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The Rev. Yolanda Norton’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Truth about God
“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29).
What is the truth about God?  Our 2018 Cathedral theme is truth and this seems like a good place to begin. Eleven years ago our family found ourselves behind a square iron fence at a fairground with perhaps a hundred thousand people outside. The electricity generated by all those souls felt tangible. I remember the beautiful young dancers, old men in bright robes carrying holy objects and prayers chanted so loudly over loudspeakers that you could almost think of nothing else.
We were celebrating Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany, in Addis Ababa as the special guests of the Abuna, a kind of pope for forty million Ethiopians. I will never forget the feeling I had when the people threw thousands of plastic bottles over the fence to be filled with blessed holy water.
In Greek, the word epiphany means to shine upon or to reveal. We associate this season with three images. First, it reminds us of the light present from the beginning of our world which is Christ. Second, we remember the magi, the three wise men, visitors to the baby Jesus, who some regard as representatives of, “the exotic, the secular, and the scientific world.” The other guiding story for this time tells about the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were torn apart and God’s spirit came to rest on him.
My old teacher Peter Gomes used to say that Epiphany, “is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see.” He told us that what begins as a very private message to Mary and Joseph comes to be shared with, “an ever-expanding audience of witnesses.” He compares it to the ripples formed when you drop a pebble into a smooth pond (until the entire surface is witness to the initial movement of that one stone).
That Ethiopian day in the midst of the largest crowd I had ever seen we lost our five-year-old daughter. So much was happening, I took a photograph, and in a heart stopping instant she was gone. Then we noticed all the television cameras moving to a place where there was a commotion. There was our daughter sitting on the Abuna’s lap as he presided from his throne over the largest religious ritual I will ever see.
My wife picked her up and the two of them were on every television station and the front page of every newspaper. Wherever we went in Ethiopia after that people recognized them and gave them special gifts. This event led to an amazing sense of connection to others.
We long to be known, and during that time we were. It was as if the special admiration that we have for our own children, the way they seem so beautiful to us, was suddenly shared by a whole country of people. For those weeks it felt like all of humanity was our family.
All of us know about the opposite experience too, when instead of a person we become “traffic” to others, that is an inconveniently placed object for them. We also know what it feels like to be isolated and lonely. This week I read an article sent to me by a friend called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
The argument may be familiar to you already. It holds that the smartphones, which didn’t even exist when we went to Ethiopia, have disrupted a whole generation’s experience of childhood. They are guinea pigs measuring the effects of colossal social changes. According to the author today’s young people are far less likely to use drugs and alcohol, to have sex or even to go out with their friends. They spend about the same amount of time doing homework as earlier generations.
The difference is that young people today spend a massive amount of time on smartphones and social media. This leads to loneliness, a feeling of being left out, depression and suicide. The author writes that girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by fifty percent. Three times as many 12 to 14 year old girls kill themselves today than did in 2007. She also writes that those who attend religious services have a much lower risk for depression.
This is a time when we really need God to be revealed to our children, and to us. Yet sometimes it seems as if even devout Christians are strangely uninterested in coming to know God. Many people seem satisfied to say simply that “God is love” without caring much about the details, without learning what the Bible and tradition teaches about God’s nature.
This puzzles me. Imagine if we were having a conversation and I told you that I love my wife. What if you asked where she grew up and I said, “I don’t know.” You might say, “Well what kind of music does she listen to?“ or “what does she look like?” “is she shy or gregarious?” If I told you that I didn’t know, you’d probably think there was something seriously wrong with our relationship. One of the most upsetting realizations we can have about someone we love is that they do not really know us.
Loving someone means trying to learn about that person. We find out about God through prayer and worship, in studying scripture and the tradition, by talking to each other and by trying to follow God’s teaching in how we live (by the way this includes everything from how we drive to how we talk about other people).
In baptism we promise to learn more about God and to help our children to do the same. In baptism we renew a relationship that God first began at creation. In baptism we say, “I belong no longer to myself, to my parents, my work, to the Internet or the world; I belong to God.”
Some of you may know that I am on a quest to understand God through the eyes of the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Last year I read 2,000 pages of Church Dogmatics his 9,000 page systematic theology. He asserts that we can know something about God because God cares enough about us to show himself in the Bible, in preaching and the person of Jesus himself. For Barth, this God of the scriptures is above all the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the Epiphany story of Jesus’ baptism shows us each aspect of who God is.
Trinity means that we experience God as three persons who have one being or essence. In an analogous way you might experience me as a husband on a double date, as a parent coaching rugby, or as a priest here at Grace Cathedral. You will see a different aspect of me in each of those settings but the being behind all of those experiences, that is me, is the same.
Barth points out that there is within us a kind of enmity toward God. We are kind of like frenemies (friend-enemies) with God. This isn’t just about us as individuals. We learn how to be with God in large part from our culture, which in Western Europe and North America has begun to bend further away from God.
In a recent article the actor Russell Brand who plays the rock star in the old movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall writes about what he is learning in overcoming his addiction to drugs. In a 12-step program Brand recognized his powerlessness over drugs and turned his life over to God, the only one who could save him. It made him realize that all of us live by an unconscious myth that in his words, “we can make ourselves feel better with external stuff, be it behavior or chemicals.”
With our lives we may often miss the mark but Jesus shows that we do not have to be lost in our misplaced efforts to find security and love by putting ourselves above others.
Over time this Spirit changes us so that gratitude is no longer just the way we think or even behave. Gratitude becomes our very essence. For Barth, in the end this is all about joy. God’s joy leads to the creation of the world. In this same joy God invites us into the Divine life and through the Spirit gives us the ability to say “yes” to God with our whole being. It was this joy that I sensed on that day as the Ethiopians threw their water bottles over the fence.
Brothers and sisters welcome to the Year of Truth at Grace Cathedral. We all long to know and to be known. Like those exotic, secular and scientific Magi let us follow the star of wisdom and come to know the One we love. In the face of all that threatens this generation let the light of Epiphany, the person of Jesus become ever clearer to us. As the ripples of the waters at Jesus’ baptism reach the shores of our time let us find our own way to say, “I belong to God.” Imagine the truth about God we are about to discover.
 Our Cathedral’s 2018 theme is truth. I hope that we will learn new truth about our own lives, and our relation to others. We will explore the truth in journalism, ethics, politics, the economy, sociology, the natural and biological sciences and technology. This week our federal government opened up the process to begin selling offshore oil drilling leases. In our time we need to especially open our eyes to the truth about nature and our planet. Associated Press, “Alaska May Open Up Again for Oil Leasing, but Risks Linger,” The New York Times, 5 January 2018.
 Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 31.
 Ibid., 30-6.
 Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017. David Smith sent the article. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
 “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.” Ibid.
 This reminds me of the sense of misplaced attention in the billboards that say that we spend more time reading billboards than planning for our retirement.
 Ethan Renoe, “The Tragedy of Dumbing Down Christianity,” Relevant, 22 December 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/article/the-tragedy-of-dumbing-down-christianity/
 Paraphrase of Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 33.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clarke, 1936), 88-120.
 Ibid., 444ff.
 Jesse Carey, “The Second Coming of Russell Brand,” Relevant, 8 October 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/feature/the-second-coming-of-russell-brand/
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.T. Thomposon, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clarke, 1956) 371
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 669.
 Ibid., 647.
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.