Come, Lord Jesus

My grandmother always says the same grace before meals. She knows others, I’m sure, but she has only ever said one: Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and grant that all these gifts be blessed. This is Grandmom’s grace, said at every family gathering and on every major holiday, said in the same sweet, melodious voice each time, even if five minutes before this 85-year-old, 5-foot-nothing, bold, beautiful, feisty Italian woman was standing in the kitchen pointing a wooden spoon and railing against Congress or anyone who has ever or will ever play for the New York Mets. But come grace-time, and she’s all softness and light: Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and grant that all these gifts be blessed.

Now as a child, I thought that this grace was a little, well, lame. This is because I was a complete grace snob. In my immediate family, we quoted scripture before mealtime. We had standard grace quotes, like “He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love, or, if you were hungry: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And if you felt like showing off: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” These verses didn’t always relate directly to mealtime, per se, but they were beautiful, and in their King James English, they sounded awfully official and important. As a child, I was far more impressed with the seriousness of these quotes than with the sing-songy-ness of Grandmom’s grace. Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and grant that all these gifts be blessed, always seemed childish compared to, you know, THE BIBLE.

What I did not realize in my childish snobbery is that the first part of my grandmother’s prayer actually is THE BIBLE. And not only is it from THE BIBLE, it is given privilege of place by being the last prayer in the entire canon of scripture. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” Here ends the Bible. Come, Lord Jesus is one of the oldest prayers in Christendom, found not only in Revelation but in one of Paul’s letters and in the first liturgy of the Church. Come, Lord Jesus is a prayer that has been offered over and over by millions of Christians in thousands of places and times. It is the most ancient, the most scriptural, the most important of prayers.

What I also did not recognize as a child sitting at my grandmother’s dinner table was that it is also a hugely ambitious prayer, a prayer of epic proportions. I never stopped to think what we really asking. Come, Lord Jesus. What if Jesus had actually taken us up on our offer? What if he really had come? Well, he certainly would have come in and sat right down to eat, probably in that chair – you know, the extra chair from the study, the low one that makes the dinner table hit you right around here. Jesus would have sat in that lowest chair, probably at the spot in the middle of the table where the crack makes your plate wobble back and forth. Or, more likely, he would have sat at the kiddies table, with his knees tucked up around his chin, just suffering the little children all over the place. He would have cleared the table, stayed in the kitchen drying dishes, recycled the empty cans, driven the leftovers over to the homeless shelter. He would have asked provocative questions about forgiveness, invited unusual people to the table, told daring stories about a kindhearted Mets fan caring for a man who had been beaten up along the road to Citizens Bank Park. He would have challenged us by his words and his actions to truly be his disciples in our words and our actions. He would have come, our Lord Jesus, so that our dinner, and our lives, would never have been the same.  

Come, Lord Jesus is a serious, powerful prayer. It is a bold ask. Because Jesus can come in only one way – the same way he has always come, with the same purpose he has always had. Which means that when we pray this prayer, Come, Lord Jesus, we are really asking for Jesus to come and turn our world upside down. For he came, and so he will always come, to exalt the humble and meek and to fill the hungry with good things. He comes as the master to act as the servant; he comes as the highest to sit with the lowest. He comes as the purest of heart, without sin, to walk among brokenhearted sinners. He comes to manifest the glory of God in the shame of the cross. He comes with great power to give it away for great love.  He comes to shake up the world, to shake us into our right minds, to show us again and again how God rejects the priorities of this world for the grace of his heavenly kingdom.

Now all of that shaking up can be supremely uncomfortable. That’s why this prayer takes so much courage, because it means that we are inviting Jesus to change things, to change us. And that means admitting that we need that change, because sometimes you and I find it easier to adopt the priorities of this world than to fight them. We get sucked in to believing unhelpful, unholy untruths – that our worth is somehow tied to our wallets or our waistlines, that we are loved because we are powerful or perfect, that our sin is justified because of need or expediency, that faster is better, that busier is better. We get sucked into believing that when Christ said to love our enemies he surely didn’t mean dead terrorists, or kidnappers, and that when he said to give away two robes instead of one he surely didn’t mean actual clothes, or at least not our nice ones, and that when he said to serve the poor he must have meant only those who are properly grateful, or clean, or pleasant. In the Church, too, we are often tempted by these worldly priorities, tempted to look to our bottom line as the Alpha and the Omega, or to measure our success only in terms of how many people are sitting in the pews instead of how many hearts – in and out of the pews – are transformed by the Gospel.

Opening ourselves up to admitting these failings and owning our own sin, can be a vulnerable, scary business. True transformation always is. This is why this prayer has always been a prayer of the whole Church, a prayer that we offer together, as one body with Christ in us and us in Christ. Together we can have the courage to lift up our hearts and to cry out Come, Lord Jesus! Come down and shake us up. Come down right in the middle of the world’s lies and speak truth. Come down right in the center of our weakness and comfort – be strong with – us. Come down into our selfishness or apathy to help us love as we should, to help us follow you as we should, to help us wash our robes in whatever sacrifice is required to follow in the path of discipleship. Come, Lord Jesus. This is the boldest and bravest of asks, a serious, important, beautiful prayer.

And it is a prayer that is a gift. Because here is the thing: Christ is coming. He has promised that he is coming and that right soon. He is coming in a thousand little ways, this day and at the last day, to bring justice to places where the strong lord it over the weak, to bring mercy to the sick or the sin-sick souls, to bring peace and love where there is only violence and hardness of heart. Ready or not, here he comes. And Christ just wants us to be ready. So he offers us this prayer. I am the Alpha and the Omega, he says, I am the bright morning star, and I am coming. So get ready, and let everyone who hears say, “Come.” You, say Come! Let everyone who hears the great good news boldly say come. Let the Church and the city say, come. Let the faithful say come. Let the doubters say come. Let the joyful say come. Let the addicted say come. Let the children say come. Let the heartbroken say come. Let the survivors say come. Let the oppressed say come. Let the frustrated say come. Let the grandmothers and the mothers the grandfathers and the fathers say come. Let the angry, the exhausted, the jubilant, the lost, the found, the poor, the hungry say come. Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and grant that all these gifts be blessed. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

12 May 2013

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 14, 2013 .

A New Commandment

Of Jesus’ childhood, the scriptures provide a report for only three days, when he was separated from his parents, and eventually found sitting with the rabbis in the temple.  So we know that he was a religious child.  But although holy writ does not record it anywhere, I think we can be assured that from time to time, the boy Jesus played games.  One such game he might have played with his friends after Hebrew School, and could have been called, “A New Commandment.”  It was, in fact, a learning exercise, to help memorize the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, of Jewish law.  The trick of the game was to call out something that might or might not be a commandment and see if you could fool your friends.

You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge? Old commandment!

You shall not eat a worm found in an apple?  Old commandment.

A younger brother must make the bed of his older brother in the morning?  A new commandment!

You get the idea.

Even as a boy, Jesus had a way of throwing a curveball into the game.

You shall pay your hired servant on the day of his labor?  Old commandment!

You shall forgive your sister or your wife or your mother even if she troubles you?  A new commandment!

You shall not eat the flesh of an ox that has been condemned to be stoned?  Old commandment!

You should love your enemies and pray for them?  A new commandment!

We Christians are somewhat stupefied by the idea of governing our lives by a body of 613 commandments.  Most of us had to learn to remember only the Ten Commandments when we were young, and, in truth, we generally find even those a struggle.  It is no longer clear to us why you should not boil meat in milk or wear garments that are made from a blend of linen and wool.  Our few Jewish friends who keep kosher (if we have any at all) are something of a quaint mystery to us.

Episcopal tradition, as we have received it, is blissfully free of commandments.  Try to name one thing that is required of you day-in –and-day-out in order to be an Episcopalian – I dare you.  This is not a complaint, it is just a comment – we are not much into commandments, and perhaps with good reason: commandments don’t sell very well, these days.  Americans these days do not want to be told “thou shalt” any more than they want to be told “thou shalt not.”

Jesus himself was not very big into commandments as his ministry matured.  He had a penchant for re-imagining or circumventing the traditional Jewish mitzvot (depending on your point of view).  He left behind no written set of rules.  And the one commandment he did give his followers was this: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  Of course, it has been the long tradition of the church to ignore this commandment (or to re-imagine or circumvent it, depending on your point of view).

In fairness, as commandments go, this one is a bit vague.  What does it mean to love one another?  Strangely, it is immensely easy to disagree about this.  Are we to understand “just as I have loved you” to mean that we should imitate Jesus in the way we live our lives?  If so, what does this mean?  Did he wear linen mixed with wool?  Did he boil meat in milk?  Did he forgive his brothers and sisters, or did he ignore them?  Where did he stand on gun control, or abortion, or gay rights, or the treatment of enemy combatants held in distant places?  How can we apply the injunction to love to these difficult matters?  Are we meant to?

When you think about it, it might be easier to be governed by 613 mitzvot than to have to somehow figure out what this one commandment means.  After all, it’s not so hard to understand this commandment: “You shall not shear the firstling of your flock.”  It’s easy to wear fringes on your clothes and know you are in compliance with God’s law.  But how do we show everyone that we are Jesus’ disciples by loving one another?  Doesn’t love have a way of making up its own rules?  And aren’t there far more than 613 ways for people to show that we love one another, some of them complicated, and some even a little weird?

I sometimes imagine that on the evening of the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples were indulging in childish reminiscence and playing “A New Commandment” with each other, letting off steam as they prepared for the Passover after an exciting and confusing few days in Jerusalem.

Jesus remained quiet, an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile on his face as his friends made silly suggestions of new and outrageous mitzvot: you shall not feed a multitude of five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes, they laughed among themselves.  You shall not set the Lord’s messiah on a donkey to bring him into Jerusalem, and strow branches in his path as you sing, Hosanna in the highest!” they smirked with one another.

Interrupting his own silence and their game, Jesus gets up from the table and begins quietly to wash the feet of his disciples, much to their amazement and confusion.  And after supper, picking up on their game, he tells them this: “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”  But this is not funny.  This is not a game.  The first part of the commandment is not new at all – that you should love one another – it’s straight from the law, already a mitzvah.  So it’s the second part of the commandment that is new – as I have loved you.  Love one another as I have loved you.

Did they wonder as much as we do about how to let this commandment guide their lives?  Or was it clearer to them because of what he’d done with them, how he’d been with them, what he’d already taught to them?

Did they see that living out this new commandment would mean being guided by a few questions?

Can you wash someone’s feet with it?  A new commandment.

Can you feed a hungry belly with it?  A new commandment.

Can you heal someone with it?  A new commandment.

Can you forgive someone with it?  A new commandment.

Can you restore, renew or redeem someone with it?  A new commandment.

Contrast these questions to some others:

What does it prohibit?  Old commandment.

How can you be sure it’s pure?  Old commandment.

What ancient enmities does it preserve?  Old commandment.

Whose privilege of power does it protect?  Old commandment.

Jesus did not say what to do about the old commandments, except that he said that it was not his ministry or intention to disrupt one jot or one tittle of the old law, but to fulfill it.

Isn’t it odd how appealing the old commandments can be?  Isn’t it funny how often we allow our lives and our religion to be governed by those old questions:

What is prohibited in this church?

Who is pure and worthy in this church?

What ancient enmities must we preserve in this church?

Whose privilege and power must be protected in this church?

I don’t know, maybe those questions have some value.  But they lack the power to identify us as followers of Jesus.  For that, you need the new commandment of love.  For that, you need to ask, “Who’s washing who’s feet?”  It is surprising how easily the old questions melt away when you are washing someone else’s feet.

We live in a complicated and sophisticated age, in which we are faced with many perplexing matters.  I suppose it would be too simple to suggest that all we have to do as Christians is to learn to love one another – because to say that is somehow not saying enough, and the semantics of love are themselves complicated and sophisticated.  But if we need a test by which we might know how closely we are hewing to Christ’s new and only commandment, perhaps it is this: Who’s washing who’s feet here?

It is hard to nurture old hatreds when you kneel to wash someone’s feet. 

It is hard to count the number of bullets in a magazine (too many?  too few?) when you are washing someone’s feet.

It is hard to be critical of someone’s sexual orientation when you are washing her feet.

It is hard to feel self-righteous when you are washing someone else’s feet.  (Well actually, it’s not, but that just goes to show you how easily we can pervert nearly anything, including this test of love!)

Jesus did not give a new commandment because he thought the 613 mitzvot were too many to worry about.  He gave a new commandment because the ancient law was one commandment short.

So he girded himself with a towel, and he got down on his knees, and he began to write the new commandment of love with water and sweat, and the stink of dirty feet.  And he must have known that it would be difficult for us to follow this new commandment.  So by his service to those who should have been serving him, he posed the question by which we might test our faithfulness to the new commandment: Who’s washing who’s feet?  A question so simple, even a child can answer it.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

28 April 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 29, 2013 .

The Egg Carry

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  (John 10:27-28)


A long time ago when kids still played games like Simon Says, and Red Rover for real entertainment, and actually to pass the time, most of us also participated at least once, but probably more often than that, in an egg carry race – maybe at a school fair or a church picnic or something like that.  I expect that these pastimes have been replaced by other activities that are engaged on the Internet, but perhaps by the grace of God I am wrong about that, and children are still sometimes sent outside to play.

In any case, the rules of the egg carry (or the egg-and-spoon race, as it is sometimes called) remain simple: competitors are each given a spoon to hold, onto which an egg is placed, and they have to race to the finish line without dropping the egg.  Sometimes the race is run as a relay.  In the advanced version you put the handle of the spoon in your mouth and carry the egg that way.  Mothers believe that this race should be run using hard-boiled eggs.  Bolder children, especially boys, prefer the idea of using raw eggs that will crack and splat if dropped, bringing some of the thrill of the egg toss to the somewhat less treacherous egg carry.  I suppose it can work either way.

Games with eggs, like the egg carry and the egg toss, are played almost entirely for fun; they are not meant to impart life lessons, and they almost certainly are not meant to convey theological truths.  If stretched these games may teach simple lessons about fragility and risk.  The challenge of the egg carry is that it is difficult to balance an ovoid object (with or without a liquid center) on the end of a spoon.  Eggs will be dropped, and broken, but life goes on.  After all, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, don’t you?  Eggs are essentially disposable objects in American culture, their original galline function as the capsule of new life notwithstanding.

By way of contrast to the egg carry, there is the deliberately didactic exercise posed to high school students in some schools of caring for an “egg baby” (as they are called) as though it were your own infant child.  This exercise is, I think, generally intended to discourage teenagers from advancing too quickly toward parenthood.  The egg babies (also normally hard-boiled) are fragile and easy to neglect, and therefore represent a consummation devoutly not to be wished, to borrow an old phrase.  Perhaps caring for an egg baby is really not so different from the egg carry – just the same thing in slow motion.  In both cases, eggs are going to be broken, it’s largely a question of how many and how quickly.

You can learn a lot from an egg.

It is startling how often and how regularly these days we are jolted into the painful recognition that life is risky and fragile, and sometimes seems as nearly likely to be broken as an egg carried on the end of a spoon.  This past week it was Boston, near the finish line of the marathon, and the smallest egg, the most adorable, and innocent, and fragile egg on that dreadful day was an eight-year-old boy named Martin Richard.

I know the tiniest bit, from spending time in the company of my twin nephews, who will turn eight this summer, how caring for children can seem like an egg carry.  Some parents are more adept at it than others, some more or less anxious, some better resourced than others, and some children are more fragile than others, some more hard-boiled.  But what can a parent, or an uncle, or a friend, or even an innocent by-stander do when someone is intent on knocking your egg off the spoon, or worse yet, blowing it to bits with a homemade bomb?

You look at the face of this child, as we looked at the faces of the youngsters so recently killed in Newtown, Connecticut, and you know that this is not a game, but that life is every bit as risky and fragile and precious – only ten-thousand times more so – as that egg you used to try to carry all the way to the finish line.  And the lesson we seem to be being taught is similar to the lesson we learned at the school fair, the church picnic: eggs will be broken, and there isn’t always anything that you can do about it.  But that lesson, translated to account for the life of an eight-year-old boy is now neither benign nor commonplace; it is tragic and heart-breaking in the extreme.

A person of faith might well ask why God has allowed things to develop this way.  A parent who accepts the risk of raising her child – her egg on the end of a spoon – might ask why bullies are allowed to knock her egg off the spoon for no good reason?  Why they are allowed to shoot at her egg with high-powered weapons?  Why her egg was attacked by disease in the first weeks of his life?  Or why, no matter how carefully she swaddles her egg with protection, it will always be susceptible to shrapnel?

And anyone who is truthful with you about religion will tell you the only honest answer to those questions: Nobody knows.  Nobody knows why life is as risky and fragile as an egg being carried on the end of a spoon in a race to the finish line.  And nobody knows why God allows so many of his eggs to be cracked, scrambled, smashed, ruined, broken to bits, even though they are the works of his own hands.

But if God does not provide the answers we want, he is not entirely silent, either.  “Horatio,” says God (channeling Shakespeare) “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it another way, speaking for God, when he wrote, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  I should hope not.

We overheard some of God’s thoughts in the Gospel reading today:  “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

“No one will snatch them out of my hand, for your ways are not my ways," says the Lord.

God knows how like an egg carry life can seem to us.  Lest we should doubt this, he sent his Son into the world with the expectation that he would be reviled, beaten, shamed, and killed – in a show of solidarity with all those who are at the riskier, more fragile end of life’s spectrum.

Although this is almost certainly not what the writer of John’s gospel was getting at when he was writing, it is my hope that in some ways that writer misunderstood things that Jesus said.  And part of the message of Jesus’ teaching, and of his death and resurrection is this: Eggs are easily broken in your hands, my children, but no one will snatch them out of my hand.

No one will snatch them out of my hand.

We often speak sentimentally about being held in the palm of God’s hand, and this image remains only sentimental until we remember how risky and fragile life is in our own hands – indeed, how much life is like being balanced on an end of a spoon, clenched between someone’s teeth, while others try to knock you off the spoon with one or another explosive device.

We get to the end of a week like this one and there are broken eggs all over the place – blood spilled, limbs shorn off, and life taken, just like that – and what hope is there that next week will not be just another egg carry in which the riskiness and fragility of life are tested again?  More poignantly, what words of comfort or consolation can be spoken to the injured and grieving parents of Martin Richard, whose son has just been snatched violently out of their hands?

Words of comfort and consolation are few in times like these, and many of those offered are cheap, as well.  Those worth saying include this assurance from the Lord of Life: No one will snatch him out of my hand.  This is God’s promise to us egg-carriers in a risky and fragile world.  For Christ has already taken that fragile, easily broken egg and swaddled him in protective wool – just like the kids swaddling their egg babies with tissue paper and cotton balls. 

Thus clothed, the egg has now been dubbed a lamb by Jesus, who is teaching him the sound of his voice, singing him gentle songs, I imagine, to soothe the transition into his new life.  And he speaks the words in truth that every parent wishes they had the power to make true: “No one will snatch you out of my hand. No one.”

Faith in Jesus does not always provide answers to life’s difficult questions, like why life is so easily compared to a children’s game in which eggs are bound to be broken.  But faith in Jesus does bring with it this promise: No one will snatch you out of my hand.

There are those, of course who will try, and they may do so armed to the teeth.  But the Lord is your shepherd, and though you are fragile as an egg, you have been dubbed a lamb, too, in his eyes.

Each of us is riding through this life, cradled gingerly in the shallow bowl of a spoon, so often exposed to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  And we discover, as we grow older, that even by taking up arms against a sea of troubles, we cannot, in this difficult and violent world, by opposing end them.  Which is why it is good news to discover that we fragile eggs have all been dubbed lambs, that the Lord is our shepherd, and that no one will snatch us out of his hand. 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

21 April 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 21, 2013 .

The Morning After

Do you know that feeling you get when something big, something wonderful, something long anticipated is now just… over? It’s a feeling we’ve all had at some point in our lives. When we’re children, it’s the feeling of waking up on the morning of December 26, or of shuffling to the car to head home after the trip to the shore or to Disney World. When we’re older, it’s the feeling of waking up to a kitchen full of dishes after a long-prepared-for 60th birthday party, or walking into an empty house after your daughter and her new wife have gone off for their honeymoon, or, oh, I don’t know, coming back to work after a fabulous post-Easter vacation to Amsterdam, Bruges, and London. You know that feeling – that slightly disembodied, sag in the stomach, oh-so-tired feeling that wraps around you like a heavy blanket. Well, that fun is over, we sigh to ourselves. So what do we do now?

It seems that perhaps the disciples know this feeling, too. For them, Easter morning has come and gone, and the unthinkable, the impossible, the mysteriously, miraculously wonderful had actually happened. They had seen an empty tomb, heard Mary tell of a garden encounter with a man who knew her and called her by her name, and then, then, they had actually seen Jesus standing in the middle of a locked room. They had seen him and he had spoken to them, breathed the breath of the Holy Spirit on them…and then he had come back, spoken words of peace to them once again, showed his hands and his side to poor Thomas. He had come back and done “many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” as John the evangelist tells us. Jesus was alive, and he was around; he just kept showing up, performing miracles, speaking words of peace and promise. And his disciples must have been giddy, breathless, as excited as Christmas morning and Disney World and a London vacation all rolled into one.

But now, suddenly, it feels a lot like the morning after. Jesus seems to be gone again. The disciples are alone, gathered around the Sea of Tiberius, just looking at each other. Well, I guess that fun is over, one of them says, sighing. What do we do now? Peter looks out to sea and takes a long, heavy breath. He shrugs. I am going fishing. The others scratch their beards and nod slowly. Okay, they say finally. We will go with you. And they all shuffle over to their long-abandoned boat, feeling that slightly disembodied, sag in the stomach, what-are-we-doing-here feeling, a feeling that doesn’t really go away once they’ve pushed out to sea and lowered their nets. They sit, all night, in the silence, in the dark. Their nets hang down into the inky water, limp and empty. There are no fish and no words, really, nothing to do but just sit there, wrapped in that heavy blanket of morning-after, let-down, all-the-fun-is-surely-over feeling. Huh. What do we do now? And in the darkness and the fog, it’s hard for them to even begin to imagine an answer to that question.  

Thankfully, they don’t have to try to imagine for very long. Because once the sun comes up, there is their answer standing on the shore. There is Jesus, again, calling to them from the beach, telling them, his beloved children, exactly what to do now – cast your net on the other side of the boat, bring me some fish, come and have breakfast, feed my lambs, follow me. Just when they thought that he was gone again, and maybe gone this time for good, Jesus shows up one more time, and in his presence that heavy morning-after feeling is gone just as quickly as it came. And as the disciples stand there with sand between their toes munching on smoky bread and crispy fish, they begin to realize what Jesus is telling them: that morning-after feeling never has to come back. Jesus is inviting them into a way of life where there are no morning-afters, where there is always preaching to do, sheep to feed, a church to build, because there is always a risen Lord to follow. He is inviting them to imagine awaking each morning in happy expectation of something big, something wonderful, something long anticipated to do now, in Jesus’ holy name. No more morning afters. Only mornings before.

Because, you see, there are actually no morning-afters when it comes to faith. The truth and the beauty and the joy of the Gospel that we proclaim is never just…over. It can certainly feel like it sometimes. It feels a little bit like it this morning, in fact. After all, Easter was two weeks ago, the timpani and the trumpets are long gone, the scent of lilies has long ago faded from the air. Easter Day is well and truly over, and it’s easy to feel that kind of morning-after fog, to stare blankly at our dark, empty nets and wonder what we are supposed to do now – here, in the church, here in our hearts. But this morning, Christ is inviting you into a way of life where there are no morning-afters, where the resurrection is not something that happened once upon a time in a land far, far away, where we do not proclaim that Christ was risen but that Christ is risen, that Christ does show up to tell us what to do now.  

Sometimes Christ shows up in our lives to tell us to change something we are doing that isn’t very helpful to us or to our neighbors or to the world. Cast your nets on the other side, Christ says; trust me, do this, make this change and see the abundance of wonders I have in store for you. Sometimes Christ shows up to feed us, in the daily offering of his body and blood, in the spiritual nourishment we find in our prayer or in our service in his name. Sometimes Christ shows up to call us to task, to help us to confess the ways that we have betrayed or ignored him, the ways that we have denied his presence in our lives with or without the telling cock’s crow. Do you love me? he asks, so that we can know – really know – how deeply and how infinitely we are forgiven. And sometimes Christ shows up to call us to act – to feed his sheep, to care for his lambs, to perform our own signs and wonders in the world.

Christ shows up in a thousand little ways – when we’re looking for him and when we’re not, when we’re bright with enthusiasm and hen we’re wrapped in a thick morning-after blanket, when we’re confident about our futures and when we’re stumbling about looking for a boat to go fishing. Christ shows up in unexpected places and in unexpected ways to help us see what to do now, to help us see this as the morning before, the dawn of something new and challenging and wonderful in our lives.

And this assurance of Christ’s presence can sustain us through all of the other morning-afters of life – and not just the little ones, like after the vacation, or after the birthday or the family visit, but also the monumental, world-rocking ones, like after your mother dies, or after you lose your job, or after you discover the depth of your sister’s illness or her addiction. Because in all of these morning-afters, Christ shows up, again and again. Christ’s constant presence assures you that there is always more to come, even on those mornings when you find yourself heaving that deep sigh and experiencing that slightly disembodied, sag in the stomach, heavy blanket feeling, when you find yourself raising your eyes to the heavens and asking, “What do I do now?”

What do you do now? Look to the shoreline. Not so far away, really, only just there on the horizon. Find that familiar figure who stands before you, who encourages you to try casting your eyes and your hopes on the other side, on his side. Listen to him as he calls you to his table to eat, as he calls you to repentance so that he can offer the forgiveness you seek, as he charges you with the charge of divine love – feed my sheep. Follow me. Follow me and see that something big, something wonderful, something long anticipated – something holy, something eternal, something intimate, something transformative and wondrous and full of joy comes in the morning. For Christ is risen, and there is something, someone, to look forward to, and something for us to do now, here, on this great Easter morning before.

Posted on April 18, 2013 .

The Gate of Doubt

If faith is like a walled garden, then the garden wall has many gates that allow both entry and exit.  Most of the gates swing open and closed pretty easily, and the latches operate smoothly.  But there is one gate in the Garden of Faith that is much harder to open – especially from inside the garden.  It is a gate made of thick, heavy wooden planks, with sturdy iron hinges.  There is no lock on the gate – it is meant to be opened and closed if anyone wants to - and it can never be barred.  But inside the garden, thorny bushes have grown up in front of the gate to make it harder to use.  And the letters carved into the sign that is nailed to the gate tell you its name: Doubt.

Doubt is the gate through which we are so often warned we should not pass.  Over the centuries there have been many reasons that this is so, one of which is the story of Doubting Thomas, and Christ’s injunction to Thomas that “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In our own day, Doubt is a not-much-used gate because the discourse of faith doesn’t seem to allow for much grey area theses days – either you believe fervently and defend your faith ferociously, or you are a happy and satisfied atheist – or so it seems.

If you live inside the Garden of Faith – or if you even just tend a plot of ground there from time to time – the gate of Doubt probably seems dangerous to you.  To begin with, you are not absolutely certain that if you were to go outside the garden through the gate of Doubt that you could ever get back in.  There are lots of other gates that you know are meant to open from both sides – the gates of Sin and Repentance, for instance.  The Forgiveness and Mercy that grow inside the garden of faith give assurances of this – you can always get back in.  But if you were to use the gate of Doubt, then you would be dabbling in something that might keep you outside the garden of faith for the rest of your life.

If you creep up to the garden gate of Doubt late at night and listen carefully, you can hear the voices on the other side whispering questions:

“What if your prayers mean nothing and no one ever answers them?”

“What if there is no God, and the forces that control the universe neither love you nor care about you in the slightest?”

“What if all your silly worship is worthless, self-indulgent pageantry?”

“What if death is all there is at the end of life, and our bodies just become food for worms?”

The voices that whisper these questions on the other side of the gate of Doubt do not sound friendly.  And because you like the time you spend inside the garden of faith, you don’t think you want to entertain these voices and their questions; I know I don’t.

So we have learned to steer clear of the gate of Doubt; we just don’t go there.  There are plenty of other lovely sections of the garden of faith, and there are so many creative and interesting ways to open the gate of Sin when we want to foray outside the garden, that we don’t really need to bother with Doubt.  And, after all, we are assured that on the other side of the gate of Sin there is always the gate of Forgiveness to get back into the Garden.  So we leave Doubt alone.

Having left the gate of Doubt alone so long and so carefully, we seldom look around its vicinity, and we don’t notice that creeping over the wall from the other side of the gate of Doubt are two vines that have become intertwined with the thorny bushes that grow in front of the gate inside the garden.  These vines are invasive and threaten the indigenous plants of the garden of faith; they are Fear and Self-Doubt.  They cleverly present themselves in the vicinity of Doubt as though they were Doubt itself, but they are, in fact, distinct species all their own.  And the flowers of these two vines each has a scent – not entirely unpleasant, but not enticing either – something only just noticeable that is carried in the air beyond the gate of Doubt when the breeze is blowing strongly enough.  And the Scent of Fear and Self-Doubt tickles our noses and plants still other ideas in our heads, as though they were sneezes trying to get out:

“You are ugly and stupid.”

“You will never be good enough.”

“It would be better to play it safe.”

“You can’t do that: someone smarter, and stronger, and more capable than you could, but you can’t.”

These thoughts are borne on the scent of Fear and Self-Doubt, which catches us unawares from time to time, and it has the power to stop us in our tracks and leave us frozen for a while, unable to decide what to do, how to live, convinced that we have no good choices in our lives.  We imagine that these feelings are crises of faith, coming, as they do, from the vicinity of Doubt, and we remember that we have trained ourselves to steer clear of Doubt.  And we do not notice how unsteadily we are now walking in the Garden of Faith, having breathed in the scent of Fear and Self-Doubt.

The Tradition of the Garden of Faith tends to overlook the invasive species of Fear and Self-Doubt, because those vines have become all mixed up with the Gate of Doubt – where you shouldn’t be hanging out anyway!  And so we are not conditioned to identify the effects of the scent of Fear and Self-Doubt in our lives hence we have no idea what to do about it.  Instead, we just tell ourselves that it is all just a part of Doubt and the sooner we get away from the Gate of Doubt the better we will be – wasn’t that the message to Doubting Thomas, after all?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, you sniveling doubter who has been lingering around gates you know you shouldn’t linger around!

But for a few days of the year – right around this time of year – there blossoms in the Garden of Faith a tiny little plant that carpets the garden with its little, golden blossoms in such a way that the lawns of the Garden of Faith put the Yellow Brick Road to shame, so abundant and so radiant are these tiny blossoms that seem to weave themselves into a seamless garment.  These little blossoms also have a scent – it is at once reassuring and invigorating – and the scent of these flowers has that unusual quality, found in and around the Garden of Faith, that it brings not only odor to our notice, but also sound.

These blossoms are called Thomas Flowers, because when their scent fills the garden with its perfume, it is accompanied by a sound that at first sounds like an army of cicadas making their incessant chirping noise over and over again.  But when you listen closely, at this time of year, when the Thomas Flowers are covering the ground in the Garden of Faith as far as they eye can see, you can hear in the cicada-like chirping the sound of a prayer being made over and over again: “My Lord and my God!  My Lord and my God!  My Lord and my God!”  And by a strange coincidence the sound of that chirping prayer is heard nowhere more clearly than in the vicinity of the Gate of Doubt.  And for reasons that no botanist has ever been able to explain, for about a week or two around this time of year, the vines that grow on the other side of the wall, outside the Garden, by the Gate of Doubt shrivel and die back so that they look like a few dying twigs that are at last being gotten rid of.

But after just a few short weeks, as the last golden blossoms of Thomas Flower are fading from the grass, and the sound of their chirping prayer is becoming faint (My Lord and my God!  My Lord and God!) a shoot begins to grow at the base of the vines of Fear and Self-Doubt, and you can be assured that they will soon be creeping over the wall again.

And the first lesson of the Garden of Faith is this:  There is nothing to be afraid of at the Gate of Doubt except those invasive species of Fear and Self-Doubt that grow on the other side of the gate, and would be happy to keep you there.

