You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Late one recent night, I found myself staying up long past a reasonable hour to watch a broadcast of the 1967 film version of Camelot, with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. The film is every bit endearing as I recalled, but I’d forgotten how shot through with angst the story is: how obvious to everyone is the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot; how unwilling is Arthur to acknowledge the truth; how cruel he is to Pellinore, the old man who tries gently to urge Arthur to accept the truth; how desperate is the king’s fondness for Lancelot; how inevitable is Guinevere’s fate, considering Arthur’s pride in the rule of law; how wicked is Mordred’s Oedipal jealousy. And all presented with a jaunty score of song after memorable song.
Because of the Kennedy appropriation of the idea of Camelot, “that once there was a spot/ for one brief shining moment/ known as Camelot,” I think we tend to recall the story of the musical as if it was as chirpy as its title song. But really it’s a story full of conflict and pain. And the characters are all deeply flawed. (So, I guess the Kennedy comparison holds.) By the end of the movie, Mordred has desecrated the Round Table, Guinevere has been rescued by Lancelot from burning at the stake in the nick of time, and Arthur is preparing to go to battle with Lancelot. England is clearly headed for the Dark Ages. It’s not what you would call a happy ending.
I wonder if the story of Camelot has any parallels with the Christian story. At the center: our hero, whose commitment to justice was admirable, but ultimately the institution he built to advance the cause wasn’t up to the task. The church, like the Round Table: a good idea, but ultimately susceptible to the foibles of both its enemies and its own flawed leaders. Of course, both provide fodder for good musical numbers and colorful costumes with a certain medieval flair. But does the church seem to be headed for any better an ending than the musical’s? Or will all be wrack and ruin by the time we finally acknowledge what everyone else can see is going on around us? And do we have anything more to hold out to the would-be believer than a story that might be nice if it was true, but that seems frayed at the edges and straining at the seams? Perhaps there was one brief shining moment long ago when the Christian faith was full of promise: before the schisms, and the crusades, before the greed and power and corruption, before the scandal and abuse, before the willful ignorance, before the disregard for women, before the stultifying self-absorption, etc., etc. But you can see what happened.
One wonders if Arthur had a bit of a messianic complex. Did he think to himself, in the words of the Christ, “My kingdom is not of this world”? Or was his problem that he didn’t realize that the ideals of Camelot could never survive in this world, that they had to be aspects of another dimension of reality? To look at the other side of that coin, is Jesus as delusional as King Arthur, when he stands before Pilate and says, “My kingdom is not of this world.”?
And what use is either of them to us – Jesus or King Arthur – if their kingdoms are not of this world? After all, we have to live in this world, we have to work and strive, and hope and suffer, and repair, and restore, and ruin, and recover, and heal, and fall sick again, and forget, then remember, and lose things, and find some of them, and break, and fix, and wander, and get lost, and discover, and guess, and invent, and disfigure, and design, and build, and burn, and assemble, and discard, and recycle, and fight, and resent, and forgive, and repent, and assist, and cook, and wash, and nap, and conquer, and overcome, and deceive, and risk, and give, and take, and coddle, and cajole, and swoon, and sing, and sew, and float, and swim, and love, and live, and die in this world – not in some magical fairytale land. What good is it to us to tell us that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world?
Here’s what I think Jesus means by this, when he tells us his kingdom if not of this world. It means that Jesus’ kingdom is not a fleeting thing, that lasts for one, brief, shining moment. It means that Jesus’ kingdom is not a fantasy kingdom, where the climate must be perfect all the year, where winter is forbidden till December, and exits March the second on the dot. It means that Jesus’ kingdom is not a kingdom of wishful thinking, where rain may never fall till after sundown, and by eight the morning fog must disappear.
Fantasy kingdoms are built in this world all the time, and they deliver only fantasy promises that, like a Broadway musical, bring momentary salve, but not real healing; a happy tune to hum, but not real hope; a call to arms, but not real justice; all the craziness of romance, but not real love; and illusions of resuscitation but not real life. But the kingdom Jesus is talking about is a kingdom of real healing, real hope, real justice, real love, and real life. It exists in dimensions beyond this world, but it is not inaccessible from this world.
How, then, does one get to Jesus’ kingdom?
There are really only two steps involved. First, you follow Jesus. Then you go where he sends you.
