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The Voice Behind All Things
We have all heard a voice. It offers us guidance and direction, and sometimes even warns us. It is so ubiquitous that, when we know where we are going, it just fades quietly into the background and we cease to notice it at all.
We hear it in hospitals, subway systems and 250 airports around the world. It may be one of the most frequently heard voices in all history. Although you may have doubted whether this public address system voice belongs to a real person, it does.
Her name is Carolyn Hopkins. She lives in Northern Maine. She makes the recordings in her own house and emails them to the public address company. When asked about what makes people around the world prefer her voice she guesses that they might hear the smile behind it.
In the 1980’s Wim Wenders film Der Himmel Über Berlin (The Wings of Desire) invisible angels can hear the thoughts of people as they go past. In one scene the angel walks through a library hearing what is in every person’s heart.
In our heads we all carry voices that we recognize. Some of these may be disapproving voices that point out our failures and our limitations. They say things like “You can’t do this!” or, “they never loved you,” or, “you’re just like your father” or, “your brother was always better than you.”
Sometimes I think those voices of our thoughts become so dominant, so loud or constant, that we cannot really hear what is happening. This cathedral has different sounds. The woosh of the cable cars, the rain against the stained glass windows, the wind blowing over Nob Hill. One of the most beautiful sounds to me is that of preparation as people get ready for Yoga. A kind of spirit speaks to us in these moments that we often don’t recognize.
Eknath Easwaran started an ashram in Petaluma and was the one who taught me to meditate. He introduced me to the idea that if we can learn to lay our busy thoughts to the side, we might experience more moments of divinity, the holy.
He taught a form of passage meditation. I want to share one of my favorite passages with you tonight. It comes from St. Augustine’s autobiography Confessions.
“Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with our busy thoughts about earth, sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind cease thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still; if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:”
“Imagine if all things that are perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever – imagine, then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of him who made them and not to that of his creation;”
“So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of [people], nor the voice of angels, nor the cloud’s thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things.”
“And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but this one vision which ravishes and absorbs and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination which leaves us breathless:”
“Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, Enter thou into the joy of the Lord?”
When I am with you on Tuesday nights I hear this voice. When we are together I can hear the smile behind all creation.
Darren’s theme – The Earth as a Temple
 Translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Michael N. Nagler in Eknath Easwaran, God Makes the Rivers to Flow (Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1991) 171.
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes… and touched with our hands concerning the word of life” (1 Jn. 1).
You think about your children before you even have them. In your dreams you watch that imagined person travel through the joys and tribulations of life before they even exist. At first December 22, 1998 in Boston felt like a spring day with temperatures in the sixties and brief downpours. By noon snow squalls were gathering and I took a break from my academic work at Lamont Library and returned to our apartment for lunch.
After checking the answering machine I called my wife Heidi at work. She told me that she was pregnant. I immediately took the subway into her downtown office and we called every person we knew. It was only two days before Christmas Eve and suddenly we were part of one of the holiest stories in history.
Although at the time I recognized their inadequacy, I wrote down words describing what I felt. “Synchronicity, great comfort, natural trust, hope, joy, love.” It was a spiritual experience. Suddenly I had a new relation to the universe and God.
On an August afternoon during the first week our son was home from the hospital he was lying on my chest. I looked into his eyes and suddenly felt overwhelmed by the conviction that he had just seen God. Many of you might have your own stories about feeling awe, mystery and transcendence in the face of new life. The sleep deprivation and other challenges of early childhood also may make us forget the power of these moments.
But today, I do not want to talk so much about the spiritual experience of having a child. Instead I want us to consider the spiritual experience of being a child. I’m not going to hide the ball. The most important point that I have to make is simple. Children are not like an empty pitcher that you fill up with religious knowledge. They already have a rich spiritual life. This is the truth about being human – we hear a mysterious call from beyond ourselves.
Our goal is to learn how to be a kind of gardener for the spiritual life that children are nurturing. I mean this for us both as adults who are responsible for particular children as grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, teachers and neighbors, but also for this Cathedral congregation.
I’m going to offer a few complex adult interpretations and then share a child’s perspective on today’s gospel. After the crucifixion Jesus’ closest friends feel absolutely demoralized. They had believed that Jesus would be a Messiah, the Warrior King who would overthrow the Romans. They were terribly disappointed, probably embarrassed, afraid for their lives. Although they had heard that Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus, they do not seem to really believe her. Then Jesus comes among them, but Thomas is not there.
When the others tell Thomas what he has missed, “he says unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands… I will not believe” (Jn. 20). It amazes him that bitterness is not enough for him to abandon his friends. Church is like this too, isn’t it? We are all in various stages of belief and doubt but we keep showing up. The next time they are gathered, Jesus appears and Thomas is there. After seeing his friend Jesus, Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
In 1799 the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) wrote a book called On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. In it he outlines a version of faith entirely in modern terms. He has no room for anything supernatural. The twentieth century thinker Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) proposed that we can “de-mythologize” the Bible. His contemporary Paul Tillich (1886-1965) re-described all of theology using the language of philosophical existentialism.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) did just the opposite. Rather than trying to describe faith in modern terms, he describes modern life entirely in Christian terms. He points out that our picture of the universe is always changing. Isaac Newton imagined one picture of physics. This was supplemented by what Albert Einstein taught us in the twentieth century. Barth argues that we should not begin with a scientific picture of reality that is constantly changing. For him we need to start by being God’s children not by being God’s judges. Barth famously writes that,” the Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather it is a question mark against all truths.”
Where do I stand in all of this? I believe that as a species moving deeper into the twenty-first century we are coming to a new appreciation of our connection to all other creatures. We are more than just rational beings. We are creatures that dream, imagine, draw, compose, and love. There is room for faith. We have good reason to experience ourselves as being in God’s hands.
A few years ago I interviewed Lisa Miller a faculty member at Columbia University. Dr. Miller believes that children have what she calls a “natural spirituality” and that we are severely neglecting the spiritual life of children, especially in affluent communities. As a result our children suffer from much higher levels of drug and alcohol addiction, depression, mental illness, hopelessness, sexual promiscuity, isolation, eating disorders and suicide.
My teenaged children confirm Dr. Miller’s claims. Some of their amazing classmates travel the world leading incredibly enriched lives. But at the same time they are totally ignorant when it comes to religion and feel spirituality empty.
Let me offer three practical suggestions for helping children to cultivate their spiritual lives. First, begin right now to inaugurate family rituals that direct us to God. Pray at meals and before bedtime. Learn about the church’s calendar and observe the various seasons of the church in your own home. Read books about spirituality.
Second, talk about faith. In her book Dr. Miller quotes one parent who says, “I didn’t realize for a long time that when my child asks a question and I say, “I don’t know,” and just leave it at that, I’m actually stopping the conversation (47).” Don’t be afraid to talk about death or any other topic that addresses the mysterious or transcendent. If you need help in these conversations talk to someone like Mary Carter Greene, our expert in children, youth and family.
Finally, participate in the life of a spiritual community. Grace Cathedral may be too far away for some families but we are committed to helping every child and every adult realize their full spiritual potential. Figuring out what faith might mean for you is so much easier in a community. We have wise elders, energetic young people, survivors of great tragedies, creative people with lots of heart.
This week we have been observing the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s martyrdom and his example has been deeply on my mind. Once Dr. King was awakened late at night by a man who screamed at him over the phone and threatened to murder him and his family.
Dr. King couldn’t fall back asleep. He paced the floor, couldn’t stop worrying about his family. He began to go over all the theology and philosophy he had studied. He probably longed to go back to a northern college and lead a quiet scholarly life. He wanted to quit. He brewed coffee in his kitchen. He felt so alone that he even imagined going back to live in his own parents’ house.
With tears in his eyes he put his head down and prayed. “Oh Lord, I’m down here trying to do what is right. But, Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership… I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment King felt a kind of presence, a stirring in himself. Suddenly it seemed as if his inner voice was speaking to him with confidence. “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.” King saw lightning flash and thunder roar and it became for him the voice of Jesus promising that he would never be alone. His extraordinary spiritual strength changed the world.
You think of your children before you even have them and they may come to think of us long after we are gone. In dreams we meet the ones who have gone before us; people like Thomas, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Martin Luther King Jr. Do not fear the mystery of transcendence. Do not be afraid to be wrong. Cultivate your faith and nourish the spirituality of the children. This is the truth about being human – we hear a mysterious call from beyond ourselves.
 Malcolm Clemens Young, Harvard Journal Notes, Chapter Six (12-22-1998) 6.
 Put first let me share a huge revelation I recently had. During Holy Week I found myself meditating on the massive windows above the South Transept. They are some of the largest stained glass windows in Western America and they refer to today’s gospel and another story.
Salome was the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John. She goes to Jesus and asks for her two sons to sit at your right and left hand when Jesus come into your glory. The biblical story seems to be about a terrible irony that she does not at the time see. That is, Jesus comes to glory on the cross and no mother would ask for her children to be crucified.
That seems to be the end of this story. It seems as if she did not get her wish. But then twenty centuries later at this great Cathedral at the edge of a still unknown continent James and John are in a kind of glory at Jesus’ right and left hand. In the same window we have Peter who denied he knew Jesus three times. Then on the far right-hand side you can see Thomas. The official notes say that the figure depicted in the windows is John the Evangelist not the John who is the son of Zebedee and Salome, but I’m not sure. See Michael Lampen, Cathedral Source Book, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, 2015 Revised Edition, 21.
 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition, Tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1968) 35. All Saints Day (11-6-16).
 Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (NY: Picador, 2015).
 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (NY: Harper & Row, 1982) 84-5.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones’ sermon manuscript will be available soon.
Lenten Nukes Grace Cathedral, February 25, 2018 A sermon by the Rt. Rev. William E. Swing based on the Gospel According to Mark: 8:31-38
The only, only good thing about the massive nuclear proliferation that is going on today is that it compels us to imagine the end of the world. That is spiritually healthy. That is the kind of imagination thatJesus had.
