MAUNDY THURSDAY

April 18, 2019

JOHN 13 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,

jesus washing peters feet by ford madox brown

4 got up from the table,  took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

John Jesus lean

 

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord— and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one her.”

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When Jesus got to Peter with basin and water, Peter balked.  It’s not that his feet were ticklish, it’s not that someone wanted to wash his feet, it’s because Jesus, who he loved and revered, came at him as servant.

In our own day, it is all about us.  We are self-conscious about our feet.  And in truth, by a certain age feet are pretty beat up.  It is not, I have observed, washing feet that is so unacceptable even, no, it’s having our feet washed.  That may seem backwards, but the ego “inside voice” says,   “So, if this is going on at least I will be in control.”  Sitting in chair with someone, not of ego’s choice, touching, handling and, at least symbolically washing our feet, is beyond self-absorbed ego’s tolerance.

Soul, on the other hand, while perhaps timid the first time, discovers a peculiar intimacy in the process.  Suddenly, one is in a genuine religious experience, for such has an almost irresistible attraction.

Ego, sighs relief, re-seated in the pew, having survived an unpleasant experience.  Soul is almost unaware of self upon reentering the pew. They are both moved, but consider the dichotomy. Attendance to Maundy Thursday is lower than other Holy Week services and I suspect the push pull of ego versa soul is the reason.  Pedicures are not required.  So relax, and pardon the expression, but meeting sole to soul is holy.

In hope, in spite of the facts.  J

 

HOLY TUESDAY

April 16, 2019

grain-of-wheat-dies-to-bear-much-fruit

JOHN 12:20   Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. Jesus Speaks about His Death 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. 37 Although he had U

JOHN 12: 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Just about everything you can say about Jesus is contradictory.  Contradictions pulled and tugged toward the middle become paradox, appearing contradictory yet in tension are true.  The dying grain, without observation morphs into a multitude of seeds.  Humans have known that East or West of Eden ever since.  Not all seeds bear multiplicity, but all seeds have it in them.

Our ego is our shell.  It is the husk that holds us together in this life.  It thickens as we age, anticipating pain and suffering.  Somewhat safe, increasingly imprisoned, we long for relief.  Relief has come among us.  Jesus, the son, rather the seed of God, came among us as one of us. He did not consider his ego essential to the seed, fell into the earth and by dying, was loosed a cosmic energy, we call grace.  He knocks on the shell wall, entreating to us come to him.

 A few hear his voice, turn from their ego obsession, fall into the earth dying to ourselves.  Again life comes through death to egoself.  Death of egoself passes for reckless, stupid, self-hate to others caught by ego.  Not so.

Psalm 126: 5 & 6 is the soul anthem of grace.

…PSALMS 126:5-6   (They) who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. 6He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

Egocentricity is isolating.  Egos are easily frightened. Any perceived threat triggers a panicky search for certainty.  We want control.  Naturally we sow in tears.  Yes, we go out weeping, suffering is the promise always keeps.  The and only then are we open to life in Christ, the sudden irresistible movement of grace and we go to the Father with shouts of joy bearing our sheaves.

In hope, in spite of the facts.  John+

Holy Monday

April 15, 2019

JOHN 12   Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

Wayne Forte

3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews

The corporate ego of the priesthood was by then murderously enraged.  Nothing will provoke such behavior from the, “so-called,” righteous than someone with an idea that contradicts everything the ruling righteous stood on.  That is why the disorienting contradicting parables got Jesus killed.  I can testify that we “professional Christians” are particularly susceptible to a virulent, fatal strain of the We-Plague.

While all of us have an ego shadow, any group’s collective “we” is as unforgiving of another’s “I” as a flock of ravens pecking to death one of their own, born albino. It didn’t seem to cross the minds of that crowd to stop and reflect on Lazarus’ inching out in his mummy wrapping as a miracle!  Rather, they saw him as an unfortunate symptom of a deadly threat.  Getting Lazarus back in the ground was job one!

Beloved, righteousness fueled by rage is all ways a fatal mutation.  The epidemic is all around us.  For the first time in almost sixty-five years, I actually pray for”…the Republic for which it stands.”  How then, do we live in the face of such fear fueled hatred?

anointingjesuswithnard-arcabas

First we face our own fearful anxiety.  We consciously contract our ego, thus growing ourselves up and calming ourselves down.  Becoming the Gospel, daring to say I in the face of the terrified we is what Jesus would do if he were here.  He did it the first time and he left us (as his body) to do it in ours.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John Sewell

LENT III

Have you ever wondered who chose the lessons for the lectionary and why do they group the readings as they do? 

