Forgetting Any Other Home

Act II, Scene II, again: the Capulet’s orchard. You remember the set-up. Juliet is on her balcony; Romeo is below on the ground. Juliet has been called inside by her Nurse, but unable to tear herself away from Romeo, twice she slips back out to shower him with sweet “good nights” till they shall meet again.

Her second return to the balcony is unexpected; Romeo has begun to exit, as the stage directions make clear. But his beloved calls him back with a “Hist! Romeo. Hist!” The two confirm the time of their next meeting: “At the hour of nine.”

Melodramatically, Juliet says, “’tis twenty years till then. I have forgot why I did call thee back.”

Romeo: “Let me stand here till thou remember it.”

Juliet: “I shall forget, to have thee stand there, remembering how I love thy company.”

Romeo: “And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget, forgetting any other home but this.”

I’ll still stay… forgetting any other home but this.

The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet impresses itself upon anyone who has ever wished not to have to leave the presence of someone he loves, someone she loves. We know what it feels like to stand there at the train station, watching as the train pulls away, waving with a forced smile to the beautiful face in the window as it passes by. Or to stand, as we used to be able to do, behind the big glass windows at the airport terminal and watch as the plane taxis to the runway and then soars into the sky, carrying our beloved away till… when? – ‘tis twenty years till then, no matter if it should be tomorrow at nine. “Parting,” as Juliet so famously says, “is such sweet sorrow.”

This morning we do a highly peculiar thing as we keep a somewhat peculiar feast of the church. When our regular worship comes to an end we will linger, like lovers reluctant to part. Following somewhat different stage directions, after walking with Jesus around the church, we will place him on his balcony, as it were: the monstrance on the altar. And then, piously, we will gaze at him, present with us in the way he promised to be, even to the end of the ages.

If you want to try to understand the peculiar ritual we will enact at the end of Mass today, you will do well to recall one of those partings in your own life, when you could hardly bear to tear yourself away from someone you love, even if the next time you would see your beloved was only hours away. For it is from this urgent love – the love that causes you to turn around for one more kiss, and then turn around again for another, that compels you to stand there and watch the train disappear along the tracks, or the plane turn into a speck in the sky – it is from this urgent love that the ritual of Benediction flows. Parting is such sweet sorrow, and we don’t want to say goodbye. I’ll still stay, we pray, forgetting any other home but this.

It is rare these days in the church to find a community that is willing to stake out so baldly, with the goofy piety of star-crossed lovers, its love for Jesus. We are willing to teach our kids that Jesus loves them, but we don’t always teach them how to love Jesus back. And, out of - what, a sense of propriety? – we don’t admit that it is possible to love Jesus this much, to want to stay and linger, forgetting why we called Jesus back, not giving a damn that we forgot, and then forgetting for a few moments any other home but this, as we stare up toward the golden rays of his Presence.

I suppose there may be other reasons to gather as the church. There may be other reasons to take on the name and identity of a Christian. There may be other reasons to give one’s self over to the church to be ordained to the priesthood. But I am not sure that any of those reasons is any better than this: that you love Jesus enough to stand there, wishing you did not have to leave his Presence, that you’ll still stay, forgetting any other home but this.

Earlier, on the balcony, after Juliet has assured Romeo of her love, (“I gave thee mine before thou didst request it.”) she goes on: My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep: the more I give to thee, / the more I have, for both are infinite.

How brazen of Shakespeare to put such godly words into the mouth of mere Juliet. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep: the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” 

The dialogue translates nicely to our own circumstances, and, in fact, seems more true coming to us from the altar than from Juliet’s balcony, since only in Christ can bounty and love be truly infinite. But here, at this altar, the claim that is mere hyperbole on Juliet’s lips becomes deep truth from the mouth of God, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep: the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”

And in the face of such bounty and such love – both truly infinite only here in Christ’s Presence – I find it hard to tear myself away, and I think I’d like still to stay, forgetting any other home but this.

Won’t you stay too?

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

18 June 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

Posted on June 18, 2017 .

Living the Trinity

The Holy Trinity is…what? How would you finish that sentence? The Holy Trinity is a great and profound mystery. The Holy Trinity is an unfathomable and eternal truth. The Holy Trinity is that thing that makes us Christians, the inspiration for some really great hymn writing, the subject of a sermon we have to listen to every year in June. The Holy Trinity is confusing as all heck, mind-blowingly complex, something to do with substance and self-giving and the serious answer to the question of which came first the Father or the Son. (The answer, of course, being both.) But I have a suggestion today for another phrase to describe the Holy Trinity, one that is somewhat counterintuitive. And that suggestion is this: the Holy Trinity is absolutely hilarious. Now I don’t mean the Trinity is laughable or silly – I just mean that our discussions of the Trinity can actually be quite funny.

Case in point: this past week, the verger, the rector, the organist and the associate rector were sitting around the office. Sounds like the most boring joke you’ve ever heard, but this is actually a true story. The verger, in his infinite attentiveness, asked the group if we should get flowers for today’s Mass, seeing as Trinity Sunday is kind of a special thing. I, in my infinite goofiness, suggested that if we were going to get flowers, we should purchase only three. And then the jokes started coming. Well, we should get three, but they should be the exact same kind of flowers so as to be made of the same substance. The rector suggested that they needed to be three flowers with one stem rather than three separate flowers, at which point the organist chimed with his request that the flowers needed to be exactly the same size and in precisely the same moment of bloom so as not to have any whiff of the Arian heresy. All the while, of course, the verger was sitting patiently by, waiting for us to exhaust our ridiculous flower/Trinity metaphors so that he could get the answer to his original question. Which was, as you can see, no.

So, you see, while the Trinity itself isn’t exactly hilarious, our explanations of the Trinity can be. The sentence “The Holy Trinity is like a (dot, dot, dot)” can lead to some really silly analogies, and once you start picking those analogies apart, things can get pretty giggly pretty fast. Don’t believe me? Go home and google “Saint Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” click on the cartoon that pops up, and enjoy. No, the Holy Trinity isn’t really like a shamrock, and it really isn’t like any of the other terrible ideas other people have come up with for what the Trinity is or how it works. But since we’re all just giving this unfathomable mystery our best shot, I think we might as well go ahead and laugh at ourselves a little when we get it really wrong.

Of all of the things that we often get really, really wrong about the Trinity, there is one thing I’ve never seen any jokes about. I think that this is because this error is so subtle that we can’t even see it to poke fun at it. The error is this: that the Holy Trinity is insider information. This is the idea we sometimes have that people outside the Church don’t know the Trinity, can’t see it, because the only way to really know the Trinity is to come to church, get baptized, then confirmed, go to Schola or adult forums, read some books, google “Arian heresy” and “modalism,” ask your priests impossible questions, and be sure to listen to endless sermons about the nature of the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. Then, and only then, you might begin to know the Trinity. Then and only then you might be able to see it, to notice it, to begin to learn what it is all about and what this great mystery actually accomplishes in the world.

Now at some level, of course, this makes sense. After all, if those of us in the Church have a difficult time seeing the Trinity clearly, how can we expect anyone else to? Of course those people out there have only the vaguest idea that we believe that God is three persons but also one, at which point they give up because who in the world knows what that actually means, and frankly, who cares. Of course they don’t know the Trinity – how could they without ever having heard any of those brilliant Trinity Sunday sermons?

But this idea, reasonable as it might sound, is actually quite wrong. The Holy Trinity is not insider information. The Holy Trinity is not something that we can know only when we’re baptized into this holy club and get our secret Jesus decoder ring. Because the Trinity is not just something we find in forums and classes and academic journals and tomes of systematic theology: the Trinity is something we find right here in our liturgy. The Trinity is something that shapes our worship, something we invoke from beginning to end of this public work of praise and prayer. Here, today, in this worship, we see that the Trinity is not just an intellectual puzzle. We Christians don’t just think about the Trinity; we actually put it to work.

We use the name of the Trinity to bless, the name of the Trinity to baptize, the name of the Trinity to proclaim forgiveness. It is the creative workings of the three persons of the Trinity that enable us to confess our faith. It is the majesty of the Trinity that stops us in our tracks and reminds us to bow down and take off our shoes, for this is holy ground. These actions are lived out publicly here in this liturgy – these blessings and baptisms, this forgiveness and confession, this bowing down before the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, this binding unto ourselves today the strong name of this Trinity.     But it is not just the public nature of this worship that makes the Trinity more than just insider information. It is also the fact that what we do here is what we walk out into the world. The actions of our worship color everything we do when we leave this place. And so nothing about our faith can be insider information. Every time we offer a blessing, the world sees the Trinity. Every time we speak of our baptisms, the world sees the Trinity. Every time we confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood, the world sees the Trinity. Every time we offer our forgiveness, the world sees the Trinity. And every time we stop in our tracks to acknowledge the presence of the holy – in the profound gift that is the created world around us, in the beauty of a cantata or a collage or a carefully crafted word, in the pain and the joy we hear in another’s story, in the generosity we see in those who offer their lives to the service of others, in the bravery we see in those who speak TRUTH in a world that seems to reward only prevarication and posturing, in the seeming foolishness of those who proclaim hope in the face of death and despair, in the obedience we see in those continue to proclaim the Gospel, come whence it may, cost what it will – every time we stop and acknowledge that holiness by bowing down in the face of its wonder and mystery, the world sees the Trinity.

The world always sees the Trinity when you and I act like the disciples we’re called to be. And thanks be to The Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Because it is the Trinity that the world most desperately needs. The world needs a God who knows within God’s very being what it is to love and to be loved, to give and to receive. The world needs a God who both knows what it is to be human and what it is to raise that human from the dead. The world needs a God who both remains constant and righteous and also who sends the Spirit to move about amongst us, bringing new ideas of how we can live together in faith. And most of all, the world needs a God who defies our understanding, our limitations, and our expectations, who is and knows and can offer much more than we could ever ask or imagine.

That is the gift of what the world sees, the first thing they see, when you and I walk out from these doors today and live a life of self-giving love, of creation and redemption, of humility and openness. We cannot hide it, and why would we ever want to?  The idea is simply laughable. So go, live out this wondrous mystery, show the world what it means to be shaped the power of the Trinity. And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, and all the world, now and forever more.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

11 June 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

             

 

                         

Posted on June 13, 2017 .

Believing in the Invisible God

Not long ago a visiting scholar was asked here at Saint Mark’s if he considers the one God in whom we Christians profess our faith, to be the same God in whom Jews place their faith, and in whom Muslims place theirs. We three are, after all, commonly referred to as the three great monotheistic religions. Each tradition is eager to proclaim that there is one God and one God only, and that every other claim of divinity is born of idolatry, foolishness, or wickedness. And the stories of our faiths all intersect in significant and meaningful ways. Do we all believe in the same God?

It is not immediately apparent that there is a short or easy answer to this question. Held at another angle the question becomes yet more thorny. If the answer is anything other than “yes,” then what would we be saying about our friends and neighbors of other religious traditions? What would we be saying about God? We cannot claim that there is only one God, but that your God is not the same as mine, without the obvious implication that your God must be a false God if it’s not the same as mine. Is this what we wish to say? Is it what we believe? More to the point, is it true?

The Christian tradition approaches these questions from the long view, and begins (in the Hebrew scriptures) in the beginning. And from the very beginning, God has been invisible. No one was there to see the Spirit moving upon the face of the waters. Adam and Eve could hear the sound of God walking in the garden, but there is no report that they ever laid eyes on him. Noah took instructions from God, but neither did he look upon the person of God. Abraham was bound to God by an everlasting covenant, but never saw God face to face. Nor would Isaac, or Jacob, or any of the judges, kings, or prophets (major or minor) of Israel, not even David, or Solomon, not Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel.

Only Moses was allowed to behold God in person – and even he could not gaze at God’s face, “for man shall not see [God] and live” (Ex. 30:20). But, protected by the cleft of a rock, and covered by God’s hand, with the sound of God’s name in his ears, all the goodness, graciousness, and mercy of God passed before Moses, until God took away his hand, and allowed Moses to see his back as the Lord passed by.

Otherwise, God remains invisible.

And so God would remain for century after century, until, with a flurry of angels, God prepared himself for a revelation unlike any that he ever before allowed – face-to-face, person-to-person, eye-to-eye. Not only would God allow himself to be seen, he would allow himself to be held, bounced on knees, yelled at by his mother and the neighbors, teased by classmates, vexed by acne, prone to twisting his ankle, teary at the death of his friends, tender in his touch, gentle with children, vulnerable, inscrutable, demanding, and sometimes hungry and thirsty. For just a few of the thirty or so years of his life on earth – Behold the man; come and see him!

And then, as we heard ten days ago, God would become invisible again, as Jesus is taken up into heaven, leaving behind the promise of an invisible gift: the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Only twice, then, in all eternity has God been anything other than invisible. Once for a fleeting moment for the benefit of Moses, and then for a few years in Galillee and Jerusalem in the person of Jesus. Otherwise: invisible.

Two biblical sources account for the Holy Spirit’s arrival amongst God’s people, and both attest to the Spirit’s invisibility. St. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that the Spirit arrives with the “sound like the rush of a violent wind.” And St. John reports that Jesus bequeaths the gift of the Spirit to the apostles by breathing on them. Whether the breath is soft and quiet or fast and loud, it is the same invisible breath: invisible then, and invisible now. How do you follow an invisible God?

More to the point this morning, can an invisible God provide what is needed at this moment in history, when again we must mourn and pray for friends and neighbors (this time in London) who have been victims of horrible violence. Or when as a society we publicly grant ourselves broad license to be as destructive as we want to be with this precious planet that God has entrusted to us? Can an invisible God – moving gently as a breath or violently as wind – lead us through times like these?

Mostly when I speak of the Holy Spirit’s power, the Holy Spirit’s presence, I speak in the abstract, which seems justifiable and appropriate (especially for something invisible). But abstract discussion of the living God and the power of his Spirit may leave us a little cold when we are confronted with difficult times, difficult questions. Will it help us merely to recall that once the Holy Spirit was given to apostles with a puff of breath and a rush of wind? Do we not need that same Spirit among us? Do we not seek the peace that Jesus promised with that breath? Do we not want that graceful moment of mutual understanding that dawned on those gathered at the first Pentecost who realized that although many languages were being spoken, “we hear, each of us, in our own native language,” which is to say that, different as we are, we understand each other? Abstract discussion about the implications of Pentecost will not do on a day such as today. What’s needed, I think, is a story.

Nearly twenty years ago on a journey with the Australian bishop I worked for, to a companion diocese in South Africa, my Australian colleagues and I found ourselves travelling to the remote villages of the Diocese of Umzimvubu in the bush regions of KwaZulu-Natal, where the local language is Xhosa, one of the marvelous African languages that uses clicks and pops.

We were visiting a small church, and I was driving a Toyota truck that had only two-wheel drive on some of the roughest roads I have ever driven. We came to a small creek that had to be crossed, which the Toyota handled easily, and on the other side of the creek a small group of the faithful waited for us, just down a gentle slope from their little church.

After brief introductions we presented the local lay leader, Gilbert, who was in charge of this little church (it had no priest of its own) with a cross we had brought, made of jarrah wood from Western Australia. 

Gilbert and his company led us into the little church, which was built of concrete and had a corrugated tin roof, and uncovered rectangular openings for windows. We walked down a narrow aisle between two rows of simple wooden benches. The altar was raised on a single concrete step, and there was just enough room for us all to follow Gilbert and gather on that step facing the altar. I don’t recall that anything was said – no instruction or explanation – but I will, I hope, forever remember what happened next, standing by the altar of that simple cement church under it’s tin roof. Our African brothers and sisters began to sing.

I don’t actually know if they were singing in Xhosa or in Swahili, or maybe some other tongue, but at first the sound of their singing was lovely, strange, and unusual. But quickly we realized that the hymn our new friends were singing to us was more than a little familiar. And it occurred to us that although we could not understand the language they were singing in, nevertheless we knew the words. 

Then we realized that if we knew the hymn, we could also join in singing it; and it so happened that it was a hymn (maybe the only one) whose refrain I can sing in more than one language, and in harmony too:

Venite adoremus,

venite adoremus,

venite adoremus, Dominum.

And we sang and we sang and we sang that beautiful Christmas hymn in four-part harmony, in the dark, plain space, under the hot tin roof of a little concrete church in the African bush.

The hymn came to an end, and Gilbert said, “Let us pray.” And after a moment our hosts began to pray individually, simultaneously, extemporaneously, and fervently in rapidly pronounced Xhosa, clicking and popping, and rattling off their prayers. I have no idea what I or my friends did or said or prayed while this other prayer was going on – it hardly mattered, frankly.

I suppose there must have been a stillness that followed this short episode, all of which lasted hardly much more than six or seven minutes before we moved away from the altar and out of the church. And in that stillness, if you had tried to tell me that the Holy Spirit was not in our midst, I’d have laughed at you, so unmistakable was the presence of the living and invisible God and the power of his Holy Spirit in our midst.

My friends, our gathering here this morning has serious implications. It’s not so we can remember that first Pentecost and dream wistfully about what it would have been like. It’s not so that I can tell you of a far away happening years ago, and describe what it’s like to be in the midst of the presence of the Holy Spirit. No, the implications of our gathering are these: that we come together in love, we raise our voices in song, and we express our heartfelt prayers under the high, slate roof of this old church in the center of a great and complicated city. And we open our hearts, our lives, and our selves to the living presence of the invisible God who is here with us now. His breath is still breathing in and among us. That wind is still blowing in and among us. And the Spirit is here with us now!

I will leave it to the theologians to debate whether the God whose praises we sing can possibly be anything other than the same God who is earnestly and faithfully worshiped by Jews and by Muslims. For myself, I can only say with certainty that there is only one God, and he is invisible – human eyes having seen him only twice before in all eternity. And I thank God for that unparalleled revelation of God’s Son Jesus, who is himself the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), and of which we are the inheritors. 

Century after century has passed since God showed himself in the person of his divine Son, and we must place our faith in the invisible God, whose Spirit moves unseen and often unheard among us. But we must never mistake his silent invisibility for his absence, as so many have done. God is here, in our midst, and his Spirit is no less powerful for being difficult to detect.

Breathe on us, breath of God, and fill us with life anew. Open our lips to sing your praises, and our ears to hear your Good News. Come to us, O Holy Spirit and lead us into all peace! Rush through us with power and with holiness. Ruffle us, renew us, restore us, revive us! Lift us up to a higher plain to see your more glorious purposes in the world. Draw us together with your love. Give us a song in four-part harmony sung in another’s tongue, and show us that we still know the words, and the tune, and the harmony, too! Descend to us, O Holy Spirit, be everywhere among us, make yourself known to us, open our mouths, and let us sing!

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Pentecost 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 4, 2017 .