An Eternal Word

Easter is fifty days long.  That’s a liturgical fact that we talk about for lots of reasons at this time of year.  We’ve carefully noted the passing of the days and weeks lately.  We began our Easter season with readings from the scriptures that focused on the appearances of Jesus to his disciples in locked rooms, on the road to Emmaus, by the Sea of Galilee.  We’ve heard the adventures of the apostles in the book of Acts, recounted the miracles and the preaching and the conversions through which the early church grew so rapidly and so improbably.  In this past week we have commemorated the Ascension of our lord into heaven, and now we are preparing for Pentecost Sunday, next Sunday, when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles.  The word “pentecost” comes from the word for fifty.  We’ve been counting the days.  Some of us take the fifty-day commemoration of Easter as a personal challenge, nudging ourselves to remain especially aware, particularly joyful, all that time.  We remind ourselves that Easter isn’t just a big day or even a week, but a long liturgical period of rejoicing and giving thanks for the mystery of our salvation.

The church does this for us regularly.  It shapes our time.  Our celebrations here together tell us where and who and why we are, and they remind us that the world’s calendar is not our calendar, no matter how dutifully we check that calendar app on our cellphones.  The time we are living in is not the time the world acknowledges.  In the world, history is just, as they say, “one ‘darn’ thing after another.”  No real shape, just an inexorable moving forward that may scare us or fill us with a sense of promise, depending what we are telling ourselves about the “progress” of human history.  We just happen to be here for the early part of the twenty-first century, and after we go it will be someone else’s turn.

But Christian time is different.  Time as we experience it moves back and forth.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  We say that just about every Sunday, and every year we move through the life of Jesus, marking the moment of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and the season of Advent, the joyful feast of the Nativity, the stories of the life and ministry of Jesus and the powerful season of Lent, leading up to Holy Week and Easter and Ascension and Pentecost.  

But even in this period when we are marking and reliving the events of Jesus’s life, time has a startling depth and a complexity for us.  Easter may be fifty days long, but then it comes for us again every Sunday.  Every Sunday is Easter.  And every Mass is also the Last Supper, the banquet Jesus shares with his disciples before he is abandoned by them and given over to death. And every Mass is also the feast at the end of time, the great banquet at which we all have a place waiting for us. 

And our marking of these feasts, even the calendar-specific ones like Ascension and Pentecost, is something much more complicated than historical reenactment.  We aren’t putting on a play about the past here.  We aren’t looking backwards, exactly.  We are celebrating the way that God has broken into time, and is continually breaking into time, in the person of Jesus.  In our own lives.  We are celebrating that Jesus is with us now, and that we are in some sense already with him in his kingdom.  We are trying to map eternal life onto a calendar that only has three hundred and sixty-five days, and so we take every chance we can to remind ourselves that with Jesus, our great Alpha and Omega, we are participating in the creation of the world, the redemption of the world, and the celebration that is the end of all things. All the time.

And that thought brings us to this rather awkward Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  Also known informally as that Sunday squeezed between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost, when it’s not entirely clear where we are in time.  You may have noticed that the gospel we read this morning is not a post-resurrection passage at all.  It’s from the seventeenth chapter of John, and it tells the story of Jesus’s prayer for his disciples, just before Jesus is arrested in the garden and taken away to his crucifixion.  

The way these events unfold in John’s gospel, it’s the evening meal just before the Passover celebration.  Jesus has gotten up from the meal, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed the feet of his disciples.  That happens in the thirteenth chapter of John.  And in our liturgical life that happens on Holy Thursday.  And then there is a long set of discourses that culminates in a long prayer, and what we hear this morning is from the middle of that prayer.  Jesus is speaking directly to God the Father, allowing his friends to hear him pray.  He is praying for them.  And so for us today it’s still Holy Thursday.

We don’t have to think of it this way, but the way our readings are set out in this season we may imagine that that moment of unity, of Jesus’s love for his disciples-- “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them until the end”—this sharing of prayer with and for them, has quietly continued in the background during our busy Easter.  As we have observed Holy Week and all the joyful days since then, as we have marked time, as Maja and Z have been baptized and as ten others joined them in confirmation and reception into the church, as our bishop has come to celebrate with us on the feast of Saint Mark, as great and good and difficult changes have come to our community, as new plans are being made and our sidewalks repaired and the feast of Pentecost is eagerly awaited, as winter gives way to spring and summer, that moment of Jesus’s loving prayer with his disciples has quietly continued.  Somehow, between Ascension and Pentecost, Holy Thursday comes back to us, as though it had never ended.  As Jesus becomes more and more mysterious, rising from the dead and then ascending bodily into heaven, we are catapulted back into the still center of his communion with the ones he loves, whose feet he has washed, still praying to the Father for them and with them.  This vulnerable Jesus, surrounded by the ones he loves, allowing them into the very prayer of his heart, just before they betray and abandon him.

We know Jesus in triumph and mystery, late in this Easter season, and yet in the middle of his triumph we hear him softly speaking words of love for fallible humanity.  We hear him praying for our protection.  We hear him praying in thanksgiving that the Father has given us to him.  “They were yours,” Jesus says, “and you have given them to me, and I have protected them, and now I give them to you. What they know about me is that everything I am comes from you.  My glory comes through them and their joy is complete in me.”

This prayer of Jesus narrates the still, contemplative center of our life in him.  Though time passes, with triumph and with agony, this never goes away.  This moment in scripture promises us that our lives are gifts from God.  This moment of prayer contains the certainty that we are living in God because Jesus has given himself to us and Jesus and the Father have given themselves to one another.  This prayer is the assurance of grace, the knowledge that nothing we have done has made this gift of life in God possible.  In the beginning, the word was with God, and the word was God.  The word of God has been given to the church, and the church has kept the word of God.  And now--even this very day--the word speaks to us: unchanging, undeterred, unafraid even of death. 

Jesus prays, just after the passage we hear this morning, for those who will believe through the words of his disciples.  That is, he prays for us.  We receive his word.  His word assures us of belonging and protection, of being sent, of being chosen, of being given.  This hour of prayer, this time of Jesus’s intimate presence, never ends.  This word is never not spoken.  And in all the changes of our times, this word is all the reassurance we will ever need.  

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson

13 May 2018

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 17, 2018 .

Living Baptized

“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” So begins the section entitled “Concerning the Service” before the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer. The page goes on to describe many of the particulars of this sacrament in our church. For example, Holy Baptism is most appropriately administered during a Mass, and by a bishop, if possible, or if not, by a priest. Baptizands, whether they are adults or children, should have Sponsors who promise to pray for them and bear witness to the life of discipleship. On a later page, the prayer book lists the days that are particularly appropriate for baptism – Pentecost, the Baptism of our Lord, All Saints’ Day, and, of course, the Easter Vigil. Here you can also find answer to some specific liturgical questions: can you sing the Gloria during a baptism? Yes, you can. Should you say the Nicene Creed during a baptism? No, you don’t need to. And so on and so on.

The prayer book provides a number of important details about the sacrament of baptism, particularly about the how and the who and the when. What it does not provide is any instruction about what the baptizand needs to do in order to be baptized. There is no mention of a pre-baptismal exam or a denominational statement of faith that needs to be memorized and affirmed. There is no mention of the baptizand’s frame of mind or quality of life as a prerequisite for receiving this sacrament. In the catechism, those eighteen pages at the back of the prayer book that present an outline of the faith, the only requirements listed for those to be baptized are that we renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. So, quite simply, if you show up, and renounce, repent, and accept, you can be baptized.

Here at Saint Mark’s we make it abundantly easy for people to be baptized. You don’t have to be a member of the parish to be baptized here. We offer baptisms on Saturdays as well as Sundays. And, apart from the season of Lent, we do baptisms all year round, including on those four Sundays the prayer book mentions. We are quite happy to baptize those who ask, at almost any time. This is not to imply that we take the sacrament of baptism for granted, or that we treat it casually. Quite the contrary: it is because we have such great reverence for the sacrament and a deep understanding of its fundamental importance that we are so free with it. It is because we understand how baptism strengthens all of us and the whole Church, whenever and however it is accomplished, that we make baptism so available, so easy, for all of those who desire it.

So when we hear this man from Ethiopia ask Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” it’s easy for us to imagine the answer. Nothing. In our context, there is really nothing to prevent you from being baptized. Maybe you’ll have to wait a few weeks until Lent is over, or until your godparents can come to town or the baptismal gown is delivered, but that’s it. Look, here is water! There is nothing to prevent anyone from being baptized.

But this Ethiopian does not live in our context, and when he asks Philip what might prevent him from being baptized, he is not being rhetorical. This is a real question, expressing a real doubt, that while there might be room for him in the body of these faithful, there might just as well be something about him that would keep him outside forever. For in his context, there was plenty that could have prevented his baptism. In the Jewish community that surrounded and gave birth to the early Church, this man would have been decidedly on the outside. He was an Ethiopian, not an Israelite; more problematically, he was a eunuch, and according to the Law of Moses, he was placed permanently on the margins, forever forbidden to enter the holiest places of his faith.

This man’s question is real, and in his context, the answer is far from obvious. To him. For Philip, filled with the Holy Spirit, the answer is ringing loud and clear. Nothing. There is nothing to prevent this baptism. There is no study, no cleansing, no identification necessary. The man asks, What is there to prevent me from being baptized, and Philip says…well, we don’t know what he says, but something he says, or some look in his eye, makes the eunuch suddenly call out for his chariot to stop – stop! I wouldn’t be surprised if the two men were on their way down to the water before the wheels even stopped spinning.

This story makes me profoundly grateful to be a part of a Church that has done the work of study and prayer to come to an understanding of a truly open baptism. Thank God we don’t have to be a part of the in-crowd to receive it, or that we don’t have to try to earn it somehow. Thank God that baptism in the Episcopal Church is not something we hold tightly as a sacrament too precious to be given away but is instead something we offer freely as a sacrament too precious to be contained. Thank God that we, too, answer the question “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” with a holy “Nothing.” But part of this story also nags at me a bit. Part of this story raises another, deeper question for me, for us. For when we like the Ethiopian went away from our baptisms rejoicing, how long did the rejoicing last? How long did the holy feeling of our baptisms linger? The truth is that in our context, while there may not have been much to prevent us from being baptized, there is plenty to prevent us from living baptized.

There is plenty in this world to prevent us from living the promises of our baptism. Think about it – springtime Sunday morning activities or summer travel gets in the way of continuing in the apostles’ teaching and in the breaking of the bread. Fatigue or feelings of inadequacy gets in the way of our prayers. Resisting evil is harder than it sounds when we find ourselves tempted by a particularly delicious morsel of gossip, or a substance that promises to take all of our pain away, or an opportunity to cast out fear by securing our own power even if it means casting out others along the way.  Social niceties get in the way of proclaiming the Gospel; human frailty makes seeking and serving Christ in all persons messy and frustrating, and the world’s seemingly intractable systems of abuse and inequality make striving for justice and peace exhausting. This world is quite content to throw up roadblocks before our baptismal promises; there is plenty in this life to prevent us from living baptized.

The Church knows this, of course. Why else do you think we have stoops of holy water stationed at every single door in and out of this place? Why else would the font be kept open and filled during Eastertide, a holy prompt that will be even easier to recognize when the font is moved to the center of the church later this spring? Everything about this building, everything about our liturgy, is carefully crafted to help us live baptized. The world will continue to throw up its roadblocks, and the Church will continue to knock them down by showing us the power of worship and prayer, of repentance and proclamation, of love and service. The Church will always continue to remind us of the joy and the truth of our baptism.

The greatest truth of our baptism, of course, is that we never live them alone. The Spirit of the Lord remained with us after our baptism, and that Spirit is with us every moment of every day. In our baptism we abide deeply in Christ, and Christ abides deeply in us. While we may have moments, weeks, or years when we forget the joy of our baptism, Christ never forgets the moment that he marked us as his own forever. Whether we realize it out not, we are protected and healed, called and challenged, comforted and fed every day by the fruits of our baptism. How much richer would our lives be if we stopped to notice this, if we saw the stream of living water that runs through our hearts, stopped the chariot of this whirlwind of a life, and asked, What is to prevent me from living baptized? For there is nothing – no worldly worry or temptation, no inconvenience or frustration or fear – that can stop Christ from claiming you as his own. There is nothing that can prevent you from being his. And if you ever need a reminder, just turn to the pages of the Book of Common Prayer: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” The bond of your baptism is indissoluble. This is your true context. So why not go out and live it? Live baptized, and go your way rejoicing.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

22 April 2018

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 1, 2018 .

Enclosure

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Sheep will make an appearance in any decent English fantasy you might have.  If you don’t have an image in your head of a little, right-hand-drive, stick-shift car stopped in a narrow lane, as a flock of sheep cross in front of you, impeding your progress with a certain degree of charm, then I don’t know what you have been dreaming about when you dream about England.  But sheep have also played a complicated role in the history of England, especially if you consider the drawn-out process that took place over some 600 years, known as “enclosure.”  Enclosure was “the division or consolidation of communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other arable lands in western Europe into the carefully delineated and individually owned and managed farm plots of modern times.”* 

Anything I have to say about enclosure will be an over-simplification, born primarily of ignorance.  But it remains a fact that for hundreds of years “the open field system and the communal pastures [of England] came under attack from wealthy landowners who wanted to privatize their use.”**

Sheep, it turns out, are relatively easy and inexpensive to keep, as long as you have plenty of grass, as England does.  And sheep’s wool, it would seem, could bring a handsome return on a modest investment.  But grazing sheep requires land.  And the system of the commons - that is, land that “was at the disposal of the community for grazing by the village livestock and for other purposes,” - was an obstacle to the maximization of income for the aspiring large-scale wool producer.  You could make more money with more sheep grazing more land, if only you could get rid of the people using the commons to feed themselves.  The answer to this problem, if you were a “manorial lord” was “to enclose land... [and] put a hedge or fence around a portion of this open land and thus prevent the exercise of common grazing and other rights over it.”***

The thing about enclosure is that it’s not really about either the land or the sheep. It’s really just about the money.  Which means that although it unfolded over many centuries, long ago, it is nevertheless a thoroughly modern story.

Many’s the preacher who has pointed out how unflattering is Jesus’ comparison of us - sophisticated, complicated, wonderful us, the crowning accomplishment of God’s creation - how unflattering is the comparison of us to a flock of sheep.  It is easy to take offense at the comparison, or to reject it altogether, which allows us then to ignore anything that follows.  If you don’t see yourself as a sheep, then you can’t imagine why on earth you would require a shepherd.

But if we look at history a little differently, perhaps it is easier to see why a shepherd could be a good idea for us humans, even now.  For the process of enclosure, wasn’t really something that was done to lands, or even to sheep.  The process of enclosure was a policy delivered by one, privileged group of people upon another, less well resourced group of people.  It was a policy delivered by the strong upon the weak, to deprive them of the little they had.  All you have to do is follow the money to see this.  Enclosure required a culture that vested power in ownership, which is to say a culture that vested more power in those who were already powerful.

The church, believe it or not, raised her voice in England to object to enclosure.  Several of the best-known English reformers weighed in on the matter with concern.  More famously, Sir Thomas More wrote critically in his work “Utopia,” that “noble man and gentleman, yea and certeyn Abbottes leave no ground for tillage, thei inclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down townes, and leave nothing standynge but only the churche to be made a shepehowse.”****  In a literary turn of facetious pique, More writes that it is a though “your shepe... eate up and swallow down the very men them selfes.”  Such is the effect of enclosure upon those with little power to demand for themselves the common good that once was thought rightly to be theirs.  Perhaps the reason that More decided to assign responsibility to the “shepe” for this slow-motion tragedy, meted out upon the weak by the strong, was his unerring faith in the power of a particular shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd.  I know my own, and my own know me,” Jesus said.  What an incredible statement of good faith this was for him to make.  For, while undoubtedly our Lord does know all his sheep by name, even the numbers of hairs on our heads, it remains to be seen how well we “shepe” know him.  If we “shepe” really knew our shepherd, and what he desires for us, and what he demands of us, and what he has done for us, and where he calls us, and what he promises us, would we really make the choices we make, and create the kind of society we have created?  If we knew our shepherd, would we really reinforce a culture that so regularly, consistently, and deliberately vests power only in those who are already powerful, and that repeatedly metes out tragedy (often in slow-motion) upon the weak at the hands of, and to the benefit of the strong?

Jesus said, “there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  But this lovely statement of unity is impossible as long as we insist on enclosure, which means my flock and your flock must stay within their respective hedges; and which makes no provision at all for those who just need to plant potatoes to get through the winter.

Of course Jesus was using pastoral language to speak to a pastoral people, and so it is possible that he did not intend his words to say so much about how we organize ourselves into societies.  Except that his talk of shepherding includes the acknowledgement that he “lay down [his] life for the sheep.”  And actually, I am not convinced that it was the accepted best practice of shepherding for a shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep.  I strongly suspect that Jesus is teaching us that he is a shepherd like no other, and that he is calling us to be a flock like no other: gathered in unity, bound together in love, committed to a common hope for what lies before us, and sanctified by the blood he shed for our sake, the gift of his life laid down for us before we even knew we were in peril.

Existing, as we do, behind our various hedges, walls, and fences, how can we ever learn to be one flock with one shepherd?  And as long as we resist the call to be one flock with one shepherd, how can we ever really learn to know our shepherd, as he desires we should?

The hedges, walls, and fences we build have enclosed our hearts, our homes, our communities, our churches, our common resources, and our nations.  We have become experts at enclosure, and this expertise has suited the rich and the powerful just fine, since it has promoted the expansion of their wealth, vesting more power in the hands of those who are already powerful, just as it did in England.

Many English fantasies - admittedly childish ones - in addition to involving sheep, include the distinction between the commoner and nobility.  And we tend to think that the word itself - a commoner - is a description of the low social status of a person, helpfully distinguished from the nobility.  There is some truth to this, and every contemporary dictionary that I consulted supports this notion more or less, calling a commoner “one of the common people,” “one who is not of noble rank,” at least in the first instance.*****

But the full-size, old fashioned, Oxford English Dictionary, ever helpful, provides this as the first definition of a commoner: “a member of the community having civic rights; a … citizen….”  although it does take till the seventh definition before those rights are described as including “joint right in common lands.”****** But at the core of the matter there are rights that belong to a common people, enjoying a common life, on this common earth.

Jesus is our shepherd, which is to say he is our common lord.  And it ought to be inconceivable to any church that he laid down his life so that we could establish thornier hedges between us, to delineate what’s mine, and not yours; to vest power only with those who are already powerful; to mete out tragedy upon the weak at the hands of, and to the benefit of the strong.  How could any such shepherd be called good?

In fact, by calling himself a shepherd, and distinguishing himself from the wolf, Jesus is teaching us that he is on the side of the weak, not the powerful.  By distinguishing himself from the hired hand, he teaches us that neither is he concerned with some business interest to do with the sheep; that you can follow the money, but it will not lead to him.  Even when Jesus allows for the possibility of an enclosed flock of sheep, he teaches that he is the gate, by which sheep may safely come and go.

Ironically, when we dream about the hedgerows and stone walls of the English countryside, we probably imagine that all this was made for the sheep, that the walls and the hedges keep them safe.  We tell ourselves that this is just good animal husbandry.  But actually, it is just good business.

Enclosure, at which we have become exceedingly good in more ways than I can possibly account for, serves the purposes of the few at the expense of the many, and may not make anyone safer.  But it does ensure that power stays in the hands of those who already have it.  It may or may not do any good for the sheep.  But it certainly serves someone’s purposes.

What sheep need to safely graze is a broad and green pasture, and relatively still waters.  And most of all, they need a shepherd who knows them, and who is known to them for his strength, his faithfulness, and his love.

Jesus is the good shepherd.  He requires neither hedge nor wall to keep us safe, for he defends us with his own life.  And it is a matter of grace and of hope that he has promised us, enclosed as we are, that some day we will be free, and there will be only one, common flock, beneath the banner of his love.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
22 April 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

*Encyclopedia Britannica
** “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain,” Simon Fairlie, from The Land Magazine, 2009
*** Britannica
****Sir Thomas More, “Utopia”, 1551
***** Merriam-Webster online
****** Oxford English Dictionary

Posted on April 22, 2018 .