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.

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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

Going Through Home, Again.

Chapel of the Cross Madison MS

The Chapel of the Cross, Madison, Mississippi, 1848

Last Sunday afternoon,  I preached at the Chapel of the Cross, Madison, Mississippi.  It was almost seventeen years since last I stood in that ancient place, built by slaves of bricks made from the very ground on which it sits.  Fr. Ben Robertson, present Rector of the parish, was very kind to invite me “home” again.

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Indeed it was home to me from All Saints Day, 1989 until midnight of New Years Eve 2001.  It was a rich time.  I learned many things as the congregation grew from 125 or so to the mid-800s in a decade.  Of course in that time, I received more credit and blame than I deserved (is it not always so?).  When people remarked on the growth, I learned to reply, “I can’t make people come here, but I can keep them from staying,” (that too is always true).

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So many people I loved in Mannsdale have departed to greater life.  As I reverenced the altar the other night,  trough the clear glass of the altar windows the tombs of the dead were framed by magnolia leaves.  Some, I had said the words over their mortal remains, Chapel members having dug the grave as they continue to dig them even today. Sitting through the night with the dead is a rare privilege we can give each other.  Keeping the establishment open all night does not appear on the business plans of the funeral industry.

I struggled to find the right words. Finally,  I settled on a series of meditations from Easter Week 2016, ending with the last three paragraphs from my sermon on Easter Day 2015.  Please find it embedded below.

I suffered burnout in 2000 and 2001, culminated  by an eleven week stay at Menninger Hospital in Topeka, Kansas.  I recovered but realized late in 2001 that I could no longer sustain the kind of workload that required at least twelve her days on numerous days per week.  So,  I stepped down.  Later in Memphis,  I found that I had Type 2 Bi-polar disease and through the support of Marilyn, Doctors and my staff at Saint John’s,  I have come to a good place with that disease.  It is, by the way, the most under diagnosed disease of American adults.

“You can’t go home again,” as Thomas Wolf declares. You can, however, “go through home again,” as I have learned about the various “homes” of my life.  It was healing to go through The Holy Ground of the Chapel of the Cross last Sunday.  God bless you all who welcomed me home and saw me off back home to Memphis.  I love you all.

I live in hope, in spite of the facts.

John W. Sewell+

 

 

EASTER

SUFFERING IS THE PROMISE LIFE ALWAYS KEEPS!

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Victor Safonkin

Nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the resurrection itself. That mighty act of God was unseen and it is indescribable. When the women reach the tomb, the resurrection has already taken place. What they find is the sepulchre empty and the stone rolled away. Their first reaction is not joy but perplexity. They have come to pay their last respected and they do not know what to make of this. They fear that the body of Jesus has been stolen in an act of desecration.   No one was expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. Many Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end of history but no one expected a particular resurrection within history.  In our own day such a notion seems strange, a sort of wishful thinking, as if we are whistling in the dark to assuage our fears in the face of the universal evidence of fallibility and death.  And yet at the same time we seem convinced that if we could just get enough power, know enough and expand beyond our limitations that we can fix it ourselves.

Jake is struggling through Grand Central Station in New York City with two huge and obviously heavy suitcases when a stranger walks up to him and asks “Have you got the time?”

Jake puts down the suitcases and glances at his wrist. “It’s a quarter to six,” he says.

“Hey, that’s a pretty fancy watch!” exclaims the stranger.

“Yeah, it’s not bad. Check this out” – and he shows the man a time zone display not just for every time zone in the world, but for the 86 largest cities. Jake hits a few buttons and from somewhere on the watch a voice says “The time is eleven ’til six'” in a very Texas accent. A few more buttons and the same voice says something in Japanese. Jake continues “I’ve put in regional accents for each city”.  The display is unbelievably high quality and the voice is simply astounding.

The stranger is struck dumb with admiration.

“That’s not all”, says Jake. He pushes a few more buttons and a tiny but very high-resolution map of New York City appears on the display. “The flashing dot shows our location by satellite positioning,” explains Jake.

“I want to buy this watch!” says the stranger.

“Oh, no, it’s not ready for sale yet; I’m still working out the bugs”, says the inventor.

“But look at this”, and he proceeds to demonstrate that the watch is also a very creditable little FM radio receiver with a digital tuner, a sonar device that can measure distances up to 125 meters, a pager with thermal paper printout and, most impressive of all, the capacity for voice recordings of up to 300 standard-size books, “though I only have 32 of my favorites in there so far” says Jake.

“I’ve got to have this watch!”, says the stranger.

“No, you don’t understand; it’s not ready -“

“I’ll give you $1000 for it!”

“Oh, no, I’ve already spent more than -“

“I’ll give you $5000 for it!”

“But it’s just not -“

“I’ll give you $15,000 for it!” And the stranger pulls out a checkbook.

Jake stops to think. He’s only put about $8500 into materials and development, and with $15,000 he can make another one and have it ready for merchandising in only six months.

The stranger frantically finishes writing the check and waves it in front of him.

“Here it is, ready to hand to you right here and now. $15,000. Take it or leave it.”

Jake abruptly makes his decision. “OK”, he says, and peels off the watch.

The stranger takes the watch and walks away.

“Hey, wait a minute”, calls Jake after the stranger. He points to the two huge, heavy suitcases, “Don’t forget your batteries.”

For every advance there are unforeseen consequences.  In all truth humanity is unlikely to be powerful enough, know enough or become immortal on our own terms.

It is done another way in the Divine economy. John records Jesus saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.” These words of Jesus define the paschal mystery – the mystery of faith; namely, in order to come to fuller life and spirit we must constantly be letting go of our present life.

There are two kinds of death and two kinds of life.

Two kinds of death

There is terminal death and there is paschal death. Terminal death is a death that ends life and ends possibilities. Paschal death, like terminal death, is real. However, paschal death is a death that, while ending one kind of life, opens the person undergoing it to receive a deeper and richer form of life. The image of the grain falling into the ground and dying so as to produce new life is an image of paschal death.

There are also two kinds of life:

There is resuscitated life and there is resurrected life. Resuscitated life is when one is restored to one’s former life and health, as is the case with someone who has been clinically dead and is brought back to life. Resurrected life is not this. It is not a restoration of one’s old life but the reception of a radically new life.

Jesus did not get his old life back. He received a new life – a richer life and one within which he would not have to die again. The mystery of faith, the paschal mystery, is about paschal death and resurrected life. The resurrection is the triumph of life over death. God is the God, not of the dead, but of the living. Therefore his Christ must be found, not among the dead, but among the living. The last word lies always with God and life.   John Polkinghorne, in Searching For Truth, Meditations on Science and Faith, writes that the resurrection of Jesus is a triple vindication.

  • Vindication of Jesus himself – A priest friend of mine was once confronted by woman, upset by all the controversy in the Church. She said to my friend, “If Jesus knew how his Church had turned out he would turn over in his grave!”  All too often we live as if that were true.  Good Friday marks a failure. The death on the Cross of a well-intentioned but ineffectual man.  “He saved others let him self himself,” they had said.  But he did not save himself. He experienced the consequences terminal death. He was really dead. But now it is revealed that the reports of his death, though true, were not the end of the story.  He is vindicated. He death is a paschal death. His message of love and life through surrender is vindicated.
  • Vindication of God – Someone once caught W. C. Fields, the great comic actor, reading the Bible. Mr. Fields was not a believer so the man was puzzled at the sight. “What are you doing the man asked?” W. C. Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.” The good news, Mr. Fields is that you don’t need loopholes. God has acted. Despite the appearances on Good Friday, God did not abandon the one man who wholly trusted himself to him, and stood by him in death and beyond death. God proved himself indeed to be the God of the living.  God is vindicated by the resurrection
  • Vindication of human hopes. It is almost to much to hope for.  It is like awakening from a nightmare and with a start realizing that we are safe after all when we thought all was lost. The old barriers, the hard crust of alienation that grew around the human heart is pierced by the power of new life. God loves us. As Polkinghorne says,  “The intuition deep in our hearts that life has a meaning and fulfillment which death will not be allowed to frustrate, the truth of the assurance that came to Julian of Norwich that in the end all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Death is real and a real ending, but it is not the ultimate end, for only God is ultimate. The last word on human destiny does not lie with the fact of death but with the greater fact of a faithful Creator and a merciful Redeemer.  If we matter to God now, as we certainly do, then we shall matter to God forever. At death, we shall not be cast aside like broken pots on some cosmic rubbish heap. Human beings are not naturally immortal, but the faithful God will give us a destiny beyond our deaths. As Christians we know that this is not a mere theoretical possibility, for we have the resurrection of Our Lord as the foretaste and guarantee, enacted within history, of the destiny that awaits us all beyond history.”

Alleluia, Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia.

The Mother of Your Fear

I have a shelf in my library where reside the volumes that speak most deeply to my soul with the sustained whispering that great writing gives .  One volume is The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America by David Whyte.  I have returned yet again to this wisdom from the Yorkshire poet.

Chapter two is a treatment, an exegesis almost, of Beowulf.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that if you do not come to know the deeper mythic resonances that make up your life, the mythic resonances will simply rise up and take you over. If you do not live out your place in the mythic pattern consciously, the myth will simply live you, against your will. Beowulf is welcomed by Hrothgar, and that night lies in wait for Grendel with his men inside Herot, Hrothgar’s great hall. Sure enough, in the ensuing fight, Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel, who then staggers back to die in the mere. That night there is tremendous feasting and gift-giving. The problem, it seems, has been solved in one swift movement. But that night, as Beowulf sleeps with his men in a different hall, something else comes from the swamp to Herot, fights off the best warriors, and retreats with its human victim: Grendel’s mother.

grendel__s_mother_by_jonathanblackmore-d5lt3sh

The message in this portion of the poem is unsparing. It is not the thing you fear that you must deal with, it is the mother of the thing you fear. The very thing that has given birth to the nightmare.

Here it is.  I am afraid that I will not be enough.  What man is not?  What is the mother of my fear of inadequacy?  Why, not to be enough and in the end to not be AT ALL!  Yup, you got it!  Not wonder we are willing to loiter along the the lakefront, the edge of the mere!  We would do almost anything to avoid plunging headfirst into the dark waters of the unconscious where the shadow knows and as Whyte writes, “men pray for dry feet.”

Yet, we are unsatisfied circling the lake.  We look deep into the water, seeing our reflection in the surface, telling ourselves that, Yes, we will sign up to be the latest narcissist falling in love with our own reflection on the surface of the liquid before us.  Anything to avoid falling headlong into our destiny, the soul-work that awaits us all.

My wife gave me her first gift before our hearts ever spoke of marriage.  It is a framed prayer that has sat on a table in my library for about thirty years.  It says,  “Oh God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am again.”  And so I am.

JWS – March 5, 2018  10:20 PM

 

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. .

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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 …

Christmas Eve

 

the-annunciation-by-henry-ossawa-tanner-philadelphia-1898

The Annunciation – Henry Ossawa Turner

The Kingdom of God comes, as our Lord put it, “without observation.” 

Even so it was a particularly inauspicious beginning.  Gabriel had come to a young woman in Nazareth named Mary.  He told her that God had chosen her to be the mother of God’s only son and that the Holy Spirit would accomplish it.  She agreed, and it was so.

Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, at first thought to divorce Mary quietly.  But then Gabriel let him in on the plan and so he took Mary for his wife.  I’m sure there was unpleasant gossip about the pregnant bride and her husband who some in town thought a fool for marrying her at all.

It was not an auspicious beginning.

Adoration_of_the_Shepherds tissot

In response to the census decreed by the Emperor Augustus, Joseph traveled to the hometown of his ancestor David.  Apparently Joseph didn’t want to leave Mary alone so late in her pregnancy she rode a donkey 75+ miles to Bethlehem.  There was no room in the inn so they wound up in a stable. Tradition says it was a cave.

It was not an auspicious place for a birth.

And there her first born son was born – laid in a manger – with the animals all around.

It was not an auspicious nursery.

The_Angel_and_the_Shepherds

James Tissot – Angels Appear to Shepherds

An Angel appeared to shepherds who had the night shift watching the sheep.  The angel said, “To you this day in the city of David is born one Christ the Lord.”  Then suddenly more angels appeared.  Was it 2, 20 or 200 angels?  It’s hard to discern the aggregate when you have so little practice seeing angels.  “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.” 

It was not an auspicious audience.

The shepherds went into Bethlehem and indeed it was so: Emmanuel – God with us.

It was not auspicious in any way we would usually recognize!  But the truly important things in our own lives have always come with out auspicious beginnings. We never saw their importance at the time. It is only in getting still and looking at our life that we see the outline of meaning.  Oh, we say, that’s what that meant. 

How amazed would Augustus be to know that more people know him from the opening line of the Christmas Gospel than from any inscription on a building in the forum in Rome?

Quirinus, Roman Gov of Syria

Quirinus

Quirinus is the only Roman Governor of Syria now remembered and that for an event which he never knew came to pass.

Those taking the census, those who could afford rooms in the inn that night never knew that an event born out poverty would be the very event by which we divide history before and after.

 

“Here in time we have a holiday because the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity is now born in time, in human nature.  St Augustine says the birth is always happening.  But if it happen not in me what does it profit me?  What matters is that it (the birth) shall happen in me.”  Meister Eckhart

The inauspicious surroundings of our lives are the very occasion new birth in us!

It is the dark recesses of the stables of our souls that new birth begins.

It comes quietly hardly noticed by the turning of new leaves and amid the litter of good intentions.

It is when we are powerless and come to know it that the birth pain begins.

When we give up and know that we cannot make it on our own – there is a sudden irresistible movement of grace and there it is – new life – laid in the manager in amongst the ruin of our well laid plans.

This is not what we expect.  This is not what we desire.  We want drama. We want the earth to tilt further on its axis in order that we will know that we are alive and that all is well. But that is not how it happens. Meister Eckhart: “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”

the-age-of-augustus-the-birth-of-christ

The Age of Augustus – Jean-Leon Gerome

Tonight heaven and earth meet in that inauspicious event born of poverty. Earth is drawn up into heaven.  In the great silence — without observation – He is come!

CS Lewis once said, “What a sorry place the world would be if it were always winter and never Christmas.” 

Well, it is finally winter even in Tennessee.  And it is Christmas — let us be still and silent before him that he may be reborn in us.

The Holy Birth Cannot be Induced.

reliquary cross

The divine birth cannot be forced. You can only create the conditions for this birth to take place. How do you know if the new soul is born in you? The famous mystic Meister Eckhart wrote about this: Now you turn your face entirely to this birth. Yes, you will encounter this birth in everything you see and hear, whatever it is. You are like someone who looks for quite a while at the sun, and afterwards sees the image of the sun in whatever he looks at. As long as you do not seek and perceive God in everything, this birth has not yet occurred in you.

 

 

ADVENT ONE

YEAR B
December 3, 2017
John W. Sewell
Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee 38111

Christ_the_Judge_Adkins_edit_small-thumb670x550

Christ in Judgement – John De Rosen Mural Saint John’s Memphis

 

The long season after Pentecost is ended. For the next four Sundays we reflect on the Coming of the Christ.

We do this in three ways:

1. The yearly remembrance of his First Advent.
2. His presence here in the sacraments and community
3. Looking to his Second Advent.

On this first Sunday of Advent we look to our Lord’s Second Coming. The lessons from scripture this morning are lessons of anticipation and judgment. The prophet Isaiah writes of his longing for God to visit his people with judgment. He sees the presence of God to be like the effect of heat on water or fire on brushwood. The presence of the God of Israel changes things. This is a God who works for those who wait for him. Now keep that in mind. This is a God who works for those who wait for Him. The consequences for those who have not waited for God, who have fallen into sin and are alienated from Him, are dire, “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind will blow us away. Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Things are bad but God will come and like a potter and Father will remold and restore all things.

In his Gospel, Mark sees that the prophet’s prayer has been answered. Indeed God has come and will return a second time. The Sun will darken. All sorts of natural disasters will occur and THEN the Son of Man will come in great glory. And this coming, says our Lord through the Evangelist Mark, is a promise. The heavens and the earth will pass away but my WORD will not pass away. Here “word” is best translated, “creative energy.” This word is not static, but dynamic. Our response must also be dynamic. The dynamic response is to WATCH.

“Take heed!” he says. It will come like a man going on a journey. He leaves his home and leaves his servants in charge and commands the gatekeeper to watch. For we do not know when the master will return at midnight or evening or morning. Watch, so that he does not find you asleep. WATCH THEREFORE!

God’s will is that his creatures mature. We do that by facing challenge. So, here is a good opportunity for growing ourselves up and calming ourselves down.

Yet we are commanded to mature and thus to watch and not fall asleep. This is hard. But there is good news for us in the Epistle reading. In his letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul gives thanks for the grace of God, “So that you are not lacking any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of Our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end.” This is good news. We are told to watch and not fall asleep AND Jesus will enable us to do just that. “Come,” says Isaiah. “Watch,” says Mark. “And,” says Paul, “God will sustain, hold you up, be by you, as you await his coming.” So we wait. We will be judged by the quality of our waiting. Will we wait and watch passionately or will we become distracted and forget to watch at all?

In order to watch and wait appropriately, we need an adequate theology of time.
digital c

How many of you have a digital clock? In a way a digital clock is a violation of what it means to be human. Why? Because all a digital clock tells you is now! Now! Now! Now! It is a violation of humanity because it has no reference to the past or to the future.

circadian-clock

A CIRCADIAN clock (the old-fashioned one with hands) which marks the twenty-four hour rhythms of the earth’s rotation is better theologically because it marks time in reference to the past and future. It is half-past the hour or a quarter until the hour. We need these reference points:

Past = memory = remorse & gratitude
Future = expectation = anxiety & excitement or despair
There is a tension this time of year between digital and circadian time keeping. There is much talk about the “commercializing” of Christmas. If we are seduced into the manic, Now, Now, Buy Now! No matter that the Christmas trees up are up and it’s not Halloween yet” of digital time, we will be disappointed again! A digital culture is not accustomed to waiting. Circadian thinking says, “Wait a minute, it’s not time yet.” It’s not even Thanksgiving yet. Let’s wait until it is the time to do these things. So the day after thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year. But even circadian thinking is not enough.

An adequate theology of time has an understanding of time that is not digital, now, now, now, fixed on the moment time, or Circadian, with reference to past and future, calendar time.

A deeper Christian understanding of time concerns KAIROS.  Not Digital = constantly NOW, there is not past or future. Not Chronos = calendar time = what time is it?

KAIROS: divine time = what is it time for?

Kairos

its Kairos, God’s time. It’s High Time. It’s mystical time. It’s the eighth Day of Creation: that first day of the week when the tomb was empty and nothing has ever been the same since.

People often say, “I don’t have the time.” The truth is that we have all the time there IS. God calls us to discern the time and ask, “what is it time for?” Advent is in the season to clarify our theology of time. A great symbol of Advent is the Advent wreath. In Northern Europe people took a wheel off their cart and put the Advent candles on it, lighting each in turn, thereby marking the days until Christmas. Taking a wheel off your cart is a proven aid to slowing down. So I invite you to take a wheel off. Light one candle, light another, think, reflect, be. Take time. Do less.

  • Wait with Mary, remembering that in the fullness of time, she gave birth to the savior.
  • Remember that since that birth earth and heaven are joined.
  • Remember that Jesus lived among us without sin.
  • Remember that he preached the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven to all people.
  • Remember that he died, rose again from the dead, ascended to the Father.
  • Remember that he left us to continue the work that he began among us.
  • Remember that we gather to encounter the risen Jesus in bread and wine and each other.
  • Watch brothers and sisters.
  • Watch for chances to touch others in his name.
  • Watch brothers and sisters because life is short and there is much to do.
  • Watch therefore sisters and brothers, for Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
  • Let us watch and wait, discerning the hour and the day.
  • Asking not only what time is it, but what is it time FOR.

    Amen.

JWS+

 

EASTER FOUR

Just what state of being are we baptizing Lucy Barboro Champbliss? Just why are we doing this? Let me begin with our natural state.

Watson evil

In 1996, Lyall Watson published a fascinating book entitled Dark Nature, A Natural History of Evil, [p. 54ff.]

“THERE ARE SEVERAL GENETIC INSTRUCTIONS WHICH SEEM TO BE COMMON TO ALL LIFE:
• BE NASTY TO OUTSIDERS: We are afraid of strangers. We are afraid even when the newcomer has done us no harm. “Who is your family?” “Who were you before you married?” “You don’t talk like you all are from around these parts!”
• BE NICE TO INSIDERS: We are nice to those who are part of us, even when they are really trouble and difficult. Why? “Because blood is thicker than water.” “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” It is really hard to get into most human institutions if those already on the inside do not invite us in.
• CHEAT WHENEVER POSSIBLE: This is the basis of everything from card games to tax evasion. (April 15 is our national day of wailing and gnashing of teeth.) It comes naturally. We hear all sorts of reasons for cheating: “Everybody is doing it.” “I didn’t think that it really mattered?” “Do it if you can get away with it.” “It’s a matter of national security.”

As Vladimir Lenin once said, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is negotiable.”

The great Anglican liturgist, Dom Gregory Dix once wrote, “It is the heart and core of ‘the Gospel’ that something drastic has to be done about brokenness and sin, and that what I cannot do God has done.”

In today’s first reading from Acts we find ACTS 2:42 Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Life among the Believers 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Let me point out that if this is normative for the Community of Faith, there are NO CLERGY. Yes, Apostles but then everyone is supposed to be “fully loaded and ready to move out,” which is the meaning of the Word Apostle. In a sense everyone who witnessed the ministry, passion and resurrection of Jesus was an Apostle with the Twelve having a special role in terms of message.

We have idealized this period ever since: Our baptismal creeds picks this up. What a wonderful place, wouldn’t you love to have been there? How long do you suppose it was before someone ripped the bloom off the bush? It was just about nine months, just long enough for mischief to be brought to full term.  Acts 6ff [pg. 1266 in Pew bible]

In the first century women and children depended on the income of a man in order to survive. If the husband died, then the family was in desperate straits. This being the case there is a lot widow and orphan talk in scripture. The Greek part of the community felt that their widows were discriminated against. So the dissatisfaction grew and the Greek communicants began to complain loudly, “our widows are being ignored by the Church meals on wheels.” They came and told the Apostles. The Apostles said we can’t do it all and we must be about prayer and serving the word not waiting tables or literally “Keeping Accounts”. Choose seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. We’ll appoint them.” And they did. They were called Deacons, a name that comes from the word: doulos or servant. They chose Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, etc. Prayed, laid hands on them . . . and put them to work. Notice that the names of those chosen to be deacon were Greek names. Apparently that management technique is ancient. Put those who complain in charge of the problem. “You are empowered now go do it.”  These are the first clergy. Bishops in the earliest days were selected from the College of Deacons.

Over the first five hundred years the Church in the Roman Empire developed the model that is still dominant in the West. From the 6th Century on the Western Culture was Christian. That model continues to this day: Building – People – clergy. Clergy were put in place to act as “professional Christians” so nobody else need bother.

  • Lay People get serious about their faith and folk assumed what? Off to Seminary with you. Why, only professional Christians bother with all that.
  • “O John, we hired you to do that.”

This is not working and it is not true. I am here to be your Coach not your surrogate nor your truant officer. I am a player coach. I’m playing because I’m baptized. I’m ordained to Coach. This is my part of the re-inventing process we call SOULWorks.

At Saint John’s we have actively and consciously for the past five years been growing ourselves up and calming ourselves down. We took surveys that told us where we are on the journey to union with Christ. We’ve developed initiatives: Bible Challenge (Bibles in Pews), Ancient Practices, SOULWorks Weekends #7 in September.

We are in transition. Going forward there will be many, many, more lay-people in active ministry than clergy. All Christians are in ministry. You will be in places I’ll not be. You have influence that I lack.

What we are called to and what we are baptizing Lucy into is un-natural in this fallen world. We are called to live above our unconscious animal nature What the Church was dealing with then and has struggled with ever since is the simple fact that being Christian runs against what comes naturally for humanity. Rising above the animal toward the Angels of our better nature is an un-natural act!

France’s Cardinal Suhard, “To be a witness is being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”

St Mark Alex

PALM SUNDAY MARTYRDOM IN ALEXANDRIA AT SAINT MARK’S CATHEDERAL
Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response. “The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered. Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city. On Palm Sunday, the guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church. “I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’ “‘You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’” Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal. “How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.” Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.

This is the un-natural life of one who is in Christ. This un-natural life of grace is ours in Christ Jesus. I am committed during these last years as your Rector to accept what is mine in Baptism so that you will do the same. What might happen in Memphis if we each become the living mystery that makes no sense without the resurrection? I’m not sure, but I’d sure like to see it, just once. Amen