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Over-the-horizon

Among all my patients in the second half of life – that is to say over thirty-five – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort that was that of finding a religious outlook on life.  Carl Jung – Psychotherapist of the Clergy (1923)

EASTER DAY

March 21, 2019

tissot angels at tomb

Empty Tomb – James Tissot

JOHN 20:  Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you keeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Resurrection Never Crossed our Minds.

Resurrection never crossed Mary’s mind in the dark deserted streets.  The garden, very near the skull shaped hill, where, Jesus was hoisted on a rough-hewn cross, splinters  the size of the nails in his feet.  She barely remembered walking from the cross, walking beside Joseph, an aristocrat, whose generosity saved Jesus from a common grave. Joined by Nicodemus, a Senator, they, their aides and servants, carried the dead weight through gathering dusk across the manicured lawns to Joseph’s new tomb.

She shifted the heavy jar of myrrh in her arms. Myrrh’s complex earthy scent, hinting of foreign lands, was universally used at burial. Its strong odor was useful at such times.

Smell, evokes the most vivid memories.  Ever after, the faintest whiff and Mary was in the garden, the stars, dimming at the hint of dawn in the East.

The men had carefully rolled the round stone into its slot across the entrance.  She saw them do it.  There is a dark hole where the tan stone should be.  His body, limbs out of socket, limp as a worn-out rag, covered with blood, was gone. The great stone rolled aside, witness to the absence of tortured remains. She hurdled heedless of feet in the dawn to warn his men that some ghoulish mischief had befallen his body. Romans do not disturb the dead.  Nor, Jews, usually. Who would rob a grave on Passover?

Resurrection never crossed the minds of the men huddled by the fire, hiding from the mighty whose henchmen might be searching at that very moment.  They flinched at the door knock.

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John & Peter run to the Tomb – James Tissot

Resurrection never crossed the minds of the two as they left the others walking quickly, suddenly running like school boys;  John, the younger by over a decade ran as the young run sprinting ahead only to wait, a quick glance, hesitating, while Peter, as Peter would, barged right in.  John followed.  The burial clothes of thin linen bands, wrapped in haste; adequately, were quickly finished before Passover sundown.

The burial clothes were more than there; they lay as if Jesus simply vanished, evaporated rising right through them as they collapsed neatly onto themselves in a way, not to be faked.  Oddly, the head cloth neatly folded lay near the wrappings, testifying to subtle divine presence.

Resurrection did cross John’s mind and he believed.   Suddenly, hideous events on Friday were made new sense, aroused suspicions of glory and strange saying of Jesus were strange no more.  His absence translated by hope become coherent to ears that listen, ears that hear.  They departed slowly, thoughtfully – wondering if this meant what they thought it meant, unsure but with small bright potential joy in their hearts where before was only despair.

A movement peripheral, a man, [only a gardener would stir so early,]. Passing through the hedge, Mary, voice breaking inquired of grave-robbers … “Mary,” and she knew his voice; it was he, the one who said his sheep know my voice, and saying her name called her clear as ever.   Resignation fell away, not as amnesia forgets, but remembering with power a greater vision, redeemed by holy intervention.

 

She grabbed him, weak with vertigo of deep grief leaping into singular joy in a single bound. Gently, he loosed her hands, telling her he had not yet ascended to his Father; an entirely different order of homecoming, embraced by the peculiar, mystical love of the Godhead.

 She must let him go, not for loss this time but for gain, gain for all, for all time.  The spare, precise truth, brought Mary and all who will ever believe to his God and their God and his Father and their Father.

Resurrection had never crossed Mary’s mind until, she met Resurrection face to face.

And it was ENOUGH!

Resurrection never crossed our minds in the tyranny of the immediate. I-phones, e-mails, constant litter of data: important to nobody but forwarded by somebody to everybody.

Resurrection never crossed our minds in the routine of sameness, body tired, minds fuzzy with the demands of a new day, while the old day, its red-flagged emails, all caps, shouting, invades the new day.

Resurrection never crossed our minds even in the Week Holy, as the world continued, the  relentless, urgency of the trivial, blotting out the ultimate, flattening all affect into numbness.

The Resurrection

Resurrection – James Tissot

We slouch into our several pews late, tired, distracted, our minds arriving minutes after our bodies dropped into a seat. Today the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, the Queen of Feasts: This EASTER lies at the end of a long relay race beginning on that Eighth day of the Week, the day Mary went early in the dark; John and Peter came and went and Mary loitering near the cave met Jesus alive, [changed but somehow the same] – full of resurrection.

