My brothers and sisters, I stand before you today as a fellow citizen of a city under siege. The barricades are up, the guards are at attention, and the jumbotrons are broadcasting steadily. They’ve taken over the art museum and Independence Hall, two important symbolic locations for reasons both cultural and political. The invading forces are led by an elderly man dressed all in white who rides a strange vehicle that allows him to wave to his followers at all times. Sometimes he keeps a lower profile, riding a smaller car with the symbolic name “Fiat.” The foot soldiers of this army include an astonishing number of women and children, distinguished by their supernatural ability to withstand hours of walking and standing. They seem just like us, but if you talk to them for a while you will discover that they have unfamiliar ideas about transubstantiation and apostolic succession, and a notable preoccupation with family values. They are known to carry their possessions in clear backpacks, which suggests to me a puzzling failure to worry about getting mugged.
Is this the wrong way to start the sermon? It doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere good, does it? Let me try again: My brothers and sisters, I stand before you today as a fellow citizen of what has temporarily and quite wonderfully begun to look just a little bit like the city of God. Most improbably, residents of Philadelphia have gone along with the plan to clear out their cars, and in some cases themselves, in order to make room to honor the religious beliefs of a group notably more conservative than many in this liberal city. But it goes beyond that, really. It’s more than just honoring someone else’s religious belief. It has become acceptable for many to acknowledge that the sheer presence of someone good, the sheer presence of Pope Francis, is electrifying. It has become acceptable to admit that, in a city numbed by the failure of its school systems and the violence of its streets, we long to speak and act boldly about caring for the poor and the suffering and the weak. It has become acceptable this weekend to welcome immigrants and praise them for their courage and their determination. In Spanish. Proudly. We can admit, in this country with a broken political system and a dangerous, caustic political discourse, that we long for things to be different. Suddenly everybody likes humility. When did that happen? I look around and it’s the same Philadelphia, the same USA, the same broken world, but it has been turned inside out and suddenly we can all admit that we are longing to live together in peace.
So which is it for you? The City of God or a city under siege? Are you like me, moving between the two from moment to moment? How strange to be in this condition, to be unable to tell whether I feel that my life has been invaded or whether I am feeling the stirrings of hope. And how very unexpected that this bright feeling of blessedness should come from straining to welcome people who may indeed disagree with me sharply. I suspect that this unusual feeling has something to do with the Holy Spirit. And I suspect that following God has always felt a bit like being under siege. The Israelites were liberated from Egypt, yes, but also subject to a long wandering in the desert and a set of strict rules that marked them as God’s people, and then exile from Jerusalem, and then the return home to a painful task of rebuilding.
And the disciples of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel this morning are also hearing about tough discipline and painful tasks. Jesus told them last week that they must learn to welcome a little child and be like a little child. It sounds lovely. And this week he is still talking about tender care for little ones, and welcoming strangers who don’t follow him. But it turns out that if they mess that up, if they put stumbling blocks in the way of the child or the stranger, they would be better off drowning in the sea with a millstone around their necks. And Jesus goes on: cutting off your hand is better than letting that hand offend you! And you don’t really need two feet, do you? And couldn’t you get along with one eye? This is totally outrageous. Yes, we want to be a “welcoming church,” but how many of us are willing to feel so radically dispossessed in the name of the Gospel? It’s one thing to welcome a little child, but who wants to welcome crazy Jesus?
It’s just possible that living in the City of God, or at least having a foretaste of what that could be, feels like living in a city under siege. It’s possible that there are places we can’t go and things we can’t do. Maybe there are things we just can’t carry with us if we want that special glimpse of blessedness as the Fiat rides by. Maybe that feeling that the world is ours, designed for our pleasure and our convenience, has to change if we are to live in peace and in real joy.
After all, what are we out there hoping to see? A man who represents the peace and love of Christ and Christ’s joyous, forgiving embrace of all humanity. And how does he represent it? By giving up much of what we demand for ourselves: freedom, ease of movement, comfort. Pope Francis is 78 years old and he is visibly exhausting himself in our midst, on our behalf. He seems sincerely joyful and humble, and tough. I’m not sure, but I suspect that for many bishops he feels more like crazy Jesus than the “Papa Francisco” we think we know and love.
Everyone will be salted with fire, Jesus tells us. Salt will flavor us and will also purify us. We crave it but we dare not make use of its sharp metallic tang without some sense of discipline and limitation. Living the life God has planned for is never going to be the same as doing what comes easily. When Jesus comes to town he takes up a lot of space and brings with him a whole giant crowd of people that we may or may not feel like loving. We may or may not want to be identified with his followers. The joy of his presence will be real, I suspect, exactly in relation to the extent that his presence makes us uncomfortable.
But the celebration is real. If we are feeling nudged in some way by the presence of this leader in our city, even if we are only moved to watch a bit of television coverage and marvel at his stamina, we are marveling at something about God’s very real call to each one of us. It seems that we are hard wired to respond to grace. Humility and self-giving speak to us. Something reaches us, as it reached the disciples, even when they balked at what God was telling them. Mark’s Gospel ends with the disciples in fear and doubt. Their experience of God among them is a trial by fire. Nothing comes easily, and they don’t get it right. And out of that baffling experience comes their salvation and ours. Out of that discomfort comes the joy that we are looking for. Only a figure as austere as this Jesus can speak to our world, with all its willful, self-induced suffering in the name of pleasure.
We are all salted with fire. The words may never make sense to us but the experience is visceral. And the hope is real.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
27 September 2015
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia