Keep the Rainbows Coming

It is possible that we have not yet grasped the significance of this important narrative:

Chapter One is in the beginning when the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. And God speaks, and by the end, there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

In Chapter Two there’s another beginning.  And God makes Adam out of the dust, and breathes life into him. And God puts Adam in a garden, and takes a rib from him to make Eve.  And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

A serpent appears in Chapter Three, who wreaks havoc by appealing to Adam and Eve in a most rational but deadly way.  And by the end of that day, such as it was, God drove them out, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

In Chapter Four, Cain murders Abel, his brother, which is more than enough for one chapter, so early in the history of the world.  And at that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.

In Chapter Five, we hear of the descendants of Adam and Eve, all the way to Noah, who is of no interest to us until he was five hundred years old, the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

In Chapter Six, things begin to heat up.  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth....  Now, the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.  And God said, ‘I am sorry that I have made them.’”  And he went to Noah (who had found favor in the sight of the Lord), with his plan.

Chapter Seven brings the flood, and the ark, and the animals two by two; the forty days of rain, and the waters, swollen on the face of the earth.

In Chapter Eight, Noah opens the window of the ark and sends out the dove.  And eventually the dove comes back with an olive leaf in its beak.  And Noah, and his family, and all the animals at last get to leave the ark, and populate the now desolate earth.  And the first thing that Noah does is build an altar, and make a burnt sacrifice to the Lord.  “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil...; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’”

And in Chapter Nine, beautiful, gorgeous, marvelous Chapter Nine, God stops giving Noah orders, and instead, God establishes a covenant of trust with Noah “that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

“God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you, and every living creature that is with you for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you....  When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature.’”

I often think that this story must first have been told by a father (or mother) whose child looked up to the sky after a storm and saw a rainbow, and asked her father where rainbows come from.  And I imagine that marvelous father (or mother), whose imagination must have been stoked by the religious stories of his own time, telling the story of Noah by way of explaining where rainbows come from; and what a great reminder rainbows are of God’s love for us.  And I could be right about that.  But in imaging it this way, I tend to overlook an important detail of the story of Noah and the ark, and the flood and the rainbow.  I tend to overlook that although God explains the sign of the covenant to Noah, he never tells Noah that the rainbow is a sign meant for him and his descendants.  Quite the contrary, God says that sign of the rainbow is meant for his own divine eyes.  “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature...”.  I will see it, myself, says God.  I will see it, and remember.

God must have known that we would try his patience.  

And now I wonder if maybe the story was first told by a father (or mother) to his frightened child, shivering and shaking, held snug by his parent’s arm, just as the rain began to fall in large, heavy drops that pelted the ground, and silenced the birds, and stung as they hit the back of a child’s neck, and sent squirrels running for shelter, and found the dog cowering under the bed, as the sky darkened, and this poor child, to whom so much in the world was still new, saw great puddles form and rivers swell in which any number of things could drown, and heard the furious rainfall and the thunder, and saw the awful flashes of lightning, and wondered if the world, her world, was coming to an end as the thunder crashed.

“Oh no, my child,” her father (or mother) might have told her, “the world will not end because of this storm.  And when this rain finally stops coming down, I can prove it to you.  For God will put a sign in the clouds.  And you must never be afraid of a storm, because God himself will see the sign, and he will remember his covenant of trust.  And all will be well.”

I read somewhere recently that Lent is that time of the Christian year when we commemorate the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, tempted by Satan.  And because Lent is, indeed, forty days long (if you don’t count Sundays), and because the Gospel reading today does, indeed, call to mind our Lord’s sojourn in the wilderness, I worry that we might for a while labor under the same mistaken idea, that Lent is a commemoration of Jesus’ wilderness temptation.  This would be a most unfortunate and superficial conclusion to reach, since it leaves you and me conveniently out of the equation, as mere on-lookers.

Lent’s greater usefulness is not as a time merely to re-tell the long-ago story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness.  The collect for today puts it this way, “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save….”  Yes, the context of Lent is the memory of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but the substance of the season is our own need for God to come quickly to help us, and save us.  And as we recognize our need for God to save us from ourselves, we remember, too, that once God said of us that “the inclination of the human heart is evil....”  What a dismal indictment that is.

