(To listen to Fr. Mullen's sermon, please click here).
On Walnut Street, a few blocks from here, between 19th and 20th streets, on the north side, across the street from the Church of the Holy Trinity you will find a vacant lot. Two summers ago that vacant lot was not so vacant, it was the location of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Pop-Up Garden. The PHS Pop-Up Garden is meant, according to their promotional material to “transform… a forgotten outdoor area into a gorgeous, landscaped community space.” And I would have to say that the Horticultural Society succeeded marvelously to that end.
Last summer the Pop-Up Garden was located on Broad Street, next to the Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church that houses the excellent Broad Street Ministries. That vacant lot, too, was brilliantly and artfully transformed into a vibrant green-space that housed a popular beer garden. And today, the space has been returned to its former status as a vacant lot.
This summer the Pop-Up Garden will be located on South Street, between Broad and 15th Streets, in the grassy lot next to the Jamaican Jerk Hut – long more verdant than your average vacant lot. Nevertheless, I am sure that it has been brilliantly transformed with style and panache.
Something has been bothering me about these pop-up gardens – even though I know it is wrong-headed of me to be grumpy about something that is basically good for our city, and that brings a lot of people pleasure. If I want to put it into biblical terms I can reach for this morning’s Gospel: these pop-up gardens, since they have no root, as the Gospel says, they wither away. And what you have left when the summer is over, is exactly what you started with – a vacant lot.
I am tempted to wax self-righteous on the matter – a temptation that so often lies close at hand. I mean, gardens, by their definition almost, are not meant to be “pop-up;” for then they too quickly cease to be gardens. A garden is meant to grow, and to produce, and to change with the seasons. A garden is meant to experience the cycle of life and death, and then the return of life again. A garden was God’s idea of Paradise. A garden can be a metaphor for the resurrection – but not a pop-up garden. So I struggle with the pop-up garden because I want it to be more that it aspires to be itself. I want the transformation to be permanent, or at least long-lasting. I want the seeds to find root in good soil and bring forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty (to return to the Gospel reading). For all I know this is what the folks at the PHS would like too, but you have to start somewhere, so I hope you will not hear much criticism in what I am saying.
Speaking of waxing self-righteous, I also want to tell you of the most remarkable day that we experienced here at Saint Mark’s on Friday. First, a little context: this past week a triennial gathering of youth-groups from Episcopal churches all across the nation has been taking place in and around Philadelphia: the Episcopal Youth Event. On Friday, 1,000 teenagers were taken on buses on various pilgrimages throughout the city – stopping not only at Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and Benjamin Franklin’s grave, but also at Christ Church, and (depending on which bus you were on) Episcopal Community Services, and St Thomas African Episcopal Church, at St. James School, a few other spots, and, if you were really lucky, Saint Mark’s Locust Street!
We were scheduled to receive three pairs of buses, each pair delivering about 112 or so teenagers to our doorstep for 40 minutes. During this time we were supposed to share with these kids something about who we are as a parish community and what we do. This, I thought, was the perfect opportunity for an extended sermon to each group from me. What could bus-loads of teenagers brought here whether they liked it or not possibly appreciate more than the sound of my voice, and the pearls of my wisdom? But the Holy Spirit intervened on the kids’ behalf, and put me in mind of doing something distinctly Anglo-catholic, and almost counter-intuitive for a captive congregation of teenagers: Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Suffice it to say that the Spirit had his way. And we arranged to give the kids brief words of welcome, a short service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (complete with organ, choir, and coped assistants), followed by soft pretzels and lemonade in the garden before we sent them back to their buses. This we accomplished yesterday, not for three groups of 112 teenagers, but for four groups, since one pair of buses got out of synch and was directed to just “go to Saint Mark’s where they’ll know what to do with you,” resulting in the first ever “emergency Benediction.”
Under any circumstances it would be surreal to offer Benediction four times in one day. To do so for more than four hundred teenagers was a remarkable experience, I can tell you. And many of us who were here for all four services, decided that this is probably what heaven is like: Benediction every hour on the hour, with music from Matt Glandorf and the Saint Mark’s choir!
I think I am also safe in saying that it has been a long time since Saint Mark’s had four hundred-some-odd teenagers in church… for Benediction. And I want to gloat about this, and yield to the temptation to wax self-righteous, because it was a wonderful, glorious day here on Friday, and God was very, very good to us, I can tell you! But then I think about the pop-up gardens and my objections to them, and how the seeds of pop-up gardens have so little opportunity to take root, how likely they are to wither and die. And I have to ask myself if a pop-up Benediction is better than a pop-up garden? Well, I hope it is, but there is still a lesson to be learned here, I am sure.
Because glorious though Friday was, with its succession of Benedictions, on reflection, I find it slightly dis-satisfying, since for us it is hard to know whether or not the seeds sown will ever produce any fruit in those teenagers. Let us pray that that will be the case.
And the good news is, of course, that Saint Mark’s is not a pop-up parish, and our life of worship here is no life of pop-up worship. The roots are deeper than that, probably deeper than any of us knows, in this place. So it’s unfair to think of those Friday services as pop-up Benedictions. But that means that what we really had were four pop-up congregations of pop-up youths.
And herein lies the opportunity for us: to ask God to teach us, to help us, and to guide us so that children and youth will become an ever more important part of the life of this parish; to make us un-satisfied with pop-up children, pop-up youth groups whose roots are not to be found in this place; and to till the ground around us in such a way as to prepare for them to be nurtured, to flourish, and to grow in this place.
I once knew an old priest in Virginia whose name was Rufus Womble. Rufus was impish and handsome, even in his eighties, and funny. He began every sermon with three jokes, no matter what; he thought it was important to get people laughing. He always wore a blue cassock and nothing else – no surplice or stole or alb or anything.
Rufus’ ministry was all about healing, and he came to the parish where I was Curate every Thursday for a healing service with laying-on-of hands. Rufus used to tell me, “No matter what the assigned readings are, I always preach about healing; I always manage to bring it around to healing.” And I thought this single-mindedness of Rufus’ was a bit silly and unsophisticated. But Rufus’ life had been changed – no, saved – by healing which he attributed to Jesus (I can’t remember the circumstances). So for him, every word of the Gospel was, in fact, full of healing, and he could not help but talk about it.
I think about that single-mindedness, having spoken to you last week about children, and finding that the Gospel today, which nowhere mentions children, has also brought my mind and my prayers around to children and to youth. Perhaps it is the case that I should always be preaching about children, no matter what the readings are. After all, my life was changed – no, saved – as a child when I was shown the power, and glory, and strength, and beauty, and love of God at work in his church. And I wish for every child to be shown what I was shown as a child.
And as long as there are too few children in this parish, maybe I should use this pulpit as a watchtower to keep an eye out for them, to call them in, to point them out to you, since so many seem to have fled from our midst, one way or another.
Once, a long time ago, this space on Locust Street was a vacant lot. But countless fruitful seeds have been sown here on countless fruitful souls, who have lived countless fruitful lives, some growing a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty - who knows? This is no pop-up church. But without the young, without children being shaped and formed, being taught to love the Lord Jesus and to worship him, being equipped to be pilgrims or disciples or saints, how will they every take root in the Gospel of love and grow up?
We are a garden - meant to grow, and to produce, and to change with the seasons. We are meant to experience the cycle of life and death, and then the return of life again. We are an icon of God’s idea of Paradise. And as a garden, this place is more than a metaphor for the resurrection – we are the place and the people where resurrection happens!
But without children and youth, how can we be sure that this beautiful, verdant, flowery stretch of Locust Street will not itself some day be returned to its status as a vacant lot? God forbid that it should ever be so. And teach us, Lord, to suffer the little children to come to you, right here in this place. And let us grow a hundred-fold, or sixty, or thirty… that would be a good start!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 July 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia