Loud Voices

You may listen to Mother Takacs's sermon here.

As many of you know, this past week, Saint Mark’s hosted the fifth national conference of the Society of Catholic Priests.  We had a really wonderful week together, with powerful liturgies, beautiful singing, inspiring presentations, and a truly transformational afternoon spent at the Saint James School. I am so grateful to all of you who helped Saint Mark's be so wonderfully hospitable to all of our conference guests and society members who came to Philadelphia from all over the country.

One of the joys of hosting a conference like this, of course, is getting to show off the city in which you live. Many of our guests were coming to Philadelphia for the first time, and it was great fun for me to watch them explore this city that I love so much. Our conference agenda was quite full, so I didn’t make so many recommendations about what to do as I did about where to eat – introducing guests to the wonders of Steven Starr; assuring them that yes, I’m not kidding, that vegan restaurant is supposed to be really, really good; trying to convince them that the gelato at capogiro is truly legit; and, of course, naming all of the places within a four block radius that know how to pour a good pint. I enjoyed listening to the conferees report back the next morning on where they’d gone – and on what they’d experienced when they got there.

What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that I had at least half a dozen priest colleagues tell me with great wonder and awe of their experience that showing up in a bar in Philadelphia in a collar will get you a free round. And these colleagues of mine just couldn’t believe it. Now remember, many of these priests live in rural areas, or in the south, where the sight of a priest might raise an eyebrow but probably not a pint glass. But Philly, as you know, is still a pretty intensely Roman Catholic city, and when a gaggle of priests walks into a bar, and there isn’t an obvious joke to follow, well, some of our hospitable neighbors reach into their wallets and tell the barkeep to buy the nice fathers (and maybe the lone and slightly confusing mother) a whiskey chaser on them. My colleagues were blown away by this and many of them have, I’m sure, gone home to update their profile pages on the church deployment website in the hopes of working here permanently.

Now as someone who lives here, I can say that this does not actually happen regularly. At least not to me. It probably does to Father Mullen. And I’m sure that part of the reason for the free rounds was that there were so many of us. Four full tables of priests in the Irish pub; a baker’s dozen of collars at a karaoke bar (I was not there for that, just FYI) – and, on Friday night, ten priestly types around a common table at The Farmer’s Cabinet. That much black clerical wear tends to attract a bit of attention.

So on Friday night, at The Farmer’s Cabinet, we decided that since everyone was already looking at us anyway, we would go whole hog, and when our food came out, we stood up around our table and sang the doxology. Now I have to admit, I feel a little sheepish telling you that. I’m a little nervous admitting to you that I stood up in a restaurant in Philadelphia on a Friday night and sang praises to God in a loud and lusty voice. And there are a thousand little voices in my head whispering all of the reasons why: because it isn’t very elegant, because we Episcopalians just don’t do that, because it was show-offy, because it inconvenienced other diners, because Jesus said to go into your closet to pray, because it was rude or pushy or gauche. And maybe there is some truth there, I don’t know. But I can say that in the moment, I didn’t feel any of those things. I just felt incredibly grateful. Grateful for the friends around the table, grateful for the week we had just shared, grateful that that week was over, grateful for the fact that I get to serve a parish as generous and beautiful as Saint Mark’s with musicians as generous and beautiful as ours, grateful that I get to work with a priest as fine as Father Mullen, so grateful that another fine priest, Mother Johnson, had offered to take the Mass for me yesterday so I could recuperate a bit – I was so grateful, filled with joy, and happy to sing out my praises to God. It felt good, it felt right, it felt necessary.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus seems to expect this behavior from the lepers he has healed. “Were not ten made clean?” he asks. “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Only one has returned, a Samaritan, who has not only come back to thank Jesus for this miracle but praised God “with a loud voice.” Now it’s easy for us with our twenty-first century eyes to imagine that this kind of thing happening all of the time in first century Palestine. People must have been running around praising God with a loud voice all of the time – common occurrence, the running and the leaping and the prostrating yourself before an itinerant preacher. Common occurrence, more acceptable in those times…except that it obviously wasn’t. Because only one of the lepers returned, only one of them came tearing back down the street towards Jesus making a complete spectacle of himself by shouting out his praises and thanks to God right in the middle of the village square. Only one of them was filled up enough with the Holy Spirit to just not care if he was being inelegant or rude, if he was inconveniencing people with his songs of praise, if he was fitting in with commonly accepted village etiquette. Only one of them felt good enough to be loud about it.

And Jesus seems okay with this. He doesn’t shush him (which, after all, Jesus has been known to do from time to time); he doesn’t say, oh, yes, that’s very nice, thanks, but would you mind taking that exuberance over to the synagogue, there are people here who don’t want to hear that kind of thing. No – Jesus says that his faith, that enthusiastic, raucous faith has made him well. His loud voice of praise isn’t just okay; it’s actually an active and living force, a force for healing, a force for good, a force for the kingdom.

Now I’m not saying that we should all go running out into the street praising God with a loud voice. Although maybe that is what I should be saying, honestly. And the point isn’t really to just be braver about saying grace, although that isn’t such a bad idea either. The point is to find ways to be that grateful, to dig for the taproot of our gratitude and to let it well up within us, to look at our lives and to be so filled up full with thanks that we cannot help but sing out in a loud voice – for the food we eat, for the jobs we have, for the city we live in, for the people we love, for the bodies we are, for the God we worship. If we take the time to notice all that we have, to stop and breathe and actually look at the grace that really does flow through all of our lives, running around praising God with a loud voice won’t feel so ridiculous. It will feel good; it will feel right; it will feel necessary.

This is what we’re doing during this stewardship season. Our vestry and other leadership of this parish are coming to you, to each of you, to spend some time tapping into that root of gratitude. What do you love about your life, about this church? What do you love about the holy work of God in this world? I am convinced that when we do that, when we stop and notice and talk about the many gifts in our lives, the praising God with a loud voice just comes. It will look like the number of your pledge, written boldly on a card and offered to God on Commitment Sunday. It will look like using words like “grateful” and “blessed” and “grace” in our regular, ordinary, everyday lives. It will look like smiling at strangers, like reaching out in love, maybe even like singing.  

I’ll bet you’re wondering what the response was to our impromptu hymn fest at The Farmer’s Cabinet. Not much. We got a smattering of applause, which was interesting. Later in the evening a woman from the table next to us came over and asked us if we would sing Happy Birthday to her husband Bob, obviously confusing us with that next hot singing group The Ten Episcopal Priests. I left early, I must admit, so I’m not sure if there was more of a response later on in the night. Maybe not. Maybe we were just an oddity, these people dressed in black and singing a strange old chorale in the middle of cheese plates and cocktails. But maybe, just maybe, there was a young woman in the back corner of the restaurant singing with us under her breath. Maybe, just maybe, there was a college student who remembered that hymn from his old church and felt a swell of gratitude for his old youth group from those days. Maybe as we sang about blessings that flow, there was an old man who offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving to God for his recent recovery from surgery, and a mother who thanked God that her daughter-in-law is finally pregnant, or a couple who felt a surge of gratitude just because they were together. Maybe, right? So go, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs

13 October 2013

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on October 15, 2013 .