Most of the time I want to push back against this charge.  Most of the time I want to suggest that the God of love would never say such a thing, never think such a thing... and I hope I am right about the way I see this most of the time.  Most of the time I want to believe that God could never have thought, let alone said out loud, “I am sorry that I made them,” as Genesis reports that God once said.  This is the type of thing abusive parents say to their children, and we must tread very carefully when we allow for the possibility that such a thought could ever cross the mind of God.  But there have been times lately when it has seemed plausible to me that God could have thought such a thing, if he looked down, and saw that the wickedness of humankind is great in the earth.

Indeed, this is an awful indictment, and one for which I could supply ample evidence from last week’s papers alone.  But the fact remains that God has not stopped finding favor with us, despite our wicked tendencies, and the ease with which we give in to temptation.  And we gather here, not to be indicted over and over again on account of our wickedness, but because of God’s unfailing favor, made manifest in the gift of his Son.  And we realize that God didn’t call us together to be a church merely so we could remember how bad we are, recalling together the old stories of our un-faithfulness.  He called us together to sanctify us and to save us, and so that he would know that he doesn’t mean it, and never did, when he hears us read in church that once he said, “I am sorry that I made them.”

The weather notwithstanding, on Ash Wednesday I must admit that it felt to me as if the rain had began to fall again in large, heavy drops that pelted a school, and silenced the birds, and stung viciously as they hit the children, and sent them ducking for shelter, and found the dog cowering under the bed, as the sky darkened, and puddles of blood formed, and the sound and fury, and the thunder, and the awful flashes of lightning were almost enough to make me wonder, in a way, if the world, our world, was coming to an end, as the casings rattled to the ground, and we had to count to seventeen.

It made me ask, sincerely and urgently, What is wrong with us?  Is the inclination of the human heart really so evil?  Is our wickedness really so great?

We come shivering and shaking into God’s presence, and we might well have these questions on our minds.  We might even wonder if God is sorry that he made us.  Which is why we need to remember again about the covenant, and about the sign of the rainbow.  And we need to recall what God told Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature...”.  I will see it, myself, says God.  I will see it, and remember.

This is not the first time I have found myself praying for a rainbow.  And I fear it shall not be the last.  And as I have a pretty good idea about the extent of my own weaknesses, and those of the human condition, I am praying that God will come quickly to help us, and that we will find God mighty to save.  And that he will keep the rainbows coming, please, keep the rainbows coming!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

18 February 2018

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on February 18, 2018 .

Amateur Night

This morning as I was flipping through my Washington Post app, I saw an article with the intriguing title “It’s Okay to Go Out on Valentine’s Day.” In my imagination, the article was going to be about the question of whether it is appropriate for Catholics – Roman or Anglican – to go out for a fancy dinner on this particular Valentine’s Day, which also happens to be Ash Wednesday. I imagined an analysis of this year’s liturgical calendar, which amusingly pairs not only Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day but also Easter Day and April Fool’s Day. I imagined a history of the tradition of fasting, a description of different types of fasts, and an expert opinion on whether an intimate dinner for two tonight should include things like champagne, or chocolate truffles, or a porterhouse.

Instead, the article, written by reporter Maura Judkis, is about the disdain with which most foodies, including chefs and others in the food industry, view dining out on Valentine’s Day. This disdain is not directed towards the food itself, although Judkis did dedicate a few paragraphs to the disappointing and disappointingly expensive prix fixe menus many restaurants offer on this holiday. No, the disdain Judkis wrote about is the disdain with which foodies and chefs view the people who go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day. As one chef put it, these people are “a completely different demographic” from their normal customers. These people are those who don’t regularly dine at fine restaurants. These people are those who have had to save up for a nice meal out, for whom “fine dining” conjures up images of surf and turf and chocolate lava cake, not the Sweet Onion Crepe with Parmesan and White Truffle Fondue and Duck with Tardivo, Puntarella, and Sauce Genovese you might find at a restaurant like, say, Vetri.* These people are likely to order their steak well done. They’re likely to ask for Thousand Island dressing. They’re likely to order a glass of white zinfandel or – gasp! – merlot. These diners, some snooty chefs complain, are looking for haute cuisine but wouldn’t know it if they accidentally stabbed it with a fork. And so these chefs give this night a particularly cynical, snobbish nickname: Amateur Night.

Now I saw some of you blanch when I mentioned white zinfandel. And I will confess to you that I myself have rolled an eye a time or two when overhearing people order their steak with no pink and their wine with an ice cube. Thank God that today is a day for confession and repentance, am I right? Judkis has this to say about such snobbery: “Knock it off.” Stop being cynical about people who want to “splurge on stereotypical romantic meals,” she says. Just stop. Knock it off. Go out for Valentine’s Day, she tells her readers, and don’t let anybody talk you out of your white zin. Drink it all, even with an ice cube, and have a lovely night.

Setting aside its decided lack of advice on how to integrate the Lenten fast with the traditional indulgences of Valentine’s Day – a topic we can safely skip because it’s after 7 now, and you’re here, so I’m guessing you’ve figured that out for yourselves – Judkis’s article is an interesting lens with which to view our own experiences of Lent. For who among us has not at some point in our lives felt like a bit of an amateur when it comes to Lenten disciplines? We’re feeling pretty good about deciding to give up diet Coke, but then we hear about someone who’s eating only one meal a day or meditating for three hours every night and suddenly our diet Coke fast seems a little bush-league. We know we’re not supposed to rank our Lenten practices like they were an Olympic sport, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid the comparisons. Because our Lenten practices are important. We know what the season of Lent means to us and to the world, and so we want to do Lent well. Of course we want to find a practice that feels significant, that challenges us, or perhaps that proves that we have a sophisticated palate for self-denial. Who wants to be known as just a “different spiritual demographic” from those saintly souls who really get what Lent is about? Who wants to hear someone in the next pew call this gathering Amateur Night?

Let us take some comfort in the knowledge that there was no greater gathering of spiritual amateurs than the crowds listening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These were not professional theologians sitting at Jesus’ feet. These were not the ministers who were trained to stand between the vestibule and the altar and weep. These people were just amateurs. They worshiped, yes. They paid for sacrifices in the temple when they could. They blessed their bread and wine and prayed for God’s guidance and favor and mercy. But for the most part they were completely new at this. Jesus’ entire ministry was new; these people were just beginning to hear and see what Our Lord had to show them. They had hopes, maybe even expectations, but they had no idea what they were getting into; even the spiritual leaders in the crowd, including the disciples, were far from experts.

Jesus knows this. He knows that these people are harassed and helpless and hungry for something they can scarcely define. He knows that they are spiritual amateurs, and yet he feeds them anyway. He feeds them anyway, and with real food. He offers sophisticated sustenance about being blessed even when you suffer. He employs delicate, subtle flavors in his teaching about forgiveness; he brings out the essence of the law which includes not only what the people do or say but also how they think and feel. He offers them real food from a banquet table rich with truth, and he fully expects that even these amateurs will eat. When you pray, he says, not if. When you pray, when you fast, when you give alms – when you practice your faith, always remember the maker who gave you that faith in the first place. And your maker who sees in secret will reward you.

The truth is that we’re all amateurs when it comes to the spiritual life. We’re all looking for things that are truly just a fraction of what God can give. We find ourselves quite happy with the prix fixe because we can’t imagine what might be on the regular menu. We order Thousand Island dressing when God has prepared something far more glorious than just mayo, Worcestershire, and ketchup. We’re total amateurs, and God knows this. He knows that we are hungry for something we can scarcely imagine. He knows this, and he feeds us anyway. He feeds us anyway, and with real food. When we come here looking for small grace, when we come here looking for easy answers, when we come here looking for nothing, when we come here and we don’t know what we’re looking for, God feeds us with nothing less than his whole self, with the body and blood of his only Son Our Lord, given for you and for me.

So blow the trumpet in Zion and call a solemn assembly. For this is Amateur Night, my friends, and the beginning of Amateur Season. For what better time than the season of Lent to remember that our God is gracious and merciful to us, even in those times when we feel like we couldn’t find our faith even if we accidentally stabbed it with a fork? So if you’re worried about being an amateur, knock it off. You are, and that’s okay. If you’re worried that your Lenten disciplines lack even a soupcon of sophistication, knock it off. Who needs sophistication? If you want to fast, fast. If you want to pray more, pray more. If you want to give away more, give away more. Just whatever you decide to do, do it because it will please the God who is madly in love with you. And whatever else you decide to do, please do go out for these next forty days. Go out, go right there to that altar. Don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Eat and drink it all, and have a lovely Lent.

*Yes, I actually did pull these items from Vetri’s current tasting menu.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 16, 2018 .

A Valentine for Ashes

Earlier this week the New York Times pointed out that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day would coincide this year for the first time since 1945, and raised the issue of the tension this coincidence can cause for some Christians, perhaps most especially Roman Catholics.  For, as everybody knows, Valentine’s Day is a day of chocolate and flowers and romance, for candlelight dinners out, for indulgence, especially for indulging the one you love.  But, as everybody knows, Ash Wednesday is a day of somber self-denial, of bread and water, of deciding what to give up for Lent, of being reminded that you are dust and to dust you shall return; it’s the day of the dark smudge on your head, which is meant, I guess, to help you remember not to indulge in much of anything.  It is a most un-romantic day.  

So what’s to be done?  And what am I to say to you that could make a difference to you today, as you contemplate whether or not you should eat chocolate, or take your sweetheart out for an extravagant dinner tonight?  Should I tell you that it’s fine as long as you both order fish?

The series of historic developments that deliver to us a day in the church on which we hear in the Gospel Jesus instruct his followers not to disfigure their faces when they fast, only moments before I propose to do the deed of disfigurement for you by placing a smudge of ash on your forehead is convoluted and basically boring.  But it is evidence that the church has become accustomed, on this day, to holding opposing ideas in tension.  It should not be so hard for us to decide that it is OK to keep Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday, and vice versa.

But we in the church have often embraced finger-wagging.  And a great deal of church history involves accusations that you sinful people are pretty awful, but if you do what I, speaking on behalf of the church, tell you to do, you might, just might, escape the fires of hell, where your immortal soul would be forever tortured.  And now I feel compelled to wonder whether or not I must warn you that a box of chocolates enjoyed illicitly today, or a steak dinner tonight will indeed put the salvation of your immortal soul at risk.  I believe this has often been the role of the priest on Ash Wednesday, after all, you are dust and to dust you shall return, so you’d better be careful!

But when I try to think this way, I am reminded how scarce in the world is the good news that God loves you with great tenderness, and with a love that is more profound than any other love that you or I shall ever know.  And it seems perverse to me, on a day that is meant to be all about love, to fail to remind you of this great love that God has for you. 

And if you are lucky enough to be looking forward to celebrating this day with someone with whom you are absolutely smitten, then you do, in fact, need a reminder from this pulpit.  You need to be reminded that God’s love for you is more complete, more wonderful, and more true than even the love you feel for the person to whom you will, I hope, give flowers (and maybe even chocolates) at some point today.

If Ash Wednesday presents to you only a God who is a killjoy in your life, then this would be a terrible way to begin Lent, since the message of God’s love is that he sent his Son to you (and me) so that his joy might be in you, and your joy might be complete.  The reminder of our shared mortality - that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return - means little to those of us who follow Jesus, if it is not accompanied by the assurance of his love.  What can save us from a destiny that amounts to nothing but dust?  Only the love of God who formed us out of the dust, and filled us with the breath of his Spirit, and sent his Son to us to share with us the gift of life after ashes.  And what could be more hypocritical of me today than to encourage you to put aside expressions of love on the very day that God asks us to spend a season of forty days pondering his love.

So if you go out to dinner tonight.  Maybe order fish, maybe don’t.  Maybe share a desert, maybe don’t.  But gaze into the eyes of one you love, and remember to give thanks to the One who made you for love’s sake, and whose love will lead you to life after everything else has been reduced to ashes.  And stop for a minute to consider that you have forty whole days now, to reflect on love.  You might as well make the most of it!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Ash Wednesday 2018

Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia


Posted on February 14, 2018 .