And the second lesson of the Garden of Faith is this: That God is able to carpet the landscape with flowers that will proclaim him Lord, and that the beauty of the Thomas Flowers and the majesty of their marvelous prayer (My Lord and my God!) will continue to bloom, causing Fear and Self-Doubt to shrivel, allowing the flowers’ prayer to hang in the air with new music at every chirp:  My Lord and my God!  My Lord and my God!  Thank you for overcoming my fear and self-doubt, my Lord, and my God!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

7 April 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 8, 2013 .

What Happens Next?

But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  (Luke 24:11)


The other day I sat in on a discussion at St. James School with a handful of our 5th and 6th grade students there and a fairly well-known author.  We sometimes have visitors who come to speak to the students about their pursuits and accomplishments.  We’ve had an Olympic rower, an IronMan triathlete, and the head of a local private school, among others, and most recently this author who is a writer of short stories.  He talked with the students about how you tell a story, and he suggested that first you start with an interesting idea – for instance, let’s say there is a dog who has two heads, that’s interesting.  Next, he suggested, you start to ask questions about the dog with two heads: how did the dog get two heads?  The kids offered their own questions, too.  Do the two heads like each other?  Does one head of the dog try to eat the other head’s food?

Right, said the author, and what happens next?  This question, he told us, is crucial because, of course, it’s what keeps the story interesting, and a story that people will read is a story that continues to get interesting, where the stakes keep getting higher.

Boring stories never go anywhere – maybe you have a friend, like I do, who likes to tell stories that never seem to go anywhere.  They start well, and you are listening, waiting for him to get to the good part, but the good part never comes, the stakes never get higher, and soon your interest wanes, because nothing happens next.  It is an idle tale.

St. Luke tells us that the disciples first greeted the news of the resurrection as though it was an idle tale.  I take it that this could mean a couple of things.  To begin with, it could mean that the story is just untrue – a lie.  And I think that probably many who heard the news that the women brought back from the empty tomb assumed just that – it is a lie.  But even after some of the details of the story are verified – Peter goes to the tomb and finds it just as the women reported – the possibility that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is an idle tale remains, because the question remains, what happens next?  And if nothing much happens next, then it is still more or less an idle tale.

If this question was pressing to those who first learned the good news of the resurrection, then it is no less pressing to us today.  Is the Gospel if Jesus an idle tale or isn’t it?  Is it a lie – as many these days contend that it is?  And, even if the tomb was empty and Jesus was raised from the dead, so what?  What happens next?

Well, we know what happens next in some ways: Jesus hangs around for forty days, St Paul tells the story to anyone who will listen and the church grows, Constantine legitimizes the faith and the church expands, Eastern and Western Christians fight over minutia and the church splits in two, Martin Luther has a hammer and he isn’t afraid to use it when there is a nail and a door around, Henry VIII has a mistress and he isn’t afraid to marry her (as long as he can get a divorce!), and so on and so on and so on.

And all of those are good stories, and many others – BUT, they still could be idle tales to YOU, if you can’t answer the question in your own life: what happens next?  Because, let’s face it, in life the stakes are always getting higher – more is on the line today than it was yesterday, for most of us.  So if the story of Jesus, and the news of his resurrection isn’t any more than an idle tale, who’s got time for it?

OK, maybe you were baptized long ago when you were an infant, but you can’t remember a thing about it – what happened next?  Maybe nothing happened.  Maybe there was a brunch and then you had your second birthday, and you grew up, and nothing happened next, and you haven’t given it a second thought since then.  In this case, so far the whole thing may seem to you like an idle tale.

But maybe the story unfolded in a different way.  Maybe when you were a kid you got very, very sick.  Maybe you were in the hospital.  Maybe they didn’t know if you would make it.  Maybe your mom and your dad went to bed every night with tears on their pillows offering the only prayer they could: Please God, make her well, let her live!  Please, let what happens next be OK!

And maybe, through the skill of doctors and the care of nurses you survived that childhood illness, that’s what happened next.  I know people who this has happened to, I bet you do too.

Maybe when you got older you had a great time, you were the life of every party, but then you discovered that partying was starting to control your life, not the other way around.  And maybe this cost you your health, and your sanity, and your friends, and your job, and your money, and nearly everything as you slipped deeper and deeper into addiction.

But maybe one day it dawned on you that your life was out of control, and you could not control it, you had no idea what would happen next, but all the options seemed pretty poor, and the only thing you could do was to hand over the reins to God and ask him to take over your life, because so far you had only learned how to throw it away.  And maybe recovery has been a gift in your life, the best possible thing that could have happened next.

Or maybe you got married on a beautiful spring day to the love of your life, and everything was peaches and cream, and you looked forward to a lifetime of bliss.  But before the kids were even out of diapers the shouting matches between the two of you were interrupted only by long, steely silences that were better maintained from separate bedrooms, and the divorce was ugly, and the fight for the kids left you estranged from them, and none of this was supposed to be the stuff that happened next, but here it had happened, and now you could hardly be more miserable, and you would fall asleep at night wondering over and over, more from fear than hope: what happens next?

Shall I go on?  Middle age, and all its challenges; getting older and worrying about money, and sickness, and health, and your grown kids whose lives have not turned out the way they were supposed to; the market collapses, and with it your retirement plans.  And you are wondering: what happens next.

And sometimes you pray about it deliberately, sometimes you know that you are relying on God alone, because you know that you don’t have the strength, or the wisdom, or the patience, or the fortitude to navigate it on your own, and you think thing only thing that can happen next is that everything will only ever go downhill…

… but it doesn’t.  Somehow light shines in the darkness, hope emerges where there was none, healing happens. mercy is given, forgiveness is found.  That’s what happens next.

And then there are the graveyards.  There are more people buried in the graveyards of our hearts right here this morning than any of us can count.  There are infant children buried here in our hearts today, and there are aged grandparents buried.  There are spouses, and lovers, and best friends, and college buddies, there are sisters and brothers, fathers, and so many mothers buried here in our hearts today.  There are painful, aching memories, not only of their deaths, but of their dying – sometimes too long and drawn out, sometimes too sudden and alarming.  And alongside every one of those deaths there is the haunting question that sometimes seems just as present as it was the day she died – what happens next?  Can I survive without him?  Will the sun ever shine, and if it does, will I ever want to look at its beams again?  Will this sorrow ever get any easier to bear?  Will the loneliness ever subside?  What happens next?

At times like this, everything in life seems like an idle tale – either an outright lie (Please, don’t try to make me feel better by telling me the sun will come out tomorrow when I know it won’t!), or like that awful question will just be hanging in the air for ever – what happens next?

Hey guys, Jesus is risen, the tomb is empty, isn’t that great!

Well, we’ll see; what happens next?

What happens next is this: that Jesus, having toured the depths of hell during his three-days excursion in death, now begins traveling to all the secret hells that we have set up in our own lives, like little dioramas of misery, some of which we show to anyone who wants to look, and some of which we keep hidden in the darkest corners of our souls.  The caption, the script, the banner, the title, the message of all those little hellish scenes is this: What happens next?  And it asked with a defiance that suggest the asker knows what happens next: nothing, for faith and hope and love are nothing but an idle tale – told, most often, by an idiot of some degree or another.

I have constructed such hellish dioramas in my own heart.  In fact, I am building one right now in my spare time – mostly from the borrowed material of someone I love, and whose life, I fear, is in grave danger quite beyond his control.  And nearly every day I wonder, so what happens next?  And the question frankly fills me with dread.

But I remember how those first followers of Jesus believed the news of his resurrection – the news that life would and can and does, indeed, triumph over death – how that news seemed, even to those who knew him well, an idle tale.

And I already know that it is not.  For I have seen his glory rising time after time in a thousand little Easters that smash our dioramas of hell into little bits and pieces.  I have seen it in my own life and in the lives of countless others I have known and heard about.  I have felt the warmth of the rising Sun, when I was sure it would never rise again.  I have looked into tombs I thought should be over-crowded and found them empty.

And if you never have, then today is the day to look and see that you have been given the strength, or the wisdom, or the patience, or the fortitude to navigate the dark and awful questions that leave you asking in dire hope: what happens next?

What happens next is that Jesus rises again and again from the graves of our lives, bringing hope and new life where there was only ever death and despair.  And that is a story worth telling with shouts of Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, for the Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Easter Day 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 31, 2013 .

Easter Greetings

Back when I was teaching high school choir, I used to spend a part of every summer participating in a Bach festival at Westminster Choir College. This festival was a chance for professional and amateur singers to come together to learn a major choral work of Bach – one of the Passions, a grouping of cantatas, or even the B Minor Mass – and then to offer a public performance with a group of top-notch soloists and instrumentalists. These were always wonderful weeks spent with the best people in the world: namely, people who love nothing more than spending 8 hours a day singing Bach. Those of us who were actually being paid to do this enjoyed ourselves so much that we did it for very little money and always ended up helping with administrative duties as well.

One year, the year we were learning the Bach St. John Passion, I ended up proofreading the program, which, if you know me at all, you know is right in my wheelhouse. The program included the entire text of the Passion in both German and English that had been typed in word by word by some poor summer intern in the continuing education department. This was before the days when you could just go online and copy a text like this as a whole, so this poor intern was typing and tabbing, tabbing and typing, German and English, English and German, for pages and pages and pages, which would drive anyone a little bit crazy.

And let me tell you, the proofreading wasn’t particularly fun, either. I ended up proofing for an entire day of rehearsal, looking at a few lines at a time during any free moment, like during someone else’s aria or a longish conversation about Baroque bowing technique. By lunch, my eyes were bleary from passing over the same phrases again and again, passages like this, like a script: Evangelist: Pilate asked, Pilate: Are you the King of the Jews? Evangelist: Jesus answered: Jesus: Is that your own idea, or have others suggested it to you? Evangelist: Pilate answered: Pilate: Am I a Jew? Your own people and their chief priests have handed you over to me.

But then suddenly, unexpectedly, in the middle of my proofreading, there was this: Evangelist: Pilate asked, Pilate: What have you done? Evangelist: Jesus answered: Jesus: HI!! J …printed all in capital letters with two exclamation points and a smiley face. I couldn’t help it – I burst out laughing in the middle of some poor baritone’s solo and completely interrupted the rehearsal. Jesus answered, HI!! J All these years later, I’m still not sure how this HI!! J got in there. I’ve always imagined a poor intern, eyes crossed from typing, stumbling away from her desk in search of strong coffee, and one of her fellow interns tiptoeing over to her terminal to type in a little note to cheer her up. HI!! J But the first intern wasn’t able to find any caffeine or sugar during her sanity break, and when she came back to her computer, she completely missed the message. And so we ended up with Jesus answered, HI!! J Thank God it didn’t make it into the program. The poor bass singing the part of Jesus would never have known why everyone started giggling during his dramatic recitative.

Of course, if that line had made it into the program, people might have thought that they had just been transported ahead three days and into the Gospel of Matthew. Because it’s true that right in the middle of Matthew’s resurrection story, Jesus suddenly and unexpectedly shows up and says, HI!! J, maybe even with two exclamation points and a smiley face. Of course, our translation tonight says “Hail” and some others say “Greetings” or even “Good morning” but the idea is the same – Hey Mary, Hey Mary…HI!! J

This, dare I say, perky greeting is a surprise particularly because Matthew’s resurrection story is surely the most dramatic of them all. There is no peaceful, pre-dawn tomb here. There are no women laden with spices stepping quietly through the garden only to arrive at the tomb to find the stone already rolled away and an angel serenely perched upon it. No, the women in Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, seem to have gone to the tomb to spy, not with spices. They are sneaking about on a covert mission to see how many guards there are and whether or not they seem to be doing their jobs when WHAM! BLAMMO! Suddenly the earth is roaring and rumbling like thunder, an angel shoots down out of the sky like a bolt of lightning, so bright that it hurts their eyes, and they can barely stand to look at him as he takes the giant stone and hurls it away from the tomb with a heave and a crash and thud. The guards just pass out. The shining angel speaks to the women in a voice that rattles their eardrums, Fear not! he says – an address which always indicates that the addressees must look pretty darn fearful – Fear not! Jesus is risen, look inside the tomb, he is not here, he has gone ahead to Galilee. Go, go tell the disciples what is going on and where to find him! For I have said so. Let it be written, let it be done!

Now somehow, miraculously, the women do not pass out, nor do they just run away screaming like the ladies in the Gospel of Mark. No, they actually have enough presence of mind to do what the angel asked them to do. They scurry along down the road, scouting for some disciples to report in to – Jesus is risen, there’s an angel sitting on the tomb, and everybody needs to get to Galilee. They’re running, panting, blinking and rubbing their eyes, wondering how in the world they’re going to convince Peter that this wasn’t just a vision brought on by lack of sleep when WHAM! BLAMMO! Suddenly Jesus is standing right in front of them. And Jesus says, HI!! J Two exclamation points and a smiley face.

It is a wonderful, unexpected, gift of a moment. Jesus isn’t supposed to be there at all – the angel said that Jesus was going on ahead of them to Galilee, not sneaking up behind them on the road to Galilee. But there he is, very much in the flesh, popping up just to say hi. It is as if he cannot wait to see them, that he is bubbling over with the joy of the surprise, that he is giddy and breathless with the wonder of it. HI!! J

This is a particularly appropriate reading for the Easter Vigil, because the liturgy tonight has been a lot like this. This is surely the most dramatic service of the entire Church year. We light a big fire in the church, for goodness sake! We sit in red glow of that fire, holding our own tiny flames, and then are plunged into to darkness, where we hear haunting, ancient prayers and words about floods and freedom and dry bones being knit together; we bless water with smoke and breath and plunge a truly giant candle into the depths of the font – it is all swirling darkness and light and mystery and litany and then WHAM! BLAMMO! Suddenly the lights flash on and Alleluias are sung higher and higher and higher bells ring and the choir sings Glory be to God on high and the rafters seem full of the flapping of angels, too glorious and bright to look at. It is a surprise, a glorious, wondrous surprise, like Jesus just cannot wait any longer to tell us that it is truly Easter and so jumps up behind us with a grin and says HI!! J Two exclamation points and a smiley face.

And do you know the real joy of this? Jesus does this all the time. He is forever popping up in unexpected places in our lives with words of new life, comfort, and joy. The truth is that the risen Christ just cannot get enough of you – he cannot wait for you to make it down the road to find him, because after all sometimes we get lost and sidetracked and find ourselves wandering down side paths where the valleys are not exalted and the rocks and hills not made low and we begin to forget what it is we’re looking for in this valley of darkness when WHAM! BLAMMO! Suddenly, Jesus is there, meeting us along the way, popping up when we least expect it, just to say HI!! J I am risen, I am here, and I am yours. So go on down the road, for you will surely again see me up ahead. I cannot wait to surprise you again, surprise you with new life, with my love, with my constant presence, with my longing, longing, longing, to surprise you with my joy just in seeing you coming. So HI!! J Happy Easter!! Two exclamation points and a smiley face indeed.


Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

The Great Vigil of Easter, 30 March 2013

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on March 31, 2013 .

This is My Body

For the past five weeks, some of us here at Saint Mark’s have been participating in a wonderful and somewhat unique Lenten program: Lenten yoga. Each Friday, after Evening Prayer and Stations of the Cross, we faithful few would make our way upstairs to the choir room, which had been transformed into a makeshift yoga studio. There, under the expert guidance of Diana Fisher, we learned to pay attention to our own bodies, to think about them differently and to engage them in new ways, trying things like stretching out through our inner ankles, lifting our ears towards the ceiling, and relaxing our tongues. Diana always encouraged us to do only what our bodies could do. Stretch only as far as you can, she’d say, and if you feel yourself collapsing, come out of the position. She never encouraged us to push our bodies; instead she encouraged us to really listen to them. Does the stretch feel forced? Okay – come out of it, realign your body, inhale, and try again. Does the stretch feel good? Great – hold it for a few more breaths.

What a gift this practice was. And what a gift that our choir room has not one mirror in it. Not one. So we never had to worry about what we looked like – we could lunge, bend, and twist away without a care in the world.  I like to imagine that sometimes we looked just beautiful, that there were moments when we found that perfect balance, breathing in wondrous alignment, looking just like a print ad for Lululemon. But there were lots of times, I’m sure, when we looked completely ridiculous. We’d end up turned the wrong way, knees and elbows all angles, butt sticking up like a flag in the air. We’d stretch up and our tummies would pop out of the bottom of our shirts, or we’d look down and find one of our legs shaking uncontrollably. We’d lie on the floor and come up dusty, we’d take off our socks and find our toes covered in fuzz, we’d let out a breath and unintentionally grunt. But all of that was actually just fine, because all of that is just what bodies do, and our yoga practice was about learning to let our bodies do what they do, to let our bodies speak to us, and to utterly enjoy ourselves in the process.

Most of us don’t spend too much time just letting our bodies speak, letting our bodies do the marvelous things that they do. We spend more time thinking about how our bodies look than about what they do. The luxury that most of us have of not worrying about where our next meal will come from or whether or not our legs will work today can mean that we sometimes think about our bodies only in terms of appearance. Even when we are ill and we find our bodies suddenly spinning out of control like an engine stuck in high gear, we still often spend all of our time trying to change our bodies rather than trying to listen to our bodies. In our anxiety about how we look or even at times how we feel, we can forget that our bodies are not just some external shell for us to play with or manipulate; our bodies are us. And our bodies have beautiful, important, holy things to say.

Jesus, of course, knew this and lived this deeply. His embodied-ness was the very core of who he was – God made flesh, the eternal Word incarnate. Jesus often used his body, not just his words, to do his ministry, to say something important to the world. He touched lepers, he spread clay on the eyes of a blind man, he stretched out a hand to those once-dead, he knelt to pray, he wept real tears – and these are just the examples that the evangelists took the time to tell us about. Surely he also put a reassuring hand on an unsteady shoulder, tousled the hair of children underfoot, held a newborn baby up to his cheek, gave hugs, always using his body to say you are seen and loved, and all without a single word.

There is no greater example of this than the tender event we remember tonight, the moment when during his last meal with his disciples, Jesus gets up from the table, removes his outer robe, wraps a towel around his waist, and squats down to the ground to wash their weary, worn, filthy feet. He pours water over sore insteps and in between tired toes, he scrubs dirt off of rough heels and dries tender soles, trying not to tickle too much. By these simple, humble, intimate actions, Jesus speaks volumes before he utters a single word. With his body, he teaches this new commandment even before he says love one another as I have loved you.

It is important for us to remember that the footwashing here is not just a metaphor. As singularly significant as Jesus words are here, we cannot forgot that his body is speaking too. After all, Jesus could have just sat the disciples down and lectured them about love, but he didn’t. He could have taught them this new commandment in words as bright and engaging as a parable, but he didn’t. Instead, Jesus used his body to speak, to reach out and touch, connect, purify, bless, heal, sanctify, satisfy. This action was the love itself – not just an image of the love, not just a metaphor about the love, not just a concrete example of the love to help his disciples remember his point, but the love itself, live and in the flesh, real, embodied, and sacramental.

Holy Week is a time of profound embodiment. Over the coming days, you and I will enter into this sacred time not just with our minds, but with and in and through our bodies. We will kneel and stand and genuflect, we will prostrate ourselves before the cross and sit still in the silence of a garden. We will kiss and bow and look up to heaven and in all of this, be reminded, again and again, that our faith is not solely an intellectual exercise. Our faith is not just a journey of the mind. Of course our minds are important, of course we use our reason and our imaginations to help our faith to grow, but such growth is never divorced from the worship and work of our bodies, from what our bodies are meant to just do, from what our bodies have to say to us and to the world.

Now in a moment, you will be invited to walk up here to the crossing to have your foot washed, to sit down in a chair, take off your shoe and your sock and to put your beautiful, imperfect foot – yes, that’s right, your foot, with the sock lint between your toes, the ugly little nail on your baby toe, and the wintery, rough skin on your heel – into my beautiful, imperfect hands, with my pale skin and my uneven nails and my slightly swollen knuckles. Now you certainly don’t have to do this. You’re welcome to just use your imagination. Truly, no one will think any less of you, and you certainly won’t be any less of a Christian, if you choose to stay in your pew. But just for a moment, realign yourself, take a breath, and ask yourself – what if Jesus was right? What if the actual act of having your feet washed has something to tell you that merely imagining just can’t? What if being washed in this way really does mean that you, like Peter, will have a share with Jesus? What if Christ has something profound to say to you here, and longs to use your body to do it?

Now maybe you’re sitting there thinking that all of this is just a ploy to get more of you up here for the footwashing. Which might be a little bit true. But only a little bit. Because far more important is the truth that how you listen to your body matters, because Christ is still speaking to your body through his. He says to us, Take eat, this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And then he stops speaking to you merely in words and speaks to you body to body. He speaks to you in the cool feel of the host on your palm, or the slight sweetness as it melts on your tongue. He speaks to you in the golden muskiness of the wine as it fills your mouth. Christ’s body continues to speak, again and again, calling us to listen and to speak with our bodies in our own ways – to actually touch someone who is in pain, to bend down to help someone up, to hold someone who weeps, to wash and to feed and to walk with and to stand up for. So sit with your body in your pews. Feel the wood beneath you, holding you up. Feel your breath flow in and out. And listen for Christ’s body as it speaks in you. This might feel like a bit of a stretch. Does the stretch feel forced? Okay – come out of it, realign your body, inhale, and try again. Does the stretch feel good? Great – hold it for a few more breaths.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

Maundy Thursday, 28 March 2013

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on March 30, 2013 .

The Strength of An Horse

A few weeks ago a dear friend who lives in the country called with sad news: a horse had died.  It was one of two horses he’d bought for his kids, really, when they were teenagers and riding was one of their sports.  Since they lived in the country it was no big deal to buy the horses and keep them on the farm.  But after the kids grew up and outgrew riding and went off to college, my friend, their father, who had himself ridden as a teenager, decided that he would take up riding again – it would be good for him and for the horse.  He chose Moe, the big gelding thoroughbred he’d bought for his son.

So he would ride in the mornings around his property, and along the shady trails that lead through neighboring farms and along the river, and he would ride in the open field where he still had jumps set up from the days when his kids learned to ride the horses over them.  And he would practice his jumping, and enjoy the air and feeling of remarkable freedom you get when a horse is carrying you faster than you think ought to be possible, and then flying with easy grace over a log, or a ditch, or an obstacle set up in the field.  And he was right: it was good for him and for the horse.

Since I started to ride a few years ago, I would visit my friend and I’d ride the other horse.  We would ride together through the woods, and down to the river, and along the road, with my dogs alongside us, except when we cantered and the dogs couldn’t keep up, and then we’d stop and wait for them at a turn in the path or at the top of a hill.  Horses live for a good thirty years or so, and my friend’s horses were getting on in years, but we didn’t work them very hard.

Lately my friend was riding a bit more frequently, having reached a point in his life when he could take it a little easier at work.  And although we live at some distance, and so don’t ride together often, we talk regularly to share stories of our riding accomplishments or failures.  And the other day he called.  A few days before, he reported, Moe had stopped eating, which was a worry.  And on the day he called he’d walked out to the barn to check on him, but Moe didn’t look like his old self.  My friend put a lead rope on him to walk him down the long drive that leads to the entrance of the farm – maybe he needed to get out of his stall, out of the barn?

At the end of the drive, he tied Moe up to the fence for a moment to get the mail out of the box.  And when he turned around, Moe was quivering.  The quivering quickly turned into convulsions which sent the chestnut thoroughbred down to the ground, into the ditch that runs beside the drive; the horse was now clearly unable to get up.

My friend went around to the horse’s head, and there he laid down in the ditch next to Moe, and he held his head, and he told him it was OK, he told he would be alright, he told him what a wonderful horse he had been for him and for his kids.  And finally Moe quieted down, and his great sides heaved their last breaths, and his nostrils fluttered as they left him, and he died there with his head in the arms of a man who had owned and ridden that horse for 24 years.

My friend called the vet, and on doing so immediately began to feel guilty: what had he done?!  Had he ridden his horse to death, he wondered?  Should he have just put him out to pasture and not taken him out for those canters through the woods, not jumped over that fallen tree beside the pasture that makes such a perfect jump?  Should he have refused to take me out for rides when I came to visit, because, after all, the horses were getting older?

And the vet looked at my friend and asked him this: Did Moe ever refuse to trot when you asked him?  Did he ever refuse to canter or to gallop?  Did he ever once refuse to jump over that fallen tree, or anything else that you asked him to jump over?

Not once, my friend replied, not once did he refuse.  And my friend had the answer to his worry that he had asked of his horse something that the horse was not willing or able to give.


On Good Friday, it seems a trivial thing to compare the death of Jesus to the death of a horse.  The Psalmist reminds us that God “hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse,” but I am not convinced the Psalmist is correct here.

In any case, there is nothing trivial in remembering that spiritually speaking, Jesus carries us through life.  If you have ever fallen to your knees to beg for something in prayer, you know what it feels like to realize that you are counting on Jesus to carry you on his back.  If you have ever found that you are at the limit of your own ability, or patience, or strength, or whatever, and turned to Jesus in desperation, then you know something about how this feels. 

You think we ask horses to do things that we could somehow do ourselves?  Horses have done for mankind things that we are not capable of doing without them.  Many of us don’t turn to Jesus until we realize that we need something done that we are not capable of doing ourselves, and then we ask him to do it.  The Christian faith has thrived because of that remarkable freedom we discover when Jesus carries us with easy grace over obstacles that we know we could never clear on our own, when he propels us forward with a speed and a strength that is quite definitely not our own.

But of course these days Jesus has become nearly as passé as horses have: as much of an anachronism in people’s lives as riding a horse through the streets of Philadelphia.  Which is why it is not, perhaps, so trivial a comparison.  Because in modern, sensible, adult society everybody knows that you don’t grieve for an animal for all that long when it dies, you don’t weep and moan about it, you certainly don’t let it change your life.  You get over it quickly, because it was, after all, only a horse. 

And what’s the difference, in modern, sensible, adult society, between a horse and Jesus?  You think most people expect you to take this Jesus stuff seriously?  You think you are supposed to weep and moan on Good Friday?  You think you are supposed to be any more undone than you would be by the death of an animal, a pet?  You think you are supposed to let the death of Jesus change your life?  In the world we live in, such sensitivities are the domain only of old ladies, and effeminate boys, and a certain kind of pathetic liberal who can’t seem to find a better framework for making sense of the world.

But here we are, dropping to our knees, almost as if we are ready to get down into the ditch and cradle the horse’s head in our arms – or cradle Jesus’ head in our arms, when he has been taken down from the Cross.  It’s almost as if we are trying to remember that remarkable freedom of being carried, supported, lifted high over the obstacle we cannot cross ourselves – even the great abyss of death, at whose gate we are now paused, Christ’s body in our arms, having heaved his last breaths, as they flutter through his nostrils.

The second call my friend made, after the vet, was to his neighbor with a backhoe, who came and dug a grave for Moe, right there at the end of the drive, just beside the crepe myrtles that my friend had planted for his daughter’s wedding.  And here, I pray, the comparison does become trivial.  Grass will grow, as it must, over the grave of my friend’s horse.

But as we see in our mind’s eye, Jesus’ body wrapped in its shroud, and lowered into its grave, we might ask ourselves, what have we done?  The question is implied in our liturgy today: what have we done to you, O Lord?

And a voice answers us: did I ever fail to carry you when you needed me to?  Did I ever fail to gallop for you?  Did I ever refuse to sail over an obstacle with speed and grace that you yourself lacked, carrying you on my back?

No, my child, I never did.  And fear not, for neither will I refuse to carry you over the abyss, and past the grave and gate of death.  For I have never refused you before, and I never will.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Good Friday 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia






Posted on March 29, 2013 .

Every Stone

In the late 1950’s, the poet Richard Wilbur was approached by the composer Richard Winslow to write a poem that he could set for an upcoming Christmas concert at Wesleyan University. Wilbur, who was a relative newcomer on the poetry scene at that time but who would eventually become the Poet Laureate of the United States, accepted the invitation, put pen to paper, and wrote a poem that he called A Christmas Hymn. In his recounting of this story, Wilbur says that his friend Winslow set this new poem for solo voice and harpsichord in a style that reminded him, the poet recalls with a grin, of John Cage. For all of the non-John Cage fans or scholars out there in the congregation, this means that the music was probably not particularly warm and fuzzy, and it was not, apparently, exactly what Wilbur himself had in mind.

But in the early 1980’s, the organist, composer and General Theological Seminary professor David Hurd found the poem A Christmas Hymn and took Wilbur at his word, setting the text as a hymn. He named his new hymn tune after Lily Rogers, his choir director when he was a boy soprano at Saint Gabriel’s Church on Long Island, a woman whose middle name was Andújar. Hurd’s hymn, which is quite warm and fuzzy with plush harmonies and gently rocking rhythms, quickly found its way into The Hymnal 1982. You can find it right in front of you – Hymn 104, familiarly known as “A stable lamp is lighted.”

Now if you were to look up “A stable lamp is lighted,” which you’re welcome to do now or after communion, when we will sing it together, you will notice that, true to the poem’s original title, this hymn is found in the Christmas section of the hymnal, wedged right between “A child is born in Bethlehem” and “God rest you merry, gentlemen.” And you may wonder why we, sitting here with palms in our hands, ox-blood vestments on our shoulders, and Holy Week on our mind, are delving into the Christmas hymns. As if there weren’t enough options in the Lent and Holy Week sections to keep us flush in hymns from now until next Sunday. So why Christmas in March? Now for some of you, this hymn is like an dear old friend, and you know that the reason we sing this Christmas Eve hymn on Palm Sunday is because of the hymn’s gently rocking refrain. For Wilbur took this refrain for his poem not from the story of a manger with shepherds and angels, but from the story of a procession with cloaks and a colt.

The poem’s refrain comes from the moment in today’s Gospel when Jesus silences the Pharisees who are anxious about the noise level of the crowd by telling them that even if these crowds were silent, “the stones would shout out.” These stones are the crux of Wilbur’s poetry, the heartbeat pulsing at the center of each verse, where “every stone shall cry, and every stone shall cry.” Wilbur knew the truth of today’s liturgy: that what is true at the end is also true at the beginning, that the Passion and the Palms and the Incarnation are one story, and that this story and these stones have something to tell us.

“A stable lamp is lighted/Whose glow shall wake the sky;/The stars shall bend their voices,/And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry,/And straw like gold shall shine;/A barn shall harbor heaven,/A stall become a shrine.” First, Christmas, where the gentle rocking is the rocking of a woman, a girl, really, cradling her miracle of a son in her humble, holy arms. In his presence, the cold cave is transformed, the straw shining like gold in the lamplight, the stars sending their heavenly voices down past the angels singing peace on earth, goodwill toward men, down, down to touch the place where heaven and earth are met together in this boy child. In his presence, every stone shall cry out with quiet wonder, the hewn-out stone of the manger where his tiny body is laid to rest on a blanket of straw, the stone of the cave walls that hold the holy family close and safe, the stones of the shepherds’ fields and of all of Creation that welcome this newborn child home to the world that he himself has made.

“This child through David’s city/Shall ride in triumph by;/The palm shall strew its branches,/And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry;/Though heavy, dull, and dumb,/And lie within the roadway/To pave his kingdom come.” This child, a man really, now winds his way from Bethany to Jerusalem, down a hill and up again, rocking back and forth on the broad, swayed back of a donkey. And in his presence, children with their mothers, old men and their sons, the broken and the whole, the weary and the zealous, all strew his path with smiles and shouts and robes and a riot of spiky branches. In his presence, every stone shall cry out with utter joy, the stones on the hillsides that shine green in the sun, the stones in the road that bends through the valley, the stones of the city wall that cause this man to weep with the desire to open his arms up wide, wide enough to wrap up the whole city, wide enough to hold the world in his saving embrace.   

“Yet he shall be forsaken,/And yielded up to die;/The sky shall groan and darken,/And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry,/For stony hearts of men:/God’s blood upon the spearhead,/God’s love refused again.” God’s love refused, the love that has been made flesh, this man, a victim, really, now handed over, his embrace utterly rejected, outstretched arms smacked away and pinned down with nails to an old wooden cross. And when he is raised up high on that cross, the women who have followed him faithfully sink to the ground, rocking to and fro in each other’s arms, keening and wailing and waiting for their teacher, their friend, their son die. And when he does, the heavens that once sang in their courses sag and droop in disbelief at what Creation has done to the Creator. And in the presence of this, every stone shall cry out in pain, the stones of Golgotha that are broken and bloodied by so much suffering and death, the stones of fear and hatred that sit in the place of men’s souls, the stones of grief that mark the loss, the death, the end.

“But now, as at the ending,/The low is lifted high;/The stars shall bend their voices,/And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry/in Praises of the Child/By whose descent among us/The worlds are reconciled.” This reconciling Child, a man, a victim, a Savior, really, has shown us through his cross and Passion that this end has always been, from the very beginning, from that birth which led to death which led to life, the rocking forward from incarnation to passion to resurrection. Now the songs of the stars are of peace on earth and peace in heaven, of two worlds made one, once and for all. And in the presence of this song, every stone shall cry out with love, the stones of the tomb ringing with emptiness, the stone that was rejected now made the chief cornerstone, the stone of Death, so heavy, dull, and dumb, lifted away and polished so that it shines like the sun.

But we get ahead of ourselves, speaking of those Sunday morning stones. They will come in due time. For today, hear what the words of this poem and the music of this hymn have to say, that there is no stone that cannot sing. There is no stone that cannot be softened, enlivened, shaped to shout God’s purposes – not the stones of the manger, not the stones underfoot on the Jerusalem road, not the stones looming on the hill of crucifixion, not the stones waiting at the tomb, not the stone that calcified around Judas’ heart, not the stone that set up shop where Peter’s courage used to be, not the stone of the centurion’s unforgiving authority. There is no stone that God cannot soften, encourage, cajole to cry out that Jesus Christ is Lord. So if there are places in you that are hardened by fear or by sorrow, do not fear. If there are places in you that resist Christ’s offer of transformation, be of good cheer. And this week, may you find yourself singing. For here, in the presence of this child, man, victim, Savior, even the stones will shout out. Every stone shall cry. Perhaps even you and me.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

Palm Sunday, 24 March 2013

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on March 24, 2013 .

The Extravagant Sister

Two people: one man and one woman, both with gifts worth a small fortune. They take up these gifts and use them to excess, pouring them out lavishly, spreading them around so that all is spent. At the end, nothing is left – not one drop remains. Last week it was the parable of a man, a son who wants his inheritance even though his father is still alive. Please, father, he says, can’t you just pretend that you are dead already and give me what I’m owed? And the father, remarkably, agrees, giving his son half of his wealth, wealth that the son then wastes utterly on stuff and nonsense. This week it is the story of a woman, a sister, who takes a pound of burial oil and pours it over the feet of her honored dinner guest until a fog of pungent perfume hangs in the air and a year’s wages lie in a slippery puddle on the floor. Last week it was the parable of the prodigal son. This week – the story of prodigal sister?  

But no, there’s something about that word “prodigal” that doesn’t seem quite right. True, there are some similarities between the sister and the son, but their stories feel so different. The son’s waste comes from pure selfishness, while the sister’s comes from selfless generosity. The son ends up desperate and lonely and hungry enough to eat pig slop, never a good thing, while the sister is defended and affirmed by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which is always a plus. We know that we’re meant to disapprove of the son’s actions while heartily approve those of the sister. So could we really use the same word to describe them both?

Now it cannot be denied that the sister’s actions do seem to match up pretty well with the textbook definition of the word “prodigal.” Her exhausting an entire bottle of nard on one man’s feet could certainly be described as “wasteful or recklessly lavish.” This is, of course, exactly what has Judas tsking and twitching in the corner. Spikenard, at least in its pure form, is expensive, and Judas is all too happy to do the calculations in his head – one pound of nard, at the current market value, with tax and the vendor’s markup – why, this oil’s worth 300 denarii! That’s a year’s wages, he thinks, an entire year’s wages that I could have used to line my pockets – I mean, that we could have used to feed the poor, or something.

It seems a perfectly reasonable argument, and a perfectly good reason to call Mary a prodigal sister. But of course, Mary isn’t interested in being reasonable; she wants to be expansive, over-the-top – Mary wants to be the extravagant sister. Extravagant. Which of course also means wasteful, but somehow it just feels better. And there is, in fact, more to this word “extravagant” than just wastefulness – just as there is more to Mary’s story than just how much she paid for the nard.  The word “extravagant” comes from two Latin roots: “extra” meaning “outside of” and “vagari” meaning “to wander.” Interesting, isn’t it, that a word that has come to mean merely wasteful was born out of words that suggest something that travels outside the bounds, something that goes beyond the limits, pushes beyond worldly common sense.

And Mary’s extravagance is about being outside the bounds in far more profound ways that than simply the high cost of oil. To get at the heart of this kind of extravagance, we must start with the extravagance of the smell. Not to put too fine a point on it, but spikenard stinketh. Fans of nard will say that it smells earthy or musk, but others compare it to the sharp reek of goats or, of all things, the funky tang of feet. And it’s strong – it’s eye-wateringly, mouth-puckeringly pungent. The release of that much oil into what was presumably a small space would have made even the most determinedly polite guest put down her pita and wonder how long she could get away with holding her breath. When Mary fearlessly unleashes this scent into the room, she is showing true extravagance, making a gesture that is uncomfortably outside the bounds, that dares her guests to complain, to ask why. Why nard? And why now?

But the extravagance, the outside-the-bounds-ness, of nard is not limited to its pungency. Because the scent of nard is not just strong; it is also the scent of death. Nard was primarily used as an oil for anointing the dead, a strong perfume that was mixed with other spices to ward off the smell of decay. So not only does Mary fill the room with a smell that could have choked a horse – and may have even smelled like one – she also fills the room with the smell of death. And in that room sits Lazarus, her newly-resurrected brother, who had lain in that same smell for four still days. There sits Martha, her sister, who had of course been the one to go to the market to buy the nard for his burial. Death, the smell of death, the memory of death, is all around. This is too much, Mary, we want to say, too much money spent, too much smell to handle, too many memories to endure, too much fear of what has happened and what is to come. This is truly outside the bounds – Mary, how can you wish to take us there?

But Mary does want to take us there, because it is there that she shows us the true core of her extravagance – not the money, or the smell, or even the memories and allusions, but the true extravagance of Mary’s great faith. Mary knows that Jesus’ being in Bethany is dangerous. She knows Jesus’ predictions about his arrest and crucifixion; she knows that the chief priests and Pharisees have ordered the people to turn Jesus in. She knows what they all face in these six short days before the Passover – and yet…and yet she does not flinch. She doesn’t pretend that everything is business as usual, she doesn’t hide away in fear or try to sell her nard to finance Jesus’ getaway caravan – she faces the fact of Jesus’ impending suffering and death and does not look away. The authorities are hunting Jesus? Of course they are. They seek his life? Of course. They want him dead? Fine. He will be dead, he’s almost dead already. And so she takes the oil that she had been saving for his burial and instead chooses to anoint him right then. She anoints him as he is, a man with a living body that is about to be pierced, a man with beautiful, weary feet that are about to be nailed to a tree, a man who said I am resurrection and I am life and then called Lazarus out of his own spicy tomb. She anoints him without fear, for she knows that Death cannot conquer this man, that Death cannot conquer period. She has seen herself how those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy, and she is ready to sing. This is the heart of Mary’s extravagance, that she has a depth of faith to conjure up the specter of Death only to laugh in its face. This is faith that is truly beyond the bounds, that is utterly and beautifully extravagant.          

What if you and I were to take these last two weeks of Lent and live extravagantly? Not with Guinness and shamrock shakes and Irish potatoes, but with faith? What if we were to intentionally live outside the bounds that the world places on things like compassion and mercy, inclusion and hospitality? What if we were to love extravagantly, even our enemies, even ourselves, even those people whose political perspectives, we think, just stink to high heaven? What if we were to worship extravagantly, coming to church not once or twice but five days in a row during the long walk of Holy Week? What if we were to serve extravagantly, at the soup bowl or with the altar guild or at the Saint James School, or serve your housebound neighbor downstairs, or the homeless woman who hangs out on your stoop, or refugees on the other side of the world? What if we were to give extravagantly, or forgive extravagantly? What if we were to sing extravagantly? What if we were to speak the truth with love extravagantly? What if we were to rest extravagantly, remembering the gift of Sabbath and keeping that day holy, holy, holy? And what if we were to trust extravagantly, to believe the extravagant claims that we make here – that Death has no dominion, that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, that God is doing a new thing, and that those who go out weeping will come in again with joy? What if we were to live utterly extravagantly, knowing, trusting that God will not see this gift as a waste. For this living may be outside the bounds of human expectations, but it is never outside the bounds of the expansive, holy, beautiful, wondrous kingdom of God. So go – be extravagant. Be an extravagant daughter, an extravagant son of God; pour out all that you have in the name of a truly extravagant God who gave his only begotten Son that you and I may have life and have it abundantly. So go, live it extravagantly.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

17 March 2013

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on March 19, 2013 .

Living in the Middle of the Story

Most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  And this is true of the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son.

The beginning: There was a man who had two sons.  Everything is fine.  Life is grand.  What could be nicer?  That’s the beginning.

The middle: The younger son gets Dad to give him his share of the inheritance so he can go off in search of adventure.  He does so without any consideration of the tax implications, which, in and of itself is foolhardy, but so be it.  He wastes his money on what the biblical writer calls “dissolute living;” I’ll call it booze, drugs, and probably women, but it could have been men – who knows?  He ends up envying the pigs their feed as he tries to scrape by in his poverty.  That’s the middle.

The end: Younger son decides to go home to Father, fearful that he will be chastised for his foolishness, which, of course, is deserving of chastisement.  But Father welcomes Son home without shame or blame, kills the fatted calf for a feast, and rejoices that his Son who once was lost has now been found.  That’s the end.

Beginning; middle; end – like most stories.

Life is made up of a bunch of stories that mostly have beginnings and middles and ends.  The hard part is that we live mostly in the middle of the stories.  And as the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates, the middle is a hard place to live.

Let us forget about the Prodigal Son, himself, for a moment, for it is easy to color in the details of his dissolute life.  If you can’t do it on your own, there are reality shows on TV that will offer suggestions, or try the Harold and Kumar films, or Pulp Fiction, or the new film whose TV advertisements speak for themselves: 21 and Over.  Dissolute living is not a thing of the past.  But as I say, let us put aside the dissolute living, because that is only one middle of this story; there is another one.

The other middle of the story is taking place back at the homestead of the Prodigal Son, where his father and his brother – as well as his mother and his sister, no doubt – are worried sick.  This is the other middle of the story.

For a while he stayed in touch with them.  There were postcards, occasional phone calls, and although Mom and Dad didn’t follow him on Facebook, the other two children could give updates as they followed his progress around various Mediterranean hotspots.  Admittedly the photos he posted were sometimes worrisome – evidence of dissolute living, you might say.  But the greater worry came when he stopped calling, stopped writing, stopped posting anything on Facebook at all. He even stopped asking for more money.  This is the middle of the story.

Who knows what a mess the Prodigal Son made of himself?  Who knows how many mornings he woke up without knowing where he was – sometimes in a strange bed, sometimes in a gutter, or an alley, or under a fig tree, once in a while in a jail cell.  Who knows just exactly what he was using to ruin his mind and his body with – was it just tequila?  Or was there coke too?  Or meth?  Had he tried heroin yet?  Who knows what risks he put himself in – borrowing money, or stealing it?  In the bedroom?  With his “new friends”?

His parents didn’t know.  Neither did his sister.  Nor his brother.   They could only guess why he head disappeared; why he had lost everything.  But don’t you think they worried?  Don’t you think they sent emissaries to track him down?  Don’t you think they called his old friends to see if they had heard from him?  Don’t you think they waited by the phone for it to ring with word from the cops, or the hospital, or the morgue?

This was the middle of the story.  Sometimes the middle of the story isn’t our own misery – sometimes it is the misery of someone else we love.  Sometimes that person lives in the middle of the story for a long, long time.  The middles of many stories last far longer than the middle of the parable of the Prodigal Son.  And so does the misery.

But the middle of the story is where we live most of the time.  Maybe it’s a prodigal son or a prodigal brother or sister.  Maybe it’s the illness of someone you love, that hasn’t been properly diagnosed, or that won’t get better, or won’t heal.   Maybe it’s cancer that has come back.

Maybe it’s the dementia of your parent or spouse – who used to be so funny, so bright, so loving; who used to be the light of your life; who used to be so easy to love; and who now hardly knows you; but with whom there is nothing else especially wrong, so you know that the middle of this particular story, at this particular stage of life, is likely to go on and on and on for a while.

It’s not really your story, but you have to live through it, and it becomes a part of your story, as you navigate the fear and the sadness and the guilt of it all.  Was there something you should have done?  Something you shouldn’t have done?  Is there anything you can do now?  Have you exhausted all possibilities?  Gotten every second opinion you could?  Can you really trust this diagnosis?  Shouldn’t there be something you can do?  Should you have consulted a lawyer?  Should you have spent more money on a better lawyer?  A detective?  A doctor?  A psychic?

Don’t you think the Prodigal Son’s father thought these things?  Don’t you think his mother did?

His sister would lie awake at night and fixate on a plan.  She imagined building a pigeon coop on the roof of the house, and keeping homing pigeons there.  She imagined making copies of that photo she liked so much of her brother at the family reunion that time, when his smile was so relaxed, and he looked like nothing could ever be wrong.  She dreamt of rolling those copied photos up into little scrolls, with her contact information written on the back of them with an indelible Sharpie, and attaching them to the little legs of the pigeons with tiny rubber bands.  She imagined sending flocks of homing pigeons out over the deserts and toward the sea, across the entire Mediterranean world:






This is living in the middle of the story.

His brother, unable to fathom what would cause his otherwise terrific younger brother to go off the deep end, found himself hoping – yes hoping  - that maybe it was a brain tumor, because that at least would explain it; at least you could cut that out and try to fix him.  This is living in the middle of the story.  Living in the middle of the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not much fun – but many of us have lived there.  Maybe you are living there now.

There is another parable to reach for when you are stuck in the middle of the Prodigal Son: it is the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  You have to go to your bookshelf, or look under the bed, or search through your Kindle to find it, because you know it is there somewhere but you can’t remember where you put it.  It was just ten verses back in Luke’s Gospel, but it already takes a force of will to remember it: “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

And you think to yourself, “What on earth is that supposed to mean? Am I supposed to drop everything and go in search of my child, my brother, my friend?  Am I supposed to give up my job, leave the kids with the neighbors, liquidate my 401-k to go on a wild goose chase?

And if you stop, long enough to think, long enough to be quiet, long enough to listen, you might hear a voice telling you to slow down, and remember, that the parable is not meant to give you instructions; it’s meant to teach you something about God.

Oh.  And what is that?

When you are in the middle of the parable of the Prodigal Son, God is in the middle of the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  He is searching and scouring and sending his angels like swarms of pigeons to find the one you love – the one he loves.  God has not given up in the middle of this story – even though the Prodigal Son couldn’t care less about God.  God’s arms are always long enough to reach down and scoop up the lost, but such is the reality of the way he made us that he requires us to reach up too, and grab for him, just a little.

And you know that damn Prodigal Son is stubborn.  You know he thinks he can take care of himself.  You know he has always wanted to live life on his own terms.  You think he is going to reach up for God at the first opportunity?  And do you think the tequila or the coke, or the meth, or the heroin, or the “new friends” are going to let him do it so easily?

But you need to know that God is searching, swooping, reaching, for that lost child, and has been from the moment he left home.

This is called faith: the conviction of something you cannot see – that God is at work in the long, horrible middles of the stories that hurt so much: at work for the Prodigal Son, at work for his worrying father and his terrified mother, for his determined sister, and his frustrated brother, who cannot do anything to help because he has to stay home and take care of the farm!  For all of them: God is at work; and believing that is what we call faith!

But remember that the parables do not tell us much about what we should do during the middle of the story – they are not meant to; they are meant to teach us about God.  They are meant to teach us that God searches tirelessly for the lost – not because he cannot find them, but because they insist on running and hiding, but he will not stop pursuing them.  And they are meant to teach us that when we are tempted to give up hope in the middle of the story, we should reconsider and stick with it.  Because God is not giving up, nor is he ever unwilling to throw his arms wide open when that bedraggled Prodigal Son is at last able to reach out for God’s hand, and end his misery, and crawl home.  God will not turn his back when the lost child crawls home, and his love will not be withheld, nor his blessing.

All of which is meant to be a salve for the pain and difficulty of living in the middle of the story – where we still so often find ourselves.  Because it’s true that despite our best efforts, we are sometimes helpless in this world – completely unable to do the thing that we would most like to do for ourselves or for the ones we love.  Which is when we have to rely on God the most, and when it is helpful to remember that God’s Son told these stories – with perfectly ordinary beginnings; and with difficult, painful, miserable middles…

… and endings for which the term “happy” seems too cheap, and too unlikely.  Let’s say the stories have a good ending.  Let’s say God’s goodness prevails in the end.  Let’s count on it.  Indeed, let’s believe it, while we live through the middle of the story.

In fact, let’s keep the best robe hanging by the door, and a fatted calf on hand, and a ring and sandals.  Let’s be confident and faithful in the good ending that God is preparing for every long and difficult and painful middle of every story,

In fact, let’s learn to stand ready, with our arms open and our lips pursed for the kiss of welcome – for this, Jesus tells us, is how God is poised to receive all those who have strayed from his ways like lost sheep and followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts.

But never mind that, says God, for he who is lost will be found, by the grace of God, all who are counted for dead will be made alive again, when the middle of our story leads to God’s good ending.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

10 March 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 11, 2013 .

Motivated Reasoning

Back in the 1950s, psychologists conducted an experiment involving students from two Ivy League colleges.  They showed students films of controversial referees’ calls in a football game and they asked the students what they thought of the validity of the calls, with the benefit of the filmed evidence right in front of them.  What the researchers found was that the visual evidence made very little difference whatsoever to the opinions of those in the study.  Students tended to think that officiating calls favoring their own school were good, even if the evidence pretty clearly suggested otherwise.  Which group they belonged to was more important in forming their opinions than what actually happened on the field.  Social scientists call this tendency “motivated reasoning,” that is, the tendency to conform one’s assessment of information based more on one’s own particular goals and biases than on the actual facts.

Motivated reasoning has been popping up a lot lately as people try to explain the culture of political discourse in this country, where party affiliation or particular point of view – on both sides of the aisle – tend to influence individuals’ thinking more than a dispassionate assessment of the facts.  All very interesting, but not my point this morning.

Motivated Reasoning seems to come into play quite a lot in the area of religion.  For instance, many people see motivated reasoning at work in the opinions of devoutly religious people who refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence of evolution.  One’s religious affiliation and the conviction of one’s established beliefs are stronger motivators than the actual facts.  Also interesting, but still not my point.

We are gathered here today as a bunch of more or less sophisticated Episcopalians who more or less regard ourselves as quite above that kind of small-mindedness.  We are able to hold in comfortable tension the possibilities that God is Lord of the universe and Creator of all, and that the earth is several billions of years old, and that the fossil record shows that our human species evolved from less sophisticated, less upright species.  But this, too, is not my point.

My point is this: that as more or less sophisticated, and (dare I say it?) liberal Episcopalians, our sense of ourselves as sinners is often somewhat under-developed.  We prefer to leave the focus on sin to catholic nuns, and various brands of Baptists and other exotic species of Christians.  Between the guilt-ridden, old-school nuns; and the Bible thumping, accusing firebrands, sin, we figure, is well accounted for elsewhere.

Not often will you wander into an Episcopal church and hear a sermon expounding the horrors to which sin will inevitably lead.  Not often is the name “sinner” to be found on the lips of the Episcopal clergy, and less often directed at any of our parishioners.  Not often are we invited to carefully consider our sins in HD, 3-D, full color, with the expectation that we might confess our sin, repent of it, and begin to lead a more godly, righteous, and sober life, as the old, and seldom-used prayer says.

Indeed, we Episcopalians tend to think pretty well of ourselves.  We look in the mirror and we like what we see.  We evaluate ourselves, and find not too much wanting.  A royal wedding every now and then allows us to feel quite pleased with ourselves.  The follies of other denominations help us hold on to our own self-satisfied outlook.  Our reasonable religion is not incapable of a certain smugness that we sometimes wear with an air of superiority.  Asked to evaluate ourselves and examine our consciences, we do not break a sweat, for we are, in a way, inclined to think that old joke about using the wrong fork at the dinner table is, in fact, the worst kind of sin an Episcopalian could commit.

Along comes Lent, and we are asked to call ourselves names that we do not think fit us very well: “miserable sinners.”  We are asked to grovel before God, praying: “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.  Spare us, good Lord.  Good Lord, deliver us.”  We can tolerate these indignities, if we dress up nicely and sing them to music of the English Renaissance – but only just.  And generally speaking we do not believe these things we have sung about ourselves this morning.  The ritual pleases us because it allows us to recite the words we know we are required to say without actually having to invest too much in meaning them.  And over brunch we can discuss whether or not the altos really sang their part correctly all the way through.  How very Downton Abbey of us.

If we stop to reason about ourselves at all, it is a motivated reasoning that has reached all the best conclusions, and leads us to think that really God is quite lucky to have us on his side.  All this, despite an impressive array of evidence that all is not so well with us, either as individuals or as a group.

Nationally, our church is often defined by division, and has been engrossed with endless law suits.

In our own diocese, we have been consumed by conflict and the question of which side of various issues we line up on.

And in our own individual lives, does the evidence really point to an absence of sin?  To a bad fit for the name, “Sinner?”

Have we mended our strained relationship with our brother, or parents, or maybe our first spouse?

Have we done a fair assessment of our habits and given up the ones that don’t do us much good – the food, the booze, the drugs, the cigarettes, the sex, the laziness?

When we ask what it would mean to really be faithful to God, do we honestly think we measure up very well?

When we consider whether we have treated others as we would wish to be treated by them, are we also including the homeless and the hungry, those in prison, and folks who generally don’t look like us?

When we look at where and how we spend our money, does it not occur to us that perhaps we could have done better?  Much better?

And these questions represent only the first pass at the most obvious possibilities.

A fair assessment of our sins – of those areas of our lives where we come up short – will, in most cases, give us plenty to think about.  And yet, by brunch time we will have stopped thinking about it, and will have put on again the armor of complacency that leads us safely back into the world, where we must never let on that we are even familiar with the word “sin” – except as a suitable punch-line for witty repartee.

Lent, however, is an exercise in a new Motivated Reasoning, for it is an effort to motivate us to consider a new reasoning about ourselves.  It is an effort to be more critical of ourselves, more discerning in our self-evaluation, more demanding in our expectations of ourselves.

Even those of you whose low self-esteem may be your worst sin, and who certainly do not need to identify more to dislike about yourselves can benefit from discovering a new Motivated Reasoning. 

But so many of us have gotten so accustomed to thinking so well of ourselves, that it can be hard to take seriously the consideration of our sin: those things we have done which we ought not to have done, and those things left undone which we ought to have done.

Give me a pencil and piece of paper, and a few minutes on my own, and I could come up with a list for myself that is much, much longer than the Great Litany.  But of course, such an exercise is seldom required of us, not even of me.

If the psychologists are right, however, even a great deal of evidence that I amass on my own reflection is unlikely to sway me to consider my own sin, so fast do I cling to my dearly held estimation of myself.

I suppose one reason we might have adopted this kind of motivated reasoning is the unappealing suspicion that God is an angry master, just waiting to scold us.  To reflect on our sins is to invite the possibility of an ugly response from God:  “AHAAAA! I ALWAYS KNEW YOU WERE A SNOT-NOSED SINNER WITH A RECORD AS LONG AS YOUR ARM!  AND AT LAST YOU HAVE ADMITTED IT!”

But this is a deeply misguided suspicion for Christians, who will struggle to find hints of such invective in the story of Jesus, and his ministry, his teaching, and his saving death.  It is true that Jesus found fault with the self-righteous, whose motivated reasoning prevented them for seeing themselves for who and what they really were.  But he was known to be gentle, kind, generous, and forgiving to those whose sin was widely known.

When we finally have the nerve to find new motivation, and new reasoning, and confess our faults to God, we discover that he has not been waiting to punish us; he has been waiting to forgive us.  “Pish posh,” God says, “I’ve seen a lot worse than that.”

So here we are in Lent.  This morning we have tried on the name, “miserable sinner.”  Does it not fit pretty well, at least some of the time?  I can certainly find it in my size.

We have practiced, just a little, these apparently debasing prayers: “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.  Spare us, good Lord.  Good Lord, deliver us.”  But do we find that we are not actually debased by them, rather, we are beginning to have a more honest conversation with God?

The real problem with our old reasoning, our old motivation, was that it left us very much the same people at the end of the day as we were at the beginning.  But the Motivated Reasoning of Lent is meant to change us, and to bring us into a new and happier life with God and with our neighbors.

But you know what they say: admitting you have a problem is the first step toward solving it.  Maybe if we could admit that we really are miserable sinners that would be the first step toward leading a new life, with our sin left behind, forgiven by God?

Now, that would be good news!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

17 February 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia





Posted on February 18, 2013 .

Gift Certificates

Perhaps, like me, you have a drawer somewhere in which you have stashed a pile of gift certificates and gift cards that thoughtful people have given to you, but that you have never gotten around to using.  A few years ago, I designated a single drawer as the destination for my gift cards and gift certificates, because I knew how prone I was to lose track of them and leave them un-used and un-spent.  By keeping track of the cards, I hoped I’d do a better job of actually using them in the way the givers intended me to do.  But like a significant percentage of others who receive such generous gifts, I remain often careless and forgetful about these gifts.  A quick inspection this morning revealed cards or certificates for L.L. Bean, American Express, and a kitchen shop in South Philadelphia.  I could not bring myself to look at the dates on these cards to determine how long they have been in the drawer.

In the business world these cards, I am told, are referred to as “stored value products.”  The question remains for whom the value is being stored – the recipient or the issuer?  Estimates are that as much as $8 billion worth of gift cards go un-spent every year.  As one business writer says, companies love gift cards, because “they receive payment in advance for products they may or may not ever have to deliver.”  From the giver’s point of view, once he or she has paid for the card and handed it over, it’s out of his or her hands, and the recipient is free to do whatever he or she likes with the gift.[i]

It occurs to me that the ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are something like a gift certificate or a gift card: they are gifts given to us out of the love and generosity of the giver, but a great many of us are unlikely ever to use this gift.  For the gift of the ashes, and the reminder that we are from dust and to dust we shall return is a gift of stored value.  By this gift God is calling us each to repentance, to a new relationship with him and with each other.  God is asking us to use this act of humility – receiving this sign of mortality – as a chance for a new life, to turn our backs on the foolishnesses and faults that have become our personal trademarks.  I have my trademark foolishnesses, you can be sure, and I suppose you have yours.

But the question remains, for whom is the value stored?  Will we use this opportunity, this Lent, to really make room for the clean heart we are asking God to install in our lives?  Or will we walk away from Ash Wednesday in more or less the same way we walk away from any other Wednesday, washing the smudge from our foreheads in more or less the same way we would deposit a gift card in a designated and forgotten drawer, leaving God with the gift of his grace and forgiveness still in his open hand, looking like a pile of so many ashes?

God is making a promise of hope and repair, of forgiveness and love.  The payment, we are assured, has already been made; the gifts are ours to accept, or not.  But because it can be complicated for us to accept hope and repair, forgiveness and love, usually a little work is required on our part, a little effort to make it clear these are gifts we really want.  And once the gift has been given, the recipient is free to do whatever he or she likes with it.  God does not compel us to accept his grace.

Here’s the kind of work it takes to claim the gift:

You fall to your knees in a prayer of repentance or thanksgiving.

You open your heart to God’s love.

You turn from the things you do that are hurting yourself or others, and you start to do things another way.

You seek forgiveness from one you have wronged.

You offer forgiveness to one from whom you have been withholding it.

You help someone in need, recognizing their need may be greater than yours.

Because we are sinners, these apparently simple acts are often difficult and complicated for us to accomplish.  Because we are sinners these ashes are like gift certificates that may never be used, left in the drawer of your heart to grow old and forgotten, even though they will never expire.

But the truth is that God has no end of mercy and forgiveness and love, just like this world has no end of ashes.

God will not soon run out of grace, not ever.  God is willing to extend his offer of grace to you as long as you are alive to hear it. 

God is not about to stop breathing down your neck, if you will let him get close enough.

God is not about to withhold his gifts from you.

God is not short on what you need to change your life, or what I need to change mine.

And tonight God is giving you the gift in the form of a little smudge of ash on your forehead.  He does it other ways on other days.  His gifts of love have stored value, which, on second thought, have no worth to him, since God is love.  So the value must be being stored for you and for me, waiting for us to claim it, to use it, to take it: the gift of his mercy, his forgiveness, his love, meant for you, and for me.

We’ve been given a great gift this night.  And the only question that really remains is:  What ever shall we do with it?


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Ash Wednesday 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


[i] Donna L. Montaldo, “Retailers Clean Up On Holiday Gift Cards,” Guide

Posted on February 14, 2013 .


Each morning while hiking this summer in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, my group of three would gather to cook oatmeal over our little camp stoves, and gradually pack up camp in order to get back on the trail.  One particular morning, my two friends asked me if I had happened to awaken in the night and step out of my tent.  No, I said, I had not. 

Too bad, they told me, it was the starriest night they had ever seen: the night sky ablaze with a vast quilt of brightly dancing starlight that was broad and deep and entrancing.  Never seen anything like it, they said.  It was the kind of night you’d remember for ever, they told me, the kind of night that could change your life, the kind of image you’d bring to mind when everything in the world seemed dark and you needed to remember that there is light in the world, there is hope.  That’s the kind of beautiful night it was, they said.

Wow, I said, I wish I’d seen that.  But I’d slept right through it.

There were other starry nights on our three-week hiking journey, but none compared, they assured me, to that night by Thousand Island Lake, in the shadow of Banner Peak, when the sky glistened and the stars dazzled.  I imagine it was the kind of night that left you certain that there is a Power in the universe that pulses with light and heat, and leaves you grateful, not only to be a part of such a complex creation, but also to have had a peek at the Power that seems so often hidden in the world.  But I can only imagine, because, of course, I never actually saw the exquisite sky that night.  I was wrapped snugly in my sleeping bag, glad to be off my feet and deep in a happy sleep that left me ignorant of the Power that shone so brightly above me, just outside my tent.

That morning we packed up our things, as I say, and moved on.  Maybe I’ll revisit that spot again some day, but the chances are slim.  It had taken a week of walking to get there, mostly uphill, and it’s not exactly on the way to anywhere else.  And who knows if the stars will be shining so brightly there again?  There are other places where the night sky shines brilliantly, I know.  But something tells me that the sight I missed is not easily replicated.  In any case, that night is gone, and its particular brilliance lost to me, except in my imagination, and through the report of my friends. 

I am at least glad to know that my two friends saw the sky that night.  I am glad they told me about it.  I am glad to know that the stars in the heavens still have the power to grab our attention and make us take note; to sing silently of the Power that made them and set the planets in their courses, and stirred the currents of the seas.

But I have to admit that I am a little envious of my two friends, in a childish way.  Even after we grow up we tend to be childish about these things – these experiences we hear of someone else’s, but we don’t get to enjoy ourselves.  We don’t necessarily whine to others about it, but inside we whine, which means we are more or less whining to God.  How come Matt and Tom got to see the stars that night but I didn’t?  You know what it feels like.

On that chilly morning that I learned I had slept while the stars blazed above me in a silent symphony, it never occurred to me to doubt the report of my friends or to suggest that they were making it up, or that it had been less fabulous than they recounted.  It only seemed to me as though, because of the gossamer shell of my tent, I had missed seeing the display of Power that transfigured that night for my friends.

I wonder if it was like that when Peter and James and John came down from the mountain with Jesus after he was transfigured – glowing with white light, and the source of his astounding Power somehow more evident than usual, inescapably on display for the three friends who happened to be on the mountain with him, even though sleep was close at hand.

St. Luke tells us that they didn’t tell anyone about it at first.  But they must have eventually decided to break their silence and tell the others about the amazing transfiguration they witnessed.  And what did the others make of it when they heard the story?  Did they doubt the veracity of this amazing sight?  Did they wonder if it was made up, or at best exaggerated?  Did they begin to come up with possible explanations, like, maybe the sun was behind Jesus, and it was low in the sky, and it kind of created a glow around him?

Or did they just think to themselves, Wow, I wish I’d seen that.

And did they wonder about the various gossamer barriers of their lives that might have prevented them from seeing it, might have prevented them from getting closer to Jesus.  And did it occur to them that they might all have been at home sleeping at just the time Peter and James and John were fighting sleep and staying awake to see this wondrous sight?

