read as a diversion. I found nothing new there, but it was a good page-turner.

DaVinciCode 2

Then something interesting happened. People old and young, male and female, began to ask me could it be true, as the Code contends, that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were married and perhaps even had a child. This and other questions continued through the summer with such frequency that I realized that this book provided a teachable moment.

I prepared to have a conversation about the book with interested members of the congregation I serve. A press release was sent to the local newspaper and I was asked for an interview. The resulting lead article once again indicated a high level of interest, but the turnout the night of our first gathering was completely unexpected: Six hundred people packed the pews.

What is it about Dan Brown’s novel that enticed hundreds of people into church for a conversation? When questioned by a reporter about why I thought so many people were reading this book, I replied, “It is filled with delicious Christian heresies.” Did Jesus marry Mary from Magdala and have genetic descendants? However intriguing the notion there seems to be no compelling evidence that Jesus married at all.jesus-magdalene

The idea has prompted people to ask, “What am I to believe and why?” That is a very valid and enduring question. Toward the end of that first meeting a woman stood up and said, “We are here tonight because we are searching.” One of the challenges for the searcher is the interpretation of discovery. What does a new idea or experience I have encountered mean? Is it true? If it is true how is it true? If it is true how does it apply to my life?

In an age of anxiety it is tempting to reach for certainty. If we can be certain then we can be safe. If we are safe then we are in control. However, certainty is illusionary. There is no certainty. In fact certainty is contradictory to faith. As Allen Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, puts it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”

For me at least, notions that promise certainty are suspect. For Christians faith is the posture in the face of mystery. What God has revealed in Christ Jesus is a mystery. How could the birth of one man in one moment of history make a difference for all people at all times within history? Many have found this preposterous. And yet that is the core belief of classical Christianity.

What is there to find that is unique about the classical Christian understanding of Jesus? Over centuries Christians came to believe that Jesus is fully human and fully god. I believe that he is. That is an act of faith for me but increasingly I suspect that it is true because it is not the easy way out.

Humanity likes the quick fix, the black or white option—clear cut and simple. Heresy, from the word, “to choose,” is the tendency to choose a part of a notion and carry it to a logical conclusion, thereby ignoring the complexity and richness of the fuller reality.

N Frye

Northrop Frye

As Northrop Frye writes in his book Anatomy of Criticism, “… the full metaphorical statement ‘Christ is God and Man’ is orthodox, and the Arian (the belief that Jesus was not god but the highest creation of God) and Docetic (Jesus only appeared to be god but was in fact only a virtual god) statements in terms of simile or likeness (are) condemned as heretical.” The heresy is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable.

The Da Vinci Code introduces many people to the fact that there were many exotic flowers in the early garden of Christianity. There are many reasons that they didn’t become the dominant form of Christianity. In some cases they couldn’t compete in the marketplace of ideas and in others they were eradicated by the political power of the state allied with the church. The church has not always covered itself in glory by mercy and justice.

All that notwithstanding I think the principle reason that classical Christianity endures to the present is the fact that the easy way was not the way chosen. The fact that the church chose the way of paradox and ambiguity as the most authentic way to live in the mystery of God revealed in Christ is the most telling reason for the enduring power of its life and message. Even in the church there is a desire for certainty. That is the human condition. The courage to face paradox is the most authentic expression of the Christian life. I believe that this is the life for which people unconsciously search. That is why I suspect that six hundred people showed up on a Wednesday night to talk about a novel.

Now the movie opens and questions abound.  I don’t think that this novel threatens anything. It’s existence provides a teachable moment and as Christians we should be in words of the Apostle Peter be prepared to give an accounting for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15). We must be about the business of our Lord and the culture is prepared to talk. That’s a good thing.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John Sewell

This affirmation of the resurrection has become very important to me over the many years.  It became a go to remark at funerals. It speaks to the hope in us that nothing in all creation or history can “trump” resurrection and grace.

Frederick Beuchner writes, “The New Testament proclaims that at some unforeseeable time in the future God will ring down the final curtain on history, and there will come a Day on which all our days and all the judgments upon each other will themselves be judged. The judge will be Christ.  In other words, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully.”

In hope in spite of the facts.  John

WEDNESDAY OF EASTER IV

May 15, 2019

commodities-sheep-meat.html_PHOTO

 

JOHN 10 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

 

The Feast of the Dedication (Hanukah) commemorated national deliverance from the pagan Syrians. The Feast and buildings filled with meaning by prophecy would be a great place to launch the revolution. Some of his detractors could have become supporters if he played to their fears and ego inflation. He turned his back on variety of revolution when the Devil first suggested it back in the Wilderness.

Jesus passed on starting the popular revolution. Those who longed for violent revolution never understood what Jesus was about. These are the Sheep deaf to the Shepherd’s voice. There were sheep who did learn the language of the Kingdom. These Jesus knew and cherished. Granted many sheep did not clearly hear the Shepherd’s voice until after the resurrection. But they that did hear his voice followed (and do so today). What we do know for sure is that our self-absorbed egos do need to die. When we die to self-absorption it is amazing how clearly we can hear the voice of the Shepherd.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

 

TUESDAY OF EASTER IV

May 14, 2019

jesus-and-the-pharisees

The Pharisees Confront Jesus – James Tissot

JOHN 10:22-30 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

Why are you keeping us in suspense? What they should have said was, “Ok, we didn’t buy what you told us. That was ridiculous! Try again.” “Actually, I did tell you,” Jesus said.  Your problem is that you do not believe.”

Not believing is a problem. I’m concerned by what is meant in our own day. To believe is to assent to the truth of some fact about someone, something or an event.

Washington exhibit

George Washington Madame Tussauds

For example,
I believe in George Washington.
I believe that George Washington lived from 1732-1799.
I believe that George was a pretty good man.
I believe that George was the “Father of his country.”
If I am in Virginia, I might go to Mt. Vernon and see where he lived and is buried.
I might go to the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
I even carry a few copies of his picture around in my wallet.
I can take George’s name in vain and say “By George” in conversation but such talk is cheap.

 

BUT, that doesn’t have too much to do with how I live my life in 2019 or any other year.. My point is that I can be culturally Christian in much the same way. I can believe all sorts of things about Jesus without being transformed, without living in the Resurrection. No wonder people do not take us seriously. We believe the doctrine of faith, while people seek a way of life. I’m hungry for that myself. Let’s have the manners to pass the bread, having eaten some first.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

EASTER IV

May 12, 2019

JOHN 10:22-30 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

The Temple proper was not as big as one might think.  Surrounded by vast courtyards, the outer perimeter was anchored by enormous columned porticoes. While silence was deep, full and complete in innermost Holy of Holies, everywhere else there was bedlam.

Multitudes of animals were slaughtered.  Huge pipes drained the blood away. Burning carcasses gave off clouds of smoke. At the same time choirs sang psalms and canticles, while in the porticoes classes gathered. Famous Rabbis held forth. The Temple only accepted a unique currency minted in house. Foreign coins had rulers or gods engraved on them and thus were unacceptable.  The exchange rate was very lucrative as people exchanged profane money for kosher money which they promptly donated.   Jesus cleaned that out one time.  There is really nothing like it in our time. Imagine a huge barbeque, choir festival and graduate school housed at an historical site drawing tourists by the myriads of thousands: all at the same time.

Jesus walked the portico accompanied by his disciples, as did many Rabbis, lecturing as they walked. I doubt Jesus was particularly notable, among the multitude the avoiding the rain and the cold.  His opponents had no trouble finding him, demanding a straight, unambiguous answer.  Yes or no, are you Messiah or not?

Simeon

Over thirty years earlier, the ancient Simeon recognized Jesus in Mary’s arms for who he was.

Malachi 1:14b “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

 

The massive complex existed to worship the Holy One of Israel.  No one noticed Simeon greeting Messiah and no one is prepared to accept him almost thirty years later.  Why?  It didn’t fit the Messiah of their understanding.  They wanted something else, refusing in their certainty to entertain the idea that perhaps Jesus was who he said he was.

The Gospels tell us that we will meet Jesus somehow in the faces of the poor.  Not what we have in mind, but that does not change the text (Matthew 25:40).  I invite you to join Saint John’s Servants of Christ at Manna House some Thursday morning.  There you will, when you least expect it, encounter the Lord of resurrection in what Saint Teresa of Calcutta called, “one of his distressing disguises.”

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

SATURDAY OF EASTER III

May 11, 2019

LUKE 24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Laughing Jesus barry moser
Jesus Rabboni – Barry Moser KJV Bible 1999

For several days we have mediated on the four ritual movements of the Eucharist. Today, let’s look at the fifth.  He took, blessed, broke and gave bread to them. They ate and they went.  The last words of a Eucharist is the dismissal by the waiter (deacon), “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” “Thanks be to God,” we say as we head for the exits.  As I often say, “We are to be for others what we have received at the table.  In other words,

“If you have been fed, be bread!”

 

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John Sewell

THURSDAY OF EASTER III

May 9, 2019

LUKE 24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Our Lord took, blessed and broke the bread.    In the Second Rite for Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer [page 364], the rubrics (stage directions) are emphatic on one point.  After the bread is broken,

The Breaking of the Bread
The Celebrant breaks the consecrated Bread.
A period of silence is kept.
Then may be sung or said
[Alleluia.] Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore let us keep the feast. [Alleluia.]

emmaus 5

Although this is more often than not ignored, rushing as we are toward lunch, I believe it the most solemn moment of the service.  Why?  On a good day, humidity willing, an audible cracking is heard.  This action, called the Fraction, is the moment when mystically the broken body of Jesus becomes one with all the brokenness in us.  The words of the Prophet Isaiah (53:5) are fulfilled (or filled full), “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

In the face of such love and sacrifice, all we can do if fall into a length of silence. It is my practice at Saint John’s to pause for 10 or so seconds. Speechlessness is the only response to the magnitude of just what God has done for us in the resurrection.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

 

 

 

WEDNESDAY OF EASTER III

May 8, 2019

LUKE 24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Jacek Malczewski - Christ in Emaus.

After he took the bread, he blessed it. What is it to bless? What it is not, is a baker sprinkling powdered sugar on the loaf emerging from the oven. To bless is to give, not just sweetness on the surface but deeply in the molecules, even the DNA of that bit of creation. Blessing is more concrete than abstract. To enjoy life having survived a day longer. That is blessing.

Fr. Matthew Fox entitled a book, ORIGINAL BLESSING, contending that blessing was the intention of the Creator, existing long before sin, enduring long after the “stain of sin” disappears from the fabric of humanity.

Claus Westermann instructs us, “God in the Bible relates to humans by deliverance and by blessing.” BLESSING IN THE BIBLE AND THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH. The Eucharist ”re-presents” the resurrection as both. . While there is a lot of “Junk food” for the soul to be had, Eucharist is the most important meal you eat all week. It’s good for you, nary one empty calorie

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John