Posts filed under Rev. Sean Mullen


“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Martin Luther once wrote that “the whole Scripture of God is divided into two parts: rules and promises.”  By this, he meant, at one level, the division between the Old and New Testaments: the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, if I can put it that way.  And while that may be a simplistic way of looking at the Scriptures, it bears some resemblance to the outlook of Saint Paul when he was writing to the new Christian Jews in Galatia, some of whom were demanding adherence to Jewish law, including circumcision.

Paul (and Luther after him) believed that rules – like the requirement of circumcision - had served their purpose by pointing God’s children toward his promises from generation to generation.  But with the death and resurrection of Jesus the dawning era of promises-fulfilled became plain.  And Jesus had only one rule: love one another as I have loved you.

For Paul each and every other rule was wiped off the slate by the pronunciation of the law of love in Jesus Christ.  And to continue to spend time and energy following the old rules could only ever be a distraction from learning how better to live the law of love, and a hindrance to drawing more people into the expanding circle of God’s promise.

Freedom, in this context, was freedom not from some foreign power but from a self-imposed slavery of doing things: keeping the right feasts, avoiding the wrong foods, and the insistence on male circumcision.  These were all fine and well in their time, when they kept a good Jew’s heart pointed toward the earthly Jerusalem.  “But the Jerusalem above is free,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “and she is our mother….  For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

No one had been better (in his own humble estimation) at keeping the rules than Paul had been.  No one had had his heart set more firmly, so to speak, on the earthly Jerusalem and all that it meant to live as a Jew in God’s promised land.  And no one worked harder to enforce those rules than Paul did, making a name for himself, before his conversion, as a persecutor of Christians, who quite clearly were not following the rules.

All of which might begin to suggest that Paul was something of a libertarian encouraging people to live and let live.  But this he was not.  He was convinced however that it meant something different to live in the midst of promises-fulfilled than in the midst of a system of rules.  And this difference he was determined to work out and to teach, because freedom matters.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever known captivity – which Paul knew was a part of the heritage of every Jew.  Others might take freedom for granted, but not those who have lived under the yoke of slavery.  In Egypt the Jews had been enslaved to Pharoah.  In Babylon they had lived in enforced exile.  And in their slavery, in their exile, they had kept the rules as best they could.  Kept the rules to keep their hearts pointed toward home: toward Jerusalem.

And in Jerusalem the promises of freedom were born when Jesus set his face toward that city and the drama of God’s promised salvation unfolded.

Jesus himself had been somewhat famously loose with the rules.  He had not come to abolish them, he said, but to fulfill them.  In him, every rule was transposed into a promise: a trick every child knows seems impossible.  Because in Christ the horizon shifted from the possibilities on the ground in Jerusalem – possibilities that would be especially disastrous for him – to the possibilities in the heart of God, in what Saint Paul calls “the Jerusalem above.”

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.  Paul sees how likely we are to take slavery on ourselves.  And in some sense it is just this that Paul is trying to teach the Galatians to avoid: the yoke of slavery that dims the promises of the Jerusalem above.  

It’s not that the rules are bad in themselves, it’s just that they keep us rooted in doing this or not doing that.  These were the rules that allowed, even encouraged, a priest and a Levite (holy men!) to pass by the bleeding body of man on the side of the road, leaving him to be cared for by a Samaritan (who, by the way, the rules encouraged us to think pretty little of).  These are the rules that would have prevented Jesus from eating with sinners and with tax collectors – that would have prevented the physician from visiting his patients.  These were the rules that threatened to obscure the promised freedom of new life that had been gained for all people by Jesus when he conquered death.  And if the rules got in the way of the promise then clearly the rules would have to go.

Today very few of us stand in danger of obscuring the promise of new life in Christ because of our adherence to kosher laws.  But today we are just as likely to submit to a slavery of our own choosing as were those early Christian Jews in Galatia to whom Paul wrote.

Today we readily embrace the laws of the marketplace, for instance, following rules that are designed to make us good consumers.  These insidious rules allow us to feel good about everything we have thanks to the global village, while we pass by the bloodied bodies of our neighbors in that village, far over on the other side of the road.  We have become expert in our slavery to these rules at waiting for some good Samaritan to come along in our wake.

Or in another manifestation of the phenomenon of our willing submission to slavery, we see how terror tempts us to protect ourselves with more and more layers of rules, making terrorism a doubly effective weapon since it also threatens to shut out the law of love.  We can feel the grip of these rules tightening even now, in the uncertainty of threats in Britain, and it is our own hands tightening the grip.

And just days before we celebrate our independence as a nation, as we prepare to revel in our freedom, don’t we have to wonder if we are really free?

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Like so much else about Christian faith, we have to learn the paradox of freedom.  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  This is that profound lesson that the Prayer Book puts so concisely when we say that service to God is “perfect freedom.”

For freedom Christ has set us free!  This is not some libertarian manifesto, rather it is a declaration of promises and a shout for joy that free people can live differently than those enslaved by rules.  Love teaches us to live freely.  The rules said we had to avoid that bleeding man in the street (which was a good thing because we wanted to avoid him anyway!)  But the law of love compels us to go to him and bind up his wounds, and to discover as we go that by doing it freely we are changed because we are living not by the rules but by the promise.

Freedom matters to us because we know that it is just as disastrous to be slaves or our own selfishness as it is to be slaves to a foreign power.

Freedom matters because it teaches us how to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh.  Ask any recovering addict how much this freedom matters – or ask someone who is reaching for recovery and struggling to get there.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever been enslaved – which is most of us.  Slavery shuts out love – whether it’s old-fashioned economic slavery, or addiction to a substance, or the relentless slavery of economic rationalism, or the slavery to fear that terrorism tries to instill.  Slavery shuts out love.

Slavery whispers rules into our hearts that we can often spell with two words that are the enemies of love: Keep Out!

Slavery clouds our vision so that we can hardly see the promises.  

Slavery has built a Jerusalem of warfare, violence and bloodshed where the grip of ever tightening rules threatens never to know peace.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever prayed for the peace of Jerusalem – or peace anywhere in the world.

Freedom begets love – overcoming our worst tendencies to use and abuse one another.

Freedom whispers promises in our ears that make things possible that the rules could never have allowed, spelled out in words of welcome.

Freedom opens our eyes to see the promise that love holds out for us.

And freedom is born of the Jerusalem above who is our mother, and who begs to know – if we want to sing about freedom at this rather awful moment in history – what kind of children we shall be.

Pray, God, make us truly free!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
1 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia

Posted on July 1, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

Celebrating Christ's Body

“God humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna… that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”

If you go to see the beautiful German film, Into Great Silence, about the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, be prepared to sit for almost three hours of cinema with very little dialogue, music, or noise of any kind.  The monks of Grande Chartreuse lead a drastically simple life characterized by prayer, self-denial and silence.  You should see the film – it is three hours well spent.

If you do, you may notice that the filmmakers occasionally provide a close-up moment of still life: a plate drying on a windowsill, a lamp burning in the dark, or a bowl of fruit.  And if you have a look at the bowl of fruit, you may notice something that catches your eye – it caught mine.  There in the middle of the French Alps, in the cloisters of La Grande Chartreuse, in a the cell of a solitary monk whose life is devoted to simplicity, whose brethren tend the cows and the gardens and chop the vegetables, who must surely bake their own bread, where the food is delivered to a pass-through into each monk’s cell so as not to disturb his prayers…  There in the still life, in a bowl of fruit, on the side of an apple (or was it a pear?) was a little oval sticker that would have identified the apple’s country of origin: probably New Zealand or Chile.

I almost gasped when I noticed it.  I was certainly shocked.  I don’t begrudge the monks their fruit – certainly not in the dead of winter when there is no fruit to be had in the French Alps, to be sure.  Nonetheless, I was taken aback not only at the way this piece of fruit in its ordinariness linked my life to the life of the austere monks of La Grande Chartreuse, I was taken aback at how nearly impossible it actually is to escape the world we all live in: the global economy that delivers fruit and veggies from all parts of the world to anyone who can pay for them – even the poor, simple monks of La Grande Chartreuse.  I was amazed to begin to realize where that apple had come from, given that these monks had largely rejected all the implications of the global economy in favor of the economy of heaven.

When Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness on their long pilgrimage, it was, Scripture tells us, an exercise in humility and hunger.  God humbled them and made them hunger and then sent them manna as an object lesson that man does not live by bread alone – not by the sweat of our own brows, not by our own cleverness, not by the size of our paychecks, not by the bounty stored in our cupboards – but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.

But unlike our ancient forebears who grudgingly followed Moses, we are living in another age: when we have to search out places to go to be humbled or hungry.  The powers of the global economy even ship ripened fruit to monks who have already embraced poverty, who have accepted a large measure of humility and hunger in their lives.  

And you and I?  What hunger do we know?  What is there that does not lie within arms reach for us if only we want it?  We have everything to fill our bellies.  And have we forgotten what it is like to be hungry for the things that come only from the mouth of God?  Have we become so good at taking everything for granted that we take even this for granted?  Have we assumed in our pride that whatever we want from God we will have when we want it – shipped to us by whatever means he employs, with or without little stickers to identify its country of origin?

Today we train our attention on the wonderful and mysterious gift that God has given us in the Body of Christ – this new and living bread which came down from heaven.  And this, too, is meant to be an exercise in humility and hunger, because it is all too easy for us to lose both our humility and our hunger in the face of this gift of God, all too easy to disregard what we are given at Mass each week as a scrap of bread, a sip of cheap wine.

Our celebration of the gift of the Body of Christ is an exercise in humility because we are faced with God’s profound humility: the God who sends his only Son (the Prince of Peace and Lord of Life) to live and die among the ordinary, stumbling sinners of a creation gone askew.  Christ’s Body – whether it hangs on the Cross, or rests in the tomb, or gets parceled out in little wafers – is the perfect portrait of humility.  Here in our hands we hold the transcription of that Word once spoken that brought the universe into being.  How can we not be humbled in the face of such humility?

And our celebration of the gift of the Body of Christ is an exercise in hunger because we are reminded that in this sacred meal we are given a diet of love and mercy and forgiveness that we sorely need and that we too easily forget is deeply satisfying.  Here in our hands we hold the bread of angels – that perfect food that feeds our souls when words or reason or even the touch of a loved one fail to meet our needs, and we realize that we’ve been left under-nourished by every other diet we’ve ever tried.

Today, as we celebrate the gift of Christ’s Body, we are called to be humble and hungry in the face of the mystery of God’s love.  Just as a community of secluded monks hidden away in the mountains can enjoy an apple that is the product of an economy that we thought had passed them by – indeed, which they had tried to allow to pass them by; you and I can enjoy that living Bread that came down from heaven – from an economy that we often believe has passed us by.

It might have seemed that this wondrous communion with God would be reserved only for those who establish a secret economy of silence behind monastery walls, immersed in endless rounds of prayers, and far beyond the reach of people like you and me.

But although it seems somewhat unlikely that God would feed you and me with the living Bread of the Body of his Son, it is, in fact, just precisely as likely as the possibility that a shipment of apples from New Zealand or Chile would find its way into the cells of those remote Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse.

And at the end of Mass today, we’ll indulge ourselves in a kind of still-life moment, which is meant to give us pause, perhaps even cause us to gasp as we have a look at what it is that’s been given to us in the Body of Christ, as we realize where this living Bread has come from.  

And will we be left feeling humbled and even hungry for that Bread when, as we consider its unlikely origin, given that we have largely rejected the economy of heaven in favor of our own global economy?

And if we allow ourselves to gaze for a while into the great silence of that living Bread – the silence that is all that stands between us and the Body of Christ – will we hear God’s wisdom as he calls us to be humble and hungry, and to remember that we have never lived by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord?

Thanks be to God.

Preached by the Rev. Sean E. Mullen
Corpus Christi: 10 June 2007
Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia

Posted on June 10, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.

In the Midst of a Cloud

Every now and then, if the door that leads from the cloister to the Parish House is not closed, and if we have an especially enthusiastic thurifer, and if smoke wafts from the church, through the cloister, past that doorway, into the Parish House, a loud alarm goes off (as happened here the other night).  It is a reminder to me that here at Saint Mark’s we have prepared ourselves (up to a point) for at least one aspect f the great vision of the prophet Isaiah, who sees God in his glory, seated on a throne, high and lifted up, and, Isaiah tells us… the ‘house was filled with smoke.”

To the dismay of protestants and asthmatics, we get close, every now and then, to recreating that one aspect of the scene in the prophet’s vision, in which he tells us that the many-winged seraphim are flying about and calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy!”  And, Isaiah says, the foundations of the thresholds are shaken at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics believed that this scene could be not so much re-enacted as evoked with the right kind of architecture, music, vesture… and with enough smoke.  They even went so far as to make reference to the more detailed and fantastic vision of the heavenly throne given to Saint John the Divine in his Revelation.  Unable to reproduce lightning strikes and thunder peals or a rainbow that looks like an emerald, they could at least hang seven lamps before the altar to evoke the seven torches we heard about in John’s Revelation today, which are, he tells us, the seven spirits of God.  And because they could, they did.

And you can be sure that they believed, in their 19th century, Anglo-Catholic Romantic innocence, that whether you could see them or not, the many-winged seraphim would and did, in fact, descend from heaven to hover over the throne of this altar, calling out to one another in tones too high for you and me to hear: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

It was not, I think, actually naivete on the part of those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics who built this place that caused them to think that with the right architecture, music, vesture, and with a bit of charcoal and incense, hey could evoke the image of the secret temples of God.  It was, instead, a conviction, an eagerness, that it is OK to try to enter into the mystery of God’s presence, his being, his love.  Indeed it was a conviction, even an eagerness, that it is helpful and necessary to try to enter into the mystery of God’s presence, being, and his love, especially if mere mortals were going to try to evoke not only the vision that Isaiah had, but his response to the call of God, the sound of whose voice causes the foundations of the thresholds to shake when he calls with grammatical precision, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Isaiah was no fool.  He was a Jew living in exile.  With his people he had been cast out of his land.  Like generations of Jews before and after him, his understanding of his community of faith was tied deeply to the land.  It was in a plot of land – a garden – that God first created man and woman.  It was to a piece of real estate – a promised land flowing with milk and honey – that God led Abraham and Sarah through the wilderness.  It was again to a promised land that God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  It was from that land, more or less, that Isaiah and the others with him had been ejected, and for which he now longed.

And if it was not to a specific piece of land that those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics felt called when they bought property on Locust Street, then it was at least to the temple of God that those ancestors of ours were drawn.  Knowing that God’s call go hither and yon was often anchored in specificity of one sort or another, they could at least set the stage for the sound of the One whose voice would shake the foundations of the thresholds when he calls out from the cloud, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Today, in many quarters, the belief in a God who calls to us – or any God at all, for that matter – is regarded with some derision.  God himself is regarded as a significantly less impressive figure than the one beheld in Isaiah’s or John’s visions.  A well-known writer is busily selling a provocative book called God is not great: meant to be an affront to those of us in any faith still foolish enough to proclaim that he is.  The New York Times Book Review gave that book an approving review a few weeks ago and I promise you sales are not bad.

And one can see why.  Fundamentalists from Lynchburg to Najaf and everywhere in between have done much, in my opinion, to give God a bad name.  The inane discussion (such as it is) about creationism versus evolution fuels sound bites in all the media, and makes people of faith sound like ninnies.  The internecine warfare in our own Anglican church sounds to many like just what it is: a struggle for power.  Why believe in God or participate in any of God’s religions if this is where it gets you?

Meanwhile, in Sudan, the slaughter that has taken a quarter of a million lives and driven millions of others into exile goes on – just to pick one on-going horror of the moment this morning.

And if we are going to gather in church on Trinity Sunday to assert that we believe in a triune God: three persons in one Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we ought to stop and ask ourselves what it matters.  About the doctrine of the Holy Trinity the church has had much to say: a lot of it confusing to most of us.  Even the prescribed creed that used to be said on this day to assert the truth of the three-personed God makes it clear that God in all his persons is “incomprehensible.”

So what are we doing here?

We are talking our cue from those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics, who were themselves taking cues from the fathers of the early church, who noticed how God spoke with plural personal pronouns.  More importantly, they took seriously the witness of the prophets, the deep connection to the land of Abraham and Moses that they read about in Hebrew scripture.  They did not turn aside from that witness when they embraced the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.  And they took seriously the gift of the Holy Spirit that they read about throughout the New Testament and that they experienced in the grace of baptism: life transformed by the love of God.

Those early church fathers taught about the Trinity – God in three persons – because it was the unmistakable way they encountered God in history, in scripture and in their own lives.  Yes, it all seems a bit incomprehensible, but after all it is God we are talking about here!

And we follow that lead.  We stand in the midst of a cloud of God’s mystery – believing that it is a good idea (if sometimes dangerous) to enter into that cloud.  We do it because we believe that in the thick obfuscation of that cloud there is not to be found an old, bearded man; nor is there an rejuvenated Jesus; there is not a swirling scirroco or a dancing flame – appealing as all these images may be.

In the midst of the cloud of mystery, there is, we expect, a voice that will shake the foundations of the thresholds that asks of us, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And we don’t know how to answer, except in dumb silence, unless we dare to stand for a moment at least in the presence of all that awesome Presence.

And when we do, do we allow ourselves to learn from those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics something about the desire to know and love and praise as much of God as we are able to know and to love and to praise?  Do we want to know and love and praise, as I think they did, even the hidden parts of God (which I suspect is most of God)?  Do we want to know and love and praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit precisely because this is the way God has chosen to reveal himself to us… for reasons that we must admit are often incomprehensible?  Do we want to know and to love and to praise the aspects of God that we can only smell, or that we can only taste, or that we can only feel burning our eyes, stinging the backs of our throats, or tickling our noses till we sneeze?

God is great!  And there is more of God beneath a cloud of smoke than we could ever claim to see.

I am not qualified to explain to you the mystery of a three-personed God.  And the church has never regarded the mysteries of God in the same way as the mysteries of Agatha Christie: something to be solved.  We have instead regarded the mysteries of God’s love and God’s being as clouds that beckon us to enter in, even if the foundations of the thresholds shake.

It has to be said that it goes against the grain of our modern society to leave a mystery well enough alone.  It goes against the grain to create a cloud of obscuring smoke where the air is otherwise clear.  And it goes against the grain to answer that awesome question the way Isaiah answered it, without so much as a clue to where he was being sent: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

What did Isaiah know except that his eyes were burning with the presence of the Lord, his ears were ringing with the sound of seraphim’s winged song, his legs were trembling as the foundations of the threshold underneath him shook... what did he know?  Could he have even guessed that this was the voice of a triune God?  Would it have mattered?  Did he have any idea what he was saying or where he would be sent?  Wasn’t he scared and humbled and full of the sense of his own inadequacies?

And didn’t he stand there before the throne of God?  And didn’t he open wide as one of the seraphim flew to him with a burning coal to purify his lips?  And didn’t he surprise himself when he heard a familiar voice – one that sounded like his own voice – call out to the smoky Presence without any idea what his answer meant or where it would take him: Here am I, send me?

And what do we know except that the day could come when God could call us to help make peace in the world where the is none; God could ask us to bring the gospel of hope to men and women who have no hope; God could lead us to help end the sad divisions of our squabbling church…

… and should we have the grace, to answer as Isaiah did (Here am I, send me!) may we also have the grace to say when they ask us who sent us, that we come in the Name of the true and living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Trinity Sunday, 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 3, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.