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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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Listen to Featured Sermons

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, January 1
Holy Names
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon for Holy Name Sunday

Year A
January 1, 2017

Randal B. Gardner

A father stood with his daughter admiring the artwork her Sunday School class had put up on the wall. Her piece was very well drawn, but a bit odd. The image was of a man leading a donkey, on which was a woman and her baby. Behind the donkey was a giant bug. He finally had to say, “Tell me about your picture.” “That’s Joseph and Mary and Jesus going to Egypt.” “Hmm. So why is there a bug in your picture?” “That’s the flea, Daddy.” He still looked a bit puzzled, so she continued, “You know. The angel came to Joseph and said, ‘Take the mother and child and flee to Egypt. That’s the flea!”

As the new year turns we mark the passing of time. As St. Paul wrote, “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. Now, it looks as though they’re here to stay.” Not St. Paul of the New Testament, but St. Paul of Liverpool – who, by the way, was not a flea, but a Beatle.

Most pop songs about passing time are a bit wistful and nostalgic, looking back as if passing time is an enemy of the better life. Most biblical references to time, though, are forward looking, anticipating a positive completion of time in a perfect ending. The biblical vision for the world and for the passing of time is a vision of waiting for the ultimate renewal and redemption that God intends. The best is yet to come, and we live in anticipation and waiting for that day.

Today is not only New Year’s Day, but it is also the eighth day after Christmas, the day of the Holy Name, when the bible teaches us that the child born to Mary would have been circumcised and given his name, Jesus. It is part of a string of stories about the infant child. Later this week we have epiphany, the story of the wise visitors from the East. And in a month, we have the story of the Presentation, when the parents take their child to Jerusalem to make the ritual offering of thanks and dedication in the Temple.

We draw two names into the story of the Holy Name. One is from the prophet Isaiah, who told of a child who would be named Emmanuel. One is from the angelic messages about this child to be born, who would be called Jesus. The names have meanings – they’re not just sounds. Emmanuel means God is with us. Jesus, or Yeshua, means God saves us. Both names were given at times of fear and oppression.

Isaiah spoke to a people watching their nation being taken apart by foreign powers, and the reminder of Emmanuel – God is with us – expanded imaginations and gave endurance a hopeful purpose. The birth of Jesus came into the midst of a time of oppression and disruption, and the name “God saves us” was a rebuttal to the claim of Rome that it was the savior of the people.

In fact, most names have meanings. For example, my name – Randal – comes from the Germanic Randolph, which refers to the wolf who protects the edge of the city – the Rand Wolf. Malcolm comes from the Gaelic as a follower of Columba, one of the great Celtic saints of the church. Our deacon, Doe, has the given name Dorothy, which comes from the Greek meaning of God’s Gift. Peggy Lo is our lay assistant this morning, and Peggy is a derivative of Margaret, which carries the Greek meaning of a Pearl. But Peggy’s given name, Pei Han Lo, so far as I can render it without knowing the Chinese language, refers to a brave and courageous comet.

I have a friend who is a college football coach, who told the story of one of his players who went by the name Bum. It was, of course, a nickname, but my friend wondered if it wasn’t shaping this young man’s life in some odd ways. Bum was good enough to get by, but it seemed he had more talent and energy than he often showed. His grades were often on the edge, his appearance was often a bit shabby, and he didn’t seem to think that he mattered much. My friend had a long talk with him one day and asked what his real name was. Richard. The coach said he was going to start calling him Richard, and he encouraged the young man to start going by that name himself.

It had an effect. Richard began to get better grades. He bought nicer clothes. He showed up on time. Years later he told my friend that he had never thought his name would matter, but that Bum had made him think he wasn’t worth much. My friend, he said, gave him back the name that made him feel important, worthwhile. Richard, by the way, means brave and powerful.

When I was in seminary I had a friend, an older woman who had been divorced for a couple of years. She had not been at peace with keeping her former husband’s name, and she didn’t feel good about taking back her father’s name, her maiden name. One day in the chapel as the communion service focused on the feast of Michael and all Angels it suddenly came to her. At the end of the service she declared to all of us – “I have a new name. From now on I am Barbara St. Michaels!”

Names have meanings, and names are important. We mark the Holy Name of Jesus today, but we also mark the holiness of your own names. Regard your name as sacred, for that is part of the beauty of our faith. One of the scandals of our faith is that it takes each person as important, each person in a personal and intimate relationship with God. Each of us is saved uniquely, and without a requirement to become something else. We are saved as we are to be who we are. God knows you by name, loves you as you are. As Jesus taught, God knows the numbers of hairs on your head, you are so important to God. When the people of Israel, in a dark and hopeless time, wondered if God had forgotten. “God has left me,” the people cried. “My Master has forgotten I even exist.” And God replies, “Can a mother forget the infant at her breast, walk away from the baby she bore? But even if mothers forget, I’d never forget you—never. See, I’ve carved your names into the palms of my hands. I can never forget you.”

No matter where you are in your life, whether these are the best times for you or the darkest most oppressive days of your life, Jesus Christ is for you, God is with you. God has never forgotten you, any more than a mother could forget the baby at her breast. Your name is holy. Your life is a treasure. God is with you. God will save you.

May God bless this new year for you.

Sunday, December 25
Christmas Day Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing
Sermon from the Christmas Day Holy Eucharist
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The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, December 25
Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
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In 1956 Truman Capote wrote a short memoir from his childhood called A Christmas Memory. It looked back to his early childhood, when he was sent to live with relatives after his parents divorced, and he lived with these older aunts, uncles and cousins until he was nine or ten years old.

For the most part these relatives were not that well suited to raise a child. The depression was at its worst, and the house became a home for an extended family, including this child Truman. Of all the adults in the house, Truman felt at ease and at home with an elder cousin he called Sook – a child-like adult who was innocent, free of ambition, and content except when the other adults were angry with her. The two fashioned a bond of loving care for each other until Truman was old enough to be enrolled in a military school. In Capote’s words:

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much.”) . . . But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

 

At the heart of the Christmas message there is joy. But joy is not a kind of durable happiness or optimism. Joy is not a relentless good mood. Joy only exists if there is also pain, also loss.

Christmas, for many of us, is that time of year when, in the midst of the long nights and cool days of the winter, something of the fullness of life comes into focus. We may become nostalgic, as Capote was, for the better days of bliss that only childhood can offer. We may become devoted to our family and to blessing others, especially the children. We become imaginative enough to consider what peace and harmony and equity might look like. We are knitted together with wider humanity in such a way that generosity comes to the surface.

With each of these reflections, on the bliss of childhood, on the hopes for the future, on the peaceable kingdom — we may often feel the pangs of the places where life is hollow. We note the absence of those who made our childhoods blissful. We note the absence of peace. We feel again the sorrows that accumulate in this life.

And so, the tension of the faithful life comes into better focus. In this year past we have been reflecting on the idea of home and how it might be that we can make Grace Cathedral a home for some, a place of belonging – without exception. In the gospel we hear that the expression of God’s own mind, the essence of God’s imagination and desire – the Word, the logos – took on human flesh and made a home among us, within this realm of earth and cosmos. That Word, whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth, made a home among us.

Even as we declare that as true, though, the tension is reiterated. It is not enough to give thanks for the fact that the Word lives in our midst. John tells us he came to his own, and his own rejected him. He came into the world that existed because of him, and yet the world could not see him or recognize him. BUT, the gospel exclaims, BUT, for all who do receive him, for all who do recognize him, he empowers, gives, transforms those people into children of God, no longer to be at home in the realm of earth and humanity, but now at home and alive as part of that spiritual fellowship described as being at one with the Word, at one with the Father and the Son. No longer limited to the life of the human family, but now transformed to share in the life of the divine family, to share in the essence of God’s own being.

This, though, is where joy comes to life. Helen Luke described joy as having confidence in the happy ending that would become the final reality. C.S. Lewis described joy as having confidence that the luminous, numinous moments of life, in which the transcendence of God connects with human experience were glimpses into the greater reality toward which we move.

Christmas is imbued with joy because it offers the story of the greater reality, of the unwavering happy end to all things. Christmas is imbued with joy because it reminds us that this child about whom we sing is the expression of God’s willingness to be at home among us, to dwell in the midst of the sorrows, gladness, and losses that you and I know so well. Christmas connects with joy because it reminds us that this child has come to invite us into that greater life in which we are one with God and the creative center of all things.

Joy comes into the midst of sorrow and pain, not as a replacement of it. Home is offered in contrast to these earthly homes that can never satisfy, giving us instead that longing that Paul described for the time when we shall be at home in the Lord. Joy comes from a deep seated awareness and trust that the sorrows and injustices of this life eventually give way to the blessing and redemption of the greater life.

Ironically, that greater life is seen in this frail child, born to a family of refugees driven from their homes by an oppressive empire, sheltered in a stable among the beasts of burden. Ironically, poignantly, marvelously, that life is also the life John proclaims in the opening song of his gospel story.

In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. The Word was in the world that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognize him. He came to his own and his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God himself. The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Sunday, December 25
Midnight Mass Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass
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The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus’ sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Saturday, December 24
Paths Home
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“… prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40).
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“… prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40).

 

We move through the world on paths laid down long before our birth. We follow career paths, artistic paths – philosophical, ethical and political paths.[1] Like a trail through the wilderness they both guide and constrain us. They lead us from a beginning to an end. Without them we would be forced to cut our way slowly through brambles, repeating the same basic mistakes and reinventing the same solutions.[2]

 

Our way of parenting is such a path. On December 22, 1998 I began my journey as a father. That day I spent an unseasonably warm morning at Lamont Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At lunchtime the weather turned and I stepped out into a gathering snowstorm. At our apartment I heard the surprising news that my wife Heidi was pregnant and then immediately rushed in to spend the rest of the day at her office.

 

I cannot even find words to describe the joy we felt. We were young and so in love. We longed to share our daily happiness with another being. In those days every moment felt deeply significant, consecrated by God as holy. On that Christmas, the angel Gabriel’s message to Mary came true for us too. Despite the obvious and inescapable darkness of the world, at moments like this, God’s joy eclipses everything else.

 

This week the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked a simple question of the evangelical author Tim Keller.[3] Kristof asked if he could be called a Christian if he did not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection. Tragically, I believe, the pastor said, “No.”

 

For Keller there can be no compromise and no real mystery. He thinks that if you do not see the world in the same way that he does, you cannot call yourself a Christian. I could not disagree more. His test leaves out some of the most faithful people to Jesus in history.

 

Keller begins with the wrong metaphor. Christianity, or to use a better description, the way of Jesus, is a path not a belief. It encompasses a set of traditions, stories, rituals, prayers and other actions that, through the spirit of Jesus, help us to find our way home to God.

 

Christmas celebrates the origin of this divine path. It begins when the angel first appears to Mary and she says yes. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1). God acts in human history through the person of Mary and now, if we can say yes, through us.

 

The angel announces the birth of Jesus to shepherds saying, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people” (Lk. 2). The English construction, like the Greek, is so strange – it is overly joyful. Calling this good news is not enough; it also involves great joy. Make no mistake about it this is exactly what every person longs for. We all want to be happy.

 

Our culture and education focuses almost entirely on the external world, on material things. So we try to be joyful by having more: more money, success, power, credentials and possessions. We assume that succeeding will make us happy and forget that happiness comes from here – from our heart.

 

Happiness is elusive. You don’t get it by just saying, “I’m going to be happy now.” The truth is that we do not find joy. It finds us. We most reliably experience joy when we live in gratitude, when we are spiritually connected to our creator, open to the gifts that might be hard to see. We experience joy when we travel the path of Jesus.

 

Jesus’ teaching is so simple. He says love your God and love your neighbor. Sometimes our ego might fight against this. But the Christmas miracle is that the truth of Jesus, and the spirit of Jesus, have come into the world and help us when we need it most.

 

Through our children we see the familiar with new eyes. This fall my son Micah read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s last book The Brothers Karamazov (1880).[4]

 

In it the monk Zossima tells the story about a period in his life when he lost sight of the way of Jesus. When he was a young officer in the Russian army and was away, the woman he loved married another man. When Zossima came home he crudely insulted his rival and challenged him to a duel.

 

The night before the duel Zossima flew into a senseless rage at his butler. For no reason he punched the servant twice in the face so that the man was covered in blood. // Waking up early the next day Zossima went to the window and looked out at the garden. He saw the beauty of the rising sun as the birds sang. He wondered about the meaning of it all.

 

For a moment Zossima did not even know why he felt dissatisfied. But a deep sense of shame arose in his heart as he remembered what he had done to his butler. In his mind’s eye he saw how the man quivered straining to not raise his arms as he was struck. Zossima immediately ran to the servant’s room bowed his head to the ground and begged forgiveness of the terrified man. After this he felt an amazing lightness, a confidence evident to everyone.

 

Later, at the duel, the men marked out twelve paces. Zossima’s adversary shot first. The bullet grazed his cheek and ear. At this point he astonished everyone throwing his gun away and shouting, “Thank God that no man was killed.”

 

To the man who had just shot him he said, “Forgive me… for [insulting] you and for forcing you to fire at me.” The men from Zossima’s regiment were horrified by the apology and blamed him for dishonoring them.

 

But from Zossima said, “Gentlemen, look around you at the gifts of God, the clear sky, the pure air, the tender grass, the birds. Nature is beautiful and sinless, and we, only we, are sinful and foolish… we don’t understand that life is heaven, for we have only to understand that and it will be fulfilled in all its beauty.”