Resurrection never crossed our minds when Meister Eckhart said that the savior’s birth is always happening. But if it happens not in us what does it profit? What matters is that he be born in us.

Resurrection never crossed our minds until we, too long removed from that day encounter him who was absent then, only to be fully present for all time. Sometime, somewhere, when we finally hit the wall that defeats the best moves of our egos — when we find something we cannot fix, there

we will meet Jesus and Resurrection will finally cross our minds and he will not only be born in us but resurrected as well…

and it will be ENOUGH!

May that same resurrection cross your minds and give you new life.

In the name of the father, son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

John Sewell

Pause, Pray & Withdraw Projections

 

Twin Towers

Seventeen years ago, I turned, coffee cup in hand,  and witnessed the second plane crash into the Trade Center Towers in New York.  It is fair to say that the world has not been the same since that day.  I was almost half-way through my thirty-six year public ministry of Episcopal priest.  I have watched the cultures and peoples of this planet become more and more anxious caught between the twin imperatives of living things: Survival and Reproduction.  Also known as the force for individuality and togetherness.  These two, universal forces work on all protoplasm. The tension, even contradiction, between them Bowen termed, Chronic Anxiety.  This is the life force tuned to face challenge real or imagined.  No two systems react the same way facing the same challenge.

I began studying Dr. Bowen’s teachings over thirty years ago and had the privilege to sit at the feet of one of his students, Rabbi Edwin Friedman.  While this way of thinking is contrary to most of the thought in the marketplace of ideas in the West, I found it profoundly useful and have employed it ever since.  I believe this thinking is the reason Saint John’s Episcopal Church was voted one of the fifty best places to work in Memphis TN for five years in a row.

Emotional-relationships

It appears that chronic anxiety is at a historical high in the West.  Our country is badly polarized, such that we are almost incapable of communicating.  The gifts and skills for finding common ground for the good of all is not just out of fashion, it is on the extinction list of states of being.

Someone asked me recently what they should read and study about challenges of our common life on this planet.  First of all, let me be very clear, THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES! Trust no one who tells you that.  Trust no one who tells you to listen them and only them.  DON’T DO IT.  Also, all who claim to follow Jesus, must recognize and accept that racism, bigotry and such are not standards of measure AVAILABLE TO CHRISTIANS.  If that is one of your life tools, STOP IT.  We are called to love all equally for his sake.  There is not greater law than this.

John Sewell

The following is a modest annotated bibliography of books I consider of great value today.

  • Bronner, Stephen Eric, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists, Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0300223842      New to me but very interesting. 
  • Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  Revised Edition, May 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1596272798  – Freidman died twenty years ago AND his critique is more accurate today than then.  I encourage any thinking and feeling person to read it. 
  • Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements  Harper and Bros. 1951.  The title of Hoffer’s opus entered the English lexicon defining extremists.  Every American adult should read it.
  • Papero, Daniel V., Bowen Family Systems Theory. Allyn and Bacon. 1990.  One of the best introductions to Systems Theory I know.

 

 

 

The Incarnate Word Born in Us

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Christ Presented to the Nations – artist: John De Rosen – Lady Chapel at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Memphis. Tennessee

“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+

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Johannes Tauler 1300 -1362

“In prayerful silence you must look into your own heart. No one can tell you better than yourself what comes between you and God. Ask yourself. Then listen!”    Johannes Tauler

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Jacob-Böhme

Jacob Bohme 1575 – 1624

 

Not wisdom, but the Spirit of God, is the center, or the discloser. As the soul is manifesting itself in the body by means of the flesh, and as the latter would have no power if it were not inhabited by a living spirit, so the wisdom of God is the corporeity of the Holy Spirit, by means of which He assumes substantiality, so as to manifest Himself to Himself. Wisdom gives birth, but she would not do so if the Spirit were not acting within her. She brings forth without the power of the fire-life; she has no ardent desire, but her joy finds its perfection in the manifestation of the Godhead, and therefore she is called a virgin in chastity and purity before God.” (Tilk., ii. 64.)

Bohme, Jakob, 1575-1624;

Hartmann, Franz, d. 1912. Personal Christianity, a science : the doctrines of Jakob Boehme, the God-taught philosopher (Kindle Locations 1693-1698). New York : Macoy.

The Wisdom of Meister Eckhart

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The Generosity of Infinite love in an act of love, creates us in the image and likeness of love for love sake alone, moment by moment, moment by moment. The generosity of God is poured out into our life such that we are the generosity of God. Apart from and other than the generosity of God we are nothing, we are nothing, we are nothing at all.

– James Findley – Mesiter Eckhart’s Living Wisdom : Indestructable Joy and the Path of Letting Go.

Perfect Fear Casts Out Love (& Common Sense).

Jesus assured his followers that, “perfect love casts out fear.” The outcry against Syrian refugees brings to mind, “perfect fear casts out common sense as well as love.”

Living things instinctively view the “different” as potential threat. While, mistrust is in many cases warranted, human beings, at our best, are not merely instinctual, but seek by responding to, as Abraham Lincoln once said, the angels of our better natures form a community worthy of our place in creation.

Such union is always in jeopardy, as anxiety tempts us to regress, operating solely by instinctual, automatic unthinking, response. The challenges of this present time require thoughtful reflection which instinct cannot do. Since 9/11, terror is personal and local. Anxiety is paralyzing and never far from us. There are many things to fear. What we must do is not become our fear!

Syrians refugees now ask for entrance and solace among us. Though we are a nation of immigrants, fear of strangers, motivated by agendas that do us no credit, tempt us again. We are told that the wicked might slip in

painting by Anna Shukeylo

among the refugees. That is likely, however, clear thinking advises us that rejecting these in need arms our enemy more than protects us. These are the very people who have paid the most to these killers. Let us embrace them as the friends they can be. They are not our enemies.

In this Thanksgiving week, let us hold fast the values that raise us above instinct, while employing thoughtful vigilance in guarding all we hold dear. We are better defended by thoughtful response than fearful reactivity.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

©John W. Sewell
Rector, Saint John’s Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee

“We are here tonight because we are searching.”

DaVinciCodeIn November, 2002, I led three conversations about the issues raised in The Da Vinci Code. Months earlier the cover caught my eye in a bookstore. Because I have a long fascination with Leonardo (he is never called Da Vinci), I bought to read as a diversion. I found nothing new there but it was a good page-turner. Then an interesting phenomenon arose. People old and young, male and female began to ask my opinion of the Code particularly could it be true that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were married and perhaps even had a child. These questions continued through the summer with such frequency that I realized that this book provided a teachable moment. I prepared to have a conversation about the book with interested members of the congregation I serve. A press release was sent to the newspaper and they wanted an interview. The publicity produced six hundred attendees at the first gathering. Toward the end of that first meeting a woman stood up and said, “We are here tonight because we are searching.”

What about the novel by Dan Brown brought so many people into church for a conversation? When questioned by a reporter about why I thought so many people were reading this book, I replied, “It is filled with delicious Christian heresies.” We are talking junk food for the soul, good tasting but of dubious nutritional value. Did Jesus marry Mary from Magdala and have genetic descendents? The Last Temptation of Christ, another novel, considers that marrying his girl Mary, having children and growing old as an ordinary human being was indeed the last and perhaps most pernicious temptation Jesus faced. There is no compelling evidence that Jesus married at all. But people are asking, “what am I to believe and why?” That is a very valid and enduring question.

The church teaches that Jesus is fully human and fully god. I believe that he is? That is an act of faith for me but increasingly I suspect that it is true because it is not the easy way out. Humanity likes the quick fix, the black or white option – clear cut and simple. Heresy, from the word, “to choose”, is the tendency to choose a part of a notion and carry it to a logical conclusion thereby ignoring the complexity and richness of the fuller reality. As Northrop Frye writes in his book entitled, Anatomy of Criticism, “…the full metaphorical statement “Christ is God and Man” is orthodox, and the Arian and Docetic statements in terms of simile or likeness (are) condemned as heretical.” The heresy is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable.

The Da Vinci Code introduces many people to the fact that there were many weeds in the early garden of Christianity. There are many reasons that they didn’t become the dominant form of Christianity. In some cases they couldn’t compete in the marketplace of ideas and in others they were eradicated by the political power of the state allied with the church. The church has not always covered itself in glory by mercy and justice.

All that notwithstanding I think the principle reason that classical Christianity endures to the present is the fact that the easy way was not the way chosen. The fact that the church chose the way of paradox and ambiguity as the most authentic way to live in the mystery of God revealed in Christ is the most telling reason for the enduring power of its life and message. That is how I explain six hundred people showing up on a Wednesday night to talk about a novel.

JWS