The readings in Lent are chosen to prepare the community to prepare the community for the yearly remembrance of the passion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the implications for life since then.

  • The Gospel readings are stories in the life of Jesus which point toward the Passion, the Cross and beyond.
  • The Epistles are reflections on the meaning of the Cross, or the believer’s participation in salvation by baptism.
  • The reading from the Old Testament tell of the events from Israel’s salvation that are seen as “types” that “prefigure” the Easter event.

In the reading from Exodus, we one of the great events of salvation history.  It is so powerful that it has entered the popular expression, “having a burning bush experience.” How did Moses, the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter come to be in the Sinai wilderness?  Moses killed an Egyptian who he caught beating a Hebrew slave.  When this became known he had to leave town in a hurry. He left the Nile valley and wandered in the wilderness. There he found a wife, the daughter of Jethro, a name more familiar from the “Beverly Hillbillies” than scripture.  It was there in the wilderness that it happened.

Moses has joined the sheep-herding business of his in-laws and was minding the sheep one day when he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  The angel of the Lord appeared in a flame in the thorn bush.  Moses saw that the bush was burning but yet it was not consumed, so he burned aside to see this strange thing. 

At this point, Moses displayed the one thing required to serve God: RECPTIVITY.  Instead of saying, “Isn’t that strange,” and going on about his business, he stopped and to investigate.  Then a voice spoke from the bush and Moses did not run away; he simply said, “Here I am.”

Moses has joined the sheep-herding business of his in-laws and was minding the sheep one day when he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  The angel of the Lord appeared in a flame in the thorn bush.  Moses saw that the bush was burning but yet it was not consumed, so he burned aside to see this strange thing.  At this point, Moses displayed the one thing required to serve God: RECPTIVITY.  Instead of saying, “Isn’t that strange,” and going on about his business, he stopped and to investigate.  Then a voice spoke from the bush and Moses did not run away; he simply said, “Here I am.”

The voice tells Moses that God has a mission for him.  He is to go to Egypt and bring the children of Israel out of slavery to Pharaoh.  Moses was not thrilled with this assignment.  He said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Moses did not have a great self image.  He had no confidence.  He had a speech impediment and was terrified of public speaking, let alone, gently break the “good news” to the God-King of Egypt that Yahweh, God of the Israelites instructs him to free the children of Israel.  “Who, me, I don’t think so,” he said.  Moses wouldn’t be our choice for such a project. 

In the book, “The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said,” Philip Steifter, superintendent of schools in Barrington, Rhode Island is quoted, “After finding no qualified candidates for the position of principal, the school announces the appointment of George Smith to the post.”  To paraphrase Mr. Steifter, “After finding no qualified candidate for the position freeing the slaves, I announce the appointment of Moses to the post.”  Could God not do better than that?

That, of course, is precisely the point.  God does not have to do better at all because this is not about the chosen, but about the chooser!  Martin Buber in, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (p. 47) – “Moses said to YHVH (Yahweh), “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”  YHVH provides the assurance “Indeed I shall be present with you,” and he promises Moses a “sign” which at first seems strange to us.  The sight is that when the people come out of Egypt they will worship YHVH at the mountain.  In other words, what is now only existent in words will take on real existence.” 

Then God makes the promise that echoes down the millennia since, “I shall be,” I shall be present, assuring Moses that He would remain present amid his chosen, …” God promises to be present with those chosen by Him, to remain present with them, to assist them.  … I am and remain present.  YHVH is not like the Gods of Egypt that must be invoked, begged, and coerced.  It is superfluous to invoke YHWH because He is already there before He is called.

Moses continues, “If I show up in Egypt and say the God of your ancestors sent me, they are going to want to know who/what I am talking about.  Then God said, “tell them that, I AM WHO I AM, sent you.”  What does that mean?  Buber continues, (p. 51) “This is usually understood to mean, “I am that I am” in the sense that YHVH describes Himself as the Being One even the Everlasting One, the one unalterably persisting in His being.  … the very in the Biblical language does not carry this particular shade of meaning of pure existence.  It means, happening, coming into being, being there, being present, being thus and thus; but not being in the abstract sense.”

This is the ground of Exodus the Gospel reading for today grows.  Is God the enemy of those people that bad things happened to?  Those who the tower fell on or the Galileans who Pilate killed in the Temple.  Were they the worst people I town that this happened to them?  Jesus said, “no, they were no worse than anyone else, and besides that is not the point; but if YOU do repent you will perish as they did.

Then he told the parable about the unproductive fig tree.  The owner wants to cut it down but the gardener asks that it been cultivated and fertilized and given one more chance.  If at the end of that year there is still no fruit on it cut it down.

The call is there. The call is always there.  As God said to Moses, I AM He who shows up and keeps on showing up.  The question is not  how reliable is God, but rather how willing are we?

A story is told of Innocent of Alaska, an early Russian Orthodox Bishop in Alaska.  A deacon asked him, “If God is infinitely merciful, how can he deprive anyone of his heavenly Kingdom?  “And why do you keep twisting your head about from side to side?”  Innocent countered, “Why don’t you sit still?”  “Because the sun keeps hitting me right in the eye and just won’t leave me in peace,” the deacon replied.  “There. You’ve answered your own question,” the bishop laughed.   “God doesn’t deprive his heavenly kingdom from sinners who do not repent.  They themselves simply can’t bear its light – any more than you bear the light of the sun.”  St. Innocent of Alaska 1797-1897

The Lord will give a second chance, and third, and a fourth.  In the parable there is a definite limit to what may be done for the fig tree.  If it still fails to produce, even the gardener who cares about it will agree to its removal.  God’s patience is infinite, but we are free to refuse it forever.  The day of grace will someday come to an end.

God has promised to show and to keep on showing up.  However, He will not force us, because He created us genuinely free.  The same steadfast love of God was finally displayed on the cross and manifested by the resurrection of our Lord.  God is everywhere, with us in whatever we are in.

“A pagan once asked Rabbi Joshua ben Qarehah, ‘Why of all things did God choose the humble thorn bush as the place from which to speak with Moses?’  The Rabbi replied, ‘If He had chosen a carob tree or a mulberry tree, you would have asked me the same question.  Yet it is impossible to let you go away empty handed.  That is why I am telling you that God chose the humble thorn bush — to teach you that there is no place on earth bereft of the Divine Presence, not even a thorn bush.’”

The same God who promised Moses that He would show up and keep on showing up is still showing up.  In the first century, He showed up in the person and ministry of his Son, Jesus.  Since the day of Pentecost, He has been showing up in the person of the Holy Spirit.  That same Spirit is here today in you and me and in the sacrament of bread and wine.  The question is, will we show up?  That part is up to us.  The good news is that when we do show up God is already there! 

Amen.

LENT II

Today’s Gospel is about judgment.  People have a hard time dealing with judgment, at least people have a hard time being on the “judged” end of judgment.

Paul Ricoeur in his book, The Symbolism of Evil, explores the cluster of experiences that make up the experience of sin and judgment.  They are: DEFILEMENT, ANXIETY, SHAME AND GUILT.

  1. DEFILEMENT:

Something happens and we feel violated, dirty, angry AND we have done nothing wrong.  It is the feeling when you realize that your house has been burgled.  You enter the house and what had been home is suddenly alien and you feel like you need to take a shower.

In the Peanuts comic strip, Snoopy, the beagle, used to kiss Lucy on the mouth, just so he could see her spit and yell about “dog germs.” I had a similar experience with my sister when she was little. One day the family dog kissed her on the mouth. She got hysterical over the “dog germs” and  could not be pacified until I gave her a slug of Listerine which tasted so bad that she just knew that the germs were dead.  In reality a dog’s mouth has less germs than a human one, but she “felt” defiled.

  1. ANXIETY – EXISTENTIAL:

One day when I was a young child, mother was going to the barn to milk the cows.  The milk bucket was face down on the well curb where it had been left to drain.  When she picked the bucket up a copper-head snake was coiled under it.  To this day I remember instant anxiety that produced.  It is no accident that the symbol of evil is not an elephant.

Existential anxiety is the realization that, “We won’t always be here!”  The day finally comes when the truth occurs to us that not only do other people die, but so will we.  Much of this anxiety is unconscious and becomes  “bound.”  Or in other words the society is deeply anxious and looking for a quick fix that usually promotes anxiety rather than cures it.

  1. SHAME:

Feeling of being “bad” – painful feelings of having lost the respect or regard of another person.  This may or may not be the result of behavior.  It is inner directed.  It feels like a stain on ones sense of self. Often shame is given as much as it is earned. 

  1. GUILT:

These are the rules.  If you keep the rules you are ok, if you break the rules then you are a bad person and must be punished. We often resist that being true so that we do not have to feel the pain.  But all of us have done things years ago that trouble us even today. 

  • Defilement – Anxiety – Shame – Guilt ­= sin, alienation from God, ourselves

and each other.  Nothing WE can do will fix what is wrong. — All of which leads to JUDGMENT. 

It is very hard for people to hear the bad news of judgment, even if it is true.  It is human nature to believe the worst about others and to deny our own  brokeness and sin.  One of the consequences of sin is that rather than being in God’s image, many of us have made God in OUR own image.

Our image of God is as if he was an old man at the top of a very long ladder waiting for us to get near the top, make a mistake/sin/break the rules so that he can hit our fingers with a hammer so that we lose our grip on the rung and drop like a rock into hell.

When I was in my early years of college there was a Dean at my university that would go over the senior’s records with an eye for graduation requirements that had been left undone.  He never let on about the deficit until they were standing in the graduation line, in cap and gown.  Then he came along, pulling people from the line, telling them that they would not graduate that day.  He enjoyed it.  

We can only hear judgment from someone who loves us!  Only then can it become insight. Because of the love, our defensiveness is overcome, and we hear the truth.  When we are loved we have the courage to peep through our fingers and admit, “Yes that is true.” 

This is “being brought up short”– the moment when we have the insight that things are not as they should be or could be.  Then we are left with a choice, what are we going to do?  Which leads us to the good news of judgment, namely, grace and forgiveness!

  • JUDGMENT, GRACE AND FORGIVENESS:

The good news is that there is grace available to us for new life.  We do not have that new life because we do not ask for it. The question then is, “do we trust Jesus or not?”  In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus grieves over Jerusalem, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gather her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Robert Farrar Capon says this about judgment.

“If he (Jesus) has already done it all for me already, why shouldn’t I live as if I trusted him?”  If he has already reconciled both my wayward self and my equally difficult brother in law, or children or wife/husband – why shouldn’t I at least try to act as if  I trust him to have done just that and to let his reconciliation govern my actions in those relationships.”

            When we die we lose whatever grip we had on our unreconciled versions of our lives – And when we rise on the last day, the only grip in which our lives will be held will be the reconciling grip of Jesus’ resurrection – He will hold our lives mended, cleaned and pressed in his hand, and he will show home to his Father.  Sin is not something the human race has any choice about.  None of us will  ever avoid that trust in ourselves and that distrust of anyone else that lies at the root of the world’s problems.”

“It’s about progress rather than perfection.”

Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

Lent is about judgment/insight/being open to grace.  The new life begins and continues – begins and continues over and over.

Frederick Buechner says this about judgment.  “We are all of us judged every day.  We are judged by the face that looks back at us the bathroom mirror.  We are judged by the faces of the people we love and by the faces and lives of our children and by our dreams. Each day finds us at the junction of many roads, and we are judged as much by the roads we have not taken as by the roads we have. 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.

God is not our enemy!  He is trustworthy and merciful. As the reading from Exodus? for today says, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  He wants more for us than we can ever want for ourselves.  “The one who will judges us finally will be the one who loves us most fully.”  That is good news indeed.

Amen.

“Country over Court”

Who knew?

800px-Robert_Byrd_official_portrait

Robert Byrd, Late Senator of West Virginia

After the debacle  of the Supreme Court hearings in 1991.  Senator Byrd said that he had supported Later Justice Thomas until after the testimony of Anita Hill.  After hearing the debacle of reopened testimony,  Senator Byrd said,

“Sometimes we must choose country over court.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pause, Pray & Withdraw Projections

 

Twin Towers

Seventeen years ago, I turned, coffee cup in hand,  and witnessed the second plane crash into the Trade Center Towers in New York.  It is fair to say that the world has not been the same since that day.  I was almost half-way through my thirty-six year public ministry of Episcopal priest.  I have watched the cultures and peoples of this planet become more and more anxious caught between the twin imperatives of living things: Survival and Reproduction.  Also known as the force for individuality and togetherness.  These two, universal forces work on all protoplasm. The tension, even contradiction, between them Bowen termed, Chronic Anxiety.  This is the life force tuned to face challenge real or imagined.  No two systems react the same way facing the same challenge.

I began studying Dr. Bowen’s teachings over thirty years ago and had the privilege to sit at the feet of one of his students, Rabbi Edwin Friedman.  While this way of thinking is contrary to most of the thought in the marketplace of ideas in the West, I found it profoundly useful and have employed it ever since.  I believe this thinking is the reason Saint John’s Episcopal Church was voted one of the fifty best places to work in Memphis TN for five years in a row.

Emotional-relationships

It appears that chronic anxiety is at a historical high in the West.  Our country is badly polarized, such that we are almost incapable of communicating.  The gifts and skills for finding common ground for the good of all is not just out of fashion, it is on the extinction list of states of being.

Someone asked me recently what they should read and study about challenges of our common life on this planet.  First of all, let me be very clear, THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES! Trust no one who tells you that.  Trust no one who tells you to listen them and only them.  DON’T DO IT.  Also, all who claim to follow Jesus, must recognize and accept that racism, bigotry and such are not standards of measure AVAILABLE TO CHRISTIANS.  If that is one of your life tools, STOP IT.  We are called to love all equally for his sake.  There is not greater law than this.

John Sewell

The following is a modest annotated bibliography of books I consider of great value today.

  • Bronner, Stephen Eric, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists, Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0300223842      New to me but very interesting. 
  • Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  Revised Edition, May 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1596272798  – Freidman died twenty years ago AND his critique is more accurate today than then.  I encourage any thinking and feeling person to read it. 
  • Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements  Harper and Bros. 1951.  The title of Hoffer’s opus entered the English lexicon defining extremists.  Every American adult should read it.
  • Papero, Daniel V., Bowen Family Systems Theory. Allyn and Bacon. 1990.  One of the best introductions to Systems Theory I know.

 

 

 

Does God Exist And Does God Care

For the last couple of days I have been rearranging the 2000 volumes in my library. Going through the shelves, taking one and putting it with its companions as to subject or concern is a kind homecoming among old and beloved friends. Some are much older than my 67 years.  Another arrived this afternoon in the mail.  Upon entering my new digs, people often question,  “Have you read all these books?” “No,  I say, explaining the collection are the guidebooks for my exploration of what it means to be human.  There are few mathematics or accounting books, but many history, psychology, literature and religious studies.  These members of my intellectual tribe travel on together.  We set out on the journey almost 4 decades ago in Albertville, Alabama.  There were many fewer then.  Now we have moved into a office building, resting after five moves these past 36 years.  I open one, reading my notes written in pencil (I have never been confident enough to write in ink) that are the marginalia of my life. Notes made in the margins.  Scribbles marking my place in a book and the thought in my head.

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I looked a for a particular title and after a time my eye spied it, my hand reached and my eye remembered the cover.  It is a modest volume,  9 by 5 inches and only an half inch thick.   It’s title, “A Letter To A Man In The fire” by the late Reynolds Price.  It’s subtitle are the two questions a young medical student asked Reynolds (who survived cancer though paraplegic).  Jim Fox asked, “Does God exist and Does He Care?”  What a question?  Mr. Price then wrote Jim a letter of 86 pages honestly speaking to those questions with the kind of honestly a cancer survivor owes a cancer patient.   He spoke of faith, not the easy recitation of empty platitudes or even the unthinking repetition of ancient holy writ.  No, he struggled to say that he did believe that God does exist and that somehow in the mix of chance and circumstance where the innocent are afflicted and the rain falls on the just and the unjust. He then says the things that has resonated in my soul ever since the day I first read this letter.  Now, let me stop.  I know its unfair.  But please believe me that I have a good reason.  We shall here again, please be patient with me.

Chapel of the Cross

I moved to Mississippi in 1989 to take up the rectorate of  The Chapel of the Cross in Madison.  The Chapel was an ancient (1848) Gothic revival treasure that by the late 20th century was filling with the new suburbs of Jackson.  I took up and took to my task at hand.  In those first days the community  numbered around 125 souls.  We had the elegant church,  a five room sharecropper house served as as everything else save too rundown single-wide trailers that served as educational space.  The place began to grow.  Over the next decade the place grew rapidly.  I imagined it was like driving a bus with no brakes. Careening down the road and every time I risked a glanced over my shoulder the bus was longer and packed to the gunnels with more people. By the end of the decade the community was nigh 900.  I celebrated Eucharist 4 times on Sundays, taught, opened and closed.  This went on for years until I was almost used up.  In 1998 I was rescued.  The Vestry instructed me to find a priest for the team.  So I did.  The Reverend Doctor David Christian come onboard and we moved to 6 masses on Sundays: 7:30, 8:45, 11:00 & 5:00. The middle two were doubled: a mass in the church and one in the parish hall (now named for David).  He and I waited until the two processions were ready to move. Then and only then did we decide which one of would go to which service.

