Love will be provided

The story is told in several ways - mostly, in my experience, by Presbyterians - of the preacher who is going on about a passage such as the parable we’ve just heard from the Gospel, that delivers dire warnings about God’s judgement, in which the unrighteous will be thrown in to outer darkness.  The preacher, quoting the scripture, warns that in that place of hopelessness there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  And a voice from an older person in the congregation pipes up, out of curiosity, at least; representing, perhaps his or her own demographic, in an age of less effective dental care: “What if you’ve got no teeth?” the voice cries out to the fulminating preacher.

To which the preacher responds with certainty, “Teeth will be provided!”

The idea persists that if there is a God, he must be awfully good at ensuring that his people suffer.  And many wonder whether or not God has any higher priority than just that - condemning people to outer darkness and an eternity of teary grinding of teeth.  Today’s Gospel reading does not do much to dispel this notion.  The only thing that’s missing from it are the flames of hell.  But no one fleeing the fires in northern California this past week would mind such an omission, I’m sure.  I found myself weeping the other day as I read the accounts of some of the 36 people accounted dead so far from those fires, as the flames still blaze.  The photos I’ve seen of Santa Rosa might as well be scenes of Sodom and Gommorrah.  Friends I have in the area still sound stunned, devastated, and deeply uncertain about the future.

This week it was fires; last week it was hurricanes; a madman with an arsenal the week before that; earthquake the week before; and floods the week before that.  And that’s not even to mention the threat of war, or terrorism, or the rising tide of violent nationalism; or a dysfunctional federal government.  

How dare the church ask us to step inside and hear about a king who throws a wedding banquet and discovers a guest without the proper garment.  “Bind him hand and foot,” the king says to his attendants, “and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  All because he wasn’t wearing a wedding garment.

Where are you supposed to get the proper garment when you have been pulled in from the street, where you are begging in order to get your next meal, or your next fix?  How can you be properly attired if a Nobel Peace Prize winner won’t even speak up for you whenpeople around you are being slaughtered?  Where are you supposed to find the proper clothes when everything you own has just been incinerated, and your wife died in your arms as you sought safety in the swimming pool? 

It’s frankly almost indecent to ask us to sift through the wreckage of this parable and look for good news.  One begins to suspect why the invited guests chose not to attend the wedding banquet of the king’s son in the first place.

That is, until we realize that we have the privilege of watching this parable unfold from a hillside, a safe distance away from the goings-on.  There is a barely-moving stream nearby, as we lie down on the broad green hillside.  We can hear the band playing wedding music at the king’s palace, and we see the torches burning.  And we have heard the gate slam shut, outside of which we now see a shoddily dressed man, stumbling into the deepening gloom of the night as he walks slowly away from the banquet in ever more painful steps.  And we can hear him sobbing.

As we watch, a young man dressed as a shepherd happens to come along, and asks if he can join us on then hillside.  Of course he may.  He stares with us at the strange story unfolding.  And he can point out to us from our elevated position the farms and businesses of the neighbors who had declined the invitation to the feast.  He knows the area, and the situation.

The shepherd carries a bag, and from it he takes a bottle of wine, which he offers to share with us.  There is also some bread and some lovely oil to dip it in.

“Tell us,” we ask him, “tell us about this strange king, so generous and so demanding; so difficult to understand; so insistent on his way?”

“Well,” said the shepherd, “this kind of thing has happened before.  It’s true that the king is wealthy and generous.  He has opened his gates before to those whom he calls his neighbors.  But they have riches of their own, in fact most of them have more money than he does.  They suspect that any feast he could serve would be inferior to the feasts they put on their own tables.  They imagine that his taste is old-fashioned, his menu is second-rate, and that his wine will run out.”

“Is this true?” We ask of our new friend.  “Is the king of limited means?”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he tells us.  “Although the stone walls around his palace seem old, and the trees have not been pruned so well, and their branches reach out over the wall, all is, in fact, beautiful within.  And although at his table the fare is sometimes simple, it is no less exquisite for its simplicity.  Every dish is delicious; every joint of meat unblemished; every vegetable brilliantly prepared; every segment of fruit perfection in sweetness; every jug of wine from the best vintages.  True, the silver is old and scratched from use, and the china is of a very ancient pattern; but it’s also true that none of it could be found anymore, not anywhere else in the world.”

“Then why,” we ask, “why do the neighbors decline his invitations?”

“Who knows?” says the shepherd.  “They imagine they have better things to do.”

“But why is he so fearsome,” we ask.  “Why, if he calls guests in off the street, does he then punish them, and cast them into outer darkness if they are not wearing the proper clothing?  Why does he condemn one so innocent, whom he invited himself?  How can he be so horrible a king?”

“Oh,” says the shepherd, “that is because he knows the neighbors are watching, and he hopes that he can teach them a lesson as they peer out from the windows of their farms and business.  But not only them.”

“What?” we ask.  “Who else?  Who else is watching?”

“Why, you are, of course,” the shepherd says, as he offers another sip of wine.  And as he does so, the darkness around the king’s palace grows darker, and the stumbling cast-out figure is no longer visible, although we can still hear him weeping, and possibly even gnashing his teeth.  And the gloom seems to be approaching the hillside on which we are sitting.  And we realize that we can no longer see the farms or businesses of any of the neighbors.  And a certain fear begins to grip us.  And we wonder if perhaps this shepherd is not merely a shepherd.  And we begin to worry about the wine he has been offering us, and the bread, and the oil.  And we sense that he can sense our unease.  And we realize that it is very dark now, and we admit a certain worry to the shepherd.  “Now that it is so dark, we will never find our way home.  The only light is in the direction of the king’s palace.  But look at us, we have no wedding garments.  We would not dare to be seen anywhere near this king or his palaces, lest he treat us the way he treated that poor soul who is weeping even now in the darkness.”

“My friends,” says the shepherd, “do not worry.  Only, follow me.”

We are not sure this is a good idea.  Has the wine made us a little drunk?  Or has he poisoned us?  He sees that we are reluctant to get up and follow him.  We remind him that we have nothing to wear but the clothes we came with, and that these are not suitable should we find ourselves brought anywhere near the king’s presence.

But the shepherd holds up the little cruet of oil he has.  “Stand up,” he says, “and let me anoint you.  For this is holy oil, and you will find that if I put only a drop of it on your head you will be fit for a king.”  

What choice do we have?  It has become so dark that even the shadows seem dark as death, and we can hardly even see ourselves.  The light is only faint enough to let us follow the footsteps of the shepherd, after he has anointed us each with a single drop of holy oil.

With trepidation and uncertainty we let our footsteps fall in line with his, as we near the king’s palace, and the music from within can be heard more clearly now.  And the shepherd begins to speak.

“Have you noticed, my friends, who is missing from the story that you watched unfold from the hillside?  The king has thrown a wedding banquet for his son, but nowhere in the story does the son appear.

“I am the king’s son,” he says.  “And while his other servants went out into the streets to find other guests, I was sent out to find you.

“For it is the will of my father that everyone should be invited to the wedding banquet, and, indeed, it is his will that everyone should come.  Many there are who reject his invitation.  Do you suppose there will be no consequences for this?” he asks.

“Yes, there is an outer darkness,” he continues.  “There may well be sulfurous fires burning.  There may be brimstone.  There may be weeping; and there may be gnashing of teeth.  But it is not my father’s will that any one of his creatures should ever suffer thus.  He will do everything to lead you into his kingdom, but he will not compel you to come.

“He will send me to you in a green pasture, and he will unfold before your eyes the fear of what might be in the deep darkness outside the strong bright walls of his palaces.  He will show you a version of yourself, ill-clad and unprepared for judgment, because that is not the way he wants you.  He will allow you to hear your own weeping, even the sound of your own gnashing teeth.

“But I have spread a table before you.  I have anointed you with oil.  I have poured you enough to make your cup run over.  

“There lies before you a path so treacherous that you do not know whether you wish to travel it.  But you have no choice, for the path is life.  And you could choose to walk that path without ever heeding the invitation of the king.  You could conclude, as so many others have, that his riches cannot compare with all the other riches on offer.  You could decide on any given Sunday that you have better things to do with your time, than go to an old-fashioned banquet.  You could decide to rely on your own strength when the waters come, or the earthquake hits, or the flames overtake you, or the bullets fly.  Or you could pretend that you will never ever have to come near to the valley of the shadow of death.  But you’d be kidding yourself.

“All of us must cross the valley of the shadow of death, eventually, and other dark valleys too.  But I am with you, and I will comfort you, yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you, and you may fear no evil.  For I will always come to you.  I will follow you all the days of your life.  For it is my father’s will that you and all those that he has fashioned with his own fingers should dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Not quite ready to accept this offer, we object, even as he walks beside us: “But Lord, how could this be?  We have not enough faith, we have not enough hope, we have not enough love ever to earn the favor of the king.”

“Fear not,” says the shepherd, “about a lack of faith, or hope, or love.  Faith will be provided.  Hope will be provided.   Love will be provided.”


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

15 October 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on October 15, 2017 .

Perpetrators of Peace

Let us begin today with the parts of the parable that make sense. There is a man who finds himself in possession of a piece of property that seems well-suited to growing grapes. The man, in order to maximize his profits, plants new vines, builds a fence around them for protection, hews out an on-site wine press for efficiency of production, and even builds his own watchtower. In other words, he builds the Rolls-Royce of vineyards, complete with every possible resource to insure a healthy yield of wine. This makes sense.

The man, the parable tells us, then takes his fabulous vineyard, all shiny and brand-new, leases it out and leaves. He hires tenants to tend and harvest the vines and to make him a good profit. This, too, makes sense. Remember, the man is not a vintner. He’s a landowner, and he, like many of the rich, landowning men of his day, had little interest in actually getting his hands dirty. Why be forced to live on a farm in a Podunk little Palestinian town? Why not let someone else deal with the wolves and the thieves and the water shortages while he lives the high life in the big city? So, while his are maybe not the most inspiring actions ever, they do make sense.

But then things in our story begin to go rapidly and radically awry. When the landowner sends agents back to the vineyard to collect his portion of the profits, as was surely agreed to in the renter’s agreement, the tenants lose their minds. Why should we pay him anything, they say to themselves. Contract be damned, let’s keep it all. And so they seize the landowner’s slaves and assault them. They literally kill the messenger. This makes no sense. Why the tenants decide to lash out in this way is beyond us, and well beyond the scope of this parable. The story itself gives us no clues as to why the tenants are so hostile – there are no tales of abuses by the landowner, no pitiable saga of the tenant’s son who needs an expensive operation or of the tenant’s father who lost the land to the landowner in a card game gone wrong. There is no explanation, no earthly reason for the tenants’ sudden, destructive change of heart. It makes no sense.

Just as it makes no sense that when the landowner hears what has happened and that his profits are still sitting bottled up in Podunk, Palestine, he decides to try the same exact tactic again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on the man who casts more dear slaves unto the breech. And, when the tenants do to these slaves exactly what they did to the first three, the man makes another senseless decision. He sends his son down the deadly vineyard path, foolishly confident that the tenants will surely change their behavior when it comes to his son. What is he thinking, throwing more men, throwing his own son into this melee? And what are the tenants thinking when they take his son outside the walls and slaughter him like an animal? Do they honestly expect that the landowner will say to himself, well, these tenants really mean business; I guess I’ll just let them keep my land and my wall and my vines and my watch tower and my wine and my money. None of this makes any sense. The only thing that might make sense is how the landowner responds to the death of his son – he rides in on the waves of revenge, kills the tenants in a brutal way, rids his land of any traces of them, and starts all over again. As horrible as it is, as avoidable as it might have been, this vengeance, this retribution, makes some sort of sense.

Or does it? The truth is that the landowner’s decision to murder his own tenants only makes sense within the context of their own brutality. And the landowner’s actions only make sense to us because we live in the same context, because we, too, live in a world of overwhelming violence. Our story, too, is shaped by the exponential growth of senseless brutality, by the tragic reality that violence begets violence begets violence. The only reason that you and I are not shocked by the systematic killing of the tenants is because you and I are soaked through with the same violence that bloodies this story. We have been tossed to and fro by every wave of violence, and these days, the waves are coming so fast and furious that we find ourselves beaten and bruised and gasping for air.

For we live in a world that is drowning in violence. There is the violence of war, of genocide, of terrorism and abuse and systematic oppression. There are all types of wicked violence perpetrated against women and children. There is cruel, sweeping violence against people like the Rohingya in Myanmar, people we may have never heard of before until tales of that violence bring them into our living rooms. There can be, of course, violence even in our living rooms. There is constant violence against Creation, and then there is the violence of that same Creation, multiplied by our own hand. There is violence on our screens constantly, scenes of horrific rapes, vicious combat, and shootings of every possible variety – stylized shootings, historically-accurate shootings, serious shootings, noble shootings, graphic shootings, supernatural shootings, funny shootings – thousands upon thousands of shootings. There is violence on our streets constantly – hundreds of shootings in this city alone. There is violence that is born of greed or revenge or hatred, and then there is violence that seems to have no motivation at all except to see how many innocent people can be shot from a high-rise hotel room at one time.

And there is the violence in our speech, the daggers that are thrown with such constancy and volume that everyone is sure to get hit at one point or another. There is violence in every single aspect of our public discourse – insults, name-calling, threats, virtual slaps across the face – violence all the way from the tweets that come out of the White House down to the tweets with which we respond from our own houses. There is new violence of misogyny and prejudice, and old violence that bleeds afresh when the perpetrators of such violence make claims that “it was just a different time back then.” And there is violence in the Church, with abuse and cover-ups and cut-offs and schism and slaps on the wrist and just this week, slashing criticism from ultra-conservatives when our Presiding Bishop was asked to offer a prayer at the primates’ conference on the day after the Las Vegas shooting. There is so much violence running rampant in the world; most certainly, if we are honest with ourselves, there is violence in our own hearts. There is really no need for God to destroy this vineyard; we are doing a fine job of it ourselves.

The problem of this isn’t that we can’t live this way – we obviously can, and, as a society, choose to live this way year after year, at least those of us who do not become victims of violence ourselves. The problem is when we start to live as if this violence makes sense, as if this is just the way things work in our story. This cannot be. Violence cannot be at the heart of our story, because violence is incompatible with the kingdom of God. Violence shuts down the work of the vineyard. Violence tears through our world, leaving no time, no energy, no safety to plant and nurture and harvest the fruits of the kingdom. Violence never grows anything; it always rips out at the root. Violence destroys our sense of compassion and ability to care for our neighbor, because violence is about needing to win and never about those in need. It distracts and destroys and then opens the floodgates for all of its dark, devastating cousins – fear, blame, hatred, protectionism, and hardness of heart.

But fear not, my brothers and sisters. We are not doomed to live the life of a tenant, perpetuating the cycle of violence until kingdom come. We are not cursed; we are called, and we are commanded. Love one another as I have loved you. Take up your cross and follow me. Proclaim the Gospel. It is impossible to do any of this and perpetrate violence at the same time. It is impossible to lash out in violence when you are carrying your cross. It is impossible to hurl verbal daggers when you are proclaiming the Gospel. It is impossible to harvest hatred, discord, doubt and despair when you are sowing love, union, faith, and hope. No, you and I are far from cursed. We are commanded, and we are called. We are called to be instruments of peace, conduits of God’s own Grace, bringing violence to its knees in this world with each small act of self-giving love. We are called to plant and tend the seeds of peace, to grow the peace that is already here, the peace of God, which passes all understanding but is the only thing that makes sense. So go, you beloved children of God, go into all the world as perpetrators of peace. Go into your corner of the vineyard and change the story. And may the peace of Christ be always with you.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

8 October 2018

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 10, 2017 .

We Are Made For Freedom

The priests and the elders in this morning’s gospel are located somewhere near the center of power in their part of the world.  No, they aren’t Romans, but they are high up in the religious and cultural life of their time.  Their cultural and religious dominance may be under dispute—Jesus himself is clearly calling their temple-centered authority into question, and it’s important to note that they represent one kind of Judaism, not “the religion as a whole”—what they stand for may be under dispute, but they still manage to locate themselves at the top of a hierarchy.  They are to be treated with respect.

And yet, for all their power and privilege, what’s most notable about them here is their fear and their lack of agency.  As Jesus gets them to admit, they are so afraid of what they call “the crowd” that they can’t even think straight.  For all their power and privilege, the high priests and the elders in this morning’s gospel are unable to make a simple declarative sentence about John the Baptist.  They have nothing to say about him.  How can you have nothing to say about crazy John the Baptist?

It’s clear that, from their central position of power in Jerusalem, they have been unable to make the journey out to the wilderness to be baptized.  They may have gone to see what John is up to, but they have been unwilling to pour out their souls in a confession of sin, unable to repent by the Jordan River. But neither can they ignore this wild prophet. From their position at the top of the religious and social hierarchy, they are unable to go against the will of the people and declare that John the Baptist is a fraud.  They fear the people.  How can that be? The anxious priests have nothing to say. 

No wonder, then, that they are baffled by Jesus, who has no problem making declarative statements.  In this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem in triumph, in what we think of as the events of Palm Sunday.  He has gone to the Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers.  He has healed and cured and been proclaimed “The Son of David.”  He has even withered a fig tree that failed to provide him with fruit.  He is powerful and unafraid.  