 

As he described this moment Zossima says, “there was such bliss in my heart as I had never known before….” For the rest of his life Zossima brought to others this peace that he found in the way of Jesus.

 

And that’s the amazing secret of Christmas isn’t it. We discover joy not by seeking it for ourselves but by bringing it to other people. In fact no matter how miserable we feel, we always have the power to be Christ’s presence for others. We come closest to our spiritual home in those moments when we are full of gratitude and love for the people around us.

 

The paths we follow through life have beginnings and endings. Here I am, coming to the end of my path as a parent of children. Next year my son will be on the East Coast at college. Everyone in our family has been acutely aware that this is our last season of Advent with him in our home. I believe that this intense love I feel for him is not unlike the love that God feels for us.[5]

 

I am glad that he will have had two years at Grace Cathedral and that this will always be a spiritual home for him. This year we have been celebrating the theme of “Home.” We learned that home does not just refer to this magnificent building. For generations people like us have made this their home. It has become home through the sharing and healing, the hoping and striving – the learning, singing and praying of all the people drawn here by God, and following the way of Jesus.[6]

 

Tonight this sublime music, the warmth of our feelings for each other, our memories of past Christmases and our hopes for the future – make God’s presence feel so tangible. Look around you. Each of you is so beautiful. You seem to be shining with the light of God’s love. This is heaven.

 

We move through the world on paths. As you travel and seek your home in God, I pray that you will experience the good news of great joy. I pray that the spirit of this holy night and of Mary’s son will always inspire and sustain you. Merry Christmas!

[1] There are paths that teach us how to treat our body and ones that inform us how others see, or fail to see, us.

[2] This is a paraphrase of the Epilogue in Robert Moor, On Trails: An Exploration (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2016) 297. “We move through this world on paths laid down long before we are born. From our first breath there is a vast array of structures already in place – “spiritual paths,” “career paths,” “philosophical paths,” “artistic paths,” “paths to wellness,” “paths to virtue” – which our family, society, and species have provided for us. In all these cases, the word path is not applied haphazardly. Just like physical paths, these abstract paths both guide and constrain our actions – they lead us along a sequence of steps, progressing toward our desired ends. Without these paths, each of us would be forced to thrash our way through the wilderness of life, scrabbling for survival, repeating the same basic mistakes, and reinventing the same solutions.”

[3]Nicholas Kristof, “Pastor, Am I a Christian?” The New York Times 28 December 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-a-christian.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0

[4] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov Tr. Constance Garnett (NY: Modern Library) 308-314.

[5] We will soon embark on a very different and new path as parents of adult children.

[6] It has been amazing. This year we met doctors who greet refugees on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and lawyers seeking equal justice for people of color. We studied how politics, inequality and racism undermine the experience of home. We worked on alleviating the suffering of homeless people here in San Francisco. We learned how important spirituality is for young people and how the spiritual diversity of this country may be one of our greatest assets. We discovered a new appreciation for the vast estuaries that make this Bay our home. Most importantly we came together to feel the glorious presence of Christ.

 

Sunday, December 18
Divine Disorientation
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Let me just take a moment to look at you! It feels a long time that I’ve been waiting to be at home with you all at Grace. Thank you to all I’ve met so far for the warmth of your welcome. Thank you all for being ready to share your worshiping home with me. It is truly good to be here.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t also a little disorienting. A new cathedral, a new city and a new country are a lot to take in all at once. Especially when the country itself is still in the midst of a fairly disorienting election period. So it’s entirely appropriate that today’s gospel reading is also disorienting – as the gospel so often is. Disorienting because it brings together things that seemingly don’t fit with one another – angels and carpenters, virginity and motherhood, God and humanity. Disorienting because it re-arranges social norms to fit with God’s norms – a woman pregnant outside wedlock is accepted, not dismissed. Disorienting because it invites us to reassess how we respond to God’s call ourselves.

I want to focus on one particular disorientation today. It’s one that many people stub their brains against when they think about the Christmas story – or even when they say the creed week by week. It’s one that makes Christianity feel alien and strange to many who come to the story for the first time, and one that many seasoned believers still find hard to swallow. It’s that virgin mother thing, that impossible Blessed Virgin Mary who is at the heart of today’s story.

Mary is at the heart of the story but Matthew the gospel writer leaves her strangely off stage. Joseph is his main protagonist – as befits a patriarchal writer in the midst of a patriarchal society. The focus of Matthew’s story is not the young girl with the courage to say yes to the angel but her betrothed husband who has to say yes to his own call from God. And God’s call to Joseph’s is to step outside the privilege of patriarchy. A call to not be the hero of his own story but to accept a supporting role in the unfolding history of salvation. And in putting the call of God and the needs of his beloved before his own male pride Joseph is one of the first and finest feminist male role models in the Bible.

For Joseph needs to stand to one side now so that we can focus on the figure of Mary. Not the stained glass Mary, not the statue Mary with pretty features and delicate clothes, crowned with stars and queening over heaven. But the peasant girl Mary. The one with hands roughened from years of helping in home and field, the one with dusty feet and plain worn clothing, the one who looked the messenger of God in the eye and said yes to her world being turned upside down.

Today when the church looks at Mary it is her courage and her faithfulness that we tend to value most highly. Her willingness to take the risk of becoming mother to a God of reckless love. Her readiness to put aside her own dreams of comfort and security in order to dream God’s dream of a world turned upside down into a commonwealth of love. Her nurturing of the child Jesus with a love that helped him to be open to the love of God. This we can see and honour and love in Mary.

So there is a natural desire nowadays to value Mary Theotokos – that is Mary the God-bearer – but to quietly lose Mary the Blessed Virgin. We can easily see why. Mary’s virginity is a doctrine that has been shamefully used over the centuries to put women in a catch 22 situation. None of the rest of the female sex can live up to Mary. Either we fail to be virgins, and so are insufficiently pure, or else we fail to be mothers, and so are insufficiently loving and generative. And some of us – married but childless – manage to fail at both, like me!

But a number of theologians are giving us a new take on Mary’s virginity. Remember that in the society of her time a woman was not her own mistress. A girl passed from the control of her father into the control of her husband. To be a respectable woman was to be under the wing of some man – which is why the plight of widows is so often mentioned in the Bible along with that of orphans – to lose the male head of the household was to be in a vulnerable position in this thoroughly patriarchal society.

It is two feminist theologians from South America – Maria Bingemer and Ivone Gebara[1] – who have pointed out the relevance of this social situation for our understanding of the virgin birth. In Mary we have a girl who is in a position of transition. She is betrothed – and so has begun the journey away from her father’s control. But she is not yet married, still a virgin, – and so is not yet under Joseph’s control. It is just at this point of fluidity and ambiguity in her social position that Mary is invited to become the mother of God. And it is just at this point that she is able to answer for herself in a unique way. No longer defined just as ‘daughter’, not yet defined just as ‘wife’, Mary is free to answer for herself. Her ‘Let it be to me according to your will’ is an assertion of her right to decide for herself, as well as a trusting response to the invitation of God.

This is the importance of the doctrine of the virgin birth – not that it exalts virginity over sexual activity but that it allows the woman Mary the space to respond for herself. We see Mary being able to find a home with Joseph that allowed her to be fully herself, to speak her own truth and to find her own – spectacular – calling. This is the freedom and the homeland that God offers to us all – a place where we can be fully and joyfully ourselves unconstricted by oppressive power structures and limiting social expectations.

The coming of Christ disorients everything. A new order begins with a socially insignificant woman saying yes to God without consulting her father or husband. The doctrine of the virgin birth does not tell us that human sexuality is tainted with sin and, therefore, not a fit beginning for one who is Messiah and the Son of God. But maybe it tells us that the old order of relationships between men and women is tainted with sin and, therefore, not a fit beginning for the Messiah and the Son of God.

Let’s not pretend that, 2000 years later, we live in a world where patriarchy no longer pertains, where men and women have found a radical equality. We still live in a world where many men feel they have the right to dictate what happens to a woman’s body and where many women live under male control. We still live in a world where both women and men are bent out of shape in order to fit into the categories of ‘real men’ and ‘real women’ that fit neither gender. We still need the message of a God who is born among us to upset this old order and disorient us enough that we can see the world from a fresh perspective.

Disorientation is always unsettling, often scary and seldom entirely welcome. However such shake-ups are sometimes a necessary part of creating a new home. Joseph and Mary standing together against patriarchal expectations made a home in which God could come to live with us. On a far more modest scale the disorientations in our own lives can bring us to new homes and blessings – as mine has done for me. It is beyond wonderful to be here to share with you in the disorientation of Advent and the joy of Christmas. My hope is that together, over the next few years, we can be open to the always surprising, always disorientating presence of God among us and, like Mary, like Joseph, say yes to the challenge and change that brings.

[1] Mary Mother of God, Mother of the Poor (Eugene Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004).

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