It’s common to assume these days that we modern Americans have little in common with the people we hear about in the Bible - whether in the Old Testament or New.  And although I often like to take a contrary view, I have to admit that there may be more differences than similarities between the likes of you and me and the people about whom we read in the Scriptures.

Take the people who we hear about in just the first few chapters of Luke’s Gospel.  The very first group of people we encounter in Chapter 1 - “the whole assembly,” Luke calls them - are gathered at the Temple, outside, and they are doing something that I seldom see all of you do when you gather outside the church in the fairer weather.  No, they are not drinking coffee.  Luke tells us that “the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.”  Maybe we should try that some time! 

The next thing Luke shares with us about “the people” is a timeless experience that people everywhere have always had to endure: they are waiting.  Specifically they are waiting for Zechariah (who is in the sanctuary offering incense), and they are wondering “at his delay.” Perhaps they are tapping their feet, asking how much longer till services will be over.  So, there’s something they have in common with modern church-goers.

A bit later on, Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist, and we are told that her neighbors “rejoiced with her.”  But in no time at all, when Zechariah’s tongue was loosed and his angel-imposed silence was ended, we are told that “fear came over their neighbors.”  And in a most un-modern pattern of behavior, in the face of things they do not understand, all who heard about the events of the birth of John the Baptist “pondered” what they had heard, and attributed the occurrences to the hand of the Lord.

The next group of people we are told about in Luke’s Gospel are the shepherds, who are greeted by a band of singing angels that shines with the glory of the Lord.  And in the face of this spectacle, how do the shepherds react?  They do not grab their iPhones and start recording the angelic song.  But rather, Luke tells us that they are “terrified:” a normal and healthy reaction, by biblical standards, to the appearance of angels; but one that very few people these days who claim to have experienced angelic visitations ever seem to share.  But in ageless fashion, the recently terrified shepherds do run to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus, and then go around town telling everyone they find of the night’s unusual events.  And Luke reports that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”

There’s a twelve year gap in Luke’s narrative between Jesus’ infancy and his childhood.  And in the sole episode of the Lord’s wonder years that Luke reports - when the twelve-year-old Jesus teaches in the Temple - he (Luke) includes the same description again of the people who heard him.  He tells us that they “were amazed.”

All of this background is preamble for today’s episode in Chapter 3 of Luke’s Gospel which tells of the ministry and proclamation of John the Baptist, who now occupies center stage.  Until this point, we have had two angelic announcements (one to Mary, and one to Zechariah); we have had two rather unusual, even miraculous births; we have two unexpected mothers; and two bemused husbands.  Admittedly there was only one band of singing angels, but that news came from shepherds, and can shepherds ever really be trusted?  And we have people who have witnessed these events who been praying, waiting, joyful, frightened, ponderous, terrified, and twice-amazed.  And years have gone by.  The  events of the past have been either dimmed or embellished over time.  Only one childhood story even survived of these two remarkable baby boys.

Now they are young men, and one of them has begun to make a name for himself.  Surprisingly (considering the singing angels) it is John whose notoriety has emerged.  It is John who has gathered a group of followers around him.  It is John who is preaching about the kingdom of God and of a baptism of repentance.  John is proclaiming the fulfillment of the old prophecies and issuing dire new ones.  John is clearly a man set apart.  John is living the life of a man anointed, or appointed - who can say?  John is drawing crowds to his riverside revivals.  John is baptizing those who come to him in the river.  It is John to whom the people flock to ask him, “What should we do?”

In his ministry, John appears to be poised on the cusp of something.  And in this electric moment, when politics are haywire, and religion is replete with untrustworthy leaders, St. Luke informs us again about the attitude of the people in a way that reminds me how unlike those sandal-shod biblical folk we modern people are.  He doesn’t tell us that they were praying, or waiting, or joyful, or frightened, or ponderous, or terrified, or even amazed.  No!  This is what Luke says.  He says that “the people were filled with expectation.”

Oh Lord, what must that be like?!?!  To be filled with expectation?!?!

Now, I could be wrong, but I believe that I hardly know a one of us here and now who is filled with expectation.  Oh, we are jittery about the stock markets, and our knickers are in a twist about the political gyrations of the moment...

... but who here is filled with expectation?  About God!?!  And about what God is going to do!?! Who here is even waiting anymore for justice to roll down like a river; or righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?!?!  Who is heeding the ancient and expectant call to prepare ye the way of the Lord!?!?!?

But these people...  these people we hear about in the olden days, they are “filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”  You see, this was not an academic, dispassionate question that was somehow disconnected from the rest of their lives.  This was not a question they wanted to hear Anderson Cooper comment on, or Chris Wallace, or even Oprah.  No!  They were full of expectation, and they were questioning in their hearts, in the depths of their being, and with the sincerity of their prayers, whether John might be the Messiah - the One who had come to make them great again!  And they were full of expectation.

But John was not promising to make them great again.  He did not not even promise that the one who was coming would make them great again.  He only told them that the one who was coming was more powerful than he was, and that he (John) was not worthy to untie the thong of the sandal of the One who would be revealed.

And then…  …with all the people standing there, when all had been baptized, and Jesus had been baptized too... …and he (Jesus) was standing there, praying…  then… “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”  And then, no one was confused anymore about which of those two boys had been chosen.  Then no one was left uncertain about who was the One!  Certainly John knew, and said that he must decrease so that Jesus could increase.  No one was in doubt!

They would be disappointed that he would not make them great again.  Since his commandment to love one another, and since the salvation he wrought by his own appalling sacrifice bestows a greatness of an unexpected kind, not much sought after those days... and maybe not in these days, either.

But you and I have had time to get used to the idea of this savior.  We have been asked whether or not we believe that he came down from heaven for us and for our salvation.  We have been told that we will have to lose our lives if we want to save them.  We have heard him call us to take up our cross and follow him.  We have listened to the testimony of two millennia of faith that attest in a thousand thousand ways that he rose from death and ascended into heaven, and that from thence he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.  We have been shown that he is the king of glory, and we have been promised that he shall come to be our judge!  (Yes it’s as much a promise as a threat!)

And yet, somehow we manage to live our lives, go to church, and call ourselves Christians without ever learning to expect very much.  Indeed, very few of us are full of expectation when it comes to God.  And we have to ask ourselves, I think, what we are expecting so little from God?  Or maybe we have to ask ourselves if we are expecting anything at all?

One of the best reasons to come to church is because you are full of expectation - aware that God has something in store for you, someplace for you to go, something for you to do.  And the next best reason is because you have discovered that you aren’t expecting anything at all, except perhaps the next package from Amazon Prime.  You see, the folks at Amazon would prefer that your life revolve around your expectations of them, rather than your expectations of God.  God doesn’t require you to buy as many things.

But today.. … today God has called you here to fill you up with some expectation - whether your tank is nearly full or almost completely empty.  You did not know that the Jordan River flows down Locust Street, but it does!  Maybe you were questioning something in your hearts, and maybe you weren’t, but that’s OK.  For God has called you here to fill you up with expectation that he will bless you and that he will bless the whole world.

God called you here today to remind you that he came down from heaven for us and for our salvation.  

God called you to help you remember that if you want to save your life you are going to have to lose it for his sake.  God called you so you would remember that you will eventually have to take up your cross and follow Jesus.  

God called you so that you may encounter again the living testimony that Jesus rose from death and ascended into heaven, and that from thence he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.

God called you to show you that he is the king of glory, and that he shall come to be our judge!

God called you here to remind you that there is a river of grace flowing past this place, and on the banks of that river stands one still calling out to prepare ye the way of the Lord.

And in the midst of that river, still dripping with water, still praying, stands One upon whom the Holy Spirit is descending like a dove… and there is a voice still resounding in the heavens that calls out to the One who stands in the midst of the river that flows by us: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

And all this time we have just been sitting here, praying, and waiting, sometimes joyful, often frightened, seldom ponderous, now and then terrified, and very, very rarely amazed… but we weren’t expecting much at all… and now, this very moment, on a snowy day early in 2019, now it’s time for that to change!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 January 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 13, 2019 .

Camel Music

I have a confession to make: every Epiphany I can’t wait to hear the camel music. “The camel music?” you might inquire with acute curiosity and confused wonder. Yes, the camel music. I admit that the unofficial musical term “camel music” was coined by a friend of mine to describe the somewhat campy improvisational organ interludes between stanzas of the hymn “We three kings.” And, yes, John Henry Hopkins’s Victorian hymn, which has become known all over the world, is a bit campy in a nineteenth century sort of way. But let’s at least own up to the fact that this hymn is very effective, hence its universal popularity.

From a musical perspective, “We three kings” attempts to evoke the exoticism of another land, albeit using a Western musical language that is colored with Victorian Romantic harmonies. And although the melody of this hymn avoids unusual chromatic notes and is based on a Western musical scale, its repetitive nature and simplicity somehow stirs up visions of far Eastern music, especially to a Western ear. The camel music ratchets up this evocation of a foreign land, introducing wild rhythms, hints of non-Western scales, and musical visions of Arabia.

The exotic flare of the camel music, when executed by a gifted organist, can bring us, the listeners, on the magi’s journey far from our native land to a strange country. And in that unfamiliar country, drawn by our imaginations, we suddenly discover that God’s manifestation in Christ has dawned upon our lives in the most unpredictable ways. By following the camel music, we are changed, and we are brought to an unanticipated destination from which we can only return home by another route.

The complicated thing about the camel music, though, is that its dreamy improvisations take us to places that we’re not sure are actually in the Biblical narrative itself. After all, Matthew’s story of the journey of the magi leaves more questions than answers. We know only that “wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” Scholars have speculated that these wise men, or magi, were from ancient Persia and were perhaps Zoroastrians. But it’s anyone’s guess, really. The point is that in our modern cogitations on the origins of the magi, scholarly and unscholarly, we, too, have left our homes and entered on a journey of our imaginations fueled by the grace of God. In our mental odysseys, we no longer remained mired in the certainty of answers, or in the assured conviction that Christ’s manifestation to us is only in one particular way or in one particular language or only in one particular part of the world. Matthew’s account of the magi’s journey opens up Christ’s manifestation to people in all kinds of strange lands.

You can find in any number of Biblical commentaries further conjectures about other aspects of the magi’s journey. Scripture never tells us that there were only three magi; it’s just assumed from the mention of three gifts. And the story never mentions camels, but can’t you just picture the magi traversing moor and mountain on dromedaries? And is the point really whether or not there were camels? Because if we get caught up in whether there were actually camels or not, or whether there were three wise men, or whether the magi were definitely from Persia, we miss the point of the story. We miss how God’s epiphany to us occurs in spectacular ways borne on the wings of our imaginations. And if we resist dreaming on our life’s journeys, we may fail to behold the glory of God’s face before our eyes.

Oh, and there is that bit about a dream in Matthew’s Biblical narrative. The wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. The inclination of some to demystify much of Scripture and to subject God’s Word to historical fact-checking might easily dismiss this dream business. But what if we let the camel music inspire us for just a bit? What if we imagine that God can indeed speak to us in dreams? And if God does speak to us in dreams, but we discount that as foolery, we risk overlooking Christ’s face shining upon us as light from a star.

And a star is the leader of the magi’s journey. It is this strange star that moves and stops, all to point out the exact location of Christ’s birth. Was this star of Bethlehem a comet or a supernova or a planetary conjunction of Venus and Jupiter? Perhaps. But what if it were a miracle? Or what if those magi were so receptive to God’s imaginative revelation in the world that they instinctively followed an unusual star and thereby discovered the Christ child?

All the details in Matthew’s story of the magi’s journey to Christ seem to support one fact that some scholars and skeptical minds will probably never fathom: the unveiling of God’s face to the world is grounded in mystery and wonder. And if we shut the door to mystery and wonder, we might ignore God’s epiphanies to us.

The perceptive magi are so very different from Herod. These Gentile wise men, perhaps dabbling in astrology, make a seemingly ludicrous trip to a foreign Jewish land based only on a hunch drawn from an errant star. With no clear plan for their journey, they simply appear in Jerusalem to inquire where the Messiah might be. They know not where they may end up on this path of discovery. They know not the rigor and perils of the journey ahead. They simply follow their instincts, as if accepting a call from God, and they journey to worship this newborn king.

But Herod, unlike these open-hearted magi, has closed himself off to God’s manifestation in his life because of his fear. Because of his fear, he proceeds in secrecy. With scientific precision, he wants to know the exact time of the star’s appearing. And in his quest to preserve his own power, he becomes mired in a technical plan to destroy the threat he perceives in an infant child. Herod seems immune to the mystery and wonder of God’s humble revelation to the world. Herod himself cannot be enticed by the camel music and led to undertake the journey to Jesus himself. Herod leaves this rigorous work to the wondering magi, who wander by the light of a strange star to encounter Christ and thereby are blessed by him.

The magi follow the camel music. Willing to be led on a wild, exotic trip to a foreign land, they are brought to the face of God himself. This unpredictable journey and seemingly futile expedition leaves them changed forever. And when we, too, allow ourselves to be opened up to the camel music and be led to strange and exotic places in our spiritual lives, we may just find God there waiting to greet us. We will find that we can only return home by another route, for we can never be the same again.

And, oh, how our modern world could benefit from following the camel music! The camel music’s unpredictable harmonies and meandering melodies will likely disturb our Western harmonic sensibilities. Its alien musical language will stretch the limits of our well-trained ears. And the musical journey we undertake will, at times, be difficult. But if we heed our dreams and brave a wild adventure lured by some mysterious call from God, we will not regret the journey.

Like the magi, if we offer the gifts of ourselves in openness, imagination, and wonder, we will in turn receive the gift of Christ in wholly unexpected ways. And then, the rigid, human-imposed boundaries of this world will dissolve in awe before God’s boundary-shattering might. Then, the regulations and rules that we levy to protect ourselves from the unanticipated will dissipate before the force of a God who must re-order this world by surprise.

The camel music enables us to believe that God still works miracles. The camel music draws us into incredible journeys in which we submit ourselves to the fruits of wild dreams that renew our souls again and again. Campy and ahistorical though it may be, the camel music reminds us that in desperate times, in times that devalue mystery and imagination, God can break into human stagnation and complacency and captivate us. When we let go, dream, and saddle ourselves up for the journey, led by the star of a crazy instinct, we discover the glory of Christ’s constant epiphanies today. Yes, even today.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
6 January 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia




Posted on January 6, 2019 .

Yonder and Among Us

Christmas is a great time for name dropping, so here goes.  Do you know that I am connected to Richard Burton by a mere two degrees of separation?  I once spoke on the telephone with Elizabeth Taylor, who was married to Richard Burton - twice.  So that’s a double-barreled name drop any way you look at it.

Some time ago a friend sent me a link to a recording of Richard Burton reciting a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  It was staggering to hear.  Hopkins is not a poet I know much, or thought I had much time for.  Then I heard Richard Burton read this poem... and it was sort of jaw dropping, to tell you the truth.  But although I was staggered by Burton’s mellifluous recitation of the words, I had no idea what to do with the poem.  I was captivated by Burton’s mastery of the language and bedazzled by the tempo at which he delivered the lines, which transformed them with a sense of urgency and significance.  But, as I say, I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with the poem; I’m not sure I could have told you what the poem is about.

