Ash Wednesday 2020

February 26,  2020                                                                                                                            6:30 AM, Noon, 6:00 PM

Today I preached three times at Hope Presbyterian Church here in Memphis, at the invitation of their pastor, Rufus Smith.  He and I have become very good friends as we worked together on the Executive Committee of the Memphis Christian Pastor’s Network.  I count it a high honor to preach there. This is what I said.

PRAYER fASTING ALSM

Today is Ash Wednesday, Forty days, not counting Sundays, until Easter Day!  People often ask where the ashes come from?  Well, often times we burn the palm branches from Last Year’s Palm Sunday. 

Thirty-six years or so ago,  early in my ministry,  I put on my robes, walked into the parish house kitchen to get the ashes for that Ash Wednesday,  only to discover that someone had thrown them  away.  Someone threw out the dust thinking it was what it was.  I had maybe 10 minutes before the service began.  The service went off on time and that year the faithful were “ashed” with a mixture of burned paper towel, contents of an ashtray, graphite from my pencil sharpener, bound together with a few drops of olive oil.  It was rich black.   How well it came off no one ever said.

  “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

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is a memento mori, a token of mortality.  We are formed from the basic elements of creation. Our spirit animates our bodies until we die. Our soul departs to God and our bodies to the dust.

Today, we mostly live in denial, comforting ourselves with illusions that we are more in control and more powerful than we really are. 

Since Eve shared the Apple with Adam, we have tried to be gods and we are simply not constructed to bear the strain of divinity.  The sin of our Ego-centeredness results in isolation, loneliness and separation.   This sad, terminal state, in which we find ourselves, has only ONE antidote.  That we be baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus, WHY?   Because death is the only reality we can be certain that every person who has ever lived have in common.  It is our common death that God in Christ saves us. IN Christ’s death all others find life, and that eternal.

Now, do not be deceived we can’t just put lipstick on our Ego-centeredness and call it a day.  Only death is enough.  We give up our so called life for new life in the redeemer.

 JESUS TELLS WHY AND HOW TO DO THESE THINGS

MATTHEW 6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [45] Concerning Prayer 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

These disciplines are ways to say No, to our EGO and Yes to God.

Prayer-Fasting-Almsgiving

So we practice:

  • Prayer for the good of our souls. – praying is facing who we are and who we are not. Rather than turning quickly away at the sight. Live with it.  It will give us humility, which comes from the word, humus or ground. There’s that dust again.
  • Fasting for the good of our bodies. Fasting is telling our bodies, No. No to our appetites. So, when the church quit fasting, the culture began to DIET, as a friend of mine once said.  What is a diet but a fast without spiritual content?   Remember the Fasts of the Rich are the Feasts of the poor.  Give food to the hungry these forty days.
  • Alms-giving for the good of our neighbor. Our Lord knew his principal enemy was not the devil but money.  Tell the almighty dollar that as important as it is, it is not our ultimate concern.  Give to those in need, remembering that all we have is a gift from God.  

THESE ARE THE SACRIFICES OF LENT.

 There’s that word.  The word Sacrifice is impoverished in our thinking. To sacrifice, we think, is to lose something and like a diet we feel instantly deprived and we want it stop right this minute.

Robert A. Johnson taught me that sacrifice is to “TAKE THE ENERGY OUT OF ONE LEVEL OF LIFE, PUTTING IT AT A HIGHER LEVEL OF LIFE IN SERVICE OF A HIGHER CONSCIOUSNESS!”

 Take marriage for example, “You get engaged, publicly testifying that this person and this one alone is your primary relationship.  We get righteously annoyed IF you continue to date other people.  That’s wrong and not true, say we.  It won’t be long before somebody sneaks around and informs your fiance’ the truth about the jerk they have committed themselves for life – is up too.  Farce Over! “

But if you have genuinely sacrifices all others for the love of this one. It will have and give life.  Not that there will not be challenge as anyone who has been married for thirty minutes can testify.  Sacrifice in this case gives us a partner who for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish when till you are parted by death.  Now, that is true and life-giving sacrifice.

So today:   

  • Embrace that Lent is about making room for God to BE God.
  • Gertrude Muller Nelson says that Carnival or Fat Tuesday is like emptying the dresser drawers out in the middle of the floor.
  • Lent is about sorting out the contents of our lives. That is why we are here.

Therefore I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent.

In the name of God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

EASTER DAY

March 21, 2019

tissot angels at tomb

Empty Tomb – James Tissot

JOHN 20:  Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you keeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Resurrection Never Crossed our Minds.

Resurrection never crossed Mary’s mind in the dark deserted streets.  The garden, very near the skull shaped hill, where, Jesus was hoisted on a rough-hewn cross, splinters  the size of the nails in his feet.  She barely remembered walking from the cross, walking beside Joseph, an aristocrat, whose generosity saved Jesus from a common grave. Joined by Nicodemus, a Senator, they, their aides and servants, carried the dead weight through gathering dusk across the manicured lawns to Joseph’s new tomb.

She shifted the heavy jar of myrrh in her arms. Myrrh’s complex earthy scent, hinting of foreign lands, was universally used at burial. Its strong odor was useful at such times.

Smell, evokes the most vivid memories.  Ever after, the faintest whiff and Mary was in the garden, the stars, dimming at the hint of dawn in the East.

The men had carefully rolled the round stone into its slot across the entrance.  She saw them do it.  There is a dark hole where the tan stone should be.  His body, limbs out of socket, limp as a worn-out rag, covered with blood, was gone. The great stone rolled aside, witness to the absence of tortured remains. She hurdled heedless of feet in the dawn to warn his men that some ghoulish mischief had befallen his body. Romans do not disturb the dead.  Nor, Jews, usually. Who would rob a grave on Passover?

Resurrection never crossed the minds of the men huddled by the fire, hiding from the mighty whose henchmen might be searching at that very moment.  They flinched at the door knock.

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John & Peter run to the Tomb – James Tissot

Resurrection never crossed the minds of the two as they left the others walking quickly, suddenly running like school boys;  John, the younger by over a decade ran as the young run sprinting ahead only to wait, a quick glance, hesitating, while Peter, as Peter would, barged right in.  John followed.  The burial clothes of thin linen bands, wrapped in haste; adequately, were quickly finished before Passover sundown.

The burial clothes were more than there; they lay as if Jesus simply vanished, evaporated rising right through them as they collapsed neatly onto themselves in a way, not to be faked.  Oddly, the head cloth neatly folded lay near the wrappings, testifying to subtle divine presence.

Resurrection did cross John’s mind and he believed.   Suddenly, hideous events on Friday were made new sense, aroused suspicions of glory and strange saying of Jesus were strange no more.  His absence translated by hope become coherent to ears that listen, ears that hear.  They departed slowly, thoughtfully – wondering if this meant what they thought it meant, unsure but with small bright potential joy in their hearts where before was only despair.

A movement peripheral, a man, [only a gardener would stir so early,]. Passing through the hedge, Mary, voice breaking inquired of grave-robbers … “Mary,” and she knew his voice; it was he, the one who said his sheep know my voice, and saying her name called her clear as ever.   Resignation fell away, not as amnesia forgets, but remembering with power a greater vision, redeemed by holy intervention.

 

She grabbed him, weak with vertigo of deep grief leaping into singular joy in a single bound. Gently, he loosed her hands, telling her he had not yet ascended to his Father; an entirely different order of homecoming, embraced by the peculiar, mystical love of the Godhead.

 She must let him go, not for loss this time but for gain, gain for all, for all time.  The spare, precise truth, brought Mary and all who will ever believe to his God and their God and his Father and their Father.

Resurrection had never crossed Mary’s mind until, she met Resurrection face to face.

And it was ENOUGH!

Resurrection never crossed our minds in the tyranny of the immediate. I-phones, e-mails, constant litter of data: important to nobody but forwarded by somebody to everybody.

Resurrection never crossed our minds in the routine of sameness, body tired, minds fuzzy with the demands of a new day, while the old day, its red-flagged emails, all caps, shouting, invades the new day.

Resurrection never crossed our minds even in the Week Holy, as the world continued, the  relentless, urgency of the trivial, blotting out the ultimate, flattening all affect into numbness.

The Resurrection

Resurrection – James Tissot

We slouch into our several pews late, tired, distracted, our minds arriving minutes after our bodies dropped into a seat. Today the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, the Queen of Feasts: This EASTER lies at the end of a long relay race beginning on that Eighth day of the Week, the day Mary went early in the dark; John and Peter came and went and Mary loitering near the cave met Jesus alive, [changed but somehow the same] – full of resurrection.

Resurrection never crossed our minds when Meister Eckhart said that the savior’s birth is always happening. But if it happens not in us what does it profit? What matters is that he be born in us.

