June 26, 2005

NOTE; Obviously this is an old sermon.  The themes are exactly the ones I struggle with today.  You can interpret that several ways.  I’m not sure myself.  I feel the same issues but with greater intensity. As our Lord says, “Work while it is day for night is coming when no man can work.” John 9:4



Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Almost ten years ago I was interviewed for the local evening news in Jackson, Mississippi. The young reporter came to ask my opinion about prayer in public schools.

I thought long and hard about how to say what I thought.

For one thing a sound bite format is not kind to Anglican ways of thinking. Most issues are more complicated than that.

Secondly as a minority church in a sea of free-church Protestants, Episcopalians have some inkling of what it is like to have the “majority opinion” forced on us.

I am sympathetic to the concerns that prompt such controversy. But in many ways we have entered a post Christian era in this country. Which is to say that we can no longer assume that Christianity and culture are contiguous. I thought back almost twenty years to an article from the October 1986 issue of Christian Century. Here is an excerpt from an article by William Williman.

Fox Theater Greenville SC“THOUGH I COULD NOT have known it at the time, a momentous event in my faith journey occurred on a Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina, when, in defiance of the State’s archaic Blue Laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox.

Only lately have I come to see how that evening symbolizes a watershed in the history of Christianity in the United States. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina – the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western World – gave in and served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the Church. If Christians were going to be made in Greenville, that the church must do it alone.

There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head-to-head with the church to see who would provide ultimate values for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.

In taking me to Church, my parents were affirming everything that was American. Church was, in a sense, the only show in town. Everybody else was doing it. Church, home, and state formed a vast consortium working together to instill Christian values. People grew up Christian simply by growing up American. All that ended the night that the Fox Theater opened on Sunday.”

Dearly beloved, take nothing for granted!

We can no longer assume that people who come here for the first time on Sunday morning have any idea about what we believe. The truth is that we often are not all that sure ourselves.

• Some come because it is what they have always done.
• Some come because it is good for the children to get values.
• Some come because one can make business contacts at Church.
• And some come because they are hungry for God.

Many come for a bundle of reasons.

Regardless of how it has been in the past, the culture will no longer prop us up. If we are going to be Christians and make Christians we will have to do it the old fashioned way: by depending on God and each other, and that, my fellow Episcopal Christians of Saint John’s is a choice.

Christ and sword

Christ and sword

W. F. Albright translates the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34 this way: “Do not think thatI have come to impose peace on earth, Do not think that I have come to impose peace on earth by force; I have come neither to impose peace, nor yet to make war. I have come to divide . . . a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be members of his own house.” Albright continues, “Jesus does not come to impose peace by FORCE. On the contrary, his coming will involve painful decisions. He will not interfere with human freedom.”

We are free to choose. The culture will not prop us up. It may no longer be good business to be Christian. In point of fact the Gospel is increasingly not the worldview the culture proposes.

And yet the call of Jesus is clear, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The country is anxious. Many want props. But I am not convinced that legislating props will do the job. When we venture beyond the safety of cultural Christianity, (civil religion) we will find that life is changing. Several things become evident.

• We want to see all bad in others and not in ourselves.
• We don’t know the reality of the Gospel all that well ourselves.
• We have majored on minors and minored on majors.
• We despair.
• We see the bad in others and not in ourselves.

This produces self-righteousness and contempt that is alien to the Gospel. A poem from He Sent Leanness, A Book of Prayers for the Natural Man by David Read


“Lord, I am quite convinced that I shall not be at home in heaven. Is this all Thou hast to offer? Thy eternal City as men have described it seems unbearably cosmopolitan. There are some nations (which I will not at present specify), some denominations (which shall be nameless), one political party (Lord, Thou knowest), and many types of musicians (if such a word can be applied to them at all), with whom I could not possibly live. Could I, perhaps, have a quiet detached mansion on my own, with a few specified visitors for short periods?”

Most of us are not that honest! By being “good” and keeping some of the rules we see ourselves as O.K., rather than saved by grace and NOTHING else. [Period]

• We don’t know the reality of the Gospel too well ourselves.

We’d have something more to share than rule and moral codes. We know the form but deny the power there of. We are always prepared for God to do nothing. When he does something we are ill prepared. We do not live as if there is a resurrection. We live as if we hoped there might be something, but we are not sure what it is.

• We have majored on minors and minored on majors.

Christians have been busy fighting about number of issues. Many issues cannot be “solved” or “voted on” and put to rest as much as we might like. We will have to pray and live through most of them. It is messy but throwing stones and being willful will not promote the Kingdom of God.

We have gotten things backwards. We build buildings and then try to figure out what to do with them, rather than preach the Gospel and build buildings to house the community that grows from that Gospel. We are in the process of looking at long range building here. But we are not doing neutron bomb evangelism: kill the people and save the buildings.”

For much of the late 20th Century the Church rearranged the deck chairs on the luxury ship Episcotanic. And when we do venture out beyond the doors of our churches we look around and we despair.

• We despair.

We act as if there is nothing that can be done and that God is finished. Despair is a sin!!! To despair is to say that God cannot act. We have never yet had to face any real difficulty for being a Christian. The most that we have ever suffered is mild embarrassment — and that not for long.

Let me be clear this morning about what I believe. Let me make a brief “I have a dream speech”. I believe that Saint John’s exists for one reason and one reason only: to be a place where souls are transformed in relationship to God! God in Christ Jesus calls us to follow him, and this journey is not one of convenience. It is a cross we pick up not a hammock. The Journey to God begins with you and with me.

There were three friends who were eager workers, and one of them chose to devote himself to making peace between people who were fighting, in accordance with ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. The second chose to visit the sick. The third went off to live in tranquility in the desert. The first toiled away at the quarrels of men, but could not resolve them all, and so, in discouragement, went to the one who was looking after the sick, and he found him flagging too, not succeeding in fulfilling the commandment. So the two of them agreed to go and visit the one who was living in the desert.

They told him their difficulties and asked him to tell them what he had been able to do. He was silent for a time, and then he poured water into a bowl and said to them, ‘Look at the water.’ It was all turbulent. A little later he told them to look at it, and see how the water had settled down. When they looked at it, they saw their own faces as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘In the same way a man who is living in the midst of men does not see his own sins because of all the disturbance, but if he becomes tranquil, especially in the desert, then he can see his own shortcomings.”

I long for Saint John’s to be like a desert place where we become still and see ourselves and in that stillness hear the call of God. That is why we are here. Welcome in name of the resurrected Jesus!

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


Rector’s Address at Saint John’s Annual Parish Meeting

I suppose one of the good things about rising age is the perspective gained from traveling over that much geography.  One of my favorite writers, Morris West, titled his memoir, A


Cover of "A View from the Ridge: Testimon...

Cover via Amazon


View from the Ridge, looking back over his life just before slipping into the next life in valley beyond.  I have not yet reached the ridge but I can look back over a few foothills. This is the 10th time I have attended an annual parish meeting at Saint John’s.  Ten years is a long time.  I was 51, I had hair, I also was a lot heaver than I am today for which I am grateful.


As I look over this nave, In my mind, I also see in their old accustomed places some of those who greeted me here in 2002 and have gone before us into that perfect rest.


*        Stan Gafford – at 92, Stan took up tap-dancing to meet chicks.


*        Sara Jane Prothero wrote the date beside the hymn every time that hymn was sung in church.   Geoff keeps it up today.


*        Harry Wilcox who every animal at the Memphis Zoo, and their mate, their progeny and all their names.


*        Carol Leatherman, a force of nature, instructed me in the family secrets of old Memphis.


*        Louise Carr who on her deathbed, called her financial adviser & moved money in 5 figures to the memorial fund in honor of her husband & daughter who preceded her in death and waited to embrace her only hours later.


They & many others have departed this life in the faith & fear of God, waiting for that great day, when we all will be with Jesus and he will wipe away all tears and death will be swallowed by life.  In the communion of the Saints all those who ever loved God in this place, join us this morning as we gather and order our common life.


This year I have found a clarity, verging on high definition, about this Christian experience we share.


I see that there are two parts of ministry: my job & my work:


*        My job is Rector:  I was made chief steward of this place ten years ago, to husband the resources, to guide and serve this community until I surrender this privilege to the Bishop at some future day. I intend to deliver this institution into his hands hopefully a little better than I received it. This is my job.


*       On the other-hand my work is “the cure of souls.”  When I was installed as rector in September 2003 with precise & archaic language, I was given “charge of the cure.”  This means that in a sense I am a “player-coach,” in that I do my own soul work, while I coach others as they as they their soul work.


One would think that my job & work are exactly the same and I say with sorrow that such is often not the case. The tyranny of the immediate, the speed of communication & the maintenance of the fabric of the institution often obscures if not blinds me to the deepest concerns of ministry.  For several years now, I have admitted to myself that while the institution of Saint John’s is in pretty good shape given the anxiety in the Episcopal Church, soul work is not the focus of our common life in a way that deeply transforms lives. Yet, the simple truth is that this place exists for one purpose and one purpose only: that here people safely experience God. That is why this room is filled with world-class art, better music than I have ever dared hope for and indeed treasures of all the arts making this Church aesthetically exquisite; in addition the liturgies are carefully planned, the altar carefully prepared and the buildings a faithfully cleaned and with the care that the occasion of meeting God in the breaking of the bread deserves.


What we do with that is up to us, of course, we can come and eat bread & drink a sup of wine leaving in the same shape we were in or we can come with expectancy meeting the resurrected Jesus in the bread of heaven & the cup of salvation.  This place, this beautiful place, this “home place” is here serving  as – an open space – where we  in that great ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­choreography of grace  dance with God & each other here on Sundays & the Holy Days.


And yet, more is needed.  For a long time I have sensed that how we have done church, the way I experienced church as a boy, is no longer working.  Each generation faces the unique challenges that comprise life in that day.  We are no different, but discerning the signs, it appears that we live at a cadence point in history. Naively I thought that modern went on forever.  But, what we call modern is no longer the cutting edge of speculation and innovation but is the label of a history, like the Victorian or Colonial era.  Not all generations lives through at such a cultural pivot, but we do.


It is not as if Christians have not been here before, in anxious years, look for a life-giving way forward.


§  In 70 AD, the Temple was destroyed and Christians adapted and proclaimed the never-changing truth of the Gospel as the Church was freed from persecution and became the religion of the Roman Empire.


§  In late Antiquity as the Roman Empire in the West crumbled, Christians adapted, proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ and evangelizing pagan Europe.

Roman empire in 117 Roman Empire Contested ter...

Roman empire in 117 Roman Empire Contested territory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

§  The end of modernity is such a time, a reinvention must happen if the Gospel is to go to all the world.


For the past 500 years we have done church pretty much as we have experienced it in our life time.  But that way no longer works.


The day when the culture propped us up is no more, the public schools are no longer the Protestant parochial schools & Blue laws no longer protect us from competition; no longer can we prosper by a sort of genteel ignorance of the faith, while hiring people in collars to do our Christianity for us.  I’m not saying folks were not Christian & I’m not saying that they were unconcerned about faith.  What I am saying is that the future requires a kind of commitment and formation that we have not needed for centuries.


Living forward, each believer will need to be self-feeding, taking responsibility for the health of her or his soul. We have not done that sort of intentional soul work for a very long time. Past generations worshiped in churches sitting on various corners and  waited for folk to wander in. The un-churched no longer seek us out and we are at a loss as to what to do.  For we live at the end of a chapter of history, the page is not yet turned but we prepare for whatever this next chapter brings.


Let us not succumb to a fixation on survival, a sure and certain path to death, no let us rather embrace the adventure ahead of us, for the plot thickens & The Holy Spirit will guide us as Jesus promised.


Your clergy, three priests & two deacons are committed to soul work, in us and in this place. I have prayed for 2 years & when I ran out of options to will it into being and slumped over exhausted, a way forward appeared.  This better thing is the EPISCOPAL SPIRITUAL LIFE RENEWAL that began at Holy Spirit Parish in Lake Forest Ill. You can read about it on the Webb page of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. Bishop Johnson supports, & your vestry has voted to become a pilot parish for this process & we are already underway. This is the process:


*        Between January 19th & February 10th every member of Saint John’s is asked to take an online survey.


*        This survey is anonymous; no one will know who took the test


*        This survey examines two key questions:


          ^    What is the Spiritual health of Saint John’s


           ^   What is Saint John’s role in the formation of souls.


*        In March, we will receive the results.


*        A team of Saint John’s communicants will work with this material over a period of months.


*        By late spring, they will advise us how best to proceed given what we have learned from each other.


*        Then, God willing, we will organize Saint John’s that all our resources serve the soul work of the people, supporting them in the various ministries emerging from their soul work.  We will pray, learn & do what is  required to grow our souls up. Growing ourselves up and calming ourselves down is the greatest contribution we can make to our culture and this Republic we love.


§  This is what I ask all of you to do:


§  Ask questions, go online & read about Episcopal Spiritual Life Renewal.


§  Above all, please take this survey.


I am hopeful today in a way I have not been in a long time. I want to invest my remaining years of public ministry in this place. The words of Paul in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus come to mind over and over and I ponder the call of God.  Ephesians 4:11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.


Over twenty-five years ago I awakened from sleep with a dream, it was simple, a single il_430xN.5223215picture, if you will.  In my dream I was a member of a Christian community and we were planted a orchard.  To plant an orchard is an act of faith as the trees will not bear fruit for years.  Some of those planting would not benefit from the fruit they would bear.  Later, I came across a quote from Martin Luthers where he said, “that if he knew the world would end tomorrow he would plant an apple tree today.”


 I have a realization sense that you are that community and that Memphis is that orchard.  Let us go this adventure together.


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