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The Rev. Yolanda Norton’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Truth about God
“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29).
What is the truth about God?  Our 2018 Cathedral theme is truth and this seems like a good place to begin. Eleven years ago our family found ourselves behind a square iron fence at a fairground with perhaps a hundred thousand people outside. The electricity generated by all those souls felt tangible. I remember the beautiful young dancers, old men in bright robes carrying holy objects and prayers chanted so loudly over loudspeakers that you could almost think of nothing else.
We were celebrating Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany, in Addis Ababa as the special guests of the Abuna, a kind of pope for forty million Ethiopians. I will never forget the feeling I had when the people threw thousands of plastic bottles over the fence to be filled with blessed holy water.
In Greek, the word epiphany means to shine upon or to reveal. We associate this season with three images. First, it reminds us of the light present from the beginning of our world which is Christ. Second, we remember the magi, the three wise men, visitors to the baby Jesus, who some regard as representatives of, “the exotic, the secular, and the scientific world.” The other guiding story for this time tells about the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were torn apart and God’s spirit came to rest on him.
My old teacher Peter Gomes used to say that Epiphany, “is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see.” He told us that what begins as a very private message to Mary and Joseph comes to be shared with, “an ever-expanding audience of witnesses.” He compares it to the ripples formed when you drop a pebble into a smooth pond (until the entire surface is witness to the initial movement of that one stone).
That Ethiopian day in the midst of the largest crowd I had ever seen we lost our five-year-old daughter. So much was happening, I took a photograph, and in a heart stopping instant she was gone. Then we noticed all the television cameras moving to a place where there was a commotion. There was our daughter sitting on the Abuna’s lap as he presided from his throne over the largest religious ritual I will ever see.
My wife picked her up and the two of them were on every television station and the front page of every newspaper. Wherever we went in Ethiopia after that people recognized them and gave them special gifts. This event led to an amazing sense of connection to others.
We long to be known, and during that time we were. It was as if the special admiration that we have for our own children, the way they seem so beautiful to us, was suddenly shared by a whole country of people. For those weeks it felt like all of humanity was our family.
All of us know about the opposite experience too, when instead of a person we become “traffic” to others, that is an inconveniently placed object for them. We also know what it feels like to be isolated and lonely. This week I read an article sent to me by a friend called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
The argument may be familiar to you already. It holds that the smartphones, which didn’t even exist when we went to Ethiopia, have disrupted a whole generation’s experience of childhood. They are guinea pigs measuring the effects of colossal social changes. According to the author today’s young people are far less likely to use drugs and alcohol, to have sex or even to go out with their friends. They spend about the same amount of time doing homework as earlier generations.
The difference is that young people today spend a massive amount of time on smartphones and social media. This leads to loneliness, a feeling of being left out, depression and suicide. The author writes that girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by fifty percent. Three times as many 12 to 14 year old girls kill themselves today than did in 2007. She also writes that those who attend religious services have a much lower risk for depression.
This is a time when we really need God to be revealed to our children, and to us. Yet sometimes it seems as if even devout Christians are strangely uninterested in coming to know God. Many people seem satisfied to say simply that “God is love” without caring much about the details, without learning what the Bible and tradition teaches about God’s nature.
This puzzles me. Imagine if we were having a conversation and I told you that I love my wife. What if you asked where she grew up and I said, “I don’t know.” You might say, “Well what kind of music does she listen to?“ or “what does she look like?” “is she shy or gregarious?” If I told you that I didn’t know, you’d probably think there was something seriously wrong with our relationship. One of the most upsetting realizations we can have about someone we love is that they do not really know us.
Loving someone means trying to learn about that person. We find out about God through prayer and worship, in studying scripture and the tradition, by talking to each other and by trying to follow God’s teaching in how we live (by the way this includes everything from how we drive to how we talk about other people).
In baptism we promise to learn more about God and to help our children to do the same. In baptism we renew a relationship that God first began at creation. In baptism we say, “I belong no longer to myself, to my parents, my work, to the Internet or the world; I belong to God.”
Some of you may know that I am on a quest to understand God through the eyes of the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Last year I read 2,000 pages of Church Dogmatics his 9,000 page systematic theology. He asserts that we can know something about God because God cares enough about us to show himself in the Bible, in preaching and the person of Jesus himself. For Barth, this God of the scriptures is above all the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the Epiphany story of Jesus’ baptism shows us each aspect of who God is.
Trinity means that we experience God as three persons who have one being or essence. In an analogous way you might experience me as a husband on a double date, as a parent coaching rugby, or as a priest here at Grace Cathedral. You will see a different aspect of me in each of those settings but the being behind all of those experiences, that is me, is the same.
Barth points out that there is within us a kind of enmity toward God. We are kind of like frenemies (friend-enemies) with God. This isn’t just about us as individuals. We learn how to be with God in large part from our culture, which in Western Europe and North America has begun to bend further away from God.
In a recent article the actor Russell Brand who plays the rock star in the old movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall writes about what he is learning in overcoming his addiction to drugs. In a 12-step program Brand recognized his powerlessness over drugs and turned his life over to God, the only one who could save him. It made him realize that all of us live by an unconscious myth that in his words, “we can make ourselves feel better with external stuff, be it behavior or chemicals.”
With our lives we may often miss the mark but Jesus shows that we do not have to be lost in our misplaced efforts to find security and love by putting ourselves above others.
Over time this Spirit changes us so that gratitude is no longer just the way we think or even behave. Gratitude becomes our very essence. For Barth, in the end this is all about joy. God’s joy leads to the creation of the world. In this same joy God invites us into the Divine life and through the Spirit gives us the ability to say “yes” to God with our whole being. It was this joy that I sensed on that day as the Ethiopians threw their water bottles over the fence.
Brothers and sisters welcome to the Year of Truth at Grace Cathedral. We all long to know and to be known. Like those exotic, secular and scientific Magi let us follow the star of wisdom and come to know the One we love. In the face of all that threatens this generation let the light of Epiphany, the person of Jesus become ever clearer to us. As the ripples of the waters at Jesus’ baptism reach the shores of our time let us find our own way to say, “I belong to God.” Imagine the truth about God we are about to discover.
 Our Cathedral’s 2018 theme is truth. I hope that we will learn new truth about our own lives, and our relation to others. We will explore the truth in journalism, ethics, politics, the economy, sociology, the natural and biological sciences and technology. This week our federal government opened up the process to begin selling offshore oil drilling leases. In our time we need to especially open our eyes to the truth about nature and our planet. Associated Press, “Alaska May Open Up Again for Oil Leasing, but Risks Linger,” The New York Times, 5 January 2018.
 Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 31.
 Ibid., 30-6.
 Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017. David Smith sent the article. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
 “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.” Ibid.
 This reminds me of the sense of misplaced attention in the billboards that say that we spend more time reading billboards than planning for our retirement.
 Ethan Renoe, “The Tragedy of Dumbing Down Christianity,” Relevant, 22 December 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/article/the-tragedy-of-dumbing-down-christianity/
 Paraphrase of Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 33.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clarke, 1936), 88-120.
 Ibid., 444ff.
 Jesse Carey, “The Second Coming of Russell Brand,” Relevant, 8 October 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/feature/the-second-coming-of-russell-brand/
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.T. Thomposon, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clarke, 1956) 371
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 669.
 Ibid., 647.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young spoke without using a manuscript.
Bishop Marc preached without using a manuscript.
Dr. Gardner used the downloadable PDF outline for his Sermon
Grace: The Real Revolution, a Sermon for Independence Day
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
“I have given you authority to tread on serpents, and over all the power of the enemy.”
I grew up in a small town along the Connecticut coast, steeped in references to its colonial past, and keenly self-aware two hundred plus years later, of its role in the American Revolution. In second grade, we toured the Georgian style William Hart House on Main Street, marveling over the tiny uncomfortable beds, and the hobbit-like scale of the spaces. We learned about the settlers lives, and even how to make the candles they would have used, successively dipping the taper into a cauldron of melted wax till a candlestick began to emerge. Fourth of July was a really big deal in our town, with a grand parade in the afternoon; at night parents and children flocked to the shore waiting expectantly to watch the fireworks go off over Long Island Sound. Around this time of year, I’d see this strange flag emerge with a yellow field, and the image of a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, with the words, “Don’t Tread on Me” beneath it.
I was intrigued by the flag from an early age – it was so defiant, so bold. What society would have need for such a severe warning, to enshrine it on a flag? Later I’d learn it was called the Gadsden flag, and you can see it right here in the north transept among the flags relating to our nation’s rise and development. It was named after the statesman and military officer who designed it to be a standard for the American Revolution in 1775, and especially of the Continental Marines. To this day, the oldest active vessel in the U.S. Navy has the right to fly it.
Along with the stars and bars, and the bald eagle, the timber rattlesnake represented an early icon of the nascent republic.
Benjamin Franklin praised the snake as “an emblem” of America’s vigilance, “magnanimity and true courage.” He writes that though the snake appears defenseless to the unschooled, and its fangs unimpressive to the uninitiated, “their wounds however small are decisive and fatal.” If you look closely you’ll see the rattle is formed of 13 sections, standing for the 13 original colonies. Franklin notes with a tone of pride and warmth, “she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.” The flag has made a resurgence in recent years as the standard for the Tea Party, who interpret it as the ultimate symbolic expression of individual rights and protections from the government, rather than as a nationalist expression of collective defiance against the British imperial antagonist.
This serpentine image for the state was not new. You’ll recall that 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes’s supremely influential political treatise on the nation-state was titled “Leviathan.” Propounding views of material humanism, representative government, social contract theory, and individual rights, he laid the foundations for liberal political philosophy in the West. However, writing in the desolation and division of the English Civil War, he was sharply critical of any government that did not invest a single sovereign entity with absolute power.
Human life, Hobbes surmised, was “nasty, brutish and short,” and human social order was not directed by a concern for the summum bonum – the greatest good – as the Scholastics maintained but the summum malum – the greatest evil, which he believed was “violent death.” Now, he believed this because he saw it first-hand, but his belief constituted a radical rupture with a thousand years of political theology undergirding the Christendom that came before the advent of the modern era.
Hobbes saw Christianity become a source of violent division and looked to another power to secure the human future. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom had given way to a fractious Christendom, with Catholics and Protestants at war with each other. So the ancient, tyrannical sea-serpent, the Leviathan of biblical lore, became the driving image for the nation-state that ruled with uncompromising force to keep these groups in line. (With this in mind, it’s easy to see how America’s timber rattlesnake would have been a kind of visual dig at the very image that justified the crown’s oppression of the colonies. The Leviathan would be slain by a mere rattler in a classic David and Goliath story. That’s the American Revolution in short.)
Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke were the philosophical architects of a revolution in human history that would sweep aside millennia of dynastic tradition in favor of newly emerging nation states. The masses hoped that government elected by the people would be better, and by many measures it has been. Public education, social and economic mobility, personal freedom and the extensive development of the common law tradition: all of these are massive advantages to the modern age. But, Jesus warns us in the gospels that we reap what we sow. Revolutions sown in violence, eventually gave way to the most violent century the world has ever known.
Twentieth century advances in science, technology, philosophy and the arts stand under the long shadow of two world wars, mass genocides, Vietnam, nuclear weapons, global warming, and the post-colonial impoverization of the Global South. Hobbes’s philosophy, carried to its logical end gave us fascism, Stalinism, and Nazism. Elie Wiesel, who died this weekend, contended against a Leviathan that would have left even Hobbes shocked and horrified. But the human spirit springs eternal with hope. In the ashes of these tragedies, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union were born with the hope that together we could find new, creative solution to build a better world.
We live in an age when the pressures of globalization are forcing us to reevaluate our basic premises, the very foundations upon which the global political and financial orders rest: uneven benefits of a global economy; booming black markets in drugs, weapons, and human trafficking; the ever-widening technology gap; terrorism; and an ecological crisis that threatens planetary collapse. The unfettered positivism of the Enlightened West is not working. Our world is literally starving for a model of global justice that transcends the narrow self-interests of entities defined solely by their own sovereignty, and designed to perpetuate that sovereignty at all costs.
