How rare it is to find a soul quiet enough to hear God speak.
– Archbishop Francis Fenelon
How rare it is to find a soul quiet enough to hear God speak.
– Archbishop Francis Fenelon
May 5, 2019
LUKE 24:17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him..
Jesus said, “That was quite a debate you just having. What were you discussing?” With grief, most anything is a trigger and sadness leapt to their faces. Cleopas looking up over his glasses asked, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem not to know what happened this week? You don’t get out much?” “What things?” Seeing Cleopas’ exasperation, Symeon interjected, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was prophet in deed and word before God and all the people…”
The consequence of a drought of prophets in Israel from Malachi to John the Baptizer was spiritual hunger. There is never any lack of people wanting to order people around, while telling them exactly what the Holy One would do or say, if only God had all the facts. John, the Baptizer was cut from a different bolt, actually a bolt of lightening not camel-skin.
Of course God has all the facts. The important thing to know about Jesus is not that he is like God. The important thing to know is that God is like Jesus. “If you have seen me,” said Jesus, “You have seen the Father.” The Incarnation revels the identity and face of the Creator. That turned out to be good news. Good News in deed. Not only that, we are invited to call God, “father.” That’s amazing when you think on it.
There are many amazing things yet to come! I have it on good authority.
In hope, in spite of the facts. John
May 2, 2019
JOHN 20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas was called the twin back then. Aside, nobody has a clue about the twin thing so beware of scholar’s theories. Aside over. He got past being called twin (almost nobody calls him that anymore), only receive, “doubting” in its place. Doubting Thomas is much worse than Thomas the Twin. Don’t you think?
In addition, he gets a bum rap as well, to this day. He went out Easter night. Why? Nobody knows. So supply your own notion, I do. Maybe he got sick of disciple’s paranoia, jumping at a log cracking in the fireplace. Perhaps, he got the short straw when they ran out of beer and was out getting a few cases to tide them over. He could have needed fresh air. We know he was out, period.
I ask you, why should he accept the word of this crowd given their state of mind? Add terror to grief and you get hallucinations, maybe? Thomas wanted to experience God directly, not hearsay. There’s a reason the courts are unimpressed by such. Who could blame him? I’ve noticed in the years of my ordained life, soon 37 years, a growing, progressive hunger of people to experience God for themselves.
I will tell you that for the thirty-seven years of this gig, one trend is that people want to experience God themselves. Don’t settle for any secondhand edition it will not fix the slow leak in our souls.
In hope, in spite of the facts.
Every October 15th, my mind turns to this odd little man, a Polish Jew, converted to Christianity, becoming in due season, the Anglican Bishop of Shanghai. The years of life spent at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL I sat opposite his grace’s stained glass window for at least three services a day.
We remember him because of the extreme example of the work of the Spirit was done in and through him. He was fully paralyzed expect for minor use of one hand. With that limitation also came, as he said, “patience, otherwise I would never have sat and translated the Scriptures into Mandarin Chinese. And indeed this thing came to pass and we are amazed not for his stamina but for his interpretation of his circumstances. JWS
This photograph is of the cellar room where the Emperor and family were murdered by order of Vladimir Lenin. The empire they ruled has passed away. In its place is a Kleptocracy of brutes and thugs.
What has not passed away and shines clearly one hundred years on is that their last thought was of the Christ Jesus. So indeed their hideous death finds it’s redemption in the words of Frederick Beuchner,
“For Christians the worst thing that ever happens is never the last thing to happen. He who loves you most deeply will judge you most finally.”
One hundred years ago today, the last Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II and his family were murdered. A century ago tomorrow Grand Duchess Elizabeth, the Empress’s sister was martyred. Thus began the blood century of two world wars and a bloody cold war.
|HIH Elizabeth Feodorovna||Grand Duchess of Russia, Martyr|
4 February, 1905, at the moment when the Grand Duchess was leaving for her workshops, she was alarmed by the sound of an exploding bomb nearby. Hurrying toward the place, she saw a soldier stretching his military overcoat over the maimed body of her husband. The soldier tried to hide the horrible sight from the eyes of the unfortunate wife.
The Grand Duchess dropped to her knees, on the street, put her arms out to embrace the torn remains of her husband. From that time on, the Grand Duchess refused the food she was accustomed to, and milk, vegetable and bread became her daily nourishment, even before she took the vows.
The lofty spirit with which she took the tragedy astounded everyone: she had the moral strength even to visit in prison her husband’s assassin, Kaliaev, hoping to soften his heart, with her Christian forgiveness. “Who are you?” he asked upon meeting her. “I am his widow,” she replied, “why did you kill him?” “I did not want to kill you,” he said. “I saw him several times before when I had the bomb with me, but you were with him and I could not bring myself to touch him.” “You did not understand that by killing him you were killing me,” she said. Then she began to talk of the horror of his crime before God. The Gospel was in her hands and she begged the criminal to read it and left it in his cell. Leaving the prison, the Grand Duchess said: “My attempt was unsuccessful, but, who knows, perhaps at the last minute he will understand his sin and repent.”The murder of Grand Duke Serge Alexksandrovich brought about a change in the soul of his wife and caused her to withdraw from her former social life. The shock and horror she had experienced left a wound in her heart which healed only when she lifted her eyes to see that which is above this world.
From then on, she devoted her life to the organization of a community in which spiritual service to God would be united with caring for the poor. She moved from the palace to a building she bought in Ordinka where she reserved herself three modest rooms. She called this community the convent Saints Martha and Mary, intending it to be as the home of Lazarus visited so often by Jesus Christ. The members of the convent were invited to unite the high aims of Mary (listening to the words of life), and the service of Martha (as if they were taking care of Christ), since he was present in his brethren, the poor.
The convent quickly developed, and attracted many nuns from the upper classes as well as from common people. Life within the convent was that of a monastery. Outside, the sisters’ consisted in helping the sick, hospitalized in the convent or in their homes, giving material and spiritual help to the poor, and taking care of the orphans and deserted children so many of whom used to perish in the big cities.
A house for young women, workers, and students was organized to give inexpensive or rent-free lodging to them. There were free hospitals, ambulatory, schools for the Red Cross nurses, free kitchens, and during the war, hospitals for the badly wounded. Sisters of Saints Martha and Mary visited the houses of the poor and sick, took care of the children, did the housework, and brought peace and happiness wherever they went.
Many tiresome duties were performed by the Sister Superior of the holy Convent, the Grand Duchess. Innumerable business transactions, consideration of many requests and petitions from every corner of Russia, and other cares, filled her day, sometimes bringing her to a state of complete exhaustion. Nevertheless she often spent the night at the bedsides of critically sick people, or some other church popular among the people for it’s feast day, or she would make a pilgrimage to a Moscow monastery. Her soul was stronger than her body. The only rest she got was during the pilgrimage to the holy places of Russia, but the crowds deprived her of peace and solitude.
They revered her for her sovereign standing, her goodness and charity, and enthusiastically expressed their affection turning her trips into triumphant processions. She tried to hide her weariness and appeared before people with a smiling face. Withdrawing from almost everything earthly, she shone with that inner light which comes from the soul, expressing love and tenderness. No one could have been more considerate in giving pleasure and comfort to others – according to each one’s spiritual needs.It is difficult to estimate the amount of money she spent on charity. Her own personal expenses were insignificant. She lived in three small rooms, white and clean, separated from the hospital by the house chapel. They were simply furnished, with wicker chairs, icons on the walls. She slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, or a hard pillow; but after long hours of work she would fall asleep instantly. Often her sleep lasted only three to four hours a day. At midnight she would get up to pray, after which she made a round of the hospital. When the condition of a patient worried her, she would sit at his bedside until dawn trying to ease his sufferings. Intuitive and tactful, she always found the right words of comfort, and the sick testified that her mere presence affected them favorably and relieved their sufferings.
From the very beginning of the war, the Grand Duchess had devoted herself unreservedly to the service of caring for the sick and wounded soldiers, whom she visited in Moscow hospitals and at the battle front.
