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The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment on social media about the Danish concept of hygge. Have you heard of it? It’s a word for that feeling you get on a cold and foggy afternoon when you’re curled up with a cup of tea and some chocolates and your favourite slippers on your feet and the person you most like to be with is curled up there too and all is snug and comfy and copacetic. I can feel my shoulders lowering and my mouth relaxing into a smile just thinking about it. The bliss of being warm and safe and comfortable! Hygge sounds so much more like good news than today’s gospel.
Did you hear what was being said to us? Shake off the dust from your feet of homes that do not welcome you, that everyone was harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, that you will be hated because of my name, and worst of all, especially on Father’s Day: ‘brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.’ Where is the good news in this? I want my slippers and chocolates and a whole Danish hygge-fest!
The easiest way to slip back into a hygge world is to dismiss this gospel as a word for its time and not for ours. That the gospel writer is expressing a reality for the early church that we have left behind us. And that is partially true. Whatever fundamentalist preachers might want you to believe, Christians are not a persecuted group in the western world today. Check your privilege if for a moment you believe that this society is out to get you because you attend church. Or better yet talk with a Jew whose cemetery has been desecrated, a Muslim whose mosque has been vandalized, or a black southern Christian whose church has been burned by white southern ‘Christians’. There are places in the world where to profess faith in Christ is a path to persecution – we should remember our sisters and brothers of faith in Coptic churches, in Iraq, in parts of Nigeria – but we should not pretend that we share their vulnerabilities and dangers.
What we do share with the early church is a world where, despite its beauty and its wonder, there is violence, injustice and many feel harassed and helpless. There are still families which are torn apart by anger and resentment, homes that, far from being sanctuaries of cozy rest, are places of fear and intimidation for children and women, and occasionally men. I am still haunted by a memory from seminary when I was helping in a poor and understaffed local school. I can still picture one six year old boy crying and cursing and running away from his teacher and myself, begging not to be sent home to his temporary foster home. Not that he was abused there, not in most definitions of abuse, but just that he knew he wasn’t truly seen and valued and loved by those who were taking care of him. And let’s not forget that unhappy homes are not the prerogative of the poor and the ‘other’– there will be people in church today for whom home has been – maybe still is – a place of violence and fear.
This is getting grim for any Sunday, let alone one with the family focus of Father’s Day! So let’s hunt down the good news that is here. The good news that is harder edged than mere coziness but also far more effective in refreshing the human soul and the human situation. The heart of this for me is those short few words that occur early on – he (Jesus that is) had compassion on them – and what arises from them. Jesus doesn’t just wipe away a pitying tear and get on with life. He calls a group together, shares authority with them, and sends them out with orders to make a difference. In the language of that time ‘to cast out evil spirits’. In the language of our time to address the social as well as bodily ills that corrupt and twist and destroy individuals and whole societies.
This is one of the foundation stories of the church. This story is one of the reasons that Grace Cathedral, in all its beauty and grandeur and tradition, actually exists. This group of people being sent out to make a difference. This group of people who are, delightfully, called to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. This group of people who are called to be vulnerable, to be non-violent – to be sheep among wolves – but who are also expected to change the world and begin to heal its hurts.
We sometimes talk about the church as a family, but that’s an image I’m not too comfortable with. While, for most of us, family is a place of nurture and belonging and love it can also, as we’ve said, be a place of violence and hurt. I can’t forget the one unclaimed body from the Pulse massacre a year ago. A bereaved father refusing to collect his murdered son’s remains because that son was gay. ‘Family values’ as usually defined are not necessarily Christian values. They have become shorthand for valuing those people who most closely resemble us – our own kin first, then our own community, our own race, nationality and class, our own sexual orientation. Family values come to have more to do with deciding who is acceptable and who isn’t than with challenging all people to live lives of inclusive love.
This is not something that’s actually very easy for us to grasp. This is something that it was not very easy even for Jesus to grasp. There’s a line in this gospel that I wish I could ignore, because it challenges my belief that God is for all of us. But that’s cowardly for a Christian – we need to look harder at the places where our certainties are challenged not look away – and even more cowardly for a preacher. (It’s actually a good rule of thumb – never trust a preacher who ignores the troubling verses) It’s where Jesus says to the apostles: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other word, don’t go to the ‘others’ just stay within the family.
It is true that family and clan and race was where Jesus started. Like all of us, this was his comfort zone, his familiar territory. But this was not where Jesus ended. Remember last week’s gospel – the resurrected Christ sending his followers into all the world – that was where Jesus ended. Our incarnate God was completely human. Like us he had to learn to see the value in the other, like us his heart grew wider and more open the more he experienced God’s compassion living in him, like us his life involved a process of growth and learning. There is comfort and consolation here. We cannot judge our own limitations too harshly when we see these in the one we follow. We can know that we, like Jesus, can grow beyond our beginnings into heart-strong lovers of all God’s creation.
So, my dear wise serpents and innocent doves, my dear church sent to be God’s healing presence in the world, this is the good news for this Father’s Day and for every day. Not just that God loves us but that God has a job for us to do. Not one that means we can always sit at home by a warm fire with slippers on our feet hygge-style. But one that means we can be the fire – God’s fire to warm and transform the world, a fire of healing, a source of warmth for the desolate and a fierce flame of compassion to burn out injustice. Those of you lucky enough to have loving good-enough fathers still with you, embrace them and celebrate and cherish them. And then turn your face to the world and go and do God’s work.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
The Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
Sunday 14 May 2017 Mother’s Day
The Way, the Truth and the Life
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (Jn. 14).
This morning in three parts I want to consider the gift of Jesus. What does it mean for him to tell his closest friends that he is the way, the truth and the life.
1. The Way. In Marilynne Robinson’s early novel Housekeeping a mother drops off her two young daughters Ruth and Lucille with graham crackers on their grandmother’s front porch. Then she deliberately drives her car off a cliff. At first the grandmother takes care of them then, after she dies, two great aunts do. They in turn are glad to hand off this responsibility to the girl’s formerly homeless aunt.
As the girls grow up they feel such a deep longing for their mother. At first, it pulls them together but eventually they become completely estranged. In their last summer together the two find themselves lost overnight, in the moonless wilderness by a lake. This becomes a kind of metaphor for their whole childhood. “It seemed that we were bewilderingly lost in a landscape, that with any light at all would be wholly familiar.”
Near the end Ruth writes, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell… [Jesus] was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be him…”
Ruth goes on in a way that might sound like the way you feel about your mother or your childhood. “There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and that the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting so long.”
This longing, this loneliness, this sense of loss, sometimes may be how we feel about God. Perhaps the biggest problem of religion is that we all have such different experiences of the same events. For some the abiding presence of God is the most obvious thing about our life. Others search and never even find a trace of the Divine.
The twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that we can never experience God, the creator and ground of worlds, as God truly is. We would not expect a housefly landing on a page of my son’s calculus textbook to learn the quadratic formula. But comprehending God is more impossible for us than this.
We are thoroughly physical creatures and, according to Barth, God must become a concrete thing for us to understand. But as soon as this happens, what we are experiencing is not quite the same thing as God.
As a result, every experience of God’s Word both reveals and conceals something at the same time. When God speaks to us it can never be set apart from the other events in our lives. We experience God only in what Barth calls, “the garment of creaturely reality.” He writes, “[God] will not and cannot unveil himself except by veiling Himself… the divine givenness of the Word of God… also fixes our own limits.”
This is the mystery of God and the mystery of who we are to ourselves. We are like children lost in the dark and that is the reason we rely on Jesus as the way to God.
2. The Truth. But this brings us to the second part – the truth. John 14:6 may be one of the most misunderstood sentences in human history. At the last meal that Jesus shares with his very closest friends he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14).
We have been told countless times this means that unless you believe in Jesus, you will not go to heaven. I disagree completely with this interpretation. On Friday morning at Archbishop Neiderauer’s funeral in St. Mary’s Cathedral I sat between two friends who are rabbis. Before the gospel this line was read and I wondered what they were thinking. I wanted so badly to have the chance to tell them what I believe this means.
Let me explain my reasoning because ultimately we all have to draw our own conclusions about this issue. Let’s begin with the context. Jesus and his friends are not talking about people of other religions or even no religion. Jesus is not answering the question, “who can go to heaven.”
Instead, he is talking to friends with “troubled hearts.” They aren’t asking if there are Hindus in heaven, they are saying, “will I be okay?” And so Jesus reassures them about the many dwelling places for them in God, that he is preparing the way for them.
Thomas and Philip clearly feel troubled and ask him pointed questions. Thomas says, “How can we know the way?” Philip implores Jesus saying, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (Jn. 14). These are questions that come from their fear and doubt. I think they have in mind some kind of secret knowledge, like a password, as if “the way” is a kind of road map or written plan.
Jesus feels frustrated with them because knowing the truth about God is more like the way that we know a person than it is how we might know a map, a plan or a fact. In effect Jesus says, “you are asking for a fact but what matters most is our relationship, that I am standing right here with you.”
The twentieth century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) distinguishes between an “I-It” relationship between us and objects in the world and I-Thou relationships that we have with other people and with God. Jesus calls us to be his friends, to have a continuing relationship with him through prayer.
For me, the irony is that so many people today have read this in exactly the opposite way. In place of seeing Jesus himself as the way for his disciples to reunite with the Father, they have substituted a statement about believing in Jesus. They make everything contingent upon a dogma rather than the freedom of God. Jesus and the disciples are not just talking about heaven. It is about wholeness and health right now. This comes from directing our life towards God and feels like the difference between life and death.
3. The Life. This brings me to my last section. Jesus says, “I am the life.” The Greek word is zoē like our word for zoology. In 1995 the MIT professor Nicholoas Negroponte predicted how the Internet would soon transform humanity by matching news articles and videos with our tastes and personality. He called this “The Daily Me.” Today every time we click or share something online we communicate what we like, and restrict what we will see in the future.
It is human nature to want to surround ourselves with people who share our perspective, just as it is to avoid those who disagree with or upset us. Today technology vastly amplifies that impulse. We know what a bubble is. We see its effects playing out in our political life.
The life Jesus promises is not The Daily Me, not isolation from the world. Jesus calls us to know and to love our neighbors, to open ourselves to the unexpected and new for the sake of others. Jesus shows us how we can be the way that God blesses the world, just as he did, in forgiving the very people who were putting him to death.
This week at the San Francisco Interfaith Council monthly breakfast John Trasviña the Dean of USF Law School spoke about his fear that beloved traditions and practices of our democracy are under attack. He cited the firing of the Director of the FBI, executive orders on immigration, attacks on the judiciary, scientists and the press. This might be the time when Jesus’ life becomes even more evident.
The theologian David Bently Hart (1965-) writes, “Christ’s… is a truth that is only made manifest in being suppressed; its gesture is that of the gift, which is given even in being rejected; and so, on the cross, Christ makes the sheer violence that underlies the economies of a worldly truth transparent to itself, and opens up a different order of truth…”
Last week at the Forum a gentle ethicist from Santa Clara named Tom Plante described life as a potluck. Each of us has a completely unique gift to contribute to it (mine is marshmallow yams). For this week’s homework ask yourself two questions: what is my unique contribution and how can I deliver it in a way that it can be received?
In this world in which there is so little to remember of those who we have lost and God can seem hidden from our sight, Jesus is the way. When we take false comfort in tribalism and manipulate facts to realize our longing for control, Jesus introduces us to the truth. As modern life with its Daily Me presents a greater proliferation of ways to drown in narcissism Jesus shows us the way of life.
Brothers and sisters the gift of Christ is intimacy with God. Let me close with a final quote from David Bentley Hart.
“We are music moved to music… Creation is… a partaking in the inexhaustible goodness of God… its ceaseless flow of light and shadow, constancy and change, mirrors both the “music” of God’s ordering words and the incomprehensibility of his changeless nature, while the restless soul, immersed in the spectacle of God’s glory, is drawn without break beyond the world to the source of its beauty, to embrace the infinite.”
 Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (NY: Picador, 1980), 130
 Ibid., 194-5.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Vol. I.1 tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: Continuum, 1936), 165.
 D. Mark Davis, “Incarnational Truth vs. Propositional Truth,” Left Behind and Loving It, 8 May 2017. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com
 Martin Buber, Ich und Du (1923).
 “Salvation is not to be construed as going to heaven after physical death; it is recovering human health and wholeness by exiting from the cave of non-being at Jesus call and being unbound by one’s bystanders.” Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 339n.
 Dan Heischmann, “The Daily Me,” The National Association of Episcopal Schools Weekly Meditation, 8 May 2017.
 John Trasviña, San Francisco Interfaith Breakfast, 11 May 2017.
 “… a different story, one told anew and with ever greater power every time violence is employed to silence it.” David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s, 2003), 333.
 Ibid., 195.
Older than the Cross
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10).
The Sarvāstivāda School is a form of Buddhist philosophy. It’s name means literally the “Everything Exists at the Same Time” School. They believe that the past, present and future live in every moment. This perfectly describes my experience last week going back to Cambridge, Massachusetts for an alumni reunion.
I always hesitate a little when someone asks me where I’m from. In short, I think that you are from the place where you learn to drive. For me that’s the great central valley of California. But before then and after then I lived in Massachusetts.
When my great Aunt Fran’s husband died from appendicitis at the age of twenty-nine, my grandmother Ruth and her sister Louise came down to Cambridge to help raise my Aunt Jessie Lou. For seventy years some combination of them lived in a brick apartment building close to Harvard Square.
When my father was a child, and when I was, we visited these aunts. We would bake peanut butter cookies as we played gin rummy. We would ride the subway for fun, go to the natural history museum and run across Cambridge Common. This week I walked by the places where my grandparents and parents met and were married.
I passed the cooperative gardens my uncle farmed, the computer labs where my dad worked in his twenties, the 75 bus stop where I would go to visit my grandparents after they retired and my grandfather had had a stroke.
The memories felt so tangible, as if they were somehow still happening right now – it was as if while walking in springtime as a middle-aged priest I was also just leaving the American Repertory Theater with my parents in a snowstorm. At the same time, I could smell spring mulch, the summer rains on the pavement and autumn leaves in the Yard. I felt an intense sadness on the sidewalk where I said goodbye to my grandparents for the last time when we moved west.
When I moved back to Cambridge in my twenties I added whole new layers of memory. Last week in my mind’s eye so many of my old teachers and friends came so close to me. I would turn a corner and suddenly experience the rush of feelings I had when my Hawaiian wife Heidi made her first snowman, when I preached for the first time, the place I proposed to her, our first apartment above the P & K Deli. Somewhere in my heart are all the feelings I had learning to row a single shell, becoming a father, taking long walks with the baby backpack and graduation.
Everywhere I could feel the presence of these ghosts. They must be with me all of the time, just beyond my awareness. But for one week I let them lead me.
The church has memories like this of Jesus. Jesus is with us today and has always been with the church. In the beginning Christianity was illegal. Followers of Jesus’ way met secretly in catacombs and private houses. Today archeologists know how the first Christians pictured their savior. The earliest drawings and symbols never include any kind of cross or suffering. They are pictures mostly of the Good Shepherd, images of loaves, fishes, grape vines and symbols of abundance. They imagined the church as the experience of being safely on board a boat with Jesus.
Those were times of terrible persecution and fear. The authorities could kill you for having found new life in Jesus. Today we still experience doubt, incompleteness and anxiety. Sometimes our life seems empty of meaning, a kind of broken dream. We feel unmoored, as if we have lost something that really matters. We feel distant from people who are supposed to love us.
You probably have an idea of what brought you here, but what if the real reason is that your shepherd has called you here by name? What if Jesus invited you here to fill you with what you need, to bring you home to your true self? In the place where our oldest memories abide, at the deepest level of our self, we recognize Jesus as our shepherd, as the one willing to die for us.
Make no mistake when Jesus talks to his friends about being the good shepherd, he is angry. After healing a man born blind, the authorities cannot decide what to do about Jesus. Some of the leaders conclude that since the healing happened on a Sabbath he must be dangerous. They have threatened to excommunicate, or put out of the synagogue, the formerly blind man, his family and anyone else who suggests that Jesus might be the messiah.
The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE – 50 CE) was a contemporary of Jesus and also contrasted good and bad shepherds. He uses the two names of Moses’ father-in-law to illustrate his point. The bad shepherd (Jethro) chooses human things over divine things and gives instructions to the wise. The good shepherd (Raguel) reveres authority, seeks the divine herd and brings forth justice and good judgment.
Jesus talks about the “thief and the bandit” who climb the wall of the sheepfold rather than entering through the gate (Jn. 10). My friend the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen believes that Jesus is referring to local religious leaders like Yochanon ben Zakkai. On the one hand ben Zakkai is like a thief (kleptēs) for ingratiating himself to the Roman leaders and in a sense stealing the authority they bestow on him. On the other, he is like a bandit or outlaw (lēstēs) by being willing to use violence against God’s people to maintain order.
Jesus says that in contrast the Good Shepherd calls the sheep by name. When they are confused Jesus tries another (paroimia) figure of speech. He says, “I am the gate of the sheep” (Jn. 10). I am like the one who lies down in the entryway in order to protect the sheep. We experience Jesus as the way we come into God’s presence. The Greek word for sheepfold, aulē also means courtyard and connects Jesus again to the temple. John through his gospel leads his readers to regard the temple not just as a stone building in Jerusalem, but as the living human body of Jesus.
In this chapter Jesus speaks for the first time about the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people as, “other sheep not from this fold.” He says, “I will bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (Jn. 10:16).
So here we stand. The false and the good shepherds take sheep to green pastures and streams for drinking. Both kinds of shepherds bring them back home to the sheepfold and in many respects may seem almost identical. But when the wolf comes the false shepherd flees and the good shepherd risks his life for the sheep he knows by name. What do false shepherds look like today?
I’m sure that many of the people around secular San Francisco might be tempted to believe that they don’t have a shepherd, or perhaps that they are their own shepherd. I often here people say, “I don’t believe in anything.”
But it is impossible to be human and to not believe. Some of us believe in saving and good accounting systems, others in having a good time. Almost all of us believe in money and power. I have friends who believe that their workout gym body will protect them from death. At times we believe most strongly in our own anger, in withholding forgiveness and nursing our grievances. We need a good shepherd.
During Easter we revisit the very earliest recollections of Jesus. We remember Mary Magdalene unhinged by grief at the tomb, Peter and John racing to tell their friends what they saw, Thomas’ feelings of being left out of the most important moment in history and his friend’s life, Paul’s shocking encounter on the road to Damascus. We remember that Jesus did not just leave them to their own devices.
In the middle of their fear and doubt, their guilt for abandoning him, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I stand between you and the way of death and sorrow. I am watching for you, helping you to find your true path.”
It is easy to feel demoralized this week with all the news we hear. In the midst of our breakups, fears for the future, the damage we do intentionally and unintentionally, the ethical compromises of daily life, the pain we bear – when we persistently choose death, Jesus blocks that way. Jesus says to us, “I love you no matter what you’ve done. You will be part of my family.”
In Jesus we are never abandoned, or overlooked, or alone. Our life is precious in his eyes. And so this good shepherd constantly invites us into a new beginning, to become a new person in a new tomorrow. Isn’t this what abundant life means? As God’s children we can experience, happiness, peace and full participation in the Kingdom right now.
I began by talking about the uncanny contemporaneity of past, present and future, how people and places and feelings from different times are with us always. On Thursday members of my old churches surprised me at Evensong for my birthday. As I looked across at all my old friends I saw Alice. I instantly had a vivid memory of being with her as her husband declined with dementia. After his death she reassured me! She said I know that Jesus is with me and that I’ll get through this.
Maybe the Sarvāstivāda School is onto something. Perhaps in the world of spirit everything does exist in the same time. This week in Cambridge and at Grace, Fran, Ruth, Louise, Elmore, Alice and George felt so near. Jesus is with us in the same way. With our life we can cultivate a spirit of invitation. We can walk away from the false shepherds and turn to the one who stands between us and death. We can say yes to the real reason we are here. We can have life and have it abundantly.
 Charles Hallisey, Lecture: “The Presence of Buddhism in Our Public Life,” Harvard Divinity School Bicentennial, 28 April 2017. See also, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_philosophy.
 Paul Scott Wilson, “No Dead End in Christ,” Preaching John’s Gospel: The World it Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008) 157ff.
 “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (Jn. 9:23).
 Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 260.
 Ibid., 262.
 Paul Scott Wilson, “No Dead End in Christ,” Preaching John’s Gospel: The World it Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008) 157ff.
Wednesday, June 28
Tuesday, July 4
Thursday, July 6
Sunday, July 9