Irrevocable Grace

When food editor Jonathan Gold of the LA Times sat down this past April to select the paper’s first restaurant of the year, he decided to do something bold. He didn't choose an elegant LA bistro where plates are crafted like landscapes, with pools of brightly colored sauces and shrub-like arrangements of carefully manicured microgreens. He didn't choose a hip up-and-coming foodie hotspot – you know, vegan Korean barbecue tapas where all of the food is local, organic, and brought into town on a burro. Instead, Gold chose a burger joint. And not just any burger joint, but a burger joint in the distinctly non-foodie LA location of Watts. 

The restaurant the Gold chose is called LocoL, spelled l-o-c-o-l. LocoL* is the brainchild of food truck wunderkind Roy Choi and Michelin-starred chef Daniel Patterson. The restaurant is their David-sized attempt to bring down the Goliath of the fast food industry. With LocoL, Choi and Patterson are bringing a chef’s eye and palate to fast food, creating dishes that people want to eat but with healthy, sustainable, ingredients. They believe, as their website says, “…that wholesomeness, deliciousness and affordability don't have to be mutually exclusive concepts in fast food,” and “…that fast food restaurants can truly empower the communities they currently underserve.”

Last weekend, I visited LocoL Watts as one of five Zoe Fellows from Saint Mark’s who had traveled to Los Angeles on a learning expedition. The Zoe Fellows, just to remind you, are five members of Saint Mark’s who are participating in a grant project with Princeton Theological Seminary to explore new ways of partnering in ministry with young adults in our community. This trip was an opportunity for us, along with teams from eleven other congregations, to explore the varied ways this kind of ministry can take place. And as a part of our exploration, two of us got to visit LocoL.

The first thing to know about LocoL is that the food is delicious. Our group sat in the LA sunshine sipping lemonade and eating burgers and fries and collard greens that tasted like heaven. As we enjoyed this wonderful, rich, real food, we met with one of the assistant managers, who talked about his life in Watts and why this restaurant is so important in his neighborhood.** He told us of his co-workers, many of whom were out of work before being hired for jobs for which they had little to no experience but who now, after being trained in the kitchen by Roy and Daniel, are cooking incredible food for the people in their own community. Our host also talked about the place of LocoL as a sanctuary in the heart of a neighborhood shaped by violence. There are any number of rival gangs operating within blocks of the restaurant, gangs made up of men and women who have pledged their lives to each other in violent desperation. In these lives, there is room for only one community; there is only the gang, a family forged in the fiercest brutality and bloodshed.

And yet. And yet, within the walls of LocoL, these opposing groups, these enemies, find a place where they can put aside their animosities, literally lay down their weapons, and simply inhabit the same space together. LocoL is a safe haven, a neutral zone, a place where all sides come together and eat. Gang members who would never walk on the same side of the street, let alone be in the same building, can sit together on the back patio under the LA sunshine, drink lemonade, chew on a burger with an artisanal bun and homemade ketchup, and, for just a few moments, forget that they have vowed to forever hate the person chewing on a burger at the opposite table. LocoL is a place all of the gangs see as their own, a place worth coming to, a sanctuary worth protecting.

Now LocoL didn't get to be this way just because of the food – the food is great, but savory, smoky collard greens does not a sanctuary make. No, this place is a safe haven, our host said, because “it provides something that we’re not used to having.” LocoL is “untouchable” because it offers the men and women of Watts a gift they are not used to getting. Because at LocoL, they are seen as people worthy of good things. At LocoL, they are recognized as those who have been broken and bruised by the society in which they live, that they are people, primarily people of color, who continue to be tragically underserved and underrepresented. Some of them have made bad decisions in response to the need and fear in their lives – who among us has not? – but at LocoL, all are welcomed in as family. LocoL offers the people of Watts something beautiful, something rich and real, made just for them, because they are a people who could really use some mercy in their lives. And so LocoL says to them, here, all of this is for you, so come, take and eat.

LocoL is a restaurant I think Paul would have appreciated. Because Paul too was dealing with rival communities – the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians in Rome, who were duking it out over who were the “real” Christians in the hood.      How much easier might it have been for Paul if there had been a LocoL in Rome where he could have delivered his message to them in person – sat down over a burger and fries and said to these people, C’mon, guys, do you really think that God has turned his back on these faithful Jews whom he has nurtured and loved and blessed all these years? Not a chance! But does that mean that there is no place for these new Gentiles that have recently moved into our neighborhood? Of course not! There is a place for all of you here. God built this Church for all you. God planned for this, offered up his Son that you might find a place where all are seen and welcomed and fed, where all are family.

And then Paul would have leaned over the half-eaten fries and looked into the eyes of these beautiful, broken people. And here in this place, he would have said, God sees what you need. God sees that what you most need is mercy. God knows that you are disobedient, that you have all been selfish and cruel and judgmental. God sees that you have all made bad decisions in response to need or fear, but my friends, listen, to me – this is good news. It is not the easiest truth to hear, for who among us likes to be reminded of their sin? And yet, in the middle of this seemingly bitter truth lies this delicious morsel of Grace: that this gift of God is irrevocable. God’s gift of extraordinary mercy is irrevocable. God’s gift of identity, of holy calling that invites us into a better way of being in the world is irrevocable. God’s gifts of forgiveness, grace, and love are irrevocable. There is nothing we can do to make God close up shop and move out of town – not then, in first-century Rome, and not now, in twenty-first century America.. The gifts of God are irrevocable.

If in these times we are called to find the courage and the footing to speak out in the name of the one we follow, if we are called to find the heart to reach out in the name of Jesus Christ to those who have been bruised and broken by this society in which we live, if in these times we are called to, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “maintain justice and do what is right,” as I know we are, then we must first see ourselves as recipients of that irrevocable Grace, how sweet the sound. We must see ourselves first as those in need of mercy, as those standing in the need of prayer. We must first “receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work,” so that we can “follow daily in the blessed steps of [our Savior’s] most holy life.” If we skip this step and start pointing fingers and casting blame, we risk finding ourselves walking with gangs shaped by pride and self-righteousness. But when we see ourselves as those most in need of God’s gift, when we can fall down at the feet of Jesus and ask for mercy, for a few crumbs of Grace, knowing that we are unworthy of it but that we will receive it nonetheless, then there is hope. Then there is hope that we can speak real truth born of real love, then there is hope that we can feed the hungry and comfort the frightened. Then there is hope, and we are in the right place, in the very heart of the place we were always meant to be, and that we will be able to speak a word into the world – a world of love and grace and justice, that will be itself irrevocable. Then we find ourselves deep within the very heart of Christ, where “all races meet, their ancient feuds forgetting, the whole round world complete, from sunrise to its setting.” May God be merciful to us and bless us.

*To learn more about LocoL, visit their website at www.welocol.com

**Unfortunately, our host's name is lost to me in the swirl of information deposited in my brain after four more days of such visits. His name I may have forgotten; his story remains.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

20 August 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 22, 2017 .

Seek My Face

The truth is that Moses had always wanted to know what his face looked like. Not just his ordinary face, I mean, he knew what that looked like. He was a boy born by the water, the baby in the basket, the adopted son of an Egyptian princess whose house was filled with polished brass and pools aplenty that reflected Moses’s face back to him whenever he felt like looking. No, this longing came later, long after his childhood in royal palaces, after his flight into the wilderness and his encounter with the burning bush and his return to Egypt with a rod of power in his hand and the words of God in his mouth. This was later, in the wilderness, after the Red Sea had nestled back down between its banks and the Israelites were on their way to the land flowing with milk and honey. It was then that Moses began to wonder what exactly his face looked like.

