What God Sees

If you came to church this morning looking for the frustrating interplay between religion and politics, you have come to the right place! We are mid-story. Saul is still king, but God regrets having chosen him because he thinks Saul is not sufficiently obedient. So, God dispatches Samuel the prophet to Bethlehem to survey the sons of Jesse, from whom he will choose one to replace Saul as king.

The separation of religion and politics is a fairly modern idea, and anyone who mixes them up is engaging in ancient human behavior. It might be the case that not to mix the two requires an act of artificial compartmentalization that is unrealistic to expect of most people. I don’t know. The mixologist of our story is Samuel the prophet, who has already brought hard news to Saul that God is displeased with him. Now Samuel must discern the Lord’s will among the sons of Jesse, and he starts by assuming that the oldest son is the one most fit to be king – it’s a natural assumption. But, no, the Lord has rejected Eliab, the eldest son of Jesse, as he rejects the next six sons, too, as they each, in turn, pass before the prophet. “Are all your sons here?” Samuel asks Jesse.

“There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep,” comes the reply. For who ever heard of the last-born son, the eighth son, being chosen for anything, let alone to be king?

“Send and bring him,” the prophet demands.

The eighth son is ruddy, handsome, with beautiful eyes. And the Lord whispers or shouts inside Samuel’s head, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” The eighth son, David, does not immediately ascend to the throne. Much will happen, beginning with David’s famous confrontation with Goliath, before he becomes king. But he has been chosen. And his destiny is sealed.

What was it about David that God saw? Was it his good looks? What else does David have going for him? He is a kid, untested, and unknown. David is not the obvious choice at all, but God explains his intentions to Samuel the prophet as the sons of Jesse parade before him. “The Lord,” God tells Jesse, “does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

The Lord does not see as mortals see. What a difficult thing this is for us to understand! How seldom does it occur to us that God does not see things the way we see things? In fact we are extremely likely to suspect that God shares much the same view that we have, albeit from a different angle. But, no, the Lord tells Samuel, I do not see anything at all as mortals see.

For much of his life David will prove worthy of God’s insight. But eventually, even he will forsake the promise that the Lord saw within him. Lust will cloud his judgment when he, from his rooftop, espies Bathsheba in the altogether; and the virtue that God had seen in David will be warped as he pursues what he wants at any cost, and then tries to cover up what he has done.

I have to ask myself what is the point of reading the ancient story of King David? What is the point of knowing that he was taken from the sheepfold? What is the point of following the report of Samuel’s anointing? Historically speaking there are many reasons for this, the most important one being to establish the legitimacy of David’s kingship. But let’s just say that discussing the legitimacy of national rulers is just not something I want to get into from the pulpit at this moment in time.

The real reason for us to read the story is to hear the explanation that God gives to Samuel for choosing David: “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And it will not be a change in his appearance that becomes David’s un-doing; it will be a change of his heart. Even God’s anointed king, chosen for the goodness of his heart, can fail when he has a change of heart. What child does not need to hear this lesson, that the Lord does not see as mortals see? What shepherd could not use a reminder of it? And who does not need to be reminded that even the best of us will fall short of the purposes for which God has made us, namely to glorify him. Sometimes we will fall very far short, indeed, when the goodness of our hearts is warped, dented, mis-shapen by sin.

I am reminded regularly of how very odd it is to do what we do in church; how very strange it is to read these old stories and mine them for contemporary meaning. And then, I hear the word of God inside the prophet’s head: “The Lord does not see as mortals see,” and I ask myself where else we were going to learn these lessons; where else we were going to be reminded that God sees inwardly what we can never see on our own?

The connection from the story of the anointing of David to the Gospel story of the healing of the man born blind is not immediately obvious. But here it is: Jesus is walking along and he “sees a man blind from birth.” Jesus “sees,” and what he sees, he sees not as mortals see. For mortals see a man who, at best can beg on the streets for the rest of his life, and at worst is the sign of a curse on his parents. But what the Lord sees is someone who “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The Lord does not see as mortals see.

But the connections to the story of David do not really end with a shared verb. It is not only the man born blind who cannot be seen for what he really is. Neither can Jesus be seen for what he truly is; he cannot be accounted for by the religious figures of his day. When Jesus arrives on the scene, no story of his miraculous birth is invoked. Remnants of frankincense, gold, and myrrh are not produced to establish his provenance. His Davidic ancestry, such as it is, is far removed, and probably undocumented. He is the inheritor of no wealth, no title, no name, no office, no training that sets him apart. He is not even a shepherd; how could he be the Lord’s anointed one?

The Lord does not see as mortals see. Samuel sees David for the purpose that God intends. Jesus sees the blind man as an instrument of the glory of God. And the Pharisees see Jesus as an unwelcome presence, probably a charlatan, but less than he truly is. The transitive property holds true: mortals do not see as the Lord sees.

Now, by this stage in Lent you should have spent at least three weeks contemplating your sins. I certainly have… spent all this time… thinking about your sins. Lent has become deeply unpopular, just as sin has become deeply unpopular – or at least the process of identifying sin within ourselves. To indulge in the language of sin and sinners, is to participate in that very churchy habit which is anathema to 21st century Americans – judging. To identify sin is to employ judgment, and probably to arouse guilt, and then to incite shame, or so the current narrative about the church’s pre-occupation with sin goes.

But there is at least another set of possibilities, if we allow for the possibility that the Lord does not see as mortals see. It is possible that during Lent, we are invited to try to see ourselves as God sees us. If David had ever managed to do this later in life, he might have remembered how God showed him to Samuel, how surprising it was to be brought in from the sheepfold – the last, and the least of the sons of Jesse – and to be told that he would be anointed by the prophet of the Lord to be king. And he might have noticed how his youthful, brave, and noble self, contrasted sharply to his older self, now leering over the rooftop at Bathsheba. Had he forgotten, strolling on his rooftop and peeping at a woman in her bath, having exercised such great power in his youth with God’s blessing, had he forgotten that it was not power or good looks that God saw in him, it was his heart? And what had become of that heart, twisted by sin?

Jump back to the New Testament. Most people I know would read the story of the man born blind and identify the Pharisees with the church: narrow-minded, mean-spirited, nasty, judgy men who are eager to assign blame, guilt, and shame. I hope this is an unfair assessment, but it comes from somewhere, and probably not from whole cloth. But if the church has employed Lent, or any other season, day, hour, minute, or second of time to indulge its narrow-minded, mean-spirited, nasty, judgy, mannish attitudes, then we have been wrong to do so, especially in Lent, which ought to be a season for stretching ourselves to see ourselves more as God sees us. For the Lord does not see at mortals see.

Yes, David, you are a sinner, and your heart has twisted out of shape. But do you remember how beautiful you are in my sight, which has nothing to do with the color of your eyes? Do you know how deeply I looked into your heart before I allowed my holy oil to anoint your head? Do you know how well I know you: how broken you have become, and yet how beautiful you still are to me, although you have become ugly to those around you, who cannot see you as I do?

If there is a reason to keep track of our sins, it is because we need to be reminded how easily we stray from being the people God made us to be. Created by his own fingers, anointed by his Holy Spirit, beautiful in his sight, whether the first daughter or the eighth son, shepherdess or tycoon – God sees you not as mortals see you, and God knows how beautiful you are, how beautiful you were made to be. But we are distracted by things that lure us from our rooftops to twist our hearts, and become people we were never meant to be. If it can happen to David, it can certainly happen to you and to me, and no doubt it has.

Gone are the days that the intimate relationship of politics and religion led a prophet to anoint a king. But God still sees things differently than mortals see. Most especially he sees you and me differently. God knows exactly how we were made – with what fine workmanship, and with what exquisite beauty. And God knows how sin has warped our lives, twisted our hearts, and made us to become people we were never meant to be. But the beauty of God’s creation remains in each and every one of us, and none can or will be judged without this consideration.

Perplexed, by the conundrum of a blind man whose sight had been given to him by an unwelcome presence who is probably a charlatan, the Pharisees, return to the man born blind to remind him that Jesus cannot be more than he appears to them to be; that they don’t see it, and that anyone who claims to see it (whatever “it” is) in him, had best be careful. “He answered, ‘I do not know… One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’”

The Lord does not see as mortals see; and we do not see as God sees. But now and then we are given a glimpse, and we see ourselves or others as we truly are, as the beautiful creatures God made us to be. And we rejoice to discover in those flashes of vision that though we were blind, now we see. May God ever open our eyes to help us more and more to see as he sees, and to live our lives accordingly, as people anointed with the power of the Spirit, and to rejoice!

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

26 March 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 26, 2017 .

More Than a Meet Cute

The “meet cute” is a narrative device used primarily in movies that places two characters who are destined to fall in love in the same place for the first time. It is the moment when the love interests meet, usually in some charming, unexpected, or “cute” way. Here is the meet cute as described by a fictional film writer in the movie The Holiday: “Say a man and a woman both need something to sleep in, and they both go to the same men’s pajama department. And the man says to the salesman, ‘I just need bottoms.’ The woman says, ‘I just need a top.’ They look at each other, and that’s the meet cute.” That particular example is taken from the real 1938 film Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, but there are plenty of other meet cutes to choose from. There is the moment in Singin’ in the Rain when Gene Kelly jumps in Debbie Reynolds’ open-topped car, or when Katharine Hepburn lines up on Cary Grant’s golf ball in Bringing up Baby. It’s when Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes first lock eyes through the fish tank in Romeo + Juliet, when Hugh Grant spills orange juice all over Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan first shake hands in the moment When Harry Met Sally. The meet cute is when the star you’ve been following in the story finally meets the star you’ve been waiting to see, and the sparks, as they say, start flying.

It’s kind of like when a man, exhausted after a long journey in the hot sun, spots a well sitting quiet at the edge of town. He turns casually to his friends, or his followers, and suggests that they start off into the city to buy some food, while he heads heavily over to the well to sit for a moment and massage his dusty feet. He’s alone, waiting at the watering hole, when along comes a woman, also alone. She is prepared to go about her business as she would on any other day, but we can see that she is walking into a conversation that will change the rest of her days forever.

Their conversation, as all of these conversations do, starts simply enough: I’d like to buy those pajama bottoms, Isn’t that my golf ball, Give me a drink. But quickly, like all of these conversations do, the talk turns to matters more personal. She asks why he’s talking to her, he tells her that if she knew the answer to that question, she wouldn’t waste time asking it. He tells her he has water to give her that will change her life, and she tells him that she wants some. He tells her he knows of her past husbands and her present situation. She asks him to tell her who he is, and just as they get to this crucial moment – I am he – they are interrupted, as happens in all of these conversations. His disciples come, with eyes wide and mouths agape, letting their shocked faces do the talking while the woman backs out of the scene. She walks away, as in all of these meet cutes, with a quizzical smile on her face. And when she meets others along the way, all she can do is talk about him. I met a man, and such a man!

Now before you start thinking that I’ve become irrevocably irreverent, let me assure you that I’m not adding anything to the story that wasn’t already there in the writing. The well was a loaded setting for those who recorded this story in John’s Gospel. Walking up to a woman at a well was about as close to walking up to a woman at a bar as you can get. The well was where men of the scriptures went to get hitched to find a woman, to land a wife. It was at a well that Moses first saw Zipporah, that Abraham’s servant first found Rebecca for Isaac, where Jacob first spotted Rachel. Wells are hot spots for couples in the Bible, so when Jesus is sitting alone at Jacob’s well, and a lone woman walks up, well, then, you’re firmly within your rights to wonder if this encounter might be a meet cute.

But if this scene is supposed to recall the meet cutes of Bible days gone by, the casting is decidedly suspect. I mean, who is this woman? She’s a nobody – she’s worse than a nobody, she’s a Samaritan, part of that rebel tribe that lives on the wrong side of the tracks and worships on the wrong mountain. And she’s definitely not a star. Imagine a scene in a movie where Tom Hiddleston is sitting alone at a bar, pensively staring into his Scotch, and instead of Charlize Theron walking in, it’s say, oh, I don’t know, me. If you saw that scene in a movie, you would surely think to yourself, No, wait, this can’t possibly be the meet cute, because who’s that pale little person with the red hair? That woman simply won’t do.

And this Samaritan woman simply won’t do in so many ways. Not only is she from the wrong tribe, she’s also just the wrong type of girl. She isn’t a girl at all; she’s a woman, who’s married and lost five husbands, somehow, and who’s now living with a man who is not husband number six. She’s a woman on the wrong schedule, coming to the well at the wrong time of day, choosing to carry her heavy buckets under the hot noonday sun – alone – rather than face the rolling eyes and pursed lips of the other women in town, the ones who had their own meet cutes years ago, whose husbands did not die, or leave town, whose own lives may not have played out like a romantic comedy but who at least played by the rules.

This woman is simply not biblical meet cute material. Women at the well are supposed to have something to offer. They’re supposed to be able to offer a family, a home in exile, legitimacy, good blood lines, flocks and herds and, above all, children. This woman can give Jesus nothing – no wealth, no home, and certainly no children. As far as we can tell, she never even gives him the water he asks for. She has absolutely nothing to offer him except her presence and her questions. She has nothing to offer but herself.

But that is actually perfect. For this is no ordinary meeting with an ordinary man. This is a meeting with Jesus Christ, and he is looking for much more than a meet cute. Jesus is looking for much more than just a star, more than a picture-perfect person. Jesus is looking for a woman who is more than meet cute material; he is looking for a woman who is Gospel material. Jesus is looking for more than a person who can fall in love; he is looking for someone who can help others to fall in love too. Jesus is looking for a believer, a convert, an evangelist. And that makes this moment much, much more than a chance, charming encounter between two people. Because ultimately this moment in John’s Gospel places these two characters in the same place for the first time not so that they can fall in love, but so that we can. This meet cute is not so that these two people can find love that lasts a lifetime, but so that we can find love that lasts for all time. This meet cute is not so that these two people can find their soulmates, but so that we can find rest and peace and salvation for our souls. 

This meet cute is for us. Because our Lord knows that there are times in our lives when we feel completely unworthy to meet Jesus. We do not feel ready to encounter the presence of Christ in scripture or in worship, and when we do drag ourselves into prayer, we expect little from those moments. After all, who are we? We are nobodies, worse than nobodies, because we know what we’ve done in our lives with our bodies and souls and minds. But hear the promise of this Gospel moment – Jesus isn’t looking for a meet cute; Jesus is looking to meet you. Jesus is already madly in love with you; he is looking to meet you for your sake, for mine, so that our hearts will be sparked into greater love by the grace in his presence.

Jesus is looking to meet you. In fact, he already has. You have already met him by a spring of living water, already been embraced by him even though you had nothing to offer, already been seen and cherished by him in spite of everything you had ever done, already been sealed and marked as his own, forever. The great love story, the greatest of your life, has already begun. God has chosen you to love.

Which means that you have a story to tell, a love story, the greatest ever told. You have a story to tell, where you are made into a star, a believer, an evangelist, where you are the one leaving with a happy, quizzical smile on your face and telling everyone you see I have met a man, and what a man! Come and see. Come meet him, come back to meet him, fall in love again and again, for you are made worthy by his grace. And you are beautiful in his eyes, the star of his heart, the perfect match.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

19 March 2017

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on March 23, 2017 .

The Gift

A few days before Christmas I was given a gift that was completely unexpected and greatly appreciated. It was not given to me by any of you! The gift was novel to me, and not only well intentioned, it was also well chosen: there’s no question I’d enjoy it. The gift was handed to me in a shopping bag, it was not wrapped; and I carried it home in that same shopping bag, into which also put some Christmas purchases I had made to give to others, and I set it down in the foyer of the Rectory, amid a number of other shopping bags. I know that I wrapped and gave away all the other contents of that bag, but the gift that was intended for me somehow disappeared. 

I don’t think anyone took it. I’m quite sure I didn’t give it to anyone else – wrapped or unwrapped – but I cannot for the life of me find it. One of two possibilities seems likely to me. Either the gift stayed in the bag and has been moved to the back of a closet somewhere, where eventually it will be discovered. Or, the gift stayed in the bag, and was un-noticed when, at some point, discarded Christmas wrappings, cards, catalogs, etc were added to the bag and sent to the trash, and it will never be seen again. What a shame it is that I have not only lost out on a gift that I am sure I would have enjoyed, but that I also cannot fully appreciate the kindness of the giver.

Of course, I can think of other gifts that are languishing elsewhere, in the back of closets or cupboards, or on a shelf somewhere, some even in the back of the freezer. And there are other gifts that have been lost, or broken, or misused, or eaten by the dog. I do not think of myself as an ungrateful person – quite the contrary, I feel extremely grateful to be the recipient of many gifts, in every sense of the word. But the thing about a gift is that once it has been given away, the giver has no control over it, no matter how generous and good a gift it was. The recipient is always free, and sometimes very likely, to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore the gift altogether. And there is nothing the giver can do about it.

I suppose the most famous, most frequently quoted verse of the entire New Testament may be John 3:16. It is the one verse that can be universally recognized just by its citation. I mean, if I mention Isaiah 7:14 to you, some of you will get the reference right away, but most of you will have to look it up. Not so, when it comes to John 3:16. In fact, if I handed out paper and pencils right now and asked you to write out the text of that verse, most of you would probably get pretty close, and if I let you make a group project of it, we could probably get an accurate translation in several languages and debate the merits of word choice.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Say what you will about this small text and all it signifies; without question, the text asserts that God’s Son is a gift that God has given. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” What is true of the gifts given to me, and the gifts I give to others, is also true of the gifts God gives to his people: the recipient is always free, and sometimes very likely, to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore the gift altogether. And I would add that the ability to quote the text is in no way correlative with the likelihood that one has kept track of the gift.

Just to be clear, the loss of the gift that I am referring to is not what happened on the Cross. No, no, no… I am talking about us - the church, and the world – we are the ones who have all too often lost, ruined, forgotten, or ignored the gift of God’s Son. At least I can say this assuredly of myself, and I suppose that if it is true of me, then it is also true of you.

The mechanics of the church do not necessarily turn into an engagement with Jesus, and it is notoriously easy to become caught up in the mechanics of the church without ever cherishing that most precious gift of God’s – his only Son. This may be especially so in a place like our parish community where the mechanisms of religion are ornamented and complex. What pretty vestments we have! It is entirely possible to take exquisite care of all our other gifts – the hardware and the software here - but still lose track of the gift of Jesus.

You have to wonder about a guy like Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, and therefore well acquainted with the mechanisms of religion. It was Nicodemus’s conversation that prompts Jesus to utter the words that would become John 3:16. What did Nicodemus make of the gift as he sat there face to face with him? St. John informs us of Nicodemus intervention at two subsequent moments – first, he sticks up for Jesus in a small way when the other Pharisees are beginning to condemn him; and later he brings spices to the grave to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So it’s hard to say, frankly, what Nicodemus made of the gift of the Son of God, but it seems like he was trying, somehow, to accept that gift, and not to lose track of him. But Nicodemus can be forgiven for not knowing that he was a witness to the first utterance of John 3:16. After all, he did not know that he would be featured in John 3:1-15.

But we have had time to reflect on the gift; we have presumably built a church because of this gift; and it is the object and purpose of the church to cherish the gift of God’s Son in every conceivable way, never to lose track of him; and to share this gift with the world with a gracious generosity that befits the gift itself.

In the church we are regularly in danger of preaching only to the proverbial choir, which means that we are prone to want to tell ourselves only those things that we want to hear. If this is so, then we are also in danger of never reminding ourselves how easy it is to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore the gifts of God. And we can easily mistake the ready ability to quote John 3:16 for actually cherishing the gift of Jesus in our lives.

But Lent is a good time for a more honest assessment of things, which in this case means, I think, asking ourselves what we have done with this most precious gift of God’s – the gift of his Son. Unlike Nicodemus, we cannot go to him for a starlight chat. But we get to know Jesus in worship and in prayer, and we keep track of Jesus in our lives by serving others, by loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s this pattern that shapes the ministry of this parish, precisely because this is how we establish and deepen our relationship to Jesus. And the pattern is demanding here because we know how easily we lose, ruin, forget, or ignore Jesus.

One of the ways we try to know Jesus better during Lent is walking the Way of the Cross every Friday evening. This year on Fridays we have been reading, at the Stations of the Cross, poems written by the girls of Our Little Roses orphanage in Honduras. Only one of these poems addresses God directly: a prose poem written by a girl named Aylin, who was sixteen years old when she wrote the poem. She has three older sisters and a younger brother. Aylin has in common with Nicodemus that she speaks with God in the nighttime. Her poem is called “Counting”:

“Every week, every day, every hour, every minute, and every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock. I am the knife and the rock is my life. So this is me, Aylin, and this is my difficult life without my family. Some people think that living in a home for girls like Our Little Roses is a big blessing. Yes, I say to those people, it is a great blessing but at the same time it is a curse. Every night I start thinking and talking to God in my prayers: “Why, God, why did my family leave me alone?” There is no answer. A lot of people see me with my sisters and my aunt, who is not really my aunt, and they think we are a happy group, but really all of us think the same thing that no one ever says: One day, will our mother come to visit us? It is ugly to know that everyone in this school is celebrating Mother’s Day. On this day, I feel ashamed to be me. But, God, listen to this: I am counting the time like people count the stars and I will keep counting until my mother comes. My sisters are graduating and soon I will go to college, too. When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: i forgive you! But for now, God, I am here, in Our Little Roses, counting.”[i]

When I hear such emboldened anguish, I realize how careless it is of me to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore gifts I have been given, no matter how small. Still more careless ever to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore the gift of Jesus, who God sent into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. The world is in need of love, and of salvation. God gave us his Son – he gave us his Son – for love, and for salvation. Yes, God gave us his Son, and like any gift, what we do with this most precious gift of love, is up to us.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

12 March 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

 

[i] from Las Chavas, edited by Spencer Reece and Richard Blanco.  From the Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org).

 

Posted on March 12, 2017 .