The poem in question is actually a pair of poems: “The Leaden Echo & The Golden Echo.”  To be crass, I could say that they are a reflection on beauty, age, and despair, paired with a declaration of hope in divine providence, whence all beauty finds its origin and its final home.  I guess....  Listen:

Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age's evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death's worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.

I wish you could hear Burton say these lines, which, on the page, do not look the way they sound when they are spoken by him.  They just look like words on the page.  But from his lips, the words sound like music.  You should go home and listen to him deliver these lines.  But not right now.

Anyway, you heard some of the despair from the first poem, “The Leaden Echo,” but the hope is in the second poem, “The Golden Echo.”  Listen again:

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.  

And later...

... O why are we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—
Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

I am no Richard Burton, and from my own mouth these lines sound like a cheap imitation of the poem he recites.  Take my word for it.  But I hope you will try to imagine the poem as the words tumble perfectly from his lips.  It’s dazzling. 

Every year, just days after Christmas, when we heard on Christmas morning the glorious first lines of John’s Gospel (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….") we repeat those dazzling lines, which tumble with a certain perfection from the pages of the Gospel, and we sit here, captivated for a while in the majesty of this mystery that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld its glory, full of grace and truth.”  We can tell that the words themselves have a kind of urgency and significance, but I suspect that we haven’t the faintest idea of what to do with them.  I’m not at all sure we know what these words are about.  We only know that we find them beautiful.  But as soon as we are out the door, we leave them behind, and return to the prosaic world where beauty is “vanishing away” (in Hopkins’ terms) and we are tempted to despair, despair, despair.  Poetry evaporates into the air.

It turns out that Elizabeth Taylor had this pair of Hopkins’ poems read at her funeral.  She must have loved the way Richard Burton read them, too.  He probably practiced reciting them in front of her.  When I think of how easily I can connect myself to Elizabeth Taylor, and (by only two degrees of separation) to Richard Burton and, therefore, to the way he recites these fabulous lines, …for some reason it makes me feel foolish for feeling so often, as though I am so far removed from God, and from the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us.  It makes it seem as though Christmas was already long ago.  It makes it seem as though beauty is vanishing away.

Why are we so haggard at the heart?  When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care, yonder, where we now follow?  Why do I sometimes feel that there are fewer degrees of separation between me and Richard Burton than there are between me and God?   Why do I so freely forfeit the urgency and significance of the Word made flesh?

Without Richard Burton reciting those lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I’d have never thought twice about them.  They’d have remained close to gibberish to me.  But he made them present, real, important, and began to show me that they have real meaning.

Without God’s gift of his Son, I suppose the same would be true of the divine Word.  No mere performer; no mere interpreter of God’s word, he is the Word itself made flesh.  Because God knows how easily we dismiss him as gibberish.  God knows that we have felt separated from him by too many degrees to count.  So God speaks, so to speak, he speaks by sending us his incarnate Word.  And the chasm between God and us is closed; the degree of separation between God and us is narrowed to only a tiny distance, a number of less than One.

I love the question that Hopkins poses in the second poem, “O why are we so haggard at the heart?”  And it is ironic that I should invoke this poem, I suppose, in any way at all to refer to the good news of the incarnate Word, since Hopkins concludes that God keeps with “fonder care” “the thing we freely forfeit,” which is his Word, his Love, his Beauty, his Truth, I suppose, ... that God keeps all this “yonder, yonder, yonder,” far from us, where it is safe from our forfeiture.  But “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth,” and we are always free to forfeit his Word, his Love, his Beauty, and his Truth. 

O why are we so haggard at the heart, as though we had never heard, as though we had never known, as though we would freely forfeit, what once God kept to himself with fonder a care, fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder a care kept. - Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where…?

Not yonder, yonder, yonder; but the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

Thanks be to God.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 December 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 30, 2018 .