Lacking a proper telos, an end resting not only on measurable, sensory facts but also the immeasurable and immutable demands of divine justice, the world of competing nation-states seems trapped forever in a ceaseless game of thrones. And that world is becoming smaller every day. We see it the face of families evicted without a care as to where they will go; we hear it in the voices of migrant peoples pleading for a place to call home amidst dangerous politics and unimaginable economic privation; we read about it in nations electing to withdraw from international cooperation for fear of eroding privilege; and we experience it as our own nation flirts with xenophobic authoritarianism.
Who are we in the midst of these things? “I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.” We need to hear that. The Church needs to hear that. Take it in. He’s speaking to me and you. We are the 70. Every time we approach this table we recommit to His revolution. The Kingdom of God is the closest thing to an anti-state that the world will ever know. It exists not to serve itself, but to serve others; it does not conquer through violence or coercion, but multiplies by the force of love’s invitation.
We reap what we sow. Jesus sowed a revolution not in others’ blood, but in his own, and for our sake. He sent out the 70 not with guns, tanks or swords; indeed, not even with a purse, bag or sandals. (I guess that means Luis Vuitton is not a thing in the Kingdom of God. Sorry lol.) With barely a tunic to their name, the 70 are sent out not as mercenaries to convert others at the edge of a sword, but as people totally at the mercy of those who would receive them. Even to those who would not receive them, they declared that the Kingdom had come near, leaving in peace, returning their peace to them.
The Kingdom comes near to us, too. When we approach this table, Jesus gives himself to us so that we may give ourselves to others. Have you ever noticed that Jesus chooses the path of relationship over the path of structural power to change the world around him? We have those huge banners out front that declare, “Grace is Love.” I love that. It’s such a powerful message – one that’s urgently needed for our world. If justice is what love looks like in public, then grace is what love looks like in person. Grace is our answer to the power of the enemy.
When we take Christ into our bodies, we affirm a mystery that unites heaven and earth, the material and the spiritual – that vastly exceeds the limits of mere positivism. We all know the bread and wine nourish parts of our body we cannot see. Do we also know that His Substance and Spirit nourish parts of our soul we cannot see? He’s planting seeds in dark and fallow places that may not bear fruit for years to come, and yet always and already working within us. Where is the harvest ripe in your life, and our life collectively as a church, to reap something great for God’s Kingdom? Where has God given you, and given us, grace upon grace to bless those are around us?
At the beginning of the sermon I painted an idyllic image of my childhood home in Connecticut. Beneath the patina of apparent privilege all around us, the story of my particular household was quite different. With two parents whose sole income was social security disability, with a father wrestling with the demons of narcotics abuse and domestic violence, my household was a very difficult place to grow up and mature. My life would have had a very different trajectory if it had not been for one single person, my 7th grade French teacher, Pat Perry.
Having witnessed my capacities, Pat decided she was going to do something to change my life. She personally contributed over $20,000 from her own resources to send me to a premier boarding school, paving my way to attend Haverford, then Harvard, to have a completely different life than the one I would have had apart from her generosity. Every day I think about Pat. Every day I wonder what our world would be like if more of us had her imagination. The thing about grace, this unexpected generosity, is that it opens our hearts, and reorients us to hope.
The thing about the Kingdom is that the establishment doesn’t see it coming. They can’t anticipate it because they can’t imagine a world where sovereignty is exercised apart from self-interest. Jesus intends for us to reign by abdicating all claim to our own honor, wealth, power and glory. That’s a tough sell. It’s a tough sell for me – because in the end, the nation-state isn’t the enemy at all: I am. The Gospel confronts us with this challenge: the only way to change the world around us is first to change the world within us. The only revolution that is the true revolution – effecting true, lasting and durable change – is the revolution inside. We need to learn to slay the Leviathans of selfishness and cowardice that keep us from knowing true freedom, the liberty of the children of God. On this 4th of July, as we remember the birth of our nation, let’s also remember Jesus’ words to us:
“I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.”