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Sunday, August 21
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, August 18
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, August 7
The Existentialist and the Christ
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12).
Read sermon

“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12).

Above my desk I have a photograph. It is a selfie from the days before phones were cameras and before we called them selfies. On this first day of kindergarten my five year old daughter has a proud smile. I’m trying to smile. My lips are bending upward. But you can see a sadness in my eyes, that I do not really have my heart in it.

Lately, I have been trying to prepare myself for the last first day of school before our son leaves for college next year. I am getting ready for that aching feeling of separation as he goes. When we became new parents roughly eighty percent of our friends gave us the same advice. You can probably guess what they said. “Enjoy this time because their childhood will pass incredibly quickly.” And it has.

This advice holds true for everyone. “Life is short, so really live.” We know from experience that we can waste our lives. We choose to be petty, to let little things bother us. We are irritable. We despair and let the newspaper tell us who we are. We hold grudges and complain. We resent others and wonder if we are successful. We live in the past. We worry about the future. We work for the wrong things and in a thousand other ways we refuse to live.

This morning I want to consider two ways of understanding how short life is. The first view comes from the twentieth century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and the second from Jesus.

  1. Sartre’s existentialism grew out of a German philosophical movement called phenomenology. Early philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650) asked how we can really have confidence that what we believe is true. He tried doubting everything and realized he had to begin by trusting our shared rationality. This is what he means in writing, “I think, therefore I am.” Later, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) tried to clarify the boundary between what we can know with confidence and what is beyond our powers of reason.

In contrast to starting with the question of what is true, phenomenologists begin with experience. They try to offer the richest possible description and reflection on how the world shows up for us (to use an expression by Werner Erhard). The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) writes that primarily we notice what is useful to us.

Suppose on a Sunday morning as I am running a little late for church I discover that my bicycle has a flat tire. Although I had not thought of my bike pump all summer, suddenly nothing in the world is more important. This is particularly true if you cannot find the bike pump. Of every object in the world it has the most urgent reality.

Heidegger makes up a whole vocabulary to alienate us from our ordinary perceptions.[1] He does this to point out how experience begins with what is useful to us not with what we define as “the Truth” in the abstract. At some point we realize that we ourselves have usefulness, or are obstructions to other people. To them we are in a sense like the bike pump when we are helpful or “traffic,” when we get in their way.

In contrast with those earlier philosophers, Heidegger also believes that everything is particular, no one is a person “in general.” He writes that we are thrown into a world that always already exists. We always already have an identity, a way that others perceive us. Nothing is value neutral – you are perceived as a person of a certain class and race (even if that is ambiguous), your clothes, your gestures, how you talk and dress communicates something to others.

When existentialists said “existence precedes essence” they are emphasizing the importance of this particularity, that human values and history shape what we notice and who we are. During World War I, a young man famously asked Jean-Paul Sartre if he should care for his invalid mother or join the French resistance. Sartre basically said that the man should decide based on what kind of person he wanted to become. Do you want to be someone who looks after a sick mother or someone who defends France.

Sartre calls this “the burden of freedom.” In choosing, you choose who you will be. You cannot change the historical context but you can in a sense make yourself up as you go along within it. The problem though is that it is not entirely up to us.

Suppose you are at a hotel in Lake Tahoe with your four year old. You walk out the door without your keys and somehow it closes. In the hallway you look through the keyhole at the child and try to figure out what to do. Suddenly you realize that someone sees you looking. At that point you cannot choose who you are. You see yourself the way that they do. To that person you are a peeping tom. Fortunately you can try to explain yourself.[2]

The end of Sartre’s play No Exit (1944) contains probably his most misunderstood statement. He writes, “hell is other people.” This is not a way of saying that he hates people. What he means is that after we die we no longer have any control in determining how others perceive us. We become frozen in time unable to explain what we are doing at the keyhole.

For Sartre, life is short the world is strange and often seems to be against us, so we have reason to live in fear of the nothingness. For Sartre, life is short; we are thrown into a world in which our limited freedom is a burden. For Sartre life is short so we must be careful and realize that who we are is mostly what others perceive us to be.

  1. Jesus has the simplest response to Sartre’s picture of our existence. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12). This week for homework I want you to write this down and put it somewhere you will see it, like that picture of my daughter and me. Do not forget this, that God longs to give you everything, everything that will free you and give you joy.

Jesus also sees that life is short, but it leads him to a completely different set of conclusions. Often his disciples seem to talk and act as if they had forever. They worry. They devote themselves to things that are not really important, like who is should receive the highest honor. The crowds gathering in Jerusalem, the officials of the Roman Empire, terrify them.
And in dozens of ways Jesus repeats a simple message, “Do not be afraid. You have the kingdom. You do not have to hoard your power, your attention, your love, your energy, your possessions. God is giving you what really matters, so you can be generous.” Jesus goes on, “by the way, the place where your treasure is, you know the place where you most want to be – that is actually where you will end up.”[3] If material things are what you long for, that will be what you get. But we are spiritual beings and cannot be satisfied by material things.

But when we realize that our life is in God’s hands, we dare to desire something so much greater. And we will receive it. Jesus tells the strangest story about servants whose master is away celebrating his own wedding. Some of his servants are so busy with unimportant tasks that they will miss his late night arrival. But for the others, when he comes home so filled with joy, he will seat them at his table. He will put on an apron and serve them the best food on the finest dishes. They will sing together and laugh and in their shared happiness they will remember why they serve their master. We do this still today, right here, singing holy songs around this table.

The point of our life, the whole goal of our existence is to share in the joy of the one who made us. We and all creation were made to rejoice in God’s love. Jesus wants us to have an extraordinary life. God wants us to have what really matters.

When things go wrong, when we are suffering, in those times when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus is with us. And we know that ultimately we are going to be all right. Even in the worst moments God does not refrain from blessing us with beauty and love.

Our life can not be measured by our net worth, or our appearance, or our individual style, or the degree to which others respect us, or our success as a parent. Our value is not even equivalent to the amount of good we do in the world. Despite what others think about us and even despite what we think ourselves, we are deeply loved by the one who created us.

The problem is that we need to wake up to what God offers us right now. We have to be alert to receive the joy that is breaking forth all around. So Jesus says in every way he knows how, “be prepared, be ready for God. Pray that when the holy Master appears you will be ready for the party.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) once described himself as a watchmen always seeking the glory of God. As he lay on his deathbed his good friend asked him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore might appear to you.” The dying Thoreau was still conscious of receiving God’s gift of life. He replied, “one world at a time.”[4]

I have been blessed by the existentialists and have learned a great deal from them. In fact I feel a little sheepish in making these comments about Jean-Paul Sartre since he can no longer defend himself. At the same time, I am convinced that we do not need to be afraid of nothingness or of what will happen to our reputation or when our good works fail.

Enjoy this time because your life will pass incredibly quickly. Life is short so really live. Notice the beauty and love that God is giving you in every moment. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

[1] In this case, the pump is ready-to-hand, the rest of the world is present-at-hand. This comes from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (NY: Harper and Row, 1962).

[2] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (NY: Other Press, 2016), 213-4.

[3] This and the next section is inspired by Brett Younger, “Life Is Short,” Day1, 7 August 2016. http://day1.org/7347-life_is_short

[4] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8.

Sunday, August 14
Fire upon the Earth: Renewing Church and World by Spiritual Mission and Innovative Ministry
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
“I have come to hurl fire upon the earth! And how I wish it were already burning” -Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 12:49
Read sermon

“I have come to hurl fire upon the earth! And how I wish it were already burning”

-Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 12:49

 

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Psalm 82

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

 

Fire: it churns relentlessly, licking and devouring, mercilessly, straw and hillside and home in many parts of the West Coast; it dances lyrically in the great Olympic cauldron down in Rio; it crackles in the coals we use to cense the altar, and, of course, ourselves; it bursts with explosive force taking the lives of innocent people in marketplaces across the Middle East. Fire, mesmerizing and dangerous, has stirred the human imagination for millions of years, since we first saw lightning fall from the sky with its blue and beautiful fury. We cook with it, and it may cook us, too. The source of life and of death not only here in some narrow way, but cosmically as all life on the planet’s surface takes its strength from the sun. The ancients intuited this; ancient Greek philosophers believed that the world was made of fire because when something is lit on fire it becomes fire until all that’s left is this inchoate stuff.

A little known fact: one of the many threads of continuity running from ancient Greece to the Olympics in our own time is the insistence that the Olympic flame be kindled not by any human artifice of combustion, but by the sun’s own natural heat. Gathered and focused by mirrors a flame appears, and that’s actually when the Olympics officially begin. Muscles contract and pull ligament and bone at fire’s command. Our bodies nerves depend on the successful transfer of energy along the axon, like a fuse hissing and spitting, till it explodes with force in a single visible movement: a swing of the arm, a flexing of the thigh, the sudden freeze of fluent action across a beam or rings as the body appears to be suspended mid-air, turgid and taut, and our own attention completely rapt and suspended. Our own cathedral was born from a fire that destroyed most of San Francisco in 1906, including the Crocker mansions that use to stand on this site. We come from fire.

Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews had a bone to pick with that community. The author saw within that community a terrible disease; they had become spiritually sick, and we hear part of the diagnosis today. They were supposed to pay attention, to fix their eyes on Christ – like a good athlete they needed to keep their head in the game so that they could attain the prize. But somewhere along the way, they lost their way. They grew slack. They stopped believing. Sure, they kept going to church, but they had lost their fire. But who can blame them? I know I don’t. I don’t sit here in judgement of them. It’s easy to lose our fire: there are countless reasons to become discouraged, to give up, or even just to settle. In many ways, settling is actually the most dangerous because we don’t even notice when it happens. It just happens.

I read the Letter to the Hebrews, and I can’t help but hear in it a word for our Church, for the Episcopal Church. And I can’t help but think about the important role our cathedral has played in the life of that Church. Grace Cathedral has played a pivotal part in keeping our collective fire alive, in challenging and inviting the wider Church into a dynamic vision of what it means to follow this Jesus who came to bring fire to the world, who encouraged us to read the signs of the times at any given moment and to take those signs seriously. Actually that word isn’t “bring” – that’s a bad translation of the Greek word there, “βαλεῖν,” which actually means here “to throw, to hurl or to cast.” I suspect the translators chose “to bring,” βαλεῖν’s weaker sense, in order to temper the incendiary tone of the passage. But as I’ve said before, there’s something wild in God that will not be contained, and His Christ comes to us as One who is consumed with zeal for his Father’s House, his whole life is like Holy Mount Zion wreathed in flame as the Holy One visits His people to set them on a course that would change the whole world. Fire. Revolution. Change.

We’ve known that Jesus, and in many ways we’ve followed the Pillar of Fire ahead of the rest of own Church to places we didn’t know we’d go: long before they were popular, we pioneered the way on labor justice and civil rights and women’s leadership; we faced into the homelessness crisis and started the Episcopal Community Services, which to this day offers the most shelter of any organization in the city; we insisted on the full dignity of the LGBT members of our community and our world, and when much of the Church turned away from the AIDS crisis either in scorn or fear, we doubled down on welcome, paving the way for new relationship by offering an example that would become to norm for the wider Church in time. After the AIDS crisis left Lauren Artress and much of our cathedral staff at that time spiritually exhausted – and witnessing the profound need men and their families had to be in their bodies, to pray with their bodies, to seek and find center in a world that felt like it had spun out of control – Lauren, true to her call as a pastor, sought out and discovered a tool to help them and to help us: the labyrinth. Igniting a spiritual movement that has taken the Church and the world by storm, in only twenty years there are literally thousands of labyrinths all over the world in nearly every conceivable location, but especially in places of distress and crisis: in hospitals, in prisons, in schools, in places like South Africa where Reconciliation Labyrinths are used to bring together former enemies. Nina Pickerel began Bayview mission from her own home! Today it serves thousands of families every single year in one of the most underserved and under-resourced parts of the city, and is a cause of pride for this cathedral. Under Darren Main’s visionary leadership, our yoga practice has ballooned like a fireball, causing not a little bit of heat among those who think that maybe it’s not proper for a church to offer a yoga class, much less to treat it as a spiritual community on par with our Sunday congregation.

Many quarters of the Church have a very limited vision of what Christian mission means: it’s offering some kind of Christian experience for people to ether accept or reject, or else they focus exclusively on the vital work of social mission. Social Mission or Social Outreach is hugely important – no authentic spiritual community is complete without it, and in many ways it expresses our entire raison d’êtres. But many have forgotten the equally important work of Spiritual Mission, or Spiritual Outreach. They’ve forgotten that the Temple in Jerusalem included the Court of the Gentiles, an outer court where the nations could be present in the holy precincts without fully entering in. I believe Jesus the pioneer of our faith, who blazes the trail before us, smiles upon our yoga community that gathers on Tuesdays nights, and walks with everyone who steps foot on a labyrinth whether they ever know or acknowledge it. Because that’s who God is. Grace Cathedral shows forth the character of God in a splendidly generous way that can be an example for the whole Church.

One of the great gifts, and I believe our high calling as a cathedral uniquely positioned at an urban crossroads of east and west, of wealth and poverty, of technology and nature, land and sea is that we can continue this tradition of leading the wider Church into the kind of innovation that we need to get back into the game. We must do so leading from a vision of what it means to take both social and spiritual mission seriously. Already, and I know that for generations to come, we will continue to guard the venerable flame of our glorious Anglican tradition so tenderly held in this particular service, which warms and illuminates with intellectual teaching and a classical choral tradition that truly expresses the discipline of worshipping God in the beauty of holiness. It is so powerful and so compelling for so many of us. And I also believe that we are at a new crossroads, that Jesus is calling us to interpret the signs of our times, of this time, and to rekindle that fire of vision once again that sees sometime extending from that tradition, and even beyond it to a place we don’t yet see or know. A Land of Promise to which we are called, but which we do not yet inhabit.

The religious landscape of our city is rapidly changing, and its following a trend that we see in the wider culture and even globally. Pentecostalism is on the rise. This movement that began here in the United States, just south of us in LA at the famous Azusa Street revivals, which looks to that moment when tongues of fire descended on the first apostles, filling them with power, and setting them on fire for God, this movement continues to sweep over our world, spreading like a wildfire. Whether under the banner of the new charismatic evangelicalism that has become the dominant face of Christianity in our nation, or one of its many expressions in Central and South America and Africa rapidly displacing Roman Catholicism, the Christianity of our day is marked out in profound way by this fire. In our own city, many churches following on this momentum are flourishing, attracting thousands of young people from every conceivable part of the Bay Area and every walk of life. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And I take it as an invitation to follow the smoke to the fire. And it’s my particular gift that that is my work here.

God has lit our world on fire. God has lit us, and so many other churches around us, with passion and determination and fervent devotion for the Christian vision. And all of us collectively, and each in very different ways face this question: “will we as an institution, as a Church, be willing to lay aside the weights that encumber us, to embrace the profound change that may be necessary to meet people where they are rather than insisting that come to us on our terms. I believe Grace Cathedral has answered that question before with a resounding “yes,” and I believe we’re called to answer it again. Last week our dean preached an inspiring sermon about God’s desire to give us the Kingdom. I can’t tell you what a gift it is to serve with a leader who deeply believes that in his heart, and who at every turn has supported my work and vision for spiritual mission in this place, whether it’s yoga or fresh forms of gathering and worship. What a blessing it’s been to visit sister churches in the Bay Area with him and some of you, and to see his own passion for our future as we look to examples of the Spirit’s fire alive and well in other parts of the Church. It is such a blessing to be part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

We have that wonderful phrase in Hebrews, “so great a cloud of witnesses,” and it’s set in the context of an encouragement: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight…and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” In Bible study, we learn that word “witness (μαρτύριον)”, refers in the biblical context to the martyrs, who by offering a legal testimony to their Christian faith were often landed in jail, and killed in the very same stadiums where athletic and gladiatorial contests like the Olympic games were held. We have an image here, then, not only of legal witnesses, but also of spectators in the stands.

In ancient Olympia forty thousand pilgrims from all the great city states of the Panhellenic world – from Delphi and Rhodes, from Athens and Sparta, and from the colonies in southern Sicily – would all gather and converge on this incredible site for about five days, huddled around a much more intimate stadium than our massive colosseums and stadiums, watching and scrutinizing every movement of these athletes. We have here an image of spectators, spectators in stands cheering us on by their example, by their self-giving which made a way when it seemed no way could be made. These were they who believed in God’s promises, and who in every generation bore the flame in order to pass it on to future generations. The Olympics begin each year with the famous lighting of the cauldron, but weeks before that happens a flame is lit in Greece at the Temple of Zeus and Hera, and carried over many countries and continents, and passed on by literally thousands of people, young and old.

We, too, are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses enshrined in stained glass, evoked by paint, or brought to life in stone. The cathedral’s beautiful interior isn’t just decoration; it’s a story of those who have passed the torch in ages past, who have run with perseverance keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus. These are they who, by rights, should have packed up and gone back east after the earthquake and fire leveled their city in 1906, but they didn’t. Instead they doubled down, building bigger and higher and grander than anyone could ever imagine. If our presiding bishop were here, he’d say they were some crazy Christians, and I would have to agree. If you listen through the stone and stained glass and paint, you can still hear them cheering us on; you can see them holding out the torch, and they’re urging us to take it up again.

Listen to Past Sermons

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

Sunday, August 21
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon From Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

The Text from Dr. Gardner’s sermon will be available soon.

Sunday, August 14
Fire upon the Earth: Renewing Church and World by Spiritual Mission and Innovative Ministry
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
“I have come to hurl fire upon the earth! And how I wish it were already burning” -Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 12:49
Read sermon

“I have come to hurl fire upon the earth! And how I wish it were already burning”

-Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 12:49

 

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Psalm 82

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

 

Fire: it churns relentlessly, licking and devouring, mercilessly, straw and hillside and home in many parts of the West Coast; it dances lyrically in the great Olympic cauldron down in Rio; it crackles in the coals we use to cense the altar, and, of course, ourselves; it bursts with explosive force taking the lives of innocent people in marketplaces across the Middle East. Fire, mesmerizing and dangerous, has stirred the human imagination for millions of years, since we first saw lightning fall from the sky with its blue and beautiful fury. We cook with it, and it may cook us, too. The source of life and of death not only here in some narrow way, but cosmically as all life on the planet’s surface takes its strength from the sun. The ancients intuited this; ancient Greek philosophers believed that the world was made of fire because when something is lit on fire it becomes fire until all that’s left is this inchoate stuff.

