A Lesson from Fox 8


Toward the end of the most recent story from my favorite author, George Saunders, the title character of the story, who is also the first-person narrator, and also happens to be a fox (the kind with a bushy tail), asks a poignant rhetorical question that is born of his recent interactions with humans.  “Why did [God] do it so rong,” he asks, “making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?”

The fox in question, is known as Fox 8.  Fox 8 is a dreamer, whose dreams have been augmented by his close observations of humans.  But at this moment of despair he has just related what happened when he spent a day exploring a mall with his good friend Fox 7.  Forgetting for a moment that the construction of the mall had resulted in the loss of the foxes’ habitat, polluted their river, killed the fish, and flattened the hilltops from which the foxes could previously see all of creation, Fox 8 and his pal Fox 7 had been enthralled by the mall and its wonders:  a floor like glass, fake rocks, real trees, the Gap, a carousel, and best of all, a Food Court!

Fox 8 reflected on the experience: “Never had Yumans seemed so cul.  We were sarounded by splender no fox could curate.  Hense, we were fild with respek.  Cud a Fox do this?  Bild a Mawl?  Fat chanse!  The best we can do is dig are Dens.”

But on leaving the mall, the two foxes encounter humans in a way that changes everything: a pair of workmen wearing hard hats, who, quickly decide that the foxes are unwelcome pests that must be dealt with.  On seeing the foxes, one of the workman removes his hard hat, takes aim, and throws it at the foxes, but misses.  But the second man has a better eye.  He takes off his hard hat and hurls it at the pair of foxes, hitting Fox 7 “skware in his face,” with horrible consequences.

“…suddenly,” Fox 8 tells of his friend’s demise, “his nees go week, and he gives me one last fond look, and drops over on his side, with blud trikling out his snout... and what cud I do but flee?”  Why did God do it so wrong, making the group with the greatest skills the meanest?

Today in church we encounter a sublime moment of simplicity with Jesus and his closest friends still together at the conclusion of the Last Supper.  This is Jesus’ last opportunity to teach his friends, and to instill in them what all his teaching and ministry have meant, and what his death and resurrection will imply.

You don’t need me to add colorful dimension to the irony of Jesus’ sole commandment to his disciples (and hence to us) to love one another.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  How can we try to answer any questions about life and the human condition by resorting to scripture, when we have been so generally woefully unable to live by this sole commandment of the Gospel of our Lord?  How can any believer in Jesus ever hurl a Bible verse at another, when we have not been able to even squeeze the juice out of this one verse?  Why is it so hard for us to love one another?  Oh, why, why did God make the group with the greatest skills the meanest?

Sometimes, as a preacher these days, it seems easier to ask the hard questions than to find the good news.  One of the reasons I am such a fan of George Saunders’s writing is that he is very comfortable with the hard questions, but he seldom leaves me feeling as if there is no good news.

And the world needs such story tellers.  The church ought to be full of such story tellers.  

We ought never to stop reciting to one another the stories of the Creation, and of the Fall; of the Flood, and of the Rainbow.  We should know by heart why it was that the children of Israel needed to get out of Egypt, and how it happened.    

We should be able to recount the story of the passover, and the lamb, and the Red Sea.  Just as we also need to remember David slaying Goliath, and recall how ruinous he was as a king.

We should tell the story of Job to each other over and over again, and moan with inner horror at everything that befalls this good man.  We should remember that in the forty-two chapters of the book, no good explanation is ever provided for why all this happened to him.  But we should always know what’s coming on the last page, when we hear that “God restored the fortunes of Job.”

We should try to out-do one another in describing what it was like when the breath of God filled the valley of dry bones, and those old bones came to life, remembering which bone the hip bone’s connected to, and the elbow, and the ankle, and what is the answer to the question of whether these dry bones could live.

We ought to allow the prophetic call for “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream” to permeate our preaching, overtake our dreams, and inform our politics.

We should recount to one another again and again what happened when Mary told them to “do whatever he tells you.”  

We ought to aim to have hearts like a widow with only two pennies to rub together; and gratefulness as ready as the tenth leper’s; and faith as strong as a centurion’s.  

We should discuss those few steps that Peter took on the churning water, and remember why Jesus turned to look at him.

Everyone should know how many baskets of leftovers there were after the five thousand were fed, and what you do if you have a hundred sheep and one of them goes missing.

We should worry less about Samaritans and more about just trying to be good.  And we need to remind one another about that father who watched night and day for his prodigal son to come home.

Children should be told that the earth quaked at the decisive moment of salvation, and the sky went dark.  

And if we readily recall that once there was a battle in heaven with Michael and all his angels arrayed against the powers of darkness, then we should also sing as often as we can about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, especially when every last thing seems rotten to the core, and we are faced with crying, and pain, and death, and we are in danger of forgetting the promise of the risen and glorified Christ that “I am making all things new!”

And we need to ask ourselves, in light of all these stories, why, oh why, did God do it so wrong, making the group with the greatest skills the meanest?

Immediately after asking that question, Fox 8 finds himself in a forest “the like of which I had never seen before, so deep and green and grate-smelling it made those holes in my nose go super wide with sheer delite.  O, the lite threw the Trees!  The moving shadows when the wind wud blow!  The millyun grate smells, such as water not far away!  The wind in the hi part of the Trees, and sometimes a branch will crak!”

There, in that forest, having been lost for days, or weeks, or more, and separated from his old fox friends who had been displaced by the mall, Fox 8 meets a new skulk of foxes.  These new foxes are healthy and kind, and they still have a forest to live in.  They befriend Fox 8.

And soon Fox 8 is dreaming about going out to find his lost, old, displaced friends, to bring them from their vanished habitat into this new paradise.  He imagines that on the way he would show his old friends the mall, and its fake rocks, and the Gap, etc., but he would urge them on: “If one was skared I wud say: Don’t be skared.  And make a joke.  If one was slow I wud give a push from behind with an enkeraging snout.  If one was looking around all freeked out, I wud calm lee go: Fokus, fokus.  If one was old... I wud carry him or her on my bak.”

You see why we need such stories, don’t you?  Especially if we are going to tell each other that by this everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another.

Although he wouldn’t say it, and he might not think it’s true when I do, George Saunders is writing about Jesus when he writes about a savior who wants to lead his friends out of a lost past and into a new and hopeful future.  Moses did it once, for a chosen few.  But Jesus has done it once and for all.

And even if it is part of a story about a fox, we still need to tell and to know such stories, that might encourage us to love one another.  We need such stories like an encouraging snout.  And sometimes - when we are beginning to suspect that there is no good news left in the world - we need such stories to carry us on their backs.

We also need to remember that sometimes being a Christian is not as hard as we make it out to be.  It is possible that sometimes we over-think things.  For instance, we are not clear what it means “to have love for one another.”  And being uncertain of such a thing is a sure sign that we are over-thinking it.  We could start by not wanting to shoot each other so much.

Sometimes you can learn a lot from a fox - at least a fictional one with bad spelling, but a strong sense of the divine purpose.  At the end of his missive to humans, relating the loss of his habitat, his family, and his dear friend, as well as his adoption into a new community and a new home, Fox 8 says this this:

“If you Yumans wud take one bit of advise from a meer Fox?  By now I know that you Yumans like your Storys to end hapy?

“If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser.”

Or, as Jesus said to his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
19 May 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

* All non-biblical quotations are from “Fox 8” by George Saunders, Random House, 2015. N.B. that Fox 8 is not a good speller.

Posted on May 19, 2019 .

The Lamb at the Center of the Throne

This past Tuesday, Jean Vanier died at the age of 90. Vanier was a Roman Catholic Canadian theologian who founded L’Arche, a worldwide network of communities comprised of people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them. At the heart of each L’Arche community is the primacy of relationships that are intended to be mutual and reciprocal. The “core members”—those who have intellectual disabilities—and their assistants share their lives with one another. Every person in a L’Arche community is considered an equal because every person is viewed as someone who can both give and receive.

L’Arche’s vision is beautiful and refreshing in an age characterized by individualism, because it seeks to avoid a posture of charity that would create a power differential between the one who is served and the one who serves. Assistants in L’Arche communities are as much the receivers of blessings and gifts as core members who may need some help with laundry or other daily tasks. Every person has a need, and L’Arche places all of these needs on the same level.

L’Arche’s vision holds the unbiased love of Christ at its center, elevating the importance of every person’s dignity. This is, of course, something we Episcopalians talk about all the time when we reaffirm our own baptismal covenant, as we did last Sunday. But L’Arche’s emphasis on “the dignity of every human being” puts the words of the baptismal covenant into action.

In L’Arche communities, respecting every person’s worthiness is more than just kindness; it is Christ’s love manifested in the shared humanity of disabled and non-disabled. The one who serves is also the one who is served. Gestures of compassion and mercy are exchanged in a fluid equilibrium of giver and recipient. And the fulcrum in this mutual exchange is Christ, Incarnate Love himself.

And so, it probably comes as no surprise that the Biblical image of Christ as Good Shepherd was one that Jean Vanier treasured. The Good Shepherd, after all, is concerned with the well-being of all sheep, no matter their condition and no matter how marginalized they may be. Vanier saw the witness of Christ as Good Shepherd as a call for all of us to become shepherds. In his words, “[t]o become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible.”[1] We are all responsible for one another, no exceptions.

Taking a cue from Jean Vanier, if we are called to shepherd others in selflessness, we must also be willing to receive shepherding. We must acknowledge our need for comfort and healing from Christ. And far more from being just a bunch of weary, aimless sheep in need of guidance, I would venture that every single one of us, by virtue of being human, is at the deepest level wounded in some way. And we need Christ the Good Shepherd to heal that woundedness.

In L’Arche language, our wounds are the basis of our common humanity, our collective human condition. Somehow, though, our world has gotten to the point that being wounded is associated only with severe trauma. But we are all hurting, aren’t we? And because we are all hurting in some way, the image of a Shepherd who himself suffered even to death for our sake is indeed a source of solace.

Intellectually, we might all understand the assurance of a saving Shepherd who leads his downtrodden sheep to pastures of healing water. But, I wonder, do you ever doubt whether your wounds are significant enough to be soothed by Christ’s healing hands? What I mean is do we really believe that some of our minor afflictions are worthy of Christ’s attention?

If I’m honest with myself, there seem to innumerable gaping wounds around me that make my own pains pale in comparison. Recently, there have been far too many acts of terror, far too many shootings, far too many natural disasters. Here’s the question I struggle with: should I be concerned about my own difficulties, frustrations, or anxieties, when other children of God are being gunned down in their houses of worship or when thousands are dying of Ebola on another continent or when many in this city are perpetually anxious about their next meal?

And yet, I know that if I can’t even recognize the need for healing and grace in my own suffering, however, minor it may seem, how will I ever recognize the desire for healing in others? Who am I to downplay my own fragility when it’s precisely in recognizing it that I own my citizenship in the broken human condition? And it’s this human state of travail, shared by all, that Christ came to save, Christ the Good Shepherd, the Lamb who suffered and is seated in the center of the heavenly throne.

In the Book of Revelation, John the Divine offers us a startling vision of a Lamb who is also a shepherd. Imagine that! The one who is supposed to be shepherded becomes the one who does the shepherding. Just look above the tabernacle in the Lady Chapel and you will see the universal symbol of the Lamb that was slain, a gentle, peaceful animal lifted up in triumph, with a flag of victory. What might seem laughable to some is actually our central image of hope.

The One who shepherds is the Good Shepherd precisely because he has identified with our wounded human condition. Christ the Good Shepherd has shared the pain of earthly life so that he is the One worthy of all worship. And through his eternal triumph, suffering loses its power, death loses its sting, and we are made white in the blood of the Lamb!

And yet in hearing Revelation’s account of the heavenly throngs of saints and martyrs robed in white who have come through the great ordeal, do you still have a nagging doubt about whether you can be counted among their midst? Are you confident in numbering yourself among those who will hunger and thirst no more and who will live in eternal bliss? Are you willing to place yourself under the protection of the Lamb seated on the throne? Or do you feel that your tribulations and your sorrow in no way compare to the tragedies of the “great ordeal” and that others are more worthy of God’s attention?

This, too, is part of being human, isn’t it, this recurring doubt of our worthiness to be invited into the heavenly throne room? But the Lamb at the center of the throne is not concerned about how great or how small the ordeals are. In his compassionate response to our human tribulations, this Lamb makes no distinction between degrees of suffering that we experience. To Christ the Lamb, every instance of pain is worthy of his attention. This Lamb is mighty enough, gracious enough, merciful enough to wipe away the tears from the eyes of every person who follows him and seeks his face.

John the Divine’s wild vision of the kingdom of God is both a vision of the future and of what the present could be in some way. It is a glimpse of the True Lamb’s victory breaking into our world in glimpses, in fits and starts. In our present afflictions, we are comforted, and yet we hope for that final day when there will be no more hunger and no more thirst, when every single tear will be wiped from our eyes.

What we, here in this place, in the small and great ordeals of 2019, share with that diverse heavenly multitude is a vision of a Lamb at the center of heaven’s throne, a Lamb who washes us white in his blood. In God’s eyes, we are each clothed in the white of our baptismal identity, and in that identity we hold our common wounds together before God’s redeeming power to heal and to save.

And what that means is that every human suffering, every human pain is a travesty. It means that a school shooting that doesn’t even make the front page of the New York Times because only one person dies is nevertheless a headline in God’s book. And every tear that is shed is one that God longs to wipe away. No exceptions.

If we want to see an earthly mirror of the great multitudes from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne of God and praising him, we could do worse than to look at L’Arche communities. In quiet gentleness that is so radically different from the drama of our chaotic world, the L’Arche vision puts Jesus the Lamb at the center, around whom stand a multitude of people, from every condition, united in their frail humanity. No one’s pain is considered greater than another. It is not a competition of tragedies. No one considers himself or herself as immune from aid. There is simply a motley collection of God’s beautiful children fumbling their way on earth to some kind of realization of John the Divine’s heavenly vision of wholeness and peace.

What would it look like for us to put the Lamb at the center of our vision again? How might this world be different if we really believed that our Good Shepherd was powerful enough to wipe away every tear from the eyes of suffering humans? And if you doubt your worthiness to have your tears wiped away, mark this good news: the Book of Revelation’s great heavenly multitude was so vast it could not be counted. There’s plenty of room around the center of the throne.

Can we in humility trust that we have a place there? At the very least, trust that in your woundedness, no matter how small or great, you are surrounded by a great multitude from every sort and condition. And in the middle of that multitude is the Lamb, the Good Shepherd, who is reaching out his hand to your face and wiping away your tears. And the Lamb will continue to wipe away those tears until one day there are no more.

[1] http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/easter4bca.html

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
12 May 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 12, 2019 .

The Good News Is For Sharing

Quite recently I had to prepare to give a talk on the Anglo-catholic tradition for the Sunday morning adult formation session at a prominent New York City Parish that has recently placed six candlesticks on the High Altar, where for more than a hundred years there had only been two.

In preparing to talk about this tradition, into which Saint Mark’s was born, I found a study by researchers who looked at seven Anglo-catholic parishes in London that have recently experienced modest growth.  But these seven parishes were exceptional among the 413 parishes of the Diocese of London, and particularly among Anglo-catholic parishes.  The researches stated at the outset, “we had great difficulty finding many Anglican Catholic parishes which had grown consistently over the last five years.”*  The growth in the seven parishes was modest, but it seems to be sustained, for the time being.

I was struck by a phrase early in the report that characterized the parishes, and which sounded mighty familiar to me.  The researchers wrote that the parishes they looked at “have not  watered down their faith or even engaged in anything particularly revolutionary.  Instead they have assumed that the good news is for sharing, engaged with their local communities, been imaginative about children’s work, especially through choirs and music… and stewarded their resources.”  Saint Mark’s could wear this description pretty comfortably over the last ten years.  And today, on our patronal feast, as we celebrate the life of the parish, it’s good to hear our own experience echoed a bit by our brothers and sisters in London.

Since our patron saint happens to be an evangelist, I am particularly struck by that first clause in the description of the growing Anglo-catholic parishes.  The researchers said that those parishes “assumed that the good news is for sharing.”  I suppose it has to be said of St. Mark that he assumed the good news was for sharing.  If he had not operated from that assumption, we could wonder whether or not any of us would be gathered here, since it was St. Mark who first set down the good news of Jesus in writing.  Yes, he assumed the good news was for sharing.

As the ages roll by, I suppose it was to be expected that not only would people forget that the good news is for sharing, a lot of them would forget that it’s good news.  Most people I know could put up with Jesus if he would sit quietly and issue bland moral teachings.  Jesus as Sunday school teacher looks like palatable religion to a lot of people these days.  But the Jesus who refuses to command anything but love,  and who teaches that the way of love is the way of the Cross, which is a way of suffering and self-denial, that his power is made perfect in weakness, and whose breath brings the gift of peace, not of power… this Jesus is harder to stomach.  The image of the dying, bleeding, crucified Jesus is not obviously and unavoidably chirpy, and so it can be difficult for some to see it as a symbol of good news.  And in a society that has been successfully trained be consumers above all else, the call to worship, the need for redemption, and the hope of salvation are not the kind of news that most people are consuming.  So, how can they be good news?  Unable to decide (even in the church) whether the news we have received is good, the impulse to share it is not as strong as it once was.

Throughout the church in America - whether catholic, or protestant, or something else - it is not so easy to find the assumption that the good news is for sharing.  In  fact, you’ll find plenty of people who are deeply embarrassed by past generations who thought this way, and thus have decided that it might be better not to share.  And so we live in a culture that’s eager to share news of almost every kind, and has made that sharing easier than ever, but which is deeply reluctant to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and not wholly convinced that the news is all that good anyway.  Which is why we need St. Mark, why we need evangelists.

Twice in the first fifteen verses of his account of Jesus, Saint Mark uses the term “good news” to describe what he is writing about.  As I open my study Bible to the first Chapter of Mark, it tells me that “the gospel (ie the good news) begins with John’s call to repentance.”**  Undoubtedly this statement is correct.  But you could also reverse the statement and it would be still be true: as Mark presents it, John’s call to repentance begins with the claim that it is good news (ie the gospel).  And the verses we read tonight conclude with the words from John the Baptist’s lips, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

These words are much more challenging than at first they appear to be.  Honestly, does anyone here assume that the time has come? Whatever that means?  Can we really say that we assume that the kingdom of God has come near?  Do most of us assume that we have much to repent for?  And what can we possibly assume about what it means to believe in the Gospel?  Can I assume that you also mean by that whatever I mean by that?  None of this is actually obvious.

Toward the end of the report on the seven growing Anglo-catholic parishes in London, the writers report that “most church growth in London is driven by large evangelical churches and there are no corresponding large Anglican Catholic parishes doing the same..”  In fact, the report makes it clear that their “research in London found few growing parishes.”   And they asked if larger Anglo-catholic parishes could play a greater role in church growth.  “There are a number of lively Anglican Catholic parishes,” they wrote, “with regular Sunday attendance of 200 - 400.  Our research did not identify significant growth amongst this group nor did it find much evidence of systematic church planting or growth initiatives to benefit other parishes.  It raises the question as to whether these larger, better resourced, Anglican Catholic Churches could play a more active role in promoting growth within the tradition.”

Yes, it does raise that question, indeed.

If only such churches assumed that the good news is for sharing!

On this patronal feast, we have this assumption to give thanks for, and to continue to pray for.  We have followed our patron’s example, and we have assumed that the good news is for sharing. This assumption, and this sharing  have been good for us.  And they have led us repeatedly beyond our gates on Locust Street to help and support and expand the church in other places, like Clearfield Street, and like Bainbridge Street, and like Honduras.  All because we assume that the good news is for sharing, as our patron did.

And if I am not mistaken, that assumption has repeatedly been proven to be true, for when we act on it, we discover that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, as it has here on Locust Street for 172 years. 

Thanks be to God, and let us keep on assuming that the good news is for sharing!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

* “A Time to Sow: Anglican Catholic Church Growth in London” by Tim Thorlby, Oct 2017 for the Centre for Theology & Community, p. xix

** Oxford Annotated Bible, RSV

Posted on April 30, 2019 .