Being Planted

My grandmother was a woman who loved plants. She loved houseplants and wildflowers, gardens and hedgerows, vegetation of every variety. She knew the name of every single green, growing thing on the planet. Pachysandra and pansies, lilies and lilacs, lace-cap and mountain and oak-leaf hydrangea – walking through Longwood Gardens with her was like a masterclass in botany. I spent most of my time with Nana when she was living alone in a little one-bedroom apartment, but even there, her plants were immaculately cared for. Flowering plants were promptly dead-headed, browning leaves trimmed to make way for new growth. The leaves of her jade plant were polished with a damp cloth every week. No plant was ever under- or over-watered; no plant was ever placed in a window with the wrong light or – horrors! – left alone to grow until it was pot-bound. Nana’s apartment was like the Ritz-Carlton for houseplants.

My mother inherited Nana’s green thumb. My dad used to jokingly call our dining room the greenhouse; it was the room with the best light, and so we got used to sharing our meals with great ferns and towering snake plants, mountains of African violets and spider plants laden with babies. There was no plant my mother couldn’t grow to enormous proportions, no plant that wouldn’t flower over and over again under her care. She talked to them when she watered them, telling them how beautiful they were, and as a child I always thought they bloomed just because they wanted to please her.

I’m sorry to say that the Ryan family green thumb seems to have skipped a generation. I can kind of keep a philodendron alive, but more of my houseplants have been buried than have bloomed. And I don’t know the name of anything. The only way I could write this sermon was literally
to google “list of common houseplants” and then click on the ones that looked familiar – you know, that kind of tall, spiky one, and those pretty purple flowery ones. I still hold out hope that someday some latent gift for growing will emerge in me – perhaps in Chicago, where the weather is so, you know, temperate.

I like to think that Jesus, too, was a great lover of green and growing things. I like to think that he used parables about planting and growing not just because he knew that the people he was speaking to were planters and growers but also because he loved the planted and the grown. I like to imagine Jesus as a child walking alongside his mother as she watered and weeded her garden, learning from her that plants will grow a little better for you if you sing to them. I like to imagine Joseph taking Jesus out with him to inspect a grove of trees, showing him which were better for building tables and which were better for carving. I like to imagine Jesus looking down at a tiny set of twin leaves sprouting from the earth and asking Mary in wonder, “What kind of a plant is that?” knowing that, of course, she would have the answer. I like to imagine Jesus with his hands in the earth, nurturing something green and growing.

I like to imagine that when Jesus said the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, he was feeling the silky smoothness of the seeds in his hand and remembering the joy of discovering those first spots of green in the brown earth. I like to imagine that when Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, he was recalling the sound of the glorious ruckus when the birds came home to roost in the bush by his mother’s front door. I like to imagine that Jesus spoke of green and growing things because he loved them, because he saw his heavenly Father’s handprint upon them, because he saw how beautiful and miraculous they are.

And I like to imagine that Jesus looks at us the same way. I like to imagine that Jesus looks at us and sees something green and growing, something fragrant and fair. I like to imagine that Jesus is filled with joyful wonder when he sees something new sprouting in our lives. I like to imagine that he knows that we do better when he sings to us. I like to imagine that he recognizes that sometimes we are strong and ready for building and sometimes we are soft and supple and ready to be carved out and filled. I like to imagine – no, I know – that he can call us each by name, and that when he looks upon us, he sees his Father’s handprint, that when he looks upon us, he sees just how beautiful and miraculous we are.

Look around you. This is a room filled with the most remarkable green and growing things. You are wondrously made, a garden of infinite beauty and variety. You are planted here in this holy place, where your roots are watered by the Holy Spirit, where you are fed with the richest food and drink, where the parts of you that sometimes dry up and wither are gently pruned away, where your souls are nourished week after week with the sweetest music. You sit here, bathing in just the perfect light, beautiful and miraculous.

The Psalmist writes that when you are planted in the house of the Lord, you shall flourish. And what flourishing there has been here. You have founded a school, welcomed a community of ministry residents, and started a choir and a camp and a Schola so that children and families feel
welcomed and necessary to this place. You have begun caring more intentionally for your neighbors and gathering more intentionally as women or as young adults or as families. You have welcomed more and more people into the knowledge that that the beauty of holiness is matched only by the beauty of serving someone in need. Just this morning we will enlarge the Body of Christ with the baptism of this
precious child Alexander. There has been so much new growth in this place that the air is heavy with the scent of new blooms.

And still there is new life taking root all over this church. Some of these seeds are already beginning to sprout, like the expanding foot care ministry at the Soup Bowl, or the Zoe ministry that will bring bread and fellowship to a church property that has lain fallow for far too long.
Some seeds are still waiting to be planted in this place – on the organ bench or in the Servant Year Program or on the clergy staff. And some of these seeds are still waiting in the darkness, growing quietly underground until they are ready to poke their heads out into the light. All of these seeds, even those tiny ones in your hearts that you aren’t sure will ever come to anything, will keep this church flourishing and growing, will provide space for more and more people to find rest and hope in the shade of your welcoming branches.

I know this is true for two reasons. First, I know it because I have seen that growth in my own life. From the moment that God first called to me when I was an alto in that choir stall right there; to the moment I was baptized in that font right there; to the moment you sent me from here to seminary; to the moment I got that first email from Fr. Mullen asking me if I might be interested in talking about a job; to the moment I first heard the Boys and Girls Choir sing, or first said our Thank you God and Help me God prayers in Schola, or said Mass at our first 20s/30s Simple Supper, or blessed our first ingathering of supplies for refugees with the Fernanda Guild, or took our first flight on the Zoe Project trip to California; to the moment I met this particularly charming tenor on the choir trip to Wells Cathedral; to the moment that tenor and I were married right there; to the moment, to the moment, to the moment, I have seen extravagant, holy, humbling growth in my life. Saint Mark’s has helped me to flourish – you have helped me to flourish – and I am blessed to carry that growth with me as I am planted in a new place.

But there is another reason I know that you are still growing. I know that you are still growing because growing is of God. Growing is what God loves, what God desires; growing is just what God does. Even when the world is toxic and mean, God is growing compassion and mercy. Even
when the Church is riven by discord and politics, God is growing truth and reconciliation. Even when Holy Scripture is used to rationalize unbearable cruelty, God is growing righteousness and justice. Even when our hearts are swamped by grief and sorrow, God is growing joy and
peace. Even when our souls are as dry as the Dust Bowl, God is growing passion and inspiration. Even when a coming change leaves us questioning the stability of our roots, God is growing purpose and mission. God is growing the Kingdom; God will always grow the Kingdom, for God is a great lover of green and growing things. Pachysandra and pansies, roses and rhododendron, daffodils and dewdrops, babies and nanas, fathers and children, citizens of Philadelphia and citizens of Chicago, green-thumbs and not-so-green-thumbs, friends and strangers and foreigners and refugees and widows and orphans and neighbors and newcomers and you. Always you. The Kingdom of God is like a church that knows itself to be a beautiful planting of the Lord, called to grow and to flourish to God’s own glory.

Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
17 June 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 20, 2018 .

Leafless

 Adam and Eve by Gustave Courtois

Adam and Eve by Gustave Courtois

It may be that the second most important question in all of holy scripture is asked in the few verses of the Book of Genesis we heard read just a few minutes ago.  The most important question in the scriptures is asked by Pontus Pilate, when Jesus is on trial before him, and Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

But the scene of the second most important question in the Bible is familiar: the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve hear the sound of God walking in the garden.  The couple has only recently completed their first sewing project together: loincloths made of fig leaves to cover their nakedness.  The crafty serpent has duped Eve, and she has shared the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil with Adam.  They have discerned that an encounter with God will not go well for them, from this point on.  The first question we hear in the garden is poignant, but not in the top-two questions of scripture: “Where are you?” the Lord God calls out to Adam.

