Waiting Well

So imagine that this morning, over your second cup of coffee and your first bowl of granola, you decided to take a look at the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times. And, after perusing an article about what Taylor Swift is wearing, and flipping through the proliferation of articles about holiday cooking, you turned the page to glance through the Weddings and Celebrations. And after reading a couple of descriptions of glorious parties attended by glamorous people in glitzy hotels, you stumbled upon this peculiar headline: Wedding, November 11/12, 2017, Bridegroom and ? Intrigued, you read on: "The Bridegroom and his bride were married sometime between 11:45pm Saturday night, November 11, and 2:00am November 12. The exact time of the wedding is unknown, as the reporter covering this particular wedding got stuck outside the door and didn’t see the actual vows. Not much is known about the couple’s romance or the proposal, although it is reported that they first met over a glass of a most excellent wine at a recent wedding in Cana of Galilee.

"Their wedding took place in the city of Jerusalem at the bridegroom’s home, where there was presumably a lavish banquet prepared, although this reporter did not herself see said banquet (please reference the previous paragraph on how she was rudely shut out of the reception). The ceremony was significantly delayed by the fact that the bridegroom arrived several hours after his expected time. There was no official reason given for this lateness, but it is rumored that he got into an argument with his future father-in-law about the exact number of goats he was due to acquire along with his beloved.

"It is difficult to describe what the groom wore because it was midnight by the time he arrived and pitch black outside. There were long robes, for sure, and some kind of wrap, but the overall palate of the ensemble was impossible to see in the dark. This reporter can comfortably say, though, that it seemed to be an entirely appropriate wedding garment. The bride was dressed in – well, now come to think of it, I’m not at all sure what the bride wore because I never actually saw her. Is that true? Did I never actually see the bride? I think that’s true, I never saw her and I never got her name. Mostly this is due to the fact that for some reason that was never adequately conveyed to me, the door was slammed in my face when I tried to go inside.

"The other interesting event during these nuptials was the procession of the ten bridesmaids that led the bridegroom and…I guess the bride? Was she there?...anyway, the procession that led the wedding party into the actual party. The night was dark (reference earlier paragraph about the groom’s tardiness, etc.), and the light from the bridesmaids’ lamps added just the right touch to make the moment particularly magical. The bridesmaids themselves, to be honest, were a little disheveled, because they had been waiting for hours and hours (earlier reference, groom was kinda obnoxiously late) and they looked like they had been asleep. Some of the more elaborate up-dos had started to become un-dos and one of the girls had a line across her face from where she’d fallen asleep on the hem of her garment. But the light from their lamps provided a warm, romantic glow…except that, wait a minute, there was that whole scandal with the oil. Apparently the groom’s entrance was so delayed (earlier reference, you get the point), and the girls’ lamps had been burning for so long, that some of them started running out of oil. Where the wedding planner was during all of this, I have no idea, but there was this fraught moment when the five, let’s call them flakier, girls asked if they could borrow some oil. And the other girls actually said no. Ha! Apparently, caring means sharing unless you’re competing to be the bridesmaid who looks the best by lamplight. So the flaky five had to leave, and by the time they got back, the procession had already gone inside, and the door was shut. And when they knocked on the door (this was unbelievable) the groom actually looked right at them and said he didn’t know them! And he slammed the stinkin’ door right in their faces, which all happened to be right next to my face, which was so unbelievably rude that I turned on my dusty heel, walked right to the all-night falafel place, and then went home and filed this article."

When you take a close look at this parable, a couple of things become abundantly clear. First of all, Jesus is not actually interested in describing proper wedding etiquette. I mean, surely the man who provided buckets of wine to bail out an ill-prepared sommelier would let a few ill-prepared bridesmaids come in the door a little late. Secondly, and I’m going to have to offer my apologies to Saint Matthew on this one, Jesus is not actually interested in coaching his followers on how to keep awake. I know, I know, the last line of the Gospel reading is “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” but I suspect this is just the doings of an overly-excited editor who was trying to make this parable fit a particular pattern. Because the bridesmaids do not, in fact, keep awake. They conk out – completely – and only wake up when the town crier starts bellowing that the bridegroom is on the way.                        

No, when you look closely, this parable seems to be about waiting. The bridesmaids are rewarded or punished for the way that they wait. The bridegroom is late, no word on his e.t.a., and some of the bridesmaids wait well, and some of them wait not so well. They all seem to understand that in the waiting, it is their job to keep their lamps lit. No question about that. We don’t hear any tales of bridesmaids who tried to conserve their oil by snuffing out the flame. And they all seem to understand that the waiting is just that…waiting. There’s no anxiety, no running around trying to figure out why the bridegroom is so late. They’re just present in their waiting, un-anxious and relaxed – so relaxed, in fact, that they actually fall asleep. The only difference between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids is that the wise women bring reserves. The wise women know that the delay might just last longer than they expect, and they bring along extra fuel just in case. These are the women who will turn into mothers who always have a pack of crackers in their purses. They know that there’s a chance they might be here for a long time, and they know what it looks like when they start to run on empty, and so they make sure they’ll have enough fuel for the long, dark night.

And if this parable is about the waiting, then it is a good parable for today. Because you and I have been waiting for a long time, for so many things. We have been waiting for healing or for clarity or for real love. We have been waiting for that long longed-for peace that passes our understanding. We have been waiting to see somebody do something about the proliferation of guns and the ease with which they can get into anyone’s hands – wise or foolish. We have been waiting for some truly good news for the poor and the addicted, for the incarcerated and the recently incarcerated, for people of color, for women, and for all of those who live or work in systems where they have little to no power. We have been waiting for the Church to step up and start living like this Jesus we follow actually meant what he said. We have been waiting a long time for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. We have been waiting and waiting and sometimes we feel like we cannot wait any more.

But hear Jesus’ words for us this day – we’re going to have to keep waiting. We’re not going to get peace and perfect righteousness today, somewhere between our second cup of coffee and the end of your Danish. We’re not going to get it all right now. We’re going to have to wait. But here’s the thing – we can wait well. We can wait like Christ wants us to wait, like we know he’s coming. We can wait without fear or anxiety. We can wait and do the job he has given us to do, to wait and let the light of our good works, of our good deeds, of our good lives shine before others. And most importantly, while we’re waiting, we can fill ourselves up. We know what we get like when we’re spiritually hangry, so we can head that off at the pass. We can fill ourselves up. We can pray. Read. Study. Talk. Listen. Sing. Give thanks. Give. It is a truth known by many wise people that the more we give of the gifts that God has given us, the more we become filled up, like a cup that runneth over. So give. Give some more. Do justice. Love mercy. And take and eat, take and eat, take and eat, here at this richly-set, lavish banquet table.

Yes, the eternal justice and complete peace we long for is delayed. And yes, sometimes it feels like we have been waiting in the darkness for a long time. But look around. Imagine that this morning, you are surrounded by bridesmaids, waiting. We are waiting with hope and expectation. We are waiting with our light shining bright into the world. We are waiting with a reserve of oil – of patience and love – fed by Christ’s very presence in this worship. Open your eyes and see that this is the very beginning of the kingdom of heaven, shining all around you.     

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

12 November 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on November 14, 2017 .

Humility

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once uttered a somewhat withering remark, to the effect that you can tell the church is in trouble when the clergy are overly concerned about the color of their buttons.  He was referring to the practice in the Anglican Communion of priests adopting the symbols of rank when taking on distinct roles within the church hierarchy.  Canons of the church are allowed the addition of red piping and red buttons on their cassocks, as is sometimes in evidence here in our own precincts.  Archbishop Williams, even after he had achieved the highest possible position in the entire Anglican Communion, usually dispensed with the sartorial indications of his own rank and office, preferring plainest black.  He very likely had in mind Jesus’ own teaching about the scribes and Pharisees: “do not do as they do....  They do all their deeds to be seen by others, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” 

Jesus was talking about the small accoutrements still used by Orthodox Jews in their prayer: the leather boxes containing a verse of the Torah, and the fringes of the prayer shawl, the tallit.  I don’t think he was criticizing the use of these aids to prayer, rather, he objected to the transformation of them into items of personal ornament.   And he went on: “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher.... And call no one your father on earth for you have one Father - the one in heaven.”   It has to be admitted that it is not immediately clear that our Lord belonged to an Anglo-catholic parish.  It’s a bit of a worry.  I, myself, am in possession of the ecclesiastical garment with the most fulsome and capacious sleeves of any of the clergy in this parish, so I will brook no criticism of my colleagues, wherever your minds may wander.

Of the many sayings we may delight to imagine that Jesus never spake, these few in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel are among my favorites to ignore.  I do not wish to be called “Rabbi,” but you may stick with “Father,” unless you hear otherwise from the Verger.

My real supposition is that Jesus was not expressing a blanket prohibition of the terms “rabbi” and “father” any  more than he was articulating a prohibition of the use of the phylacteries, or the tallit.  Jesus’ aim in his teaching was to express something of the sanctity of humility, and the inevitability of humbleness in the truly faithful life.  But these few sayings of Jesus’ are precariously available to the practitioner of what we might call “false humility.”  For it is easy enough to cast aside the buttons, trim off the fringes, shorten the sleeves, and insist that everyone call you “Bob” without ever actually adopting the true attitude of servanthood and humility that Jesus is teaching about here.  In the church, we often decide to have it both ways: to keep both the buttons and the false humility - it’s a specialty of ours.

A little article I came across recently carried the intriguing title, “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Anymore.”  The author posited these four plausible reasons:

“They don’t want to be lectured.

They see the church as judgmental.

They see the church as hypocritical.

They see the church as irrelevant.”*

I think Jesus might have made a similar assessment of the scribes and the Pharisees, and there’s every possibility that he shares this assessment - at least some of the time - of the church.

But Jesus was an ineffective administrator, and he lacked the imagination of a bureaucrat.  He never came up with a four-point program, or with a list of seven secrets of effective discipleship.  He didn’t devise a curriculum, or write a white paper.  He put no system in place to prevent the church from falling into these same pitfalls to which the religious leaders of his own day were also prone.  

No.  This is what he said.  “The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  The first of those phrases refers to himself, in the first instance.  And the rest of it applies to us, Jesus’ own mother providing the first example of the truth of the teaching: she who humbled herself was exalted.

By one account, at the beginning of Scripture, all humanity - in the form of the first human - was formed out of the dust of the earth, and animated with the breath of God.  You might call that a humble beginning, albeit ennobled by the divine breath.

Near the other end of the Bible, the Son of God - himself fully human - is taken down from the Cross after his scourging, humiliation, and execution, to be placed, at last, in the ground, bringing, in a sense, to perfect completion God’s human experiment: from dust to dust.

In between, the children of God were called into the covenant from which they restlessly and repeatedly meandered; empires rose and fell; the patriarchs and prophets followed God’s guidance to lead the people into and out of exile more than once, and toward the Promised Land; the Tribes of Israel were dispersed; judges and kings lived and died; civilizations were lost; the Temple was built, destroyed, and rebuilt; the Ark of the Covenant disappeared; and the word of God was spoken, mangled, dreamed about, interpreted, written down, lost, set to music, imperfectly copied, and buried in the sand.

But still, for Christians, the story of God goes from dust to dust.  Although it was written by the hand that laid the foundations of the earth and fastened the cornerstone of creation, the hand of the One who shut up the sea with doors, and who made the clouds a garment of thick darkness, who commanded the morning, and caused the dayspring to know its place, who entered into the springs of the sea and walked to its depth, who first perceived the breadth of the universe, who knows the place where light dwells, and as for darkness, knows the place thereof, who is himself the father of the rain, and from whose womb came the ice and the hoary frost of heaven, who binds the sweet influences of Pleiades and looses the bands of Orion, who knows the ordinances of heaven, who lifts up his voice to the clouds, and sends lightnings that they may go and say unto the world, “Here we are,” who put wisdom in the inward parts, who satisfies the desolate places with water, and causes plants to spring from the earth, who fills the appetites of young lions, and provides for the raven his food, who knows the treasures of the snow, who has seen the doors of the shadow of death, and for whom the gates of death have opened.**

This is the God whose Son “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him.”***

This God gives us our life, our history, from dust to dust: a story of humility crowned by the humiliating death of his Son, the Messiah, born in a stable, then utterly forgotten for most of his life; who in preparation for his own demise stooped down to wash the feet of his followers, on the night before he died.  And then, from the humble, borrowed grave wherein his body lay in the dust, a new work sprang forth, and new life was born, the hope of heaven burst into the world.

The paradox of Christian faith is that triumph is won by the humble figure of Jesus, whose own followers were uncertain about who he is, or about what would become of them.  And Jesus regularly reminds them - and us - that if his way toward triumph was humble, we should expect our path toward triumph to be humble too.  We should embrace humility, we should be accustomed to kneeling, and the dust should be well-known to us, we should be familiar with the ways of servanthood, we should be prepared to take up our cross, and we should be ready to give up our lives - to lose them in all kinds of meaningful ways, if we expect to find meaning in life at all.  This is the consistent and regular theme of Christ.

Jesus is not teaching us easy lessons.  And no lesson can ever be easy whose lesson-plan goes like this: God is omnipotent, but he sent his Son to us to set aside his power, live in humility, and give up his life for the sake of our salvation: be like God, and humble yourself so that you may be exalted with him.  This is not a winning sales-pitch.  There is no jackpot here; there may not even be colored buttons.  There is servanthood, which means stooping, bending, feeding, working, sweating, staying up late, and rising early; and which also implies that while you are doing it, covered in dust, you will probably not be sufficiently well compensated.  Mind you, I am not preaching an ordination sermon here; Jesus seems to indicate that this is the Christian life he is talking about - meant for all of us, not just for some.

The thing about this message of humbleness is that you cannot really convince someone about it with a lecture.  True humility always resists judgmental-ism and hypocrisy.  And in world that is screaming in pain and poverty, the humility that leads one person to serve another in need will never be irrelevant.  For there in the dust, is carried to us still on wisps of ennobled breath, the reminder that “all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Which is not the sermon I wanted to preach to you, only two weeks away from Commitment Sunday, when I want to be talking to you about stewardship, about giving, about the importance of your generosity of spirit.  But the sermon I wanted to preach makes no sense if those four reasons “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore” ring true: if I lecture you in a church that seems to be judgmental, hypocritical, and irrelevant.

Jesus looked at the buttons of the scribes and the Pharisees, and he told them that their lectures were not only boring, they sounded judgmental, hypocritical, and irrelevant under the circumstances of the day.  And the buttons (the phylacteries, the fringes) were not a problem in and of themselves, I think he meant to say, they only proved the point.

But it would do no good for me to go and chop off the very lovely, full, and ample sleeves of my best surplice.  Better to gather them in when I kneel, and be in search of feet to wash; to allow those sleeves to drag in the dust, if it puts me alongside you, where we can both see the Cross from a different angle, and seek to serve one another.  And we find there in the dust that there are others who are in need, whose lives have been shaped by deep humility, and who need to hear Jesus’ promise that soon and very soon they, and all who have been humbled, will be exalted.  May God give us the grace to wrap those humble souls in the long sleeves of our garments, and keep them warm.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

5 November 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

* Wes McAdams, www.radicallychristian.org, 13 June 2014

** See Job 38

*** Philippians 2:7-9

 

Posted on November 5, 2017 .

You Shall Be Holy

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)

Like many people this weekend, I found myself with a sharp knife in my hand, gouging an eye out... of a pumpkin.  The face I carved on my jack-o-lantern has triangle-eyes and a triangle-nose because straight lines are easier to carve out of pumpkin flesh than circles.  The only distinguishing feature of my jack-o-lantern is that it boasts an unambiguous and widely beaming smile - without any sign of a jagged, menacing tooth or a grimace.  It had been some years since I’d carved a pumpkin, and I had forgotten how much of the guts of the pumpkin there are to be removed.  I wanted to do a clean job of it, so I was scooping and scooping the stringy flesh, and the glistening off-white seeds out until the inside of my pumpkin was smooth, and you could feel the spoon running over the gentle and distinctive ridges in the hollowed out space, where the candle would be placed to make the jack-o-lantern glow.

Halloween customs are only one step away from religious ritual with good reason.  And around this time of year we let our inner Dr. Frankenstein have a bit of free rein; and we flirt a little with pretending to be God.  In our imaginations, at least, we commune with the dead; we indulge outlandish fantasies about who or what we want to be if we could be anyone or anything we want; and we bring creations into being with our own hands, deciding what they should look like and how they should act.  One of my nephews, I hear, is becoming a dinosaur for Halloween this year, although I am not sure that this means there will be a noticeable difference in his behavior.  Perhaps he will roar a little more loudly than usual.

Halloween is not actually meant to get us thinking too much.  But in a certain frame of mind, you might wonder, as you scoop the flesh from a pumpkin to empty it out, what kind of attitude you want to give it when you are done with it.  You could also wonder if this is what God did with you and with me when he fashioned us with his hands.  I much prefer this way of thinking (that we were crafted by hand) to the thought that we were assembled factory-style by robotic angels, and customized after-market.  Except that you quickly begin to hope that God’s process might be the reverse of pumpkin carving: you hope that God is filling up, rather than emptying out; that God is sculpting, rather than hollowing; and that God’s precision of design is significantly more adept than your own.

The Gospel reading this morning - which has nothing to do with Halloween - would appear to be a dream of a reading for any preacher, since it contains those wonderful words, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Golden Rule!  What day isn’t made better by a reminder of the primacy of this rule?  What life isn’t improved by adhering to it more closely?  What injury can’t be helped by hewing more nearly to this rule?  We call it golden for a reason!

But there is a danger in our easy readiness to luxuriate in the warm perfection of the Golden Rule.  And the danger is that we may begin to believe that it is, in and of itself, a perfect summary of the Christian faith; faith’s only indispensable tenet; and the sole key to our salvation.  In truth, however, nearly all religions that I can think of embrace this rule, and there is not much that is distinctively Christian about it.  The Golden Rule does not, in fact, encapsulate the Christian Gospel - although I am willing to assert that it remains indispensable to our faith.

Remember that the injunction to love your neighbor as yourself is the second commandment, not the first.  The greatest commandment, Jesus agrees with the entire biblical and rabbinical tradition, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  To love the Lord your God, this is the first and great commandment.  And, hard as the second commandment may be to keep, this first commandment may be even harder for us.

I have often thought that the second commandment is crucially linked to the first commandment, precisely because there are few better ways to demonstrate your love for God than by showing your love for your neighbor.  We need the second commandment if we are to have any hope of abiding by the first, I have thought.  But the further we go into this century, the more I wonder about that order of dependency, as explicit faith in God becomes less and less common, and our ability to love our neighbors as our selves seems ever more elusive, despite having all the means in the world to do it.  Maybe the less we believe in, and therefore love God, the harder it becomes to find a reason to love our neighbors.  Maybe the second commandment really is dependent on the first, because without a divine injunction to do so, can we really just take it for granted that human nature will lead us to the inevitable conclusion that it’s best for everyone if we choose to love our neighbor?  The newspapers present very little evidence to suggest that this is so.

Traditionally, Jewish law contains not two commandments, and not ten commandments, but 613 commandments.  Many of those commandments find their source in the book of Leviticus: we heard a few of them today.  But we also heard a preoccupation of God’s in the few verses of our reading from Leviticus, when we heard God tell Moses to tell the people of Israel, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  More than once God instructs Moses to make this point to his people as he delivers the law.  Suffice it to say that it will not suffice to say that there is a short, working definition of “holy” that I can provide in order to understand what God is talking about here.  God told Moses to take off his shoes at the burning bush because the ground he was standing on was holy.  You can read the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures as an account of the Holy God fashioning for himself a holy people: calling them, urging them, tuning them, challenging them, establishing their loyalty and his, asking them to purify themselves, and constantly calling them back to him when they wander.  Summarized in a single paragraph this sounds like the basis of a PBS costume drama.  Judi Dench could play God.

A similar reading can be given to the New Testament - as a continuation of the divine project for the Holy One to establish for himself a holy people, culminating in the sacrifice on the Cross of Holiness for the sake of holiness.  Read the New Testament this way and you see that God did not send his Son into the world to suffer and die in order to teach his people to be nice to one another: the task is not worthy of the Servant.  But God, whatever his purposes may be, has never curtailed his project of establishing a holy people, begun so long ago.  And the church has understood that this is the project into which we have been enlisted, which we generally consider far more exciting (and hopeful) than earning merit badges for being nice.  And part of the wonder of the revelation of the New Testament of Jesus has been the message that God intends to expand and enlarge the body of those who are called to holiness.  Indeed, one of the wonders of this new covenant is that it seems to be open and available to anyone who wants to be a part of it.  

But what does it mean to be part of the covenant community of God’s holy people?  What does it mean to be holy?  This question strikes me as dangerous in 21st century America.  In too many hands it becomes an argument for purity; and any religion that fixates overly on purity becomes perverse in its self-righteousness and exclusivity.  

So maybe Halloween gives us a context to help us see what God means when he tells Moses that we, his people, “shall be holy.”  Maybe we need to consider, as we carve out our pumpkins, and decide what kind of jack-o-lanterns they will be... maybe we need to stop and think about God’s intention for what kind of people he meant for us to be - individually and as a community.  Maybe we need to realize that in fashioning us, God was in some way also making an expression of himself, forming us, as he did, in his own image and likeness.  Maybe we need to contemplate not what was a scooped out, but what specifically was placed within us to give us our potential for holiness.  To be cheesey about it, maybe we need to consider what it is that makes us glow.

Two specific sets of expectations stem directly from whatever divine flame illumines our lives: the call to worship God and the call to serve one another.  These are complicated ideas which are nevertheless easy to identify when you see them, or when they are absent from our lives.  More to the point, worship and service stand in stark contrast to the goals of profit and exploitation that are so much at the heart of our market-driven lives, and which have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel or with holiness.

In this church, we are explicitly trying on our vocation to holiness when at that end of the church the guests from our soup kitchen are being measured for winter boots that we are able to supply for them, as they were yesterday morning; while at this end of the church that altar was being prepared for Mass.  It’s the kind of thing that ironically makes you want to take off your shoes, for you get the sense that you are walking on holy ground.  You understand that this is not the way most of the world conducts itself?

When the Pharisees went to Jesus and had a lawyer ask him which was the greatest commandment, it was intended as a test.  But in our day and age the test is meant for us, especially since the second commandment is so easy to agree upon and still do nothing about it.  It would appear that the likelihood that we will take the second commandment seriously may, indeed, be closely linked to whether or not we take the first commandment seriously: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This, however, is a lesson that you cannot learn from a pumpkin.  Although you may have transformed it, you probably did not do so out of love, and the pumpkin can never love you back.

But if the simple act of carving a pumpkin and placing a small candle inside it to make it glow can turn the attention to the hand of God, that made each one of us, then so be it.  Maybe it will also help us to hear again the call to be holy people, called into a holy communion, assured by a holy sacrifice of the promise of holiness.  Maybe it will help us to know the Holy One whose breath gave life to all things, whose Presence with us now marks this place as holy ground, whose likeness assures us of the holiness to which we are called, and whose promise can be trusted when he says that we shall be holy, for the Lord our God is holy.  And let us hear what our Lord Jesus Christ said, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  And then, God willing, you shall be holy.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

29 October 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 30, 2017 .