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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.
“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
 Translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Michael N. Nagler in Eknath Easwaran, God Makes the Rivers to Flow (Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1991) 171.
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes… and touched with our hands concerning the word of life” (1 Jn. 1).
You think about your children before you even have them. In your dreams you watch that imagined person travel through the joys and tribulations of life before they even exist. At first December 22, 1998 in Boston felt like a spring day with temperatures in the sixties and brief downpours. By noon snow squalls were gathering and I took a break from my academic work at Lamont Library and returned to our apartment for lunch.
After checking the answering machine I called my wife Heidi at work. She told me that she was pregnant. I immediately took the subway into her downtown office and we called every person we knew. It was only two days before Christmas Eve and suddenly we were part of one of the holiest stories in history.
Although at the time I recognized their inadequacy, I wrote down words describing what I felt. “Synchronicity, great comfort, natural trust, hope, joy, love.” It was a spiritual experience. Suddenly I had a new relation to the universe and God.
On an August afternoon during the first week our son was home from the hospital he was lying on my chest. I looked into his eyes and suddenly felt overwhelmed by the conviction that he had just seen God. Many of you might have your own stories about feeling awe, mystery and transcendence in the face of new life. The sleep deprivation and other challenges of early childhood also may make us forget the power of these moments.
But today, I do not want to talk so much about the spiritual experience of having a child. Instead I want us to consider the spiritual experience of being a child. I’m not going to hide the ball. The most important point that I have to make is simple. Children are not like an empty pitcher that you fill up with religious knowledge. They already have a rich spiritual life. This is the truth about being human – we hear a mysterious call from beyond ourselves.
Our goal is to learn how to be a kind of gardener for the spiritual life that children are nurturing. I mean this for us both as adults who are responsible for particular children as grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, teachers and neighbors, but also for this Cathedral congregation.
I’m going to offer a few complex adult interpretations and then share a child’s perspective on today’s gospel. After the crucifixion Jesus’ closest friends feel absolutely demoralized. They had believed that Jesus would be a Messiah, the Warrior King who would overthrow the Romans. They were terribly disappointed, probably embarrassed, afraid for their lives. Although they had heard that Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus, they do not seem to really believe her. Then Jesus comes among them, but Thomas is not there.
When the others tell Thomas what he has missed, “he says unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands… I will not believe” (Jn. 20). It amazes him that bitterness is not enough for him to abandon his friends. Church is like this too, isn’t it? We are all in various stages of belief and doubt but we keep showing up. The next time they are gathered, Jesus appears and Thomas is there. After seeing his friend Jesus, Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
In 1799 the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) wrote a book called On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. In it he outlines a version of faith entirely in modern terms. He has no room for anything supernatural. The twentieth century thinker Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) proposed that we can “de-mythologize” the Bible. His contemporary Paul Tillich (1886-1965) re-described all of theology using the language of philosophical existentialism.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) did just the opposite. Rather than trying to describe faith in modern terms, he describes modern life entirely in Christian terms. He points out that our picture of the universe is always changing. Isaac Newton imagined one picture of physics. This was supplemented by what Albert Einstein taught us in the twentieth century. Barth argues that we should not begin with a scientific picture of reality that is constantly changing. For him we need to start by being God’s children not by being God’s judges. Barth famously writes that,” the Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather it is a question mark against all truths.”
Where do I stand in all of this? I believe that as a species moving deeper into the twenty-first century we are coming to a new appreciation of our connection to all other creatures. We are more than just rational beings. We are creatures that dream, imagine, draw, compose, and love. There is room for faith. We have good reason to experience ourselves as being in God’s hands.
A few years ago I interviewed Lisa Miller a faculty member at Columbia University. Dr. Miller believes that children have what she calls a “natural spirituality” and that we are severely neglecting the spiritual life of children, especially in affluent communities. As a result our children suffer from much higher levels of drug and alcohol addiction, depression, mental illness, hopelessness, sexual promiscuity, isolation, eating disorders and suicide.
My teenaged children confirm Dr. Miller’s claims. Some of their amazing classmates travel the world leading incredibly enriched lives. But at the same time they are totally ignorant when it comes to religion and feel spirituality empty.
Let me offer three practical suggestions for helping children to cultivate their spiritual lives. First, begin right now to inaugurate family rituals that direct us to God. Pray at meals and before bedtime. Learn about the church’s calendar and observe the various seasons of the church in your own home. Read books about spirituality.
Second, talk about faith. In her book Dr. Miller quotes one parent who says, “I didn’t realize for a long time that when my child asks a question and I say, “I don’t know,” and just leave it at that, I’m actually stopping the conversation (47).” Don’t be afraid to talk about death or any other topic that addresses the mysterious or transcendent. If you need help in these conversations talk to someone like Mary Carter Greene, our expert in children, youth and family.
Finally, participate in the life of a spiritual community. Grace Cathedral may be too far away for some families but we are committed to helping every child and every adult realize their full spiritual potential. Figuring out what faith might mean for you is so much easier in a community. We have wise elders, energetic young people, survivors of great tragedies, creative people with lots of heart.
This week we have been observing the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s martyrdom and his example has been deeply on my mind. Once Dr. King was awakened late at night by a man who screamed at him over the phone and threatened to murder him and his family.
Dr. King couldn’t fall back asleep. He paced the floor, couldn’t stop worrying about his family. He began to go over all the theology and philosophy he had studied. He probably longed to go back to a northern college and lead a quiet scholarly life. He wanted to quit. He brewed coffee in his kitchen. He felt so alone that he even imagined going back to live in his own parents’ house.
With tears in his eyes he put his head down and prayed. “Oh Lord, I’m down here trying to do what is right. But, Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership… I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment King felt a kind of presence, a stirring in himself. Suddenly it seemed as if his inner voice was speaking to him with confidence. “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.” King saw lightning flash and thunder roar and it became for him the voice of Jesus promising that he would never be alone. His extraordinary spiritual strength changed the world.
You think of your children before you even have them and they may come to think of us long after we are gone. In dreams we meet the ones who have gone before us; people like Thomas, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Martin Luther King Jr. Do not fear the mystery of transcendence. Do not be afraid to be wrong. Cultivate your faith and nourish the spirituality of the children. This is the truth about being human – we hear a mysterious call from beyond ourselves.
 Malcolm Clemens Young, Harvard Journal Notes, Chapter Six (12-22-1998) 6.
 Put first let me share a huge revelation I recently had. During Holy Week I found myself meditating on the massive windows above the South Transept. They are some of the largest stained glass windows in Western America and they refer to today’s gospel and another story.
Salome was the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John. She goes to Jesus and asks for her two sons to sit at your right and left hand when Jesus come into your glory. The biblical story seems to be about a terrible irony that she does not at the time see. That is, Jesus comes to glory on the cross and no mother would ask for her children to be crucified.
That seems to be the end of this story. It seems as if she did not get her wish. But then twenty centuries later at this great Cathedral at the edge of a still unknown continent James and John are in a kind of glory at Jesus’ right and left hand. In the same window we have Peter who denied he knew Jesus three times. Then on the far right-hand side you can see Thomas. The official notes say that the figure depicted in the windows is John the Evangelist not the John who is the son of Zebedee and Salome, but I’m not sure. See Michael Lampen, Cathedral Source Book, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, 2015 Revised Edition, 21.
 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition, Tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1968) 35. All Saints Day (11-6-16).
 Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (NY: Picador, 2015).
 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (NY: Harper & Row, 1982) 84-5.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
Sign seen recently outside a bookstore:
Post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to our current affairs section…
It certainly feels that way to a lot of people, and not just on the left coast. Many are concerned that it’s not fiction – the end times are here, and judgment is raining down. Fear and violence and evil behavior are evident in abundance. It just might be less stressful to know that an asteroid was likely to strike the earth a month from now than it will be to sort out what kind of government and public policy we’re likely to see in 2017.
It may not be coincidence that our lectionary always brings us grim words of judgment and warning in election season. Jeremiah’s challenge to shepherds is hardly timid: “YOU’VE scattered my sheep and you’ve failed to attend to them – so now I’m going to attend to YOU!” says the Lord. It reminds me of what my mother used to tell us about her father warning his children, “we’re going to have words, and you’re not going to get to use any of yours!” Jeremiah speaks to all of us shepherds, as keepers of our brothers and sisters.
Yet there is always a promise of healing and hope, and never-ending reminders that the current travail is never the last word. All may not be right with the world, but God is at work, especially in the brokenness. Leonard Cohen’s death brought reminders aplenty. In a life haunted by depression and darkness, he gave us the great affirmation of Hallelujah as well as the poignant and pointed Anthem of a prophet:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
It’s time to ring the bells: bells of alarm, like those that rang here in 1906, demanding response to earthquake, fire, and disaster; church bells calling us to prayer for a divided and warring nation, or tolling the death of precious human beings – and their hopes; even the quiet tinkling as doors open to announce unexpected visitors. The bells draw attention to cracks gaping wide with pain and yearning, inviting us to enter and keep them open – toes stuffed in doorways, bodies levered into gaps in the seismic rubble, hearts offered for healing wounded and despairing souls – like the hearts of today’s ingathering.
We don’t have to look very far to discover the pain. It’s sitting here this morning – hopes dashed, fears for the future, anger at unholy words and actions. There is a lot more in the city outside these doors, and in the nation east of here.
Human pain and despair generate familiar responses – like those of Jesus’ companions on Golgotha. Some lash out with hateful mocking or vengeance, attempting to mask their own pain. Some see their own failings and believe disaster is well-deserved judgment. Others simply stand in solidarity, like the weeping women keeping vigil at the foot of the cross. And some run and hide, trying to avoid or ignore the suffering. Most of us have played all those parts at one time or another. The hardest may be finding some hope in the promise Jesus makes to his fellow felon — that before the light fades they’ll both be in paradise.
There are different ways to hear that promise – it isn’t only an assurance of heaven after they die. Might it be an ironic claim of solidarity, a tiny community of resistance in the face of the worst the world can muster? ‘Brother, we’re in this together.’ There’s a tiny crack in the doom descending, and companionship offers glimmers of hope.
What’s your version of hope for the future? When Congress meets? In four more years? Right here, right now?
I think it always comes back to solidarity. However deep the despair, hope emerges in insisting that we make this journey together, whatever comes. Jesus offers abundant witness. He may go apart to pray and sleep peacefully in a stormy boat, but he’s always there when the chips are down. He goes looking for underdogs and outsiders, offering food, healing, friendship, and hope in the face of every kind of abuse, exclusion, and injustice. Even in his own extremis, he confronts the gaping hole of despair with a spark of hope.
Christians have been mocked for worshiping a ‘god of the gaps,’ as though God’s role were to do the magical stuff that we don’t yet understand. Jesus does something far more radical, choosing to be present in the gaps and in the cracks and brokenness of existence: even there in the valley of the shadow of death we are beloved, befriended, accompanied, and never abandoned.
We’re meant to be similar shepherds, and all we really need is to claim our own belovedness, and know we’re made in the image of God. We discover more about belovedness in the diverse images of God around us, all of them (and us) yearning for somebody who dares to stick his foot in the crack, or insert her shoulder to stop a closing door, or offer a heart and ear to the suffering.
The fissures in our communities are deepening and darkening. Reports tell of more hate speech and violence than after 9/11. When a BART passenger can scream at another for speaking a foreign language on her phone, when houses of worship are tagged with words of hate and exclusion, when fear abounds in the hearts of those who don’t fit some putative norm as a “real American,” we should be ringing the bells. The fear is real, and it is rampant in this land. Yet the unholy and unlovely behavior being unleashed is itself often driven by fear – fear of displacement, unemployment, and being disregarded. The great tragedy around us is that fear has pitted people and groups with profoundly similar yearnings against one another. Who doesn’t long for meaningful employment and the dignity of being recognized as a valued member of the community? Who doesn’t want to build close and loving relationships, and live in harmony? We all yearn for enough to satisfy the most essential human needs and longings, and enough more for a feast. At some level, most of us recognize that variety and diversity is essential, for living in an echo chamber is ultimately sterile – what does it generate but boredom, psychosis, and deeper fear? Together we CAN transform disaster into communities that care for the fearful, and attend to those fears in life-giving ways.
Life in Christ, life in a community of hope, is never a zero-sum game, and the kind of love that casts out fear only creates more abundant life and possibility.
Ring the bells! Hear their urgent warning and their profound hope. We can learn to put ourselves in the crack and find ourselves and others mended. Reach across some broken relationship in your life and ask to hear the lament or the fear behind it. The next time you witness a breach of human decency, step in and stand with the fearful. Remember that you don’t stand alone. Open your heart to see the humanity of those who frighten you, whether somebody asking for a handout or insisting you are wholly wrong. Each one bears the image of God, each one bears a potential blessing, each one deserves our regard and solidarity in the midst of brokenness. Remember that when we come to the Peace. Reach into the gap and offer the hope of presence, notice the beloved image of God, seek to heal the breach, and keep your foot in the door!
Is it easy? No, but it gets a bit easier with practice, and with solidarity. Notice the cracks, and walk into them looking for light. Demand light, and beat on the doors of heaven until you find it. It’s long past midnight, and the light is coming. Ring the bells!
Canon Gardner preached this sermon without a manuscript to upload.
VETERANS DAY AND THE AFTERMATH OF THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: SOME THOUGHTS FOR THE ROYAL BRITISH LEGION.
