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Sunday, November 11
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, November 11
Becoming Visible
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (Wisdom 3:1).

 

Being human involves constantly passing in and out of visibility. Most of us, most of the time, are invisible – simply a means to someone else’s end. We’re the car that stands between the person behind us and catching the next green light. People regard us as the way some kind of work gets done or even as an inconvenience to be overcome.[1]

Children can become invisible to their parents. They can be merely a source of pride or embarrassment. Parents can treat their child as a task, as something to be perfected rather than a person to be loved. Even our friends can treat us primarily as a way of fulfilling some purpose in their life that has little to do with who we really are.

We experience this invisibility from strangers and even people who are supposed to love us. But at the same time we long to be noticed, to be seen as we really are. One of the greatest joys in life happens when someone really recognizes us or when we experience the humanity of another person.

On a hot midsummer day I experienced this in a very strange way. I did the early stages of my dissertation research in the Harvard Law School Library. I remember taking a quick break from my work and discovering a special archive exhibit on Ruhleben.

Walking around the room I gradually learned more about this German concentration camp. The inmates were British men unlucky enough to find themselves in the German Empire at the outset of World War One. I saw the map of this former horse racing track in the Berlin suburb of Spandau and read how prisoners slept on the hard floors of un-insulated horse stalls during the freezing winter.

Two layers of security kept the prisoners behind wooden and wire fences. The rules printed in German and English effectively showed that every aspect of life was absolutely regulated by the clock. Prisoners only received one meal of vegetable soup and bread each day with an ounce of meat on Sundays.[2]

The exhibit had photos of black sailors who had been working on British merchant ships when they were captured, and of other prisoners standing in endless lines out in the snow. I saw chits from the laundry service and the barber. There was a model of the living quarters, playbills from prisoner theater performances, pictures of incarcerated musicians, examples from art exhibits and everyday objects like cups and uniforms.

Other than their identity as Englishmen, these prisoners had became invisible to the Germans. But through the objects in the glass display cases they were becoming more real to me. I wondered what visits were like with their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. What did it feel like to be caught in a struggle between empires and confined in this cold place.

It was a remarkable coincidence really. It even took me a while to understand. My great-grandfather was one of those prisoners. I looked for his name in the registers. I tried to spot his face in the crowd photos, but there is no one alive to tell me what happened. Looking back at my family’s history, I know that he bore the marks of that invisibility for the rest of his life. The inherited trauma still affects my family.

Today we remember, we strain to see again in our imagination, all the ones whom we have lost. We also recall that on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 an Armistice was signed ending World War I. The word Armistice comes from the Latin words arma (or “arms”) and sistere (“to stand still”). You can imagine the stillness and quiet when both sides in that conflict laid down their arms, emerged from the trenches and began to really see each other for the first time and when the gates of Ruheleben were opened.

The historian Barbara Tuchman opens her book The Guns of August with nine kings riding in the funeral procession for King Edward the VII of England in 1910. They are followed by a list of the princes and emperors who were present. These included, “five heirs apparent, forty imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens” and more. “Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place.” [3]

Despite the fact that the sovereigns of Europe were siblings and cousins they still managed to plunge the entire world into a war of poison gas, aerial bombing and trench warfare that killed nine million combatants and seven million civilians.[4] It is important to remember that the war arose out of a complex system of alliances and a kind of paranoia about being invaded.

It was also the culmination of an arm’s race, that with the new pervasiveness of mass shootings, should remind us that having weapons makes us more likely to use them.[5]

The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were swept away. The punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles led directly into the fascism that only twenty years later resulted in World War II. While the “war to end all wars” erased the lives of millions it also led us to new ways of seeing each other.

At the end of hostilities the scholar W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) pointed out the sacrifices made by African American soldiers who still were not free in their own land. He writes, “This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land. It lynches.”[6]

In the United Kingdom “the slaughter-bench that birthed the 20th century,” also led to the legalization of voting for women who were over thirty and qualified as householders (or were married to a householder).[7] Accompanying the horrors of this last century were global movements toward liberation and the recognition of every person’s dignity. In our own day we continue this work.

At school chapel on Friday Kevin Fox spoke about the Fauré Requiem that we are hearing today. He said that in contrast to the drama of other requiems Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) hoped to compose something peaceful, consoling and quiet. He wanted to evoke the comfort of resting fully in God.

 

I believe we need this kind of peace and sanctuaries like this cathedral to experience others and ourselves as we really are. For me Jesus is the ultimate example of someone who really sees every person he encounters. He constantly reminds us that no one is ever invisible to God and that, “there is no situation in which God’s presence  doesn’t make a difference.”[8]

Being human involves constantly passing in and out of visibility. Today in this place of stillness and quiet let us remember the joy of laying down our arms. Let us accept the challenge of seeing the people who are invisible to the world. May those who sacrificed and our beloved dead be seen again as we become visible to each other through God’s grace.

[1] For other people we are the subject of entertaining gossip. At some point we also have been used to make someone else feel superior.

[2] “Tells of Suffering as German Prisoner: No Medical Attention for the Sick and Impossible Food – An Ounce of Meat a Week” New York Times, 28 June 1918.

[3] Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (NY: Random House, 1962) 1.

[4] The “World War I” Wikipedia article notes that between 50-100 million lives were lost as a result of the war if you include genocides and the Spanish Influenza epidemic.

[5] Between 1870 and 1914 military spending in Germany increased by 73% and in Russia by 39%. Wikipedia article “World War I” accessed 10 November 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I

[6] W.E.B. DuBois, “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), p. 13.

[7] Susan Pedersen, “A Knife to the Heart,” London Review of Books 30 August 2018.

[8] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 156.

Sunday, November 11
We are not made for war
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from The Service of Remembrance
Read sermon

Remembrance Day Service

I never knew one of my uncles. Bernard was my mother’s favourite brother, just a few years older than her. He died when he was a teenager, old enough to vote – just – but not yet old enough to drink. His plane was shot down over the English Channel in the second world war. Three of the crew survived, including Bernard. They had two life rafts, which could take 2 men each. One was fully functional, the other was damaged. Bernard volunteered to go in the damaged one. The other two crew members were rescued. Bernard was never seen again.

There’s a line from a Siegfried Sassoon poem that has been on my mind as we prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice, the end of World War 1. He was a poet and a soldier who lived through the hell of the trenches and saw the peace that followed. He writes words about his generation’s attitude to soldiers and veterans that challenge us still: “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave… You believe That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”[i]

‘You believe that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.’ I do believe in chivalry – in the virtue of courage offered in defense of other people and of values that matter to us. I am deeply proud of my unknown uncle for putting other lives ahead of his own. I greatly respect all those who fought against Nazism – the allies from the United States, from Great Britain and the commonwealth, from Scandinavia and Europe – including Germans who tried to bring down Hitler from within. This was an evil that had to be opposed – just as we must oppose the antisemitism and racism we see today.

But I also believe in the second part of Sassoon’s line – that war is a disgrace. That there is nothing glorious about human beings settling their disputes by killing one another. That there is nothing heroic in nation states unable to build peace with justice except through sending their young men – and now young women also – to die at one anothers’ hands. I’m with that other great poet of the first world war, Wilfred Owen, when he says we should ‘not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’[ii] It may sometimes be necessary but it is always tragic never sweet and fitting.

This beautiful cathedral in which we meet today is here for a very simple reason. It is to help us try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. The one who taught us to love our enemies. The one who revealed a God who calls us to turn weapons into farm implements and promises a time when no-one shall make us afraid. And so all worship which happens within these walls is to a God who chooses peace over war, who chooses forgiveness over revenge, who chooses love over hatred. And who calls us to make these very same choices in our own lives.

God’s vision for us and for our world is one in which we no longer have to fight against injustice or for the rights of the oppressed because all people will be loved, respected and able to flourish. God’s vision is of a world where divine love is fully known and every child of every race and nation is safe and fed. Where no-one shoots Jewish seniors as they worship together or college students as they relax together. Where no leaders threaten each other’s people with mass destruction and put the profits of conglomerates over the future of the planet. Where we no longer fear those who are different from ourselves but love to learn from them and to share our own truths with them.

But we know we have not yet achieved that vision. Not even our own country, let alone our world, embodies peace and justice for all. And some of those who have paid the dearest price for this are our veterans. Remember that line from Sassoon began ‘you love us when we’re heroes home on leave’. We are not actually very good at loving our veterans. Honouring them, maybe, on days like this. But not offering them the practical love that would make dealing with the stress of moving back into civilian life, let alone the torment of PTSD, easier to bear. Our veterans and their families carry the wounds of humanity’s aggression and imperfection and deserve the care and support of us all.

Let me tell you another family war story. My dad was in Germany in the last weeks of the second world war. At one point he stepped into an opening in the woods at the same moment as a German soldier. They looked at one another across the clearing and then each turned their back and walked away. We are not made for war. We are not made to kill. We are made for peace. We are made for mutuality and shared delight. It is up to us in our generation to do all we can to build peace in our homes, our cities, our country and our world.

There are moments when God’s vision of peace for the world feels a little closer to us. One of those moments was the one that we commemorate today – armistice, the end of the years of brutal death that made up the first world war. And I want to finish with another poem of Siegfried Sassoon. One that speaks to the hope for peace and the joyful fulfilment of God’s love made real on earth. It’s called ‘Everyone Sang’

 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

 

[i] From the poem ‘Glory of Women’ in Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918).

[ii] From the poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ in Poems (Viking Press, 1921).

Past Sermons

Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.

Sunday, November 11
We are not made for war
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from The Service of Remembrance
Read sermon

Remembrance Day Service

I never knew one of my uncles. Bernard was my mother’s favourite brother, just a few years older than her. He died when he was a teenager, old enough to vote – just – but not yet old enough to drink. His plane was shot down over the English Channel in the second world war. Three of the crew survived, including Bernard. They had two life rafts, which could take 2 men each. One was fully functional, the other was damaged. Bernard volunteered to go in the damaged one. The other two crew members were rescued. Bernard was never seen again.

There’s a line from a Siegfried Sassoon poem that has been on my mind as we prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice, the end of World War 1. He was a poet and a soldier who lived through the hell of the trenches and saw the peace that followed. He writes words about his generation’s attitude to soldiers and veterans that challenge us still: “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave… You believe That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”[i]

‘You believe that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.’ I do believe in chivalry – in the virtue of courage offered in defense of other people and of values that matter to us. I am deeply proud of my unknown uncle for putting other lives ahead of his own. I greatly respect all those who fought against Nazism – the allies from the United States, from Great Britain and the commonwealth, from Scandinavia and Europe – including Germans who tried to bring down Hitler from within. This was an evil that had to be opposed – just as we must oppose the antisemitism and racism we see today.

But I also believe in the second part of Sassoon’s line – that war is a disgrace. That there is nothing glorious about human beings settling their disputes by killing one another. That there is nothing heroic in nation states unable to build peace with justice except through sending their young men – and now young women also – to die at one anothers’ hands. I’m with that other great poet of the first world war, Wilfred Owen, when he says we should ‘not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’[ii] It may sometimes be necessary but it is always tragic never sweet and fitting.

This beautiful cathedral in which we meet today is here for a very simple reason. It is to help us try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. The one who taught us to love our enemies. The one who revealed a God who calls us to turn weapons into farm implements and promises a time when no-one shall make us afraid. And so all worship which happens within these walls is to a God who chooses peace over war, who chooses forgiveness over revenge, who chooses love over hatred. And who calls us to make these very same choices in our own lives.

God’s vision for us and for our world is one in which we no longer have to fight against injustice or for the rights of the oppressed because all people will be loved, respected and able to flourish. God’s vision is of a world where divine love is fully known and every child of every race and nation is safe and fed. Where no-one shoots Jewish seniors as they worship together or college students as they relax together. Where no leaders threaten each other’s people with mass destruction and put the profits of conglomerates over the future of the planet. Where we no longer fear those who are different from ourselves but love to learn from them and to share our own truths with them.

But we know we have not yet achieved that vision. Not even our own country, let alone our world, embodies peace and justice for all. And some of those who have paid the dearest price for this are our veterans. Remember that line from Sassoon began ‘you love us when we’re heroes home on leave’. We are not actually very good at loving our veterans. Honouring them, maybe, on days like this. But not offering them the practical love that would make dealing with the stress of moving back into civilian life, let alone the torment of PTSD, easier to bear. Our veterans and their families carry the wounds of humanity’s aggression and imperfection and deserve the care and support of us all.

Let me tell you another family war story. My dad was in Germany in the last weeks of the second world war. At one point he stepped into an opening in the woods at the same moment as a German soldier. They looked at one another across the clearing and then each turned their back and walked away. We are not made for war. We are not made to kill. We are made for peace. We are made for mutuality and shared delight. It is up to us in our generation to do all we can to build peace in our homes, our cities, our country and our world.

There are moments when God’s vision of peace for the world feels a little closer to us. One of those moments was the one that we commemorate today – armistice, the end of the years of brutal death that made up the first world war. And I want to finish with another poem of Siegfried Sassoon. One that speaks to the hope for peace and the joyful fulfilment of God’s love made real on earth. It’s called ‘Everyone Sang’

 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

 

[i] From the poem ‘Glory of Women’ in Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918).

[ii] From the poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ in Poems (Viking Press, 1921).

Sunday, November 11
Becoming Visible
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (Wisdom 3:1).

 

Being human involves constantly passing in and out of visibility. Most of us, most of the time, are invisible – simply a means to someone else’s end. We’re the car that stands between the person behind us and catching the next green light. People regard us as the way some kind of work gets done or even as an inconvenience to be overcome.[1]

Children can become invisible to their parents. They can be merely a source of pride or embarrassment. Parents can treat their child as a task, as something to be perfected rather than a person to be loved. Even our friends can treat us primarily as a way of fulfilling some purpose in their life that has little to do with who we really are.

We experience this invisibility from strangers and even people who are supposed to love us. But at the same time we long to be noticed, to be seen as we really are. One of the greatest joys in life happens when someone really recognizes us or when we experience the humanity of another person.

On a hot midsummer day I experienced this in a very strange way. I did the early stages of my dissertation research in the Harvard Law School Library. I remember taking a quick break from my work and discovering a special archive exhibit on Ruhleben.

Walking around the room I gradually learned more about this German concentration camp. The inmates were British men unlucky enough to find themselves in the German Empire at the outset of World War One. I saw the map of this former horse racing track in the Berlin suburb of Spandau and read how prisoners slept on the hard floors of un-insulated horse stalls during the freezing winter.

Two layers of security kept the prisoners behind wooden and wire fences. The rules printed in German and English effectively showed that every aspect of life was absolutely regulated by the clock. Prisoners only received one meal of vegetable soup and bread each day with an ounce of meat on Sundays.[2]

The exhibit had photos of black sailors who had been working on British merchant ships when they were captured, and of other prisoners standing in endless lines out in the snow. I saw chits from the laundry service and the barber. There was a model of the living quarters, playbills from prisoner theater performances, pictures of incarcerated musicians, examples from art exhibits and everyday objects like cups and uniforms.

Other than their identity as Englishmen, these prisoners had became invisible to the Germans. But through the objects in the glass display cases they were becoming more real to me. I wondered what visits were like with their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. What did it feel like to be caught in a struggle between empires and confined in this cold place.

It was a remarkable coincidence really. It even took me a while to understand. My great-grandfather was one of those prisoners. I looked for his name in the registers. I tried to spot his face in the crowd photos, but there is no one alive to tell me what happened. Looking back at my family’s history, I know that he bore the marks of that invisibility for the rest of his life. The inherited trauma still affects my family.

Today we remember, we strain to see again in our imagination, all the ones whom we have lost. We also recall that on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 an Armistice was signed ending World War I. The word Armistice comes from the Latin words arma (or “arms”) and sistere (“to stand still”). You can imagine the stillness and quiet when both sides in that conflict laid down their arms, emerged from the trenches and began to really see each other for the first time and when the gates of Ruheleben were opened.

The historian Barbara Tuchman opens her book The Guns of August with nine kings riding in the funeral procession for King Edward the VII of England in 1910. They are followed by a list of the princes and emperors who were present. These included, “five heirs apparent, forty imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens” and more. “Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place.” [3]

Despite the fact that the sovereigns of Europe were siblings and cousins they still managed to plunge the entire world into a war of poison gas, aerial bombing and trench warfare that killed nine million combatants and seven million civilians.[4] It is important to remember that the war arose out of a complex system of alliances and a kind of paranoia about being invaded.

It was also the culmination of an arm’s race, that with the new pervasiveness of mass shootings, should remind us that having weapons makes us more likely to use them.[5]

The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were swept away. The punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles led directly into the fascism that only twenty years later resulted in World War II. While the “war to end all wars” erased the lives of millions it also led us to new ways of seeing each other.

At the end of hostilities the scholar W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) pointed out the sacrifices made by African American soldiers who still were not free in their own land. He writes, “This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land. It lynches.”[6]

In the United Kingdom “the slaughter-bench that birthed the 20th century,” also led to the legalization of voting for women who were over thirty and qualified as householders (or were married to a householder).[7] Accompanying the horrors of this last century were global movements toward liberation and the recognition of every person’s dignity. In our own day we continue this work.

At school chapel on Friday Kevin Fox spoke about the Fauré Requiem that we are hearing today. He said that in contrast to the drama of other requiems Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) hoped to compose something peaceful, consoling and quiet. He wanted to evoke the comfort of resting fully in God.

 

I believe we need this kind of peace and sanctuaries like this cathedral to experience others and ourselves as we really are. For me Jesus is the ultimate example of someone who really sees every person he encounters. He constantly reminds us that no one is ever invisible to God and that, “there is no situation in which God’s presence  doesn’t make a difference.”[8]

Being human involves constantly passing in and out of visibility. Today in this place of stillness and quiet let us remember the joy of laying down our arms. Let us accept the challenge of seeing the people who are invisible to the world. May those who sacrificed and our beloved dead be seen again as we become visible to each other through God’s grace.

[1] For other people we are the subject of entertaining gossip. At some point we also have been used to make someone else feel superior.

[2] “Tells of Suffering as German Prisoner: No Medical Attention for the Sick and Impossible Food – An Ounce of Meat a Week” New York Times, 28 June 1918.

[3] Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (NY: Random House, 1962) 1.

[4] The “World War I” Wikipedia article notes that between 50-100 million lives were lost as a result of the war if you include genocides and the Spanish Influenza epidemic.

[5] Between 1870 and 1914 military spending in Germany increased by 73% and in Russia by 39%. Wikipedia article “World War I” accessed 10 November 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I

[6] W.E.B. DuBois, “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), p. 13.

[7] Susan Pedersen, “A Knife to the Heart,” London Review of Books 30 August 2018.

[8] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 156.

Sunday, November 4
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Read sermon
Sunday, October 28
Sunday Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Read sermon
Sunday, October 21
Booking My Place
Preacher: The Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

It is easy for us to condemn James and John for trying to book the left and right hand seats in heaven for themselves. Maybe we should ask ourselves how often, and how we try and book our own spaces next to Jesus.

Sunday, October 14
The Truth About Wealth: We Lack One Thing
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword… it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4).

 

The truth about wealth is simple. You are poor. No matter who you are, or what you have, it will not be enough to save yourself.

