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Sunday, January 14
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, January 11
Epiphany Lessons and Carols
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Monday, December 25
Christmas Day Holy Eucharist
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Sunday, December 24
Lessons and Carols
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Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, January 14
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Yolanda Norton, Professor of Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rev. Yolanda Norton’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, January 7
The Truth about God
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

The Truth about God

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29).

 

What is the truth about God? [1] Our 2018 Cathedral theme is truth and this seems like a good place to begin. Eleven years ago our family found ourselves behind a square iron fence at a fairground with perhaps a hundred thousand people outside. The electricity generated by all those souls felt tangible. I remember the beautiful young dancers, old men in bright robes carrying holy objects and prayers chanted so loudly over loudspeakers that you could almost think of nothing else.

We were celebrating Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany, in Addis Ababa as the special guests of the Abuna, a kind of pope for forty million Ethiopians. I will never forget the feeling I had when the people threw thousands of plastic bottles over the fence to be filled with blessed holy water.

In Greek, the word epiphany means to shine upon or to reveal. We associate this season with three images. First, it reminds us of the light present from the beginning of our world which is Christ. Second, we remember the magi, the three wise men, visitors to the baby Jesus, who some regard as representatives of, “the exotic, the secular, and the scientific world.”[2] The other guiding story for this time tells about the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were torn apart and God’s spirit came to rest on him.

My old teacher Peter Gomes used to say that Epiphany, “is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see.” He told us that what begins as a very private message to Mary and Joseph comes to be shared with, “an ever-expanding audience of witnesses.” He compares it to the ripples formed when you drop a pebble into a smooth pond (until the entire surface is witness to the initial movement of that one stone).[3]

That Ethiopian day in the midst of the largest crowd I had ever seen we lost our five-year-old daughter. So much was happening, I took a photograph, and in a heart stopping instant she was gone. Then we noticed all the television cameras moving to a place where there was a commotion. There was our daughter sitting on the Abuna’s lap as he presided from his throne over the largest religious ritual I will ever see.

My wife picked her up and the two of them were on every television station and the front page of every newspaper. Wherever we went in Ethiopia after that people recognized them and gave them special gifts. This event led to an amazing sense of connection to others.

We long to be known, and during that time we were. It was as if the special admiration that we have for our own children, the way they seem so beautiful to us, was suddenly shared by a whole country of people. For those weeks it felt like all of humanity was our family.

All of us know about the opposite experience too, when instead of a person we become “traffic” to others, that is an inconveniently placed object for them. We also know what it feels like to be isolated and lonely. This week I read an article sent to me by a friend called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”[4]

The argument may be familiar to you already. It holds that the smartphones, which didn’t even exist when we went to Ethiopia, have disrupted a whole generation’s experience of childhood. They are guinea pigs measuring the effects of colossal social changes. According to the author today’s young people are far less likely to use drugs and alcohol, to have sex or even to go out with their friends. They spend about the same amount of time doing homework as earlier generations.

The difference is that young people today spend a massive amount of time on smartphones and social media. This leads to loneliness, a feeling of being left out, depression and suicide. The author writes that girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by fifty percent. Three times as many 12 to 14 year old girls kill themselves today than did in 2007. She also writes that those who attend religious services have a much lower risk for depression.[5]

This is a time when we really need God to be revealed to our children, and to us. Yet sometimes it seems as if even devout Christians are strangely uninterested in coming to know God. Many people seem satisfied to say simply that “God is love” without caring much about the details, without learning what the Bible and tradition teaches about God’s nature.[6]

This puzzles me. Imagine if we were having a conversation and I told you that I love my wife. What if you asked where she grew up and I said, “I don’t know.” You might say, “Well what kind of music does she listen to?“ or “what does she look like?” “is she shy or gregarious?” If I told you that I didn’t know, you’d probably think there was something seriously wrong with our relationship. One of the most upsetting realizations we can have about someone we love is that they do not really know us.[7]

Loving someone means trying to learn about that person. We find out about God through prayer and worship, in studying scripture and the tradition, by talking to each other and by trying to follow God’s teaching in how we live (by the way this includes everything from how we drive to how we talk about other people).

In baptism we promise to learn more about God and to help our children to do the same. In baptism we renew a relationship that God first began at creation. In baptism we say, “I belong no longer to myself, to my parents, my work, to the Internet or the world; I belong to God.”[8]

Some of you may know that I am on a quest to understand God through the eyes of the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Last year I read 2,000 pages of Church Dogmatics his 9,000 page systematic theology. He asserts that we can know something about God because God cares enough about us to show himself in the Bible, in preaching and the person of Jesus himself.[9] For Barth, this God of the scriptures is above all the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the Epiphany story of Jesus’ baptism shows us each aspect of who God is.

Trinity means that we experience God as three persons who have one being or essence. In an analogous way you might experience me as a husband on a double date, as a parent coaching rugby, or as a priest here at Grace Cathedral. You will see a different aspect of me in each of those settings but the being behind all of those experiences, that is me, is the same.

  1. God is the Creator of the universe, the Father we address in the Lord’s Prayer, the one who says “This is my son, the Beloved” (Mk. 1). John the Baptist preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Greek word for sin is hamartia and means to miss the mark. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia and it means to change our consciousness and transform our life.

Barth points out that there is within us a kind of enmity toward God. We are kind of like frenemies (friend-enemies) with God.[10] This isn’t just about us as individuals. We learn how to be with God in large part from our culture, which in Western Europe and North America has begun to bend further away from God.

In a recent article the actor Russell Brand who plays the rock star in the old movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall writes about what he is learning in overcoming his addiction to drugs. In a 12-step program Brand recognized his powerlessness over drugs and turned his life over to God, the only one who could save him. It made him realize that all of us live by an unconscious myth that in his words, “we can make ourselves feel better with external stuff, be it behavior or chemicals.”[11]

  1. God is also the Redeemer, the person Jesus Christ, the man John baptized in the Jordan River. This means that God is not just a kind of physical force creating and holding together the world. God is not less than a person. In Jesus, God knows about human life from the inside. Jesus expresses the reality that we can experience intimacy with God. We can talk to God and even hear back from Him.

With our lives we may often miss the mark but Jesus shows that we do not have to be lost in our misplaced efforts to find security and love by putting ourselves above others.

  1. Finally God is the Sanctifier, the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism when the heavens are torn apart the Spirit descends on him like a dove. The barrier between heaven and us has been removed. The spirit rests on us now too. This Spirit makes it possible for you to trust God. It is the part of God that is present in you. Barth says, it is not a magical transformation but, “a teacher of the truth within ourselves.”[12] This Holy Spirit abides with us, so that we will never be disconnected from God.

Over time this Spirit changes us so that gratitude is no longer just the way we think or even behave. Gratitude becomes our very essence.[13] For Barth, in the end this is all about joy.[14] God’s joy leads to the creation of the world. In this same joy God invites us into the Divine life and through the Spirit gives us the ability to say “yes” to God with our whole being. It was this joy that I sensed on that day as the Ethiopians threw their water bottles over the fence.

Brothers and sisters welcome to the Year of Truth at Grace Cathedral. We all long to know and to be known. Like those exotic, secular and scientific Magi let us follow the star of wisdom and come to know the One we love. In the face of all that threatens this generation let the light of Epiphany, the person of Jesus become ever clearer to us. As the ripples of the waters at Jesus’ baptism reach the shores of our time let us find our own way to say, “I belong to God.” Imagine the truth about God we are about to discover.

[1] Our Cathedral’s 2018 theme is truth. I hope that we will learn new truth about our own lives, and our relation to others. We will explore the truth in journalism, ethics, politics, the economy, sociology, the natural and biological sciences and technology. This week our federal government opened up the process to begin selling offshore oil drilling leases. In our time we need to especially open our eyes to the truth about nature and our planet. Associated Press, “Alaska May Open Up Again for Oil Leasing, but Risks Linger,” The New York Times, 5 January 2018.

[2] Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 31.

[3] Ibid., 30-6.

[4] Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017. David Smith sent the article. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

[5] “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.” Ibid.

[6] This reminds me of the sense of misplaced attention in the billboards that say that we spend more time reading billboards than planning for our retirement.

[7] Ethan Renoe, “The Tragedy of Dumbing Down Christianity,” Relevant, 22 December 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/article/the-tragedy-of-dumbing-down-christianity/

[8] Paraphrase of Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 33.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clarke, 1936), 88-120.

[10] Ibid., 444ff.

[11] Jesse Carey, “The Second Coming of Russell Brand,” Relevant, 8 October 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/feature/the-second-coming-of-russell-brand/

[12] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.T. Thomposon, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clarke, 1956) 371

[13] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 669.

[14] Ibid., 647.

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, January 14
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Yolanda Norton, Professor of Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

The Rev. Yolanda Norton’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, January 7
The Truth about God
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

The Truth about God

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29).

 

What is the truth about God? [1] Our 2018 Cathedral theme is truth and this seems like a good place to begin. Eleven years ago our family found ourselves behind a square iron fence at a fairground with perhaps a hundred thousand people outside. The electricity generated by all those souls felt tangible. I remember the beautiful young dancers, old men in bright robes carrying holy objects and prayers chanted so loudly over loudspeakers that you could almost think of nothing else.

We were celebrating Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany, in Addis Ababa as the special guests of the Abuna, a kind of pope for forty million Ethiopians. I will never forget the feeling I had when the people threw thousands of plastic bottles over the fence to be filled with blessed holy water.

In Greek, the word epiphany means to shine upon or to reveal. We associate this season with three images. First, it reminds us of the light present from the beginning of our world which is Christ. Second, we remember the magi, the three wise men, visitors to the baby Jesus, who some regard as representatives of, “the exotic, the secular, and the scientific world.”[2] The other guiding story for this time tells about the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were torn apart and God’s spirit came to rest on him.

My old teacher Peter Gomes used to say that Epiphany, “is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see.” He told us that what begins as a very private message to Mary and Joseph comes to be shared with, “an ever-expanding audience of witnesses.” He compares it to the ripples formed when you drop a pebble into a smooth pond (until the entire surface is witness to the initial movement of that one stone).[3]

That Ethiopian day in the midst of the largest crowd I had ever seen we lost our five-year-old daughter. So much was happening, I took a photograph, and in a heart stopping instant she was gone. Then we noticed all the television cameras moving to a place where there was a commotion. There was our daughter sitting on the Abuna’s lap as he presided from his throne over the largest religious ritual I will ever see.

My wife picked her up and the two of them were on every television station and the front page of every newspaper. Wherever we went in Ethiopia after that people recognized them and gave them special gifts. This event led to an amazing sense of connection to others.

We long to be known, and during that time we were. It was as if the special admiration that we have for our own children, the way they seem so beautiful to us, was suddenly shared by a whole country of people. For those weeks it felt like all of humanity was our family.

All of us know about the opposite experience too, when instead of a person we become “traffic” to others, that is an inconveniently placed object for them. We also know what it feels like to be isolated and lonely. This week I read an article sent to me by a friend called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”[4]

The argument may be familiar to you already. It holds that the smartphones, which didn’t even exist when we went to Ethiopia, have disrupted a whole generation’s experience of childhood. They are guinea pigs measuring the effects of colossal social changes. According to the author today’s young people are far less likely to use drugs and alcohol, to have sex or even to go out with their friends. They spend about the same amount of time doing homework as earlier generations.

The difference is that young people today spend a massive amount of time on smartphones and social media. This leads to loneliness, a feeling of being left out, depression and suicide. The author writes that girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by fifty percent. Three times as many 12 to 14 year old girls kill themselves today than did in 2007. She also writes that those who attend religious services have a much lower risk for depression.[5]

This is a time when we really need God to be revealed to our children, and to us. Yet sometimes it seems as if even devout Christians are strangely uninterested in coming to know God. Many people seem satisfied to say simply that “God is love” without caring much about the details, without learning what the Bible and tradition teaches about God’s nature.[6]

This puzzles me. Imagine if we were having a conversation and I told you that I love my wife. What if you asked where she grew up and I said, “I don’t know.” You might say, “Well what kind of music does she listen to?“ or “what does she look like?” “is she shy or gregarious?” If I told you that I didn’t know, you’d probably think there was something seriously wrong with our relationship. One of the most upsetting realizations we can have about someone we love is that they do not really know us.[7]

Loving someone means trying to learn about that person. We find out about God through prayer and worship, in studying scripture and the tradition, by talking to each other and by trying to follow God’s teaching in how we live (by the way this includes everything from how we drive to how we talk about other people).

In baptism we promise to learn more about God and to help our children to do the same. In baptism we renew a relationship that God first began at creation. In baptism we say, “I belong no longer to myself, to my parents, my work, to the Internet or the world; I belong to God.”[8]

Some of you may know that I am on a quest to understand God through the eyes of the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Last year I read 2,000 pages of Church Dogmatics his 9,000 page systematic theology. He asserts that we can know something about God because God cares enough about us to show himself in the Bible, in preaching and the person of Jesus himself.[9] For Barth, this God of the scriptures is above all the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the Epiphany story of Jesus’ baptism shows us each aspect of who God is.

Trinity means that we experience God as three persons who have one being or essence. In an analogous way you might experience me as a husband on a double date, as a parent coaching rugby, or as a priest here at Grace Cathedral. You will see a different aspect of me in each of those settings but the being behind all of those experiences, that is me, is the same.

  1. God is the Creator of the universe, the Father we address in the Lord’s Prayer, the one who says “This is my son, the Beloved” (Mk. 1). John the Baptist preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Greek word for sin is hamartia and means to miss the mark. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia and it means to change our consciousness and transform our life.

Barth points out that there is within us a kind of enmity toward God. We are kind of like frenemies (friend-enemies) with God.[10] This isn’t just about us as individuals. We learn how to be with God in large part from our culture, which in Western Europe and North America has begun to bend further away from God.

In a recent article the actor Russell Brand who plays the rock star in the old movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall writes about what he is learning in overcoming his addiction to drugs. In a 12-step program Brand recognized his powerlessness over drugs and turned his life over to God, the only one who could save him. It made him realize that all of us live by an unconscious myth that in his words, “we can make ourselves feel better with external stuff, be it behavior or chemicals.”[11]

  1. God is also the Redeemer, the person Jesus Christ, the man John baptized in the Jordan River. This means that God is not just a kind of physical force creating and holding together the world. God is not less than a person. In Jesus, God knows about human life from the inside. Jesus expresses the reality that we can experience intimacy with God. We can talk to God and even hear back from Him.

With our lives we may often miss the mark but Jesus shows that we do not have to be lost in our misplaced efforts to find security and love by putting ourselves above others.

  1. Finally God is the Sanctifier, the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism when the heavens are torn apart the Spirit descends on him like a dove. The barrier between heaven and us has been removed. The spirit rests on us now too. This Spirit makes it possible for you to trust God. It is the part of God that is present in you. Barth says, it is not a magical transformation but, “a teacher of the truth within ourselves.”[12] This Holy Spirit abides with us, so that we will never be disconnected from God.

Over time this Spirit changes us so that gratitude is no longer just the way we think or even behave. Gratitude becomes our very essence.[13] For Barth, in the end this is all about joy.[14] God’s joy leads to the creation of the world. In this same joy God invites us into the Divine life and through the Spirit gives us the ability to say “yes” to God with our whole being. It was this joy that I sensed on that day as the Ethiopians threw their water bottles over the fence.

Brothers and sisters welcome to the Year of Truth at Grace Cathedral. We all long to know and to be known. Like those exotic, secular and scientific Magi let us follow the star of wisdom and come to know the One we love. In the face of all that threatens this generation let the light of Epiphany, the person of Jesus become ever clearer to us. As the ripples of the waters at Jesus’ baptism reach the shores of our time let us find our own way to say, “I belong to God.” Imagine the truth about God we are about to discover.

[1] Our Cathedral’s 2018 theme is truth. I hope that we will learn new truth about our own lives, and our relation to others. We will explore the truth in journalism, ethics, politics, the economy, sociology, the natural and biological sciences and technology. This week our federal government opened up the process to begin selling offshore oil drilling leases. In our time we need to especially open our eyes to the truth about nature and our planet. Associated Press, “Alaska May Open Up Again for Oil Leasing, but Risks Linger,” The New York Times, 5 January 2018.

[2] Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 31.

[3] Ibid., 30-6.

[4] Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017. David Smith sent the article. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

[5] “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.” Ibid.

[6] This reminds me of the sense of misplaced attention in the billboards that say that we spend more time reading billboards than planning for our retirement.

[7] Ethan Renoe, “The Tragedy of Dumbing Down Christianity,” Relevant, 22 December 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/article/the-tragedy-of-dumbing-down-christianity/

[8] Paraphrase of Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 33.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clarke, 1936), 88-120.

[10] Ibid., 444ff.

[11] Jesse Carey, “The Second Coming of Russell Brand,” Relevant, 8 October 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/feature/the-second-coming-of-russell-brand/

[12] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.T. Thomposon, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clarke, 1956) 371

[13] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 669.

[14] Ibid., 647.

Sunday, December 31
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Monday, December 25
Christmas Day Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Christmas Day Sermon
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Christmas 2017

Merry Christmas everyone! I wonder, what are you hungry for this Christmas? I don’t mean the turkey and all the trimmings, or a delicious vegetarian alternative, or even sugar plums and Christmas candy. What are you hungry for in the depth of your self? What is the emptiness that you long to see filled? Are you hungry for security in a time when the world seems wildly awry? Are you hungry for peace in a world that is constantly at war? Are you hungry for truth in a culture of misdirection and fake news? Are you hungry for connection in a city full of lonely individuals? What is your hunger this Christmas 2017?

I love this season of feasting and celebration, of lights and tinsel and glitter and gifts – even in my 50s, when I should, you’d think, be thoroughly and completely adult, I still wake up on Christmas morning with a sense of excitement and wonder! But if this season isn’t able to answer some of our true human hungers then it isn’t really worth the love and energy it receives. If it’s just a pretty story for children or a winsome theological concept for church geeks then there’s no meat to the feast. But if it does indeed contain food for our most haunting emptinesses then it might just be worth all the glitz that surrounds it.

Let’s remind ourselves of that pretty story and that winsome theological concept. A young working-class woman gives birth in the dirty surroundings of a stable with her husband by her side, though he’s not the baby’s father. They have had to travel hard because of orders from an uncaring government and found no one willing to give them a decent lodging when they arrived. So far so sadly everyday. But then the shepherds, the local rednecks, hear voices and see the first Christmas lights so come to find out what’s going on. And angels, messengers of the divine, start the first Christmas singalong. And we are given to understand that rather than the everyday we’re in the presence of the one-off: God born as a helpless baby in the middle of a poor and occupied country about 2000 years ago.

God, I love this story! Not because it’s pretty – it’s actually fairly grim -but because it speaks truth to the human heart. In particular because it speaks truth – striking, sparkling, glittery truth – about the worth of every single human ever born into this wonderful and weary world. Listen again to that verse from our gospel, try and hear it as if it’s fresh – after all it’s short enough to be the latest tweet: ‘God became flesh and dwelt among us.’

God – not the easiest word to get our heads around – in fact, by definition, the hardest word of all to get our heads around. God – the divine creator, the ground of all being, the source of all love and light, completely beyond everything you see and yet deep within everything you see – that God gave up the painless safety of divine transecendence and became one of us. Became flesh. Became subject to all the things that are beyond human control: loss and physical pain and death and helpless giggling and fear and hope and other people’s bad decisions.

And it certainly feels like we’ve all been subject to other people’s bad decisions this year! That the hunger in our hearts for justice and peace has got deeper as we’ve seen more of our sisters and brothers subjected to harassment and oppression. Christmas reminds us of the value of all people – of the refugee and DACA student, of the single mother facing the loss of health care for her family, of the black boy afraid to catch the eye of a police officer, of the girl too afraid to add her name to the metoo hashtag. Christmas reminds us that God became our flesh, became one of us – one of the poorest and most vulnerable and most oppressed – so that none of us should forget the overhwelming value of every single human life.

Christmas isn’t some spiritual feast meant only for religious people and detached from real life. Christmas is the most human of holy days. It’s the day when we all get to be reminded how deeply valuable and how deeply loved each one of us is. That’s why it’s so painfully ridiculous when people get upset over someone saying ‘happy holidays’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas’ – every greeting that celebrates our connection with another person is right and appropriate for this holy time of year. Every greeting that wishes well to another irreplaceable invaluable human being should be a cause of delight not dismay!

The value given to humanity by God becoming human is the meat of Christmas, the way that Christmas can answer some of those fundamental human hungers – though only with our help. Are you hungry for peace? Then let the peace of the Christ child live in your actions and your relationships as well as in your heart. Are you hungry for truth? Then let the fundamental truth of the deep worth of very human being keep you alert to all lies that would tell you otherwise. Are you hungry for connection? Then be the one to reach out with a greeting, whatever it is, knowing that the person you reach out to is infinitely beloved by God, as you are yourself.

Are you hungry for security? Ah. Yes. Sorry. That’s not a hunger that Christmas can fill. Christmas is the opposite of secure. It’s full of wonder and risk and good news and joy and hilarity but not security. It’s all about God becoming vulnerable, giving up divine security, being ridiculously born to a poor family in an obscure part of the world. It’s all about being loved and loving others – not being safe but being out there – building peace, connecting with strangers, speaking truth to power. The good news of Christmas is peace, connection, truth and love – but not security.

I’ve talked enough at you for one Christmas morning! It’s now time to move on to the places where we are literally fed: to this altar table where we share the essence of God’s love in bread and wine. To our own home tables where we share a sense of celebration and of shared humanity. Feast this year on all the good things Christmas can offer. Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! And may the peace, connection, truth and love of Christmas live with us all throughout 2018.

 

Sunday, December 24
The Gift of the Angels: Compassion and Joy
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
A video of the sermon can be viewed by clicking the "Watch sermon" tab.
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Watch Here:

 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isa. 9).

 

Let me tell you about the gift of the angels. Sometimes we walk in darkness – the darkness of uncertainty, fear or hopelessness. On March 24, 2006 I sat with my friend Phil in his parents’ living room as he said goodbye to them. Later we drove alone in the car together and talked about the most ordinary things. Phil absolutely loved being outdoors and we shared stories about our favorite hiking trails.

A pedestrian bridge connects the parking structure to the Santa Clara County courthouse. On one side there was the bright daylight of freedom. On the other he would receive his sentence and be immediately incarcerated. We walked into that darkness together.

I was thinking of all the other people who wanted to support him. He was too ashamed to ask them for help and so we were alone. The judge delivered the sentence. Twenty-two years in prison. Phil had a wife and two very small daughters. In that instant their entire childhood with him was taken away. He would never be able to attend one of their concerts, games or teacher’s meetings. In the place of his ordinary suburban life he stepped into a horror of uncertainty, the fear of being beaten or murdered in prison.

In the poet W. H. Auden’s (1907-1973) Christmas Oratorio the second Magi or wise man says, “With envy, terror, rage, regret, / We anticipate or remember but never are. / To discover how to be living now / Is the reason I follow this star.”[1]

We can have a pulse but not really be alive. Through the darkness of regret or worry we become so deeply lodged in the past or future that we never really live now. The greatest gift of Christmas is the offer to be fully alive in the moment to compassion and joy. On this holy night God offers us these gifts and a new possibility that could change how we live every day.

  1. Compassion. Matthew and Luke each tell a different sort of story about the birth of Jesus. Matthew writes about a jealous king, wise magi and ultimately the flight of the holy family as refugees into Egypt (Mt. 2) to avoid a massacre of infants. Luke talks about the shepherds and their mysterious “good news of great joy to all the people” (Lk. 2). Both gospels share in common a central role for angels.

It might be hard for us to understand today but these stories convey a strong political message. They represent Jesus as a kind of threat to King Herod and the Roman Emperor. The titles the angels use to describe Jesus, “Son of God” and “Savior of the World,” are the same ones that Romans used for the emperor. It is a little like what it would mean today to call Jesus the Commander in Chief.

So what is the difference between the Peace of Rome and the Peace of Christ? John Dominic Crossan writes that it is not the “that” of peace, but the “how” which distinguishes them. For Rome, and for every empire in history, peace comes through military victory. The emperor crushes his enemies until the next more violent and destructive war.[2]

In contrast, the peace of Christ comes through justice, from the compassion that leads people to share what we have. Jesus does not descend upon the Roman governor Pontius Pilate with armies. He submits and through God’s grace a completely different kind of peace prevails. On Christmas Eve we participate fully both in the vulnerability of Jesus and in his resurrection.

We experience this triumph in new possibilities for our interpersonal relationships. And we see it at play in the most powerful forces of our time. Michael Ignatieff points out that after the final collapse of colonialism in 1989, for the first time in history there is a kind of global consensus that each people should be permitted to decide for themselves. He writes, “The new normative dispensation is the idea that every person, every faith, and every race and creed should enjoy the same right to be heard and the same right to shape national political outcomes.”[3]

We have not perfectly realized this peace of Christ, but it continues to profoundly shape us today.

  1. Joy. On this holy night the second gift we receive from the angels is joy. This evening we have the chance to experience something beyond mere pleasure. It may happen when we see an old friend or as we sing “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World.” It may happen when we receive a piece of bread and suddenly realize how much God loves us.

This same joy can be an abiding delight for us, part of our daily life. If pleasure is like fast food, joy is the real nutrition that sustains us. It comes from savoring life, from opening ourselves to the holy through gratitude. It often means doing only one thing at a time so that we can really pay attention to what is happening to us.[4]

This joy presumes that each moment is pregnant with God’s real presence, that if we can stop to pay attention, we will recognize the real gift that God is giving us. The theologian Karl Barth defines faith as saying yes in our hearts to God and turning our life toward holiness.[5]

This “yes” means interrupting our constant daydreams of how things could be better. It means accepting the life we have actually been given. It involves receiving the good gifts that we have instead of living in a state of resentment for what is not there or for what is no longer there. It means changing the stories we live by from ones about entitlement and fairness to stories of gratitude.

The monk Curtis Almquist (SSJE) writes that the word paradox is an amalgam of the Greek words for other and glory. Joy is the paradox of God’s glory appearing in a way other than we expected it. Don’t just visit your life as if you were passing through it on the way to something more important.

  1. W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio also includes this wonderful line (from Simeon), “the course of History is predictable in the degree to which all men love themselves and spontaneous in the degree to which each man loves God and through Him his neighbor.”[6]

Many times compassion and joy come together in a way that surprises us. Before closing let me tell a story about this. The poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) grew up in a frontier Chilean railroad town with a population so illiterate that the hardware stores used giant street signs with colossal pictures of padlocks, saws, boots or whatever they sold.[7]

Playing in an empty lot behind his house one day he discovered a small hole in the fence. Looking through it he saw a similarly wild and uncared for place. He didn’t know why but he stepped back to see what would happen. Suddenly the tiny hand of a boy about his age appeared and was gone, leaving behind a wonderful toy sheep.

Neruda went into his house to bring out his own treasure, a delicately opened, fragrant pinecone. He left it in the same place he had found the sheep. He never saw the hand, the boy or the pinecone again. Years after he had lost the sheep in a fire he still couldn’t help stopping by toyshops to find a replacement.

The poet writes about this. “I have been a lucky man… To feel the love of people we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know… (who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses –) that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things… [M]aybe this… mysterious exchange… remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.”

One of my favorite moments of the year at my old church happened after everyone went home and I was alone locking up the church on Christmas Eve. In that darkness I prayed for the people who walked in darkness, and especially for my friend Phil.

This week I received a beautiful hand painted Christmas card depicting a stand of Giant Sequoia trees from him. He does not say it but reading between the lines I can see he has received the gifts of the angels too. All these years later he lives a life of compassion, at peace with the guards and other prisoners.

Instead of longing for the gifts that will never be his, he has learned to receive what is given to him every day. He cherishes new friendships. He teaches GED classes in the prison school and also has learned to be an electrician. He discovered new forms of music and with a collaborator he has even written an opera. In two months Phil will be released. We plan to go walking together again through the oak woodlands. We will walk out of the darkness into the light.

I don’t know what darkness you may be in. But I know some people who have walked in darkness and seen a great light. On this holy night, when God speaks to us through the birth of a child, say “Yes.” Say to “Yes” to your life as it is right now. Let compassion and joy guide you. Receive the gift of the angels.

[1] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio ed. Alan Jacobs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) 27.

[2] In Matthew an angel explains to Joseph why he should not abandon pregnant Mary. The angel warns him to escape from King Herod’s wrath, and later tells him when he can safely return to Nazareth. Matthew’s angels speak through dreams and ensure the fulfillment of prophecies.

In Luke angels establish the parallels between the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus. The angel Gabriel communicates to Zechariah and Mary. “[H]e will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Lk. 1:5-25). In the cold night an angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid and that, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah” (Lk. 2:11-12). Then suddenly a multitude of the heavenly hosts sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven…” (Lk. 2)!

John Dominic Crossan, “The Challenge of Christmas,” The Huffington Post, 12 December 2011. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dominic-crossan/the-challenge-of-christma_b_1129931.html?ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

[3] Michael Ignatieff, The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017) 12.

[4] Curtis G. Almquist, The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts (Lanham, MD: Cowley, 2008) 29-35.

[5] “Faith is the total positive relationship of man to the God who gives Himself to be known in his Word. It is man’s act of turning to God, of opening up his life to Him and of surrendering to Him. It is the Yes which he pronounces in his heart when confronted by this God, because he knows himself to be bound and fully bound. It is the obligation in which, before God, and in the light of the clarity that God is God and that He is his God, he knows and explains himself as belonging to God. But when we say that, we must at once also say that faith as the positive relationship of man to God comes from God Himself in that it is utterly and entirely grounded in the fact that God encounters man in the Word which demand of him this turning, this Yes, this obligation; becoming an object to him in such a way that in His objectivity He bestows upon him by the Holy Spirit the light of the clarity that He is God and that He is his God, and therefore evoking this turning, this Yes, this obligation on the part of man. It is only in this occurrence of faith that there is the knowledge of God; and not only the knowledge of God, but also love towards Him, trust in Him and obedience to Him.’ Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 12.

[6] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio ed. Alan Jacobs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) 51.

[7] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (NY: Vintage, 1979) 281-2.

Sunday, December 24
Christmas Eve 7:30 p.m. Eucharist Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Sunday's 7:30 p.m. Christmas Eve Eucharist
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