Sheep will make an appearance in any decent English fantasy you might have.  If you don’t have an image in your head of a little, right-hand-drive, stick-shift car stopped in a narrow lane, as a flock of sheep cross in front of you, impeding your progress with a certain degree of charm, then I don’t know what you have been dreaming about when you dream about England.  But sheep have also played a complicated role in the history of England, especially if you consider the drawn-out process that took place over some 600 years, known as “enclosure.”  Enclosure was “the division or consolidation of communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other arable lands in western Europe into the carefully delineated and individually owned and managed farm plots of modern times.”* 

Anything I have to say about enclosure will be an over-simplification, born primarily of ignorance.  But it remains a fact that for hundreds of years “the open field system and the communal pastures [of England] came under attack from wealthy landowners who wanted to privatize their use.”**

Sheep, it turns out, are relatively easy and inexpensive to keep, as long as you have plenty of grass, as England does.  And sheep’s wool, it would seem, could bring a handsome return on a modest investment.  But grazing sheep requires land.  And the system of the commons - that is, land that “was at the disposal of the community for grazing by the village livestock and for other purposes,” - was an obstacle to the maximization of income for the aspiring large-scale wool producer.  You could make more money with more sheep grazing more land, if only you could get rid of the people using the commons to feed themselves.  The answer to this problem, if you were a “manorial lord” was “to enclose land... [and] put a hedge or fence around a portion of this open land and thus prevent the exercise of common grazing and other rights over it.”***

The thing about enclosure is that it’s not really about either the land or the sheep. It’s really just about the money.  Which means that although it unfolded over many centuries, long ago, it is nevertheless a thoroughly modern story.

Many’s the preacher who has pointed out how unflattering is Jesus’ comparison of us - sophisticated, complicated, wonderful us, the crowning accomplishment of God’s creation - how unflattering is the comparison of us to a flock of sheep.  It is easy to take offense at the comparison, or to reject it altogether, which allows us then to ignore anything that follows.  If you don’t see yourself as a sheep, then you can’t imagine why on earth you would require a shepherd.

But if we look at history a little differently, perhaps it is easier to see why a shepherd could be a good idea for us humans, even now.  For the process of enclosure, wasn’t really something that was done to lands, or even to sheep.  The process of enclosure was a policy delivered by one, privileged group of people upon another, less well resourced group of people.  It was a policy delivered by the strong upon the weak, to deprive them of the little they had.  All you have to do is follow the money to see this.  Enclosure required a culture that vested power in ownership, which is to say a culture that vested more power in those who were already powerful.

The church, believe it or not, raised her voice in England to object to enclosure.  Several of the best-known English reformers weighed in on the matter with concern.  More famously, Sir Thomas More wrote critically in his work “Utopia,” that “noble man and gentleman, yea and certeyn Abbottes leave no ground for tillage, thei inclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down townes, and leave nothing standynge but only the churche to be made a shepehowse.”****  In a literary turn of facetious pique, More writes that it is a though “your shepe... eate up and swallow down the very men them selfes.”  Such is the effect of enclosure upon those with little power to demand for themselves the common good that once was thought rightly to be theirs.  Perhaps the reason that More decided to assign responsibility to the “shepe” for this slow-motion tragedy, meted out upon the weak by the strong, was his unerring faith in the power of a particular shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd.  I know my own, and my own know me,” Jesus said.  What an incredible statement of good faith this was for him to make.  For, while undoubtedly our Lord does know all his sheep by name, even the numbers of hairs on our heads, it remains to be seen how well we “shepe” know him.  If we “shepe” really knew our shepherd, and what he desires for us, and what he demands of us, and what he has done for us, and where he calls us, and what he promises us, would we really make the choices we make, and create the kind of society we have created?  If we knew our shepherd, would we really reinforce a culture that so regularly, consistently, and deliberately vests power only in those who are already powerful, and that repeatedly metes out tragedy (often in slow-motion) upon the weak at the hands of, and to the benefit of the strong?

Jesus said, “there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  But this lovely statement of unity is impossible as long as we insist on enclosure, which means my flock and your flock must stay within their respective hedges; and which makes no provision at all for those who just need to plant potatoes to get through the winter.

Of course Jesus was using pastoral language to speak to a pastoral people, and so it is possible that he did not intend his words to say so much about how we organize ourselves into societies.  Except that his talk of shepherding includes the acknowledgement that he “lay down [his] life for the sheep.”  And actually, I am not convinced that it was the accepted best practice of shepherding for a shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep.  I strongly suspect that Jesus is teaching us that he is a shepherd like no other, and that he is calling us to be a flock like no other: gathered in unity, bound together in love, committed to a common hope for what lies before us, and sanctified by the blood he shed for our sake, the gift of his life laid down for us before we even knew we were in peril.

