Service

We’ve been hearing for several weeks now on Sunday mornings about how in the Kingdom of God our expectations will be reversed.  Think back over our recent gospels and you’ll hear it loud and clear. If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you save your life you will lose it.  If you don’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child you will never enter it.  It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  It’s almost as though Jesus were trying to tell us something.   

And hearing this week after week, the message may begin to sink in.  Perhaps it began to sink in for the disciples: the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  This is an extraordinary promise for all of us who feel that we are lost or losing, who are excluded from what looks like a position of importance.  It’s great news for all of us when we have nothing special to recommend us, no great power or strength or even virtue to call our own.

But how often are we able to consider these gospel words as something more than a fallback for people who don’t get what they want in this life?  How often are we able to consider the possibility that, instead of being a consolation prize for us when we don’t have power, these gospel promises are actually sources of power?  Can we contemplate the idea that the only real power we may have in this life comes from the paradoxical grace God gives us in the act of surrendering?

Another way to put this: if you had wealth and influence and strength in abundance and could dominate others when you wanted to, would you turn to service anyway?  Would humility look like your greatest strength?

I think that’s something of what Jesus asks of James and John and the disciples who resent them in today’s gospel.  Notice that he doesn’t really challenge them when they say that they are able to drink the cup he is to drink.  He doesn’t put them in their places, as indeed he could.  He doesn’t roll his eyes, as I surely would.  No, Jesus lets their arrogant statement fall by the wayside.  It’s not important, I guess, to get into a contest of strength and will with James and John.  It’s not important to Jesus to teach them that he is more powerful than they are.  Though he obviously is.  He just lets all of that go.

Instead, Jesus teaches them what power is.  He teaches them that power—God’s power—is closely linked with the ability to serve and maybe the desire to serve.  That’s it.  Not the ability to serve more heroically or more humbly than another person.  Not the ability to get our needs met by serving others, though some of our needs may be met that way.  Not the ability to endure more suffering than anybody else —Jesus sort of concedes that to James and John.  It’s just service.  It’s identifying with the needs of other people, for their benefit. 

It’s like what a teacher does when the teacher’s focus is on learning rather than on winning followers or looking smart.  It’s like what a musician does when the musician’s focus is not on the sound of her own playing.  It’s like what parents do when they let go of the desire to see themselves reflected well in the accomplishments of their offspring.

If you’ve had one person in your life who listened to you without jumping in to correct you or to tell you what to do or to deny your perspective, you’ve known real service.  Which is to say that you’ve known God’s loving care.  God’s loving service, in Jesus, has filtered down into all of our acts of care, all of our acts of creating and sustaining.  If someone has treated you with genuine respect, in ways that are large or small, you’ve known service, and you’ve known something of the kingdom of God. If space has been made for you to participate in a discussion, or your experience has been valued, you know something about the kingdom of God.

It’s funny how this kind of power works.  It’s almost invisible.  In a world full of puffery and self-marketing, the kind of power that has nothing to prove and no desire except the flourishing of God’s kingdom can pass unnoticed and can certainly go uncelebrated.  It’s almost uncelebrated by design. 

Jesus is talking about a kind of power that makes us completely free, from the need to be recognized, from the need to feel invulnerable, from the need for approval.  Jesus is talking about the ability to enter a room without being acknowledged, make sure everyone in that room has enough to eat, and leave that room without resentments or expectations.  In other words, the kingdom of heaven is close to the condition entered into by any number of skilled restaurant workers, every day, and it’s an exalted state of being.   And it gets a lot of people fed.

Jesus is not asking for a false identification with martyrdom.  Jesus is asking for our true identification with God’s wonderful abundance.  If you have God’s energy and God’s sustenance and God’s love in abundance, giving it away might be a joy.  It’s the joy of coming in second or third or fifteenth and feeling no sense of loss.  It’s the day you don’t notice that no one is noticing you.  Not because you have an unhealthy need to be ignored but because it’s so great not caring about that stuff.  It’s so great to be free to go where God sends you.  It might be such a relief, on that day, just to do the work of the kingdom without being bound by the need to get something “back.”

Imagine walking with Jesus on his earthly pilgrimage and being all caught up in a discussion about whether you’re going to sit on his right hand or his left hand at the end of time.  Seems like a waste, doesn’t it?

It is a waste.  It’s the same waste we are all still experiencing when we accompany our friends on their pilgrimages, worrying all along about whether they like us enough, whether we look good walking next to them, whether there is another friend who might make us feel better.  It’s the waste of a marriage that has been consumed by anxiety about whether there is someone better out there.  It’s the waste of a career spent working for prestige. 

While all this waste goes on around us, we are nevertheless surrounded by the power of the God who puts us first.  It’s quiet, unobtrusive, and life-giving.  If you want to experience it, go to lunch after Mass and watch how a server or a cook works.  Go to coffee hour, and receive a cup of coffee from the hand of a volunteer whose desire is to work for the life of this parish.  Eat the cookie someone brought, made, shared, just so you would have a moment’s joy in the company of other believers before the cookies vanished.  Better yet, come put out your hands at the communion rail, and receive the very body of the one who died to set us free. 

It’s easy to believe, in this noisy world, that the ones who make themselves stand out are the ones who hold the keys to the kingdom.  It’s easy to believe that belligerence is power.  It’s easy to believe that competition is what brings us the things we need.  But all over the world, often without a sound, the servants of God are performing acts of redemption.  When you need to remember that, look around you and give thanks for the love of God that sustains you and surrounds you.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
21 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 21, 2018 .

Bigger Needles-Smaller Camels

 by Mick Stevens for the New Yorker

by Mick Stevens for the New Yorker

The scene is a simple one: two men are sitting in comfortable club chairs.  Both men are be-spectacled.  They are seated in the corner of the gracious room, chairs at 90-degree angles to allow for easy conversation, a small round table between them.  Both have drinks: I am assuming Scotch.  Behind one is a tall built-in bookcase.  Behind the other is a large, plate-glass window through which can be seen the skyscrapers beyond. It appears to be raining, but it hardly matters.  They could be in any big city, but I am quite sure they are in New York.  Both wear suits and ties.  They are pleased with themselves, although they would never wish to suggest that they are.  One of them is speaking, but from the image you cannot tell who is speaking to whom.  It doesn’t matter, for in reality, what they have to say, they both have to say to one another.  They do not wish for us to overhear them, but the artist, Mick Stevens, has ensured that what they have to say to one another is clearly the most important thing about this image.


One well-dressed, be-spectacled, Scotch-sipping man commenting to another, as they relax in their comfort, well above the worries of the world; they say to each other, “We need either bigger needles or smaller camels.”  The cartoon appeared in the New Yorker about four years ago, but it is timeless.


It feels like a fool’s errand to preach on Mark 10:25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Most people have already decided which side of that bargain they are comfortable with, and most of us are on the same (that is, the wrong) side.  And if this is the way Jesus is going to talk to us, then, well, we are either going to need bigger needles or smaller camels.  We are not going to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.  Period.  Find me a bigger needle or a smaller camel.  Otherwise we can move on to the next chapter, please.


I strongly suspect that the two men in the cartoon are Episcopalians.  They are well dressed, and they are enjoying a drink before sundown.  They also appear to take the Scriptures seriously, in their own way.  And they are employing the traditional approach to this unpleasant teaching of Jesus: they are trying to find their way around it, without seeming as though they don’t care about what Jesus said.  It’s as if they want to be able to go to church in good conscience.  Having heard about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, they know they must now apply themselves to this challenge, so they do!


I am sure there exist parishes in which these two men could be co-chairs of the Stewardship Committee.  They would run terrific stewardship campaigns, in two consecutive years (trading leadership so each one had a year at the helm).  One year the theme of the campaign would be, “Bigger Needles!”  The next, the theme would be, “Smaller Camels!”


During the “Bigger Needles” year, they would have charts and graphs that show how you can maximize your tax benefits by giving more to the church.  During the “Smaller Camels” year they would teach, among other things, about the value of down-sizing for empty-nesters, and they would show that once you have finished paying your kids’ tuition, you can increase your pledge to the church without ever noticing, and still maximize your contributions to your 401(k)!


A seminary somewhere would pick up on the success of this stewardship outlook, and start to run a two-part seminar called Stewardship in a New Golden Age - Part I: Bigger Needles; Part II: Smaller Camels.  And a small religious publishing house would produce a little manual about stewardship for the well-to-do, written by our co-chairs, entitled, predictably enough, “Bigger Needles, Smaller Camels.”  For a few years, parishes all over the country would adopt this model.  The proceeds from the sale of the book would go to the diocesan offices; such is the generosity of the two authors.


Part of the beauty of the approach is how biblical it is!  It is based directly our Lord’s own teaching!  It’s not like this is some sort of “prosperity Gospel” which enriches the church and her clergy at the expense of the people of God.  No, our two stewardship chairmen made their money the old-fashioned way (whatever that is).  And they think you should be able to do the same, and still find a way to give something to the church.  And all you need are bigger needles and smaller camels if you want to do so with a clear conscience!


Two thoughts interrupt my reverie about the gentleman co-chairs of the Bigger Needles-Smaller Camels stewardship campaign.


The first is to notice that the only reason to be concerned with bigger needles and smaller camels is because somehow our two friends have decided that they are still interested in the kingdom of God.  Otherwise, why worry?


In this regard, our friends are notable, because it seems to me that many of us often lose sight of the kingdom of God - even those of us in the church, (maybe especially those of us in the church).  We get so caught up in the cares and occupations of the church and the world, that we forget that we are meant to be headed somewhere, toward a better country, a newer life, and a restoration of all that has been broken, warped, lost, or forgotten.  Call it redemption - this is the purpose of our fellowship with Christ - or more precisely, it is the purpose of Christ’s fellowship with us.  And the fulfillment of redemption leads us, we are promised, toward the kingdom of God.


The Christian life is always a pilgrimage.  Jesus is nearly always telling us to “go” and do something.  Salvation is always a process.  And no, we are not there yet.  Merely being interested in the journey to the kingdom of God is a distinction worthy of attention these days, I’d say.  And our two friends in the club chairs, comfortable though they may be, have not lost sight, it would seem, of the kingdom of God.  Good for them.


The second thing is the standard reminder, when approaching this little episode, that St. Mark provides an invaluable piece of information in relating this story to us, about why Jesus tells the rich man to sell what he has, give the money to the poor, and follow him.  We are told that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  It’s important to remember that the impossible advice that Jesus gives to the rich man is given to him in love.  The implication of this piece of information is that Jesus’ advice to the rich man is both good advice and profoundly true, since it is offered out of love.  Perhaps Jesus made a mistake when he gave such bold and clear direction to the man.  Unable to keep his love in check, did Jesus simply blurt out the truth, which would end up being advice that he should have known the man would never be able to accept?


The other followers who left everything behind to follow Jesus, appear not to have had much to leave anyway.  It was easier for them to drop their nets, I guess, because they didn’t have much to lose in the first place.  And the nets probably belonged to their fathers, anyway, not to them.


St. Mark tells us that the rich man “went away grieving.”  I assume that this emotional detail is an indication that the man understood that he was making a choice that might very well be the wrong one, but that it was a chance he simply could not allow himself to take - that following Jesus might be better than keeping all his possessions.  I guess I know how he feels; maybe you do too.


St. Mark does not tell us how Jesus felt when the rich man went away grieving.  But we can imagine that Jesus was hurt, and felt at least a little rejected, having spoken, as he did, out of love, without reservation or caution.  Maybe he felt foolish himself, for having reached out in love, only to see the man turn away in sadness and disappointment.  It would not be the last time Jesus found his love un-welcomed.


It is of course part and parcel of the message of this passage that for God all things are possible.  And so it would not be in the spirit of the text to suggest that bigger needles and smaller camels might not be the answer for some who are called to make their way to the kingdom of God.  It is possible that our two gentlemen are onto something.  But the clear implication of the passage is that most of us will be stuck with standard-sized needles, and inconveniently large camels, and that the progress of the rich toward the kingdom of God can be reasonably said to be impeded by all that we have in our possession.


There are parts of this city in which such an injunction about the rich would be silly in the extreme.  But we do not inhabit such a district.  And many of us, myself included, must be counted among the rich, even if we’re only moderately well to do.  If you doubt me on this, you need to get out more.


Reviewing the image of the two men in their comfy chairs, with their Scotch, I sense that Jesus sees them there.  And I believe, on the basis of the Scriptures, that looking at them, Jesus loves them (as he loves us too).  And although I had imagined that they would be the villains of this sermon, in the end, it turns out that our two friends are not villains; not least because of Jesus’ love for them.  But also because by the very nature of their conversation it is clear that they have not forgotten about the kingdom of God, have not given up on it, and have not finished scheming about ways to get there.  That’s a far cry from going away grieving.  And I imagine that looking at them, and loving them as he does, Jesus might well say something, like, “Keep trying, boys, keep trying.”


It’s what I hope he’s saying to me when I find it hard to do what I know he wants me to do; and when I find it hard to give what I know I want to give, but I want even more to keep for myself: “Keep trying, Sean, keep trying.”  


It’s what I hope is the message for all of us when we are tempted to think that what we really need is bigger needles or smaller camels, in order to work around the clear message of our Lord that what we really need to do is give more away.


Help us keep trying, Lord; help us keep trying.  Help us not to turn away grieving.  Help us not to try so hard to be first, if that means that we will be last in your kingdom.  And help us to give what we think we cannot give.  For us it mostly seems impossible, and maybe it is.  But not for you Lord; for God all things are possible.

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

Posted on October 15, 2018 .

What is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him?

An adventuresome friend of mine recently crossed the Atlantic on a 50-foot sailboat as a member of a four-person crew, sailing from the Caribbean to the Azores.  When I asked him what was the best moment of the journey, he told me that it was when he was half-way across the Atlantic, on a calm-ish day, and he summoned his courage and jumped overboard into the sea.  He wanted, he told me, to know what it would feel like to be a puny speck on the globe, floating there with the vastness of the ocean beneath him, and the wide expanse of sky above him.  He said that it was terrifying in a way, but also an unmatched opportunity to come to terms with fear, and to face his own insignificance (in planetary terms), and to be vulnerable to the universe.


My friend is not religious, and expressed nothing about the experience in religious terms, but he might have borrowed the thought from the theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who wondered, figuratively speaking, what was necessary in order to be “out upon the deep, in over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”


And the Psalmist, whose perspective is fundamentally religious, seems to have wondered about this feeling too.  “What is man,” he asks of God, “that thou art mindful of him; the son of man, that thou visitest him?”  Or to put it in more modern language, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?”  More poignantly, the Psalmist marvels at the favor that God shows to us humans, “the works of his fingers,” speaking with a notable but, I feel certain, unintentional lack of inclusivity: “You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor;... you put all things under his feet.”


I wonder if my friend might have felt only but a little lower than the angels as he floated in the deep dark sea, beneath the never-ending sky.


The world seems to have more ways than ever of making us feel as though we are out in the deep.  And you can measure seventy thousand fathoms in more than just water.  There is a catalog of potential deeps in the news every day.  From wars that we have nearly forgotten, to political conflicts we can’t escape even if we want to.  There are the thousand dramas of each of our own inner fears, insecurities, and bitternesses.  There is the fact that the ocean depths are becoming still deeper, and the blithe way we willfully contribute to the literally deepening fathoms beneath us.  There are more ways than ever, it seems, to feel like a puny speck on the planet, and to be vulnerable to the universe.  What are human beings, O God, that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?


The question is not a rhetorical one.  So many of us live our lives so far removed from God that we have forgotten that God made us “in his image, in his own image he created [us]; male and female he created [us].”  And so many of us haven’t the foggiest idea why it might be important that God made us according to his own likeness.  We forget that our creation in God’s own image is an expression of God’s love for us, an embodiment of the goodness of creation, and an assurance of our own special place in terms of proximity to God’s heart, and not on the food chain, that the story of creation is meant to tell.  Like all children, we have been free to take our parent’s love for granted.  And like all children, our propensity to do so has rendered us no less needful of that love.


What are human beings, O God, that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them. What is man that thou art mindful of him; the son of man, that thou visitest him?


When God created the heavens and the earth, he already knew, of course, what we would look like.  For there has never been a time when God was without his only-begotten Son, who “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and [who] sustains all things by his powerful word.”  And there never has been a time when God did not know that he would send his Son to be born of Mary.  There never was a time that God did not know that his Son would suffer and die.  There never was a time when God did not know that he would raise Christ up from the dead.  There never was a time when our redemption - both the need for it and the circumstances of it - was unknown to God.

The Scriptures testify to a divine symmetry in the likeness that we bear to to God’s image and the exact imprint of that image that is the incarnate Son of God, who came to be God-with-us.  Christ is the exact imprint; and we were made in God’s image and likeness.  God has always known this.  How could God fail to be mindful of us?

In the modern era, we have generally adopted an attitude of suspicion toward God.  We suspect that God is possessed of a certain hardness of heart that causes him and his church to treat the world and its people with a certain cruelty.  And those of us who want to think better of God find ourselves constantly trying to make excuses for him.  But Jesus knows that the hardness of heart is all ours.  The passage we heard from Mark’s Gospel this morning is typically referred to as Jesus’ teaching on divorce, and I suppose you can read it that way.  But a better way to read this passage, I think, is as part of Jesus’ extended teaching on our hardness of heart, in which he shows that when you have no other organizing principle - like a covenant of love - then hardness of heart results always, only, and ever in hurt, sadness, and sin.  Divorce is only an example of that.

But when we consider the heavens, and the work of God’s fingers, and we ask ourselves who are we that God should be mindful of us, we remember that God has made us but little lower than the angels, and adorned us with honor and glory.  We see that God has given us mastery over the works of his almighty hands, and put all things under our feet, even the seventy thousand fathoms of the deep, that ought to frighten us into oblivion, and make us see just how puny we are.  But the longer and the deeper we look, the more assuredly we see that God still made us in his image and likeness, just a little lower than the angels…

And so to the Lord our Governor, whose Name shall be exalted in all the world be honor, power, dominion, glory, and praise from this time forth and for ever more.  Amen.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
7 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on October 8, 2018 .