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
“The Word is always being born, but if he is not born in me, of what use is that to me.” — Meister Eckhart
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. .
- Saint John’s exists as a place to encounter God. Period. Nothing else. If people cannot find God here. It has no reason for being. In the coming years more than one Episcopal Church in Memphis will fail. It might be this one unless people find God consistently at 3245 Central Avenue.
- Clergy must re-invent themselves.I am not a professional Christian. I cannot be Christian in your stead so you need not bother with it. Only you can be a Christian for you.I am here, Bob is here, Dean is here next Sunday, to practice our own Christianity and Coach you in yours.
We are player-coaches not truant officers.
I have my job and my work. My Job is to keep this place going, tend the functions, services. My Work is the Cure of Souls –
- Lay Ministry is the way forward. Lay initiation, lay leadership is the only way forward. Now that Western Culture is no longer Christian Culture – leadership from above WILL NOT WORk! Leadership from below will. That is why we took up Renewalworks and invented SOULWorks these past five years.
Two Octobers ago I was in Washington DC at a memorial conference for Rabbi Edwin Friedman my teacher. As I sat there and the voice in my head I have known for 47 years said, “John, Today begins the Third Act of your life.” Nothing more. For a year I pondered, finally realizing that my work here was the end of ACT2. On Wednesday I step down from my job as Rector. I do not step down from my work: The Cure of Souls. Stephanie Brown and I with the help of many are founding a new Non-profit, called ACT3, 1049 Cresthaven Road 38119. – Is my new laboratory of faith. The moving van comes tomorrow. I love you. In the name of God …