Shine like the Sun

My dog Ozzie is nearly eight years old, and has lived his entire life in the Rectory next door, where there is a section of flooring, in a corridor between the dining room and the kitchen, that’s covered in a dark brown 1950s linoleum.  Ozzie has never once in his life crossed that section of the floor without pausing warily at its threshold, looking dubiously down at it as though crocodiles might lurk beneath its surface, and then scurrying across the three feet or so of flooring to safety on the other side.

I am quite certain that nothing bad has ever happened to Ozzie on that small section of dark brown linoleum floor; no disaster ever befell him there; he was never attacked by anything; the floor never collapsed beneath him; nothing ever fell on him from above in that spot; nor am I aware of anything that could have caused him fright there.  But he approaches that three-foot width of floor with unfailing trepidation, as though it might open up beneath him, and he’d be swallowed up into the bowels of Hell, or at least crocodiles.

Dogs not only have great intuition, they also have a heightened awareness, especially because of their excellent senses of smell and hearing.  Maybe Ozzie knows something that I don’t know.  The fact that for the nearly eight years of his life Ozzie has never suffered molestation, disaster, or fury of any kind in that location, this has not prevented him from treating that small expanse of linoleum as though just beneath it roils a cauldron of danger.  And this attitude of his seems silly to me, and somehow beyond explanation.  Unless, as I say, Ozzie knows something that I don’t.

It strikes me that hearing Jesus’ parable today could be to many of us somewhat akin to witnessing Ozzie’s strange caution at the verge of the little section of brown linoleum floor: it is a warning of danger that we are not at all sure really exists.  To find this passage of the Gospel compelling you have to believe that there are forces of evil at work in the world, on the one hand, and that God, in his own good time, will send his angelic army to defeat those forces of evil.  It is to believe that evil will be punished and that righteousness will be rewarded, and that it matters which side you are on.  I am not absolutely certain that many people today in America find this way of seeing things all that convincing.

For one thing, Jesus is expressing a highly dualistic view of things, in which the wheat and the weeds can be easily distinguished, the one separated from the other.  But we are prone to see things more on a spectrum.  And we know that weedy people have their wheat-ish moments, and that the wheat-ies are not always as healthy as they seem to be.

But more pointedly, isn’t it hard for many people today to swallow this business about the “children of the evil one,” and the “devil,” and the angelic reapers of righteousness?  Who, these days, believes in the hellish “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”?

On the other hand, who of us is really expecting to “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”?  Doesn’t it seem presumptuous, knowing, as we do, that most of are somewhere on the spectrum between the wheat and the weeds, and not so many of us are near enough one of the ends of that spectrum, to feel confident in what lies ahead, should a day of judgment ever come?

But what if Jesus knows something we don’t know?

And what if the point of the story isn’t the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, but the shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father?

More than once I have flippantly said that if dogs don’t go to heaven I am not interested.  Inasmuch as there exist in the world dogs who can detect cancer with their noses, dogs who can find truffles in the earth, dogs who can give warning to oncoming epileptic seizure or diabetic shock, and dogs who can find their way home from miles and miles away, I assume that dogs go to heaven.  And I am willing to allow for the possibility that Ozzie is alert to realities that I cannot detect; although I still tread confidently over the patch of dark brown linoleum between the dining room and the kitchen.  And if I am willing to concede this greater intuition, and possibly even knowledge to Ozzie, why would I be reluctant to allow for the same possibility in Jesus?  Why is it so hard to believe that the Son of God knows more than I know, more than we know?

Every dog owner has had the experience of being awakened in the night by the barking of the dog in alarm for some unidentifiable reason.  “Shhhhshhh,” we say, “It’s nothing.”  Because to us it is nothing – nothing close enough to bother us or disrupt our sleep.  But the truth of the matter is that it wasn’t nothing: it was something the dog heard but we can’t.  Have we started to treat Jesus and his Gospel the same way?  “Shhhshhh.” we say to Jesus, “it’s nothing,” when we hear the Gospel nag us or bark at us about the possibility that we could be led down the wrong path by the powers of evil.  After all, don’t we know better than that?  It’s not as if money, or power, or sex, or addiction, or fame, or selfishness, or any number of other things could lead us down the wrong path, after all, is it?  We’re all on a spectrum; how can there be evil ones or devils to lead us astray; let alone hosts of angels to reap a harvest of the righteous?  Leave all that to the “Left Behind-ers.”  And we’ll get on with things here on the spectrum.  Because we can hardly imagine that Jesus knows something that we don’t know.

We find it so easy to “shush” the Gospel that we never even consider the possibility that the thing Jesus knows that we don’t is that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”  And we find it hard to believe that we might be among the righteous, since, after all, we are only somewhere on the spectrum between weeds and wheat.

I suspect that Ozzie is untroubled by these uncertainties.  He is aware of the powers of darkness and evil in ways that I cannot even comprehend.  And I allow for the possibility that he is prepared by God to be among those who shine like the sun, wagging his tail all the while.  Which is to say, that we could learn something from a dog, who like all dogs, is admittedly somewhere on the spectrum between “Good Boy!” and “Bad Dog!”  We could learn that no matter where on the spectrum of righteousness we may be, God is calling us to move a little further toward the Son.  God is calling us to be aware that there are powers of evil in this world that can and will do us harm, and that we should beware those powers, resist them, avoid them, fight against them, and by all means do not fall into their traps, for traps have been set!

And, more poignantly, God is calling us to cultivate our place along the spectrum of the righteous like a good crop of wheat, which takes work.  Move, when you can, further along the spectrum of righteousness by living more for others than for yourself; by learning to give generously in all kinds of ways; by bringing joy and blessing into places that are beset by darkness and curses; by raising your voice to the glory of God rather than to your own praise and self-congratulation.  In other words, by being a little bit more like a Labrador.  For God means for you and for me to be counted among the wheat, among the righteous; which is to say that God means for you and for me to shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father.  Which I know is hard to believe, but it has the great benefit of being true!  Let anyone with ears listen!

 

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

23 July 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 23, 2017 .

Telling a Story

My grandfather spoke with a rich Irish accent and he smoked a pipe. He was aware, I think, that he made a striking figure in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the seventies, and he used that awareness to good effect. He was self-consciously a figure for the “old country” in our more modern world. And he had ways of making sure that we kept some part of the old country in our own identities. Once in a while, for instance, in the middle of an after-school game of Liverpool Rummy with us grandchildren, he would put down his pipe and lean an elbow on the table and regale us with some Irish narrations. One of his favorites went like this:

“It was a stormy night at sea, and the lads asked me to tell them a story. So I told them the following tale:

‘It was a stormy night at sea, and the lads asked me to tell them a story, so I told them the following tale:

‘It was a stormy night at sea….’’”

You get it, right? It’s Irish mise-en-abyme, a story about telling a story about telling a story about telling a story. It never ends. The story never starts. The story is always about the moment of storytelling, the anticipation of a good tale, the breathlessness of the fictional “lads” who waited to hear. And waited, and waited. As we waited, at first, until we understood the joke.

My grandfather never seemed more Irish to me than when he was telling us this infinitely-deferred story, and it never stopped being fun to hear, even though we knew how it went. My grandfather would deepen his voice and exaggerate his Irish brogue, and though I knew he had never been a sea-captain—he was manager of a drug store--I could have sworn in that moment that he was a figure from some great sea-faring novel. Everything romantic about being Irish was contained in that joke, including a knowing wink about making fun of everything romantic about being Irish. Just at the moment that my grandfather seemed like an exotic foreigner, that is, I felt that I was part of the land from which he came, because I knew the story that could never be told. That story that had no end and no beginning was my story, as familiar to me as a game of cards and a glass of lemonade on a hot afternoon.

This rather peculiar memory of mine keeps coming back as I ponder the parable that Jesus tells us this morning. It’s not a stormy night at sea, exactly, but Jesus does have a crowd gathering around him on the beach, waiting to hear him speak. He moves away from them a bit, gets into a boat, and begins to speak to them in parables. The first parable he tells, it turns out, is about telling a parable. Telling a parable, preaching the word of God, he says, is like being a farmer who goes out to sow seeds. Some of the seeds fall on good soil, and some of them don’t. In fact, it sounds like most of the seeds fall in places that will prevent them from bearing fruit. They will fall on pathways and in shallow places and where weeds will crowd them out. It sounds like about one seed in four might land in a good place. Not very encouraging odds. You wonder why Jesus would even speak, if almost nobody is going to hear what he has to say and really understand it, really put it to good use.

It seems that the best stories are the ones that never fully arrive, never fully yield up their meanings to us. The stories that save us are the stories that always elude our grasp, always remain mysterious. Hamlet, famously, remains compelling because no one is really sure why the tragic prince does what he does. But Hamlet doesn’t save anyone, not even an English major. Jesus, the Word of God, saves us. In Jesus, God speaks a word to us that is salvific in part because the riches of that word will never fully arrive in our understanding. A seed will be planted, and our life-long struggle will be to do our best to hear that word, let that seed germinate and grow. We will struggle to avoid hearing in a shallow way. We will struggle to avoid having the word of God garbled and choked by the cares of the world. We will struggle to avoid being too hard and too burned out and too trampled upon to let the word of God dwell in us richly. But we will see that when we do hear and learn and understand, and when the word of God bears fruit in us, that fruitfulness itself will be all the more mysterious. If we hear and understand, the word of God will yield thirty or sixty or a hundred-fold, and that too will be beyond our comprehension. Understanding God’s word means being witness to a power and grace we ultimately don’t understand, all over again. We are carried forward through our lives of faith by a desire to hear a word whose meaning is always about to be revealed to us, but never in completion.

And the elusiveness of that beautiful word is ultimately our great joy. The meaning of the word of God will never be exhausted. There will never be a last word. We will never tire of hearing that there is more to understand, a tale yet to be told. It will always be a stormy night at sea, and we will always be breathless with anticipation as the height and breadth and depth of what God has in store for us promise to reveal themselves.

Many decades after my grandfather’s Irish accent was stilled by death, I can turn to a sibling or to a cousin or to someone who knows me well, someone with whom I’ve shared his jokes—all of you, now—and I can speak just the first line of his little performance piece: “It was a stormy night at sea.” And the pleasure of that joke comes rushing back, the joy of sharing the irony of the story that never happens, the sound, the voice, the feeling of belonging, even in exile, to the old country.

That’s some of what a parable does when Jesus tells it. His stories are perfectly familiar--what could be more normal than sowing seeds?--and yet they are imbued with the mysterious and enchanting accent of a homeland we haven’t seen. They tell us something about where we come from and where we are headed, where we belong. But that place of belonging will never be property we own.

Your heritage is in the heart of God’s unfathomable love. In this life, it will be the punch line that never gets fully delivered, the tale that never unfolds fully. And in the next, when the tale is fully told, it will turn out to be a story that never ends, and our joy will be to hear word after word spoken to us of love and beauty and forgiveness and healing. As familiar as a seed that is planted and grows, but as mysterious as the process of growth itself.

In a moment, we will stand together and chant the words of the Nicene Creed. It has often been remarked that the creed is a story. It’s the bare outline of a story of creation and salvation. Most of us know it very well, almost to the point of boredom. But if we heard it correctly and came to appreciate our own power to recite it, we would begin to understand that we are speaking the words of a tale that has no ending—the life of the world to come. We would hear that we are telling a tale about where we come from, the Father who made heaven and earth, all that is, seen and unseen. We would hear the accent of our homeland, and know that the sense of being unfulfilled and in exile is crucial to our identity as followers of Jesus.

It is our glory on this earth to trace out the logic of the story of our redemption. What we hear from Jesus as a parable, we repeat as the story of our faith, halting and incomplete though it may be.

“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth,” says the Lord. “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And so we have come to believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We have learned to acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And we have begun to look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Preached by Mtr. Nora Johnson

July 16, 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 18, 2017 .

Take My Yoke

No doubt, you have come across in one way or another a poem called “Footprints.”  You have heard it recited, or you have seen it printed and framed on someone’s kitchen wall.  The poem, the authorship of which is unclear, is so well known that it has become a most celebrated cliché.  In its several versions it tells of a dream or a vision in which a person perceives the episodes of his or her life in a long progression, marked by two sets footsteps in the sand: one belonging to the narrator and the other belonging to Jesus.  But the narrator notices that during the most difficult, painful, and trying times of life there is only one set of footprints in the sand, and so questions the Lord, “I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.”

I can see that you are all already completing the well-worn ending of the poem in your minds, when Jesus says, “It was then, my child, that I carried you.”

Now, clichés become clichés for a reason -because they ring true more often than not – so it’s not my desire or intention to sell this little poem short.  But I am willing to acknowledge that the poem and its visual representations have achieved the very summit of kitsch.

There are those who contend the Footprints poem has its origins in a sermon preached by the great Charles Spurgeon on a Thursday evening in June of 1880: a sermon that is considerably longer than the poem, and which does not really make the point that the poem makes about Jesus carrying us through the tough times.  But Spurgeon’s sermon does begin with an allusion to Jesus’ footsteps:

“And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked and say, ‘I am alone—alone—ALONE—nobody was ever here before me’? And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man? I remember right well passing through that experience—and when I looked, lo, it was not merely the footprints of a man that I saw, but I thought I knew whose feet had left those imprints. They were the marks of One who had been crucified, for there was the print of the nails. So I thought to my-self, “If He has been here, it is no longer a desert island. As His blessed feet once trod this wilderness-way, it blossoms now like the rose and it becomes to my troubled spirit as a very garden of the Lord!”[i]

Spurgeon’s sermon is a four-point sermon that goes on, in printed form, for more than 6 pages of single-spaced, small-ish type; and the text he is preaching on (from Hebrews) has nothing to do with any of the texts we’ve read today.  But this introduction to the sermon shares a theme with the Footprints poem, that Jesus is with us, and that especially when it comes to times of trial, Jesus has already been where we must go, and that he will be with us in love and support throughout the hardest periods of our lives.

This way of thinking of Jesus as our spiritual companion is pervasive in modern Christian thought, and again, I have no interest in debunking it.  But like the Footprints poem, the opening of Spurgeon’s sermon relies on an image that is not found in the Scriptures, which doesn’t make t wrong, but it only goes so far.

The Gospel reading today, from the eleventh chapter of Matthew, however, does provide a powerful image of Jesus’ connection to each and every one of us in times of trial.  He says to his disciples, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Now, a yoke, the dictionary tells me, is “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (such as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together.”[ii]

The image here is not of Jesus carrying us; it is not the assurance that Jesus has already trod where we must tread ourselves.  No, the image that Jesus himself supplies is one in which we are bound to him in mutual service, working together.  And the irony of the analogy (or the grace of it) is that very instrument that signals the great weight and demands of the work we must do with him, the very tool that must imply straining muscles and sweaty work, this yoke that we must share with Christ – by which we may be bound to him – this yoke, if it is his, is easy to bear, and the burden is light.

It is an odd, and somewhat un-lovely image: to be invited by the Son of God - whose path leads inevitably to suffering and sacrifice – to be yoked to him.  But recall to whom it is that Jesus addresses the invitation: “all you that are weary, and are carrying heavy burdens.”

Last week in Honduras, I noticed all week long that among the slightly chaotic traffic of cars, and trucks, and motor-bikes, and three-wheeled tuk-tuks, and countless people on foot, we also encountered the not uncommon sight of carts drawn by a single horse or a single donkey.  I take it as a sign of the poverty of that nation that you never see two animals working together – what a luxury that would be: a team of animals to bear the load!  And it is true, in the most literal sense, for you semanticists out there, that a yoke can sometimes refer to an apparatus that is used by only one creature.  But the common usage of the term implies that two are yoked together, sharing the load.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens… take my yoke upon you.”  Do you hear what Jesus is saying?  Do you understand how this works?

Jesus is not saying, “Follow me, and put your feet here in the prints of my feet, so that you will know the way.”

Jesus is not saying, “Let me pick you up and carry you in my arms through your roughest days.”

No, Jesus is not reciting a sentimental poem.  Rather, Jesus is saying, “Let me share with you the burden of your load.  Let me walk beside you, so that our shoulders rub together, and we can hear each other’s breathing, and we can match our footsteps one to another.  Let me be your partner, your friend, and your helper.  And you be mine, too.  Let us share together in the work and weariness of this life.  For although I am the very Son of God, I know your weariness, your sadness, and your pain.  Let me yoke myself to you, and you, yoke yourself to me.  And see, just see, if it isn’t easier this way, better this way.  See if your load is not lighter this way. 

“What a way this is to go through life – yoked together, you and I.  We are bound to one another.  I see you are weary, and I know weariness, but I am strong.  I see you are lonely, and I know loneliness, but yoked to me like this, you will never be alone.  I see that you are heavy laden with your burdens, and I have carried the Cross to my own crucifixion – I know what it is to carry heavy burdens.  But I turned that instrument of death into the means of resurrection life.  Imagine what I can do for you!  Come to me; take my yoke upon you, and see if it isn’t easy, here next to me, see if my burden isn’t light.”

Considering the poverty of a place like Honduras, and contrasting it to our situation here on Locust Street, it is notable that somebody decided, when designing the marvelous red doors through which you walk into this church, and the tympanum, with its figure of Christ the great high priest, somebody decided to carve these words above those doors, in the rather more idiosyncratic Prayer Book translation of the text: “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.”  Who were they thinking of, I wonder, when they chose that text?

Our stretch of Locust Street is not one closely associated with weariness, travail, or heavy burdens.  Back when carriages were pulled down this block, I have no doubt that there were pairs and teams of handsome horses with polished harnesses who delivered the dignified denizens of Rittenhouse Square to these doors.

And yet among the well-heeled of our neighborhood, were there not a few who had known sadness and pain, who had experienced great loss, who carried in their hearts (if not on their backs) heavy burdens?

And come to think of it, could not the same be said of most of us here today?  Are there not a few of you who are weary in this life?  Don’t you know pain?  Don’t we carry a weight of sadness with us?  Is it more than you can bear sometimes?  And do you wonder if you can carry it on your own?

What you need for your weariness – whether you are rich or poor – is not a somewhat glib poem that purports to tell you that things were never as bad as you thought they were.

What you need – what I need – is a partner, a companion, a friend, and a Savior who has himself known weariness, sadness, and pain every bit as deep as the weariness, sadness, and pain that you know; and who invites each of us to yoke ourselves to him and see, just see, if his yoke isn’t easy, if the burden isn’t light.

I don’t have three other points to make this morning.  This is all I have - this yoke – along with the testimony that my life has always been better when I have taken Jesus’ yoke and let him help me with the burdens.  My life has always been happier when my steps have been locked in with his, than when I have tried to go it on my own.  Every load I have ever known has been lightened by his friendship and his love, and every path I feared I could not walk has disappeared behind me with his help.  For his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.  Come to him, and try it for yourself!

 

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

9 July 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

[i] “Spurgeon, Charles, “The Education of Sons of God,” June 10, 1880, The Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington

[ii] Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Posted on July 9, 2017 .