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Sunday, March 19
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, March 16
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, March 19
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn. 4).

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 55.

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

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

Sunday, March 12
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…

he came to Jesus by night.”

Nicodemus, attracted to Jesus and yet baffled by him,

sneaks out one night to ask some questions.

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

I have been asking myself about ways to help

me move forward in this really marvelous yet often maddening

adventure and challenge we share of being a human being,

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

Today I’m reminded that:

first, the questions are always welcome,

actually necessary.

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

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

asked a clarifying question.

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

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

And third,

probably also equally welcome to some and untenable for others,

ours is an outward, active, even activist way.

These are three among other traits without which

I do not think we are authentically Christian

and without which we are defectively human.

The journey of our life together as people of faith,

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

Today Nicodemus, a religious expert with all the answers

laid out in dogma and practice,

has a gnawing intuition that there might be more.

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

much more––and some of it is stupendous:

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

Blessed assurance.

Yet each word of assurance gives way to another question.

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

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

gives us permission, welcomes us into

questioning, seeking, wondering.

It is an invitation into continual, deeper exploration of

all that is fresh, new, and mysterious.  

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

.

We have a few clues today about the unique makeup

of the mystical GIFT our life holds for us

as a people who are baptized:

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

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

We have emerged from that font,

which is both a tomb from which we stumble forth alive

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

cannot imagine,

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

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

These weeks of Lent are a season of appreciation

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

With Nicodemus, we properly ask again and again:

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

After we ask, then what?

Nicodemus can’t understand the responses Jesus offers

because he has forgotten

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

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

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

that night.

Heart speaks to heart in the night,

when lovers kiss,

when falling stars animate the sky

as they always have over ancient Mediterranean deserts

and still do over northern California communities.

In the night come words and images

from ancient deserts and dreams.

Sarah and Abraham saw the star-filled sky

And discovered that faith wasn’t a list of doctrines

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

The prophet Daniel saw in the night visions

one like a human being coming from the heavens,

a cosmic image of a healed and healing humanity.

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

when he saw a ladder of vibrant life

connecting the visible and invisible worlds.

In the night Joseph of the house of David

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

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

and a new future.

In the night while praying the apostle Peter

was freed and beckoned from a Roman prison

to move back into a hostile environment

to continue teaching, testifying, gathering, and healing.

Nicodemus on that night

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

the gift, the invitation, to fuller life.

He could not break free from conventional thinking,

cautious calculating, and dullness of imagination.

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

and the interpretation of the cross itself

as a radiant sign of healing and hope.

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

The direction for, the divine impulse for,

and the delight in

our life fully lived

likely won’t be found in the bright sunlight

of theological creeds and catechisms.

Our questioning and our responding happens

in the soft, steady glow of the moonlight.

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

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

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

Can you find a way this lent

to recover your call, your initial inspiration,

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

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

 

From our shared mystical heritage and present-day experience

we then receive prompts toward action.

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

And a new engagement with the world.

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

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

and let God show us where our life might lead.

Jesus, after nights in prayer on the mountain

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

comes at dawn to call others, gathering, teaching,

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

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

bringing life out of death.

Jesus formed and still forms circles of followers…partners…

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

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

by standing for the truth,

by denouncing racism or attacks on religious groups,

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

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

for justice in business and in government,

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

for the upholding of the dignity of each person.

 

Without our continuing searching and questioning,

without our finding the mystical frame for hearing and responding to

the divine call and command,

and without movement to act individually and collectively

for the possibilities Jesus has demonstrated,

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

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

The offered gift is divine life itself,

not condemnation… but a place at the feast.

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

Listen to Past Sermons

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

Sunday, February 26
Howard Thurman Transfiguring Our Lives
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here…’” (Mt. 17).

Sisters and brothers it is good for us to be here. In my heart I say these words so often. It is good for us to be here – together. It is good to see the light shining through these glorious windows. It is good to join our prayers with all those who came before us and those who are to come. It is good to have our hearts lifted by this heavenly music, to share this bread. It is good to pay attention, to listen, to dedicate this moment for a higher purpose, to open our heart to God.