Existing, as we do, behind our various hedges, walls, and fences, how can we ever learn to be one flock with one shepherd?  And as long as we resist the call to be one flock with one shepherd, how can we ever really learn to know our shepherd, as he desires we should?

The hedges, walls, and fences we build have enclosed our hearts, our homes, our communities, our churches, our common resources, and our nations.  We have become experts at enclosure, and this expertise has suited the rich and the powerful just fine, since it has promoted the expansion of their wealth, vesting more power in the hands of those who are already powerful, just as it did in England.

Many English fantasies - admittedly childish ones - in addition to involving sheep, include the distinction between the commoner and nobility.  And we tend to think that the word itself - a commoner - is a description of the low social status of a person, helpfully distinguished from the nobility.  There is some truth to this, and every contemporary dictionary that I consulted supports this notion more or less, calling a commoner “one of the common people,” “one who is not of noble rank,” at least in the first instance.*****

But the full-size, old fashioned, Oxford English Dictionary, ever helpful, provides this as the first definition of a commoner: “a member of the community having civic rights; a … citizen….”  although it does take till the seventh definition before those rights are described as including “joint right in common lands.”****** But at the core of the matter there are rights that belong to a common people, enjoying a common life, on this common earth.

Jesus is our shepherd, which is to say he is our common lord.  And it ought to be inconceivable to any church that he laid down his life so that we could establish thornier hedges between us, to delineate what’s mine, and not yours; to vest power only with those who are already powerful; to mete out tragedy upon the weak at the hands of, and to the benefit of the strong.  How could any such shepherd be called good?

In fact, by calling himself a shepherd, and distinguishing himself from the wolf, Jesus is teaching us that he is on the side of the weak, not the powerful.  By distinguishing himself from the hired hand, he teaches us that neither is he concerned with some business interest to do with the sheep; that you can follow the money, but it will not lead to him.  Even when Jesus allows for the possibility of an enclosed flock of sheep, he teaches that he is the gate, by which sheep may safely come and go.

Ironically, when we dream about the hedgerows and stone walls of the English countryside, we probably imagine that all this was made for the sheep, that the walls and the hedges keep them safe.  We tell ourselves that this is just good animal husbandry.  But actually, it is just good business.

Enclosure, at which we have become exceedingly good in more ways than I can possibly account for, serves the purposes of the few at the expense of the many, and may not make anyone safer.  But it does ensure that power stays in the hands of those who already have it.  It may or may not do any good for the sheep.  But it certainly serves someone’s purposes.

What sheep need to safely graze is a broad and green pasture, and relatively still waters.  And most of all, they need a shepherd who knows them, and who is known to them for his strength, his faithfulness, and his love.

Jesus is the good shepherd.  He requires neither hedge nor wall to keep us safe, for he defends us with his own life.  And it is a matter of grace and of hope that he has promised us, enclosed as we are, that some day we will be free, and there will be only one, common flock, beneath the banner of his love.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
22 April 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

*Encyclopedia Britannica
** “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain,” Simon Fairlie, from The Land Magazine, 2009
*** Britannica
****Sir Thomas More, “Utopia”, 1551
***** Merriam-Webster online
****** Oxford English Dictionary

Posted on April 22, 2018 .

The Way Things Really Are

On March 27th of this year, the journal Scientific Reports published a new medical study that made quite a few headlines. No, this wasn’t one of those new studies like Is drinking red wine good for you? or Will eating seven kumquats a day actually help you lose weight? This study was about something called the interstitium, and the reason it made so many headlines is because it suggests that the interstitium is a new organ in the human body. That’s right – in addition to your hearts and lungs, your gall bladder (if you still have one of those), and your hold-over of an appendix, you now have another whole organ.

The interstitium is a series of tiny sacks, little compartments, that are held together by a mesh of connective tissue. Inside each little sack is fluid, and this is important. In the past, when scientists studied this connective tissue, they did so by slicing off a thin layer of the tissue and then drying it so that they could see the internal structures clearly. This drying process meant that the fluid of the interstitium had long disappeared by the time scientists clicked a slide into place and looked into the lens of their microscopes. The result of this technique was that, because there was no liquid to be seen, scientists saw only solid, dense tissue. This recent study is based on a different technique – probe-based confocal laser endomicroscopy – which is really fun to say but, more importantly, is an examination of living tissue. The result of this approach was that scientists were able to notice, for the first time, that this system of connective tissue is not solid at all, but instead is filled with little sacs of fluid.

The new study, led by a pathologist at NYU and assisted by several researchers at Penn, suggests that this new discovery may help to explain how cancer cells spread throughout the body. The interstitium is, as one reporter described is, “a highway of moving fluid,” and this newly-discovered conduit may be an integral part of the path malignant cells take as they move from one system to another in the body. The study is new, and its full implications may not be known for years to come, but there is some measured excitement in parts of the medical community about the impact this new understanding of the body may have on our treatment of disease.

All of which is really interesting, as were the subsequent twitter conversations about what we should name this new organ, since “interstitium” is, after all, a pretty boring name. Suggestions ranged from Pluto, to make up for the fact that Pluto is no longer a planet; Hammond (get it); Organ McOrgan face; and, my personal favorite, Bernard, because, as someone suggested, maybe if we called our organs by a first name we’d be more apt to take care of them. But the most interesting response to this study is not academic or comedic; it is, no pun intended, visceral: the stunning realization that there is something in your body that nobody knew was there before. You have an interstitium, a Bernard; you’ve always had it, everyone’s always had it, but nobody ever knew it. That’s kind of wonderfully mind-blowing, don’t you think? That even in these august scientific times, there is still something new to be learned. We can still be surprised by the fact that things are sometimes not what we think.

Things are sometimes not what we think, or, said another way, the way we think things are is not the way they really are. This is the core message of the stories of resurrection appearances we hear week after week in these early days of Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen, and how does that change the way things are? Does that change the way things are? The disciples, it seems, need some time to figure this out. They had thought they knew how this whole system of life worked. You were born and named, you grew (if you were lucky), you made good choices and were blessed, you made bad choices and were punished, you sinned and repented, celebrated and mourned, and then you died, and when you died, you moldered and dissolved into dust. This was just how things were. There was proof of this, or so they thought. They had seen it happen over and over again. They had been witnesses of this system their whole lives.

When Jesus came on the scene, they had to make some adjustments to their understanding of the system. Now they could see that God could also inject himself into the system in more powerful ways than they had thought possible. They saw in Christ a kind of spiritual intervention – now, suddenly, people could be healed in new and dramatic ways. People could repent and be forgiven who had only ever been cast out before. There could be a new kind of power – the power of this Messiah, who could stand up to the religious authorities and even the civic ones and, perhaps, even change the molecular structure of the system itself. But when this Messiah didn’t choose to manifest his power in worldly strength, the disciples fell back into their old understandings. If he was crucified, then he must be dead. And if he is dead, then our mission must be over.

Today’s story is the natural outgrowth of that kind of thinking. If he is dead, then our mission must be over. If he is dead, then we must be next. So if he is dead, why don’t we hide out for a while? Even when Jesus appears among them, saying, Peace be with you, the disciples still lean on their old understandings. If he is dead, and he is standing before us, then he must be a ghost. And if he is a ghost, and if he is in here with us, then holy moly are we in trouble.

But Jesus, in his infinite patience and with his infinite love, remains with them, talks to them, and offers them proof – as scientific as it could get in the 1st century – that he is not a ghost. There is no need for a probe-based confocal laser endomicroscopy here; Jesus offers them his hands and his feet. Touch me and see, he says, see that I am no ghost. Could a ghost do this? he asks, as he gobbles down a piece of broiled fish from their fire. I was dead, and now I am before you. I am before you, and I am not a ghost. I am not a ghost, and so I must be alive. In short, I am the proof that your system is wrong. You are witnesses of this – that things are not what you’ve thought all your lives. The way you think things are is not the way they really are.

Easter is our chance, every year, to experience the same kind of jolt that we got when reading that article about Bernard. Easter is our opportunity to be surprised back into the way things really are. All year long we can imagine that we know how the system works, this system that we can see right before our eyes, this system of sin and consequences, of justice ignored or imperfectly executed, of love that fails, of healing that elude us, of death that waits, indomitable, for us all. But Easter wakes us up one morning and reminds us that this way – the way we thought things were – is not the way things really are. There is more grace in this world than we can see with the naked eye. There is more forgiveness here than we could ever find with a microscope. There is more healing here than we could imagine, more love, more life, more compassion, than any study could ever prove. There is more space for God in our lives than we know. We are part of a body, a vast network of connective tissue that is filled with the holy waters of baptism, which move God’s Grace in and around this world like a highway of moving holiness.

So if you are sitting here today thinking that your faith will always be dried out and flat, that is not the way things really are.  If you are sitting here today thinking that your broken heart will never mend, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that you will never be loved the way you want to be loved, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that you will never, ever be forgiven because maybe you will never, ever deserve it, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that racism and prejudice are more powerful than acceptance and love, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that you, or the Church, or Christianity is dead, and so your mission must be over, that is not the way things really are. If you are thinking that death, or the fear of death, or the avoidance of death, or the grieving of death is the final word, that is not the way things really are.

For you are a part of this particular study that we call discipleship; you are the ones who are witnesses of this wonderfully mind-blowing truth – that Christ is risen, and his redeeming work has made things the way they really are. He has made you who you really are. You are in Christ’s body, and he is in you. This is how – this is who – you really are.

Posted on April 15, 2018 .

Finding the Tune

2016-08-15 03.52.31.jpg

Driving home from New York today, while I was thinking about today’s celebration of the Annunciation, coming a couple of weeks later than usual, I happened to hear a snippet of a an interview with the composer Richard Rodgers from 1960, included on Fresh Air.  Rodgers was talking about the way he and collaborator Oscar Hammerstein worked together on writing songs.  He said that Hammerstein, unlike most lyricists, liked to write the words of a song before the tune was written, without the music in his ears.  “Without a tune,” Rodgers said, Hammerstein’s “lyrics are beautifully built.”  The practice suited Rodgers, just fine, he said, since he, as a composer, found it helpful to have the words of a song in hand before he sat down to write the tune.  He said that “having the lyric, in addition to the situation gives me an extra push to finding the solution to the problem of finding the tune.”*

The archangel Gabriel was on my mind when I heard Richard Rodgers talk about finding the solution to the problem of finding the tune.  Gabriel is, by all accounts, musical.  You might even say that he is a musician, most often depicted with a trumpet as his instrument, but I imagine he can play a few others as well.  And I wonder if Gabriel, given the message of Good News that he was to bring to Mary, might have considered that, with these marvelous words in hand, in addition to the remarkable situation, he now had to approach the solution to the problem of finding the tune.  

What kind of tune can convey the news that “thou hast found favor with God.  And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.   He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest….  The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee… [and] that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”  How do you set such words to music for the first time -before anyone else has given it a go.  How did Gabriel sing these words to Mary - for don’t you think he must have sung them to her?  How did he find a solution to the problem of finding the tune of the Good News of the coming Incarnation of God?

Now, Mary was no musician - at least not professionally - but we know that she was musical.  But she, too, must have found it difficult to come up with a tune to go with her response to the words of greeting.  It would be a matter of days, at least, until her words and music were married to each other, when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, and the Magnificat burst forth from her heart and from her lips.

Given the gift of the Word, Mary’s life would now amount to finding a solution to the problem of  finding the tune over and over again.  How to sing to him in utero?  What song to rejoice with at his birth?  What lullaby to sing her infant child to sleep?  What songs to teach him as a child?  How to sing of her worry when he went missing?  What kind of notes to use when you have to just say, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”  And what sad tune to sing at his death?  In this, as in every other aspect of her life, Mary proves to be a model for us.  For what could any Christian do with his or her life that is better than finding a solution to the problem of finding the tune to go with the Word of God’s love that is given to us in the gift of his Son Jesus?

Perhaps we could even say that at some level this is the mission of the church, bequeathed to us by Mary: given a lyric that is beautifully built, and given the situation, to now go about finding a solution of the problem of finding the tune.  Wasn’t this in many ways what the Psalmist was asking, when he asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”  God’s words hadn’t disappeared, even in exile, but a tune still had to be found, and sometimes we find that a problem, the solution to which eludes us.

When I hear Gabriel arriving at Mary’s chamber again tonight, and I imagine that I feel the air stirred a little by the flutter of his wings, and I hear the great “Ave” floating from his lips, I have the sense that Mary encourages us, or allows us, to keep this commemoration of a deeply personal and intimate reality, for the express purpose of challenging us to the same task that Gabriel had to do first, and that she had to to do next, and that each of us in our own way has to do ourselves: to receive the Word of God’s love, and then to find a solution to the problem of finding the tune with which to sing that Word into the world we live in, which is so often starved for Good News, as well as for the music of God.

I don’t know how Richard Rodgers went about writing his tunes, but I am grateful for the way he expressed it: finding a solution to the problem of finding the tune.  Because the end result, we know, of his work is a thing of beauty.  But it did not spring from his fingers instantaneously.  There was a problem to be solved - how to put these beautifully built words, given the situation, in just the right way, how to make this lyric sing?  How reassuring it is to share this problem with the likes of Richard Rodgers (whose father, it turns out, had changed the family name from Abrahams, and who might be surprised to find himself enlisted in an Annunciation sermon).

I expect we also share the problem with Gabriel: finding a solution to the problem of finding the tune for the Good News that God sent his Son to be with us, to be one of us, born of a human mother, whose name was Mary, and who, when she became the Mother of God, became our mother too, since God had become human.  Which means that our song is even more glorious than the songs of angels or archangels, who cannot say that they share a mother with the Son of God, as we can.  Though I think we should allow them to sing along with us, all the same.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of the Annunciation, 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

*an interview of Richard Rodgers by Tony Thomas, 1960, included on Fresh Air, WHYY, “How Rogers and Hammerstein Revolutionized Broadway,” by Terry Gross, 9 April 2018


Posted on April 10, 2018 .