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

Sunday, January 15
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Dwight Hopkins
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rev. Dr. Dwight Hopkins’ sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, January 8
Baptism at Nuremburg
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“We who are many, are one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5).

What message is God communicating to you at this moment? If you are like me this is a difficult question. But to help I hope to consider an easier one. What is it that we are doing when we worship? What is happening here? What is this all for?

Before really beginning I need to warn you about my state of mind. Late Friday night I heard some tragic news. Before my first day at Grace Cathedral I chose my friend Fritz to be the senior warden, the leader of our old church until they could invite another priest to be in charge.

On Friday afternoon his eight year old grandson fell through the ice on a pond in Kansas. His mother (Fritz’s daughter) rushed to save him but both lost their lives. Her husband tried to rescue them and survived. Our old church is a family church. Fritz’s daughter was the church secretary and the leader of our church youth group. The whole community is in shock and I ask you to pray for them.

Let me be absolutely clear. I do not believe that in any way God caused this. I do believe that God is with them all and that God will carry them through this to the other side. I spent time with Fritz’s whole family many years ago when it looked like Fritz himself was going to die. God was present then too.

When it comes to God it is hard to say anything that makes sense. This is not a problem with God. It is our problem. It is not just that God is bigger, more just, more loving and more complicated than us. It also arises out of our deep tendency to use the name of God in anti-God ways. We cannot stop ourselves.

In the year 1215 while criticizing the ideas of Abbot Joachim of Fiore, the fourth Lateran Council made an important statement. It said, “Between the Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.”[1] Again, the difference between God and us is so great. Any time you compare the divine and the human, you cannot help being more wrong than right. We have to be careful when we talk about God or worship because we so easily change the meaning of these words into their opposites.

The spirit of Jesus, still alive in our own time, constantly turns our expectations upside down. Jesus shows us the real God even as we fall short and put our trust in false gods.

In our Gospel this morning Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. John argues with Jesus. You can imagine him saying, “You’re the Son of God. You should be baptizing me!” The first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew are his reply. Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3).

After his baptism the heavens open (the Greek word also means unlock) and a dove, the sign of peace, descends upon him. A voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The first people to hear Matthew’s story would immediately recognize that he is referring to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah promised that a new kind of leader would arise (God says, “in whom my soul delights”). God’s spirit would rest in him and he would establish justice on the earth – not through violence (“a bruised reed he will not break”) but by suffering himself (Isa. 42). We experience this truth, it begins to be fulfilled, when we draw closest to Jesus.

We baptize our children and adult friends in the name of Jesus so that they may have a share in this power and so that evil, the violence of the world, will never fully own them. We want them to be so full of God’s love and power that they do not have to define themselves by hate or fear. When the time of tragedy comes, as it will for each of us, they will rest secure in the confidence of God’s love.

What are we doing when we worship? First, I want to point out that worship involves more than merely thinking about God. We are making space in our lives to encounter this holy one. We open the door to the unknown and the unimagined, so that God can make us more perfect.[2]

I received an email on Wednesday from someone who attended the Christmas Eve service. He was upset because I said that faith is not primarily a matter of believing the right things. When Christianity becomes a way of declaring who is righteous and who is a sinner, who is on the outside and who is one of us, it has taken the violence of the world into itself and become the opposite of what Jesus teaches.

We have a deep tendency to project our categories, our tribalism, onto the transcendent. Don’t forget, “Between the Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.” Because we are like this we need worship in order for God to communicate to us. Its purpose is to change what we desire and how we live. Worship puts us in the presence of God.

Let me try to say this in another way. As a gay man the contemporary theologian James Alison has an acute sense for this “us versus them” mentality in which we try to feel stronger by uniting against a common enemy. He points out how our many social rituals are false worship which instantiates this sensibility. You can see it in professional sports, the newspaper opinion page, reality television shows, fraternity hazing, the cult of celebrity, perhaps even the agenda of your company’s offsite meeting.

Of all the possible examples Alison chooses Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies to show what false worship looks like. Between 1923 and 1938 the Nazi party gathered in Nuremburg for parades and speeches. If you doubt that these displays of power had nothing to do with religion you should see clips from Leni Riefenstahl’s (1902-2003) film “Der Sieg des Glaubens.” Yes, the film’s title could be translated as “Victory of Faith.”

Alison points out the expertise of the people who designed these rallies. You bring half a million people together for worship with rhythmic music and marching. They hear slogans. They see thousands of flags, lots of people in uniforms. People lose a little bit of their identity but you give them a new united purpose, a collective persona.[3]

You build pressure and make people wait for the moment when the Fuhrer appears. The great leader points out how this huge gathering is a sign of a new unity and change, how God has chosen him. He shares a myth about how they have been victimized. He talks about how good hard-working people have been tricked and shamed by their enemies. He promises revenge, that he will not be afraid to use power in order to bring in a new day when we can be proud again. After this the people find it a lot easier to feel contempt for their Jewish neighbors even though they never seemed particularly frightening before.

James Alison says that true Christian worship is the opposite of this. It feels like when someone who cares for us and maybe even is standing next to us at the rally tells us that we don’t need to be afraid anymore, that there is enough for everyone, that we can work out our differences. Church is where we can learn to see every person, even the most bizarre of us, as a child of God.

During Christian worship, instead of being the victim, we are met by the victim. God approaches us in the person of Jesus, the one who suffered for our sake. Jesus teaches that we do not need to be afraid of the truth. Instead of scrambling for power and security, we can give God the glory. We can abandon the myth that we must be defined by who we are against. We can be free from the power of death.

In our world of hacked elections, Arctic oil pipelines, of victims and fear and blame and fake news, in these days when our well-beings seems to depend on the New York Times, this is very good news. Coming to church week after week we are receiving a new self, we are becoming a child of God. Our inability to say anything true about God is overwhelmed in Jesus’ embrace of us.

When I first arrived at my last church they fought over everything. My main message to the congregation for the first two years I served there was “we are one body in Christ.” This week my friends at our old church sent out a difficult letter announcing what had happened to Fritz’s family. It closed with a prayer that Fritz used at all the vestry meetings since I left and the reminder that they remain one body in Christ, united with the miraculous power that even frees us from death.

How will your life be transformed by worship? What message is God communicating to you this morning?

[1] James Alison, “Worship in a Violent World,” Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (NY: Continuum, 2006) 33.

[2] Alan Jones email 6 January 2017.

[3] James Alison, “Worship in a Violent World,” Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (NY: Continuum, 2006) 36, 44.

Sunday, January 1
Holy Names
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon for Holy Name Sunday

Year A
January 1, 2017

Randal B. Gardner

A father stood with his daughter admiring the artwork her Sunday School class had put up on the wall. Her piece was very well drawn, but a bit odd. The image was of a man leading a donkey, on which was a woman and her baby. Behind the donkey was a giant bug. He finally had to say, “Tell me about your picture.” “That’s Joseph and Mary and Jesus going to Egypt.” “Hmm. So why is there a bug in your picture?” “That’s the flea, Daddy.” He still looked a bit puzzled, so she continued, “You know. The angel came to Joseph and said, ‘Take the mother and child and flee to Egypt. That’s the flea!”

As the new year turns we mark the passing of time. As St. Paul wrote, “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. Now, it looks as though they’re here to stay.” Not St. Paul of the New Testament, but St. Paul of Liverpool – who, by the way, was not a flea, but a Beatle.

Most pop songs about passing time are a bit wistful and nostalgic, looking back as if passing time is an enemy of the better life. Most biblical references to time, though, are forward looking, anticipating a positive completion of time in a perfect ending. The biblical vision for the world and for the passing of time is a vision of waiting for the ultimate renewal and redemption that God intends. The best is yet to come, and we live in anticipation and waiting for that day.

Today is not only New Year’s Day, but it is also the eighth day after Christmas, the day of the Holy Name, when the bible teaches us that the child born to Mary would have been circumcised and given his name, Jesus. It is part of a string of stories about the infant child. Later this week we have epiphany, the story of the wise visitors from the East. And in a month, we have the story of the Presentation, when the parents take their child to Jerusalem to make the ritual offering of thanks and dedication in the Temple.

We draw two names into the story of the Holy Name. One is from the prophet Isaiah, who told of a child who would be named Emmanuel. One is from the angelic messages about this child to be born, who would be called Jesus. The names have meanings – they’re not just sounds. Emmanuel means God is with us. Jesus, or Yeshua, means God saves us. Both names were given at times of fear and oppression.

Isaiah spoke to a people watching their nation being taken apart by foreign powers, and the reminder of Emmanuel – God is with us – expanded imaginations and gave endurance a hopeful purpose. The birth of Jesus came into the midst of a time of oppression and disruption, and the name “God saves us” was a rebuttal to the claim of Rome that it was the savior of the people.

In fact, most names have meanings. For example, my name – Randal – comes from the Germanic Randolph, which refers to the wolf who protects the edge of the city – the Rand Wolf. Malcolm comes from the Gaelic as a follower of Columba, one of the great Celtic saints of the church. Our deacon, Doe, has the given name Dorothy, which comes from the Greek meaning of God’s Gift. Peggy Lo is our lay assistant this morning, and Peggy is a derivative of Margaret, which carries the Greek meaning of a Pearl. But Peggy’s given name, Pei Han Lo, so far as I can render it without knowing the Chinese language, refers to a brave and courageous comet.

I have a friend who is a college football coach, who told the story of one of his players who went by the name Bum. It was, of course, a nickname, but my friend wondered if it wasn’t shaping this young man’s life in some odd ways. Bum was good enough to get by, but it seemed he had more talent and energy than he often showed. His grades were often on the edge, his appearance was often a bit shabby, and he didn’t seem to think that he mattered much. My friend had a long talk with him one day and asked what his real name was. Richard. The coach said he was going to start calling him Richard, and he encouraged the young man to start going by that name himself.

It had an effect. Richard began to get better grades. He bought nicer clothes. He showed up on time. Years later he told my friend that he had never thought his name would matter, but that Bum had made him think he wasn’t worth much. My friend, he said, gave him back the name that made him feel important, worthwhile. Richard, by the way, means brave and powerful.

When I was in seminary I had a friend, an older woman who had been divorced for a couple of years. She had not been at peace with keeping her former husband’s name, and she didn’t feel good about taking back her father’s name, her maiden name. One day in the chapel as the communion service focused on the feast of Michael and all Angels it suddenly came to her. At the end of the service she declared to all of us – “I have a new name. From now on I am Barbara St. Michaels!”

Names have meanings, and names are important. We mark the Holy Name of Jesus today, but we also mark the holiness of your own names. Regard your name as sacred, for that is part of the beauty of our faith. One of the scandals of our faith is that it takes each person as important, each person in a personal and intimate relationship with God. Each of us is saved uniquely, and without a requirement to become something else. We are saved as we are to be who we are. God knows you by name, loves you as you are. As Jesus taught, God knows the numbers of hairs on your head, you are so important to God. When the people of Israel, in a dark and hopeless time, wondered if God had forgotten. “God has left me,” the people cried. “My Master has forgotten I even exist.” And God replies, “Can a mother forget the infant at her breast, walk away from the baby she bore? But even if mothers forget, I’d never forget you—never. See, I’ve carved your names into the palms of my hands. I can never forget you.”

No matter where you are in your life, whether these are the best times for you or the darkest most oppressive days of your life, Jesus Christ is for you, God is with you. God has never forgotten you, any more than a mother could forget the baby at her breast. Your name is holy. Your life is a treasure. God is with you. God will save you.

May God bless this new year for you.

Sunday, December 25
Christmas Day Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing
Sermon from the Christmas Day Holy Eucharist
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The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, December 25
Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
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In 1956 Truman Capote wrote a short memoir from his childhood called A Christmas Memory. It looked back to his early childhood, when he was sent to live with relatives after his parents divorced, and he lived with these older aunts, uncles and cousins until he was nine or ten years old.

For the most part these relatives were not that well suited to raise a child. The depression was at its worst, and the house became a home for an extended family, including this child Truman. Of all the adults in the house, Truman felt at ease and at home with an elder cousin he called Sook – a child-like adult who was innocent, free of ambition, and content except when the other adults were angry with her. The two fashioned a bond of loving care for each other until Truman was old enough to be enrolled in a military school. In Capote’s words:

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much.”) . . . But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

 

At the heart of the Christmas message there is joy. But joy is not a kind of durable happiness or optimism. Joy is not a relentless good mood. Joy only exists if there is also pain, also loss.

Christmas, for many of us, is that time of year when, in the midst of the long nights and cool days of the winter, something of the fullness of life comes into focus. We may become nostalgic, as Capote was, for the better days of bliss that only childhood can offer. We may become devoted to our family and to blessing others, especially the children. We become imaginative enough to consider what peace and harmony and equity might look like. We are knitted together with wider humanity in such a way that generosity comes to the surface.

With each of these reflections, on the bliss of childhood, on the hopes for the future, on the peaceable kingdom — we may often feel the pangs of the places where life is hollow. We note the absence of those who made our childhoods blissful. We note the absence of peace. We feel again the sorrows that accumulate in this life.

And so, the tension of the faithful life comes into better focus. In this year past we have been reflecting on the idea of home and how it might be that we can make Grace Cathedral a home for some, a place of belonging – without exception. In the gospel we hear that the expression of God’s own mind, the essence of God’s imagination and desire – the Word, the logos – took on human flesh and made a home among us, within this realm of earth and cosmos. That Word, whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth, made a home among us.

Even as we declare that as true, though, the tension is reiterated. It is not enough to give thanks for the fact that the Word lives in our midst. John tells us he came to his own, and his own rejected him. He came into the world that existed because of him, and yet the world could not see him or recognize him. BUT, the gospel exclaims, BUT, for all who do receive him, for all who do recognize him, he empowers, gives, transforms those people into children of God, no longer to be at home in the realm of earth and humanity, but now at home and alive as part of that spiritual fellowship described as being at one with the Word, at one with the Father and the Son. No longer limited to the life of the human family, but now transformed to share in the life of the divine family, to share in the essence of God’s own being.

This, though, is where joy comes to life. Helen Luke described joy as having confidence in the happy ending that would become the final reality. C.S. Lewis described joy as having confidence that the luminous, numinous moments of life, in which the transcendence of God connects with human experience were glimpses into the greater reality toward which we move.

Christmas is imbued with joy because it offers the story of the greater reality, of the unwavering happy end to all things. Christmas is imbued with joy because it reminds us that this child about whom we sing is the expression of God’s willingness to be at home among us, to dwell in the midst of the sorrows, gladness, and losses that you and I know so well. Christmas connects with joy because it reminds us that this child has come to invite us into that greater life in which we are one with God and the creative center of all things.

Joy comes into the midst of sorrow and pain, not as a replacement of it. Home is offered in contrast to these earthly homes that can never satisfy, giving us instead that longing that Paul described for the time when we shall be at home in the Lord. Joy comes from a deep seated awareness and trust that the sorrows and injustices of this life eventually give way to the blessing and redemption of the greater life.

Ironically, that greater life is seen in this frail child, born to a family of refugees driven from their homes by an oppressive empire, sheltered in a stable among the beasts of burden. Ironically, poignantly, marvelously, that life is also the life John proclaims in the opening song of his gospel story.

In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. The Word was in the world that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognize him. He came to his own and his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God himself. The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.

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