Listen to the Latest Services

Sunday, October 15
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
Download service leaflet
Thursday, October 12
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
Download service leaflet

Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, October 15
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: Sarah Kay
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon
Sunday, October 8
Vengeance and Forgiveness
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

Vengeance and Forgiveness

“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on” (Phil 3).

Imagine it is July 1, 1751. You live in the farmlands below the Holyoke Mountain Range, near the great Connecticut River in Northampton. Eventually this will be called Western Massachusetts, but now it is not far from the frontier of European settlement. On this warm Sabbath day you sit on wooden pews in a Puritan church. The pastor, in his late forties, has served here for twenty-four years.

As a young man, he led this church when it became the birthplace of the Great Awakening. The books and pamphlets he wrote about this extraordinary revival of spirituality became international bestsellers and put this remote town on the map. You do not realize it but the Reverend Mister Jonathan Edwards will have the reputation as the New World’s greatest theologian for the next three hundred years.

This fact would probably astonish you since your church has voted to fire him and this is his last sermon as your pastor. Northampton has been growing. Escalating land values and trade have led to greater inequalities than the town has yet faced. Edwards angered powerful people in this community because of his uncompromising opposition to the pressures of materialism. Furthermore, some young men in the town have found an anatomy book and are using it to taunt women about their private parts. Edwards has been outspoken in demanding discipline even for these children of prominent citizens.

His grandfather was the pastor before him and Edwards has reversed one of his most distinctive policies. Edwards now demands a testimony of faith before anyone can become a member of the church. This theological conviction is the stated reason for his removal.

Edwards has baptized their children, married them, buried their loved ones, and counseled them when there seemed like no hope. He now stands to say farewell. He says, “we live in a world of change, where nothing is certain or stable… a little time, a few revolutions of the sun, brings to pass… surprising alterations, in… persons, in families, in towns and in churches, in countries and in nations.” He points out that despite all the

change we see in this world, God will bring together pastors and their congregations on the Day of Judgment. Then, “every error and false opinion shall be detected; all deceit and delusion shall vanish away before the light of that day.” Then “all shall know the truth with the greatest certainty, and there shall be no mistakes to rectify.”1

I think in almost all of us (even preachers of predestination) there is a longing for this kind of Judgment Day. That is when our divorced spouse finally gets what he deserves, when a parent has to face what she has done, when the boss who fired us or the friend who betrayed us receives the full force of God’s justice. “Then they’ll know how I feel,” we think to ourselves. This is the fantasy of being justified by someone who really understands. It is one of the most appealing aspects of believing in God’s omniscience.

Jesus tells the story of an investor, a landlord who builds a vineyard with a fence, winepress and watchtower. He plants vines but during the five years that it takes for them to begin producing wine, the tenants there begin to think they own this place. At harvest time, the owner sends his representatives. The tenants beat one, killed another and stoned another. They do this again. The owner then makes the fatal mistake of sending his own son as his legal representative. They kill him. Jesus asks the religious leaders who are persecuting him, “what will the owner do to those tenants?”

At first the point seems obvious. The Pharisees condemn themselves when they say that the owner, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” This story has been used to claim that God has taken the kingdom away from the Jews. Among Protestants this reading was probably used to suggest that God would take away his kingdom from the Roman Catholics. Maybe there are Mormons somewhere using this same parable to claim that God was taking the kingdom away from the Protestants.

Our reading from Isaiah shows where Jesus got the story. Isaiah criticizes leaders of his own society. He suggests that their work is not bearing productive fruit and that as a result God will permit the vineyard (as a symbol for the people of Israel) to be dismantled. Jesus personalizes and intensifies the story. His version is not merely about failure, but about greed, theft and murder.

In the vineyard owner, Jesus chooses an odd character to make as his example. Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) conquered almost the whole known ancient world three hundred years before Jesus’ time. His conquest brought Greek culture and language to the Holy Land. The Greek-speaking kings who governed after his death would expropriate land and either grant it to their strongest supporters or sell it to

wealthy foreigners. Jewish people deeply resented these absentee landlords and foreign overseers who would often claim between 40 and 50 percent of the produce.2

This introduces new complexity into Isaiah’s simple story. Who are you meant to be? Are you a greedy tenant, or someone unfairly oppressed by a distant tyrant, hoping to finally own the full fruits of your own labor? Are you the distant owner initially feeling frustration because of your dependence on nameless serfs and then through your own tragic miscalculation, bearing some responsibility for endangering your son? Can you feel some of the rage that follows this realization? Or are you the son, proud of your position and responsibility, an elite who suddenly and tragically discovers his own vulnerability?

1. Let me make two points this morning. First, this story reminds me that ultimately evil does not prevail. In Junior High School I had a friend named Phil. One day Phil’s older brother Steve and his girlfriend were forced into a van at gunpoint in the supermarket around the corner from my house. They drove down to Putah Creek where both teenagers were killed. Years later, DNA evidence linked these deaths to a man who committed a string of murders across the west. Two sweet and perfect teenagers died a terrible death because this man enjoyed the sense of power that killing made him feel. This week the events in Las Vegas brought that terrible experience back to me.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about what he called “Radical Evil.”3 Human beings harm others out of our own self-interest, but we are also capable of completely inexplicable cruelty. Jesus’ story reminds me that there is nowhere for evil to hide from God. Even when everything seems to be spinning out of control, evil does not have the last word.

2. My second point is more subtle and difficult. Jesus’ parable is not just about evil people out there. It is about what happens in me too. God cares about what we do. In fact, that might even be the primary meaning of this story.

Two hundred years ago, the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) wrote that many of our opinions about Christ’s Last Judgment arise out of, “a vengeful desire to enhance the misery of unbelievers, and to exclude them from… the good.”4 For him, the Last Judgment at its best symbolizes the hope that one day all beings will be freed from evil actions to such a great extent that evil will in effect cease to exist.5

Until then we all face an inner struggle. The amazing thing about this story is that Jesus does not really supply an ending. He gives the Pharisees a set of circumstances and they are the ones who say that the vineyard owner will put the tenants “to a miserable

death.” But this is not what Jesus himself says, or more profoundly, this is not how God acts when it comes to Jesus.

When God sends the Son into the vineyard where he is killed, this story is not about how his persecutors are humiliated and put to justice. The story of Jesus is about how life overcomes fear and death. It is about the power of forgiveness, how God brings about healing and wholeness in miraculous ways. In his Letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul describes the zeal with which he persecuted the followers of Jesus. He even participated in the murder of St. Stephen. God didn’t put him to death but showed him a whole new way of being.

God moved Paul’s heart so deeply that he came to “regard everything as loss” compared to, “the surpassing value of knowing Jesus” (Phil. 3). He lived for this love, because in his words, “Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3). Under God’s care and in the face of this forgiveness he became one of the most faithful of all Jesus’ disciples in history.

In conclusion, Jesus does not tell the parable of the vineyard tenants to give Jews, Christians, Protestants or even Mormons a sense of ancestral entitlement or the right to condemn whole classes of people. Jesus tells us this story both to remind us that God is in charge (that vengeance belongs to the Lord) and that God’s ways of forgiveness and love surpass human understanding. We have the chance to change right now. In our hearts we carry, we are, the tenants and the landlord and the son.

You may have heard an old story that the Chippewa Indians used to tell about a young boy and his grandfather. The old man tells him about the fierce battle within every person between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is greed, lies, jealousy, anger, condemnation, prejudice, distrust and fear. He feels superior, insecure and self-pitying at the same time.

The other wolf is good. He is strong, gentle, kind, self-sacrificing and true. He has faith. He is at peace and he shares everything with a generous and joyful heart. The young boy asks his grandfather, “which wolf wins?” The grandfather replies “the one you feed.”

1 Edwards’ “Farewell Sermon” is printed in many different volumes. The story I tell here is influenced by Philip F. Gura, Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical (NY: Hill and Wang, 2005), 162-4.

2 Herman, C. Waetjen, “Intimations of the Year of Jubilee in the Parables of the Wicked Tenants and the Workers in the Vineyard,” Journal of Religion and Theology in Namibia, 1, 1999.

3 Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

4 Frierich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, Tr. H.R. Macintosh and J.S. Steward (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928), 715-7.

5 Being part of a twenty-first century democracy makes us partly responsible for a lot of terrible things. The Arctic ice cap continues to shrink. Scientists agree that this is mostly because of emissions from our smokestacks and tailpipes. Although the science of global climate change proves that we need to act immediately, ordinary self-interested people refuse to change. The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich points out that the Greek word for truth aleithia means literally to unveil something. For ancient Greeks truth is discovered, the opposite of truth is opinion. For Christians, the opposite of truth is a lie. Truth is not something that is known, but something that we do in relation to others. Tillich writes, “You cannot have an opinion about the Christ after you have faced him. You can only do the truth by following Him, or lie by denying him.”

