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Sunday, December 9
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Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, December 2
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
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Sunday, December 9
Prophets of the Silences
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine…” (Phil. 1).

Let this Advent be for listening. In the silence above the static hear the voice of God and repent. I offer you three short chapters on silence, static and wholeheartedness.

  1. Silence. On a clear October night in 2003 Gordon Hempton awoke to a deep thumping noise. An auditory ecologist who makes his living by recording sounds ranging from the flutter of butterfly wings to coyote pups and waterfalls, he thought he was hearing a new class of supertanker offshore from his home on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It turned out that although Hempton’s consuming passion was listening to the world, he was losing his hearing.

Hempton’s life went into a nosedive. Suddenly he was cut off from what he loved most. He couldn’t work and fell into debt. But then after many months his hearing miraculously returned to normal. When it did he knew that nothing would ever be quite the same. He dedicated his life to protecting the natural soundscape or, more precisely, what he calls silence.

Hempton writes that, “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything… Silence can be found and silence can find you.”[1] We will never experience silence in the world if we cannot hear it within ourselves. There is a reason that we never evolved earlids and that the audio cortex never sleeps. A deep connection exists between silence and a creature’s feeling of safety. That is the reason wild animals do not linger long at a river whose sound masks the approach of predators.

Furthermore Hempton points out that just as species are rapidly going extinct, places of natural silence are too. A silence of longer than fifteen minutes has become incredibly rare in North America and is entirely gone in Europe. Mostly because of air traffic, there are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the U.S. And so his dream is that by preserving silence around a single square inch in Olympic National Park a new respect for silence might be introduced into human life again.

I want to say one last thing about this. Hempton thinks of silence in two ways. First, there is what he calls inner silence. This is a feeling that we carry with us wherever we go. It is a kind of sacred silence that orients us and reminds us of the difference between right and wrong. Second, there is outer silence. This happens in a naturally quiet place that invites us to open our senses and to feel our connection to everything. Outer silence replenishes our inner silence. It fills us “with gratitude and patience.”[2]

  1. Static. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Lk. 3). In the wilderness, in the presence of a silence we no longer experience, God speaks. My daughter teaches Sunday school here at Grace Cathedral. She says that prophets are people who come so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know what is most important. They know what to do. John the Baptist is a prophet of the silences.[3]

This was the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Mitch McConnell was senate majority leader and Jerry Brown was governor of California, when Joel Osteen and Franklin Graham were high priests of American religion. To us these might seem to be the most important facts of our time. But for God this is just static.

This week I made a new friend. Nathan’s father was a Lutheran pastor who moved his family to Addis Ababa Ethiopia a few days after the communist Derg took power. Nathan remembers driving to school and seeing corpses along the side of the road with signs around their necks. Thousands of people were simply executed in the night.

These same communists were the ones who chose the man who became be the Ethiopian pope. As a result for years many people believed that the government and the church were irreparably compromised. This was also the situation in ancient Palestine and its whole chain of command from the Roman emperor to the local high priest who collaborated with his officials.

The situation seemed hopeless. Where was the word of God to go? To describe this Luke uses the Greek word egeneto. It is related to our words beget, gene, generate. As in those times, today the word comes into being, it is begotten, in the same places where it always has been, in the silences removed from the places of power.

Last week on the First Sunday of Advent we celebrated the beginning of a new church year. For the next twelve months we will be closely following the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Gospel of Luke. The word gospel means good news. These poetic and practical stories were meant to be read aloud. Their purpose is to provoke hearers to re-examine their lives, to repent and believe, and ultimately to change the world.[4]

The gospel is a kind of story-telling technology for transforming the self. The problem is that we have such strong expectations for what these stories mean that we too easily miss the point. Furthermore, the words have gotten worn out in the retelling.

Everything we need to hear today is in one line. John “went into all the region about the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3). The word we translate as repentance is really metanoia it is a transformation of heart, mind and soul. The word for forgiveness is aphesis; it means to be released from captivity or slavery. The word sin is hamartia and means to miss the mark as an archer might miss the target.

 

This whole story is about how you can be released from what constrains, dehumanizes and destroys you and how you can help others to become free too. In the Book of Exodus the Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means literally the narrow place. Do you remember this summer when the Thai youth soccer team spent weeks trapped in a cave that was filling up with water? You can imagine how terrifying it would be to come to a narrow place and not know if you can make it through.

That is mitzrayim. For us the narrow place might be despair at our politics, fear of deportation, racism, homophobia, mental illness, addiction, job and housing insecurity or family conflict. Whatever might be holding you back right now, Jesus brings us the New Exodus, the real freedom to flourish in the way that God created us to.

  1. Wholeheartedness. My last point is that seeing the world in terms of sin and repentance is a kind of technique for breaking the forces that hold us captive. Brené Brown is an Episcopalian and a university professor in Texas. She began her career by studying how people derive meaning from their relationships. The more she talked to people about connection and love the more she heard about alienation and heartbreak. This led to a huge breakthrough.[5]

Brown defines shame as the fear of being disconnected from others. Every person experiences this. It is the voice inside us that says, “if they knew what I have done, they would never speak to me again,” or, “I don’t deserve to be loved,” “they prefer her to me.” The more we deny our shame or ignore it, the more powerful its hold on us. It leads us to view vulnerability as weakness and to hide who we really are.

When we hate our self it is hard not to constantly despise others. Shame isolates and brings out the worst in us. Just think of the most upsetting things you have seen on Twitter. This week in our discussion of the book White Fragility we talked about how white shame makes it difficult to have racial reconciliation in our country.[6]

Brown contrasts shame and guilt. Shame is a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that says, “I am bad.” Guilt on the other hand means doing something bad. It leads us to say, “I made a mistake.” These are really two different ways of being. On the one hand there is blame, defensiveness and denial. On the other hand there is what Brown calls wholeheartedness. Although most people associate vulnerability with weakness, vulnerability is key to this way of living. It is how we love with our whole heart.

Fear of being ridiculed, dismissed or ignored does not stop wholehearted people like this from seeking connection to others. They take risks. They are not afraid to say, “I love you,” or, “I’m sorry,” or, “forgive me.” Wholehearted people embrace the idea that what makes them vulnerable or imperfect is also what makes them beautiful.

The language of Jesus enables us to live in this better, more silent place. Sin as missing the mark, repentance as the constant process of changing our hearts, and, forgiveness as release from captivity – these basic ideas help us to see ourselves as children of God. They give us the confidence of someone who believes that nothing can irrevocably alienate us from God.

This week at George H.W. Bush’s funeral Alan Simpson talked about his friend’s wholeheartedness. He said, “George… never hated anyone…. Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”[7] This week for homework I invite you to drain your container of hatred. Try forgiving someone – it could be someone in public life like the president, or the person who lives next door to you.

In the presence of everything, discover the Holy Spirit that penetrates the static. Let repentance be your path out of shame. Enter into a wholehearted life in Christ. Come close to God so that you will know what is most important, so that you will know what to do. Let this Advent be for listening. Let silence find you.

[1] Gordon Hempton with John Grossmann, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Silence in a Noisy World (NY: Free Press, 2009) 2

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Melia taught the Godly Play lesson on the prophets for 1 Advent last week.

[4] This paragraph and next from: Matt and Liz Boulton, “Peace & Freedom: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two,” SALT, 5 December 2018.

[5] 3 Epiphany (1-26-14) A. See “The Courage to Be Vulnerable,” On Being, 21 November 2012. Also her TED talks:

Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability TEDxHouston,” December 2010,

Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/4932

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html

[6] Robin DiAngelo  White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

[7] Alan Simpson, “Eulogy for George H.W. Bush,” National Cathedral, Wednesday 5 December 2018. https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a25412509/alan-simpson-george-hw-bush-funeral-eulogy-transcript/

Sunday, December 2
The Curse and Blessing of Our Expectations
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3).
Read sermon

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3).

 

The thirty-nine year old man at the L’Enfant Metro subway station in Washington D.C. wore a Nationals baseball hat, a long-sleeved t-shirt and blue jeans.[1] He set up his violin, threw a few dollars into the case as seed money and at 7:51 a.m. on a cold winter day he began to play six pieces of classical music. Two things were remarkable about the next forty-three minutes.

First, was his seemingly perfect invisibility to nearly everyone. The musician remarked, “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all… Because you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!” Of the 1,097 people who passed only seven stopped for more than a minute. Twenty-seven gave a total of $32.17. He was universally ignored by every demographic category, by men and women, workers and retired people, rich and poor, Asian, white and African-American – with the one exception of children. They tried to stop and listen but their parents always hurried them on.

People lined up at a nearby lottery machine and didn’t even turn around. A deafening silence followed the end of each piece. Only once was there more than one person listening. Of the 1,097 people only one person recognized who he was and only one other person really stopped to listen.

Yes the second remarkable fact was that this was Joshua Bell who later that year won the Avery Fisher Prize as the best classical musician in America. He was playing some of the most powerful and difficult music ever written, on a Stradivarius violin built in 1713 which last sold for $3.5 million. The night before he had filled Symphony Hall in Boston with people paying about $100 per ticket.

The woman who recognized him said, “people were not stopping, and not even looking… I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”

Why were so few people able to receive this gift? Quite simply it was because they were not expecting it. To use Jesus’ words, “their hearts were weighed down with… the worries of life” so that this moment of grace caught them “unexpectedly” (Lk. 21). Expectations matter. They constantly give form to the reality that we experience.

Have any of you ever watched the sardines that circle around the entryway to the Outer Bay exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium? All these shining fish go clockwise around the light blue top of the circular room together as a school. But one sardine swims above all the others and goes the opposite way. Being a Christian in Advent is a little like this. The Christian in December is the same kind of creature, doing the same kind of thing in the same kind of environment but differently.

Welcome to the season of Advent, a time of expectations, the church’s new year observance when the world around us seems both strangely near to and oddly distant from our hopes. It is a time of imperfect harmony. The world waits for Christmas and expects to experience a little more generosity and kindness than we see at other times of the year. We as Christians participate in this too. We might even recognize some of our hymns played in shopping malls, but we also have much higher expectations. We expect the coming of the Holy One. We await the advent of the Christ. We hope that Jesus will be born in our hearts.

For every human being what we hope will happen is a vital part of our experience of what already is and who we are. Today I am wondering about the difference between expectations that deceive and damage us, and expectations that save us and show us the way into new life?

A few years ago I went to a dinner banquet for alumni from Bowles Hall, the last all male residence in the University of California system. Some men there had distinguished careers and one of us even has an airport named after him. But the group who had been in college with me seemed weighed down with the heaviness of failure. One friend had lost a fortune in the last year and was working at a job that he considered below his capabilities. Another just never felt like he lived up to his potential. I had known these gray-haired men when they were goofy freshmen and the sadness of these unfulfilled expectations moves me.

We talked about the 2008 movie The Wrestler as a kind of symbol for our experience. The wrestler played by Mickey Rourke is about a man in his forties who had been a celebrity professional wrestler back in the 1980’s. Despite his now painfully ruined body he tries to make a comeback until a heart attack forces him to reevaluate his life. He reaches out to his estranged daughter, becomes close to a stripper with whom he has fallen in love. But he cannot change. He cannot free himself from the expectations that have motivated his life for twenty-five years. He seems bent on his own destruction. His dreams are literally killing him.

Tragedy could be defined as suffering for who we are. The pain is magnified by the feeling that we cannot in any meaningful way change. But all of us can change our expectations, not only of our circumstances, but of other people and even of ourselves.

The nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was famous for his pessimism. He believed in a fatalism that makes us victims of a malicious universe which controls our happiness through our circumstances in life. He wrote that, “Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.”[2] What I mean by our expectations is not merely fantasizing that good things will happen to us. I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking.

I’m just saying that our well-being includes a subjective element. How we respond to what happens to us is a more important determinant of our happiness than our situation. When we regard ourselves as mere responders, when we think that quality of our life comes from our health, wealth, position, power, experience or good fortune, we tend to ignore the good things we already have. Expectations that lead us to disapprove of or condemn others diminish us right now. This way of experiencing other people will keep us from growing into our fullness as children of God.

You may be surprised to hear it, but despite his reputation John Calvin (1509-1564) has done more than almost any other person to influence my faith. He points out that one of the most deeply rooted human beliefs is our expectation that God will not take care of us. Most of our behavior having to do with the future rests on this assumption. Because of this, for Calvin faith is not merely believing that God exists, but believing that God loves and cares for us.[3]

We see this in Jesus’ sacrifice for us. We understand its implications through the inspiration of the spirit. Becoming a Christian means beginning to live as people who know that they depend on God.

In so many ways people sit in judgment of God.[4] They have their own idea of justice which is biased deeply in their own favor. They think that they could run the universe better than God does. They easily become angry with God about what happened to us in the past.

What is it that sets Christians apart – I believe it is the expectation that God will be good to us in the future. My college friends have a faith that rests in their individual accomplishments, in the respect that other people have for them and in the wealth that they believe will protect them. Everything in their life depends on what happens to be given to them on the outside.

But we are like that sardine swimming above it all. The world is baffled by Christian faith because it comes from the inside. This trust in God’s goodness leads to a new experience of reality based on gratitude and love.

It is the expectation that the most powerful change we witness in our life will be the change in our own hearts as we turn our life to God.[5] The experience of being God’s children makes us more accepting of other people’s faults. It changes our expectations of what God should be doing for us, so that we can receive the gifts that God is actually giving us.

One of my favorite lines in scripture comes from Paul’s letter to his friends in distant Thessalonica. Scholars believe that these are the oldest words in the New Testament. He writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3:9). Paul loved those imperfect people in the way that we love each other here at Grace Cathedral. This attitude of joy and gratitude arises naturally out of our faithful expectations.

Literally one person in a thousand recognized Joshua Bell as he played the violin in the subway station. Only one other person really heard him, John Picarello, a short man with a baldish head who works as a supervisor for the postal service. He told a reporter what he heard. “It was a treat, just brilliant, an incredible way to start the day.”

In this winter time when the hills surrounding us become green with new life, we too can choose to be like children and receive God’s gift. How will you change your expectations this Advent? How will you let God change you?

[1] My summary cannot come close to doing justice to my excellent source. See Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can One of the Nations Great Musicians Cut Through the Fog of a D.C. Rush Hour? Let’s Find Out,” The Washington Post, 8 April 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721_pf.html

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Tr. R.J. Hollingdale (NY: Penguin, 1970), 168.

[3] Faith is knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the promise in Christ revealed by the Holy Spirit (Inst. 1:551).

[4] One of the most vivid scenes in William Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack happens when the main character, a man named Mack, encounters the spirit of God’s wisdom in a cave. In the center of the room stands the judgment seat. Mack worries that he will not be able to stand this scrutiny over his sins. He is then surprised to learn that instead this is the place where he sits to judge God. Sophia points out that judging requires us to believe that we are superior over the one being judged. William P. Young, The Shack,(Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007) 159.

[5] Calvin writes that the heart is more difficult to convert than the mind.

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, December 9
Prophets of the Silences
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine…” (Phil. 1).

Let this Advent be for listening. In the silence above the static hear the voice of God and repent. I offer you three short chapters on silence, static and wholeheartedness.

  1. Silence. On a clear October night in 2003 Gordon Hempton awoke to a deep thumping noise. An auditory ecologist who makes his living by recording sounds ranging from the flutter of butterfly wings to coyote pups and waterfalls, he thought he was hearing a new class of supertanker offshore from his home on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It turned out that although Hempton’s consuming passion was listening to the world, he was losing his hearing.

Hempton’s life went into a nosedive. Suddenly he was cut off from what he loved most. He couldn’t work and fell into debt. But then after many months his hearing miraculously returned to normal. When it did he knew that nothing would ever be quite the same. He dedicated his life to protecting the natural soundscape or, more precisely, what he calls silence.

Hempton writes that, “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything… Silence can be found and silence can find you.”[1] We will never experience silence in the world if we cannot hear it within ourselves. There is a reason that we never evolved earlids and that the audio cortex never sleeps. A deep connection exists between silence and a creature’s feeling of safety. That is the reason wild animals do not linger long at a river whose sound masks the approach of predators.

Furthermore Hempton points out that just as species are rapidly going extinct, places of natural silence are too. A silence of longer than fifteen minutes has become incredibly rare in North America and is entirely gone in Europe. Mostly because of air traffic, there are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the U.S. And so his dream is that by preserving silence around a single square inch in Olympic National Park a new respect for silence might be introduced into human life again.

I want to say one last thing about this. Hempton thinks of silence in two ways. First, there is what he calls inner silence. This is a feeling that we carry with us wherever we go. It is a kind of sacred silence that orients us and reminds us of the difference between right and wrong. Second, there is outer silence. This happens in a naturally quiet place that invites us to open our senses and to feel our connection to everything. Outer silence replenishes our inner silence. It fills us “with gratitude and patience.”[2]

  1. Static. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Lk. 3). In the wilderness, in the presence of a silence we no longer experience, God speaks. My daughter teaches Sunday school here at Grace Cathedral. She says that prophets are people who come so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know what is most important. They know what to do. John the Baptist is a prophet of the silences.[3]

This was the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Mitch McConnell was senate majority leader and Jerry Brown was governor of California, when Joel Osteen and Franklin Graham were high priests of American religion. To us these might seem to be the most important facts of our time. But for God this is just static.

This week I made a new friend. Nathan’s father was a Lutheran pastor who moved his family to Addis Ababa Ethiopia a few days after the communist Derg took power. Nathan remembers driving to school and seeing corpses along the side of the road with signs around their necks. Thousands of people were simply executed in the night.

These same communists were the ones who chose the man who became be the Ethiopian pope. As a result for years many people believed that the government and the church were irreparably compromised. This was also the situation in ancient Palestine and its whole chain of command from the Roman emperor to the local high priest who collaborated with his officials.

The situation seemed hopeless. Where was the word of God to go? To describe this Luke uses the Greek word egeneto. It is related to our words beget, gene, generate. As in those times, today the word comes into being, it is begotten, in the same places where it always has been, in the silences removed from the places of power.

Last week on the First Sunday of Advent we celebrated the beginning of a new church year. For the next twelve months we will be closely following the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Gospel of Luke. The word gospel means good news. These poetic and practical stories were meant to be read aloud. Their purpose is to provoke hearers to re-examine their lives, to repent and believe, and ultimately to change the world.[4]

The gospel is a kind of story-telling technology for transforming the self. The problem is that we have such strong expectations for what these stories mean that we too easily miss the point. Furthermore, the words have gotten worn out in the retelling.

Everything we need to hear today is in one line. John “went into all the region about the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3). The word we translate as repentance is really metanoia it is a transformation of heart, mind and soul. The word for forgiveness is aphesis; it means to be released from captivity or slavery. The word sin is hamartia and means to miss the mark as an archer might miss the target.

 

This whole story is about how you can be released from what constrains, dehumanizes and destroys you and how you can help others to become free too. In the Book of Exodus the Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means literally the narrow place. Do you remember this summer when the Thai youth soccer team spent weeks trapped in a cave that was filling up with water? You can imagine how terrifying it would be to come to a narrow place and not know if you can make it through.

That is mitzrayim. For us the narrow place might be despair at our politics, fear of deportation, racism, homophobia, mental illness, addiction, job and housing insecurity or family conflict. Whatever might be holding you back right now, Jesus brings us the New Exodus, the real freedom to flourish in the way that God created us to.

  1. Wholeheartedness. My last point is that seeing the world in terms of sin and repentance is a kind of technique for breaking the forces that hold us captive. Brené Brown is an Episcopalian and a university professor in Texas. She began her career by studying how people derive meaning from their relationships. The more she talked to people about connection and love the more she heard about alienation and heartbreak. This led to a huge breakthrough.[5]

Brown defines shame as the fear of being disconnected from others. Every person experiences this. It is the voice inside us that says, “if they knew what I have done, they would never speak to me again,” or, “I don’t deserve to be loved,” “they prefer her to me.” The more we deny our shame or ignore it, the more powerful its hold on us. It leads us to view vulnerability as weakness and to hide who we really are.

When we hate our self it is hard not to constantly despise others. Shame isolates and brings out the worst in us. Just think of the most upsetting things you have seen on Twitter. This week in our discussion of the book White Fragility we talked about how white shame makes it difficult to have racial reconciliation in our country.[6]

Brown contrasts shame and guilt. Shame is a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that says, “I am bad.” Guilt on the other hand means doing something bad. It leads us to say, “I made a mistake.” These are really two different ways of being. On the one hand there is blame, defensiveness and denial. On the other hand there is what Brown calls wholeheartedness. Although most people associate vulnerability with weakness, vulnerability is key to this way of living. It is how we love with our whole heart.

Fear of being ridiculed, dismissed or ignored does not stop wholehearted people like this from seeking connection to others. They take risks. They are not afraid to say, “I love you,” or, “I’m sorry,” or, “forgive me.” Wholehearted people embrace the idea that what makes them vulnerable or imperfect is also what makes them beautiful.

The language of Jesus enables us to live in this better, more silent place. Sin as missing the mark, repentance as the constant process of changing our hearts, and, forgiveness as release from captivity – these basic ideas help us to see ourselves as children of God. They give us the confidence of someone who believes that nothing can irrevocably alienate us from God.

This week at George H.W. Bush’s funeral Alan Simpson talked about his friend’s wholeheartedness. He said, “George… never hated anyone…. Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”[7] This week for homework I invite you to drain your container of hatred. Try forgiving someone – it could be someone in public life like the president, or the person who lives next door to you.

In the presence of everything, discover the Holy Spirit that penetrates the static. Let repentance be your path out of shame. Enter into a wholehearted life in Christ. Come close to God so that you will know what is most important, so that you will know what to do. Let this Advent be for listening. Let silence find you.

[1] Gordon Hempton with John Grossmann, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Silence in a Noisy World (NY: Free Press, 2009) 2

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Melia taught the Godly Play lesson on the prophets for 1 Advent last week.

[4] This paragraph and next from: Matt and Liz Boulton, “Peace & Freedom: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two,” SALT, 5 December 2018.

[5] 3 Epiphany (1-26-14) A. See “The Courage to Be Vulnerable,” On Being, 21 November 2012. Also her TED talks:

Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability TEDxHouston,” December 2010,

Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/4932

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html

[6] Robin DiAngelo  White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

[7] Alan Simpson, “Eulogy for George H.W. Bush,” National Cathedral, Wednesday 5 December 2018. https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a25412509/alan-simpson-george-hw-bush-funeral-eulogy-transcript/

Sunday, December 2
The Curse and Blessing of Our Expectations
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3).
Read sermon

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3).

 

The thirty-nine year old man at the L’Enfant Metro subway station in Washington D.C. wore a Nationals baseball hat, a long-sleeved t-shirt and blue jeans.[1] He set up his violin, threw a few dollars into the case as seed money and at 7:51 a.m. on a cold winter day he began to play six pieces of classical music. Two things were remarkable about the next forty-three minutes.

First, was his seemingly perfect invisibility to nearly everyone. The musician remarked, “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all… Because you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!” Of the 1,097 people who passed only seven stopped for more than a minute. Twenty-seven gave a total of $32.17. He was universally ignored by every demographic category, by men and women, workers and retired people, rich and poor, Asian, white and African-American – with the one exception of children. They tried to stop and listen but their parents always hurried them on.

People lined up at a nearby lottery machine and didn’t even turn around. A deafening silence followed the end of each piece. Only once was there more than one person listening. Of the 1,097 people only one person recognized who he was and only one other person really stopped to listen.

Yes the second remarkable fact was that this was Joshua Bell who later that year won the Avery Fisher Prize as the best classical musician in America. He was playing some of the most powerful and difficult music ever written, on a Stradivarius violin built in 1713 which last sold for $3.5 million. The night before he had filled Symphony Hall in Boston with people paying about $100 per ticket.

The woman who recognized him said, “people were not stopping, and not even looking… I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”

Why were so few people able to receive this gift? Quite simply it was because they were not expecting it. To use Jesus’ words, “their hearts were weighed down with… the worries of life” so that this moment of grace caught them “unexpectedly” (Lk. 21). Expectations matter. They constantly give form to the reality that we experience.

Have any of you ever watched the sardines that circle around the entryway to the Outer Bay exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium? All these shining fish go clockwise around the light blue top of the circular room together as a school. But one sardine swims above all the others and goes the opposite way. Being a Christian in Advent is a little like this. The Christian in December is the same kind of creature, doing the same kind of thing in the same kind of environment but differently.

Welcome to the season of Advent, a time of expectations, the church’s new year observance when the world around us seems both strangely near to and oddly distant from our hopes. It is a time of imperfect harmony. The world waits for Christmas and expects to experience a little more generosity and kindness than we see at other times of the year. We as Christians participate in this too. We might even recognize some of our hymns played in shopping malls, but we also have much higher expectations. We expect the coming of the Holy One. We await the advent of the Christ. We hope that Jesus will be born in our hearts.

For every human being what we hope will happen is a vital part of our experience of what already is and who we are. Today I am wondering about the difference between expectations that deceive and damage us, and expectations that save us and show us the way into new life?

A few years ago I went to a dinner banquet for alumni from Bowles Hall, the last all male residence in the University of California system. Some men there had distinguished careers and one of us even has an airport named after him. But the group who had been in college with me seemed weighed down with the heaviness of failure. One friend had lost a fortune in the last year and was working at a job that he considered below his capabilities. Another just never felt like he lived up to his potential. I had known these gray-haired men when they were goofy freshmen and the sadness of these unfulfilled expectations moves me.

We talked about the 2008 movie The Wrestler as a kind of symbol for our experience. The wrestler played by Mickey Rourke is about a man in his forties who had been a celebrity professional wrestler back in the 1980’s. Despite his now painfully ruined body he tries to make a comeback until a heart attack forces him to reevaluate his life. He reaches out to his estranged daughter, becomes close to a stripper with whom he has fallen in love. But he cannot change. He cannot free himself from the expectations that have motivated his life for twenty-five years. He seems bent on his own destruction. His dreams are literally killing him.

Tragedy could be defined as suffering for who we are. The pain is magnified by the feeling that we cannot in any meaningful way change. But all of us can change our expectations, not only of our circumstances, but of other people and even of ourselves.

The nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was famous for his pessimism. He believed in a fatalism that makes us victims of a malicious universe which controls our happiness through our circumstances in life. He wrote that, “Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.”[2] What I mean by our expectations is not merely fantasizing that good things will happen to us. I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking.

I’m just saying that our well-being includes a subjective element. How we respond to what happens to us is a more important determinant of our happiness than our situation. When we regard ourselves as mere responders, when we think that quality of our life comes from our health, wealth, position, power, experience or good fortune, we tend to ignore the good things we already have. Expectations that lead us to disapprove of or condemn others diminish us right now. This way of experiencing other people will keep us from growing into our fullness as children of God.

You may be surprised to hear it, but despite his reputation John Calvin (1509-1564) has done more than almost any other person to influence my faith. He points out that one of the most deeply rooted human beliefs is our expectation that God will not take care of us. Most of our behavior having to do with the future rests on this assumption. Because of this, for Calvin faith is not merely believing that God exists, but believing that God loves and cares for us.[3]

We see this in Jesus’ sacrifice for us. We understand its implications through the inspiration of the spirit. Becoming a Christian means beginning to live as people who know that they depend on God.

In so many ways people sit in judgment of God.[4] They have their own idea of justice which is biased deeply in their own favor. They think that they could run the universe better than God does. They easily become angry with God about what happened to us in the past.

What is it that sets Christians apart – I believe it is the expectation that God will be good to us in the future. My college friends have a faith that rests in their individual accomplishments, in the respect that other people have for them and in the wealth that they believe will protect them. Everything in their life depends on what happens to be given to them on the outside.

But we are like that sardine swimming above it all. The world is baffled by Christian faith because it comes from the inside. This trust in God’s goodness leads to a new experience of reality based on gratitude and love.

It is the expectation that the most powerful change we witness in our life will be the change in our own hearts as we turn our life to God.[5] The experience of being God’s children makes us more accepting of other people’s faults. It changes our expectations of what God should be doing for us, so that we can receive the gifts that God is actually giving us.

One of my favorite lines in scripture comes from Paul’s letter to his friends in distant Thessalonica. Scholars believe that these are the oldest words in the New Testament. He writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3:9). Paul loved those imperfect people in the way that we love each other here at Grace Cathedral. This attitude of joy and gratitude arises naturally out of our faithful expectations.

Literally one person in a thousand recognized Joshua Bell as he played the violin in the subway station. Only one other person really heard him, John Picarello, a short man with a baldish head who works as a supervisor for the postal service. He told a reporter what he heard. “It was a treat, just brilliant, an incredible way to start the day.”

In this winter time when the hills surrounding us become green with new life, we too can choose to be like children and receive God’s gift. How will you change your expectations this Advent? How will you let God change you?

[1] My summary cannot come close to doing justice to my excellent source. See Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can One of the Nations Great Musicians Cut Through the Fog of a D.C. Rush Hour? Let’s Find Out,” The Washington Post, 8 April 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721_pf.html

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Tr. R.J. Hollingdale (NY: Penguin, 1970), 168.

[3] Faith is knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the promise in Christ revealed by the Holy Spirit (Inst. 1:551).

[4] One of the most vivid scenes in William Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack happens when the main character, a man named Mack, encounters the spirit of God’s wisdom in a cave. In the center of the room stands the judgment seat. Mack worries that he will not be able to stand this scrutiny over his sins. He is then surprised to learn that instead this is the place where he sits to judge God. Sophia points out that judging requires us to believe that we are superior over the one being judged. William P. Young, The Shack,(Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007) 159.

[5] Calvin writes that the heart is more difficult to convert than the mind.

Sunday, November 25
Christ the King? Choosing Love over Fear
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, November 18
Getting Disillusioned
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Beware that no one leads you astray” (Mk. 13).

 

It hurts. It hurts so much that for two years I just tried not to think or talk about it. All my life I have cherished places of beauty, faith, tradition, and learning – places like the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My grandfather who, was an Episcopal priest, studied at that seminary in the 1930’s. He married my grandmother in St. John’s Chapel on campus. Then in retirement they lived around the corner from its grassy lawns and stone buildings. As a child I used to ride the bus to visit them and they often took me there.

The location in Harvard Square with all the resources of the university was perfect for world-class scholarship. As a young man I took classes at EDS. I even asked Heidi to marry me in that same chapel. I associate that beautiful place with clergy and teachers who had the deepest influence on my thought and faith.

Then in midsummer of 2016 the trustees voted to close the school, sell the campus and transfer the endowment to Union Seminary in New York City. The library, chapel, the teachers and that precious green space at the heart of the city will be gone and no one will ever be able to have it back again. No stone will be left standing on stone.

There was no other place like this in my life. Mark evokes this same feeling of loss and disillusionment in today’s gospel when he talks about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

We chose our Cathedral’s theme of truth, knowing that we would be reading through Mark this year. Of all the gospels this is the most direct, undistracted and paired down. Mark uses the simplest vocabulary and sentence structure. He desperately longs for us to see past our illusions and to know the truth.

The liturgical year started with the second half of this reading and finishes today with the first half. In Chapter 13 Mark employs an ancient literary form called apocalypse. It means to uncover or reveal, to literally pull back the veil so that we can see reality. Other examples of this genre appear in the Books of Daniel and Revelation.

Apocalyptic often employs vivid, poetic, even cryptic language to describe the current political situation and what will happen when God comes in glory. It describes a future when the stars fall to the “earth as the fig tree drops its fruit when shaken by a gale,” It tells of the day when everything will be finished and God will roll up the sky like a parchment (Rev. 6:13-14).

One hundred years ago W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) captured this spirit in his World War I poem “The Second Coming.” “Turning and turning in widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”[1]

Ultimately Apocalyptic as a genre is entirely about the hope that God will set things right. No matter how off kilter the world becomes God will repair all that is broken.

Some people dismiss the disciple’s amazement at the size of the Temple as the naiveté of country people who find themselves in the big city. For me what they are really saying is, “Really Jesus? This is what we are taking on?” The temple is not just about piety. It is about power.[2] For faithful people it was the sacred heart of the entire world.

Herod the Great began building this, the third temple, in 20 BC. It took 80 years to be completed. That was in the year 63, only seven years before its destruction by the Romans. The stones were 35 feet long, 18 feet wide and 12 feet high. It seemed like they would be there forever. Jesus warns that it will all be completely swept away.

Scholars believe that Mark wrote his Gospel in the immediate aftermath of the Temple’s destruction. The Roman troops had killed thousands, refugees flooded into other lands, the temple lay desecrated and in ruins. These are the ones Mark addresses.

He speaks to people in chaos and catastrophe. He stands beside the soldier damaged from the wars, the refugee with only two shirts in a smoky Wal-Mart parking lot or the one walking in an interminable caravan toward a closed distant border. He stands with the pregnant teenager, the addict, the hurt, the despairing, the ignored and left out.[3] He stands with you and me.

He gives very simple advice, “Beware that no one leads you astray” (Mk. 13). He also shares with his friends the gift of disillusionment.No one enjoys being disillusioned. We do not wake up and think, “I really hope to be disillusioned today.” We do not want to give up our false images of God, of who we are and what we deserve. We like being the center of our world. We fight against a fresh picture that reminds us just how much we depend on God.[4]

Of course the problem with fighting against our own disillusionment is that we never change. We remain stuck, remote from the truth, from the reality we crave. God disillusions us so that we might reconfigure our life, so that we might serve God in a way we had never imagined before.

We live in the time of disillusionment. This week the New York Times ran articles about Facebook’s strategy to delay, deny and deflect. These actions amounted to a refusal to take responsibility or change even as it was being manipulated by foreign spies to disrupt American life.[5]

Another three part series described the vast extent of Russian disinformation campaigns such as the false story that the American government made the AIDS virus and the one about Hilary Clinton that we call Pizzagate. The authors point out that all of us should be actively disillusioning ourselves. At every level of society we need to constantly be alert for false stories and stamp them out in the way that Eastern European countries have learned to do.[6]

Marion Nestle our Forum guest today makes a well-argued case that what we think of as healthy food has been utterly distorted by corporate interests who dominate nutrition science.[7] Over the last two years we have been taking an unasked for crash course in disillusionment. We see how much more deeply racism, sexism and homophobia infect us.

For our Advent book group we are reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. She points out that white people have a huge tendency to ignore race altogether. Then when the subject is brought up we white people become so upset that we are distracted from ever really doing something to correct this vast problem.

I pray that these last ten days of unbreathable air, the destruction of a whole town, California environmental refugees, and a still rising death toll will be enough to wake us up. We have to stop believing the illusion that the natural world is unaffected by human activity. We urgently need to do something about climate change.

It hurts doesn’t it? It hurts to become disillusioned. But that is the story of our time. Perhaps we have to become disillusioned about church too. I began by telling you how much pain I feel about the closing of Episcopal Divinity School. I wasn’t as forthcoming about another strong emotion that I associate with this – my sense of regret. Every time the matter comes up I think of the ways that I could have helped and didn’t.

These days I often remember the times when I didn’t respond to a request for feedback on a faculty tenure decision, or when I just threw the fundraising appeal away. I could have tried harder to participate in the governance of the school. In short I didn’t always act with the energy of someone who intensely cared about the school’s mission.

When our society had more people who participated in religious life, it more easily supported a larger number and variety of religious institutions. Fewer people today identify themselves as religious and frankly this means we have to change.

On Wednesday our Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed a new mission statement for Grace Cathedral. It is “Reimagining church with courage, joy and wonder.” As society changes radically, we cannot simply be satisfied to do exactly the same things in the same way. We need to see ourselves in God’s hands, changing what we do in response to the Holy Spirit.

Today on Stewardship Sunday you have the opportunity to participate in the life of the church, to be part of this reimagining. Beware that no one leads you astray. If you love what Grace Cathedral stands for, now is the moment to step up and help.

Jesus gives the gift of disillusionment. Sometimes that hurts. But he also offers hope in the middle of disaster. He gives us the chance to change our life, to serve in ways we never imagined.

In Romans the Apostle Paul writes that, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Jesus says that, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away” (Mk. 13:31). Elsewhere he says, “my peace I give to you” (Jn. 14:27). In the good times and the bad times, in catastrophe and ruin, God’s grace will always be with us. Christ perpetually present moves us faithfully nearer to the God who calls us each by name.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(poem)

[2] D. Mark Davis, “Things that Are Pangs in the Birth,” Left Behind and Loving It, 11 November 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com

[3] Matt and Liz Boulton, “Birthpangs,” SALT 14 November 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-twenty-sixth-week-after-pentecost

[4] Brad Roth, “Living By the Word: November 18, Ordinary 33B,” The Christian Century, 16 October 2018.

[5] Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg and Jack Nicas, “Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis,” The New York Times, 14 November 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/technology/facebook-data-russia-election-racism.html

[6] Adam B. Ellick, Adam Westbrook and Jonah M. Kessel, “Operation InfeKtion: The Worldwide War on Truth,” The New York Times, 13 November 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000006188105/countering-disinformation-active-measures.html?auth=login-email

[7] Marion Nestle, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat (NY: Basic Books, 2018).

Sunday, November 11
We are not made for war
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from The Service of Remembrance
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Remembrance Day Service

I never knew one of my uncles. Bernard was my mother’s favourite brother, just a few years older than her. He died when he was a teenager, old enough to vote – just – but not yet old enough to drink. His plane was shot down over the English Channel in the second world war. Three of the crew survived, including Bernard. They had two life rafts, which could take 2 men each. One was fully functional, the other was damaged. Bernard volunteered to go in the damaged one. The other two crew members were rescued. Bernard was never seen again.

There’s a line from a Siegfried Sassoon poem that has been on my mind as we prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice, the end of World War 1. He was a poet and a soldier who lived through the hell of the trenches and saw the peace that followed. He writes words about his generation’s attitude to soldiers and veterans that challenge us still: “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave… You believe That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”[i]

‘You believe that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.’ I do believe in chivalry – in the virtue of courage offered in defense of other people and of values that matter to us. I am deeply proud of my unknown uncle for putting other lives ahead of his own. I greatly respect all those who fought against Nazism – the allies from the United States, from Great Britain and the commonwealth, from Scandinavia and Europe – including Germans who tried to bring down Hitler from within. This was an evil that had to be opposed – just as we must oppose the antisemitism and racism we see today.

But I also believe in the second part of Sassoon’s line – that war is a disgrace. That there is nothing glorious about human beings settling their disputes by killing one another. That there is nothing heroic in nation states unable to build peace with justice except through sending their young men – and now young women also – to die at one anothers’ hands. I’m with that other great poet of the first world war, Wilfred Owen, when he says we should ‘not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’[ii] It may sometimes be necessary but it is always tragic never sweet and fitting.

This beautiful cathedral in which we meet today is here for a very simple reason. It is to help us try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. The one who taught us to love our enemies. The one who revealed a God who calls us to turn weapons into farm implements and promises a time when no-one shall make us afraid. And so all worship which happens within these walls is to a God who chooses peace over war, who chooses forgiveness over revenge, who chooses love over hatred. And who calls us to make these very same choices in our own lives.

God’s vision for us and for our world is one in which we no longer have to fight against injustice or for the rights of the oppressed because all people will be loved, respected and able to flourish. God’s vision is of a world where divine love is fully known and every child of every race and nation is safe and fed. Where no-one shoots Jewish seniors as they worship together or college students as they relax together. Where no leaders threaten each other’s people with mass destruction and put the profits of conglomerates over the future of the planet. Where we no longer fear those who are different from ourselves but love to learn from them and to share our own truths with them.

But we know we have not yet achieved that vision. Not even our own country, let alone our world, embodies peace and justice for all. And some of those who have paid the dearest price for this are our veterans. Remember that line from Sassoon began ‘you love us when we’re heroes home on leave’. We are not actually very good at loving our veterans. Honouring them, maybe, on days like this. But not offering them the practical love that would make dealing with the stress of moving back into civilian life, let alone the torment of PTSD, easier to bear. Our veterans and their families carry the wounds of humanity’s aggression and imperfection and deserve the care and support of us all.

Let me tell you another family war story. My dad was in Germany in the last weeks of the second world war. At one point he stepped into an opening in the woods at the same moment as a German soldier. They looked at one another across the clearing and then each turned their back and walked away. We are not made for war. We are not made to kill. We are made for peace. We are made for mutuality and shared delight. It is up to us in our generation to do all we can to build peace in our homes, our cities, our country and our world.

There are moments when God’s vision of peace for the world feels a little closer to us. One of those moments was the one that we commemorate today – armistice, the end of the years of brutal death that made up the first world war. And I want to finish with another poem of Siegfried Sassoon. One that speaks to the hope for peace and the joyful fulfilment of God’s love made real on earth. It’s called ‘Everyone Sang’

 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

 

[i] From the poem ‘Glory of Women’ in Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918).

[ii] From the poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ in Poems (Viking Press, 1921).

Sunday, November 11
Becoming Visible
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (Wisdom 3:1).

 

Being human involves constantly passing in and out of visibility. Most of us, most of the time, are invisible – simply a means to someone else’s end. We’re the car that stands between the person behind us and catching the next green light. People regard us as the way some kind of work gets done or even as an inconvenience to be overcome.[1]

Children can become invisible to their parents. They can be merely a source of pride or embarrassment. Parents can treat their child as a task, as something to be perfected rather than a person to be loved. Even our friends can treat us primarily as a way of fulfilling some purpose in their life that has little to do with who we really are.

We experience this invisibility from strangers and even people who are supposed to love us. But at the same time we long to be noticed, to be seen as we really are. One of the greatest joys in life happens when someone really recognizes us or when we experience the humanity of another person.

On a hot midsummer day I experienced this in a very strange way. I did the early stages of my dissertation research in the Harvard Law School Library. I remember taking a quick break from my work and discovering a special archive exhibit on Ruhleben.

Walking around the room I gradually learned more about this German concentration camp. The inmates were British men unlucky enough to find themselves in the German Empire at the outset of World War One. I saw the map of this former horse racing track in the Berlin suburb of Spandau and read how prisoners slept on the hard floors of un-insulated horse stalls during the freezing winter.

Two layers of security kept the prisoners behind wooden and wire fences. The rules printed in German and English effectively showed that every aspect of life was absolutely regulated by the clock. Prisoners only received one meal of vegetable soup and bread each day with an ounce of meat on Sundays.[2]

The exhibit had photos of black sailors who had been working on British merchant ships when they were captured, and of other prisoners standing in endless lines out in the snow. I saw chits from the laundry service and the barber. There was a model of the living quarters, playbills from prisoner theater performances, pictures of incarcerated musicians, examples from art exhibits and everyday objects like cups and uniforms.

Other than their identity as Englishmen, these prisoners had became invisible to the Germans. But through the objects in the glass display cases they were becoming more real to me. I wondered what visits were like with their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. What did it feel like to be caught in a struggle between empires and confined in this cold place.

It was a remarkable coincidence really. It even took me a while to understand. My great-grandfather was one of those prisoners. I looked for his name in the registers. I tried to spot his face in the crowd photos, but there is no one alive to tell me what happened. Looking back at my family’s history, I know that he bore the marks of that invisibility for the rest of his life. The inherited trauma still affects my family.

Today we remember, we strain to see again in our imagination, all the ones whom we have lost. We also recall that on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 an Armistice was signed ending World War I. The word Armistice comes from the Latin words arma (or “arms”) and sistere (“to stand still”). You can imagine the stillness and quiet when both sides in that conflict laid down their arms, emerged from the trenches and began to really see each other for the first time and when the gates of Ruheleben were opened.

The historian Barbara Tuchman opens her book The Guns of August with nine kings riding in the funeral procession for King Edward the VII of England in 1910. They are followed by a list of the princes and emperors who were present. These included, “five heirs apparent, forty imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens” and more. “Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place.” [3]

Despite the fact that the sovereigns of Europe were siblings and cousins they still managed to plunge the entire world into a war of poison gas, aerial bombing and trench warfare that killed nine million combatants and seven million civilians.[4] It is important to remember that the war arose out of a complex system of alliances and a kind of paranoia about being invaded.

It was also the culmination of an arm’s race, that with the new pervasiveness of mass shootings, should remind us that having weapons makes us more likely to use them.[5]

The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were swept away. The punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles led directly into the fascism that only twenty years later resulted in World War II. While the “war to end all wars” erased the lives of millions it also led us to new ways of seeing each other.

At the end of hostilities the scholar W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) pointed out the sacrifices made by African American soldiers who still were not free in their own land. He writes, “This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land. It lynches.”[6]

In the United Kingdom “the slaughter-bench that birthed the 20th century,” also led to the legalization of voting for women who were over thirty and qualified as householders (or were married to a householder).[7] Accompanying the horrors of this last century were global movements toward liberation and the recognition of every person’s dignity. In our own day we continue this work.

At school chapel on Friday Kevin Fox spoke about the Fauré Requiem that we are hearing today. He said that in contrast to the drama of other requiems Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) hoped to compose something peaceful, consoling and quiet. He wanted to evoke the comfort of resting fully in God.

 

I believe we need this kind of peace and sanctuaries like this cathedral to experience others and ourselves as we really are. For me Jesus is the ultimate example of someone who really sees every person he encounters. He constantly reminds us that no one is ever invisible to God and that, “there is no situation in which God’s presence  doesn’t make a difference.”[8]

Being human involves constantly passing in and out of visibility. Today in this place of stillness and quiet let us remember the joy of laying down our arms. Let us accept the challenge of seeing the people who are invisible to the world. May those who sacrificed and our beloved dead be seen again as we become visible to each other through God’s grace.

[1] For other people we are the subject of entertaining gossip. At some point we also have been used to make someone else feel superior.

[2] “Tells of Suffering as German Prisoner: No Medical Attention for the Sick and Impossible Food – An Ounce of Meat a Week” New York Times, 28 June 1918.

[3] Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (NY: Random House, 1962) 1.

[4] The “World War I” Wikipedia article notes that between 50-100 million lives were lost as a result of the war if you include genocides and the Spanish Influenza epidemic.

[5] Between 1870 and 1914 military spending in Germany increased by 73% and in Russia by 39%. Wikipedia article “World War I” accessed 10 November 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I

[6] W.E.B. DuBois, “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), p. 13.

[7] Susan Pedersen, “A Knife to the Heart,” London Review of Books 30 August 2018.

[8] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 156.

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