The Dumbwaiter

The Rectory of Saint Mark’s was built in 1893 to replace the previous residence of the Rector at 1620 Spruce Street. It required the demolition of part of the Parish House, which I guess used to extend further west. And it was built to house a small community of clergy (presumably single) all living under one roof. As I understand it, the clergy living there would have relied on the attention of at least a few people providing domestic service in the house for their care and feeding. The present large kitchen was, I believe at the time, the housekeeper’s suite. In the late 19th century the kitchen was actually in the basement – there are still some large built-in cupboards down there and a mantle over an old fireplace. Everything I know about domestic service in late nineteenth century America I have learned from watching Masterpiece Theatre costume dramas about the English aristocracy, mind you. Nevertheless, I have no difficulty jumping to conclusions that the one must have been very much like the other.

There remains, on the three lower levels of the Rectory, from the basement to the 2nd floor, the shaft of an old dumbwaiter, which would have been extremely useful in a brownstone townhouse that requires a certain amount of vertical movement. But on the first and second floors the dumbwaiter shaft has been converted into closets; so while you can tell that the shaft is still there, and its little carriage still rests in its old place near the basement kitchen, the dumbwaiter is no longer functional. It is a kind of ghost of the memory of the time when servants used the back stairs; and I imagine (somewhat wistfully, I admit) how well looked after the Rector must have been in those days, alas, long gone.

When we hear Saint Paul writing to the church in Corinth that “we are God’s servants, working together...” the words themselves are in no way confusing. But I wonder if we are really able to grasp their meaning. In my experience, most Americans these days are at least a little conflicted about the idea of servanthood. And in the church, it sometimes feels to me as if the idea itself is a little like the dumbwaiter in the Rectory – we remember what it used to do, and we can imagine its usefulness; but we know that it doesn’t work anymore, and we have no intention of trying to restore it. There exists in the church a kind of ghost of the memory of servanthood, but aren’t servants a thing of the past? How can we possibly be God’s servants?

All you have to do is watch a little Masterpiece Theatre to know that ideas about servanthood have changed a lot. The Rectory was built with two staircases (front and back) for a reason, and it wasn’t simply convenience. Servants had their place and their domain: quite distinct from the domain of those they were to serve. Nostalgia for those days may be quaint on Masterpiece Theatre, but it won’t do in the church today. Does that mean that we should discard Saint Paul’s suggestion that we are God’s servants? Is the mere idea of servanthood simply outmoded?

There are those who would say that, in fact, the idea is not dead at all, that servanthood is alive and well in the church, and that as an organization the church is as stratified as ever. It is true, after all, that a small company of volunteers shows up in churches all over the globe to enable the church to function. Hardly a thing happens here at Saint Mark’s without a division or two of such volunteers appearing to get us through our liturgies, or to help the office function, or to provide hospitality when we gather together, or to feed the hungry as we do in an organized way here most days of the week. And as is the case in churches across the globe, a few people tend to do an awful lot of the work.

But notice that Saint Paul does not write to the church in Corinth to tell them that some of them must be servants. He says, “we are God’s servants, working together.” When he says this, he means that God has something for each of us to do, and that we accomplish God’s purposes best when we do our work together.

God has something for you to do. This is a simple statement that could change your life: it changed mine. My life changed when I stopped asking myself what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and started asking what God wanted me to do with my life. With that shift in perspective, the entire world looked different, and I saw myself differently too. And it was a little scary to consider the implications, but it is also the reason I am able to give thanks for my life every single day.

But this assertion is not the domain of the clergy. God has something for you to do, no matter who you are. It might be with knitting needles, or with a book, or in quiet time of prayer. It might be at the ironing board, or at the stove, or with a bag full of groceries. It might be at a hospital bed, or on the phone, or just by holding someone’s hand. It might require some training, or a great deal of patience, or a commitment to be in it for the long haul. It might mean you get up early on days you could otherwise sleep in, or that you stay up late when you would rather be in bed, or that you find yourself well outside of your comfort zone. It might mean you have to get dirty, or work with your hands; or you it might mean you have to embrace silence, or you might have to think long and hard. It might require a smile, or it might lead to tears. It might seem deeply fulfilling, or it might leave you feeling quite drained. It might draw on talent you know you have, or it might result in doing something you never knew you were capable of. It might happen in church, or at home, or in Honduras, or on the street, or somewhere you never thought you would go. God has something for you to do, and that something will probably not be about you; it will be about helping someone else, living beyond yourself, being a neighbor, a friend, a partner. For when God calls us to serve him, it usually means serving someone else, and oftentimes the best way to love the Lord your God is to love your neighbor as yourself. God has something for you to do.

“We are God’s servants, working together....” Working together is such a challenge for so many of us and for the church. Often we prefer to work alone; who of us doesn’t prefer to do things our own way? Working together requires compromise, patience, and more compromise. But working together we can do things that God does not expect us to do on our own. And working together is what makes us a church – a blessed company of faithful people who together constitute the Body of Christ. You cannot be a church on your own. And while it’s possible that many people working separately do contribute to the church, the church is at her best when her members are working together in a more deliberate way. This may be one of the reasons we prefer choirs in church to soloists: it’s a model of working together, many voices producing an anthem that a single voice could never sing on its own.

It can be difficult these days to know what anyone thinks they mean by calling themselves or someone else a Christian. I suspect that many people think the label speaks for itself. And that easy assumption is built on another assumption that there’s nothing much to learn about becoming a Christian, living like a Christian, doing what a Christian person does. There’s an assumption that you could wake up on any given morning and know what you have to do to be a Christian without giving it any thought. I think this is a dangerous assumption. For one thing, it doesn’t allow us to be God’s servants, working together. It takes some thoughtful consideration, some practice, and a concerted effort to let your life be about others and not yourself, to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. It requires that shift away from asking what I want, to intently discerning what God wants of me and of you. And it takes us working together to build up God’s kingdom, and strengthen God’s church, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I realize that many people look at the church these days and see a dumbwaiter: an outmoded thing that takes up space that would be better utilized in some other way. But I can’t tell you the number of times that I have wished the old dumbwaiter in the Rectory still worked. Every time I serve coffee or drinks or snacks of any kind on the second floor, I carry trays of cups and glasses and wine and ice upstairs(well, I do use the front stairs for this, I’ll admit), I think, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to send all this upstairs on the dumbwaiter? The dumbwaiter might be the last servant left in the Rectory... if serving the Rector was the point.

But I think I may have something to learn from that dumbwaiter, and maybe you do too. For a dumbwaiter has something to do, but it can’t really ever work on its own; it takes working together, with others to load and to unload, to carry and deliver, to remove and to clean up. This is how feasts are kept!

Whether it knows it or not, the world needs the church. Which is to say that the world needs God’s servants, working together. In fact, it is when she strays from her identity as the company of God’s faithful servants that the church incites skepticism and animosity from those who suspect we are little more than a fancy outmoded relic of a former age. Well, we are called to be servants - God’s servants, working together – and if that seems outmoded, so be it, there are worse things to be called in this day and age.

There was a time when God’s servants, working together, believed that they could change the world. They knew that God had something for them to do, and that it would be most effective if they did it working together. The church has known this truth since the days when a dumbwaiter would have seemed like an outrageous contraption, and our ancestors in the faith saw that when they functioned as God’s servants, working together, the most amazing things happened. They brought Good News to the entire globe. They changed the world.

My friends, we are God’s servants, working together. Let us never forget that God has something for each of us to do, and that working together our offerings of ourselves become so much more than the sum of their parts.

There are so many places here at Saint Mark’s to pray, so many places to light a candle, so many places to ask God what he has for us to do, and to help us work together. But today I think I may walk down to the basement of the Rectory, and light a candle there on the dusty, wooden shelf, inside a closed-up shaft, that once carried sherry (I expect) and all kinds of other things up two floors so it could be whisked to the Rector and his guests. I might just make a temporary shrine of that dumbwaiter, and ask God to remind us all that we are God’s servants, working together, and with God nothing is impossible.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

12 February 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 13, 2017 .

Burning at Both Ends

In the spring of 1918, a woman with a man’s name sat down in her apartment in Greenwich Village and began to write a poem. She wanted the poem to express something of the quality of her life, the kind of energy that she felt flowing around her in what felt like a new era, an era that was unfettered and unfiltered, where life felt fleeting and fragile and joy had to be clutched with both hands. She called her poem First Fig, but the poem has nothing to do with fruit or fruit trees or the fruits of our labors. Instead, it has to do with light: “My candle burns at both ends;/ It will not last the night;/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – / It gives a lovely light!”

The woman’s name was Vincent, or at least that’s what her friends called her. We know her as Edna St. Vincent Millay, and First Fig became one of her most well-known poems. Its only 25 words perfectly encapsulate the witty, wild, devil-may-care worldview of Millay’s generation, the generation that would roar into the twenties with an eye for pleasure – pleasure now, pleasure on their own terms, pleasure no matter what the cost. Millay’s First Fig spoke particularly to the women of her age, who with their short hair and shorter hemlines heard in Millay’s verse a kind of rallying cry to be new, modern, and independent – women who could think and speak and vote and drink just as well as any man. Their candles were burning at both ends, and they were loving its lovely light for as long as it lasted.

This is a generalization, of course. Millay’s experience in the bohemian Village of the 1920’s was certainly different from that of the average housewife on a farm in Nebraska. But the world was changing, and the call of carpe diem was heard far and wide. The world seems to go through this from time to time. People have been burning candles at both ends forever, since first-century Corinth, where the apostle Paul quoted the well-known adage of his day: Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. In times of chaos, in times of transition, or perhaps just from time to time, we humans long to just let go, to live without a view to the consequences, to burn and burn and burn and burn without worrying about our wick. My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!    

But burning our candle at both ends isn’t always just about wanton hedonism. Sometimes burning our candle at both ends feels like a response to the Gospel. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Let your light shine before others, Jesus commands, and so we do. Or, at least, so we try. We try to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind, even when our hearts are broken, are souls are conflicted, and our minds are distracted. We try to love our neighbors as ourselves, even when some of our neighbors seem completely disinterested, and others seem to hate us more and more each day. We try to do good works, giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner, even when our supplies of food and drink and clothing are low and our energy even lower. We try to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, even when we have a Super Bowl party to get ready for. We try to resist evil, even when it seems justified or harmless or just plain fun. We try to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, even when no one seems to be listening. We try to seek and serve Christ in all persons, even when we feel like we’re the ones who need to be found. And we try to strive for justice and peace among all people, even when the arc of the moral universe seems to be bending toward bigotry, intolerance, and hatred. We try, we try to claim ourselves as the light of the world without counting the cost; we try to burn our candle at both ends without worrying about the wick. We try to burn our candle without thinking about the night’s darkness, to think instead only of how we can invite both friend and foe into the circle of its lovely light.

But there are times, my brothers and sisters, when the candle is just too short. There are times when our light sputters and grows dim. There are times when there doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen in the room, enough space in our lives, to keep preaching and feeding and loving and striving and seeking and persevering and praying. There are times when, to borrow (and frankly probably misappropriate) a phrase from Carl Sagan, “The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”* Our efforts are defeated, our hearts are betrayed, our bodies are broken, our offers are rejected, and the need, the bottomless pit of need and suffering yawns ever wider. What use is our little candle, burning at both ends or not, against such darkness?

You know, the English language is a wonderful thing. It is quirky and inclusive and malleable. It is the language of Shakespeare and Cranmer and Herbert and Eliot and Frost and Millay. But it does have a few shortcomings. One of them is that we use the same word for both the second person singular and the second person plural. You can mean you, or it can mean you. Yes, our southern neighbors have y’all, and we in Philly have youse, but in written English we’re left to rely on context. Thankfully, because English was not the language of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we hear Jesus say “you,” we can always turn to the Greek to find out which you he means. And in this case, in this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus most emphatically means youse. Youse are the light of the world. Let the light of all youse shine before others, that they may see your works and give glory to their Father in heaven, their God, their ultimate Jawn.

Okay, maybe too far with the Philly-speak…but you get the point. Jesus commands us to let our light shine before others – not our lights, but our light. We are never left alone, trying to relight our own tiny candles. The light that we are to shine before others is a light that shines through all of us, that expands and grows because we are a we. The light that shines before others is fed by the light of these holy candles, blessed this past Thursday at the feast of the Presentation, when we prayed that they would aid us in becoming “inflamed with the fire of [God’s] love.” The light that shines before others is a light born of our common life, our shared baptism, our identity as the body of Christ.

Our light is a light of we, of youse, of us. Our candle can burn at both ends because the wick of faith that connects us to each other will never run out. When we gather in faith, as a community, serve in love, as a community, and proclaim hope, as a community, our candle can burn and burn and burn and burn. Our job isn’t to figure out how to keep our personal candle burning forever; our job is to allow ourselves to be drawn back in to this youse. Our job is to claim this youse as our own, to connect here, to pray here, to serve here, to speak here, to pledge here, to go forth into the world from here, to let our light shine before others from here.

This is just wonderful news. Because it means that whenever we feel our own personal light starting to fade, all we need do is reconnect ourselves here, to this community, to this Church, to the presence of Christ that dwells here. We don’t need to be particularly holy or brilliant. We don’t need to be particularly rich or talented. We just need to be within earshot of the living Christ. You are the light of the world, Jesus said, all of youse, every single person on this mount who can hear my voice. You are the light of the world because you can hear me; you are the light of the world because you’ve put yourself here, in this community, gathered at my feet.

So find your light here. Be inflamed here. Let your light grow and brighten in this holy place, with the rest of this holy community. And then let it burn, at both ends, burning into the darkness, burning for friends and foes, burning for faith, hope, and love. Let your candle – all of youse – burn at both ends. It gives a lovely light!

 

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

5 February 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

 

*This quotation is taken from a book of Sagan's called The Demon-Haunted World. In Sagan's writing, the candle that is burning out is society's understanding of the importance of scientific truth, but his poetry applies to my candle as well. (And Sagan's point is also an important and timely one!)

Posted on February 5, 2017 .

Our Lady's Thumbs

Madonna of Montserrat

Madonna of Montserrat

In Galicia

In Galicia

The High Altar in Sevilla

The High Altar in Sevilla

In the old cathedral of Salamanca

In the old cathedral of Salamanca

Virgen Peregrina, Xunqueria de Ambia 

Virgen Peregrina, Xunqueria de Ambia 

Virgen de la leche, Oseira

Virgen de la leche, Oseira

Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona

Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona

Travel around Spain visiting its churches and you could be forgiven for wondering what ever happened to Jesus.  By my reckoning, having now walked a couple of thousand kilometers across Spain on three separate pilgrimages, Spaniards are in love with Mary.  If Jesus is important to the Spaniards it may be only because he was a relation to this great Lady.

The quintessential Spanish image of Mary is the black Madonna of Montserrat: a Romanesque looking Mary is crowned and seated, her serene face a deep and beautiful black, with a similarly dark-skinned child seated in her lap, himself crowned, his right hand raised in blessing, while his mother holds an orb in her hand.

Everywhere you go in Spain you will inevitably find some image of Mary.  On the crucifixes found in village plazas throughout Galicia you will find Jesus hanging on one side of the Cross, and his mother, standing on the other side of the same Cross – sometimes cradling the Christ-child in her arms, sometimes holding the dead body of her Son.

At the base of the rich, golden reredos of the cathedral in Sevilla, right above the Altar where the crucifix should be, there sits a silver-gowned seated figure of Our Lady, who also appears in the panel above at the manger, in the panel above that at her crowning in heaven, but is absent in the panel above that, which depicts Jesus bursting from the tomb, while his mother, apparently, rests at home.

At Salamanca, in the old cathedral, a dramatic apse is covered with fifty-two 14th or 15th century images of stories from the life of Jesus and his mother; but in the most prominent place: enthroned, dressed all in gold, crowned, bejeweled, under a canopy, with a scepter-like lily in her hand, her child ensconced in her maternal lap – there is Mary.  Not a cross in sight.

Along the Via de la Plata, at the monastery in the little town of Xunqueira de Ambia you will find an image of the Virgen Peregrina – the virgin Pilgrim.  Mary is dressed in fine late-18th century dress, with a gold-trimmed tri-cornered hat, wearing a long floral gown, a buttoned bodice, and a cloak clasped at her throat; she holds her infant child in one hand, and the pilgrim’s walking stick in the other.

At the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Oseira – just a few days’ walk from Santiago de Compostela – the venerated 13th century image of la virgen de la leche, nursing her Holy Child, sits just behind and above the tabernacle at the High Altar, to leave no doubt as to who exactly is in charge.

There was a time when the feast we celebrate tonight was called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but I had to go back to the King James Version, among the Bibles in my office, to find a translation that refers to the time for “her” purification, not “their” purification, following more closely the text of the Levitical law.  We are not Spaniards, and we chafe more than a little (today’s Spaniards do too, no doubt) at the idea of the urgent need for a mother to be cleansed and made pure after the sacred gift of childbirth.  For us tonight is the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, or Candlemas – celebrating the same events, but looking at them from a different perspective.  Most Anglicans are more or less comfortable with such a shift, and would argue that feasts of Our Lady are all really feasts of Our Lord, looked at through a maternal lens.  Certainly that is the view I tend to promote here at Saint Mark’s.  But spend time in Spain and you will have a hard time resisting the influence of all these images of Mary, sometimes amid the complete and total absence of her Son.

Nowhere in the world, however, have I ever come across an image of Our Lady walking along, with her young Son at her side gripping her thumbs as he tries to keep up.  This is an image from my own childhood, and I remember more clearly than my mother does her complaints that I was tearing her thumbs away from her hands.  I suppose it was an uncomfortable way to be held onto by a child who knew, on the one hand, that he needed and wanted his mother, and did not want to lose track of her, and who, on the other hand, was eager to break free and explore in blessed independence, and to risk going where he was not supposed to go, because who knew what wonders might be found away from your mother’s skirts?

But of course one of the reasons for all those fabulous images of Mary in Spain is that we humans know that this is what we are like with our mothers: desperate for their love, care, and support, and oh so dependant on them; but equally desperate to break free of our mothers and follow our own independent paths through life.  In fact, the only biblical story of Jesus’ childhood tells of him doing just that – breaking free from his mother and father to return to the synagogue in Jerusalem to kibitz with the rabbis there.

Tonight, amid the candlelight, and the hopefulness of Simeon’s famous song, it is easy to miss that for Mary there must be great sadness.  For Simeon tells her that the child is a sign that will bring about division among God’s people, and that a sword will pierce her own soul also.  And while we don’t know exactly what Simeon meant by this strange prophecy, who can doubt that Mary’s heart has been broken (her soul pierced) more times since then than anyone could count?

Holding on to my mother’s thumbs as a child, it never occurred to me that we could go anywhere that she had not already been.  No need to worry, as long as I was latched onto that thumb, for nothing could happen if I was with my mother.  And I wonder if that’s how the Spaniards felt when they kept coming up with new ways to depict Mary – even dressing her up like a pilgrim; or placing on a pedestal an image of her engaged in that most motherly act of nursing her infant child; or showing her by the Cross undertaking that most devastating maternal duty of burying her own child?  Perhaps they thought, What harm can befall us if Mary is with us, if she has already been everywhere we might go, and done everything we will have to do, from the best of it to the worst of it?  There is this sense that no matter what, Mary has been there before us, has prepared the way for us, has allowed even her own soul to be pierced for us, as much as for her Son.

In the gorgeous 14th century Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in the Barri Gótic of Barcelona there is hanging, high up in the vault, far out of sight, a simple wooden cross that must be a recent and maybe even a temporary addition, since most photos of the church show no such thing.

However, immediately behind the High Altar, itself impressively raised on seven steps from the nave, standing on a sturdy plinth, with a model of what is said to be one of Christopher Columbus’s ships at her feet, there stands an impressive statue of Mary, in fading polychrome of pink and blue.  Her clothes are draped elegantly around her, but the stone sculpture has clearly been through a lot.  A wreath of flowers that once crowned her head has been damaged badly, but she stands tall.  The Holy Child she carries on her left hip is no infant, he is a toddler by now for sure, and he carries his own orb in his left hand, his right hand is raised in blessing.  His face has been damaged, but all the features are still recognizable.

Perhaps Mary’s left hand is hidden beneath the child she supports with it, or in the folds of her gown – I could not tell.  But her right hand, which was clearly once outstretched, has been roughly broken off.  I know, of course, that with this hand she probably once held a lily or some other symbol of her status.  And I can see, I think, that the hand has been broken off somewhere above the wrist.

But in my imagination her hand has been broken off just at the thumb, where I, and many others like me, have been holding on to her, as if she was my own mother.  As if we had tugged and tugged at that thumb till it just broke off; knowing, as we do, that on the one hand, we need and want our mother, and we are afraid to lose track of her, and, on the other hand, we are eager to break free and explore in blessed independence, and to risk going where we are not supposed to go, because who knows what wonders might be found away from our mother’s skirts?

After all, don’t we know that this is what we are like with our mother: desperate for her love, care, and support, and oh so dependant on her; but equally desperate to break free of her and follow our own independent paths through life?

Of course tonight, like any Marian feast, is really about Jesus, who brings light to all people, even in the midst of darkness.  Let there be no doubt.

But I will forgive you if you will forgive me for feeling a little Spanish on a night like tonight, and wanting to take my mother by the thumb and hold on tight, at the same time that I know I want to run off and explore, and allowing myself (older now) to be aware of the inner conflict, and to thank God for our Mother and her strong thumbs.

 

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 4, 2017 .