Event Horizon

The death last week of Stephen Hawking has put me in mind of theoretical physics, and in particular of black holes - those phenomena of space and time on which so much of Hawking’s work focused.  For my purposes, I’ll just describe a black hole as a region of space and time with a gravitational pull so powerful that nothing can escape it.  Being more a man of letters than of numbers, I have a tendency to consider this as-yet-directly-unobserved phenomenon for its metaphorical possibility, rather than its scientific specificity, which is probably a disservice to the great physicist (or any physicist), for which I apologize in advance.  But chalk it up to the sheer force of Hawking’s influence in the contemporary, mainstream imagination, that the urge to enlist this avowed atheist in the enterprise of preaching the Gospel feels like, well, a gravitational pull so strong I can’t escape it.

I have no business talking about theoretical physics, in which I can’t even be called a dabbler.  But the more I have read about and by Stephen Hawking these past days, the more it has seemed to me that, although he was not himself a believer, his avenue of inquiry and his discoveries are in no way at odds with the avenues of inquiry and discoveries of faith.  And if scientific observations translate well into theological metaphor, mightn’t they shed light all the same?  Can’t science articulate more than one true thing at a time?

I hear Jesus say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  And can’t I be forgiven for hearing so clear an echo of that description of a black hole: a region of space and time with a gravitational pull so powerful that nothing can escape it?  And doesn’t it sound almost as if Jesus has something like this in mind, too?

How can I ignore it when I read that “when very massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle... [and] a black hole has formed, it can continue to grow by absorbing mass from its surroundings”? (Wikipedia entry on “black holes”)  This doesn’t sound to me like a process unrelated to the mind of God.  Especially when it would nearly suffice as a description of the church, and when it seems entirely congruent with the unusual claim that Jesus made as he anticipated his death on the Cross: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.”

It requires a shift, of course, for us to think of this inevitable gravitational pull as a positive force, and not simply a journey down the drain.  But Hawking, himself, is responsible for supplying us with this shift in thinking, since it was his research that showed that black holes were not merely sucking everything into them with irresistible force, they were also “leaking radiation and particles” and could eventually explode “transform[ing] them from destroyers to creators....” (NY Times, “Stephen Hawking Dies at 76, March 14, 2018, by Dennis Overbye)

“Hawking radiation,” if I have this right, is the stuff that comes out of a black hole - that is, it’s the stuff that escapes from the space and time from which nothing could escape.  That sounds a bit like resurrection to me.

To the popular mind, a black hole, of course signifies the inevitability of death, in some real sense.  The Times obituary of Hawking calls black holes “those mythological avatars of cosmic doom.”  I suppose that in many ways the site of a Roman crucifixion was meant to serve as an avatar of cosmic doom - or at least we may see it that way with hindsight.  Put three crosses on a hill and you could have a symbol for something like that.  Who would approach such a thing, knowing that the Cross - that symbol of the empire’s ability to to put you to a painful and tragic death - leads only and inevitably to doom?  But the story we begin to unfold every year at this time, includes this strange prescription of Jesus that “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  St. John makes it clear that it is the Cross that Jesus is referring to, telling us that “he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

And isn’t resurrection what happens when life escapes, so to speak, from death, that space and time from which nothing can escape?  And isn’t Jesus the pioneer of resurrection?  And don’t you hear him saying, only days before he is nailed to his Cross, not to be afraid, though he knows it is is frightening to be so close to death, so close to what the physicists call the “event horizon,” which is this point of no return at the edge of a black hole, from which no escape is possible. (Wikipedia entry on “event horizon”)

You get the sense, listening to Jesus today that he is in sight of the event horizon of his Crucifixion, on the threshold of a cosmic ministry that is new to him, although he came to us from eternity.  You get the sense that he knows that he is nearing the event horizon, and that although this is frightening to everyone involved, still, it must be encountered.  You can almost hear him steeling himself, and us, for the passage that is to come, which no one has ever made before, and which no one will ever have to make again.  And you can hear him reassure us that although the path looks frightening, we can trust him.

Remember that nothing should be able to escape the gravitational pull of a black hole - certainly no light.  And yet, the wonder of the cosmos is that something does emerge from its irresistible pull.  This doesn’t mean that you want to go sailing around the edges of a black hole to enjoy the view.  But it does mean that even the most powerful forces of the universe are more complex than we had imagined, and in a way, knowing this changes everything.  It certainly changes what we might be afraid of.  And nothing and no one is supposed to escape the inevitability of death.  But Jesus is the One who crossed over the event horizon into that inevitability, and then emerged from it again.

In the church’s terms, you might say that next Sunday, Palm Sunday, is, in a sense, the event horizon of the Christian story - the point of no return from which no escape is possible - at least for Jesus.  Only Jesus crosses over into the black hole of death in order to lead the way back out of it by the power of his resurrection.  He is the original Hawking radiation, so to speak, the One who escapes from a black hole.  That is, he is the One who rises from the space and time from which nothing can arise.  The good news for us is that he does it for us all, since all of us face the same event horizon of death, fearing that its inescapable darkness is all that lies before us.

And I think that he may be telling us with these strange prophetic words - “I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself,” - that from the Cross, where he himself meets death, he can assure us that he will be there at the event horizon of our own deaths, to hold us, and to carry us, to cross over, and eventually, to rise!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

18 March 2018

Saint Mark’s Church Philadelphia

Posted on March 18, 2018 .

Once Bitten, Still Saved

I have a friend, an older priest mentor, who has the most remarkable baptism story I have ever heard. It begins with my friend – let’s say his name is Alex – as an 8-year-old boy, sitting around a dinner table with his large extended family – aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins – talking about baptisms. The tradition in his family was to name sons after a family member, and then for that family member to serve as the boy’s godfather. So at this family gathering, godfathers were telling tales about the baptisms of their godsons – who had cried the loudest and who had been too fat to fit into the family baptismal gown. Alex, the youngest, sat there waiting for his turn, and sure enough, eventually someone turned to Alex’s uncle, also named Alex, and asked, What about little Alex’s baptism?  

At this point, Alex recounts, his mother made a slightly strangled noise, and when he looked up, he saw that her face was entirely drained of color. Alex looked over at Uncle Alex and saw that his mouth was hanging open in shock. Oh, no, Alex’s mother said and looked down at him with eyes full of tears. It turned out that in the chaos of raising a house full of boys, Alex’s mother had simply forgotten to get her youngest son baptized. She’d thought that she had, but when she was forced to reach back for memories of the moment, she realized that the moment had, in fact, never happened.

The story gets a little fuzzy for me here; I remember that Alex’s mother was so upset that she would have whisked him out the door that instant and thrown him in the nearest baptismal font, but the family, I think, was away on vacation at the time. They found the local Episcopal church and were somehow able to schedule a baptism for the next Sunday. When the whole family arrived at the little country church, Alex, who had never been to a baptism before and who knew only that they happened at the font, stepped into the church, saw the font, and immediately walked over to it and stood there, waiting. It wasn’t until the liturgy was well underway that his family realized that the baptisand was missing. Someone spotted him standing alone and confused over by the font and went to retrieve him. And later, much to his mother’s relief, Alex was finally baptized.

Believe it or not, this is where the story really gets interesting. As the family left the church, Alex, buzzing with excitement, ran ahead, following a path that lay next to a small stream. As he was running, he suddenly saw a flash of brown slice through the grass at his feet. He looked down and saw a long copperhead snake rear up and bury its fangs into his calf. Alex screamed in shock and pain; within seconds, Uncle Alex, newly-minted godfather, had beaten the snake away and was sucking the venom out of Alex’s little leg. He was treated successfully and ended up just fine – bitten, but still saved, now in more ways than one. Like I said, a remarkable story.

When the people of God are bitten by poisonous serpents in the story we heard today in the book of Numbers, there is no one to beat the snakes away with a stick, no one to bind their wounds and carry them to safety. The people die, lost in the wilderness, far away from the Land of Promise. But for them, this is really nothing new. The people of God have been dying in the wilderness for a long time. It feels like a thousand years since they walked through the waters of the Red Sea and danced to Miriam’s song on the other side. They’ve been on this journey forever, and along the way they’ve actually been bitten many, many times. They’ve been bitten by the fear of scarcity or of violence. They’ve been bitten by boredom and frustration, and by the sharp sting of doubt. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” they whine again, as the fangs of their mistrust sink deeper into their faith. The people of God have been bitten over and over again; the snakes of today’s lesson are in many ways just one more bite to be endured.

The miracle of the wilderness is not that the people never get bitten. The miracle of the wilderness is that every time they do, they feel something stir deep in their memories. Every time some fear or doubt or lack lashes out at their heels, the people find themselves reaching back for the Red Sea – recalling the moment of walking on dry ground as the water stood up like walls beside them, of finding themselves saved on the other side, reborn, blessed and free. And as their minds turn back to the memory of this moment, they find that their hearts, too, have turned back to the God who made this moment possible in the first place. They repent, beg for strength and mercy, pray that the Lord their God will save them once again. And the Lord always does. This time, the Lord tells Moses to mount a serpent of bronze on a pole so that every time the people find the burning snakes snapping at their heels, they can look up at this sign, lifted up on high, and live. God saves them from snakes with a snake, the exact image of that which threatens them, to show them that even the thing they fear the most can be, in his hands, a sign of life.

My friends, there is nothing to prevent us from being bitten. There is no magic potion, no perfect prayer; there is no law, no wall, no weapon, no amount of money that will keep these snakes away. Nothing can prevent us from being bitten by serpents of a thousand different stripes – the serpents of fear, anxiety, and want; the serpents of loss, grief, and loneliness; serpents that slither in because our sin has taken us far off the path of righteousness and serpents that show up for no reason at all; serpents of illness, pain, and death. Not even our baptisms can keep the snakes at bay – again and again they come slicing through the grass, surprising us, rearing up and lunging at us with fangs bared and full of venom.  

The miracle of our faith is not that we never get bitten. The miracle of our faith is that whenever we do, God is there to stir a memory deep in our hearts. God is there to help stretch our minds back to the stories of our baptisms, stories we remember because we were there, or because of others who have told us, or because of the long, long memory of the Church. God is there to help us recall the promise of that holy sacrament – that the waters of the font are his gift to us, that in these waters we are buried with Christ in his death, and that as we come up out of those waters we are reborn by the Holy Spirit, saved, blessed, and free. Each time we turn back to these stories of our baptisms, we find our hearts, too, turning back to the God who made these stories possible in the first place, turning back to him with love and with repentance, praying that he will save us, once again.

And God always does; God always already has. God has already saved us, once for all, by giving us his Son, lifted high upon the cross, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. God has already saved us from death by death, even death on a cross, to show us that even the thing we most fear can be in God’s hands a sign of life – that the cross, which reeks of shame and suffering and oblivion, can be in God’s hands a place of glory, a sign and source of our salvation. God’s Son is lifted up on high so that even as we find the snakes of suffering snapping at our heels, we may look up and live. And yes, those serpents can cause real pain; they can test our faith and try our endurance. But the sign of the cross means that their venom is of limited potency; their bite can only burn for so long. More than this, the wounds they inflict can themselves be transformed by God’s grace into places of strength and healing, of repentance and mercy and grace. Yes, we are bitten, but by the power of the cross we are still saved.

So if you find yourself being bitten – when you find yourself being bitten – take heart. You are in good company. Not just the company of fellow travelers along this particular journey, but all the company of heaven – this great extended family that stretches around the world and back through the centuries, this gathering of friends and neighbors, sisters and brothers, all connected by the great story of our baptism. For in this story, we are not forgotten, but claimed, called, chosen as God’s own sons and daughters. In this story, the snakes of the world fall away to dust and all that remains is mercy and light, love and life. In this story, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes his story may not perish but may have eternal life. Look up. Look up at this story, your story, and live.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

The Fourth Sunday of Lent, 11 March 2018

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


Posted on March 15, 2018 .

That Foolish Cross

The message about the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  (1 Corinthians 1:18)

In the last chapter of his book, “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stephenson introduces us to “an older black woman” who “looked tired and wore what [we] used to call a ‘church meeting hat.’”  Stephenson, a lawyer, has just won the release of a man who’d been sentenced to life in prison as a sixteen year old boy, whose confession to his crime had been beaten out of him by police.  He’d been in prison for forty-five years.

Stephenson thinks he has seen the woman at the courthouse before, but he can’t figure out who she is, so he goes over to her and asks if she is a relative of the man who’s case has been won.

“‘I’m not related to nobody here,’” she says, “‘I just come here to help people.  This is a place full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here.’”

She goes on, “‘My sixteen-year-old grandson was murdered fifteen years ago....  I grieved and grieved.  I asked the Lord why he let someone take my child like that.  He was killed by some other boys....  Those boys were found guilty ... and the judge sent them away to prison forever.  I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse....

“‘I sat in the courtroom after they were sentenced and just cried and cried.  A lady came over to me and gave me a hug and let me lean on her.  She asked me if the boys who got sentenced were my children, and I told her no.  I told her the boy they killed was my child.  She sat with me for almost two hours... we didn’t neither of us say a word...  It felt good to... have someone to lean on....’”

“‘All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence....  I decided I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.’”  (Bryan Stephenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2015, p. 306-308)

This is not a sermon about the injustice of sentencing children to a lifetime in prison, or any other aspect of cruelty meted out in the name of Justice.  This is a sermon about an older black woman who finds that her grief at the murder of her grandson is compounded, not alleviated, when the children who committed the crime are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison.  Which is to say that this is a sermon about a woman who discovers that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Can you imagine trying to console such a woman?  Can you imagine how you would react when she told you that these fresh tears of hers were falling for the boys who murdered her grandson?

These are not even stories about children who were wrongfully accused or punished.  There is foolishness aplenty to go around: there is violence, there is cruelty; there is hatefulness and sheer stupidity; there is anger and resentment; there is crime, and there is punishment.  And there is precious little wisdom, precious little wisdom in the world... and precious little mercy.  But there is a woman with a hat, whose own pain did not obliterate the possibility of mercy, a woman who found that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

“The message about the Cross is foolishness,” Saint Paul tells us.  Yes, he does go on; but let’s start with the foolishness.  Let’s acknowledge that Saint Paul is correct, and that more and more of the world sees it this way.

“Hopelessly male-dominated and irretrievably patriarchal,” is the way a father recently told me his twenty-something daughters view the church and its texts that transmit to us the story of the Cross.

“Completely un-interested and utterly un-convinced,” is the way a mother recently told me her tween-aged children assess the church and our God.

They might have told me that the message of the Cross is foolishness, as far as their children are concerned.

There ought to be some calculus in the universe that helps us make sense of the world.  There ought to be a glass through which we could look to discern the truth, scales we could use to weigh real justice.  There ought to be a key one could possess that would ensure real insight.   There ought to be a secret you could learn to unlock the mysteries of life, and another that would unlock the mysteries of death.  There ought to be an answer to the question, Why?  There ought to be a way to know whatever it is that needs to be known.  There ought to be a balm to soothe the pain.  There ought to be a pattern to unscramble from all this mess.   There ought to be a priest who knows the secrets.  There ought to be a reason, yes, there ought to be a reason.

But there is no calculus, no glass and no scale.  There is no key, no secret, no answer, no way to know, no balm, no pattern, no priest, and no reason that we know of.  So often there is no reason.  But there is the Cross, casting the shadow of its saving promise over the whole of creation.  

The Cross is a black hole of death, drawing all the matter and energy of death toward itself with irresistible power, and challenging every calculus, every glass, every scale, and key, and secret, and answer, and way, and balm, and pattern, and priest, and every reason; and proclaiming by sheer force of power its own foolishness.

What a ridiculous way to save the world: with a man in all his weakness bleeding, suffocating, and dying on a Cross, without so much as stopping to explain to us how this is supposed to work; why it’s good for us.  But the Cross is not an instrument of logic; it is an instrument of grace.  And it is matter of divine mercy that true grace is not governed by logic;  if it was, who of us would be saved?  If, at the Cross, where the Son of God flung himself into the black hole of death to overcome death’s power, God had paused to check the receipt and make sure the math added up correctly, the sky would not have darkened, the curtain of the Temple would not have been torn in two, the earth would not have shaken - not without also allowing the man who hung there to leap from his doom and dance on the heads of his persecutors.  But, for whatever reason, that is not how God works.  Call him a mystery; he is to me.  If God were to check the receipt in my case, there is no way he would have sent his Son to die: this much I know.  I am a sinner who is in need of mercy, not logic.  Maybe you know this about yourself, as well.  And maybe this is the crucial insight that allows us to embrace the foolishness of the Cross: when we know we are being saved, because we know we need to be saved.

When I look at the world today so much of it makes no sense to me.  About the only thing that does make sense are those videos one comes across on the Internet that tell the stories of the dog that adopted a piglet to care for it, or the kitten who frolics with a crow, or the lioness who raises an orphaned baby antelope as her own offspring.  These tiny and comical stories open up glimpses of a world that we think for a moment might be possible, but on reflection we see them for the foolishness they are: you can’t organize the world around the expectation that kittens and crows will play together, or that lions will foster antelopes.

Well, you can’t organize the world around something as foolish as the Cross, either.  Which is why we have organized the church around it instead.

On the last page of his book, as Bryan Stephenson is trying to render some meaning from the sorrow, pain, and suffering that he has seen and known, he draws this conclusion, “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.” (Stephenson , p 314)  He could have been writing a caption for the Cross, whose power, liberation, and transformation are always offered to the undeserving: to me and to you, for instance.

Some day, when God’s kingdom is finally established, there will be justice on the earth, and there will be peace.  Some day.  But until then let us pray that there will be women in church meeting hats who are given the grace to weep for the suffering of their own children’s killers.  And let us try to learn from such women.  For to do so is to learn about God, and how God’s heart must operate, if God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; and to learn about how God’s fortitude may be given, if God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  To encounter such a woman, and to accept her invitation to lean on her is to realize that she maybe catching stones that were meant to strike you.   And to embrace her, and maybe not to say a word, but to allow the tears to flow, is to discover that the message about the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
5 March 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 5, 2018 .