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+
PROPER 20C – SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 – SAINT JOHN’S EPISCOPAL – MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
The manager was never sure who turned him in. But somehow the master got wind of his little “on the side” business deals and called him on the carpet. The boss said that an outside accountant was auditing the books and just as soon as the report came and he knew the bottom line of the manager ‘s malfeasance: he was out on his ear. Back in his office, the manager thought to himself, “Self, what will I do, I’m too puny to dig and too proud to beg.” Then it hit him. He would fix things so he would have a few friends when he needed references.
Now, let me pause in our story for an infomercial on stuckness. We have all experienced being stuck – when the way we have always done something no longer works. Paralysis strikes individuals, institutions and nations. What happens when things get stuck?
PEOPLE KEEP TRYING HARDER BUT WITH NO NEW RESULTS.
There is a treadmill effect of trying harder. No one changes perspective or direction; they just keep trying harder. A bird will see its reflection in the window and spend hours bouncing off the window in the vain attempt to get at the other bird. Trying harder will not get you unstuck.
PEOPLE KEEP TRYING TO FIND NEW ANSWERS TO OLD QUESTIONS INSTEAD OF CHANGING THE QUESTION. Questions are perceptions. How you phrase a question determines the range of possible solutions. For example, you put a person on the witness stand and say, “now answer yes or no, do you still beat your spouse.” If indeed you do not and have never beaten your wife or husband, the question won’t let you get at the truth.
WHAT ARE NEEDED NEW QUESTIONS. Perhaps that is why the Gospels rarely show Jesus answering people’s questions. He usually asked another question.
PEOPLE GET POLARIZED. They only see utter black and pure white. Things are really great or just shy of a disaster. Not only are there extremes but also there are many options in between. Polarization keeps people from coming up with new possibilities.
In 1492 Columbus sailed west, in order to arrive in the east. On his way to China, he bumped into the Americas. The moral of that story being, “What you find may be more valuable than what you were looking for.”
NOW BACK TO OUR STORY. THE MACHIAVELLIAN MANAGER GETS UNSTUCK.
1. He doesn’t keep doing the same thing, only harder. He does a new thing.
2. He does not look for new answers to old questions; he asks a new question.
3. He’s too puny dig and too proud to bet, but between those extremes are lots of options.
Since on one knows he is about to be fired he calls in the accounts receivable and says to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” The answer, “a hundred jugs of olive oil.” The manager said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly and make it fifty.” He has another account mark his hundred containers of wheat down to eighty. What is he doing?
In that culture, a manager did not earn a salary for running the estate, and so, when he agreed to lend on his master’s goods, he had been paid in kind, correspondingly increasing the amount of the bill. Fearing for his future the manager cuts his markup and reduces the receipts to their amount. While he had previously inflated the bills to enrich himself, now, he sacrifices his markups. By giving up what was ill-gotten, he made an investment in good will in the community without costing the master anything. At any rate, when he heard what the manager had done, the master commended him for his shrewdness or prudence. His adventure got him unstuck!
This parable is disturbing which is what a parable is supposed to do. A parable is designed to create distance and provokes thought. Parables challenge one’s sense of the proper hierarchy of things.
The manager is not praised in general but only for his “prudent actions.” The manager recognized the critical danger of the situation. He did not let things simply take their course, but boldly, resolutely and prudently moved to make a new life for himself. Jesus tells his listeners and us that we need to wake up and discern the real situation. Discern what is going on and take action.
In the past 15 years, stuckness has become a way of life. Since September 11, 2001, as a nation we feel stuck in a conflict that is disturbing, even terrifying. How do we function in a world of terror? People are stuck in their lives, marriages, careers, and families. Fear and paralysis are common. The challenge of this time demands wisdom and shrewdness.
There are two kinds of situations in life that I might call level I and level II.
1. A level I situation is one in which nothing we do will make a difference. The collapse of the Twin Towers of the Trade Center was a level I. If you were on the top floor of one of those buildings your personal maturity and wisdom made no difference to gravity.
2. A level II situation is one in which our response makes a crucial difference.
I trust you remember the old TV show MacGyver. Given the anxiety in the society, I’m not surprised a remake is about to launch on TV. In every episode, the hero, MacGyver, originally played by Richard Dean Anderson, now by Lucas Till, found himself in some scrape that appeared to be a level I situation. He would take a hairpin, the contents of his fountain pen and some aluminum foil and escape. The show was built on his response making all the difference. Most situations we encounter in life are level II. But all too often we go around mistaking level II for level I circumstances. Our response is crucial.
We must dig deep into our faith and find the resources to conquer fear. As our Lord once said, “Perfect (mature) love casts our fear.” As Christians, we believe that the worst things that happen to us are never the last things. For Jesus has overcome the world.
If we are shrewd, we recognize that our wealth cannot get us out of the last crisis. No, says Jesus, “read the signs and be shrewd. Don’t depend on money that is passing away. Rather rely on those things that do not pass away – love: God’s love for us and our love for each other. The resurrection of Jesus opens vast possibilities for because he overcame the ultimate level I situation: death.
Remember the way to get unstuck is an adventure. I believe that Jesus is saying something to us like, “Trust me. Come and follow me on the adventure of eternity. You may be scared, but you will not be bored. For I will never leave you or forsake you.” Our response here is crucial – will we accept the call of Jesus or not? It is up to us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
August 8, 2016 – Saint John’s Episcopal Church – Memphis, Tennessee – John Sewell
We come to do what Christians do each time they gather.
We come to tell the story.
We come to calm the fear within us.
We come to speak of the hope that is within us.
We come to Celebrate: Interpret, to make sense of. We do that in the context of the Good News of Jesus the Christ. We come to celebrate the life and home going of LEWIS MADISON (BIG DADDY) JONES, JR.
I am rarely presumptuous enough to hazard a guess at what God is thinking. I work for him but I am rarely taken into his confidence. But today, I know Phyllis that you and Lewis kept your vows to each other, as the Book of Common Prayer has it, “Until you were parted by death.” I know that pleased God. Well done.
THE READINGS FOR TODAY SPEAK TO THE STORY WE SHARE,
THE FEAR IN OUR HEARTS AND THE HOPE THAT IS WITHIN US.
We hear first from the words of the Prophet Isaiah who proclaimed, “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make feast FOR ALL PEOPLES, a feast of rich food, well-aged wines, full of fat [that was back when fat was still good news], well-aged wines strained clear.
If you recall Jesus produced excellent vintage himself at that wedding in Cana). The marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation is the consummation of Isaiah, the party planner prophet.
God is throwing a party, a gathering intended for all peoples. God gives us bread to nourish our bodies and wine to make our hearts glad. It is God who throws the party. There and then, God will shallow up death forever and wipe away the tears from all faces. This is the salvation he promises to all peoples. Salvation is a party with God as the host.
The Eucharist carried to the dying has a special name – Viaticum, which literally means “food for the journey” a little something to “tide you over” until you arrive at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. A few days ago, I went out to Collierville, taking Viaticum. Around Lewis’ bed we made Communion together. It was a moment of deep and precious intimacy for Lewis, his family, his dog…
It is altogether appropriate we gather this afternoon to say our prayers for Lewis and that we do so as we celebrate this Eucharist together.
Hear again the words of Paul to the Christians in Rome, “For I am persuaded (not wishful thinking but the thought of one who has lived into the comfort of God’s love) that neither death, nor life, nor angels, not principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other else in all creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Be not afraid, for Jesus has overcome death, hell and the grave. Which brings us to hope that in within us.
As Our Lord said to his disciples on Easter afternoon:
“Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so I would have told you. I go and prepare a place for you and if I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and take you to myself that where I am there you may be also…”
We have come as far as we can go with Lewis Madison Jones, Jr. His soul has gone to God and his body today goes to the University making a final contribution to cancer research.
Fritz Kunkel wrote once, “Losing one we love to death always means the possibility of a new contact with the beyond, and of a new turning away from the past toward the future.” This statement while true, is in danger of amounting to nothing more than fluffy nothingness straight from a writer’s desk at Hallmark cards. What turns this existential cotton candy into nourishment is suffering.
Spiritual growth comes through suffering. This is not something we have a choice about. Suffering is the promise that life always keeps. Lewis had more than a passing acquaintance with suffering, especially in the last year.
Wendell Berry, writes of the essential “aloneness” of the human experience embedded in entering the big woods:
Always in big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feeling of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown,
You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground of our feet, and learn to be at home.
If we live long enough our world will be reduced to the dimensions of a bed. It was there, in a hospital bed that Lewis began his greatest adventure, and his final pilgrimage was not of miles to Jerusalem but inches into eternity.
Jesus didn’t say you can’t serve God and the evil one. No, he said, you can’t serve God and money. Lewis worked for mammon, but he didn’t sell out to it. With the unique candor of the dying, he said he never sold his soul for a markup of bonds. He arrived at the end, with his soul in hand. He was glad he could say his soul was his own and now it is God’s. Each of us owe God ONE soul
Big Daddy Jones was a tough man. He was a high school hall of fame football player, played for The University of Memphis. He learned out to take a hit. He told me the story of teaching Patrick to take a hit. I won’t go into details, but it involved the back yard, a mattress, a football and Lewis. Patrick learned to take a hit, and I daresay, he learned to love a hit. It is safe to say that no football came near Patrick that he didn’t try to catch. Also, he learned to never give up, not ever. Even with numerous opponents hanging on for dear life, Patrick was headed downfield always toward the goal line with Lewis cheering on the sidelines. That’s not a bad way to remember him.
Lewis has joined that great company that cannot be numbered who believed in the Word Made Flesh. He has entered into the great story of Scripture. Near the end of the last chapter of the last book of the whole sweep of salvation history, we see the end and we like it. What do we see? The New Jerusalem has come down out of heaven. When we are able to take a peek at the wonders of it all, we see our old friend, The Tree of Life, standing by the water that springs up into everlasting salvation. There are also other old friends, twelve trees each bear its fruit for one of the months and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. We are home and never even knew it. The place of leaving as well as the place of returning is one.
No longer, will we be bound by time/space and we shall see the Lamb that was slain. Having had all tears wiped away, we will get on with the business of worshiping the Holy One and that I’m reassured will never get old at all.
Angels, Evangelists/Creatures and Elders, myriads and myriads and myriads to the seventh power of tenors, basses, baritones, mezzo-sopranos, counter-tenors, altos of every timbre, coloratura sopranos joined by boys with their particularly other-worldly tone, joined by those who are tone-deaf with tin ears, and too scared to try: all of them every last one: all singing just as loud as they can and perhaps on that day any who want to can sing all parts of the chord at the same time and praise God, no one sings flat. Everything from Organs and Calliopes to brasses of every possible metal and size, joined by woodwinds both great and small, accompanied by drums of all nations and persuasions, lift their voices and sing as one, on that day, that great day.
And how could they not? For death, that dominates everything from actuarial tables to crop rotation; that with its bosom buddies, plague, famine, joined in our time by true believers, whose creed is death and worship murder. Death & company have stalked our ancestors and will our descendants on this planet from beginning to end, is defeated, and swallowed up by victory.
That has been true since that day, in one particular place in a small province of an ancient empire, the rumor of which has passed generation by generation to this day and beyond till Jesus comes. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!
We shall take our seat with the great crowd of witnesses, Big Daddy Lewis among them. Let us comfort ourselves with the hope of the resurrection. To him be glory, now and forever. Amen
July 24, 2016
Lately, I have been listening to an audible book by Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
Ryan became breathtakingly successful in 2006, when at the age of 19, he became the youngest executive among Hollywood Talent Agents. By 25 he wrote a bestselling book, and a TV show was optioned, based on his story. He began to believe his own script, believing that he had produced all this in the power of his ego carefully editing out his own failures and mistakes. Then in 2014 his 3 mentors who meant everything to him each crashed and burned.
These were the people I had shaped my life around. The people I looked up to and trained under. Their stability— financially, emotionally, psychologically— was not just something I took for granted, it was central to my existence and self-worth. And yet, there they were, imploding right in front of me, one after another. The wheels were coming off, or so it felt. To go from wanting to be like someone your whole life to realizing you never want to be like him is a kind of whiplash that you can’t prepare for.
How did this come to pass? Ryan continues.
The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. That’s the definition this book will use. It’s that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility— that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.”
In this way, ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Most of us aren’t “egomaniacs,” but ego is there at the root of almost every conceivable problem and obstacle, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all the time and at the expense of others. From why we don’t have what we want to why having what we want doesn’t seem to make us feel any better.
We think something else is to blame for our problems (most often, other people). Especially for successful people who can’t see what ego prevents them from doing because all they can see is what they’ve already done. With every ambition and goal we have— big or small— ego is there undermining us on the very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing.
Hang on to your egos, I’ll circle back in a few minutes.
Following Jesus must have been a heady experience. Most of the disciples were working class folk with a couple of exceptions, but even then there were no blue-bloods. Imagine how it was the first time Jesus sent them and others out in pairs and told him to get busy doing what they had seen him do all over Galilee. They proclaimed the Kingdom of God, they taught, they healed and they cast out evil spirits. Everybody thought they were pretty important (and so did they).
The wanted to be like Jesus for all the wrong reasons.
So his disciples watching this asked him to teach them to pray and. he taught them what is called the Lord’s Prayer.
Robert Farrar Capon, “Parables of Grace” – “It begins, simply, “Father” a term of relationship which is natural rather than earned. Then Jesus tells the disciples and us to pray for the food they need for each day. Notice that nothing in the way of human achievement is requested. The heart of the prayer is, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us.” We receive forgiveness because Jesus died for our sins.
And lead us not into trial (insert your most recent one here). Life is a web of trails and temptations, but only one of them can ever be fatal, and that is the temptation to think that by further, better, and more aggressive living that we can have life. But that will never work. If the world could have lived its way to salvation, it would have, long ago. The fact is that it can only die its way there, lose its way there. The precise temptation, therefore, into which we pray we will not be led, is the temptation to reject our saving death and try to proceed on our own living. Like the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that is the one thing that cannot be forgiven, precisely because it is the refusal of the only box which forgiveness is ever delivered.”
To make his point about praying clearer, Jesus then tells a story: ”It’s like,” he said, “you are sound asleep in bed when the doorbell rings. You look at the clock and see that it is nearly 2:30 AM. Peeping through the curtain you see your college buddy, whom you have not seen in years standing at the door. He needs to spend the night and has not had a thing to eat all day. You’re glad to see him, but you have not gone to the grocer all week and all that is in the fridge is a head of dead lettuce and a bottle of good champagne.
What to do? “Well,” you think, “I could go next door to the neighbor.” So in your robe and bare feet you paddle over next-door and ring the bell. Your neighbor first doesn’t answer the door, no doubt hoping that you will go away.
So you lean into the doorbell and your neighbor’s sleepy and irritated voice comes on the intercom by the door. “What on earth do you want at this hour?” You explain your unexpected company. He says that this is not his problem, and furthermore his baby with the colic has just gone off to sleep in his bed and he doesn’t want to get up and wake the kid. Off goes the intercom. You STAND on the doorbell! If your neighbor will not get up because you and he are golfing buddies, he will get up and get you what you need because of, as the scripture puts it, your PERSISTENCE.
The word persistence is not really the best translation. The better translation would be shamelessness or lack of shame.
Capon says, “What is this shamelessness but death to self? People who lead reasonable, respectable lives, who are preoccupied first and foremost with the endless struggle to think well of themselves – do not intrude upon their friend’s privacy at midnight. And why don’t they, because that would make them look bad. But if someone were dead to all that – if he could come to his friend’s house with nothing more than the confession that he was a total loss as a host (or anything else) – then precisely because of his shamelessness, his total lack of a self-regarding life, he would be raised out of that death by his rising friend.”
In the reading from Genesis for today God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. This is a problem for Abraham because his nephew, Lot, lived there. “I’m going to nuke’em,” says God. Abraham said, “Suppose there were 50 righteous men in the twin cities? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” [Jews talk to God with an intimacy that few Christians ever muster]. God said, “If I find at Sodom 50 righteous, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham knew the twin cities so he thought to himself, “I’m not sure there are 50 righteous men in the city limits.” So he begins a shameless negotiation: “What if there are only 45 righteous?” God agrees; 40 – God agrees; 30 – God agrees; 20 – God agrees. “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more,” said Abraham peeping through his fingers, “If there are only 10 righteous men, will you not destroy it?” God agreed and went his way. (I wonder if God got out there before he gave away the farm.)
Just like the man caught at midnight without a thing to serve his buddy, Abraham is shameless. Why did Abraham risk such shameless behavior? Because he knew his God. As the Prayer Book puts it in the Rite One Eucharistic prayer, “You whose property is always to have mercy.” This merciful God is our Abba/Father.
We can define prayer as an endeavor to behold what is real.
That brothers and sisters is the only antidote to the Ego-centeredness we call sin.
What is real then to those who accept the good news of God in Christ? What is real is that Abraham and the man with the empty larder and, yes, we also are invited into a shameless and bold relationship with the Holy One of Israel.
Paul, writing the Christians at Colossae, spells out the invitation, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him though faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”
We cannot make it on our own; therefore we are invited into a life of shameless reliance on God. God desires that we pray not to pester him into doing what he would not do unless we whine long enough. Our shameless – boldness rises from our being dead in ourselves and alive in the power of Jesus and his resurrection. It is a case of, as the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous puts it, surrendering to win. It is a matter of life and death that we learn that God really loves us. He promised that He would never abandon us or leave us.
Let’s live like it, maybe?
To him be glory, now and forever. Amen
For five years, we at Saint John’s have lived in the rhythm and measurement of RenewalWorks. (www.renewalworks.org ) The means, practices and resources we have created we file under the rubric: SOULWorks. What now? Last month, I was pondering that question and began to list some skills, practices and states of being that grow from and promote a life of faith.
These are the consequences of forsaking egocontrol, taking up our cross and setting off behind Jesus. By now he is a good ways down the road, and I doubt I will ever overtake him at the rate I slip and slide. However, I’m convinced that I’m on the right way, narrow though it is, as I meet people who carry crosses similar, though not identical to mine.
As a pilgrim what do I need to know, take with me and seek as I go along the way he leads me. Below I list some suggests.
In the days ahead, I will reflect on these practices and resources for the journey. Doubtless, there will others as get on down the road.
Note: This is the text of a letter read at services today. This same letter went out to parish via email went this afternoon. Join us, please. John+
July 10, 2016
Beloved in Christ Jesus,
These past two weeks have displayed the depth of anxiety in the very ground of our nation. Chronic anxiety promotes polarity, such as seldom seen in the history of this republic. We are tempted to the sin of despair. The shootings and deaths in recent days reveal the terrible wound in the body politic. The body of Christ has a vocation to pray, fast and proclaim healing for racism, tribalism, and all “isms” that would prey on souls in our nation.
As Rector of Saint John’s, I call on the brothers and sisters of this household of faith to spend Monday, July 11, 2016, in fasting and prayer. If possible, please fast from dawn until sundown. If not that, please fast the noon meal. Your clergy will join you in fasting and prayer for Memphis and West Tennessee. The church will be open for prayer during the day on Monday.
Your clergy will join Memphis clergy brothers and sisters at Hope Church for prayer from 6:30 – 8:30 Monday night. Please invite any who will to join in this day of prayer and fasting for the good of our souls and the healing of our country.
Rector of Saint John’s Episcopal Church – Memphis, Tennessee 38111