Everyone knows by now that the huge oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is getting closer and closer to the Louisiana coast, and in a few places has already made it there. It’s a dark, spreading menace that floats on the surface after rising up from its deep source. Unlike the explosion and fire that caused the slick, there’s nothing violent about the encroaching puddle of oil, and yet there is a sense of dread as it expands and becomes harder to contain, and we realize that it is tremendously difficult to shut off at its source. The danger the oil slick poses is mostly on the surface, as far as I can tell by my reading. It spews up from the ocean depths, and that is where the leak must be stopped, but it is the expanse of oil on the surface that carries so much threat as it floats and spreads and moves closer to fragile shoreline habitats.
At the risk of sounding flippant, I wonder if there are more and more people these days in American and European society who think about Christianity this way: as a sort of malignant oil spill that sprung up all those generations ago, and for a long time spread like an oil slick, encroaching more and more with the passing years on the nations of Europe, crossing the seas to the Americas and to Africa and India with the help of the British, the Spanish, and the Portuguese.
The cynic will say that the spread of this faith was a menace in its cruel treatment of indigenous peoples in many places where it spread, in the strictures it has sought to impose on societies, in its insistence on the sinfulness of human nature, in the numerous and extravagant failings of its clergy leaders, in its dismal record of abuse, and on, and on. And such an evaluation of Christian faith might also suggest that the sad thing is that it just floats on the surface of human lives: a superficial but sticky, messy, self-righteous kind of oil slick of faith, with nothing of any substance beneath it, except, perhaps, at its source, once, long ago.
I ask myself all the time about the depth of my own faith, and because I am a priest I wonder about the depth of your faith, too. I wonder if our Christian identity goes deeper than the surface, or if we just got caught up in this oil slick that has so effectively seeped and floated over our lives. But if we look below the surface, what would we see?
And then I come across these words of Jesus from John’s Gospel today, which I have read or heard a thousand times, but which always charms me: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
But I have to ask myself about this commandment of Jesus and how I encounter it, how you encounter it. Are we anything more than seagulls who’ve gotten caught in the slick of Jesus’ teaching: covered in it, in a sense, and therefore hampered in getting on with otherwise normal lives, but not really changed inside in any meaningful way? Is our faith anything more than an accident of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time and more or less unable to escape the ever-encroaching slick?
I have to ask this because of the commandment Jesus gave. (And generally he was not one for commandments - he was one for provocative questions, for multivalent stories, for probing conversation, and challenging points of view, but not so much one for commandments.) I have to ask how we Christians demonstrate the truth or falsity of what he asserted: by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Lately, the world has been given cause to wonder whether or not the work of the church in spreading the Christian faith could hold up to this standard, whether it mighn’t have been a mistake not to clean up this spill before the oil slick got so big, since beneath the surface there does not appear to be a whole lot of love.
Sticking with my seagull identity for a moment, I am aware that the question has far-flung implications. I remember flying high, and seeing how big the oil slick of Christianity is. But in evaluating the reality of the situation I am more likely to take notice of you – the other gulls in my immediate vicinity, in may parish, as it were, if seagulls had parish churches for themselves.
First, I have to decide what I think it might mean to “have love for one another.” Could we just put on a production of “Hair” and call it quits? Do we have to make sure that everyone gets married and starts a family? Or is there more to it than that? Then I have to see if you and I, my flock of seagulls, are living up to the standard, or if we are just coated in oil. So, I look around.
I notice first a generosity, because I know better than most that may of you are giving your money away to the church week after week, and many decided to give more away when the economy got rough. And I know how much you gave when Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, when the tsunamis devastated the southeast Asian coast, when the earthquake rocked Haiti. I know that there is generosity here.
I see how many of you in this community care for the poor, the hungry, the homeless. I know how many of you have been making soup week after week after week for our Saturday Soup bowl. I know who starts their Saturday mornings at 6 or 6:30 to be here to get things going. I realize how many hands have stirred and ladled and served that soup.
I realize there is nothing aggrandizing about packing groceries in a bag and handing them to someone who needs them, as people have done in this parish for close to 30 years in the Food Cupboard.
I know that it is generally not self-indulgent to take a pile of linens home from the Sacristy to be washed and ironed and folded just-so, but that a faithful corps of you does that week after week anyway. I suspect it is not easy to leave your law firm offices before noon on a Tuesday morning so you can serve at the altar for a daily Mass.
It is not always convenient, I’m sure, to prepare to lead a Bible study, or to pick up the phone to check on your ailing neighbor when you have quite enough worries at home.
I can appreciate that the chores of the parish office – answering the phones, stuffing envelopes, generally putting up with me – are not what you would call exciting. I know it was not fun to clean bathrooms for teenagers during City Camp.
Having spent many Thursday nights in choir rehearsals myself over the years, I remember that doing so means giving up a night of your week, and that most of us have other things we could be doing with that time.
A once-a–month visit to a nursing home to sing hymns and say prayers and share the Eucharist is not the most convenient way to spend a Saturday morning, I know.
And I know that it is not easy to sit with someone when their spouse, or their partner, or their brother or sister, mother or father has died, and there is nothing really to say, and not even many words available to pray.
But all these things, and so much more, I see you doing in this parish.
As I bob on the surface of these often choppy waters, I can stick my head down underneath and see, below the slick of oil, and I can see what is happening beneath the surface. And even though I suspect that you, like me, are not really very good at keeping commandments, generally, there is this one commandment that we should love one another as Jesus love us, that you seem to have embraced.
Beneath the surface, I see you giving your lives away: your money, your time, your effort, your affection, your care, your love. I see you giving it away to those who need it. And I know that there is a well springing somewhere deep beneath the surface of our lives, but it is not an oil spill. It is the well of God’s love, that first sprang forth in creation from deep beneath the watery nothingness, and that has spread into every corner of the world.
God’s love – and the power that comes with it – is as susceptible to abuse as every other gift he gives us, (like a garden of paradise where only one tree was off-limits). But he did send us his Son to teach us, to live and die and rise for us. And to give us this one commandment: that you love one another. And when we follow it, we are not covered in a sick, sticky, dirty, oily mess; we are swaddled in the assurance of God’s love for us, we are set free from all that threatens to un-do us, and we can fly!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 May 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia