City Limits

You may listen to Mother Johnson's sermon here.

In a sermon on salvation, the seventeenth-century English poet and cleric John Donne uses a haunting image.  Speaking of the way that death brings us closer to God, he conjures up the picture of a traveller and a gallows at night, just outside a town.   Here are his words:

As he that travels weary, and late towards a great city, is glad when he comes to a place of execution, because he knows that is near the town: so when thou comest to the gate of death, [be] glad of that, for it is but one step from that to thy Jerusalem.

Do you see what he did there?  It’s a little dense.  A weary traveler, he says, who has been away on a long journey and comes at night to the outskirts of, say, London, will see the gallows first.  He will see the gallows and rejoice, because he knows that the city itself cannot be far off.  Seeing the awful place where criminals are sent to die will fill a seventeenth-century Englishman with joy, because it will mean that he is back to civilization at last. His long journey is almost through.  He will sleep tonight in his own bed, in his own home. 

The image is unsettling in part because it makes that earthly city seem like such a barbaric place.  In our own day and age, we put up pleasant signs welcoming people to the great state of Pennsylvania, and more special greetings to let them know that they have arrived in Philadelphia.  Sometimes we put the mayor’s picture on the sign.  Welcome to the city that loves you back.  It’s a far cry from Donne’s message: welcome to the city where the guilty die a violent death.  Donne would never have succeeded in public relations and marketing.

But maybe Donne was onto something that applies to us today, even though our Board of Tourism would never admit it.  After all, isn’t it still true today that cities tend to be organized so that the rougher parts of existence are pushed out to the city limits? The traveler who arrives at the Philadelphia airport and travels over the Platt Memorial Bridge and up 76 to Center City will be greeted by junkyards and oil refineries and porn shops. The things we don’t want to see are kept reassuringly on the margins of the city in our day, just as they were in Donne’s. A wealthy traveller will know that feeling, of zipping along the freeway late at night in the back of a taxi as the lights of Comcast Tower and Liberty Place beckon in the distance, and feeling the familiar map of the world as we know it spreading out in all directions. Welcome to Philadelphia. We know we are home when we pass the oil refinery. Terra Firma. Slowly we pass through them, all the unsightly things, one by one, if we are fortunate enough, to the neighborhood in which we live, the house that we call home, the bed that promises us quiet rest.  Snug, we hope, and secure, as close to the center as we can afford to be.

From one rather disheartening perspective, this is what “civilization” means: crowding together to live as well as we are able, and keeping the things and people we don’t want to see on the outskirts, to be passed by as quickly as possible whenever we have to make a journey.  Donne wasn’t far off when he used a gallows as an image of city living.  Our cities are mapped out in a way that bespeaks fear and avoidance of danger.  Our very sense of geography is based on the notion that the privileged can hide from uncomfortable truths. 

On this Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross, giving thanks that Christ himself went out to the place of execution and made it his place of triumph.  From the cross, Christ welcomes us into the city of God, a new kind of city that puts the king on the gallows at the edge of town, and brings the poor and the forgotten and the disheartened to a feast right in the middle of everything.  Right where everyone can see.  Boldly giving the keys of the city to the poor.  Turning over the prime real estate to the disenfranchised.  Lifted high on the cross, Christ beckons to all of us, all of us so weary from our travels, so anxious to be home, so uncertain about where we find ourselves.  “This is your city,” he says, “because it is my city.  I have taken upon myself the violence and the vulnerability, the pain of exclusion, the fear, upon which you laid your city plans. I have reconciled you to one another.  I have redrawn your map. I have made it possible for you to encounter one another in an honest way.  I have made you children of light.  You can live without your fear of the darkness on the outskirts.” We can live without that fear. Wherever there is death, in whatever place the criminal bears her shame, where the hopeless have congregated, where there is no illusion of protection from suffering, Christ has posted his banner of welcome for us.

Jesus has redrawn all the maps.  What we want to shut out is now the center of everything important.  Our comfort and our rest are now forever tied up with him, with a dying criminal on the edge of the city.  When we lift high the processional cross again at the end of this Mass, as we did at the beginning, we follow our crucified and risen Lord out into a city transformed by his truth and his love.  And we will make this journey again and again, Sunday after Sunday, day after day, traveling into this place that is our spiritual home, facing East to the place of the rising sun, and then turning around and making a journey out.  If we are paying attention as we travel this path again and again, we will come to realize that we are being almost literally re-oriented.  We are learning to find the rising Son not only in this place, where he looks the way we expect him to look, but also out in that place, where we see him crucified everywhere. 

Today we celebrate this journey, and we give great thanks for the signpost that is our suffering Messiah.  Though we come here to meet Jesus at the altar and hear him speaking in the word, we learn too that Jesus is waiting for us in all our travels outward.  It’s something like that old slogan from Howard Johnson Hotels,  “Someone you know, wherever you go.”  But let’s not fool ourselves the way that jingle wants to fool us.  This journey back and forth, learning again and again that the places we don’t want to go are the places where Christ awaits us: that’s a terribly difficult journey. There is no easy way to Golgotha. We won’t find a friendly inn when we get there. The trip will cost us everything.  Traveling into this church and being re-oriented and led back out the door: sometimes that just feels like going in circles.  It may feel more like we are being dis-oriented.  And however long we have been travelling, however ardently, we are still just beginners on this path. 

But if we stay with the path, day in and day out, we may be given the grace to learn that Jesus is with us every step of the way.  We may come to feel that Jesus is in the journey as well as the destination.  We may really begin to see him wherever we go.

And so we keep making this trip, following our cross.   Lifted up, Jesus does draw us to him.  We suffer the reorientation. Slowly but surely, step by step, encounter by encounter, we allow our maps to be redrawn.  We allow ourselves to live in a new creation. One foot in front of another.  Left.  Right.  Left.  It is but one step, as Donne would say, from here to our Jerusalem.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson

The Feast of the Holy Cross

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

You can read a selection from Donne’s sermon here: See also Donne’s poem “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward” for a meditation on disorientation and the crucifixion:

Posted on September 16, 2014 .