You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (Deut. 30:17-18)
How I missed the sound of the gunshots, I cannot say. Just about a month ago, while I was enjoying drinks and nibbles with the staff at St. James School, events were unfolding within earshot that went unheard by us. This is how it was reported on the local news websites: “A man is dead after being shot on a North Philly sidewalk tonight, police said. The victim, 21, was found lying on 33rd Street near Allegheny Avenue about 7:55 p.m. by officers from the 39th District… He had been shot five times in his torso and legs, and was taken to Temple University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 8:12 p.m..”
The location of this murder. 33rd Street near Allegheny Avenue puts the body about a block away from St. James School – the school we started three years ago for kids from low-income families. This shooting took place on a Friday. The following Monday some of our students were late to school because the neighborhood had been cordoned off, since, as part of the investigation police were searching homes, complete with a battering ram to gain entry if need be.
Two weeks later, while I was at St. James for a meeting with the Head of School, his phone rang, and he took the call. A young staff member who lives in the neighborhood had gone home for lunch and gotten caught in gunfire, volleyed from one side of the street to the other. He was OK, but wanted to make sure none of the kids who lived nearby would be headed that way till the coast was clear.
Blood from shootings like this has been spilled on the floors of our students’ homes, I happen to know. Death is not an altogether novel visitor in Allegheny West. Violence is more of a rule of thumb than an exception. Such are the realities of life in poverty in the city, five and a half miles from here.
There is a quaint, ironic, and I think apocryphal tale told by some few residents of the neighborhood around the school: that the little triangle of the city it sits in - enclosed by Ridge, Allegheny, and West Hunting Park Avenues - has at times been referred to as “Paradise.” The story goes, with tongue-in-cheek, that the nickname was assigned because of the three large cemeteries that border the area to the south and the west. But even tongue-in-cheek the nickname doesn’t get much traction, because it’s hard to think of the neighborhood with the highest murder rate in the city – an honor Allegheny West has earned more than once – as Paradise.
Biblically speaking, Paradise is someplace we have been kicked out of. But Paradise finds its counterpart in the biblical narrative, in the Promised Land – the land said to be flowing with milk and honey, toward which Moses led the children of Israel when they escaped from slavery in Egypt, and wandered through the wilderness for forty years. But today we hear Moses warn the Hebrews that if they are not careful they may get kicked out of the Promised Land too. When he tells them they shall perish - they will not live long in the land that they are crossing the Jordan to enter into and possess – whether it’s death or expulsion that awaits them, the end result is the same: losing again the promise that God intends for his people.
Typically these days people stop to ask why it is that God treats folks this way. Why does God lead his people to the Promised Land only to threaten that they may not get to stay there long? This question pairs nicely with an earlier one: why did God plant us in Paradise only to pluck us out and tell us not to return? The implication is that God is a bit of a psychopath, or at the very least, that God is acting out his own power issues on us, his children, who never did anything to deserve such treatment. But this is a very recent and modern view of things, that conveniently absolves you and me and everybody else of responsibility. Perhaps you have heard this point of view summed up by folks who say things like: “I wouldn’t want to believe in a God who leads you to the Promised Land and then threatens to kick you out.”
Moses didn’t see things that way. Moses was preoccupied with the worry that the people whom God had entrusted to his care would turn to other gods. And Moses knew that if they did that, things would not go well, that his people would lose again the promises of God. It’s hard enough, Moses knew, following the one true God: it is no picnic. But, following God had led him out of slavery and to the edge of the Promised Land, and Moses was not fickle. And he had some experience, after all, of his people’s susceptibility to worship gods of their own making. There had been that unhappy business of the golden calf, after all.
What Moses did not know, could not know, was how easily and how regularly God’s people, for ages after, would give up on the Promised Land themselves; how easily we’d be lured by the possibility of other gods masquerading as wealth, power, and prestige, and how willing we’d be to be kicked out of the Promised Land, losing the promises of God, in exchange for these supposed treasures.
It’s always easier to see someone else’s ruin coming than your own; easier to spot the causes of someone else’s expulsion from the Promised Land than to notice your own… which brings me back to Allegheny West: the neighborhood around St. James School. Because it is easier for me to see the biblical narrative playing out there, than it is in my own life, my own neighborhood. It’s easier for me to feel as though I am standing there like Moses. I can pretend that the Schuylkill River is the Jordan. And I can situate myself in such away that the few acres of the school’s campus – with the church in its graveyard on one side of the street, and the school and its grounds on the other – looks like a promised land. As I stand there, gazing across the river into this promised land, it suits me to picture myself as Moses, and to pretend that my work and the work of so many others at the school is helping (God willing) to keep some kids in the promised land, to prevent them from running off to other gods whose worship is as likely as not to lead to bloodshed, and thereby forfeit the promises of the one, true God. And I hope that there is some real truth to this fantasy.
Because I cannot shake from my head the image of a body with five wounds, from five gunshots, lying dead in the street, one block away from the promised land that we have tried to build on Clearfield Street. What are the chances that one of our students will end up that way some day? What of the children in the neighborhood who we are not reaching? What will become of them?
Although I worry, with Moses, that God’s people will forsake him for the make-believe gods of wealth and power and prestige, I am more worried that we will give up on the Promised Land, having concluded that it is just part of God’s pathology to lure us to a promised land, only so he can then kick us out.
But then I think that I have focused on the wrong body, the wrong five wounds. And I hear a voice saying:
"You have heard it said that I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. But I say to you that you have only begun to live, and the abundance of life that comes from me exceeds all your expectations.
“You have heard it said that you should seek first the kingdom of God. But I say to you that you must provide the hands and the hearts to build up the kingdom in the midst of this world.
“You have heard it said that you are to love your neighbor as yourself. But I say to you that you continually forget who your neighbor is; look around and see.
“You have heard it said that you must take up your cross and follow me. But I say to you that my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
“You have heard it said that a body was found with five wounds, just a block away from the promised land. But I say to you, let my wounds carry the hurt that is heading toward your children; let my blood spill for the salvation of those whose blood may yet be spilled in violence; let my light shine where darkness threatens to cover the land; let my hand support you through the pain and suffering; let my heart beat when yours grows weak; let my footsteps guide you to the promised land; let my vision show you the promises of God.
“You have heard it said that the promises of God are a fantasy, and a silly thing. But I say to you that you are closer than you realize to the river. Cross over into campground, and stay here, friend. Do not lose again the promises that God has prepared for you, do not give up on them.
“You have heard it said that five wounds and a body means death. But I say to you that I bear five wounds that I have borne so that death may not touch you, though your blood be spilled, that my five wounds mean life. And you will never lose again the promises of God, if you don’t want to.
“Now come across the river, dear one, come over, and stay here in the Promised Land.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
16 February 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia