Don't Go to Hell

Here is the bad news from this morning’s Gospel: resurrection doesn’t fix everything, at least not the way it appears to on Easter cards or in movies about the life of Jesus. You know the image: a blinding light, maybe with the form of a blonde, blue-eyed man seeming to emerge from its center, hands outstretched. There may be a cave, angels, clouds from behind which the sun begins to break through. It looks really good. It looks like once that happens everything is taken care of. It looks like it answers every argument and opens every heart. The image may be a little short on detail but it really packs a wallop.

And yet here we are two thousand years later and we know that not every heart is open. And we know that not every argument has been won. And we mostly feel sure that we can’t make an entrance like that blonde Jesus does, with sunlight flashing from behind us and angels standing witness. That’s too bad, isn’t it? Oh for that power. Oh to be so decisive and cataclysmic and gleaming. It just feels like that’s what resurrection is supposed to mean, and I think many of us carry around a secret sense of disappointment when that doesn’t work for us.

While we are on the subject of disappointment: this morning’s Gospel from Luke contains what may be the only joke about the resurrection in all of scripture. It’s quite disturbing. At the end of the parable, when the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent from the dead to warn his rich brothers that they ought to change their ways, Father Abraham refuses. No, he says, even if someone were sent from beyond the grave to warn that basket of deplorables, they would refuse to believe. Their hearts aren’t going to open.

The joke, if we can call it that, is that Luke’s readers know that Jesus has come from beyond the grave, and that that fact has made all the difference in the world to them. If they are paying attention, though, they will be struggling with the fact that Jesus has not made a big difference to many of their friends and neighbors. They must hear this remark from Father Abraham as a nod to their own reality. Maybe they hear it as an ironic way of lessening the immense psychic strangeness of the post-resurrection world. How mysterious it must be to them to know that Jesus is with them in great power and glory, but that the kingdom hasn’t come in any straightforward way that solves all their problems.

Luke’s first readers must have known as we do that even in the world for which Jesus has died and in which he has been reborn, there are still vast chasms that separate us from one another. Let me put it more strongly: in this world that God so loved that he gave his only son, this world for whom Jesus lived and died and rose again, this world that God can’t resist—in this world, the vast chasms that separate us from one another are the absolute hallmark of our separation from God. And Luke’s parable is written with a kind of brutal realism that makes us feel the results of that separation.

Let’s be clear: the rich man in this parable wasn’t just rich. He wasn’t a person who tried to follow his conscience but got cold feet at the prospect of giving everything to the poor. He wasn’t a person who tried, even tried ineffectually, to do something positive in the world. He wasn’t much concerned about the notion of “giving back” in thanksgiving for his blessings. This was a man who dressed to the nines and feasted richly every day with no thought at all for the poor man at his gate. The gate is an eloquent expression of his rigid focus on wealth. “Keep the poor away from me,” he seems to be saying, “because my life has nothing to do with theirs. My wellbeing is not only not dependent upon the wellbeing of others, it is directly opposed to the wellbeing of others. The only answer is to lock the gate.” We know him for his clothes, his food, and his desire to lock out the poor. Nothing else. Build a wall, he seems to want to suggest, and make Lazarus pay for it.

And when he dies, the vision of the afterlife we’re given for him is nothing but a grimmer image of his earthly existence. That same sense of separation and limitation become overpowering. That same sense that life is limited to material pleasure and fear of material suffering is still with him. There he is, face to face with ultimate reality, and he has learned nothing. We don’t hear anything about his personal regrets, just that he is now in physical agony. His desire is not to know God or repent of his sins, but to have some cool water, and of course he wants Lazarus to deliver it. He seems to think that the isolation could be bearable if only it were just a little more comfortable. If only there were servants and power. That worked for him on earth, so why not try it in the afterlife?

And that gate he used to keep out anyone who challenged his self-indulgent worldview has now become some kind of great, existential gap. It doesn’t open and close anymore. Its hinges are rusted shut. It stretches before him for eternity, and it seems to stretch back behind him, to his life on earth, with that same sense of eternal inevitability. No, there is absolutely no hope for this rich man or for his family or for his cronies. Suddenly it’s not just that he won’t change, it’s that he can’t change, and nobody like him can change, and there is nothing at all that can be done except to suffer in this world of his own making, a suffocating, hot, claustrophobic world in which all the doors are closed. Suddenly he is in a world in which even the resurrection is just a joke, even to Father Abraham.

Is this what the afterlife looks like? No. That’s not really what this story is trying to map out for us. Is the resurrection a joke? No, never, not in any way. This story is written by someone who is shot through with resurrection hope, for people who are shot through with resurrection hope, and it records in some way the truth of Jesus’s earthly ministry, which was founded on and steeped in and ultimately the cause of profound, glorious, resurrection hope.

And here’s what it does for us: it teaches us how to know heaven on earth by knowing what the road to hell looks like. It teaches us the power of the smallest act of charity, by showing us what a life without charity looks like. It teaches us what openness and humility can do, by showing us how arrogance and self-will can spiral out of control. This story, for all its grim inevitability, is a lesson in how to change. And how to change is pretty simple. Can’t commit right now to a life of evangelical poverty? Try giving something small away. Can’t love your neighbor? Try not ignoring your neighbor. Try admitting that your neighbor exists. Don’t shoot your neighbor or put your neighbor in jail on some slim pretext. Can’t drum up an abundant feeling of hope and charity? Try not embracing cynicism with your whole heart and soul, just for a few minutes.

It’s really simple. Just don’t go to hell. I mean it. What we do here on earth creates a reality for us. What we practice here on earth starts to shape the world that we live in for ourselves and for others. Our daily defensiveness and rigidity really are the building blocks of a vast chasm that separates us from all that is holy and all that is true. So don’t go to hell, just for today. Don’t give up on the world. Don’t turn your back on this aching, hungry, world.

Can’t make an entrance like that Easter Card Resurrection Jesus, with the light shining and the arms outstretched and the clouds parting? Don’t worry about it. Just come back a little from the ways you used to be dead. Look up from your anxiety about where we are headed and focus on where we are right now, where love and kindness are abundantly possible, and you are here because you want to hope, and you are surrounded by people who have all returned from graves of one kind or another. This is real. This is the kingdom of God in action. Whatever resurrection really looks like, it has your face and your energy level and your limitations, just for today, while you take small steps away from the grave, to open the gate that keeps you locked up in fear and arrogance. Resurrection looks like this community, this church full of open hearts and open hands and open faces. This moment.

Don’t go to hell. Don’t go to hell today. By the grace of God, stay here with us. Just nudge that gate open and stay with us. Don’t go to hell.


Preached by Mother Nora Johnson

25 September 2016

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 26, 2016 .

The Claiming of the Shrewd

There once was a time when a man woke up of a Sunday morn and decided that he wanted to go to church. The sheets were warm, and the pillows were soft, and for a moment he was tempted to stay right where he was and worship at the Church of the Holy Comforter by the Springs. But something in his soul was stirring, and so he dragged himself from the cocoon of his cozy bed, dressed, and walked into town, looking for a place to worship.

When he arrived in the town square, he found himself in front of two different churches. He headed first to the right, towards the building with the plain wooden sign that read “Church of God” in small, simple letters. He entered into the dark space, and when his eyes adjusted to the light, this is what he saw:

He saw a tall, arching ceiling that drew his eyes up into shadow. He saw plain, ordinary pews, all just the same. He saw people of all kinds – all shapes and sizes, all races and genders, the rich and the poor and the powerful and the meek – sitting beside one another. He saw children sitting there, too, just like everybody else. He saw people smiling, saying hello, or kneeling quietly in prayer. He saw people pass by him in the doorway, bow their heads, cross themselves with holy water before stepping inside. He saw gold and silver and rich satin, all assembled in particular spots, marking the spaces in the church that seemed the most sacred, the thin places where the human and the divine touched. And in the center of the church, he saw the figure of a man, hanging from a cross, humbled and beaten and rejected, but somehow, shockingly, lifted up for all to see, reigning over all with a great and quiet majesty.

The man stood and watched this scene for a moment, taking in the people and the cross and face of that man broken upon it. He felt his soul go still, and he thought he might stay. But there was that other building to try across the street, and so he pulled himself out of the stillness and back into the town square.

Across the street, the other building was strikingly different from the one he had just left. This one had all of its gold and gemstones on the outside, shining in the sun like beacons. There was a sign, too, but this sign was enormous. The letters were 20 feet high, covered in gold with lights that twinkled around their borders. They were placed high up on the wall of the building, towering above the square, and they proclaimed, in all caps, “CHURCH OF MAMMON.” The man shielded his eyes, looked both ways, crossed the street, and entered in. And this is what he saw:                            

Opulence, everywhere. The light inside the church shone on splendor spilling out all over the place. When people entered into the church behind him, they didn’t bow their heads and dip a finger into a bowl of holy water; instead they lifted their faces and examined themselves in a mirror on the wall, giving their hair a final pat or their tie one final tug. Those that were dressed in bespoke suits and designer dresses ushered themselves to a plush seat in the front row, into golden chairs studded with diamonds and lined with rich fur. Other people, whose clothes were lovely, but off the rack, took a seat behind the golden ones in chairs that were a bit plainer with only a simple cushion. Those who showed up in clothes from last season shuffled to benches in the back of the room, where they sat hunched over, bunched together, and largely ignored. The ones who came to the door worn and dirty were told there was no room for them in the inn.

The man saw that most of the people looked very much the same – they were powerful and pretty, they were almost all the same color and almost all the same age. There were no children to be seen, but the man noticed a few of them being whisked away to another room where they would have to wait until they were old enough to have something positive and profitable to contribute. And in the center of the room, where in the other church the man had seen that hollowed-out, holy man hanging from his cross, in this church, there was…nothing. The front of the church was completely empty. But the people didn’t seem to mind, busy as they were commenting on each other’s new things, looking around to see how they compared to their neighbors, worrying about how they might move up higher.

 There was, the man thought, something to worship here, but it wasn’t holy and it wasn’t helpful. And it certainly wasn’t what he had woken up thinking about that morning. And so he turned and went back to the little wooden church to sit together with the rich and the poor and with all the little children in the shadow of that man with a face like love and his arms stretched out in what, in all truth, looked like a profound embrace.

If only it were so easy. If only we could see the signs so clearly, hear a verbal warning, “You are now leaving the Church of God and are entering the Church of Mammon.” Jesus told us that we cannot serve both God and wealth, and we agree, we nod our heads, but then we leave this church and step onto the street and wonder how exactly to tell. Am I serving God if I give money to a person on the street who may use it to buy drugs? Am I serving Mammon if I go buy a new book? A better pair of shoes? A luxury condo on Rittenhouse Square? We cannot serve both God and Mammon. Right. We know. But how do we know?

 Truth is, it’s complicated. Figuring out what to do with our money, how to relate to our stuff, is a thorny business. But it is our thorny business, and Jesus wants us to pay attention to it. Why else would he talk about it so much? I mean, really, for a man who lived off of the generosity of strangers and had nowhere to lay his head, he talks about money a lot. He knows it's tricky, so tricky in fact that when he does talk about it what he has to say isn’t always crystal clear. Look at today’s parable of the unjust steward – what is even going on here? Is the rich man really so blameless in all of this mess? If so, why do his debtors owe him so much? When the steward has his master’s debtors pay a bill for half of what they owe, is he cutting his losses or cutting out the unfair interest? And why is any of this praiseworthy? It’s a confusing, complicated story, about a confusing, complicated subject.

It’s such a complicated subject, in fact, that if we’re going to figure it out, we’re going to have to be smart. We’re going to have to be savvy. We’re going to have to be shrewd. If the motives of the unjust steward are unclear and his merits somewhat murky, at least we know that he was shrewd. He was thinking; he was planning, he was clever and canny and he paid attention to detail. We have to be as shrewd as the unjust manager; we have to claim that shrewdness as a part of our discipleship and put it to work for God’s purposes. We have to take the time to think about how we spend our money, how we give it away, how we treat our stuff, and how we treat our neighbors. We have to be clever and canny, and most of all, we have to pay attention to detail. For our service to God or to Mammon isn’t determined – mostly – by what we do when we receive a windfall. Our service to God or to Mammon is determined by what we do with a very, very little, with the tiniest of tiny bits.

And when we are shrewd – faithfully, humbly shrewd - each of these tiny moments becomes an opportunity for grace. For God is there in each moment. God has been there for every decision you’ve made today, from the moment you woke up of a mind to go to church to the moment you sat down after the Gospel. God will continue to be there, from the moment you step out onto Locust Street until the moment you lay your head down tonight. So, you holy Church of God, come to this place and sit before the one with arms stretched out in mercy. Take in his love and feel your souls go still. And then go forth from this place like the beloved, glorious, shrewd disciples that you are. Be faithful, in a very little and in very much. Worship the Lord, and serve only him. And the Lord shall direct your going out and your coming in, your saving and your spending, your serving, from this time forth for evermore.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

18 September 2016

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


Posted on September 20, 2016 .

The Grief-stricken Donkey of Sosian Lodge

“What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8-9)

The donkeys at the Sosian Lodge in the Laikipia district of central Kenya do not have a great deal of work to do. There are five or six of them that graze freely on the lawns around the lodge. And on the day that I arrived there last month their number included a little foal that had been born a few weeks earlier. I did witness two of the donkeys pulling a cart one day to go collect firewood, but that was the only work I ever saw them assigned to. Their presence is otherwise benign and unquestionably welcome, even though one of them had a habit of braying loudly outside my room in the middle of the afternoon, just about the hour a siesta seemed like a good idea to me.

At night, the donkeys are led into a small, stone-walled enclosure by the Samburu tribesmen who look after them on the ranch, and who generally provide security for guests who stay there, as well as for the cattle, horses, and other domesticated animals (including the donkeys) who inhabit the large ranch in the African bush.

From my bed that first night I did not hear any of the commotion when a lion crept toward then donkeys’ enclosure, leapt over the wall into it, and grabbed the young foal by its throat. The guards heard the noise, came running, and fired gunshots into the air, sending the lion off without its prey. I did not hear the gunshots, and I did not hear the lion’s roar as it ran off into the night. But I did hear about it the next morning, when I learned that by the time the guards got there, it was too late for the young donkey, whose dead body they carried out.

As I said, the donkeys roam the property freely during the day, sometimes wandering onto the large veranda that looks out over the lawn and toward the bush. And on the day after losing her foal to the lion’s jaws, the grieving mother went a few steps further, venturing through the open doors of the lodge and into the entrance hall, where she was found, time and again over the next several days, staring sadly into a mirror. In an effort to be sensitive to the donkey’s grief, but to keep her out of the foyer, the staff placed a mirror on the veranda just outside the entrance hall. But the donkey seemed to want to share her grief with those of us in the house, and she clearly preferred to conduct her mourning inside the house.

Well, it was only one little donkey foal, and I am assured that donkeys are a fecund species, and that the mother will have no trouble producing another foal. This little donkey was by no stretch of the imagination the lost one-out-of-a-hundred that we hear Jesus talking about in the Gospel. It had not wandered off, and no one could go looking for it; and it wasn’t even a sheep, it was a donkey, so this would appear to be the wrong illustration for the Gospel reading this morning.

But I am stuck this morning with the image of that mother-donkey insinuating herself and her grief into the lives of those of us who inhabited the lodge, and indulging her mourning with long periods of staring into the mirror. What did this mean? Why the mirror? And why was it so important to her that it took place inside the house?

A month ago in Africa, I was paying no attention to the calendar as its pages ticked by. And it never occurred to me that the violent invasion of a lion, breaching the walls of the donkey enclosure and stealing the life of an innocent foal, could echo with the roar of violent death that still feels all too easy to remember fifteen years ago to the day, when proverbial lions flew in and killed our children, our fathers, our mothers, our sisters and brothers, our friends with a roar of fire and flame.

No doubt the analogy is imperfect – so please forgive me. It is not, in any case, the real parallel I wish to draw. No, I do not want to ask you to dwell on the attack on the donkeys in their enclosure, or on the slaughter of the innocent foal. Rather, at this long remove of fifteen years, I want to ask you to consider the mother, compelled in her mourning to enter into the house and gaze dolefully into the mirror. What can she have been looking for, except something, someone that has been lost? And what creature (even a donkey?) looks into the mirror for a child that has been lost? She is not stupid. She does not believe (I think) that the mirror is a portal into another lodge where her child might still be found.

No, she is staring into the mirror, looking for something that has been lost; and she is looking at herself. For in herself, she knows, something has been lost that she fears is irretrievable – snatched away from her and from life in this violent act of terror. In mourning she stands, looking at herself in the mirror, looking for what has been lost.

In the course of the past fifteen years it is not too much to say that nearly the entire world has been changed by the aftermath of that violent attack that left us all reeling with grief, and anger, and fear. The sound of the roar of the lions still rings in our heads. So much has happened. So much has been remembered, and so much forgotten. So much has been buried, and so much built. So much more blood has been spilled. The course of so many lives has been altered by the need to navigate the walls of the enclosure of that horrific tragedy and its airspace. So much grief has been poured out, so much mourning drapery has been swagged, then folded up and put away for future use.

But, while I cannot speak for everyone, I have to wonder whether something important remains undone these fifteen years later. I have to wonder whether at least some of us have not yet done what that sad and simple donkey did after losing her child. I wonder whether or not we have spent enough time looking in the mirror: searching our selves for what has been lost in us, looking for the only retrievable casualty left from this cruel act of terror – for what’s missing in our selves that was lost when the lion’s teeth ripped the life right out of the throats of people we love, whether we knew them or not.

For it is true, I think, that something has been lost that we fear is irretrievable – snatched away from us and from life in that violent act of terror fifteen years ago. And so the grief and the anger and the fear have taken their places almost permanently in our lives and changed us, too.

But I want to stand inside at the mirror for just a moment to recognize that truth, and also to ask whether or not we can’t find what has been lost to us - not our beloved dead, of course - but whatever in us was replaced by the grief, and the anger, and the fear? And if, standing here at the mirror, you agree with me that something has been lost, then I wonder if it isn’t time for us to light a lamp and sweep the house and search for it.

Part of the redemption of sinners is the discovery that we do not have to be lost in our sins, that nothing is irretrievable – not even that which was taken from us in acts of bloody violence. Not the foals killed by lions, and not the parts of our selves that we can no longer find when we look in the mirror. God holds the lives of the dead in his hands as he carries them into the life to come, where we will meet them again. And we are called to faith in order to see that living our lives defined by grief, and anger, and fear is really giving in to a kind of sin, because it separates us from God – and that we don’t need to stay lost this way.

The donkey, simple creature that she is, will get over her grief, because (I think) it’s just not that hard for donkeys to do. And she will bear another child, and hopefully that one will be safe from lions, and all will be well.

But things are more complicated for us. The lives lost to us will never be forgotten, and the world needs must have been changed by their dying. But that leaves us with time to step inside and look in the mirror. And when we do, do we discover that God does not want us to lose so much of our selves to grief, and to anger, and to fear?

God wants us to light a lamp, and to sweep the floor. Better, yet, (as Jesus’ parable implies) God wants us to know that he has lighted a lamp, that he is sweeping the floor, that he is in search of all that we lost, that he holds all life in his hands, including ours. And as long as we have life to live in this world, God does not want our lives dimmed by the darkness of so much grief, so much anger, so much fear. God wants us to know that nothing has been lost that will not be found – not on that awful day fifteen years ago, and not in all the intervening years.

I never expected to be shown an insight about life and death, about sin and self, about the goodness of God’s grace, by a donkey. Perhaps it would have seemed self-centered, up till now, to consider what part of you and me had been lost in that awful attack. Perhaps it has taken all these years to be ready and able to step inside and look in the mirror and try to see what part of our selves has been lost to sin as a result of such cruelty inflicted by another. Perhaps it has been difficult to see ourselves as the lost one-out-of-a-hundred sheep who need to be found and restored to the grace, safety, security, and love of the shepherd. And perhaps it has been impossible for us to even hear the word, let alone actually consider rejoicing with the good news that nothing that was lost is irretrievable to God.

So much was lost that day – not only the lives that God now holds in his hands, but parts of our lives that we are still called to live, and that we have suspected we might never find again. But God has lighted a candle, and God has swept the floor. And he has found everything – for nothing can be lost to him. Perhaps it is time to join the Psalmist in his prayer: “Make me to hear of joy and gladness once more, O God; that the bones that you have broken may rejoice!” Yes, perhaps it is time to remember that God has lighted a lamp and swept the house. God has found everything that was lost - and everyone - and perhaps it is time to rejoice!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

11 September 2016, Homecoming Sunday

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 11, 2016 .