Posts filed under Rev. Sean Mullen

Good Intentions

It is a wonderful thing to live in the city in the world that is singularly identified as the city of brotherly love.  There are other Philadelphias, but we live in the Philadelphia.  If there is a city of brotherly love to be built in this world, the right of first refusal, for the last few centuries, has been ours.  

As we know too well, however, we don’t really live up to our name in this city.  Murder in our streets is quite literally rampant.  Poverty is legion.  Schooling is dismal for many kids.  Justice and Equality have not taken deep root, as the socio-economic realities of Race threaten to choke them out.  But still, as I say, the city of brotherly love is ours to build or not to build; the name is already ours.

Did any city ever have a name more certainly doomed to infamy than the city of Sodom?  What has that place and its awful name ever stood for but violence and rape, fire and brimstone?  Its name, affixed to a crime of shameful abuse and a devious lack of specificity, singularly identifies the city of debauchery, sin, and license without peer.  Should ever you find yourself on the path to Sodom (or its hateful sister city Gomorrah), you know you are in trouble: beat a hasty path in the opposite direction, and whatever else you may do, don’t look back!

Here in Philadelphia, the name that William Penn gave our city implies that we at least know what we are asking for as a society brought together between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers.  It may be only a dream; it may be elusive, but to be a city of love is somehow our birthright.  If we never see that reality, it wouldn’t be the first time a birthright was squandered.

As for Sodom, at least one possible origin of the name of that city is a Hebrew word for “burnt.”  So maybe Sodom lived into its unhappy destiny after all when God destroyed it with a rain of fire and brimstone.  Maybe they got what they asked for, so to speak.  Maybe they had it coming.

Certainly Abraham did his best.  Did you hear him bargaining with God?  Did hear his obsequious pleas, his step-by-step haggling with the Lord?  Fifty, forty-five, forty.  Do I hear thirty?  Twenty? Ten?  Going once, going twice: OK already: for the sake of ten righteous souls God will not destroy Sodom.  Enough already!  That Abraham really knows how to drive a hard bargain!  What a mensch!  He knew just what to ask for!  And can you believe that in all of Sodom not ten righteous souls could be found?  Only Lot and his brood would be spared from God’s wrath.

Interestingly, the church doesn’t give us an opportunity to hear how the story works out in the end.  Not next week or the week after.  The continuation of this story (which is to say the part we already know about – the sex part and its unpleasant aftermath) is never assigned to be read on a Sunday.  The church wants us to hear about Abraham’s successful bargaining with God but not about the unhappy ending for the city.  You’ll have to learn on your own about how Lot’s wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt.  (They warned her not to look back!)

There is something slightly dishonest about reminding ourselves that God promised he would not destroy the city for the sake of ten souls but then failing to remember that he couldn’t find them.  In this age when the topic of sodomy is an unholy fixation of the church, it seems somehow delusional to recount the promise of Sodom’s deliverance but not to rehearse its destruction.  Who do we think we are protecting with this omission?

I suppose we are protecting ourselves from our own obvious confusion about God.  Who is this God who is willing to negotiate mercy with Abraham but then unleashes a storm of destruction anyway?  Who is this God who leads Lot and his wife to safety only to exact cruel punishment on the poor woman for looking back?  Who is this God who keeps an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction at his fingertips?  Who is this God, and what does he want from us?  How are we to deal with such a God?

As is often the case, Jesus teaches his disciples a fairly straightforward way of dealing with God: he suggests prayer.

And how are we to pray?  You learned the answer to that question in Sunday School when you learned the Lord’s Prayer.  And you got a gold star.  Or at least I’m going to assume you did. (I did.)

And here’s another thing we learned in Sunday School – or at least we think we did:  Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.

Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.  Isn’t that nice?  We love this promising formula.  But when we think about it for a minute, we are often frustrated by it.  Because didn’t Abraham ask?  Didn’t Lot ask?  Didn’t his wife want to be delivered?  What happened?

This beautiful teaching of Jesus’ causes us a lot of grief if we think about it too much.  Because most of us have asked for something that we were never given; most of us have sought for something that we have not yet found; most of us have knocked hopefully on doors that remain firmly shut to us.  What’s going on here?

Here, for once, Jesus is trying to treat us like adults.  “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened… but it does help if you ask for the right thing, seek for the right thing, knock at the right door.  If your child should come to you and ask for a scorpion, you might give him in egg instead; if she comes looking for a serpent, perhaps a fish would be better?

Jesus is treating his disciples here like adults, assuming they know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad for their children, and recognizing that the children don’t know what’s best for them.  

So Jesus wants to treat us like adults; he wants us to understand that there are subtleties even to this simple teaching.  But we so often insist on acting like children. “Why doesn’t God give me what I want?  He said he would!”   We reach for the scorpion, when God would give us an egg.  We reach for legal battles, when God would give us Justice.  We reach for Wealth, when God would give us Prosperity.  We reach for Power, when God would give us Equality.  We reach for the serpent of War, when God would give us the puckering fish of Peace.

All of which is to say, we don’t even know what to ask for.  What good parent wouldn’t say just exactly what Jesus says to his disciples: Ask it of me and I will give it to you!  Seek for it and I will see to it that you find it!  Knock and I will ensure that it opens to you!  And what parent doesn’t know that as soon as you have promised the world – anything – that clever child finds a way to ask for something you know you cannot give?  A parent’s best intentions are often thwarted by the myopia of a child: the child’s sheer inability to see beyond his or her immediate wants and needs.

When Jesus teaches us to ask, to seek, to knock, he is not pandering to our immediate wants and needs.  And he is not trying to give a lesson in skilled negotiation, so that like Abraham we can extract from God the best deal possible.  He is trying to give a lesson in good intentions: somehow matching our intentions to his, as his intentions are matched to God the Father’s, so that when we ask, we are asking the same questions; when we seek, we are looking for the same things; when we knock, we are knocking at the same door.

The flaw in Abraham’s bargain with God is that it completely omitted the other party: the men of Sodom.  Let’s not haggle over the details of the sin of Sodom: let’s just say they were bad.  Let’s assume that it isn’t about sex (as many scholars tell us it isn’t; but you know how we like to make everything about sex!)  Whatever their sin, the men of Sodom had adopted intentions that were entirely at odds with God’s intentions: so much so that when angels came to visit they found themselves in a difficult situation.  And there were not ten men in all that city who would stand up for them; not ten men who would ask after, seek for or knock at the door of God’ s intentions.  And for the cruel intentions of that city, God rains down brimstone and fire till it went up in smoke.  For their cruel intentions.

The point of the characterization of the men of Sodom is not a commentary on sexual ethics; it is a judgment on cruel intentions.  The hearts of the men of Sodom (the women are hardly mentioned, like so much ruin, it seems to have been the men’s doing), their hearts were set on ruin, because, like children, they could think of nothing beyond themselves.  And Abraham’s best intentions could no more save the city of Sodom than William Penn’s good intentions could make Philadelphia a real city of brotherly love.

And what about us?  What kind of intentions steer our hearts?  Do we not often reach for the scorpion or the serpent: grabbing what we want because we want it and we want it now, and assuming that we will deal with the consequences later?

We don’t try to organize our intentions in harmony with God’s intentions.  And when things go wrong we start haggling with God, trying to drive a bargain: Please make him better, please keep him safe, don’t let her die.  Please stop all this awful killing in our streets!

We think we have to bargain with God for this, forgetting that God intends for us to live at last without fear, without sickness, without tears, without death: this is the image of the holy city of God that Saint John sees in his Revelation.  But the way to that city is the way of the Cross, which is a hard and sometimes difficult way.  The way to the promised land is never easy.  On the way it seems that God will test our intentions.

Part of our frustration with God could be summed up in that age-old child’s question: Are we there yet?  No, we are not there yet, but we are on the way.  We are not the people that God means for us to be yet, but we are on the way.  We are not the city God means for us to be, but we are on the way.  We are not even the church that God means for us to be, but we are on the way.  As we go we will have to ask for many things, seek many times, knock at many doors.

What kind of people will we be, as God tests our intentions, sending his angels to us at the most inconvenient hours of the night?

What kind of church will we be, as God tests our intentions by setting before us real challenges?

And what kind of city will this be, this city of brotherly love?  Will we be a city worthy of our name?  

We cannot do it just by asking, asking, asking for everything we want.  We must make it our heart’s intention and desire to build between these rivers a city founded in love.  Surely William Penn imagined such a city to be God’s intention and desire.  Penn hoped that the people of this city would ask the right questions, seek the right things, knock at the right doors.  He hoped these would bear testimony to our intentions to love on another as we would be loved, as Christ loves us.

God, who for reasons we cannot understand (I certainly can’t) keeps a supply of fire and brimstone stashed somewhere in the garage, this God has only the best intentions for us.  He sent us his Son to show us that.

It was in sending his Son Jesus to live with us, to suffer and die, like we suffer and die, that God showed his true intentions for us when he raised Jesus from the dead, and the unfathomable depths of the storehouse of God’s love finally became known.

How are we to deal with this God?  Not, it turns out, by haggling for the best deal we can get.  Rather we are to ask and to seek and to knock, trying, as we do, to ask after, to seek for, and to knock at the doors of God’s intentions for us, which are that we should be given what we want, that we should find what we are looking for; that the door should be opened to us.

And if we start with a desire in our hearts to build a city here between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers that truly is a city of brotherly and sisterly love, then that is a good start for all our questions, a good destination for all our seeking, and a worthy door at which to stand and to see whether or not in time God will open it to us, if it is our hearts desire, our dearest intention, as surely it must be God’s.

Even though we are not there yet, isn’t it time we stopped behaving like children, and behaved like true grown ups who know that there is nothing simple, but something brave and faithful about asking with the confidence that it will be given to us, seeking with the assurance that we will find, and knocking  at the door of God’s holy intentions for us at any hour of the day or night with the firm conviction of hope that God has left it unlocked.

Preached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
29 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 30, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

The Oaks of Mamre

Yesterday afternoon as I walked beneath the leafy canopy of trees in Rittenhouse Square, I noticed at least five people with fat, brand-new books all opened to the early chapters.  What a lovely day it was to sit beneath the trees of the Square with the latest Harry Potter book and dream about Hogwarts.

If we were students at Hogwarts, just imagine all the things we’d learn.  In addition to our spells, we’d lean a lot, as Harry’s classmates, about the reality of good and evil in the world; we’d learn about the importance of standing up to fight for the good, of knowing who we are; about the importance of working together in community and not always trying to go it alone.  And we’d learn about death; about the inescapable truth that death is a part of life; we’d learn about loss and grief and the power of memory.   We’d learn a lot just by entering for a while the fantastic world of Harry Potter, just by sitting under the trees with a children’s book to read.  

To many ears the stories of the Bible sound just as fantastic and fictitious as the stories about Harry Potter and his friends.  And this morning we encounter what amounts to an early chapter in the quite fantastic stories about Abraham, who, we are told with great specificity, is sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day by the oaks at Mamre.

There is something delightfully reassuring about knowing Abraham’s address: he lives in the tent by the oaks at Mamre.  The three men who are walking by surely know who lives there.  The Scriptures here employ the code to indicate that it is God himself - the LORD – who has come.  And yet it is not at all clear if or when Abraham himself, or his wife Sarah, realize who these visitors are.  Still, Abraham follows an elaborate set of customs to receive his guests with dignity and honor: washing their feet, having Sarah bake bread, and sending a servant to prepare a calf for a meal.  Scholars tell us that the 18th chapter of Genesis provides a remarkable description of ancient, Eastern hospitality.

It would be easy to focus on Abraham and Sarah as we hear this story.  Their reactions to the divine visitor are described in great detail: how much meal Sarah uses to bake the bread, the curds and milk that Abraham serves with the meat.  We’re even told where Sarah is standing as she eavesdrops on the conversation her husband is having with his unusual visitors.  There are sermons here to be preached about hospitality and about Sarah’s laughter at the ludicrous suggestion that she will be having a son.  No one knows better than she does that her child-bearing days are over.

But this story is not really a story about Abraham or Sarah.  It is most revealing as a story about God: the God who has bothered to know where Abraham lives, the God who hears Sarah’s laughter.  This is a story about God.  The moral of the story is told in a question that is posed by the three men after hearing Sarah laugh.  “Why,” the LORD asks Abraham, “did Sarah laugh” at the promise that she would bear a son in her old age?  “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”

But a better translation of the question puts it this way: Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

Sarah had stood there behind the door listening in to the conversation and, quite understandably laughed at the promise of a child in the onset of her old age.   And isn’t it easy for us to laugh at the absurdity of the promises of God?  Peace?  Love?  Forgiveness?  Mercy? Healing?  Everlasting life? In this world?  It is enough to make you laugh!  Our reading this morning actually omits the final verse of this story – verse 15 – in which Sarah denies her skepticism: “I did not laugh,” she protests to the men (because, the writer tells us, she was afraid).  And the LORD looks at her with what I imagine is a sideways glance and a wry, reassuring smile and says to her, “No, but you did laugh.”

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

We are living in an age when nothing is too wonderful for Harry Potter but almost anything is too wonderful for the Lord – or so it seems.  In the Episcopal church there are many small parishes that are wondering if their little communities of faith can even survive, let alone thrive.  Will anyone come to church anymore?  Who will pay the bills?  I could name four parishes in walking distance of here that are facing these questions right now.  For them this is not a rhetorical question: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

In churches like our own just the task of cleaning out our basement can feel like a challenge.  Is anything too hard for the Lord?

I won’t even get into the great controversies that our church is embroiled in at the moment.  You know what they are.  They are enough to make us wonder too: maybe some things are just too hard, too wonderful, for the Lord.

And should we open the pages of a newspaper or turn on the evening news, does this sound like a rhetorical question to us anymore: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  As we count the mounting murder rate in our own city there is nothing to laugh about.  As the war we started in Iraq escalates and more and more of our own troops are being killed, is there anything the Lord will do?  As we continue to face both the fear and the possibility of the threat of terrorism in our own country, is the Lord even involved?

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  Talk about your wry smiles and sideways glances – to many, many people this rhetorical question and its presumptive answer are an exercise in collective neurosis; a question asked only by the doggedly stubborn or pathetically deluded.  Is there any difference between the wonderful fantasies we read about in Harry Potter books and the fantastic presumption behind that question; Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  Or are we living in the fantasy-land of another best–selling book that, so-far, has outsold the Harry Potter series?

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Remember that the promise that this question grows from is the promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation numbering more than the stars of heaven.  It is a ludicrous promise considering that Abraham is childless, except for a bastard son.  And to my ears, Sarah’s laugh was no girlish giggle.  It was derisive and dismissive – a child, indeed!  No one knows better than Sarah how foolish are the hopes, how apparently misguided is the faith Abraham.  Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?

The truth is that Abraham and Sarah had no good way of answering that question.  They had not a lot to go on.  What did they know of the Lord?  Except that at some point it dawned on them who they were dealing with.  For Sarah, I think it is the moment that she realizes she is afraid.  Because she has discerned that these three unusual men are not men at all.  They are the very presence of the living God – sitting right there, under the oaks of Mamre, next to her mailbox.

Here is the Lord of creation, and of the flood; here is the God of gods eating her bread and the curds and milk from her cows, the meat of her calf.  Here is the Lord whose name is inexpressible chatting with her husband.  Here is God Almighty walking through her neighborhood and stopping at her house.

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  How should Sarah know?  How could she know?  Except that now the Lord has visited her home, her husband, and even included her in the conversation – not something the woman of the house might have expected.  And what’s more, the Lord promises that at the appointed time, in the spring, he will return to her.  

In the spring he will return.  What a lovely way to express what Saint Paul calls “the hope of glory,” that in the spring, the God who has visited us, who knows our address right down the trees planted outside, in the spring he will return with rainfall and his flowers and the greening lawn and its warming, lengthening days.

Very near the center of our Christian faith is this certainty: that the God of all creation knows our address, with great specificity, and that God comes to us, visits us, challenges us, makes promises to us, and leaves us with the question of faith ringing in our ears: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

We heard today about Jesus who visited Martha and Mary.  He wasn’t looking for a contribution to his cause, he wasn’t trying to sell them anything, he enjoyed but didn’t depend on their hospitality.  Jesus stopped and visited and talked and ate with Martha and Mary and their friends and relatives because that’s what the Lord does.  

And what if we had asked that same question of Martha and Mary after their visit with him: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  What do they know?  Except that he has been in their home, broken bread at their table, talked with them and their friends and family.  When did they realize who he was?  When did it dawn on them that it was the living God right there at the table with them?

We live in a world and in a church that is beset by troubles, where the arguments against faith seem to gather steam at every turn.  Death is now so much our constant companion that even the heroes of our children’s books must encounter it in the first chapter.  And what do we know of the mysterious ways of the God who stirs the wind and the seas to wreak havoc in the world, who has allowed his children to kill one another, almost from the first chapter of time?  What do we know?

In this place, we claim to know with great certainty one thing: that the God of all creation, king of kings and lord of lords, the God who set the stars in their courses and who filled the vast seas with water, the God whose breath gives life to every creature in the universe, that this God comes to us to visit us.  That the Lord of all seeks out our home and waits to be asked in.  That the Lord knows our address.  That he has visited us before, he visits us even now, and that in the spring he will return.

Is anything too wonderful for this Lord?  Sometimes it is tempting to think so.  Sometimes it is hard to believe that this God of ours has a grip on the world he made.  Sometimes is seems that it must all just be too hard for God.

He knows how easy it is for us to dismiss him with a derisive laugh, just as Sarah did.  Which is why he visits with us – just as he visited with Sarah.  The Lord of life comes to us again and again: most reliably when two or three of us gather in his name and break bread together and drink wine together, just as he showed us when he promised that he would be with us always.  The Lord knows with great specificity the location of the magnolia outside those doors and the names of the people to be found here week by week, or just once if this is the only time you will ever sit under the shadow of that tree in the heat of the day.

The Lord knocks at the door of our hearts, knowing that the question lurks deep in our minds – is there anything too wonderful for him?  Anything too hard?  Because it sure looks that way sometimes.  It sure feels that way sometimes.  It sure makes me want to laugh for fear of crying.

And he knocks again, seeking entrance to our homes and our hearts, knowing that it seems hard to believe.  Except when he visits with us and talks with us, and takes our bread and blesses it and gives it back to us.  And something like hope of glory lingers in the air like incense as the question hangs between us in the air:  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Come, sit under this magnolia with him for a while.  God knows this address.  And if these promises of hope make you want to laugh – maybe for fear of crying, in the face of all the fear and pain and suffering of this world – then remember his promise, take hold of the hope of glory, for in the springtime he will return.  

Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Preached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
22 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 23, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

The Seventy

“The seventy returned with joy….”  (Luke 10:17)

Here in the City of Philadelphia we have an organization known as the Committee of Seventy, whose mission, they will tell you, is to conduct a “permanent campaign to improve the Philadelphia region by demanding ethical conduct of public officials, promoting government efficiency, educating citizens and safeguarding elections.”  They are best known, by their own account, as a “watchdog during election time.”  The committee includes a lot of lawyers.  They are all about the rules.

And it’s fair to say that this city needs someone to keep watch over the rules and the people who are supposed to govern by those rules – more than most cities.  The Committee of Seventy is not, as far as I can tell, limited in number to seventy members.  Its website cites the Book of Exodus as the source of the name, and while “seventy elders” are sometimes mentioned in Exodus, the actual account of God’s instruction to Moses to gather seventy elders is found in the Book of Numbers.  There we find that the seventy are to share Moses’ spirit and assist him in leadership – not keep an eye on him.  Nevertheless, it’s nice to think that principles of justice, good ethics and fairplay in this city are somehow rooted in the Scriptures.  If someone is going to be a watchdog of the rules that govern the rule-makers, these are good shoes to fill.

Is it a coincidence that in the Gospels we find Jesus appointing seventy helpers to send on ahead of himself as he proceeds with his ministry of teaching and healing?  “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few… Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves….”  And then comes what sounds a lot like a set of rules:

“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road.  Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’…  eat what is set before you; heal the sick… say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  And then: “Whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet , we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’”  What a set of rules!  What a set of rules to follow.

But if we look more closely, will we see that Jesus’ instructions to his seventy are not really a set of rules at all, but a set of promises?

If they are to carry no purse, no bag and not even any sandals, are there not promises embedded in those instructions: that their needs will be provided for, their wants will be met, even the soles of their feet will be protected from the stones on the road, their toes protected from stubbing?  Will they glide from town to town on a cushion of air?  Is this a secret promise?

If they are to greet no one on the road, is there a promise there of safety, as well as an undercurrent of urgency?

And is the greeting of peace to every house a promise – at the very least of the intention of the greeter, but also of God’s intention that we should know his peace, which passes all understanding?

Eat what is set before you: because I promise you that you will not go hungry.

Is the instruction to heal the sick a promise that there is healing to be had in the Name of the One who sent them out ahead of himself?

“The kingdom of God has come near you!”  This, too, is a promise: a promise that what has come near is not to be forever elusive, not forever far away in the skies.

Even the dust from their feet, wiped off in protest in the face of unwelcome carries with it a promise, leaving behind the footprints that lead to the ongoing message of the kingdom of God, which has come near even though it was not welcome.

Jesus has called the seventy to go ahead of him with a mission of promise.  And if the writers of the gospels heard in that story the echoes of the seventy with whom God shared the spirit that once rested on Moses alone, then so be it; it is no coincidence.  

But remember that in neither case are the seventy sent out to enforce the rules.  In neither case are the seventy appointed as the watchdogs of Moses or of Jesus, prowling around to enforce the rules of the rulers.  This drift is understandable and, I am sure forgivable, in the Committee of Seventy here in Philadelphia.  But it may be less forgivable among latter-day followers of Jesus who take the role of watchdog upon themselves.

The seventy, like the Twelve, were never called to be watchdogs; they were called to be harbingers of promises, forerunners of the dawning of the kingdom of God.

And they went out without their purses; they went out without their bags, without tunics, without staffs to lean on as they went; they went out with no sandals on their feet, those poor, silly men and women who listened to Jesus’ promises, they went out without sandals!  And did they glide from town to town on cushions of air?

You know, they might have.  Because look what happens: the seventy returned with joy.  They returned with joy!  What church did they belong to?  Have you ever heard of such a thing?!  No purses, no bags, no sandals – NO SANDALS! – but they returned from their work proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near, and they returned WITH JOY!  What were they smoking?!?

My brothers in sisters in Christ, there is a lesson for us here today.

First, we are part of a church that is tying itself up in hideous knots – the kind of knots you could strangle yourself with – over rules, when we have paid precious little attention to the promises.  Even in Jesus’ wonderful instructions to Go our way, even though we remember that he told us that we were like lambs in the midst of wolves, even though he promised there would be healing.  Even though the very footprints we would leave behind when we shake the dust from our feet would proclaim the promise: The kingdom of God has come near!  Even though we have inherited all this promise, we are choking on rules.

Second, we can see how easy it is to hear a promise as a rule and to miss the promise altogether, so that we just keep stubbing our un-sandaled toes and never get to glide on the currents of cushions of air.

Third, we are shown that there is something missing if we are not responding to the promises of Christ.  Because what ever happened to the joy?  The seventy returned with joy!  They’d been given nothing to work with, told to leave their gear at home, sent out barefoot, identified as lambs in the midst of wolves, as too few laborers in the face of a plentiful harvest (read: a lot of work)… and yet the seventy returned with joy!

Yes, there is a lesson for us to learn today.

As we come together week by week, we are a community of people called together by God, and also sent out, week by week, in his Name.  We, too, are sent to be harbingers of promise and forerunners of the kingdom of God.

We know that the laborers are few, but do we remember that the harvest is plentiful?

We know that it sometimes seems that we have not enough: not enough resources, not enough faith, not enough gear, not even enough to put spiritual sandals on our feet, so to speak.  And what does God expect?  That we are going to glide through life on cushions of air?

God sent his spirit: to seventy elders who shared it with Moses.  He sent his spirit, like cushions of air, if you ask me, to the seventy that Jesus sent out proclaiming the kingdom.  He may even have sent his spirit to the Committee of Seventy, for all I know (though it often seems hard to believe this).

And God has sent his spirit to us – more than seventy of us gathered in this place.  He is sending his spirit to us day by day to strengthen and encourage us.  He will send us cushions of air, if that’s what we need –if only we can hear the promises he makes!  The seventy returned with joy saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”  Even the demons!  Don’t we have demons we need to quell in this world?  Don’t we have plenty of demons?  Yes, we are just lambs in the midst of wolves.  But we will be carried on cushions of air – not so much as a stubbed toe – if only we can hear the promises: the kingdom of God has come near!

Lately I have been talking with the Vestry and others about several guideposts for our collective ministry here at Saint Mark’s.  Some of them are very practical: the need to study the Scriptures, for instance.  But one of the guideposts I’ve suggested we need to use in planning and organizing our mission and ministry is the idea that a parish community ought to be a community of irrepressible and inexhaustible joy.

To some people in the world, - especially those who are aware of all the conflict in the church - such a suggestion is as ludicrous as the idea that we should go out to do our work without so much as a pair of sandals on our feet.

But I believe that we can glide on cushions of air that God sends us by his Holy Spirit, if only we can hear the promises every time he tells us to go, go, go out into the world as harbingers of promise and forerunners of his kingdom.  If only we realize that it is perfectly alright to be lambs in the midst of wolves, with God beside us and beneath us and above us.  If only we can see that God means for his mission to be carried out and nothing will prevent it if we go in faith.

The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, which is all the more reason we need to go, confident that it is God’s spirit that will get us where he calls, God’s spirit that will carry us on cushions of air if that’s what it takes, God’s spirit that casts down every demon that threatens his mission of peace in the world.

And it is you and I, my friends, you and I who are sent, week by week, to do his work and to proclaim his promises.  And it is you and I who can expect – if only we hear the promises and not just the rules – you and I who can expect to return with joy: irrepressible and inexhaustible joy!  As though we had been carried along on cushions of air.  Joy that is born not from our careful application and adherence to the rules; not because we are somehow superior to those whose dust we have shaken off our feet; not even because the awful demons of this world have been vanquished in the Name of Jesus.  Our irrepressible and inexhaustible joy will be born of the very promise we proclaim: that the kingdom of heaven is very near to us, and the promise that your name and mine – no matter who we are – are written in heaven!

Thanks be to God!

Reached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
8 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 9, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.


“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Martin Luther once wrote that “the whole Scripture of God is divided into two parts: rules and promises.”  By this, he meant, at one level, the division between the Old and New Testaments: the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, if I can put it that way.  And while that may be a simplistic way of looking at the Scriptures, it bears some resemblance to the outlook of Saint Paul when he was writing to the new Christian Jews in Galatia, some of whom were demanding adherence to Jewish law, including circumcision.

Paul (and Luther after him) believed that rules – like the requirement of circumcision - had served their purpose by pointing God’s children toward his promises from generation to generation.  But with the death and resurrection of Jesus the dawning era of promises-fulfilled became plain.  And Jesus had only one rule: love one another as I have loved you.

For Paul each and every other rule was wiped off the slate by the pronunciation of the law of love in Jesus Christ.  And to continue to spend time and energy following the old rules could only ever be a distraction from learning how better to live the law of love, and a hindrance to drawing more people into the expanding circle of God’s promise.

Freedom, in this context, was freedom not from some foreign power but from a self-imposed slavery of doing things: keeping the right feasts, avoiding the wrong foods, and the insistence on male circumcision.  These were all fine and well in their time, when they kept a good Jew’s heart pointed toward the earthly Jerusalem.  “But the Jerusalem above is free,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “and she is our mother….  For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

No one had been better (in his own humble estimation) at keeping the rules than Paul had been.  No one had had his heart set more firmly, so to speak, on the earthly Jerusalem and all that it meant to live as a Jew in God’s promised land.  And no one worked harder to enforce those rules than Paul did, making a name for himself, before his conversion, as a persecutor of Christians, who quite clearly were not following the rules.

All of which might begin to suggest that Paul was something of a libertarian encouraging people to live and let live.  But this he was not.  He was convinced however that it meant something different to live in the midst of promises-fulfilled than in the midst of a system of rules.  And this difference he was determined to work out and to teach, because freedom matters.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever known captivity – which Paul knew was a part of the heritage of every Jew.  Others might take freedom for granted, but not those who have lived under the yoke of slavery.  In Egypt the Jews had been enslaved to Pharoah.  In Babylon they had lived in enforced exile.  And in their slavery, in their exile, they had kept the rules as best they could.  Kept the rules to keep their hearts pointed toward home: toward Jerusalem.

And in Jerusalem the promises of freedom were born when Jesus set his face toward that city and the drama of God’s promised salvation unfolded.

Jesus himself had been somewhat famously loose with the rules.  He had not come to abolish them, he said, but to fulfill them.  In him, every rule was transposed into a promise: a trick every child knows seems impossible.  Because in Christ the horizon shifted from the possibilities on the ground in Jerusalem – possibilities that would be especially disastrous for him – to the possibilities in the heart of God, in what Saint Paul calls “the Jerusalem above.”

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.  Paul sees how likely we are to take slavery on ourselves.  And in some sense it is just this that Paul is trying to teach the Galatians to avoid: the yoke of slavery that dims the promises of the Jerusalem above.  

It’s not that the rules are bad in themselves, it’s just that they keep us rooted in doing this or not doing that.  These were the rules that allowed, even encouraged, a priest and a Levite (holy men!) to pass by the bleeding body of man on the side of the road, leaving him to be cared for by a Samaritan (who, by the way, the rules encouraged us to think pretty little of).  These are the rules that would have prevented Jesus from eating with sinners and with tax collectors – that would have prevented the physician from visiting his patients.  These were the rules that threatened to obscure the promised freedom of new life that had been gained for all people by Jesus when he conquered death.  And if the rules got in the way of the promise then clearly the rules would have to go.

Today very few of us stand in danger of obscuring the promise of new life in Christ because of our adherence to kosher laws.  But today we are just as likely to submit to a slavery of our own choosing as were those early Christian Jews in Galatia to whom Paul wrote.

Today we readily embrace the laws of the marketplace, for instance, following rules that are designed to make us good consumers.  These insidious rules allow us to feel good about everything we have thanks to the global village, while we pass by the bloodied bodies of our neighbors in that village, far over on the other side of the road.  We have become expert in our slavery to these rules at waiting for some good Samaritan to come along in our wake.

Or in another manifestation of the phenomenon of our willing submission to slavery, we see how terror tempts us to protect ourselves with more and more layers of rules, making terrorism a doubly effective weapon since it also threatens to shut out the law of love.  We can feel the grip of these rules tightening even now, in the uncertainty of threats in Britain, and it is our own hands tightening the grip.

And just days before we celebrate our independence as a nation, as we prepare to revel in our freedom, don’t we have to wonder if we are really free?

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Like so much else about Christian faith, we have to learn the paradox of freedom.  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  This is that profound lesson that the Prayer Book puts so concisely when we say that service to God is “perfect freedom.”

For freedom Christ has set us free!  This is not some libertarian manifesto, rather it is a declaration of promises and a shout for joy that free people can live differently than those enslaved by rules.  Love teaches us to live freely.  The rules said we had to avoid that bleeding man in the street (which was a good thing because we wanted to avoid him anyway!)  But the law of love compels us to go to him and bind up his wounds, and to discover as we go that by doing it freely we are changed because we are living not by the rules but by the promise.

Freedom matters to us because we know that it is just as disastrous to be slaves or our own selfishness as it is to be slaves to a foreign power.

Freedom matters because it teaches us how to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh.  Ask any recovering addict how much this freedom matters – or ask someone who is reaching for recovery and struggling to get there.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever been enslaved – which is most of us.  Slavery shuts out love – whether it’s old-fashioned economic slavery, or addiction to a substance, or the relentless slavery of economic rationalism, or the slavery to fear that terrorism tries to instill.  Slavery shuts out love.

Slavery whispers rules into our hearts that we can often spell with two words that are the enemies of love: Keep Out!

Slavery clouds our vision so that we can hardly see the promises.  

Slavery has built a Jerusalem of warfare, violence and bloodshed where the grip of ever tightening rules threatens never to know peace.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever prayed for the peace of Jerusalem – or peace anywhere in the world.

Freedom begets love – overcoming our worst tendencies to use and abuse one another.

Freedom whispers promises in our ears that make things possible that the rules could never have allowed, spelled out in words of welcome.

Freedom opens our eyes to see the promise that love holds out for us.

And freedom is born of the Jerusalem above who is our mother, and who begs to know – if we want to sing about freedom at this rather awful moment in history – what kind of children we shall be.

Pray, God, make us truly free!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
1 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia

Posted on July 1, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

Celebrating Christ's Body

“God humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna… that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”

If you go to see the beautiful German film, Into Great Silence, about the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, be prepared to sit for almost three hours of cinema with very little dialogue, music, or noise of any kind.  The monks of Grande Chartreuse lead a drastically simple life characterized by prayer, self-denial and silence.  You should see the film – it is three hours well spent.

If you do, you may notice that the filmmakers occasionally provide a close-up moment of still life: a plate drying on a windowsill, a lamp burning in the dark, or a bowl of fruit.  And if you have a look at the bowl of fruit, you may notice something that catches your eye – it caught mine.  There in the middle of the French Alps, in the cloisters of La Grande Chartreuse, in a the cell of a solitary monk whose life is devoted to simplicity, whose brethren tend the cows and the gardens and chop the vegetables, who must surely bake their own bread, where the food is delivered to a pass-through into each monk’s cell so as not to disturb his prayers…  There in the still life, in a bowl of fruit, on the side of an apple (or was it a pear?) was a little oval sticker that would have identified the apple’s country of origin: probably New Zealand or Chile.

I almost gasped when I noticed it.  I was certainly shocked.  I don’t begrudge the monks their fruit – certainly not in the dead of winter when there is no fruit to be had in the French Alps, to be sure.  Nonetheless, I was taken aback not only at the way this piece of fruit in its ordinariness linked my life to the life of the austere monks of La Grande Chartreuse, I was taken aback at how nearly impossible it actually is to escape the world we all live in: the global economy that delivers fruit and veggies from all parts of the world to anyone who can pay for them – even the poor, simple monks of La Grande Chartreuse.  I was amazed to begin to realize where that apple had come from, given that these monks had largely rejected all the implications of the global economy in favor of the economy of heaven.

When Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness on their long pilgrimage, it was, Scripture tells us, an exercise in humility and hunger.  God humbled them and made them hunger and then sent them manna as an object lesson that man does not live by bread alone – not by the sweat of our own brows, not by our own cleverness, not by the size of our paychecks, not by the bounty stored in our cupboards – but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.

But unlike our ancient forebears who grudgingly followed Moses, we are living in another age: when we have to search out places to go to be humbled or hungry.  The powers of the global economy even ship ripened fruit to monks who have already embraced poverty, who have accepted a large measure of humility and hunger in their lives.  

And you and I?  What hunger do we know?  What is there that does not lie within arms reach for us if only we want it?  We have everything to fill our bellies.  And have we forgotten what it is like to be hungry for the things that come only from the mouth of God?  Have we become so good at taking everything for granted that we take even this for granted?  Have we assumed in our pride that whatever we want from God we will have when we want it – shipped to us by whatever means he employs, with or without little stickers to identify its country of origin?

Today we train our attention on the wonderful and mysterious gift that God has given us in the Body of Christ – this new and living bread which came down from heaven.  And this, too, is meant to be an exercise in humility and hunger, because it is all too easy for us to lose both our humility and our hunger in the face of this gift of God, all too easy to disregard what we are given at Mass each week as a scrap of bread, a sip of cheap wine.

Our celebration of the gift of the Body of Christ is an exercise in humility because we are faced with God’s profound humility: the God who sends his only Son (the Prince of Peace and Lord of Life) to live and die among the ordinary, stumbling sinners of a creation gone askew.  Christ’s Body – whether it hangs on the Cross, or rests in the tomb, or gets parceled out in little wafers – is the perfect portrait of humility.  Here in our hands we hold the transcription of that Word once spoken that brought the universe into being.  How can we not be humbled in the face of such humility?

And our celebration of the gift of the Body of Christ is an exercise in hunger because we are reminded that in this sacred meal we are given a diet of love and mercy and forgiveness that we sorely need and that we too easily forget is deeply satisfying.  Here in our hands we hold the bread of angels – that perfect food that feeds our souls when words or reason or even the touch of a loved one fail to meet our needs, and we realize that we’ve been left under-nourished by every other diet we’ve ever tried.

Today, as we celebrate the gift of Christ’s Body, we are called to be humble and hungry in the face of the mystery of God’s love.  Just as a community of secluded monks hidden away in the mountains can enjoy an apple that is the product of an economy that we thought had passed them by – indeed, which they had tried to allow to pass them by; you and I can enjoy that living Bread that came down from heaven – from an economy that we often believe has passed us by.

It might have seemed that this wondrous communion with God would be reserved only for those who establish a secret economy of silence behind monastery walls, immersed in endless rounds of prayers, and far beyond the reach of people like you and me.

But although it seems somewhat unlikely that God would feed you and me with the living Bread of the Body of his Son, it is, in fact, just precisely as likely as the possibility that a shipment of apples from New Zealand or Chile would find its way into the cells of those remote Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse.

And at the end of Mass today, we’ll indulge ourselves in a kind of still-life moment, which is meant to give us pause, perhaps even cause us to gasp as we have a look at what it is that’s been given to us in the Body of Christ, as we realize where this living Bread has come from.  

And will we be left feeling humbled and even hungry for that Bread when, as we consider its unlikely origin, given that we have largely rejected the economy of heaven in favor of our own global economy?

And if we allow ourselves to gaze for a while into the great silence of that living Bread – the silence that is all that stands between us and the Body of Christ – will we hear God’s wisdom as he calls us to be humble and hungry, and to remember that we have never lived by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord?

Thanks be to God.

Preached by the Rev. Sean E. Mullen
Corpus Christi: 10 June 2007
Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia

Posted on June 10, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

In the Midst of a Cloud

Every now and then, if the door that leads from the cloister to the Parish House is not closed, and if we have an especially enthusiastic thurifer, and if smoke wafts from the church, through the cloister, past that doorway, into the Parish House, a loud alarm goes off (as happened here the other night).  It is a reminder to me that here at Saint Mark’s we have prepared ourselves (up to a point) for at least one aspect f the great vision of the prophet Isaiah, who sees God in his glory, seated on a throne, high and lifted up, and, Isaiah tells us… the ‘house was filled with smoke.”

To the dismay of protestants and asthmatics, we get close, every now and then, to recreating that one aspect of the scene in the prophet’s vision, in which he tells us that the many-winged seraphim are flying about and calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy!”  And, Isaiah says, the foundations of the thresholds are shaken at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics believed that this scene could be not so much re-enacted as evoked with the right kind of architecture, music, vesture… and with enough smoke.  They even went so far as to make reference to the more detailed and fantastic vision of the heavenly throne given to Saint John the Divine in his Revelation.  Unable to reproduce lightning strikes and thunder peals or a rainbow that looks like an emerald, they could at least hang seven lamps before the altar to evoke the seven torches we heard about in John’s Revelation today, which are, he tells us, the seven spirits of God.  And because they could, they did.

And you can be sure that they believed, in their 19th century, Anglo-Catholic Romantic innocence, that whether you could see them or not, the many-winged seraphim would and did, in fact, descend from heaven to hover over the throne of this altar, calling out to one another in tones too high for you and me to hear: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

It was not, I think, actually naivete on the part of those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics who built this place that caused them to think that with the right architecture, music, vesture, and with a bit of charcoal and incense, hey could evoke the image of the secret temples of God.  It was, instead, a conviction, an eagerness, that it is OK to try to enter into the mystery of God’s presence, his being, his love.  Indeed it was a conviction, even an eagerness, that it is helpful and necessary to try to enter into the mystery of God’s presence, being, and his love, especially if mere mortals were going to try to evoke not only the vision that Isaiah had, but his response to the call of God, the sound of whose voice causes the foundations of the thresholds to shake when he calls with grammatical precision, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Isaiah was no fool.  He was a Jew living in exile.  With his people he had been cast out of his land.  Like generations of Jews before and after him, his understanding of his community of faith was tied deeply to the land.  It was in a plot of land – a garden – that God first created man and woman.  It was to a piece of real estate – a promised land flowing with milk and honey – that God led Abraham and Sarah through the wilderness.  It was again to a promised land that God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  It was from that land, more or less, that Isaiah and the others with him had been ejected, and for which he now longed.

And if it was not to a specific piece of land that those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics felt called when they bought property on Locust Street, then it was at least to the temple of God that those ancestors of ours were drawn.  Knowing that God’s call go hither and yon was often anchored in specificity of one sort or another, they could at least set the stage for the sound of the One whose voice would shake the foundations of the thresholds when he calls out from the cloud, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Today, in many quarters, the belief in a God who calls to us – or any God at all, for that matter – is regarded with some derision.  God himself is regarded as a significantly less impressive figure than the one beheld in Isaiah’s or John’s visions.  A well-known writer is busily selling a provocative book called God is not great: meant to be an affront to those of us in any faith still foolish enough to proclaim that he is.  The New York Times Book Review gave that book an approving review a few weeks ago and I promise you sales are not bad.

And one can see why.  Fundamentalists from Lynchburg to Najaf and everywhere in between have done much, in my opinion, to give God a bad name.  The inane discussion (such as it is) about creationism versus evolution fuels sound bites in all the media, and makes people of faith sound like ninnies.  The internecine warfare in our own Anglican church sounds to many like just what it is: a struggle for power.  Why believe in God or participate in any of God’s religions if this is where it gets you?

Meanwhile, in Sudan, the slaughter that has taken a quarter of a million lives and driven millions of others into exile goes on – just to pick one on-going horror of the moment this morning.

And if we are going to gather in church on Trinity Sunday to assert that we believe in a triune God: three persons in one Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we ought to stop and ask ourselves what it matters.  About the doctrine of the Holy Trinity the church has had much to say: a lot of it confusing to most of us.  Even the prescribed creed that used to be said on this day to assert the truth of the three-personed God makes it clear that God in all his persons is “incomprehensible.”

So what are we doing here?

We are talking our cue from those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics, who were themselves taking cues from the fathers of the early church, who noticed how God spoke with plural personal pronouns.  More importantly, they took seriously the witness of the prophets, the deep connection to the land of Abraham and Moses that they read about in Hebrew scripture.  They did not turn aside from that witness when they embraced the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.  And they took seriously the gift of the Holy Spirit that they read about throughout the New Testament and that they experienced in the grace of baptism: life transformed by the love of God.

Those early church fathers taught about the Trinity – God in three persons – because it was the unmistakable way they encountered God in history, in scripture and in their own lives.  Yes, it all seems a bit incomprehensible, but after all it is God we are talking about here!

And we follow that lead.  We stand in the midst of a cloud of God’s mystery – believing that it is a good idea (if sometimes dangerous) to enter into that cloud.  We do it because we believe that in the thick obfuscation of that cloud there is not to be found an old, bearded man; nor is there an rejuvenated Jesus; there is not a swirling scirroco or a dancing flame – appealing as all these images may be.

In the midst of the cloud of mystery, there is, we expect, a voice that will shake the foundations of the thresholds that asks of us, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And we don’t know how to answer, except in dumb silence, unless we dare to stand for a moment at least in the presence of all that awesome Presence.

And when we do, do we allow ourselves to learn from those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics something about the desire to know and love and praise as much of God as we are able to know and to love and to praise?  Do we want to know and love and praise, as I think they did, even the hidden parts of God (which I suspect is most of God)?  Do we want to know and love and praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit precisely because this is the way God has chosen to reveal himself to us… for reasons that we must admit are often incomprehensible?  Do we want to know and to love and to praise the aspects of God that we can only smell, or that we can only taste, or that we can only feel burning our eyes, stinging the backs of our throats, or tickling our noses till we sneeze?

God is great!  And there is more of God beneath a cloud of smoke than we could ever claim to see.

I am not qualified to explain to you the mystery of a three-personed God.  And the church has never regarded the mysteries of God in the same way as the mysteries of Agatha Christie: something to be solved.  We have instead regarded the mysteries of God’s love and God’s being as clouds that beckon us to enter in, even if the foundations of the thresholds shake.

It has to be said that it goes against the grain of our modern society to leave a mystery well enough alone.  It goes against the grain to create a cloud of obscuring smoke where the air is otherwise clear.  And it goes against the grain to answer that awesome question the way Isaiah answered it, without so much as a clue to where he was being sent: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

What did Isaiah know except that his eyes were burning with the presence of the Lord, his ears were ringing with the sound of seraphim’s winged song, his legs were trembling as the foundations of the threshold underneath him shook... what did he know?  Could he have even guessed that this was the voice of a triune God?  Would it have mattered?  Did he have any idea what he was saying or where he would be sent?  Wasn’t he scared and humbled and full of the sense of his own inadequacies?

And didn’t he stand there before the throne of God?  And didn’t he open wide as one of the seraphim flew to him with a burning coal to purify his lips?  And didn’t he surprise himself when he heard a familiar voice – one that sounded like his own voice – call out to the smoky Presence without any idea what his answer meant or where it would take him: Here am I, send me?

And what do we know except that the day could come when God could call us to help make peace in the world where the is none; God could ask us to bring the gospel of hope to men and women who have no hope; God could lead us to help end the sad divisions of our squabbling church…

… and should we have the grace, to answer as Isaiah did (Here am I, send me!) may we also have the grace to say when they ask us who sent us, that we come in the Name of the true and living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Trinity Sunday, 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 3, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

Ivory-Bill Witnesses

A couple of years ago, almost to the week, the bird-watching community throughout this country was in an absolute tizzy over sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – thought to have been extinct since 1944.  But several supposed sightings in 2004 and 2005 led to such excitement that even I (who has never once had the slightest urge to watch a bird) had learned about the possibility that this elusive species might still be among us.

I did not know that scientists (if not bird-watchers) have specific terminology for classes or species of animals that disappear for a time only to reappear again later.  Such creatures are referred to in paleontology as “Lazarus taxon.”  Considering our context this evening I’ll spare you an explanation of the biblical reference in that term.

At the time, two years ago, I took it as a hopeful sign that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (which carries the nickname, the “Lord God bird”) might have re-emerged, since one writer had asserted that “the most common explanation given for the bird’s disappearance was that it ‘could not stand the presence of mankind or association with advancing civilization.’”   The possibility that the woodpecker might have found a way to co-exist with us, despite the odds, seemed, as I say, quite hopeful.

From time to time over the last two years, it has occurred to me that I might check in on the woodpecker that captured the imagination of so many – even those of us who never think to watch a bird unless it flies directly into sight.  And I am aware that in the months that have passed no definitive proof has come out that can be said to establish the bird’s existence beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Teams have been dispatched to the swamps of Florida and Arkansas.  A $10,000 reward was offered for any information leading to the discovery of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest, roost or feeding site.  Films and videotapes have been scrutinized and analyzed frame by frame.  You can find people who will tell you that they are absolutely certain the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is out there somewhere.  But you can also find people who will tell you, sadly, that it is gone and seems to be gone for ever.

Tonight we are not here to discuss the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  And we are not here to discuss the raising of Lazarus, who, presumably, eventually died a natural death and went, finally, to his grave.  Tonight we are here remembering the stories that tell us that forty days after his miraculous resurrection from the dead, Jesus of Nazareth was lifted up on a cloud and carried into the heavens while his followers looked on.

This kind of story is hardly unique.  The prophet Elijah is said to have been carried to heaven in a chariot of fire in the midst of a whirlwind.  Tradition has it that the prophet Muhammad was taken up to heaven and then returned to Mecca.  And our own tradition suggests that Mary’s assumption into heaven may have been a somewhat spectacular departure from this earth.

So let’s just say we take the story of Jesus’ ascension at face value.  Let’s just say we believe that the apostles who gathered there that day looked up at the soles of Jesus’ feet as they got smaller and smaller, disappearing into the skies.  Let’s just say it happened – what does it cost us to believe this, after all?  It still leaves us with a difficult question: What now?

After all, we know that there are those who consider us Christians as nothing more than glorified bird-watchers, waiting for the return of a very odd bird who was last seen riding a cloud to heaven.

And we know that there have been expeditions launched, holy sites analyzed, and even rewards offered for some kind of evidence – any evidence would do – to prove or disprove the claims that this Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, is the Son of God and that in him lies the hope and salvation of the whole world.

And you can find people who will tell you that they are absolutely certain that Jesus is reigning from his throne in heaven and at work in the world by the power of his spirit.  And you can find those who will tell you, gladly, that he is gone for ever.  (And don’t think that they buy this story about him being taken to heaven on a cloud.  See Elijah, Muhammad, and Mary as a rationale for their skepticism.)

If you are going to believe what we say about Jesus tonight; if you are going to believe that he was killed on the Cross and rose from the dead; if you are going to believe that he walked and talked and ate with his disciples during the forty days that followed; if you are going to believe that he was carried on a cloud up into heaven where now he sits at the right hand of God… if you are going to believe any of this, you are going to believe it by faith.

And faith is a gift.  Faith is not proof positive.  Faith is not a videotape.  Faith often looks as though it does not hold up under scrutiny and analysis.  You would not want to believe in the continuing existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker just on faith.

But we are not talking about a woodpecker here.  We are not talking about some species of creature that might have dropped out of sight for a couple of thousand years.

Tonight we are talking about the Lord of Life, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God.

Where has he gone?  What are we to do?  What now?

The Eleven – those crucial disciples who were left standing there – must have asked the same questions among themselves.  And what did they do?  They remembered his instructions: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.”  And they did the oddest thing: they did what Jesus had told them to do.  Saint Mark, the patron saint of this parish, tells us that “they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.”

They preached everywhere while the Lord worked with them!

The answer to their questions came as they did what Jesus had instructed – and what so few of us Christians can bring ourselves to do anymore.  “Go!” he said to them.  “Get out of here!  Keep it moving, keep it moving, keep it moving!  Go!”

And so we hear of Saint Paul’s journeys and Saint Peter’s.  We hear that James went to Spain and Thomas to the subcontinent. They went and they preached… while the Lord worked with them!

And they did it by faith – that gift that had been given to them.  They did it, I suspect, because what else were they going to do?  Sit around a talk about it?  You can’t even find a woodpecker by just sitting around and talking about it.

They preached everywhere while the Lord worked with them.

Now you may be sitting there telling yourself that this passage has nothing to do with you since you have no intention of preaching to anyone – in fact you probably find the whole idea distasteful.  But I want to suggest that the most important word of Jesus’ instructions is the first word: Go!

You may not think you are called to preach the gospel: not in your church, not on a street corner, and not to the whole creation.  You may not think you have much to say.  You may not think you know much about the Bible or about Jesus.  You may not think you are a preacher.  And you may be right.  But no matter who you are, you can do what Jesus says if you can get up and GO!

In giving this simple command, Jesus created a missionary church.  He did not say, Wait here until people find you.  He did not say, Hang a sign outside that lets people know they can come in.  He said, Go!

And his apostles – who had trouble knowing how to answer their questions (Where has he gone?  What are we to do?  What now?) could at least do that: they could go!

And you and I can too!  And even if we don’t think we are preachers, we can always do as St. Francis, that wise saint, suggested: Preach the gospel everyewhere; use words if you must.

Which means that your life and mine can be a witness to the world of the way the Lord works with us even now.  Our prayers and our praise to God, our care for one another, our generosity to those in need, our commitment to the poor, our readiness to visit the sick and those in prison, our willingness to struggle for justice – especially with those to whom it is denied, our responsible stewardship of the good earth that we have been given, our openness to those who disagree with us, our readiness to welcome the stranger in our midst, our conviction that decent medical care ought not to be a privilege enjoyed only by the wealthy, our readiness to sit by the dying as witnesses to holy death and then to be patient and supportive of those who grieve... all of these can be eloquent sermons declaring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world.  And we can preach most of them without ever opening our mouths.

And these are the signs that the Lord is working with us even now!

My friends, none of this is proof.  Capture every moment of it on film and watch it frame by frame and you will never see the mystical image of Jesus flash in front of you like some exposed subliminal advertising.

All we have is faith – that gift that compels us to go, and to keep on going, confident that as we go the Lord is working with us.  For many, faith is not enough – not even enough to convince them of a woodpecker’s existence.

But, of course, we are not looking for a woodpecker – Ivory-billed or otherwise.  We are looking for the kingdom of heaven, where the ascended Jesus already sits at the right hand of God.  And we know that there is nothing to be proved, and only one way to find that kingdom: it is to go and preach everywhere (using words if we must), while the Lord works with us to do what ever he will.

It is my honor and privilege and my joy to have been called here to work with you in the building up of God’s kingdom.  And it is my sincere prayer that God will always make us ready to go wherever he calls us, as compelling witnesses not only of his love, but of the plain truth that it is the Lord who works with us day by day, and who makes all things possible!

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is nicknamed the Lord God bird because it is a bird of such distinctive beauty and grace that on seeing it, people are said to have exclaimed that tiny creed: Lord God!

Although I doubt that the mere sight of a woodpecker could make a believer out of anyone, I know that if we will go wherever God calls us, with the Lord working with us, people will see in us the evidence of god’s beauty and God’s grace.  And if they do there is no telling what will happen in people’s lives when they get a look, and see what the Lord God has done with us!

Preached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
The Feast of the Ascension: 17 May 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia

Posted on May 17, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

The Gift of Peace

For 72 years, from 1682 till 1754, at the insistence of the Quakers, the colony of Pennsylvania maintained no militia.  Despite repeated calls to establish some armed body, the Quaker pacifists held to the principle.  By 1747 this unrelenting pacifism, in the face of war between Britain, France and Spain, had driven Ben Franklin to publish a call to arms: the pamphlet, “Plain Truth.”  That same year he established the League for the Defense of the City and Province, with some 10,000 men responding to his plea.  

In 1755, after repeated failed legislative attempts to fund a militia, Franklin persuaded the Pennsylvania Assembly to borrow the money required for militia supplies. Dogged insistence on peace did not jibe with Franklin’s famous pragmatism.  There is, however, something somehow ennobling about being a part of a society that once tried a serious experiment in peaceful living – no matter how many times removed we are from the distant cousins who tried (however vainly) to enforce the peace.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Franklin, I think, might have understood part of what we hear Jesus saying today: “not as the world gives do I give to you.”  The world does not give us peace; Franklin knew that well.  And in the absence of evidence of peace in the world, it is not entirely clear what became of the gift of peace that Jesus said he was giving to his disciples.

Biblical scholars tell us that we are prone to over-simplify what Jesus was talking about.  His gift of peace is not, some say, meant to imply the end of warfare, not the banishment of gunshots from our streets or our schools, not the quelling of domestic violence in our homes.  No, his peace, we are told, passes all understanding.  It is more than an end to our foolish destruction of one another.  It is the peace of salvation, the peace of communion with God.  It is the establishment of his kingdom: the vision of the city that we hear about in the Revelation to Saint John: the new Jerusalem that needs no sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its lamp; where the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flows from the throne of God, through the middle of the street of the city.  And anyone who wishes may take the water as a gift.

In the face of this vision of peace, the mere cessation of warfare, we are told, is an entirely inadequate understanding of God’s peace –  a lesser peace, to be sure, but we have settled for it.  And on reflection it does seem cheap to think we have achieved peace when we manage to bring a war to its conclusion.  This is a bit like thinking that all is well in the house when Mom and Dad have stopped fighting – but even a child knows that this is not true, and chances are the shouting will begin again soon.

So then, the peace of God, which passes all understanding, is more than a moment of relative calm, more than a treaty signed on the deck of an aircraft carrier, more than the assurance that our kids are safe in school.  But would it be so wrong to try to establish this lesser peace in Christ’s name – to claim a beachhead for Christ, planting his peaceful flag over the landscape here and there where we decide we are not willing to tear one another apart?

The gift of peace that Jesus bequeaths to his disciples is a gift that they never asked for.  And like them, we often have a hard time dealing with gifts we never asked for.  I know someone who keeps such gifts in a closet, waiting for an opportunity to re-gift them.  We all know what it is like to receive a tie that we will never tie, socks that will never see our feet, tchotchkes that will never be displayed, etc., etc.  What do we do with gifts we never asked for?

We have a hard enough time dealing with the one commandment Jesus gave: to love one another as he loved his disciples.  Somehow the Ten Commandments seemed like enough – at least they were enforceable – we didn’t ask for one more!  And now we are faced with this un-asked-for gift of peace.  Which sounds like a gift that belongs in the it’s-the-thought-that-counts category.

Jesus offers us the gift of his peace.  And like any gift we never asked for, we are not sure we want it.  He offers us the gift of peace: inviting us to be partners in building the city of God as we build up his kingdom.  He offers us a vision of a city of peace when all we wanted was a bigger house or at least a condo.  He offers us the gift of peace, and we would have settled for central air conditioning.  He offers us the gift of peace when all we wanted was to have our nails done.  He offers the gift of peace and we are not sure we want it.  And if we, his latter-day disciples, are the inheritors of the gift of peace (which in many ways we never asked for either) what are we to do with this gift that we can hardly even define?  
Like Ben Franklin, we have generally esteemed the gift of peace to be impractical – even the lesser peace that only brings an end to fighting.  We have, after all, the means to wage astonishing warfare – means that are sometimes effective, it must be said, at maintaining a certain kind of peace.  But do we – even those of us who claim to be Jesus’ disciples – do we really think a peace that passes all understanding is something we would enjoy?  Is the gift of peace something we could even hope for?

The Quakers held fast to the hope for peace, and they had the will for it – still do - even if they lacked the means for it – which is perhaps as close to receiving the gift as we can get.  Was their refusal to arm themselves a kind of sacramental act: an outward and visible sign of some inward corporate grace?  A symbol of the city they knew God has already built in his divine mind and which they believe God means for us all, finally, to dwell in?

And although as a society (and a city) we have much for which to be grateful to Franklin, perhaps as a parish community of Christian disciples we should be less grateful for this one aspect of his pragmatic legacy: that his quite practical point of view prevailed.  Perhaps we should be more eager than he was to learn how the desire for peace – even a lesser peace than that peace which passes all understanding – can be stronger than our feeble means to achieve it.  

Can we hear Jesus when he tells us, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid”?  He knows that the gift of peace is one for which we are not prepared and that we are not sure we want it.  He knows that we are unpracticed even at keeping a lesser peace.  Be not afraid.  He will supply the means for peace.  He alone can establish peace within the walls of the new Jerusalem.

The royal charter that William Penn received in 1681 from Charles II granted to him the powers of “Captain General” of whatever army he might raise, and authorized him to "levy, muster and traine all sorts of men, of any condition soever, . . . to make Warre."   This gift of the king’s was entirely practical, and almost certainly necessary.

But for 72 years the desire for a certain kind of peace prevailed in Penn’s colony, in what seemed, even at the time, an unlikely zeal for another kind of gift: the gift of peace, quite superior to that gift which had been given to Penn by Charles II.

And maybe that is the crucial thing to learn about the gift of peace that Jesus gave - that peace which passes our understanding, that we have not fully known, cannot even describe – to want this impractical gift more than to not want it.  Maybe the challenge is not to understand it but just to want it, so that our feeble capacity for peace might surpass our stunning ability to “make Warre,” as it did here, for a season, in William Penn’s colony, where again today, the gift of peace is ours, if we want it.

Preached by the Rev. Sean E. Mullen
13 May 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 13, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

Living the New Commandment

Camp Wapiti - some 600 beautiful acres on the banks of the Elk River in Maryland - is the fledgling diocesan camp and conference center and a lightning rod for disagreement and conflict in this diocese. Many people believe that our bishop has channeled funds - either inappropriately or unwisely - to the camp at the expense of other vital programs, like the support of poor, inner-city parishes.

Not long ago I heard the director of the camp address those concerns with the appeal that although mistakes may have been made, the fact remains that we own it, we are there are on the ground at Wapiti, and shouldn't we give it a chance?

What struck me about this plea was that it is practically a verbatim repetition of an argument we hear about the war in Iraq: mistakes may have been made, but the fact remains that we are there, on the ground in Iraq, and shouldn't we give it a chance, do our best to make it work?

I don't intend to use time in the pulpit this morning as a critique of either Camp Wapiti or the Iraq war - although I believe there is much to critique in both cases. But it is remarkable how often and well we in the church have learned to mimic strategies, outlooks, and postures that we first observe on the evening news.

Elections for bishops have borrowed campaign strategies from secular political campaigns. Our special interest groups use the same tactics of polarization and fear-mongering as political special interest groups. Our leaders jostle for power with the same mixture of intensity and false humility. We regularly look to big business for organizational models and methods of leadership and real estate development. We have learned our lessons well from the secular world: why shouldn't we borrow rationales for staying the course at Wapiti, because, after all, we are already there?

All communities have politics. The Twelve apostles were playing at politics when they argued about who among them would be greatest. The church is not, nor could it be, immune from politics.

Still, as a community we claim to be striving for something else, we say that we have gathered ourselves around the story of the One who came not to be served but to serve. We hold on so tightly to the memory of the night he showed what he meant by that that we re-enact the drama of his love once a year when we wash one another's feet.

And on that night, after supper, Jesus, who had spent many hours teaching his disciples about the Jewish law, gave them another teaching to follow:

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

His own disciples showed little evidence from that point on that they understood this teaching - except that they must have repeated it to others, passing it on enough times for it to be written down and handed on to us.

And through the ages, as we look back, we might wonder if others have shown much evidence of learning this lesson: love one another as he loved them - love one another enough to wash each other's feet, enough to die for those you love. Love one another so that all may know that we are his disciples.

Is it unfair to suggest that more often than not we Christians have lived the mirror-image of this teaching: that by our failure to love one another, we have caused many to wonder if we are following anyone, or if Jesus could possibly be worth following? And would it be fair to say that we have so often been following somebody else's script, somebody else's model, somebody else's business plan that there has been precious little time or space to worry about this one, little commandment: love one another?

Would it be fair to say that much of the time we have no earthly idea what love is?

This past week, in a very disturbing story, the New York Times shed some light on the preparations and attitudes of young suicide bombers who are on their way to Iraq. They seem to me to be filled with righteous indignation, moral certitude, and religious zeal. Never mind that they have little idea of what exactly they are being righteously indignant about, that their moral compasses are drastically off-course, and their zeal only serves to warp their religion. They are also, to my reading, full of anger and hatred.

A 24 year old man featured in the article was stopped at the Iraqi border and sent back to Jordan. He is disappointed that he was not able to blow himself up and he is envious of those who have. "I am happy for them but I cry for myself because I couldn't do it yet. I want to spread the roots of God on this earth and free the land of occupiers. I don't love anything in this world. What I care about is fighting."

I don't know much about Islam, to tell you the truth. But I do know that if, as I believe, there is only one God, then the God to which Muslims pray is the same God to whom I pray and you pray. It is the God who sent his Son to give us a new commandment: to love one another.

And can Christians - whose history includes the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Reformation and the English Civil War, who colluded with Nazis, and slave owners, and conquistadors - can Christians claim a much better record of following this one, simple commandment: to love one another?

We want, quite desperately I think, to contrast ourselves to that bleak and hopeless way of thinking. We - like many Muslims - want to live the exact reverse image of that young man's short credo: we don't want to fight anything in this world; what we care about is loving. We want to have an answer to that nihilism: that they'll know we are Christians by our love. We want to shape our lives by this new commandment.

But when we stop to think about this condition we are in - as a church, or as individuals in it - and we hear ourselves repeating the same political slogans that once we heard on the evening news: well, yes, mistakes have been made, but we are where we are, here on the ground, and shouldn't we just stick with it and give life like this a chance? Then are we really providing a witness to that simple, new commandment?

Jesus' command to love one another is a challenge to that kind of thinking and to the status quo - because he knows that mutual love, respect and affection is not our fall-back position. Staying the course is our fall-back position; especially if that course includes holding a grudge, nursing a hatred, plotting revenge or settling a score.

Sure, mistakes have been made - that's how we got in this mess - but why not give it a shot? Why change gears now, with all this gentle talk of love?

Jesus' command to love one another is a rebuke to our self-indulgence and pride.

And when we begin to appropriate the ways and means of this world - the tactics of secular politics, the cynicism of polarization, and mechanics of power struggles, and the inclination to "spin" things so they show us at our best - then Jesus' command to love one another as he loved his disciples is an intervention aimed at preventing the long slide down that slippery slope.

When we begin to accept the state of affairs as they are, although mistakes may have happened, but here we are and shouldn't we just go with it - then Jesus' simple commandment calls us to account. Is this how we love one another?

Here at Saint Mark's, we could heed Jesus' command in a thousand new ways - building on the many ways it has been lived out here for decades, and in the church for centuries. But a few general guidelines in choosing those ways of heeding the command to love one another seem useful.

First we can practice radical hospitality - looking for every opportunity to welcome the newcomer, the stranger, and the lost into our midst. To call hospitality radical is to say that the habit of welcoming others is something that would be so ingrained in us that it is part of our very core of being as a community, and not something that we seek to delegate to the ushers, or a committee, or to someone, anyone else. This can involve everything from paying attention to who is standing alone at coffee hour to helping to run a program of Christian formation to introduce people to faith and strengthen the faith of others.

Second, we can recommit ourselves to take up the work of caring for the poor and those in need - not just a few of us on Saturday mornings or another few on weekdays in the Food Cupboard. Not only can we do a better job of being attentive to those in need in our own community, we can adopt a more expansive definition of "one another" by actively look for ways to bring relief to the poor, the elderly, the sick and lonely, those who are in prison.

Third, we can devote ourselves more and more to the daily practice of prayer in which God invites us to be in conversation with him, to reflect on the choices we make, to seek forgiveness when we make bad ones, and to learn, again and again, that the call to repentance is never a call to stay the course a little longer, because although mistakes have been made, this is where we are, and shouldn't we give it a chance.

The call to repent is a call to be better followers of the new commandment; to be willing to stop doing what we are doing, to turn and go another way - especially when the way we are going engenders nothing but conflict, discord, and the disposition to choose to fight rather than find a way to love.

Christians are called to witness this new commandment to the world. We are called to be men and women whose hearts are so set on loving our neighbor as ourselves - loving one another as Jesus loves us - that we cannot be deterred from this mission. Love one another with righteous indignation that there are those in this world who love nothing. Love one another with the moral certitude that this is the only commandment worth dying for. Love one another with a religious zeal that exposes all other religious fervor as cheap.

Jesus gave us this simple little new commandment - which, of course, is anything but simple to follow.

And the question is, will we try to follow it? Or will we defend ourselves with a script we learned somewhere else - acknowledging that yes, mistakes have been made, but couldn't we, shouldn't we try living this way a little longer? Stay the course, give it a chance see how it goes?

His hands still wet from washing our feet, Jesus challenges us to choose to live a different way: to fight over nothing in this world, but only to love.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
6 May 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia 


Posted on May 6, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.


"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.'"

A pilgrim making his way to Canterbury on foot (the way that Chaucer's pilgrims did) from London or Winchester or anywhere in Britain, would have a hard time finding a place to spend a night. In the 1530s, as part of his program of opposition to Rome, King Henry the VIIIth ordered the dissolution of more than 800 monastic communities, many of which would have provided shelter for pilgrims.

Henry was interested in consolidating power and acquiring wealth - both of which the monks often held in good supply. And one way he ensured that monastic communities would not spring back up after his henchmen had seized their riches and dissipated their power, was to have them take one last thing: the lead sheets that formed the roofs of their buildings. This last theft benefited the king in two ways: it gave him a ready supply of a valuable (if heavy) commodity, and it ensured that the monastic buildings wouldn't last too long, since a building without a roof is neither useful nor likely stay standing.

A roof is an important thing. And many of you know that we have recently begun some rather expensive work on our roof - still in the early stages, but there is much more to come. And if you know this, you may be admiring the way I have so deftly introduced the topic of our roof (and its expensive repair) into the liturgical proceedings of the celebration of our patronal feast. Perhaps you are already reaching for your checkbook…. (God bless you!)

Yes, a roof is an important thing. A pilgrim traveling, even today, in Spain knows this, since many ancient monastic communities there still provide lodging for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. On the pilgrim's way in Spain you will come across towns that attest to their ancient monastic roots with the word "hospital" in their names, like Hospital de Orbigo.

Now, I know you thought you knew what a hospital was. But if you are snooty enough to look up your words in the Oxford English Dictionary (and you know that I am snooty enough to do so), you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that the very first definition of "hospital" is this: a "house… for the reception and entertainment of pilgrims, travelers, and strangers." I can assure you that there is at least one more sermon in that definition than the one you are getting tonight. But for the moment, I hope you will stay with me on my meandering musings about pilgrims, hospitals and roofs.

Just yesterday I was in a local hospital where I had a good look at my left foot which has been encased in fiberglass for the past five weeks and is now wrapped up in Velcro. And I can tell you, having thought a lot about that foot, and having walked to Santiago, that pilgrims are feet people. They think about their feet a lot. They think carefully about the shoes they are going to put on their feet for the journey. They think about resting their feet when they are weary. They think about caring for their feet when they are blistered or sore. They think about what they are going to do if their feet give out. They think about applying tape and moleskin to their feet. They look for someone to massage their feet or to lance the blisters that they cannot easily reach themselves. They worry about keeping their feet dry and warm and clean. Pilgrims are feet people! You walk for 500 miles and you will become a foot person too!

And while a pilgrim is grateful every single night to have a roof over her head, while pilgrims have benefited for centuries from the hospitals that have provided them shelter, pilgrims are not roof people. They will never be more distracted, more preoccupied, more obsessed with the care and maintenance of the roof over their heads - or the lack thereof - than they will be with the care and maintenance of their feet.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."

Tonight as we gather here to celebrate the Feast of our patron, Saint Mark, one thing we might do is to reflect on what it means to be in a community that has identified itself with the name of an evangelist: one who brings good news.

If you read the recent newsletter with its information about our roof, or if you have looked up at the moisture-driven stains of efflourescence on the upper reaches of the walls and thought to yourself, "That can't be good…" or if you have heard some other way that we have roof problems, and maybe some stone problems, and actually a big problem when it comes to accessibility in our buildings, and if you've been next door and seen the plaster problems, or the plumbing problems, and then you look up again and think about the roof problems…

… you might begin to think that we are going to have to become roof people: fixated on caring for that slate, upgrading that copper flashing, cleaning out those gutters. You might have heard about the price tag. And you might be guessing, rightly, that it is only likely to go up. And you might be starting to get the idea that life at Saint Mark's is going to be all about the roof for the next little while, or all about the stone, or the plaster, or whatever. It would not be unreasonable to begin to conclude that we will have to be roof people.

But how will people ever hear about good tidings, how will people ever hear about peace, how will people ever hear about salvation, how will people ever hear about the God who reigns in Zion, if we, his people, are all about the roof?

We have got to be feet people!

We have got to be beautiful-feet-people!

And perhaps this is what it means to be a part of a community that has identified itself with the name of an evangelist, of one who brings good news, as Mark did - the first of the four evangelists to write the story of Jesus. Perhaps it means that we have got be obsessed with feet. We have got to care passionately about where our feet carry us and what the do when they get us there.

We have got to use our feet to bring good tidings to people who have heard precious little good news. We have to use our feet to bring prayers and comfort and healing to those who are sick. We have to use our feet to bring consolation and care to the dying and to those who grieve. We have to use our feet to bring food to the poor and the hungry. We have to use our feet to visit those who languish in prison. We have to use our feet to help teach kids who this city's schools will fail. We have to use our feet to bring freedom to the oppressed. We have to use our feet to bring justice to those from whom it has been denied. We have to use our feet to bring to hope to those who thought they had none. We have to use our feet to bring light to those who live in darkness. We have to use our feet to bring the story of salvation who have never heard anything but a story that left them damned.

You know that if we use our feet like this, we are going to have some tired, blistered, worn out, nasty feet! But they will be beautiful!

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings… who says to Zion, "Your God reigns!"

My brothers and sisters, we have got a roof to fix, it's true. But we are not roof people! Our lives have been linked by the name of Saint Mark to a bringer-of-good-news, whose beautiful feet have led countless souls to hear the Word of salvation. And like his legacy, the only legacy worth leaving in this world is the legacy of beautiful-feet-people who publish peace and salvation and who dare to proclaim to the world: Your God reigns!

Yes, we have a roof to fix, and we will fix it. But by God's grace we are not and never will be roof people - though we will always care that there is a roof on this place. We will fix that roof precisely because we are beautiful-feet-people who care yet more deeply for every pilgrim whose feet carry them here than we could ever care about a roof!

And we pray that every time we leave this place, we do so with beautiful feet, bringing good tidings of peace and salvation, of hope and light and love, and whose feet proclaim with every step we take, even if our voices should fail to say it to the world: Your God reigns!

Preached by the Reverend Sean E. Mullen
Saint Mark's Day, 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


Posted on April 29, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

The Scroll

Last week was a bad week.

Back when the Twin Towers fell, I was glued to the TV - it was almost impossible not to be. When Saddam Hussein went to the gallows, I gave in to curiosity and watched - once - the disgusting on-line footage of the prelude to his execution. I could go no further.

All during this past week I have been aware that the Internet is full of images that portray both the melee of confusion at Virginia Tech this week as well as the so-called manifesto of the killer of 32 people. But I am unable to bring myself to watch either the footage from Blacksburg or the killer's homemade videos. It is too much for me, to tell you the truth. And I am not sure I am yet blasé enough to watch again the evidence of such evil cruelty, as though it were just another day of the evening news. There are times when the reality of dark forces in this world is just too plain to be ignored. And how will we ever make sense of the killings in Virginia this week?

It is, of course, the scale of the tragedy that makes it too hard to watch - as well as the odor of evil that must surely linger around all the yellow emergency tape strung up by the Police, and in the envelope that arrived at NBC containing the gunman's deranged testimony.

But even if I do not watch these images up close, I cannot escape the dark power of their awful consequences. And even if I never switched on the TV or the computer or read the paper, I would surely encounter the darkness more locally. There is the idiot who mowed down two pedestrians just a block from here on Friday as he tried to evade responsibility for a traffic accident he had caused - and sent one bystander to the hospital in critical condition. There are the diagnoses of illness that bring life-changing (and life-threatening) news to people's lives every day. There are the statistics of poverty that place our own city at the top of some lists in America, since up to a quarter of the people in this city live in serious want. I could go on, and so could you; we each know the smaller-scale (but no less painful) tragedies that touch our lives deeply, and make us cringe at the power of darkness, even though there is no footage of them to watch on the Internet or TV.

And so, I cannot watch the gun-waving rants of a young man whose life was somehow - inexplicably to me - lost to darkness. I cannot even read anymore the endless and immediate analyses of his personal history, his state of mind, or his writings. I do not want to get any closer to that darkness - that evil - than I have to. Darkness will find its ways to get close enough to me, and to you.

There are those who call religion little more than a collective emotional salve to be applied to the frightening power of that darkness. Is our proclamation of good news just a pretty garden of denial that makes us feel better, since we have no ready answer for the painful question of why bad things happen to good people?

In the face of that question we come today to a reading from the Book of Revelation, which is the type of thing we would normally pay little attention to, because, after all, who can make any sense of this stuff? Saint John the Divine writes about his vision in which he sees a Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God. (I'm already starting to get confused.) And there are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, each with a golden harp and a golden bowl of incense (which means this is already a nightmare for some people). And there is the song they are singing - Worthy is the Lamb - which is perfectly nice when sung to Handel's music, but is it really anything more than good material for an oratorio? What is going on here?

What the twenty-four elders are singing about; what the Lamb is worthy for; the occasion for all the incense and the harps and the bowing, etc…. What it's all about is this scroll that the Lamb has taken from the one who is seated on the throne. The scroll has writing on both sides, and it is sealed with seven seals. And a couple of chapters earlier in John's Revelation a mighty angel had asked the pregnant question: Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals? And the episode we read today is the answer to that question. And if you are still with me here, you may be asking, "Who cares?"

Because if you are familiar with the vision of Saint John the Divine, you know that things do not get any simpler or any easy any time soon. The Lamb will begin to open the seven seals of the scroll. And four horsemen will bring conquering power and, slaughter, and justice, and death. And then the souls of the righteous will be robed in white and told to rest a little longer. And when the Lamb gets to the sixth seal there is an earthquake, and the sun turns black, and the moon becomes like blood, and the stars fall to earth, and the sky vanishes like a scroll rolling itself up, and so frightening is all this that even the kings of the earth shout out to the mountains, "Fall on us!"

And do I want to watch this? Can I possibly want to learn about what's going to happen when the seventh seal is opened? Do I want to read on and hear any more of this? It seems like too much for me. Is this really any better than the TV news or the Internet - which at least, mostly, doesn't claim to be a vision of God?

Sure enough, when we get to the seventh seal and the angels start to blow their horns, it sounds more like all hell has broken loose than all of heaven. If this is the journey God is calling us to go one, I feel perfectly happy to be left behind!

More often than not we have stopped paying attention to the rantings of Saint John the Divine long before the Lamb gets to the seventh seal, anyway. In fact, many of us would give more time to the rantings of the Virginia Tech gunman than we would to the seer of Patmos. We get it so typically backwards: absorbed by the musings of madness that illustrate nothing but evil, but almost completely inoculated to the vision that points to a heavenly intent.

All week long, as the heaviness of the sadness of what happened at Virginia Tech has been weighted down in my life even further by the sadness of other deaths closer to home, and the question of why bad things happen to good people has been ringing in my ears, I have been thinking about that scroll: the scroll that the Lamb has taken and is worthy to un-seal. Saint John is very clear in his vision that the scroll has writing on it. But nowhere are its contents read. It is the opening of the seals that unleashes apocalyptic events, not the reading of the scroll. But it seems to me that the scroll - the opening of which sets in motion events that both horrify and confuse me - the scroll itself may be more than what it appears to be. And maybe I am just indulging in the soothing balm of religion when I try to convince myself that written somewhere in the heavens (maybe on that scroll) is an answer to this awful question of why bad things happen to good people.

It seems hopeful to me, you see, that John sees that the scroll has writing on both sides - because I feel certain that the answer to this awful question cannot be simple. And since the opening of the seals on the scroll begins an avalanche of conquering might, slaughter, justice and death; since it clothes the righteous in white and then un-hooks the stars from the sky; since it shakes the earth with the force of every natural disaster ever known… it seems not unreasonable that the text of the scroll - which John never gets to read - may provide some answer about why these things happen. It may provide some end point for all the unanswered "Whys?" uttered in countless, grasping prayers.

Because we give up so easily on John's Revelation, we often forget that it does not end with opening of the seventh seal and the angels blowing their trumpets. We forget that all this drama, this calamity is leading somewhere. We forget that the vision John is given to watch is finally a vision not of tragedy but of hope: a new heaven and a new earth, without sorrow or sighing.

When we give up on the vision too soon, it is often because we read it too much like a set of directions from Mapquest, as though they were a literal description of the route we must follow. And why go there since it sounds so unpleasant as one seal after another is opened? We forget that there is writing on the scroll that might be worth reading - should we ever get to see it. We forget that while John sees much, he is not shown everything.

And we forget that at the end of John's vision there is a new Jerusalem (frankly, something that it is almost impossible for us to imagine, since in my lifetime the real Jerusalem has never stood for anything more than conflict, and violence, and discord, and warfare, and terror). But John sees a vision of a new Jerusalem: a city of peace and hope, where a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flows through the middle of the street of the city. And that anyone who wishes may take the water of life as a gift.

Last week was a bad week, so bad that I found myself averting my eyes from the evidence of it. It was a week that will have filled many hearts with anguished, one-word prayers: Why?

… to which I have many words of consolation but no real answer.

But there is a scroll, somewhere in the heavens, whose opened seals might unlock the power of every anguished "Why?" ever uttered, and which may, for all I know, hold the answer to those cries.

And since there is hardly an apocalyptic moment described in the vision of Saint John that we have not seen in our lifetimes - conquering power, slaughter, justice, and death:at the very least, the work of the four horsemen - then I am not ready to give up on the final destination of John's vision. I am not ready to stop watching because it seems too much for me. Because if the havoc unleashed by the opening of those seven seals - which is havoc very much like the havoc taking place all around us - if all this havoc is worth paying attention to, then maybe there is also something written on that scroll to be read - maybe there is more to be revealed.

And there is a Lamb who was slain and who is worthy to open the seals of that scroll.

And there is a holy city. There is a new Jerusalem, thank God!

And there is an answer to all our anguished "Whys?"

There is a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city.

And that is a vision of God's promise and our hope that I am willing to watch and to wait for!

Preached by the Reverend Sean E. Mullen
22 April 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
Posted on April 22, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

Conscious Sedation

"For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God."

Three weeks ago this morning, at about this hour, I lay on a hospital bed at the Pennsylvania Hospital on my way into surgery to have my broken ankle repaired with a metal plate and seven screws, six of which will remain in there long after I have tossed my crutches away.

As I lay in the pre-operative area, an anesthesiologist told me that they would not have to use a general anesthetic, rather she would administer drugs that would cause me to be in a state of "conscious sedation." Then I'd be given a regional anesthetic, from the waist down, which would actually block the pain of the operation. The point of conscious sedation, it seemed, was to relax me and keep me unaware of what was going on as the hardware was attached to my bones.

It was the second time in several hours I had been put in a state of conscious sedation: the first was in the Emergency Room when a Resident set my broken fibula back into its proper configuration. Apparently, conscious sedation is an induced state in which you are technically awake, but quite relaxed… very relaxed… extremely relaxed… so relaxed that you are basically unaware of what's going on around you. And you are assured that you won't remember anything that happens while you are consciously sedated.

I can tell you that I don't recall one moment of what happened when an ER Resident managed to get the two pieces of my broken bone back into alignment. And I certainly have no recollection of the screws being drilled in during surgery. As a result I am a big fan of conscious sedation - a big fan!

It was an early critique of Christian faith that maybe Jesus wasn't really dead: hadn't actually died on the Cross. The stories of his resurrection could be explained away this way. Without having the terminology for it, perhaps these early critics suspected that Jesus had been in a state of conscious sedation after his ordeal on the Cross. He wasn't dead, just sleeping. There were stories about women coming to the tomb, and strange men already there. Perhaps his followers revived him, dressed his wounds, and spirited him away to some secret place to nurse him back to health and plot his "miraculous" appearances.

The story we heard this morning does not provide definitive proof one way or the other. The women, bearing burial spices, surely thought they were burying a dead man. But what about those strange men in dazzling clothes? They seem to know something the women don't know, something we don't know. They know what's happened to Jesus, they know. And yet at the end of our story this morning we have still not yet seen Jesus.

Most of us would not be satisfied if the story ended here. And we are here this morning, because, in fact, it does go on: the risen Jesus appears, he spends time with his disciples, eats with them, teaches them, prays with them and gives them instructions. And most of us, I expect, have come here convinced that Jesus' resurrection was something more than an awakening from a conscious sedation. And so James Cameron's "discovery" of the tomb, even the very bones of some man named Jesus has not kept us away. We do not believe we have been duped, lied to or deceived.

But when I look around at the world we live in, and I reflect on my experience in the hospital, I wonder if perhaps the real deception we encounter is a self-deception. How do we survive in this world without a measure of conscious sedation - collectively induced?

Here we are smiling and singing as war rages in Iraq, as the Taliban regroups its dangerous forces in Afghanistan. We breathe sighs of relief because 15 British sailors were released from Tehran, but 15 more will die before long. It sometimes feels as thought it takes a deliberate act of conscious sedation to walk the streets of this city - even in this neighborhood where the homeless live side-by-side with the wealthy, but even more so if you were to go south or west or north of here. Just thinking about dreadful statistics of poverty, violence, abuse and death across the river in Camden is enough to make me wish for a dose of conscious sedation! Following the presidential campaign seems to be a program designed to induce conscious sedation. The City of New Orleans remains at least a partial ruins, but it does not keep us up at night because we remain consciously sedate to its woes. Add to these things our own worries: our bills, our ailing parents or sick children, the neuroses that give us worry about our friends, our desire for more money, or more house, or more land, or more time, or more freedom.

How do we survive in this world without adopting - at least from time to time - an air of conscious sedation, in which we know we are awake, but we sincerely hope (and expect) that we will not remember anything?

Wouldn't it be nice to just relax, really relax, really really relax and just be basically unaware of what's happening around us sometimes? And maybe it would even be nice not to remember. Not to remember New Orleans, or Baghdad, or the credit card bills, or the diagnosis you have told no one about yet, or the way your mother will not know you when you go to see her next?

It would be easy to become a big fan of conscious sedation - ask the people who come here to AA meetings: they know. They know how seductive it is to try to live in a state of conscious sedation - where nothing can harm you, nothing overwhelm you, with no pain, no tears, nothing.

When I awoke from my surgery, I didn't remember anything. I hadn't even laid eyes on the surgeon - didn't know what he looked like and couldn't remember his name. And they told me it would take a while for the feeling to return to my feet and legs, and then I would feel some pain. But of course, I was back in one piece.

Don't we come to his tomb year after year, somewhat numb from the pains and debts and indignities and injustices, from the wars and the wounds, from the lies and the addictions, from betrayals and lost love and dashed hopes? And are we hoping that God will wake us up, give us the feeling back in our toes, even send us some pain - anything to remind us that we can feel, that we can hope, that we can love?

And here we find two men, dressed in dazzling apparel. And they are surprised that we, like the women who came there that first Easter, expect so little. All we want is to be awakened from our conscious sedation, to get the feeling back, perhaps to learn the name of our surgeon, have a look at him, maybe meet him for a few minutes.

But the reason for our singing this morning, the reason for our joy is that we have been wrong all along, and now we know it. We were not consciously sedate - in need only of a gradual awakening, waiting for the feeling to return to our toes - no more than Jesus was only consciously sedate. In truth we have been dead - brought right down into the grave by all those things that we thought only made us numb. And so Jesus met us where we are - all the way dead, not just consciously sedate.

And today, when we had hoped for nothing more than the feeling back in our toes, had expected little more, perhaps, than some hardware to get us back on our feet, when would have settled for an awakening. Today we stand at an empty tomb that is every bit as much ours as it was Jesus'. And like the women, we are perplexed, maybe even afraid. Were we sleeping? Can we remember? Is it over? Am I whole again?

And we hear the truth:

We were not just sleeping; we had died. But if Christ is risen to new life, then it is the assurance that we are, too. And when the truth of this great blessing dawns on us, then it brings a tingling to our toes, so to speak, that is more than the feeling coming back; it is the strength to rise with the one who first rose from death, and to walk with him, and finally, to live!

Thanks be to God!

Preached by the Reverend Sean E. Mullen
Easter Day, 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
Posted on April 8, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

The Cost-Effective Cross

The physician Paul Farmer, who teaches at Harvard Medical School and has established hospitals in Haiti for the poorest of the poor, has been known to walk for seven hours to make house calls to his Haitian patients. Recently he was here at the University of Pennsylvania, where I had the privilege to hear him speak about his work. Although he did not let on while he was at Penn, I take it from what I've read about Dr. Farmer that he is something of a religious man. He has said that he finds the charter for his work in the 25th chapter of Matthew's gospel, and is inspired by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoefer.

At Penn Dr. Farmer showed us photos of an emaciated patient suffering from both tuberculosis and AIDS. Joseph was 26 yeas old and barely more than a skin-draped skeleton. His family had already purchased a coffin for him. He, himself, told his doctors, "I'm dead already…." Indeed, to many people this self diagnosis from a poor Haitian would have seemed accurate

But Farmer does not treat his patients as though they are poor Haitians. He treated Joseph with antiretroviral and anti-tuberculous drugs. Within weeks he was up and walking. And the photo of him six months later that Dr. Farmer showed us was of a healthy young man with a child in his arms.

The medical and government establishments, Farmer told us, believe that it is not "cost effective" to treat cases like Joseph's. Perhaps borrowing from our own Ben Franklin, the establishment prefers an inexpensive ounce of prevention for the poor rather than a costly pound of treatment or cure. Prevention is cheap. Treatment is not. And the people of Haiti, by and large, are very poor.

Still, Farmer says, "I never heard a patient say, 'Hey, I'm a poor Haitian woman with HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis, but I understand it is not cost-effective to treat me.'"

Farmer thinks that the medical establishment treats cost-effectiveness "like a religion," he told us. But clearly, to him it is a very bad choice of religion, founded on what one writer called "the false belief that some people's lives matter more than other's lives."

Most of us have probably subscribed in some ways to this religion of cost-effectiveness. We do it when we shop at Sam's Club or Costco or Walmart. We do it when we drive to New Jersey to buy liquor and wine. We do it when we decide to travel off-season, or when we read the paper on line rather than buy a hard copy. We do it when we buy our cheaply made clothing and shoes. If we were in Southern California, I promise you we would hire our Mexican gardener because it is deeply cost-effective. We make decisions about our housing, our political contributions, even our dining out based on how cost-effective we expect the results to be. Perhaps we even apply some formula of cost-benefit analysis to the decision of how much to drop in the collection plate each week. We would never claim this as our religion, but we have become very good at practicing it nonetheless.

It is the practice of this religion that has left most of us able to cite within half a percentage point the available rates for mortgage refinancing this week but probably unable to name even one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, (like halving the number of people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day.)

The truth is that it seems somehow cost-effective to most of us to be familiar with mortgage rates, if for no other reason than to assure ourselves that it's still OK to rent rather than buy. And really, do we think it can possibly be cost effective to try to eradicate malaria or HIV-AIDS in Africa (another Millennium Development Goal)? Can we even be bothered with the math? Do we even need to try?

"Hey, I'm just a poor African woman with malaria or HIV-AIDS, but I understand that it's not cost-effective to treat me." Who are you talking to, lady? Did we even ask?

Today we are pretending to go with Jesus to the Cross. In truth, despite the expense of the musicians, and the vestments and the overhead of opening the church; despite even the cost of gas to drive here and the parking; even if you stay parked on the street and get a ticket while you go out to brunch, in truth we have chosen the most cost-effective way to go to the Cross with Jesus. I know the seats are not that comfortable, but still, you could do worse.

And the question that has been nagging me these past few weeks since I heard Paul Farmer speak is this: is the Crucifixion cost-effective? Is the relative cost of this act of God commensurate to the effect? Is the Cross cost-effective?

Another way of asking this question is to wonder whether in the shadow of the Cross some people's lives matter more (or less) than others? As in most things, the answer to this question may depend primarily on one's perspective.

From our own perspective, the Passion of Jesus Christ is exceptionally cost-effective. After all what has it cost us to come and hear that Jesus died for us? What has it cost us to sit for an hour or so under the shadow of his Cross? What has it cost us to hear the promise of his love, his assurance - if offered to the penitent thief, then surely offered to you and me - that today we will be with him in Paradise! Well done! Nicely sung! Always look on the bright side of life and all that!

It is enough for us to hear it now and then - that Jesus died for us. It is enough for us to commemorate the moment in wood and stone and paint and glass and music. It is enough for us to shed a sentimental tear at this love unknown, to reach out our hands for this bread, to dampen our lips with this wine. It is enough. An hour and a half, after all - and yes, Jesus loves me! What a remarkably cost-effective Cross this is that has so easily bought us our freedom, our forgiveness, our lives and still leaves us time to get to brunch! I never heard a person say, "Hey, I'm a poor sinner who has done pretty much what I like in the world, but I understand that it is not cost-effective for God to save me."

But as a matter of perspective, I wonder how this looks to Jesus.

He has been betrayed by one of his own followers. He has been handed over to an unsympathetic and foreign authority. He has been interrogated, accused, unjustly sentenced. He has been jeered by a mob, deserted, now, by the rest of his disciples. He has been stripped, mocked, spat upon. He has stumbled his way up this hillside, he has carried the heavy wood, the sweat pouring from his face. He has been sentenced to die as a joke: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. He has now felt the pain of the nails - pain I pray I will never know. He has prayed his last prayer and then, it seems, given up on prayer. He has felt the heavy agony of his own breath slowly evacuating. And finally he has breathed his last.

And all this, we are told, for you and for me? Can the cost of this act ever be even roughly commensurate with the effect? Look at us?! Can it?!

The truth of the matter is that, like that Haitian patient Joseph, we would have done well to purchase our coffins. Like him, we might have said, we are dead already. Because we should have long ago drowned in our greed, our abuse of one another, of this planet, our lust for blood and war, our regular assumption that some people's lives matter more (or less) than others, and our inexhaustible willingness to flirt with the cynical religion of cost-effectiveness.

The Good News of the Passion of Jesus Christ is that his Cross is not cost-effective at all. We have never managed to show the effects of this great cost God bore to save us from ourselves. Here and there, perhaps, when we ditch the religion of cost-effectiveness and care for the poor, the price tag be damned. But has God done well in this deal? Has his Passion been matched by our promise?

The mystery of God's love for us is that it is so deeply un-cost-effective. There the Son of God suffers and dies - not because he knows that it will make us good, but with the promise that it can. The passion and death of Christ are flagrantly and extravagantly not cost-effective: all this and even his own followers don't get it, run away scared, and deny they ever knew him.

But even now, all these years later, there is a Harvard professor who will walk seven miles in Haiti to make house calls; and if there are still those, like him, who refuse to believe that some people's lives matter more than others, then maybe we begin to see in them the wisdom of God's Cross. Maybe we begin to believe that it could be possible to halve the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day. Maybe we could find a way to eradicate malaria and AIDS, and even treat poor people who suffer with these diseases.

Maybe we could think this way and make these choices because we learned from the Cross of Christ something about that love unknown before the Cross: a love that has made the math of cost-effectiveness look somehow unfair. Because how could a cost-effective God ever love us? How could a cost-effective Christ ever suffer and die for us? And how could a cost-effective Cross ever save us?

You and I are sinners: selfish, greedy, stupid and weak - magnificent, it's true - but all the more tragically so because we know in our hearts that left to our own devices, like that patient Joseph we are already dead. We might as well have bought the coffins; some of us already have.

But at the Cross, God will listen no one say "I'm just a poor sinner and I realize it is not cost-effective to save me."

At the Cross, God shows us the mystery of a love unknown to us before: a love that promises that no one's life matters more or less than another's. The long walk to that Cross has somehow visited every soul; the hands that are nailed there somehow touched every head; the arms stretched out there somehow reaching every life - waiting only for us to stretch out our own arms and return the embrace.

Preached by the Reverend Sean E. Mullen
Palm Sunday, 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
Posted on April 1, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.