elohim-created-adam

Elohim create man – William Blake

David went to seminary from a medical practice.  He, his wife and two kids moved from Jackson MS to the General Seminary of the Episcopal in New York City.  He after his first academic year he did Clinical Pastoral Education at a city hospital, working as a chaplain, learning the ropes of institutional ministry and learning about himself in the work of a priest.  That hospital routinely gave each person who came on staff in any capacity a physical.  David’s physical revealed that he had a very serious non-symptomatic cancer in one lung. The only thing to do was remove one entire lung. They did that very thing leaving David with one lung and a very tenuous diagnosis.  To everyone’s amazement.  David lived, finished his last two years of seminary and returned to Mississippi.  He told me once that he believed that he survived because he was so thrilled and happy with what he was doing that it pumped his immune system.  I don’t doubt it.  Upon returning to Mississippi, David was assigned to the parish in Bovina, MS.  Only behind the Magnolia Curtain would a town be named for the genera of medium to large-sized ungulates!

I was delighted to have such a gifted fellow as a colleague and so we were off to the races.  Honestly,  I don’t recall how long we lived in Eden together.  I do remember that David was cancer free for at least a decade and even was cleared to buy life insurance. But one day he went into town for his routine physical.  There was cancer in his remaining lung! Gobsmacked out of denial the parish and greater community sank into depression.  Introverted by nature,  my friend David turned deep inside to process this news.  Reluctant to intrude his contemplation,  I  resisted giving him,  A Letter to A Man in the Fire, though that was my first thought.  A few days passed.

A letter to a man in the fire

A knock at my office door,  “Come in.”  It was David.  “Sit,” I invited.” He continued to stand in the door. “On my way to my doctor’s appointment I stopped by Lemuria (the world-class book store in Jackson) and having a little continuing education money left, bought a book.”   From behind his back he produced a thin beige volume,  “A Letter to a Man in the Fire.”  “Would you believe that I have a copy of that book for you, synchronism, huh?” “At least,” he said, “I was afraid to read it for several days.”  “Now you have, I asked?”  Nodding,  he opened the book and begin to read, framed in the door.

My bred-in-the-bone conviction about you is that you’re bound toward a goodness you can’t avoid and that the amount of calendar time which lies between you and that destination is literally meaningless to God, though surely of the greatest importance to you.

That was the very passage I wanted to show him.  He closed the book, looked at me, saying nothing.  Our gazes met for a few seconds.  He closed the door and went down the hall.

We never spoke of the book again.  He soldiered on.  So did I.  I was not wise enough to realize that while the cancer diagnosis predicted that David would not die an old man,  it also marked the beginning of the end of my work in that place.  Used up, I sank into a deep depression and in 2001 was hospitalized for eleven weeks.  I resigned by years end.

The end of the story did not come immediately.  David continued his ministry at the Chapel.  Chemotherapy staved off the killing blow but prevented him prospering.  He spent a long of time meditating, praying in his office behind a closed door.

I moved to Memphis, TN as interim rector for Saint John’s Parish in 2002.  At mid-year in 2003,  I was called to become the sixth Rector the Parish and continued in that job until February first of this year.  I was not there when the end came.

In early Summer of 2005 after celebrating the early Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross, he retired to his office for quite a long time. Then he phoned his beloved wife, Frances, and asked her to come for him.  They drove to the hospital and he died a day or two later.

david Christian

The books on my shelves are my old friends.  There are stories in pencil on many of their margins. They traveled with me as they instructed me for my work on the journey.  One day they will go with someone else, but for now,  we continue our work together.

I live in hope, in spite of the facts.

John W. Sewell,

August 5, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

A 100 Years on no one was ever arrested.

I promised some I would download this sermon on my blog. So here it is. I recount the story of the lynching of Ell Persons on May 22, 1917 in Memphis TN.  Listen, as I recount those events and speak to the hope that is in us.

May 21, 2017 “The Lynching of Ell Persons”

May 21st, 2017
The Rev. John W. Sewell
Beloved, this must never happen again.  In the name of God the Holy One, it must not happen again.
John