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Sunday, March 26
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, March 23
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, March 19
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

 

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn. 4).

 

When you have nearly everything, do you come closer to realizing that having everything isn’t nearly enough? Lindsey Lee Johnson’s 2017 novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth takes on this question, perhaps unconsciously. Can you guess the most dangerous place on earth for her? It is a Marin County public school.

Students there live surrounded by stunning natural beauty with brilliant celebrity parents and all the luxuries you could imagine. They simply cannot understand what it means to be poor, to not have the absolutely finest material things. But they also experience extraordinary pressure to succeed. To them all love seems conditional or simply controlling. So they use drugs and alcohol and massive doses of cynicism to numb the pain.

In eighth grade an odd boy who likes to wear yellow sweatpants named Tristan writes a love letter to a girl. In it he says I really see who you are.[1] She shows the letter to her mean best friend, who gives it to the most popular boy in school, who puts it on Facebook. Intense bullying leads to a terrible tragedy.

The book then skips ahead in time to follow a different character each chapter as the students finish their last two years of high school. Let me read you a section to give you a sense for it. “At seventeen, Abigail Cress knew she wasn’t beautiful… She believed unprettiness was something to atone for, so she made herself an A student, track captain, president of the Valley High Chapter of the National Association for Women, editor of the yearbook. She enrolled in Mr. Ellison’s class to prep for the June SAT, and on weekends wrote out… flashcards for… vocabulary words.”[2]

Before long Abigail and Mr. Ellison, who was also her faculty advisor for the yearbook, are exchanging text messages. One afternoon in February he takes her up to the clock tower to research a yearbook article on the school’s history. “Students weren’t usually allowed up there, but she was an exception.” In those close quarters she could smell his cologne and feel the heat of his body. As they embraced, “[h]is heart was kicking at her ear. It was a human heart. Not a teacher… It belonged to her.”[3] This was the beginning of their affair.

We understand how this abuse of an adult’s power and a teacher’s authority can take away someone’s childhood and cause permanent damage. We can see how that clock tower is a dangerous place.

When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, that too is a dangerous place. The context, the background assumptions of these people are not immediately obvious. It takes work to get to the meaning. On almost every Sunday I try not to simply repeat the gospel. I preach as if you have already paid careful to it. But this morning I want to explain the context of this story more carefully.

Mark Stanger told me this week that the dialogue between the Samaritan woman and Jesus at the well is the longest one in the New Testament. My friend Donald Schell believes that John is the best storyteller of the four gospels. John does not waste a single word or detail. John even includes physical gestures that will move our hearts.

The other gospels feature the story of the Transfiguration, the mountaintop moment when God calls Jesus his beloved son. John does not have this story. Instead his whole Gospel occurs in this kind of electric moment and shines with this light. The point is not to produce what we would call first century news or to give an historical account. The point is for you to receive a gift.

Jesus says to the woman, “if you knew the gift of God and who it is [speaking to you] you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn. 4). Quite simply John wants you to receive the gift of God’s spirit.

So we begin in that dangerous place. In Biblical stories when a man and a woman, like Jacob and Rebecca, meet at a well we know that the encounter is likely to end in marriage. But there is something terribly wrong here. In the ancient Middle East getting water was a social affair that happened in the cool of the morning or evening. Women would engage in happy conversation and enjoy each other’s company.[4]

But in this case the events happen at mid-day and the Samaritan woman comes alone. We do not know if she has been ostracized or shunned by the others, only that she is isolated.

Just by asking for a drink Jesus abruptly shatters this aloneness. Although the center of worship for Jews is Jerusalem and for Samaritans it is Mount Gerizim, the two groups share the same stories. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the first five books of the Old Testament have authority for Samaritans. In fact they regard themselves as the biblical Joseph’s ancestors. At the same time they are all too conscious that orthodox Jews treat them like outcasts. For a pious Jewish man this Samaritan woman would have been regarded as doubly unclean and impure – both because she is a woman and a Samaritan.

I don’t know if the Samaritan woman felt grateful to no longer be alone, but she was certainly surprised. Today we experience so many similar boundaries between people of different cultures, between red states and blue states. Jesus does not build walls. He shatters them and invites us to reach beyond the boundaries that we inherit. We follow his way when we overcome our fear of the people who differ from us.

This surprising conversation gets stranger when Jesus talks about the gift of God that he describes as living water. The Samaritan woman almost seems to be joking when she points out that Jesus has no bucket for drawing out living water. She asks, “are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” Jesus replies that the water he gives becomes a spring of water in us, water gushing up to eternal life.

The Samaritan woman asks for this water, to never thirst or to have to draw water from the well. And suddenly this place becomes even more dangerous. Jesus asks her to call her husband. She says she has none. Jesus says that she has had five that the one she has now is not her husband.

No one knows this woman’s circumstances. She might have been incredibly unlucky and had five husbands who died in succession. She could have the reputation of a woman goes from man to man. Today we have the word “slut-shaming” to describe a form of manipulation and abuse by men against women. We do not know but we can imagine that this Samaritan woman could have been mistreated in this way, like the women in the Marine Corps whose naked pictures were put on the Internet.

The point is that although Jesus is not afraid to speak the truth about difficult subjects he does not judge her. He really sees her. He recognizes her for who she is and does not condemn her. Whether you are an eighth grade girl or a 49-year-old priest there is something in us that longs to be really seen by another. In this moment something changes in her heart.

The Samaritan recognizes that Jesus is a kind of prophet. She wants to talk about what her people believe. Jesus says that salvation is from the Jews, but that the days of worshiping God in special places, like Jerusalem, are over. True worship will no longer be confined to a particular place. Jesus says God will seek out the true worshipers. He says, “God is spirit. Those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth.” In response the woman very seriously says that she believes the Messiah will come.

In the most astonishing dangerous statement of the whole conversation Jesus says I am he, the one speaking to you is the messiah. Of course Jesus does not say this he exactly says in Greek simply “ego eimi.” “I am.”

Let me explain. In the pivotal moment of the Old Testament when Moses becomes the first person to see God, God tells him to order the king to free his enslaved people. Moses asks God who he should tell the pharaoh sent him. God says tell them ego eimi, “I am” sent you. This is the moment of revelation. Moses is great not for his faithfulness but because he was the one who learned the name of God. And in the most surprising revelation of all an outcast Samaritan woman with five former husbands becomes in a sense the new Moses.[5]

The Samaritan woman leaves behind her bucket. She leaves behind her old self and becomes the first apostle in the Book of John. She emphatically tells the Samaritans, who may have previously despised her to come see a man who told me everything I have done. Many Samaritans believed because of the woman’s testimony and they convince Jesus to stay with them for two days. Finally they conclude that, “we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (Jn. 4).

The biblical scholar Raymond Brown suggests that the people John wrote this Gospel for, his community, believed that they were the descendants of these Samaritans.

Do you remember Abigail Cress and the students like her from the Most Dangerous Place on Earth? They are not so different from the Samaritan woman or the people in our lives. We have our own adult ways of acting as if, “unprettiness is something that needs to be atoned for.” Some of us may have everything and realize that it is not enough.

What would happen if instead of meeting Mr. Ellison, Abigail had met Jesus? What if you and I met someone who was not afraid to speak the truth about our life, to really see who we are and not judge us? What if that person pointed out that there is no right place or right way to worship, that in us we all have living waters of God springing up into eternal life? Could we ourselves leave behind our bucket? Could we become a kind of Moses for the people in our life?

[1] “You might not think that anyone in this School sees you but I do. I mean sees you really…” Lindsey Lee The Most Dangerous Place on Earth (NY: Random House, 2017) 11.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 55.

[4] Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 163.

[5] At this moment the disciples arrive. Astonished to see Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. The conversation he had with the woman was about the human thirst for the spirit of God. With the disciples Jesus talked about the hunger people of the spirit feel for doing God’s work.

Sunday, March 12
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…

he came to Jesus by night.”

Nicodemus, attracted to Jesus and yet baffled by him,

sneaks out one night to ask some questions.

As someone who is very much attracted to and yet still baffled by Jesus,

I have been asking myself about ways to help

me move forward in this really marvelous yet often maddening

adventure and challenge we share of being a human being,

even with the help of the amazing gift and grace of our faith tradition.

Today I’m reminded that:

first, the questions are always welcome,

actually necessary.

Even Mary of Nazareth, before she said yes to Gabriel’s announcement

that she was invited to be the mother of the Messiah,

asked a clarifying question.

Second, welcome news to some and a terrifying prospect to others,

ours is a mystical, inward and contemplative way in the world.

And third,

probably also equally welcome to some and untenable for others,

ours is an outward, active, even activist way.

These are three among other traits without which

I do not think we are authentically Christian

and without which we are defectively human.

The journey of our life together as people of faith,

from the start to our final breath, has to leave room for questions.

Today Nicodemus, a religious expert with all the answers

laid out in dogma and practice,

has a gnawing intuition that there might be more.

In response to his questions, Jesus indeed reveals there’s more––

much more––and some of it is stupendous:

“Being born from above…God so loved the world…may have eternal life….not perish, not to condemn but to save.”

Blessed assurance.

Yet each word of assurance gives way to another question.

“How are we born from above?” “Will the whole world be saved?”

This morning’s Gospel episode of NICK AT NIGHT shows us,

gives us permission, welcomes us into

questioning, seeking, wondering.

It is an invitation into continual, deeper exploration of

all that is fresh, new, and mysterious.  

Coming to Jesus in the dark to ask a question doesn’t mean lack of faith but rather is testimony to our thirst for deeper and more authentic faith.

.

We have a few clues today about the unique makeup

of the mystical GIFT our life holds for us

as a people who are baptized:

immersed into the very life, death, and new life of Jesus.

His life, his death, his intimacy with God, his work in the world are ours.

We have emerged from that font,

which is both a tomb from which we stumble forth alive

in ways the dead culture and ideas and business as usual around us

cannot imagine,

and that font is a womb, from which we are lifted as newly born,

heavenly born, ready to grow and develop into our full humanity.

These weeks of Lent are a season of appreciation

of the complex beauty and challenge springing forth from this gift.

With Nicodemus, we properly ask again and again:

What can I expect from all of this and what will it demand from me?

After we ask, then what?

Nicodemus can’t understand the responses Jesus offers

because he has forgotten

that we are heirs to an ancient, mystical way of living.

He came to Jesus by night in caution and fear of exposure.

He was not ready to take in the mysteries Jesus opens for him

that night.

Heart speaks to heart in the night,

when lovers kiss,

when falling stars animate the sky

as they always have over ancient Mediterranean deserts

and still do over northern California communities.

In the night come words and images

from ancient deserts and dreams.

Sarah and Abraham saw the star-filled sky

And discovered that faith wasn’t a list of doctrines

But a loving, trusting relationship into which God welcomed them.

The prophet Daniel saw in the night visions

one like a human being coming from the heavens,

a cosmic image of a healed and healing humanity.

In the night Jacob began to find order in his dead-end life

when he saw a ladder of vibrant life

connecting the visible and invisible worlds.

In the night Joseph of the house of David

listened to an angelic dream telling him to take his wife and son

and dare to be refugees, to flee in uncertainty toward safety

and a new future.

In the night while praying the apostle Peter

was freed and beckoned from a Roman prison

to move back into a hostile environment

to continue teaching, testifying, gathering, and healing.

Nicodemus on that night

could not hear the mystery, the summons, the love,

the gift, the invitation, to fuller life.

He could not break free from conventional thinking,

cautious calculating, and dullness of imagination.

Jesus had words of tender assurance, the invitation to joyful surrender,

and the interpretation of the cross itself

as a radiant sign of healing and hope.

Nicodemus may not have cultivated his mystical heart and vision, his willingness to let God speak in beauty and poetry and music.

The direction for, the divine impulse for,

and the delight in

our life fully lived

likely won’t be found in the bright sunlight

of theological creeds and catechisms.

Our questioning and our responding happens

in the soft, steady glow of the moonlight.

We’ll see it again in about a month under the Passover moon

as we circle that font again at the Great Vigil of Easter.

How will you drink in the mystic roots of our common life?

Can you find a way this lent

to recover your call, your initial inspiration,

your deepest and constant connection to God’s call and voice and heart?

Listen in a new way for how God might be calling you to be truly God’s by being truly you.

 

From our shared mystical heritage and present-day experience

we then receive prompts toward action.

Sarah and Abraham, ready for death are called to new life

And a new engagement with the world.

As they get up, leave home and friends and family, set out on pilgrimage,  

They show us what can happen when we let go of what’s familiar

and let God show us where our life might lead.

Jesus, after nights in prayer on the mountain

in mystic communion with the divine origin of his life and ours,

comes at dawn to call others, gathering, teaching,

testifying to the truth, feeding the famished, renouncing violence,

welcoming the outcast, caring for the health of the sick,

bringing life out of death.

Jesus formed and still forms circles of followers…partners…

to share in these divine actions here in and for the world God loves.

Each of us in the circle takes up some part of this healing work:

by standing for the truth,

by denouncing racism or attacks on religious groups,

by using every worldly means to share gifts of medicine and healing,

to welcome the stranger and those fleeing for safety or opportunity,

for justice in business and in government,

for preservation of and advocacy for our planet’s bounty,

for the upholding of the dignity of each person.

 

Without our continuing searching and questioning,

without our finding the mystical frame for hearing and responding to

the divine call and command,

and without movement to act individually and collectively

for the possibilities Jesus has demonstrated,

we will have lost out on the chance, our only chance, this one life,

to be closer to the full humanity and vitality which God offers.

The offered gift is divine life itself,

not condemnation… but a place at the feast.

The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger, Grace Cathedral, 830 and 11, March 12, 2017

Listen to Past Sermons

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

Sunday, March 26
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. June Osborne
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

The very Rev. June Osborne’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, March 19
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

 

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn. 4).

 

When you have nearly everything, do you come closer to realizing that having everything isn’t nearly enough? Lindsey Lee Johnson’s 2017 novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth takes on this question, perhaps unconsciously. Can you guess the most dangerous place on earth for her? It is a Marin County public school.

Students there live surrounded by stunning natural beauty with brilliant celebrity parents and all the luxuries you could imagine. They simply cannot understand what it means to be poor, to not have the absolutely finest material things. But they also experience extraordinary pressure to succeed. To them all love seems conditional or simply controlling. So they use drugs and alcohol and massive doses of cynicism to numb the pain.

In eighth grade an odd boy who likes to wear yellow sweatpants named Tristan writes a love letter to a girl. In it he says I really see who you are.[1] She shows the letter to her mean best friend, who gives it to the most popular boy in school, who puts it on Facebook. Intense bullying leads to a terrible tragedy.

The book then skips ahead in time to follow a different character each chapter as the students finish their last two years of high school. Let me read you a section to give you a sense for it. “At seventeen, Abigail Cress knew she wasn’t beautiful… She believed unprettiness was something to atone for, so she made herself an A student, track captain, president of the Valley High Chapter of the National Association for Women, editor of the yearbook. She enrolled in Mr. Ellison’s class to prep for the June SAT, and on weekends wrote out… flashcards for… vocabulary words.”[2]

Before long Abigail and Mr. Ellison, who was also her faculty advisor for the yearbook, are exchanging text messages. One afternoon in February he takes her up to the clock tower to research a yearbook article on the school’s history. “Students weren’t usually allowed up there, but she was an exception.” In those close quarters she could smell his cologne and feel the heat of his body. As they embraced, “[h]is heart was kicking at her ear. It was a human heart. Not a teacher… It belonged to her.”[3] This was the beginning of their affair.

We understand how this abuse of an adult’s power and a teacher’s authority can take away someone’s childhood and cause permanent damage. We can see how that clock tower is a dangerous place.

When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, that too is a dangerous place. The context, the background assumptions of these people are not immediately obvious. It takes work to get to the meaning. On almost every Sunday I try not to simply repeat the gospel. I preach as if you have already paid careful to it. But this morning I want to explain the context of this story more carefully.

Mark Stanger told me this week that the dialogue between the Samaritan woman and Jesus at the well is the longest one in the New Testament. My friend Donald Schell believes that John is the best storyteller of the four gospels. John does not waste a single word or detail. John even includes physical gestures that will move our hearts.

The other gospels feature the story of the Transfiguration, the mountaintop moment when God calls Jesus his beloved son. John does not have this story. Instead his whole Gospel occurs in this kind of electric moment and shines with this light. The point is not to produce what we would call first century news or to give an historical account. The point is for you to receive a gift.

Jesus says to the woman, “if you knew the gift of God and who it is [speaking to you] you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn. 4). Quite simply John wants you to receive the gift of God’s spirit.

So we begin in that dangerous place. In Biblical stories when a man and a woman, like Jacob and Rebecca, meet at a well we know that the encounter is likely to end in marriage. But there is something terribly wrong here. In the ancient Middle East getting water was a social affair that happened in the cool of the morning or evening. Women would engage in happy conversation and enjoy each other’s company.[4]

But in this case the events happen at mid-day and the Samaritan woman comes alone. We do not know if she has been ostracized or shunned by the others, only that she is isolated.

Just by asking for a drink Jesus abruptly shatters this aloneness. Although the center of worship for Jews is Jerusalem and for Samaritans it is Mount Gerizim, the two groups share the same stories. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the first five books of the Old Testament have authority for Samaritans. In fact they regard themselves as the biblical Joseph’s ancestors. At the same time they are all too conscious that orthodox Jews treat them like outcasts. For a pious Jewish man this Samaritan woman would have been regarded as doubly unclean and impure – both because she is a woman and a Samaritan.

I don’t know if the Samaritan woman felt grateful to no longer be alone, but she was certainly surprised. Today we experience so many similar boundaries between people of different cultures, between red states and blue states. Jesus does not build walls. He shatters them and invites us to reach beyond the boundaries that we inherit. We follow his way when we overcome our fear of the people who differ from us.

This surprising conversation gets stranger when Jesus talks about the gift of God that he describes as living water. The Samaritan woman almost seems to be joking when she points out that Jesus has no bucket for drawing out living water. She asks, “are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” Jesus replies that the water he gives becomes a spring of water in us, water gushing up to eternal life.

The Samaritan woman asks for this water, to never thirst or to have to draw water from the well. And suddenly this place becomes even more dangerous. Jesus asks her to call her husband. She says she has none. Jesus says that she has had five that the one she has now is not her husband.

No one knows this woman’s circumstances. She might have been incredibly unlucky and had five husbands who died in succession. She could have the reputation of a woman goes from man to man. Today we have the word “slut-shaming” to describe a form of manipulation and abuse by men against women. We do not know but we can imagine that this Samaritan woman could have been mistreated in this way, like the women in the Marine Corps whose naked pictures were put on the Internet.

The point is that although Jesus is not afraid to speak the truth about difficult subjects he does not judge her. He really sees her. He recognizes her for who she is and does not condemn her. Whether you are an eighth grade girl or a 49-year-old priest there is something in us that longs to be really seen by another. In this moment something changes in her heart.

The Samaritan recognizes that Jesus is a kind of prophet. She wants to talk about what her people believe. Jesus says that salvation is from the Jews, but that the days of worshiping God in special places, like Jerusalem, are over. True worship will no longer be confined to a particular place. Jesus says God will seek out the true worshipers. He says, “God is spirit. Those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth.” In response the woman very seriously says that she believes the Messiah will come.

In the most astonishing dangerous statement of the whole conversation Jesus says I am he, the one speaking to you is the messiah. Of course Jesus does not say this he exactly says in Greek simply “ego eimi.” “I am.”

Let me explain. In the pivotal moment of the Old Testament when Moses becomes the first person to see God, God tells him to order the king to free his enslaved people. Moses asks God who he should tell the pharaoh sent him. God says tell them ego eimi, “I am” sent you. This is the moment of revelation. Moses is great not for his faithfulness but because he was the one who learned the name of God. And in the most surprising revelation of all an outcast Samaritan woman with five former husbands becomes in a sense the new Moses.[5]

The Samaritan woman leaves behind her bucket. She leaves behind her old self and becomes the first apostle in the Book of John. She emphatically tells the Samaritans, who may have previously despised her to come see a man who told me everything I have done. Many Samaritans believed because of the woman’s testimony and they convince Jesus to stay with them for two days. Finally they conclude that, “we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (Jn. 4).

The biblical scholar Raymond Brown suggests that the people John wrote this Gospel for, his community, believed that they were the descendants of these Samaritans.

Do you remember Abigail Cress and the students like her from the Most Dangerous Place on Earth? They are not so different from the Samaritan woman or the people in our lives. We have our own adult ways of acting as if, “unprettiness is something that needs to be atoned for.” Some of us may have everything and realize that it is not enough.

What would happen if instead of meeting Mr. Ellison, Abigail had met Jesus? What if you and I met someone who was not afraid to speak the truth about our life, to really see who we are and not judge us? What if that person pointed out that there is no right place or right way to worship, that in us we all have living waters of God springing up into eternal life? Could we ourselves leave behind our bucket? Could we become a kind of Moses for the people in our life?

[1] “You might not think that anyone in this School sees you but I do. I mean sees you really…” Lindsey Lee The Most Dangerous Place on Earth (NY: Random House, 2017) 11.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 55.

[4] Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 163.

[5] At this moment the disciples arrive. Astonished to see Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. The conversation he had with the woman was about the human thirst for the spirit of God. With the disciples Jesus talked about the hunger people of the spirit feel for doing God’s work.

Sunday, March 12
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…

he came to Jesus by night.”

Nicodemus, attracted to Jesus and yet baffled by him,

sneaks out one night to ask some questions.

As someone who is very much attracted to and yet still baffled by Jesus,

I have been asking myself about ways to help

me move forward in this really marvelous yet often maddening

adventure and challenge we share of being a human being,

even with the help of the amazing gift and grace of our faith tradition.

Today I’m reminded that:

first, the questions are always welcome,

actually necessary.

Even Mary of Nazareth, before she said yes to Gabriel’s announcement

that she was invited to be the mother of the Messiah,

asked a clarifying question.

Second, welcome news to some and a terrifying prospect to others,

ours is a mystical, inward and contemplative way in the world.

And third,

probably also equally welcome to some and untenable for others,

ours is an outward, active, even activist way.

These are three among other traits without which

I do not think we are authentically Christian

and without which we are defectively human.

The journey of our life together as people of faith,

from the start to our final breath, has to leave room for questions.

Today Nicodemus, a religious expert with all the answers

laid out in dogma and practice,

has a gnawing intuition that there might be more.

In response to his questions, Jesus indeed reveals there’s more––

much more––and some of it is stupendous:

“Being born from above…God so loved the world…may have eternal life….not perish, not to condemn but to save.”

Blessed assurance.

Yet each word of assurance gives way to another question.

“How are we born from above?” “Will the whole world be saved?”

This morning’s Gospel episode of NICK AT NIGHT shows us,

gives us permission, welcomes us into

questioning, seeking, wondering.

It is an invitation into continual, deeper exploration of

all that is fresh, new, and mysterious.  

Coming to Jesus in the dark to ask a question doesn’t mean lack of faith but rather is testimony to our thirst for deeper and more authentic faith.

.

We have a few clues today about the unique makeup

of the mystical GIFT our life holds for us

as a people who are baptized:

immersed into the very life, death, and new life of Jesus.

His life, his death, his intimacy with God, his work in the world are ours.

We have emerged from that font,

which is both a tomb from which we stumble forth alive

in ways the dead culture and ideas and business as usual around us

cannot imagine,

and that font is a womb, from which we are lifted as newly born,

heavenly born, ready to grow and develop into our full humanity.

These weeks of Lent are a season of appreciation

of the complex beauty and challenge springing forth from this gift.

With Nicodemus, we properly ask again and again:

What can I expect from all of this and what will it demand from me?

After we ask, then what?

Nicodemus can’t understand the responses Jesus offers

because he has forgotten

that we are heirs to an ancient, mystical way of living.

He came to Jesus by night in caution and fear of exposure.

He was not ready to take in the mysteries Jesus opens for him

that night.

Heart speaks to heart in the night,

when lovers kiss,

when falling stars animate the sky

as they always have over ancient Mediterranean deserts

and still do over northern California communities.

In the night come words and images

from ancient deserts and dreams.

Sarah and Abraham saw the star-filled sky

And discovered that faith wasn’t a list of doctrines

But a loving, trusting relationship into which God welcomed them.

The prophet Daniel saw in the night visions

one like a human being coming from the heavens,

a cosmic image of a healed and healing humanity.

In the night Jacob began to find order in his dead-end life

when he saw a ladder of vibrant life

connecting the visible and invisible worlds.

In the night Joseph of the house of David

listened to an angelic dream telling him to take his wife and son

and dare to be refugees, to flee in uncertainty toward safety

and a new future.

In the night while praying the apostle Peter

was freed and beckoned from a Roman prison

to move back into a hostile environment

to continue teaching, testifying, gathering, and healing.

Nicodemus on that night

could not hear the mystery, the summons, the love,

the gift, the invitation, to fuller life.

He could not break free from conventional thinking,

cautious calculating, and dullness of imagination.

Jesus had words of tender assurance, the invitation to joyful surrender,

and the interpretation of the cross itself

as a radiant sign of healing and hope.

Nicodemus may not have cultivated his mystical heart and vision, his willingness to let God speak in beauty and poetry and music.

The direction for, the divine impulse for,

and the delight in

our life fully lived

likely won’t be found in the bright sunlight

of theological creeds and catechisms.

Our questioning and our responding happens

in the soft, steady glow of the moonlight.

We’ll see it again in about a month under the Passover moon

as we circle that font again at the Great Vigil of Easter.

How will you drink in the mystic roots of our common life?

Can you find a way this lent

to recover your call, your initial inspiration,

your deepest and constant connection to God’s call and voice and heart?

Listen in a new way for how God might be calling you to be truly God’s by being truly you.

 

From our shared mystical heritage and present-day experience

we then receive prompts toward action.

Sarah and Abraham, ready for death are called to new life

And a new engagement with the world.

As they get up, leave home and friends and family, set out on pilgrimage,  

They show us what can happen when we let go of what’s familiar

and let God show us where our life might lead.

Jesus, after nights in prayer on the mountain

in mystic communion with the divine origin of his life and ours,

comes at dawn to call others, gathering, teaching,

testifying to the truth, feeding the famished, renouncing violence,

welcoming the outcast, caring for the health of the sick,

bringing life out of death.

Jesus formed and still forms circles of followers…partners…

to share in these divine actions here in and for the world God loves.

Each of us in the circle takes up some part of this healing work:

by standing for the truth,

by denouncing racism or attacks on religious groups,

by using every worldly means to share gifts of medicine and healing,

to welcome the stranger and those fleeing for safety or opportunity,

for justice in business and in government,

for preservation of and advocacy for our planet’s bounty,

for the upholding of the dignity of each person.

 

Without our continuing searching and questioning,

without our finding the mystical frame for hearing and responding to

the divine call and command,

and without movement to act individually and collectively

for the possibilities Jesus has demonstrated,

we will have lost out on the chance, our only chance, this one life,

to be closer to the full humanity and vitality which God offers.

The offered gift is divine life itself,

not condemnation… but a place at the feast.

The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger, Grace Cathedral, 830 and 11, March 12, 2017

Sunday, March 5
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon From Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The manuscript from The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones will be available soon.

Wednesday, March 1
Ash Wednesday 6 p.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
Called Out: The Ash Wednesday Message We All Need This Year
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Called Out: The Ash Wednesday Message We All Need This Year

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“Do not practice your piety in front of others.” Awkward! So here we are. We are Church that is what we do, right? We are Church. That is who we are. And never more than now. Why? Because “Church” in the original Greek of the Bible doesn’t mean Club-for-the-Holier-than-Thou or The-Only-People-God-Cares-About or The-Ones-Who-Get-It.  No, Church in Greek, Ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), literally means “called out.” And I don’t know about you, but I definitely feel called out after that Gospel reading. Jesus does not mince words. “Don’t be hypocrites,” he warns. And if we take an unvarnished look at ourselves, we’ll know that he’s talking not only to us, but also about us. My mother explained it best when even as a child I noticed how weird it was that we smear ashes on our face the only day of the year we hear a specific injunction not to do that. Why? What is that about? She was so sweet, so patient with me. I remember she looked at me, and kind of paused for minute like “Who is this child?” and said, “Well, sweetie, it’s so that we don’t forget who we are.”

What’s going on in our Gospel is simple. Before it was used by Christians to mean “church,” the ancient Greeks used Ekklesia to mean a “popular voting assembly.” The Athenian Ekklesia formed the keystone of Greek democracy.  To be part of the Ekkelsia was to be a citizen: it meant you had voting rights; you had voice. Jesus is teaching us about what it means to be a citizen in God’s kingdom. If this sounds like political language, that’s because it is. Most of the terminology we now associate with Christianity has its origins in Roman military and political lingo. No joke.

“Gospel” – we all know that word – but did you know it comes from the Greek word “Evangelion?” It’s literally what Rome proclaimed as it went around conquering people. It said, “Oh look, all this good news. You are now conquered; peace has come to your land. You’re welcome!” Of course, those on the receiving end of that “good news” didn’t always see it that way. People like Caesar Augustus who ended years of war in the empire, bringing about stability that hadn’t been seen, were hailed as “Savior” – “Soter” – long before that title was ever given to Jesus of Nazareth. One of the cool things about these material reminders of our ancient past – ashes, bread, wine, water, fire, oil – is that they make it difficult for us to forget who we are. Each one of them tells a specific and important story.

Our ashes don’t come from just anywhere – we make them each year from the palm branches of the prior year’s Palm Sunday service. That’s not a coincidence. Ash Wednesday begins Lent just as Palm Sunday begins Holy Week. Palm Sunday is modeled from the ancient Roman practice of Triumph, when a victorious general returned to Rome with the spoils of war, with gold and slaves, and marched through the center of the city. People greeted him in the streets with shouts of acclamation as trumpets announced his chariot, his face painted red like Jupiter Maximus, the God King toward whose temple he sped to make sacrifice. Some scholars believe a slave whispered in the general’s ear, “Remember you are mortal.” Forgetting is a problem, maybe even the central problem, of our human condition, and at its heart it’s the reason we sin, breaking faith with each other and with God.

Ash Wednesday can’t be appreciated apart from Palm Sunday, apart from that memory of an oppressed Israelite people gathered outside Jerusalem’s gates greeting Jesus with palm branches like a conquering King. They called him “Son of David” – a clear indication of what they expected him to do. Like Israel’s greatest King, Jesus was supposed to ride into town as a warrior hero and boot out their Roman occupiers. Jesus was supposed to Make Israel Great Again. They expected a Savior like Caesar to cast Caesar out. What they didn’t expect was that this Jesus, this Savior, wasn’t there to incite violence or even end a destructive regime. This Savior would insist that Israel’s greatness was not measured in her military success or in her nationalistic fervor, but in her generosity, humility, and welcome to the stranger and outcast.

Called out. That is who we are. Once a year our misguided hosannas, offered to our false saviors, breaking God’s heart, are gathered and incinerated, reduced to ash. We need to hear that this year. I wish our whole nation would participate in Ash Wednesday this year. Politician and pundits keep remarking that they can’t remember a time when we have been more bitterly divided against each other. We block each other on Facebook, we yell at each other in the streets, and I even found out yesterday that a friend is calling off a wedding because of irreconcilable political differences. What? When did that happen? This is the world we live in, and the world God is calling us out of. We are in danger of forgetting.

We need those ashes pressed into our foreheads, in the shape of the same Cross Rome used to execute our Lord. Because that’s the migration our hearts need to make right now. From the triumphant “Uh-uh” to the humble “Here I am.” Jesus reminds us that God despises the self-righteous boasts of the hypocrite at prayer. He doesn’t tell us in Matthew’s gospel what that prayer sounded like, but he does in Luke: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” What would that sound like today? “God, I thank you that I am not like that Trump voter.” “Thank you God that I’m not like those people who voted for Hillary.” I’ve literally heard people say that. We are in serious danger of forgetting, forgetting the humanity we share, and the humanity we must extend even and especially to our enemies if we aspire to true greatness in God’s kingdom. Alan Jones, the former dean of this cathedral, chides that “The problem with God is that He has no taste. He loves everybody.”

Thank God for Ash Wednesday when God reminds us unequivocally: “No actually you are like each other. You are dust – all of you – and to dust you shall all return. If that isn’t sobering, I don’t know what it is. But…you were also made in Love and you are loved and you were made for the sake of loving others.” Only by forgetting that it’s God’s breath in our lungs can we break faith with the will and love of our Creator, with each other and with this beautiful creation. That’s important too. Because honoring our shared humanity does not mean quietly acquiescing to injustice. God calls us to make no peace with oppression as our bishop is want to say.  Indeed, on this Ash Wednesday another kind of ash drifts through my mind as I read the news of rising acts of antisemitism, and our new administrations intent to gut the EPA. I’m not sure which is worse: crematoria churning out clouds of violent hate, as white flakes covered Auschwitz – a haunting reminder of what it costs to fully forget – or the invisible carbon particles filling our skies that signal our apparent comfort with a suicidal wager we have made against ourselves. And that’s full on crazy.

Some might wish that this were a sermon about the president; but it’s not. It’s not about the president and it’s not about Hilary. It’s about us, about our tendency to invest our hope in passing things, and to treat each other as though we are passing things, when in reality we are people whose worth is measureless before God. We collude with our own self destruction in some surprising and creative ways. But the seeds of our destruction carry within them the very seeds of our salvation, too, and this is very good news. Jesus invites us to ask God, sincerely, for the good things God intends for us.

Rome was governed by a man who called himself the “Father of the Fatherland,” the “Pater Patriae” – one of the titles the emperor held.  When Jesus teaches his followers to pray, “Our Father who are in heaven,” that was a way of saying, “the father in Rome who makes a total claim over your life, isn’t your real father and has no real claim over your life.” When we go to that other Father in secret, we are acting in a subversive way.  That other Father doesn’t crave power – He has all power without condition. That Father doesn’t need to control, manipulate or denigrate. He loves, builds, creates. That Father gives that Father’s self. We see the image of the Father in the Son, who even to the one who says “I hate you,” doesn’t turn away, who even from the Cross, proclaims, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Jesus invites us to ask that Father to restore us, to open our hearts to the needs of others around us.  And, then, he invites us to use our creativity to achieve the will of that Father.

We may be dust, but what other dust gazes up at the night sky wondering where it came from? What other dust reaches out beyond its natural borders to foster healing and reconciliation even among another species? I’ve been on this Netflix kick lately, and I’m hooked into these nature specials. I’m so impressed with marine biologists and zoologists who every day dedicate their lives to studying the magnificent creatures that populate our planet. Men and women who spend their lives caring and protecting species not their own. We just think of this as a neat and normal thing, but it’s very unusual. It’s a great gift of our humanity to show concern for the whole creation. Last night at our cathedral’s Carnivale fundraiser, we beheld the spectacular art of Bandaloop. It’s amazing to imagine that someone looking at a wall would see it not as a barrier or an architectural feature, but a platform to dance on. How incredible? Who dance with such fluid movement you would believe you were in heaven. They looked like angels – it was so amazing! Or the kindness of the stranger I saw yesterday on Muni who paid for another woman’s ticket because she had lost hers. Our lives are full of potential for good. Full of potential to honor and to uplift the humanity we know we see in each other.

Now in this mortal time, we hear the invitation and open our hearts to receive it. Welcome to Lent. God in Jesus is calling us out. Out of our small orbits of self-interest into the endless circumference of His love. Out of our silly chasing after things that don’t satisfy, into the arms of a God who quenches our infinite thirst for affirmation. Out of the little castles we build around our hearts into the open palace of a true King. We, you are and I, are His daughters and sons, beloved heirs on this incredible inheritance. You may be dust, but you are His dust and that makes all the difference. Let’s make this dust count. Amen.

Wednesday, March 1
Ash Wednesday 12:10 Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Ash Wednesday's 12:10 Eucharist
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The manuscript from The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus’ sermon will be available soon.

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