Resurrection never crossed our minds until we, too long removed from that day encounter him who was absent then, only to be fully present for all time. Sometime, somewhere, when we finally hit the wall that defeats the best moves of our egos — when we find something we cannot fix, there

we will meet Jesus and Resurrection will finally cross our minds and he will not only be born in us but resurrected as well…

and it will be ENOUGH!

May that same resurrection cross your minds and give you new life.

In the name of the father, son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

John Sewell

PALM SUNDAY

April 14, 2019

Palm-Sunday-

James Tissot – Jesus Enters Jerusalem

LUKE 12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18 It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. 19 The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

If Jesus had left his entrance into Jerusalem to the public relations firm Peter preferred, the entrance in the Holy City would have been splashier and turned out differently.  I learned a long time ago that ability to function as I in midst general demand for We is the great challenge of human life in general and leadership in particular.

His disciples loved Jesus, of course, but in an egocentric way that promoted conflict over who “they” would be in the new administration.  “Let Jesus be the head, but we will be right there. I want to be Secretary of State in the coming Kingdom.”

Jesus took control of his destiny, entering his own way, no on a war horse or chariot of Roman triumphs.  Taking his cue from the prophet Zachariah, he mounted the sharp backbone of a donkey’s colt, entering in great humility, not the feigned modesty of the perceptive politician.

Why?  First let’s look at the Epistle for today.

 PHILIPPIANS 2:5-8   Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Note that glory was not something essential Jesus’ identity as God, nor did he consider his divine status necessary, he emptied himself of divine prerogative, but emptied, humbled himself.   Why?  I think Theodoret, a Fifth Century  Father, was clearly on the money when he wrote,

Being God, and God by nature, and having equality with God, he thought this no great thing, as is the way of those who have received some honor beyond their merits, but, hiding his merit, he elected the utmost humility and took the shape of a human being.  Epistle to the Philippians 2.6-7  

 – Theodoret, Bishop of  Cyrrhus 393 – 457 AD

Palm 2

Egyptian Coptic Icon of Palm Entry

Jesus didn’t need to prove anything to anybody, nor claimed more than he merited.  He took a lower place as a servant.  Being God he never felt he had anything to prove to anybody.  That sense of self defeated the evil tempter in the wilderness.  In addition this hymn reveals that servanthood, humility and emptying of self (I would say “contraction” from the theme of our reflection) are legitimate and full expressions of God’s being.

Beloved, my prayer is that I grow such that I am no longer effected by the change of circumstances.  My identity is in God so I need not protect my ego.  I can see there, but I am not yet there.  I long for that place and my longing is a gift from God.  Let us elect the utmost humility, giving up the rule of our ego.  I know it is a better place, but my ego is frightened. That of course doesn’t feel good but it is good.

Ego pain is birth pain.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

LENT IV

The Prodigal Returns Home – Robert Barnum

The Pharisees believed that keeping the law would earn them God’s presence and love.  Jesus told them that they had it backwards. God is already present and he already loves you.  God’s love makes possible keeping what of the law is worth keeping.  This made the Pharisees very unhappy with Jesus.  The Pharisees, bless their hearts, are the sort of folks that would turn a party into an exercise in etiquette. 

The truth is that you can only get into the kingdom because of grace.  Getting your tickets punched will never get you in. In fact it can keep you out!  To make that very point Jesus told a series of parables ending with today’s Gospel reading, which we call the prodigal son.

LITTLE BROTHER LEAVES HOME.

A man had two sons.  The youngest said give me my inheritance now, a request which in essence says I want you dead.  In fact the father did just what his son asked him, he legally dropped dead on the spot and probated his own will, giving his younger son his inheritance.

  • Little brother liquidated his assets and skipped town with his pockets full of cash.  He settled in another country and set out to make a name for himself.  Just imagine it:
  • He bought a candy apple red Lamborghini racing chariot.
  • He had a penthouse apartment exquisitely decorated with original art in the best zip code in town.
  • He had long three martini lunches and always picked up the tab.
  • He threw lavish parties and had lots of friends.
  • He vacationed at ski resorts on Mt. Hermon.
  • He got interested in the NASCAR-chariot race circuit and even raced himself for a while.

The bank kept calling but he never returned the calls. Then one day a registered letter arrived.  He had been spending the principle for a long time.  The letter informed him that he was flat broke.  His friends wouldn’t return his phone calls and his girl friend took up with a fellow better equipped to keep her in the manner to which he had made her accustomed.

