Posts filed under Rev. Sean Mullen

Good Intentions

It is a wonderful thing to live in the city in the world that is singularly identified as the city of brotherly love.  There are other Philadelphias, but we live in the Philadelphia.  If there is a city of brotherly love to be built in this world, the right of first refusal, for the last few centuries, has been ours.  

As we know too well, however, we don’t really live up to our name in this city.  Murder in our streets is quite literally rampant.  Poverty is legion.  Schooling is dismal for many kids.  Justice and Equality have not taken deep root, as the socio-economic realities of Race threaten to choke them out.  But still, as I say, the city of brotherly love is ours to build or not to build; the name is already ours.

Did any city ever have a name more certainly doomed to infamy than the city of Sodom?  What has that place and its awful name ever stood for but violence and rape, fire and brimstone?  Its name, affixed to a crime of shameful abuse and a devious lack of specificity, singularly identifies the city of debauchery, sin, and license without peer.  Should ever you find yourself on the path to Sodom (or its hateful sister city Gomorrah), you know you are in trouble: beat a hasty path in the opposite direction, and whatever else you may do, don’t look back!

Here in Philadelphia, the name that William Penn gave our city implies that we at least know what we are asking for as a society brought together between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers.  It may be only a dream; it may be elusive, but to be a city of love is somehow our birthright.  If we never see that reality, it wouldn’t be the first time a birthright was squandered.

As for Sodom, at least one possible origin of the name of that city is a Hebrew word for “burnt.”  So maybe Sodom lived into its unhappy destiny after all when God destroyed it with a rain of fire and brimstone.  Maybe they got what they asked for, so to speak.  Maybe they had it coming.

Certainly Abraham did his best.  Did you hear him bargaining with God?  Did hear his obsequious pleas, his step-by-step haggling with the Lord?  Fifty, forty-five, forty.  Do I hear thirty?  Twenty? Ten?  Going once, going twice: OK already: for the sake of ten righteous souls God will not destroy Sodom.  Enough already!  That Abraham really knows how to drive a hard bargain!  What a mensch!  He knew just what to ask for!  And can you believe that in all of Sodom not ten righteous souls could be found?  Only Lot and his brood would be spared from God’s wrath.

Interestingly, the church doesn’t give us an opportunity to hear how the story works out in the end.  Not next week or the week after.  The continuation of this story (which is to say the part we already know about – the sex part and its unpleasant aftermath) is never assigned to be read on a Sunday.  The church wants us to hear about Abraham’s successful bargaining with God but not about the unhappy ending for the city.  You’ll have to learn on your own about how Lot’s wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt.  (They warned her not to look back!)

There is something slightly dishonest about reminding ourselves that God promised he would not destroy the city for the sake of ten souls but then failing to remember that he couldn’t find them.  In this age when the topic of sodomy is an unholy fixation of the church, it seems somehow delusional to recount the promise of Sodom’s deliverance but not to rehearse its destruction.  Who do we think we are protecting with this omission?

I suppose we are protecting ourselves from our own obvious confusion about God.  Who is this God who is willing to negotiate mercy with Abraham but then unleashes a storm of destruction anyway?  Who is this God who leads Lot and his wife to safety only to exact cruel punishment on the poor woman for looking back?  Who is this God who keeps an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction at his fingertips?  Who is this God, and what does he want from us?  How are we to deal with such a God?

As is often the case, Jesus teaches his disciples a fairly straightforward way of dealing with God: he suggests prayer.

And how are we to pray?  You learned the answer to that question in Sunday School when you learned the Lord’s Prayer.  And you got a gold star.  Or at least I’m going to assume you did. (I did.)

And here’s another thing we learned in Sunday School – or at least we think we did:  Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.

Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.  Isn’t that nice?  We love this promising formula.  But when we think about it for a minute, we are often frustrated by it.  Because didn’t Abraham ask?  Didn’t Lot ask?  Didn’t his wife want to be delivered?  What happened?

This beautiful teaching of Jesus’ causes us a lot of grief if we think about it too much.  Because most of us have asked for something that we were never given; most of us have sought for something that we have not yet found; most of us have knocked hopefully on doors that remain firmly shut to us.  What’s going on here?

Here, for once, Jesus is trying to treat us like adults.  “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened… but it does help if you ask for the right thing, seek for the right thing, knock at the right door.  If your child should come to you and ask for a scorpion, you might give him in egg instead; if she comes looking for a serpent, perhaps a fish would be better?

Jesus is treating his disciples here like adults, assuming they know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad for their children, and recognizing that the children don’t know what’s best for them.  

So Jesus wants to treat us like adults; he wants us to understand that there are subtleties even to this simple teaching.  But we so often insist on acting like children. “Why doesn’t God give me what I want?  He said he would!”   We reach for the scorpion, when God would give us an egg.  We reach for legal battles, when God would give us Justice.  We reach for Wealth, when God would give us Prosperity.  We reach for Power, when God would give us Equality.  We reach for the serpent of War, when God would give us the puckering fish of Peace.

All of which is to say, we don’t even know what to ask for.  What good parent wouldn’t say just exactly what Jesus says to his disciples: Ask it of me and I will give it to you!  Seek for it and I will see to it that you find it!  Knock and I will ensure that it opens to you!  And what parent doesn’t know that as soon as you have promised the world – anything – that clever child finds a way to ask for something you know you cannot give?  A parent’s best intentions are often thwarted by the myopia of a child: the child’s sheer inability to see beyond his or her immediate wants and needs.

When Jesus teaches us to ask, to seek, to knock, he is not pandering to our immediate wants and needs.  And he is not trying to give a lesson in skilled negotiation, so that like Abraham we can extract from God the best deal possible.  He is trying to give a lesson in good intentions: somehow matching our intentions to his, as his intentions are matched to God the Father’s, so that when we ask, we are asking the same questions; when we seek, we are looking for the same things; when we knock, we are knocking at the same door.

The flaw in Abraham’s bargain with God is that it completely omitted the other party: the men of Sodom.  Let’s not haggle over the details of the sin of Sodom: let’s just say they were bad.  Let’s assume that it isn’t about sex (as many scholars tell us it isn’t; but you know how we like to make everything about sex!)  Whatever their sin, the men of Sodom had adopted intentions that were entirely at odds with God’s intentions: so much so that when angels came to visit they found themselves in a difficult situation.  And there were not ten men in all that city who would stand up for them; not ten men who would ask after, seek for or knock at the door of God’ s intentions.  And for the cruel intentions of that city, God rains down brimstone and fire till it went up in smoke.  For their cruel intentions.

The point of the characterization of the men of Sodom is not a commentary on sexual ethics; it is a judgment on cruel intentions.  The hearts of the men of Sodom (the women are hardly mentioned, like so much ruin, it seems to have been the men’s doing), their hearts were set on ruin, because, like children, they could think of nothing beyond themselves.  And Abraham’s best intentions could no more save the city of Sodom than William Penn’s good intentions could make Philadelphia a real city of brotherly love.

And what about us?  What kind of intentions steer our hearts?  Do we not often reach for the scorpion or the serpent: grabbing what we want because we want it and we want it now, and assuming that we will deal with the consequences later?

We don’t try to organize our intentions in harmony with God’s intentions.  And when things go wrong we start haggling with God, trying to drive a bargain: Please make him better, please keep him safe, don’t let her die.  Please stop all this awful killing in our streets!

We think we have to bargain with God for this, forgetting that God intends for us to live at last without fear, without sickness, without tears, without death: this is the image of the holy city of God that Saint John sees in his Revelation.  But the way to that city is the way of the Cross, which is a hard and sometimes difficult way.  The way to the promised land is never easy.  On the way it seems that God will test our intentions.

Part of our frustration with God could be summed up in that age-old child’s question: Are we there yet?  No, we are not there yet, but we are on the way.  We are not the people that God means for us to be yet, but we are on the way.  We are not the city God means for us to be, but we are on the way.  We are not even the church that God means for us to be, but we are on the way.  As we go we will have to ask for many things, seek many times, knock at many doors.

What kind of people will we be, as God tests our intentions, sending his angels to us at the most inconvenient hours of the night?

What kind of church will we be, as God tests our intentions by setting before us real challenges?

And what kind of city will this be, this city of brotherly love?  Will we be a city worthy of our name?  

We cannot do it just by asking, asking, asking for everything we want.  We must make it our heart’s intention and desire to build between these rivers a city founded in love.  Surely William Penn imagined such a city to be God’s intention and desire.  Penn hoped that the people of this city would ask the right questions, seek the right things, knock at the right doors.  He hoped these would bear testimony to our intentions to love on another as we would be loved, as Christ loves us.

God, who for reasons we cannot understand (I certainly can’t) keeps a supply of fire and brimstone stashed somewhere in the garage, this God has only the best intentions for us.  He sent us his Son to show us that.

It was in sending his Son Jesus to live with us, to suffer and die, like we suffer and die, that God showed his true intentions for us when he raised Jesus from the dead, and the unfathomable depths of the storehouse of God’s love finally became known.

How are we to deal with this God?  Not, it turns out, by haggling for the best deal we can get.  Rather we are to ask and to seek and to knock, trying, as we do, to ask after, to seek for, and to knock at the doors of God’s intentions for us, which are that we should be given what we want, that we should find what we are looking for; that the door should be opened to us.

And if we start with a desire in our hearts to build a city here between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers that truly is a city of brotherly and sisterly love, then that is a good start for all our questions, a good destination for all our seeking, and a worthy door at which to stand and to see whether or not in time God will open it to us, if it is our hearts desire, our dearest intention, as surely it must be God’s.

Even though we are not there yet, isn’t it time we stopped behaving like children, and behaved like true grown ups who know that there is nothing simple, but something brave and faithful about asking with the confidence that it will be given to us, seeking with the assurance that we will find, and knocking  at the door of God’s holy intentions for us at any hour of the day or night with the firm conviction of hope that God has left it unlocked.

Preached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
29 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 30, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

The Oaks of Mamre

Yesterday afternoon as I walked beneath the leafy canopy of trees in Rittenhouse Square, I noticed at least five people with fat, brand-new books all opened to the early chapters.  What a lovely day it was to sit beneath the trees of the Square with the latest Harry Potter book and dream about Hogwarts.

If we were students at Hogwarts, just imagine all the things we’d learn.  In addition to our spells, we’d lean a lot, as Harry’s classmates, about the reality of good and evil in the world; we’d learn about the importance of standing up to fight for the good, of knowing who we are; about the importance of working together in community and not always trying to go it alone.  And we’d learn about death; about the inescapable truth that death is a part of life; we’d learn about loss and grief and the power of memory.   We’d learn a lot just by entering for a while the fantastic world of Harry Potter, just by sitting under the trees with a children’s book to read.  

To many ears the stories of the Bible sound just as fantastic and fictitious as the stories about Harry Potter and his friends.  And this morning we encounter what amounts to an early chapter in the quite fantastic stories about Abraham, who, we are told with great specificity, is sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day by the oaks at Mamre.

There is something delightfully reassuring about knowing Abraham’s address: he lives in the tent by the oaks at Mamre.  The three men who are walking by surely know who lives there.  The Scriptures here employ the code to indicate that it is God himself - the LORD – who has come.  And yet it is not at all clear if or when Abraham himself, or his wife Sarah, realize who these visitors are.  Still, Abraham follows an elaborate set of customs to receive his guests with dignity and honor: washing their feet, having Sarah bake bread, and sending a servant to prepare a calf for a meal.  Scholars tell us that the 18th chapter of Genesis provides a remarkable description of ancient, Eastern hospitality.

It would be easy to focus on Abraham and Sarah as we hear this story.  Their reactions to the divine visitor are described in great detail: how much meal Sarah uses to bake the bread, the curds and milk that Abraham serves with the meat.  We’re even told where Sarah is standing as she eavesdrops on the conversation her husband is having with his unusual visitors.  There are sermons here to be preached about hospitality and about Sarah’s laughter at the ludicrous suggestion that she will be having a son.  No one knows better than she does that her child-bearing days are over.

But this story is not really a story about Abraham or Sarah.  It is most revealing as a story about God: the God who has bothered to know where Abraham lives, the God who hears Sarah’s laughter.  This is a story about God.  The moral of the story is told in a question that is posed by the three men after hearing Sarah laugh.  “Why,” the LORD asks Abraham, “did Sarah laugh” at the promise that she would bear a son in her old age?  “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”

But a better translation of the question puts it this way: Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

Sarah had stood there behind the door listening in to the conversation and, quite understandably laughed at the promise of a child in the onset of her old age.   And isn’t it easy for us to laugh at the absurdity of the promises of God?  Peace?  Love?  Forgiveness?  Mercy? Healing?  Everlasting life? In this world?  It is enough to make you laugh!  Our reading this morning actually omits the final verse of this story – verse 15 – in which Sarah denies her skepticism: “I did not laugh,” she protests to the men (because, the writer tells us, she was afraid).  And the LORD looks at her with what I imagine is a sideways glance and a wry, reassuring smile and says to her, “No, but you did laugh.”

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

We are living in an age when nothing is too wonderful for Harry Potter but almost anything is too wonderful for the Lord – or so it seems.  In the Episcopal church there are many small parishes that are wondering if their little communities of faith can even survive, let alone thrive.  Will anyone come to church anymore?  Who will pay the bills?  I could name four parishes in walking distance of here that are facing these questions right now.  For them this is not a rhetorical question: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

In churches like our own just the task of cleaning out our basement can feel like a challenge.  Is anything too hard for the Lord?

I won’t even get into the great controversies that our church is embroiled in at the moment.  You know what they are.  They are enough to make us wonder too: maybe some things are just too hard, too wonderful, for the Lord.

And should we open the pages of a newspaper or turn on the evening news, does this sound like a rhetorical question to us anymore: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  As we count the mounting murder rate in our own city there is nothing to laugh about.  As the war we started in Iraq escalates and more and more of our own troops are being killed, is there anything the Lord will do?  As we continue to face both the fear and the possibility of the threat of terrorism in our own country, is the Lord even involved?

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  Talk about your wry smiles and sideways glances – to many, many people this rhetorical question and its presumptive answer are an exercise in collective neurosis; a question asked only by the doggedly stubborn or pathetically deluded.  Is there any difference between the wonderful fantasies we read about in Harry Potter books and the fantastic presumption behind that question; Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  Or are we living in the fantasy-land of another best–selling book that, so-far, has outsold the Harry Potter series?

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Remember that the promise that this question grows from is the promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation numbering more than the stars of heaven.  It is a ludicrous promise considering that Abraham is childless, except for a bastard son.  And to my ears, Sarah’s laugh was no girlish giggle.  It was derisive and dismissive – a child, indeed!  No one knows better than Sarah how foolish are the hopes, how apparently misguided is the faith Abraham.  Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?

The truth is that Abraham and Sarah had no good way of answering that question.  They had not a lot to go on.  What did they know of the Lord?  Except that at some point it dawned on them who they were dealing with.  For Sarah, I think it is the moment that she realizes she is afraid.  Because she has discerned that these three unusual men are not men at all.  They are the very presence of the living God – sitting right there, under the oaks of Mamre, next to her mailbox.

