September 6, 2007

Afflicted For Your Consolation

Fessenden House • September 7 2000 • Tobias Haller BSG
Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
All of us have heard, I’m sure, of spontaneous acts of self-sacrifice that happen from time to time. A heroic soldier saves his platoon by throwing himself on a grenade. A brave fire-fighter enters a burning building a second time to rescue a child. An old man gives his life-preserver to a young woman as the ocean liner sinks. And who can forget the image from a few years ago as a man helped victims from the frigid water at the end of an airport runway, hoisting person after person to safety as he slowly froze, and eventually sank beneath the icy waters.
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I’d like to share one more example with you, which I’d not heard of it until I came across it recently. Back when scientists were working on atom bombs at Los Alamos, early models were tested manually. That is, sub-critical masses of plutonium were pushed together and, when the chain reaction began, they were separated with a highly specialized tool — a screwdriver! Unfortunately, on one of the test days, just as the chain reaction was beginning, the screwdriver which should have separated the two chunks of plutonium slipped. The air began to turn blue with the unearthly glow of radioactivity. One of the young scientists, instead of cowering back in horror, reached out, and grabbing the two halves of the critical mass with his bare hands, slowly pried them apart. Naturally, or perhaps I should say “unnaturally,” he absorbed a lethal dose of radiation, and died nine days later as a result, but the others in the room survived. The young man’s name was Louis.
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When I read this story it struck me that it may have been the inspiration behind the scene in the Star Trek movie, where Spock enters a room full of radiation and, at the cost of his own life, closes a leaking warp drive with his bare hands. As he dies, he reminds Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
This phrase is itself powerfully reminiscent of Jesus’ own teaching concerning the greatest love, and of his action in laying down his life for his friends. But what I want to say tonight is that there is a distinct difference between these other self-sacrificial incidents and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; there is a crucial distinction between these spontaneous acts of heroism and the dedicated lives of the sisters and brothers — including another Louis — who along with Constance, Frances, Thecla, Ruth and Charles, and many others, laid down their lives in Memphis during that raging epidemic of Yellow Fever.
And the difference I point out — with absolutely no wish to minimize the heroism or the self-sacrifice of any of those other brave soldiers, firefighters, or physicists — is this: their acts of bravery were spontaneous. Given more time to think it through they might have acted differently than they did. That they acted on an impulse may be a sign of their particular virtuousness, or perhaps a witness to the general capacity for self-sacrifice that all people have deep in their hearts, and which they will act upon — sometimes — if their equally powerful urge to self-preservation doesn’t have the time to interpose its contrary force.
But about Jesus Christ, and about the Martyrs of Memphis whom we commemorate tonight, there can be no such question. Their heroism was not the gutsy bravado of spontaneous action, but the patient application of dutiful service. Jesus Christ and the Martyrs of Memphis did not throw themselves on a grenade; they did not run headlong into a burning building; they did not jump forward to pry apart a critical mass.
No, Jesus Christ went to Jerusalem knowing that the cross lay ahead of him, that death awaited him; that this was to be the hour in which the Father would be glorified, and this was how God chose to be glorified. And the sisters and brothers who walked the way of the cross down to Memphis, though they might not have known for certain that death awaited them, surely knew the risk, as ninety percent of the population fell ill, and over 5,000 died. The brave souls who served in Memphis didn’t know what caused the Yellow Fever that took so many lives — it would be years before Walter Reed made the connection — but they knew that people were failing and perishing, and they set their course to stand by and serve the sick, and to die with the dying — deliberately and devotedly.
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Jesus said, whoever serves me must follow me — and sometimes that following will be the headlong leaping to cover a grenade with ones’ own body, or to enter an inferno and throw someone else to safety even as one perishes; sometimes that followingwill be a sudden bare-handed wrenching apart of the lethal mass that threatens life and limb — but more often, that following will be the slow and deliberate way of service to others, the way that with hands busy putting others first, sets the self down unselfconsciously on the shelf, sometimes misplacing it, and sometimes losing it. The way that follows Jesus is the way of the cross. Whoever serves him must follow him, and like it or not, that is the way he went, and that is what he carried.
Whether on the road to Jerusalem or the road to Memphis, Jesus goes before us, bearing his cross, and where he is, there will his servant be.+

The icon of the Martyrs of Memphis is by the hand of your servant in 1999. The scroll in the hand of He Who Is speaks of "the greater love" of laying down one's life.
To see a larger image of the icon, click on it.
Fessenden House is a ministry that began as outreach to people with AIDS and later evolved into a ministry for men in recovery from substance addiction. Please visit their website and support this effort.


Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Great posting!

There's interesting stuff about the Martyrs of Memphis at Project Canterbury.

BTW, the feast day for the Martyrs of Memphis is September 9, not the 6th.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Bryan. Yes, I'm anticipating the feast which, as it falls on a Sunday may be missed this year -- hence my early flagging of it. In addition, Fessenden House (for whom the Martyrs of Memphis are patrons) often has its annual celebratory Eucharist on the closest Thursday, because that's usually when the bishop is available. That's how it fell out in 2000, when the sermon was originally delivered.

Erin said...

Thank you for this. After reading all the awful stuff coming out of certain sectors of the church right now it was so very good to read this.

Marshall Scott said...

Having served in Memphis, and having served ever since in health care, the Martyrs of Memphis are very special to me. Each year I have commonly written something for the day for distribution in the hospital. Thanks for raising this witness of those who gave their lives in the process of providing healthcare to the least of these.

Lionel Deimel said...


The icon is wonderful. Can you post a larger graphic, so we can better see the detail?

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Fr. Tobias---I am a native Memphian, and it was lovely to find this entry on your blog today. Thanks for remembering them.


June Butler said...

It's a lovely icon, Tobias. I learned just the other day that one writes and reads an icon.

You sermon is marvelously simple and, at the same time, profound. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, and The Memphis Martyrs set their faces toward Memphis.

I've alawys been intrigued by the phrase "he set his face". Any particular significance in that choice of phrasing?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks to all for the kind words. Health care ministry is also very important to me, Marshall. Had circumstances been different, I might well have chosen the course of medicine, and did a lot of hospital volunteer work when in high school.

Lionel, if you click on the image of the icon you will see a larger version. I'll add a note to this effect to the main post.

Mimi, I'm not sure I was conscious of it, but that turn of phrase, "set his face," doesn't seem appropriate in the context of iconography.

barbarab said...


Thank you for the gift of the icon and your sermon.

Chris+ said...


There is a movie that captures the scene in the lab. When my feeble mind recalls it, I will let you know the title. Moving and pertinent proclamation about our common call.

bls said...

The Martyrs of Memphis were from the Community of St. Mary, the first indigenous Anglican religious order in the U.S., which is still in existence. They are in Greenwich, NY, in the Diocese of Albany.

I'm fairly sure this community was one of the first Anglican orders anywhere to be established since the dissolution of the monasteries in England, in fact.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed they were, bls; and more to the point the Community still has a vibrant presence (and a beautiful convent) in Sewanee Tennessee, as well as a house in Wisconsin.

June Butler said...

Tobias, regarding, "When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem," I was not referring to the icon, just the phrasing from Luke. Why not "he started toward" or simply "he went to". The phrasing echoes Ezekiel 21:2:

Mortal, set your face towards Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries; prophesy against the land of Israel.

Does that mean going with a strong sense of determination, so that nothing will turn you away from the path? I guess I'm looking for light from the Greek - which is all Greek to me.

Does this make any sense at all?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tobias for a beautiful icon and sermon and for the reminder of the Martyrs of Memphis. I am trying to do ministry in a hospital and hospice setting and sometimes find it very discouraging. Their sacrifice inspires me and reminds me that it is Jesus we are following.

Anonymous said...

One is reminded of the old-time theological distinction between "acts of virtue" and the more saintly "virtuous acts" -- "acts of virtue" being those in which one consciously intends and chooses to act virtuously; "virtuous acts" being those in which one acts without thinking or making a specific choice (because one has so integrated virtue into one's character that it has become instinctual and requires no intentional act or thought). The latter is demonstrated when a hero doesn't recognize her/his acts as particularly heroic.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

G.M., I think the metaphor, "set ones face," which does pop up a few times in the Hebrew scriptures, as you note, is a way of indicating both direction and resolve. We still say "I'm headed to such-and-such a place..." so the head, or face, is an image of direction, since we usually go the way we are looking. The "set" part seems to indicate an intent regard, and a kind of attachment. I think of "set your eyes" or "set your heart" as similarly indicating a kind of focus. We also say "he set his hand to the work" so I think "set" is indicative of firm intention in this similar usage.

I mention the icon because in iconography the face is so important and is the primary focus. That is why, for instance, in the icon tradition, the figure faces the person reading the icon, escept in some icons where the figures turn towards a central figure (sch as Christ as ruler of all, or as in the Transfiguration.)

Anonymous said...

Was the book Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, or Lansing Lamont's Day of Trinity? (the last a mass market paperback from the 1960s.)

The guy who grabbed the two pieces before the place blew always stuck in my memory. I read the latter book when it came out, I was maybe 10 years old.