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.

 

 

The Nobleman

 

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Meister Eckhart (1260 -1328)

-From Eckhart’s teaching The Nobleman

The first stage of the inner man and the new man, St. Augustine says, is that a man lives by the example of good and saintly people, though he still holds on to chairs and supports himself by walls, and subsists on milk.

The second stage is when he not merely regards the outward examples and good people, but runs and hastens to the teaching and counsel of God and divine wisdom, turns his back on mankind and his face toward God, crawling forth from his mother’s lap to smile up at his heavenly Father.

The third stage is when a man withdraws more and more from his mother and, being further and further from her lap, escapes from care and casts off fear so that, even if he might with impunity do evil and in justice to all, he would have no wish to do so, for he is so bound to God with love in eagerness, until God establishes and leads him in joy, sweetness, and bliss, wherein he cares nothing for whatever is repugnant and alien to God.

The fourth stage is when he grows more and more, and becomes rooted in love and in God, so that he is ready to welcome any trial, temptation, adversity, and suffering willingly, gladly, eagerly, and joyfully.

The fifth stage is when he lives altogether at peace with himself, resting calmly in the richness and abundance of the supreme ineffable wisdom.

The sixth stage is when a man is de-formed and transformed by God’s eternity, and has attained total forgetfulness of transitory, temporal life and is drawn and translated into a divine image, having become the child of God. Beyond this there is no higher stage, and there is rest and bliss, for the final end of the inner man and the new man is eternal life.

Try this growth sequence on for size!

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

MONDAY OF EASTER III

May 5, 2019

Emmaus Debbie Salt

LUKE 24:17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him..

Jesus said, “That was quite a debate you just having.  What were you discussing?” With grief, most anything is a trigger and sadness leapt to their faces. Cleopas looking up over his glasses asked, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem not to know what happened this week? You don’t get out much?”  “What things?”  Seeing Cleopas’ exasperation,   Symeon interjected, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was prophet in deed and word before God and all the people…”

The consequence of a drought of prophets in Israel from Malachi to John the Baptizer was spiritual hunger.  There is never any lack of people wanting to order people around, while telling them exactly what the Holy One would do or say, if only God had all the facts. John, the Baptizer was cut from a different bolt, actually a bolt of lightening not camel-skin.

Acabas Emmaus

Of course God has all the facts.  The important thing to know about Jesus is not that he is like God.  The important thing to know is that God is like Jesus.  “If you have seen me,” said Jesus, “You have seen the Father.”  The Incarnation revels the identity and face of the Creator. That turned out to be good news.  Good News in deed.  Not only that, we are invited to call God, “father.” That’s amazing when you think on it.

There are many amazing things yet to come!  I have it on good authority.

In hope, in spite of the facts.  John

 

J

EASTER III

May 5, 209

Janet Brooks Gerlof Emmaus

LUKE 24:15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

A story has characters. Characters have stories and relationships that are the story. So who are the people and why do they matter.  Cleopas is the husband of Mary, the sister of Mary, mother of Jesus.  I know, “what were they thinking?”  The Holy Family’s family, though not prominent in the Gospels become central in Acts and beyond. Cleo (his friends called him Cleo) is accompanied by an unnamed companion.  Who? Pick one.  For the sake of our conversation, let’s say he is Symeon, Cleo’s son.  Symeon figures large in the early Christian fortunes.*

Cleo said, “I’m done! Let’s go home.” He headed out the Damascus Gate, the sun just past overhead, as they trudged West toward home.  Symeon fell into pace with his father and they walked steadily through the hot afternoon the twenty or so miles to Emmaus.  They were debating, the sense is, very vigorously, rehashing everything that occurred since the first day of a week ago.

Focused on the matter at hand, the men didn’t see Jesus simply step from nothing onto the shoulder of the road.  Falling into step with them, he joined their party but they did not realize who walked with them.

