Quote

The symbols of the sacraments no longer simply point to something: they also enable us to participate in it.

David Brown & David Fuller, Signs of Grace: Sacraments in Poetry and Prose, [1x]

Leave Taking 2003 – 2017

EPIPHANY 4, January 28, 2018 – Saint John’s Memphis, Tennessee 20111

farewell me and m

I was warned in advance nobody can really prepare you for the circumstances you face in ministry. If they told you just wouldn’t believe it. In 1981 I left Seabury-Western with every intention of doing the sort of careful, appropriate liturgies Lee Mitchell trained me to do.  I was assigned 2 parishes 30 miles apart. One of them was Fort Payne, the seat of Knox County, Alabama.  There I became the deacon-in-charge of Saint Philips,

Saint Philips Fort Payne housed literally in a former school house, painted bright red, the flowers were red, and the dogwood was red. Even the newly minted deacon’s hair was red in those days, at any rate I set out to inflict on them everything I had ever thought about doing in ministry – all at once.  But then reality reared its head in the vineyard of the Lord. It came about on this wise…

The organist at Saint Philip’s was actually a Presbyterian elder who lived with his Momma and ran title searches for a living.  His name was Erskine Davenport (you can’t make this stuff up!)  Well I laid out the service and got the bulletin ready, we were singing some lovely hymns and it being Rite I, the Willan Mass setting that we all know and love.  We sang the Kyrie and that went pretty well.  Then we got to the Sanctus/Benedictus, I opened my mouth to sing and then I heard the entire congregation recite the Holy, Holy, Holy and I learned a lesson that day that has stood me in good stead all these 36 years.  You can’t sing what the organist can’t play!  [wait]  O and did I mention that Erskine had cerebral palsy?  I didn’t think so.  From that very first Sunday – we arrive at this very last Sunday a day of Farewell. .

18-01-28-Demoniac-in-Synagogue

Look at the Gospel reading for today:  MARK 1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching— with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Note that Jesus taught with authority not like the scribes.  Scribes – scholars who spoke with verbal footnotes, spouting bibliographies as they taught.  Jesus spoke from his core, his experience – his being one with the Father.  All he did in the flesh he accomplished through his obedient humanity.  So we’re not off the hook.  Then he did a little psychic housekeeping for a fellow on the back row.  His reputation got around in a hurry.  This is the Jesus we seek union with.  This is Jesus we must experience directly personally.

I grew up Southern Baptist and they taught me things: Principally Bible content and the inescapable reality that each of us owe God one soul.  However, I had an itch that was never scratched there.

Christ Church Albertville

Christ Church, Albertville AL.

chapel of cross

Chapel of the Cross, Madison, MS

Saint Luke Mountain Brook

Saint Luke’s, Mountain Brook, AL

High altar Saint John's

Saint John’s, Memphis, TN

I wandered the halls of John Wesley who taught me about life in the Spirit and came in due season to The Church of England.  Our practice of pulling the extremes toward the center is not easy, after all the middle of road is a good place to get run over. But at our best it a life-giving posture that most any Christian can practice

I get ahead of myself.   When I was a sophomore at The University of North Alabama, 47 years ago, I joined a Bible Study sponsored by The First Methodist Church of Tuscumbia.  There was a hunger among us, a kindredness, a growing belief and experience that God is real and that God can be experienced, directly.  In those days we thought nothing of praying all night.

One night in the manse of a Cumberland Presbyterian Preacher, the group prayed with me to contract, I’ve learned to call it.  Tzim Tzum, the Jews call it, to make room for the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity- Karl Rahner called the Spirit: God penetrating history and existence – For God to have a freer hand, more room to operate, that I be more conscious of his call and that he have the option to call on me day or night and that what he had given me needed to be available to the Work of Christ in the World, God had first call on it.

Later that night, I drove home to the farm where four generations of Sewell’s have lived and went to bed.  The next morning when I awakened and was aware of being me in my body:  I found I was praying in the Spirit.  I have never been the same since.

That is not to say that “I and all I know from that day to this, lived happily ever after ever.  Almost 20 years ago I was hospitalized at Menninger Hospital for depression, later diagnosed as (type 2) Bi-Polar disease.

Thank you for taking a risk and hiring a crazy priest 15 years ago.  It has been intimated of late that perhaps “Poor Saint John’s can find a rector who doesn’t talk quite so much about Jesus.”  While intended as derision, I count it a badge of honor.   I’m asked what is the hardest part of this Job/Work?   Wanting so much more you than you have wanted for yourselves.

I knew I was getting old when I learned about 2 years ago that people were collecting, The Sayings and Aphorisms of Father John.  Let me share some of them with you this final time.  If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing poorly.  We have low standards not no standards. Father Bronson Bryant, mentor and friend of my soul, said to me about 35 years ago, “Oh John, We are always prepared for God to do nothing.”

I’ve pondered what to say today.  Most of it comes from the last five years as the culture changed and the churches continue shrink.

Today, in Church and out of Church, there are thousands of souls who realize in varying degrees of clarity that what they want from religion is not a collection of doctrinal ritual symbols, nor a series of moral precepts. They want God himself, by whatever name he may be called; they want to be filled with his creative life and power; they want some conscious experience of being at one with Reality itself, so that their otherwise meaningless and ephemeral lives may acquire an eternal significance.

For hundreds of years Western man has been convinced that he could ultimately solve every one of his problems by doing something about it. It is a beneficial exercise in humility for him to come up against a problem about which he can actually do nothing. Yet the problem has to be solved. The situation would be maddening and impossible if that were all there is to it. But that is not all, because, as we have seen, mystical knowledge is something given to the soul by God, and there is a sense in which it is already being given to the soul—now and always.

In this same sense, God is the most obvious thing in the world, the most self-evident, and union with God is the primary and most unavoidable reality of our lives. Yet God is so obvious and so unavoidable and so close to us that we are not aware of him. To try to see God is like trying to look at your own eyes, for he is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.  Alan Watts

 “The Word is always being born, but if he is not born in me, of what use is that to me.”  — Meister Eckhart

frog 2

Forty-five years ago I dissected a frog. I say that not by way of confession but to examine a paradox.  As is common in secondary science curriculum, during a unit on anatomy one of the exercises involved dissecting something. At Lexington High School in Lexington Alabama, we were not so exalted as to warrant fetal pigs so we tackled the more prosaic amphibian. The lab reeked of thermaldohyde as we took up scalpels and performed exploratory surgery on the supine corpse.  The exercise was informative as to vascular systems and the ordering of bodily functions.  At the end of the smelly process by my station there was a small pile of frog parts.  I had learned a lot but the frog wouldn’t hop.

frog

What do it mean by this?  Experiencing God is the goal.  Learning facts about God, while useful, can never replace union with the Lord Jesus.  This brings me again to the knot I am worrying these days.  What is needed must move us beyond mere “frog data” to “frog hopping.”  How do we hop?  We take up those ancient practices that formed the first Christians in faith that the Holy Spirit that led them into truth will do the same for us.  But then I experienced the really of giving up ego control.

 

In the winter of 1978, I was driving on the Bluegrass Parkway in the central Kentucky. 1978 was a brutal winter over all this country. Snow was deep and the road icy and dangerous. I say that because I was literally had seen no other car for miles and hours. Well, I was doing pretty well, having experience in icy weather. That was when it happened. Suddenly, without warning the car began to spin 360° – as the landscape began to spin, time slowed & I thought, I hadn’t planned on this what and I going to do after the car turns upside down? My right foot and leg and already learned that slamming on the brake was a really bad idea. Steering wildly had no good outcome.

car on ice

Then I had that moment of clarity. A thought came to me, one so outrageous and counter-intuitive I would never have entertained had I any other option. But, I was flat out of options. There was simply nothing I could do to fix my problem. I could makes things worse but not better. I took my hands off the steering wheel, held them in mid-air. No longer in charge, having given up any power I had remaining was just along for the ride. The car righted itself. Now, I was headed in the wrong direction and grateful. What I learned that day in the frozen hills of Kentucky has served me well all these years and decades in two different centuries.

Dealing with matters of power and faith is like driving a car on ice. Doing what comes naturally, is almost always not the thing to do.

Let me share with you what I have learned the past 5-years of Renewal  Works –  On the National Episcopal News Feed on Friday, Jay Sidebotham described renewal works and spoke of  Saint John’s as an  example of what can happen when people experience God. .

  1. Saint John’s exists as a place to encounter God. Period. Nothing else. If people cannot find God here. It has no reason for being.  In the coming years more than one Episcopal Church in Memphis will fail.  It might be this one unless people find God consistently at 3245 Central Avenue.
  1. Clergy must re-invent themselves.I am not a professional Christian.  I cannot be Christian in your stead so you need not bother with it.  Only you can be a Christian for you.I am here, Bob is here, Dean is here next Sunday, to practice our own Christianity and Coach you in yours.

We are player-coaches not truant officers.

I have my job and my work.  My Job is to keep this place going, tend the functions, services.  My Work  is the Cure of Souls –

  1. Lay Ministry is the way forward. Lay initiation, lay leadership is the only way forward.  Now that Western Culture is no longer Christian Culture – leadership from above WILL NOT WORk!  Leadership from below will.  That is why we took up Renewalworks and invented SOULWorks these past five years.

Two Octobers ago I was in Washington DC at a memorial conference for Rabbi Edwin Friedman my teacher.   As I sat there and the voice in my head I have known for 47 years said, “John, Today begins the Third Act of your life.” Nothing more. For a year I pondered, finally realizing that my work here was the end of ACT2.  On Wednesday I step down from my job as Rector.  I do not step down from my work:  The Cure of Souls. Stephanie Brown and I with the help of many are founding a new Non-profit, called ACT3, 1049 Cresthaven Road 38119. – Is my new laboratory of faith.  The moving van comes tomorrow.   I love you.  In the name of God …

Are We Awake Yet?

I and the Not I  A Study in the Development of Conscious   – M. Esther Harding

Biologists, who in attempting to discover the nature of consciousness in animals, found themselves obliged to recognize that each creature sees only what concerns himself; everything else he seems to be blind.

frog

 This reminds me of the saying, “A Frog can only see what he can eat.”

Human beings, having an animal and spiritual nature, given circumstance can descend to the level of a frog, who can only see what he can eat or by the spark of the divine rise to the occasion, limiting themselves for the sake of others.  JWS

ON LOVING GOD

I wrote this first back in 2013

St-Bernard-cropped

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

‘He spake the word, and they were made’ (Ps. 148.5). But to redeem that creation which sprang into being at His word, how much He spake, what wonders He wrought, what hardships He endured, what shames He suffered! Therefore what reward shall I give unto the Lord for all the benefits which He hath done unto me? In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?

Clairvaux, St. Bernard of (2009-06-11). On Loving God – Enhanced Version (Kindle Locations 287-292). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.

I walk early in the day mostly between 4 and 5.  I am usually left to my own devices so I pray and while I pray I walk and while I pray and walk I listen to some book.  To pray while listening to a book may seem contradictory but would you believe the text of the book often becomes the word of the Lord to my soul.  It was so this past Tuesday;  I walked a bit after five am and  listened to On Loving God by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Abbot Bernard wrote this little book at the request of a Cardinal Deacon of the Roman Church who sought his counsel as to living the Christian life. As is often the case, I gain insight from the teaching of a Christian from another time. Such instruction is often synchronistic for as I begin to explore, pertinent material seems to come to me as much as I seek it out.  Such is the case with this work.

When the earliest Christians read their scriptures they were looking for Jesus and found him on every page.  Of particular interest was typology where a type, a person or an event in the Old Testament is in some sense repeated in the New Testament (the antitype) only with greater clarity and completeness.   For almost a year I have wandered in the sacred texts finding types & antitypes.  In some cases the connection seems tenuous but even then provocative.

In the text above Bernard points out a fairly obvious example of type and antitype.  Creation is the type. In Creation God gives us ourselves. This is a gift that we find onerous at times. Someone has said that humanity demands freedom only to promptly give it away almost as soon as they grasp it.  The events of Genesis 3 displays how reckless our grandparents, Eve and Adam threw away the gift by turning it from gift to possession.

They stumbled and fell. (Joseph Campbell says, “Where you fall is where your treasure is buried.”  I want to consider that more at a later time.)  The “fall” some say was up which is a contradiction but as the truth lives in the country of paradox, the contradictions strain toward the way of grace.  When we humans, all of us, lost the gift of ourselves God acted.  And the type of Creation moves toward its consummation in its antitype of redemption.

Saint John elegantly lays it out for us in the prologue to his Gospel.  Now, that we have blown it, walked in and dwelt in deep darkness so that up is down and down is up and just when we are totally disoriented suddenly a light shines.  The eternal word became flesh.  In creation God gave us ourselves now in the incarnation God gives us himself.  Jesus came to tell us who God is.  The important to know is that God is like Jesus.  Jesus is the example of authentic humanity and he is the means by which we are redeemed and restored to full humanity.  Type and Anitype produce joy!

 

The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany

salted

5 February 2017
John W Sewell

On this Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany we continue the theme of the light of Christ going into the world. We who are in Christ are called to be salt/light.

Salt/Light are valued for their effects: by what they do.
Salt: preserves, stimulates, smarts if it touches a wound, and heals.
Light: illuminates, enables sight, stimulates, and heals.

Jesus says that those who follow him are to be like salt and light. But if Christians have lost their saltiness they are of no use. It is like lighting a lamp and putting it under a basket. It is of no use.

Our Christianity is authenticated by our functioning, by what our lives reveal us doing. How salty we are or how brightly our light shines indicates where we are in our CONVERSION. he word “conversion” means “to turn toward”. This is the opposite of aversion: “to turn away from.” Conversion is the movement toward God, the overcoming of our separateness from Him. Our movement toward God is our response to His movement toward us in His son: Jesus the Christ. Conversion may be an event from time to time, but each event is part of a process. Conversion is a journey. Every day we are in a posture of conversion or aversion toward God.

Where does conversion take place? Cultural anthropologists talk about the place deep within each of us where the essence of “US” lives. It is that part we have been aware of all our lives as “US”. It is that part of us that does not age and is surprised to look in the mirror and realize that we are aging.

joseph-campbell

The late Joseph Campbell once said, “I don’t feel like an old man. I feel like a young man with something terribly wrong with him.”

There are Four Layers of “meaning” that make up a human being: Layer I being closest to the “US” of our essence.

Layer I: Symbols: the cross, the cup, water, bread. [This past week a group of girls from Independent Presbyterian church, one of our sister denominations, visited Saint John’s to see the murals and to talk about symbols, why? Because we live surrounded the symbols, myths and stories of our faith: these are images and stories that tell us who we are, speaking to the deep ideas, mother, father, hero, lover.] We forget just how blessed we are to have these displayed for us to live with and our unconscious to draw on.

Layer II: Customs, values: Christmas, Easter. Family Values: Right and wrong, being kind to people and animals. Jesus is a wonderful fellow and teacher. It’s a good thing for children to be in Church so they will learn values. Recently I had what my friend Walton Griffin calls a dinosaur moment when at young adult bible study – I quoted Archie Bunker and nobody in the room knew who he was… going back even further I quote Little Abner who said, “goodness is better than badness because it’s nicer.” That’s Layer II.

Layer III: Moveable features: That western people wear pants (first men, now women) That might change if we lived somewhere else; particularly if winters were all like the one we are living through.

Layer IV: Outer, superficial elements, fads, styles, bell-bottoms, Hula hoops, skinny jeans, mood rings, pet rocks, rubrics’ cube, poodle skirts, fiddleback chasubles, low hems, high hems and hardly any hem at all . The color of one’s wall, the kind of car one drives, keia pets the next great thing that will make you thin, rich and safe. The sort of “stuff” that fills our attics.

If we are not careful, we will mistake superficial change for conversion. Example: Fran Alexander watching the neighborhood boys signing the cross before taking free throws in the backyard, because one of the stars at North Carolina was Roman Catholic and signed the cross before he took a free throw.

Turning toward God must happen to the essence of our being in the depths of our souls.Jesus said, “Your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees.” It is easier to be transformed at the outer layers.

Often well intention Western missionaries tried to make Westerners out of other nations, as if you could only be Christian if you were like us. The spread of that sort of cultural Christianity may in fact prevent the Gospel from touching people in deeper places. When Christianity is the dominant religion in the culture it is easy to lose our saltiness. Too much is taken for granted. Basic faith decisions about Jesus the Christ being Lord and Savior often do not get made or are simply made in a shallow way.

When the Gospel is proclaimed in a place for the first time a four Generation process is observed:

1. First generation of Christians: Being Christian is a choice. Christ is at the center of their lives and being. Light is bright – Salt is very salty.
2. Second generation: born into the Church. They make no particular decision about this themselves. The center of Christianity for this generation is jobs or tasks in the Church: working in the Church. The jobs become the center of faith and believing. Light continues to shine – Salt is still salty
3. Third generation: Occasional worship. The Christmas and Easter cycle becomes the center of their faith. They also appear for the birth, marriage, death cycle – the “Hatching, matching, dispatching” function of the Church. The light is dim and there is a low sodium diet.
4. Fourth generation: simply follow the crowd out of the Church and the faith altogether into the dark and is no longer salt at all.

e-stanley-jones-quote

“We have inoculated our people with such a harmless strain of Christianity that they are almost immune to the real thing.”  E. Stanley Johnes

What must happen for each of us is to meet God directly. God does not have grand-children. Why do we depend on hearing a story from another person about their religious experience. If you and I are inclined to meet God, let’s go and look him up and when we look God up we will learn that God has been looking for people since the Garden of Eden = and each of us since the day of our birth! That is what I want to be about and I suspect that you do too!!!

Virginia Owens – “The Total Image or Selling Jesus in the Modern Age”  “A person, whether human or divine, cannot be known — as a person rather than an image except by immediate presence. If we want to project an image, either of Christians or the Church, we can do that by means of television, magazines, books, billboards, movies, bumper stickers, buttons, records, and posters. If we want people to know Christ, we must be there face-to-face, bearing Christ within us.”

There is a story about a man looking for God was dunked under the water in a pool by the old monk. As he was gasping for air, the monk asked him, “What were you thinking about when you were under the water?” “Air”, gasped the man. Then the monk said, “If you wanted to know God as much as you wanted air, you would know him.”

What generation are we? We are called to be transformed in the deep places of our beings: in the essence of the “US”. Nothing else will do, Nothing else will satisfy. Nothing else is light and salt. Let’s not settle for less. Amen.

Save

 

Quote

lovebelonging_teaser4_jeanvanierstartslarche_600

“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”

― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

An inalienable right to a good time!

gratitude-and-entitlement

We were not put here to have a good time and that’s what throws most of us, that sense that we all have an inalienable right to a good time.

”A Conversation with the Real Woody Allen” Rolling Stone, 1976