No wonder that the fearful priests and elders question him first about his authority.  No wonder their concern is to tear him down.  They’re afraid of being taken down themselves.  They themselves are hostages.  Hostages to their position of power, their lineage, their geographical location at the Temple, their position of wealth and honor.  But Jesus is so free.  He is so certain that the love of God is a gift to the poor and the lowly.  He can be angry.  He can forgive.  He can face what will surely be death in Jerusalem, without apparent anxiety.  Where did he get this confidence?

And he can talk to anyone about anything.  We’ve been hearing him for some weeks now, teaching in ways that are challenging and rich.  Whether you’ve noticed it or not, we’ve been going through some mental and spiritual gymnastics in recent weeks, hearing complex ideas about forgiveness, parables about farmers who sow seed in ridiculous places and servants who fail to be as generous as their masters.  Jesus is a consummate teacher, a speaker who can communicate the most mysterious truths with power.  And in this moment, confronted by some of the more privileged and sophisticated religious figures of his day, he shows his verbal skill again, even as they demonstrate their inability to answer a direct question about John.

This time, his verbal skill takes the form of complete and utter simplicity.  Does he tell his sophisticated audience a sophisticated story?  No!  He tells them the easiest, most obvious parable ever.  “There were two brothers, got it?  One did the will of his father and the other didn’t, ok?  So which one did the will of his father?”

Listen to him!  This is the best teaching of all! He confronts these priests, and us, with the poverty of their own speaking. He shows up all our fearful “I don’t know” answers to tough questions.  Our hypocritical “Yes, sir” when we have no intention of laboring in the vineyard.  “What do you think?” he asks them, and us.  “If I make it clear as day for you, will you rise to the occasion?”

“What do you think about the situation you are in?  What do you think about your position in the world?  Where are you really?  Where within you is your authentic commitment to God? Do you have ears to hear and eyes to see?  Can you speak?  Do you have the humility,” Jesus asks, “to drop what holds you back, and step out with me into a new creation?”

It could be that Jesus is trying to embarrass the priests with this obvious story, but I think he is trying to reach them, trying to call them back to themselves.  Commentators have pointed out that this parable is a stripped-down version of one of the central stories of the Hebrew scriptures.  Time and again in those writings we hear about an older son and a younger son: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.  Time and again we hear about Israel as a vineyard that is cultivated by God.  This simple story is the simple truth of Israel.  You are God’s children, and God has work for you to do, a harvest for you to share in.  That’s all you need to figure out.  Drop your fear and the sophistication you use to cover it up.  You don’t need to look good.  You just need to be willing to go to the vineyard.  Even reluctantly.  You don’t need to be a highly respected religious authority.  Just be God’s child.

Even now, it’s not too late for us to become free as Jesus is free.  No matter what holds us in bondage, no matter who we think we have to be, no matter whose permission we are waiting for, or whose opinion we fear, it’s not too late for us.

It’s not too late for us to drop our defensiveness.  It’s not too late for us to pour out our sins and be converted and be baptized in the Jordan River.  We can hear the words of the gospel and walk through this world as free people, no matter what we are mired in.

We could be free as Jesus is free.  We could be free to respond when God challenges us as he challenged those frightened priests.  We could have the hope and the vitality and the joy to reimagine the world we are in.  Even this world, mired in sin, the 2017 edition.  We could be free.

We would be free to drop everything and respond when storms crush the people of Puerto Rico.  Even now, after so much bad history, we could be free to rethink the bonds of debt and exploitation that have punished the people of that island for so many decades.  We could be free to address the environmental damage that is wreaking such havoc there and throughout the world. Our bad past could be the prologue to repentance and a new world.  We could decide that our own prosperity should not be bought at the price of other people’s lives.

Those of us who are white could be so free that when African Americans report that they are routinely taken for violent criminals instead of law-abiding citizens, the rest of us could listen without defensiveness instead of telling them to be quiet and grateful. Imagine a world in which inequality was automatically everybody’s problem!  We could stop asking the police and the activists to fight this out for us, and acknowledge instead that “our” criminal justice system reflects our biases. That world is still available to us, if we are willing to go to the vineyard.

We are the body of Christ.  We could have the mind of Christ. That same Christ who took Jerusalem by storm, armed only with truth and healing.  He wants us to get it. We could be free and fearless like him. We could have the same mind in us, Saint Paul says this morning, as Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

We are made for that freedom. That kind of freedom is our rightful heritage as children of God.  We could be free. Not haunted by the fear of losing some position of privilege that was never secure in the first place.  Not hostage to the powers of this world.  We could hear and respond and speak and act and love and change.

What do you think? 

Posted on October 4, 2017 .