Hear Jerusalem Moan

Trinity Sunday is not a good day for preachers.  To speak about the Holy Trinity is to speak about that which is mostly unspeakable, to reflect on a deep truth about God that is apparent to us, but mostly beyond our knowing.  A preacher like me is looking for a story, but Trinity stories are hard to find.  You don’t run into the holy and undivided unity of the Trinity every day on the street - at least not in too many obvious ways.  Almost everything that you can try to say about the Trinity to make the mystery a little less mysterious ends up flirting with heresy, or sounds just plain dumb, unhelpful, or beside the point.

The historian of religion, Karen Armstrong points out part of what makes it so hard for us to train our attention on this mystery of God’s transcendent being.  These days, she says, “we concentrate so much on defining what we're transcending to  - God - whereas in the past they concentrated more what we're transcending from: selfishness, greed, hatred, all of which springs from ego.”  Her assessment sounds right to me, especially when she reminds us that in the doctrine of the Trinity “ancient theologians were trying to remind Christians that it was impossible to think about God as a simple personality.”  The three persons of the Trinity, she says - the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - “these are the external, like my gestures and my clothes and my words are me. But they don't exactly define what "me" is. We know God's external qualities, but we can never know his ousia or inner nature.”*

Fair enough.  But what help is that to the preacher?

I’m With Her

I’m With Her

Then I hear music.  Recently, in the form of three women standing around a single microphone.  Each woman holds an instrument.  They are bluegrass musicians, so one holds a guitar, another a mandolin, and the third carries a fiddle.  And they are singing in the twangy, tight harmony of bluegrass.  In their set, they segue from song to song, trading places in the center, all leaning in to balance their voices at the microphone.  One takes the lead in one song, then they change positions and another is in the lead.  It is hard to say who is in charge.  No one of the three is more important that the others.  Their bodies are swaying gently together with the rhythm of the music.  The singers are present to the audience, and providing much enjoyment to us, but clearly their attention is mostly on one another.  They are listening to each other, and singing to and with each other.  Sometimes only one is singing, or playing.  Sometimes they stand a little farther apart, sometimes closer, but always the three are together.**

It’s a useful icon of the Trinity, if you ask me.  Probably as informative as the classic Russian icon of the Trinity that shows the three angels visiting Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.  And a lot better than a shamrock.  The performance of these three women echoes many of the classic descriptions of the Trinity.

Then they start to sing a song I have never heard before, but I guess it’s an old folk song or spiritual:

Well I got a home on the other shore
Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan
I know I’ll live there for evermore
Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan.

Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan,
Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan.
Thank God there’s a Heaven 
and a ringin’ in my soul
and my soul set free
Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan.

At one point they stop playing their instruments, and first one voice takes up the melody, then the second, and then the third, in the beautiful and simple imitative polyphony of a round.  You can hear the melody intertwining with itself.  And the second or third time around, you can hear the voices embellish the melody further, each voice sharing the embellishment in turn, as the song becomes more intense, more plaintive, and more beautiful.  And the audience is rapturous; you hear them calling out as this simple music carries them away.  You could feel the excitement building as these three women weave their three voices and this pleading song together.  And finally the three women bring the round to a conclusion, not by singing the melody together in unison, but in thrilling and commanding harmony that still knits all three voices together.

I was driving as I heard the three women sing, and I nearly had to stop the car at this point.  All they were doing was singing this one melody (that I had never heard before) over and over as a round, in simple imitation.  And it was stunning.  When I got home, I found the recording of the performance on line, so I could see and hear it again.  And I listened to them sing this round over and over again.   Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan?  Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan?  I feel as though I want to hear it again right now.  And I want you to hear it, too!

And I wonder if it might be easier to know what the scriptures mean when they say that God created us in his own image and likeness, when three women stand up at a microphone with a guitar, a mandolin, and a fiddle, and sing.

As it happens, older versions of the song, Hear Jerusalem Moan, make fun of preachers of various denominations.  One verse goes like this:

Presbyterian preacher don’t never take the blues,
He chews his own tobacco and he drinks his own booze.
Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan.

There is, fortunately, no verse about Episcopalian preachers.

But it’s a fitting song for Trinity Sunday, when a preacher might easily make Jerusalem (or Philadelphia) moan.

Thank God there’s a Heaven 
and a ringin’ in my soul
and my soul set free.
Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan.

If three woman singing bluegrass can stir the soul, what could a triune God do to us, and for us, and with us?  And why wouldn’t we want to believe in such a God?

Karen Armstrong thinks that the reason we struggle to reflect on the transcendent and triune God is because of what she calls our “preening, prancing” egos.  “You won't get transcendence,” she says, “unless you are compassionate. To be compassionate is to dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put another there, to transcend yourself. You go beyond the selfishness and hatred that imprisons us and limits our vision."

Dethrone yourself from the center of the world, and put another there.  Is this what God is constantly doing within God’s own self?  De-throning himself from the center, to put another there?  Such is the majesty of the true and living God that he excels even in humility, as one person of the Trinity says repeatedly to another, “Friend, go up higher”?

Trinity Sunday is not a good day for preachers.  It’s a better day for singers.

Thank God there’s a Heaven 
and a ringin’ in my soul
and my soul set free.
Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan.

Up there in heaven, I suppose it is entirely possible that there are three women standing around a microphone singing.  One of them might be holding a guitar, another a mandolin, and another a heavenly fiddle.  They might be changing places at the microphone, as they trade places leading the song, and as they repeat to one another in a glorious, imitative, and intertwining round, “Friend, go up higher!”  And they might be looking down on us, listening to this sermon, and singing to one another, “Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan.”

I really can’t say.  But I am fairly certain that if there are, then the three of them are trading places in the center, all leaning in to balance their voices.  One takes the lead, then they change positions and another is in the lead.  It is hard to say who is in charge.  No one of the three is more important that the others.  Their bodies are swaying gently together with the rhythm of the music.  They are present to the world, and providing much enjoyment to us, but clearly their attention is mostly on one another.  They are listening to each other, and singing to and with each other.  Sometimes only one is singing, or playing.  Sometimes they stand a little farther apart, sometimes closer, but always the three are together.  Their song has an intertwining melody, that they sometimes sing in a round of beautiful imitative polyphony.  As they sing on, their voices embellish the melody further, each voice sharing the embellishment in turn, as the song becomes more intense, more plaintive, and more beautiful.

And some day, the singing will build to a climax of thrilling and commanding harmony that knits the three voices together in unsurpassed beauty, that no one will be able to mistake for anything other than the voice of God.

And then, at last, no more will we hear Jerusalem moan.  No more will we hear Jerusalem moan.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Trinity Sunday 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

* interview with Karen Armstrong in US Catholic, January 2010, (Vol 75, No 1)

** the perfromance was the group I’m With Her singing on Live From Here, 15 June 2019 at Tanglewood

Posted on June 16, 2019 .

What Language Shall We Speak?

When the state of Louisiana was first settled by Europeans in the late seventeenth century, the French language settled there, too. Louisiana or Cajun French, as it has come to be known, is a curious blend of many influences, what might be termed a “linguistic gumbo.” In this gumbo, you will find different varieties of the French language itself, Canary Island Spanish, German, and even some English.[1]

Until the twentieth century, spoken Louisiana French was widespread in the state. But with the forced teaching of English in public schools in 1921, mandated by the state, a slow attrition of Cajun culture occurred. The evolution of the mass media into somewhat isolated communities, as well as a general bias against French culture in Louisiana, contributed to the decline of Louisiana French. Those speaking this seemingly anachronistic dialect were considered uneducated, and speaking French was often discouraged. Despite a resurgence of Cajun pride in the mid-twentieth century, to this day, some still worry about losing essential aspects of French heritage in Louisiana.

If you can’t tell by my last name, I’m practically one-hundred percent French—Cajun French, that is. I remember a conversation some years ago with my grandfather, who grew up speaking Louisiana French in the south central portion of the state. He told me about a conversation he’d had with a native French speaker. When I asked him whether the two of them were able to communicate, he said yes. . . but only up to a point, and then there was a breakdown in communication. At some moment, they ceased to be intelligible to one another.

Over time, the French spoken in Louisiana had acquired the barnacles of other dialects and languages and had accommodated itself to the needs of a culture in a different part of the world from the mother country. It had linguistically wandered ever so gradually from its native roots, hence the inevitable breakdown of communication between so-called pure French and Louisiana French.

It might not be too far of a stretch to suggest that the human race has, in many ways, experienced a breakdown in communication. I don’t mean, of course, an inability to understand or speak non-native languages or ones we have never studied. I’m not talking about linguistics per se. I’m talking about comprehension of an implicit, native language of compassion, of brotherly and sisterly affection, of philadelphia, that at its most basic level honors our common humanity. We could add that even we Christians are not doing such a good job of talking to each other. But unlike an innocuous conversation between two French speakers, in this communication failure people get hurt, people suffer, and the name of Christ is sullied.

It seems that we can no longer agree or speak on the same wavelength about many things, or sometimes anything at all. Nations would rather lob missiles at one another rather than enter into dialogue in order to find common ground. We no longer know what is true or what is not because words have lost their meaning in the public sphere. Hatred and vitriol often seem to be the essence of speech and of wordless action. And is it too much to think that two women or two men can ride the Tube in London together and not be subject to homophobic assault? We might also ask why we seem incapable of engaging in constructive discussions about caring for this good earth that God has entrusted to our care. And I could go on…

People who supposedly share a common humanity, who should have some respect for a proto-language of compassion, mercy, and love breathed into existence by God have ceased to be intelligible to one another. And I wonder how this has happened. When did the breakdown happen?

Is it that humanity’s original sinfulness—its fallen state—has ever so gradually whittled away at any understanding of decency? Like an original language that morphs over time, has the language of godly love been adulterated by more sinister languages of apathy, heartlessness, and selfishness? Have our own closed communities—whether nations, races, or clans—gained such narrow understandings of the human vernacular of fellowship that we have lost even non-verbal communication skills?

Or like the official state discouragement of Louisiana French in the 1920s, is it that certain forces among us are discouraging the maintenance of a language of love, a God-language that seeks to build up rather than to destroy, to proclaim hope and not despair? And perhaps, when we try to uphold that language we seem delusional or out of our minds.

When we feel compelled to speak God’s dialect into the world, do others ridicule us, just like some sneered on that first day of Pentecost? Does it seem like madness to imagine that Christ might have something marvelous to proclaim to people in all manner of languages and tongues? Is it a fantastical dream that despite cultural and linguistic differences we might all be able to share some hope together, to proclaim that the sordid affairs of the human condition might be different?

Oh, how I wish, in spite of our various viewpoints, opinions, places of origin, races, and denominations we might be able to speak, and speak boldly, of God’s deeds of power! For in order to believe that we have not completely lost our grasp on the original language of goodness that God consummated with the sending of his beloved Son into the world, we need someone, just like Peter on that first Pentecost, to set the record straight. We need people, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to confidently stand up, raise their voices, and interpret the times. “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved!”

On that day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit roared into the place where the disciples were gathered together, it must have been utter pandemonium. Who could blame some in the crowd of devout Jews for being amazed and perplexed and for wondering what it all meant? You might even forgive the more cynical among them for sneering and thinking the babbling disciples were drunk. But the incontrovertible truth of that Pentecostal event was that by a miracle of God, the distinct tongues of many different races and cultures all gave witness to one thing alone: the incredible deeds of God’s power.

And it was up to Peter, that so-frequently stumbling, inconsistent, and impetuous disciple to interpret the times in accordance with God’s divine plan. This was God’s promise coming true in his Son, the long-awaited Messiah! This was the initial in-breaking of God’s kingdom into this fallen world, a time in which God was pouring out his Spirit upon all flesh, sons and daughters, the young and the old, all sorts and conditions of humanity. And in spite of the diversity of languages, the proclamation of the mighty acts of God as shown in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ was taking place.

I long for some strong voices today, like Peter, to stand up in the midst of the babbling crowds around us to bear witness to God’s awesome deeds that are indeed happening, to interpret the times in light of God’s action in Jesus Christ. Yes, we could easily be fooled into thinking that God’s wondrous acts were manifested only in the first days of the early Church, but that simply isn’t the case.

Just as easily as we might recount all the ways in which we seem to have lost our first language of love, we could yet even more readily enumerate ways in which that language still exists, where God’s children speak in varied languages of compassion, mercy, and justice and are still intelligible to one another. We wouldn’t have to look too hard to discover young men and women with dreams that the dismal news we so often hear of is not the end of the story. We wouldn’t have to look hard to see visions of how things could be if we just put a bit more trust in the saving power of God, if we just called on the name of the Lord a bit more.

And here we are, gathered in this one place, like those disciples, on our own Pentecost. We might not hear a violent wind or see flames of fire, but shortly, we will accompany Eliot Hicks Gray to the font and we will recall the mighty action of God breathing his Spirit over the waters in the beginning of creation, ordering chaos into a splendid creation. And, Eliot Hicks, when you grow older and a little wiser and perhaps a little more cynical, and when you think the world has lost all sense of the original language of love, remember your baptism. Remember that the tongue of God’s Holy Spirit rested on you this day and called you, like Peter, to stand up above the crowd and address those around you with a bold proclamation of God’s mighty power and of the salvation available to all who call upon the name of Christ.

I imagine if I were to ask my grandfather today again about that breakdown in communication between him and the native French speaker, he would probably tell me that even when their words failed them, he and his fellow Frenchman would have been able to wend their way back to some mutual understanding. Just because their words temporarily hit an impasse didn’t mean that the conversation was lost.

So, too, with our broken human conversations. What is at the present time unintelligible can be made intelligible, for in the power of the Spirit, anything is possible. Visions will be seen, and dreams will be dreamed, and all flesh will see the salvation of God. And you and I have been called. So stand up, raise your voice above the babble, set the record straight, and call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, for God is still working his mighty deeds among us!

[1] https://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/cajun/

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
9 June 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 9, 2019 .

The Jailer's Kindness

A few years ago, an unusual copy of The Importance of Being Earnest came up for sale at an auction.  This particular copy of the play had been inscribed by its author, Oscar Wilde.  Wilde was infamously imprisoned from late May of 1895 till late May of 1897 for having committed “gross indecency.”  Reflecting on his imprisonment, he wrote:

“While I was in... prison I longed to die. It was my one desire... I determined to commit suicide on the very day on which I left prison. After a time that evil mood passed away, and I made up my mind to live, but to wear gloom as a king wears purple: never to smile again: to turn whatever house I entered into a house of mourning: to make my friends walk slowly in sadness with me: to teach them that melancholy is the true secret of life: to maim them with an alien sorrow: to mar them with my own pain.”*

(Well, he is a playwright, after all: drama is his thing.)

It’s remarkable, considering the depths of despair that his imprisonment caused him, that the copy of the play that was up for sale was inscribed to the man who was effectively his jailer, the Governor of the Reading Gaol, Major James Nelson.  Nelson stepped into his post after Wilde had already been remanded to the prison and had encountered its dire isolation.  But the new Governor relaxed the rules of Wilde’s incarceration when he took over the prison, and he not only allowed Wilde access to books, he also provided him with pen, ink, and paper so that he could write.  Wilde would later refer to Nelson as “the most Christlike man I ever met.”**


The inscription he penned, opposite the title page of the play reads, “To Major Nelson from the author.  A trivial recognition of great and noble kindness.”  These are not the kinds of words one expects a prisoner to write to his jailer.

Twice in the Acts of the Apostles we encounter jailers - both times in trying circumstances.  The first is when St. Peter, “bound with two chains” has been thrown in jail.  But an angel comes in the night while Peter is sleeping in between two guards, and the angel looses Peter from his chains and guides him safely out of the prison.  Saint Luke tells us that Herod later had the two guards “put to death” because of their failure to keep their prisoner.

So the implications are clear when Paul and Silas are apprehended by the authorities who “threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.  Following these instructions he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.”

This time it was not an angel, but an earthquake that shook the very foundations of the prison, and “all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”

Perhaps knowing what had befallen the last jailers who had failed at keeping Jesus’ disciple under lock and key, the jailer, when he came to, was beside himself.  St. Luke tells us that “he drew his sword and was about to kill himself.”  But unexpectedly, Paul and Silas had not yet made their escape, and they must have seen what was happening.  Paul called out to the jailer, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

And in a moment of remarkable conversion, the jailer immediately brought the apostles outside and asked them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

“Believe on the Lord Jesus,” comes the answer, “and you will be saved.”  On the spot, the apostles baptized the jailer and his entire household, who washed the prisoners’ wounds, and set out a meal for them.

In the morning, before any of these events could be accounted for, while they were all sipping coffee together, the magistrates ordered the release of Paul and Silas, making any excuses or further punishment for the jailer beside the point.

“While I was in prison, I longed to die.”  The experience of Oscar Wilde, was, in a sense, the mirror image of what happened to Paul and Silas.  For Wilde, it was his jailer whose kindness showed him the image of Christ, who is himself the image of love, and the way of salvation.  All those centuries ago, it was the other way around, when the prisoners themselves - whose crime was their faith in Jesus - called out to prevent the awful suicide the jailer was about to commit.  “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”

Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!  ... and the sword rattles to the floor as the jailer heaves a sigh of relief that things are not as bad as he thought they were, and there must be some hope in the world after all.

And here, what should I say?  Should I name the twelve people who were killed on Friday in Virginia Beach in the latest episode of American gunfire?

Should I reflect, at the outset of Pride month, on the cognitive dissonance that many who call themselves Christians would count as “gross indecency” the lives of men and women who have kept this parish alive and faithful for many decades?

Should I pause to recall that we still have troops in Afghanistan, eighteen years into this endless war?

Should I bring to mind the ongoing crises of addiction all around us: whether it’s opioids, or heroin, or meth, or booze?

Should I comment on the weather?  Repeat again the poverty rate in our city?  Ruminate on the mass incarceration that we now take for granted in this country?  Should I even ask about the water in Flint?

If you want reasons for despair, I think I could prepare an illustrated catalog.

From his cell, in his despair, Oscar Wilde wrote of how hard it was for him to hope in anything, let alone to hope in Christ.

“I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who CANNOT believe:” he wrote, “the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine.”

It sometimes feels to me as if we live in a world that is ready for just such a religion.  In fact, I sometimes suspect that many of my friends and neighbors would vastly prefer such an empty religion - that requires nothing, and claims nothing, and promises nothing - to the kind of religion we practice in this church.

Toward the middle of the long letter Wilde wrote from Reading Gaol, he says this, “Christ, like all fascinating personalities, had the power of not merely saying beautiful things himself, but of making other people say beautiful things to him.”  Wilde wasn’t thinking of the jailer who was about to take his own life, and whose encounter (on the face of it, at least) wasn’t with Jesus, but with his apostles, Silas and Paul.  But I think the assertion holds, since I think there is a distinct beauty in the exchange that interrupts the jailer’s awful intent to take his own life.

“Do not harm yourself, for we are all here,” comes the cry from Paul.  And doesn’t it count as an example of Christ making others say beautiful things to him, when the jailer drops the instrument of his own suicide, and responds, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  This is a moment of blissful relief, when the man, who could see only despair, only doom, only darkness in his future, only disappointment, judgment, and death, and whose self-assessment was so clear and so dismal, whose catalog of misery was so richly illustrated that he was about to take his own life, but is interrupted, and finds himself able to ask, “what must I do to be saved?”

He cannot have thought that the answer would be easy or short.  And both Paul and Silas could have been forgiven for needing to stop for a moment and think through this complicated pastoral situation.  Surely, they would have suggested a course of therapy to begin with.  And yet, unexpectedly, they, too, have something beautiful, concise, and easy to say.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus,” they tell their jailer,  “and you will be saved!”

Earlier in his letter, Oscar Wilde wrote that “where there is sorrow there is holy ground.”  If he was right, then I suppose in some ways we are walking over ever-holier ground in this nation, and across the world.  I could illustrate my catalog of sorrow; you could illustrate yours.  And whenever we ran out of ideas, the New York Times would fill them in for us.  And yet, surprisingly, Christ still has the power of not merely saying beautiful things himself, but of making other people say beautiful things to him.  And this is why we have been called together this morning.  Because each and every one of us has been walking our own holy ground, marked, inevitably, by sorrow.

But Christ has something beautiful to say to each and every one of us.  To some, his words may be as clear and direct as this, “Do not harm yourself!  For we are all here!”  Oh, how I hope that those who need to hear such a cry will hear it from someone’s lips.  And if they have no one else to cry out to them, I hope they will hear it from mine.  Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!

And when I hear the words, I realize that I do not know whether or not they are beautiful words that Jesus is saying to us, or whether they amount to the beautiful words he is making us say to him, if we are saying them to one whose sword is already drawn.  And it hardly matters.  I hope and pray that as we tread the holy ground of sorrow together in this life, we will find ourselves similarly unsure about whether Christ is speaking to us, or we are speaking to him.  I hope and pray that we will be so guided by his spirit that it will not matter.

I hope that we will never stop asking one another, “what must I do to be saved?”  And that, maybe unexpectedly, we will have something beautiful, concise, and easy to say in reply to one another: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved!”

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 June 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

**Oscar Wilde, De profundis, 1897, first published in English in 1905

** Richard Ellman in Oscar Wilde, Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 1988, p 476

Posted on June 2, 2019 .