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Sunday, June 17
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, June 14
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, June 17
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Very Rev. Alan Jones’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, June 10
Voices of Demons, Forgiveness of Sin
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3).

 

Friday at dawn I saw the world through security and body cameras on the Internet. Police surrounding an unarmed man by an elevator severely beating his head as his slack body slides down the wall. Police in Oregon punching the back of a mentally ill man’s head as he lies on the ground and screams that he is disabled.[1]

Police handcuffing a ten-year-old African American boy scaring him so much that he wets his pants.[2] I saw the video of Stephon Clark’s death in Sacramento – all those shots in the dark as police kill this young father in his own backyard.

The Spirit opened a kind of window in my heart that allowed me to imagine what it would feel like to one minute be living my ordinary life, and then suddenly descend into the abyss, to feel the full force of this humiliation, pain and horror. The Oregon man’s screamed question haunts me. “Why are you doing this?”

One of the leading causes of death among police officers is suicide. I am grateful that these days I am not in many extreme situations which would reveal my own racism, fear and brutality. Mostly my demons are just less exposed.

People don’t believe in demons these days. But perhaps this is a way to avoid facing the irrational powers from beyond ourselves, powers that possess and control us.

This week handbag designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain succumbed to their demons and took their own lives. I worry about other struggling souls who might follow their example. We have a connected unconscious. We do not understand certain parts of ourselves. When we look inside, sometimes we see a force that threatens to destroy us, or that takes us away from who we really are.

A few days ago I talked with a friend who has recently been released from prison. He struggles with demons of hesitancy, self-doubt and fear. He doesn’t know how to get started or even if he’s going to find a way to survive. It is not clear yet whether or not the demons will gain the upper hand.

The idea of demons may seem archaic and weird. But using this language draws our attention to a universal aspect of the human experience that modern life tends to ignore. At times our society, and we ourselves, seem to be caught in, or possessed by, dynamics beyond our control. Sometimes we recognize these forces and can name them as: defensiveness, addiction, war, family dysfunction, sexism, anger, racism, homophobia or envy. Sometimes we feel this irrational power and have no way to articulate it.

In your challenges and the struggles of people you encounter I want to share two helpful ideas from our tradition. The first concerns our relation to God and the second is about how we might understand sin.

  1. The author of Mark believes that we inhabit a dark and dangerous world. Evil can be just as much in our hearts as it is out there. He seems deeply aware that our consciousness is porous.[3] He would recognize that the evil I see on the Internet has a deep kind of hold on me.

As our gospel today begins Jesus is enjoying fabulous popularity. It’s like he woke up and suddenly had 20 million Twitter followers. People have come to see him from all over that world even from distant Idumea (Mk. 3:8). That’s 150 miles away. The crowds are cheek a jowl, huddled so closely together that Jesus and the disciples cannot even eat bread (Mk. 3:20).[4]

There are several translation issues for me in this text. The Greek word bread appears here but doesn’t make it into the English translation. Similarly the Greek text says “oi par’autou” which literally means “those with him” but appears in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as “family.” In any event, worried that he has lost his mind people with him, or his family, go to overpower him (kratos or krateo) for his own good. Words related to strength, power, ableness appear throughout this story.

The lawyers from the capitol city of Jerusalem use this occasion to charge that Jesus has not just been possessed by normal demons but by the chief demon, Beelzebul. Jesus defends himself by pointing out that healing lies at the heart of his ministry. This is the antidote to the destruction and divisiveness of the demonic. Neither a divided house nor a divided kingdom could stand. If healing were to enter Satan would literally “have his end” or come to an end. Telos the word for end the finish line of the horse-racing track. It also means goal.

Then Jesus uses an analogy that I never completely understood. He describes his mission of healing as entering a strong man’s house. To rob him, one must first bind him up. What I didn’t fully recognize before is that for Mark this world belongs to Satan. Jesus has bound him so that we might be free of the demons that afflict us.

For some evangelical Christians salvation refers to the dividing line between the godly and the godless, the people who are “saved” or “not saved.” But I have a hard time believing that this is what Jesus means. The Latin word “salvus” is not about dividing us from them. It means healing, and that is what Jesus does. In order to heal us Jesus binds up the strong man, the demons that seek to possess us.

Then comes the really remarkable thing. I don’t understand the reason for this either but the translators leave out the word “all” which occurs in the next sentence. Jesus says, “all will be forgiven of the sons of Man, their sins and the blasphemies they have blasphemed.”[5]

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) asserts that Jesus can transform our lives through his concept of a loving God. Barth writes that by God’s, “gifts [people] lived always sustained with forgiving loving-kindness.” He goes on to say that if a person really were to grasp the truth of God’s love, he or she would have, “the feeling of waking from a dream.”[6] This is what Jesus wants for us. It is how he heals us.

I wish that people really heard that line but the next almost washes it from our consciousness. This too is translated in a way that makes the truth harder to understand. It says, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit does not have forgiveness in this age but is involved in an age-long sin.”

As you might gather I don’t think the point of the story is to inspire fear that we might inadvertently or intentionally commit an unforgiveable sin. I do believe Jesus wants us to take seriously the voice of God that speaks in our conscience. But this brings me to my second point which is about sin.

  1. Adam and Eve hear the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Have you ever wondered why God calls to them saying, “Where are you” (Gen. 3)? Certainly God knows this. I think it is a little like when God says to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel,” when God knows very well that Cain murdered him (Gen. 4).[7]

The point is for the listener, for Adam, Eve, Cain, you and me to re-orient ourselves, to find our way back after having been lost. Instead of denying what we have done or blaming someone else, it is the moment to take responsibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) the theologian who was tragically killed by the Nazis shortly before the liberation of Germany puts it this way. The decisive moment for Adam and Eve is not when they decide to eat the forbidden fruit, or when they take that first bite. It is when they try to hide from God and from their true identity as God’s children. Where are you Adam? In the same way this morning God asks, “where are you?”

There are different metaphors for understanding sin. We hear most about sin as disobedience that requires forgiveness. But equally powerful is the picture of sin as an affliction that needs to be healed. There is also the idea of sin as separation calling for reconciliation. Bonhoeffer endorses this last picture of sin as a kind of alienation or division from God and our self.

This is one of the demons that Jesus casts out of our lives: the demon that says that the differences between us are more important than what we share in common. Jesus invites us to participate in this ministry of healing. He does this knowing that will be opposed by strangers, our work colleagues, friends and even our family. Our own fear of disapproval, our desire to not interfere may hold us back. But Jesus promises an even more extraordinary intimacy. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3).

In conclusion I do not know where you are, or exactly what kind of demons you encounter in your life. Jesus’ point is that we do not face these challenges alone. The strong man has been bound. In everything God will eventually prevail. We will find brothers and sisters who will help us. Jesus will not abandon us.

Let us pray: Gracious God you summon us out of the darkness of our own hearts and into the light of Jesus. Strengthen us to overcome our demons. Heal our divisions. Help us to find ourselves in you and to embrace the hope that all will be forgiven. We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=Ejf572xg02M

[2] https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/Video-Shows-Chicago-Police-Handcuffing-10-Year-Old-Boy-484629641.html

[3] Again Liz and Matt Boulton’s “Sin and Salvation,” in Salt (10 June 2018) has hugely influenced this sermon at every point. If I keep borrowing at this rate I will have to name my next child after them. I always associate this idea of the porousness of our consciousness to Matt along with the salvus idea that comes later. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-third-week-after-pentecost

[4] I don’t know why translators left out the word “bread” in this verse. There are other translation issues that elude me like why are those with him referred to as his family. I should have brought my Nestle Aland home to check alternative manuscripts.

[5] I definitely have help in all these translations from D. Mark Davis, “Parables of Plunder,” Left Behind and Loving It: Living as if God’s Steadfast Love Really Does Endure Forever, 4 June 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com

[6] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) I.1.460.

[7] I’m especially indebted to Liz and Matt for this and for what follows.

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, May 6
Joy and Trauma: ‘To us all, love comes.’
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
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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.

Thursday, May 3
The First Gentile Christian
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord.” (Acts. 11).

What does it take for a Bible passage to really come alive for us? So much of what we hear every day fails to really penetrate our hearts. Often it is even more difficult to imagine someone like Peter or Cornelius as a real person caught up in the tragedy of real life.

This morning I received a voicemail message from a very old friend named Janet. We first met in church and I’ve known her for maybe thirty years. We studied the Bible together and shared our lives. In fact, for a while, I was even the executor of Janet’s estate. Her voice was so full of pain. She felt embarrassed that people are laughing about the Episcopal Church because of last week’s Beyoncé service. She said, “How could you do this in that beautiful Cathedral?”

The writer Rebecca Solnit points out that we use the word “lost” in two disparate ways. On the one hand we all have the experience of losing our keys, a homework assignment, a book or an article of clothing. When this happens we still know where we are. Everything is familiar except that one element.

But then there is the experience of losing oneself. You may have been lost in the woods or a strange city. Solnit describes this as the moment when the world becomes larger than our knowledge of it.[1] In both the ways that we use the word “lost” the striking feeling involves a loss of control.

This was how Janet sounded in her message. It is the way that “the circumcised believers criticized” Peter when they said, “Why did you go to uncircumscribed men and eat with them” (Acts 11)? Religious rules of the time did not permit faithful Jewish men to share meals with outsiders. I can imagine Peter’s discomfort in this confrontation.

Change is difficult for all of us, for Janet and me, for Peter and his friends. Peter offers two responses one from a dream in which he met God and the other from his personal experience.

Peter was praying when he had a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven with different kinds of animals on it. A voice told him to eat and he refused because according to his faith these animals were unclean. God told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

The Spirit then told Peter to go with some non-Jewish people who appeared and “not to make a distinction between them and us.” When he arrived at their house he began to speak. He describes it to his angry friends, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us in the beginning.” Finally to his questioners Peter says, “If then God gave them the same spirit that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

At Grace Cathedral these days we too have a dream. It comes from a deep desire to reach out into the world, to allow God to draw us into new relationships with others. In the same spirit as Peter, we want to meet new people and to hear what God is saying to them. Although this may at times leave us feeling lost, we do not always have to be the ones in control. God is in charge. God will always draw us into a world that is larger than our knowledge of it.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (NY: Penguin, 2005) 22-3.

Sunday, April 29
Truth about Fear
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… We love because he loved us first” (1 Jn. 4).

What does it mean to say that perfect love casts out fear?

Over a hundred years ago G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote, “There are some people – and I am one of them – who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy…”

“We think for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.”[1]

All these years later I think that the most striking thing for Chesterton about our implied individual and collective philosophy would be our fear. On the one hand we live in one of the safest, healthiest and wealthiest societies in all history, and at the same time we are obsessed by unlikely threats and a false sense of scarcity.

In the last presidential election unemployment was at 5%, there had been six years of steady economic progress, our country was developing the technologies of the future, and our military power was unrivalled. And yet many Americans seemed irrationally afraid – of immigrants, terrorists, people of color, government officials, etc.

In these early days of the vast social experiment which we call the Internet, sometimes it seems like people just want to be offended and angry. Fear generates fear and since then we have become even more afraid. We worry about the viability of our democracy itself, environmental degradation, trade wars and actual wars.

Sasha Abramsky my forum guest today points out that our smartphones are “changing our physiology” through stress. He also claims that we are afraid of the wrong things. We worry about Ebola, terrorists, plane crashes, violent immigrants, when we should be worrying about traffic. In ten years 400,000 vehicular passengers and another 45,000 pedestrians were killed on American roads. In 2015 thirty-eight thousand people were killed by cars in the US, an increase of 8 percent probably the result of distracted driving.[2]

Fear makes Americans more dangerous. It leads to policies like the “Stand Your Ground” laws, mass incarceration, overzealous policing, the legitimation of torture and reckless foreign interventions. Because tens of millions of Americans believe they need guns to protect themselves we live with higher rates of suicide and accidental death. In 2014 Gun War News reported that for every American soldier killed in Afghanistan over the previous eleven years, thirteen American children had died from being shot.[3]

  1. This morning we have two readings that particularly address the universal human challenge of overcoming fear. John dedicates a large portion of his Gospel to what scholars call “The Farewell Discourse.” At his last meal Jesus washes the feet of his friends. He inaugurates the tradition of a holy meal that we will experience this morning. He tells his friends what is about to happen, that he will be betrayed and delivered to the authorities and humiliated.[4]

You might imagine how horrifying this would sound to someone who had given up everything to follow Jesus. They loved him and believed so deeply in his message. They couldn’t help but think that his disgrace would be theirs too. You can almost imagine the desperation and fear Thomas feels when he says, “How can we know the way.” So Jesus explains. He’s not delivering a social science lecture. He is trying to comfort his friends.

In the Gospel of John Jesus offers seven “I Am” statements to help us to understand God. He says, “I am the bread of life… the light of the world… the door… the Good Shepherd… the resurrection… the way, the truth and the life…” Finally, Jesus gets to the last image that he hopes. Each of these pictures has been leading to this.

Jesus says, “I am the true vine and my father is the farmer” (Jn. 15). The scriptures often used this image of God as the farmer and the people of Israel as a kind of grapevine. In those contexts God condemns the whole nation for bearing poor fruit and threatens to uproot the vines. Jeremiah complains about the bitterness of this fruit and God’s righteousness in destroying it (2:21).[5]

But in this context with his very dear friends, Jesus is not so much threatening them with death, as a consequence of choosing to be cut off (as I imagine some might read this passage). Instead he says, “You have already been cleansed (or pruned) by the word I have spoken to you” (Jn. 15). He is promising a whole new kind of intimacy and connection. He is saying, “Don’t be afraid, we will always be together. Your life and all of its fruits will be signs of our ongoing intimacy. I will be with you and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side but in the days to come, I will live in you.”[6]

  1. The second reading comes from the First Letter of John. The Biblical scholar Ray Brown believes that this letter was written during a time of struggle within the early Christian community by a person who was concerned about Gnosticism. John wrote this epistle in the face of a religious movement that emphasized secret knowledge about a war between spirit and the physical world.[7]

For John faith is public and visible. Over and over he repeats his conviction that belief and knowledge are always secondary to love. Or to put it more accurately, we recognize the truth by the fruit it bears. Especially when Christians disagree we have to always keep this message in mind.

John writes that, “We love because [God] first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn. 4).

John encourages us to show our faithfulness to God through our kindness to each other. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 Jn. 4).

This week again the news has been full of reminders about the severity of racial injustice in America where unarmed African Americans are five times as likely to be killed by police as white people.[8] You may have read about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice dedicated to people who were terrorized by the lynching of African Americans.[9] Perhaps you heard about the African American women golfers who were playing at their own club when the police were called to escort them off the grounds.[10] You could have seen the video of Desmond Marrow a former NFL player who was thrown to the ground and choked by police officers in Atlanta, Georgia.[11]

We have reached a horrible place in our society when significant numbers of people believe that calling the police puts African American people at risk of being humiliated or killed.

In the film I Am not Your Negro, we hear the writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) reminiscences of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know if you have ever had a friend who was murdered, but it makes a difference in how the world looks to you. Despite this Baldwin can say, “I refuse to hate you. In fact you and I are one. The great lie is that we are two people. I’m your cousin. I can’t hate you because we’re family.”[12]

So much about fear is mysterious. What feels terrifying to me could seem totally irrational to you, in fact it could be even exhilarating to you. Chapman University charts American’s top fears every year.[13] You can see the trends. Fear is a social phenomenon.

When I first arrived at Grace Cathedral riding my bicycle down California Street seemed terrifying. Like an old style roller coaster you come up to Jones from the Taylor Street steps with the wind howling over the top of Nob Hill. Then you launch yourself downhill. Car doors swing open. Uber drivers pass you within inches as you go almost thirty miles per hour trying to avoid cable cars and their accident-causing rails.

It’s dangerous because you are exposed. You have a different kind of vehicle and so the people around you don’t understand (maybe that makes it a little bit like other ways of being different in our society). Over these years I have come to love what I previously feared. Now I see that every day in that place is wonderfully different and I’m filled with joy. I’m enjoying the ride more than the destination.

I began with the idea that your philosophy of life matters to hundreds of small and large decisions in our life. The life of faith is like riding down that hill. To others we might seem vulnerable and a little reckless, as too quick to forgive. We look more exposed to suffering because of our commitment to love. But we have something that cannot be seen. We are part of the true vine. Jesus lives through us. God’s fruits are being born in us. We experience the love that casts out fear.

Let us pray: May all that is unforgiven in us / Be released. / May our fears yield / Their deepest tranquilities. // May all that is unlived in us / Blossom into a future / Graced with love.[14]

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics quoted in William James, Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) 9.

[2] Sasha Abramsky, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (NY: Nation Books, 2017) 95.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] The discussion below comes from Liz and Matt Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT Commentary for Easter 5,” Salt, April 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

[5] Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 225-352.

[6]Liz and Matt Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT Commentary for Easter 5,” Salt, April 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

[7] Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Epistles of John, Volume 30 (NY: Doubleday, 1982).

[8] Sasha Abramsky, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (NY: Nation Books, 2017) 146, 159-60.

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/04/26/the-lynching-memorial-ends-our-national-silence-on-racial-terrorism/?utm_term=.863fff961c74&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1 and https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2018/04/24/white-golf-course-owners-said-five-african-american-women-were-playing-too-slow-then-they-called-the-police/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f113bf7ddaf6

[11] http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/news/state/georgia/article209961214.html

[12] Donald Schell conversation 25 April 2018.

[13] https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2017/10/11/americas-top-fears-2017/

[14] John O’ Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (NY: Doubleday, 2008) 97.

Wednesday, April 25
Beyoncé Mass Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Yolanda Norton, Professor of Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary
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Sunday, April 22
The Still Waters of Psalm 23 and Beyoncé
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me…” (Ps. 23).

  1. This weekend my twenty-eight year old nephew took me aside and in a serious tone of voice he asked, “Uncle Malcolm I’ve watched you for my whole life. Why you are so joyful?” I fumbled for words. I don’t know if I’m any more joyful than the next person, but the first thing that occurred to me was that I pray a lot. My heart longs for and constantly reaches toward God. I pray for my family and you, for strangers, for sufferers and leaders, for our shared human project and for all creation.

Most of all I just give thanks, and in doing this I become more attuned to the blessings available to us in every moment. I certainly experience stress and despair, feelings of failure and inadequacy. I feel sadness in the face of persistent suffering, but these all happen in the context of a much deeper sense that before anything else I am a child of God.

A Hindu teacher named Eknath Easwaran taught me to meditate and encouraged me to memorize Psalm 23. Since then, I have repeated it silently thousands of times. It sums up my piety. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake” (Ps. 23).

When we really listen, God does bring us to a spiritual state that you could compare to a green pasture with still waters. God directs our lives, “along right pathways.” And then an extraordinary thing happens in this psalm. The God of the third person, “the Lord,” “the He” comes nearer and becomes… a “you.” In grammar we call it the second person. Listen to how in the presence of our suffering God comes even nearer. This experience lies at the heart of my faith.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you [you] are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…” (Ps. 23). I believe that this personal experience of God, especially as we gather in worship around this table, lies at the heart of abiding joy. Today I am going to talk about two teachers who were good shepherds bringing me to green pastures, and about an experience of God spreading a table in the presence of those who trouble me.

  1. The eleventh century thinker Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) defined theology as faith seeking understanding. He says that our active love of God naturally seeks a deeper knowledge of God.[1] To understand this faith in God’s daily ongoing presence I spent seven years of work as a more than fulltime graduate student. In that time I felt God leading me into some of the greenest pastures of my life.

Two theology professors particularly influenced me. Richard R. Niebuhr (1925-2017) served as one of my three dissertation advisors. His father (H. Richard Niebuhr) and uncle (Reinhold Niebuhr) were two of the most famous twentieth century theologians. Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011) supervised my Master’s thesis. Although I have not often spoken to you explicitly about them they have deeply shaped my thought.

Professor Niebuhr taught me that above all we are symbol-generating creatures. We never make contact with anything as it is in itself. Every experience is filtered through stories and the symbols that support them. It is impossible to get to the unmediated bottom of reality in any sense.

For instance, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger points out we don’t just hear raw sounds and then figure out what they are.[2] When we hear the bell of the cable car or the carillon, they already mean something to us. And this meaning depends on the stories we tell about life. A cathedral bell might be uplifting to a person of faith and oppressive to someone who has been persecuted by the church. We don’t experience the sound without that sort of interpretation.

Niebuhr believed deeply in the power of feeling which connects us to God and each other. He writes about our situation in modern times with communications technologies like the Internet constantly impinging on us and directing our inner life. Our identities are constantly being rearranged by the latest tragedy broadcasted to us through our cell phones. He asks, “is it not possible that [the modern person] is experiencing the terrible joy of being made and remade again by a ruling power that [she] knows but does not know [she] knows?”[3]

He says, “human faith is not so much a sum of answers as it is a way of seeing and acting and books about faith have first of all to describe what faithful [people] see and believe is real.”

Although the two of them had the same advisor in graduate school together, Professor Kaufman could hardly have been more different that Niebuhr. While Niebuhr emphasized art and feeling, Kaufman worked to describe the place of faith in the world of science.

After writing an influential theology textbook Kaufman had a change of heart. He came to the deep conviction that theology is not about recovering a tradition or interpreting holy texts. Instead he emphasized that theology is what he calls “imaginative construction.” Human beings have responsibility for the symbols that they make for describing God.

Kaufman believed that human beings have a tremendously strong tendency to treat the wrong things as if they were God. Our idols may be personal like money, our appearance or being liked, or they may be our collective experience of the country or the economy. For him above all the symbol God helps us to commit ourselves to the right things.

On this Earth Day Kaufman would probably say that the symbol of God may be the only thing that could save nature, perhaps even the planet, from our worship of wealth, technology and power. The idea of God shows us that with our lives we worship the wrong things.

Most of all Kaufman had a heart for modern people who simply could not believe what a lot of churches say about God. He writes, “Faith in God has become impossible for many now, not so much because of stiffnecked sinfulness and rebellion against God as because talk about God… seems to have little to do with their actual lives. Unless… God can be seen once again to be the God of this world and our God, it is not possible… to have faith in him.”[4]

Kaufman taught about the importance of resisting our tendencies toward tribalism. For the sake of the world, he believed that every one of us, every Christian in every generation, must constantly seek new ways to understand and talk about God.

  1. At Grace Cathedral we worry that some churches may be making faith impossible for many people today. Churches do this through outright bigotry, by refusing to see that every person is made in God’s image. We do this through an attitude of fear toward outsiders, as if God cannot be found outside of a church. We do this through a kind of attachment to interpretations of stories that makes it hard to see how God is doing a new thing right now.

This week has not been easy. We received a lot of angry letters from our Christian brothers and sisters. News reports led some to conclude that the Cathedral is worshiping the pop music star Beyoncé. Some friends who are closer feel like what we are doing is in bad taste and maybe worse. I need to give you some background and share what I have been telling people about this issue.

Every Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. we offer a contemporary worship service called The Vine. Our 2018 Cathedral theme of “truth” inspired its leaders to create a three part sermon series called “Speaking Truth: The Power of Story.” On the last day of the series we wanted to especially raise up the voices of women of color so we invited Yolanda Norton to preach. You may remember Yolanda from her January sermon here. At San Francisco Theological Seminary she teaches a course called “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible.”