So he had to go to work.  The college education his Daddy had paid for and that he had played for didn’t qualify him for much.  Just then the economy took a nosedive toward depression and the bears ate the market. 

Things were bad.  He finally was so desperate that he took a job slopping hogs. This is the worse thing a yuppie Jewish boy could wind up doing.  It’s the sort of fate that strikes fear into the hearts of Jewish mothers.

Little brother was in the pigpen, reduced to eating pig feed.  But then He came to himself, which in the original language describes something like awakening from a dream.  He said to himself, “Self, what is wrong with this picture?  Back home even the hired hands have more than enough to eat.  I know what I’ll do.  I’ll go to my father and say, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of the hired hands.’”

So rehearsing his speech he went on toward home.  His daddy had been watching for him, as an old black preacher put it, “the old man had been watching for him with his nose pressed to the window pane.” He had compassion on him, his heart went out to him.

Now an aside about compassion: compassion should not be confused with pity.

The question to ask is: “Can you celebrate with the people you are helping?”  If you can’t it’s probably pity and if you can it’s likely compassion.

Pity focuses on the differences between people. Pity is being sorry for one who is weak and inferior. Pity is done from a safe distance, preferably from above the one pitted. Pity separates us from the one pitied.  Pity ends in the “giver” feeling good about themselves across the divide between the pitying and the one pitied.  I not sure that pity has much divine content.

Compassion knows that human beings are more alike than they are different.  Compassion on the other hand, moves us toward the one in trouble and says, “We are in this together.” Compassion is the flow and overflow of the fullest human and divine energies.  As Paul writes the Christians in Corinth, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given the ministry of reconciliation to us.” Compassion is always consummated in celebration!

THE FATHER’S RESPONSE:

Now back to the story at hand. The father felt compassion and that energy overflowed into reconciliation as he ran, embraced and kissed his son.  The son then began to get his ticket punched, begins his well rehearsed speech, “I’ve sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son!”   —- But notice he doesn’t even get the part about going to work as a hired hand at minimum wage out of his mouth, cause his father shushes him and starts giving orders to the servants.  The old man says, “Go and get:

  • A robe – the best one – he is to be dressed as an honored person.
  • A ring – a signet ring with the family crest – his status as a son is restored.
  • Shoes – few people had shoes – bare feet indicated poverty even slavery. Shoes give safety and power. The old spiritual expresses this exactly, “All of God’s chillun got shoes.  When I get to heaven I going to put on my shoes; I’m going to walk all over God’s heaven.” Shoes are for sons!

See the restoration:

  • the robe of honor,
  • the ring of inheritance, and
  • the footwear of prestige!
  • AND if that wasn’t enough –  for sheer delight (which is one of the things God does best of all).
  • kill the fatted calf = eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!  And they began to celebrate.

Remember that compassion overflows and brings us together which leads to celebration.

[Simon Tugwell says that the last temptation of the younger brother was to insist on being a hired hand.  If his father won’t punish him he will do it for him.  Which is what we do when we let someone convince us that we are no good  and not acceptable].  The boy can’t really come home and be a hired hand.  He has to be a son or nothing.  AND THE SAME IS TRUE FOR US:  IT’S SON OR DAUGHTER OR NOTHING.  NO HIRED HANDS HERE THANK YOU VERY MUCH!  

So they had the mother of all parties.  Everybody who was anybody was there and as the society writer for the local paper put it, “a good time was had by all!”  WELL NOT QUITE.

THE ELDER BROTHER’S RESPONSE.

The elder brother was in the field looking at the crop of cabbages. As he came close to the house and heard the strains of the local dance band he thought, “What is this, music and dancing and it’s a week night? What is going on here?  So he spied one of the boys who worked on the place and the boy explained.  “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound!”

The elder brother was in the field looking at the crop of cabbages. As he came close to the house and heard the strains of the local dance band he thought, “What is this, music and dancing and it’s a week night? What is going on here?  So he spied one of the boys who worked on the place and the boy explained.  “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound!”

[Robert Farrar Capon says that if you are looking for the Christ symbol in this story look no further than the barn.  The Christ image here is the fatted calf who is just waiting to drop dead so there can be a party.  Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.]

Even Biblical illiterates remember the Fatted Calf

FATTED CALF!  We can’t really comprehend what a big deal this was.  We think nothing of having steak any time we choose to haul out the grill. In the ancient world eating meat was a rare experience. In the first century people who could afford it kept a calf, and fed it real good so that it got really fat. When they killed it they had a huge party and ate the whole things there being no way to preserve meat for long.  A fatted calf was barbecued only on occasions of surpassing importance.  The old man kills the fatted calf as an act of wanton joy!

Big brother, hereafter to be known as Bubba, was so angry that he stayed outside.  He wouldn’t dignify this nonsense with his presence. His father came outside and pleaded with him.

 [Simon Tugwell describes the elder brother as, “a good man in the very worse sense of the word, the kind of goodness that if you insist on it will cost you your soul.”] 

Bubba begins his tirade, “Listen, all these years, I’ve been working like a slave.  I’ve never disobeyed your command; yet you have never even given me a goat that I might have a goat-roast, and celebrate with my buddies.  But, this trifling no-account son of yours comes slinking home, the very one who has devoured your property with harlots and you have killed the fatted calf!”

PROSTITUTES? Who said anything about prostitutes?  Nowhere does it say that little brother hung out with prostitutes.  Even if he had, Bubba couldn’t have known about it.  But what we can say with certainty is, that we now know what Bubba would have done if he had gone!  You can’t not tell your story.

Bubba was good, earnest so busy getting his ticket punched that it never even occurred to him that his father had already divided the property between the brothers.  Bubba already owned the plantation.  He could have killed the fatted calf himself if he had wanted to, let alone settle for goat burgers.

His father said to him, “Son you are always with me and all I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”  Bubba’s response is not recorded.

WHAT IS JESUS TELLING US?

  • The criteria for entering the Kingdom of God is being lost and dead  and  knowing it. By the end of the story almost  everyone is dead:
  • The father is legally dead because he has probated his own will.
  • The younger son is dead to the old of being – he died to it back in the pig-pen.
  • The fatted calf is dead so there can be party.
  • The only one who is alive is Bubba, who is so busy being alive on his terms that he misses the point entirely.

Who’s really alive?  As Jesus says two chapters later in Luke 17, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” [Luke 17:33]

Like the elder brother we can do NOTHING to earn God’s love.

Like the younger brother we can do NOTHING so terrible that we can lose God’s love.
All we to do is reject or accept God’s love.  That is what God has given us in Christ Jesus. As we look toward Holy Week and Easter,

REMEMBER: the gift of eternal life begins now not later. God is throwing a party in our honor. We are the only ones that can keep us out.

Amen.

LENT I

The Old Testament and New Testament are mirrors reflecting the other.  Early Christians found in the Old Testament figures that pre-figure the new revelation in Jesus.  • Adam is the first man who blew it and Jesus was the Second Adam who regained what the 1st Adam lost.  = number with meaning

TEMPTATION ONE : Cyril of Alexandria – Adam fell because he ate food not his to eat and Jesus overcame because he depended on God to provide his needs. He fed others by his power but not himself. Deut. 8:3

TEMPTATION TWO: Cyril of Alexandria – The devil has taken the world by fraud. Christ restores the world back to proper authority through his obedient suffering. Deut 6:13 The OT story where the early church found parallels to Jesus temptation was the story of Esau and his birthright.

TEMPTATION THREE: Devil now uses Scripture. He gave his angels charge …Psalm 91:12
Origen, the student and successor of Cyril at Alexandria – Homilies on the Gospel of Luke ‘The evil one says, “He gave his angels a command concerning you that they should raise you up in their hands, lest perhaps you strike you foot against a stone.’ See how crafty he is, even in the texts he quotes. For he wishes to diminish the Savior’s glory, as if the Savior needed the help of angels. It is as if he would strike his foot unless he were supported by their hands. The devil takes this verse from Scripture and applies it to Christ. Yet it is written not of Christ but of the saints in general. Freely and in confidence I contradict the devil. This passage cannot be applied to the person of the Christ, for Christ does not need the help of angels. He is greater than the angels and obtained a better name than they by inheritance. ‘God never said to any of the angels, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.’”

CONCLUSION
Austin Farrar, an Anglican priest writes, “Temptation is what distracts us, beguiles us or bullies us off the path! Temptation is what makes real life different from the world of our dreams. We dream a world which is wax under the molding of our ambitions or of our aspirations; we meet a world which faces us with trials we have not the character to surmount, and with seductions we have the virtue to resist.”

That is true because of the First Adam BUT there came a Second Adam: Jesus…

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.

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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.

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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