Leave Taking 2003 – 2017

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

farewell me and m

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

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

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

18-01-28-Demoniac-in-Synagogue

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

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

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

Christ Church Albertville

Christ Church, Albertville AL.

chapel of cross

Chapel of the Cross, Madison, MS

Saint Luke Mountain Brook

Saint Luke’s, Mountain Brook, AL

High altar Saint John's

Saint John’s, Memphis, TN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

frog 2

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

frog

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

 

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

car on ice

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

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

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

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

We are player-coaches not truant officers.

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

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

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

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.

HIS 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

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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

Gospel as Comedy not Tragedy

Parker4

In his book, Telling the Truth, the Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale, Frederick Beuchner says that if you can’t take a joke you’ll never understand the Gospel. There is a profound difference between tragedy and comedy. In a tragedy the hero pits himself against the gods and is destroyed by the process. Tragedy is concerned with struggles of power. Comedy, on the other hand, is about ambiguity, and the transformation of roles. We think it is one way and it turns out another. Tragedy invariably ends in death; comedy ends in marriage – a criss-crossing of boundaries and limits. One is serious and the other is playful.

The Gospel lesson today is a tragic-comedy. The setting of the readings for today is feasting and partying. Here in the first act, if you will, of today’s production. The prophet Isaiah marches out mid-stage and issues the invitation of God to a party. The aristocratic prophet from Jerusalem in his best prophetic voice proclaims, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

This is a to be a lavish party with the best vintage wine and rich food full of fat. This is long before most of the human population had to worry about fat in their diet. This is a time when fat was good news not bad news. Not only will the eats be great, but as a further act of excess God will shallow up death forever. He will wipe away the tears from ALL faces. Not only will the feast be of the finest food full of fat and taste but the shroud of death will be removed. It will write paid to the old saying of eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die. Wrong, eat, drink and be merry for death is swallowed up and tears are wiped from every face. Death is no more. Furthermore, the disgrace of the people will be removed. God’s salvation — restoration and healing will be unveiled to all the guests — to all people: what an extraordinary vision. We can eat anything that appeals to us without remorse for the things that trouble our consciences and with the sure and certain knowledge that death is no more. Not a bad first act.

Now on to the Main act: Jesus picks up the setting of a party in the Gospel reading today. “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared,” says Jesus, “to a King who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” In the ancient world one received an invitation to a feast by messenger. Then messengers then delivered a second message that the feast will soon begin. The King sent servants with the message; “The ox has become barbecue. The fatted calf is now filet minion. Countless cases of Dom Perignon are chilled. The tables are groaning with everything from Buluga caviar and Italian truffles all the way to MOON PIES and R.O.C. cola. There is some of whatever you want to warp your beak around. (It’s enough to drive the editors of Gourmet Magazine wild.) Come to the Wedding banquet,” they said. BUT — the guests made light of it . . .One went to his farm — One went to his business, while the rest seized the servants, mistreated some and killed others.

The King’s reaction is like a scene out of Rambo or The Terminator: Houses exploding in flame. These are the beautiful people from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” They are the very folk we admire. They are beautiful people who have everything but the one essential thing, namely, trust — the only, from God’s point of view, that matters. They have everything but lack the one thing essential, namely, trust — faith, the only from God’s point of view required. That is the tragedy. They have trusted themselves when that is the only thing that will not work. They are like the long list of winners who lose: the Pharisees, the Priests, the rich young ruler, they are you and me, they are all of us . . . who live the twin mistaken notions: Our good works will get us into the marriage feast. And that God’s nature will absolve us from having to sit through it if we happen to have other plans. Both are tragic mistakes. As the guests learn they are dead wrong. Salvation is not by works and the heavenly banquet is not optional. We are saved only by accepting a party already in progress and God has paid the price with his own death. He counts only two things grace and faith. Nothing else matters!

The scene changes – Act II, Scene 2, The King says to his faithful butler, “the wedding is ready, but those invited are not worthy (by their unfaith.) Go into the streets and invite those you find to the wedding feast. Out all the uniformed flunkies went. They went out and gathered all they found: good and bad. (Note he does not invite the good and snub the bad, he invited ALL, while we were yet sinners. He simply invites us to trust his invitation. So the poor, the prostitutes, bag ladies, men with missing front teeth and the smell of Thunderbird on their breath, all the ner-do-wells completely overlooked by the beautiful and important are all home free. See the comedy breaking out? So the hall is filled with guests.

Act II, Scene 3: Now, let me admit that what I am about to say is conjecture. Just go with me, here, … you can’t hold it against someone if they are shanghaied to a party and you don’t like what they wearing. So I think . . . the “sudden guests” are provided wedding clothes, suitable clothes — Bill Blass – Valentino — all sorts of designer rags in exchange for their filthy ones. As the King comes by to mingle with the guests he spies a man without a wedding suit. He apparently came in since he was forced but he will not put on his suit. The King said to the man without a wedding suit. Friend (or as Ann Landers used to say, Buster) How did you get in here without a wedding garment?! The man was speechless! And then they threw him out. Even in a comedy some will always insist on tragedy. You might make some people show up, but you really can’t make them like it, after all, can you?

What is this tragic-comedy telling us? Invitation is the principle judgment in this parable. Notice that “Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in. Hell may be an option; but if it is, it is only one that we insist on after we had already been invited to the heavenly dance. The first Guests are worthy. They just wouldn’t come. Their unacceptance was the issue. The Replacement guests become guests by accepting the invitation. The man without a garment wouldn’t accept or even speak and out he goes. The King insists on dragging everybody and their brothers to the party. Everyone is a member of the wedding party and is only shown the door AFTER they were invited in.

GRACE is the only basis of entrance into the Kingdom . . .Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus EXCEPT our unwillingness to accept his INVITATION. The difference between the blessed and the cursed in one thing and one thing only: the blessed accept their acceptance and the cursed reject it; but the acceptance is a done deal for both groups before either does anything about it.

Here in the epilogue, [following my device to the end] in the reading from Philippians, Paul writes from the perspective of one who has said yes to the heavenly banquet. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. … I have learned to be content with whatever I have. [That sounds un-American] I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

If God accepts us then we no longer take our identity from our circumstances. We begin to relax in the comic “joke” that what we have always been told about who is in and who is out just isn’t so. Let’s relax, this show isn’t a tragedy after all. Yes, Jesus does die, really dead, on the cross. It’s not stage make-up and fake blood. He’s dead, really dead. That would be a tragedy, if that were the end of the production. But it isn’t. God raised Jesus from the dead. That same resurrection is ours, if we’ll just take it. Therefore things for us are not necessarily how they appear. Let us not be defined by circumstances. God is giving a party and all that is required is that we accept the invitation and show up. There is no end to the party he has prepared for those who love him!

Amen

Lucy Rives Williford 2016 -2017

REQUIEM EUCHARIST
March 8, 2017
Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis Tennessee 38111

Judson Williford Lucy

Judson Williford shows off Lucy to the All Saint’s Sunday congregation

Today we come doing the three things Christians always do when they gather: To tell the story; to calm our fears and to speak to the hope that is in us.

I baptized Lucy last November in the company of several babies and little children. There is no rubric/stage direction that children having been baptized are to be returned to their parents. I’ve resisted the temptation to take them all home. I baptized Lucy into the household faith. I didn’t know baptize her with her family name because beginning then her last name from them, unspoken though implied was Christian. And so it remains.

You had so many plans for her! Of course you did, how could you not? Our pain today is that those plans are now mementos. There are so many things that will not happen.

She will never know how really cruel humans can be. She will never know the pain of sustained hunger, nor will she ever experience poverty of body, mind or spirit. She will never grow old and infirm. She lived among for just shy one cycle of the sun round this globe and has reached union with Christ before the age of one. Lucy was vivacious, already the apple of many an eye. Lucy was graced with beauty, a keen mind, a happy spirit. She was endowed with most every gift, save one: TIME.

Let me be as clear as I can beloved. This was not God’s will, not his intention. God created all things with degrees of freedom. Things fall down but not up. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have on Facebook (5000 is the max. I believe), whether you tweet, twit or twitter with millions hanging on every word and your opinions go viral on YouTube; Even endowed with all gifts so than you can move mountains, should you stumble off the roof a feather bed will not appear between you and the ground just because people like you (or not). Something did not function properly within its degrees of freedom last Saturday morning. We are left powerless in its wake. Likely nothing would have changed the trajectory, although, you will question yourself for evermore.

Here we are at a place of choosing. We can choose helplessness or guilt. Please hear me here? The truth is that most of us would rather feel guilty than helpless. Last Saturday morning, you and soon the rest of us met the limits of human power. Immediately, we turned toward guilt, “If I had done this or that? I arrived at a home once on a similar mission, only to have a person confess to me, “You know John, we didn’t get to Easter Sunday this year.” I assured them that God was not taking attendance. Because, were that true the Churches would be filled every Sunday, including Easter Day. This did not happen because Judson has red hair. I promise. I had red hair myself once. It’s not true. If we turn in the driveway of guilt we will torment ourselves and those around us from now on.

No, today let us embrace the truth, we were powerless to keep this from happening. We have no defense in our helplessness. Just sit with that. Grieve that. In addition, this was not God’s will.

God didn’t plan it and is just as sad about it as we are because the Holy One’s heart breaks when ours break. What I can tell you is that Lucy is with Him and in eternity outside time and space she is all that God had in mind when he created her.

Let us go back though and see just what it was we did last November? Let us examine the implications of baptism for Lucy last Saturday and for us today.

For Christians there are two kinds of death: terminal death and Paschal (Easter death). In his Second Letter to the Christians in Corinth, Saint Paul reminds them and us to NOT LOSE HEART.

2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:10 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling – if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil

The only thing that we can know for certain all people who have ever lived have in common is terminal, “dead as a doornail death.” At birth our outer nature begins Baptism does not inoculate us against mortality. Rather, it was into Paschal (Good Friday – Easter Resurrection), I baptized Lucy months ago. Lucy was baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus, not his terminal death, but his dying and rising death.

Jesus’ empty tomb was exactly what no one expected to find the midst of history. But, the deepest intuition of humanity since that day is that if it can happen once in history it can happen again. It is into this death that she was baptized, not only was she baptized into the Good Friday death of Jesus, but she was also baptized into his Easter Resurrection.

We made promises to support her in her life in Christ. Parents and god-parents promised to bring her up in the Christian faith and life. Many of you here today joined in that promise. Clearly, there was not much time for any of that. But hear me; baptism always says more about God than us. Lucy was endowed by God in baptism with all the grace there is in potential. Today outside time and space: all that grace is realized. Lucy, is exactly, fully, completely everything God had in mind when God the Holy Trinity thought her up not so long ago.

You must grieve Lucy. You must grieve but not with despair. Here the Words of our Lord, recorded by Saint John, the Patron of this House of Faith,

JOHN 14:1-6 Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me

Grieve, but not as people who have no hope. Hear me? Good. In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Epiphany VI

February 12, 2017
John W. Sewell

MATTHEW 5: 21-24, 27-30, 33-37

CONCERNING ANGER
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

CONCERNING ADULTERY
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. † 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

CONCERNING OATHS
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

tzimtzum

The Trouble begins and ends with freedom. Freedom is an aspect of creation. Our elder brothers in faith, the Jews, call this TZIMTZUM (Contraction). God chose to no longer be all there was and contracted to make room for creation to have its appointed degrees of freedom.

Jesus: “You have heard…. But I’m here to tell you.” I have come not to abrogate the law, I’ve come to fulfill the law! Or, “I have come to fill the law full!” Full of What? John says that the word became flesh and came and dwelt among, “full of Grace and Truth.” This grace and truth went all the way through Jesus. There was nothing else to find in him except more grace and truth!

The law filled full of grace and truth just as our Lord is full of grace and truth. In other words, God does not act in a contradictory manner. And of course we too are called to not act in a contradictory manner. That is the goal of the Christian life, that our insides will match up with our outsides.

In the Gospel we hear Jesus tell us that obedience must become internal if it is to bring authentic life. The Gospel is troubling. Not only are Christians not to do certain things, apparently they are not even to want to do them. Grace and truth must become our automatic unthinking response.

This is troubling because most of us have a Zoo on our insides. We can be of several opinions at the same time, with thoughts and feelings coming and going constantly. The question is what do we do with this? We have this ideal that we so far from attaining. So how do we then live, this being the human condition?

Christians have always felt tension between the inner and outer life. In the third century one of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, wrote about this very issue. Evagrius contends that the arch-enemy of the soul is in practice a certain kind of thought, which he called logismos. I am much indebted to Simon Tugwell’s book: “The Way of Imperfection”, for his discussion of Evagrius.

evagrius-ponticus

Evagrius Ponticus set for himself the task of detailing the different traps and temptations that can distort understanding by imposing on the mind some false perspective. These logismos are thoughts that bewilder and befog the mind so that slowly, bit by bit, we drift away into a world of self-destructive fantasy. Logismos involves choosing to see the bad — bad in the sense of “unreal,” not fitting reality. Logismos destroy proper perspective on the world and thus prevent us from concentrating on the actual reality of our life, leading us further and further from our actual condition, making us try to solve problems that have not yet arisen and need never arise.

Evagrius says that there are EIGHT categories of these thought-traps. The seven deadly sins grow from his work.

1. GLUTTONY: not over-eating as harmful as that may be. The essence of the problem is anxiety about one’s health. The ‘thought’ of gluttony goes like this, “Imagine that you are going to get ill, and then you won’t have medicine, your doctor will be out of town… Then the ‘thought’ calls to mind other people who gotten ill from various diseases which we might catch.

Notice that the heart of the temptation is a train of thought leading us further and further away from our actual condition, making us solve problems which have not yet arisen and need never arise.

2. FORNICATION: Again it is a matter of allowing our fantasies to run away with us. The ‘thought’ of fornication fills our minds with desire for ‘a variety of bodies” (notice how abstract it all is). This is not a matter of a real relationship with a real human being. A real relationship which goes wrong does far less damage than these purely imaginary entanglement.

3. AVARICE: the love of money. The essential problem is one of futile planning for an unreal future. This ‘thought’ says, “you are going to live into a terrible old age, in which all sorts of dreadful things happen. You will poor and have to be dependent on others. Here we are preoccupied with what does not yet exist, with hopes and fears, with imaginary or future things.What we ought to do of course, is have faith in God and leave the future to him.

4. ENVY: involves obsessing about the past. A haunting remembrance of “the old days” as those “happy days” now gone and never to return. Much of the pain of spiritual suffering comes from wallowing in wishes and fantasies of things being other than the way they are.

The difference between Psychosis and Neurosis:
Psychosis is: 1 + 1 = 7.
Neurosis: 1 +1 = 2, but I won’t have it!
It is a real trap that thought.

5. ANGER: not the emotion but a clinging to the resentment that refuses forgiveness. Evagrius as an example, offers the experience of obsession with someone who has wronged us, the situation of being “unable to think about anything else.” Such fixations can ruin our health, As always, the trouble comes from failing to see the real issue. After all, if someone has wronged us, our Christian duty is simply to forgive them, and that should be the end of it. Anger, which is inevitable, is not to be squandered by focusing attention on the wrongs of others; rather, it should be directed at our own faults, and especially at how we have wronged others, thus moving us to make amends, to do something kind even for the people who have offended us.

6. ACEDIA: Listlessness: This is a condition in which we cannot settle down to do anything; nothing appeals to us, nothing engages our interest. The day seems eighty hours long. … Everything that we have to do goes sour on us. The “thought-trap” is self-pity and the temptation is, of course, to make us abandon our course, thinking that the spiritual life is really beyond us anyway. Again the problem is not being in reality.

7& 8  VAINGLORY/PRIDE:
7. Vainglory: daydreaming about our own magnificence and imagined glory.
8. Pride consists in supposing that we can do anything without the help of God, it is to claim to be God.

What do we do with these thought traps by which we get trapped into pointless and irrational reactions.

The first step is that we should come to be aware of the situation and bring some order into our lives.

  • For example, the ‘thought’ will come to us that we are entitled to be annoyed at somebody. If we succumb to this, then we shall devote our attention to the thought of the person with whom we are annoyed. What is needed is to focus attention on the fact that we are annoyed.
  • Instead of seeing some other human being angrily, we turn our attention to see our own anger.
  •  We can then begin to fight against it. And at first we may have to use any device we can think of…
  •  Most essentially we need to reclaim anger for its proper purpose. It is always a waste of good anger to get annoyed with other human beings.
  • Instead we should turn our anger against the thoughts. …
  • In this way we shall be using anger in accordance with its true nature, to clear a way thorough the thoughts which swarm all around us, so that we can gradually come to a clearer perception of what it is all about.
  • All knowledge is characterized by clarity. What we need is to get clear and then make choices accordingly.

tugwell

As Tugwell says, “The desired goal of this whole exercise is a state in which we are no longer at the mercy of inappropriate reactions. And this is a profound state of balance and harmony.” We are called to see ourselves in the proper perspective. “Pay attention to yourself!” The emphasis on honest self-knowledge. How to we foster this honesty?

1. Practice self-observation, what is going on here?
Not just from my perspective, but from the other persons?
2. Pay attention to our sleeping dreams. Dreams do not lie.

they tell you the truth. Twelve Step groups know how true this is. We cannot make on our own.

Ernest Kurtz writes, “As our vision of the world changes from a strictly self-centered view point in which feelings are in control to an other-oriented perspective in which “feeling good” flows from “being good,” we begin to see how we are connected with other realities and especially with other people. Most important, the tradition of spirituality suggests, we come to see that the criterion of spirituality is not subjective feeling but the reality of our “relationships with others, the reality of community.

This week we will have chances to watch what is going on in us and around us. Let us experiment with the Grace that God gives us to get beyond the ‘thoughts’ that beset us. Amen.

Save

The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany

salted

5 February 2017
John W Sewell

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

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

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

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

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

joseph-campbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

e-stanley-jones-quote

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

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

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

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

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

Save

 

THE EPIPHANY

2012-1_Epiphany

6 January 2017
Saint John’s Memphis, Tennessee
John W. Sewell

What would have happened if, at Epiphany, there had been wise WOMEN instead of wise men at Bethlehem? They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts!

Most people know nothing of the Epiphany. As a feast of the Church, The Epiphany ranks with Christmas, All Saints, Ascension, and Pentecost. Unlike Christmas Eve, we will not need four services tonight to accommodate worshipers.

The Word Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means to manifest or to reveal. The deep mystery of the Incarnation – the coming of the Second Member of the Trinity – to live as a human being, now is revealed or displayed not just to the Jews but to Gentiles.

In Judaism, the thread of universal salvation weaves in and out among the fabric of Israel’s special call. Periodically individual gentiles found their way into the household of Israel: people such as Rahab the harlot of Jericho who hid the spies sent by Moses to scope out the Promised Land and Ruth the great-grandmother of King David was a woman of Moab.

The theme of the Book of Jonah is the concern the God of Israel has for gentile people, even including the hated Assyrians. This concern is a source of much aggravation to the prophet Jonah. Isaiah predicts that the nations will come to the light revealed in Israel. In today’s Epistle, Paul writes to the Ephesians, “that … the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

Now, Jesus, the Son of God, has been born in Bethlehem. The Magi arrive, the first non-Jews, to encounter the Christ child. The scriptures do not label these mysterious figures kings or indeed number them three. Echoing Isaiah their gifts are gold, frankincense and myrrh. Or as the little boy put it, “the Wise Men arrived bringing gifts of common sense, frankness and mermaids. “

Following the star, they came via Jerusalem where the wise men met the wise guy, Herod, King of Judea. They asked to see his newborn son. Herod had no such son. Bethlehem is the place to look they were told. “Come back and tell me when you find him” said the wise guy. And when they came to Bethlehem the star stopped over the house where the holy family was living. After they worshiped they wisely went home another way avoiding the wise guy back in Jerusalem.

The Epiphany is our story, the story of all non-Jews who have no claim to be children of Abraham, all who are beyond the perimeters of ordinary grace. Evelyn Waugh in the novel, Helena, has the title character pray the following prayer to the Magi, “You are the patrons for all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents. … For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

Blaise Pascal once wrote,  “The knowledge of God is very far from the love of God.”

We realize that our most elegant descriptions of God are always just descriptions. We will never know enough to know what we want to know. The good news is that we experience God without understanding. The love of God is a very different economy from the economy of epistemology!

Jesus never said, “repeat after me.” What Jesus said was, “Follow me.” So let us follow him who was manifested to the Magi, that through his cross and resurrection, the love of God revealed through him will be manifest in us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.