If you are a long-time attender, today’s celebration may be a bit of a surprise. If you are new to Advent, you may find it a bit weird that we are focusing on the martyrdom of Constance and her companions today, so it is worth a bit of “how we got here” before I share the story. The diocesan convention in January adopted a resolution that asked the bishop to recommend to parishes that they renew their focus on the story of Constance and her companions. Why this was debated remains a bit of a mystery to me. It’s not as if bishop John would ever be mad that we are celebrating the life and witnesses of our faith, especially the life and witness of Episcopalians who served in our diocese. Maybe it is the division in the diocese now that makes Constance and her companions seeming members of the Diocese of West Tennessee? Maybe it is simple that both clergy and laity forgot the story over the years? In truth, your guess is as good as mine. Bishop John, of course, commended the substance of the resolution to the diocese, and he even gave us permission to celebrate the feast a day early—at primary worship! By the way, when I asked Bishop John why the worry about his acceptance of the resolution, he was as confused as me. At no time, does he think, has he ever given any signals to folks discouraging them to remember the saints in our history. Good, y’all are chuckling at that observation. For those of you who do not know our bishop, he is just a tad more high Anglo-catholic than me, so the idea he would actively discourage these stories is preposterous.
Anyway, after the convention, Liturgy & Worship gathered. Our only real discussion about whether to adopt the resolution was whether to celebrate it today or on its appointed day tomorrow. Given attendance at worship services outside Lent, we went with today. Obviously!
As priest and rector, of course, I was a bit more enthusiastic that many of the supporters of the resolution. As most here know, I had “discovered” Bishop Quintard during Wednesday services my second year at Advent. I had that jolting realization as I read about him in preparation for a “saint of the day” service. Near the beginning, I learned that Quintard was the second rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Nashville, Tennessee. I was probably a couple sentences further down the biography before it dawned on me that that was us! So, I started digging around in the archives looking for our inside information on Quintard and the role of Adventers, at least from Adventers’ perspective, in his glorious work in the Episcopal church and the wider Church!
Now, as shocking as it may be to realize that one has a direct tie to a saint in our recommended observed feast days, Bishop Quintard was not the only one! Like many folks in the church outside of Tennessee, I had heard a number of stories about Constance and her Companions. Elsewhere around the country, they are known as the Memphis Martyrs, but the stories are the same. A bishop summoned the sisters to tend the dying during an outbreak of plague. While obeying the bishop, they contracted the plague and died. It turns out, of course, that the story is far more complex and heroic than the cliff notes’ version AND that it has a direct tie to Advent! Those of you who have come to know me these last almost five years know just how I was excited I was to be instructed by the diocese and given permission by the bishop to focus on the story of Constance with each of you! I mean, I am willing to bet big money that few of you have ever heard a sermon on them. Good, I see the laughing nods.
Our direct tie to the story is one of residence and training. If y’all think back to the story of the election of Rector Quintard to be the second bishop of the diocese, which in those days was also the entire state, you might remember Advent’s gift toward the rebuilding of the bishopric on the holy mountain of Sewanee. For those of you a bit newer to the story, Quintard was elected bishop of Tennessee after the Civil War. That in itself is a cool story but for another time. Adventers, as is the custom around here, took up a collection for their “promoted” priest, to thank him for his work and ministry and pastoral guidance during the period before and during the Civil War. Plus, he was called to be their new bishop. We might say they were doubly inspired to be very generous, indeed! Some reports claim they raised as much as $10,000 for their former rector and new bishop, the proceeds of which were meant to be used to rebuild a house suitable for a bishop and Vice-Chancellor near the grounds of the rebuilding university. Such was needed because General Sherman had rolled through town and destroyed the University of the South.
As another aside, let me just say this now, when the time comes for God to call me away from you, feel free to try and outshine your spiritual forebears in any such departing rector’s purse! I may not need a bishopric, but with seven kids, and possible grandkids by then, well, you can do the bedroom math!
Advent’s gift was used as intended. A house was built for Quintard, and he split his time between rebuilding Sewanee, administering to the needs of the diocese, and working to make sure there was space for freed slaves to remain in the Episcopal church, any one of those would be time consuming enough. I guess that’s why he is a saint! But our forebears at Advent had roles in all that.
The time came, naturally, for Quintard to consider moving, or really settling into, the diocesan seat in Memphis. Nashville was not nearly as important then as now. Memphis, and the folks out west, grumbled and complained that the bishop was far too concerned with the restoration of the eastern end of the diocese. Add to that the various plagues of Yellow Fever, and the fact that in his secular profession now Bishop Quintard was a medical doctor, and one can easily see why he felt compelled to move from Sewanee to Memphis.
I have not yet found the Vestry notes, but knowing Adventers, I can well imagine how discussions went regarding the disposal of the soon-to-be-former bishopric. Assuming their personalities are similar to personalities today, I imagine a few Adventers felt they owned the house, morally if not legally. After all, they had paid a chunk towards its rebuilding! Since he was bishop of Tennessee, it makes sense that the bishop mentioned to those who had generously provided that he would need to dispose of the house. Good, y’all know where this is going. Now you know why I want the detailed Vestry notes!
There were at least a couple considerations for the bishopric: keep it as the “eastern home,” or use the proceeds of a sale to improve the bishopric in Memphis. Remember, travel was by horse or horse and buggy in those days, unless the towns were on the railroads, so having two houses would not be as crazy as it sounds today. Quintard seems to have been convinced of the need to let it go for the benefit of others. Sewanee graciously offered to accept his gift of a house for new administrators or professors – remember, he was the Vice-Chancellor for many years. In the end, he offered the house to the Sisters of Humility, a newer order of nuns, coming out of the Oxford movement, who could use the house as their convent for training and living in the south. And now you know your tie to this story. Advent’s ancestors built the house that served as the convent for the sisters on the holy mountain, the convent from which Constance was asked by the bishop to gather others and head speedily to Memphis to care for the orphans.
In 1873 Memphis had suffered what was maybe the third big outbreak of Yellow Fever. Remember in those days, Memphis sat on the modern equivalent of a super highway. Barge traffic up and down the Mississippi River enabled the growth of our country and the cheap transport of supplies. Memphis was a bustling, growing, cosmopolitan city then, just as it is today! I hear you chuckling. See, I have been here long enough to hear and catch some jokes about rival cities. Thanks to the topography and relatively mild winters, Memphis also had a vast supply of mosquitoes, who bore the blood disease. After the plague in 1873, Bishop Quintard noticed the sheer number of orphaned children, children whose parents had been taken by the plague, roaming the city of Memphis. So, he wrote Sister Constance, who was then the superior on the holy mountain in his old, our old, house, asking her to start a school for the orphanage that was using his bishopric in Memphis. Constance wrote others in her order and enlisted the aid of those outside the convent, and they gathered in Memphis to do as the bishop had requested, but with a couple requests of their own. Bishop Quintard had to support them as they had no funds themselves, he was to be their spiritual advisor, and he had to make the Eucharist available to them every day. Bishop Quintard agreed to their demands, and those gathered by Constance headed to Memphis.
Those interested in more of this story should feel free to visit the cathedral in Memphis, as well as a number of surrounding parishes in Memphis, as well as the archive of the Episcopal church and the diocese. I’m assuming their records are as extensive and disorganized as our own! But six of Constance’s nuns from the holy mountain joined her in this great work, as well as Sister Clare from St. Margaret’s House in Boston, the Rev. Charles Parsons from Grace and St. Lazarus in Memphis, the Reverend Louis Schuyler from Holy Innocents in Hoboken, and the Very Reverend George Harris from the cathedral in Memphis. For nearly five years, these amazing Episcopalians tended to the education needs of the orphaned children in Memphis and the sacramental work pledged by Bishop Quintard! That work, by itself, is worthy of canonization in my mind.
Unfortunately, plagues continued to haunt Memphis. The outbreak in 1978 was particularly virulent. Those with means fled the city; those without means were left to fend for themselves and take their chances. Conditions got so bad that the city ceased to function as a city. It went back on the county tax rolls because there was no one to run the city nor anyone from whom to collect taxes. The orphans, of course, had no means, and those charged with their care took their responsibility seriously, and loved and tended to them as their Father in heaven tended to them in turn. By the time the 1878 plague had run its course, nearly all those who worked with the orphanage were dead, including two priests who were also medical doctors like the bishop, a couple of the Sisters’ two matrons, several volunteer nurses from New York, and (here’s the scandalous part) the known owner of a local and successful bordello! As our Gospel lesson reminds us today, they laid down their life, in service of God’s call and in imitation of their Lord’s own service to them and us.
As a classicist, when I read the story from a Tennessee perspective, I could not help but be reminded of the story of Rome and the normalization of Christianity as I read about the stories of the Memphis Martyrs. I know modern conspiracy folks like to pretend that Peter and Paul and the other Apostles conspired create this religion to gain great wealth and power. It would be a brilliant plan, to be sure, if they would have become the inheritors of that wealth and power. Instead, like many Christians during those first two centuries after the death and Resurrection of our Lord, they were killed for their faith. It’s not taught much in modern history or culture classes today, but humanity is always great about blaming the “other.” Just as some folks like to blame “those people,” whoever they think those people are for today’s perceived society, economic, or theological ills, the Romans did the same thing. Only, it was our forebears who were “the other” then. Diocletian and Severus and pretty much most emperors loved to blame the Christians for plagues, for economic downturns, for military defeats, for pretty much the same reasons we blame others for our ills. Countless Christians lost their lives in those persecutions, as they are called, and even more lost their lives and livelihoods during activities between the great named persecutions.
Along the way, though, a curious thing happened. Though they were blamed for the gods’ displeasure, our forebears took care of the dying, tended to the survivors, and buried the dead from the various black plagues that afflicted Rome. While the rich and powerful fled the city, our forebears tended those in need and loved those who felt abandoned. Our forebears rescued the babies, usually girl babies, cast out onto the trash heaps because the family patriarchs were unwilling or unable to raise yet another girl. In other words, our forebears loved their neighbors, especially the least and most marginalized, as themselves, as image bearers of the Creator of heaven and earth. Over time, emperors could no longer call on a persecution to solve the ills of the city. Sure, an emperor could call for a persecution, could blame Christians for whatever he wished, but getting the people of Rome to join in the hatred became harder and harder as time went on, particularly as people noticed their leaders constantly fleeing the city and showing no such love of those whom they ruled. Yes, an emperor was given a mystic vision and eventually bent the knee to Lord Christ, but does anyone here not doubt that he did so out of some political expediency? Can we imagine Augustus or Nero or Severus or Diocletian or any other of those emperors bending the knee over such a vision?
The impact of the death of the Memphis Martyr’s, Constance and Her Companions, is well documented in Memphis and, on a much smaller scale, not unlike what happened in Rome. Chiefly, we Episcopalians in Memphis, and then Tennessee and Arkansas, but then around the country benefited. As the papers and societies discussed the loving sacrifice, people were drawn to our doors, to our worship. As the Church has always noticed, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church!
Hearing the story today, you might be a bit humbled. Good. We should all be. But we should also be encouraged. If you think back to the beginning of my story, who here thought I was describing a superwoman or superman of faith? As I shared the story of Bishop Quintard discussing with prominent members of Advent the disposition of the gifted house, who here imagined men and women in white gowns and halos having serious, faith-filled discussions during a Vestry meeting or other gathering? Given the laughter then and now, I’d say none. My guess is that a few of us thought back to some heated discussions during our own times of service on the Advent Vestry and silently prayed to God that those notes are not detailed or, even better, lost to us and our posterity, especially future rectors, for fear that we might look a little more human and a little less saintly to those who come after us!
Given all that you think you know about history and attitudes, who here assumed that the male bishop “summoned” and the good nuns obeyed, just like women ought? Ooh, that got snorts. But seriously, that’s how we are told the past, and especially the Christian past, worked, are we not. Yet, here we have the story of a saint, our saint, requesting a convent to come and help educate orphans. Though those ladies were no doubt filled with gratitude that our saint had provided them generously with accommodations, did they go running as summoned? No. They made their own demands of the bishop. Did he put his foot down, point to his mitre, and re-demand their obedience and gratitude? No! He listened to their requests and agreed they were good.
And those nuns, what are we to make of them. Most of those who responded to the bishop’s request in 1873 were educators. What did they know about nursing? Not much. And, true they got a practice run at nursing by the end of 1873, but none of that practice truly prepared them for the horrors of the outbreak in 1878 which caused the city, for all intents and purposes, to cease to function. By necessity they became nurses. They learned their craft by trial and error, yet those whom they served saw the love of Christ in their obedient service.
But isn’t that the point of all of God’s story? He works through and in spite of “normal” human beings like ourselves to accomplish His plan of salvation. It is His good pleasure to redeem the lost, to restore the broken, because it is those folks who have the sense of gratitude, who give wonderful thanks to Him for His saving work in their lives, and who are, as a result, fit tools for His purposes, heralds of His Gospel, and Spirit filled little incarnations of His grace, in fitting imitation of our Lord Christ, the Incarnation!
I know the more Protestant leaning members of Advent today have a . . . difficult time with the idea of sainthood. I know a couple tolerate it from me because they are absolutely convinced the Baptist part of the Episco-baptist in me is strong. It also helps, I think, that we have a patron season rather than patron saint. We are a Church of Christ’s coming and Second Coming rather than a St. Luke’s or St. George’s or Saint David’s. I also hope, however, that it is tolerated because we do a good job around here of sharing the lives and stories of the saints. As we celebrate the feast of Constance and her companions today, you will hear a number of reminders that the saints provide us with patterns of holy living and victorious dying, of how the saints surround us and teach us and pray for us, and I will even bless you at the end of the service entreating God, through His reminder of your connection to these saints, to enable you to bear witness to Him and His truth against all adversity. What I also want you to here this day, though, is that neither you nor I are responsible for being perceived as saints. To you and to me the work we do in God’s name is just our work. We feed the hungry and the homeless, we provide a safe place for mental health counseling for those who cannot afford it elsewhere, we provide a safe place for those suffering from addiction, we provide a place for musicians to make what they insist is a joyful noise. None of us would describe that work as heroic. None of us would likely describe that work as saintly. Yet that description, in the end, is not up to us.
Our Gospel passage ends with Jesus praying to the Father after sharing with us that He dreads what comes next. Jesus understands that it is for the purpose of His Passion and Crucifixion that He came into the world, and so He will be obedient to the will of His Father in heaven. But He makes a request of God the Father: Father, glorify Your Name.” His and our Father answers Him: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” We all know from our Lenten studies of this passage that the Father is speaking about the Resurrection. Certainly, His Name, and that of Jesus, will be most glorified in the Resurrection of our Lord.
But remember our baptisms. Remember when God promised that He had yoked Himself to you? Remember when God taught each one of us that when we are honored, He is honored; and that when we are dishonored, He is dishonored? The whole idea of Lordship is that mutual binding. God is teaching and telling us that when we suffer, He suffers with us. It is that promise that allows us to give up our need for vengeance. It is that promise that allows us ultimately to trust that one day we will be vindicated for choosing Him above all others!
It is also that promise which reminds us of the glory possible for us! So long as we are obedient, like His Son, what is our reward? No, not heaven. I mean, that will be a cool place and all, but think of our discussions the last couple weeks. Wait! I heard the beginning. Who said a place of honor with a rising question voice? Chicken. You were on the glorious right track, pun intended. God’s promise to each of His adopted sons and daughters is that we will share in glory forever! Sometimes, unsurprisingly, that glory bursts through in this world. When we seek to serve others as Christ served us, obedient to His will on our lives, that glory, that shekinah of God cracks through. Others see in us He Whose image we all bear. And because of that foretaste, that early realization of His pledge, we appear holy and righteous and, dare I say it, saintly, to them. We point the way to the Deliverer; we show the way that leads to the cross, death, and eternal life. And those whom we show are ever and always grateful!
And here’s the best part: every one of those saints whom we remember were normal people like us. What distinguished each of them was the Lord they served. Sitting here today, you may have heard the story of Constance and her Companions for the very first time. More likely, some of you heard it for the first time realizing your parish forebears’ role in that incredible story, too. But most of us here are here because of the work of other saints of Advent. Maybe it was St. Polly? Perhaps it was St. Anne? Maybe it was a saint who is still living among us? Maybe it was a saint, whose work in your life is known only to you and to God? The Gospel truth my fellow Adventers is that each of us, like all those saints, has the same opportunity to love God and others in His Name. And He, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, has promised that just as His Son was glorified that amazing Easter morning and awe-inspiring Ascension, that His Name will continue to be glorified in the lives of His disciples, in the generations that came before, in the generations that now walk the earth, and even in the generations yet unborn, until the Day of His glorious return for which we Adventers should all long and wait, even as we are about the work He has given us to do!
In Christ’s Peace,