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Sunday, March 19
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, March 16
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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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
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“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
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“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, November 15
The Place Where We Are Right
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds encouraging one another as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

It is hard. It is hard to understand what happened in Baghdad, Beirut and Paris this week. Ordinary people like you and I casually went to see friends at a stadium, at a funeral, in a concert hall, cafes, restaurants and streets. [1] Total strangers indiscriminately killed them. I guess that is the point of this kind of violence. One person shows how intensely he cares about politics by murdering someone who has almost nothing to do with his grievances. The very arbitrariness of the act is intended to strike fear in the hearts of whole groups of people.

Do not forget that each of the ones we lost was a perfectly unique child of God. Each was filled with beauty, grace, goodness and potential that came into being just once in the history of the whole universe. Their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children and friends will never forget Friday. They will never be quite okay ever again.

We find ourselves in that moment when we have to choose what events like this will mean to us. Again we have to decide what we will do, how we will live and who we will be.

Twenty years before the birth of Jesus, King Herod the Great began reconstructing the Temple in Jerusalem. It cost many fortunes and became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Temple stood on a great platform of more than 900 by 1,500 feet. This made it twice as large as the Roman Forum with all its temples. It was four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis and its Parthenon. The retaining walls included forty foot long white stones the remains of which you can still see today. [2]

The ancient historian Josephus writes that the 150 foot square front of the temple had so many gold and silver decorations that on sunny days it nearly blinded anyone who looked at it. Pilgrims approaching the temple could see it from miles and miles away.

You can imagine how this might strike one of Jesus’ disciples. A peasant from rural Galilee would have been amazed. He would regard the temple as God’s dwelling place at the center of the world, the very symbol of the Holy One’s connection to the people. How shocking it is for Jesus to respond to his awe saying, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13).

Later Jesus goes on to warn “Beware that no one leads you astray… When you hear wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place but the end is still to come.” [3]

As Christians we have to decide what these words will mean to us. I think that there are three obvious options. First, one might interpret this passage simply as Jesus’ prediction about the Jewish Temple. In the beginning of August in the year 70 Titus conquered the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. We could regard Jesus simply as someone who understood human nature and groups well enough to make accurate predictions about the future.

Second, many other Christians believe that these statements are about the end of the world, when everything will be destroyed to make room for God’s new creation. Some American Christians make predictions about the end. They let their imaginations run wild taking them far beyond what the Bible actually says.

I do not know if the point is that Jesus accurately predicted the results of the First Jewish-Roman War or how the world will end. I do believe that there is a kind of ongoing destruction over time that happens as God’s Word continues to permeate human experience. God’s Kingdom breaks down every structure, every human institution, every form of oppression until we are free. Jesus unleashed a power into our world and we still can barely fathom all of its implications.

I wonder if you can answer this question: what was the most controversial Christian doctrine at the beginning of the church during the first centuries? [4] From those years we have different historical accounts of what their Roman neighbors thought about Christian teachings. So what do you think offended them the most? You might be thinking about conflicts over whether Jesus was essentially divine or human, miracles, Mary, divine healing, the body and blood of Christ, infant baptism or bodily resurrection.

According to the Romans the most radical and controversial Christian doctrine was the idea that every person matters. Even after twenty centuries of proclaiming this truth it still is incredibly controversial. ISIS does not believe it. Our modern democracies only partly believe it. Even today the spirit unleashed by Jesus leads to surprising, radical revolutions.

This weekend Alan Jones and I were talking about the tendency to romanticize Greek and Roman culture. Alan cites a letter from Hilarion, an ancient Roman man who moved away from his wife and child for work. The author (a laborer at Oxyrhnychos) clearly cares about his wife. At the end of the letter he tenderly writes “You told Aphrodisias, ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.” But he also writes about what she should do if it turns out she is pregnant. He orders her, “If it is a boy let it live. If it is a girl expose it” (P.Oxy 4.744). There was no place in his heart for a girl, or for the idea that his wife could have any voice in this matter.

The Romans enjoyed watching people get torn apart by wild animals and gladiators. They owned slaves. The family patriarch had absolute control over those under his authority in matters of sex, life and death. The Romans would crucify hundreds of slaves along the road just to intimidate the others. But Alan pointed out that what most offended the Emperor Julian (331-363) was that in a Christian assembly a senator might find himself sitting next to a slave.

In this context the idea that who you are as citizen or foreigner, free or slave, male or female, rich or poor is of secondary importance to being a child of God – this idea is still revolutionary. Human beings have not completely discovered exactly what this means. We are not very attractive and certainly do not deserve it but God is madly in love with us. Alan said that the monks at The College of the Resurrection (Mirfield) talked about “how disgusting it is that God so lacks taste as to really love everyone.”

David Bentley Hart (1965-) is a contemporary theologian who writes about the contrast between Christian thought and modern atheist philosophers like Friedrich Nieztsche (1844-1900). Hart points out that in the modern postmodern world many sophisticated people believe that there is nothing more than power. When you probe how they think and talk you will discover that they believe that power is what we all long for, that power and those who have it write the stories that ultimately determines what is true. For them, beneath power, there is nothing more than power.

Hart writes, “the difference between two narratives: [is] one… finds the grammar of violence inscribed upon the foundation stone of every institution and hidden within the syntax of every rhetoric, and [the other] claims that within history a way of reconciliation has been opened that leads beyond, and ultimately overcomes, all violence.” [5]

I love what Hart writes later. He says, “We are music moved to music… partaking in the inexhaustible goodness of God… the restless soul, immersed in the spectacle of God’s glory, is drawn without break beyond the world to the source of its beauty, to embrace the infinite.” [6] The twentieth century writer Dorothy Sayers describes Dante’s Divine Comedy as the drama of the soul’s choice between good and evil. She writes that we put ourselves with God or far from God, and where we are tells us who we are. To quote Alan once again, “we become what we are by choosing and the Good News is that God chooses us.”

Mahatma Gandhi says my religion is kindness. The New Testament states that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Every moment we have the chance to choose love, to choose God.

So how will you live in that love? How will you prevent yourself from becoming another kind of terrorist, that is, a sort of mirror image of the terrorist – someone who merely differs in one’s belief about who needs to be protected and who is dispensable?

People who try to be citizens of God’s kingdom begin with humility, with letting God be God.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) expresses this in his poem “The Place Where We Are Right.”

“From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be hear in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.” [7]

It is hard. It is hard to understand what happened in Paris this week. It is difficult for us to move from the place where we are right, the place of easy answers, the place that is hard and trampled. It is hard when we feel like our world is being dug up, and not one stone will be left on another.

But a way of reconciliation has been opened. And we can hear the whisper in the place where the ruined house once stood.

Yes, we are music moved by music as the inexhaustible goodness of God draws us to embrace the infinite. So let us, by choosing, become what we are and live in God’s love.
[1] Adam Nossiter, Aurelien Breeden and Nicola Clark, “Paris Attacks Were an ‘Act of War’ by ISIS, Hollande Says,” The New York Times, 14 November 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/world/europe/paris-terrorist-attacks.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=span-abc-region&region=span-abc-region&WT.nav=span-abc-region

[2] These three paragraphs from A. Katherine Grieb, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, 11 November 2015, 20.

[3] “[T]he sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” (Mk. 13).

[4] I’m very indebted to conversations with Alan Jones (November 12-14, 2015) for most of this sermon from Hilarion to Yehuda Amichai.

[5] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2003), 2.

[6] Ibid., 195.

[7] http://daysofawe.net/shebotzodkim.htm

Sunday, November 8
Hiding Death
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on" (Mk. 12).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12).

Your heart beats seventy-two times per minute for 1,440 minutes a day. That is 103,680 beats per day, 37,843,200 beats per year, 2,936,632,320 in the average person’s lifetime. [i] This small part of your body, this fist sized piece of flesh, can never rest. Without it we quickly die. Life is precarious and fragile. Death lies so near to our bodies, and yet strangely, so far from our thoughts.

When the Buddha was born, prophets told his father that he would either be the world conqueror or the world savior. As a king himself the Buddha’s father longed for his son to be a conqueror. But he knew that this would only be possible if his son never awakened.

So the father gave his son everything – unimaginable wealth, palaces, music, art and luxury. But to prevent his son from waking up spiritually, the father hid from him all evidence of poverty, disease, old age and death. He knew that if his son never experienced suffering he would never gain spiritual insight.

In his secret visits to the town outside the palace walls the young Buddha saw a diseased person, a decaying corpse and a religious ascetic. These experiences in themselves were not enough to awaken him spiritually but they did provoke him to leave home and follow the spiritual path. This led ultimately to the bodhi tree under which he sat when he attained enlightenment. The Buddha discovered a new relation to suffering.

In many respects our culture functions much like the Buddha’s father. It hides death and suffering from us. Our hospitals have special corridors and elevators so that we do not ever have to encounter a dead body. Modern American life is so segregated by age that unless young people are part of a church they will not even know an old person who is not related to them. We hide death from ourselves and we are unenlightened.

This week I was talking about how sad it is to see severely mentally people on the streets in this city. It breaks my heart that we cannot do more to take care of them, to provide them with food, clothes, healthcare and safe shelter. At the same time I wonder if seeing them on the street in part upsets us because so much of the other suffering in life has been hidden.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) composed his requiem between 1887 and 1890. Someone has called it a “lullaby of death.” The beauty of this work allows us to hold death in a different way. It reminds us of those who went before us so that we can more honestly consider what it is that we are leaving behind.

Death reminds us that we have choices when it comes to deciding how to live. In the gospel Jesus compares two kinds of people. These are really two paths each of us take at different times.

On the one hand he warns, “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (Mk. 12). These are the people who crave attention and respect. They long to be regarded as superior to other. All of us have an ugly voice in our thoughts that looks for ways that we can feel offended.

In the readings for Ash Wednesday Jesus emphtaically teaches us to do good things for their own sake and not “in order to be seen” by others (Mt. 6:1). We should linger a little over the Greek word for “best seats.” It is protokathedrias, literally the first chair. A cathedral is built around that first chair. This hierarchy is a pretty deep part of cathdral culture and we need to be especially conscious of it. We should not be mistake all human life has variations of the first class lounge.

In contrast to this Jesus commends a widow who puts a few pennies into the temple treasury. This woman does not care about looking good. She gives because it is the right thing to do and she gives generously. Jesus says, “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12). In Greek she gives “holon ton bion.” We know the word bios from our “biology.” This widow not holding back anything, gives her whole life.

In Jewish theology the word yetzer refers to two competing tendencies, inclinations or impulses. One yetzer, yetzer ra is to selfishness, pride, the desire to satisfy one’s own needs without thinking of others. This is not evil, It is merely the tendency that makes us long for special treatment and honors. The second yetzer is yetzer tov. It leads us to empathy, compassion and righteousness. The purpose of God’s law is to remind us which of these tendencies we should encourage. [ii]

I have a friend named Russ Toll who seems to always live out of his yetzer tov. Like the widow he does not hold anything back but shares his holon ton bion, his life, to every noble activity he undertakes. This hulking man who seems so gentle with his toddler and infant sons served as a tank commander in Iraq. He saw terrible things there and still feels haunted by the friends he lost.

He once talked about visiting the body of a fellow soldier in a funeral home. “The strangest part is, you’re looking at his face and thinking about all your memories, and a smell hits you. It’s not the burning grass, rain, livestock smell of Iraq, but old formaldehyde. It really blurs your memory and your reality.” [iii]

Russ rarely talks about this pain. These days he is a doctoral student in neuroscience at Stanford. God has done so much to heal him. Russ’s message now is simply, “If I were to give a recommendation for what people should do on Veteran’s Day, I would say to take five minutes to just sit on a bench somewhere and look around you.” See what God has made and what what those before have added to creation. Give thanks.

This week I hope that the fear of death will not prevent you from coming closer to enlightment, to knowing how blessed this life God gives is. I pray that in a moment of sanctity between you and God you discover something worth giving your life to. I pray that your yesher tov prevails over your yesher ra.

I pray that in the busyness of these days you have the chance to listen to your heart.

[i] Assuming a life expectancy of 77.6 years.

[ii] From Jack Crossley and http://www.jewfaq.org/human.htm

[iii] Niuniu Teo, “Veterans Day Vignettes,” The Stanford Daily, 11 November 2012.

Sunday, November 1
Teach them Gratitude
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"See I am making all things new" (Rev. 21). "Unbind him and let him go" (Jn. 11). "Let us be glad and rejoice" (Isa. 25).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“See I am making all things new” (Rev. 21). “Unbind him and let him go” (Jn. 11). “Let us be glad and rejoice” (Isa. 25).

What does God want for you and for the children we baptize today? What stands in our way, how are we constrained or bound up, unable to be free?

My friend the Bible scholar Herman Waetjen has a wonderful interpretation of that moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” [1] After Lazarus has been in the grave for four days, after he has been brought back to life, he still needs help from the community of people who care for him. He needs to be unbound. At many points in our life we do too.

For me religion is not so much about dogma or doctrine. It is not a requirement to think or believe certain things. It does not oblige you to feel sorry for what you have done in the past, nor is it mostly a promise to make better choices in the future. Instead, at its very heart, faith frees us. It is a gropu of people who help each other to become unbound. This happens in the experience of thankfulness to the Holy One, to the power which brings us into being and sustains us in love.

Religion at its best gives us both a direction to be thankful and practice in cultivating gratitude. In this way faith helps make it possible to receive the gifts that otherwise might be invisible to us.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saint’s. We give thanks for all the people who came before us, for those who personally nurtured and sheltered us spiritually. We even bless God for those forgotten people who wrote scriptures, created art and built sacred spaces like this so that we would know God. We bless those who in their lives and words preserved the knowledge of God that enriches us.

So the short answer to my first question is that God wants us to be happy. Strangely enough we lay claim to this in our gratitude. I am not alone in this conviction.

Six years ago I first met Christine Carter a sociologist at UC Berkeley. [2] She taught me that for decades social scientists studied individual and social problems like mental illness and persistent poverty. For years they were so dedicated to solving questions about how to heal suffering that they did not ask about what conditions make people thrive. Then they realized that not suffering is different than being happy. And so less than twenty years ago they began studying the causes of human happiness.

This research led them to the conclusion that less than half of our happiness comes from our individual genetic predisposition. In other words the the choices we make have a huge influence on our sense of satisfaction and joy. We can establish habits that bring out our better selves. We can live the stories that give meaning and help us to make the world better.

Christine claims that happiness is not an emotion but a skill that we can learn. Happiness is not something that simply happens to us when we are lucky. It is more like a muscle that we keep strong through exercise. It is a learned behavior, that arises out of habits we decide to cultivate.

The practice of gratitude – to family, strangers and God – lies at the heart of happiness. I do not know how she measures these things but Christine claims that people actively practicing gratitude feel better than others. They are 20% happier. They exercise more, sleep better, and are more likeable. They are more supportive, attentive, persistent, stronger, and socially intelligent. They have a higher sense of self worth.

Christine has very practical suggestions for how to cultivate gratitude. For instance, she says that having meals together as a family is more important than reading to your child. If you are a single person, look for ways to break bread with other people, maybe even those who you meet here. Over meals we weave the stories that make sense of our lives. These can be gripes about minor ways that others have inadvertently offended us or life giving accounts about how God continues to bless us.

For entirely secular reasons Christine recommends that people say grace together before meals. Our brains are giant filters of the world and saying out loud what we are thankful for helps us to attend to blessings that we might easily overlook. When we thank God our blessings become more real to us.

We live in a crazy time and place. Sometimes it feels like we are trapped in the abundance paradox. That is when the more you have, the more disappointment you feel when you don’t get what you want. In many respects gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. It leads to the kind of compassion that social scientists say is so close to happiness that your body reacts to it in almost exactly the same way.

Even more important, gratitude is the way we live in the presence and reality of God. I’m new here and received very stern instructions that with all the baptisms I should preach for only half as long as I usually do.

But before closing I want to tell you about my favorite film. It is called Here and Now. The trailer says, “The average wave lasts six seconds. The rest of the day is spent getting there. This is that day.” The producer Taylor Steele enlisted more than 25 surfers and photographers to record a single twenty-four hour period on May 2, 2012. In hundreds of of seconds long clips we see the surfers sleeping, waking, eating, training, making music, laughing with friends in places around the world.

Two of them arrive by boat at a remore location on the south shore of Maui to find almost no waves but good fishing. Others compete in a Southern California contest. Another surfs barreling, left-breaking waves alone just beyond the woods in British Columbia. I love the idea that at every moment somewhere someone is riding a wave.

It took me a long time to realize it but surfing is not even about the waves. [3] On one day it might be a line of pelicans coming through the fog, or the light on the water at dawn or a dolphin in the coolness of the water at the beginning of a hot summer day, or the way a million rain drops can seem suspended above the ocean in the semi-darkness of a December day.

People ask me if I write sermons out there. I don’t. All I think about is getting into position for the next wave. The most important thing in surfing is the present moment. It is being able to see and receive the gift that God is giving you right then. It is the practice of gratitude that opens the door to the mystery of our being.

I want to conclude with a quote from the theologian Kallistos Ware. He says, “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” [4]

“Let us be glad and rejoice” (Isa. 25)!

[1] “Lazarus has responded to Jesus’ bellowing summons, “Come forth.” But in order to be free he needs the gracious aid and helping hand of those around him. Jesus’ liberation from the death of the living and the death of the dying requires a two-fold response: the act of Lazarus himself to hear and exit, but also the caring involvement of his community.” Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 283.

[2] Christine Carter, “Raising Happiness,” Lecture at Christ Episcopal Church, Los Altos, California, 20 October 2009.

[3] I learned from Mike Lawler that surfing is not just about the physical act of riding waves. It is about history, culture, music, science, meteorology, art and style that surfers pass down between the generations.

[4] Cited in Donald Schell, “Treasures New and Old, Tradition and Gospel-Making: Reflections on Principles Learned at St. Gregory of Nyssa, and How These Principles Might Apply in Other Contexts,” Forthcoming lecture at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, November 2015, 8.

Sunday, October 25
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist.

Sunday, September 13
Take Up Your Cross
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from Sunday's 6pm Service
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