Wow!  Would have been great to be there and see that!

Of course, they had sensed the Power of Jesus.  Of course, they knew he was different.  Of course they could tell that everything was changing, much had already changed.  But to see him transfigured…!  What would that have meant to them?  To peer into the bright light of the Power and see him shine!

Wow, I wish I’d seen that!

This morning we awaken, and we are told this story about the Power of the universe alight in this man Jesus, about whom we have been hearing all our lives.  And it suggests to me a choice:

When we hear this story, we can dismiss it, as the kind of thing that sprang from the over-active imaginations of men with ulterior motives in an ancient and more gullible time – and there are plenty of people who would explain this story that way.

Or we can think to ourselves, Wow, I wish I’d seen that.

In which case it might occur to us that we have been sleeping through a lot of life, paying only a very little attention, and only too happy for the kinds of gossamer shrouds we wrap ourselves in, that prevent us from over seeing the Power of the universe that pulses with light and heat.

Mostly these barriers (like my tent) have only one purpose – to make us comfortable.

But, you know, you have to get up out of your tent in the dark of night if you want to see the galaxy twinkle.

That moment on the mountaintop, with Jesus shining and transfigured, is gone, just like that night in the Sierra Nevadas.  We are not likely to pass that way again.  But I am so glad we have ancient friends to tell us the story, to remind us of the time they saw the Power of the universe possess this One Man, who would give his life for us, and change everything for us!

And it hardly occurs to me at all to believe that it didn’t happen just the way the Scriptures say – although I cant imagine why or how it did happen.  But, wow, do I ever wish I’d seen that!

And it makes me glad to be here with you, to tell the story, and to hear it again.  It makes me eager to fight the waking sleep that so often beckons us to sleep walk through life.  It makes me want to give up the comforts of my tent and sleep under the open skies, so to speak, lest I should miss some night of wonder, some enchanted evening when the Power of the universe is on display, its light and heat transfiguring the Presence of a Man whose name, I realize I know.

For if the universe is filled with Power, if there is transfiguring grace that changes everything, bringing to fruition God’s providence and hope, then its name is Jesus.  And I pray I won’t be asleep when next his Power lights up the sky with a glory unlike any other power the world has ever known.

And if I am, then I hope at least one of you will tell me about it!



Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

10 February 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 10, 2013 .

What Love Sounds Like

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And how many of you when you heard that thought, “Aww!” Aww! We heard that at our wedding, or at our daughter’s wedding, or our grandson’s blessing ceremony. How many of you heard this text and found yourselves picturing white lace and black tuxedos, imagining the scent of pale roses, remembering the smiles of your own wedding day? Love is patient and kind; it bears all things, believes, hopes, endures all things. Love never ends, because it’s stitched into a needlepoint with your wedding date and hanging in your kitchen.

All of which is lovely. Because the text is lovely and what it says about love is lovely and so why not have it read at a lovely occasion like a wedding. But hearing it today, in the context of a regular, green, ordinary Mass, we are reminded that this text is much more than merely lovely. This iconic passage, this beautiful Ode to Love, longs to lead to a much deeper place. It wasn’t intended to inspire a sense of “Aww” as much as a sense of “Oh!”

Remember that Paul is writing to a group of contentious Christians in Corinth who have been doing nothing quite so well as fighting with each other about who Abba likes best and whose gifts matter most. He has already reminded this factious bunch that they need to start functioning as a whole, like a body does, that a preacher can’t lord it over someone who speaks in tongues any more than an ear can lord it over a pinky toe. Their gifts must work together for the kingdom. And besides, Paul tells them, there are even greater gifts to be had, the gifts of faith, hope, and love. These are gifts anyone and everyone can have in equal measure, and without these gifts, especially the gift of love, all of the other spiritual gifts aren’t worth the paper to wrap them in.

And just in case there is still someone sitting out there in the crowd who remains convinced that her gift of healing actually is far grander than her sister-in-law’s gift of teaching because after all how hard is it to teach and her sister-in-law isn’t that good at it anyway, Paul provides some practical, and pointed, illustrations. Even though he rather generously uses the first person throughout this passage, there are implied parentheticals all over the place. If I speak in the tongues or mortals and angels, but do not have love (like, say, all y’all over there), I sound brash and ugly. Love is patient and kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant…or rude. (Ahem. Stephanus.) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways (hairy eyeball to the ladies in the back row).

So in light of the general grumpiness in Corinth, it’s pretty safe to say that 1st Corinthians 13 isn’t just a love song intended to conjure up the warm-n-fuzzies; it is a manual to check bad behavior. Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to hear this passage and say aww! isn’t love sweet – he wants them to say oh! We’ve got to get down to business loving for real: loving with patience and generosity, no matter who we are dealing with; loving in right action, no matter what we are feeling; loving by bearing, believing, enduring for the good of all, for the good of the Church and of the Gospel. Oh! And for Paul, if that oh! is a little bit of a surprise, if it’s a little bit of a shock, that’s okay. Because Paul clearly feels that the oh! of a shock is more than worth it if it leads to more love. 

Jesus feels this way too – that’s the only way to explain what looks at first glance like some very unloving behavior from our Lord in his hometown synagogue. Remember that Jesus has just returned to Nazareth after ministering throughout the Galilee. He has gone to the synagogue and read a powerful passage of redemption from the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when the eyes of the people fall on him, looking for an interpretation, a word, an insight, he powerfully grafts himself into the text: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people are impressed. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Unlike the crowds in Matthew and Mark’s version of this story, who are immediately offended by what they see as Jesus’s ridiculous presumption, the crowds in Luke are quite pleased. They are proud of this local boy made good. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they cluck one to another. And then the trouble begins. Aww. Look at Jesus, all grown up. I remember when he was knee high to a locust. I remember when he used to follow Mary around holding on to her skirts. Do you remember the time he and little James chased each other right into the mikvah? And now he’s the Messiah! Aww. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t he wonderful? And isn’t it wonderful that we already know every little thing about him?

And right here is where Jesus gets a little testy. He pushes back, and he pushes back hard. He actually goes so far as to put words in the crowd’s mouth, forecasting demands they haven’t even made yet, predicting that no prophet can be accepted in his hometown, reminding them of prophets before him who overlooked their neighborhood crowd to offer grace and healing to outsiders – to a widow and a leper, both Gentiles. The crowd is hurt by these barbs, deeply hurt, a hurt that quickly turns to fury. They lash out at Jesus, sweeping him out of the synagogue, so desperate to throw their hometown hero down that they find themselves raging at the top of a cliff before they realize that he’s disappeared.

And really, who could blame them? They thought they were on Jesus’ side. They offered him acceptance; they offered affection, even love, or so they thought. Why the harsh words about how un-special they are? Why couldn’t Jesus have just said, “Well, thank you all very much. I’m so glad that you approve. By the way, there’s a lot more to come about the whole mission-to-the-Gentiles thing, but for now I’m just thankful for your support.” Where is the all-bearing, all-enduring love here?

But Jesus is not looking for Aww, he is looking for Oh! He does not wish for the people to blithely and unthinkingly accept his assertions about himself; he loves them too much for that. And he does not want them to assume that they understand every little thing about him; he loves his Father too much for that. He is the Son of God, and he will not be tamed; he will not be hemmed in, labeled, or limited. You think you understand my mission, he says, and you are charmed by it. Will you be so charmed when I tell you that my mission is not only to you, that, like Elijah and Elisha before me, I will gather in the Gentiles and fold them into the flock? Will you be so charmed when I challenge you to see a bigger picture of what God’s kingdom looks like, when I invite you to live in a much, much, much larger tent? Don’t be charmed by me; be changed by me! I don’t want just Aww – I want Oh!

Oh! is transformation; it is revelation and redemption. Oh! checks our bad behavior, keeps us from putting God in a box of our own making. Oh! is the wildness of the Holy Spirit breaking in to show us something new, something big, something beautifully and achingly true. It is the reminder of the promise that God has done, will do, and is doing something new in your life, in my life, in the life of the church, right now. That new thing may be surprising. It may even be shocking. But that only means that it will really and truly of God, who always offers us more than we could ask for or imagine.

And that is love, is it not? That nudge, that challenge, that blinding new truth is the voice of the truest true love, the love that precedes all of our loving, the love that bears all and believes all. This is love on God’s terms, a love that demands our all and rejoices in the truth, a love that pushes us to know Christ more fully, to have the humility to know what we don’t know, and to offer love ourselves with a clarity of vision and a strength of purpose that is about far more than simply being nice. So if you find yourself in your life, in your prayer or study, in your worship or ministry, in your joys or in your sorrows, if you find yourself saying oh! – know that is a great gift of God. That is what love sounds like.

Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs

3 February 2013

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on February 5, 2013 .

Rebuilding and Remembering

Ezra and Nehemiah were never friends.  They came back to Jerusalem under separate steam when the Persians conquered the Babylonians and the people of Israel were allowed to return to their old home.  It’s not at all clear that they ever knew each other.  And they probably thought that their work had nothing to do with the other’s.  Nehemiah’s work was to rebuild, and Ezra’s work was to remember.  And Nehemiah’s mother always thought that her son got the short end of the stick  - what with second billing in the Bible: Ezra…  and Nehemiah.  Nehemiah was the politician, the leader, the do-er of things.  His job was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed during the Babylonian occupation

Rebuilding Jerusalem is a noble, if a thankless, job.  It is always about more than meets the eye – for Jerusalem is God’s own city.  And when Nehemiah went back to rebuild its walls, he also went to prepare the city for the return of God’s people to their home, to his home.  And he accomplished his mission in 52 days – that’s how long Scripture tells us it took Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  An impressive accomplishment.

It must have been hard to move back to the city after 60 or 70 years of exile.  The names of the streets had been changed.  None of the same old places were still there – so much had been destroyed.  The city was an empty, burned-out shell.  It was impossible to find a decent bagel.  You move back to Jerusalem, but you never really lived there before – your grandparents did.  But who wants to pick up where his grandparents left off?  You’d gotten used to life in Babylon.  Maybe you’d met a nice girl there, a local girl.  Your grandparents told the stories of deportation, and it was horrible, yes.  But they’d been tough old birds.  They made the best of it, and made a life in Babylon, in what was, after all, a pretty amazing city.  Yes, it was a hardship to be driven from one end of the Fertile Crescent to the other, but moving back would be no picnic either.

And move back to what?  Jerusalem was no Babylon.  It had fallen apart at the hands of various marauders.  Was there work there?  Who knew?  But there was the Temple to consider.  That’s what Papa always said.  The Temple, the Temple, the Temple.  God was in Jerusalem.  Not that God wasn’t with them in Babylon – but he wasn’t at home there.  “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?” Papa asked, as if the answer was self-evident.

So when Cyrus the Great invaded and routed the Babylonians there was cause for rejoicing.  Cyrus decreed that the Jews were free to go back, free to rebuild their old city, and its famous Temple.  And Nehemiah was a talented, capable man.  52 days – he was proud of that.  52 days to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  But now Jerusalem was like a ghost town.  Walls, yes, but what about the rest of it?  What about its soul?

Sixty years doesn’t seem like such a long time – only a couple of generations or so.  But you can forget a lot in sixty years.  Things that had seemed so important in Jerusalem faded from memory in Babylon, without the shadow of the Temple to protect their memory.  As Israel was forced to wander away from Jerusalem, their minds and their hearts wandered too.  And it’s not like wandering hadn’t been a part of the Jews’ story.  Didn’t Abraham and Sarah wander?  Didn’t Moses wander?  Doesn’t the Bible tell us that sometimes God tells people to get up and go – and he doesn’t always tell you where you are going.  And you pack things when you leave that maybe you don’t unpack right away when you get wherever you are going – wherever God is leading you.

Does God’s law move with you when you are driven out of God’s own city and carried into exile, where you must – under pain of real punishment – learn to follow the new laws?  You couldn’t bring one set of dishes with you, let along two – keeping kosher was not so important as keeping alive.  So you adapted, you followed local customs – what choice did you have?  And if you forgot the details, you could be forgiven, couldn’t you?  God understood, didn’t he?

But Ezra’s job was to remember.  The boxes with the sacred scrolls that others left packed-up in Babylon had all been carefully un-packed in Ezra’s house.  These he studied, as if by remembering the law he could remember Jerusalem – even though that city was the vaguest memory to him.  But remembering was his job as a priest.

Remembering is a harder job than you think.  Not a lot of glamour in remembering – even less so in reminding others, when the time comes, of lessons that had been easy to forget.

Ezra re-packed his scrolls, when he journeyed back to Jerusalem.  He wrapped them carefully in their embroidered covers, and tied them with silken cords, and placed them in their boxes to be transported back to Jerusalem, whence they had come, those generations ago.  For what did the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem stand for if not the call to remembrance?  Why had the walls been rebuilt if not to define again the boundaries of God’s own city, wherein God’s law must be remembered.  Nehemiah did his job; Ezra must do his, too, standing on a platform in the square by the Water Gate, unfurling the words of the law for the people to hear and remember.  This was coming home.  And soon there would be the Temple again, built again from the force of memory – the memory that this is God’s house, God’s home.

They say that everything is cyclical, and maybe that’s true.  There is a cycle in the life of faith that seems to require regular rebuilding and remembering.  And although these seem like different kinds of work – as they seemed to be for Ezra and Nehemiah – they are part of the same process.  For, if Jerusalem is easily ruined, and if God’s Temple is easily torn down, then what else is safe?  Nothing.  And being a part of the community of faith, being part of the chosen people, doesn’t guarantee you much – except that probably at some point you will have to rebuild and remember.

There was a time when the Episcopal Church was called the Republican Party at prayer.  Those were the days!  In those days, we sometimes thought like a party that assumed we would enjoy a permanent place of privilege.  If George Washington had been an Episcopalian, how could anything ever go wrong?   Nothing would ever have to be rebuilt or remembered!

But it seems that our walls do crumble, and our communities do forget, and I could take you on a tour of Episcopal churches that are hardly more than empty shells, and where the Word of God, if it is ever read, rings hollow against the abandoned or nearly abandoned stone walls.

Has the church been driven in to exile?  If so, where has she gone, and when will she return?

Whatever exile the church is enduring is nothing compared to the exile so many people feel in their hearts – where they know God is supposed to dwell.  Many, many people of faith, however, feel as though they have been somehow set adrift, wandering from one exile to another, wondering why God is so hard to find, why his transforming work can be so little in evidence.

We live in a world of spiritual exile, anxiety, and fear.  How can we sing the Lord’s song in so strange a land?  And what can we do but learn to adapt, to get along, following whatever rules seem to govern the world in which we live?  After all, Babylon is a very handsome city, not a bad place to live, when you get right down to it.  And we suffer from a great misfortune: there is no edict ordering us home, no king sending us back whence we came.  No benevolent power is pushing us back toward a holy city.  We cannot even be sure where the walls are that we should be rebuilding, or what the laws are that we should be reading in the square until the remembrance of it brings us to tears.

But Jesus comes among us.  Something awakens when he walks in. 

There is a scroll – we hardly even know which one it is (ours are still packed up in our boxes).  But he knows.  Deliberately he opens the scroll to the place he wants.  He remembers.  And now he remembers for us: 

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me

to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year

of the Lord's favor."

We have to remember and rebuild.  These things are cyclical.  And although they seem like different kinds of work, they are part of the same process: rebuilding and remembering.

Are you poor?

Are you a prisoner of something, someone?

Have you lost your sight?

Are you oppressed and unable to break free?

You are like a holy city, whose walls have crumbled, and whose laws have been forgotten.  We are all like this.  If Jerusalem can crumble, so can we.

You need to remember and rebuild

There is always the Temple to consider  - the Temple, the Temple, the Temple – which God has now constructed in your heart.  Within your very body, he has made a Temple for his Holy Spirit.  Remember and rebuild.

Do not make the mistake of dismissing the work of Ezra and Nehemiah as boring, ancient history.  Everything is cyclical, and they were doing this work back when it was seriously hard to do: rebuilding and remembering.

Are you poor, a prisoner, blind, oppressed?  Do you suspect that time has already passed you by, and you have not much hope?

Can you hear the voice of the One who is reading from the scroll?  It sounds like hammers repairing stone walls, to me.

Can you hear the law of God’s love being proclaimed somewhere in the square?  Do you remember now?  Do you feel like you can be rebuilt?

Rejoice and do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!

Rejoice!  Rebuild!  Remember!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

27 January 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on January 28, 2013 .

Two Journeys

The journey looked like this. Three Kings, lounging on cool satin pillows in the sultry Persian air, observe a star. Together, they watch as it arcs across the sky towards lands unknown. They look at each other with wise eyes, nod deeply, and purposefully process out of the room, padding away on soft, slippered feet. They pack for travel, one gold, one frankincense, one myrrh. Their trunks filled with gifts and robes and telescopes, they mount their sturdiest camels and set out across the sands towards the West. For weeks, months, they travel through the wilderness in a stately parade, gently rocking on the backs of their beasts, stopping only to check their coordinates or to rest in rustic towns where their appearance provokes quiet wonder and the offering of the people’s finest food and drink, their softest beds, their cleanest hay.

The Kings break their journey in Jerusalem and seek out Herod. They deign to dine with this Roman toady some silly men have begun to call “the Great.” He flatters them, fills them with dates and roast lamb and fine wine. He wants information from them; they know this. “Go and search diligently for the child;” he purrs, “and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” But they need no encouragement. They would never be anything less than diligent, and they know without saying a word to each other that they will never pass this way again, never share their star-child with this petulant, petty fool.

They move along, quiet now, serenely watching the star as it settles over a tiny, dark cave on a moonlit winter’s night, where a tiny babe is the only Word that is spoken. Here they kneel in a row, each removing turban or feathered hat or jeweled scarf and placing their gifts before this long-expected child, this babe of their searching, born, king of the Jews. That night they rest easy, fulfilled and happy, and when they all dream a dream of warning, they look at each other with wise eyes, nod deeply, and leave for their own country by another road.


Or maybe the journey looked like this. Three kings, or maybe they weren’t kings, maybe they were just wise men…and why three? Maybe four or five or six, maybe there was Caspar and Melchior and Balthasar…and Cornelius and Bilbo and Eliot. So *some* magi have been watching the skies every night for months. This is what they do – they’re wise men, after all. Suddenly Melchior sees something in the heavens that he’s never seen before: a star – a great, bright, blaze of a star – starting in the East and moving across the sky. He’s excited, he’s like a dog with a bone, panting as he tells the others that he wants to go chase it. At which point there is a great deal of eye-rolling and groaning. Caspar reminds Melchior that this wouldn’t be the first time he’s gotten something wrong – remember that time he’d predicted the end of the world? Balthasar sighs and immediately begins double checking Melchior’s math. (He never was very good with fractions.) Cornelius just crosses his arms and says no way, he isn’t going anywhere, he has a concert coming up that he cannot miss. Eliot protests that they’ll have a “cold coming of it,” that it’s “just the worst time of the year/For a journey, and such a long journey:/The ways deep and the weather sharp,/ The very dead of winter."* But Bilbo tells Eliot to stop waxing so poetical and turns to Melchior with a star in his eyes – yes! yes! a star! let us wish upon it, let us follow it, let us have an adventure!

It takes a while, of course, to convince the rest to go along. This must portend something wondrous, Melchior keeps saying, and there is this tale, this ancient tale from Hebrew prophets of a boy born to save the world. What if this star marks his coming? We wouldn’t want to miss that, would we? And it’ll be fun…so one by one, they nod their heads grudgingly, plan their gifts and pack their trunks. Eliot says goodbye to “The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,/And the silken girls bringing sherbet,” Cornelius hurries back inside at the last minute for some extra staff paper, they all scramble up atop their stupid, stinking camels, and the journey has begun.

And it is a real slog. The desert winds blow sand in their eyes, the nights are freezing cold, the days are blistering hot. The clouds cover the skies so that there are no stars at all. They get lost, they get hungry and blistery and gruuumpy. Cornelius won’t shut up about the concert and eats all of the stuffed dates and dried apricots and bitter chocolate they had brought along as gifts. Caspar is silent and Balthasar is nervous and Eliot won’t stop going on about “the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly/ And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.”* But still they slouch on.**

Finally, after weeks of stumbling and griping, they all see where they must be headed – Jerusalem, the star of the West. They wind their way to Herod’s door and say, Help? Where is the child? they ask. When Herod looks at them blankly, they push on. He must be here, they say, we’ve followed this star for months and we darn well mean to pay this child homage. But Herod is confused, and angry, and ranting, until finally one of his scribes remembers Micah – that old prophet Micah, who once said that a ruler would come forth from, not Jerusalem, but Bethlehem of all places. Bethlehem? Herod can’t believe it, but he thinks, What can it hurt to send these magi on to check it out? Go to Bethlehem, he growls, look for this magical Messiah baby, and let me know if you find him. Let me know where you find him. (Cue evil laugh here.)

And so the magi are suddenly back up on their stupid, stinking camels, and traveling – again – down an unknown road – again. Now they are all quiet, too tired to care, too exhausted to worry about where they are going or why Herod was so jumpy or what they’re going to give this baby since they forgot to pick up an extra gift in Jerusalem. They are so tired they hardly notice when the star stops. They stumble off their camels – with overwhelming joy –  and into the house where they find a wide-eyed girl of a mother holding a baby boy. She tells them stories of shepherds and angels while they slump to the ground before him, offering him the gifts not already eaten. Cornelius offers to sing his newest melody, Bilbo tells the child a great tale of their adventure, and Eliot promises a poem. They each pay him homage, this wisp of a child, and suddenly they feel the hard ground shift beneath their knees. Somehow, everything has changed. They stand and leave the holy family and head back out into the night, and they know, now they know, that the journey has really just begun. It stretches out before them, not just around Herod and back to their home but all the way to Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee, and Bethany and Jerusalem and Golgatha and a tiny, dark tomb. Eliot asks, “Were we lead all that way for/Birth or Death?”* The others shrug their shoulders, quiet, but peaceful now. Perhaps “the end of all our exploring,” Caspar says, “will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”*** Eliot jots that line down for remembering. And then they journey on.

And isn’t this what our journeys look like. Much as we might like to imagine that our journey to find the Christ will always be a journey on a straight path, a journey of confidence and reassurance and knowledge, with a clear destination in mind, with an inspired beginning and a profound end and evenly-spaced steps along the way, our journeys of discipleship are rarely like that. They are far more interesting. We may begin grudgingly, haltingly. We may need a nudge or a push to get started at all. Or we may start off inspired but find the terrain difficult and stumble. We may get lost, grumpy, lose track of our own gifts along the way. We may meet people who treat us with disdain, who bluster or mock or send us packing. And we may arrive at a particular place and think that we’ve really, you know, arrived, only to discover that what we find there only encourages us to keep seeking just a little further on down the road, just over that hill, around that bend.

But if we are willing to keep walking, we will find that this messy, complicated journey is rich with life. The bends in the road help us to practice our faith, the encounters along the way help us to practice loving neighbors, the stops and starts help us to practice Sabbath and prayer. Even the Herods can be transformed into guiding forces and by the grace of God end up pointing us in the right direction. This kind of journey changes us. This journey brings us to our knees and brings us to ourselves. This journey breaks us open so that when we find the Christ child we will be open to what he has to teach us, to the new life he has to offer us. This is what the journey looks like. For why take a journey if it isn’t going to take you anywhere at all? So if your journey looks more like the second version of the wise men’s journey, know that you are on the right path. You are on the path where God is with you. So journey on.


*From T. S. Eliot's The Journey of the Magi

**After W. B. Yeats' The Second Coming

***From T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

6 January 2013

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia  

Posted on January 8, 2013 .

His Own Received Him Not

If I close my eyes when I pray,

I sometimes wonder

what I am preventing myself

from seeing.


Am I shutting out the world? 

Will God project some image

inside my eyelids,

that only I can see,

but have not yet seen?


My hands are closed, too.

Clasped, is what you would call them.

Closed is what they, are –

unable to reach, to grab, to pinch,

or to hold on to anything.


What else in me is closed

when I pray,

if my eyes and my hands

are closed?


Usually my mouth is running,

which is not so different

from when I am not praying,

and my mouth is running…

which is another way of being closed.


And my mind, of course,

is following (yes, following)

my mouth;

so it is occupied, unavailable, and closed.


What else is left,

if my eyes, and my hands,

my mouth, and my mind

are accounted for?


Only my heart.


When the Scriptures say

that Jesus was in the world,

and the world was made by him

but the world knew him not.

That he came unto his own,

and his own received him not,

where does that put me,

since I am part of this world?

And where does it put you?


Remember, I am praying,

and my eyes, and by hands, are closed,

and my mouth is running,

my mind is following behind.

And there is only my heart to wonder about.


If this is what I am like at prayer,

how could I receive him, ever?

How could you?


I am so busy with myself,

how can I receive him,

when he comes into the world?


I have my interests, my worries,

my loves, and infatuations,

my greediness, and desires;

I have my work, and my church

to distract me from Jesus,

if I will let them,

which, generally, I do.

Don’t you?


And remember, even when I pray,

almost everything is closed, shut,

unable to receive him.


Sometimes my dog lies on his back,

all four limbs crookedly in the air,

his pink, fur-less belly exposed.

I can stroke his silly belly this way,

and he will wag his tail,

and stay that way for a little while,

until being so exposed

becomes too much.


Is that what it would be like

to be able to receive the Christ?

To lie, belly-up, naked, and exposed?

To be available to be touched by him,

even my silliest parts?

Un-concerned, for a while,

with myself?


It’s so much easier to let it be about me.

So much easier to presume that the world

awaits my judgments,

owes me something,

belongs to me.


And, therefore, I am free

to make an assessment

about God, and about his Son.


I am free to decide

whether I want him

or not.


Free to decide

whether I need him

or not.


Free to decide

whether he is real

or not.


As though all that were mine,

though it is not.

Though I am still free

in just those ways.


And he comes to his own,

and his own receive him not.


I want Christmas to be

as soft as pine boughs,

as comfortable as a bed

of green, scented needles.


I want it to be only, ever

a manger,

and me outside of it,

able to come and go as I please,

or not.


But what I need

is for Christmas to be the sharp,

strong end of a wedge,

or a lever,

that subtly works its way

into some crack, or seam,

or tiny opening

in all that is shut up and closed

and unavailable in me.


Because as it is,

I am not ready or able

to receive him.

My eyes, and hands, and mouth, and mind

are not open for him.


My heart is not open to him.

I am battened down,

and all his battery is of little use,

when I am like this.

For how can he batter my heart,

if I will not even open the door?


But a wedge, or a lever,

something strong that I hardly notice

at first.  Maybe that would work!

Something like a baby?


Sometimes it helps

to go back to the beginning.

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.


Every time we go back

to the beginning,

it’s as though there is

another chance to receive him.

Every time we remember

that the Word was made flesh

and dwelt among us.


As subtle as a baby:

a thin, sharp, long lever;

a wedge

to get into those tight places,

whence I might be pried open.


It’s as though I am lying on my back,

my silly belly open to the sky,

and to the possibility that God will touch me,

will touch you,

and we will wag our tails.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

30 December 2012

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 2, 2013 .

Big Data

I am told that we are now living in the age of “big data.”  The term refers to all the information floating out there in the digital world.  Information that is added to the data set when you make a phone call, or send a text message, or search Amazon for a book to read, or post dopey photos of your dogs on Facebook, or send an email, or search for anything at all on Google.  All these (now daily) activities generate data that is being stored somewhere for someone to use for some purpose or other.  Walmart is using it to figure out what to sell you.  The Department of Homeland Security is using it to determine whether or not you are a potential terrorist.  And the Obama campaign used it to figure out how likely you were to vote for the incumbent president.  Some people estimate that the amount of data to be stored or tracked in the world doubles every 1.2 years.  That’s a lot of data.

In many ways Christmas seems like a big-data kind of holiday.  There is lots of information to keep track of: shopping lists, recipes, holiday parties, Christmas cards, mailing lists, etc. 

And the whole Santa gig seems like it lends itself easily to the world of big data.  There are big sets of binary data for Santa to keep track of: girls and boys; naughty or nice.  If the elves aren’t into big data yet, they will be soon.

And what could be a bigger big data gig than God’s?  I mean whose got more to keep track of than God?  This year, managing not only all the usual stuff but also keeping one big-data-eye on the Mayan calendar as well!  God is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful.  God is the original big data user.  The more we learn about the universe and its size, the more impressive is God’s capacity for big data.  Not only is our own planet exploding with growth and complexity, apparently the entire universe has been expanding for millions of years.  What God must know about big data would put Google to shame!  And Christmas, we are reminded, is a holiday for everyone.  Jesus came into the world for everyone, and we have been continuing the celebration of his birth for more than two thousand years, so the data around this holy night must be getting bigger and bigger by the year.

Which is why it is odd that actually the Christmas story seems so devoid of big data.  There is this one particular pregnant Jewish girl, and her particular, patient mensch of a fiancé.  They make their way to a particular small town, well outside of the big-data capital of the day, and all the lodges are booked, so they find shelter in the tiny, particular sanctuary of a stable.

At the time, the data about what was happening was actually only a tiny set of information.  A prophecy here and there, a few angels in the sky, and some shepherds who had nothing else to do.  This is not a big data moment – it’s more like performance art.  There is the matter of the star that shines to mark the place of Jesus’ birth – and one star out of millions does seem like maybe it could be tracked with big data – but the wise men are wise enough to keep the information to themselves, and the star guides only them.  In fact, the only potential user of big data in the entire Christmas story is the villain – Herod the king – who sets out to destroy every baby boy in Bethlehem, while the Holy Family slips away in tiny obscurity.

In our own time, Christmas has become such a huge holiday that it is no longer even just about the story of that little family.  Christmas is about peace and joy and love in any shape or size, from Whoville to Hollywood, and everywhere in between.  It’s about marketing and shopping and malls and sales and parties and movies, and parades, and music.  It is about big, big data, which is probably OK, probably not hurting anyone.  Maybe sometimes all the data around Christmas obscures it, but so far no amount of data has ruined Christmas.  And part of the miracle of Christmas is this: that despite the great proliferation of data, the whole thing persistently boils to down to the very small data set of two: you and the child, Jesus.

In a world that is sifting through big data to send you a targeted Groupon, Jesus is being born for you.  Not someone like you; not someone in the same demographic set as you, but being born for you.

For God, who has all the data in the universe available to him, has little need for it.  God does not have to figure out what kind of advertisements you are most likely to respond for, or what size shoe you wear, or what kind of music you listen to, or whether or not you are behind on your mortgage, or who you voted for in the last election.

This is information everyone else wants about you, needs about you, to try to get what they want out of you.  But God already knows all this about you, and tonight, it hardly matters.  Tonight, God doesn’t want anything out of you at all.  Tonight God wants to give you something.  He wants to give you the gift of his Son.  And this is a tiny piece of data – no bigger than an infant child – it has not gotten any bigger after all these centuries.

God gives this gift to you and to me because he sees how much we need to be transformed.  He sees how easily our hearts are hardened, how selfish we become, how unwilling to share, how ready to fight.  He sees how we make much ado about nothing, how we grapple for power, how we live for things that are not important, while the important things in life go wanting.

God has ample data to show that we are not ready to receive a gift from him – even after all these years.  He already knows that he will send his Son into the world and the world will receive him not, again and again.  There is immense data to demonstrate this to God.  These days the data points to the possibility that more and more people don’t give a damn about God or his Son, and even those of us who claim to care, often do a rotten job of acting as though we do – unable to follow his one simple commandment that we should love others as he loved his disciples.

So, God has been crunching the numbers, year after year, Christmas after Christmas. Perhaps this year he has upgraded his technology, increased his server-power, and really thrown himself into big data.  Who knows?

But still, as Christmas comes, there is this remarkable fact that it all boils down to the tiny data set of you and Jesus… me and Jesus.  There is no big data here.

There is only the fact of God’s love and his power to change our lives for the better – a fact that could constitute a universe of big data…

… but instead has been somehow implanted in the womb of a virgin girl, born in a stable in Bethlehem, visited by shepherds and wise men, and sung to by angels in the sky.

And which tonight is just about you and the child Jesus… about me and the child Jesus…

… who has given up his power to master all the data of the universe, in favor of simply being cradled by each of us in our hearts…

… in this tiny, little data set of two…

… on this dark, and rainy, and eventually… on this silent night.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Christmas Eve 2012

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on January 2, 2013 .