5 For Jesus himself truth is a form of action. He says, “Anyone who hears my words and acts on them is like the wise man who builds his house on a rock” (Mt. 7:24).

Listen to Past Sermons

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

Sunday, June 26
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Read sermon
Sunday, June 19
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Elizabeth Grundy
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon
Sunday, June 12
Noumena and Phenomena: The Story of Gratitude and Forgiveness
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

Alan Jones taught me that, “The universe is not so much made up of atoms as it is of stories.”[1]

Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman” (Lk. 7)? In one sense, of course, Simon does. But the whole point of this story concerns his failure to really understand.

I have very fond high school memories of our local Episcopal church’s midnight Christmas service. I usually cut the fragrant greens for the wreaths with an old botany professor. Singing familiar carols, the softness of the luminaria candle light, so many friends, the taste of the bread and wine, and afterwards the cold midnight sky filled with lights from distant worlds made me feel so near to God.

One midnight at Christmas in our packed church during the prayer of consecration a man in a black trench coat strode up the center aisle to the altar where he interrupted the priest. His anger and the tension it created felt almost unbearable. For a half second it almost seemed like he might kill our rector.

Everyone there that night saw him, but not many knew his story in the way that I did. The man’s name was David and I knew him as a gentle person from a church lecture series on C.S. Lewis. He had wanted to be ordained but had been rejected by our priest. He believed that it was because he was gay. He felt so much pain that he almost didn’t care what it would take to feel better. I often wonder if he is still alive and how he remembers that night. Henry David Thoreau writes, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”[2]

The story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair begins like this. It begins with someone with such a powerful story that it leads her to radically break social conventions.

Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman.” We already know that Simon and Jesus see her in completely different ways. Simon understands her exclusively in terms of what she has done in the past. Everyone in town knows she is a sinner from the city. This woman has no existence in her own right for him. For Simon she only confirms his pre-existent sense of superiority over Jesus.

Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known… what kind of woman who is touching him – that she is sinner” (Lk. 7). The irony is that Jesus does know. Jesus knows not only what kind of woman this is, but what kind of judgment Simon has formed of him.

Jesus understands the woman’s pain, along with Simon’s testing and insecure sense of his own superiority. And so Jesus asks, “Simon do you see this woman?”

Probably the most important philosopher in modern European history is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He cared intensely about human freedom. In a short essay called “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) Kant defines enlightenment as courageously emerging from immaturity and learning to make use of our minds without direction from others. It means living by the Latin motto “Sapere Aude” or “have the courage to use your own reason.”[3]

You might remember Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) third law of motion from your physics class. He wrote that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Kant worried that this picture of the universe would make it hard for people to believe in their own freedom. He thought we might be tempted to see ourselves as billiard balls on the table simply knocked out of place by forces beyond us, compelled by desires that we did not choose.

To solve this problem Kant proposes that there is a difference between what he called the noumena which is how the world is in itself and the phenomena which is how we perceive the world. Our senses, our faculties contribute to how the world in Werner Erhard’s language, “shows up for us.” For Kant, the seemingly unbreakable laws of physics and causation are not how the universe itself is but how we perceive it.

What this ultimately means is that how we see the world cannot be disentangled from our experience of our own selves. Our self will not get out of the way when it comes to perceiving the world. We experience a bit of ourselves in everything we see.

Kant believed that in our heart we possess an extraordinary freedom to act even against our own instincts for selfishness. For him, the primary way we experience holiness lies in this freedom. It is how we come close to understanding God. Kant writes, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”[4] Our very existence in this universe and our innermost freedom remind us that we are children of God.

To Simon Jesus says, “do you see this woman.” And all Simon can see is himself. Jesus tries to help him experience something more. He tells a story about a creditor who forgave one person $8,000 and another whom he forgave $80,000. Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replies, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Jesus says, “You have judged rightly.”

Turning toward the woman he says to Simon, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven…” (Lk 7).

Jesus is not laying down a judgment. He is not condemning Simon. Jesus merely points out what is true. In a different way than Kant, Jesus teaches that what is inside us will determine how we experience the world.

