Word of God

If I had a nickel for every time I said something I couldn’t live up to, I’d have a lot of nickels.  It happens a lot at faculty meetings, sometimes in the classroom, and not infrequently from the pulpit.  Actually I speak rashly a lot, wherever I am.

Maybe that’s why I feel a particular sense of sympathy for Thomas in John’s Gospel.  Sure, he was a bit vehement (“I won’t believe until I put my hands in his sides!) but his reaction to the news of Jesus’s resurrection is really just one of those things that people say.  Hyperbole, we call it, when you exaggerate without intending to be literal about it. The Gospels are actually full of hyperbole. Matthew the Evangelist is possibly the champion hyperbolist—If your eye offends you, cut it out!   If your arm offends you, cut it off!—but even here in John’s Gospel there are examples of hyperbole. The woman at the well in John’s fourth chapter is eager to testify to Jesus’s wisdom: “He told me everything I had ever done!” she says to her friends.  That’s hyperbole. Jesus surely didn’t talk to her about everything she had ever done, he just noted that she had had five husbands. That’s not everything, though we can agree it’s a lot. “All men come to him” say the disciples of Jesus in John 3:26. That’s hyperbole.  Lots of people came to Jesus but famously not everyone. John 12: “Behold, the world came after him.” Hyperbole again.

If you’re wondering whether I’ve recently gotten hold of a handbook of figures of speech in the Bible, the answer is yes, I have (E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible)

Let’s keep going.  Here are the final sentences of John’s entire Gospel: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”  It’s a funny thing about hyperbole.  It’s not hard to tell that there is exaggeration creeping in.  The language is usually, obviously, false. It points to something extraordinary—the deeds of Jesus that surpass our imagining—but the language itself falls flat.  “The whole world wouldn’t be big enough to hold the books.” It’s strangely childlike and obvious. Almost boastful.

But here’s my point: the scriptures are full of hyperbole and other exaggerated forms of speech, so it’s strange that Jesus takes Thomas literally when he says he wants to stick his fingers in the resurrected messiah’s wounds.  Who would take that literally? In fact, the text never tells us that Thomas himself took it literally, that he actually put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus. The invitation is apparently enough to overwhelm the poor disciple.  So why does Jesus get so literal here? Why even make the offer? Wouldn’t it have been enough for the risen Lord just to show up?

It feels a bit like Thomas is being taken down a notch, doesn’t it?  His rash speech, his big boast about not being gullible, his childish declaration of superiority, it all suddenly becomes an unimaginable encounter with Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead.  It’s as though, after the resurrection, the little boasts and figures of speech we use start to wear thin, as the Word of God himself exceeds anything we can imagine or say about him. It’s as though, after the resurrection, all speaking about God is a kind of childish boasting.  Big tough skeptics, we are, with our doubts and our need for signs.

But there is another way to think about Thomas’s seemingly-empty speech here.  We could think about the Word of God, and how the Word of God is a figure of interest in John’s Gospel, right from the beginning.  You remember: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  

Is it too much to imagine that the word of Thomas here is being made flesh in the person of Jesus?  

It sounds odd or even blasphemous, but really this is something we live with all the time as Christians.  “The Lord be with you,” we say, or “God bless you,” and sure enough the Lord is with us, and God does bless us.  No, we don’t usually have the kind of physical encounter that Thomas does, but we do have the presence and blessing of God, reliably.  We may speak these words without much thought sometimes but our thoughtlessness does not mean that God’s response is constrained. If Thomas’s experience is any indicator, we should live our lives expectantly, waiting for the moments in which our risen savior fulfills our half-serious language of faith.  It could happen at any moment that we discover that the words we have spoken without strong intention have been taken up and made real. And maybe, like Thomas, we would find that fulfillment as disconcerting as it is wonderful. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.

Surely when Thomas spoke so glibly about the wounds in the body of his Lord, he wasn’t picturing the intimacy and love and vulnerability of Jesus right there with him.  

“The Body of Christ,” we say, as we distribute the consecrated bread from the altar.  Most of us try to take that one as seriously as we can, but surely we too are underestimating the power of his presence.  We in the Church speak the words that the Word himself has given us to say: “This is my body.” We break him in our own hands.  And we do everything we can liturgically to mark the fullness of the language of our prayer. We genuflect and bow and cross ourselves.  The incense rises. We kneel and receive. We allow reverence and tenderness and awe to fill us. “Amen,” we say, which is a way of repeating what Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.”

But even so, even though we strain to speak our words of faith as fully as possible, we know that we have spoken only the merest fraction of the truth.  We know that Jesus waits to fulfill his promise of presence within us, and that our lives as disciples are subject to the interruption of his visitation.  

There is another key sentence in this morning’s Gospel that can sound like an offhand remark, but we would do well to take it as seriously as we can.  Blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed. It sounds again like hyperbole. You think Thomas’s story is important? Just wait until you have a story of your own!  But I tell you truly: Jesus himself will make those words fulfilled, by his presence here among us today and always. Jesus himself will be the guarantor of their veracity.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
The Second Sunday of Easter, 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 29, 2019 .

Easter Monarch

Two things you can be thankful for on this Easter morning.  First, you can be thankful that you are not a monarch butterfly.  And second, you can be thankful that you do not have to preach this morning.


On that second point, you can be especially thankful that it has not been on your mind for months, now, to interpret the Good News of the Resurrection through the plight of the monarch butterfly.  More specifically, you can be thankful that on January 25th of this year (when Christmas was still only a recent memory, and before Lent had even begun), you can be thankful that it did not come into your mind that the monarch butterfly had something to say to you about Easter.  Fortunately for you, you did not not jot down a message to yourself on a yellow Post-It and put it on your desk-top monitor.  The Post-It note was in reference to an article you may or may not have read all the way through to the end; an article the title of which was a question: “Are We Watching the End of the Monarch Butterfly?”

Butterflies - with their homely caterpillar beginnings, their shroud-like cocoons, their process of metamorphoses, and their glorious, multi-colored lives on-the-wing would seem to be obvious conveyors of good news, obvious collaborators of the Resurrection.  You would think so; wouldn’t you?

If you had been reading the New York Times on January 25 of this year, and an alarming story of the decline of the monarch butterfly population chanced across your field of vision, who knows if it would have put you in mind of Easter.  You would surely have taken the author at her word that “the total number of West Coast monarchs was estimated at approximately 4.5 million in the 1980s. [But] in the latest count, that number fell to 28,429.”  You would have noted with alarm that the particular location in northern California that the article mentioned, which had been visited the previous year by 12,360 migrating monarch butterflies, was this year visited by only 1,256 monarch butterflies.  You might have noticed the use of the words “migration” and “collapse” and thought about the parallel situation of bee colony collapse that has plagued honey bees across the globe.

You might have remembered that you have once before preached an Easter sermon about honey bees, and wondered if the whole insect-thing might be played out as a sermon illustration.  But never mind!  Who would not be woke by the startling news that these gorgeous monarch butterflies could be on their way to extinction?  And who wouldn’t look for hope among the orange, stained-glass-window-wings of these marvelous creatures of God’s handiwork?

Would it surprise you, then, months later, when you dutifully took account of the Post-It note you had been staring at for months… that when you delved a bit more deeply into the thought that had first crossed your mind on January 25, 2019… that among the very first pieces of information you would come across would be an article, posted by no less a reliable source than the World Wildlife Fund that reports that the population of monarch butterflies is “on the rise.”  And would it surprise you to see that the date of this article was - wait for it - January 30, 2019: five days after a headline in the New York Times had sounded the alarm that the end might be in sight for our winged friends?

Furthermore, the World Wildlife Fund could not be clearer in its reporting that “because we can’t count butterflies individually, we instead measure the area of forest they occupy during hibernation.”  But the numbers 28,429, 12,360, and 1,256, had sure sounded like carefully counted numbers to me!

It’s hard to discern how God is using the plight of the monarch butterfly to speak to you about the Resurrection of Jesus if you can’t even tell if things are getting better or worse for the butterflies.  And if we can’t tell what’s happening with monarch butterflies, how can we possibly make any sense of Jesus in a world that is pretty profoundly unsure about him, and a church that is often feeble in its attempts to convey why the world should care?

So let’s look at the primary source material.  St. Luke provides us with a shocking detail about what happened on that Easter morning.  The women who first discovered that Jesus was not in his tomb went and told his innermost circle.  And Luke tells us about the reaction of those closest associates and friends of Jesus, he tells us that when the women brought news that the tomb was empty, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

But Peter, dear Peter, one of the Lord’s closest friends, who had sworn to go with him, even unto death.  Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said he would build the church; the man who had walked for a few steps on the water, so strong was his faith, before it faltered.  Peter, bold and brash, who had vowed to go with Jesus even unto death.  Peter was incited by the women’s news.  He “got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves.”

And then, in first blush of the Resurrection, when the event that would change the course of the world was in its first moments, as the salvation of the world was beginning to unfold, in the warm light of the first sunrise of the first day of a new creation, as it became evident that God was performing a new thing, that death was being conquered and hell was being vanquished, as it began to become apparent that the claims Jesus had made that on the third day he would rise from the dead were quite possibly true, and as Peter became one of only a small handful of people ever to see the evidence with his own eyes.  St. Luke tells us what Peter did.  He tells us… “then he went home.”  Wow!

Having registered the fact that the Body of Christ was not there, that the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty, and the Lord was risen indeed….

… Peter went home.  Which is to say that Peter did exactly what you and I are planning to do today.  Once the news of the Resurrection was out, with all its glorious implications for Peter and all humanity… then he went home.

Maybe he had a nap.  Wow!

On the twentieth of February - twenty-one days after the World Wildlife Fund contradicted the New York Times on the question of the health and well-being of monarch butterflies - the New Yorker magazine climbed on the bandwagon.  Oh, the New Yorker….  Of course, the New Yorker put things in perspective, explaining that while the overall trend in monarch butterfly population has been plummeting for decades, there have been some very recent good signs.  And they reported that it’s possible that last year’s precipitous plunge may not be as disastrous as it seems.  The New Yorker article asked what is actually a useful question: “why anyone should care” about the details of the monarch butterfly population, since, in the words of the expert  quoted in the article, “monarchs probably don’t have big-picture ecosystem importance.”

The answer they came up with was fairly simple: “just the fact that they connect people to nature is reason enough to make us care….  When people stop caring, things are going to get worse a lot faster.”

Every year, like butterflies, we make our own spiritual migration to the empty tomb.  We follow the women who first went there.  And we follow St. Peter.  It sometimes feels to me as though those of us who make this journey share a plight with the monarch butterflies - there are fewer and fewer of us.  But we know about this faith that we have placed in the risen Christ, and about the church which has tried (sometimes feebly) to live a life worthy of him.   What we know is that when we stop caring about Jesus things get worse a lot faster.  But, in a world in which truth is hard to come by, perhaps we know more than that.  

Here we are in first blush of the Resurrection: the event that would change the course of the world, the salvation of the world is beginning to unfold, we have enjoyed the warm light of the first sunrise of the first day of a new creation.   God is performing a new thing.  Death is being conquered!  Hell is being vanquished!  

And yet, we know exactly what’s going to happen at the end of this Mass: we’re all going to go home.  

I’m going to have a nap.

But while I’m napping, I might dream that I’m a homely caterpillar.  I might see myself in my shroud-like cocoon.  I might witness in my dream the gradual process of metamorphoses that I must go through to become the butterfly I was made to be.

And I might see myself, in my Easter dream, unfurl my gorgeous, glorious, orange-hued, stained-glass-window-wings, that can carry me further than I have any right to be able to travel with so little engineering.  I might begin to believe, in my dream, during my nap, on Easter Day, that, like a monarch butterfly, I, too, could live a life-on-the-wing, and become an  obvious collaborator of the Resurrection.  I believe that’s why God has called us on this yearly migration.

And I believe that the news of our demise is greatly exaggerated; which was exactly what the women ran to tell the men about Jesus, when they’d seen the stone rolled away - that the news of his demise was greatly exaggerated.  It’s why Peter ran to the empty tomb.  And it’s why it’s perfectly alright to go home after Mass on Easter Day, and even to nap.  As long as we dream of a resurrection, of a life-on-the-wing.  And when we wake up, we should be ready to fly!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 21, 2019 .

Campfire Stories

The art of storytelling has been on my mind a lot recently. I think it’s because I just finished journeying through a five-week Lenten series led by Mother Johnson on digital storytelling. Some of you in this church tonight were a part of those classes as well. And even though Father Mullen assured all of us from the first class that the digital storytelling project was a competition that he would undoubtedly win, I still soldiered on and created my own story to tell, knowing that I would nevertheless be defeated on all levels by his creative genius.

Now, of course, I could have created a digital story on my own, apart from a Lenten class. But the narrative I chose to tell using images, audio, and music was enhanced precisely because it was shared in community where I also heard the stories of others. My story somehow became intertwined with everyone else’s. And at the end of those five weeks, I couldn’t look at my own story in the same way again.

While musing on the telling of stories in the past week, I also came upon some research by anthropologist Polly Wiessner. She has spent 174 days living with the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, observing dozens of their conversations in the course of everyday life. The observations from her time among the Bushmen are fascinating. She found that in their hunter-gatherer society, most of their verbal exchanges during the daytime hours were related to work and other utilitarian matters of human existence. But at night, around the campfire, things changed. Surprising dimensions of dialogue opened up. The days’ labor being finished and darkness having settled in, the Bushmen seemed free to revel in imaginative storytelling. They told accounts about their ancestors. They ventured into tales of the supernatural. They took their time interpreting the past, looking at the present, and speculating on the future.

The flickering flames of the campfires created a certain mystique that added to the drama of these oral quests to interpret life. As Wiessner claims in her study, the gathering of humans around campfires can be traced back at least 400,000 years. And in her research among the Kalahari Bushmen, Wiessner noticed the evolution of the cognitive and social development of storytelling from pre-industrial times to the more modern technological age. In the early social huddles of human existence, in the dreamy and even spooky firelight, human culture and social interaction were formed.

But I’m especially intrigued by one observation that Wiessner made in her research. In speaking about the Kalahari Bushmen, Wiessner suggested that those who live in hunter-gatherer societies “make use of daytime efficiently and nighttime effectively.”[1] At the end of the day when there is no pressing work to be done, the quotidian randomness of the everyday is shaped and finds coherence through the telling of stories. In the mysterious light of a campfire, human community draws meaning out of memory.

There is, I think, some parallel between the campfire interactions of the Kalahari Bushmen and our assembly as a Christian community for this Great Vigil of Easter. We began the liturgy in the dark, which then was illuminated by the kindling of the new fire. And as flickers of light spread throughout this church, we began to tell our stories. These are complex and sometimes confusing stories of our sacred heritage, and they are heard in the newly kindled light of Christ. And if you’re like me, I wonder if you also comprehend them in fresh ways upon each hearing, because the last time we read or listened to them, whether yesterday or at last year’s Easter Vigil, we were different people.

But as followers of Christ who have just journeyed through the emotional drama of Christ’s passion and death in the liturgies of Holy Week, don’t we also hear the Old Testament prophecies as tinged with the hope of resurrection glory, where the former creation becomes new in a profoundly unique way?

On this very night, like the Kalahari Bushmen clustered around campfires, we suspend our work and bask in time suspended. We pause the clamor of daytime’s efficiency, and we “make use of nighttime effectively.” We enter into God’s time, where past, present, and future mesh and become God’s reality for us, now.

In the effectiveness of this nighttime hour, we can speak of our deliverance from captivity to freedom through the waters of baptism, the waters parted for us by a God who desperately longs to liberate us from sin and death. In the waters of the Red Sea, in the waters of Christ’s own baptism, this night, our sister in Christ has been baptized, and her story has been melded with our own stories of new birth in Christ. This night, this very night, is indeed the night when Christ broke the bonds of death. Were you there when Christ rose up from the grave? Yes, you were there! Yes, we are there, right now!

And we were there—we are there, too—in the sleepy hours of that first day of the week, when those incredibly faithful and brave women arrive at the tomb in which Jesus has been laid, ready to anoint his body with spices. And we are among them, too, in the confusing haze of discovering an empty tomb with no explanation of how our Lord’s body has disappeared. It’s true that when we attempt to find existential meaning around campfires in the night, we often fumble in the dark, reckoning with loss and despair.

In your more skeptical moments, are you confounded by the existence of darkness—I mean, real darkness in the world—in the aftermath of Christ’s resurrection? Like the male apostles who disbelieved the women’s report of the empty tomb, have you ever wondered if it’s all just an idle tale? For how can we reconcile the tragic losses of life and the sorrow we experience with the victorious vanquish of death? How is it that someone we love can suffer with a debilitating disease for years and never find healing? How is it that we look around us and see so much lying and hating and killing, even on this side of the resurrection?

I would venture to say that a great deal of ordinary human existence has the hollow feeling of looking into an empty tomb. With heavy hearts and discombobulated minds, we stare into a void before us with more questions than answers. Perhaps around our campfires of cultural interpretation, we even cave to the fear of shadows flickering on the angry, suspicious faces of those around us.

But let’s return for a moment to those women at the empty tomb. They are perplexed because their plans to anoint Jesus’s body have now been dashed to the ground. Soon, though, the obscurity of the early morning hours of the first day of the week is illuminated by an addition to this small community gathering around an empty tomb. Suddenly, the faithful women’s consternation turns to joy with an incisive reminder from two men in shining clothes. “Remember! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” And in that marvelous epiphany, those women did remember! And with that remembrance, everything changed. Their stories could never be the same again. And neither can ours.

It is as if the tomb itself becomes the sacred campfire of redeemed humanity, as on this night, we gather with those devoted women in the confusion of our own lives to recall the good news of Christ and tell our stories. The empty tomb filters all the anecdotes we tell, in their anguish and in their rejoicing.

The losses we experience are no less losses and no less painful. But they are not the final word. When we feel the deepest sense of God’s absence, like the women bereft of their friend Jesus, we remember this: that exactly because a body was absent from a tomb, God’s saving power is most fully known. God has not abandoned us.

And if you but share your tale in a community, whether around a campfire or in a digital storytelling class or over coffee, you will find new dimensions in your story, because your pain and loss have also become someone else’s pain and loss. Your questions have also become someone else’s questions. And in the intersection of stories, you might perceive that God has indeed been there all along, active in your life, healing and saving, even when darkness has seemed your only companion.

My brothers and sisters, that tomb was empty on the first day of the week. And so we can no longer look for the living among the dead or see death as the victor in our struggles. Life has been objectively changed forever by Christ’s resurrection. And it now has potentiality for redemption, for re-creation, and for hope to triumph over despair, even when we don’t know what the specific outcome will be or how it will be accomplished.

The night draws on, and daybreak draws near. Let us make use of nighttime effectively in the light of Christ’s resurrection. This is the night where past, present, and future converge. We assemble around our campfire, set before an empty tomb, and we tell our stories, tragic, poignant, hopeful, and exuberant. All of them intermingle and find their significance in gathered Christian community.

So, hear the voices of those men in shining clothes standing at the tomb with us. Hear their questions to us. Why do you look for the living among the dead? Remember: he is not here, he is risen!

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
The Great Vigil of Easter 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia   

[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/late-night-conversations-around-fire-might-have-shaped-early-human-cognition-and-culture-180952790/#CjJ2SIVYx8DkKuT0.99

Posted on April 20, 2019 .