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Sunday, May 20
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, May 10
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, May 20
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus’ sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, May 13
Truth about Mothering
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17).

 

  1. In this our cathedral’s year of truth, I have been thinking so much about mothering and motherhood. I am grateful for the holiness I see in the mothers I know. Lately life has conspired to give me many opportunities to appreciate the skill required to intimately care for, and lovingly shaping, another human being.

At the same time Mother’s Day raises unique spiritual challenges. In this great Cathedral some of us badly wanted to have children, or a different form of family life, but were unable to. Some are in the trenches with two year olds and may not be particularly enjoying motherhood right now. Others had adoptions fall through, miscarriages, or recently lost a child. Some of us have contentious or difficult relationships with our children or mothers. Some here are still mourning our mother’s death.

One Mother’s Day, I had a conversation with an extraordinary friend. She shared her agony over not knowing where her son was or where he would sleep that night because of his addictions.

These are the stories you may not think of or hear on Mother’s Day. I bring them up to remind us of the spiritual complexities that lie beneath the surface of every life. We will not all have the privilege and challenge of being mothers. But we do have the chance to care for, “to mother” if you will, another person. I do not know how God is calling us to do this but we might consider it as our homework.

Our gospel today comes from Jesus’ farewell address to his friends. He says goodbye as a kind of spiritual mother. He offers a word of hope, a reminder that God’s spirit protects us. But he also assigns us a responsibility for the world. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17).[1]

Motherhood is not merely a personal matter. Mothering happens or fails to happen at a social level too. This week at a speech in Arizona, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that it is the official policy of our government to separate children from their families if they cross the border without papers.[2] This is not the only sign of a tragic failure to care for children. On Tuesday the president’s office proposed cutting $7 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program.[3]

  1. Russell Banks (1940-) one of the greatest living American novelists has had a special interest in the way adults manipulate children for our own purposes. This morning I will talk about how I both agree and disagree with him. You may have read Banks’ books or seen the movies based on them. They include: Continental Drift (1985), Affliction (1989), The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Rule of the Bone (1995), Cloudsplitter (1998) and others. Although I read his book The Sweet Hereafter twenty-four years ago, it still remains vividly with me. In this story of a small town in New York State a catastrophic school bus accident leads its citizens fight over a class action lawsuit. It shows how adult greed so easily leads to the exploitation of children.

A few years ago at Harvard Divinity School Banks gave the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality.[4] He follows in the footsteps of the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce, the theologian Paul Tillich, the scientist Stephen Jay Gould and most recently the novelist Toni Morrison.

Banks is an atheist with a great heart for people’s suffering. For him the fundamentalist faith of his mother is merely a fantasy. The truth of the world lies in a struggle of all against all, as people who have been hurt unthinkingly lash out and harm others. He points out that at their heart all stories are about the present. Historical fiction is merely our code of values projected onto the past. Stories about the future really are about our present anxieties. For Banks death is like this too. He keeps it at arms length.[5]

For Banks the only kind of immortality is one that we experience in the present. He opposes this to what he calls a Woody Allen kind of immortality. Woody Allen says, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”

In contrast to this, Banks refers to a thought experiment by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler.[6] Imagine if you knew that within thirty years after your death the world and all of humanity were to be utterly destroyed. Scheffler points out that this would fundamentally change how we think and how we behave. For instance, would cancer researchers dedicate their lives to this task with the same enthusiasm? Would we have constructed the new Bay Bridge or this Cathedral? In this way Scheffler reminds us that we are working together on long term projects that we expect to bear fruit after we are gone.

For Russell Banks Scheffler’s story about the future has enormous meaning to the present. The only immortality for him is the way our genes, culture and stories live on in our children. For him children are the afterlife.

But instead of allowing children to flourish for their own purposes we persist on using children to serve our needs. Our culture depersonalizes, objectifies, and commodifies children. Comparing the ancient practice of child sacrifice to modern capitalism, Russell Banks solemnly quotes the Book of Leviticus. “You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech…” (Lev. 18:21).[7]

Banks mentions changes in our court system that make children more likely to be treated as adults, that focus on retribution rather than rehabilitation. He also could have added the huge number of children in poverty with no access to good education.[8]

Banks hardly mentioned the way teenagers have their childhoods snatched from them through adult expectations about college.[9] Oddly enough learning and creativity are no longer the emphasis in our schools. Through standardized tests and curricula, relentless focus on competition, year-round sports, we communicate an unwavering message that children are made acceptable only by their accomplishments. In Palo Alto and across the country our children are dying metaphorically and literally because of the stories we are telling them, because it is not enough for them to simply be themselves.

Mostly though Banks refers to the deluge of advertising that colonizes our children’s consciousness. Banks calls the powerful force of materialism Moloch, after the idol in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In his poem “Howl” Alan Ginsberg says, “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!… Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!… Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!”[10] Like the characters in the movie The Matrix we increasingly float through an unreal existence with our minds tethered to the machine.

At Grace Cathedral and Cathedral School we help children and their parents to resist Moloch. The openness and exploratory quality of childhood is very much alive here six days a week.

Russell Banks and I agree about the threat of Moloch to our children.[11] But for me real life is not like one of his novels. We do not inhabit a bleak, dead world characterized chiefly by everyone exploiting everyone else. Although we fall short of our own expectations and we do not always take in its beauty, we inhabit a living universe in which all things declare the glory of God. Life is not merely a dead-end cul-de-sac in which we race toward certain destruction, but an existence in which we constantly move more deeply into the divine reality as we grow into our potential as children of God.

Russell Banks reminds me how hard it is to live without meaning. This is true not just from an individual psychological perspective. It is hard intellectually. Meaning, even a kind of hopefulness, is a gift we receive from God. For most people it does not make sense to regard ourselves merely as individuals interested only in our own survival, sensual pleasure and well-being. This is because we are fundamentally connected to all creation.

 

This world is our home.  We are invested in it. We want it to flourish even long after we are gone. We might even imagine wanting to live forever in our own apartment. We care about species of animals that we will never see. Our minds reach into the farthest depths of the universe out of a longing that we hardly understand. Russell Banks feels disappointed because he too at some level of his being has an oddly persistent sense that the universe should be full of meaning. For me, this feeling is a kind of voice drawing us home to God.

This brings us back to Jesus’ last prayer. My friend, the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen says its purpose is to convey the “awesome intimacy” with God which Jesus gives to us.[12] Jesus speaks in the second person singular to the creator of all things. He asks God to, “protect [us] from the evil one,” the one we know as Moloch. We are all God’s children. Jesus says we that do not “belong to the world” of exploitation and hatred. He prays that we will be sanctified in truth.

You and I face many choices about how to think and what to do. But we are not left alone or without hope. The love of Jesus brings us home to God. When we walk in Jesus’ path, we discover that the world is being healed by the creator of mothers and of all good things.

Let us pray: Gracious God, you formed us in the depths beneath our mother’s hearts. You know us from the inside out. Help us to care for the children and to fill the world with kindness and love. We ask this so that Jesus’ joy may be made complete in us. Amen.

[1] This morning we also have Jesus’ last words for his disciples in a prayer from the Gospel of John. The Bible actually has many farewell discourses like this from Jacob (Gen. 47:29-49:33), Joshua (Jos. 22-24), David (1 Chr. 27-29), Moses (Deut. 33), Tobit (Tob 14:3-11), and Paul (Acts 20:17-38). This biblical genre features an announcement about a person’s departure, a statement about God’s great works, a reminder of God’s commands, instructions to love each other and concludes with a prayer.

[2] He said, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.  If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks to the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies 2018 Spring Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, Monday, May 7, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-sessions-delivers-remarks-association- state-criminal-investigative

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/05/usa-routine-separation-of-asylum-seeking-families-violates-international-law/

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/5/8/17327512/sessions-illegal-immigration-border-asylum-families

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-children/u-s-cements-plans-to-separate-families-crossing-border-illegally-idUSKBN1I82AB

[3] https://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-leery-of-trumps-cuts-to-childrens-health-program-1525822614

[4] Russell Banks, “Feeding Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism,” Harvard Divinity School Ingersoll Lecture, 5 November 2015. http://hds.harvard.edu/news/2014/11/05feeding-moloch-sacrifice-children-altar-capitalism

[5] Parenthetically he notes that there are two types of science fiction. Stories where they go here and ones where we go there. In either case these are stories about us right now. Banks seems to agree with the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) who uses the following logic to reason that death should mean nothing to us. When we are alive we cannot experience death and when we are dead we cannot experience anything.

[6] “A Philosopher’s Afterlife: We May Die But Others Live On,” National Public Radio, 9 October 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/10/09/230756192/a-philosophers-afterlife-we-may-die-but-others-live-on

[7] Any of the people… who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death…” Lev. 20:2.

[8] The way marketers treat children as the largest market category. Through television, Disney, Facebook, Twitter, EBay, Amazon, on cell phones and tablets the vast colossus reaches out and colonizes the consciousness of our children. Children become transformed into consumers.

[9] Tom Little and Katherine Ellison, Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools (NY: Norton, 2015).

[10] Alan Ginsberg, “Howl.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179381

[11] This is the impersonal force of greed that lead us to treat people as tools for our pleasure rather than as ends in themselves. We agree that this is most heartbreaking when it comes to the children of the world. Beneath Russell Banks’ words and thoughts lies a profound disappointment with the universe. His weak solution is that writers and musicians in each succeeding generation will reintroduce us to our true nature.

[12] Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T & T Clark, 2005) 367-77.

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, February 19
Holiness in the Modern Age
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from Sunday's 6 p.m. Service
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Sunday, February 19
A Different Kind of Perfect
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Epiphany 7 2017

 

There’s nothing like being measured for a cassock (that’s one of those long purple gowns we all wear up here} for bringing out your insecurities. Not a common experience perhaps but take my word for it – it’s a bit like when they take your height and weight at the doctor’s office but with way more embarrassing detail. They not only measure your waist – over trousers so you immediately feel bigger – but also your hips at the widest point, and then you have to declare whether your figure is erect, average or stooping. And it’s not a moment for pretence – sucking your gut in and standing on tippy toes – because then you’ll end up with something horribly tight and constricting to wear every Sunday for the foreseeable future.

When I look at myself, and especially when someone else is assessing me in such detail, my focus immediately goes to my imperfections. The parts of myself, physical but also character-wise, that I am least pleased with and most want to hide from the world. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Most of us are more than ready to judge ourselves harshly, to see in the mirror the pimple on our nose rather than the beautiful light of our eyes, to notice when we fail rather than when we excel. It can bring us up short to know that this is not how we appear in God’s eyes. Listen again to the words from 1 Corinthians. Hear them spoken directly to and for you: ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’

 

You are God’s temple, God dwells in you. There is your fundamental identity. An identity that may get hidden behind the dust and dirt that we accumulate in this imperfect world but that can never be lost. God dwells in you. God doesn’t care whether you are over or under weight. God doesn’t care whether your figure is erect, average or stooping. God doesn’t care that you constantly fail. God isn’t waiting for some future perfect you to miraculously appear – some paragon of virtue and grace – God dwells in you now, today.

While you let that sense of your true and wonderful identity sink in, let me tell you a story. Some of you may know it – it’s from a book by Douglas Wood called Old Turtle and the Broken Truth. It tells of a place, long ago and faraway, where a marvellous stone fell from heaven, but broke into two pieces when it hit the earth. The people of the area found half the stone and on it was written these lovely words: ‘God loves you’. At first this was a cause just for rejoicing and celebration. But then the people began to debate which ‘you’ it was that God loved. Was it the tribe who found it, or all the tribes that looked like them, or all the local people? And gradually debate became argument and gradually argument became fight after fight after fight. Till one day a young girl decided this had to stop – that she had to find the second half of the stone and bring it to the people in the hope it would bring peace. She searched and searched and finally found what she was looking for. She brought it back and showed it to the leaders, to the people, to both sides, and the shouts and violence slowed to a stop. What did the second half of the truth stone say? It said ‘God loves them too.’

You are a temple of the living God. The person you most despise and dislike in all this world is also a temple of the living God. Which is a bit of a bummer really. It means that all our natural human instincts to belittle and attack those who disagree with us are against what our faith calls us to. It is another way of saying we have to take seriously that difficult command of Jesus that we heard in the gospel: to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with them or go along with choices and policies that seem to us despicable and anti-Christian. We don’t have to be nice to them when nice means ignoring differences in favour of harmony. But we do have to always remember that they are God’s beloved creation and show them a love which demands the best from them and which believes all people capable of change and growth.

This may sound an impossible task – as impossible as the other command in this passage to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. But both commands are rooted in our core identity as holy temples of God. The word we translate as perfect is the Greek word ‘telos’. It doesn’t mean perfect in our usual contemporary understanding tied in with perfectionism and excelling above all others. Instead it means achieving our proper end – becoming who we were meant to be – just as an apple tree bearing apples is achieving its proper end. Biblical scholar Robert Smith puts it this way: “This perfection is the condition of being fully mature, all grown up, of having reached the end and goal of human life under God. It means being children of God, sharing in the divine nature that is marked by stunning and indiscriminate acts of generosity to all.”1

To be all grown up in God means to love as generously as God loves. Love that encompasses all people – our own beloved ones, our enemies and our selves – sometimes almost as hard for us to love as our enemies! Love that sends rain and sunshine on all people – righteous and unrighteous, just and unjust. And this call to generous love for other and for self leads me to the last aspect of these readings that I want to reflect on with you today – that other command in the gospel to turn the other cheek.

This text has been so misused that we need to make sure we understand it. Jesus is not inviting one who is being abused to stay and meekly accept more abuse. Women with violent husbands have been counselled by priests through the ages to just turn the other cheek because that is what God wants. This is, I believe, blasphemy. Remember – you are holy, God dwells in you, you are a child of God – God values you far more highly than you value yourself.

So what does it mean? I think perhaps it may say different things to people according to their circumstances. To those in positions of power it is a command not to return violence with violence but to find ways of seeking reconciliation – to stay in relationship when you have an opportunity to change that relationship for the better. To those in positions of vulnerability the message is different. Turning the cheek can be an act of defiance. It is an action driven by one’s own volition – a way of refusing control to the abuser. It is a refusal to become an object and a continual claiming of your value as a subject in your own right. It is a command to continue to value your identity and autonomy, not a command to submit to an abuser.

 

I’m looking forward to wearing my new cassock, whatever the embarrassment of being measured for it. I know that neither my body nor my soul are perfect, and I will continue to worry, no doubt, about the state of each. However I know that my truest identity is as a place where God dwells – and I will try to remember this both about myself and about those I consider my enemies. I find it easier to remember it about all of you – each one of you a temple of God drawn here to explore and deepen that identity. All

of us together making this cathedral into a place where God truly dwells and where all her beloved children may find a loving home.

 

[1] Robert H. Smith, “The End in Matthew (5:48 and 28:20): How to Preach It and How Not To”, (Word & World, Volume XIX, Number 3 Summer, 1999).

 

Sunday, February 12
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The manuscript from The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus will be available soon.

Sunday, February 5
The Saltiness of Grace
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5).

 

The contemporary theologian James Alison (1959-) asks us to imagine two groups of scientists. The first have a whole library of maps with diagrams and tables of figures. They take turns looking through a powerful telescope at distant galaxies and stars. They describe what they see and make minor changes to the maps.[1]

The second group of scientists stands on the rim of a great crater on the surface of the earth trying to figure out what happened. They ask about the dimensions and speed of the object that produced this and about the consequences for life on earth.

Alison says that theologians are most like this second group. Theology is a distinctively Christian discipline. It presupposes a happening, a breakthrough, an interruption that has ongoing consequences. Furthermore it depends on the idea that this impact is not a blind collision but an act of communication from God. This means the theologian is involved not merely as an objective outsider commenting on what happened but is “part of the communication from the inside.”

Another way to put this is that we are involved not just in observation but in what Alison calls “undergoing.” It is not merely what we see but the self, the one who is doing the seeing, is changing. In his words we are undergoing God.

I would propose a third metaphor. I would say that theologians are more like the scientists who read weather maps and open ocean buoy readings. They study vast stretches of the sea so that they can predict the wave energy, the surfing conditions in their own neighborhood. They follow tremendous forces that are happening right now and affecting everything around us even with life and death consequences. This power shapes how we plan our day. In the salty ocean we can touch the energy of a storm that originated 5,000 miles away.

Regardless of the picture we use to describe this life-changing communication, it is the reason we are here this morning. We hope to encounter the force that fashions the galaxies and the winter storms. We seek the Holy One who lies closer to us than we are to ourselves, who calls us each by name.

Last week I mentioned the parallels that Matthew suggests between Moses the Lawgiver and Jesus. On a mountaintop Jesus teaches his disciples about the blessedness of the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and all those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Today we have a continuation of this teaching.

He goes on to say very simply, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored… You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid… In the same way let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5).

  1. This morning as we try to understand God’s communication to us let me begin by examining our saltiness as individuals and then go on to our ministry together. According to Jesus this saltiness, this light, is not something that you have to earn or get. You already have it. You can no more hide the light that comes from God than you can disguise San Francisco perched on all these hills and visible from miles away.

This might lead you to ask about the salt that looses its taste. The Greek word that Matthew uses for salt that looses its saltiness is moraino. We accurately translate it as tasteless but more frequently it means foolish. You might recognize it already as linguistically related for our word “moron.” Many of us have experienced the foolishness of not being what we really are.

Our homework for this week is to really consider the question, “What is my saltiness?” “What makes me unique?” “How can I shine?” Sometimes what embarrasses us most about our self becomes our real gift to the world. It might be hard to imagine but our suffering can even end up helping others to heal.

This year our theme at the Cathedral is “the Gift.” In February we are especially considering the gift of love. Last week I asked for your help in how we can become more aware of this gift.

On Friday in response I heard from a woman who told me that she recently took a psychological test and was surprised to learn that her principal strength is love. This made her re-evaluate her professional life. My friend said that as a child in church she learned to pray for her enemies. Over time this practice evolved to the point that now, when she is faced with someone who makes her angry or afraid, she imagines, in her words, opening her heart and “shining a warm golden beacon of love onto them.”

Although she began her career in a very technical field she has become known for her skill at solving tremendously complicated problems (like contract, employment and property disputes, etc.). Probably none of her colleagues realize it, but her ability to bring peace to contentious places comes from a practice of prayer. With the level of fear and anger we are now experiencing in our public life she says, “Somehow love will have to be the catalyst for the solution, but it will take all of us sending our love into the dark places.”[2]

  1. “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5). The Greek word for you is plural in this passage. It means you all, you as a collective, you as the church. This week two friends from Grace asked me the same question. What should we as a congregation do next in the face of new dehumanizing government laws and policies?

In my last year of seminary I took a leadership class in the School of Government. Perhaps my teacher Ronald Heifetz’s (1951-) most important lesson had to do with the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. Technical problems might be as simple as changing a bicycle tire or as complex as landing a person on the moon. They involve applying rules to problems that have been solved in the past. You identify the problem, gather the resources you need and then apply best practices to solving it.[3]

In contrast, there is no roadmap to resolving an adaptive challenge. No one knows ahead of time what should be done, because fixing the problem requires the organization to address conflicts in values, beliefs and behaviors. You cannot just do a better job of what was done before and succeed. The people need to work together to create a solution that does not yet exist.

I would not be surprised if my old teacher were to say that leaders in Washington will make our situation worse by treating adaptive challenges (like healthcare, immigration, trade, etc.) as technical problems. In the face of this unprecedented change, what we do next as followers of Jesus is an adaptive challenge. As we begin to figure this out together I want to point out two kinds of saltiness that characterize Grace Cathedral.

An immigrant named John Leonard ver Mehr (1809-1886) founded Grace as one of the first churches west of the Mississippi River. He loved learning and children. He devoted his life to starting new schools and churches. From the beginning Grace has been both modern and traditional like our steel-reinforced concrete gothic-style Cathedral (with its modern lectern and ancient pulpit). One of our most distinguishing features has been our embrace of social change that seeks to include a wider range of people.

Two weeks ago in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Forum the Stanford professor Clay Carson pointed out that before the 1960’s tremendous numbers of people in the world were not even full citizens of their own countries.[4] King recognized that the Civil Rights movement was far larger in scope than most people imagined at the time. This value lies at the heart of our life together too. It explains why ministry to people with HIV/AIDS and advocating marriage equality and full inclusion of all people mean so much to us.

Finally, our saltiness involves our commitment to beauty and the experience of transcendence. The mystic Richard Rohr distinguishes between dualistic thinking and contemplative consciousness. Dualistic thinking means seeing reality from the perspective of a detached and individual ego. It involves comparison, oppositions and differentiation. It asks the question “what’s in it for me?”[5]

In contrast, a contemplative approach to the world means feeling fully united to God in love and experiencing the world as a gift. We lose our consciousness of being separate from the world when we look at someone we love, or watch a child playing, or hear the sound of running water. Although for much of our life we tend to just skim along the surface, we can cultivate an openness to receiving this gift. Grace Cathedral, with its smell of incense, the whoosh of cable cars, the light through the stained glass, our singing and companionship makes this a kind of instrument for uniting us to God.

We all could share our own examples of the salty divinity we see in the people here and of the light that we all share. Last Sunday I met a man in his thirties after the first church service he had ever attended in his life. I asked him “what did you notice?” He was flustered as he searched for a response. Finally he answered with just one word. “Unity. I love the unity.”

Even as the world around us seems to be deteriorating, even before we know just what we will do about it, we have found life in this mysterious communication from God. This message radiating out across the centuries, like waves from a storm, does not merely inform us. It changes us. We are undergoing it together.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

[1] James Alison, “Of Concavities and Tent Poles,” Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (NY: Continuum, 2006) 1.

[2] She went on to make another observation. She cited Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Each of us have different ways of expressing regard, affection and love. These include: gift giving, quality time, affirming words, acts of service and physical touch. My friend said that it can be hard if a family member is aching to hear words of love from a family member who is already expressing love through acts of service. We easily miss the love that people are already bringing into our life and inadvertently disguise the way we express our care. Email 3 February 2017.

[3] Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1994) 22, 23.

[4] Clayborne Carson, “Remarks,” Martin Luther King Panel, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA 15 January 2017.

[5] Richard Rohr, “Dualistic and Nondual Thinking,” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, 28 January – 3 February 2017. https://cac.org/the-dualistic-mind-2017-01-29/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2017-02-04%20DM&utm_content=2017-02-04%20DM+CID_2cde4efd45f6cdb5b53cc9251ad79f95&utm_source=Campaign%20Monitor%20Google%20Analytics&utm_term=Sunday

Sunday, January 29
The Newspaper and the Bible: Testing the Beatitudes
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“What more does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6)?

 

Karl Barth (1886-1968), perhaps the most influential theologian of the twentieth century, taught that we should hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. He said that we should read the news through what we know about the Bible.[1] This is a two-part sermon and begins with this week’s news.

  1. Brothers and sisters so much has happened since we last broke bread together. I hardly know where to start. Overnight it seems as if fear has became the primary organizing principle for our federal government.

Through a flurry of executive orders and official pronouncements we now have a clearer idea of what lies ahead. Our Muslim brothers and sisters have been especially targeted. Muslims from seven countries have been banned from entering the U.S. on visas for 120 days. Syrian refugees, a group of people currently suffering more than perhaps any other on the planet, have been banned indefinitely.[2] We seem to have forgotten both our nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees themselves.

This week journalists were arrested and charged with felony rioting. We have begun to worry that government scientists will be silenced for political reasons. The word “alternative facts” came into our popular vocabulary. The President continues to exaggerate the number of people at the inauguration and still insists that voter fraud was the reason he lost the popular vote. This raises a fear that voter suppression tactics could be in our future.

The Affordable Care Act is being dismantled endangering our poorest people. The Dakota Access Pipeline seems on its way to being revived. Clean water and healthy soil, other species and the earth itself seem to be at greater risk. We have put America first and turned our back on the global good. We are nullifying trade agreements and treaties. We are seeking to reduce funding to the United Nations and cutting foreign aid programs. The president publicly advocated torture and leaked documents suggest that we may be returning to an era of secret oversees torture facilities (“black sites”).[3]

The president has ordered the construction of a ten million dollar wall along the Mexican border and a brutal crackdown on immigrants.[4] The administration has threatened to withhold federal funds from jurisdictions that do not cooperate. This includes San Francisco. We may soon know better from experience what it means to be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Mt. 5).[5]

These days test the truth of the Beatitudes. In short, it is not a good week for the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the merciful or the peacemakers. What I have described are not the acts of a people who “love kindness” or “walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6). As a people we are acting out of fear and selfishness. A mean spiritedness has crept into our public life. We are scapegoating the weakest among us, those most in need of our courageous defense.

Some of you might share my sense of urgency. Let me be absolutely clear about my message to the whole world today. The message is: “you are not following Jesus if your heart is hardened against Muslims and immigrants or if you support torturing a fellow human being.”

  1. But I have another message too and this is especially for you here today. It takes a little longer to articulate. The scriptures appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany have enormous importance for me personally. I preached my first Sunday sermon on this day. Since then I have preached on fourteen Fourth Sundays of Epiphany.[6]For me the most important verse in the Bible is the one we just read from the Book of Micah. “What more does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6)? For homework you might even memorize this yourself. We named our firstborn son Micah to remind us to pattern our life on this ideal. You might notice that it is not about what you need to believe, but rather it is about the condition of your heart and how this shows forth in your life.

To his friends in Corinth Paul writes, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1). This is a big promise, but also true in my experience.

This brings us to the Beatitudes. In this mountaintop scene Matthew subtly compares Jesus to Moses the lawgiver of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus repeats the word makarioi which we translate as blessed but also means honored or happy. It is a counterintuitive message. He says that the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, the very people who seem not to be blessed, really are blessed by God.

The question naturally arises whether this is a matter of what one ought to do or rather how the world is. I believe that the beatitudes are simply the way the world is. You should not try to be more mournful or poor in spirit. The point is that God is with people who are suffering, and with us when we are in pain.

Especially in these modern times we associate happiness with comforts, power, money and prestige. But the human spirit has deeper needs. We do not just want to be admired, we long to be good. It is not just about money, we yearn for our lives to have meaning. Jesus makes the point that there is a greater nobility in goodness, in living a life of compassion, fairness and honor. The satisfaction (the blessing, the happiness, the honor) that comes with this manner of life is hard for the world to recognize.[7]

You probably have a sense for most of us this already but there is more that we need to be reminded of right now. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) puts it into rhyme. “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”[8] He means that government has an important role in our life, but it is not all of our life. Politics is not the sum total of what makes your existence meaningful. It should not be our whole identity.

I think that part of how we arrived here as a people is related to this point. Right now we seem to have fairly close to full employment, a growing economy, working environmental regulations, low crime rates, increasing numbers of people with health coverage, even decreasing numbers of people who immigrated without papers and a remarkable safety from terrorism.

The rhetoric of offense, shame, injury, with all the talk of people who are ignored or victimized does not match the official government statistics about our collective health. This is because we have come to define who we are by our politics. It has become a false god, an idol for us, a distraction from the ways that we have come up short and need to change our own lives. Government is not supposed to supply the meaning of our life or solve all our problems.

In his 1972 novel The Manticore Canadian author Robertson Davies’ (1913-1995) tells the story of David Staunton through transcripts of his Jungian analysis. Although initially David looked up to his well-to-do father, in his last conversation with a long admired Anglican priest he realizes that his father has been unfaithful to his mother and to love.

In the shock of this recognition David lashes out and calls the priest a fairy. The priest grows smaller, hesitates and responds saying, “[L]isten very carefully. I am a homosexual… I’m a priest, too. By efforts that have not been trivial I have worked for over twenty years to keep myself always in full realization of both facts and to put what I am and the direction in which my nature leads me at the service of my faith and its founder. People who have been wounded much worse than I, have been good fighters in that cause… it was my personal sacrifice of what I was to what I loved.”

The priest goes on, “however fashionable despair may be about the world and people… not everybody or even most people, think and live fashionably; virtue and honour will not be banished from the world, however many popular moralists and panicky journalists say so. Sacrifice will not cease to be because psychiatrists have popularized the idea that there is often some concealed, self-serving element in it…. Nor do I think love as a high condition of honour will be lost; it is a pattern in the spirit, and people long to make the pattern a reality in their own lives, whatever means it takes to do so.”[9]

Offense and cynicism are barriers to the self-understanding which lies at the heart of becoming a better person. You may have a hard time getting the sense of it from such a short excerpt but there is a blessedness, a quality of the beatitudes in this priest’s ordinary struggles and in yours too.

In conclusion, my message to the world is that followers of Jesus seek love and reconciliation among all people not just Americans. My message to you is to encourage you not to get derailed by politics. Cultivate your longing for goodness and continue to give your life to God.

So this is where my message to the world and my message to you converge. With all the lies that we have been hearing this week I want to point out one of the most serious. People have been talking as if true religion is special loyalty to a group. This is not true. Real faith is humility, justice and kindness. It is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1). It is striving for an encounter with the Holy that will change your life.

“Blessed are the meek.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Blessed are you…” (Mt. 4).

[1] Tracy Dickerson, “The Bible in One Hand and the Newspaper in the Other,” 22 October 2010. http://nacreouskingdom.blogspot.com/2010/10/bible-in-one-hand-and-newspaper-in.html

[2] Michael D. Shear and Helene Cooper, “Trump Bars Refugees and Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries,” The New York Times, 27 January 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/politics/trump-syrian-refugees.html

[3] Reuters, “Trump May Reinstate Secret CIA ‘Black Site’ Prisons – US Officials Say,” 25 January 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2017/01/25/world/americas/25reuters-usa-trump-prisons.html

[4] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Trump Orders Mexican Border Wall to Be Built and Plans to Block Syrian Refugees,” The New York Times, 25 January 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/politics/refugees-immigrants-wall-trump.html

[5] Instead of building more wealth one cannot help but wonder if the federal government will just end up redistributing resources on the basis of political affiliation.

[6] This includes nine lectionary Year A sermons.

[7] In fact it might be mostly invisible to people and this itself causes suffering.

[8] Matt Fitzgerald, “Columnist David Brooks: Chasing Beauty, Finding Grace,” The Christian Century, 1 February 2017, 27.

[9] Robertson Davies, The Manticore in The Deptford Trilogy (NY: Penguin Books, 1990) 428-9.

Sunday, January 22
Listing Dangerously
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

 

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt. 4).

You are in grave danger. That’s what everybody has been saying. But what is the witness of Jesus?

Friday night at dusk I ran along the cliffs above the Golden Gate. Thirty mile per hour winds drove rain and sleet nearly diagonally against my back and whipped the ocean surface into foam. Forecasters predicted forty-four foot seas that night and already steep thick waves hemmed in the entrance to the Marin side of the channel.

You could practically taste the diesel smoke as a massive container ship limped in under the bridge. I don’t know anything about packing those ships but it seemed like it was missing about a dozen containers and was listing dangerously to its starboard side. I thanked God that those sailors would soon be safe in the Port of Oakland.

That massive, perilously balanced ship totally at the mercy of even more powerful forces is America. The riskiness of the situation seems to be all that we agree on this week. The only difference among us is whether you believe the ship is returning safely home or is just heading out into even greater danger.

The via media lies at the heart of our Episcopal tradition. It is the middle way – historically it meant we walked between Roman Catholic and Protestant extremes. Today we describe it as the place between reason and mystery, feeling and knowledge, the church and the world, ritual and words, service and beauty. You might call it the peace that passes all understanding or the place where we rest utterly dependent on God.

These days challenge people who feel at home in the middle way. But brothers and sisters, what a great time to follow Jesus! I will probably offend everyone here but let me tell you what concerned me about Friday’s inauguration speech and what I appreciated about it.

I have come to better respect the effectiveness of President Donald Trump as a communicator. In the inauguration address he was very clear. The slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America First” really are two ideas, two ways of telling the same story about reality.[1]

They share a simple logic of fear and scarcity. They ignore complicated forces like technological change, globalization and environmental degradation. Instead they make everything personal. They divide the world into two groups. There are the politicians and the people, the foreigners and the Americans, the ignorers and the ignored, the victimizers and the victims.[2]

In short President Trump asks us to see ourselves as victims and to enjoy that feeling of despising the other. In his address he invoked the name of God a few times. But this theology really has nothing to do with the Bible. It is a “me first” theology. A theology of fear, resentment and blame. It is thinly disguised selfishness combined with bitter scapegoating.

And yet even by pointing this out we run the terrible risk of making the same mistake. Is there a way for us to embrace the full humanity both of Donald Trump and his detractors? Is there another way to be human than to simply retreat back into our own distrustful tribe? How do we stop ourselves from becoming merely another version of what we hate?

This morning, in what seems to be divinely-inspired timing, we have the story of Jesus’ inauguration. After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness Jesus really is in grave danger. The authorities have arrested Jesus’ predecessor John the Baptizer (the Greek word paradidomi means to be delivered over and has terribly sinister connotations throughout Matthew’s Gospel).

In this setting of real danger and justified fear Jesus begins his public life with a speech. He says, “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near” (Mt. 4). Unfortunately we have worn out the meaning of the word “repent.” I’m afraid that for many people in our society it means – you need to believe what I do so that God will save you. But this is not it. The Greek word is metanoia. It means a transformation of your very soul.

Instead of focusing our thought and energy on how someone else is failing to live like a child of God, Jesus reminds us to take responsibility for how we distort or magnify the beautiful holiness so near at hand.

But there is more to this. The English translation drops out a word that seems important to me. Our version says only, “Jesus began to proclaim.” But the passage more literally reads that Jesus began, “to preach and to speak” (Mt. 4:17). The point I believe is that the preaching is not just the words.

The preaching is also what Jesus does. The preaching is an invitation to join him. The preaching is the way that his very presence brings light to people in darkness. The preaching shows God’s great love for the world and God’s stubborn determination not to leave us to our own devices. It is the act of healing.

I know you now. I have been watching since I first arrived. And I see that you too preach with your life, with your presence, with the face you show to the world, with the love that is in your heart.

This brings me to something that I appreciated in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. He says simply, “we will be protected by God.” You may take this in another way, but I choose to receive this as a Donald Trump’s first gift to me as president. It is the challenge to enlarge our conception of the Divine.

Too often in churches like this we fall back on an impoverished picture of God. In 1953 the author J.B. Philips published a book called Your God Is Too Small. He makes the point that God is more than a judgmental old man, a CEO or a police officer. But I mean something different than this. Today we tend to think of the word God as if it is mostly an idea to inspire or comfort us. We talk about Jesus as if he died a long time ago and isn’t present here today. Somehow we have become embarrassed with the idea that God might actually do something.

But this is not the God we experience in the Bible or in our own lives. Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9). When people in darkness, people like you and me see Jesus – it changes everything. When Jesus says, “follow me” Peter and Andrew leave their boat and their nets. Imagine just walking away from your car on the side of highway 101. What we are talking about involves much more than just hearing a really great speech. It takes more than this for James and John to leave their father.

We do not have time for the details this morning but my own encounter with Jesus has changed absolutely every aspect of my life. It has been a total metanoia, a transformation that still continues to unfold every day. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John, when we meet Jesus at the deepest level of our being, we discover that we have the same power that he did. We too begin to bring light to the people in darkness. We too discover new reservoirs of energy and eloquence that flow from the most intimate connection to our mysterious creator. We too become free from the power of death.

Jesus called Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave him a new strength to turn the world on its head. Fifty-two years ago he preached from this pulpit to the largest crowd ever assembled here. It was the opposite of America First. He thanked us for marching with him in Selma. In contrast to a theology of selfishness he said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.. We are tied together in a single garment of destiny… so that I can’t be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be… This is the way God’s universe is made…”[3]

Maybe these do not feel like dangerous times to you. Perhaps you think that the container ship is really on an even keel, or too large to be upset, or that we are safely headed toward port. But you do not have too look to far to find people who are hurting right now.

This week I lingered a little in the Cathedral. As a result I met people who are seeking peace in the midst of the storm. One young tech worker named Ben talked about how desperately he would like to find a way out of the cynicism and manipulation. He wants to move beyond hating the people we fear, or those who we believe hate us. He feels like he cannot trust the media, but he is not ready to give up seeking the truth.

Every day we are surrounded by people like Ben. We need to wake up, to repent and in the light of Christ recognize their hunger for meaning and love. This is our time. The gift of this moment is the chance to rediscover the power of our creator. Remember who you are. Preach with your whole life.

As people divide into their tribes and scapegoat the others, we have Jesus’ promise that we are all brothers and sisters who are loved by God. If policies change and endanger immigrants, dissenters, the poor, people of color, women, Muslims, prisoners and nature, this is the chance to bring your light into that darkness.[4]

You do not have to be defined by hate or scarcity or blame. You can see good in every child of God because we believe in a God who is big enough for everyone. We believe in God’s Grace for all.

[1] Donald Trump, “Inauguration Speech,” 20 January 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript.html?_r=0

[2] According to the president, the politicians enrich themselves at the expense of the citizens, the educators “flush with cash” neglect their students, elites callously send jobs overseas that should go to American workers, immigrants violate the borders at the expense of deserving citizens. Washington seeks peace overseas instead of solving our problems here at home.

[3] He quoted the poet preacher John Donne who said the any man’s death diminishes everyone else. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Sermon at Grace Cathedral,” March 1965. For a similar presentation of these themes see one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last sermons “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 March 1968. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10

[4] When we hear people talking out of their fear, we have the hope of the resurrection. When selfishness seems to undermine the very possibility for democracy, we have our citizenship in God’s kingdom of love. When we watch the news and wonder what to believe, we have the everlasting truth of our savior.

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