Is the a Fire Truck in the Neighborhood?

Christendom is dead. Even in the provinces, yea verily, even in Memphis on the Mississippi it is so. Reciprocity between Western Culture and the Church is over.

The arguments between Calvinists and Arminians [as a prime example] must cease. It is not that such distinctions have no meaning because they do. I hold opinions about these matters and that is unlikely to change. The difference is that the people in the street neither, understand these distinctions nor do they care.

house on fireThat being the case we have better things to do. Preoccupation with these contentions is like arguing about what hardware should be holding up the front door of a house that is on fire!   Alan Watts writing in 1947 gets to the point.

At least we can cease from the interminable sermonizing … and tell the people in human speech as distinct from theological algebra, that the Church is where one comes to find union with God. [63] BEHOLD THE SPIRIT – ALAN WATTS

The Kingdom of God Comes Without Observation

 NOTE:  I found that I had neglected to click the Publish button. So it is late, but it is now here.  JWS

The Eve of the Feast of the Incarnation 

The Kingdom of God comes, as our Lord put it, “without observation.”

Even so, it was a particularly inauspicious beginning. Gabriel had come to a young woman in Nazareth named Mary. He told her that God had chosen her to be the mother of God’s only son and that the Holy Spirit would accomplish it. She agreed, and it was so.

The Anxiety of Saint Joseph - Tissot

The Anxiety of Saint Joseph – Tissot

Joseph, Mary’s fiance, at first thought to divorce Mary quietly. But then Gabriel let him in on the plan and so he took Mary for his wife. I’m sure there was unpleasant gossip about the pregnant bride and her husband who some in town thought a fool for marrying her at all.

It was not an auspicious beginning.

In response to the census decreed by the Emperor Augustus, Joseph traveled to the hometown of his ancestor David. Apparently Joseph didn’t want to leave Mary alone so late in her pregnancy she rode a donkey 75+ miles to Bethlehem. There was no room in the inn so they wound up in a stable. Tradition says it was a cave.

It was not an auspicious place for a birth.

Seeking Shelter - Tissot

Seeking Shelter – Tissot

And there her first born son was born – laid in a manger – with the animals all around.

It was not an auspicious nursery.

An Angel appeared to shepherds who had the night shift watching the sheep. The angel said, “To you this day in the city of David is born one Christ the Lord.” Then suddenly more angels appeared. Was it 2, 20 or 200 angels? It’s hard to know when you have so little practice seeing angels. “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.”

It was not an auspicious audience.

The shepherds went into Bethlehem and indeed it was so: Emmanuel – God with us.

The Angels & the Shepherds – James Tissot

It was not auspicious in any way we would usually recognize! But the truly important things in our own lives have always come without auspicious beginnings. We never saw their importance at the time. It is only in getting still and looking at our life that we see the outline of meaning. Oh, we say, that’s what that meant.

  • How amazed would Augustus be to know that more people know him from the opening line of the Christmas Gospel than from any inscription on a building in the forum in Rome?
  • Quirinus is the only Roman Governor of Syria now remembered and that for an event which he never knew of.
  • Those taking the census, those who could afford rooms in the inn that night never knew that an event born out poverty would be the very event by which we divide history before and after.

“Here in time we have a holiday because the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity is now born in time, in human nature, The birth is always happening. But if it happen not in me what does it profit me? What matters is that it (the birth) shall happen in me.” Meister Eckhart

The inauspicious surroundings of our lives are the very occasion new birth in us!

It is the dark recesses of the stables of our souls that new birth begins.

It comes quietly hardly noticed by the turning of new leaves and amid the litter of good intentions. It is when we are powerless and come to know it that the birth pain begins. We give up and know that we cannot make it on our own – there is a sudden irresistible movement of grace and there it is – new life – laid in the manager in amongst the ruin of our well laid plans.

Adoration of the Shepherds - Tissot

Adoration of the Shepherds – Tissot

This is not what we expect. This is not what we desire. We want drama. We want the earth to tilt further on its axis in order that we will know that we are alive and that all is well. But that is not how it happens.

Meister Eckhart: “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”

Tonight heaven and earth meet in that inauspicious event born of poverty. Earth is drawn up into heaven. In the great silence — without observation – He is come!

CS Lewis once said, “What a sorry place the world would be if it were always winter and never Christmas.”  Well, it is finally winter even in Tennessee. And it is Christmas — let us be still and silent before him that he may be reborn in us.

Charles Carroll Parsons

Charles Carroll Parsons

There will come to each of you a time, I trust far away, when the scourge of affliction may fall heavily upon you…wealth, or power, or skill, or even fond affection in the utmost stretch of tenderness, can supply no companion to a soul in its journey through the valley of death.

– Charles Carroll Parsons (via The American Plague)

from a sermon only weeks before the Yellow Fever Epidemic carried off almost half of Memphis, Tennessee (including Fr. Parsons).  This plague in the late Summer of 1878 is the worst such epidemic in US history.

Epiphany VII

 “The mind thinks, the body does and the soul Imagines.”                          — Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul, 1992)

[Hang on to that! I’ll be back to it in a bit.]

Let’s hold hands and jump right into the briar patch!   Just what is it that Jesus is trying to do to us this time?  Let’s do inventory of our common life: Where are the Ancient Practices?

  • Many among us are engaging scripture like never before.
  • Many are meeting in Bible Studies in offices, shops and homes.
  • Many are moving outside the safety of the familiar and meeting, working with and loving children who live within a mile of here.
  • Many are praying, praying expecting something to happen! Some of you attended the public service of healing here last Wednesday night for Debbie Philips as many did a year ago for Patrick Crump.
  • People are aligning their checkbook with the goal of their soul moving toward a tithe as the standard of giving.
  • Soon we will take up the Lenten fast. 

Have you ever considered why we would take up these ancient practices? Or why did ancient people take up these practices?  Let me let you in on one of the obvious secrets – what I am about to tell you is the very seed-bed of the Good News in Christ.

Christian-Principles-Sermon-on-the-Mt

MATTHEW 5:38   You have head it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say to you…

How many of you have heard of the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s?  We actually have a descendent of the McCoys of Kentucky in this parish.  Fortunately, we have no Hatfields from West Virginia on the roll so all is well (for now).

Please understand that an eye for an eye was a huge improvement over the practice of killing everybody in the family and having a “blood feud” that kills everyone in the neighborhood. Our justice system is a eye/eye –let the punishment fit the crime. Now Jesus begins where we are and says, You have heard it said… But I say to you!

Turn the Other Cheek - Linda S. Fitz Gibbon

Turn the Other Cheek – Linda S. Fitz Gibbon

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

Why the right cheek?  You can only strike someone’s right cheek with the back of your hand, which to my way of thinking is more demeaning; as in “I will show you the back of my hand.

If anyone wants to sue and take your coat, give your cloak as well.

Here’s what we need to know about this.  Turn in the Bible to Deuteronomy 24:10-13  [page 148 in the pew Bible]

 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. 11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. 12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. 13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.

 A cloak could not be taken from a poor man. It was like a kilt – long piece of tartan cloth – pleat it on the floor over your belt, lie down on it, belt it around you for the day – it was all they had.  It was called a PLAID = plaid. What Jesus is telling us, “So they take your suit and underwear, but rather than taking comfort that they at least can’t take your cloak — give it also!

the_second_mile_2pe

  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

If you had the bad luck to be on the road when the Roman Legion was on the march the soldiers were allowed (who was stopping them) to enlist you to carry their pack one mile.  You choose to go on the second mile.

 Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 

You don’t even run a credit check? You know the commercial that says, “We don’t care about your credit, we care about you!”  Who are they kidding?  This is foolish. This is good business.  As you know when someone says to you, “It’s not about the money…”  It’s always about the money.

Do an experiment.  In front a 18 month old or a 2 year child set a $20.00 bill on fire.  It’s just a piece of paper.  Set the same bill on fire in front of a four year old; there is a look of horror and a scream goes up, “He’s burning money!”

 These four situations are very different; what do they have in common?  What they have in common is that what Jesus tells us to do is UN-NATURAL.  It is not our first unthinking reaction!  Remember what Thomas Moore wrote?

“The mind thinks, the body does and the soul Imagines.”

  •  Our mind thinks – be afraid; protect yourself; get yours before someone else does.  It’s only natural
  • Our body prepares – kick, shove, back-hand right cheeks and even kill… It’s only natural
  • It is only imagination that can see a different way.

“You cannot trust your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”  – Mark Twain

Our imaginations must be converted!  That is why we are taking up the ancient practices!!!!  Because we must learn to do what does not come naturally and only the Triune God can do that! Love your enemies – Why, because praying for those who harm us – is the only way we have to convince people that the Holy Trinity is at work in the world.

Hernando deSoto Bridge - Memphis, Tennessee

Hernando DeSoto  Bridge – Memphis, Tennessee

That is, therefore, why we are not in the judgment business!  Robert Farrar Capon was right on target when he said that people don’t need to be told how awful it will be when they go to hell.   They know that already; they are already in hell.If a man is standing on the Hernando DeSoto bridge over the Mississippi about to jump, telling him that he will reach the water at 125 miles per hour and the impact is the same as falling on concrete and he will die!  That man already knows that.

What that man needs to know is why he shouldn’t jump!

If we do not have a standard of caring greater than the jerk down the street and our ner-do-well brother-in-law; if our salt is not salty how beloved will anybody know Jesus loves them.  If the Church is persecuted in the United States it will not because we are Christians, NO. it will because we are not Christian ENOUGH!  We have to live our lives in such a way that the only way our community makes sense, is because God is real and transforming the souls  of human beings.

Now for just last bit of business and I’m done.  Verse 48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That translation has been source of a lot of mischief; people in despair because they know they can’t ever be perfect and the others who, God help us, have convinced themselves that they are perfect.

Give it up.  The better translation is, “Be whole, therefore, as your heavenly Father is whole.” Not, no mistakes or errors but wholeness, compassion, affection, kindness,  generosity, joy, turning the other cheek,  being naked for God’s sake, carrying the burdens of others, willingly, thus fulfilling the law of Christ, generous to those in need; investing in the Kingdom of God, where the economy is based, not on scarcity, but on superabundance.

I’m done.  Amen.

JWS

 

 

 

The Power of Unforseen Grace

Video

I showed this film at the beginning of the Rector’s Address at the Annual Parish Meeting on December 15, 2013. In the spare, elegant work of the the Holy Spirit, a mirror story emerged at Saint John’s on December 7, 2013.

There is a Way Forward!

Aside

St. Clement wrote: “Another consideration shows us clearly how much of this early teaching has been lost. The church now devotes herself solely to producing good men, and points to the saint as her crowning glory and achievement.

But in the older days she claimed to be able to do much more than that. When she had made a man a saint, her work with him was only just beginning, for only then was he fit for the training and teaching which she could give him then, but not now, because she has forgotten her ancient knowledge.

Then she had three definite stages in her course of training-Purification, (right living) Illumination (knowledge of the kingdom) and PERFECTION.” (resting in the higher reality, attaining completeness in God) THE STROMATA OF ST. CLEMENT.

Titus Flavius Clemens c. 150 – c. 215), known as Clement of Alexandria, was the head of the great Catechetical School of Alexandria, Egypt and as such knew a lot about the formation and maturing of Christian souls. When I read his words I am strangely heartened because he could be speaking of 21st Century American Christianity. We are able to produce good people, although even that is in question. We are moral but in an untested (rather passive) way, assuming that getting along by going along is morality.

Saint Mark preaching in Alexandria
– Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516

What we might assume is a mature Christian is in fact, from Clements’s point of view, a beginning. That brings me to the common life of Christians at Saint John’s in Memphis, Tennessee, the community I serve. We are a community of fairly moral people. Our sins are more of a sniveling sort than the boomer variety, just as deadly but not as flashy! So we have a modicum of right living but are restless and at 6’s and 7’s. Clement tells any who will listen that beyond “more or less right living” lies illumination– knowledge of the kingdom. Beyond Illumination lies Maturity, but let us not burden ourselves just yet with perfection.What are YOU Reading Banner

Today Clement from the 2nd Century is our life coach, thanks be to God, for he describes is exactly where we are poised. Saint John’s Reads is our commitment to illumination, to gain knowledge of the Kingdom. Reading the Bible has got to be the primary way to gain this illumination. What good news!

Saint John’s Nave

For those who follow this blog who are not at Saint John’s, I invite you to join with us and read the Bible through this academic year. You can find resources to aid you at www.stjohnsmemphis.org. September 8, 2013 is pledge Sunday. Folks are signing a pledge to read the Bible this year and these pledges will be posted. So join us.

If we want to grow then we go back to the ancient ways and walk in them. j

Level One or Level Two?

I am fascinated by the discovery of the atomic slime in Savannah. It reads like bad science fiction and yet there is a lesson of hope for us in it. There are two sorts of conditions: level one — so toxic that nothing can survive and level two where the response of the organism makes a profound difference.

All too often we mistake level two for level one assuming that our response makes no difference when in fact our functioning makes the difference in the outcome. High anxiety results in our overlooking possibilities that may make all the difference.

mcgyvercompleteseriesdvdboxsetDo you remember the old TV show MacGyver? In every episode, the hero, MacGyver would find himself in some situation that appeared to be a level I situation. But he takes a hairpin, the contents of his fountain pen and some aluminum foil and escape. His response to the situation made 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 that conquer fear. As our Lord said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” And as Christians we believe that the worst things that can happen to us are never the last things.

For Jesus has overcome the world.