Here is the Lord of creation, and of the flood; here is the God of gods eating her bread and the curds and milk from her cows, the meat of her calf.  Here is the Lord whose name is inexpressible chatting with her husband.  Here is God Almighty walking through her neighborhood and stopping at her house.

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  How should Sarah know?  How could she know?  Except that now the Lord has visited her home, her husband, and even included her in the conversation – not something the woman of the house might have expected.  And what’s more, the Lord promises that at the appointed time, in the spring, he will return to her.  

In the spring he will return.  What a lovely way to express what Saint Paul calls “the hope of glory,” that in the spring, the God who has visited us, who knows our address right down the trees planted outside, in the spring he will return with rainfall and his flowers and the greening lawn and its warming, lengthening days.

Very near the center of our Christian faith is this certainty: that the God of all creation knows our address, with great specificity, and that God comes to us, visits us, challenges us, makes promises to us, and leaves us with the question of faith ringing in our ears: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

We heard today about Jesus who visited Martha and Mary.  He wasn’t looking for a contribution to his cause, he wasn’t trying to sell them anything, he enjoyed but didn’t depend on their hospitality.  Jesus stopped and visited and talked and ate with Martha and Mary and their friends and relatives because that’s what the Lord does.  

And what if we had asked that same question of Martha and Mary after their visit with him: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  What do they know?  Except that he has been in their home, broken bread at their table, talked with them and their friends and family.  When did they realize who he was?  When did it dawn on them that it was the living God right there at the table with them?

We live in a world and in a church that is beset by troubles, where the arguments against faith seem to gather steam at every turn.  Death is now so much our constant companion that even the heroes of our children’s books must encounter it in the first chapter.  And what do we know of the mysterious ways of the God who stirs the wind and the seas to wreak havoc in the world, who has allowed his children to kill one another, almost from the first chapter of time?  What do we know?

In this place, we claim to know with great certainty one thing: that the God of all creation, king of kings and lord of lords, the God who set the stars in their courses and who filled the vast seas with water, the God whose breath gives life to every creature in the universe, that this God comes to us to visit us.  That the Lord of all seeks out our home and waits to be asked in.  That the Lord knows our address.  That he has visited us before, he visits us even now, and that in the spring he will return.

Is anything too wonderful for this Lord?  Sometimes it is tempting to think so.  Sometimes it is hard to believe that this God of ours has a grip on the world he made.  Sometimes is seems that it must all just be too hard for God.

He knows how easy it is for us to dismiss him with a derisive laugh, just as Sarah did.  Which is why he visits with us – just as he visited with Sarah.  The Lord of life comes to us again and again: most reliably when two or three of us gather in his name and break bread together and drink wine together, just as he showed us when he promised that he would be with us always.  The Lord knows with great specificity the location of the magnolia outside those doors and the names of the people to be found here week by week, or just once if this is the only time you will ever sit under the shadow of that tree in the heat of the day.

The Lord knocks at the door of our hearts, knowing that the question lurks deep in our minds – is there anything too wonderful for him?  Anything too hard?  Because it sure looks that way sometimes.  It sure feels that way sometimes.  It sure makes me want to laugh for fear of crying.

And he knocks again, seeking entrance to our homes and our hearts, knowing that it seems hard to believe.  Except when he visits with us and talks with us, and takes our bread and blesses it and gives it back to us.  And something like hope of glory lingers in the air like incense as the question hangs between us in the air:  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Come, sit under this magnolia with him for a while.  God knows this address.  And if these promises of hope make you want to laugh – maybe for fear of crying, in the face of all the fear and pain and suffering of this world – then remember his promise, take hold of the hope of glory, for in the springtime he will return.  

Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Preached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
22 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 23, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

The Seventy

“The seventy returned with joy….”  (Luke 10:17)

Here in the City of Philadelphia we have an organization known as the Committee of Seventy, whose mission, they will tell you, is to conduct a “permanent campaign to improve the Philadelphia region by demanding ethical conduct of public officials, promoting government efficiency, educating citizens and safeguarding elections.”  They are best known, by their own account, as a “watchdog during election time.”  The committee includes a lot of lawyers.  They are all about the rules.

And it’s fair to say that this city needs someone to keep watch over the rules and the people who are supposed to govern by those rules – more than most cities.  The Committee of Seventy is not, as far as I can tell, limited in number to seventy members.  Its website cites the Book of Exodus as the source of the name, and while “seventy elders” are sometimes mentioned in Exodus, the actual account of God’s instruction to Moses to gather seventy elders is found in the Book of Numbers.  There we find that the seventy are to share Moses’ spirit and assist him in leadership – not keep an eye on him.  Nevertheless, it’s nice to think that principles of justice, good ethics and fairplay in this city are somehow rooted in the Scriptures.  If someone is going to be a watchdog of the rules that govern the rule-makers, these are good shoes to fill.

Is it a coincidence that in the Gospels we find Jesus appointing seventy helpers to send on ahead of himself as he proceeds with his ministry of teaching and healing?  “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few… Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves….”  And then comes what sounds a lot like a set of rules:

“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road.  Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’…  eat what is set before you; heal the sick… say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  And then: “Whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet , we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’”  What a set of rules!  What a set of rules to follow.

But if we look more closely, will we see that Jesus’ instructions to his seventy are not really a set of rules at all, but a set of promises?

If they are to carry no purse, no bag and not even any sandals, are there not promises embedded in those instructions: that their needs will be provided for, their wants will be met, even the soles of their feet will be protected from the stones on the road, their toes protected from stubbing?  Will they glide from town to town on a cushion of air?  Is this a secret promise?

If they are to greet no one on the road, is there a promise there of safety, as well as an undercurrent of urgency?

And is the greeting of peace to every house a promise – at the very least of the intention of the greeter, but also of God’s intention that we should know his peace, which passes all understanding?

Eat what is set before you: because I promise you that you will not go hungry.

Is the instruction to heal the sick a promise that there is healing to be had in the Name of the One who sent them out ahead of himself?

“The kingdom of God has come near you!”  This, too, is a promise: a promise that what has come near is not to be forever elusive, not forever far away in the skies.

Even the dust from their feet, wiped off in protest in the face of unwelcome carries with it a promise, leaving behind the footprints that lead to the ongoing message of the kingdom of God, which has come near even though it was not welcome.

Jesus has called the seventy to go ahead of him with a mission of promise.  And if the writers of the gospels heard in that story the echoes of the seventy with whom God shared the spirit that once rested on Moses alone, then so be it; it is no coincidence.  

But remember that in neither case are the seventy sent out to enforce the rules.  In neither case are the seventy appointed as the watchdogs of Moses or of Jesus, prowling around to enforce the rules of the rulers.  This drift is understandable and, I am sure forgivable, in the Committee of Seventy here in Philadelphia.  But it may be less forgivable among latter-day followers of Jesus who take the role of watchdog upon themselves.

The seventy, like the Twelve, were never called to be watchdogs; they were called to be harbingers of promises, forerunners of the dawning of the kingdom of God.

And they went out without their purses; they went out without their bags, without tunics, without staffs to lean on as they went; they went out with no sandals on their feet, those poor, silly men and women who listened to Jesus’ promises, they went out without sandals!  And did they glide from town to town on cushions of air?

You know, they might have.  Because look what happens: the seventy returned with joy.  They returned with joy!  What church did they belong to?  Have you ever heard of such a thing?!  No purses, no bags, no sandals – NO SANDALS! – but they returned from their work proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near, and they returned WITH JOY!  What were they smoking?!?

My brothers in sisters in Christ, there is a lesson for us here today.

First, we are part of a church that is tying itself up in hideous knots – the kind of knots you could strangle yourself with – over rules, when we have paid precious little attention to the promises.  Even in Jesus’ wonderful instructions to Go our way, even though we remember that he told us that we were like lambs in the midst of wolves, even though he promised there would be healing.  Even though the very footprints we would leave behind when we shake the dust from our feet would proclaim the promise: The kingdom of God has come near!  Even though we have inherited all this promise, we are choking on rules.

Second, we can see how easy it is to hear a promise as a rule and to miss the promise altogether, so that we just keep stubbing our un-sandaled toes and never get to glide on the currents of cushions of air.

Third, we are shown that there is something missing if we are not responding to the promises of Christ.  Because what ever happened to the joy?  The seventy returned with joy!  They’d been given nothing to work with, told to leave their gear at home, sent out barefoot, identified as lambs in the midst of wolves, as too few laborers in the face of a plentiful harvest (read: a lot of work)… and yet the seventy returned with joy!

Yes, there is a lesson for us to learn today.

As we come together week by week, we are a community of people called together by God, and also sent out, week by week, in his Name.  We, too, are sent to be harbingers of promise and forerunners of the kingdom of God.

We know that the laborers are few, but do we remember that the harvest is plentiful?

We know that it sometimes seems that we have not enough: not enough resources, not enough faith, not enough gear, not even enough to put spiritual sandals on our feet, so to speak.  And what does God expect?  That we are going to glide through life on cushions of air?

God sent his spirit: to seventy elders who shared it with Moses.  He sent his spirit, like cushions of air, if you ask me, to the seventy that Jesus sent out proclaiming the kingdom.  He may even have sent his spirit to the Committee of Seventy, for all I know (though it often seems hard to believe this).

And God has sent his spirit to us – more than seventy of us gathered in this place.  He is sending his spirit to us day by day to strengthen and encourage us.  He will send us cushions of air, if that’s what we need –if only we can hear the promises he makes!  The seventy returned with joy saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”  Even the demons!  Don’t we have demons we need to quell in this world?  Don’t we have plenty of demons?  Yes, we are just lambs in the midst of wolves.  But we will be carried on cushions of air – not so much as a stubbed toe – if only we can hear the promises: the kingdom of God has come near!

Lately I have been talking with the Vestry and others about several guideposts for our collective ministry here at Saint Mark’s.  Some of them are very practical: the need to study the Scriptures, for instance.  But one of the guideposts I’ve suggested we need to use in planning and organizing our mission and ministry is the idea that a parish community ought to be a community of irrepressible and inexhaustible joy.

To some people in the world, - especially those who are aware of all the conflict in the church - such a suggestion is as ludicrous as the idea that we should go out to do our work without so much as a pair of sandals on our feet.

But I believe that we can glide on cushions of air that God sends us by his Holy Spirit, if only we can hear the promises every time he tells us to go, go, go out into the world as harbingers of promise and forerunners of his kingdom.  If only we realize that it is perfectly alright to be lambs in the midst of wolves, with God beside us and beneath us and above us.  If only we can see that God means for his mission to be carried out and nothing will prevent it if we go in faith.

The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, which is all the more reason we need to go, confident that it is God’s spirit that will get us where he calls, God’s spirit that will carry us on cushions of air if that’s what it takes, God’s spirit that casts down every demon that threatens his mission of peace in the world.

And it is you and I, my friends, you and I who are sent, week by week, to do his work and to proclaim his promises.  And it is you and I who can expect – if only we hear the promises and not just the rules – you and I who can expect to return with joy: irrepressible and inexhaustible joy!  As though we had been carried along on cushions of air.  Joy that is born not from our careful application and adherence to the rules; not because we are somehow superior to those whose dust we have shaken off our feet; not even because the awful demons of this world have been vanquished in the Name of Jesus.  Our irrepressible and inexhaustible joy will be born of the very promise we proclaim: that the kingdom of heaven is very near to us, and the promise that your name and mine – no matter who we are – are written in heaven!

Thanks be to God!

Reached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
8 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 9, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.