The Best Messiah

An old friend of mine was recently praised in the NY Times for leading what a music review called “the best ‘Messiah’ in New York.”  One of the pleasures of living in Philadelphia is indulging in a kind of ironic smugness that pities New Yorkers for having to worry about where to find the best Messiah.  How do they manage?

My old friend and I grew up singing ‘Messiah’ in the same church, and I have no doubt that the version of the oratorio he leads is exquisite.  The reviewer made two deeply telling observations about the performance.  He wrote that as led by my friend, the “formal concert became a collective rite,” which is lovely thing to say about a concert of sacred music.  And about the arias, which were sung not by operatic soloists, but by rank and file members of the choir, the reviewer wrote that they “were transformed beyond the usual displays of sumptuous vocalism; they were urgent, even desperate communication.”  I can hardly think of more poignant praise, considering the work in question. (“NY Times, 6 December, 2018, by Zachary Woolfe, “This is the Best ‘Messiah’ in New York”)

The search for the “best Messiah” provides a nice turn of phrase for the religious context in which we live these days.  Americans are less and less interested in what institutional religion teaches about God, or Jesus, or any other relational arrangements of the divine.  That is to say, people care less and less about what preachers have to tell them from pulpits.  Which is to say, that I know quite literally where I stand.  The current trend looks to me a bit more like an individualistic search for the best messiah you can find, to borrow the phrase from the Times.  Find a messiah that works for you and stick with it as long as it works.  But if your messiah stops working for you, or you grow tired of it, or it lets you down, then go out and look again for a new messiah.  Maybe the best one for the rest of New York or Philadelphia isn’t the best  messiah for you.  But there are plenty of them out there; just find the messiah that seems best for you.  If only God was an oratorio.

Something about the particular performance of the oratorio that reviewer wrote about in the Times transformed it from a concert to a “collective rite.”  I think what he meant was that it became a kind of religious experience that was clearly and deliberately performed for the glory of God.  But you can’t say that about a concert in the pages of the New York Times, so you have to call it “a collective rite.”

And something about the singing of those soloists transformed the arias into “urgent, even desperate communication.” 

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.

But who may abide the day of his coming?

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion; arise, shine, for thy light has come!

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.

How marvelous to hear in these prophetic words the urgent, desperate communication they are surely meant to convey.

One text that Handel did not set to music in his oratorio is the well known passage from Philippians that we heard today: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”  I must confess that in all the years I have heard and read and sung these words, I have never once found anything urgent or desperate in them.  

If you want urgency you turn to John the Baptist, who will heap you in with a brood of vipers, and warn you that even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree, and threaten that the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire!  You won’t find old John telling you to “be careful for nothing;” or in the more modern translation, “do not worry about anything;” or in recent vernacular, “don’t worry, be happy!”

But I realize that there is an urgent, desperate message embedded in St. Paul’s otherwise happy-go-lucky message to the Philippians, which has always been there on the page to catch my eye or my ear, but that I have been reading right past it.  It’s there in verse 5, where we read the message in four words:  “The Lord is near,” ... an assertion that would not always be considered good reason to put worry aside.  This single sentence, “The Lord is near,” seems almost always to be translated as we read it this morning.  Older translations render it similarly as, “the Lord is at hand.”   Or, some newer versions as “the Lord is coming soon.”  And I would say that this sentence counts as urgent, even desperate communication… if we have ears to hear it.  The Lord is near!

The problem with this sentence is that it is so hard for us to believe that the Lord is near.  And I strongly suspect that part of the reason so many people are willing to go off in search of the best messiah they can find is because this promise of the old Messiah has begun to seem unlikely or far-fetched.  How can people believe these days that the Lord is near?  How can we believe it?