Bruce Springsteen writes, “People don’t come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep in their gut. That when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three… It’s the reason the universe will never be fully comprehensible.”[1]

We know deep in our hearts that wealth cannot really protect us – and yet our possessions still own us. Somehow we cannot transcend this myth. And no one around us seems able to either.

Jesus is going on the way, the road. Hodon, that’s the Greek word for it. Before the name Christian became popular, “the way” was what they called the movement. It was how Jesus’ disciples referred to themselves. So Jesus is traveling the way, or the path of faith. Suddenly a rich man throws himself down before him in the same manner as people seeking healing beg for Jesus’ help.

The man asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Mk. 10)? From the start Jesus seems to bristle at the question as if its assumptions are all wrong. You can almost hear Jesus sigh and say that eternal life is not some kind of prize rewarded for intense spiritual effort. God’s love is not something that anyone can win or inherit. In Jesus’ words, “no one is good but God alone.”

Jesus instructs him to keep the commandments. And when the man says he has, Jesus gazes at him.[2] Jesus loves him. He says, “You lack one thing… sell what you own… give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” The shocked man goes, “away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples can’t believe it. For them, and often for us, wealth seems like a blessing from God, not a barrier to spiritual wholeness. And Jesus says, “For God all things are possible.” This morning I have a simple question for you. What was it that this man lacked?

Followers of Jesus’ way have struggled with this story for two thousand years. Some have interpreted it as a justification for monastic vows of poverty. Others have written that Jesus’ instruction is a diagnosis only for this particular man, or for a select number of special believers. Not even the disciples who followed Jesus sold their property and gave the proceeds to the poor.

From St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) in the second century to now there has been no shortage of theologians who have said that this story is not ultimately about money at all. They suggest it is about spiritual pride, or it is against our tendency to think that what we have done obliges God to give us eternal life in return.[3] I think Jesus’ story is about the connection between our deepest longings and God.

On Tuesday night after our Yoga practice I interviewed the Christian theologian Matthew Fox with Lama Tsomo an American born Tibetan Buddhist.[4] Lama Tsomo described going to bed on the eve of her eighth birthday wondering what she should wish for when she blew out the candles. That night she realized that the wisest wish was to be happy. She made that wish every year until she became a teenager but throughout her life she never seemed to come closer to actually being happy.

When her children were young she tried meditating but she wasn’t sure if it was working. After studying Jungian psychology she went to live in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. She describes her loneliness and how difficult it was to learn Tibetan.

Her breakthrough came when she realized that each person is like an ocean wave. We desperately do everything we can to preserve our sense of individuality and uniqueness. When we regard ourselves as only one “splinter of reality” we have immense needs – for social approval, success, etc. But really what we long for is to return to the vast ocean, which has no need because it encompasses everything. In short we desire to experience ourselves as part of the whole.[5]

Yesterday I looked Lama Tsomo up on Wikipedia and discovered that she is an heir to the Hyatt hotel chain. She is worth 1.77 billion dollars. Suddenly her story about a search for happiness and a longing to overcome her sense of isolation came to have a different kind of poignancy.

Jesus’ story is a spiritual message about our need for wholeness but it is also a material and economic one too. In the Book of Acts the first followers of the way lived together in Jerusalem, sold their individual property, and shared it with each other “as any had need” (Acts 2:45). The biblical ideal from the gospels (Lk. 14:33) and the Book of Acts is holding property in common. For those who pay attention this is part of the scandal of Christian faith.[6]

Wealth means something different in every generation. I want to point out three things that we are learning about money today. First, meritocracy has become a kind of idol for us. We believe that the rich deserve their wealth and that the rest of society should have no claim on it. This blind belief is driving a lurch toward oligarchy.

I recommend very highly Thomas Piketty’s book Capital: In the Twenty-First Century. In it he describes the simple mechanism behind this. Changes in the tax code around the year 1980 are leading to vast differences between the wealthy and the poor. In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s the highest tax bracket never went below 70 percent (now it is 39.6%).[7]

Since 1980 the richest 1 percent have absorbed nearly 60 percent of the increase in national income. The top ten percent owns 72 percent of the wealth in the United States. The bottom 50 percent owns only 2 percent of all wealth.[8] We could be on a path toward a future in which there is no middle class.

Second, we have just begun to measure just how destructive poverty can be to the human spirit. Last week our forum guest Robert Sapolsky described poverty as a national health crisis. Children born poor are more likely to suffer neurological effects for the rest of their lives. “By age five, the lower a child’s socioeconomic status on average, the (a) higher the basal glucocorticoid levels…, the thinner the frontal cortex… the poorer the working memory, emotion regulation, impulse control, and executive decision-making.”[9] Childhood adversity makes you more likely to struggle as an adult with alcohol and drug addiction and with depression.

Third, Sapolsky also points out scientific evidence that suggests that having more wealth leads people to have less empathy, to be less adept at recognizing people’s emotions and even more likely to cheat or steal. If they are told at the end of a study that the leftover candy goes to children, they take more candy than the others.[10]

Overall inequality leads to a society with lower amounts of social capital, that is one that has fewer civic organizations from churches, fraternal orders, bowling leagues, arts subscribers, neighborhood improvement groups and lower participation in politics.

The Dalai Lama tells a story about the Buddha’s visit to a great king. On the way to the palace the Buddha met a beggar who praised the king and smiled as he spoke about the great beauty of the palace. It was a tradition after the meal to say a blessing, to assign the good karma of the meal to an important person. But instead of dedicating the merit to the host, the Buddha chose the beggar standing outside.

His monks couldn’t believe it. They asked why he chose the beggar instead of the king. The Buddha answered that the king was filled with pride in showing off the kingdom but the beggar who had nothing could rejoice in the king’s good fortune.[11] We too can learn to take pleasure in another person’s joy.

There is a space between renouncing everything and a life of total selfishness. That is the world we inhabit. We may have very little control over tax policies but through generosity we can live in a way shaped by God’s love. In our actions we can recognize both that we have not all been given an equal chance, and that wealth can cut us off and isolate us.

What did the rich man lack? I’m not sure. Maybe he just couldn’t trust God.

Brothers and sisters please do not go away from this place grieving that the way of Jesus is too demanding. In these days of greed and inequality we can hold onto those moments of grace when one plus one equals three. Let us move beyond a narrow focus on our own inheritance, beyond the conviction that we are solely responsible for our success or failure. Let us allow God to transform our generosity and our whole life.

We are poor. But Jesus sees us, loves us and calls us – because, “for God all things are possible.”

 

#RobertSapolsky, #ThomasPiketty, #inequality

[1] Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (NY: Simon & Schuster: 2016) 236-7.

[2] The Greek word emblepo means to gaze or to consider.

[3] In Clement of Alexandria’s treatise “Who is the Rich Man Who Is Saved?” he writes that wealth can be a serious spiritual problem. Ultimately he writes that Jesus’ words are not to be taken literally. The rich can cultivate a kind of spiritual poverty.

[4] We discussed their book. Matthew Fox and Lama Tsomo, The Lotus and the Rose: A Conversation Between Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Christianity (Namchak Publishing, 2018).

[5] The ocean has no need it encompasses everything. Ibid, 30.

[6] David Bentley Hart, “Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?” The New York Times, 4 November 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/04/opinion/sunday/christianity-communism.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0

[7] The highest rate today is 39.6% for households making $444,551 or more. https://bradfordtaxinstitute.com/Free_Resources/Federal-Income-Tax-Rates.aspx. https://bradfordtaxinstitute.com/Free_Resources/Federal-Income-Tax-Rates.aspx.

[8] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014) 297, 257.

[9] This comes from a study by Martha Farah and Tim Boyce. See Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 194-7.

[10] Whether a car stops to help someone in need is inversely related to its value. Wealthier people are also more likely to regard the class system as fair and meritocratic, and to believe that their success has more to do with their own ability and hard work rather than other factors. Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 533-4.

[11] Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (NY: Penguin, 2016) 141-2.

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