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Sunday, September 25
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, September 25
The Struggle Is Real
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” (Rev. 12).
Read sermon

 

“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” (Rev. 12).

How do you prepare to go into battle? How do you get ready to talk to a friend about his addiction, or steel yourself to face the bigot who hates you? I do not even know what your struggle is – but you do. Maybe it is a difficult conversation that could save a friendship. It might have to do with conflict at work. It could be your health or a family member. Perhaps it lies in the fear that you might lose your job, spouse, home – your nation or your soul.

Some of our most cherished traditions at this Cathedral happen backstage. People here probably think it is odd that I sometimes describe the vestry as “the locker room,” but that’s what it is. When I played football we would enter the locker room dressed in our street clothes thinking about our romances, jobs, homework and being cool. As we put those pads on, we also prepared for battle, for an activity that demands all of you, and is dangerous to yourself and others. We put on our game face. We thought about what we had to do.

This very same thing happens in the vestry each Sunday as we prepare for worship. Initially we are chatting with each other about our week as we get our microphones and robes on. Finally, we quiet down to hear our assignments from the precentor and then gather for prayer. We say together Psalm 43. The people who have done this for years know it by heart.

It starts with these words. “Give judgment for me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; / deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked. / For you are the God of my strength?” Then in silence we form our procession to enter this magnificent Cathedral.

Around here a question comes up surprisingly often. Why do we repeat such a glum psalm every week.[1] People especially ask me this, because I am fundamentally a joyful person. I absolutely love to worship here. It is one of my favorite things to do in the world. And the answer is this. Psalm 43 reminds us that there are forces in the world that work actively against the kingdom of God, that seek to enslave and degrade and destroy the children of God. We might like to forget it but this is the truth.

In his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning Chris Hedges writes, “There are always people willing to commit unspeakable human atrocity in exchange for a little power and privilege.”[2] The struggle is not even just against individual adversaries but structures and institutions and culture, against greed, violence, ego, fear and injustice.

Since the very beginning Christians have wondered how, in the face of all this, we can be brought back home to God. We have debated various theories of the atonement. A thousand years ago St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) proposed that because God is by definition just, God could not merely dispense with our sins but required Jesus to suffer instead of us. A different much more ancient theory of the atonement called Christus Victor holds instead that Christ’s death set into motion the defeat of all evil and that we are still in the midst of struggle as this victory is worked out.

This second picture of atonement is the theology of Michaelmas, the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, which we celebrate this morning. Michaelmas falls at the Autumnal Equinox, this precarious time of temporary balance between light and darkness. It reminds us how close the battle between good and evil is.

Most times when an angel appears in the Bible, the first thing we hear, is “Do not be afraid.” This is because the natural response to the power of God embodied in an angel is sheer terror. In the Book of Revelation Michael and the angels win a provisional victory casting out Satan into this world.

John records the conclusion of this battle in his dream saying, “Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12)!

Young people today have an expression I appreciate. When you suggest that they might be complaining too much, they say, “the struggle is real.” I have no idea what effect it has on others but it leads me to reappraise my original judgment and to appreciate that another person’s challenges are different than my own. So this morning I say, “Woe to the earth” “the struggle is real.”

We are struggling these days in America. Two more African American men were killed by police this week. A terrorist set up bombs in New York and New Jersey. One hundred people were here for our Forum on homelessness this morning. Tuesday night we will be talking about the power of confining and destructive images regarding masculinity in our culture.

Perhaps the most obvious struggle that we share in common now has to do with our politics. Arlie Russell Hochschild points out that for the first time in history a significant number of Americans choose where they will live on the basis of the political views of their neighbors. She lives in Berkeley which she describes as one subnation but wanted to write about a radically different subnation. In the last election 39% of white people voted for Obama, 28% of the white people in the south voted for him and 11% of the white voters in Louisiana did.[3]

Hochschild ended up spending five years with them. They have become Donald Trump’s biggest supporters. Louisiana is the third poorest state and ranks last in overall health. In 2013 twenty percent of 16-24 year olds there were neither in school nor work. Perhaps as a result of “Cancer Alley” pollution they have the second highest incidence of cancer for men.

Globalization has fundamentally changed what workers can expect in America today. The plentiful manufacturing jobs that used to exist are gone. Many find their prospects and standard of living are worse than that of their parents. Among the poor the institution of marriage has collapsed. Poor people have significantly lower levels of participation in churches and a high percentage of children growing up in households with only one adult. They are far less likely to say that they trust their neighbors or that they are happy. Rates of suicide and drug addiction in this demographic are appalling.

There is a fundamental crisis now in our society about the meaning of work.[4] One of the women interviewed said, “You’ve done everything right and you are slipping back.” From her perspective President Obama’s federal government merely pulls down the hard-working rich and struggling middle class in order to lift up the idle poor.

Hochschild writes that one can dismiss these voters with statistics like the one that says 66% of Trump supporters think that Obama is a Muslim. But this doesn’t get to the deep story. She says that the deep story is about shame, need, unfairness, anxiety and downward mobility. She writes that it “feels” true to nearly white every person she met in Louisiana.

Hochschild proposes a picture to help us understand this deep story. Imagine standing in the middle of a long line stretching beyond the horizon to where the American dream waits. People keep cutting ahead of you and it is President Barak Hussein Obama with your tax money who is helping them. They say, “it’s not our government anymore it’s his.” This may not at all be your vision of reality. But whoever gets elected, this is the world our neighbors live in. The struggle is real.

At Michaelmas, the feast of the struggle between good and all that threatens it, I want to propose two images for this Cathedral as our home. The first comes from story of Michael and the Angels. This home is the fortress where we prepare for the battle which is our life.

Another image comes from the book of Genesis. As Jacob travels he stops to sleep. “Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head… And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top reaching toward heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28). Bishop Marc Andrus asks, “Where does this ladder lead but to your heart?” This Cathedral home is also a refuge where we draw inward and experience the connection between heaven and earth.

Today is the beginning of our stewardship season when we make financial pledges to support our Cathedral. Our theme is “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” A pledge differs from every other way that we use money and corresponds to the two images of our Cathedral as home. First, we give to support the needs of this church, so that society will always have a place for exploring the full depths of our humanity, where our lives can be made whole through a connection to Christ.

But we also give for ourselves, for our spiritual wellbeing, as part of our own inward journey in faith. This happens for the simple reason that making a gift changes the relation we have with money. Giving alters the control that money has over us. In this way giving makes us more free. Giving helps us to move beyond having money as our god toward the freedom of experiencing the real God as our god. I know that this is not easy. It’s harder for some than for others. The struggle is real.

I began by asking how you prepare to go into battle. In these days when it is hard even to remain a hopeful person we all have our different ways of putting on our game face. But my desire is that you find strength in prayer. Allow yourself to rely on the one who has loved you even from before you were born, the one who has walked with you to this day, the one who will hold you up to the end.

[1] One of the lines is, “why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me?”

[2] Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (NY: Anchor Books, 2002) 88.

[3] Arlie Hochschild, “I Spent Five Years with Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans, Here’s What They Won’t Tell You,” Mother Jones, September / October 2016.

[4] A large portion of the population in Louisiana depends on federal disability payments just to survive. Many of these people are open with their other neighbors about how they lie to cheat the system.

Sunday, September 18
The Unthinkable Debt
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16:1-13).
Read sermon

 

The Unthinkable Debt

“No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16:1-13).

Imagine that this is the last day of your life. Are you ready to die? What if this was your last moment. What are you feeling? What do you wish you had done differently? Have you really lived? Or have you wasted your time with unimportant things, with worry, blame, denial and false regrets. What do you wish you did more of… or less of?[1]

Ancient Greek philosophers used thought experiments like this to remind themselves that we will not live forever. They believed that this kind of exercise could help us understand what really matters and that this could change us for the better.

Let me introduce three Greek important words from these ancient teachers. To describe the goal of human life ancient they used the word eudaimonia. Literally it means “good spirit” but most often it is translated as happiness, welfare, joy, human flourishing. It means living well in every sense: being successful, enjoying pleasure, making a difference. Aristotle called this happiness (eudaimonia) the highest good.

Although they disagreed about so much, ancient Greek philosophical schools including: the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics agreed that the best way to achieve eudaimonia was through ataraxia which we could define as tranquility or imperturbability, a kind of freedom from worry. Ataraxia means to keep an even keel, to not be swept away by either good fortune or disaster. It means to have control over our feelings and the way we respond to the world. For Aristotle phroneisis is practical wisdom and the way in which among other things we recognize the importance of this control.[2]

I’m grateful for their reflections on how to live but Jesus offers us so much more. The gospel uses this same word for wisdom but Jesus teaches that life can be more than just a struggle to control our emotions. Like a blue whale ranging across the vast Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Tern, a bird that migrates between the Arctic breeding grounds and the Antarctic each year, we have a homing instinct.

Hidden within every person lies an equally mysterious and reliable map for finding our way home to God. It shows where we came from and how to return. Through his parables Jesus teaches that God’s kingdom is already breaking into this world and that if we learn to pay attention we can be part of it.

Like the ancient Greek philosophers Jesus gives us thought experiments, stories to help us understand the meaning of God’s kingdom. We call them parables. They help us to think the unthinkable. Jesus probably meant them to be jarring, to disorient us and make us question what is reliable and stable. Parables upend the world because the good news of Jesus changes the meaning of everything for us.

Unlike most other parables, today’s appears only in the Gospel of Luke. Many people find it difficult and deeply unsatisfying. I have read over a dozen commentaries and sermons on it. The only easy way to interpret it is to make unwarranted assumptions about the context.

After addressing the religious leaders Jesus turns to speak to his disciples. He tells them the story of a manager for a rich absentee landlord. A crisis occurs when the manager hears that he is going to be charged with squandering the wealthy man’s property. Too weak for labor and too ashamed to beg he anticipates being let go and decides on a plan. He goes to each person who owes his employer and reduces the debt on the account books: from one hundred jugs of olive oil to fifty, from one hundred sheaves of wheat to eighty.

The story takes a perplexing turn when the rich man commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Jesus adds on several sayings that leave us unsure just where we stand. He says that the children of the age are more shrewd than the children of light, that we should make friends with dishonest wealth, that whoever is faithful in small matters is likely to be faithful in larger ones. Jesus concludes saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16).

Some interpreters simplify the problem this raises and argue that the manager only gave away his own commission but this is not at all clear from the text. Others point out that foreign absentee landlords had a terrible reputation for cruelty. On Thursday night the reading from 2 Kings (4:1-7) was about a widow whose creditors were about to sell her children into slavery. The word Luke uses for the “charges” against the manager is diaballow. It means accusation and is related to the word accuser which is also the name for the devil.

Furthermore it is not completely clear that this is a dishonest manager. The word in Geek is not “dishonest” it is adikias or unrighteous. Because the genitive case is tricky one cannot quite say if he himself is unrighteous or simply a manager of unrighteous things. Perhaps forgiving debts is the right thing to do even if the manager does it for the wrong reasons.

In any event preachers assure their congregations that the point of the story is not for us to act dishonestly. Just as the manager faces a crisis in his life and must act intelligently, people of faith need practical wisdom as we face the crisis of God’s kingdom. What matters is the contrast Jesus draws between faithfulness and unrighteousness. His point is that our use of wealth has serious spiritual implications.

You know the parable is beginning to do its work when you find your world turned upside down. This week after studying this parable for twenty hours the effect it had on me was to unsettle my understanding of money and debt.
In our time, the market, our economic system, functions as a kind of unacknowledged religion. Our religious language carries within it economic metaphors of sin, debt, forgiveness, freedom and redemption. But our economic ideas also include assumptions about value and morality.[3] Jesus’ parable confuses us partly because of our deep sense that debts must be paid. A manager who dissolves these obligations troubles us because we tend to treat money and credit as our gods.

The anthropologist and activist David Graeber tells the following story about the Third World debt crisis. In the 1970’s OPEC countries began investing their large oil profits in western banks. These banks made loans to small, poor countries, or rather to their dictators and politicians who then deposited large sums of this money into their private Swiss bank accounts. Although interest rates were initially lower, tight monetary policies in the United States during the 1980’s and 1990’s drove these rates much higher and the loans began to fail.[4]

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in and, as a condition of refinancing, forced poor countries to abandon price supports for food, to deplete strategic food reserves and to abandon free healthcare and free education for some of the poorest people on earth. This had many terrible effects including taking food from children who need it. One concrete example of this suffering involves the way that these IMF policies led to the abandonment of a relatively cheap anti-Malaria program in Madagascar. Ten thousand people died there as a result. This all happened so that Citibank didn’t have to cut its losses on an irresponsible loan.[5]

Whether we are creditors We assume that loans are entered into freely and arranged on a fair basis when that might be an exception in history. Jesus’ parable points to a kind of invisible and implicit violence in the way that loans can function. Loans can keep people permanently in poverty. Our bias that indebted people deserve some kind of punishment make it hard for us to notice the signs of God’s kingdom in which there is enough for all.

You may not understand it but this is how Jesus’ parable has turned my world upside down. What is fair, who is good, what are our responsibilities to each other, seem less clear than when I started the week. Money, our systems of debt and credit, feel less reliable and real to me now in the face of God’s generous love.

Earlier I mentioned the thought experiments that Greek philosophers used to communicate practical wisdom (phroneisis) and to control their feelings (ataraxia). They did this to attain the happiness (eudaimoniea) that they describe as the highest good. This story of Jesus does not create in us the sense of the disinterestedness (ataraxia) which Greek philosophers believed would lead us on to happiness (eudaimonia). The story Jesus offers this morning involves finding our way back home by removing the barriers that stand between us and God.

The German mystical teacher Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) understood this acutely.[6] He writes that all things owe their being to God, and that it is, “God’s endeavor to give himself to us entirely.” In response to God’s love we are, “becoming as we were before we were born.”[7] We do this by abandoning our attachment to worldly things so that we can direct our lives back toward God. Eckhart says, “we come alive when we give away what [we have] received.”[8]

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda writes about a moment in his childhood when an unknown neighborhood boy left a toy (a wholly white sheep) for him at a hole in his back fence. He then left a toy for him in return. He writes, “To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something greater and more beautiful because it widens the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things… That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together. This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood in the backyard of a lonely house.”[9]

Let us pray: God of Mystery, you find grace even in the devious and compromised.[10] We thank you that today is not our last day and that you have walked so far with us to bring us to this holy place. Inspire our hearts to make good use of what you have given us as we rejoice in your unfolding kingdom. Amen.

[1] When I tried this thought experiment myself I felt a wave of gratitude for this year at Grace Cathedral, for these amazing experiences of beauty in worship, for new friends, the choirs, the breathtaking space, Easter and Christmas, quiet foggy mornings as tourists discover our art, etc.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Attempts at an Answer (NY: Other Press, 2010), 109-110.

[3] Introductory economics textbooks even have the equivalent of origin narratives. Like the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden they speculate about a time when people bartered for everything they had and the way that this system grew into the invention of money. This story and others like it are not based on anthropological evidence but have been a central part of how we pass economic ideas from one generation to the next.

[4] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (NY: Melville Publishing, 2011) 2-4.

[5] Perhaps even more damning Graeber writes about the United States as an empire with hundreds of overseas military bases. He describes the loan costs as a kind of tribute paid by client states.

[6] Once someone came to Meister Eckhart and complained that no one could understand his sermons. He said, “To understand my preaching, five things are needed. The hearer must have conquered strife; he must be contemplating his highest good; he must be satisfied to do God’s bidding; he must be a beginner among beginners; and denying himself, he must be so a master of himself as to be incapable of anger.” Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 194.

[7] Edward F. Mooney, “A Lyric Philosophy of Place,” Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (NY: Continuum, 2009) 31, 48.

[8] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (NY: Vintage Books, 1979) 54-55.

[9] Ibid., 282.

[10] This line comes from Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church (NY: Church Publishing, 2009) 105.

Listen to Past Sermons

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

Tuesday, September 27
Taking Off the Masks
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
September 27th Yoga Introduction
Read sermon

What was the best day of your life? You might have in mind the responsible parent answer. It was when my children were born or on the day I married my spouse. You might also have in mind the fantasy version to this answer. You might have a picture of being up at the cabin or on a white sandy beach in Hawaii. Perhaps your answer is more accomplishment-based. Perhaps it was when you beat the odds and managed to graduate. Maybe it was when you were reconciled to a parent who had always been difficult for you. Perhaps it had something to do with self-knowledge. Perhaps it was that moment when you just realized who you really were.

Today in this place I am celebrating the anniversary of one of the best days of my life. Last year with huge crowds of people and friends and family from every stage of my life, I was installed as the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral. It seemed like every person who I loved in the world was here – and they were full of love for me.
My priest from college drove seven hours to get here, missed one of the most important Sundays of his church’s calendar and all just to stand in line so that he could hug me and say, “I love you Malcolm!”

That was one of the days when I became aware of putting on my mask as dean of Grace Cathedral. I’m still not completely sure how it fits. When I say it this way it sounds like a bad thing and it certainly could be. That mask could be merely a mass of entitlement that disconnects me from everyone else. It could be a mask of fear, that someone will find out who I really am.

But this mask of being dean could also bring about great good in the world. It could be a deep sense of love and responsibility for the people who work here, and for those who come here to feel a connection to the infinite. It could be the sense of gratitude, that so many people in so many ways, right up to this point and to you, are making this a place in which people can become more human, more humane.

What is the difference between a destructive mask and a good one? They both direct how we grow. Some times I might want to react with impatience or anger, and the mask helps me to not do that, to begin to grow into the better image of this role.

Tonight after yoga we will be talking with Jennifer Seibel Newsom about the mask of being a man in our culture, about how it can distort and dehumanize. After our conversation you will have the chance to see her powerful, life-changing film The Mask You Live In.

During your practice tonight however, I pray that through our efforts together you will get below all the masks that you put on and take off. I pray that you will find that place where we are all brothers and sisters, where the mystery of that infinite and loving presence that brought you into the world is not too far away.

Sunday, September 25
The Struggle Is Real
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” (Rev. 12).
Read sermon

 

“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” (Rev. 12).

How do you prepare to go into battle? How do you get ready to talk to a friend about his addiction, or steel yourself to face the bigot who hates you? I do not even know what your struggle is – but you do. Maybe it is a difficult conversation that could save a friendship. It might have to do with conflict at work. It could be your health or a family member. Perhaps it lies in the fear that you might lose your job, spouse, home – your nation or your soul.

Some of our most cherished traditions at this Cathedral happen backstage. People here probably think it is odd that I sometimes describe the vestry as “the locker room,” but that’s what it is. When I played football we would enter the locker room dressed in our street clothes thinking about our romances, jobs, homework and being cool. As we put those pads on, we also prepared for battle, for an activity that demands all of you, and is dangerous to yourself and others. We put on our game face. We thought about what we had to do.

This very same thing happens in the vestry each Sunday as we prepare for worship. Initially we are chatting with each other about our week as we get our microphones and robes on. Finally, we quiet down to hear our assignments from the precentor and then gather for prayer. We say together Psalm 43. The people who have done this for years know it by heart.

It starts with these words. “Give judgment for me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; / deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked. / For you are the God of my strength?” Then in silence we form our procession to enter this magnificent Cathedral.

Around here a question comes up surprisingly often. Why do we repeat such a glum psalm every week.[1] People especially ask me this, because I am fundamentally a joyful person. I absolutely love to worship here. It is one of my favorite things to do in the world. And the answer is this. Psalm 43 reminds us that there are forces in the world that work actively against the kingdom of God, that seek to enslave and degrade and destroy the children of God. We might like to forget it but this is the truth.

In his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning Chris Hedges writes, “There are always people willing to commit unspeakable human atrocity in exchange for a little power and privilege.”[2] The struggle is not even just against individual adversaries but structures and institutions and culture, against greed, violence, ego, fear and injustice.

Since the very beginning Christians have wondered how, in the face of all this, we can be brought back home to God. We have debated various theories of the atonement. A thousand years ago St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) proposed that because God is by definition just, God could not merely dispense with our sins but required Jesus to suffer instead of us. A different much more ancient theory of the atonement called Christus Victor holds instead that Christ’s death set into motion the defeat of all evil and that we are still in the midst of struggle as this victory is worked out.

This second picture of atonement is the theology of Michaelmas, the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, which we celebrate this morning. Michaelmas falls at the Autumnal Equinox, this precarious time of temporary balance between light and darkness. It reminds us how close the battle between good and evil is.

Most times when an angel appears in the Bible, the first thing we hear, is “Do not be afraid.” This is because the natural response to the power of God embodied in an angel is sheer terror. In the Book of Revelation Michael and the angels win a provisional victory casting out Satan into this world.

John records the conclusion of this battle in his dream saying, “Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12)!

Young people today have an expression I appreciate. When you suggest that they might be complaining too much, they say, “the struggle is real.” I have no idea what effect it has on others but it leads me to reappraise my original judgment and to appreciate that another person’s challenges are different than my own. So this morning I say, “Woe to the earth” “the struggle is real.”

We are struggling these days in America. Two more African American men were killed by police this week. A terrorist set up bombs in New York and New Jersey. One hundred people were here for our Forum on homelessness this morning. Tuesday night we will be talking about the power of confining and destructive images regarding masculinity in our culture.

Perhaps the most obvious struggle that we share in common now has to do with our politics. Arlie Russell Hochschild points out that for the first time in history a significant number of Americans choose where they will live on the basis of the political views of their neighbors. She lives in Berkeley which she describes as one subnation but wanted to write about a radically different subnation. In the last election 39% of white people voted for Obama, 28% of the white people in the south voted for him and 11% of the white voters in Louisiana did.[3]

Hochschild ended up spending five years with them. They have become Donald Trump’s biggest supporters. Louisiana is the third poorest state and ranks last in overall health. In 2013 twenty percent of 16-24 year olds there were neither in school nor work. Perhaps as a result of “Cancer Alley” pollution they have the second highest incidence of cancer for men.

Globalization has fundamentally changed what workers can expect in America today. The plentiful manufacturing jobs that used to exist are gone. Many find their prospects and standard of living are worse than that of their parents. Among the poor the institution of marriage has collapsed. Poor people have significantly lower levels of participation in churches and a high percentage of children growing up in households with only one adult. They are far less likely to say that they trust their neighbors or that they are happy. Rates of suicide and drug addiction in this demographic are appalling.

There is a fundamental crisis now in our society about the meaning of work.[4] One of the women interviewed said, “You’ve done everything right and you are slipping back.” From her perspective President Obama’s federal government merely pulls down the hard-working rich and struggling middle class in order to lift up the idle poor.

Hochschild writes that one can dismiss these voters with statistics like the one that says 66% of Trump supporters think that Obama is a Muslim. But this doesn’t get to the deep story. She says that the deep story is about shame, need, unfairness, anxiety and downward mobility. She writes that it “feels” true to nearly white every person she met in Louisiana.

Hochschild proposes a picture to help us understand this deep story. Imagine standing in the middle of a long line stretching beyond the horizon to where the American dream waits. People keep cutting ahead of you and it is President Barak Hussein Obama with your tax money who is helping them. They say, “it’s not our government anymore it’s his.” This may not at all be your vision of reality. But whoever gets elected, this is the world our neighbors live in. The struggle is real.

At Michaelmas, the feast of the struggle between good and all that threatens it, I want to propose two images for this Cathedral as our home. The first comes from story of Michael and the Angels. This home is the fortress where we prepare for the battle which is our life.

Another image comes from the book of Genesis. As Jacob travels he stops to sleep. “Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head… And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top reaching toward heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28). Bishop Marc Andrus asks, “Where does this ladder lead but to your heart?” This Cathedral home is also a refuge where we draw inward and experience the connection between heaven and earth.

Today is the beginning of our stewardship season when we make financial pledges to support our Cathedral. Our theme is “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” A pledge differs from every other way that we use money and corresponds to the two images of our Cathedral as home. First, we give to support the needs of this church, so that society will always have a place for exploring the full depths of our humanity, where our lives can be made whole through a connection to Christ.

But we also give for ourselves, for our spiritual wellbeing, as part of our own inward journey in faith. This happens for the simple reason that making a gift changes the relation we have with money. Giving alters the control that money has over us. In this way giving makes us more free. Giving helps us to move beyond having money as our god toward the freedom of experiencing the real God as our god. I know that this is not easy. It’s harder for some than for others. The struggle is real.

I began by asking how you prepare to go into battle. In these days when it is hard even to remain a hopeful person we all have our different ways of putting on our game face. But my desire is that you find strength in prayer. Allow yourself to rely on the one who has loved you even from before you were born, the one who has walked with you to this day, the one who will hold you up to the end.

[1] One of the lines is, “why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me?”

[2] Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (NY: Anchor Books, 2002) 88.

[3] Arlie Hochschild, “I Spent Five Years with Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans, Here’s What They Won’t Tell You,” Mother Jones, September / October 2016.

[4] A large portion of the population in Louisiana depends on federal disability payments just to survive. Many of these people are open with their other neighbors about how they lie to cheat the system.

Sunday, September 18
The Unthinkable Debt
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16:1-13).
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The Unthinkable Debt

“No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16:1-13).

Imagine that this is the last day of your life. Are you ready to die? What if this was your last moment. What are you feeling? What do you wish you had done differently? Have you really lived? Or have you wasted your time with unimportant things, with worry, blame, denial and false regrets. What do you wish you did more of… or less of?[1]

Ancient Greek philosophers used thought experiments like this to remind themselves that we will not live forever. They believed that this kind of exercise could help us understand what really matters and that this could change us for the better.

Let me introduce three Greek important words from these ancient teachers. To describe the goal of human life ancient they used the word eudaimonia. Literally it means “good spirit” but most often it is translated as happiness, welfare, joy, human flourishing. It means living well in every sense: being successful, enjoying pleasure, making a difference. Aristotle called this happiness (eudaimonia) the highest good.

Although they disagreed about so much, ancient Greek philosophical schools including: the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics agreed that the best way to achieve eudaimonia was through ataraxia which we could define as tranquility or imperturbability, a kind of freedom from worry. Ataraxia means to keep an even keel, to not be swept away by either good fortune or disaster. It means to have control over our feelings and the way we respond to the world. For Aristotle phroneisis is practical wisdom and the way in which among other things we recognize the importance of this control.[2]

I’m grateful for their reflections on how to live but Jesus offers us so much more. The gospel uses this same word for wisdom but Jesus teaches that life can be more than just a struggle to control our emotions. Like a blue whale ranging across the vast Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Tern, a bird that migrates between the Arctic breeding grounds and the Antarctic each year, we have a homing instinct.

Hidden within every person lies an equally mysterious and reliable map for finding our way home to God. It shows where we came from and how to return. Through his parables Jesus teaches that God’s kingdom is already breaking into this world and that if we learn to pay attention we can be part of it.

Like the ancient Greek philosophers Jesus gives us thought experiments, stories to help us understand the meaning of God’s kingdom. We call them parables. They help us to think the unthinkable. Jesus probably meant them to be jarring, to disorient us and make us question what is reliable and stable. Parables upend the world because the good news of Jesus changes the meaning of everything for us.

Unlike most other parables, today’s appears only in the Gospel of Luke. Many people find it difficult and deeply unsatisfying. I have read over a dozen commentaries and sermons on it. The only easy way to interpret it is to make unwarranted assumptions about the context.

After addressing the religious leaders Jesus turns to speak to his disciples. He tells them the story of a manager for a rich absentee landlord. A crisis occurs when the manager hears that he is going to be charged with squandering the wealthy man’s property. Too weak for labor and too ashamed to beg he anticipates being let go and decides on a plan. He goes to each person who owes his employer and reduces the debt on the account books: from one hundred jugs of olive oil to fifty, from one hundred sheaves of wheat to eighty.

The story takes a perplexing turn when the rich man commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Jesus adds on several sayings that leave us unsure just where we stand. He says that the children of the age are more shrewd than the children of light, that we should make friends with dishonest wealth, that whoever is faithful in small matters is likely to be faithful in larger ones. Jesus concludes saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16).

Some interpreters simplify the problem this raises and argue that the manager only gave away his own commission but this is not at all clear from the text. Others point out that foreign absentee landlords had a terrible reputation for cruelty. On Thursday night the reading from 2 Kings (4:1-7) was about a widow whose creditors were about to sell her children into slavery. The word Luke uses for the “charges” against the manager is diaballow. It means accusation and is related to the word accuser which is also the name for the devil.

Furthermore it is not completely clear that this is a dishonest manager. The word in Geek is not “dishonest” it is adikias or unrighteous. Because the genitive case is tricky one cannot quite say if he himself is unrighteous or simply a manager of unrighteous things. Perhaps forgiving debts is the right thing to do even if the manager does it for the wrong reasons.

In any event preachers assure their congregations that the point of the story is not for us to act dishonestly. Just as the manager faces a crisis in his life and must act intelligently, people of faith need practical wisdom as we face the crisis of God’s kingdom. What matters is the contrast Jesus draws between faithfulness and unrighteousness. His point is that our use of wealth has serious spiritual implications.

You know the parable is beginning to do its work when you find your world turned upside down. This week after studying this parable for twenty hours the effect it had on me was to unsettle my understanding of money and debt.
In our time, the market, our economic system, functions as a kind of unacknowledged religion. Our religious language carries within it economic metaphors of sin, debt, forgiveness, freedom and redemption. But our economic ideas also include assumptions about value and morality.[3] Jesus’ parable confuses us partly because of our deep sense that debts must be paid. A manager who dissolves these obligations troubles us because we tend to treat money and credit as our gods.

The anthropologist and activist David Graeber tells the following story about the Third World debt crisis. In the 1970’s OPEC countries began investing their large oil profits in western banks. These banks made loans to small, poor countries, or rather to their dictators and politicians who then deposited large sums of this money into their private Swiss bank accounts. Although interest rates were initially lower, tight monetary policies in the United States during the 1980’s and 1990’s drove these rates much higher and the loans began to fail.[4]

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in and, as a condition of refinancing, forced poor countries to abandon price supports for food, to deplete strategic food reserves and to abandon free healthcare and free education for some of the poorest people on earth. This had many terrible effects including taking food from children who need it. One concrete example of this suffering involves the way that these IMF policies led to the abandonment of a relatively cheap anti-Malaria program in Madagascar. Ten thousand people died there as a result. This all happened so that Citibank didn’t have to cut its losses on an irresponsible loan.[5]

Whether we are creditors We assume that loans are entered into freely and arranged on a fair basis when that might be an exception in history. Jesus’ parable points to a kind of invisible and implicit violence in the way that loans can function. Loans can keep people permanently in poverty. Our bias that indebted people deserve some kind of punishment make it hard for us to notice the signs of God’s kingdom in which there is enough for all.

You may not understand it but this is how Jesus’ parable has turned my world upside down. What is fair, who is good, what are our responsibilities to each other, seem less clear than when I started the week. Money, our systems of debt and credit, feel less reliable and real to me now in the face of God’s generous love.

Earlier I mentioned the thought experiments that Greek philosophers used to communicate practical wisdom (phroneisis) and to control their feelings (ataraxia). They did this to attain the happiness (eudaimoniea) that they describe as the highest good. This story of Jesus does not create in us the sense of the disinterestedness (ataraxia) which Greek philosophers believed would lead us on to happiness (eudaimonia). The story Jesus offers this morning involves finding our way back home by removing the barriers that stand between us and God.

The German mystical teacher Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) understood this acutely.[6] He writes that all things owe their being to God, and that it is, “God’s endeavor to give himself to us entirely.” In response to God’s love we are, “becoming as we were before we were born.”[7] We do this by abandoning our attachment to worldly things so that we can direct our lives back toward God. Eckhart says, “we come alive when we give away what [we have] received.”[8]

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda writes about a moment in his childhood when an unknown neighborhood boy left a toy (a wholly white sheep) for him at a hole in his back fence. He then left a toy for him in return. He writes, “To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something greater and more beautiful because it widens the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things… That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together. This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood in the backyard of a lonely house.”[9]

Let us pray: God of Mystery, you find grace even in the devious and compromised.[10] We thank you that today is not our last day and that you have walked so far with us to bring us to this holy place. Inspire our hearts to make good use of what you have given us as we rejoice in your unfolding kingdom. Amen.

[1] When I tried this thought experiment myself I felt a wave of gratitude for this year at Grace Cathedral, for these amazing experiences of beauty in worship, for new friends, the choirs, the breathtaking space, Easter and Christmas, quiet foggy mornings as tourists discover our art, etc.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Attempts at an Answer (NY: Other Press, 2010), 109-110.

[3] Introductory economics textbooks even have the equivalent of origin narratives. Like the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden they speculate about a time when people bartered for everything they had and the way that this system grew into the invention of money. This story and others like it are not based on anthropological evidence but have been a central part of how we pass economic ideas from one generation to the next.

[4] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (NY: Melville Publishing, 2011) 2-4.

[5] Perhaps even more damning Graeber writes about the United States as an empire with hundreds of overseas military bases. He describes the loan costs as a kind of tribute paid by client states.

[6] Once someone came to Meister Eckhart and complained that no one could understand his sermons. He said, “To understand my preaching, five things are needed. The hearer must have conquered strife; he must be contemplating his highest good; he must be satisfied to do God’s bidding; he must be a beginner among beginners; and denying himself, he must be so a master of himself as to be incapable of anger.” Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 194.

[7] Edward F. Mooney, “A Lyric Philosophy of Place,” Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (NY: Continuum, 2009) 31, 48.

[8] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (NY: Vintage Books, 1979) 54-55.

[9] Ibid., 282.

[10] This line comes from Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church (NY: Church Publishing, 2009) 105.

Sunday, September 11
My Weight Is My Love
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“… I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15).
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What is worth dying for?[1] This question might help us decide how to live. Our job at Salesforce or Google or Facebook, our iPhones, the San Francisco 49ers or our success or good looks obviously are not worth it. Not too many of our neighbors would die for their religion or for their country any more. Twenty-first century America may be defined by no longer having anything worth dying for.

On Friday I was having lunch at the elegant apartment of a fashion designer and former Grace Cathedral trustee. It is a beautiful bright space with an interior staircase up to a solarium on the top floor. After delivering the other guests and visiting for five minutes I went down to re-park the car. This took longer than I expected. So I ran upstairs, went in, shut the door and then realized that there was a lot of Asian art that I hadn’t noticed the first time.

I turned to the staircase, and there was no staircase. Just as I began to feel completely disoriented, a woman came down the hallway with a puzzled look on her face asking if I was someone who I had never heard of. In that instant her husband walked into the room, and I realized it. I was in the wrong apartment. I had no idea what to do so I simply explained that I was the dean of Grace Cathedral and that I was visiting her neighbor upstairs. We talked about all the people we know in common and I left feeling like I had made two new friends.

All of us at some point have experienced the sinking feeling of realizing we are lost. I have felt it in a New England forest at dusk, in the High Sierras and distant cities, and most of all as a child in a crowd of unfamiliar faces. Perhaps we are lost too when we have not found what is worth living or dying for.

There is a wonderful parallel between the first two sentences of today’s gospel highlighted by Luke’s use of alliteration. All of the sinners and tax collectors engizontes which means to come near to Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and scribes diagonguzon or grumble that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. These are the people who are lost and know they are lost, and the people who are lost but have not discovered it yet. They are you and me.

We use the word repentance to describe what is at stake but I sometimes wonder if that word has been worn out in the way that a lot of religious words have been. The Greek word is metanoia and means literally a changed soul. You might call this ecstatic transformation. Jesus explains with two examples. A shepherd leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find the one who is lost. He rejoices as he hoists it on his shoulders and then again as he calls friends and neighbors to tell them the news.

A woman takes all the furniture out of her house to find a lost coin and calls her neighbors to celebrate. Jesus is trying to express the impossible – the joy God feels when we are no longer lost. Jesus wants you to know how deeply and irrationally God loves you.

Let me offer another example. Imagine that my wife Heidi as a law professor discovered that one of her undocumented immigrant law students was in danger of flunking out. What if she immediately cleared her schedule, stopped showing up to committee meetings and class so that she could spend more time tutoring this person. Imagine she worked with her every night until 11:30 p.m. in the library going over hypothetical cases and the law. Then when the student successfully graduated suppose Heidi exhausted all of our savings renting out the Fairmont Hotel so that the entire law school community could celebrate this one student’s accomplishment?

On the one hand you might be irritated and identify with people Heidi neglected, but you cannot get away from the fact that she deeply loved this one student. Jesus wants us to feel the weight of this, not so that we grudgingly go around feeling indebted, but so that we fully experience God’s love and rejoice in a life of purpose.

Today we are celebrating Homecoming Sunday. Our theme this year is home. It has given us a chance to learn more both about what home means in general and our own home. From a team of doctors who greet Middle Eastern refugees on the shores of Europe we heard that according to the United Nations there are 65 million refugees in our world today. That is one out of every 113 people on the planet.[2]

At our first Forum on September 25 we will continue our discussion on homeless with San Francisco’s Jeff Kositsky first Director of Homelessness, Audrey Cooper the Editor-in-Chief of the Chronicle and Ken Reggio. We have talked about the earth as our home, gentrification and racism in San Francisco and the unique cultural contributions of this region.

This week I have been reading Harvard Government professor Nancy Rosenblum’s book Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America (2016). It makes me realize that the words home and neighbor exist in relation to and define each other. You simply cannot have one without the other. Rosenblum writes that neighbors are our environment. She describes home as a “fragile refuge” “where we are uniquely vulnerable and retreat is impossible.”[3] In a way home is a gift that we are always receiving, or failing to receive, from our neighbors.

Rosenblum writes about the most horrifying violations of our expectations concerning neighborliness. When Japanese Americans were moved to internment camps in World War II many of their neighbors did not even wave goodbye. Instead they looted and stole from them before they had even left town.

She quotes James Cameron an African American man who survived a mob’s attempt to lynch him. The most upsetting part was that these were people he knew in town. He writes, “It is impossible to explain the impending crisis of sudden and terrifying death at the hands of people I had grown to love and respect as friends and neighbors.” “I recognized… customers whose shoes I had shined many times… boys and girls I had gone to school with were among the mob and neighbors whose lawns I had mowed and whose cars I had washed and polished.”[4] Rosenblum also writes about people who behave in a truly heroic manner and risk their lives to save others.

For me what is most missing from Rosenblum’s world of terrible and good neighbors is any experience of the holy or the transcendent. It is as if she regards our neighbors as a small, unimportant distraction from the real business of living, which might involve for instance, working one’s way up to partner in the law firm, or getting tenure at Harvard. According to her we refrain from bothering our neighbors so that we can all accomplish great successes. But what if our neighbors, this area of our life that we regard as peripheral, really is the main thing?

Of all the writers in the first five centuries of Christianity St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) sounds most contemporary with our time. In his autobiography he writes about being utterly lost. He says that as a young man, “I was in love with the idea of a happy life.”[5] And yet everything he did to satisfy this desire ended up making himself miserable.

In short, Augustine struggled deeply with lust. We all have our shortcomings perhaps you are greedy, have a bad temper, or you constantly compare yourself to other people, for Augustine it was sex. He believed that his worst fault was the way sex for him seemed completely out of control. Fifteen hundred years later he is still famous for praying, “God make me chaste… but not yet.”[6]

My friend, the history professor Margaret Miles says that Augustine experienced two conversions. In one he heard a child’s voice singing “Take and read.” When he opened the Bible to Romans 13:13-14, he read about abandoning drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy and putting on Jesus Christ. He writes, “my heart was filled with a light of confidence and the shadows of my doubts were swept away.”[7] But my friend Margaret says that Augustine experienced another even more powerful transformation.

Augustine realized that our shortcomings, our greed, envy, lust, sense of superiority, impatience and anger all arise out of the power that fear exercises in our lives. In his case lust came out of both his fear of missing out on something and his self-centeredness. His metanoia, his transformation, occurred when he realized that he could instead channel this energy into loving others. He could allow himself to be totally immersed in God. Augustine had a kind of mission statement for his life, “My weight is my love; by it I am carried wherever I am carried.” He began to allow God, and not his ego, to be the center of his life and to guide him.

For Augustine love is not a feeling. It is an action. He was not an expert at this right away but he realized that through daily decisions in each particular circumstance we can learn to participate in God’s love. We can love our neighbor. We can be part of how those around us find their home. This is how Augustine became a Christian, a follower of the God who is love. It is how he discovered what he would die for and what he would live for.

Rejoice. On this homecoming Sunday welcome sinners and eat with them. You are the one who chooses to draw near to Jesus and not to grumble about him. You are the coin that has been lost. You are the sheep that has been found again. Our weight is our love, by it we are carried home.

 

[1] This introduction and the material on St. Augustine comes from notes for a lecture called “To Die For: Bodies, Pleasures, and the Young Augustine,” that Margaret Ruth Miles intends to deliver at Villanova University 16 September 2016.

[2] These statistics are for the end of 2015 and come from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/20/world/unhcr-displaced-peoples-report/

[3] Nancy Rosenblum, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 12.

[4] Ibid., 181-182.

[5] Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine tr. Rex Warner (NY: Signet Classic, 2001), 188.

[6] Ibid., 164.

[7] Ibid., 174.

Sunday, September 4
Choosing Life: Worth the Price
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity:

choose life.”

 

Last week Jesus was around the dinner table and reminded both his inner circle and his prickly adversaries that humility not status,

vulnerability and not comfort,

would be the best ways to really enjoy the banquet,

to enjoy the new life, the full life,

the deep freedom and satisfaction God desires for us.

 

Today, Jesus opens up the discussion to the crowds who are glomming onto to him on his journey toward Jerusalem.

He says what no Hillary or Donald advisor would ever recommend:

Jesus says that the full enjoyment of the real life, the real happiness,

the real deal and the real meal, the banquet of kingdom,

living whole and free and fully alive,

is completely available and at hand:

but … it’s gonna cost you.

Count on it,

expect it,

plan for it.

It’s gonna cost you.

 

Not because the odds are against us,

not because God and universe are perverse score-keepers,

waiting to catch us up in a merciless game of “gotcha”,

but simply because if we are going to enjoy a life

of deep happiness and freedom and integrity,

our values, our choices, our actions really matter.

And the consequence of our choices and actions really matter.

And they usually are not what the culture is asking for,

not what the powers that be, then or now, need and want,

not what even our families are used to hearing about and doing.

Jesus tells us today to grab hold of this new way of feeling and seeing and responding,

start walking with this cross,

and then follow him.

It’s the way to deep freedom and calm

but it’s not free.

 

They might pull out the pepper spray, tear gas, and the water cannons,

they will set the dogs on you,

they will accuse you of not being a patriot,

of being ungrateful,

but you will be free, alive, already feasting at the table of the kingdom.

 

If the whole world or the entire nation or whole family

is charging toward something that just doesn’t feel right,

that’s not quite complete, that isn’t delivering what it promises,

and you say, “I’m going to sit this one out,”

––it’s gonna cost you.

Not because you’ve suddenly become Mother Teresa

but because, by God’s grace, in your own clumsy, awkward, imperfect way,

in that moment, you simply decide, you choose not to stand for it.

I won’t stand for it. I won’t laugh at the harmless joke at work,

I won’t grab all I can even as others can’t even reach the table,

and, even if I am in a place of great privilege and gratitude,

I will sometimes choose to ally myself with those who are not,

who cannot.

Jesus says that the joyful, clear, bright path to the deepest kind of

freedom and integrity and wholeness

is…the way of the cross,

that hard, heavy, costly path of

discerning what we really, really believe in our heart of hearts,

of knowing what has real value,

of sensing what is vital, life-affirming, and life-giving

and grabbing hold of it,

even if the rest of the team, the rest of the crowds,

even if your family and Facebook friends

don’t understand or are offended.

 

Today, while he’s in prison, St. Paul meets the escaped slave Onesimus.

Probably the only chance Onesimus has to stay alive is to go back to Philemon; under Roman law he’s a marked man.

Paul sends the letter we heard today:

“Philemon, we both know this isn’t the way things are done,

but I’m warning you: When your servant Onesimus returns don’t even think of exercising your legal options.

I’m alongside him and I’m fully allied with him.

Remember, you owe me, Philemon.

In this kingdom to which we really belong,

there is only mercy and forgiveness,

and you’d better be alongside him, too.”

Paul tells him: “So get my nice guest room ready pronto, Philemon.

But know that Onesimus will be taking it––permanently.

He’s no longer your slave: he’s your brother.

End of discussion.”

 

After the narrow escape from Egypt and that life of slavery and humiliation and the years of hopeful travel,

Now gathered on the plains of Moab looking across the waters toward the Promised Land,

Moses tells the Hebrew sons and daughters

sure, they’ve escaped, but they’re not really free yet,

not free unless and until

they choose what is deeply right in every single decision,

what is morally acceptable in every human interaction,

no matter what is going on around them.

And it’s really not that strange or hard to figure out:

actually it’s not even on those stone tablets or in the pages

of the bible. Remember the part just before today’s?

The word is near you…stop and listen.

Your heart will tell you:

“No, that’s not quite right.”

“No, that’s really mean.”

“No, we shouldn’t be doing this.”

“No, that’s not going to advance our shared human project.”

“Yes, that is the right thing to say, the right thing to do.”

“Yes, I can try to do this by God’s help.”

“Yes, it’s going to make waves but it’s the only life I have

and right now is the only chance I have to make a small difference.”

 

In Jesus, that word of life comes to us even more closely,

because in Jesus, the Divine will and power and gifts

are fully allied to our human lives and hearts and choices and actions.

By baptism, we are immersed into his life and actions

and we are drenched in his life-giving presence and power.

Every action and choice of our lives has life or death consequences

which are felt here and in the hereafter.

What will you give up?

What will you risk?

What will you stand up for and when will you choose to sit it out?

Not sure?

Do the kind thing,

ally yourself with those who are invisible or without a voice,

choose what might be generative and life-giving.

Come into our real life in God while in this world.

Come into freedom and delight.

Friend, come up higher, the banquet awaits.

Sunday, August 28
Humble Again
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker” (Sirach 10).
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“The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker” (Sirach 10).

 

When Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), the Secretary-General of the United Nations, died in a plane crash in Zambia, the discovered the following passage in his diary.

“At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the [chosen and the chooser]. Only one – which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.”[1]

For me, this means that every moment through our thoughts, words and actions we choose who we will be. We draw closer to God or stray further away. This work never happens in a vacuum. Sometimes I wonder if modern life makes this even more difficult.

Sarah Bakewell in a biography of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) complains, “The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, [YouTube videos, Facebook pages, etc.]… brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do…”[2]

Personally, I cannot say for sure whether we are more self-absorbed than people in earlier generations. Technology and culture both have changed. We express ourselves differently. But our political discourse especially seems to lack humility. Perhaps it can be measured by how often the word “great” appears in advertisements, speeches, debates and tweets (for instance in the campaign slogan “Make America great again.”).[3]

Paul Samuelson author of my first economics textbook wrote, “Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.” Indeed we are not the best judges of our own abilities. Surveys show that 90 percent of us describe ourselves as above-average drivers. It is astonishing how resistant to reality we can be. When asked the same question of drivers who were in the hospital recovering from accidents, 80 percent said they were above average.[4]

Humility makes anthropological sense. At some point, experience teaches every wise person that he or she is not as clever, attractive, kind, realistic, creative, loyal, reasonable, or just plain good, as we thought before. The motto of the Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BCE) is “Know thyself.” But this is hard. His student Plato writes that Socrates’ exceptional wisdom came from understanding how little he knew. He was right to regard humility as the foundation for all knowledge.

But the Christian tradition values humility even more highly. Today I want to explore what humility means and why it has such importance for people of faith today.

In his life, Jesus exemplified extraordinary humility. He loved the people who came to him. His heart ached for the rich young ruler. He sympathized with the Roman centurion. He sought out foreigners, prostitutes and occupying army collaborators. His enemies chiefly criticized him for sharing meals with anyone – the most impure, immoral and outlandish, the freaks and the weirdo’s. Today we believe that the presence of sinful people here this morning, praying together, sharing bread and wine, is one of the most powerful signs of God’s kingdom.

At a chief religious leaders’ house Jesus saw people scrambling for the best seats. He gives what sounds like practical advice. Sit in the lower seat and wait to be invited up. Don’t get singled out for sitting above your station. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 13).

But the point of this teaching extends far beyond seating arrangements. Jesus completely reverses everything we know about human interactions. He teaches that the future reward of dining with someone who could repay you later, is entirely eclipsed by the present delight of simply being with someone for their own sake.

The value of people is not what they might do for you some time off in the future. They are a gift just in themselves. The philosopher Immanuel Kant puts this in another way when he says that we need to treat others as ends in themselves rather than as a means to an end. The twentieth century thinker Martin Buber encourages to have “I-Thou” relationships “I-It” relations with other people.

This principle lies at the heart of our life together at Grace Cathedral. We deeply desire to be a house of prayer for all peoples. This week I spent an hour with Stuart, one of our yoga volunteers. We had a bond because at one time we had both worked for the same company. I have no idea what his experience of religion has been.

But I know a lot about his wonderful passion for Grace Cathedral. He said, “Malcolm, have you been to a meeting with our volunteer crew? They are the most amazingly diverse group. One clean shaven white guy is changing out of a business suit, talking to an Asian woman who has green hair and tattoos. They are young, old, straight, gay, African American, Korean, Buddhist, atheist, Christian, etc., …” You get the idea.

Stuart told me about the best part of his week. Six hundred people practice yoga here and many start arriving early to get the best spots. But every day the team puts out a number of mats in the best location in the Cathedral at the very center of the labyrinth. As people come in it is obvious if they have never been here before. Stuart takes these newcomers, arriving late, and he puts them in the best spot in the house. He smiled at me and said, “imagine going to a rock concert and having them tear up your tickets to put you in the very first row.”

Stuart’s self totally disappeared. This is humility. When you are in the presence of someone with true humility you know it. The monk Curtis Almquist calls it, “a gift.” It is, “the secret everyone knows about you but from which you are kept in the dark.”[5]

For the opposite of humility Christians use the word pride. This is confusing because the word pride has other more common meanings. The word pride can describe the good feeling that we have when someone recognizes that we have done good work. We also use this word to express affection like when we say we are proud of our daughter, or proud to be a Golden Bear. These are not sins!

The sin of Pride means caring only about our own ego. It involves feeling better about ourselves at the expense of other people. Pride means having no room in our conscious life for anything but our own well-being. C. S. Lewis writes, “There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others… Pride is essentially competitive… As long as you are proud you cannot know God… Pride eats up the very possibility of love.”[6]

According to much of Christian tradition pride is not merely a serious sin, but the most serious sin, the one that leads to other cruelty, betrayals, and lies that damage other people and the world. The great Sufi mystical poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) writes, “The lovers of God have no religion but God alone.”[7] To be a lover of God our ego needs to stop being our religion. We have to learn to love ourselves and others in a new way.

Life has taught each of us to be an expert in forming judgments of other people. We have a sense for who we should trust, for when someone is not telling the truth, for boundaries that constrain what we do for each other. We have needed this skill to survive. But as a result we have also become quite judgmental of others. We can “see through” those who mean to do us harm.

But Jesus also invites us into a realm where we can “see into” those who cross our path. We can choose to see them as God does and to imagine their fears and dreams, the past that plagues them and the future they long for. This is the gift into which humility leads us.[8] This is the grace of hospitality. Humility and hospitality are related.

I began with a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld. Let me conclude with another.
“To have humility is to experience reality, not in relation to ourselves, but in its sacred independence. It is to see, judge, and act from a point of rest in ourselves… In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each [person] a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity… opens us to a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.”[9]

Over and over Jesus teaches that humility means making room for other people so that they can be themselves and not just what you want them to be. Humilty is making room for God in your life.

What self will we choose? Will we become “great” scrambling for the best seat, so above average and full of ourselves that everyone around us cannot help but notice? Or like our brother Jesus will we delight in the presence of the person right in front of us.

Let’s make America humble again.

 

[1] Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings tr. Leif Sjöberg & W.H. Auden (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 19.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Questions and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (NY: Other Press, 2010), 1.

[3] As an experiment try opening up a candidate’s Twitter page and searching for the word “great.” It comes up a lot.

[4] Robert H. Frank, “Just Deserts: Why We Tend to Exaggerate Merit – and Pay for Doing So,” The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2016, 54.

[5] Curtis G. Almquist, Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 59.

[6] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (NY: Macmillan, 1943) 109-111.

[7] Quoted in Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings tr. Leif Sjöberg & W.H. Auden (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 103.

[8] I used to live near the Society of St. John the Evangelist monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was often inspired by the monks there. This comes from Curtis Almquist, one of the Cowley Fathers there. Curtis G. Almquist, Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 62.

[9] Henry Pitney Van Dusen, Hammarskjöld: A Biographical Interpretation of ‘Markings’ (London: Faber, 1967), 161.

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