Shaken Awake

In 1944, in Berlin, a young Jesuit priest named Alfred Delp went to prison for resisting the Nazi government. He had long been writing and preaching under government surveillance. The publication he edited had been shut down. There had been Gestapo agents in the pews, listening to his sermons. He expressed himself as carefully as he could to avoid arrest, but he had finally been taken into prison, where for several months he awaited execution. In prison, his hands were kept cuffed, and the lights were kept on him round the clock. Friends smuggled in small amounts of bread and wine so he could celebrate the Mass in his cell. They smuggled out tiny slips of paper on which he somehow managed to write messages of hope and reflections on the Gospel.

At just this time of year, with Christmas coming, Father Delp wrote about a subject that was particularly dear to him. His arms crossed painfully in handcuffs, under the eye of the prison guards, Father Delp wrote these words: “More [than ever before], and on a deeper level than before, we really know this time, that all of life is Advent.” Advent, for Father Delp, was a time of being, as he said, “shaken awake” and forced to know the truth about the world in which he lived.

“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

We are all shaken awake by something, or at least what we suffer in this life has the potential to awaken us. Often we think of this awakening as deeply personal: we lose our jobs, someone dies—one minute we are living side by side, eating and drinking, and the next minute one of us is taken. But there are times, too, when the shaking awake happens at a more public level. We have to face a truth about ourselves and our neighbors and people across the country and beyond our borders. This is one of those times for Americans.

I know this may sound partisan but I don’t exactly mean it that way: this is one of those times. It’s not partisan to say that our recent election has revealed unsettling divisions among us, and has called many of us to reevaluate what we thought we knew about being Americans. And that does matter, even here in church. There is great tension and great uncertainty, and we can’t shut the door on that turmoil. We can’t try to be the Church in isolation from the truth of our lives. Things may be shifting too rapidly for us to speak clearly at present, but we must acknowledge the shift.

Listen again to the voice of Father Delp, not because our moment is somehow equivalent to his, but because he speaks to us from one of the darkest places in human history, a Nazi prison, to tell us that no matter how much the world changes for us, the basics are still there in the coming of Jesus. God’s love reaching through to us to transform us. Our longing to feel God breaking into the world with freedom and healing and forgiveness. The promise of redemption in Christ. We are continually meeting Jesus again, as for the first time. All of life is Advent. The difference is that sometimes we are shaken up enough to know it, and sometimes we aren’t.

But the Church has practiced that feeling of being shaken awake, year after year. There is Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel this morning, telling us in no uncertain terms that we are going to wake up. If we follow Jesus, we are going to wake up. We are going to face uncertainty. We are going to face judgment. We are going to stand before a God who is simply and honestly too much for us, and that experience will involve fear as well as awe. God’s love is actually frightening. No way around that for us, nor should we seek to avoid that unsettling encounter with the living God. God will come to us suddenly. Maybe whenever God comes to us it will feel sudden, and shocking.

But the Church has been moving in us and through us for centuries, calling us to have courage. Calling us to step forward and meet God. Father Delp could speak of his unspeakable time in a Nazi prison as Advent because the life of the Church, the life of the Spirit, was deep down in his bones. It was as close to him as his own breath. It was his life’s blood. And because he was given the great gift of an Advent hope in those final weeks before his execution, he was able to resist evil with genuine courage.

That’s what this lovely, quiet, contemplative season of Advent is for. It’s designed to win us over so that we give in to our longing for God. It trains us to stay awake. It teaches us that our own limited lives—our confused, experimental, uncertain lives—are full of God’s own beauty and power. What we do here is God’s revelation to us about who we really are.

Remember the graces of this place and this moment, and come back here as often as you can. Come back for Lessons and Carols this afternoon. Be moved by what happens within these walls, and know that God has prepared this experience for you. Smell the incense and hear the music. Feel your hands reaching out to take the bread and the cup, and know that you are assenting to the action of God in your life as you say your grateful “Amen.” Know that you are really praying, really struggling to stand honestly before God. You worship in Advent for the sake of the whole struggling world.

Remember, we greet Advent with joy here, as we greet every season of the church year, even when we are being called to special repentance and discipline. We dress up for Advent. We mark the season with solemn, beautiful liturgy. We show that we are on the move in our relationship with Jesus, calling out to him as we put one foot in front of another, Advent Sunday after Advent Sunday. Draw on that power as you make your way through the world. Give God your time, as you pray, and let yourself feel the truth that time is in God’s hands.

The beauty of this season in the Church is a dark, mysterious, mirror of the work God does in your life and in the life of the world. Let it live deep in your bones. Let it be as close to you as your own breath, your life’s blood. When you are shaken awake, remember that waking up feels like this. You wake up here. And the truth to which we awaken is the coming of God for the redemption of our sins, now and forever.

 

Preacher by Mother Nora Johnson

27 November 2016, The First Sunday of Advent

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on November 29, 2016 .

Two Words and a Promise

The Gospel reading this morning would seem to play perfectly into the hand of a preacher seeking to comment on this week’s election.  Saint Luke reports that Jesus paints a picture of apparent doom, social and environmental destruction, and false leadership, as well as suffering and disdain for the righteous.  “Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus says.  “… there will be dreadful portents… they will arrest you and persecute you… you will be betrayed… and they will put some of you to death”  Many Episcopalians will find in these verses pitch-perfect echoes of how this year’s election feels.

But, to be a little flippant, to me the present moment feels a little more Old Testament than New, so why not reach for the short excerpt from Malachi instead.  For here, too, this morning, we are not disappointed if we are looking for biblical commentary on the national moment:  “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble;” we hear the prophet Malachi warn, “the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”  Now we are getting close to fire and brimstone!

Unfortunately for the preacher, if you check the context, you will find that, as was the case with Saint Luke, the prophet Malachi was not writing in an election year: a detail that impresses upon the preacher the need to step back, and a take a deep breath, and just check himself for a moment.

It turns out that the prophet Malachi was not, in fact, addressing American voters, neither Republicans nor Democrats.  His prophetic rant was actually addressed not only to the children of Israel, but specifically to their priests, who were responsible for the sacrificial offerings to the Lord, and whose offerings were found in the sight of God to be wanting.  And the prophetic complaint is not about the politics of the priests, it is about the insufficiency of their offerings.  Yes, it turns out that the prophecies of Malachi are essentially a stewardship sermon, which, of course, suits the purposes of a preacher perfectly on Commitment Sunday, when you are asked to consider your offerings for God’s church.

The prophet announces that God holds the priests in contempt, and with them all of Israel, because of their lax and un-generous giving.  By being so cheap, he tells them, they “despise” God’s name.  And he clarifies his thinking: “You say, how have we despised thy name?”

“By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised,” he asserts, going on to list the ways the offerings have been inadequate.

But Malachi knows how easily the priests are bored by stewardship sermons.  He can already hear their indifference: “’What a weariness this is,’ you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts.  You bring what has been taken by violence, or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering….  Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence.”

Admittedly, as stewardship campaigns go, the thing with the dung is not a tactic that has been often used.  We will continue here at Saint Mark’s to go instead with the pledge cards, and the celebration brunch, and the word of thanks for your giving, rather than employing dung in any way, shape, or form whatsoever.  But I joke about it mostly because God’s impatience with cheap offerings actually cuts a bit close to the bone.  And it’s always easier to laugh at God, to sniff at him, when he’s getting especially close to the truth about us, than to take his rebuke seriously to heart.

The clever preacher, having thus far avoided serious mention of the election (and having justified said avoidance early in the sermon, with the suggestion of high-mindedness) might continue to steer clear of this particular mine-field.  Having successfully alighted on the ironically safe theme of giving… I mean giving your money… which, you see, is not normally considered the welcomest of topics… but under the circumstances… well …he might bask in the moment and remind himself to “stay on point, Sean, stay on point.  Nice and cool….”  But to do so, the preacher would have to ignore the fact that this particular moment in America is somewhat fraught, and that a resounding rejoinder to give generously might be counted as somewhat less balm than is required to soothe the present moment, if indeed soothing is what’s called for.

To steer wide of such commentary would also be to ignore the fact that even if it was not an election year when he was writing, Saint Luke tells us that Jesus himself did not avoid this kind of talk when he painted that picture of apparent doom, of social and environmental destruction, of false leadership, as well as of suffering and disdain that await the righteous – a picture that overlays our own moment a little imperfectly, perhaps, but maybe only a little imperfectly.  And it turns out that Jesus does, in fact, have advice for his followers under circumstances like these, and this is his advice: “Beware that you are not led astray.”  Beware.

The careful preacher this morning, is careful to reassure his flock that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.  I have been reading and hearing such assurances from preachers for the past four days.  But Jesus is not always a careful preacher, and he does not always give his preachers a careful word.  And following an election in which an air of convenient religiosity was occasionally and cheaply borrowed with what appeared even at the time to be complete insincerity, the dominical injunction to beware seems timely.  Beware that you are not led astray.  Beware.

We should be able to say conclusively, incontrovertibly, and un-controversially after this campaign and election, in the words of another prophet, that truth has stumbled in the public square.  Indeed, truth is still lying bleeding in the public square, if you ask me.  It remains to be seen what shall become of it, since basic honesty seems to have been seldom in evidence these past months.  And where can truth be found if the conversation we are having is not even honest?

Now, the United States is not a Christian nation, thank God, and has never really set out to be.  But Christians in America, like all Christians, should be concerned about the truth – always elusive, but never insignificant – since our Lord prayed that we would be sanctified by the truth, reminding us by his prayer that God’s word is truth.

But after this sad electoral cycle, what can one say about the truth, except to stand uncomfortably with Pontius Pilate asking, “What is truth?”  And if the position we have found ourselves in is one of ready communion with Pontius Pilate, then by all means beware, beware, beware that you are not led astray.

And for now, I’d say, the church has given us the perfect response to the present moment by leading us directly to Jesus’ own instruction to beware in times of trouble, for indeed the moment is fraught in all kinds of ways.  So, beware.  I, for one, will be watching, to see if we are being led astray, for this moment of our history calls for wariness.

But the moment may not call for the preacher to end his remarks with a warning – few moments do.  And every preacher should be driven by the desire to proclaim the Good News that comes by Jesus, and perhaps never moreso than in times that are fraught with anxiety.  For which word, we may turn back to the Old Testament, where the prophet Malachi, so adept at the language and imagery of doom and gloom, is nevertheless able to turn a brilliant phrase of hopefulness.  Having given voice to a full-throated warning, he is ready with God’s still more fulsome reassurance that “for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

Two words, then, this morning, and one promise.  Give and beware.  Give because it’s what God requires of us to whom he has given so much.  Beware that you are not led astray because many there are who would lead you.

But even in times fraught with anxiety and danger, remember the promise of God, embedded even in the ancient prophets: that after the dark night of suffering, after the truth has stumbled and bled, after you have been arrested and persecuted, after you have been thrown into prison, after you have been brought in chains before kings and presidents because of your faith in and fear of the name of the Lord, then the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings!

Two words and one promise.  Give.  Beware.  And wait with me for the sun of righteousness to rise!

 

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

13 November 2016

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

 

Posted on November 13, 2016 .

Resurrection Policy

Throughout this entire campaign our man has been all too ready to make his case about behavior and character, but he has been what you might call notoriously light on policy. Some Sadducees realize this state of affairs and they decide to try to corner the guy: to get an answer out of him on a hotly debated, and really very important matter of policy. The Sadducees do not want to see a miracle. They are not interested in a healing, and they don’t even want to argue about the Sabbath. They are not going to be deterred by a clever put-down (“Woe to you who are laughing now!”). And they are not going to be satisfied with easy moralizing (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) A compliant press is taken in by these theatrics, but not the Sadducees: People! Jesus was not the first person to utter the Golden Rule! Jews were already teaching their children to be nice - had been for centuries! And in time, Muslims would do the same… along with just about every religion you can find!

But none of this was on the minds of the Sadducees. They were looking for a substantial policy discussion, and a commitment to a firm position from Jesus. They wanted to know where he stood. They did not want to see a leper healed, nor were they interested in what this rabbi could do with some loaves and a few fish; they could care less if he turned water into wine. No, these were serious men with serious questions, and they expected Jesus to treat the questions seriously too. They would not be satisfied by the optics that so impressed the masses. This was a question of life and death. This was about resurrection!

Ask any Sunday School child about resurrection and chances are that the bold ones will tell you that Jesus was raised from the dead – and that’s where resurrection begins and ends. And that answer will be right, as far as it goes. But as an answer, it will also be severely attenuated, for that’s not all that Jesus taught, and it’s not all that the church is supposed to believe, even if we are a little uncertain about the details. Do not be confused by the way the discussion is presented in Luke’s Gospel. Do not be distracted by all the talk of wives and marriage. The Sadducees have not asked Jesus a question about marriage, or inheritance rights, or any other such thing. They have asked him about one very important thing: about resurrection – because they don’t believe in it. The Sadducees believe that, as the saying went when I was younger, life’s a bit difficult, and then you die. Period. End of discussion.

But other Jews believed that God made us for a life that extended beyond the grave – and that’s what the Sadducees are asking Jesus about. This is a big policy question, and the Sadducees have asked it in a way that they suspect Jesus cannot wriggle out of a real answer.

Jesus does not wriggle! “In the resurrection [they] neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” This question of resurrection was an open question when Jesus was confronted by the Sadducees all those centuries ago. Since it was a question about what happens after death, it was naturally difficult to back up one’s position with proof, other than the Scriptures (which is precisely what Jesus does) since no one had yet seen anything of resurrection life.

Not that we often stop to think about it much, but you might say that there is confusion, and maybe even disagreement, about resurrection in our own day too. Many of us who call ourselves Christians are satisfied with the Sunday School answer: resurrection is what happened to Jesus. But as policy statements go, this is an inadequate one, since it fails to take seriously the Sadducees question, which I’ll appropriate and rephrase for my own purposes: But what about us? What happens to us after we are dead? Will we be resurrected too? This is a serious policy question. And it tends to shift the discussion, for in order to address this question, you have to decide that God has not called us to gather as a church just to learn to be nice to one another – although we should learn that too. We are also here to learn about who we are, and what kind of life has been given to us.

We are here to learn that our lives were fashioned by God’s own hand, that he made us and knows us, down to the number of hairs on our heads. We are here to learn that God guides us, challenges us, protects us, and loves us in the turbulent reality of the world we live in. We are here to learn that the life God gave us in this world is heading inevitably toward death, and that our sometimes beautiful, always imperfect bodies come with strict limitations in this life – affected as they are by gravity, the environment, the passage of time, and the blows we inflict upon one another. And that the earth itself will take our bodies and return what came from the earth right back to the earth from whence it came.

But there is more to us – to our bodies and to our souls – than came from the earth. There are secrets to how we are made that we have not yet discovered, and that include both body and soul. These secrets, like the question of resurrection, used to be an open question, long ago, even when Jesus walked the earth. But then this man, this rabbi, this figure of controversy, was seized, restrained, flogged, nailed to a cross, and killed. And his body was placed in a tomb. But when that tomb was reopened just a few days later, the long-open question of resurrection was at last closed. Because Jesus was himself risen - body and soul. He was not there, he had arisen from death, and he is risen now, too! And if Jesus was telling the truth about his own resurrection, then he was telling the truth about ours, as well. He said: we “are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

There is so much I don’t know about the implications of this policy of resurrection. I don’t know, for instance, how it’s done. I don’t know what form our bodies will be in when we are resurrected, though I believe that they will be repaired, restored, and renewed to some state of perfection, thank God. I don’t know whether the process is fast or slow, or how time will even be measured beyond the grave. I don’t know how we will be held accountable for our sins, but I believe we will be. I don’t know if I will recognize you, or be recognizable to you, although I am counting on it, in the same way that I am counting on having my dogs with me in the life to come. I don’t know if we’ll be issued wings, but I have reason to believe that the wardrobe will be predominantly white. And I don’t know what the music sounds like, but I am certain there will be music. The list of what I don’t know about the life to come goes on and on.

But I know, I know, I know, that resurrection life awaits us beyond the grave. I know that we were made for more than the organic process of growth and decay. I know that when we return to dust, that is not the end of the story. How do I know this? I know it because I know that my Redeemer lives! I know that if we are children of the resurrection, as Jesus taught, then we will be resurrected, too! I know that the Word of God took on flesh in order to redeem flesh – that was the point of his coming! Yes, I know that my Redeemer lives! With Job, whose suffering far surpassed any trouble I have ever known, I know that he shall stand at the last day! And I know that after my skin – my flesh – has been destroyed, then in my flesh shall I see God, as a child of the resurrection!

Saint Luke doesn’t tell us how the Sadducees reacted to Jesus’ clear policy statement about resurrection. Were they satisfied to have found out what his position was, so they could rally against him when the time came? Were they disappointed that so charismatic a leader took a policy position so diametrically opposed to their own? We don’t know. But there is this wonderful good news that we do know, because Christ himself led the way through the grave and gate of death, and when he did, death itself was swallowed up in victory – for all who follow him.

There is so much I do not know, but thanks be to God I know that my redeemer and yours lives! And though worms destroy this body yet in my flesh shall I see God, as you shall, too. We will, I think, be dressed in white, very much like angels, and unmistakably children of the resurrection! That’s a policy I can live and die with! Thanks be to God!

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

6 November 2016

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

Posted on November 7, 2016 .