Leaders of our small thirty-person Vine community decided to offer a “Beyoncé Mass” to celebrate in a Christian context what they see as the singer’s message of empowerment for women of color. From my perspective it is not entirely unlike the spirit animating the Duke Ellington Sacred Music concert in 1965.

We have been surprised by how much attention this service has generated. Over a thousand people could conceivably come here for it on Wednesday night. On balance although a small number of our community think that it’s not a good idea, we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from faithful people who recognize that we need to reach out to the world.

We have also received letters that have made me even more aware of virulent racism and homophobia among our fellow Christians. Certainly not everyone who hates the service is a racist. I’m just been surprised by what I have heard.

My heart definitely goes out to Episcopalians who feel embarrassed by the service and I know we have made mistakes in how we have handled various aspects of it. At the same time over the last few days I have learned a lot from Beyoncé. It has been emotionally exhausting just being modestly connected to her for a week. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be her all the time.

Above all I’ve learned how important it is to connect. God’s spirit is moving through the world and I believe that not doing anything to reach out to the next generation of San Franciscans is a betrayal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So in short brothers and sisters this may not have been my most joyful week. It has not been as calm as those years of theological study with teachers I love. But you know what? My heart still rejoices. Whether we are in the green pastures beside still waters, or in the valley of the shadow of death, even when we are in the presence of those who trouble us – we shall not be in want. God revives our souls. Indeed we thank you God, that you, you are with us.

[1] Anselm, Proslogion.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.

[3] Richard R. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion (NY: Harper and Row, 1972) 140.

[4] Gordon D. Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method, 3rd Edition (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1995) 74.

Tuesday, April 17
The Voice Behind All Things
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Tuesday April 17th Yoga Introduction
Read sermon

The Voice Behind All Things

We have all heard a voice. It offers us guidance and direction, and sometimes even warns us. It is so ubiquitous that, when we know where we are going, it just fades quietly into the background and we cease to notice it at all.

We hear it in hospitals, subway systems and 250 airports around the world. It may be one of the most frequently heard voices in all history. Although you may have doubted whether this public address system voice belongs to a real person, it does.

Her name is Carolyn Hopkins. She lives in Northern Maine. She makes the recordings in her own house and emails them to the public address company. When asked about what makes people around the world prefer her voice she guesses that they might hear the smile behind it.

In the 1980’s Wim Wenders film Der Himmel Über Berlin (The Wings of Desire) invisible angels can hear the thoughts of people as they go past. In one scene the angel walks through a library hearing what is in every person’s heart.

In our heads we all carry voices that we recognize. Some of these may be disapproving voices that point out our failures and our limitations. They say things like “You can’t do this!” or, “they never loved you,” or, “you’re just like your father” or, “your brother was always better than you.”

Sometimes I think those voices of our thoughts become so dominant, so loud or constant, that we cannot really hear what is happening. This cathedral has different sounds. The woosh of the cable cars, the rain against the stained glass windows, the wind blowing over Nob Hill. One of the most beautiful sounds to me is that of preparation as people get ready for Yoga. A kind of spirit speaks to us in these moments that we often don’t recognize.

Eknath Easwaran started an ashram in Petaluma and was the one who taught me to meditate. He introduced me to the idea that if we can learn to lay our busy thoughts to the side, we might experience more moments of divinity, the holy.

He taught a form of passage meditation. I want to share one of my favorite passages with you tonight. It comes from St. Augustine’s autobiography Confessions.[1]

“Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with our busy thoughts about earth, sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind cease thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still; if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:”

“Imagine if all things that are perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever – imagine, then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of him who made them and not to that of his creation;”

“So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of [people], nor the voice of angels, nor the cloud’s thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things.”

“And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but this one vision which ravishes and absorbs and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination which leaves us breathless:”

“Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, Enter thou into the joy of the Lord?”

When I am with you on Tuesday nights I hear this voice. When we are together I can hear the smile behind all creation.

Darren’s theme – The Earth as a Temple

[1] Translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Michael N. Nagler in Eknath Easwaran, God Makes the Rivers to Flow (Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1991) 171.

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