The Dowager Empress Marie, the Empress Alexandra and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth divided among themselves the work of nursing the wounded according to the front lines: the German front, the Austrian front, and the Turkish front, the latter, although smaller in size of operations, was just as intense in fighting. They were able to draw all kinds of people into their organization, men of high and low ranks, officials, clerks, government workers and a whole hierarchy of women. The Red Cross on a white uniform was seen on everyone who could spare any time from housework in order to serve the great cause of war and victory. There was no sacrifice too great – money was given freely and personal life was not important in the time of war.
The Grand Duchess met the revolutionary storm with remarkable calmness and self-control. She continued to live in the convent nursing the sick in her hospital, where she also fed the poor. There was no change in the routine of her life except that her prayers became even more fervent. She was always composed and completely resigned to the will of God.
The Communists, after seizing the power during the October revolution in 1917, to everyone’s surpass, allowed the Grand Duchess and all the members of her convent complete freedom; even rendered material support in the way of food supplies. It made it more difficult to bear the sudden blow when, on Holy Pascah (after Agape Vespers) the communists ordered her to leave Moscow and join the Imperial Family in Ekaterinburg. She asked for two hours to make the necessary preparations for the long journey but they were denied. She left with two novices, Sister Barbara, and Sister Katherine, escorted by a convoy of Latvian Guards.
Her future suffering could have been avoided if she had heeded the words of the Swedish Cabinet Minister who came to Moscow at the request of the German Emperor offering to help her leave the country. She answered him that he was right, that horrible times lay ahead, but she wanted to share the fate of her country and its people. Her decision was of course her own death sentence.
The Grand Duchess was told by the communists that in the South she would be working as a Red Cross nurse. They gave her a private compartment on the train and offered all the comfort. She was happy at the prospective meeting with her sister, the Empress Alexandra, and ready to serve the people at the new place. Arriving at Ekaterinburg, the Grand Duchess was forbidden contact with the Tsar’s family. Sister Barbara succeeded in getting near the house of the imprisoned and seeing (through a crack in the fence) only the Emperor Tsar Nicholas II, in the garden or at a window.
The Grand Duchess was temporarily placed in the convent where she was warmly greeted by all the sisters. She especially appreciated the fact that she was permitted to attend all church services.
In the spring of 1918, soon after the arrival of the Emperor’s from Perm and lodged in a dirty town inn: Grand Duke Serge Mikhailovich with his attendant R. Remez, three brothers, Grand Dukes John, Constantine, and George Constantinovich, and young Count Vladimir Paely, just twenty years old. They were placed in one room, badly treated, and kept half-starved: But they were allowed sometimes, to leave the inn which gave them a chance to meet people and even visit old acquaintances.
At the end of May, all the above mentioned and Grand Duchess Elizabeth were transported to Alopaevsk near Keaterinburg, and lodged in a school house on the edge of town. Although guarded, the Grand Duchess was permitted to go to church, work in the vegetable garden, with her own hands she weeded the vegetables and arranged the flower beds: she also painted and prayed. Lunches and dinners were served to her in her room: the rest ate together.
At times the Grand Duchess was able to send words of encouragement and consolation to the sisters of her convent in Moscow, who deeply mourned her absence.
There was some contact with the population, as among the possessions of the Grand Duchess there was a handmade towel of plain peasant linen embroidered with flowers and the inscription: “Dear Mother Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, do not refuse to accept in the ancient Russian custom the bread and salt from the loyal servants of the Tsar and the Motherland. Peasants of the Nievo-Alopaevsk district, Verkhotursk county”
Such were the conditions of their life until the fatal night of 18 July. On that night they were suddenly taken to a place 12 miles from Alopaevsk, where all were atrociously murdered. It happened in the Verkhoutsk tract of a mine called “Nizhnaya Selimskaya”.