This is a service of remembrance. And remembering is a hazardous and unreliable business. It’s easy to edit things out and re-vision history. We can demonize the past or sentimentalize it. We can edit out the nasty bits or concentrate on the awful bits. But the fact that it is hard doesn’t let us off the hook of the necessity of remembering.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
So, what do we think we’re doing when we remember our war dead? Whatever it is it’s not a trip down memory lane. Novelist William Faulkner warns us “the past is never dead; it is not even past.” Another way of putting it is “The present is what the past is doing now!” On this solemn occasion, we are invited to interpret our present reality by remembering and honoring the past. So, what is there to remember?
In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the world rejoiced and celebrated. After four years of bitter war, an armistice was signed. The “war to end all wars” was over. In 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation’s highest place of honor (in England, Westminster Abbey; in France, the Arc de Triomphe).
If the idealistic hope had been realized that World War I was “the War to end all Wars,” November 11 might still be called Armistice Day. But only a few years after the holiday was proclaimed, you remember, war broke out again in Europe. Eventually, congress was requested to make this day an occasion to honor those who have served America in all wars. In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day.
It would be easy to sentimentalize and/or demonize – the bravery and the courage, the idiocy and the cruelty of that war. All the war dead are all memorialized today; and, what is very painful is that what we remember intensifies our fears and hopes about our present crises and miseries – the millions displaced and on the move in our own time. Aleppo – just to mention one place of horror.
Great and searing poetry came out of that war to end all wars. Perhaps the most famous? In Flanders Fields by Major John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
And there’s Wilfred Owen’s angry and heartfelt poem:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife,
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven.
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by the horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Owen also trained young men for the Front. To Osbert Sitwell – July 1918 — “ I see to it that he is dumb, and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him everyday, and with maps make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”
So, how do we honor the dead – especially in tense and divided times? In three ways – by remembrance, by probing the past and, above all, by honoring and not wasting the sacrifice of the slaughtered and wounded. How should we interpret our own time? In the light of history, how should we live?
The best way we can honor the dead is to get back in touch with our deepest selves, with our souls. Tragedy ensues when human beings assume that a man, a woman, has no soul – that is to say, that life has no intrinsic meaning, no value. Human beings become disposable – bodies on the rubbish heap of history. And that’s how many human beings on the planet feel today. The soul has gone out of their world. There is no justice, no peace, no food, no water, no health care, no schools, no common humanity.
George Orwell saw the absence of soul in himself and the people around him – writing at the end of the 1930s (another ominous time for the world).
“I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing hat had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that had been cut away is his soul, and there was a period – twenty years, perhaps – during which he did not notice it.”
Now, we’re noticing the “absence of soul”.
Yet people long for soul, that is, for responsibility for their lives because they are of infinite worth, even if they daren’t believe it. Even as they don’t know how to go about having a soul. Religion is vital because it provides the window of transcendence – in spite of its failures, it opens us up to a deeper reality.
Mary McCarthy’s reaction to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) is telling. She found it “morally exhilarating. I freely confess that it gave me joy and I too heard a paean in it – not a hate-paean to totalitarianism but a paean to transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah. As in those choruses, a pardon or redemption of some sort was taking place.” Evil cannot and must not be sentimentalized or whitewashed but neither should it be thought of as inevitable. To acknowledge that you have a soul is to know that compassion and forgiveness, love and redemption have the last word. These are the values we need to inject into our political discourse.
Having a soul is a way of talking about call to be human. Being human isn’t simply a biological fact; it’s a vocation, a skill. It’s a question of how you see the world and interpret it. What’s happening to and in the world? It’s looking for its soul. We’re looking for ours! Looking for our common humanity. And war and violence – even in the midst of their horror – show up in stark detail our common humanity.
G.A. Studdert Kennedy – a great chaplain in WWI:
“On June 7th, 1917, I was running to our lines half mad with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had once been a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped to see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering, ‘You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? not much “great blonde Prussian” about you.’ Then there came light. It may have been pure imagination, but that does not mean it was not also reality, for what is called imagination is often the road to reality. It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place there lay Christ upon the cross, and cried, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones ye have done it unto me.’ From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything but a crucifix. From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a crucifix.”
This lens – the lens of the cross – the lens of sacrificial love – is a way of looking at this day of remembrance. Its stark realism promises hope not despair.
This month is the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It finally concluded in November 1916 (begun on July 1). By the end (141 days), the British and French had advanced only 6 measly miles. The final casualty count was a staggering 1.1 million: 420,000 British, 203,000 French, and 465,000 German. Britain’s most notorious military engagement – remembered as its greatest military disaster – the sacrifice of a generation – a bloody defeat in a futile war. Mythologized and overanalyzed as well. A defining battle in European history – a clash of empires. Field Marshal Haig was subsequently nicknamed “The Butcher of the Somme” not by the Germans, but by his own men. That slaughter touches us today. And there’s a personal connection here – the thread of history. Remember: “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”
There’s one family, represented here today, by a good friend – the grandson/grandnephew of five brothers who fought in that terrible war (like my own grandfather). Dickie (one of the five brothers) was assigned to the Western Front where he was eventually promoted to Captain. On the eve of the Battle of Poelcapelle October 1917, he sent this short letter home:
“This is just a short note in case of anything happening. But whatever does happen, it is all for the best and only what God wills for us… I am going in, putting all my trust in God, and may He do what he wills. I will try and do my bit and take things as they come … the one thing I am sorry for is that I have not had much chance of showing how grateful I am to you all for what you have done for me. I shall never be able to make up for all, but only hope you will take the wish for the deed. … You must try to take things as they come as well. Though I know how very much harder it will be for you all … Please don’t be too upset if I do go, as it really is all for the best. … I could go on writing forever, but just remember how proud I am to do my bit, and keep up the tradition of the family.”
In the following battle, Dickie was shot and fell in the mud. His body was never discovered.
Here’s a very different experience. Lieutenant John Brande Trend wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement from the Somme (published on July 20, 1916) thanking the editors for an eloquent article on Mozart’s Magic Flute! It was as if to say, even from the depths of hell, no matter what happens, we still live in a world which plays the music of mozart! He wrote, “in the middle of this bustle and clatter, and the revolting ugliness of the business came una marcia per il fango (from The Marriage of Figaro) – one is inexpressibly revived and cheered at being reminded of anything so beautiful as one of Mozart’s operas . . . . “ Strange, elitist? Maybe, yet a reminder of the beauty still present in the midst the horror. The longing for soul cannot be completely obliterated – even in these strange and trying times.
There was also an article from October 5, 1916 about war and art – reminding readers never to lose sight of our common humanity. “We have seen the German prisoner in the Somme films — what a pathetic and helpless human being he is . . . [but] then he comes to life, and in his loneliness and helplessness [his humanity shines through]. One of these prisoners, sitting dazed among his enemies, a mere lost part of a broken machine, is offered a cigarette by an English soldier. In a moment his face is beautifully lit, lit with the sudden glory of the truth that [we are all human] and our humanity is triumphant over any process that would make us less than human.”
So we honor the dead, we acknowledge the sacrifice but we do not glorify war and, above all, we dare to celebrate our shared and common humanity. We honor that longing for soul! We honor their sacrifice by honoring the deepest part of ourselves. We resist amnesia!
One of the five brothers I mentioned, — Dickie’s brother — Dom Ambrose, served as a chaplain on the western front. After the war he returned to England and eventually became Abbott of a Benedictine Abbey in south London. This poem is one that Dom Ambrose wrote for his brother Dickie’s eulogy:
The legions start with rhythmic gait
To claim their meed of victory.
Through Flanders, home of memories,
they pass. No clink of hoof or chain,
nor echo of sharp-voiced command
attends their coming home again.
But home again they march today
In serried ranks through London streets,
And we shall stand in awe and see
The faces that we knew so gay
Look out to us, as who should say:
“Is it so long that we are dead,
That ye could not remember us?
Ye live and love and laugh: oh see
Our lonely, our forgotten bed
Of clay. We won the Victory
That ye enjoy. At least this day
We claim no thing that gold can buy,
But memory, your memory!”
Don’t let us forget! Memory! Amnesia is bad for the soul and our world is in danger of the violence and terror that comes from the loss of memory. We need to learn from history how to live now because “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”
What about the chaos of world politics? Religion – spaces like a great cathedral — raise one important question – that of the call to sacrifice and a rejection of the current consumer culture, which understands itself only through the lens of economics. Remember George Orwell writing in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): the weakness of a Socialism, committed, as it claimed, to justice and liberty but also to seeing the world only through the eyes of economics and the hope of a materialistic Utopia, “proceeded on the assumption that man has no soul.” On the other side, we see the weakness and terror of Fascism coming from the Right, which offers tyranny is exchange for safety – it plays upon our need for authoritarian nationalism.
SO, don’t let’s waste this vital day, which helps us not only to get in touch with our souls but get in touch with each other and re-imagine a world of justice and peace ! In the light of all we are called to remember today, how should we live now? Today is a great gift. A time to reconnect with each other, to reconnect with our souls. Remember: “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”
At least this day
We claim . . no thing that gold can buy,
But memory, your memory!”
May they rest in peace.
In gratitude to them, may we rise with grace and courage to meet the present challenges, to fight for justice and peace and for the common good.
May it be so!
The Very Reverend Alan Jones, PhD, OBE, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. A sermon preach at the Royal British Legion Remembrance Day Service, November 13, 2016.
“By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Lk. 21).
“Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction.” Do you believe this is true? The Russian Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980) wrote these words as part of her project to keep alive her husband Osip’s poetic legacy after he was killed by the Communists.
There is a story about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). As an internationally recognized twenty-nine year old he seemed to have everything. Then on January 2, 1936 the Communist Party officially instructed him to attend his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. The country’s dictator Joseph Stalin himself was in attendance but invisible behind a curtain. Stalin left before the end and although the audience seemed beside themselves with enthusiasm, Shostakovich felt “sick at heart.”
Two days later the official Communist Party newspaper Pravda wrote an editorial about Lady Macbeth entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” It condemned his work as “artistically obscure and morally obscene.” It went on to say that Shostakovich was playing a game that “may end very badly.” In hindsight we know what ending badly meant in Soviet Russia. One could be declared an enemy of the people, publicly humiliated, privately tortured and then executed. Others were sent to prison camps and many more simply disappeared.
Alex Ross writes that, “Shostakovich never shook off the pall of fear that those six hundred words in Pravda cast on him.” Sadly, while he agonized over whether his compositions would cause offense, this had nothing to do with the music. The same editor of Pravda later said privately about this incident. “We had to begin with somebody… Shostakovich was the most famous, and a blow against him would create immediate repercussions…”
How do you respond to the “primitive fear of violence,” “the pall of fear?” That is the question that lies behind our readings, our remembrance of those killed in war and Maurice Duruflé’s (1902-1986) Requiem. Together this week we have looked into the face of fear. Fear was a deciding factor in the Presidential campaign and it certainly has been a large part of many people’s experience since then.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus talks about a time of far greater disruption when false leaders will come in his name and everything dear to his people will be destroyed. Jesus describes wars, terrifying earthquakes, famines and plagues accompanied by signs from heaven. He says that his followers will be arrested and persecuted because of him.
Then strangely enough Jesus sees a kind of sliver lining, or maybe to put it in another way, he sees a hidden truth that was present all along. He says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Lk. 21).
Brothers and sisters in the face of fear you too have been given a gift. At any point in your life, to the extent that you feel oppressed by circumstances or people, these words are for you. You have been given the presence of Christ. You have faith and an opportunity to help others. Instead of being swept along in fear you too can be how God makes the world holy. Let me share two pictures of what this faith might look like.
1. The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) wrote his three volume Systematic Theology (1951-1963) using the language of existentialist philosophy so that people could hear about the ideas of Christianity in a fresh way. Instead of using the name God, he refers to “the ground of being.” Instead of saying our heavenly Father, he writes about our “ultimate concern.”
Tillich points out that in every moment we stand in the face of the eternal. In this way the end of history is always present to us. In the final pages of this work Tillich writes about what divine judgment means. “… [H]ere and now, in the permanent transition of the temporal to the eternal, the negative is defeated in its claim to be positive, a claim it supports by using the positive and mixing ambiguously with it. In this way it produces the appearance of being positive itself… The appearance of evil as positive vanishes in the face of the eternal.”
2. Tillich offers an image of God untangling the ambiguity as we draw more deeply into the eternal and good prevails. Frederich Buechner shares a more personal picture of how God’s presence sustains us. In 1963 when Buchner was ten years old, his father looked in on him playing with his brother and then went down to the garage, turned on the family car and let the exhaust kill him.
It was a secular household and there was no funeral. The family was not present at the burial. No one talked about what happened, or for that matter about his father, ever again. He writes, “I can’t even remember remembering him.” The family’s unwritten law was, “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” became their unwritten law.
Years later Buchner writes about how despite this God was with them, even with his father. He says that, “God is present in [events] not as their cause but as the one who even in the hardest and most hair-raising of them offers us a possibility of that new life and healing which I believe salvation is…”
“God acts… not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate cases us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial part in it.”
I understand why Nadezsda Mandelstam wrote that “Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction.” I can see why Dmitri Shostakovich constantly looked over his shoulder.
But I do not believe that fear always has the last word.
I have chosen to put my faith in Jesus, in his teaching and his own response to suffering. As the ground of our being unravels evil from good in the permanent transition of the temporal to the eternal, as the great director conveys love from the wings I trust in Jesus. I have faith in his promise that in our time we will find that, “wisdom that none of [our] opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
Let us pray:
Living God, burning wild and unconfined,
You call us to a new being,
free from the fear of death:
take away the limits
that bind our imagination
and choke our compassion
so that we may feel your pleasure
in all that brings us life;
through Jesus Christ, risen and ascended.
Years ago, the Simpsons ran an episode titled “Bart the Lover.” Bart learns that his teacher, the single and lonely Mrs. Krabappel, has posted an ad in the personal want ads inviting single men to contact her – have in mind that this was so long ago that online dating was not a thing. So, Bart posts a letter to her from a made-up character named Woodrow, to which she replies. Their letters back and forth grow increasingly romantic and affectionate, and Mrs. Krabappel falls in love with her pen pal. Finally, Woodrow invites her to meet him in a restaurant, and Bart watches through the window to see her suffer the humiliation of being stood up. As Mrs. Krabappel breaks down and begins to cry, Bart feels guilty and says to himself, “I feel partly responsible for this.”
It was definitely a laugh out loud moment – the irony of seeing a little boy so completely unaware of the consequences his behavior might have. The irony of his surprise at feeling guilty for having engineered the very torment he intended.
It is hardly ironical, though, to be surrounded with a political system so invested in cynicism, so willing to rationalize and overlook conflicts of interest, so willing to demean others for the sake of stirring up chauvinism. It is hardly ironical to be so haplessly governed within a system where blocking and impeding are regarded as victory, in which undermining is used as a strategy for success.
For the past forty years we have seen the politics of fear and division work effectively, and with each election cycle the boundaries that set limits on how far one can take such cynical behavior seemed to be pushed farther out. As a result the extremes become more influential and the center gets more alienated. The good old days of statesmanship, when conservatives like Henry Jackson and Sam Nunn could be highly regarded in the Democratic Party, and liberals like Nelson Rockefeller and Mark Hatfield could be leading Republicans, are historical memories.
No matter which way it turned out, this election was going to leave hurt and dismay in its wake. I think there would have been people in the streets on Wednesday no matter what, although maybe in Oklahoma City and Jacksonville instead of San Francisco and New York. After so many months of accusations and predictions of doom, half the population was likely to feel dismay, discouragement and even betrayal. After so many months of rancor — fear, suspicion and alienation were predictable.
People of faith, though, have a higher calling and clearer purpose than a single election or even a political system. Our scriptures, and the meditative reflections of generations of saints, teach us about the predictable realities in which we live and in which we must each confront set-backs, dismay and even horrifying outcomes. For everything we know about this life teaches us that there is nothing permanent, nothing secure. Everything about living faithfully, living prayerfully, prepares us for the moment when our earthly security fails us and our earthly stability crumbles. Everything about living biblically anticipates the discovery that the systems of this world are, at their core, corrupt and unreliable.
For those of you who feel discouraged and even hopeless after the election, today’s scriptures give us some helpful reminders, and I touch on these scriptural fragments as if they are shells along the seashore, washed ashore as hints of greater beauty, collected because they can inspire. Just like admiring a seashell is not the same as being an oceanographer, picking up these nuggets of scripture are not the same as good exegetical scholarship.
First, there is the foretelling admonition not to get distracted by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, for it will one day come to ruin. Nothing lasts forever, neither grand palaces nor grand nations. We live for a better imagination than for anything that humankind can contrive.
Second, when the inevitable time of trial comes, when the inevitable failure of worldly security takes place, do not lose hope or heart. Endurance matters. By endurance the durable beauty of the soul is crafted.
Senator Barbara Boxer shared her own story about understanding politics as a long game, as a committed endeavor in which wounding and setback are inevitable. One cannot get discouraged and give up with a loss, or even with a betrayal, she counseled. One must keep in mind the bigger picture and renew the effort toward the better way that one believes in.
Third, Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to be stern about the requirement for all the believers to work and hold a job. The kingdom of God has never been offered as a gift to be delivered while the faithful sit back and wait. The kingdom of God is a combination of faith, attitude and effort. It will never fully be a kingdom of this earth; for, again, all the kingdoms of this earth will become corrupt and fail. But the kingdom of God comes as an interruption of normal human experience. It comes with compassion, beauty, hope and justice; and these interruptions happen all the time. They happen when in faith people act for the greater glory of God.
Politics is work. It is no good sitting around and begging for better days. Get involved. Volunteer. Learn. Risk. Speak up. Stand up. Brothers and sisters, Paul says, do not grow weary doing what is right.
Finally, as Jesus teaches, in whatever time of trouble or loss we find ourselves, this is our time to testify. This is our time to bring to voice our faith – our faith in a God of love, of compassion, of Justice – our faith in a God who brings the lost to salvation and turns the hearts of the sorrowful to joy.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, so many people are hurting and confused by what has happened. So many are hopeful that they may be heard. Help your faithful people to first of all trust in you, and then to work together for the openings through which your kingdom might flow. Help us to keep in mind your commandment not to judge others, but also help us to work for justice and peace for all people.
