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“I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17).
At the same time Mother’s Day raises unique spiritual challenges. In this great Cathedral some of us badly wanted to have children, or a different form of family life, but were unable to. Some are in the trenches with two year olds and may not be particularly enjoying motherhood right now. Others had adoptions fall through, miscarriages, or recently lost a child. Some of us have contentious or difficult relationships with our children or mothers. Some here are still mourning our mother’s death.
One Mother’s Day, I had a conversation with an extraordinary friend. She shared her agony over not knowing where her son was or where he would sleep that night because of his addictions.
These are the stories you may not think of or hear on Mother’s Day. I bring them up to remind us of the spiritual complexities that lie beneath the surface of every life. We will not all have the privilege and challenge of being mothers. But we do have the chance to care for, “to mother” if you will, another person. I do not know how God is calling us to do this but we might consider it as our homework.
Our gospel today comes from Jesus’ farewell address to his friends. He says goodbye as a kind of spiritual mother. He offers a word of hope, a reminder that God’s spirit protects us. But he also assigns us a responsibility for the world. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17).
Motherhood is not merely a personal matter. Mothering happens or fails to happen at a social level too. This week at a speech in Arizona, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that it is the official policy of our government to separate children from their families if they cross the border without papers. This is not the only sign of a tragic failure to care for children. On Tuesday the president’s office proposed cutting $7 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
A few years ago at Harvard Divinity School Banks gave the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality. He follows in the footsteps of the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce, the theologian Paul Tillich, the scientist Stephen Jay Gould and most recently the novelist Toni Morrison.
Banks is an atheist with a great heart for people’s suffering. For him the fundamentalist faith of his mother is merely a fantasy. The truth of the world lies in a struggle of all against all, as people who have been hurt unthinkingly lash out and harm others. He points out that at their heart all stories are about the present. Historical fiction is merely our code of values projected onto the past. Stories about the future really are about our present anxieties. For Banks death is like this too. He keeps it at arms length.
For Banks the only kind of immortality is one that we experience in the present. He opposes this to what he calls a Woody Allen kind of immortality. Woody Allen says, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”
In contrast to this, Banks refers to a thought experiment by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler. Imagine if you knew that within thirty years after your death the world and all of humanity were to be utterly destroyed. Scheffler points out that this would fundamentally change how we think and how we behave. For instance, would cancer researchers dedicate their lives to this task with the same enthusiasm? Would we have constructed the new Bay Bridge or this Cathedral? In this way Scheffler reminds us that we are working together on long term projects that we expect to bear fruit after we are gone.
For Russell Banks Scheffler’s story about the future has enormous meaning to the present. The only immortality for him is the way our genes, culture and stories live on in our children. For him children are the afterlife.
But instead of allowing children to flourish for their own purposes we persist on using children to serve our needs. Our culture depersonalizes, objectifies, and commodifies children. Comparing the ancient practice of child sacrifice to modern capitalism, Russell Banks solemnly quotes the Book of Leviticus. “You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech…” (Lev. 18:21).
Banks mentions changes in our court system that make children more likely to be treated as adults, that focus on retribution rather than rehabilitation. He also could have added the huge number of children in poverty with no access to good education.
Banks hardly mentioned the way teenagers have their childhoods snatched from them through adult expectations about college. Oddly enough learning and creativity are no longer the emphasis in our schools. Through standardized tests and curricula, relentless focus on competition, year-round sports, we communicate an unwavering message that children are made acceptable only by their accomplishments. In Palo Alto and across the country our children are dying metaphorically and literally because of the stories we are telling them, because it is not enough for them to simply be themselves.
Mostly though Banks refers to the deluge of advertising that colonizes our children’s consciousness. Banks calls the powerful force of materialism Moloch, after the idol in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In his poem “Howl” Alan Ginsberg says, “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!… Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!… Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!” Like the characters in the movie The Matrix we increasingly float through an unreal existence with our minds tethered to the machine.
At Grace Cathedral and Cathedral School we help children and their parents to resist Moloch. The openness and exploratory quality of childhood is very much alive here six days a week.
Russell Banks and I agree about the threat of Moloch to our children. But for me real life is not like one of his novels. We do not inhabit a bleak, dead world characterized chiefly by everyone exploiting everyone else. Although we fall short of our own expectations and we do not always take in its beauty, we inhabit a living universe in which all things declare the glory of God. Life is not merely a dead-end cul-de-sac in which we race toward certain destruction, but an existence in which we constantly move more deeply into the divine reality as we grow into our potential as children of God.
Russell Banks reminds me how hard it is to live without meaning. This is true not just from an individual psychological perspective. It is hard intellectually. Meaning, even a kind of hopefulness, is a gift we receive from God. For most people it does not make sense to regard ourselves merely as individuals interested only in our own survival, sensual pleasure and well-being. This is because we are fundamentally connected to all creation.
This world is our home. We are invested in it. We want it to flourish even long after we are gone. We might even imagine wanting to live forever in our own apartment. We care about species of animals that we will never see. Our minds reach into the farthest depths of the universe out of a longing that we hardly understand. Russell Banks feels disappointed because he too at some level of his being has an oddly persistent sense that the universe should be full of meaning. For me, this feeling is a kind of voice drawing us home to God.
This brings us back to Jesus’ last prayer. My friend, the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen says its purpose is to convey the “awesome intimacy” with God which Jesus gives to us. Jesus speaks in the second person singular to the creator of all things. He asks God to, “protect [us] from the evil one,” the one we know as Moloch. We are all God’s children. Jesus says we that do not “belong to the world” of exploitation and hatred. He prays that we will be sanctified in truth.
You and I face many choices about how to think and what to do. But we are not left alone or without hope. The love of Jesus brings us home to God. When we walk in Jesus’ path, we discover that the world is being healed by the creator of mothers and of all good things.
Let us pray: Gracious God, you formed us in the depths beneath our mother’s hearts. You know us from the inside out. Help us to care for the children and to fill the world with kindness and love. We ask this so that Jesus’ joy may be made complete in us. Amen.
 This morning we also have Jesus’ last words for his disciples in a prayer from the Gospel of John. The Bible actually has many farewell discourses like this from Jacob (Gen. 47:29-49:33), Joshua (Jos. 22-24), David (1 Chr. 27-29), Moses (Deut. 33), Tobit (Tob 14:3-11), and Paul (Acts 20:17-38). This biblical genre features an announcement about a person’s departure, a statement about God’s great works, a reminder of God’s commands, instructions to love each other and concludes with a prayer.
 He said, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks to the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies 2018 Spring Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, Monday, May 7, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-sessions-delivers-remarks-association- state-criminal-investigative
 Russell Banks, “Feeding Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism,” Harvard Divinity School Ingersoll Lecture, 5 November 2015. http://hds.harvard.edu/news/2014/11/05feeding-moloch-sacrifice-children-altar-capitalism
 Parenthetically he notes that there are two types of science fiction. Stories where they go here and ones where we go there. In either case these are stories about us right now. Banks seems to agree with the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) who uses the following logic to reason that death should mean nothing to us. When we are alive we cannot experience death and when we are dead we cannot experience anything.
 “A Philosopher’s Afterlife: We May Die But Others Live On,” National Public Radio, 9 October 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/10/09/230756192/a-philosophers-afterlife-we-may-die-but-others-live-on
 Any of the people… who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death…” Lev. 20:2.
 The way marketers treat children as the largest market category. Through television, Disney, Facebook, Twitter, EBay, Amazon, on cell phones and tablets the vast colossus reaches out and colonizes the consciousness of our children. Children become transformed into consumers.
 Tom Little and Katherine Ellison, Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools (NY: Norton, 2015).
 Alan Ginsberg, “Howl.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179381
 This is the impersonal force of greed that lead us to treat people as tools for our pleasure rather than as ends in themselves. We agree that this is most heartbreaking when it comes to the children of the world. Beneath Russell Banks’ words and thoughts lies a profound disappointment with the universe. His weak solution is that writers and musicians in each succeeding generation will reintroduce us to our true nature.
 Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T & T Clark, 2005) 367-77.
I have one of those unfortunate faces that lapses into a frown in repose. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy or disapproving but my mouth just naturally sits with a downward curve rather than an upward one. This meant that when I was younger I was subject more than most to shouts on the street of ‘smile, darling’ or ‘cheer up, love, it might never happen.’ I longed to have the chutzpah to come up with some wittier response than an ironic fake grin or a hard stare. But I would generally just blush and try hard to remember that ‘pleasing random men’ was not my life’s work.
These sexist, controlling and embarrassing comments were clearly inappropriate and are still a bane on many women’s life. What is more socially acceptable, but potentially no less damaging, are those modern cure-alls of ‘positive thinking’ or ‘being in the moment’. We are told that we only need the right mindset to rise above the sadness and strain of our lives. I’m not a naturally angry person, but this really angers me. No amount of positive thinking is going to lift a depressive illness or make a time of trauma bearable. No focus on being in the moment ever cured cancer or erased the pain of loss.
Which may be a strange way in to a sermon that is taking as its focus those words from the gospel ‘that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.’ But I want to make sure from the start that we find the right foundation for joy, the right focus for joy. A foundation and focus that do not rely on our own ability to think ourselves happy. A foundation and focus that pay attention both to the unhappiness in many of our lives and to the uncontrollability of many of our minds and moods.
There are few experiences lonelier than sitting in a large group of people thinking to yourself that you are the only one who is struggling. That you are the only one who lives with depression or struggles each day against anxiety or who has issues with addiction. That you are the only one who doesn’t have their life together, the only one not able to experience the joy that woman in the pulpit is going on about. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness you are very far from alone – mental illness affects 1 in 5 Americans every year, and 1 in 25 find their life severely impacted by it. I would think many more than half of us here have had our own lives or the lives of those we love touched by mental illness.
If our joy as Christians is to be real, to be more than a false smile pasted on because we think God is shouting at us ‘smile darling’, then it has to be a joy that can reach into this reality. There are a couple of theologians who have done some work that can help us here, both working in the field of trauma and faith – Serene Jones and Shelly Rambo. They have attended to the experience of those who have gone through great hardship – sexual abuse, the traumatic stress of warfare – and who have to live with the continuing ripples of this reality.
The reality they deal with is hard. It is the opposite of an easy, happy-clappy triumphalist Christianity. Rambo says: “Life, for many, does not triumph over death. Instead life persists in the midst of death, and death in the midst of life.”[i] Traumatic events do not find closure, they do not get left behind, they shadow us even as we move into a continuation of life. Yet also traumatic events are survivable – they do not end our capacity for living. And she also says: “Redemption is, in essence, a divine love story.”[ii] Somehow we need to locate joy in this mix of anguished survival and divine hopeful love.
Look what it says in the passage from John – Jesus tells us he says these things to us that his joy may be in us and our joy may be complete. So what is this joy of Jesus? It is not a joy that floats above suffering. Jesus’ whole ministry has been among people who are suffering – through the demons of their own illness or through the demons of an occupying empire. And Jesus speaks these words to his disciples during the gospel’s farewell discourse – when Jesus is himself preparing to face the trauma of betrayal, torture and death. This cannot be a heedless joy he promises us but something rooted in hard reality. A joy that walks hand in hand with the hard truths of life. A joy grounded in vulnerable love.
Jesus’ joy, and our own, is not a veneer covering over our pain but a life-giving energy in the midst of pain. This is how Serene Jones beautifully puts it: “to be saved is not to be taken elsewhere. It is to be awakened – to mourn and to wonder. And to stand courageously on the promise that grace is sturdy enough to hold it all – you, and me, and every broken, trauma-ridden soul that wanders through our history. To us all, love comes.”[iii]
Now it is only through this love that comes to us all that joy can come to us all. Not through our own efforts, not through cutting ourselves off from the rest of suffering humanity, not through the power of positive thinking. It is a joy that lives in the sudden wonder of connection, in relationship, in finding our identity as part of the whole glorious and wounded mass of creation. Joy is not the same as safety, nor is it the negation of negative emotions. It is the glimpse of a flowering cherry that reminds us beauty still lives in the world, it’s the touch of a human hand when we thought ourselves forgotten and alone, it’s the awareness that others struggle too and, even with our own woundedness, we can ease their pain.
And there is no ‘ought’ connected to joy. We should never beat ourselves up for not feeling joyful. The same Jesus who calls us to joy was the one who cried out with despair ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’. What we may be able to feel when joy is far away is its faint echo in hope. And when we can’t even feel that we may be able to hold on to the ‘promise that grace is sturdy enough to hold it all’. And when our grip weakens even on this then we can let our faith community hold us and hold this truth in safe keeping till we can open to it again.
And remember that even when we are in the abyss we are not alone. To quote Shelly Rambo again: “Divine and human meet in the middle, and there is an intermingling of breath in the abyss; it is the point at which the silent human cry meets the silent divine cry.”[iv] The God who calls us to joy is also present in its absence, loving us through everything and never abandoning her hurting children. Our most painful breath is breathed by God also.
Oh my dear fellow strugglers I pray that the joy of Jesus may be in you and that your joy may be complete. And I pray that when your joy is far from complete you can still know that grace is sturdy enough to hold you. And I pray that this community may help make real the truth that faith and Easter resurrection attests: “to us all, love comes.” For this is the truth: To us all, love comes.
[i] Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Louisville Kentucky: John Knox Westminster Press, 2010, p165.
[ii] Ibid, p153.
[iii] Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured Word, Louisville Kentucky: John Knox Press Westminster, 2009, final sentence.
[iv] Spirit and Trauma, p170.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
“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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
 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
 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.
 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
 When we hear people talking out of their fear, we have the hope of the resurrection. When selfishness seems to undermine the very possibility for democracy, we have our citizenship in God’s kingdom of love. When we watch the news and wonder what to believe, we have the everlasting truth of our savior.
Sunday, May 20
Tuesday, May 22
Wednesday, May 23