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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


A homily at the Requiem for John Maurice Gessell

A homily at the Requiem for John Maurice Gessell

At Saints Chapel, University of the South, Sewanee, TN, 29ix09 by the Revd John Lane Denson III

Good humor together with the faith which is its ironic companion are two of God's great gifts of the security to make us human.

Sooner or later, I witnessed the both of them in my encounters with Jack Gessell. Woven through the fabric of his life of faith was a whimsical sense of humor, the gift of being able to enjoy God's good humor which, if you can let go of your own feelings of self- importance and hubris, is everywhere in your life. Jack assured us all of a place for humor in the spiritual journey. It was no wonder to me that a similar ambiance surrounded him in his final clinical space as he quite literally seemed to welcome whatever with the faithful assurance and anticipation of which his selection of Lamentations for this Liturgy speaks: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; (for) great is thy faithfulness" (Lam 3.22f).

Being present there with him at such a time recalled for me a story that is told of Bob Hope on his death bed. His family was gathered around him giving him one more of the audiences which he so dearly loved. Someone asked him where he might wish to be buried and suggested several likely and prominent places. After a few moments of silence, he smiled and said... "Surprise me."

Colleague Mary Miller of his beloved Episcopal Peace Fellowship describes something like this about him as both a combination of "joy and stubbornness."

In the introductory Apologia of his collection of essays, "Grace and Obedience," Jack quoted Frederick Buechner, "that all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography, and that what a theologian is doing essentially is examining as honestly as he can... his own experience... and expressing in logical abstract terms the truths about human life and about God that he believes he has found implicit there." (G&O, p 1)

Jack knew early on in his life that he wanted to be a theologian. He wrote, "And so malgré moi (in spite of myself), I became a theologian, not out of some intellectual compulsion, not by reflective choice, but out of an existential demand to be able to make sense out of a world which would otherwise be nonsense." (G&O, p 2) No one knew better than Jack that faith has its own moments of nonsense.

In this same apology, he included among his roots the "liberal midwestern culture in which he grew up... Yale University, and the Episcopal Church. Socially," he wrote, "I am a classical liberal; philosophically, a post-Kantian critical realist; theologically, I stand in the reformed tradition." (G&O, p 3)

Reading that, I wondered what on earth I from an altogether different culture am doing standing here, but then it dawned on me whether these roots of his might also be a part of the reason why he often scolded me for wearing bowties with button-down collar shirts.

From his University experience and as a new priest, he began serving in small parishes in Virginia and Massachusetts. He tells of a parishioner and friend there asking him to make sense of the Doctrine of the Atonement. "I found that I could not," he wrote. "I, who had received one of the best theological trainings of my time, a product of the peak achievement of the great classical period of American theological education following the war, had failed."

But "later in that same parish," he continues, "I came to confess that I after all had learned more theology living among those people than I had in all of the years of graduate training at the University. But those years had prepared the ground," he adds. "It was a training in humility" (G&O, p 5).

I cannot help but believe that this realization was creative to his remarkable appreciation of life's irony that led to such rich times we all of us experienced as his colleagues and friends. Times that were also so invaluable and enduring for his students as their mentor. One of his faculty colleagues said of him, "Jack was a priest who wasn't afraid to tell the truth, who knew what the fifth baptismal* promise meant, who was a reticent but pleased mentor to so many, who taught people what it meant to care for the poor and marginalized... he was fearless, and he was my hero." [*Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?]

In the Journal of Jack's beloved Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace, Journalist David Bowman tells of Jack's early schooling in Minnesota and Kansas.

[He does not mention -- but I will -- that among Jack's earlier skills, he was a cheerleader at Topeka High School, a role he was never all that pleased to be reminded about sharing with a once- removed occupant of the White House.]

Jack's understanding of humility as essential to the theological enterprise recalls for me a story about the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz. In an interview, Horowitz was asked to define music. He answered that music is made up of little dots on a page, some black and some white. He said that almost anyone can learn to "read the dots," then duplicate them somehow, perhaps, like an expert typist might unravel shorthand.

But this is not music, Horowitz hastened to say. For there to be music, one must first discover what is "behind the dots and even so how they are connected. Then one must not merely reproduce them, but render them in one's own way with spirit and imagination through whatever instrument -- the voice, the strings, or the winds. Only then is there music," he concluded.

All theology like all fiction -- and dare we add -- even all music is autobiographical.

We can live our theology by the numbers and as straitlaced as possible, no matter what the cost. Many do that quite successfully with absolute certainty and want to be sure that others do the same. We can take life's great creative treasures simply and on their face. We can take its culture, its art, its poetry, its music, its languages, its liturgies, and just "read the dots." We can so take the very Holy Scripture that commissions us a church, that charges, baptizes, and claims us as its disciples of peace and justice. But in so doing, we can as well render them all as shallow as the rites on the pages of this liturgy, never reading behind the dots at all.

John Maurice Gessell, theologian, read behind the dots and threw his life into what he read there. While he served his parishes, he completed a PhD under Richard Niebuhr at Yale. As most of you know, he joined the faculty here at the School of Theology in 1961 and taught Christian Education and Pastoral Theology. From 1973 until his retirement he was the School's Professor of Christian Ethics. He was the first full-time faculty editor of The St Luke's Journal of Theology and drew up its statement of purpose that it would be "A Journal of religious thought for clergy and laity who wish to relate theological studies to contemporary issues." Later, it was my privilege to share with him the founding of Covenant (now The Covenant Journal) for which he agreed emphatically that the Baptismal Covenant would be its editorial grounding and for which he also wrote our statement of purpose that it "May provide a safe place, a place where truth can be told, a place where we can trust one another" (TCJ #1, 1997).

David Bowman continues telling of Jack's service in the Peace Corps in 1967, his work with military deserters who had taken refuge in Sweden during the Viet Nam war. He was president of the Franklin County Mental Health Association. He worked in East Africa studying the problems of developing countries.

Jack was a longtime member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and subsequently its national chairman. He received the acclaimed John Nevin Sayre Peace Award at the 1997 Philadelphia General Convention. One of his public comments bears repetition in our time and I recommend it for all to consider. He spoke of war as "an inappropriate adolescent response to enormous frustration. War is a failure of intelligence, imagination, and politics. It is the failure of the human spirit. Justice requires that we do better than this to secure peace in today's world" (an EPF newsletter, date unknown).

Such celebrations as this one in memory and appreciation are singular occasions that summon us through our friendship and professional collegiality with Jack. They assemble us to honor and remember the life of one of us who has died and remind us that one day, so will we. Death confounds us, and grief breaks our hearts, but inevitably they bring us together. They instantly surpass all divisions real and artificial and remind us if only briefly of the converse into which God's Holy Spirit calls us where we can join together ourselves as a healing sacrament of love and the justice which is its great social counterpart.

John Maurice Gessell need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he already was in life, but to be remembered as a good and decent man, who...

when he saw wrong, worked to make it right and just...

when he saw suffering, worked to make it well and whole...

when he saw daemons, stood in their path and barred them from passing.

And when he read in John's gospel as we just now did that "this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6.40), Jack embraced such assurance with all his heart.

Jack's ministry always brings to mind the words of Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl that "wherever the brokenness of the world is being mended, there is present the Kingdom of God."

His startling lack of pretense gave refreshing credibility to the academic vocation of priesthood, that it can be a practice of faith and also a "training in humility." He took the Great Commandment and its love child, the Baptismal Covenant, straight to heart as the reason God imagined us all into human being.

Perhaps the greatest tribute we could ever offer him and all whom he touched and to whom he reached out is not only to remember the joy, the service, and indeed the stubbornness we have known through him, but to turn and celebrate ourselves as instruments of that same healing toward others. Then and in this way may we read "behind the dots" and play the music we find there -- the great and swelling anthems of justice and peace. -- JLD


(The Revd John Lane Denson is Stated Supply for Calvary Church, Cumberland Furnace, TN, editor of The Covenant Journal, and writer of Out of Nowhere, a daily email essay. He may be reached at )
A homily at the Requiem for John Maurice Gessell All Saints Chapel, University of the South, Sewanee, TN, 29ix09 by the Revd John Lane Denson III
Good humor together with the faith which is its ironic companion are two of God's great gifts of the security to make us human.

Sooner or later, I witnessed the both of them in my encounters with Jack Gessell. Woven through the fabric of his life of faith was a whimsical sense of humor, the gift of being able to enjoy God's good humor which, if you can let go of your own feelings of self- importance and hubris, is everywhere in your life. Jack assured us all of a place for humor in the spiritual journey. It was no wonder to me that a similar ambiance surrounded him in his final clinical space as he quite literally seemed to welcome whatever with the faithful assurance and anticipation of which his selection of Lamentations for this Liturgy speaks: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; (for) great is thy faithfulness" (Lam 3.22f).

Being present there with him at such a time recalled for me a story that is told of Bob Hope on his death bed. His family was gathered around him giving him one more of the audiences which he so dearly loved. Someone asked him where he might wish to be buried and suggested several likely and prominent places. After a few moments of silence, he smiled and said... "Surprise me."

Colleague Mary Miller of his beloved Episcopal Peace Fellowship describes something like this about him as both a combination of "joy and stubbornness."

In the introductory Apologia of his collection of essays, "Grace and Obedience," Jack quoted Frederick Buechner, "that all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography, and that what a theologian is doing essentially is examining as honestly as he can... his own experience... and expressing in logical abstract terms the truths about human life and about God that he believes he has found implicit there." (G&O, p 1)

Jack knew early on in his life that he wanted to be a theologian. He wrote, "And so malgré moi (in spite of myself), I became a theologian, not out of some intellectual compulsion, not by reflective choice, but out of an existential demand to be able to make sense out of a world which would otherwise be nonsense." (G&O, p 2) No one knew better than Jack that faith has its own moments of nonsense.

In this same apology, he included among his roots the "liberal midwestern culture in which he grew up... Yale University, and the Episcopal Church. Socially," he wrote, "I am a classical liberal; philosophically, a post-Kantian critical realist; theologically, I stand in the reformed tradition." (G&O, p 3)

Reading that, I wondered what on earth I from an altogether different culture am doing standing here, but then it dawned on me whether these roots of his might also be a part of the reason why he often scolded me for wearing bowties with button-down collar shirts.

From his University experience and as a new priest, he began serving in small parishes in Virginia and Massachusetts. He tells of a parishioner and friend there asking him to make sense of the Doctrine of the Atonement. "I found that I could not," he wrote. "I, who had received one of the best theological trainings of my time, a product of the peak achievement of the great classical period of American theological education following the war, had failed."

But "later in that same parish," he continues, "I came to confess that I after all had learned more theology living among those people than I had in all of the years of graduate training at the University. But those years had prepared the ground," he adds. "It was a training in humility" (G&O, p 5).

I cannot help but believe that this realization was creative to his remarkable appreciation of life's irony that led to such rich times we all of us experienced as his colleagues and friends. Times that were also so invaluable and enduring for his students as their mentor. One of his faculty colleagues said of him, "Jack was a priest who wasn't afraid to tell the truth, who knew what the fifth baptismal* promise meant, who was a reticent but pleased mentor to so many, who taught people what it meant to care for the poor and marginalized... he was fearless, and he was my hero." [*Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?]

In the Journal of Jack's beloved Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace, Journalist David Bowman tells of Jack's early schooling in Minnesota and Kansas.

[He does not mention -- but I will -- that among Jack's earlier skills, he was a cheerleader at Topeka High School, a role he was never all that pleased to be reminded about sharing with a once- removed occupant of the White House.]

Jack's understanding of humility as essential to the theological enterprise recalls for me a story about the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz. In an interview, Horowitz was asked to define music. He answered that music is made up of little dots on a page, some black and some white. He said that almost anyone can learn to "read the dots," then duplicate them somehow, perhaps, like an expert typist might unravel shorthand.