Bless all those elected to serve with wisdom, generosity, and care for the future. Bless those who were not elected with the resolve to find the ways to serve that give honor to your ways and give hope to those who often find themselves defeated in life.
Bless your faithful people with the grace to overcome fear, the hope to overcome discouragement, and the compassion to see beyond cynicism and presumption. Bless your children with the energy to work for what is good and right, to suffer setback without resentment, and the courage to testify and remind their neighbors of the love of God and the salvation that is at hand.
What we pray, we pray in the name of Jesus Christ.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt. 5).
Having children has been a blessing to me in so many ways. It has brought back experiences that I had in childhood but had completely forgotten about. For instance, before having children I was always too busy with my job to just lie down and look at the sky. I encourage you to do this. See the beauty, the way the vast blueness breaks down into tiny dots, all the fantastic variations of clouds and fog.
Practicing yoga as an adult similarly gave me an experience that I had forgotten about over the years. In yoga I learned to stand on my head. During little league games all the other dads were coaching their kids while I inadvertently embarrassed my own children by standing on my head in left field.
The world looks so different upside down. You notice details in the most ordinary things. The grass looks like a fringe connected to your head. Houses have their doors and windows in all the wrong places. The redwood trees seem to be falling into heaven.
When Jesus teaches his friends. It sometimes feels as if he has put them all on their heads. Jesus’ Beatitudes are especially like this. In Jesus’ time beatitudes were common. But they sounded very different, like for instance “Blessed is the strong man, for he shall command armies… blessed is the man of wisdom for he shall accumulate great wealth.”
The Greek word makarioi means blessed or happy or lucky or fortunate. Jesus gives us an upside down world. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in spirit… the peacemakers” (Mt. 5). Most often, in real life this is a list of things that people try to avoid.
We are afraid of being these things because we do not want to be vulnerable. We want to be strong, to be admired. I want to point out that Jesus does not use transactional language. He does not say “ought” “should” or “shalt.” This is not a list of what you need to do. Instead it is a description of who these people, who God regards as blessed, are and what the future holds for them.
Jesus met with extraordinary success in communicating this difficult message. Alongside the Roman Emperor’s kingdom he planted the seed for the Kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom everyone is treated equally, everyone is loved, no one is cast out. Today we exist partly in each kingdom. Caesar’s empire and God’s Kingdom are woven into everything we experience.
And that is part of our shock after the election on Tuesday. The election turns the world around again. What was up is down and what was down is up.
I received an angry note today from someone who objected to us having a special service after the election. She pointed out that we did not have such services after President Obama was elected. I invite her to think about what was different in all these elections.
People are in pain today. If you haven’t heard from people who felt it then you need to talk to more people. My wife Heidi is a law professor who works especially closely with people of color and those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
She has undocumented students who are so afraid of being deported that they have resolved not to answer any knocks at the door. They have wondered if we need some kind of twenty-first century Underground Railroad. She has fully grown African American men staring at her in disbelief having concluded that half of the country believes overt racism is totally acceptable.
Mark Stanger heard from a Muslim friend who said he feels safer in Gaza than Florida. Women with tears in their eyes have told me how unsettling it is to have someone who sexually assaults women in the White House. As a parent I am especially appalled by the bullying and unkind language that is becoming our new standard.
Brothers and sisters the Beatitudes remind us of another path that is neither acquiescence to the might makes right of power politics and the fear that threatens to cause us to retreat from public life.
How the Beatitudes sound depends partly on where you are. They are the same words to every generation. They may shock us or we may have heard them so many times that we no longer hear them. But today I ask you to let them stand you on your head.
See the world from another perspective, have the vision of a child of God. See the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourning not just as people you can help, but as people who can help you. When you see the world from upside down, you begin to recognize that those who have suffered for their faith and for goodness are not the ones to feel sorry for. These are the happy ones who have found something worth suffering for.
Let me close with three suggestions to you the sometimes upside down people of God.
First, be compassionate. Find someone tomorrow who might need you. Care for them, pray for them. Second, remember in the words you use to describe what happened this week that every human being has inherent worth as a child of God. Jesus says we need to love even our enemies. Finally remember that God is ultimately the one in charge. In the larger scheme of things Caesar’s empire is retreating before the advance of the Kingdom of God.
Brothers and sisters linger a while longer with me in the upside down world of Christ. Let us not let years go by again without looking into the sky.