Acabas Emmaus

Why?  It says, ‘their eyes were fixed from recognition.” One tool for Bible study is the question, “Why is this here?”  The church in the first twenty years had a growing sense of Christ’s presence seen or unseen.  They did see him and were blessed to be so.  Jesus remarked that those of us who have not seen but have believed are blessed as well.

Today, Jesus will show up sometime, somewhere, somehow.  Notice your inner quickened sense of awareness, it’s one of the signs.

In hope, in spite of the facts. j

*Chapter 11:1. After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. 2. They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph. Eusebius (2011-09-15). The History of the Church

FRIDAY OF EASTER II

May 3, 2019

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Thomas, Apostle of India

JOHN 20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Following John’s chronology, this reading falls a week after Easter.

He wants to experience this for himself. A week later, things are a bit calmer, when Jesus appeared the second time.  He materialized right in front of Thomas inviting just the scrutiny that Thomas claimed he needed.  In fact, it turned he didn’t need it at all.  He was clearly Jesus, Thomas knew at almost a cellular level.

“My Lord and my God” is pretty clear where Thomas came down on the issue. Between Easter Day and Pentecost, there must have been some mighty long conversations, lectures and holy power point presentations as Jesus got the disciples ready to carry resurrection everywhere.  Having done that, he ascended, instructing them to stay together and in one place (I like to think he smiled at Thomas when he said it) until the Spirit comes.  They did and The Holy Spirit did.  More about that later.

After Pentecost, Thomas went on down to Alexandria, sailed across the Indian Ocean never to return.  The story is that he preached resurrection, lived resurrection and dispensed resurrection to the point a local priest (isn’t it always) brained him with a dye bat.  You can think what you like about such tales and doubt much about them.  However, in this case when the Portuguese arrived in Indian there were Christians there to meet them. In Goa, the church was a little odd by Western practice, but clearly they preached the same resurrection. They heard the Good News from our favorite doubter very soon after the resurrection.  They called themselves Mar Thoma or Saint Thomas Christians.  Though, I doubt he much cares any more about that doubting moniker, shouldn’t we at least give the guy a break.  For crying out loud.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

j

THURSDAY OF EASTER II

May 2, 2019

Tissot Thomas

Thomas sees Jesus – Tissot

JOHN 20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas was called the twin back then. Aside, nobody has a clue about the twin thing so beware of scholar’s theories. Aside over. He got past being called twin (almost nobody calls him that anymore), only receive, “doubting” in its place. Doubting Thomas is much worse than Thomas the Twin. Don’t you think?

In addition, he gets a bum rap as well, to this day. He went out Easter night. Why? Nobody knows. So supply your own notion, I do. Maybe he got sick of disciple’s paranoia, jumping at a log cracking in the fireplace. Perhaps, he got the short straw when they ran out of beer and was out getting a few cases to tide them over. He could have needed fresh air. We know he was out, period.

I ask you, why should he accept the word of this crowd given their state of mind? Add terror to grief and you get hallucinations, maybe? Thomas wanted to experience God directly, not hearsay. There’s a reason the courts are unimpressed by such. Who could blame him? I’ve noticed in the years of my ordained life, soon 37 years, a growing, progressive hunger of people to experience God for themselves.

I will tell you that for the thirty-seven years of this gig, one trend is that people want to experience God themselves.  Don’t settle for any secondhand edition it will not fix the slow leak in our souls.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John Sewell

 

 

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EASTER II

APRIL 28, 2019

JOHN 20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

It’s interesting, the “water-cooler”* definition of fear is anxiety/ reaction to danger, while peace is essentially, NOT fear.  If fear is reaction to danger, then the “fear-scale” for reactivity varies from the edge of pleasure to nuclear winter.  My therapist once said, “Your problem, John, is you don’t know the difference between scared and excited.” Definition by absence is rarely helpful.

The reaction of the disciples is surely understandable. Lackluster with Jesus, without Jesus, they had no luster at all.  Their leader had offended every power broker in the country.  If they murdered Jesus what would they do to them?  Lock-down mode was prudent.  Leaving the guys huddled by the fire with the curtains drawn, let us consider fear. 