Adam replies, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

And now comes what may be the second most important question in all of the scriptures, when God asks this: “Who told you that you were naked?”

Who told you that you were naked?

Now, how you ask a question matters.  And how you read the scriptures matters.  And how you read the way that God asks this question matters, too.  I, for one, have nearly always read this question the same way, with the emphasis on the verb: Who told you that you were naked?  To me, this way of reading the question has made sense.  It turns the scene into an interrogation, and the emphasis is on the act of deception, establishing what went wrong in Paradise.  When you read the question this way, you can hear, can’t you, that God is annoyed that the serpent has told Adam and Eve something that the two humans are not supposed to know.  The problem being that what the serpent has told the couple appears manifestly to be true: they are naked.  OK.

But there is at least another way of reading the question: if you put the emphasis on the subject: Who told you that you were naked?  Reading the question this way tends to emphasize the culpability of the serpent, and effectively underscores the matter of blame, and where it should lie: that is, with the who in question.  The difference between the two readings may be subtle, but I think it could matter.

There is, however, also at least a third way of reading this question.  And I have to admit, that it had never really occurred to me before.  But when you read the question in this third new way, the entire question takes on a whole new significance.  You can read this question on God’s lips, with the emphasis on the adjective that is the crucial part of the clause that forms the direct object of the question: Who told you that you were naked?  

By now, I expect you are asking yourself, What’s with all the grammar?  So let’s leave the grammar aside for a moment and skip over to vocabulary, and particularly to this word, naked.

The indispensable, long-version of the Oxford English Dictionary, once again comes to hand.

“Naked: unclothed, having no clothing upon the body, stripped to the skin, nude.”  This seems obvious, and maybe bordering on inappropriate for the pulpit.  But the entry in the OED goes on a great deal longer.  And when you continue reading, you start to get a picture of the depth and breadth of meaning of this word.

Naked, the OED, tells us, is often used “in comparison,” in phrases such as, “naked as a...” jaybird, although the OED does not actually provide that well-known phrase.  The dictionary then goes on to describe all kinds of nakedness, and the implications of nakedness.

“Of a horse: unharnessed, or unsaddled.”

“Of parts of the body: not covered or protected by clothing, bare, exposed.”

Naked means “bare or destitute of means.”

You can be considered naked if you are “without weapons or armor, unarmed.”

If you are naked you are “without defense or protection: defenseless, unprotected.”

Even a sword can be naked - “unprotected by its sheath.”

Naked means “bare, destitute, or devoid of something.”

“Bare, lacking, or defective in some respect.”

The landscape is naked is it is “devoid of trees or other vegetation; bare, barren, waste.”

Naked means “bare of leaves or foliage; leafless.”

“Of ground, rock, etc; devoid of any covering or overlaying matter, exposed.”

A boat without sails is naked.

A floor with carpets is naked too.

“Uncovered, unprotected, exposed.”

“Seeds not enclosed in a covering” are naked.

“Stalks destitute of leaves.”

Snails without shells are naked, and so is an idea unsupported by proof or evidence.

According to the dictionary, the naked eye, as you know, cannot see as far as the assisted eye.

In paragraph after paragraph, definition after definition, to be naked is to be weak, defenseless, exposed, lesser, vulnerable, and embarrassing.  Ironically, the only really positive connotation we associate with nakedness is when the truth is naked.  But faced with the naked truth, someone has usually been put in a compromising or unwelcome position.  Otherwise naked means bare, barren, stripped, destitute, exposed, deficient, devoid, lacking, unprotected, waste, defenseless, leafless.  Every single one of these definitions of naked is a negative, a deficit, a problem.

And God comes walking through Paradise to find the creatures he has formed with his own hand, and given life with his own breath, and they tell him that they hid, because they were naked.

Who told you that you were naked?  God asks.

Who told you that you were bare, barren, stripped, destitute, exposed, deficient, devoid, lacking, unprotected, waste, defenseless, leafless?  Who told you to think so little of yourself?  Who told you that you were less than you are supposed to be?  Who told you that you are anything other than beautiful?  Who told you that you bear any image or likeness that does not reflect my own image and likeness?  Who told you that you are not marvelously made?  Who told you that the sun does not glisten gorgeously in your eyes, and that even when you sweat you don’t look marvelous?  Who told you that there is anything wrong with the way the hair falls down on your shoulders?  Who told you your armpits are an embarrassment, and your feet would look better with shoes on?  Who told you your cheeks are not adorable?  And who told you that you’d look better with leaves on than you look leafless?  Who told you that you were naked?

Just a little while ago, God had taken the rib from Adam’s side, and formed Eve from it.  Adam had rejoiced and said, “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Paradise was still boundless for Adam and Eve.  

The writer of this part of Genesis, inspired though he may have been, had never known a time when he had not known all about nakedness, and the shame that comes with it.  So he reports to us what is to him this strange non-sequitur, that indeed, Adam and Eve had been naked, and they were not ashamed.  Even to the writer of God’s sacred story, this is a conundrum, since he knows what it means to be naked.  Ever since the word has been used, it has been used to shame and insult and belittle; the serpent was crafty, after all.  Perhaps his greatest craftiness was in convincing Adam and Eve that they had something to be ashamed of, in and of themselves.  The best the biblical writer can do is tell us that they were naked, but not ashamed.  This is a condition he can’t quite make sense of, but it was true.  So he lets it just hang there, as if to say, “You figure it out.”

But to God, for whom this man and this woman are the pinnacle of his creation, who loves every curve of their flesh, and who delights in the mechanics of their thumbs, and the intricate eco-system in their guts, and in the bonus of pleasure that he provided to their reproductive systems, and who determined every fold of their grey matter in their skulls, and who shaped the arches of their feet, and who tuned the inner workings of their vocal chords... to God it must be a moment of severe and heart-wrenching grief at the realization that the perfection of his creation has been spoiled so quickly and damaged so deeply.  Who told you, my dear children, that you were naked?

An old friend of this parish, now gone to God, Fr. Julius Jackson, used to say to his prison congregation at Graterford Maximum Security Prison, not far from here, where I had the privilege of visiting once or twice; he used to say, “know who you are, and let the rest of the world figure it out.”  Fr. Jackson was quick to point out that the world prefers things the other way: the world wants to tell you who you are, and then make you figure it out.  This was Julius’s summary of the Gospel to those who had been sentenced to dwell for year after year in the confines of their shame, their rebuke, their deficiency, their offense.

But Julius knew that those men in that prison need desperately to know who they really are, which is to say that they are children of the God of love, for whom he sent his Son to save them from their sins, just like the rest of us.  The rest of the world had long ago decided that they were naked, so to speak: that they are bare, barren, stripped, destitute, exposed, deficient, devoid, lacking, unprotected, waste, defenseless, leafless - and that’s putting it kindly for a bunch of men in orange prison coveralls.  But Julius knew that every single one of those prisoners is a creature whom God has formed with his own hand, and a beloved child to whom God has given life with his own breath.

That’s just accounting for the prisoners.  How many other categories, groups, and individuals on this earth have been made to feel by some beguiling tongue that they are bare, barren, stripped, destitute, exposed, deficient, devoid, lacking, unprotected, waste, defenseless, leafless?  Why else do we need a #MeToo movement?  Why else do we need a Pride parade?  Why else do we need an Anti-Defamation League, and an NAACP?

Who told you that he could have his way with you just because he is a man?  Who told you that you are a sissy, and an abomination in the sight of the Lord?  Who told you that you should be shut up into ghettoes, rounded up and exterminated?  Who told you that you should be slaves; and then gave you a moniker so disgusting and demeaning that most decent people will no longer even allow that word to cross their lips?  Who told you that you were naked?

Who told you that you were bare, barren, stripped, destitute, exposed, deficient, devoid, lacking, unprotected, waste, defenseless, leafless?  Who told you to think so little of yourself?  Who told you that you were less than you are supposed to be?  Who told you that you are anything other than beautiful?  Who told you that you bear any image or likeness that does not reflect the image and likeness of God?  Who told you that you are not marvelously made?  Who told you that the sun does not glisten gorgeously in your eyes, and that even when you sweat you don’t look marvelous?  Who told you that there is anything wrong with your hair?  Who told you your armpits are an embarrassment, and your feet look better with shoes on?  Who told you your cheeks are not adorable?  And who told you that you look better with leaves on than you look leafless?  Who told you that you were naked?

Once, when you really were leafless, naked as a jaybird, God came looking for you, so that he could gaze for a while on the crowning glory of his creation.  Maybe he was looking for you so he could tell you how beautiful you are.

And when he found you, you were hiding from him.  Which was inexplicable to him.  And he called out to you.  And when you answered, you broke his heart, when you said that you heard him coming and you were afraid because you were naked, and you hid.

And with tears welling up in his eyes, because he surely already knew the answer to the question, (God knew exactly who it was that we’d been talking to), God asks that awful question that foreshadows so much of the rest of human history, “Who told you that you were naked?”

And the rest is history.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 June 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 10, 2018 .

Food Enough

The disciples were spellbound. Rapt. They were barely breathing, held in that place of quiet where they could hear only the sound of their own hearts and the gutter and pop of the candles on the table. If you had asked them later, they would have told you that in that moment, they felt the whole world stop and be still. All was centered on the one holding up a morsel of bread; all time, all space, all of life was contained in that moment. Everything was found in the eyes of the one who said this is my body, and it is for you. The disciples were transfixed, captivated by the one to whom they had given their lives and the bread of life he offered.

All of the disciples, that is, except one. I’m not sure which one, and I’m not sure that it really matters. It wouldn’t have been John, who’d spent the entire meal reclining next to Jesus, his whole being hungry for every word spoken by his Lord. It wasn’t Peter, although after supper he felt more torn up and confused than he had ever been. It could have been Thomas, but Thomas had too much self-discipline to be distracted by his own concerns at a moment like this. It could have been Simon the Zealot, or James the Less, but I’m going to say that it was Bartholomew. The disciples were all spellbound and rapt except for one, and that one was Bartholomew. Let’s say, for the sake of my thought experiment, that this experience was not so unusual for Bartholomew, which is fairly easy to do since we know so very little about him. Let’s say that Bartholomew had always struggled with moments like this, that when the others were ready to go all in, he often found himself holding back – evaluating, second-guessing, wondering what it was that he had missed and why he still felt so uncertain. Bartholomew had always been the one who had trouble with prayer; he was a thinker, and settling into the stillness of the Spirit was not something that came very naturally to him. Watching all of his friends locked in to a holy moment only seemed to make things worse. Why did this seem so easy for them? Why was he the one who always seemed to have another question, who still, even after all this time, wanted more?

And here he was again, sitting in the upper room, watching his friends be drawn deeper and deeper into this moment, and watching himself sitting on the outside. The moment hadn’t started as something that seemed particularly significant. They were eating together, sharing supper in an upper room, at Passover time. The group was tense and quiet; there was a sense that something was coming, although no one, not even Peter and James and John, seemed to know exactly what that something was. The palm-strewn journey into Jerusalem should have cheered them up, but Jesus’ words about suffering and death resounded in their ears even through all the cries of Hosanna. So they sat, each man in his own thoughts, waiting for the food to arrive, waiting for a distraction.

But when Jesus took the bread in his hands to bless it, Bartholomew felt the whole room shift. Suddenly, this wasn’t just a normal blessing before a meal. The air felt charged somehow, and not because of their own anxiety. This was something else, something entirely outside of them. The night pulsed with it, this energy that drew the disciples in like iron to a magnet. Bartholomew felt himself being drawn in, his eyes focusing on the hand holding the bread, his heart yearning for the mystery found there. He felt the power of this presence tugging on him, and he saw his friends give themselves over to it one by one. He saw them surrender; he saw the wonder in their eyes, the gratitude, even the joy. And part of him wanted to surrender, too, to find himself locked in like in all of those other moments of prayer, to find himself without questions, without wanting anything more. He wanted this bread to be enough.

But even as he wished for all of this, he felt objections start to flood into in his mind. Why bread? Why just bread? Why, in this moment of fear and uncertainty was bread the only thing that Jesus could offer? Why not something more useful, why not something more powerful? Why not a grand miracle where truth would rain down like manna upon the heads of all those who spoke lies about them? Why not a platform large enough that they could finally convince the leaders of the synagogue that this Jesus was their Messiah too? Why not a fire to burn in the hearts of the people so that they would all leave everything and follow him? Why not an army of heaven to wipe Rome from the earth? Why not more power, more persuasion? Why not more? This may be holy food, Bartholomew thought, but against the evils of the world, this food was wholly inadequate. It was simply not enough.

The world, our world, is quick to agree with Bartholomew’s objections. When the world looks in our solemn festivals, it sees something incomprehensible and irrelevant. At best, the world – including, let’s be honest, some parts of our own Church – sees the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi as a harmless but slightly pitiful ritual, a devotion run ever-so-slightly amok, a superstition full of sound, and smoky, but signifying nothing. At worst, those same people see our actions this day as woefully misguided. Why bread? Why pay so much attention to this tiny, translucent wafer? Is this the best the Church can do? Is this truly our answer to the heartbreak and evil of the world? Why bread – why not a bullhorn, why not a sword? Why not more?

I will admit that at times I find these same objections flooding into my own mind. Like our story’s Bartholomew I am grateful, of course, for this food, but I also wonder if there could be more. I find myself wishing that God would just come down, now, wielding the power of truth like a saber, cutting down the powers of darkness in this world, turning the hearts of all humankind to the well-being of the poor and the helpless, the widow and orphan, the outcast and the unseen. I wish sometimes that this bread could do more, that the light that shines from this tabernacle would slice through this city, breaking the spell of sin and suffering. I wish that this holy bread would do more, would be more, that it would reveal itself as a power that is undeniable and irresistible, as truly food enough.

But then I hear the words of our Savior come to me, resounding through the noise of my impatience and doubt. I hear the words of Jesus speaking to me and to you, words that have been speaking into the world for thousands of years now. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, will have eternal life.” Whoever eats of this bread, in other words, will be changed. Whoever eats of this bread will live a life transformed, will be bound not only to the everlasting life of God but also to God’s presence with us in the eternal and blessed now. Whoever eats of this bread takes the real presence of Christ into our selves and so is fed, not for a moment, but forever. Whoever eats of this bread is not only refreshed and renewed but also reformed, remade into our true identity – the very Body of Christ.

So why, in this moment of fear and uncertainty is bread what Jesus offers? Because this bread is the most powerful thing in the world. Because, by his death and resurrection, Christ has changed everything, and this bread continues this work. This is my body, Jesus tells us, and so are we. We are his body, and we carry the power of this bread with us as we move from this altar out into the world. We eat this bread, and we become the power of righteousness, the light in the darkness. We become the voice of truth and the face of love. We become the platform for justice and the fire for transformation. We eat this bread and it shapes us from the inside out, changes us into that thing that we have been searching for. We eat this bread, and we become more – more of who God made us to be, more of who Jesus has called us to be, more of who the world needs us to be. For this bread brings Christ close, makes us one, and sends us into the world abiding in him. We eat this bread and become more. And we know then, as Bartholomew came to know, that this bread is truly food enough. God himself is with us. God is within us. Come let us adore the most holy Sacrament. 

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

The Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 3 June 2018

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 7, 2018 .