We especially need this today. The New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo published an article about trying to follow the news but at the same time avoiding coverage of our president. He pointed out what we all know. This has become impossible. He writes, that coverage of Donald Trump, “may eclipse that of any single human being ever.” “He is no longer just the message he has become the medium, the ether through which all stories flow.”[1]

To explain this Manjoo cites a paper by Microsoft researchers who studied consumer music downloads. Half the subjects knew just the song title and band. They provided the other half with the song title, band name and the number of times the music had been downloaded. This “social signal” made some mediocre songs wildly successful and made a lot of what otherwise would be have been regarded as good music simply disappear. He argues that regardless of whether you actually use social media, it may be having a similar effect on our society.

You see it everywhere. Three and four year olds at the preschool are talking to their teachers about what they have heard about the president. At then end of our democracy book discussion on Wednesday night, I asked for one word that summarizes each person’s feeling about our common life. Some of the words that came up were: fragile, crisis, distressed, conflicted, divided, total, fear.[2]

This week it is especially good to be here. At the end of the season of light, called Epiphany, only days before we turn inward for Lent, we have this chance. Like Peter, James and John we might see Jesus in a new way. We too could be transformed by God’s love.

Our translation says that Jesus leads his friends up a mountain, but the verb (anaphero) could mean to bring up, to raise, to take along, to join someone to yourself. It seems like a kind of analogy for maturing in Christ, for becoming a spiritual grownup.

Suddenly, before their eyes Jesus is transfigured – his face shines like the sun. His clothes become dazzling white like the angel at the scene of the resurrection (Mt. 28:3). In another chapter Jesus describes resurrected life he says, “the righteous will shine like the sun” (Mt. 13:43). Jesus shows his friends a new way to be human, a new way beyond death.

Suddenly again two figures appear and speak with Jesus. Moses represents the law and Elijah stands for the prophets. Their conversation with Jesus reminds me that the Bible is not just what is written down. The word is what we clarify through our conversations with each other and ultimately in the way we live.

When Matthew writes about the voice from the shining cloud, he repeats twice the Greek word “idou.” It means “behold,” “Look,” “Pay Attention!” It is both a passive and an active verb. It is actively paying attention and passively being open to what appears. It is as close to being a direct order from God as you are likely to find. And it leaves the disciples beside themselves with fear. Jesus touches them and brings them, not quite back to themselves, but to a new, more durable and powerful self. My question this morning is simple. How can we look more deeply, more closely, so that Jesus might transfigure us?[3]

These days the twentieth century African American religious leader Howard Thurman (1899-1981) has been especially inspiring us. Together some of us studied his book Jesus and the Disinherited. He wrote it in San Francisco during the years he co-founded The Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, one of the first major interracial, interdenominational churches.

For the majority of his career Thurman served as the dean of religious life first at Howard University (1932-1944) and then at Boston University (1953-1965). He was friends in seminary with Martin Luther King, Senior and was most famous as a mentor for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurman begins with the observation that, as an impoverished Jew in the repressive Roman Empire, Jesus experienced something similar to African Americans struggling with 1940’s style segregation.[4] Jesus understands what it feels like to be dehumanized by the prevailing powers in a society, to have your dignity denied in countless ways. Jesus knows what life is like for people whose central problem is “under what terms is survival possible” (20)? In fact, Thurman describes Christianity as a technique of survival for the oppressed (29). It is a practical way to have the quality of our inner life determined by God and not by our oppressors.

To use Thurman’s words, Jesus has a message for people, “with their backs to the wall” (11). It is a way of responding in particular to what he calls the “persistent hounds of hell” – the fear, deception and hatred that dog oppressed peoples. Each of these responses to the world makes sense in the beginning. Each seems like a prudent, valid way to deal with a world that threatens our inner integrity and humanity.

Today whether you feel like you were sold out by the coastal elites or are one yourself, whether you are an immigrant fearing deportation or are just deeply concerned about the direction you see this country is moving, you may feel tempted to give yourself over to fear, deception and hatred. Let me summarize briefly what Thurman had to say about them.

  1. Fear. Thurman knows fear. He vividly describes what it feels like to be in danger, not because of anything that you might have done, but because of who you are (38). That arbitrariness, the sense that you could be killed or humiliated for no reason at all attacks a person’s self-respect and dignity.

He points out that for the truly dispossessed fear makes a lot of sense. It can keep you from getting killed. It can become what he calls “a safety device” that protects the oppressed from total nervous collapse (40). But there is more. In the situation of segregation fear becomes contagious among the dominant group too. In a powerful observation for our own times he notes that fear insulates the conscience against a sense of one’s own wrong-doing (44). Our fear justifies treating others horribly.

Thurman has tremendous respect for his grandmother who was born into slavery. She told him about secret religious meetings among slaves. The minister there said you, you are not the horrible names white people call you. “You – you are not slaves. You are God’s children” (50). To really believe you are a child of God is to be released from the idea that death is the worst thing in the world (51). This faith gives you inner security (56).

  1. Deception. Thurman introduces lying as a technique that the weak use to protect themselves against the strong (63). At first it might seem like a way to secure political, economic and social rights. In our society right now there is a new pressure on the truth and it does not just concern politicians and the media. Ordinary people like you and me need to be more careful about what we say.

Rotary Club has its Four-Way Test. Especially in times like these before speaking we should ask: 1. Is it the truth?, 2. Is it fair to all concerned?, 3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?, 4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?[5]

Thurman argues that it is a “simple fact of psychology” that by calling a lie a truth we “tamper dangerously” with our ability to form value judgments (64). We make it impossible for us to even recognize the truth. Thurman believes that this is the unforgiveable sin – to permanently lose contact with the truth by lying to discredit another. In the place of hypocrisy Jesus offers sincerity. It becomes second nature when we fully realize that all people are children of God.[6]

  1. Hatred also seems at first to be a protective measure. When the dispossessed face a legal code that is stacked against them, when they suffer from intolerance and a kind of centuries old terrorism, hate can make it easy to feel self-righteous (82) and morally justified (84-5). Hatred seems to provide a sense of creative purpose (85), a chance for survival with dignity (86).

The problem for Thurman is that once we begin to indulge in hating it becomes impossible to control. Hatred destroys the core of our life. It leaves us isolated. So Jesus says, “love your enemies.” Jesus rejects hate because it means death to our mind and spirit, death to our communion with God (88).

In place of fear, deception and hatred Jesus offers another way. Thurman calls it love or “reverence for personality” (104). It means meeting the other person where they are and treating them as if they have already become what they ought to be. This is how Jesus met the woman caught in adultery and how we should greet each other.

In conclusion, as we actively pay attention and passively open ourselves to what appears we begin to notice that the spirit of Jesus is here. It surrounds us. It lies within us as the source of our being and our fulfillment. It is the divine mystery of who we are.

As we mature spiritually, as the Bible ceases to be words on a page and becomes actions in our life, Jesus frees us from the persistent hounds of hell. In the place of fear, deception and hatred we discover our capacities as children of God filled with sincerity and love. The righteous will shine like the sun. It is good to open our hearts to the holy. It is good to be here.

[1] Farhad Manjoo, “I Ignored Trump News for a Week. Here’s What I Learned.” The New York Times, 22 February 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/technology/trump-news-media-ignore.html?_r=0

[2] Even the positive words (like robust, go back to go forward or hope) seemed like an effort to make the best of a bad situation.

[3] When the disciples are paralyzed by terror, Jesus brings them back to themselves with his touch (hapsomenos) a word that also means to ignite or light.

[4] Page numbers are from Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1976 (reprint 1949)) 11.

[5] Wikipedia “The Four-Way Test,” 22 February 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Four-Way_Test

[6] Thurman calls hypocrisy a form of tribute that the weak give to the strong (73).

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.

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