Simon, Jude, You, and Me

The Prayer Book allows, but does not necessarily encourage us to keep the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude today.  To be honest, I am a little less than enthusiastic about our saints this morning, neither of whom provides a deeply inspiring model for the Christian life, if only because neither is a figure about whom much is known.

St. Simon, is often called “the zealot,” and it remains a question whether this moniker was a description of his personality or of his religious and political leanings.  If it is an indication of the latter, and he was aligned with a Jewish religious party that was looking for a militarily empowered messiah who would drive out the Romans from Palestine and usher in a new day of freedom for his people, well, then, Simon must have been deeply disappointed in Jesus.

St. Jude is famously known as the patron saint of lost causes, or causes despaired of, as it’s sometimes put.  But, in a nice bit of irony, no one seems to know precisely why.

More than once recently I have found myself wondering whether or not the church is a lost cause.  From child-abuse, to declining attendance, to a general malaise in many quarters, to the often horrific preaching that you can hear in churches large and small alike; we are not living in a golden age of the church.

It makes me wonder if I should have learned to write code, and gotten into the games business.  My head is still spinning from reading an article in The New Yorker last spring in which I learned about the video game Fortnite.  As of that writing, the game had been downloaded more than sixty million times, and on more than one occasion more than three million people have been known to be playing the game at the same time on line.  That sounds kind of  like religion to me.  It’s certainly a way to spend your Sunday morning.  In an effort to understand the appeal of such a thing, I found myself, looking up the difference between a first-person-shooter video game, and a third-person-shooter video game.  I had assumed I could deduce the distinction from the language, and that it must have to do with who is doing the shooting.  But I was wrong.  I should have known that my assumption made no sense.  For, who would play a game in which someone else is doing the shooting?

Who is doing the shooting, of course, has itself become a thematic question of American life.  Last week we were supplied with the answer to the question, “Who is sending the packages?”  But before a new week even began to unfold, we found ourselves confronted with another shooter, this one firing into a synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday morning.  

We may have banished from our collective consciousness the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan (disasters of our own making that have yet to come to an end).  But we cannot altogether muffle the sound of gunfire when it is so widespread across this nation.  We should all learn how to sing the mourners Kaddish: we will need it again.

Hungry for a morsel of Good News, we roll into church this morning to hear Jesus saying this, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  This is not the kind of feel-good Gospel I am hoping for on a morning like this.  I want Beatitudes.  I want love to be kind and patient.  I want St. Francis preaching to the birds!  But we walk in to Simon and to Jude, and to this: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  Is this Jesus’ way of saying, “haters gotta hate”?  Couldn’t we leave that for another time?  How about never?

I allow myself to reflect on these shooters who saunter into synagogues or churches armed to the teeth, or who perch from a luxury suite in a hotel with an arsenal at the ready, and I am distracted for a moment by my own perverse reflection on the sheer cowardice of these men, (for they are always men (or boys)).  And I have to stop and ask myself, what would I prefer - brave mass shooters?  And I hear an echo of an ancient word.  What would I prefer - brave zealots?

It is possible, I suppose, that St. Simon, the zealot, had been stockpiling swords and staves and clubs in a shed behind his mother’s house.  Perhaps it was Simon who supplied the sword to St. Peter that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter, in a zealous rage to protect his Lord and Master, cut off the right ear of the High Priest’s slave - an injury that Jesus immediately healed.  In any case, Simon’s zealotry would, of its own, amount to nothing.

Perhaps Simon is the id to Jude’s ego (albeit a somewhat deflated ego).  Beaten back by the real troubles of the world, it’s enough for Jude to follow, and to be remembered, even if it is for what might have looked like a lost cause.  I wonder if they remembered, those two, what Jesus had said, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”

From where I stand, it seems not far-fetched to say that the world today more or less hates Jesus, at least the world I walk through, and read about every day.  There may be places where the world does not hate Jesus, but these places are far from here.

To bolster this view, I note that the news told me the other day that the world made more billionaires last year than ever before.  If there is one thing the world absolutely does not need it is billionaires.  What good comes of a society that is adept at minting billionaires?  And yet, it is the socio-economic accomplishment of our age.  A world that is adept at making billionaires can only ever hate Jesus, because you can never make the needles big enough, or the camels small enough for a billionaire.  As far as I can tell, Bruce Wayne and Gerry Lenfest were the only two billionaires who could handle their money.  And of the two, only Gerry Lenfest gave most of his money away.

I wonder if Saints Simon and Jude both figured out that the world hated them for following Jesus.  The world would have hated Simon precisely because his zealotry amounted to nothing.  What a waste, in the world’s eyes, of all that good weaponry.  And the world would have hated Jude because of his refusal to abandon a cause despaired of - the lost cause of Jesus, whose disciples would mostly abandon him the closer he got to the Cross, where Jesus knew he must go to show his love for the world, and to make his perfect sacrifice of love.

In some sense, I suppose, the church could try to be the best possible combination of Simon and Jude.  For we are called to be zealous for the Cross, which, to many, looks precisely like a cause despaired of. What is the point of endlessly celebrating the execution of your messiah?

Here it might be useful to remember a little sacramental theology.  For to us, the Cross is nothing to despair of.  It represents the triumph of life over death, of good over evil, of light over darkness, and of love over hate.  For it was on the Cross that Jesus died.  It was on the Cross that Christ gave his Body and his Blood for the salvation of the world.  It was on the Cross that Jesus began the work of salvation whose effect would be known in his resurrection - the rising of the crucified Christ from the grave, which is the victory of hope over despair.

Remember that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of some invisible gift of God’s grace.  And every day in this church we are called to a one-on-one encounter with the Body and Blood of the risen Christ - God’s assurance to us that the gift of salvation - which seems invisible to us, maybe even unlikely to us in this hate-filled world - that this gift of salvation, this victory of life over death, good over evil, light over darkness, love over hate is for real.  That’s why we come here time after time.  And that’s why, it ought to send shivers down our spines when we hear Jesus say that the world hates us because it hates him too, hated him first, in fact.  Because the world deals in death; the world deals in evil; the world deals in darkness; the world deals in hatred, every single day.  Thus the world amasses its fortunes.

But Jesus has already won the victory over death.  Jesus has already won the victory of evil.  Jesus has already won the victory over darkness.  Jesus has already won the victory over hate.  And he keeps asking us to live our lives as if we knew this.  And he keeps giving himself to us - Body and Blood - to remind us of the Truth that we cannot see, but that is no less true for being invisible.

I fear that the shooter in the Pittsburgh synagogue might claim to be a Christian.  Not only could such a claim not be remotely true in any sense, it must also be stated that any such person, who could gun down the innocent in the midst of their prayer and their worship, must be assumed to hate Jesus.

Maybe we will not be able to learn to love Jesus until we can be honest about all the ways the world hates Jesus.  Maybe we will not be able to learn to love Jesus until we learn to accept the the world will hate us too, when we do.  Maybe we will even need to learn to give up on our dreams of some day becoming a billionaire, which has never been documented to lead anyone to love Jesus more.  Or am I the only one here who has ever fantasized about that many zeros?

We need a sign, in this world of ours, that life will triumph over death, that good will triumph over evil, that light will triumph over darkness, that love will triumph over hate.  Thank God we’ve got one.

Take.  Eat.  Do this in remembrance of him.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 29, 2018 .

Service

We’ve been hearing for several weeks now on Sunday mornings about how in the Kingdom of God our expectations will be reversed.  Think back over our recent gospels and you’ll hear it loud and clear. If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you save your life you will lose it.  If you don’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child you will never enter it.  It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  It’s almost as though Jesus were trying to tell us something.   

And hearing this week after week, the message may begin to sink in.  Perhaps it began to sink in for the disciples: the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  This is an extraordinary promise for all of us who feel that we are lost or losing, who are excluded from what looks like a position of importance.  It’s great news for all of us when we have nothing special to recommend us, no great power or strength or even virtue to call our own.

But how often are we able to consider these gospel words as something more than a fallback for people who don’t get what they want in this life?  How often are we able to consider the possibility that, instead of being a consolation prize for us when we don’t have power, these gospel promises are actually sources of power?  Can we contemplate the idea that the only real power we may have in this life comes from the paradoxical grace God gives us in the act of surrendering?

Another way to put this: if you had wealth and influence and strength in abundance and could dominate others when you wanted to, would you turn to service anyway?  Would humility look like your greatest strength?

I think that’s something of what Jesus asks of James and John and the disciples who resent them in today’s gospel.  Notice that he doesn’t really challenge them when they say that they are able to drink the cup he is to drink.  He doesn’t put them in their places, as indeed he could.  He doesn’t roll his eyes, as I surely would.  No, Jesus lets their arrogant statement fall by the wayside.  It’s not important, I guess, to get into a contest of strength and will with James and John.  It’s not important to Jesus to teach them that he is more powerful than they are.  Though he obviously is.  He just lets all of that go.

Instead, Jesus teaches them what power is.  He teaches them that power—God’s power—is closely linked with the ability to serve and maybe the desire to serve.  That’s it.  Not the ability to serve more heroically or more humbly than another person.  Not the ability to get our needs met by serving others, though some of our needs may be met that way.  Not the ability to endure more suffering than anybody else —Jesus sort of concedes that to James and John.  It’s just service.  It’s identifying with the needs of other people, for their benefit. 

It’s like what a teacher does when the teacher’s focus is on learning rather than on winning followers or looking smart.  It’s like what a musician does when the musician’s focus is not on the sound of her own playing.  It’s like what parents do when they let go of the desire to see themselves reflected well in the accomplishments of their offspring.

If you’ve had one person in your life who listened to you without jumping in to correct you or to tell you what to do or to deny your perspective, you’ve known real service.  Which is to say that you’ve known God’s loving care.  God’s loving service, in Jesus, has filtered down into all of our acts of care, all of our acts of creating and sustaining.  If someone has treated you with genuine respect, in ways that are large or small, you’ve known service, and you’ve known something of the kingdom of God. If space has been made for you to participate in a discussion, or your experience has been valued, you know something about the kingdom of God.

It’s funny how this kind of power works.  It’s almost invisible.  In a world full of puffery and self-marketing, the kind of power that has nothing to prove and no desire except the flourishing of God’s kingdom can pass unnoticed and can certainly go uncelebrated.  It’s almost uncelebrated by design. 

Jesus is talking about a kind of power that makes us completely free, from the need to be recognized, from the need to feel invulnerable, from the need for approval.  Jesus is talking about the ability to enter a room without being acknowledged, make sure everyone in that room has enough to eat, and leave that room without resentments or expectations.  In other words, the kingdom of heaven is close to the condition entered into by any number of skilled restaurant workers, every day, and it’s an exalted state of being.   And it gets a lot of people fed.

Jesus is not asking for a false identification with martyrdom.  Jesus is asking for our true identification with God’s wonderful abundance.  If you have God’s energy and God’s sustenance and God’s love in abundance, giving it away might be a joy.  It’s the joy of coming in second or third or fifteenth and feeling no sense of loss.  It’s the day you don’t notice that no one is noticing you.  Not because you have an unhealthy need to be ignored but because it’s so great not caring about that stuff.  It’s so great to be free to go where God sends you.  It might be such a relief, on that day, just to do the work of the kingdom without being bound by the need to get something “back.”

Imagine walking with Jesus on his earthly pilgrimage and being all caught up in a discussion about whether you’re going to sit on his right hand or his left hand at the end of time.  Seems like a waste, doesn’t it?

It is a waste.  It’s the same waste we are all still experiencing when we accompany our friends on their pilgrimages, worrying all along about whether they like us enough, whether we look good walking next to them, whether there is another friend who might make us feel better.  It’s the waste of a marriage that has been consumed by anxiety about whether there is someone better out there.  It’s the waste of a career spent working for prestige. 

While all this waste goes on around us, we are nevertheless surrounded by the power of the God who puts us first.  It’s quiet, unobtrusive, and life-giving.  If you want to experience it, go to lunch after Mass and watch how a server or a cook works.  Go to coffee hour, and receive a cup of coffee from the hand of a volunteer whose desire is to work for the life of this parish.  Eat the cookie someone brought, made, shared, just so you would have a moment’s joy in the company of other believers before the cookies vanished.  Better yet, come put out your hands at the communion rail, and receive the very body of the one who died to set us free. 

It’s easy to believe, in this noisy world, that the ones who make themselves stand out are the ones who hold the keys to the kingdom.  It’s easy to believe that belligerence is power.  It’s easy to believe that competition is what brings us the things we need.  But all over the world, often without a sound, the servants of God are performing acts of redemption.  When you need to remember that, look around you and give thanks for the love of God that sustains you and surrounds you.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
21 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 21, 2018 .

Bigger Needles-Smaller Camels

 by Mick Stevens for the New Yorker

by Mick Stevens for the New Yorker

The scene is a simple one: two men are sitting in comfortable club chairs.  Both men are be-spectacled.  They are seated in the corner of the gracious room, chairs at 90-degree angles to allow for easy conversation, a small round table between them.  Both have drinks: I am assuming Scotch.  Behind one is a tall built-in bookcase.  Behind the other is a large, plate-glass window through which can be seen the skyscrapers beyond. It appears to be raining, but it hardly matters.  They could be in any big city, but I am quite sure they are in New York.  Both wear suits and ties.  They are pleased with themselves, although they would never wish to suggest that they are.  One of them is speaking, but from the image you cannot tell who is speaking to whom.  It doesn’t matter, for in reality, what they have to say, they both have to say to one another.  They do not wish for us to overhear them, but the artist, Mick Stevens, has ensured that what they have to say to one another is clearly the most important thing about this image.


One well-dressed, be-spectacled, Scotch-sipping man commenting to another, as they relax in their comfort, well above the worries of the world; they say to each other, “We need either bigger needles or smaller camels.”  The cartoon appeared in the New Yorker about four years ago, but it is timeless.


It feels like a fool’s errand to preach on Mark 10:25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Most people have already decided which side of that bargain they are comfortable with, and most of us are on the same (that is, the wrong) side.  And if this is the way Jesus is going to talk to us, then, well, we are either going to need bigger needles or smaller camels.  We are not going to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.  Period.  Find me a bigger needle or a smaller camel.  Otherwise we can move on to the next chapter, please.


I strongly suspect that the two men in the cartoon are Episcopalians.  They are well dressed, and they are enjoying a drink before sundown.  They also appear to take the Scriptures seriously, in their own way.  And they are employing the traditional approach to this unpleasant teaching of Jesus: they are trying to find their way around it, without seeming as though they don’t care about what Jesus said.  It’s as if they want to be able to go to church in good conscience.  Having heard about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, they know they must now apply themselves to this challenge, so they do!


I am sure there exist parishes in which these two men could be co-chairs of the Stewardship Committee.  They would run terrific stewardship campaigns, in two consecutive years (trading leadership so each one had a year at the helm).  One year the theme of the campaign would be, “Bigger Needles!”  The next, the theme would be, “Smaller Camels!”


During the “Bigger Needles” year, they would have charts and graphs that show how you can maximize your tax benefits by giving more to the church.  During the “Smaller Camels” year they would teach, among other things, about the value of down-sizing for empty-nesters, and they would show that once you have finished paying your kids’ tuition, you can increase your pledge to the church without ever noticing, and still maximize your contributions to your 401(k)!


A seminary somewhere would pick up on the success of this stewardship outlook, and start to run a two-part seminar called Stewardship in a New Golden Age - Part I: Bigger Needles; Part II: Smaller Camels.  And a small religious publishing house would produce a little manual about stewardship for the well-to-do, written by our co-chairs, entitled, predictably enough, “Bigger Needles, Smaller Camels.”  For a few years, parishes all over the country would adopt this model.  The proceeds from the sale of the book would go to the diocesan offices; such is the generosity of the two authors.


Part of the beauty of the approach is how biblical it is!  It is based directly our Lord’s own teaching!  It’s not like this is some sort of “prosperity Gospel” which enriches the church and her clergy at the expense of the people of God.  No, our two stewardship chairmen made their money the old-fashioned way (whatever that is).  And they think you should be able to do the same, and still find a way to give something to the church.  And all you need are bigger needles and smaller camels if you want to do so with a clear conscience!


Two thoughts interrupt my reverie about the gentleman co-chairs of the Bigger Needles-Smaller Camels stewardship campaign.


The first is to notice that the only reason to be concerned with bigger needles and smaller camels is because somehow our two friends have decided that they are still interested in the kingdom of God.  Otherwise, why worry?


In this regard, our friends are notable, because it seems to me that many of us often lose sight of the kingdom of God - even those of us in the church, (maybe especially those of us in the church).  We get so caught up in the cares and occupations of the church and the world, that we forget that we are meant to be headed somewhere, toward a better country, a newer life, and a restoration of all that has been broken, warped, lost, or forgotten.  Call it redemption - this is the purpose of our fellowship with Christ - or more precisely, it is the purpose of Christ’s fellowship with us.  And the fulfillment of redemption leads us, we are promised, toward the kingdom of God.


The Christian life is always a pilgrimage.  Jesus is nearly always telling us to “go” and do something.  Salvation is always a process.  And no, we are not there yet.  Merely being interested in the journey to the kingdom of God is a distinction worthy of attention these days, I’d say.  And our two friends in the club chairs, comfortable though they may be, have not lost sight, it would seem, of the kingdom of God.  Good for them.


The second thing is the standard reminder, when approaching this little episode, that St. Mark provides an invaluable piece of information in relating this story to us, about why Jesus tells the rich man to sell what he has, give the money to the poor, and follow him.  We are told that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  It’s important to remember that the impossible advice that Jesus gives to the rich man is given to him in love.  The implication of this piece of information is that Jesus’ advice to the rich man is both good advice and profoundly true, since it is offered out of love.  Perhaps Jesus made a mistake when he gave such bold and clear direction to the man.  Unable to keep his love in check, did Jesus simply blurt out the truth, which would end up being advice that he should have known the man would never be able to accept?


The other followers who left everything behind to follow Jesus, appear not to have had much to leave anyway.  It was easier for them to drop their nets, I guess, because they didn’t have much to lose in the first place.  And the nets probably belonged to their fathers, anyway, not to them.


St. Mark tells us that the rich man “went away grieving.”  I assume that this emotional detail is an indication that the man understood that he was making a choice that might very well be the wrong one, but that it was a chance he simply could not allow himself to take - that following Jesus might be better than keeping all his possessions.  I guess I know how he feels; maybe you do too.


St. Mark does not tell us how Jesus felt when the rich man went away grieving.  But we can imagine that Jesus was hurt, and felt at least a little rejected, having spoken, as he did, out of love, without reservation or caution.  Maybe he felt foolish himself, for having reached out in love, only to see the man turn away in sadness and disappointment.  It would not be the last time Jesus found his love un-welcomed.


It is of course part and parcel of the message of this passage that for God all things are possible.  And so it would not be in the spirit of the text to suggest that bigger needles and smaller camels might not be the answer for some who are called to make their way to the kingdom of God.  It is possible that our two gentlemen are onto something.  But the clear implication of the passage is that most of us will be stuck with standard-sized needles, and inconveniently large camels, and that the progress of the rich toward the kingdom of God can be reasonably said to be impeded by all that we have in our possession.


There are parts of this city in which such an injunction about the rich would be silly in the extreme.  But we do not inhabit such a district.  And many of us, myself included, must be counted among the rich, even if we’re only moderately well to do.  If you doubt me on this, you need to get out more.


Reviewing the image of the two men in their comfy chairs, with their Scotch, I sense that Jesus sees them there.  And I believe, on the basis of the Scriptures, that looking at them, Jesus loves them (as he loves us too).  And although I had imagined that they would be the villains of this sermon, in the end, it turns out that our two friends are not villains; not least because of Jesus’ love for them.  But also because by the very nature of their conversation it is clear that they have not forgotten about the kingdom of God, have not given up on it, and have not finished scheming about ways to get there.  That’s a far cry from going away grieving.  And I imagine that looking at them, and loving them as he does, Jesus might well say something, like, “Keep trying, boys, keep trying.”


It’s what I hope he’s saying to me when I find it hard to do what I know he wants me to do; and when I find it hard to give what I know I want to give, but I want even more to keep for myself: “Keep trying, Sean, keep trying.”  


It’s what I hope is the message for all of us when we are tempted to think that what we really need is bigger needles or smaller camels, in order to work around the clear message of our Lord that what we really need to do is give more away.


Help us keep trying, Lord; help us keep trying.  Help us not to turn away grieving.  Help us not to try so hard to be first, if that means that we will be last in your kingdom.  And help us to give what we think we cannot give.  For us it mostly seems impossible, and maybe it is.  But not for you Lord; for God all things are possible.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 15, 2018 .