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain. – Paul Atreides

From Dune by Frank Herbert

george herbert

Frank Herbert

I recall no need to exegete science fiction before, but then Frank Herbert was specialized in comparative religions.  Actually the litany of fear is pretty good advice.

First:  I must not fear.  Not very realistic. What if we said, “I must not become my fear.”   (Suspect that is his intent).

Fear is a mind-killer, tolerated long enough will destroy.  I knew a woman that as soon as her family departed each morning began running horror movies in her head of what awful things were befalling them all day.  This continued until they returned.

We face our fear, name it and allow it to pass over and through. Avoid psychic stickiness.  When it is gone past, in the rear-view mirror I see there is nothing. Dreams are not corporeal, there is no trace. Only I remain.  This is the discipline of the mind, taught by the Spirit.

It interesting where we find spiritual resources, even speculative fiction.

*unsubstantiated opinion

In hope, in spite of the facts

John

SATURDAY OF EASTER WEEK

April 26, 2019

MARK 16:9 Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. 12 After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. 14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 20 And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.

Mark gives us the spare details, the shorthand version, of the readings of Easter Week. We know that Mark took down the remembrances of Peter.  Luke must have known Mary and the family of Jesus, so he gives us the detailed version of Cleopas and friend. 

Jesus-breaking-bread-and-giving-his-disciples-the-cup

Verse 14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.

Why is it that nothing is ever simple?   We see in our minds the way forward.  It lies clear before us, even what to do in what order.  Reality, the 11 had relapsed to pre-resurrection mode.  One of the hardest parts of leading is the vision must be cast as high as possible, knowing it cannot be reached.  You’d like to think that if you see the risen Jesus you could persuade people you know well.  Not if they prefer not to believe.

This is the crowd that does finally get moving with the simple task of saving the whole world. It didn’t nor is it still going easily.  The West needs re-evangelizing for the third time in some cases. But, the Lord is working with us. The Holy Spirit, God penetrating history and existence, continues Jesus’ work.  Let’s get with it.

Pray for all who witness to Isis, mostly as martyrs for proclaiming Jesus, Son of God.    The work continues.  Thanksgiving for all believers in Sri Lanka who met our Lord face to face on Easter.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John+

 

 

FRIDAY OF EASTER WEEK

April 26, 2019

1886_Jesus Appears on the Shore_Brooklyn_1886-94

Jesus appears by the sea – James Tissot

JOHN After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples

 

Janet Brooks Gerloff

The Last Breakfast – Janet Brooks Gerloff

Here we join the last breakfast.  Jesus is cooking by the time the guys came in from fishing without anything to show for being wet and cold.  He must have walked down to the water, shouting the question all fishers hear as the boat nears the dock, “Boys, didn’t catch anything, did you?” “Nothing,” the glum reply.   Chuckling, Jesus said, “Throw the net on the right side, there’s fish to be caught.”   To which, John thought, “haven’t we been here before? It’s the Lord!” Peter not to be outdone dives into the sea getting to the beach first.

 

 

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The Last Breakfast – James Tissot

The grill was hot. Jesus called for fresh fish and they ate right there.  It’s like a group of buddies had serve as pall bearers for the best among them, only suddenly there he is alive but changed and all for the better.  If death can’t stop him, what can stop any of them?  Sated with food, they lay around like a pile of puppies.  The scene is irresistibly attractive, the kind rising from a genuine religious experience.  Oh, there were issues to tend and a whole world to save, but on that clear cool morning they were at peace, together again.

By the time John writes this text, only he remains.  His brother, James was the first to fall.  Now he will be the last.  Sons of Thunder, bookends of the Apostles.  In the high altar mural in the church here at Saint John’s is the old John.  He’s not crazed exactly, but clearly he has seen something.

And he did.  I’m grateful for his Gospel.  Wish there was Volume 2.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John