Christ of the Homeless - Fritz Eichenberg

Christ of the Homeless – Fritz Eichenberg

 Saint John’s Episcopal Church – Memphis, Tennessee

I want to tell you a story I heard this week.  It happened in one of the Episcopal parishes in Memphis last Sunday.  The clergy and staff were busy preparing for the service when a man came in from the cold.  A staff person saw him and introduced himself. The man’s hands were rigid, clammy cold.  He was welcomed in given coffee and a place to warm himself.

Later the Rector learned the back story.  The man had tried to get the Union Mission but they were dangerously full.  He could find no place to be so he walked through that night because to stop, rest, perchance to sleep, was deadly in 22 degree weather. By morning he had walked a long way and happened upon that parish.

catholic worker homelessEveryone gathered themselves for church and one of the clergy invited the man to church and he came, sitting near the front behind a parish family.  They invited him to communion and he went.  The service ended as Episcopal Eucharist does with the congregation dispatched to do ministry in the name of the Lord. As everyone in Church busied themselves preparing to go off to lunch as folk in Memphis have done for generations, the man from the pew in front of the guest asked if he had a coat. “No.”  He took off his own overcoat and put it on him.

And the Kingdom came near that parish that morning.  And that parish, beloved was this parish, your parish, Saint John’s.

N T Wright, Bishop of Durham (retired)

N T Wright, Bishop of Durham (retired)

I was listening to Bishop NT Wright a few days ago as I walked in my neighborhood.  He spoke directly to me about these men when he spoke of the empowering nature of the Eucharist, giving those that receive it the energy to become the occasion where Jesus’ incarnation breaks out again.”  The moment that coat left its owners back and was slipped on the man Jesus was in-fleshed again – We know what Jesus would have done if he had been there because he WAS there!

While I was in York, I heard Dr. Anthony Campolo lecture in the choir of York Minster.

Anthony Campolo

Anthony Campolo

Britain is in a national debate about these very concerns.  Dr. Campolo launched his lecture from Genesis 4: 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

People rather love quoting Cain.  It distances them from any genuine connection.  Even in the Church we rather like to quote Cain, of all things?  That being as it may, the real answer Dr. Campolo announced is, “You are not your brother’s keeper.  You are your brother’s brother!”

That is my very theological point about the encounters in the film and in Saint John’s nave.  It is one thing to give, even vast sums of money, from a safe distance and from a higher position.  A story from my years in Mississippi is illustrative.  The Stew Pot was inter-faith soup kitchen in Jackson.  People from lots of religious communities had volunteers who went to serve food at the daily noon meal.  That was all well and good until a new director was appointed.  He decreed that food would no longer be served at the counter but that the volunteers would serve the homeless at their table and then when they had waited their table sit and eat with the people they served.  I don’t need to report the sad fact that when people had to come from behind the safety of the counter, serve as waiters and then break bread with the same people  …. they were never seen again.

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi

E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist Missionary to India, was a great friend of Mahatma Gandhi.  He once asked Gandhi what Christians should do? Jones then writes the following: “The greatest living non-Christian (Gandhi) asks us not to adulterate it or tone it down, not to meet them with an emasculated gospel, but to take it in its rugged simplicity and high demand. But what are we doing? As someone has suggested, we are inoculating the world with a mild form of Christianity, so that it is now practically immune against the real thing.” (E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road, “The Great Hindrance.)

Which leads me to ask me and you the question: If we do not contract a lethal strain of Christianity, how can we die to self as The Holy Spirit penetrates our history and existence…

  •     How can those who do not believe contract the full influenza of grace?
  •     How can those with just enough Christianity to have an allergic reaction;
  •     How can those who contracted a comfortable Christianity, whose martyrdom is mild embarrassment;
  •     Or God forgive us, those who contacted certainty leaving them twisted and almost invincibly immune from the faith as we have   received it;
If we, you and I do not get up from breaking bread and be bread… If we have been fed and refuse to be bread, For God’s sake who will?

This city is starving to death for the very bread that only you and I can be…

That is why when I began to hear from a great distance the new life that was springing up among you as you read the scriptures, how Bible studies were organized not from the corner of Greer and Central but in offices and businesses and homes.  When I heard how new energy infused Sunday School as the daily feeding quickened the life force of faith within you, I gave thanks.

Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great

As I wandered the streets of York, knelt in Churches where human knees have bent for a 1000 years I prayed for you.  I stood near the spot that Constantine was proclaimed Emperor and went from that spot to relieve the Church from persecution and there I prayed, I asked the Almighty to give us vision for the freeing of the souls of Memphians from poverty and despair.  As I sat in the Quire of the Great Cathedral of Saint Peter, the Prince of Apostles,  who failed Jesus yet followed him anyway, and  listened to the choir chant ancient Psalms there I asked God to give us strength for the living of  these days.

Now that I am among you again, I see that the rumors of your quickening faith are not exaggerated and I give thanks.

What is the way forward?  Please join with me in praying. The renewal team continues to meet,  your staff and vestry pray and will take counsel together in the days ahead.  What I ask of you is that you consider adding the ancient practices into the living of rhythm of your days. Some physicians among us will coach us as we take up fasting.  We will offer this before Lent.  There are valid ways of anyone to fast. Resources, companions and a map will be provided anyone who will.  That is all required.  The Renewal Works process will continue as a way of life here.

Before I close, let me speak to you who signed a card in September and now find yourself wandering with the Children of Israel somewhere in the Wilderness of Numbers or Leviticus,  if you have read a sentence more scripture than you would have done otherwise that is good news.  My philosophy is that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. So take up you Bible and read.  This is not a sprint it is a long distance.  No one will be left behind. We are in this together.

To Him be glory, now and forever. Amen.

The Five Sisters Window


 The Five Sisters Window

The north wall of the North Transept is filled with the imposing mixture of stone and glass that forms the Five Sisters Window. It is the oldest complete window in York Minster and dates from around the year 1260. In comparison to other windows in the building the Five Sister can appear quite dark and confusing. This is, in part, due to the excessive amount of repair leads which confuse the image, and the protective outer glazing that cuts down the amount of light entering the building from the north.

 The Five Sisters is made of “grisaille” glass fashionable in the thirteenth century England. Grisaille or Cistercian glass was typically formed by painting complex foliage patterns on pieces of white or silvery grey glass. The pieces were then formed into strong geometric patterns with the skilful use of the lead cames that hold the pieces together, the lead being as integral a part of the design as the glass. Each of the magnificent lancets stands 16.3m tall and is 1.55m wide. In total the window contains over 100,000 individual pieces of glass

– Dean & Chapter of York 2006


The Chapter House of York Minster is the largest in England. It was begun around `1270. While smaller Chapter Houses have a support column in the middle of the vaulted ceiling, York’s is self-supporting. I suspect the builders were particularly proud of themselves (I know the present inhabitants are).

Interior of the York Minster Chapter House. (photo is not mine)

Preaching is a performance art. You learn by doing and the doing is always in public. Congregations have been remarkably tolerant  and kind to this preacher.  The first decade of my ministry found me physically sick most Sunday mornings.  When I am anxious I talk too fast and I have labored for over 30 years to slow down.  It is still a work in progress.  At least I get another chance next week.  The living of our lives is performance art and the rumors of our performance follow us.

As an example of performance art, I submit the Chapter House windows of York Minster. But first a bit of explanation; the Chapter House is the place where the monastic community gathered to hear a chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict read aloud.  The builders of York Minster built the largest and most beautiful Chapter House in all of Britain.  It is Octogonal and all but one  bay is filled with stained glass.  It is perhaps my favorite building. It is perfection in style and spirit.  And yet…

… notice the windows in the side that has less traffic being the opposite from the town.  Yes, you are right a couple of the windows are off, actually they are misshapen.  These were practice windows for appreciates to the Guild of Stone Masons.  The only way they could really learn the skill was to do it and the windows they built worked (and have of almost a thousand years) but perfection eluded them.  You would think they would have rebuilt them and why they didn’t is a mystery.

Windows that work but windows that perfection has eluded.

These men very likely learned the skills to do build precisely and perfectly as they spend their lives adding to the 250 years of construction to make the Minster.

The living of life is done in public.  For good and ill we learn by living. We live in a laboratory of the Christian faith and the good news is that we don’t have to always get it right.  That’s good news.  In the 13th and the 21st Centuries.

Good morning from York! (The Real York, mind you.)

Leaving Manchester

I had many adventures arriving in the ancient city named Eboracum by the Romans (they started the place).  I’ll be out today and will post photos of the city gate that sits on the foundations of the original Roman gate into the Headquarters of the Fort.  Eboracum was the headquarters of the Northern Legion in Roman Britain. I will post  more about that soon.

It was a long day beginning at 5pm with a flight to Atlanta. Safely onto the night flight, sleep eluded me for most of the night. Landed in Manchester walked from Airport (customs no problem at all) got very hot (imagine that) and then sat in a coffee shop from 11 – 1:15 finally catching the train North for a couple of hours and got to my room about 3PM (very civilized).  After a moment’s respite, I ventured across the street to the Minster (that close, the bells sound the hours) for Evening Prayer.  It was good to be back in that magnicificant house where prayers have been offered for over a thousand years.

I will be out and about and will post about today.  Hope your day or end of the night is going well.  It is almost 8AM here. Off to a proper English breakfast.  None of which I should be eating. Oh well, when in Eboracum do as the Ebors do, I suppose. Thanks for reading.  JWS