Only Grand Duke Sergey Mikhailovich was shot: the rest were blindfolded and thrown into the mine alive, (According to medical reports, only Grand Duke Sergey Mikhaelovich was shot. All the others were thrown alive into the mine and death had followed them hemorrhage, as a result of contusions.”) after which the murderers threw into the mine some hand grenades and some junk. The mine was about 200 feet deep, but the corpses of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Grand Duke John Constantinovich were found on a ledge only 50 feet from the top. The Grand Duchess Elizabeth had remained alive for a long time. Near the mine, one could hear hymns – some say from hymns from the Vesper service,and these hymns continued through the following day. A peasant driving by on his cart heard the singing. In fright, he drove hurriedly to the camp of the White Army not very distant from there and told them about it. They reproached him for not giving any help, at least by throwing a piece of bread into the mine. When the White Army was able to reach the spot they removed the bodies of the murdered. Investigation showed that the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, herself mortally wounded, had dressed the wounds of Grand Duke John. Near her body were two unexploded hand grenades, on her chest an icon of Jesus Christ. The holy martyr had sung hymns for herself and for others, funeral hymns, hymns giving thanks or glorifying God, until the hymns of God’s kingdom had sounded her. Thus the holy martyr’s crown of thorns was placed on her head for her to join the saints.
The Grand Duke John Constantinovich always loved the church singing and was regent of the church choir of the Pavlovsk Palace, and continued to sing in a church choir during his exile in Perm.
Young Count Vladimir Paley, the son of the Grand Duke Paul Alekssandrovich, was a talented poet. A number of his verses, which were heard by friends in Ekaterinburg, were written about his exile, where, in his words, “all dear to the heart was so painfully distant, and the enemies so painfully close.”By the order of Admiral Kochack, the head of the Siberian White Army, the body of the Grand Duchess and all who were murdered with her were solemnly buried in Alopaev Cathedral (November 1,1918. Later,when the White Army had to retreat under pressure from the Reds, the bodies were taken to Irkutsk (July 1919) and later to China (February 28, 1920).
At a point near the Chinese border the communists were able to attach the convoy. They had time to throw out the coffin of the Grand Duke John, but some Chinese soldiers arrived in time to stop the sacrilege. On 3 April, the bodies were buried at the church of St. Seraphim of Sarov at the cemetery of the Russian mission in Peking. Later, the body of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and that of sister Barbara, through the care of Princess Victoria, were taken to Palestine. There, on December 15, 1920 they were solemnly met in Jerusalem by the representatives of the English government, by the Greek and Russian clergy, and by innumerable Russian immigrants and local residents.
The Grand Duchess Elizabeth was buried in the church of St. Mary Magdalene of Gethsemane, the church built in memory of the Dowager Empress Maria (wife of the Emperor Tsar Alexander II) by her august children. The Grand Duchess had been present with her husband at its consecration in 1888, and they say, she loved the church so much that she expressed a desire to spend the last days of her life near it.
“Like a beautiful apparition, she passed through this world, leaving behind her a radiant trail,” wrote her biographer, His Emminence Metropolitan Anastassy. “Together with the other sufferers for the motherland she is at the same time the atonement of former Russia, and the foundation of the Russia to come, which will be built on the remains of the new holy martyrs. Such images have lasting significance: their predestination is eternal memory on earth and in heaven. Not in vain had the voice of the people of Russia proclaimed her a saint while she was yet alive. As if to reward her for her glorious deeds on earth, and especially for her love for Holy Russia, her martyred remains (which according to eyewitnesses were found in the mine untouched by decay) were destined to rest near the very place of the sufferings and holy Resurrection of the Savior.”
Source: “THE NEW MARTYRS OF RUSSIA”, by Archpriest Michael Polsky, Montreal, Canada., 1972., pp. 124-32.)
Holy St. Elizabeth,
Pray Unto God,
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.
Last Sunday afternoon, I preached at the Chapel of the Cross, Madison, Mississippi. It was almost seventeen years since last I stood in that ancient place, built by slaves of bricks made from the very ground on which it sits. Fr. Ben Robertson, present Rector of the parish, was very kind to invite me “home” again.
Indeed it was home to me from All Saints Day, 1989 until midnight of New Years Eve 2001. It was a rich time. I learned many things as the congregation grew from 125 or so to the mid-800s in a decade. Of course in that time, I received more credit and blame than I deserved (is it not always so?). When people remarked on the growth, I learned to reply, “I can’t make people come here, but I can keep them from staying,” (that too is always true).
So many people I loved in Mannsdale have departed to greater life. As I reverenced the altar the other night, trough the clear glass of the altar windows the tombs of the dead were framed by magnolia leaves. Some, I had said the words over their mortal remains, Chapel members having dug the grave as they continue to dig them even today. Sitting through the night with the dead is a rare privilege we can give each other. Keeping the establishment open all night does not appear on the business plans of the funeral industry.
I struggled to find the right words. Finally, I settled on a series of meditations from Easter Week 2016, ending with the last three paragraphs from my sermon on Easter Day 2015. Please find it embedded below.
I suffered burnout in 2000 and 2001, culminated by an eleven week stay at Menninger Hospital in Topeka, Kansas. I recovered but realized late in 2001 that I could no longer sustain the kind of workload that required at least twelve her days on numerous days per week. So, I stepped down. Later in Memphis, I found that I had Type 2 Bi-polar disease and through the support of Marilyn, Doctors and my staff at Saint John’s, I have come to a good place with that disease. It is, by the way, the most under diagnosed disease of American adults.
“You can’t go home again,” as Thomas Wolf declares. You can, however, “go through home again,” as I have learned about the various “homes” of my life. It was healing to go through The Holy Ground of the Chapel of the Cross last Sunday. God bless you all who welcomed me home and saw me off back home to Memphis. I love you all.
I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
John W. Sewell+
“How is retirement?” “It’s going very well, strange but fine,” is my usual reply. A common line is you look like you have really lost some weight?” After the third time, I latched onto, what is now, a standard response, “Oh, I am at least a thousand people lighter.” My cardiologist was thrilled that I had retired. All the numbers speak to my body being thrilled as well. Sleeping in on Sunday, an activity known in Alabama as “attending Bed-springs Baptist” has aroused no guilt. We did make it to Easter Day, let the record show.
I have devoted a lot of time getting my new office up and running. The car no longer automatically heads west from Shepherd Lane. Now it heads East instead, which is the direction of enlightenment. Now what?
After a very helpful pep talk from an old and valued friend, this is now my practice. Most days, I drive to 1049 Cresthaven Road, Memphis, TN 38119 and there I go to work. What is my work? At present, I’m diving deeper into Bowen Theory than I have ever done before. The Triangle is the object of my quest. I shall understand that little beast if God is gracious. The Triangle is the basic molecule of relationships. It consists of three people or two people and an issue. Triangles are also very fluid moving such that two points are in and one is out.
But suppose, one wanted to grow oneself up, while calming oneself down? What if one decided to take maximum responsibility for ones own self, focusing on one own functioning? Bowen called that Differentiation or more precisely, taking up the work of “Differentiating a Self.” Trust me if you should truly entertain such a notion for even half a day, everyone in the primary triangles you inhabit will know. In addition, if you should take up this “self to differ” the reaction will be progressive and predictable.
It will develop on this wise: 1. “You are wrong”; 2. “Change back”; and 3. “If you do not, these are the consequences” [Bowen, 1978, pp. 216]
Hell hath no fury like you arouse when you fool with someone’s heirloom triangle! Some of them have been around for eons. Remember, when someone leaves or dies, people are standing line to take the vacancy.
How is retirement? Well, I’m lighter, but not sure what else, just now… I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
April 5, 2018, John Sewell ACT3 1049 Cresthaven Road, Memphis, TN 38119
SUFFERING IS THE PROMISE LIFE ALWAYS KEEPS!
Nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the resurrection itself. That mighty act of God was unseen and it is indescribable. When the women reach the tomb, the resurrection has already taken place. What they find is the sepulchre empty and the stone rolled away. Their first reaction is not joy but perplexity. They have come to pay their last respected and they do not know what to make of this. They fear that the body of Jesus has been stolen in an act of desecration. No one was expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. Many Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end of history but no one expected a particular resurrection within history. In our own day such a notion seems strange, a sort of wishful thinking, as if we are whistling in the dark to assuage our fears in the face of the universal evidence of fallibility and death. And yet at the same time we seem convinced that if we could just get enough power, know enough and expand beyond our limitations that we can fix it ourselves.
Jake is struggling through Grand Central Station in New York City with two huge and obviously heavy suitcases when a stranger walks up to him and asks “Have you got the time?”
Jake puts down the suitcases and glances at his wrist. “It’s a quarter to six,” he says.
“Hey, that’s a pretty fancy watch!” exclaims the stranger.
“Yeah, it’s not bad. Check this out” – and he shows the man a time zone display not just for every time zone in the world, but for the 86 largest cities. Jake hits a few buttons and from somewhere on the watch a voice says “The time is eleven ’til six'” in a very Texas accent. A few more buttons and the same voice says something in Japanese. Jake continues “I’ve put in regional accents for each city”. The display is unbelievably high quality and the voice is simply astounding.
The stranger is struck dumb with admiration.
“That’s not all”, says Jake. He pushes a few more buttons and a tiny but very high-resolution map of New York City appears on the display. “The flashing dot shows our location by satellite positioning,” explains Jake.
“I want to buy this watch!” says the stranger.
“Oh, no, it’s not ready for sale yet; I’m still working out the bugs”, says the inventor.
“But look at this”, and he proceeds to demonstrate that the watch is also a very creditable little FM radio receiver with a digital tuner, a sonar device that can measure distances up to 125 meters, a pager with thermal paper printout and, most impressive of all, the capacity for voice recordings of up to 300 standard-size books, “though I only have 32 of my favorites in there so far” says Jake.
“I’ve got to have this watch!”, says the stranger.
“No, you don’t understand; it’s not ready -“
“I’ll give you $1000 for it!”
“Oh, no, I’ve already spent more than -“
“I’ll give you $5000 for it!”
“But it’s just not -“
“I’ll give you $15,000 for it!” And the stranger pulls out a checkbook.
Jake stops to think. He’s only put about $8500 into materials and development, and with $15,000 he can make another one and have it ready for merchandising in only six months.
The stranger frantically finishes writing the check and waves it in front of him.
“Here it is, ready to hand to you right here and now. $15,000. Take it or leave it.”
Jake abruptly makes his decision. “OK”, he says, and peels off the watch.
The stranger takes the watch and walks away.
“Hey, wait a minute”, calls Jake after the stranger. He points to the two huge, heavy suitcases, “Don’t forget your batteries.”
For every advance there are unforeseen consequences. In all truth humanity is unlikely to be powerful enough, know enough or become immortal on our own terms.
It is done another way in the Divine economy. John records Jesus saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.” These words of Jesus define the paschal mystery – the mystery of faith; namely, in order to come to fuller life and spirit we must constantly be letting go of our present life.
There is terminal death and there is paschal death. Terminal death is a death that ends life and ends possibilities. Paschal death, like terminal death, is real. However, paschal death is a death that, while ending one kind of life, opens the person undergoing it to receive a deeper and richer form of life. The image of the grain falling into the ground and dying so as to produce new life is an image of paschal death.
There is resuscitated life and there is resurrected life. Resuscitated life is when one is restored to one’s former life and health, as is the case with someone who has been clinically dead and is brought back to life. Resurrected life is not this. It is not a restoration of one’s old life but the reception of a radically new life.
Jesus did not get his old life back. He received a new life – a richer life and one within which he would not have to die again. The mystery of faith, the paschal mystery, is about paschal death and resurrected life. The resurrection is the triumph of life over death. God is the God, not of the dead, but of the living. Therefore his Christ must be found, not among the dead, but among the living. The last word lies always with God and life. John Polkinghorne, in Searching For Truth, Meditations on Science and Faith, writes that the resurrection of Jesus is a triple vindication.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia.