How to Be a Disciple

On a cold January morning in New York City, a man named Wesley Autrey was standing on the crowded subway platform at 137th Street with his two daughters, aged 6 and 4. It was a perfectly ordinary New York subway kind of day…until a young man standing on the same platform suddenly fell into a violent seizure and tumbled down onto the tracks. He was lying there, convulsing, when a low, tell-tale rumble began to roll down the long tunnel. The crowd, horrified, looked up to see the lights of the oncoming train just starting to illuminate the edges of the darkness beyond.

Immediately, Wesley Autrey left his two girls in the care of a stranger standing nearby and jumped down onto the tracks. Frantically, he tried to pull the young man up and onto the platform, but he couldn’t lift him. The oncoming train was now clearly visible at the end of the tunnel, speeding into the station, and with only a split-second to react, Wesley jumped on top of the man, pulling him within the lines of the tracks and pressing down on top of him so that their bodies were as flat as possible. The train did not, could not, stop. And so Wesley lay there, sheltering the body of a complete stranger, while the train thundered over them.

Wesley describes the next moments brilliantly. I just felt the train brush my calves, he said, and indeed he later discovered a long streak of grease along the top of his hat. The train finally stopped, and Wesley found himself eyeball to eyeball with this young man with an entire subway train above them. Hi, you don’t know me, he told the man. You had a seizure and fell on the tracks, but you’re okay. Am I dead? the man asked him. Wesley reached up and pinched the man on his arm. You feel that?, he said. You’re very much alive. He yelled out from under the train, Excuse me, I’m the father, would you tell my daughters that I’m okay? At which point the people on the platform burst into deafening applause.

This amazing, jaw-dropping subway rescue happened over ten years ago, in January of 2007, when it created such a splash that Wesley was crowned the Subway Samaritan by the New York press. I heard this story in a recent podcast from the show Radiolab entitled, appropriately, How to Be a Hero. The hosts were interested in exploring how and why people do heroic things. They interviewed people who had crawled through an electric fence to save a women being gored by a bull or pulled three people out of a burning car in nothing but a pair of sweatpants or jumped onto a subway track in the path of an oncoming train. Each story was more incredible than the next, each person a Samaritan, a Superman, a man or a woman doing something you and I could hardly imagine. As one of the hosts put it, he could, in his wildest imagination, see himself jumping down onto subway tracks to pull someone to safety. But he could never imagine himself staying down there in the path of an oncoming train and letting himself be run over. And I feel exactly the same way. I can be generous and self-giving, even at considerable cost to myself, but I’m not sure I have the capacity for that kind of sacrifice. I’m just not sure I’m made that way. Wesley is surely extraordinary, a man with a hero’s makeup, born with a tiny red cape instead of a caul over his face.

I sometimes feel the same way looking at the story of the call of the disciples, particularly as it is told in the Gospel of Mark. It was a warm morning by the Sea of Galilee, and Peter and Andrew and James and John are working – hauling in fish, mending their nets. It was a perfectly ordinary Galilee kind of day…until our Lord Jesus Christ walks by and says, “Follow me.” And immediately the disciples leave their nets and follow him. There is no discussion, no interview. There is no listing of pros and cons, no consultation with family or friends. There is only the response – instant, and wholehearted. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

They seem extraordinary. They seem genetically predisposed to this kind of obedience, born with a halo already about their heads and a spiritual compass for a heart. And while we pray to be followers like them, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, I wonder if we imagine that we could ever really do this, if we could ever really be as extraordinary as they. If Christ were to walk into your work, tap you on your shoulder and say Follow me! while you were in the operating room or standing in front of a classroom full of students or sitting on the organ bench, would you pick up and go? Would you immediately leave the school or the office or the clinic and follow him? For myself, I honestly don’t know. I could imagine myself deciding to make some greater sacrifices, buying fewer books and giving more money on those in need, dedicating more time to service or advocacy, giving more of my self in a radical generosity of time and spirit. What I have a hard time imagining is getting up, from my desk, leaving behind my family and my job and my place in the world, and, not knowing where I’m going, just following him. I am not at all sure that I am that extraordinary.

The problem is that to say that we’re not extraordinary like they were is to risk discounting the Gospel as having anything to do with us. To say that this story is only about how remarkable the disciples were is to turn this Gospel into mere history instead of a present word – you know, here’s the story of how the disciples got started, and aren’t we grateful for them. If we say that the disciples are somehow better than we are, genetically not like us, then it’s easy to distance ourselves from this story, to stop our ears to what this Gospel might be speaking now, in this moment. But this is to sell the Gospel very short. It is vitally important that we understand how those men did what they did, so that we can learn how to be a disciple.

In the podcast, the hosts asked the heroes they interviewed how it was that they could do these extraordinary things. What was it that made them heroes? Was it something about the way they grew up? Was it something about what they did for a living, their religion, their age? Are some people just born with a dominant Hero Gene, or is it nurture, not nature? What they found was something far more interesting than the discovery of some uniquely heroic genetic marker. What they found was that these people were all completely ordinary. There wasn’t anything – religion, upbringing, experiences – that marked them for heroism. And when the heroes were asked why they risked harm or even death in order to save the life of a perfect stranger, most of them responded that they had absolutely no idea. She was going to die if I didn’t help her, one said. I don’t know – I really didn’t think about it at all, said another. I just knew I had to help. They were in need, and I was there, so I did something about it. It turns out that these heroes were not, in fact, extraordinary. They were ordinary people, from all walks of life. What made them heroic was that they were placed in extraordinary circumstances. They were placed in a hero’s moment, and the moment invited them to become something more.

Probe the stories of the disciples in your mind for even a moment, and you’ll remember that they were, in fact, completely ordinary men. They have become exemplars of the faith, but in their lives, they strove and stumbled, fell and forgot, just like we do. And yet they became leaders and saints, not because they were unusual, but because they were placed in a particular moment, and they responded like disciples. Which means that we, too, have the capacity to respond in the exact same way. For when Christ comes to Philadelphia, which he does very often, and sees us in our schools or offices or homes, and says, Follow me!, we find ourselves, just like the Peter and Andrew and James and John, in a disciples’ moment. And in that moment, we are all ready, as ready as we’re going to ever be, not because of us, but because of the one who calls. We don’t have to be extraordinary because he is.

When Wesley Autrey was interviewed years later about his decision to jump on the tracks that day, he didn’t say that he had no idea. He didn’t say that he just didn’t think about what he was doing. In that moment, he said, “for some strange reason a voice out of nowhere said, ‘Don’t worry about your own; don’t worry about your daughters. You can do this.’” And so he jumped. Today, that voice is speaking to you. Not for some strange reason, but for one very specific reason. Because Christ sees you, and Christ sees that you are his. And you are in a situation that really needs disciples; you are standing in a disciples’ moment. Our holy, extraordinary Lord is calling you to follow him, in new and unimagined and remarkable and wholly life-changing ways. Don’t worry about your life, don’t worry about your own. You, disciples, can do this. 

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

21 January 2018

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 23, 2018 .

The Lamp of God Has Not Yet Gone Out

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

If I were a betting man, I would put a lot of money on the bet that you could hear a lot of sermons this morning in Episcopal churches on this question from the 46th verse of the first chapter of the Gospel of John: Can anything good come out of that dump Nazareth?  Frankly, what could be easier this morning than preaching on this text?  We are, in this nation, in the midst of an uproar over immigration, and over racism, and over (in a sense) the national soul.  And sometimes weak and inadequate leaders make themselves easy targets by virtue of their many and obvious inadequacies.  And who doesn’t love an easy target?  I do.  And who doesn’t love to preach to the choir?  I do.  What sweeter music can be heard from a pulpit than the anthem that you already wished to sing?  Maybe you were humming the tune on your way here?  How gratifying to hear that tune harmonized from the privileged perch of the preacher!

And no doubt there are powerful and important sermons that will be preached this morning on the rude question that Nathanael asks about why anyone would have anything to do with someone from a place like Nazareth.  There are words that need to be spoken, and that need to be heard.  But Nathanael didn’t get what he was expecting when he asked that question, and maybe we we shouldn’t get what we are expecting either.  If we go another way, perhaps we will see greater things than these....

For, if you ask me, much of the church is sleeping most of the time.  Take this comment any way you like.  There are places, I believe - like in Africa, and in Haiti - where this is not the case, and the church is alive to the persistent call of God, where the poor awaken every morning to their poverty, and have no particular need to be otherwise woke.  The Gospel of Jesus has a way of thriving among the poor who can ill afford the idols that the rest of us take for granted, and who sometimes plate those idols in gold.  

But in so much of the Christian church in America - in any denomination and all - and certainly in Europe, and across the continent of Australia... in these places, the church is sleeping, rousing herself for an hour or two on Saturday nights or on Sunday mornings for a dose of something a little less bracing than aftershave, before going back to her slumber, during which her members accomplish all kinds of things that are fun, or demanding, or gratifying, and sometimes even noble, and that are making a lot of people rich, more or less, but which have little or nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don’t make this comment with bitterness.  If getting rich (or at least well-to-do) had been a goal of mine, I was in a reasonable position to choose such a path as a young man, but I felt called to do otherwise.  So why should I spend my time in the pulpit doing what the op-ed writers of the New York Times can do nearly as well as I could, when they will get paid a lot better to do it?

Meanwhile, the church is sleeping, prone - her activity level greatly diminished, her heart-rate slow.  If she dreams she can do nothing much about those dreams and maybe not even remember them in the morning.  In some places perhaps she even has sleep apnea, and appears to be be dying or dead.  But she is sleeping.

The sitz in leben of the Gospel story, in which Nathanael delivers his famous and provocative zinger about Nazareth is reported by St. John simply to be “Galilee.”  But the context of the passage we heard from the First Book of Samuel this morning is much more interesting.  The reporter of that remarkable story tells us three important things:

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days;

“Visions were not widespread...

And, more locally, in the temple of the Lord, where the ark was located, and where young Samuel was sleeping, the writer tells us that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”

Sleeping.  Samuel was sleeping.  And so was his mentor, Eli - sleeping.  Both of them were sleeping.

And the word of the Lord was rare in those days.  Visions were not widespread.  Sound familiar?

But, but, but - and this is vitally important - but, the lamp of God had not yet gone out.  Not yet!

And the LORD called Samuel by name.  Three times.  To rouse him from his sleep.  

Now, the first thing we can take away from this story is that even if the voice of the LORD calling you from sleep wakes you up, it’s easy to go back to bed.

And, the second thing we  can take away from this story is that sometimes you need to seek guidance from someone older and wiser than you - especially in spiritual matters - and that you are not always in a position to hear, let alone to understand what God is calling you to, nor how you should respond.

But the third thing we can take away from this well-story is contained in a detail that I have hardly ever noticed before.  In my memory and in my retelling of the call of Samuel, which was instrumental in my own discernment of my vocation to priesthood, I have always appreciated the triple call of God to Samuel.  Additionally, I have appreciated the writer’s very specific description that “Samuel did not yet know the LORD,” even though he had been sleeping right there in the temple, in the presence of the lamp of God, having been lent by his mother to the temple priests for the service of the LORD.  But still, Samuel did not yet know the Lord.  So, three times, God calls, and three times, Samuel - even with Eli available to consult - three times he misses it.

But, after the third time, and now that Samuel has been told by Eli what to do, has been instructed in the way to respond, is prepared again for the voice to disrupt his sleep...  It is not just that God calls again...  It is not the mere repetition of the call that brings Samuel into sacred conversation with God...  It is not that Samuel keeps one ear open when he returns to sleep...  No, the LORD does not just call again...  Not by a long shot.  The writer of this account is very clear that God does something different this time.  No, the LORD does not just call again.

We are told, “Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before.”  The LORD came and stood there.  God comes and stands there by Samuel - who may not even realize the the LORD, the great I AM, is standing there by his side.  But it is not just the voice of God that awakens Samuel this time, it is the living Presence of the LORD that Samuel cannot ignore, and to which he is prepared to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The LORD came and stood there, calling as before.

Here we are on a cold Sunday morning, following an Eagles victory in the playoffs, with the question ringing in our ears, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  On a day when, oh, I could set that question to the music of the current political climate and sing it with the choir!  But the church is sleeping!  Maybe not you, maybe not any of us here at this moment, per se.  But we’ve got to be careful that our message is not aimed at the choir, so to speak, lest we sing ourselves back to sleep!  And I am pretty certain that, yes, much of the church throughout the world is still sleeping, even in their pews.

The church is asleep in so many places.  And I can’t speak for anyone else, but in this moment of sleepiness, God is not calling me to chastise the President, who isn’t listening anyway.

If anything, God is reminding us how easy it is for us all to go back to sleep, even after we have heard him call; how easy it is for us to decide not to seek or to heed the advice of older generations, who have been down these paths before...  and to choose instead just to go back to bed.

God is reminding us that we will see greater things than anything we can imagine... but only if we are not still sleeping!

And above all God is coming to us to stand here, in the midst of us, so that we may at last heed his call - moved to do so by his living Presence, of which we may not even be aware!

The sermons that are being preached elsewhere this morning will, in fact, remind us why it is so important that the church must not remain sleeping.  Because the very meaning of justice has been forgotten.  Because the very possibility of telling the truth is being discarded.  Because the virtue of mercy is being denied.  Because the pursuit of wisdom is being abandoned.  Because the possibility of hope is being dampened.  Because the desire to help the poor and confer upon them the respect and love they deserve is being squelched.  These are virtues of the Christian Gospel that the church has spent the better part of 2,000 years pursuing: justice, truth, mercy, wisdom, hope, and sincere and loving care for the poor.

At this particular moment, when the church’s values are so much in doubt, and so undervalued by those who would lead this nation, it will accomplish little if I wag my finger at Washington from here on Locust Street, other than to assure me of my own self-righteousness… which is always gratifying: to me.

But there is no more urgent message for the church right now than that the LORD is standing here, calling as before!  Which means that God has something for you to do, something for us to do.  God is calling us to get up, and to stay awake!  And there is no greater danger than that we, the ones whom God is calling, will simply go back to sleep!

For the lamp of God has not yet gone out!  Thanks be to God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 January 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 14, 2018 .

The Word IV

Somewhere in the secret places of the universe
burns a fire beneath a kettle of strongest steel.
and in the kettle there simmers an elixir
comprising the most intense concentration
of all the love and grace of God, distilled,
and here, reducing to a version stronger still.

And when that lovely broth is cooked
down to only barely more than a vapor,
it is drawn into the nib of God’s finger,
to become the sanctified ink with which, 
in elegant lettering, he spells out
across the parchment of his creation
that one perfect Word, 
that contains the fullness of his own being,
in letters too small to be read,
but immense enough to encompass the universe.

The Word exists in every language and in none.
It is impossible to spell, 
but tolerates any number of variant spellings.
It is uttered all over the world, 
and yet it is unutterable -
defying feeble speech,
and the conventions of our language.

God never stops writing this sacred Word
and he never began.
From before time the ink was fermenting;
and for ever will the Lord draw more
into his almighty finger, to scrawl, or dab, or paint,
or illuminate the Word wherever it is called for,
and even where it is not.
And as he writes, does he also whisper, or shout,
to be carried on the wind, the sound of the Word
forever being written by his finger?  Forever speaking it, too?

And did he not draw with that finger
the manger scene, with the exquisite figure
of a child - that perfect calligraphy of the Word
made flesh, breathing the same breath
that carries the living Word on the breeze?

He was in the world, but the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, but his own received him not.

And does not that Word still
glow with a light that enlightens us all?

The darkness comprehends it not; 
the darkness cannot overcome it:
cannot overcome the light, the Word.

Nothing can overcome it.  Do not be fooled.
Not a lazy church, or an overzealous evangelical.
Not a death sentence, or solitary confinement.
Not a lie, or insidious innuendo.
Not a cancerous cell, or a pain killer.
Not the changing climate; or the denial of it.
Not a bomb on a rocket, or one made at home.
Not a truck charging through the crowd, 
or a man with a bump-stock, among other things,
on the thirty-second floor.
Not a fire coming down from the California hills,
or one raging into the upstairs apartments.
Not a man who thinks he can, when he should not.
And certainly not a tax bill, its carelessness codified.
Not warfare or murder; not fire or brimstone; 
not injury, insult, or indignity; not unrequited love; 
not loneliness, not grudge-bearing; not addiction, not jealousy;
not failure, and not fear; 
not betrayal, and not even the loss of everything you own.
Not fire or flood, or the failure to have the correct insurance.
Not grief - no - not even that precious grief
of one taken too soon, no.
The darkness cannot overcome the light.
God knows it has tried.

And these few lines of mine - what weak potion
in comparison with the omnipotent ink of that eternal Word.
There comes a time when other words must bow
in deference to the one true Word: 
prostrate themselves before it in humility and veneration.
For I will never in a lifetime manage to scribble or speak
so much as a jot or a tittle of that Word
that gave me all of mine.  I am only trying to repeat
some small syllable, in hopes of making it repeatable
to you.

The closest we can come to the Word, I suppose is Love,
although that is not what the scholars say about it:
that’s not what it means.
Love is what the Word would signify to us,
if Love carried much meaning;
if we hadn’t made Love cheap,
by saying how much we love every damned thing;
when what we really mean is that we want to take
every damned thing for ourselves;
when there are only a few things we would give our selves for:
like our children.  Maybe.  
For Love is giving, not taking.

The Word was given to us.  Just given.
No questions asked.
No need to ask for more - there is plenty to go around.
And while it can be easily ignored, written over, garbled;
It cannot be erased.  
From God’s fullness we have all received grace upon grace,
which was grace upon grace, upon grace, upon grace, 
before love was love, was love, was love, 
to borrow a coined phrase.

Thanks be to God for the fire, and for the kettle;
for the liquid version of his grace and love,
distilled to almost a vapor.
Thanks be to God for the ink, and for the nib of his finger.
Thanks be to God for writing and speaking that Word
for eternity.
Thanks be to God for giving us power to become his children- 
and if his children, then his heirs: born of his love.

Thanks be to God for the grace upon grace.
And thanks be to God for sending us
that Word
made flesh
to dwell among us, 
full of grace and truth.

Thanks be to God.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
31 December 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 31, 2017 .