This is the sermon I preached on Ash Wednesday, thirty of so days ago, in a gentler time. I commend it to you on this Palm Sunday.
Let us pray for each other.
In hope, in spite of the facts. John
This is the sermon I preached on Ash Wednesday, thirty of so days ago, in a gentler time. I commend it to you on this Palm Sunday.
Let us pray for each other.
In hope, in spite of the facts. John
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.
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.”
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.  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.
So we practice:
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.
Therefore I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent.
In the name of God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
March 21, 2019
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
EPIPHANY 4, January 28, 2018 – Saint John’s Memphis, Tennessee 20111
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,
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. .
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.
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
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.
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.
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. .
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 –
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 …
John 1:1 “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God.”
Christmas Day is not half over and already many people are exhibiting symptoms of the “post-nativity” depression! Needles are dropping from trees that were cut in July and put up at Thanksgiving. Scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon peep out from under furniture. Our clothing is tighter around the waistline and we are almost sick from the excess of the Christmas feast. We are like the little boy who unwrapped package after package on Christmas morning. Finally sitting up to his chin in wrapping paper and bows asked, “Is this all?”
The Third Proper (sets of readings) for Christmas are not of mangers and shepherds, but the cosmic hymn of the mysteriously glorious origin of the Son of God recorded in prologue to St. John’s Gospel. To see what John is up to here we need to go back to the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures. Genesis 1:1 is usually translated from the Hebrew into English as, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” A more descriptive English translation can be found in Everett Fox’s brilliant translation of the Five Books of Moses. Here Genesis 1:1 goes like this, “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth.” Here the emphasis in on process and the sense is more verb than noun. The Hebrew word is “Dabhar,” which can be legitimately be translated, “creative energy.”
It is no accident that this is the very language that John uses in the prologue to his Gospel. “In the beginning was the WORD,” says John. Here word is not a noun so much as verb. We could accurately say, “In the beginning was the Creative Energy: the Creative Energy was with God and the Creative Energy was God. The creative energy was with God in the beginning. Through the Creative Energy all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through the Creative Energy. Through the Creative Energy all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through the Creative Energy. All that came to be had life in the Creative Energy and that life was the light of humanity . . .. The Creative Energy was made flesh, it pitched its tent among us, and we saw its glory, the glory as is his as the only Son of God, full of grace and full of truth.”
Here is the deepest mystery of the Christian faith! How can this be? How is it possible that God has come among us becoming authentically human? Yet this is the core belief of our faith. We have been thinking, reflecting and fighting about how this is so ever since.
H. Richard Niebuhr spoke to this mystery when he said, “Jesus Christ is not a median figure, half-God, half-man; He is a single person wholly directed as man toward God and wholly directed in his unity with the Father toward man. He mediatorial not median!”
1. Jesus is fully human, wholly directed as a human man toward God. There was no alienation, no sin, between Jesus as a man and God as creator and Father. The alienation that has existed between humanity and God since Eden is overcome in the person of Jesus, the Son of God. It is essential to realize that all that Jesus accomplished as a human on earth was not accomplished through his divinity! The acts of Jesus, his preaching, his teaching, and his healing were done through his human obedience to God NOT because he was God! Thus he demonstrates for us what we are intended to be, authentically human.
2. Jesus is wholly directed in his unity with the father toward humanity. The important thing to say here is not that Jesus is like God, but rather to say that God is like Jesus. God, of course, is totally outside the realm of our understanding. As John says, “No one has ever seen God.” God is not playing hide and sick with us, it is just not possible to experience God the creator directly. Traces of transcendence are revealed in creation, but that is not enough to intuit God adequately. So in the fullness of time God’s son appeared, so that we believe we can now know who God is. So when someone asks, “what is God like?” The answer for Christians is, “God is like Jesus.”
The incarnation is good news because by the coming of God’s son in the flesh heaven and earth are joined and the alienation between God and humanity is overcome. Our God has acted! Alienation is overcome by LOVE! The incarnation changes everything. There is nothing so broken; nothing so jaded; nothing so twisted that it cannot be made new.”
We are to go from here to be for those in world what this Word become flesh is for us. That is what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ. The creative energy of God has come and dwelt among us and behold all things shall be made new! The Ideal and the Real here unite in the Actual. Is this all there is? Yes, and it is sufficient.
Merry Christmas! Amen.
“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”
– Meister Eckhart, 1260-1328, German Dominican
The birth of the Divine Son in the human soul is the very center of Eckhart’s teaching. After contemplating this notion for some years, I find that at the end of the most challenging of my thirty-five years of ordained ministry, this is the core of my affirmation of faith. My collection of works by and on Eckhart has grown from a couple of books to several shelves in my library. My discipline is to read Eckhart every day. I commend his work to you. It is difficult reading, yet paradoxically very illuminating.
Merry Christmas Eve. John Sewell+
All Saints – All Souls & The Communion of the Saints
November 6, 2016
All Saints on November 1 is the day of remembrance of all the saints, those whose lives display pronounced activity of the Holy Spirit, but who did not have a particular day set aside for them, there being only so many days after all. The next day is All Souls Day. What is the difference? On All Souls, we honor all the faithful dead of the Christian faith.
On Wednesday, November 2, 2016, at ten minutes after noon a congregation gathered at the Saint John’s Cemetery to celebrate Eucharist. As traffic raced by on Central Avenue and planes roared overhead in the clear fall air folk joined saying their prayers and remembering the faithful departed.
The ancient Romans buried their dead outside their cities in necropolis (Greek) for cities of the dead. It was in such a place that Saint Peter was buried by the side of the road across the street from the Circus of Nero. This site lies beneath the Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City. We do not call our place of the dead a necropolis rather we use the word cemetery a word also coming from the Greek that means a place of sleep. The early Christians were making a theological distinction between those believed to be dead as a “doornail” and those who fell asleep in Christ in the hope of the resurrection and those who have no such belief.
Also, the Romans had a custom called a refrigerium, a memorial meal eaten at the graveside of the person that was replaced by the Eucharist over time in Christian practice. We gathered at Saint John’s Cemetery as heirs of hundreds of generations of Christians who had gone before us, who in their generation prayed for the dead who die in the Lord and who have in their time joined those who sleep awaiting the Lord’s return.
I return again and gain to the eloquent words of John Polkinghorne in his book, Faith of a Physicist, “The resurrection of Jesus is the vindication of the hopes of humanity. We shall all die with our lives to a greater or lesser extent incomplete, unfulfilled, unhealed. Yet there is a profound and widespread human intuition that in the end, all will be will. … The resurrection of Jesus is the sign that such human hope is not delusory. …This is so because it is part of Christian understanding that what happened to Jesus within history is a foretaste and guarantee of what will await all of us beyond history, ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be make alive,’ (I Cor. 15.22).
The proper preface for the dead at the Eucharist sums up the hope of all who believe, “Through Jesus Christ our Lord; who rose victorious from the dead and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.”
John W. Sewell+