From time to time people ask me about my cat Leo, who was brought to me as a very small kitten, abandoned in the streets of Philadelphia. He was maybe two months old, but he had already learned the lessons that seem to have shaped every aspect of his life. In sum, those lessons are: trust no one, and be very afraid.
For most of his first months Leo hid under the window seat in my office, coming out only at night to eat and use his litter box. I eventually transferred him upstairs to the third floor of the Rectory where for about two years he spent most of his time hidden behind a sofa, again coming out at night for food and the litter box. Not long ago Leo decided that he prefers to hide under my bed. This move does not represent a broadening of his world-view, merely a shift in choice of small, dark, protected places where he can crouch silently and safely, and wait for God knows what.
Leo’s life has always been complicated by the oppressive presence of Baxter the dog, who imagines that the small, black flash of fur he has seen a few times as he catches Leo unawares would be a delightful thing to play with. The possibility of play seldom enters Leo’s mind. The possibility that a large, yellow Labrador could be his friend is absurd in the extreme to him. And so Leo continues to lead a confined existence of his own choosing: always hidden, crouching, frightened, wary, and mostly alone.
I feel guilty about this, because Leo is actually a very nice cat. He does come out of hiding now and then when the coast is clear and Baxter is not around. These days he brazenly emerges from under the bed at night, after Baxter, who I must confess to you sleeps on the bed, is asleep. Leo comes over to my side of the bed and pokes his head up, asking to be stroked. He purrs loudly, and in his more brazen moments he jumps up on the bed next to me, as if contemplating joining the larger society of our household. But he quickly returns to the floor and begins his night roamings to the litter box and his food bowl, and, I have reason to suspect, around the few rooms of the Rectory that he feels bold enough to explore under the cover of night.
As I said, I feel guilty about Leo because by taking him in it was my intention to save him from a tragic existence, to give him a warm, safe, happy home where he could bask in the sunlight on windowsills during the day and chase mice at night. I did not mean for him to live a life of fear, traumatized by a dog, who really wants nothing more than to play with him. And I worry that what lies ahead for him is a lifetime of hiding, punctuated by short midnight sessions of purring beside the bed while the dog sleeps and I pet him.
Have I lived up to the promise I intended for Leo or have I sentenced him unwittingly to a life of fear and secrecy and mostly unhappiness? Can Leo ever come confidently out of hiding as long as he must share the house not only with me, but with Baxter, his imagined arch-enemy? If Leo could ask these questions himself, I wonder what he would conclude? It is by no means clear to me that he would decide that I have done him any favors by bringing him into a house that is occupied by a large, furry, yellow monster.
Yes, Leo comes to me from time to time out of desperation, perhaps, for a little affection, a few moments of contact, but does he trust me? Would he willingly put his life in my hands? I meant to save him from what I suspected would be a hard life and probably an early and unhappy end. Does he imagine that I have done so?
Lurking somewhere in human consciousness are questions like these that we harbor about God. If the God who made us loves us, why has he set us in a world so full of hazard? Why has he allowed us to become experts at war and death? Why has he allowed so many to go hungry, homeless, and poor, leading meager, unhappy lives? Why is there so much illness, such a vast menu of cancers to overtake lives that might otherwise be happy? Why has he set us in a world occupied by all manner of monsters?
We heard today, from the Epistle to the Hebrews, one of the early Christian writers make the claim that “he who has promised is faithful.” But if we are critical – and aren’t we? – we might stop to ask what exactly these promises are, and has God really been faithful to them? Because sometimes it seems that our lives are patterned more closely along the lines of Leo’s confined existence than according to any divine plan.
As a teacher, Jesus acknowledged not only that times were hard in his own day, but that they would always be so in this world. We heard that in the Gospel reading this morning. In that case, what promises, then, did Jesus make? And can we really believe that he is faithful?
Search the New Testament and you will find a lot of parables, a lot of teaching on Jesus’ lips, but not a great many promises. There are two promises he makes, however, that seem to be worth considering. He promises that he will be with his disciples always, even to the end of the ages. And he promised that he would send the Holy Spirit into the world.
In some sense, perhaps these promises are one and the same. If we can believe that God is actively at work in the world and in our lives, how can we know if it is the spirit of the living Christ or the work of the Holy Spirit? How can we distinguish the work of the various persons of the Trinity, and do we really want to?
More poignantly, we ask, can we believe that God is at work in the world - God with us? Has God been faithful to his covenant of love that at the very least we should be saved from our enemies and the hand of all that hate us, and that at best the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace?
Is God faithful?
The church – for most of her history – has had some preferred ways of answering this question. Not with a dissertation on God’s faithfulness, not with a pamphlet or a booklet that explains it, not with an argument or even a story.
The church’s way of showing that God is faithful is by pouring water over a child’s head; by taking bread and wine and offering them to God in thanksgiving; by laying hands on the heads of those coming to maturity of faith and those set aside for ministry; by joining together the hands of two people in love; by pronouncing the assurance of God’s forgiveness; and by anointing with oil those whose lives are moving more nearly toward death.
These are the sacraments of the church: baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation, and holy unction. They are signs of God’s faithfulness. And we believe that they are gifts given to us to help us see what is otherwise hard to see in the world: that he who promised is faithful.
The sacraments take some ordinary thing – like water, or bread, or the head of a person, or the hands of two lovers – and transform them into signs of God’s faithfulness. So the water, the bread, the hands, or the head become manifestations of God’s love and faithfulness.
These sacraments are invitations to look more deeply, more prayerfully, at the mystery of God, who sets us in a dangerous world but who wants us to know he is faithful.
Every time a child is baptized it is a commitment of God’s faithfulness. Every time we bless bread and wine in the Eucharist it is a reassurance that God loves us enough to be born in the world and to die for us. Every time we join the hands of husband and wife it is a reminder that two people can devote themselves to one another in love. Every time we hear the announcement of God’s forgiveness it is assurance that our sins and offences do not have to be the defining moments of our lives. Every time hands are laid on someone to be confirmed or ordained it strengthens the community of faith. Every time a person sick or near death is anointed with holy oil it is a declaration that a new life, a new health awaits them in the kingdom of God. These are signs, given during the times of change and transition of our lives, that point to the answer to that vexing question – is God faithful?
And they are given to us precisely because God does not want us to live our lives like so many frightened kittens, uncertain about the world around us, afraid to engage it, threatened by monsters who may be real but may also be of our own imagining.
No one knows why it is that God has made the world the way he made it. I cannot explain for you its dangers, the wars, the killing, the sickness, the poverty, or the rest of it. I only know of these signs that have always been a part of my life, that have always pointed to a hope greater than any other. And that have so clearly been a part of the lives of many generations.
The sacraments are like flash cards to prompt in us the assurance that, yes, he who has promised is faithful. He is with us always. His Holy Spirit moves among us to guide us and bring us truth. And that our lives need not be governed by fear, nor lived out in hiding from any kind of monsters.
For in the Sacraments, God reaches out his hand with these simple signs, and encourages us to purr.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 November 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Phladelphia