Praying Always

When Jesus was finished speaking and looked up, his disciples looked completely miserable. James was sitting there shaking his head, a frown slowly spreading across his face. Peter scratched his head and furrowed his brow, trying to look tough even though his eyes were full of heartbreak. John just heaved a sad sigh and closed his eyes. They looked pitiful, tired, and scared, and so Jesus opened his mouth to tell them one more thing. A parable, this time, to ease their minds.

Before telling this story, Jesus had been speaking of the Kingdom of God. He had been telling his disciples all about what it would look like in the days when the Son of Man would be revealed and the Kingdom of God would come. But this Kingdom he spoke of was not the Kingdom of powerful, tiny mustard seeds or sweet yeast that leavens the whole loaf. This Kingdom of God, Jesus told them, was not comfortable or homey. And this Kingdom was not coming in any way that they could observe. People would say, “Look, there it is!” – but it would not be there. The Son of Man would come down from heaven in glory, but the disciples, Jesus told them, would not see it. They would seek and not find; they would knock and find the door barred shut against them. For the Kingdom of God would come at a most unexpected hour, a day that they would never see coming, a daythat, as much as they longed for it, they would just have to wait for. And wait for. And wait for.

And when Jesus was finished telling his disciples of this mysterious coming of the Kingdom, he looked down into their faces, into the eyes of these men who had followed him for so long and who had so much pain still to walk through, and he was moved with compassion. He saw the despair that started to take root, right there, in the center of their beings. He knew how frightening all of this must have sounded, how disorienting his words must have been to those who already had nowhere to lay their heads and no idea where this path was taking them. He wanted to reach down and mend their broken hearts, calm their anxious souls, strengthen their faith right at the core. And so he spoke to them again. He told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

In this parable, there is a judge. He is a terrible person. There is a widow. She has been slighted and betrayed. She goes to the judge for justice; he offers her none. She goes back to him, again and again and again and again and again and again and finally he gives in and gives her what she deserves – not because he has had a change of heart, but because she is just so fantastically annoying. The judge’s conversation with himself is classic: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” Or, in a slightly more colorful translation, I will give this woman her stupid justice just so I don’t end up with a black eye from all of her pounding.

On the surface, not exactly a parable to warm the heart. Not one to speak softly to your children as you tuck them in at night. Not one to inspire a painting by Rembrandt or name your church after. The Church of the Widow and the Unjust Judge, Paoli. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? But while the characters in this parable might not be people we’d ever want to have a cup of coffee with, there is comfort here, finally.  Will not God grant justice to those who cry to him day and night? Jesus asks. How much more will God do for us than this awful judge did for this woman? If even a cold-hearted, self-centered autocrat can end up doing the right thing, how much more can an open-hearted, self-giving God do for you? Ah, there is the relief. There is the lightening of the heart. There is the comfort that should make us feel better as we, like the disciples, wait to see the signs of God’s kingdom like a rainbow in the heavens. Just keep praying, just keep praying. God will answer, and that right soon. 

But as I finish speaking, I look out upon you all, sitting there in your own lives, and I imagine that I can see questions in some of your eyes. Is this really the answer, to just keep pestering God? Does just keep praying really make everything better? Just keep praying sounds like something you tell people when they’re at the end of their rope, something you say when there’s nothing left to say. Just keep praying, and God will, I don’t know, do something. But you and I know that God doesn’t always do something, at least not the something we are looking for. Just keep praying can be cold comfort to those who have been praying for a sick family member but whose cancer just seems to be getting worse and worse. Just keep praying can ring a little false to someone who has been out of work for months, whose rent is overdue, and who has to take 3 buses to get to the grocery store. Just keep praying doesn’t help much when you’re waiting for clarity in a situation that seems messier and murkier by the day. Just keep praying feels like just one of those things you say when you sit in a world where words of hatred are flung at one another with such frequency they’re like arrows that block the sun. And for all of this, we have just keep praying, just keep praying?

But if that is the way we’re thinking about praying, then we’ve entered into the parable in the wrong way. Let me tell you what I mean – we’re clear, aren’t we, that Jesus isn’t trying to equate this unjust judge with God. Right? This parable is not an allegory; the judge is not a stand-in for the Triune God. This would be impossible. God is not unjust, or cruel, or selfish. There can be no simple one-to-one correlation here. So why would we imagine that Jesus’ vision of prayer looks exactly like the actions of this widow? Why would we think that he wants us to just keep praying the same prayer, over and over? That would be praying just like the woman – one question, repeated again and again, with only one possible answer, and we’re just waiting and waiting and waiting to see when that one answer is going to come out of the judge’s mouth.

If just keep praying means only, so that my family member will be cured, or so that I will get this job right now, or so that my lover will come back to me, or so that I will never have to hear words of hatred again, then whether we know it or not, we’re actually praying to the judge, not to God. We’re imagining that God will only hear us when he wants to, only act when we’ve prayed long enough, or hard enough. But this is not the prayer of Jesus.  Jesus wants far more for us than to stoically force ourselves to keep nagging God with the same question over and over while waiting, unchanged, for the answer that we’re expecting. Jesus wants us to not lose our hearts. Do not lose heart, he tell us, and the only way to do that is to pray always.

Praying always is different than just keep praying. Praying always is about listening as much as it is about speaking. Praying always is about taking all of our questions, all of our answers, all of ourselves, all of the time, and holding them up before the throne of Grace. Praying always is about expecting that God will answer and expecting that we will likely find that answer surprising. Praying always is about hoping that there is healing to be found even if the cancer doesn’t go away, that there is help to be found even when there is no job, that there is clarify to be found for one step even if the rest of the path is cloaked in shadow, that there is love to be found, peace to be found, righteousness to be found, mercy and truth and justice to be found even while people around us are hurling hatred and grief.

Praying always is about the entire kingdom of God coming, not just one specific answer to one specific question. It is about the whole of our lives, not just one moment. It is, then, a sign of great faith and hope in the persistence our God, not a proof of our persistence aimed at God. And praying always does more than just mark the Kingdom; it is also makes the Kingdom. Because praying always means that we are changed, not just our circumstances. We are shaped, we are molded, we are transformed, every moment that we pray. We learn to love God, and to see and love our neighbor. We pray always, and in each breath of prayer we become more of who we were meant to be, and so reveal one more part – one more beautiful, unique, glorious part – of God’s kingdom.

So pray always. Thy kingdom come. Do not lose heart. For the kingdom of God has come near.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

16 October 2016

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 19, 2016 .

The Tenth Leper

The first thing the nine lepers did when they realized their good fortune was to go see a good intellectual property lawyer. They had a story to tell, and they intended to make the most of it. The lawyer quickly lined them up with good management at a talent agency, who booked them on the morning news shows, and started shopping their story around with potential publishers, being careful, of course, to protect the rights to the movie version, should things progress that far. The story of nine lepers miraculously healed by a controversial preacher had a lot of appeal in those days. You could sell a lot of books with such a story. But a book was only the beginning of the spin you could get with these guys. In time there might even be action figures.

Their agent had individual contracts with each of the nine, but was careful to keep them together as a group, which added to their appeal. And this proved to be a wildly successful strategy. They were kind of like a boy band of their era, and they had a dramatized (and greatly ornamented) version of the story of their healing that they took on the road, that included terrific lighting effects, and music by a first-rate band. Ticket sales were strong.

In this dramatized version of their story, the detail of a tenth leper had been eliminated, since it only complicated the telling, and since, as their lawyer had repeatedly confirmed, the tenth leper never obtained either counsel or representation for himself, and had done absolutely nothing to protect his rights. For all intents and purposes, it was as if the story of being healed of leprosy was not his to share, and as far as the public knew there was no tenth leper at all. When the dramatized production of the story ended its long run on the road, the nine lepers developed a reputation as motivational speakers – still traveling mostly as a group, and publishing new books, like “Life after Leprosy,” and “The Miracle-Driven Life.”

In all this, Jesus was hardly mentioned, and almost never by name. He had no representation either, and as we all know, it would take an astonishingly long time for any books about him to get published. He was highly ineffective at monetizing what was, actually, considerable notoriety at the time. And you’d be surprised at how easy it was to tell the story of nine changed lives without emphasizing the one who did the changing. In the telling of the nine lepers, Jesus was referred to only as a nameless, mysterious robed figure upon whom the lepers happened to stumble in their quest for wholeness, the gaze of whose eyes, and the slight lifting of whose hand provided the trigger for a transformation that the nine lepers routinely described as coming from within themselves.

Eventually all nine of them would retire to the Mediterranean coast as wealthy men. And it was a surprise, at that late stage of their lives, to open the paper one morning and find a long, somewhat rambling, op-ed piece by their old acquaintance, the tenth leper, whose existence they had actually begun to forget about, so compelling had they found their own re-telling of the story over all these years. But whose re-appearance late in life posed no threat, their lawyer assured them, since he was still without counsel or representation. It seemed that he simply wanted to make sure that his version of the story was preserved for posterity.

This is what his op-ed piece said:

"Years ago, I have forgotten how many now, I suffered horribly with leprosy, and had been confined, as lepers still so often are today, to a camp on the outskirts of town where I lived with my fellow lepers as an outcast, with no hope for the future. But one day my life changed when, in the company of the nine other lepers whose story you have very likely read about or heard, I came across a man who healed us all, and made us whole. That man had a name, and his name was Jesus of Nazareth.

"Living, as we do, in an age when religion is important, and the lives of all men are governed by the edicts of religion one way or another, I experienced my transformation from sickness and despair to wholeness and health in religious terms, especially since, at the time, Jesus instructed all ten of us to go and show ourselves to the priests. Clearly what had happened to me had come from God. And soon I would discover that the Man who made it happen was, indeed, the Son of God. On the day of my healing I raised my voice to the praises of God, and I have not stopped singing those praises since then. I fell at the feet of Jesus that day in gratitude and awe, and my life has been lived at his feet, so to speak, every day since then.

"My companions that day have become rich and famous, and I do not begrudge them their wealth or their fame. I neither need nor want a share of what they have gained by telling a version of the story of our healing that leaves unidentified the most important person in the story: the person who did the healing, the living Son of God, the Lord of Life and the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Christ. But that person has a Name that is above every other Name, and that needs to be spoken, needs to be heard, needs to be praised to the heavens. His Name is Jesus!

"I have had many years to reflect upon the impact of Jesus in my life, and on the effects of his healing in my life. And because my companions’ story has been so publicly told, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the differences between their response to their healing and mine, and to wonder if these differences matter. 

"Jesus was not the first person we had called upon for healing. Other itinerant preachers had passed through town. As lepers, we were accustomed to keeping our distance, and we knew how the game was played. We knew how to get close enough to cry out, but not so close that we’d cause trouble or anxiety. We had cried out to supposed wonder-workers before, but to no avail. And we had no reason, especially, to expect that this one was different. But when you are a leper you are desperate, and you will try anything.

"As it happened we almost did not realize it. We turned away from him, having received his blessing, and as we went, we found ourselves restored to health. And in those moments, as Jesus was telling us to go and show ourselves to the priests, I felt an unmistakable call, an urge to turn and run to him, a need to go to him that was born of gratitude that seemed to be welling up from a deep spring somewhere within me, as though the healing had also unlocked the depth of this spring. I did not perceive what I did that day as a choice, but I see now that it was, since I was the only one of the ten of us who chose that path. And it is a choice for which I will be forever grateful. And it is a choice that you may face too, in a way, even though you do not see it that way yet.

"So often we approach religion as consumers, which is to say that we approach religion or a religious leader wondering only what we will get and how much it will cost us. That is certainly the way I approached Jesus on the road at the outskirts of town all those years ago; just as my fellow lepers and I had approached others before him. We cried out for mercy, and if we had any hope at all, I suppose that we expected that if mercy was to be given, then it would come with a price that we would have to pay. We had no idea how we might have paid that price, but, as I say, we were desperate men, looking for anyone who could help us.

"As it happened we got the best deal imaginable. Jesus healed us. And the healing, and the new life that came with it, came without charge or expectation on Jesus’ part. We were free to go our way without so much as a thank you, which is precisely what my nine friends of old did. They got what they wanted from Jesus for a bargain and they moved on with their lives without him. I have come to see how their response to the Lord was shaped by the attitude of consumerism, as so much of our lives is. And they went on to turn their story into a consumer product as well, which has made them rich.

"I can’t explain why I turned around that day to return to Jesus and give him my praise and to give him my life, as it would turn out. I don’t know why I didn’t continue on with the others, and remain a part of their story, become a part of their fame, and share a part in their wealth. I only know that choosing to turn around and go to Jesus was the best thing I ever did in my life. I did not perceive that day that I had a choice to be, on the one hand a consumer of his grace, of his love, of his religion; or on the other hand to become a disciple of his. I only know where my footsteps led me.

"I cannot speak for the others, for whom it has been otherwise, but the story of my healing cannot be told without naming Jesus and proclaiming who he is. For my healing did not come from within myself; it did not stem from some unknown source inside my body, or even in my soul. My healing came from one place, from one Man: my healing came from Jesus. It was the work of his mercy in my life, and it has brought with it into my life the means of grace and the hope of glory (to coin a phrase). Ever since that marvelous day I have been keenly aware in my life of the transforming love of God, who does not desert the hopeless and the sick, the lost and the powerless, but gives us victory over the things that steal our hope, make us sick, cause us to lose our way, and rob us of our power.

"How do you respond to such love? If you are consumer, living in a consumer culture, one way to respond is to take what you can at the lowest price possible, and then to move on to the next thing, once you have gotten what you were looking for. But another way to respond to the transforming love of God is to fall at his feet and worship him. And then to follow those feet wherever they lead you. In my life as a follower of Jesus, those feet have led me to bedsides of many other lepers, and to the homes and the villages of the poor, and to congregations of outcasts on the edges of towns everywhere. And when I meet with these people, I tell them my story. But the most important part of my story is not, in fact, the part where I am made clean and whole. The most important part is when I run to Jesus, his praises on my lips, and fall at his feet. For it was in the running to him that my life was saved, not in the healing of my leprosy, strange though that may seem to hear.

"And what I know from a lifetime of service as a disciple of Jesus, is that not every leper will be healed. All your problems do not vanish. Riches are not showered automatically upon the faithful. But new life is always found when you run to Jesus to worship him. It’s in the running to him that our lives are saved as we become true followers of his, and not merely consumers of his grace. And my prayer for all humanity is that everyone may find the power of God’s mercy – not as a consumer of it, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because I have heard my nine companions for my entire life telling the story of how their miraculous healing (from within) brought them fame and riches, but I have no idea if they even realize that they have been saved by Jesus’ love.

"I am nothing but a disciple of Jesus, and that is all I ever need to be in order to inherit the whole earth, as he has taught me. All those years ago, when I first fell down at Jesus’ feet, he took me by the hand, and told me to get up and go on my way, for, he said, my faith had made me well. What I discovered was that my faith, like everything else, was a gift of God, that came not from within, but from the hand of the loving God who made the heavens and the earth, and who made me and you, too.

"God wants you to be well. God sent his Son into the world to save all people by the power of his love. God gave me the gift of faith and saved me by the power of his Son. Run to him, as I have every day of my life since that first day I met him, and be a follower of his, and rejoice!"


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

9 October 2016

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 12, 2016 .

Saint Christopher in Spain

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5)

A dilemma gripped me as I prepared to walk from Sevilla to Santiago de Compostela this summer along the Via de la Plata – the ancient route that Romans, Moors, Spaniards, and pilgrims have traveled for centuries. I estimated that it would take me about forty days of walking to cover the distance of just over a thousand kilometers (or 621 miles). I had carefully worked out (I thought) how much I needed to carry in my pack: just a little more than two changes of clothes (one for walking, and one to change into while the others were washed in the sink and dried in the sun); a pair of Tevas to wear when the hiking shoes came off; rain gear just in case; a corkscrew without question: a Kindle loaded with books to read during the down time. But the dilemma was posed by my walking partner, a priest from London, who assured me by email that he’d be bringing a Bible and a Prayer Book in order to pray the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer each day. Ugh!

I did not want to carry these books with me. I pray these Offices all the time here at home, aided greatly by the custom we have at Saint Mark’s of saying the Offices daily in church, but when I travel, my commitment to this discipline is not so good, especially if it involves carrying two books, that even in their lightweight version (both books bound together, printed on light, onionskin-like paper) weighs one pound, twelve ounces. Plus, I already had both books loaded onto my Kindle. But I knew that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do the kind of flipping around, back and forth that is required in both books when you use these forms of prayer. The Kindle would be impractical. So, would I bring this brick of a book and carry it with me?

As I prepared to leave for Spain, this question nagged at me, as I tried to trim more weight from my backpack, to make the walking easier over such a long distance. Out of a sense of duty, and in order to avoid shame I decided to bring the book.

Once I began to walk, I regretted the decision almost immediately. My walking partner was much more committed to the practice of the Daily Office while traveling than I was. Oh, I began and ended my days with prayer. I spent hours of walking, dedicating my footsteps to people, worries, issues I wanted to pray about. I made it my habit to say the Angelus as each day’s walking began, and to punctuate each day with those prayers as the hours went on. With wide open space in front of me, and no one around to hear, I’d sing the Magnificat to the settings of various composers, bouncing back and forth from the treble and tenor lines, filling in the other parts in my head.

But the heat of southern Spain, and the weariness on arrival at the end of each day’s walking, and the preoccupation of washing my clothes, and planning the next day’s walk, and tending to meals, more often than not distracted me from praying the Daily Office. My prayer was internal and impromptu, and in no way stunted by my failure of discipline. I was praying more than usual, not less. And more freely, too, covering more ground, being (I hoped) more attentive to the Spirit, listening more than I was accustomed to. And going to Mass whenever I could.

My walking partner was much more regular in his practice of the Daily Office than I was, and quickly abandoned hope of saying the prayers together with me each day. He could often be found, book in hand, faithfully and silently reciting his psalms, when I was off procuring wine and cheese and chorizo for the evening meal.

But still the book was in my pack. And for a while I kept it up on the top, in the somewhat careful order I had of packing everything. The Bible-Prayer Book combo was one of the last things to go into the pack, making it about as accessible as my sunscreen. But eventually practicality won out over good intentions, and the red brick of a book migrated to the bottom of the rucksack, where on some days it wasn’t removed at all.

About two weeks into the walk, I decided that my packing had not been as strategically planned as I thought it had been, and I actually had some extra clothes – things intended for colder weather that I was clearly not going to need under the heat of the Spanish sun. I put together a little bundle of things and prepared to send them back to my hosts in Madrid, where I could pick them up at the end of my walk.

And as I was about to leave for the post office, I looked at the red brick of a book - the Word of God, and the prayers of the church, with its little ribbons hanging out. And oh, how I wanted to be rid of it! This was my chance to lighten my load. Books are heavy, and this one in particular. And it’s not like I was using it. And I had the Kindle if I really needed anything. But somehow, I could not bring myself to remove the book from my backpack and get rid of it. I knew that a significant part of me did not want to carry this thing with me, but some other insistent part of me couldn’t help but see the book as a symbol, the carrying of which was more important than its use.

I began to think of the weight of this book in my pack as something I needed to carry, and wanted to carry. I had noticed that in Spanish cathedrals you often find, on one of the transept walls, near the doors that are used for daily entry, an extremely large mural of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ-child across the river. 

Remember the legend that St. Christopher, on converting to Christian faith, sought to serve Christ, and was instructed by a hermit to assist people in the crossing of a dangerous river. One day, a little child came to the riverside in need of Christopher’s help. “Christopher lifted the child in his great arms, placed him on his shoulder, and started across, staff in hand. At every step the load grew more burdensome, and Christopher came near losing his balance in the rushing water. On reaching the other bank, he put the boy down, saying, ‘Child, thou hast put me in dire peril, and hast weighed so heavily on me that if I had borne the whole weight of the world upon my shoulders it could not have burdened me more heavily.’ The boy answered, ‘Wonder not, Christopher, for not only hast thou borne the whole world on thy shoulders, but Him who created the world.’”“[i]

And so, I began to identify with St. Christopher just a little bit, and to think of my book as a holy passenger that I could not forsake, and to see it as a matter, not only of honor, but of faith, to carry this little red book, weighing one pound twelve ounces, with me among the other things that were part of my load. Which at last brings me to the Gospel reading today, in which we hear the apostles beg of Jesus, “O Lord, increase our faith!” This is a sentiment, a request, a prayer, a desire, that it is difficult for us to adopt as our own, I suspect, for in our lives we wish for the increase of many things:

O Lord, increase my salary!

Increase my investment returns.

Increase the interest on my savings account. While you are at it, increase the savings therein!

Increase the value of my real estate.

Increase the time I get to spend with my children.

Increase the number of my vacation days.

Increase the number of my days on this earth, or the number of days I will have with the ones I love.

O Lord, increase my health, or my happiness, or Lord, at least increase my hair!

O Lord, increase the peace in this mad and warring world!

O Lord, increase the number of voters who agree with me!

Increase the people who come to church.

Increase the chances that the orchestra will be back on stage again soon!

Increase the education of our children, and the welfare of our nation.

Increase our security and our safety.

Increase the rain, O Lord, except when it rains too much, then increase the sunshine.

Increase the life of my cell phone battery, and the strength of my cellular signal.

O Lord, increase my memory as it starts to fail, and my strength, and my balance, and my independence as I grow older.

Increase the civility of public discourse, and the justice we seek in this land.

Increase equality between men and women, and among people of all colors and creeds

Increase the bees, who are struggling so.

Increase the flowers. O Lord, and the rainbows, and the days I get to spend at the beach.

Increase, O Lord, increase!

We have so much that we can easily ask God to increase. But to increase our faith? This is a difficult prayer. What would it mean to increase our faith?

I suspect that many of us imagine that if our faith was increased we’d be better at doing things like praying the Daily Office with great devotion, discipline, and regularity; marking our days with the prayers of the church, and coloring our lives with a piety that we imagine others, holier than we are, are possessed of.

But I wonder if perhaps, there is an answer to that hope (O Lord, increase our faith!) that is actually much simpler. Maybe it’s a question of finding the one thing we need to carry, amid all the other things we’d do better off to let go of, leave behind, and give up.

If life is a pilgrimage – a journey with God, to God – then you want to be careful about how you pack your rucksack, because the things you carry matter. And amid all the other things we want to carry, it is so easy to leave Jesus behind, on the far shore, considering that he is just too heavy and inconvenient to bring with us, and after all, what difference does he make?

I cannot say for sure, what difference it made to carry that little red book with me from the south of Spain all the way to the north for a span of forty-two days. But I can say without a doubt that I am glad I carried it, because it seems to have been a way that God increased my faith – helping me to find not only the strength, but the will, and the desire to carry something, that I had first thought I’d rather not have with me at all.

I have reflected for a while with a photo of one of those very large murals of St. Christopher – the one in Zamora Cathedral. And I notice that he has big calves, just like I do. And it’s hard to tell, but I think he has athletic tape around one of his toes, as I often did when walking in Spain. And he is carrying a wooden staff that he has just picked up in the woods somewhere, as I did. But he has no backpack strapped to his shoulders and his waist. He has only the Lord Jesus, resting on his shoulder, demanding his attention, and giving him (and the whole world around them) his blessing. 

And I think how glad I am that I carried that red book with me. And it makes me want to pray, O Lord, increase my faith!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

2 October 2016

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


[i] fr. Lives of the Saints, John J. Crawley & Co.


Posted on October 3, 2016 .