A Summary of the Law

One of the problems with the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that everyone always assumes that they have already learned the lesson it’s meant to convey.  What is that lesson?  Of course, it is the answer to the question that the lawyer asked Jesus: Who is my neighbor?  And the answer, as everyone knows, is that you need to learn to see the other as your neighbor - even someone who is very different from you, and especially when that person is in need.  Easy-peasy.  What could be simpler?  Can we move on to the Creed, please, and get out of church early today?

Now, the need to see the other as our neighbor is not a bad lesson, and it would be very good for us to learn it.  It is a particularly tempting lesson to want to apply to all sorts of issues in American life at just the moment.  But strictly speaking, it is not the lesson that Jesus was teaching when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The parable, when interpreted this way, easily becomes an exercise in perception of the world around us, as if the important thing to do is to be able to look out at a sea of humanity and identify the neighbor among many competing possibilities.  Such an exercise can be practiced in a number of imaginative ways, including, for instance, on a firing range - like the type that exist in movies when someone is being trained for military or police service, and targets pop up on a firing range, and you have to take out the terrorist, but leave the old lady crossing the street unharmed, as well as the little girl walking her dog.  You can see how such an exercise could answer the question, Who is my neighbor?  But pairing that question with the question “whom should I shoot?” is probably not what Jesus had in mind.

Although it sounds as though Jesus might be holding up a viewfinder to the lawyer, and asking him to “find the neighbor,” I do not think that is actually what is happening here.  Yes, there is a choice to be made, in the way Jesus tells the story, there is discernment to be done.  There’s a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan, and there is no question that Jesus is asking the lawyer to choose one.  “Which one of these three,” he asks, “do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers.”

The answer is obvious to nearly everyone... and of course it is obvious to the lawyer, who rightly answers, “The one who showed him mercy.”

And it is what Jesus says next that shows us how easily we miss his point, because we think we already know the point of this parable.  Jesus, says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”  And with those few words, he shows the lawyer that this was never an exercise about picking out the neighbor from among a pool of options.  It was never a matter of looking through a viewfinder in order to make the correct choice.  It wasn’t even a matter of the Samaritan perceiving the injured man to be his neighbor.

Image of the Arizona desert from Border Angels

Image of the Arizona desert from Border Angels

Because Jesus wasn’t holding up a viewfinder for the lawyer to peer through, so to speak, and then to find the neighbor.  No, Jesus was holding up a mirror.  The issue at hand was not whether or not the lawyer could find the neighbor, it was about whether or not the lawyer was prepared to be the neighbor.  And the parable should probably read the same way for each of us.  

It’s as easy to use this parable to indict some un-neighborly person for failing to do his or her duty, as it to round up illegal immigrants at the border.  And it is absolutely the case that this parable has a lot to say about what’s happening at our borders these days, borders we have become obsessed with “securing” as though that task has a clear meaning and is an unmitigated good.

But no society can enforce all the laws all the time - you have to make choices.  And it’s telling that there are some laws being zealously enforced at this time in our nation that are holding people accountable for their actions, keeping in check many people who have no money and even less power.  While other laws are paid mere lip service, allowing free rein and wide berth to the rich and the powerful.  This is not a new pattern in America, but the pattern is being honed in this nation at this time in a way that’s noticeable.

It’s not a coincidence that the word used to describe Jesus’ interlocutor in this episode is rendered as “lawyer” even though the person in question is a religious authority, and not what you and I fist think of when we think of a lawyer.  It’s his interest and his business to attend to the laws of the faith - a faith that defines itself in laws.  And it’s no coincidence that the lawyer chose his words carefully, when he answered Jesus’ question: Which one of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

It was the one who showed him mercy.  Mercy always stands apart from the law.  Mercy might not suspend the law entirely, but mercy feels free to relax the law, to bend the law, and to seek the spirit that sometimes gets crushed by the letter of the law.  Sometimes, mercy even show us how to change the law.

There is no argument to be made that the priest and the Levite failed in their responsibilities to the letter of the law.  The parable, as Jesus tells it, assumes that we know that the choices of the priest and the Levite were entirely defensible (by, say, a lawyer), that these two were, by some definition, faithful to the law, keeping its precepts for the sake of their own cleanliness, and readiness to present themselves to God.  But they had forgotten the second part of the call to faith that is always appended to the first commandment that thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  And the second commandment is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

The priest and the Levite had forgotten that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  And even though the lawyer knows this, perhaps he was ready to forget this too.  So Jesus teaches him a lesson in mercy, which is also a lesson in how to keep the law.  And the key to that lesson is not that the lawyer needs to learn a new way to see the world, rather that he needs to remember an old way of seeing himself.  It is a call for the lawyer to remember how to be a neighbor, which is also a call to show mercy in the way he approaches the law.

Now, it’s a fool’s errand on many levels to apply a sermon like this to the furore that has been kicked up around immigration policy, and the way it’s being conducted along our souther border.  But as a child who grew up with grandparents who spoke with thick Slavish accents, I can’t quite leave the errand alone.

The pulpit is not normally the place to argue for or against a particular public policy, and I don’t want to use this pulpit in that way.  But I do want to recall the story of Scott Warren, whose trial on federal conspiracy charges, and felony charges of harboring illegal immigrants ended recently in a mistrial, when a jury could not reach an agreement about the implications of his actions.

To my knowledge the facts of the case are not disputed: that Mr. Warren, a 36 year-old geography teacher, provided aid and assistance to a pair of Central American immigrants who entered this country illegally, and arrived tired, dehydrated, and with blistered feet.  It seems obvious that Mr Warren put himself in a place where he intended to encounter such migrants.  It seems clear that Mr. Warren knew that such attempts to enter this country are illegal.

The government says that “this case is not about humanitarian aid, or anyone in medical distress,” but that it is about “whether Mr. Warren attempted to ‘shield’ two undocumented immigrants from law enforcement for several days.”

Mr. Warren’s lawyer painted a different picture, claiming that “Mr. Warren had not committed a crime by helping the migrants, even if what he did might have allowed them to stay out of sight of law enforcement agents. ‘Scott Warren is a law-abiding, life-giving good Samaritan,’ he told the jury.”*

And here, we see the problem in assuming that we knew what this parable was all about.  We thought that it was all about looking out over the Rio Grande and deciding whether or those struggling, suffering, dehydrated, blistered souls trying to escape hopelessness count as our neighbors.  I can’t answer that question for you, or anyone else.  And actually, I guess, neither can Scott Warren.  But his lawyer seems to have understood the way that Jesus really told this parable, as a mirror for ourselves, as a way to judge what kind of decisions we make when faced with someone over there, on the other side of the street, who’s been left for dead.

This is not a parable that tells us very much that we didn’t already know about the plight of the poor, injured party, to whose rescue no one has come.  It does however, tell us a lot about ourselves, when we ask which of the three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers.

The obvious answer is that it was the one who showed him mercy.  And the moral of the story is this: Go and do likewise.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 July 2019
Saint Mark’s Church Philadelphia

Posted on July 14, 2019 .

Freedom in the Gardens

The last time I was in Spain I had the opportunity to see two paintings that I’d known about for a long time, but never seen in person.

The first one, I wasn’t looking for, but I could hardly avoid it, as it was on special exhibition at its home, El Prado.  It is The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted around the turn of the 16th century by the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.  The work is probably meant to be read from left to right, but I’ll take the panels out of order, to start.  

The central panel of this large triptych famously depicts a kind of phantasmagorical scene of men and women “cavorting with abandon,” surrounded by creatures real and imagined, some of whom are getting in on the fun.  Dozens upon dozens of nude figures in every conceivable grouping are enjoying themselves in ways that are erotically suggestive, but never quite explicit.  Over-sized birds and giant fish are involved, among other things.  The people are enjoying themselves on land, and in the water, and in a number of pavilions that look as though they could have been designed by Salvador Dalí.  The scene is clearly presented as an extension of the Garden of Eden.  But it is hard to say at first glance whether it is supposed to represent a perversion of paradise or a fulfillment of it.

To the right is an equally wild depiction of what must be the torments of hell, most of which are not suitable for description from a pulpit.  The background is dark.  Pain, injury, and molestation of all kinds are taking place.  And fires burn in a city from which hordes are fleeing.

from The Garden of Earthly Delights

from The Garden of Earthly Delights

The left-hand panel, which must be Eden, is much calmer and more sedate than the other parts of the work.  Only three figures occupy the scene, in contrast to the hundreds teeming in the other two sections.  Here Bosch has painted God presenting Eve to Adam.  God is portrayed as a young man, perhaps the pre-incarnate Christ, complete with blond hair.  He is robed in a flowing rose-colored gown, clasped at the neck with some sort of morse or brooch.  His bare toes are only just visible, peeking out from beneath his ample garment.  He is grasping Eve’s right wrist with his left hand, almost as if he is confirming that she has a pulse.

Eve is naked, with long golden tresses, her eyes modestly cast down, half-kneeling (like an Episcopalian) on a little hillock.  The divine grasp of her wrist allows her to extend her hand, opened, toward Adam.

Adam, also naked, is sitting on the ground on the other side of the Lord, supporting himself, quite naturally, with his right arm.  It’s hard to tell if his gaze is directed more toward the Lord or the woman; it would seem that he is trying to figure out what to make of this moment.

Adam is doing the most adorable thing, in a very large painting that includes almost nothing adorable.  As he sits there gazing up, he is extending his feet toward the Lord and reaching out to grab the hem of the Lord’s robe between the big toes of his two feet in a sort of playful way.  You can barely see that Adam’s left foot has come into contact with God’s right foot beneath the fabric of his gown.  It is a delightfully childish gesture, in which the first man seems to be grasping for the security of his creator, faced with the recognition that creation is not all about him.

Of the two first humans, Adam and Eve, one of them is clearly more ready than the other for what lies ahead.

Two last details about this section of the painting.  God’s right hand is raised in blessing.  And his gaze is directed unambiguously toward the viewer.

Guernica

Guernica

The second painting I saw was the great scene of destruction made by Picasso on his enormous canvas, Guernica.  All in black and white and greys, the painting has been called the “emblem for all the devastating tragedies of modern society.” *

If Bosch’s triptych is intended to be read from left to right, from paradise to perdition, then I suppose you can think of Guernica as an extension of the right-hand panel’s vision of the torments of hell.  In this case, hell on earth.  A mother wails with grief as she carries the body of her dead child in her arms.  A soldier lies dismembered on the ground.  Another woman reaches to the heavens as her home burns around her.  A horse, impaled, brays its death throes.  Another woman strains on one knee to make her escape.  All is chaos and terror, fire and blood.  And a divine eye looks down and sees it all.

Shift gears for a moment to the passage from Galatians in which we heard St. Paul tell us that “for freedom Christ has set us free.”  And then we heard him go on in a highly dualistic way about the contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit.

Lovely though it is to hear of the fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control,” we are less self-conscious, I think, than people used to be about the works of the flesh: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  Indeed, it is clear which set of behaviors is predominant in the public sphere in America these days.

In many ways, it is just this kind of dualistic thinking that so many modern people have rejected, finding it moralizing and judgy.  And since the church is often characterized as nothing more than a hotbed of hypocrisy, and St. Paul is thought to have been in need of a bit of therapy, it has become almost reflexive to respond to this teaching with that contemporary expression of timeless complaint: You’re not the boss of me!  Which is why it is so helpful to be able to stand in front of paintings like The Garden of Earthly delights and Guernica, and let God speak to us there.  And I hope you will go and look at these images later on.

It’s helpful for me not to begin in the beginning, and, instead, to read these paintings backward, from right to left (like Hebrew), beginning with Guernica, painted in 1937 in both the aftermath and on the brink of war.  The scene includes that crucial element that is missing completely from Bosch’s painting: a child.  Rather, the body of a child: the collateral damage of our grown up ways.  The torments of Bosch’s hell seem almost quaint once you have paused at the left hand edge of Picasso’s painting, where the child’s mother cries out in despair.  Nevertheless, those torments are perverse, imaginative, and plentiful.

Continuing past to the left, we face the large panel depicting the Garden of Earthly Delights.  It’s a little like a billboard for a high-end swingers’ resort in the Poconos.  Part of the great value of the painting is the ambiguity of this scene.  Is this the kind of freedom God will permit in a paradise regained?  Or is it nothing more than our own perversion of the freedom God gave us in Eden?  The artist has not made his own judgment clear, and scholars are a bit divided on the question.

But keep reading backwards, to get back to the Garden of Eden, where the Lord of Life is giving us our freedom.  Put aside for a moment the patriarchal and cis-gendered normative assumptions of the image (it was the turn of the 16th century, after all).  What the painting shows is God making us happy and free.  All three of the figures remain physically connected.  Eve is connected because the divine hand has not yet let go of her.  And Adam is connected because he still reaches out with his big toes to grasp his Lord, maybe knowing that he is not ready to handle so much freedom, so much happiness.  You are free to see yourself in either of these two persons, I suppose.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  Complicated though living the Christian life may sometimes be, sometimes it is not so complicated at all.  Paul, taking up Jesus’ teaching, tries, actually, to make it simple: “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But, of course, we get caught up when we hear him say “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other.”  And so we keep walking the wrong way through the freedom God has given us: leaving paradise for the gardens of whatever earthly delights we choose, and heading, over and over again into warfare, tragedy, injustice, and corruption.

Most likely, we don’t believe it when we hear Paul say that for freedom Christ has set us free.  Because we have spent our lifetimes walking away from freedom toward Guernica, certain that warfare and misery are someone else’s fault, and that our demand for cheap TVs, bananas, and beef (just to choose a few things) has nothing to do with it.

If the church sometimes seems old fashioned, retrograde, and stuck in the mud, it may be because we can also see the wisdom in walking the other way toward freedom, and toward a memory of a time when we could offer ourselves with open hands to one another, but still reach out for God with our toes, and stay connected both to God and to one another.  That was paradise.  That was freedom.  What was there before us that we couldn’t do?!?

The astonishing gift of Christ’s ministry is to open again the way to freedom; to promise that the gates of paradise are not locked to us; and to bring us again into that lovely, simple, physical connection to our Lord, who, on the one hand hasn’t let go of us yet, and on the other, is perfectly happy to let us reach out and grab him with our toes.

Look, you can call it a Garden of Earthly Delights, but if all it brings is fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, then what good is it to us?  Don’t we see exactly what it looks like when that garden gets overgrown?

When we turn around and move the other way toward freedom, we soon find that Christ has been looking for us, looking at us, all along, and that his hand has been raised in blessing - a blessing meant for us - all along.  And we find that we are confronted by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

Considering the world we live in now, I think I’d like to walk that way toward freedom; wouldn’t you?  

In fact, I feel as though I’d like to sit down on the ground, take off my shoes and socks, and reach with my toes to see if I can’t catch the hem of Christ’s garment between my toes… and find his feet there, and rejoice that we are still connected!  And I believe we always will be!  Thanks be to God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 June 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


*Paloma Esteban Leal, for the Museo Reina Sofia

Posted on June 30, 2019 .

Tending to the Crumbs

On this great Solemnity of Corpus Christi, it is tempting to speak of many things. I could wax enthusiastically about the theology of bread, because my hands are frequently in the dough these days. Saint Mark’s Rise ministry is making bread twice a month, and I can now see why bread is the perfect metaphor for Christ’s Body. Little yeast particles look like they have no life within them until you mix them with water, salt, honey, and flour. Let me tell you: they are indeed quite alive. But in the past year, you’ve heard a richly theological sermon on bread from Fr. Mullen, and I won’t be able to say it any better than he already has.

Or on this sublime feast of the church, I could engage in wistful reveries about my childhood, about how I came to appreciate the magnificent mystery of the most holy Sacrament of the Altar in preparing for First Communion. I could recount my eager expectation of receiving Christ’s Body and Blood and that overpowering, joyful instance when I actually extended my hands in faith for the first time and the tiny host was placed upon my palm. But this day is not about me; it’s about Jesus’s extraordinary presence among us in ordinary bread and wine.

Or on this day of great devotion, I could muse on the inexplicable magnetic quality of the Blessed Sacrament, a quality that inspires intense piety and that beckons people to gaze with awe and reverence at a tiny circle of bread. But I suspect that we are gathered here today because we already have some notion of the irresistible attraction of what has been called “the jewel in the crown among the sacraments.”[1]

So what I want to talk about on this feast, perhaps paradoxically, are crumbs. Yes, crumbs. Now, before you imagine that I’m about to stray into a precious lecture about ablutions, rest assured, I am not. But in thinking about crumbs, I couldn’t help but recall a curious sentence contained in an obscure footnote in that rather antiquated tome of liturgical ceremonial, Ritual Notes.

The author offers this advice to the priest on spreading the corporal on the altar at the beginning of Low Mass:

“If there is a large cross embroidered on the corporal, it is better if this is placed so as to be at the back; if it is in front, the embroidery may very easily retain some fragments of the Blessed Sacrament.”[2]

Now, you might both appreciate this advice and chuckle a bit at it, too. This sentence comes, of course, from a well-intentioned place in the heart. It is concerned, as we should very well be, with treating the Blessed Sacrament with great reverence. This rather fussy ceremonial instruction, though, springs from such reverence that even the tiniest particles of the consecrated host are worthy of attention.

Without being too obsessive with perfection in tending to the crumbs, I do wonder if this somewhat over-scrupulous sentence from Ritual Notes might actually have something important to teach us about why this feast matters, why our devotions on this day are important for the sake of the world.

It was St. Augustine of Hippo who brilliantly proclaimed that in the Sacrament of the Mass the mystery of ourselves is, in fact, placed on the altar. We are the living Body of Christ, and so by the final Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, we gaze upon ourselves in the Bread and Wine of the Mass. It’s an extraordinary theological statement: so simple and yet so profound. When we adore the Blessed Sacrament, it’s as if we are looking into a mirror at ourselves—or maybe seeing who we should be, who we hope to be.

Because peering into this mirror is so often shrouded with the dimness of human myopia, an inability to discern the true nature of the Body of Christ. Does the miraculous become mundane by its revelation in ordinary crumbs of bread and drops of wine? Has the greatest of mysteries lost its mystery because we frequently fail to discern the body, because our inner vision is indeed not clear?

St. Augustine also exhorted the newly baptized in a famous sermon on the Eucharist saying this about the bread:

“Let it not appear common to you because you see it. That which you see passes away: the invisible thing which is signified thereby passes not away, but abides.”[3]

Let it not appear common to you because you see it.

Perhaps the question isn’t so much whether we believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are truly present in the Bread and Wine of the Mass but has more to do with how we tend to the crumbs. Do we believe the crumbs really matter, and not just the crumbs of the sacred Host on the altar?

If we are indeed to have holy admiration for a tiny crumb of that infinitely abundant loaf of the Bread of life, a wafer held aloft and adored, genuflected to, and carried around in a monstrance, and if we are truly Christ’s living Body, then shouldn’t we also be affectionately tending to the crumbs of Christ’s Body sprinkled all around us? In God’s estimation, is not the tiniest morsel of humanity, made in the image of God, to be treated as a worthy crumb? Does not our adoration of Christ in Bread and Wine teach us how to love God as we ought and therefore to love others with truer intention because they contain God’s image?

There is more than meets the eye in the crumbs of the human race, strewn all around us. Beneath the ragged exteriors, beneath the gruff voices, beneath the foul smells, there is precious life. These are not stale crumbs of bread; these are living members of Christ’s Body. Let it not appear common to you because you see it.

Sadly, in this very city, it’s all too common, isn’t it, to find brothers and sisters in need of proper nourishment or comfortable places to sleep? The crumbs of Christ’s Body are themselves begging for crumbs. How has the image in the mirror become so distorted?

It’s a cruelly wasteful world in which we live, too. Crumbs constantly slip through the cracks and are carelessly or even maliciously stomped on because, well, they seem like the scraps of society. Crumbs are treated as disposable, are seen as waste products that are worthy of no other place than the refuse bins of our cities. They are regarded as if they have no life in them, as dormant yeast particles or worse yet, as yeast that is past its shelf life and relegated to the trash. But just because we see it doesn’t mean it should appear common to us.

I could further list the uncountable drops of blood spilled in needless violence here in this city and of course all over the world. Or should I tell of the ways in which blood is used to pull people apart rather than to unite? But just because we see it, let it not appear common to us.

If the world has ever needed a feast like today’s great feast, it is now. For the most holy Sacrament of the altar teaches us reverence, and I don’t need to tell you that reverence is a rare commodity these days. Adoration of Jesus Christ in the most Blessed Sacrament compels us to have respect for the crumbs, at the altar and in the world. And the more that the crumbs seem common to us, the more that we fail to discern the real presence of Christ’s body and blood dwelling among us. And as St. Paul says, this is our judgment. 

But thankfully, this day is really about God and about what God has promised us in the Blessed Sacrament, for he has promised that what we receive in Bread and Wine, although it is invisible, is not at all common. It is the living Bread come down from heaven. It is true food and true drink. It enables us to live forever. It is bread given for the life of the world. It is broken for a church that is to live vibrantly, to rise abundantly, not to die slowly. It is shared with a world that is waiting to be leavened by God.

When Christ feeds us with himself in the Mass, nothing is wasted. There is no particle of humanity too tiny to be cared for. There is no hunger or thirst too vast to be quenched with his true food and drink. The feast of Corpus Christi might seem to be the most private of devotions, but it is, in fact, the most corporate of them all. Corpus Christi is devotion for nothing less than a holy Crumb that bestows eternal life and that commands us to honor life in all the crumbs of the world.

Here and now, in our earthly pilgrimage, Christ’s Body and Blood are our sustaining food for the journey towards greater communion with God, that God may ever more deeply dwell in us and we in him. We should yearn always for this food, as if in a barren and dry land where there is nothing to eat or drink. Let our appetite be insatiable for this heavenly repast.

God does not waste the crumbs; God tends to them. As Jesus urged his disciples to gather up the leftover crumbs from the feeding of the five thousand, one day God will mold into one loaf the discarded crumbs of humanity. From east and west, from north and south, those seemingly desiccated particles of bread and those precious drops of blood spilled because of human sinfulness will be gathered up into a heavenly feast where no one goes hungry and where no one suffers and where glorious feasting has no end. May we be inspired by that most holy Crumb in the sacrament of the altar, which we shall shortly worship, adore, and receive. May we lovingly tend to the crumbs with God’s grace. Let those crumbs not appear common to you, and let not a single crumb, not a single grain be lost.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
23 June 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

[1] John Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments (London: SCM Press LTD, 1997), 102.

[2] E.C.R. Lamburn, Ritual Notes, 11th ed., London: W. Knott & Son, 1964), p. 124.

[3] Ibid., 86.

Posted on June 23, 2019 .