Some say, “I can’t believe in God because the world is so terrible.” Indeed often the universe does not always live up to our expectations. Sometimes on days like this when so many of our brothers were killed in Orlando, I am tempted to despair. But is the world objectively speaking tragic… or is our very existence a gift? This depends on our story.

Jesus tries to plant in us a new way of being, a new way of experiencing the world and acting in it. Quite simply Jesus presents us with two pictures for how we might go through our life. Every day we choose between them.

We can see the world in Simon’s way as a battle for scarce resources in which we will only succeed through the failure or diminishment of others, or we can see with gratitude and hope as this woman does. In this miraculous moment she has come to recognize that God’s goodness eclipses every terrible thing that she has done in the past.

  1. Simon thrives on feeling superior to other people. He feels satisfaction through the subtle ways he reminds others of their lower status. For him, being religious means putting arbitrary rules over how we treat other people. To Simon what we seem like to others, is more important than who we really are. He represents that part of us that wants so badly to be admired. He constantly compares what everyone else receives with what he has. He cannot entertain the thought that he might not be right. He never really gives himself.

For Simon there is no such thing as grace. We receive nothing that we did not earn. Our past determines the future. He never even glimpses the gift of life, the savior, the one who is present in every moment. And so he offers to Jesus no water, no kiss, no oil. The universe will always, in a sense, be dead to him.

  1. On our good days however we have more in common with this woman’s experience. She teaches us that who we really are is not determined by other people’s judgments. She shows what might happen when we let go of shame. She does not always need to be perfect or right. She does not always have to win. She believes with all her heart in forgiveness. She is ready to grow and change. She is vulnerable, authentic and generous.

This woman lives in a universe alive with possibility. Free from the past, she experiences the perfect gift of every moment. She participates in a life far greater than her self, far larger than Simon even sees. In short, she can love. Her faith has saved her and she can go in peace.

Last night the actor Anna Deavere Smith explained that when she was a child her father told her that if you say a word often enough – you become that word. This week allow yourself to be the debtor who owes everything to God. Let your word be “forgive us.”

The universe is not so much made up of atoms as it is of stories. Every day these stories and the very presence of Jesus refine our perceptions and change the way that this holy world appears to us.

How about you? What will the starry heavens above and the mysterious freedom within mean to you? Will you allow the story of Jesus to draw you closer to God? Do you see this woman?

[1] Alan told me this line comes from a conversation about John Adam’s opera Doctor Atomic (2005). “The universe is made up of stories not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser, The Speed of Darkness (1968)

[2] Henry David Thoreau, The Illustrated Walden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 10.

[3] Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” (“Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?”) http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kant-whatis.asp.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 3rd Edition, Tr. Lewis White Beck (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993),169.

Sunday, June 5
Prophetic Voices Inside a Drought
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 11am Eucarist
Read sermon

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost: Prophetic Voices Inside a Drought

 

We have come through our first el Niño winter and spring in over a decade, and it has done us some good. Rainfall was slightly above average, and most of the reservoirs in our region are brim full. Even Shasta Lake has recovered to the point that the water was being released in early spring.

We are enjoying a brief rest in our time of anxiety about the drought, but we might be better off thinking of this as a timeout rather than the end of the game. Snow packs are only at about 25% of normal, and the early approach of high temperatures is diminishing the mountain snows we do have rapidly. The Western USA continues to face the prospect of water shortages for our homes and epic wildfires on the edges of our cities. A predictable return of below average rainfall as the new normal means we are going to continue to live with drought conditions for a very long time.

I mention the drought because drought creates the context for the story we have just heard from the Book of the Kings. Elijah was living in the home of the widow and her son, living in the pagan district of Sidon along the seacoast of Lebanon, because a severe drought had dried up that entire region. Elijah had fled from Israel and journeyed north to the region called Phoenicia in his day, Lebanon in our day, because there was no rain falling in Israel or anywhere in the region.

A good question might be, why would Elijah flee his home in a drought? Especially why would he flee to a district that was also affected by the same drought? Well, Elijah actually caused the drought. The great prophet of the Lord, he had chastised Ahab, King of Israel, for adopting paganism as part of the cult of Israel. And part of his reproach to Ahab was to declare that no rain would fall for three years. So Elijah was not running from the drought so much as he was fleeing from King Ahab, who had sworn to kill him for his opposition.

Ahab had been guilty of dishonoring God by introducing competitor gods from pagan temples, guilty of dishonoring the covenant of Israel by murdering a neighbor in order to steal his family’s heritage property, guilty of dishonoring the religious life of Israel by slaughtering the prophets of the Lord, and guilty of dishonoring nature by deforesting the hillsides for the lumber to build his palaces. Elijah confronts these dishonors, and in the name of the Lord invokes the drought as a way for God to demonstrate that God would be the ruler of Israel in the end, not a human and self-centered king.

And so Elijah flees and takes up residence in the home of a widow who had offered him the hospitality of a little food, even as she and her son were starving to death.

I have come to believe that everything about life is interconnected. I believe that there is a God. I believe that prayer works. I believe that the earth and its living beings create a kind of energy for connectedness. I believe in a greater consciousness. I believe that what I have done in the past and what I do today matters far into the future. I think all these things are true. It is part of the reason I admire what George Lucas created in his myth of the Force in the Star Wars stories — I think that this belief in connectedness and mutuality is well expressed in the metaphor of the Force.

So I wonder this: As the prophet of the Lord Elijah could invoke a drought as a means to correct and reprove the behavior of a selfish and disrespectful king 2,800 years ago; is the drought we live with today also a prophetic message, chastising us for our ways of dishonoring God, our neighbor and the realm of nature? Is this drought also a reproach to our disregard of life as a matter of stewardship, our disregard for treating everything we can control as a matter of accountability to others, especially to God?

Our faith teaches us a certain perspective about life — that everything about who we are is a gift from God. That life is from God, that awareness is a participation in God’s essence, that love and laughter are expressions of God’s character, that creativity and procreativity are connections with the divine. While it may not be appropriate or fair for us to expect that all people with embrace this faith held by Jews and Christians and Muslims, it is our task and right to uphold these perspectives as true, true for all.

If we hold these perspectives as true for the whole of creation, then we must also teach them, encourage them, promote them, and if necessary defend them from those who distort the reality of life into the narrow realm of selfishness and intentional deception. We believe life is a continual growth into the perspective of reverence and awe, a continual growth into a perspective of thankfulness and wonder. It is not a matter of indifference for us to see that there are many around us who see the world as a personal playground, who dismiss reverence and wonder as foolish and childish. It is not a matter of indifference for us to recognize that there are those who intentionally dishonor the world by refusing to be responsible for any consequence, any outcome.

As Elijah recognized the wickedness of King Ahab, we too can recognize the wickedness of corporations and landowners and investors whose only question is whether there can be extra money gotten for me, no matter what it may cost others. We can recognize the wickedness of those who practice deceit and fraud as normal operating procedure, whether it is to falsify public reports or deny the known harm their product does or claim ignorance in the face of overwhelming data and evidence. Those who still claim that climate change science has not offered any real evidence are being false. I give some of them the benefit of the doubt that they are so afraid of the truth they cannot help themselves and they do not intend to be dishonest, but they are in serious need of an Elijah to teach them to face the truth.

I invite us back into today’s scripture, where we here two, very similar stories of the compassion of God to raise the sons of widows from death to life. It may help to know that in the biblical world all title, all ownership was passed from one male to another. Women had no right to property, no right to an inheritance. These two widows were actually living on the property that belonged to their sons, and when those sons died the property would have gone to some other male in the family tree. No matter how distant. (We learn about this from watching Downton Abbey.)

The compassionate intervention of Elijah to pray the son back to life has all kinds of layers to it. First among them is that at the point of the boy’s death the mother assumes it is because of her sins, that to have housed a holy man would have brought her own paganism, her own sins to the attention of God, who punished her by killing her son. Second is that the boy’s death would have been the ruin of her life, as everything she held as home and property would have gone to the hands of a brother-in-law or uncle or distant male cousin. Finally, and most importantly, while the King of Israel would not honor God or God’s holy man, she is able to set aside the culture of her beliefs and the cult of her people to declare, ‘Now I know you are a man of God and the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth itself.’

It can feel impossibly demanding, discouragingly impossible for us to make a difference in the drought we endure, in overcoming the damage we have done to the earth. Yet, we have faith that our success does not depend on us alone, that in some way God’s own energy and creative expression will raise our efforts in the way that the prophet raised the boy from the pit of death. This drought is one of many signs I see that we have been out of step with the harmony God has in mind for the earth. Yet it is not our sinfulness that God sees as our most important feature. It is our desire to be saved, our desire to be redeemed, our willingness to turn from things that are destructive and disrespectful.

As Elijah restored the harmony of the house where the widow showed him kindness, I believe God will assist us to restore the harmony of the house in which we live. I say that in faith, I say that in hope. Overcoming our past is not something we have to manage entirely by ourselves. We have to take the steps that are ours to take, but I pray that we will look back some day to say, “Thanks be to God, who has shown love and mercy to us yet again.”

Sunday, May 29
Recasting the Centurion’s Story
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon
Sunday, May 22
The Spirit in the World, Society and the Self
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16).
Read sermon

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16).

What would your life look like as a movie?[1] This week I found out the answer to that question. Back when I lived in Boston I had a friend named Rick who longed to be a better surfer. On car rides we would talk about storms thousands of miles off the coast, the physics of breaking waves, our equipment, the history, art and culture of surfing. We also shared our selves.

After not hearing from him for fifteen years, this week he reached out to tell me that he had won an award as a screenwriter. He also said that he had recently written a movie script with a character based on me.[2] Immediately I worried whether he would get it right. After the Gidget movies, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Point Break, etc. most people I know who really take surfing seriously despise the way surfers are depicted in popular culture. The stereotypes, language, even the style and the way the ocean looks almost always seems completely wrong.

Much of the movie refers back to a scene in which a surfing priest and a surfing atheist talk about “the afterlife.” The surfing priest in Rick’s movie is Episcopalian. Strangely enough he is writing a doctoral thesis on Thoreau. He constantly smiles and seems to exist in a constant state of total bliss.

In reading the manuscript I can see why. My friend manages to a half dozen different scenes from places we used to surf in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. I have such beautiful memories of those days – gentle breezes floating through green forests, the summertime sounds of cicadas as perfect little waves roll in, laughing with friends while looking out to the infinite sea.

Although for me, Rick mostly gets the surfing right he has a harder time with religion. He makes some obvious and unimportant little mistakes like confusing an Epistle and a Gospel. The sermon in the screenplay doesn’t quite sound right. I think that the hard part for him is really imagining what it might feel like to be a person of faith.

This year at the White House Correspondents Dinner (2016) President Barack Obama teased Senator Ted Cruz. Apparently Cruz was standing on a court in Indiana and referred to the basketball hoop as a “basketball ring.” Obama’s punch line is “what else is in his lexicon? Baseball sticks. Football hats. But sure, I’m the foreign one.”[3]

Getting religion right is even more difficult than using the correct sports terminology. My nonreligious friends think that following Jesus mostly means trying to believe the right things, to have the correct thoughts, so that God will reward you with what they call “life after death.” They think that I spend my days wondering if God really exists. They act as if I was convinced that dogma matters more than how you treat the people in your life. And these are the friends I have who feel vaguely sympathetic to religion.

For me faith is not about life after death, it is about really living before we die. It means being unconstrained by the persistent illusions of our time so that we can freely experience holiness. Faith is not primarily about believing in the existence of God. It is living in the spirit, it is existing in the fullest possible relationship with God. We encounter the spirit of God in the world, society and our innermost self.

  1. The Spirit of the World.[4] In the Book of Proverbs we hear about how Wisdom (in Greek Sophia) or the Spirit of God exists in the very bones of the world. Wisdom speaks, “When God established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep… when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight… rejoicing…” (Prov. 8). In a world of such astonishing beauty we spend far too little time rejoicing.

Yesterday I gave a surfing lesson to a young couple in Bolinas. The fog hovered over the steep wooded hillsides. The sunlight reflection with blue patterns of sky and cloud in the wet sand was breathtaking. Ten feet away a sea lion surfed right up to us on a wave. We so rarely even see what is right in front of us.

In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town Emily dies in childbirth. She asks to go back to one day of her life, her twelfth birthday. She discovers that no one is really noticing the world or each other. Emily implores, “Mama look at me.” She breaks down sobbing. “We don’t have time to look at one another.”[5]

She asks to be taken back to the cemetery. “Goodbye Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” She asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

  1. The Spirit in society. I definitely don’t blame my friend Rick for not understanding the spirit. Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it either. In his last dinner with his friends Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16). The Greek word bastazein means to give birth to a child. The disciples are not ready to give birth to this truth. It has to become revealed over time

The Greek word hodos means the way or the road. Hodegessei is to guide. Jesus says, “I am the way.” Jesus calls his guiding spirit, “the Advocate” (the Paraclete) or the Defense Attorney.

The Stanford philosopher René Girard (1923-2015) believed that so much of our society is based on violence and that it remains invisible to us. It is like water to a fish. Scapegoating whether it is of immigrants, the police chief, your ex-wife, mother-in-law or boss lies at the heart of so many human interactions. We do not need the defense attorney to make our case to God. We need the defense attorney to help us respond to the prevailing injustice and violence of the world.[6]

For Girard Jesus introduces something completely different into history – a way of seeing persecution from a perspective beyond that of the persecutor. This is not merely for Christians. Every person alive in some way carries this wisdom from Jesus. This is the impulse behind the civil rights movement. It is the revolutionary idea that ethics is far more important than belief. How you treat another person matters more than how you think the world is. At the end of his article on the Advocate Girard begs his readers, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer, there will no longer be any time.”[7]

  1. The Spirit Within. Christians like C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Søren Kierkegaard have all pointed out that the spirit which animates a person of faith, the “passion for the eternal” can be almost invisible to other people. And yet a tremendous strength comes from this inner spirit.[8]

This week my friend Patrick Thompson and I talked about a mutual friend. He went to a great college, a stellar graduate program. He holds a prestigious position. According to all the ways the world measures it he has succeeded – and yet we wondered if he does not really know who he is apart from this.

The Apostle Paul writes, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5). This is the peace that passes understanding. We mostly recognize it in those we know best. We feel it as we persist in prayer, as our connections with the spiritual world grow deeper.

I do not know what more to say about this spirit of God beyond how I have met this holiness in the world, society and my own heart. Perhaps another voice might help. I leave you with a poem about forgiveness by Keetje Kuipers (KAY-tchah KAI-purrs). It is called “Prayer.” I hope that that it helps you to recognize the spirit in your own life.[9]

“Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox / and your mother, to soothe you in your fever / or to help you fall asleep, came into your room / and read to you from some favorite book, / Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie, / a long story that she quietly took you through / until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering / lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then”

“she read on, this time silently and to herself, / not because she didn’t know the story, it seemed to her that there had never been a time / when she didn’t know this story – the young girl / and her benevolence, the young girl in her sod house – / but because she did not yet want to leave your side / though she knew there was nothing more / she could do for you. And you, not asleep but simply weak, / listened to her turn the pages, still feeling / the lamp warm against one cheek, knowing the shape / of the rocking chair’s shadow as it slid across / your chest so that now, these many years later,”

“when you are clenched in the damp fist of a hospital bed, / or signing the papers that say you won’t love him anymore, / when you are bent at your son’s gravesite or haunted / by a war that makes you wake with the gun / cocked in your hand, you would like to believe / that such generosity comes from God, too, / who now, when you have the strength to ask, might begin / the story again, just as your mother would, / from the place where you have both left off.”

By the end of the week I realized what I liked about Rick’s movie script. The important part of a priest and an atheist surfing together is not a debate about what happens when we die. What matters is their friendship and the way that, for a believer, God’s spirit permeates all good things.

What would your life look like as a movie? Would someone watching it recognize the animating spirit of Jesus?

[1] Would it be a tragedy, a drama, a fluffy romantic comedy, a short cartoon or a long documentary? What actor would play you? The lyric from the 1974 Eagles song “James Dean” says, “I know my life would look alright if I could see it on the silver screen.” As I’m getting older though I know this isn’t necessarily true.

[2] Rick Groleau, The Tides of Fundy 11 May 2016.

[3] Barack Obama, “Remarks at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner 1 May 2016,” The Washington Post, 1 May 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2016/05/01/the-complete-transcript-of-president-obamas-2016-white-house-correspondents-dinner-speech/

[4] In the twentieth century we became much less confident about our understanding of the physical universe. We experience mystery at the very heart of this world of dark matter, particles, waves, forces and our observations.

[5] Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts, 95-96.

[6] René Girard, “History and the Paraclete,’ The Ecumenical Review, Volume 35, Issue 1, January 1983, pages 3-16. http://poenitzmentoring.com/uploads/History_and_the_Paraclete.pdf

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1933), 149.

[9] Keetje Kuipers, Beautiful in the Mouth (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2010). http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160516/

What's Happening at Grace Cathedral?

Connect with Us