How much imagination does it take to picture the end of the world, now? With Pakistan, India, China, Russia and others in the exclusive nuclear club of nations producing ever more powerful, modernized, deadly warheads and delivery systems, we are following suit. The United States is refurbishing our nuclear weapons to the tune of $1.2 trillion dollars over the next decades. And the United States is calling for more small nuclear bombs, about the size used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so that we can surgically eliminate cities when needed. And … we are trying out the policy of “first use,” dropping the bombs on others before than can drop them on us.
It doesn’t take a prophet or a poet to point out that we are rushing toward the moment of self- destruction of life on this planet. All the while, we fantasize that our deliberations are only about national security and reality, all the while disregarding the sustainability of all the nations and all of nature! This past summer, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations said, “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world free of nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic.” Ah, there it is. The ultimate choice. A fairy tale world free of nuclear weapons vs. a realistic world of nuclear weapons proliferating endlessly. The winning argument today is that the more nuclear weapons that we and our enemies have, the safer the world will be.
For 4.5 billion years, the world has been free of nuclear weapons, and we muddled along and evolved. But for the last 73 years, we have had nuclear weapons. And the world has not gone up in flames. Thus, brimming with confidence, this world’s most armed political regimes and their politicians are betting that they can control nuclear weapons indefinitely and that no human errors or glitches in triggered systems will ever lead to an unmitigated apocalypse. And thus life on this planet is left to dangle at the end of these assumptions.
This is where Jesus comes in. He says to his closest follower, “you are setting your mind, NOT on divine things but, on human things.” It is easy to set your mind on human things. We happen to be human and we tend to make decisions based on now, with only a fragile guess about our future. Divine thinking takes into consideration the end of the story. Hauntingly Jesus says to us this morning, “What will it profit (you in the end), if (you) gain the whole world and forfeit your life?”
Translating those words into this moment of nuclear peril, we might say, “What does it profit the nation to have nuclear superiority over the rest of the nuclear nations if it sets up the scenario of a global thermonuclear war and the end of life on this planet? “What will it profit you…?” Or put another way, who wins the game of total extinction?
Here’s is how I read the Gospel lesson today. Jesus is saying, “you think that you know how to handle ultimate power responsibly? Only God, who is the Beginning and the End, handles ultimate power responsibly. When you and I posture with end game weapons, we are just playing God as we pretend to hold sway over this planet. Isn’t this blasphemy? For Jesus, ultimate power on this planet is a revelation, not an explosion. Jesus has a pretty simple message: take the low road, follow me, live in a God intoxicated world, suffer, die and live a life of resurrection. The answer is in the back of the book. Resurrection! Live the answer.
In 2018, with nuclear proliferation, the options become stark. Either annihilation or resurrection. We are late in the game and time is running out. Today we are driving fast toward the cliff and our leaders demand that we hit the accelerator, now. With gusto! That’s the annihilation way to drive. The resurrection way to drive is to slow down, imagine the cliff that is just ahead and begin to figure out how to stop this mad dash. Resurrection means learning to live on the other side of the death that beckons.
In the Jesus story, life after death was not referring to heaven. After his death, Jesus did not go to heaven. He came back to this earth. Earth I Here! This is where resurrection happens for Jesus, and He invites us into it. His fervent prayer was “on Earth as it is in heaven.” Or as the angel said in the book of Revelation, “Hurt not the Earth.” Jesus was focused on Earth. Don’t you dare blow it up!
In heaven, the intractable issues will be resolved and the rough place become plain. But don’t wait. Make them happen here. Resurrection means that Trump supporters and Trump detractors will figure out how to get along … North and South Korea figure out how to be one … Israel and the Palestinians will discover room for everyone … we will learn to preserve the Earth and make money at the same time … people of one religion will be taught to respect the people of other religions. Living into the ultimate solutions is resurrection living. You can’t travel in both directions. You have to make your mind up, annihilation or resurrection.
At the most recent State of the Union Address, these words were spoken: “Perhaps someday in the future, there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate nuclear weapons.” Today, I want to go on record and say that I believe in magic. That is part of what I mean when I recite the Creed and say, I believe in the Resurrection of the dead.” Living, suffering, dying and rising from the dead to create a new order of life .•. here … is far more appealing to me than driving, full throttle, toward the nuclear annihilation hoping for resurrection … there.
Resurrection takes the long view and acknowledges that Earth is the Lord’s. Annihilation takes the short view and accepts that the politicians of the moment and the industrial/military complex of the moment, have the right to destroy the Earth. In our lesson this morning, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan I For you are setting your mind, NOT on divine things but on human things.”
At the Biblical beginning of life, there was the choice of the apple or paradise. In the midst of life, there was the Biblical choice of the Empire or the cross. At the end of life, we have the same old choices, but now they are in context of annihilation or resurrection.
And choices have consequences. Finally, at the end of time, the Author of life will return to this created and well-loved Earth and demand accountability of us for what we did to enhance or destroy it. On that Day of Judgement, our precious bombs won’t amount to a hill of beans. “What does it profit (you in the end) if you gain the whole world and forfeit your life?” Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.