And I think the reviewer in the Times was onto something in the two important observations he made about the performance of ‘Messiah’ he heard: he was moved because he found himself, quite unexpectedly, not in a concert but in a ritual that was shaping a community.  And within that ritual, he heard voices that conveyed with unmistakable authenticity the urgent, even desperate, prophetic revelation of the Good News of the coming of Jesus Christ, that the Lord is at hand.  That is to say, that the concert my friend was leading - which was a church choir singing in a church - was actually doing the work of the church: proclaiming in sacred ritual the urgent, desperate Good News that the Lord is near.

Advent is the season of the year when the church distills in all her rites and all her communications the urgency and desperation of the message that the Lord is at hand, that he is coming soon.  These few weeks are given the unenviable task of competing with the madness of a secularly marketed “Christmas season” that is completely and totally uninterested in the thought that the Lord is near.  And the church carries the burden during these weeks of calling to mind, for those who will listen, the promise that God is with us; that Christ will make himself known; that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; that a young woman, full of grace, could become the Mother of God’s Son; and that a good man could treat her with the respect and dignity she deserved; that the Spirit has not deserted us; that the angels still have something to tell us; that the heavens themselves twinkle in praise of God’s revelation of himself; that God’s self-disclosure is most readily heard by the poor and the simple; but that the wealthy and powerful who seek wisdom may discern it too; that cruelty cannot prevent the Lord from revealing himself to us; that the rulers of this world will not prevail over the Word of God, even in the weakness of its infancy; that nothing will impede the delivery of this Good News; that God’s desire in sending his Son to be among his people is to bring joy and peace to the face of the whole earth; that the Lord is near, close at hand, and coming soon.

How can we believe this?  

Unexpectedly, one way has been suggested to us by a music reviewer in the New York Times: by engaging in the church’s collective rites, and by listening for the urgency and the desperation proclaimed there.

We can believe what is otherwise hard to believe when we come together to practice the rite that Christ himself gave us, to “do this” in remembrance of him, and when we recall the sacred story with an urgency and desperation that reminds us, in a world that is floundering to identify what truth is, that this is the Truth from above.

We believe it because when we sing “O come, O come Emmanuel,” the pleading fits not only our voices and our ears, but our circumstances, in a world that so plainly needs a Prince of Peace, a Wisdom, and a Dayspring from on high.

We believe it when we allow our mouths to implore, “Come thou long expected Jesus,” and the prayer that God has planted within his church sounds in tune.

We believe it when we see ourselves in the description of the “people that walked in darkness,” and yet we know that here, in the rites that draw us for an hour or so into a Christian community of the most profound kind, we have seen a great light!  And we rejoice: arise, shine, for our light has come!

God reveals the Truth to us in ritual, with urgent, desperate communication, in which even the most benign sentiment of joyfulness also brings with it the promise that the Lord is near!

Several times I went back to read and re-read the review of that performance of ‘Messiah.’  But it took a while for me to notice the little synopsis that the Times provides right beneath the headline on its website, and where an estimation of the performance is provided in language that appears nowhere else in the review.  There, the editors have written that “the forces of Trinity Wall Street put on a gritty, fearless rendition of the holiday tradition.”  And I admit that this assessment left me feeling a little bit jealous, since in Philadelphia, gritty is supposed to be our thing.  But more to the point, “gritty and fearless” seem like words that John the Baptist would be comfortable with.  In fact I can almost hear him suggesting that it is with just such an outlook - gritty and fearless - that we look for the promise that the Lord is near.

Rejoice in the Lord, to be sure!  Be careful for nothing!  But come to the rite, and be part of it.  Open your ears and lift your voices with some measure of urgent desperation as we wonder who may abide the day of his coming!  Be gritty and fearless, for the Lord is at hand, he is coming soon.  Arise!  Shine!  For thy light is coming!  The Lord is near!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
16 December 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 16, 2018 .

The Great Leveling

Judean Desert.jpg

If there’s a song that might sum up the American Dream, it’s “Climb every mountain” from The Sound of Music. At the end of the first act, the Mother Abbess sings,

Climb ev’ry mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow ev’ry by-way,
Every path you know.

Climb ev’ry mountain,
Ford ev’ry stream,
Follow ev’ry rainbow,
‘Til you find your dream.

 A dream that will need
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life
For as long as you live.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic song is a feel-good one of hope and encouragement. The implication of this song is that all it takes is sufficient motivation, and any human person can achieve their wildest dreams. Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with it. If you put your mind to the task, you can do anything. Anything.

Speaking as an idealist, I’m somewhat reticent to quibble with this aspirational dangling carrot. Mother Abbess’s song, when distanced from the fictional world of the Austrian countryside, the stage, or the cinema, can indeed be inspirational. As a teacher in a school, I know the value of encouraging students with prospects of achievement and success. Sometimes, a little nudge is exactly what people need to be their best selves.

The problem, though, is when we start assuming that anyone fortified with a dream can actually scale any mountain, no matter how high. Or that any dream of climbing up the social ladder or moving out of difficult circumstances can always be accomplished with hard work and determination. It’s not a stretch to say that modern society, especially in this country, often assumes that if you are not succeeding or haven’t reached the top of that high mountain, you must not be working hard enough.

But things are not that simple, because if we look at the landscape of everyday life, we will see that not everyone starts in the same place. Sadly, due to human sin and the fallen nature of this world, the ground level of life is not even. Take, for instance, the recent alarming reports of poverty in this city of Philadelphia, which has the third worst income gap in the country.[1] While income across the U.S. has increased and poverty declined, in Philadelphia, poverty remained at 25.7 percent in 2017.[2] In many respects, your starting place in life is defined by your zip code.

If we draw on the metaphorical language from the 40th chapter of the prophet Isaiah, as quoted by Luke in today’s Gospel reading, we can confidently say that for some people, the paths to success are straight and smooth. And for others—for many, in fact—they are rough and very crooked. Some people are born into life on mountaintops, possessed of unimpeded vistas of promised ease and well-being. Others are perpetually down in the valleys of life, struggling in the trenches and gazing up at the mountains, wondering how they will ever climb up to a better place. And so, it is right for those in the valleys and on the crooked paths to dream and hope. But from a Christian perspective—and it is a countercultural one—success, achievement, and good fortune are not so simply tied to hard work and determination, because in the contours of real life, there is a formidable gap between the mountain peaks and the valley depths.

And if the solution to this predicament does not lie solely in human efforts, it must lie in Christian hope grounded in God’s grace. In his account of John the Baptist in the wilderness, Luke gives us a window into what this hope looks like. It opens with a litany of powerful figures. Ruler after ruler is named to set the exact historical point in time when God’s word of hope was manifested to John, the precursor to Christ. By the time John’s name is mentioned in this lengthy first sentence of Luke, chapter 3, the reader is expecting God’s word to alight on a figure of great might, reigning from a palace on the highest hill. And instead, the drum roll accompanying this impressive list of rulers peters out in a comic cymbal clang. God’s word comes to an unlikely person, John, son of Zechariah, who is dwelling not on a mountaintop but in the wilderness.

Now, if you’ve been to the Holy Land, you will know that the topography there is quite variegated. The flat coastal plains around Tel Aviv move into lush, rolling hills as one nears Jerusalem, and immediately to the east of the holy city is the stark Judean wilderness. This wilderness is both flat and hilly, with straight and winding roads that hug precipices dropping into deep valleys. The Judean wilderness is not an easy place to navigate, and it is certainly not the most predictable place for God’s word to come in prophetic form.

But into this rough wilderness landscape with its uneven contours, God’s word, in its unexpected trajectory, hearkens to John the Baptist, who goes on to preach this word to the surrounding country. It is a word that does not promise easy success or immediate gratification. It is a word that promises Advent hope, but hope that must be borne patiently in the wilderness of life. It is a word whose hope is vindicated in a future coming filled with God’s judgment, a judgment of justice and righteousness.

In bygone days, preachers talked a lot more about judgment, and it has become something of a nasty word these days. But judgment need not be narrowly defined by images of hellfire and brimstone. The judgment preached by John is one that is characterized by a Great Leveling of the world by God. This is a leveling of justice in which, ultimately, when Christ comes again, the haves and the have-nots will journey through life on the same plane. In this full establishment of God’s kingdom, there will no longer be great chasms between mountains and valleys, for “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” Crooked roads will no longer serve as obstructions to a better life, and roads full of potholes will not be impediments to well-being. And “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” For God’s justice is the Great Leveling of the world.

God’s leveling justice cannot be easily aligned with songs like “Climb ev’ry mountain” or with notions of good fortune proceeding from hard work. God’s Great Leveling presupposes that at least for now, the starting topography for everyone is different because we live in a world of sin. Everyone does not begin life in this world in the same place. For we need only look at the uneven economic and social topography of Philadelphia to see this.

And Luke, using the prophet Isaiah’s words, tells us something else very important, something that might be easy to miss. While we are encouraged to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “to make his paths straight,” the majority of Isaiah’s words are not about what we do. They are about what God does. We hear words in the passive voice: in God’s good time, the valleys shall be filled. . . by God. The mountains and hills shall be made low. . . by God. The crooked shall be made straight. . . by God. The rough ways shall be made smooth. . . by God. These awesome acts of justice are God’s judgment. It is not something that we can make happen by hard work.

But lest we think that this is bad news of Advent, let’s think again. This is the greatest good news imaginable, good news marked by the righting of wrongs and a Great Leveling that is so wonderful we can hardly imagine it and we can never bring it to full fruition ourselves. It is for God to do, because if it were left for us to do, it would be an impossible task, in spite of “Climb ev’ry mountain” and the American dream.

Yet we are not let off the hook. We are not called to passivity in the midst of God’s activity. There are things we can do to prepare the way for God. John the Baptist’s cry calls us to turn from our self-centered ways and to turn back to God in repentance so that we might more clearly see the uneven ground around us, because we can look around us and notice foreshadowing glimpses of that Great Leveling that God will bring about on the Last Day, even as we wait in Advent hope for its full manifestation.

We witnessed members of this parish yesterday offering smooth-soled boots to the rough feet of those walking in the valleys of life, brothers and sisters who are disadvantaged by the inequitable topography of our society’s systems. We see children receiving comprehensive moral, spiritual, and intellectual formation in a place like St. James School, making straight the paths to high school and beyond. We look to outreach ministries like Broad Street Ministry, just blocks from this place, in which the hungry can be seated by maître-d’s at tables with ironed tablecloths and served elegant meals prepared by professional chefs. In these beautiful acts of human service, we see God’s Great Leveling beginning to happen. We see a slow evening out of the topography of injustice, even if the land is not yet flat.

Luke gives us an exquisite image of God’s righteous judgment, which is both already and not yet, both present and still in the future. In Luke’s quotation of Isaiah’s vision of salvation, with a brushstroke from the Magnificat, even the mountains and hills are humbled. The valleys are raised up, so that all of God’s people—all flesh—can walk on the same level on that Last Day and taste God’s justice.

In Advent, in the midst of our preparation, we wait in hope for that Great Day where there will be no mountains to climb to success or achievement, no personal dreams to fulfill, no streams to ford, or rainbows to follow. The rainbow of God’s promise to humankind has already been given in Jesus Christ, and so we wait with Advent hope for that Great Leveling of God’s righteousness where all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
9 December 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia



Posted on December 11, 2018 .

The Sky Above the Clouds

Christmas is coming, and this is good news for the church, since Christmas may be the last great Christian story that has the power to capture nearly everyone’s imagination.  Even in a world that seems to give up on religion, and certainly gives up on the specifics of the Christian faith more and more each year, Christmas has something to say to people, as long as we keep it simple, tell the story, look for peace, remember that it’s love we are looking for.

So it’s frustrating that Advent is so complicated.  Yes, Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas.  But Advent is supposed to be more than that.  The beginning of the church year gets off to a start that’s meant to remind us that marking time in the church is never only about looking back: the seasons, celebrations, feasts and fasts of the year that recall days gone by, only ever do so in order to turn our eyes to the future, to an expectation of something more, something new, something better, something holy.  Advent accentuates the forward gaze of the Christian year in acute ways, insisting that we not only remember that long ago John the Baptist foretold the coming of Christ, but also that we attend to Jesus’ own promise that he will come again.  But to do so has become more and more awkward for the church, since Christ has been so long in returning, maybe even longer than he expected.  And so, many people have stopped believing that he will come again; or at least they have stopped caring.

And for those whose Advent calendars function primarily as a way to keep track of the number of shopping days left till Christmas, or as a delivery system for treats, the idea that anyone is waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, is quaint, and more or less entirely beside the point.  A tree, a manger, some carols, the Grinch, and a family dinner will be quite enough.  Why ruin it with so much religion?  To show up on Advent Sunday in this frame of mind and to be confronted with the teaching we heard from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel must be disappointing.  It’s like going to see “The Nutcracker,” and discovering that it has been replaced with a performance of “Waiting for Godot.”

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus says, “for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  Which means nothing much to anyone, as warnings go.  And as promises go, what comes next can seem equally beside the point, and beyond interest: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”  Can’t we just cut to the  innkeeper, the shepherds, and the wise men?  Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some cattle lowing?

Sometimes, though, you hear a story that makes the promise that we will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud seem possible again.

 Becca Stevens

Becca Stevens

Just last week I happened to attend a conference that was led by a wonderful priest some of you may have heard of.  Her name is Becca Stevens, and she is the founder of a ministry called Thistle Farms, in Nashville, Tennessee.  Thistle Farms is a two-year residential recovery program for women who have survived trafficking, prostitution, and addiction.  What Thistle Farms provides, their promotional material tells me, is “a safe and supportive place to live,” “a meaningful job,” and “a lifelong sisterhood of support” for the women in the program.

In fact, I have visited Thistle Farms once, because I’d heard so many glowing things about it.  The ministry goes hand in hand with a social enterprise that helps fund it, and which sells bath, body, and home products that are made by the women.  And I can tell you that the gifts I am giving friends and family this Christmas include a lot of hand and body lotion, essential oils, candles, shaving cream, and bath salts.

I was fortunate, when I visited Thistle Farms, to arrive in time for the morning circle, at which a candle is lighted every morning.  Becca (she would faint if you called her “Mother Stevens”) once explained in an article, “We start every day in a circle and we light the candle and say, ‘We light this candle for the next woman coming in off the streets.’  …we’re all doing it, so another woman can come in here. She cannot be raped anymore. She cannot be jailed anymore. She cannot be beaten anymore. She can be here and she can be economically independent. She can be in a loving community. She can choose a relationship that’s healthy.” (Parade Magazine, Nov 1, 2017)

When I visited Thistle Farms three years ago, I got to see a bit of the production of the candles and hand lotion, I visited the café they run, and I got to meet with one of the women in the program, who told me she’d come there from Texas because she was desperate and out of hope.  But it’s not her story that I want to share with you.  Because I’m still really wanting to make a point about Advent.  I haven’t forgotten about Advent, but I think (I hope) the little detour to Thistle Farms will help to bring some meaning to the possibility that it still matters to the world that Jesus promised that we will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

At the conference last week, Becca told us that she usually travels with one or two or the graduates of Thistle Farms who, after graduation, have stayed on to work with the organization.  It was Becca’s first time traveling with this particular graduate, and they were going to Nebraska, if I have the story right.  Becca told us that she was feeling drained and un-inspired, and the thought of being in Nebraska wasn’t doing anything to improve her spirits, as she looked out the window and realized that at that time of year (it was Advent, early December) the grey clouds in the sky would cast a flat grey pall over the flat grey landscape of the plains, and everything would be flat and grey.  I guess she was looking forward to it about as much as you’d look forward to a holiday production of “Waiting for Godot.”

And she told us that she realized that she’d made a mistake with this particular traveling companion, by not giving up the window seat and allowing her to sit there.  Because her colleague was excitedly, energetically, and unapologetically invading Becca’s personal space in order to gaze wide-eyed out the window at the expanse of flat, grey clouds.  As Becca put it, this woman had seen the wrong side of the streets, the worst side of people, the back side of men’s hands, the other side of rehab, the underside of bridges, and the inside of prison walls, “but she had never seen the top side of a cloud.”

And that’s a good line.  That’s the kind of line I’d steal for a sermon.  So I wrote it down.  At least the last part, the part about the top-side of a cloud.  I kind of ad-libbed the first part, more or less.  I know I captured the essence of what Becca was saying; the kind of contrast she was trying to make.  And I told her I was going to steal it, anyway.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  There was one more thing she wanted to tell us.  Becca wanted us to know what her traveling companion - this woman, whose name I stupidly forgot to write down, and who had successfully completed the program of recovery, and who has a story, as everyone in that program does, of addiction, of abuse, of sickness, of failure, of bloodshed, of tears, and of pain, and despair - what she had to say, when she had ended her invasion of Becca’s personal space and eased back into her own seat, and had a moment to reflect on what she’d seen out the window of the airplane.

She said, “I swear, I did not know there was a sky above the clouds.”

Now, you understand that this is a statement of disposition, not knowledge.  You understand that this is poetry.

As a piece of poetry, it’s a statement that I suspect could also say something about the prevailing Christian outlook, especially at Advent.  I swear, sometimes I think we do not know there is a sky above the clouds.  And have we given up hoping that we have a Savior, who is not just a fairy-tale figure of a nostalgic Christmas long ago, but who is coming to us again with power and great glory, and with healing in his wings?

It is true that this Advent we will prepare to look back, and remember that first Christmas long, long ago.  But Jesus didn’t come to us to keep us looking backward.  For he promised that he would come again in a cloud with power and with great glory.  And no, we are not waiting for Godot.  Jesus promised to come again because although his kingdom had come near, as it is near to us even now, his reign had not yet been established, and still it is not.

And there are many whose lives are stories of addiction, or abuse, or sickness, or failure, or bloodshed, or tears, or pain, or despair.  Maybe you know some of these realities in your own life. Which is to say that there are many who have never seen the top side of a cloud or least for whom it is a distant memory.  And many of us, who are the inheritors of the promise that we will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, have virtually forgotten that there is a sky above the clouds; that there is a Savior who will come to us.  This is not so much a statement of knowledge, as it is one of disposition.  But so many have forgotten it. 

We need a story to remind us.  And I’ll take a story about a woman who’s been battered, and bought, and sold, and strung out, and who found a place of extravagant love (run by an episcopal priest of all things), and, who, after what can only have been a hard but blessed road to recovery, finds herself on the top side of the clouds, and in a moment of poetic clarity declares, “I swear I did not know there was a sky above the clouds.” 

I’ll take that story to point my eyes and yours to the clouds once more and remember there’s a sky up there.  And there’s a God who loves us; and who sent his Son once.  And that Son will come again from the clouds in power and great glory because his work is not yet done, but he will finish it.

Yes, my friends, Christmas is coming.  But that is only one part of the story.  The Good News is that there is a sky above the clouds; and that Jesus is coming in a cloud, with power and with great glory, to bring peace, and healing, and to establish at last his wondrous kingdom of love.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Advent Sunday 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 3, 2018 .