Now, following Jesus is not so easy. To do so, you probably have to hear him call you, which is one reason to come to church – for here the call of Jesus is pronounced week after week as we proclaim the Good News of his ministry, and tell the story of his salvation. Sometimes you have to stop and listen to hear Jesus calling. You have to turn off your phone, take your earbuds out of your ears, shut off your iPod, and listen. I’d call this praying – for listening is at least half of prayer. Though it’s certainly possible that you could hear Jesus call while you are praising him: singing a hymn, or reciting a psalm, or raising your eyes to see him lifted high, as bells ring, during the Mass.
Then, if you listen to Jesus and follow him, eventually you are very likely to hear him tell you to go somewhere and do something. Go ask for forgiveness where you have needed it for a long time. Go help the hungry, the poor, the lonely, the sick, or the imprisoned. Go help a child who the world is failing. Go help a church that is struggling. Go help someone whose life was turned upside down in a hurricane. It’s hard to follow Jesus and never hear him tell you to get up and go somewhere and do something.
Now, these two steps, may not seem to take you very far, but the trick to the Christian life is in repeating these two simple steps over and over. We have to stop and listen for Jesus over and over, because his voice is easily drowned out by the din of this world, and many people are actively trying to obscure the sound of it. And we can’t follow Jesus unless we are listening to him. And we have to go where Jesus sends us over and over, because mostly he sends us on small excursions that last an hour or two, or a half a day here and there, without interrupting every other aspect of our daily schedules. So we repeat these two simple steps over and over: follow and go, follow and go, follow and go. (If I was Lerner and Loewe, I’d write a song here.)
At the end of Camelot, as Arthur is about to take up the battle with Lancelot; he encounters a young boy named Tom, who tells the king that he wants to be a knight of the Round Table. The boy’s naivete gives Arthur pause to reflect on what’s happened to his kingdom. Despite his disappointment and his misgivings he has Tom kneel, and makes him a knight, commissioning him with a reprise of the title song of the show: “Don’t let it be forgot/ that once there was a spot/ for one brief shining moment/ that was known as Camelot.”
Long before I had any inkling about being a priest of God’s church, I wanted to be Tom. I suppose I really wanted to be Richard Burton, but you have to start somewhere. But now that I am older, I see how sad the story of Camelot is, and how hopeless the nostalgia it rests on. Like all the Arthurian legend, it looks wistfully backward without any real hope of building Camelot in this world, because, after all, Camelot is the stuff of fantasy and musical theater.
But you and I have to live in this world. We have to work and strive, and hope and suffer, and repair, and restore, and ruin, and recover, and heal, and fall sick again, and forget, then remember, and lose things, and find some of them, and break, and fix, and wander, and get lost, and discover, and guess, and invent, and disfigure, and design, and build, and burn, and assemble, and discard, and recycle, and fight, and resent, and forgive, and repent, and assist, and cook, and wash, and nap, and conquer, and overcome, and deceive, and risk, and give, and take, and coddle, and cajole, and swoon, and sing, and sew, and float, and swim, and love, and live, and die in this world – not in some magical fairytale land.
A fairytale land is what the church looks like, what the kingdom of God looks like, to those who are not willing to take those two simple steps: follow and go, follow and go.
But when we follow Jesus, listening to him, and then go where he sends us, doing the work he gives us, we find that we are already learning what it is like to live in his kingdom, where the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted from their poverty and given a decent education, the sick are cared for with compassion, where love sustains relationships despite many challenges, where justice is upheld, and where life does not end at the grave, as long as we are willing to follow and go, follow and go.
All these things are happening in God’s church, where his kingdom is being built even now. All these things are real and true right now, in places where the saints of God follow and go, follow and go. All these things are part of the life of this parish community, this church, this gathering. This is no Camelot, we are just a parish church on Locust Street, in a city that struggles and fails to live up to its name. But when we follow Jesus, listening carefully for his call, and the go where he sends us, we find that his kingdom, strangely not of this world, is nevertheless being built right here.
And so we rejoice in his kingship, and we crown him with honor and glory, we wave his banner on high. And, God willing, we follow and go, follow and go; making the journey toward his kingdom which is not of this world, not remembered from one, brief, shining moment long ago, but is being built right here when we follow and go.
And it’s enough to make you want to sing about it!
May God put the song of his kingdom on our lips, and in our hearts, and may he make us ever ready to follow him when he calls and to go wherever he sends us, in the service of Jesus Christ, our king.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
25 November 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia