Flash

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)


Because my parents believed strongly that their children should have opportunities that were never available to them when they were young, they allowed me to go to a tiny boarding school in the middle of New York City when I was ten years old.  It may be the most generous gift - among many generous gifts - that my parents ever gave me.

 M. et Mme. Thibault

M. et Mme. Thibault

All of the boys in the little middle school I attended in mid-town Manhattan began French classes during the first week of school in Fifth Grade.  This was 1977.  The method of instruction was auditory, using a series of slides to provide visual cues to help us understand the words that our teacher spoke.  The Internet has helped me to remember that the materials were published as “Voix et Images de France.”  I have no idea if the method was cutting-edge or already out of date at the time, nor what its pedagogical virtues may or may not be in this day and age.  But it left an impression on me, and I was able to test out of my language requirement by the time I got to college.

Lessons began with an kind of cartoon image of a man who could have been a French Ward Cleaver.  “Voila Monsieur Thibault.”  Next his wife, “Voilà Madame Thibault.”

As the weeks progressed, so did the sophistication of our sentences.  Because of the effortless and natural rhythm of the sentence, we boys were tickled pink, I remember, by the phrase, “Voilà les fenêtres de son appartement.”  Some day I shall be in an emergency in a Fench-speaking country, and the only thing I’ll be able to do is point out the windows of the apartment of a fictional couple in Paris.

Our French teacher’s name was Mr. Flashman, but everyone called him “Flash.”  I haven’t the faintest idea what his heritage is, but he has what I think of as a Gallic nose - prominent, with a broad sort of bump or bend midway along the bridge of the nose.  And his voice sounded then, as it still does, very much as though it resonates all through that substantial nose.

Flash read (and still does read) the New York Times with a thoroughness and devotion unmatched by anyone I have ever known.  He is an aesthete if ever there was one.  I probably first heard the names Baryshnikov, Maria Callas, and Tommy Tune from him.  He loved the theater, and on Saturday mornings he would go stand on line at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square to get tickets for boys who had signed up that morning to go see the 1:00 matinee.  I remember The Wiz, and Sweeney Todd, and Evita, Amadeus, Children of a Lesser God, and more.

Flash was a runner in those days, and we would see him leaving the school in his running shorts and shoes to jog in Central Park, setting a good example for as, as we headed out with other teachers to play soccer, or softball, or capture the flag on the rocks and fields of the park, or to go sledding in the winter snow.

Like every other teacher at the school - whom we called “masters” - Flash ate his meals with us.  Every master had his own table, and we boys rotated around to different teachers’ tables on a weekly basis.  Manners were an important part of school life, and they were emphasized (not to say enforced) in the Dining Room at all times.  Table conversation included everyone, and it was always lively at Flash’s table, as I recall.  

Flash could be something of a disciplinarian, and we boys learned that we’d be happier if we stayed on the right side of the rules, where Flash was concerned.  But he could also laugh at a child’s joke, or encourage you to try harder than you thought you cared to bother.

Because we were children growing up in New York City, we walked around the city in a double line of boys, each boy walking beside his partner - whether we were going to church or to the park.  Flash’s signature move, when we crossed Sixth Avenue at 55th or 54th Streets, was to place himself in the middle of the street between the line of cars (behind him) as the double-line of boys filed past him, with his arms outstretched, simultaneously urging us on, and just daring any driver behind him to try to threaten our safety.  No driver in his right mind would have done so.

I reminisce like this because of the injunction we heard in the Epistle of St. James, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

It’s joy for me to tell you about my middle school French teacher, who remains a friend to this day, and whom I visit regularly when I am in Southern California, where he retired.  I could write a profile of every one of my middle school teachers, and of many of my prep school teachers in the years that followed.  And of a few of my college professors, including the English professor who had our entire class to dinner at his home so we could taste his version of Boeuf en Daube from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse - a book I can barely recall, although I remember the stew vividly, and the wine we drank with it.  And, of course my seminary professors - one of whom you know came to be the Curate here with me before leaving us to become a bishop!

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters...

Jesus, of course, was a teacher.  They called him, “Rabbi.”

And here with us today we have teachers from St. James School - that leafy triangle of learning and love on Clearfield Street that began eight years ago because of the bold faith of this parish.

If not many should be come teachers, it remains a fact that some should, indeed, become teachers.  No teacher worth the title is ever really only an instructor in his or her subject.  But in some places teachers are there for their students not only in the classroom, but also at the table, on the field, in the pews, by the stage door, and when you’re sick, or frightened, or confused, or in trouble, as well as when you want to jump for joy!

The teachers and staff of St. James school are just such teachers, fully deserving of the title.  Together they have built a school community that is caring, supporting, strengthening, and loving.  Children learn there.  And they learn because of a dedicated, and very gifted corps of teachers for whom it is my great pleasure to stand here and thank God.

We say that at St. James School we are concerned about the whole child - and although this sounds like a statement of policy, it more accurately describes the attitude and commitment of the teachers and staff, who begin every day ready to care for the whole child; every child; body, mind and soul.  Which is why our teachers are not only in the classroom with our students; they are also at the dining table, in church, visiting at home, helping after school, on the basketball court, in the school nurse’s office, applying to high schools, and now visiting colleges, as the first class that ever graduated from St. James begins that exciting process.

And I have no doubt that some day in the future - maybe not in a church, but who knows? - St. James alumni will stand before groups of people, for one reason or another, recounting the life lessons they learned from their teachers at St. James School, just as I delight to tell you about Flash.

I discovered, when I went to try to learn to speak some Spanish at the age of 49, that the effort knocked right out of my head nearly every French word or phrase I had ever learned.  Except, of course, Voilà les fenêtres de son appartement.

But the older I get, the more I realize that it was never really Flash’s first responsibility to teach me or any of us to speak French.  It was his first responsibility to teach me and all of the boys to be good: to be kind, respectful, and honest.  These lessons were only strengthened because our school was part and parcel of a community of faith - a church, in which the praise of God’s Name prompts the love and care of God’s children, in a virtuous cycle that, God willing, will go on to repeat it self for many generations.  Another way of putting it is to say that our teacher’s first job was to teach us the Gospel, although I am sure this would have come as a surprise to several of my old teachers, but not to Flash.  But the Gospel requires context - Jesus called it “good soil.”  And the teachers in a Christian school are the tillers of soil and the waterers, pruners, and protectors of plants; who convey every day, and often without words, the faith, strength, forgiveness, and hope of the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ.

St. James School is, part and parcel, a community of faith.  It has been shaped by the Gospel of love.  Its teachers and staff are indeed the tillers of soil, and waterers, pruners, and protectors of plants.  They bear witness, every day, to the faith, strength, forgiveness, and hope that are at the heart of the Christian life, and that are meant to transform all of our lives.

In a day and age in America where so many people have no idea who Jesus is, or what he teaches, or why any right-minded person would link his or her life to the Name of Jesus, St. James School bears testimony every day to the Gospel of transformation that has its effect on everyone there, be they teacher, student, staff, volunteer, donor, or Sunday worshiper.  Because the truth of the Gospel is that Jesus takes the broken lives of every single one of us, and restores us to the beauty for which we were made.  That’s just who Jesus is.

Having been given the extraordinary gift, not only of parents who cared about me enough to let me go away to school at an early age, but also the gift of a school community that nurtured me, taught me, fed me, and shaped me in faith, I give thanks that St. James School is taking up that same work.

I hear the precaution in the Epistle that not many should be teachers, because of the weight of responsibility given to them, and because of the risk to those entrusted to their care if they fall short of that responsibility.  But I thank God that if not many should be teachers, some, indeed, should be: like all of you who teach and work at St. James School.  You should be teachers, and thank God you are!

And I thank God, thanks to Flash, and to many others of my teachers, that when the day comes, and I am called to stand before my Lord, and I am required to answer to him, if he should ask me, as he asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”  I will be able to answer in more than one language.  I may well answer in French, and if I do, it will probably sound like this: Voilà les fenêtres de son appartement.  

And Jesus will know exactly what I mean, which is to say that I will mean, “I know who you are, my Lord; you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Thanks be to God.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
16 September 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 16, 2018 .

Be Opened!

Back in 1993 amid all the other culture wars that were igniting, a book was published that made a bit of a splash in religious circles, called The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say?  A group of scholars, collectively known as The Jesus Seminar, had voted on each and every one of the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, using the best resources they could, in order to express a consensus on the likelihood that the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, had actually uttered the words in question.  They decided that “eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him.” (p.5).  By their own accounting, in the Gospel of John they were “unable to find a single saying they could with certainty trace back to the historical Jesus” that was unique to that Gospel. (p.10)  And they did allow that “the fact that some words attributed to Jesus were not likely spoken by him does not necessarily diminish their importance.” (p.33)

Back in my seminary days these bold statements seemed a lot more affronting to me than they do now, and it seemed like they must be something approaching heresy.  But, to begin with, the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are far from established truth.  Plus, the older I get, the more I see that Jesus must always have been more than a historical figure, anyway, and that his words must always have been, and must always be, more than dialogue that may or may not have been recorded accurately.  And the more I see that Jesus is still speaking to his church, even now - often through the pages of scripture.  And it may well be that Jesus intends some words more for us than he did for the originally recorded hearer.  So it’s not inconceivable to me that a historical rendering of his sayings seems out of whack.  So be it, I say.  Or, to put it another way, Amen.

The scholars who published The Five Gospels generally took the view, as most scholars do, that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic in his daily life, not Hebrew or Greek.  Most scholars also agree that the New Testament was written in Greek.  But the New Testament does include ten words or phrases that are preserved in their Aramaic forms.  Among those words and phrases are some of Christ’s final words on the Cross, quoting Psalm 22, as well as the word he used to address God the Father: “Abba.”

Curiously, with the exception of one word in the line from the Psalm, only two of the Aramaic words are verbs.  Both of those are found in Saint Mark’s Gospel, in somewhat close proximity to one another: the first in Chapter 5; the second in Chapter 7.

The first Aramaic verb Jesus uses is found in the account of the leader of the synagogue who comes to Jesus to ask him to save the man’s daughter, who is near death.  Jesus goes to her, although the crowd around him laughs at him when he tells them that the child is not dead, only sleeping.  Jesus takes the girl by the hand and says to her, in his own tongue, “Talitha cum,” which Saint Mark tells us means, “little girl, get up.” 

The second and last instance of Jesus’ use of an Aramaic verb, we heard a few minutes ago in the account of Jesus and a deaf man.  Now, I confess to you a certain struggle with my own language here.  The heading in my study Bible says, just above these verses, “Jesus cures a deaf man.”  But I am not so sure we should be comfortable with this language, even if it was once common.  For it is more than a semantic question whether or not deafness is, without question, a condition in need of a cure.  

Interestingly, the text itself makes no assertion that this action of Jesus’ is a “cure” or a “healing.”  True, Saint Mark tells us that the man has an “impediment in his speech.”  But otherwise the language is not clinical or judgmental, merely descriptive.  The man’s friends don’t ask Jesus to heal him, rather, they “begged him to lay his hand on him.”  This Jesus does with a certain panache, putting his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting and touching his tongue; and then... “looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him” in the only other use of a verb in Aramaic in the Gospels, “‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”

Now, Saint Mark is very clear that Jesus was not putting on a show.  We are told that “he took [the man] aside in private, away from the crowd.”  But if you ask me, Jesus is trying to get someone’s attention.  

The scholars of The Jesus Seminar point out that this single Aramaic word is also the only word spoken by Jesus in this entire encounter, and they are not impressed.  It gets the lowest possible ranking in their voting for whether or not Jesus actually said it.  And their notes attribute the use of the word to “storyteller’s license,” and suggest that the “Aramaic makes it sound like a magical formula to the Greek-speaking ear.” (p. 71)

And all of this skeptical background could suggest that I have not found a great deal of good news in the Gospel reading this morning to share with you.  But I hope you know me better than that by now.

I, myself, am inclined to believe that Jesus really did say this word, “Ephphatha,” Be opened.  I am, admittedly, no scholar, but I am inclined to believe that Jesus really sighed.  I’m not sure the saying or the sigh are made up at all.  I think they could be for real.  

What I’m wondering about is the deaf man.  I think maybe he’s the made up part of the story.  I think Saint Mark could well be preserving the memory of a prayer and a Spirit-filled sigh that came from Jesus’ mouth, but that no one quite understood what they meant, or who they were for, so they made up the person of the deaf man, since he would provide an explanation for this word on  Jesus’ lips: Ephphatha.

I think it’s possible that people heard Jesus utter this word more than once, maybe often or always accompanied by a deep and telling sigh.  Couldn’t this apparent command also amount to a prayer wherever Jesus encountered the kind of defensiveness that was resistant to his message?  Couldn’t his sighs amount to an effort to gently introduce the possibility of the Spirit into the world around him - a breath that would be more fully realized in due course?

What if Jesus, in his many encounters with those who were offended by his generosity, rankled by his predilection for mercy, confused by his humility, incited by his tenderness, outraged by his forgiveness, piqued by his flouting of tradition, annoyed by his simplicity, irritated by his paradoxes, and frustrated by his singular commandment to love one another... what if in the face of all that is shut-down, and walled-off, and hemmed-in in the lives of those he came to save… what if in the face of all this, Jesus was heard to sigh more than once, and to utter that commanding prayer, Ephphatha, Be opened?

And what if there never was a deaf man at all, who needed Jesus fingers in his ears, or his spit on his tongue?  What if the deaf man is a straw man, imagined by those who couldn’t imagine this command was meant for them?

What if, actually, Jesus was praying for those who may not have had a thought that they stood in any need of prayer, for those who had no idea that they needed to be opened.  Don’t we know people like that?

This is a trick question, of course.  Since we are people like that - you and me.  We need to be opened.  But it does not often (maybe ever) occur to us to ask Jesus to pray for us, to lay his hands on us, to open us up to all that we have shut ourselves down to - beginning with his sighs, his Spirit.

After all, aren’t we sometimes offended by his generosity, rankled by his predilection for mercy, confused by his humility, incited by his tenderness, outraged by his forgiveness, piqued by his flouting of tradition, annoyed by his simplicity, irritated by his paradoxes, and frustrated by his singular commandment to love?  Isn’t there much in us that is shut-down, and walled-off, and hemmed-in in, when it comes to hearing Jesus, listening to Jesus, learning from Jesus, being opened by Jesus?  And don’t we often come to Jesus (if we think of coming to church this way)… don’t we often come to Jesus without any consideration whatsoever that any of us might have a condition that’s in need of a cure?  We don’t need to be healed.  We don’t need to be cured.  Our ears work just fine, thank you very much.  Now, just tell me: what has Jesus done for me lately?!?

The longer I live on this earth, the less worried I find I am about what can or can’t be proved about what Jesus did or said, all those years ago.  I am principally concerned, I find, with what Jesus is doing and saying to us now!  And while I don’t want to seem callous about a deaf man, who had an impediment in his speech, who may or may not have existed, and who may or may not have had a conversation with Jesus a couple of thousand years ago, I admit that I am lot more concerned about you and about me.

Which means that I dearly hope that Jesus is sighing right now!  I dearly hope that he will put his fingers in my ears and yours, and wiggle them around till it tickles, so we’ll know they are in there!  I dearly hope that Jesus is about to lay his hands on you and on me, and on everything in our hearts and everything in this world that is shut-down, and walled-off, and hemmed-in… and that needs to be opened!  And I dearly hope that with his sighs, Jesus is sending us, with the breath of his Spirit, that same old prayer, that I am convinced comes from his blessed lips, since it was spoken in his own native tongue: Ephphatah!  Be opened!

Give us ears to hear, Lord Christ!  And when they are stopped up, and our hearts, our lives, our souls are shut-down, and walled-off, and hemmed-in, then put your fingers in our ears, and spit on our tongues, lay your hands on us, and sigh… and speak your prayer, O Lord, Ephphatah, be opened!  And open us to your grace, your mercy, your forgiveness, and your love.  Open us, O Lord, and never let us shut you out again!

Ephphatah!  Be opened!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
9 September 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 10, 2018 .

That One Word

Recently a politician came to visit Philadelphia and was greeted by an angry crowd.  There is no need, I don’t think, to specify the politician or the particular outrage—we all have our ideas about that.  Just picture this one protester, standing in the crowd, holding up a sign that says “Pharisee.” The protester was calling this elected official a Pharisee.  That one word tells us everything we need to know, doesn’t it? The protester was accusing the visiting politician of religious hypocrisy. She was holding up a sign that seemed to say everything she needed to say: that the politician professes faith in Jesus but enacts policies that are shockingly out of step with the gospel of Jesus.  That the politician claims to love Jesus but does nothing for the least among us. That the politician would be firmly on the side of the goats when Jesus came to separate them from the sheep. That the protester is a person of faith herself, enraged by the misappropriation of Christianity that distorts both religious and political life in this country.  

It was elegant.  It was concise. It made you think. It was also a real insult to Pharisees.  

Pharisees, of course, have been getting insulted by Christians for a long time, as Jewish and Christian scholars alike have pointed out.  The particular contexts in which the early gospel writers lived may be hard for us to trace, but we can if we care to examine a long history after that, in which the enemy in almost any Christian debate will be characterized as a Pharisee, a hypocrite, one who is obsessed with external forms of devotion at the expense of religious sincerity.  The Protestant Reformation in England would have been practically impossible without the word “Pharisitical,” a sneering term used mostly against Catholics, associating them with obsessive ritual practice. Anglo-catholics in the nineteenth century were called Pharisees, again for cherishing elaborate ritual practices. And here was a protester in Philadelphia, at an entirely secular event, holding up a sign that said “Pharisee” as though everyone around her, Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist—could be expected to agree that the politician in question, whose religious adherence is decidedly evangelical, could be condemned by association with one form of first-century Jewish religious observance.  It’s an all-purpose term for Christians at this point. Any hypocrite is a Pharisee.

Yes, Jesus did have a pretty heated argument with the religious leaders of his own time.  But when the word “Pharisee” can stand in for “hypocrite” without any nuance or context, we are on shaky ground.  Without thinking about it, we are following a painful tradition in which Christians insult each other by calling each other Jews. That habit is so ingrained that we don’t even hear it, but that’s part of the problem.  

Think of it this way.  Imagine that Jesus had had an argument with a bunch of Episcopalians. What would it seem like to you two thousand years later, if a protester could hold up a sign that condemned a politician with withering disgust, and all it said was “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You?”

Nobody wants to be a byword.  It doesn’t have to be said that making Jews into bywords has been a devastating practice.  Let’s stop.

So if insulting Pharisees was not the point of this gospel story, what is Jesus actually trying to do?  Why does he come down so harshly in response to a question about ritual practices when he could have been neutral?  If someone asked you why Episcopalians used incense, would you condemn them, or would you answer the question? Can’t Jesus be at least as polite and helpful as we are?

One way to answer that question is to say that this encounter in Mark’s gospel is part of a much larger context in which religious authority figures are for hypocritical reasons doing everything they can to preserve their own power and position while undercutting Jesus’s teachings.  This isn’t an isolated event, this one story. It’s part of a long contest between Jesus and prevailing religious wisdom. Our prevailing wisdom, their prevailing wisdom, any prevailing wisdom. Jesus is always going to challenge us to go deeper. Jesus is always going to open up our religion and expose its weakness.  If you ask Jesus about ritual washing, he will tell you that what’s really important is what’s inside you. If you ask Jesus whether divorce is legal, he will make you think about the hardness of your own heart. If you bring an adulterer to him for punishment, he will forgive the adulterer and condemn you. If you come to Jesus as the rich young man did, wanting to follow in all sincerity, he will look at you with love and compassion, and tell you to sell everything you have and give it to the poor.  If you give everything up to follow him, he will invite you to the foot of the cross.

Jesus is, among many other things, a principle of undoing.  His mission has something to do with breaking our lives open.  We won’t ever reach a position of secure knowing in relation to Jesus, because what we think we know is part of what keeps us from him.  Yes, right thinking and right teaching are important, but Jesus is always going to challenge us to see the underside of our rightness. There is always an underside in this life.  We will always use something to help us feel that we are in control, and Jesus will always pry that something out of our hands and help us start over.

Hearing this story correctly is about much more than learning to prioritize inner purity over the washing of pots.  It’s about much more than learning how not to misuse the word “Pharisee,” for that matter. It’s about being available to God, being able to drop whatever we are holding that gets in the way.  It’s about learning how to let Jesus transform our religion, not so that we turn our backs on “church,” but so that we let Jesus show us what we are using “church” for.

Because every one of us will be using religion for something.  Sometimes religion will be a cover for our most horrific sins, as we heard about from this pulpit so powerfully last week.  Sometimes religion is a cover for anxiety. Sometimes religion is a desperate attempt to make ourselves lovely in the eyes of God, because we have forgotten our true loveliness.  Trust me, you and I and everyone we can think of will be using religion for some human purpose, and the great work of God in our lives will be to transform that purpose.

We are all equal before God in this way.  Not that some forms of resistance to God’s grace aren’t more terrible than others, but that the fundamental orientation of our hearts has to be corrected again and again.  We have to be saved from ourselves again and again.

And this is cause for rejoicing.  It’s in that act of saving us that Jesus shows us who he is.  And Jesus never stops being larger than we can imagine, more delightful than we know, more breathtaking than we had anticipated.  

Standing before God, encountering Jesus, is baffling.  We will be tempted, on the way there, to focus on small things like ritual perfection or competitive holiness.  We will be tempted to blame others for our own manifest failures (“Pharisee!”). We will want to hide. And Jesus will be right there leading us on, with correction, even sharp correction, with puzzling teachings that make us struggle to grow, with opportunities to love those whom we fear.  With the cross. Our freedom comes from surrendering to that process, accepting those challenges. Our freedom comes from knowing that we never have it right, and surrendering to the love that brings us where we do not imagine we want to go.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
2 September 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 4, 2018 .