A little known fact: one of the many threads of continuity running from ancient Greece to the Olympics in our own time is the insistence that the Olympic flame be kindled not by any human artifice of combustion, but by the sun’s own natural heat. Gathered and focused by mirrors a flame appears, and that’s actually when the Olympics officially begin. Muscles contract and pull ligament and bone at fire’s command. Our bodies nerves depend on the successful transfer of energy along the axon, like a fuse hissing and spitting, till it explodes with force in a single visible movement: a swing of the arm, a flexing of the thigh, the sudden freeze of fluent action across a beam or rings as the body appears to be suspended mid-air, turgid and taut, and our own attention completely rapt and suspended. Our own cathedral was born from a fire that destroyed most of San Francisco in 1906, including the Crocker mansions that use to stand on this site. We come from fire.

Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews had a bone to pick with that community. The author saw within that community a terrible disease; they had become spiritually sick, and we hear part of the diagnosis today. They were supposed to pay attention, to fix their eyes on Christ – like a good athlete they needed to keep their head in the game so that they could attain the prize. But somewhere along the way, they lost their way. They grew slack. They stopped believing. Sure, they kept going to church, but they had lost their fire. But who can blame them? I know I don’t. I don’t sit here in judgement of them. It’s easy to lose our fire: there are countless reasons to become discouraged, to give up, or even just to settle. In many ways, settling is actually the most dangerous because we don’t even notice when it happens. It just happens.

I read the Letter to the Hebrews, and I can’t help but hear in it a word for our Church, for the Episcopal Church. And I can’t help but think about the important role our cathedral has played in the life of that Church. Grace Cathedral has played a pivotal part in keeping our collective fire alive, in challenging and inviting the wider Church into a dynamic vision of what it means to follow this Jesus who came to bring fire to the world, who encouraged us to read the signs of the times at any given moment and to take those signs seriously. Actually that word isn’t “bring” – that’s a bad translation of the Greek word there, “βαλεῖν,” which actually means here “to throw, to hurl or to cast.” I suspect the translators chose “to bring,” βαλεῖν’s weaker sense, in order to temper the incendiary tone of the passage. But as I’ve said before, there’s something wild in God that will not be contained, and His Christ comes to us as One who is consumed with zeal for his Father’s House, his whole life is like Holy Mount Zion wreathed in flame as the Holy One visits His people to set them on a course that would change the whole world. Fire. Revolution. Change.

We’ve known that Jesus, and in many ways we’ve followed the Pillar of Fire ahead of the rest of own Church to places we didn’t know we’d go: long before they were popular, we pioneered the way on labor justice and civil rights and women’s leadership; we faced into the homelessness crisis and started the Episcopal Community Services, which to this day offers the most shelter of any organization in the city; we insisted on the full dignity of the LGBT members of our community and our world, and when much of the Church turned away from the AIDS crisis either in scorn or fear, we doubled down on welcome, paving the way for new relationship by offering an example that would become to norm for the wider Church in time. After the AIDS crisis left Lauren Artress and much of our cathedral staff at that time spiritually exhausted – and witnessing the profound need men and their families had to be in their bodies, to pray with their bodies, to seek and find center in a world that felt like it had spun out of control – Lauren, true to her call as a pastor, sought out and discovered a tool to help them and to help us: the labyrinth. Igniting a spiritual movement that has taken the Church and the world by storm, in only twenty years there are literally thousands of labyrinths all over the world in nearly every conceivable location, but especially in places of distress and crisis: in hospitals, in prisons, in schools, in places like South Africa where Reconciliation Labyrinths are used to bring together former enemies. Nina Pickerel began Bayview mission from her own home! Today it serves thousands of families every single year in one of the most underserved and under-resourced parts of the city, and is a cause of pride for this cathedral. Under Darren Main’s visionary leadership, our yoga practice has ballooned like a fireball, causing not a little bit of heat among those who think that maybe it’s not proper for a church to offer a yoga class, much less to treat it as a spiritual community on par with our Sunday congregation.

Many quarters of the Church have a very limited vision of what Christian mission means: it’s offering some kind of Christian experience for people to ether accept or reject, or else they focus exclusively on the vital work of social mission. Social Mission or Social Outreach is hugely important – no authentic spiritual community is complete without it, and in many ways it expresses our entire raison d’êtres. But many have forgotten the equally important work of Spiritual Mission, or Spiritual Outreach. They’ve forgotten that the Temple in Jerusalem included the Court of the Gentiles, an outer court where the nations could be present in the holy precincts without fully entering in. I believe Jesus the pioneer of our faith, who blazes the trail before us, smiles upon our yoga community that gathers on Tuesdays nights, and walks with everyone who steps foot on a labyrinth whether they ever know or acknowledge it. Because that’s who God is. Grace Cathedral shows forth the character of God in a splendidly generous way that can be an example for the whole Church.

One of the great gifts, and I believe our high calling as a cathedral uniquely positioned at an urban crossroads of east and west, of wealth and poverty, of technology and nature, land and sea is that we can continue this tradition of leading the wider Church into the kind of innovation that we need to get back into the game. We must do so leading from a vision of what it means to take both social and spiritual mission seriously. Already, and I know that for generations to come, we will continue to guard the venerable flame of our glorious Anglican tradition so tenderly held in this particular service, which warms and illuminates with intellectual teaching and a classical choral tradition that truly expresses the discipline of worshipping God in the beauty of holiness. It is so powerful and so compelling for so many of us. And I also believe that we are at a new crossroads, that Jesus is calling us to interpret the signs of our times, of this time, and to rekindle that fire of vision once again that sees sometime extending from that tradition, and even beyond it to a place we don’t yet see or know. A Land of Promise to which we are called, but which we do not yet inhabit.

The religious landscape of our city is rapidly changing, and its following a trend that we see in the wider culture and even globally. Pentecostalism is on the rise. This movement that began here in the United States, just south of us in LA at the famous Azusa Street revivals, which looks to that moment when tongues of fire descended on the first apostles, filling them with power, and setting them on fire for God, this movement continues to sweep over our world, spreading like a wildfire. Whether under the banner of the new charismatic evangelicalism that has become the dominant face of Christianity in our nation, or one of its many expressions in Central and South America and Africa rapidly displacing Roman Catholicism, the Christianity of our day is marked out in profound way by this fire. In our own city, many churches following on this momentum are flourishing, attracting thousands of young people from every conceivable part of the Bay Area and every walk of life. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And I take it as an invitation to follow the smoke to the fire. And it’s my particular gift that that is my work here.

God has lit our world on fire. God has lit us, and so many other churches around us, with passion and determination and fervent devotion for the Christian vision. And all of us collectively, and each in very different ways face this question: “will we as an institution, as a Church, be willing to lay aside the weights that encumber us, to embrace the profound change that may be necessary to meet people where they are rather than insisting that come to us on our terms. I believe Grace Cathedral has answered that question before with a resounding “yes,” and I believe we’re called to answer it again. Last week our dean preached an inspiring sermon about God’s desire to give us the Kingdom. I can’t tell you what a gift it is to serve with a leader who deeply believes that in his heart, and who at every turn has supported my work and vision for spiritual mission in this place, whether it’s yoga or fresh forms of gathering and worship. What a blessing it’s been to visit sister churches in the Bay Area with him and some of you, and to see his own passion for our future as we look to examples of the Spirit’s fire alive and well in other parts of the Church. It is such a blessing to be part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

We have that wonderful phrase in Hebrews, “so great a cloud of witnesses,” and it’s set in the context of an encouragement: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight…and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” In Bible study, we learn that word “witness (μαρτύριον)”, refers in the biblical context to the martyrs, who by offering a legal testimony to their Christian faith were often landed in jail, and killed in the very same stadiums where athletic and gladiatorial contests like the Olympic games were held. We have an image here, then, not only of legal witnesses, but also of spectators in the stands.

In ancient Olympia forty thousand pilgrims from all the great city states of the Panhellenic world – from Delphi and Rhodes, from Athens and Sparta, and from the colonies in southern Sicily – would all gather and converge on this incredible site for about five days, huddled around a much more intimate stadium than our massive colosseums and stadiums, watching and scrutinizing every movement of these athletes. We have here an image of spectators, spectators in stands cheering us on by their example, by their self-giving which made a way when it seemed no way could be made. These were they who believed in God’s promises, and who in every generation bore the flame in order to pass it on to future generations. The Olympics begin each year with the famous lighting of the cauldron, but weeks before that happens a flame is lit in Greece at the Temple of Zeus and Hera, and carried over many countries and continents, and passed on by literally thousands of people, young and old.

We, too, are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses enshrined in stained glass, evoked by paint, or brought to life in stone. The cathedral’s beautiful interior isn’t just decoration; it’s a story of those who have passed the torch in ages past, who have run with perseverance keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus. These are they who, by rights, should have packed up and gone back east after the earthquake and fire leveled their city in 1906, but they didn’t. Instead they doubled down, building bigger and higher and grander than anyone could ever imagine. If our presiding bishop were here, he’d say they were some crazy Christians, and I would have to agree. If you listen through the stone and stained glass and paint, you can still hear them cheering us on; you can see them holding out the torch, and they’re urging us to take it up again.

Sunday, August 7
The Existentialist and the Christ
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12).
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“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12).

Above my desk I have a photograph. It is a selfie from the days before phones were cameras and before we called them selfies. On this first day of kindergarten my five year old daughter has a proud smile. I’m trying to smile. My lips are bending upward. But you can see a sadness in my eyes, that I do not really have my heart in it.

Lately, I have been trying to prepare myself for the last first day of school before our son leaves for college next year. I am getting ready for that aching feeling of separation as he goes. When we became new parents roughly eighty percent of our friends gave us the same advice. You can probably guess what they said. “Enjoy this time because their childhood will pass incredibly quickly.” And it has.

This advice holds true for everyone. “Life is short, so really live.” We know from experience that we can waste our lives. We choose to be petty, to let little things bother us. We are irritable. We despair and let the newspaper tell us who we are. We hold grudges and complain. We resent others and wonder if we are successful. We live in the past. We worry about the future. We work for the wrong things and in a thousand other ways we refuse to live.

This morning I want to consider two ways of understanding how short life is. The first view comes from the twentieth century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and the second from Jesus.

  1. Sartre’s existentialism grew out of a German philosophical movement called phenomenology. Early philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650) asked how we can really have confidence that what we believe is true. He tried doubting everything and realized he had to begin by trusting our shared rationality. This is what he means in writing, “I think, therefore I am.” Later, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) tried to clarify the boundary between what we can know with confidence and what is beyond our powers of reason.

In contrast to starting with the question of what is true, phenomenologists begin with experience. They try to offer the richest possible description and reflection on how the world shows up for us (to use an expression by Werner Erhard). The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) writes that primarily we notice what is useful to us.

Suppose on a Sunday morning as I am running a little late for church I discover that my bicycle has a flat tire. Although I had not thought of my bike pump all summer, suddenly nothing in the world is more important. This is particularly true if you cannot find the bike pump. Of every object in the world it has the most urgent reality.

Heidegger makes up a whole vocabulary to alienate us from our ordinary perceptions.[1] He does this to point out how experience begins with what is useful to us not with what we define as “the Truth” in the abstract. At some point we realize that we ourselves have usefulness, or are obstructions to other people. To them we are in a sense like the bike pump when we are helpful or “traffic,” when we get in their way.

In contrast with those earlier philosophers, Heidegger also believes that everything is particular, no one is a person “in general.” He writes that we are thrown into a world that always already exists. We always already have an identity, a way that others perceive us. Nothing is value neutral – you are perceived as a person of a certain class and race (even if that is ambiguous), your clothes, your gestures, how you talk and dress communicates something to others.

When existentialists said “existence precedes essence” they are emphasizing the importance of this particularity, that human values and history shape what we notice and who we are. During World War I, a young man famously asked Jean-Paul Sartre if he should care for his invalid mother or join the French resistance. Sartre basically said that the man should decide based on what kind of person he wanted to become. Do you want to be someone who looks after a sick mother or someone who defends France.

Sartre calls this “the burden of freedom.” In choosing, you choose who you will be. You cannot change the historical context but you can in a sense make yourself up as you go along within it. The problem though is that it is not entirely up to us.

Suppose you are at a hotel in Lake Tahoe with your four year old. You walk out the door without your keys and somehow it closes. In the hallway you look through the keyhole at the child and try to figure out what to do. Suddenly you realize that someone sees you looking. At that point you cannot choose who you are. You see yourself the way that they do. To that person you are a peeping tom. Fortunately you can try to explain yourself.[2]

The end of Sartre’s play No Exit (1944) contains probably his most misunderstood statement. He writes, “hell is other people.” This is not a way of saying that he hates people. What he means is that after we die we no longer have any control in determining how others perceive us. We become frozen in time unable to explain what we are doing at the keyhole.

For Sartre, life is short the world is strange and often seems to be against us, so we have reason to live in fear of the nothingness. For Sartre, life is short; we are thrown into a world in which our limited freedom is a burden. For Sartre life is short so we must be careful and realize that who we are is mostly what others perceive us to be.

  1. Jesus has the simplest response to Sartre’s picture of our existence. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12). This week for homework I want you to write this down and put it somewhere you will see it, like that picture of my daughter and me. Do not forget this, that God longs to give you everything, everything that will free you and give you joy.

Jesus also sees that life is short, but it leads him to a completely different set of conclusions. Often his disciples seem to talk and act as if they had forever. They worry. They devote themselves to things that are not really important, like who is should receive the highest honor. The crowds gathering in Jerusalem, the officials of the Roman Empire, terrify them.
And in dozens of ways Jesus repeats a simple message, “Do not be afraid. You have the kingdom. You do not have to hoard your power, your attention, your love, your energy, your possessions. God is giving you what really matters, so you can be generous.” Jesus goes on, “by the way, the place where your treasure is, you know the place where you most want to be – that is actually where you will end up.”[3] If material things are what you long for, that will be what you get. But we are spiritual beings and cannot be satisfied by material things.

But when we realize that our life is in God’s hands, we dare to desire something so much greater. And we will receive it. Jesus tells the strangest story about servants whose master is away celebrating his own wedding. Some of his servants are so busy with unimportant tasks that they will miss his late night arrival. But for the others, when he comes home so filled with joy, he will seat them at his table. He will put on an apron and serve them the best food on the finest dishes. They will sing together and laugh and in their shared happiness they will remember why they serve their master. We do this still today, right here, singing holy songs around this table.

The point of our life, the whole goal of our existence is to share in the joy of the one who made us. We and all creation were made to rejoice in God’s love. Jesus wants us to have an extraordinary life. God wants us to have what really matters.

When things go wrong, when we are suffering, in those times when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus is with us. And we know that ultimately we are going to be all right. Even in the worst moments God does not refrain from blessing us with beauty and love.

Our life can not be measured by our net worth, or our appearance, or our individual style, or the degree to which others respect us, or our success as a parent. Our value is not even equivalent to the amount of good we do in the world. Despite what others think about us and even despite what we think ourselves, we are deeply loved by the one who created us.

The problem is that we need to wake up to what God offers us right now. We have to be alert to receive the joy that is breaking forth all around. So Jesus says in every way he knows how, “be prepared, be ready for God. Pray that when the holy Master appears you will be ready for the party.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) once described himself as a watchmen always seeking the glory of God. As he lay on his deathbed his good friend asked him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore might appear to you.” The dying Thoreau was still conscious of receiving God’s gift of life. He replied, “one world at a time.”[4]

I have been blessed by the existentialists and have learned a great deal from them. In fact I feel a little sheepish in making these comments about Jean-Paul Sartre since he can no longer defend himself. At the same time, I am convinced that we do not need to be afraid of nothingness or of what will happen to our reputation or when our good works fail.

Enjoy this time because your life will pass incredibly quickly. Life is short so really live. Notice the beauty and love that God is giving you in every moment. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

[1] In this case, the pump is ready-to-hand, the rest of the world is present-at-hand. This comes from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (NY: Harper and Row, 1962).

[2] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (NY: Other Press, 2016), 213-4.

[3] This and the next section is inspired by Brett Younger, “Life Is Short,” Day1, 7 August 2016. http://day1.org/7347-life_is_short

[4] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8.

Sunday, July 31
Cutting Through the Clutter
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Christine T. McSpadden
Sermon From Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Grace Cathedral

July 31, 2016 11 am

The Rev. Christine T. McSpadden

Our Gospel story from St. Luke today tells a parable of a wealthy man who wants to store up his stuff—in particular an abundance of produce from his lands. The conclusion of the parable leads to the warning: Don’t store up treasures for yourselves. Instead strive to be rich toward God. And the even more direct warning: Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.

It’s pretty easy to understand what this parable is trying to tell us. I think of Mark Twain’s clever quip: “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts that I do understand!”

For most of us, it is hard to let go of our stuff. I have experienced the pain of purging these past 18 months or so. I moved residences 5 times, including 2 transatlantic moves. I sent some stuff on a fast plane, some on a slow boat,

carried stuff over, sold stuff before I left, gave stuff away, junked stuff, and still had to put stuff in storage!

Storing Stuff is one of the biggest businesses in the US. In fact, off-site storage is the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry. Along with the increase in storing stuff has come the impulse to reduce clutter. Home organization is now an 8 billion dollar industry.

Reams of articles have been written about the psychological cost of clutter. Studies have shown that people who live and work in cluttered environments share a predictable cluster of 5 similar anxieties:

–clutter makes them feel that their work is never finished

–it makes them less able to relax

–it makes it harder to focus

–it overloads the senses and causes them to overwork

–it can lead to lower self-confidence, a sense of being out of control, to guilt, even to feelings of shame.

As our Gospel passage suggests, it can be helpful to meditate and muse about how your possessions might be possessing you.

But can the story take our thinking further? What if we thought for a moment not just about items that clutter our living spaces but also about all the mental, psychological, traumatic, mercenary, neurotic stuff that daily clutters our psyches?

In other words, we looked a bit at the psychological cost of clutter.

What about the cost of psychological clutter?

In my experience, psychological clutter does similar things to our psyches. When the news waves swell with stories of another senseless shooting, racially motivated massacre, or terrorist attack; when we see video of the latest natural disaster or projections of environmental apocalypse when the talking heads natter on and on—what must that do to our psyches?

A number of my friends say that they dread checking the news in the morning anymore. I know that I feel all five of the anxieties that I just listed:

Like my work is never done and I can never do enough.

I get anxious and on edge.

It’s hard to focus.

I feel overwhelmed.

I feel helpless, out of control, guilty, and ashamed I’m not doing more or even caring more. I numb out and tune out. And that’s just checking the news, before I’ve accounted for all of my own personal clutter (or finished my coffee)!

Agitated, in the swirl of warring emotions and what feels at times like living in a world at war, I long to be able to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Keep Calm and Carry On. That slogan has seen a revival in recent times. Do you know it’s history?

It popped up in 1939, after the outbreak of WW2. The Ministry of Information in London began designing morale boosting posters to be displayed across the British Isles.

Set against bold backgrounds, posters designed and produced by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office included peppy lines like “Freedom is in Peril” and “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory.”

And then there was “Keep Calm and Carry On.” One of the original posters turned up in a pile of dusty books headed for auction. It was reprinted and the slogan has become ubiquitous in souvenir and curio shops the world over.

Indeed, it has become so popular that there is now an App for it. With the Keep Calm Creator you can keep calm and fill in the blank with any action with which you would like to carry on.

In blocky lettering, the posters proclaimed a message of forbearance in the face of great danger, loss, and anxiety. Without denying real peril and pathos, they encouraged the cultivation of peace and calm even in the midst of upheaval.

They aimed to create a reflective people who would respond out of experience and wisdom rather than react out of rashness. In essence, they bid citizens to bide their time in tumult and terror while a part of them remained free from the chaos unfolding all around. Ideally, the more citizens flexed this muscle of fortitude,

the stronger they became, and the less they found themselves at the mercy of what happened around them. In this, the Ministry hoped to maintain a common, national decorum of civility, dignity, empathy, and humanity even with evil breaking out all around.

Amidst our own swirling clutter, it helps to find ways to keep our core selves calm even while restiveness rages around us. It may take more than a poster or snappy slogan to cultivate forbearance in the face of our personal firestorms.

Each of you may have a different way of doing that—walking the labyrinth, hiking outdoors, meeting with friends, lifting your voice in prayer in the soaring space of this cathedral.

We have been talking a lot here at Grace Cathedral about the power of coming home—home to a place where burdens are shared, joys are celebrated in community and we gather around a solid core of trust, promise, and hope.

A practice of keeping calm and carrying on creates space between our outer turmoil and our inner soul. This spaciousness allows us to develop intentional patience instead of impatience, a rich repertoire of responsiveness instead of reactivity, a pondered thoughtfulness instead of haste.

On Friday afternoon, I stood in a beautiful, sun-drenched garden at an elementary school in North Richmond—an area that claimed the 4th highest crime rate in the country and 5 times the cases of hospitalization due to childhood asthma, most likely due to the Chevron refinery located there.

The garden existed because visionary teachers and students partnered with Urban Tilth to transform part of an asphalt parking lot into a lush plot filled with apple trees, pendulant grapes, bright sunflowers, and fragrant herbs.

As a graduation project for the Embarq summer architecture program at Berkeley University, a group of High School students had built (and donated) a pavilion for teaching classes, drying herbs, and enabling a program which grows fresh food for a community so lacking in services that it doesn’t have a grocery store.

I watched these high school students—Black, White, Asian, Latino, Slavic, Gallic, gay, straight, boys and girls admire the pavilion they’d built, full of wonder for what they could do together—how they could make a difference in the lives of so many. And I remembered rallying words I heard this week from a good news story (words of President Barack Obama):  “We are not a fragile or frightful people….We don’t fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger than we are on our own.”

And that little urban garden became the symbol of home, the incarnation of the spiritual practice of spaciousness, that creates a protected place of quiet, calm, stillness, peace in the midst of turmoil—a place of trust, promise and hope.

In some measure you determine what clutter you will allow in and what gets filtered out. The more you practice spaciousness, the vaster your interior place becomes, and the deeper peace you have to draw from. And, finally, the more available is your soul to wonder.

Sunday, July 24
Teach Us to Pray
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and… one of his disciples asked him, ‘Lord teach us to pray’” (Lk. 11).
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Jesus was praying in a certain place, and… one of his disciples asked him, ‘Lord teach us to pray’” (Lk. 11).

During vacation this summer on the island of Maui I was walking to church for the 7:00 a.m. Eucharist. My wife’s cousin Woozer was driving downhill toward the beach with a surfboard in his car. He stopped, one thing led to another and before I knew it we were surfing Ho’okipa together. As we came in I asked him, “You are a surf coach what suggestions do you have for me; how can I get better?”

At a deep level we hunger for learning. When someone excels at something that we care about, we ask that person how we might improve. The disciples see prayer at the center of everything Jesus does. Jesus prays alone in the desert, and in the midst of large crowds at the sea. In prayer he begins his public ministry. He prays as he heals people, chooses disciples and shares meals with them. He prays on ordinary days and as he dies. It is almost as if he is no longer praying but has himself become the prayer.

The disciples recognize prayer as the basis for his extraordinary peace and wisdom. They want this for themselves and say, “teach us to pray.” In response Jesus gives them two very different things. He provides them first with a model for how they should say their own prayers and then with help in forming the disposition or the heart for prayer.

  1. We live in a time of contradictions. Globally the number of Christians keeps expanding. At the same time old Christian institutions in Western Europe and America are shrinking. Almost everywhere religions that would in the past have nothing to do with each other are now rubbing up against each other and learning new vocabularies for the spiritual life.

These days we have begun to realize that prayer is good for us. Twenty years I felt mildly embarrassed when other people would learn that I had a meditation practice. Today most people I meet recognize that mindfulness, centering prayer, forms of breathing prayer and yoga reduce stress and lead to overall better health.[1]

Before going much further I need to be clear on the importance of prayer in my life. I pray at regular times of day, before meals and at bedtime. I pray for people and the world. I have a meditation practice which involves quietly repeating passages written by great saints. I say a kind of mantra repeating the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us”). My most frequent prayer though arises from my heart as spontaneous appreciation for all the blessings of this life – for the natural world, the beauty of this great city and her people.

You might have asked yourself the question, “Does prayer work?” And my answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Prayer has shifted my whole disposition. It has put joy at the center of my life as I grow to feel more and more like a child of God. Prayer continues to fundamentally change my relationships with other people.

We call Jesus’ model for prayer the Lord’s Prayer. Although I visit evangelical churches where they do not say the Lord’s Prayer, here at Grace Cathedral we repeat the prayer together at every public worship service. The version Christians use most often comes from the Gospel of Matthew. In today’s gospel from Luke Jesus gives us an even simpler version of the prayer.

My friend the biblical scholar Herman Waetjen has written a whole book on this subject. He believes that we misuse the prayer, that it becomes meaningless through mindless repetition. He admires a prayer inspired by the Lord’s Prayer in the New Zealand prayer book. It goes like this:

“Eternal Spirit! / Earthmaker, Painbearer, Lifegiver, / Source of all that is and that shall be, / Father and Mother of us all, / Loving God in whom is heaven: / The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! / The way of justice be followed by the peoples of the earth! / Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!”

“Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. / With the bread we need for today, feed us / In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. / In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. / From trials too great to endure, spare us. / From the grip of all that is evil, free us. / For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.[2]

This week for homework try praying the Lord’s Prayer in your own words. Keep in mind that the word that Jesus uses for father (abba) is intimate like daddy. The prayer addresses God’s hallowedness or holiness and we might think about how this becomes real for us. What do we depend on as our daily bread (is it coffee)? When we ask for God’s kingdom to come what does this mean?

This might be a great opportunity for us to really think about temptations to deviate from the path of goodness. It gives rise to the question of how forgiveness can set us free from being enslaved to the past.

For me the precise words of the Lord’s Prayer have not devolved into meaninglessness through repetition. As I have said many times, there is far more to us than our conscious or rational thought. These words are among the last I say every night and they may be the last words I ever say. I have been with people near death whose minds were wasted with dementia. This prayer was the only thing they could say, all that was left.

 

  1. Unfortunately, having the most perfect form is not enough for prayer to help. Prayer requires a particular attitude of the heart, a kind of disposition toward God. What we think about the one to whom we pray matters.

Distrust has always been a fundamental feature of the human condition. Each of us in our past has trusted people. Each of us has been disappointed by them. But even beyond our individual experiences, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the modern age involves a kind of extreme cynicism. We are jaded. We don’t believe what we hear. We question the media, and educators. We distrust authorities and their motives. We believe we are being lied to even when we are not. So much of what we call news is the story of distrust. And all this has an influence on our spiritual life.

Distrust was the defining characteristic of the snake in the Garden of Eden. The one who tempted Adam and Eve did not doubt the existence of God. He raised the question of whether God would act in the best interests of human beings. We are still doing this. We worry about being duped. We do not trust God in part because we think we know better than God. It reminds me of the old one liner, “The difference between God and you is that God doesn’t think he’s you.”

Jesus tells the story about a man going to his neighbor for bread. Even if the neighbor won’t help for the sake of generosity, he will do it so that you will stop yelling in the middle of the night. Jesus’ point is that we need to persist in prayer, not that God will only answer our prayers to shut us up. When our children ask for a fish we do not give them a snake, or a scorpion instead of an egg. We know what is good for our children and God who loves us knows what is good for us. God answers our prayers so that anyone who seeks will receive the Holy Spirit.

People with experience in praying have asked God for what turned out to be the wrong thing. We have had our later prayers answered by having our earlier prayers refused. We have been surprised and had our deepest longings satisfied by God in completely unexpected ways.

In the fourth century St. Augustine wrote about the inner struggle each of us faces as we decide whether we are going to trust God or ourselves.[3] As Augustine came into manhood his mother Monica saw how tempted he was by sensuality and the paganism of his father and the greater Roman Empire. He wanted to be a great scholar, famous for his speeches, to study with the greatest minds in the world.

Monica believed so deeply that the only way for him to become a Christian would be for him to stay near her in North Africa. Monica prayed that he would stay. In fact she was praying in a chapel at the very moment that Augustine left North Africa. She thought she had lost her son, that God had not heard her prayer.

It happened that in Milan one of Augustine’s pagan teachers told him he should go to hear the sermons of Bishop Ambrose, not for their content but for the genius of their structure and expression. At that time Ambrose had perhaps the best education of any Christian and was deeply respected by intellectuals. Of everyone in the world Ambrose was the one person who had the best chance of reaching Augustine’s questioning heart. And he did.

Until that encounter Augustine writes, “I was not yet in love, but I loved the idea of love… I was starved for inner food (for you yourself my God).”[4] After this encounter he came to know the peace of Jesus. His teaching has shaped nearly every Christian’s experience of God since then.

The point of the story is that we have such deep longings for something more than the merely ordinary. We have ideas about how these desires might be satisfied but ultimately we have to trust God.[5]

Beyond our questions about how prayer works and how we ought to pray, beyond the struggles of our ego, beyond even the tragedies and joys of our life, we face a question. Are we going to live as if goodness and love lie at the heart of reality. But even beyond this, we encounter the living God who promises that when we ask for the Holy Spirit we will receive it.

[1] Larry Dossey, Prayer Is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits of Prayer (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996).

[2] I have read that Jim Cotter of the Church of England wrote this prayer. It appears in the “Night Prayers” section of: A New Zealand Prayer Book (He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa), The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (Christchurch: Genesis Publications, 1989), 180-1. http://anglicanprayerbook.nz

[3] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 71-2. John R. Claypool uses this story in “To Whom Do We Pray?” Day1 25 July 2004. http://day1.org/454-to_whom_do_we_pray

[4] Augustine, Confessions tr. Rex Warner (NY: Signet Classic, 2001), 38.

[5] These are the last days of my first year here and I have been praying a great deal. Sometimes I simply cannot believe that God gave me both such a deep desire to serve as a priest and teacher, and the perfect opportunity to exercise this ministry here.

Sunday, July 17
Sunday 6 p.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from Sunday's 6 p.m. Service
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The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes preached without the use of a manuscript.

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