A few nights ago the sound of jackhammers was echoing down Locust Street, once again. With construction on the block and around the corner this is hardly unusual. But when I went outside, I noticed that in addition to the jackhammer across the street on the corner of 17th Street, there was a crew working just in front of the Rectory. They were from Comcast, the cable company.
Now, I happen to know that years ago, long before the Comcast Center (the tallest building in the city) was built just five blocks down 17th Street from us, at least ten years ago, maybe more, in the course of some unspecified street repair or maintenance, the cable that provides the Comcast feed to our side of Locust Street was accidentally cut, and had never been repaired. We have become accustomed, on this side of the street, to living in the shadow of a huge corporation whose services are widely advertised but completely unavailable to us.
So when I heard the jackhammer and saw the Comcast crew, I began to put 2 and 2 together. I asked one of the workers what they were doing, just to be sure. “We’re repairing the cable to this side of the street,” he told me, adding that it had been cut years ago. What, I asked, had prompted the repair after all these years? “We have a long To-Do list,” he said, “and we finally got around to it.”
It is a dangerous, and perhaps a silly thing to provide an analogy that compares Comcast in any way, shape, or form to God, so please, let us try to avoid that.
But I do think that the situation as it stood here on Locust Street resembles the way many people feel about God. You may believe that God exists. You may even live down the street from his headquarters (or at least not far from a church). You know there was a time, long past, when God seemed to be at work in the world, when communication flowed between God and his people. But for reasons unknown, the cable, so to speak, has been cut; you have no access to God, who seems to have nothing to say to you anyway; and so you have become accustomed to getting on without him.
I can’t speak for the entire block, but Saint Mark’s does take up about two-thirds of this side of the street, so for most of us, I can say that we have learned to live quite well without cable. There are alternatives, after all. We have a satellite dish on the Rectory roof. And if there have been benefits of being Comcast customers besides being able to watch the BBC and the Food Network (which the satellite also provides) we are blissfully unaware of and unconcerned by them.
So too, perhaps, with those of us who have become accustomed to living without an intimate relationship with God. There are plenty of alternative ways to spend our time, especially our Sunday mornings. And whatever benefits we may be missing out on, go largely un-noticed anyway.
Not so for the children of Israel as they wandered with Moses in the desert. Having begged for food when there was none, God rained down manna – what the Scriptures call the bread of angels – but this did not erase the memory of delicacies they had enjoyed during their slavery in Egypt. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now… there is nothing at all but this manna to look at,” they complain.
They are, of course, confused. They are not really even thinking about God and whether or not he is looking after them. They are simply whining. They have forgotten that when they had fish and cucumbers and melon and onions and garlic, they were slaves who also had to gather the straw to make bricks. But they feel as though there was a time, now past, when things were different, better: a time before some cable was cut and there was an easier relationship with God, who at this point has led them into the desert with nothing but the bread of angels to eat, and no other alternatives.
Still, they share with us that sense that there was a time when things were different, better, easier. A time before the heat of the desert had dried up the cable, and God was more clearly on their side.
The other night, as I briefly watched the cable guys do their work, I noticed that there was, just outside my office window, beside the little pit in the ground where the cable connections are made, a barrel with a coil of blue rope in it that was being pulled through a pipe underneath Locust Street and across 17th Street to the southwest corner where the jackhammer had opened up a hole in the street. And I knew that that rope would soon be pulled back through the pipe, with the cable tied to it, to make the connections that are hooked up in the little pit outside my window. How simple it seems.
And the Scriptures hold out for us this morning two possibilities for re-making the connection to God that we suspect has been severed deep underground where we cannot reach it.
The first is in the Letter of James who reminds the church that in times of distress, suffering, sickness – those times when we feel most certainly and anxiously that the cable to God has been cut – the prescription is prayer. Prayer is the blue rope that we feed through the pipe to God, snaking it underground, across the street, where God asks us to trust that he picks up his end even if he has to jackhammer the pavement to get to it. And like the blue rope, prayer moves in two directions. Once fed across the street, it comes back to us, if we listen carefully, faithfully, attentively enough, if we care to spend the time reeling it gently back to discover that God has tied a cable to it so that we can re-establish our connection to him.
James has a simple and beautiful way of saying this: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” he says. Which means that the blue rope makes its way across the street, and that the cable is always attached when we pull it back through to our side. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
The second possibility is harder to spot, because we are easily distracted by Jesus’ exaggerated teaching, in which he seems to be suggesting self-mutilation as the appropriate response to failure. “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… And if your eye cause you to stumble, tear it out…” etc. We become so troubled by these words that we miss the point Jesus was making. His disciples were complaining that someone outside their group was casting out demons in Jesus’ name.
But Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Don’t you dare, he goes on to say, don’t you dare put a stumbling block in the way of someone who believes in me, just because they are not a part of your group. “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
And there, right there, is another blue rope, but you have to look for it: the cup of water, extended by anyone just because you bear the name of Christ. Hospitality, kindness, generosity, care extended by anyone – a Muslim, a Jew, an atheist? - and received in Christ’s name is another way of feeding the blue rope through the pipe and under the streets, and then reeling it back to re-establish the connection with God. How uncanny and unlikely!
And Jesus suggests that we will not always know such opportunities when we see them, so it is better to work on the assumption that whoever is not against us is for us; whoever is not tearing the blue rope from your hands is actually helping to feed it across the street, and back again.
The burden of Jesus’ teaching, like the burden of James’s teaching, is that it’s all about the blue rope. It’s all about seeking to remain in the kind of relationship with God that allows him to tie his cable of mercy and love and forgiveness and hope to our blue ropes, then tug on them in an effort to get us to reel the thing in, back over to our side of the street. If your hands or your feet or your eyes are preventing you from tending to the rope, to unraveling it and paying it out, to coax it under the dark recesses of whatever it is that’s under the streets, then do something about it! Do something drastic! Don’t just sit there, and complain that there used to be cable, but now we have to settle for satellite. You might as well be whining for cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic.
Meanwhile God continues to rain down the bread of angels.
To the best of my knowledge (I have not tested this yet) cable has been restored to this side of Locust Street. Sadly this does not mean that I can now watch re-runs of Mary Tyler Moore or The Odd Couple, whenever I want, any more than I can count on God giving me the answers I want to my prayers just because they are the answers that I want.
But the fact is that when we imagine that God has a long To-Do list and that we must be very far down the list, if we are even on the list at all, we are probably mistaken. Because God is really not anything at all like Comcast. He has never ceased wanting to be in relationship with us. But we have paved over the streets of prayer and sacrifice that he once used because we have found other things to do with the space he once took up in our lives. We have – usually with our carelessness, but sometimes out of anger or resentment – severed the cables that connected us to God.
And so he bids us turn again to prayer – a blue rope let out to God’s reach. Or, at least see the hand reached out to us with a cup of water: the hand of a neighbor, who, if not against us, may well be for us. God will work, you see, with almost anything; he needs very little.
And from time to time we may feel a tugging in our consciences, our hearts, that place where perfect love seeks to cast out fear. It is like the hand of God tugging on his end of a blue rope, letting us know that the cable of his love has been tied to it, ready for us to reel it back over to our side of the street, to re-connect, and to love again.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
27 September 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia