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Sunday, July 23
Help in Weakness
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Malcolm Clemens Young                                                                           Isaiah 44:6-8

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA X24                                                 Psalm 86:11-17

7a Pentecost (Proper 11A) 8:30, 11:00 a.m. Eucharist                             Romans 8:12-25

Sunday 23 July 2017                                                                                     Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43

 

Help in Weakness

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8).

 

“It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”[1] Martin Luther writes this about Jesus. He quotes the last line from The Gospel of Matthew. “And remember, I am with you even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28). This has become a kind of motto for me. These words make Jesus feel so near. Perhaps this could be true for you too.

The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) recognizes that philosophies and scientific pictures of the universe are constantly evolving. For this reason, and because what we assume at the beginning in large part determines our conclusions, Barth starts not with a theory of the human condition but with what he calls the Word of God. He begins with the living God of the Bible and the way that the Holy Spirit inspires us as we read it carefully. Barth points out a human tendency that you might recognize. Let me explain with an example.[2]

In 1820 Thomas Jefferson completed a project that he had worked on for decades. He went through the New Testament with a razor, cut out the parts he disagreed with and then pasted together what was leftover, that is, what he actually believed. Not to spoil the surprise, but Jefferson’s book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth took out what he considered to be any reference to miracles and the resurrection.[3]

In many ways we do the same kind of thing. Most people in our society, spend more time sitting in judgment of God than they do in trying to obey God. We are part of this. We almost cannot help ourselves. Barth challenges us to do something different. He writes, “Our supposed listening is in fact a strange mixture of hearing and our own speaking… [typically] it is most likely that our own speaking will be the really decisive event. We have to know the mystery… if we are really to meet it, if we are really to be open and ready, really to give ourselves to it…”[4]

For Barth, “Scripture is always autonomous and independent.”[5] It finds the people intended for it. He writes that the miracle is that, “fallible [people] speak the Word of God in fallible human words” “awakening and strengthening… our faith.”[6] To summarize, although we hear the Bible with our constantly running inner monologue, the miracle is that sometimes God gets through to us. Barth writes, “In Jesus Christ, I am revealed to myself as he who in the totality of his existence is received and accepted by Him.”[7]

I talked to a few of you about today’s reading. We had some hard conversations. Several of you did not like this picture of a final judgment, “the furnace of fire,” “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13).

Crowds have gathered to hear Jesus talk about the kingdom of heaven. He describes it as a pearl of great price or a field with treasure in it, as worth trading everything we have in order to possess. It is a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great plant and dominates the landscape. It is like yeast or a net cast into the sea. It is right before us but hidden, perhaps because we have difficulty listening.

Jesus compares the kingdom to someone who sows good seed in the fields but whose enemy comes in the night and plants what our translation calls weeds. The Greek word is zizania and means darnel (or Eurasian Ryegrass sometimes called “false wheat) a particular kind of plant easily confused for wheat. You might even imagine the very roots of the two grasses interwoven in the soil.

As the first shoots come up the workers ask where the zizania come from and if they should remove pull it out. The householder says an enemy has done this but that uprooting the weeds will unintentionally involve pulling up wheat too. He tells them to wait for the harvest when the reapers will burn the weeds and gather the wheat into the barn.

Jesus offers an explanation in only two of Matthew’s forty parables. This is one of them. Privately he tells his friends that the enemy is the devil, the one who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the reapers are the angels and “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen” (Mt. 13)!

Let’s return to Barth’s original challenge. Instead of standing in judgment of Jesus’ words, how do we become obedient to them? We should begin with the question that Jesus’ parable answers. You too might hear this complaint about God more than any other these days. If God is good and powerful why is there so much evil in the world?

The point of the parable is not to scare you into being a better person. The weeds are not trying to become wheat, the wheat cannot become a weed. The fifteenth century theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) believed that we are simply what God made us to be. He thought that if you are concerned about being God’s child that is a pretty good sign that you already are.[8]

The point is that as we survey our lives, we are not even qualified to distinguish the wheat from the weeds. We cannot even recognize the good and evil events or even the people for what and who they are. We have to suspend our judgment and let God be God.

Do any of you remember Eddie Haskell the teenaged character from the television show Leave It to Beaver? He was a terrible and cruel bully to the kids but seemed to have all the adults completely fooled by the polite way he spoke to them. We are all subject to the Eddie Haskell effect.[9] We simply cannot tell who is genuinely close to God, whose heart is full of love.[10] We do not always have to have an opinion about everyone. For homework lets try turning off the judgment switch at least three times this week.

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that this is tremendously difficult for us. He writes that, “We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm these initial judgments.” He compares the vast sea of subliminal moral perceptions, urges and desires to a kind of elephant who cannot be controlled by the rider which is our sense of rationality. For him the elephant is in charge of the rider, “reason is the servant of the intuitions.” Our rationality is a kind of fulltime public relations firm” offering, “post hoc explanations for what the elephant has just done.”[11]

I worry a little about this whole conversation on being obedient to scripture and Jesus’ teaching that we should set aside our innate tendency and leave judgment to God. Talking in this way may feel abstract or distant from our lives. I worry even more about what I am about to tell you, that you will think less of me. But we need a reminder of what it really feels like when things go wrong.

This week my son Micah asked, “Dad after the 2008 financial crisis did you lose weight or gain it?” Everyone in our family remembers that winter. It was when our church suffered a colossal failure of communication and trust. On a January day I walked into the office and a colleague told me that angry parishioners were holding a secret meeting, establishing a parallel leadership structure apart from the elected board of the church. They worried about a new school we were starting, the budget, divisions between young and old, but mostly it was about me.[12]

I lost twelve pounds in two weeks. I couldn’t sleep. My eye started twitching. When I went running I would try to visualize setting down a model of the church beside the path and going on. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it even for ten minutes. This beautiful community, this gift from God, was shaken by misunderstanding and enmity, by an entirely unnecessary and senseless bitterness.

In the end, there was more than enough forgiveness and reconciliation to go around. But it was very painful before that.

Maybe you have felt helpless or radical self-doubt in a tragedy, as if the enemy was succeeding at turning good people against each other, or bringing out the worst possible events. Perhaps that is how you feel today. At moments like this no one can tell us that this terrible suffering might lead to something really great. Only someone with the power of Jesus can help us to recognize that ultimately we cannot distinguish the wheat from the weeds.

The Apostle Paul writes about a lot of moments like this. He writes from prison, after being betrayed by friends or beaten and humiliated by the authorities. And he points out what I find true in my own life, that God does not abandon us in times like this. He says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8).[13]

Karl Barth believes that all of scripture culminates with you, right now as part of the process by which God’s Word unfolds. Your story is how Christ’s story makes contact with the world. Barth writes, “We ourselves in our humanity stand at the preliminary end and goal of this process, not left outside, but drawn into its orbit, not as strangers but as children of the household, not as onlookers but as those who cooperate in responsibility, not in ignorance, but as participants in the divine knowledge…”[14]

And so I now leave us to return to our own inner monologues with the prayer that God’s Word can make it through to us. When you rage against the weeds in your life I pray for the miraculous power to suspend judgment and let God be God. When you feel hurt, when the rash elephant of your instantaneous moral judgments runs wild, I pray that the Spirit will intercede with “sighs too deep for words.”

“It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

[1] Martin Luther W.A. 54, 470, 474f cited in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) xi.

[2] In the last few months I have read about 1400 pages of the Karl Barth’s never-completed 9000 page work Church Dogmatics.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. A recent New York Times article on this topic: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/opinion/thomas-jeffersons-bible-teaching.html?smid=pl-share&_r=0

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 470.

[5] Ibid., 583.

[6] “… every time we turn the Word of God into an infallible biblical word of man or the biblical word of man into an infallible Word of God we resist that which we ought never to resist, i.e., the truth of the miracle that here fallible men speak the Word of God in fallible human words – and we therefore resist the sovereignty of grace, in which God Himself became man in Christ, to glorify Himself in his humanity“ (529). We believe that the Bible is the Word of God… Of course, the whole mystery of this statement rests on the fact that faith is not for everybody, and that even if we have it, it is a small and weak and inadequate because not a true faith. Therefore the miracle which has to take place if the Bible is to rise up and speak to us as the Word of God has always to consist in an awakening and strengthening of our faith.” (512), Ibid., 529, 512.

[7] Ibid., 706.

[8] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).

[9] Sometimes I ask my teenagers about other kids because I know that I only experience young people in the moments when adults are around.

[10] Edward F. Markquart, “Weeds and Wheat,” Series A Sermons, http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_a_weeds_and_wheat.htm

[11] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon Books, 2012) 46-7.

[12] There were two secret meetings. They gave a powerpoint presentation to the vestry that fell two days after the funeral for a nineteen year old former youth group member who I loved.

[13] At my funeral one day they will read his final conclusion, that “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8).

[14] “… yet we cannot fail to reckon with the fact that it does actually happen that in our humanity we ourselves are now drawn into the process in which the Word of God exercises its freedom and as the word of prophets and apostles takes its course through the world. That we are believers and witnesses will always be a matter of doubt, and humanly speaking even for despair. We have to remember that this is a reality for which we can never do more than give thanks and pray. But we deny this reality, and therefore the whole process of events in which God’s Word comes to man as a human word, and therefore the work of the Son and even God Himself, if we try to escape the fact that we ourselves in our humanity stand at the preliminary end and goal of this process not left outside, but drawn into its orbit, not as strangers but as children of the household, not as onlookers but as those who cooperate in responsibility, not in ignorance, but as participants in the divine knowledge, conscientes

[14]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 701.

Sunday, July 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Mary Carter Greene
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rev. Mary Carter Greene’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

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

Sunday, January 22
Listing Dangerously
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt. 4).

You are in grave danger. That’s what everybody has been saying. But what is the witness of Jesus?

Friday night at dusk I ran along the cliffs above the Golden Gate. Thirty mile per hour winds drove rain and sleet nearly diagonally against my back and whipped the ocean surface into foam. Forecasters predicted forty-four foot seas that night and already steep thick waves hemmed in the entrance to the Marin side of the channel.

You could practically taste the diesel smoke as a massive container ship limped in under the bridge. I don’t know anything about packing those ships but it seemed like it was missing about a dozen containers and was listing dangerously to its starboard side. I thanked God that those sailors would soon be safe in the Port of Oakland.

That massive, perilously balanced ship totally at the mercy of even more powerful forces is America. The riskiness of the situation seems to be all that we agree on this week. The only difference among us is whether you believe the ship is returning safely home or is just heading out into even greater danger.

The via media lies at the heart of our Episcopal tradition. It is the middle way – historically it meant we walked between Roman Catholic and Protestant extremes. Today we describe it as the place between reason and mystery, feeling and knowledge, the church and the world, ritual and words, service and beauty. You might call it the peace that passes all understanding or the place where we rest utterly dependent on God.

These days challenge people who feel at home in the middle way. But brothers and sisters, what a great time to follow Jesus! I will probably offend everyone here but let me tell you what concerned me about Friday’s inauguration speech and what I appreciated about it.

I have come to better respect the effectiveness of President Donald Trump as a communicator. In the inauguration address he was very clear. The slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America First” really are two ideas, two ways of telling the same story about reality.[1]

They share a simple logic of fear and scarcity. They ignore complicated forces like technological change, globalization and environmental degradation. Instead they make everything personal. They divide the world into two groups. There are the politicians and the people, the foreigners and the Americans, the ignorers and the ignored, the victimizers and the victims.[2]

In short President Trump asks us to see ourselves as victims and to enjoy that feeling of despising the other. In his address he invoked the name of God a few times. But this theology really has nothing to do with the Bible. It is a “me first” theology. A theology of fear, resentment and blame. It is thinly disguised selfishness combined with bitter scapegoating.

And yet even by pointing this out we run the terrible risk of making the same mistake. Is there a way for us to embrace the full humanity both of Donald Trump and his detractors? Is there another way to be human than to simply retreat back into our own distrustful tribe? How do we stop ourselves from becoming merely another version of what we hate?

This morning, in what seems to be divinely-inspired timing, we have the story of Jesus’ inauguration. After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness Jesus really is in grave danger. The authorities have arrested Jesus’ predecessor John the Baptizer (the Greek word paradidomi means to be delivered over and has terribly sinister connotations throughout Matthew’s Gospel).

In this setting of real danger and justified fear Jesus begins his public life with a speech. He says, “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near” (Mt. 4). Unfortunately we have worn out the meaning of the word “repent.” I’m afraid that for many people in our society it means – you need to believe what I do so that God will save you. But this is not it. The Greek word is metanoia. It means a transformation of your very soul.

Instead of focusing our thought and energy on how someone else is failing to live like a child of God, Jesus reminds us to take responsibility for how we distort or magnify the beautiful holiness so near at hand.

But there is more to this. The English translation drops out a word that seems important to me. Our version says only, “Jesus began to proclaim.” But the passage more literally reads that Jesus began, “to preach and to speak” (Mt. 4:17). The point I believe is that the preaching is not just the words.

The preaching is also what Jesus does. The preaching is an invitation to join him. The preaching is the way that his very presence brings light to people in darkness. The preaching shows God’s great love for the world and God’s stubborn determination not to leave us to our own devices. It is the act of healing.

I know you now. I have been watching since I first arrived. And I see that you too preach with your life, with your presence, with the face you show to the world, with the love that is in your heart.

This brings me to something that I appreciated in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. He says simply, “we will be protected by God.” You may take this in another way, but I choose to receive this as a Donald Trump’s first gift to me as president. It is the challenge to enlarge our conception of the Divine.

Too often in churches like this we fall back on an impoverished picture of God. In 1953 the author J.B. Philips published a book called Your God Is Too Small. He makes the point that God is more than a judgmental old man, a CEO or a police officer. But I mean something different than this. Today we tend to think of the word God as if it is mostly an idea to inspire or comfort us. We talk about Jesus as if he died a long time ago and isn’t present here today. Somehow we have become embarrassed with the idea that God might actually do something.

But this is not the God we experience in the Bible or in our own lives. Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9). When people in darkness, people like you and me see Jesus – it changes everything. When Jesus says, “follow me” Peter and Andrew leave their boat and their nets. Imagine just walking away from your car on the side of highway 101. What we are talking about involves much more than just hearing a really great speech. It takes more than this for James and John to leave their father.

We do not have time for the details this morning but my own encounter with Jesus has changed absolutely every aspect of my life. It has been a total metanoia, a transformation that still continues to unfold every day. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John, when we meet Jesus at the deepest level of our being, we discover that we have the same power that he did. We too begin to bring light to the people in darkness. We too discover new reservoirs of energy and eloquence that flow from the most intimate connection to our mysterious creator. We too become free from the power of death.

Jesus called Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave him a new strength to turn the world on its head. Fifty-two years ago he preached from this pulpit to the largest crowd ever assembled here. It was the opposite of America First. He thanked us for marching with him in Selma. In contrast to a theology of selfishness he said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.. We are tied together in a single garment of destiny… so that I can’t be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be… This is the way God’s universe is made…”[3]

Maybe these do not feel like dangerous times to you. Perhaps you think that the container ship is really on an even keel, or too large to be upset, or that we are safely headed toward port. But you do not have too look to far to find people who are hurting right now.

This week I lingered a little in the Cathedral. As a result I met people who are seeking peace in the midst of the storm. One young tech worker named Ben talked about how desperately he would like to find a way out of the cynicism and manipulation. He wants to move beyond hating the people we fear, or those who we believe hate us. He feels like he cannot trust the media, but he is not ready to give up seeking the truth.

Every day we are surrounded by people like Ben. We need to wake up, to repent and in the light of Christ recognize their hunger for meaning and love. This is our time. The gift of this moment is the chance to rediscover the power of our creator. Remember who you are. Preach with your whole life.

As people divide into their tribes and scapegoat the others, we have Jesus’ promise that we are all brothers and sisters who are loved by God. If policies change and endanger immigrants, dissenters, the poor, people of color, women, Muslims, prisoners and nature, this is the chance to bring your light into that darkness.[4]

You do not have to be defined by hate or scarcity or blame. You can see good in every child of God because we believe in a God who is big enough for everyone. We believe in God’s Grace for all.

[1] Donald Trump, “Inauguration Speech,” 20 January 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript.html?_r=0

[2] According to the president, the politicians enrich themselves at the expense of the citizens, the educators “flush with cash” neglect their students, elites callously send jobs overseas that should go to American workers, immigrants violate the borders at the expense of deserving citizens. Washington seeks peace overseas instead of solving our problems here at home.

[3] He quoted the poet preacher John Donne who said the any man’s death diminishes everyone else. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Sermon at Grace Cathedral,” March 1965. For a similar presentation of these themes see one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last sermons “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 March 1968. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10

[4] When we hear people talking out of their fear, we have the hope of the resurrection. When selfishness seems to undermine the very possibility for democracy, we have our citizenship in God’s kingdom of love. When we watch the news and wonder what to believe, we have the everlasting truth of our savior.

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