He had just climbed Mount Sinai, sat down in the presence of the living God and stayed a while. He had heard God’s voice speak to him, felt God’s presence with him, even seen a tiny bit of God’s own self as God passed by the mountain. True, the tiny bit he had seen had been of God’s back, and true, God had told him that he, Moses, could not yet see God’s face, but what he had seen was enough for him to feel steeped in the presence of the Almighty, wrung out and still dripping with holiness. And when he came down the mountain, he was bursting with excitement to share what he had seen and heard. Not just the commandments that God had given him (again) but the feeling of being that close to eternity. He could hardly wait to talk to Joshua and Miriam, to tell them what it had been like to feel the earth rumble beneath his feet and not be able to tell where the rumbling stopped and the voice of God began. He wanted to share everything with them, to open the moment wide and let them in so that they too could be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

But when he arrived in the camp, he was greeted not with grateful embraces and eager questions but with bewildered stares and furrowed brows. Moses, the people said – your face. Moses touched his face and felt nothing. Your face, look at your face. And how do I look at my own face, he said, impatient to know what they were on about. Your face is shining. Moses put his palm on his cheek; it felt warm now, glowing with the first flicker of frustration. No, he said, it must be the light of the sun, or the sweat glistening on my brow. And anyway, I have more important things to tell you. He started to speak, to tell them all that the Lord had shared with him. But the people could barely listen. They couldn’t get past the glow coming from Moses’s skin; they were disturbed and they were distracted, and so he borrowed a veil from his sister Miriam and tied it over his face. The people relaxed and went back to their lives, and Moses went back to his tent, perplexed and wondering. Why were his people so afraid? Why could they not listen, not look? And it was then that he started to wonder just what his face looked like.

He never really found out. Oh, he had continued to step into God’s presence. And he had continued to come down the mountain shining like the sun, but he had never seen what his face looked like when he did. There were no reflecting pools in the wilderness, no place where he might find his reflection gazing back at him. And so Moses had gone to his dusty grave with this longing unsatisfied, still wondering, after all those years, what his face had actually looked like.

And so it seemed right and good that he found himself here, on this other holy mountain, standing before the very Son of God, who face was now transformed and glowing. It seemed right and good that he should be here to witness the transfiguring love of God. He saw Jesus’ face and recognized in it the divine light that he could now see face to face. As always, it dazzled and delighted him. But when he looked down the mountain, what he saw there utterly amazed him. Because there he saw Peter, James and John, that perpetual triumvirate of inspiration and struggle, looking directly at Jesus’ face. Moses saw them gazing right into the face of their teacher. They were not shielding their eyes. They did not look away. They were exhausted, even Moses could see that, but they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, looking with wonder at each beam of light that shone from his face. They were transfixed, drinking it all in, and Moses was moved by their presence. He saw in them a special kind of faithfulness, these disciples who could gaze upon that glory and keep their eyes wide open.

And so while Moses stood on the mountaintop and spoke to Jesus about his future – about the brutality and the glory that they all knew awaited him – he kept one eye on the disciples, watching them watching Jesus. What a thing, he thought. What a thing to be standing in the very presence of God and to not flinch. His heart swelled with love and gratitude, and he smiled as he thought of the stories those men would tell when they went down the mountain. How they might tell the other disciples what it felt like to be in the very presence of God, what it felt like to bear witness to the truth.

Moses was still watching carefully when Peter rose to his feet and began to speak. It is good for us to be here, he said. Let us build three dwelling-places, one for each of you. And as he heard these words, Moses smiled with a surge of understanding and compassion. For he knew this feeling well. After all, he and his people had built their own shelter for the Almighty in the wilderness. But Moses could now see what this faithful disciple could not – that there was no need for such shelter anymore. Now, there was no need for a veil, no need for a barrier, for now everything was different. Do you not see, he thought to himself? This is the Son. This is God made flesh so that you can taste and touch and see. This same God who once covered me in the cleft of a rock and showed me only a bit of his back has now humbled himself, limited himself, taken on human flesh just for this reason – so that you can look upon him without shelter, so that you can look upon him full in the face, so that you can see his glory revealed and not be afraid.

And just as Moses was about to open his mouth to say these things, he felt the ground begin to tremble. A cloud of thick darkness began to swirl and descend upon the mountaintop, and Moses’s smile deepened. He heard the sound of the rumbling grow into a sound he knew so very well, the very voice of the Almighty, speaking the very same words that had been ringing in his own heart. This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!

There is no need for shelter now. There is no need for self-protection. Listen to him. Look upon him. Do not shield yourself from what is here, for what is here is for you. This light is for you, to give you courage in the darkness, to illuminate your own words and actions. This light is for you, to burn away all the fear that causes you to bury your head in the sand, to build walls between yourselves and others, to boast and battle and blame. This light is for you, to shine into this world with such clarity, such boldness, that you can see the path of compassion and generosity and humility that leads through this wilderness to the milk and honey of my kingdom. This light is for you, so that you can see your own beautiful face, the person I created you to be.

Look. The fullness of God is made flesh for you, given for you. So do not be afraid. Come, seek his face. Find his presence here in this bread and this wine. “Be attentive to this holy presence as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Look upon him with eyes and minds and hearts wide open. Listen to his words rumbling in your heart. Gather the strength you need here from this altar to go down the mountain, your own face shining with the presence of Christ that dwells within you richly. Let your light so shine before others that they see God’s own glory, let your life be a spotless mirror of the wondrous workings of God. Come, seek His face, and then show asdfyour face to the world. No need to wonder what it looks like. For it is your beautiful face, and it looks like love.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

The Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 8, 2017 .

Shine like the Sun

My dog Ozzie is nearly eight years old, and has lived his entire life in the Rectory next door, where there is a section of flooring, in a corridor between the dining room and the kitchen, that’s covered in a dark brown 1950s linoleum.  Ozzie has never once in his life crossed that section of the floor without pausing warily at its threshold, looking dubiously down at it as though crocodiles might lurk beneath its surface, and then scurrying across the three feet or so of flooring to safety on the other side.

I am quite certain that nothing bad has ever happened to Ozzie on that small section of dark brown linoleum floor; no disaster ever befell him there; he was never attacked by anything; the floor never collapsed beneath him; nothing ever fell on him from above in that spot; nor am I aware of anything that could have caused him fright there.  But he approaches that three-foot width of floor with unfailing trepidation, as though it might open up beneath him, and he’d be swallowed up into the bowels of Hell, or at least crocodiles.

Dogs not only have great intuition, they also have a heightened awareness, especially because of their excellent senses of smell and hearing.  Maybe Ozzie knows something that I don’t know.  The fact that for the nearly eight years of his life Ozzie has never suffered molestation, disaster, or fury of any kind in that location, this has not prevented him from treating that small expanse of linoleum as though just beneath it roils a cauldron of danger.  And this attitude of his seems silly to me, and somehow beyond explanation.  Unless, as I say, Ozzie knows something that I don’t.

It strikes me that hearing Jesus’ parable today could be to many of us somewhat akin to witnessing Ozzie’s strange caution at the verge of the little section of brown linoleum floor: it is a warning of danger that we are not at all sure really exists.  To find this passage of the Gospel compelling you have to believe that there are forces of evil at work in the world, on the one hand, and that God, in his own good time, will send his angelic army to defeat those forces of evil.  It is to believe that evil will be punished and that righteousness will be rewarded, and that it matters which side you are on.  I am not absolutely certain that many people today in America find this way of seeing things all that convincing.

For one thing, Jesus is expressing a highly dualistic view of things, in which the wheat and the weeds can be easily distinguished, the one separated from the other.  But we are prone to see things more on a spectrum.  And we know that weedy people have their wheat-ish moments, and that the wheat-ies are not always as healthy as they seem to be.

But more pointedly, isn’t it hard for many people today to swallow this business about the “children of the evil one,” and the “devil,” and the angelic reapers of righteousness?  Who, these days, believes in the hellish “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”?

On the other hand, who of us is really expecting to “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”?  Doesn’t it seem presumptuous, knowing, as we do, that most of are somewhere on the spectrum between the wheat and the weeds, and not so many of us are near enough one of the ends of that spectrum, to feel confident in what lies ahead, should a day of judgment ever come?

But what if Jesus knows something we don’t know?

And what if the point of the story isn’t the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, but the shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father?

More than once I have flippantly said that if dogs don’t go to heaven I am not interested.  Inasmuch as there exist in the world dogs who can detect cancer with their noses, dogs who can find truffles in the earth, dogs who can give warning to oncoming epileptic seizure or diabetic shock, and dogs who can find their way home from miles and miles away, I assume that dogs go to heaven.  And I am willing to allow for the possibility that Ozzie is alert to realities that I cannot detect; although I still tread confidently over the patch of dark brown linoleum between the dining room and the kitchen.  And if I am willing to concede this greater intuition, and possibly even knowledge to Ozzie, why would I be reluctant to allow for the same possibility in Jesus?  Why is it so hard to believe that the Son of God knows more than I know, more than we know?

Every dog owner has had the experience of being awakened in the night by the barking of the dog in alarm for some unidentifiable reason.  “Shhhhshhh,” we say, “It’s nothing.”  Because to us it is nothing – nothing close enough to bother us or disrupt our sleep.  But the truth of the matter is that it wasn’t nothing: it was something the dog heard but we can’t.  Have we started to treat Jesus and his Gospel the same way?  “Shhhshhh.” we say to Jesus, “it’s nothing,” when we hear the Gospel nag us or bark at us about the possibility that we could be led down the wrong path by the powers of evil.  After all, don’t we know better than that?  It’s not as if money, or power, or sex, or addiction, or fame, or selfishness, or any number of other things could lead us down the wrong path, after all, is it?  We’re all on a spectrum; how can there be evil ones or devils to lead us astray; let alone hosts of angels to reap a harvest of the righteous?  Leave all that to the “Left Behind-ers.”  And we’ll get on with things here on the spectrum.  Because we can hardly imagine that Jesus knows something that we don’t know.

We find it so easy to “shush” the Gospel that we never even consider the possibility that the thing Jesus knows that we don’t is that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”  And we find it hard to believe that we might be among the righteous, since, after all, we are only somewhere on the spectrum between weeds and wheat.

I suspect that Ozzie is untroubled by these uncertainties.  He is aware of the powers of darkness and evil in ways that I cannot even comprehend.  And I allow for the possibility that he is prepared by God to be among those who shine like the sun, wagging his tail all the while.  Which is to say, that we could learn something from a dog, who like all dogs, is admittedly somewhere on the spectrum between “Good Boy!” and “Bad Dog!”  We could learn that no matter where on the spectrum of righteousness we may be, God is calling us to move a little further toward the Son.  God is calling us to be aware that there are powers of evil in this world that can and will do us harm, and that we should beware those powers, resist them, avoid them, fight against them, and by all means do not fall into their traps, for traps have been set!

And, more poignantly, God is calling us to cultivate our place along the spectrum of the righteous like a good crop of wheat, which takes work.  Move, when you can, further along the spectrum of righteousness by living more for others than for yourself; by learning to give generously in all kinds of ways; by bringing joy and blessing into places that are beset by darkness and curses; by raising your voice to the glory of God rather than to your own praise and self-congratulation.  In other words, by being a little bit more like a Labrador.  For God means for you and for me to be counted among the wheat, among the righteous; which is to say that God means for you and for me to shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father.  Which I know is hard to believe, but it has the great benefit of being true!  Let anyone with ears listen!

 

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

23 July 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 23, 2017 .