But this is not music, Horowitz hastened to say. For there to be music, one must first discover what is "behind the dots and even so how they are connected. Then one must not merely reproduce them, but render them in one's own way with spirit and imagination through whatever instrument -- the voice, the strings, or the winds. Only then is there music," he concluded.

All theology like all fiction -- and dare we add -- even all music is autobiographical.

We can live our theology by the numbers and as straitlaced as possible, no matter what the cost. Many do that quite successfully with absolute certainty and want to be sure that others do the same. We can take life's great creative treasures simply and on their face. We can take its culture, its art, its poetry, its music, its languages, its liturgies, and just "read the dots." We can so take the very Holy Scripture that commissions us a church, that charges, baptizes, and claims us as its disciples of peace and justice. But in so doing, we can as well render them all as shallow as the rites on the pages of this liturgy, never reading behind the dots at all.

John Maurice Gessell, theologian, read behind the dots and threw his life into what he read there. While he served his parishes, he completed a PhD under Richard Niebuhr at Yale. As most of you know, he joined the faculty here at the School of Theology in 1961 and taught Christian Education and Pastoral Theology. From 1973 until his retirement he was the School's Professor of Christian Ethics. He was the first full-time faculty editor of The St Luke's Journal of Theology and drew up its statement of purpose that it would be "A Journal of religious thought for clergy and laity who wish to relate theological studies to contemporary issues." Later, it was my privilege to share with him the founding of Covenant (now The Covenant Journal) for which he agreed emphatically that the Baptismal Covenant would be its editorial grounding and for which he also wrote our statement of purpose that it "May provide a safe place, a place where truth can be told, a place where we can trust one another" (TCJ #1, 1997).

David Bowman continues telling of Jack's service in the Peace Corps in 1967, his work with military deserters who had taken refuge in Sweden during the Viet Nam war. He was president of the Franklin County Mental Health Association. He worked in East Africa studying the problems of developing countries.

Jack was a longtime member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and subsequently its national chairman. He received the acclaimed John Nevin Sayre Peace Award at the 1997 Philadelphia General Convention. One of his public comments bears repetition in our time and I recommend it for all to consider. He spoke of war as "an inappropriate adolescent response to enormous frustration. War is a failure of intelligence, imagination, and politics. It is the failure of the human spirit. Justice requires that we do better than this to secure peace in today's world" (an EPF newsletter, date unknown).

Such celebrations as this one in memory and appreciation are singular occasions that summon us through our friendship and professional collegiality with Jack. They assemble us to honor and remember the life of one of us who has died and remind us that one day, so will we. Death confounds us, and grief breaks our hearts, but inevitably they bring us together. They instantly surpass all divisions real and artificial and remind us if only briefly of the converse into which God's Holy Spirit calls us where we can join together ourselves as a healing sacrament of love and the justice which is its great social counterpart.

John Maurice Gessell need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he already was in life, but to be remembered as a good and decent man, who...

when he saw wrong, worked to make it right and just...

when he saw suffering, worked to make it well and whole...

when he saw daemons, stood in their path and barred them from passing.

And when he read in John's gospel as we just now did that "this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6.40), Jack embraced such assurance with all his heart.

Jack's ministry always brings to mind the words of Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl that "wherever the brokenness of the world is being mended, there is present the Kingdom of God."

His startling lack of pretense gave refreshing credibility to the academic vocation of priesthood, that it can be a practice of faith and also a "training in humility." He took the Great Commandment and its love child, the Baptismal Covenant, straight to heart as the reason God imagined us all into human being.

Perhaps the greatest tribute we could ever offer him and all whom he touched and to whom he reached out is not only to remember the joy, the service, and indeed the stubbornness we have known through him, but to turn and celebrate ourselves as instruments of that same healing toward others. Then and in this way may we read "behind the dots" and play the music we find there -- the great and swelling anthems of justice and peace. -- JLD


(The Revd John Lane Denson is Stated Supply for Calvary Church, Cumberland Furnace, TN, editor of The Covenant Journal, and writer of Out of Nowhere, a daily email essay. He may be reached at )