- Spiritual Life
- Music, Art, Ideas
- Labyrinths + Yoga
- Visit Us
- About Us
- The Congregation
- The Community Preschool
- Cathedral School for Boys
The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment on social media about the Danish concept of hygge. Have you heard of it? It’s a word for that feeling you get on a cold and foggy afternoon when you’re curled up with a cup of tea and some chocolates and your favourite slippers on your feet and the person you most like to be with is curled up there too and all is snug and comfy and copacetic. I can feel my shoulders lowering and my mouth relaxing into a smile just thinking about it. The bliss of being warm and safe and comfortable! Hygge sounds so much more like good news than today’s gospel.
Did you hear what was being said to us? Shake off the dust from your feet of homes that do not welcome you, that everyone was harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, that you will be hated because of my name, and worst of all, especially on Father’s Day: ‘brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.’ Where is the good news in this? I want my slippers and chocolates and a whole Danish hygge-fest!
The easiest way to slip back into a hygge world is to dismiss this gospel as a word for its time and not for ours. That the gospel writer is expressing a reality for the early church that we have left behind us. And that is partially true. Whatever fundamentalist preachers might want you to believe, Christians are not a persecuted group in the western world today. Check your privilege if for a moment you believe that this society is out to get you because you attend church. Or better yet talk with a Jew whose cemetery has been desecrated, a Muslim whose mosque has been vandalized, or a black southern Christian whose church has been burned by white southern ‘Christians’. There are places in the world where to profess faith in Christ is a path to persecution – we should remember our sisters and brothers of faith in Coptic churches, in Iraq, in parts of Nigeria – but we should not pretend that we share their vulnerabilities and dangers.
What we do share with the early church is a world where, despite its beauty and its wonder, there is violence, injustice and many feel harassed and helpless. There are still families which are torn apart by anger and resentment, homes that, far from being sanctuaries of cozy rest, are places of fear and intimidation for children and women, and occasionally men. I am still haunted by a memory from seminary when I was helping in a poor and understaffed local school. I can still picture one six year old boy crying and cursing and running away from his teacher and myself, begging not to be sent home to his temporary foster home. Not that he was abused there, not in most definitions of abuse, but just that he knew he wasn’t truly seen and valued and loved by those who were taking care of him. And let’s not forget that unhappy homes are not the prerogative of the poor and the ‘other’– there will be people in church today for whom home has been – maybe still is – a place of violence and fear.
This is getting grim for any Sunday, let alone one with the family focus of Father’s Day! So let’s hunt down the good news that is here. The good news that is harder edged than mere coziness but also far more effective in refreshing the human soul and the human situation. The heart of this for me is those short few words that occur early on – he (Jesus that is) had compassion on them – and what arises from them. Jesus doesn’t just wipe away a pitying tear and get on with life. He calls a group together, shares authority with them, and sends them out with orders to make a difference. In the language of that time ‘to cast out evil spirits’. In the language of our time to address the social as well as bodily ills that corrupt and twist and destroy individuals and whole societies.
This is one of the foundation stories of the church. This story is one of the reasons that Grace Cathedral, in all its beauty and grandeur and tradition, actually exists. This group of people being sent out to make a difference. This group of people who are, delightfully, called to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. This group of people who are called to be vulnerable, to be non-violent – to be sheep among wolves – but who are also expected to change the world and begin to heal its hurts.
We sometimes talk about the church as a family, but that’s an image I’m not too comfortable with. While, for most of us, family is a place of nurture and belonging and love it can also, as we’ve said, be a place of violence and hurt. I can’t forget the one unclaimed body from the Pulse massacre a year ago. A bereaved father refusing to collect his murdered son’s remains because that son was gay. ‘Family values’ as usually defined are not necessarily Christian values. They have become shorthand for valuing those people who most closely resemble us – our own kin first, then our own community, our own race, nationality and class, our own sexual orientation. Family values come to have more to do with deciding who is acceptable and who isn’t than with challenging all people to live lives of inclusive love.
This is not something that’s actually very easy for us to grasp. This is something that it was not very easy even for Jesus to grasp. There’s a line in this gospel that I wish I could ignore, because it challenges my belief that God is for all of us. But that’s cowardly for a Christian – we need to look harder at the places where our certainties are challenged not look away – and even more cowardly for a preacher. (It’s actually a good rule of thumb – never trust a preacher who ignores the troubling verses) It’s where Jesus says to the apostles: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other word, don’t go to the ‘others’ just stay within the family.
It is true that family and clan and race was where Jesus started. Like all of us, this was his comfort zone, his familiar territory. But this was not where Jesus ended. Remember last week’s gospel – the resurrected Christ sending his followers into all the world – that was where Jesus ended. Our incarnate God was completely human. Like us he had to learn to see the value in the other, like us his heart grew wider and more open the more he experienced God’s compassion living in him, like us his life involved a process of growth and learning. There is comfort and consolation here. We cannot judge our own limitations too harshly when we see these in the one we follow. We can know that we, like Jesus, can grow beyond our beginnings into heart-strong lovers of all God’s creation.
So, my dear wise serpents and innocent doves, my dear church sent to be God’s healing presence in the world, this is the good news for this Father’s Day and for every day. Not just that God loves us but that God has a job for us to do. Not one that means we can always sit at home by a warm fire with slippers on our feet hygge-style. But one that means we can be the fire – God’s fire to warm and transform the world, a fire of healing, a source of warmth for the desolate and a fierce flame of compassion to burn out injustice. Those of you lucky enough to have loving good-enough fathers still with you, embrace them and celebrate and cherish them. And then turn your face to the world and go and do God’s work.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Lk. 4).
In our recent move we threw away stacks of children’s art projects (cards that said “Daddy I Love You”!), letters and photographs from friends who have died, old toys, clothes, and picture books. It hurt to leave things that represented our kids’ childhood at the curb. We held tightly to those objects. They tenuously connected us to a whole stage of life that is now gone.
In a sense, our material things come to own us, but our opinions and thoughts, they seem like they are us. How much harder it is to leave these at the curb. So often we act as if the spiritual life consists primarily in adding new disciplines, and responsibilities when what we most need to learn is to let go, to give over our life to God. What do we need to let go in order to find our home in God? What do we leave behind when we live in Christ?
1. Text. We follow a three-year cycle in our Sunday readings. This year we focus on the theology of Luke. Luke uses the most complex Greek vocabulary and syntax of the Gospel writers. He feels at home in the cosmopolitan world of the Roman Empire. He also has a very clear idea about what it means to follow Jesus. The theology that lies at the heart of his Gospel is exemplified in Jesus’ first public act of ministry.
After being baptized and then tempted in the wilderness Jesus returns to the area around his home. Through his teachings he becomes “doxazomenous upo panton.” This word doxa is related to our word doxology. It means praise and at first Jesus is praised by all. But then he returns to Nazareth, where he was “tethrammenos” we would translate it as “where he was raised,” or where he grew up. The Greek word trepho literally means where he was fed or nurtured. The very cells and physical material of his body came from the food grown on the hills outside of town. Luke emphasizes that these are his people.
By this point Jesus has established his routine. He reads scripture to the congregation and then in accordance with the ancient teaching practice he sits to explain what it means. He chooses to read the prophet Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk. 4). We have only half the story this week with the rest next coming next Sunday. I’m going to spoil next week’s surprise.
After his reading, after his teaching, the crowds try to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff. Why do they become so angry? Let me suggest three possibilities. First, you might think that the idea that he has a special mission to the poor and oppressed was controversial. In response, I would say that his audience would have been familiar with this theme from the ancient prophets. Furthermore, they were likely to regard themselves as the poor whom God favors. Second, the crowd could have been angry over the suggestion that he is the anointed one or the messiah. However, directly after making this statement, Luke writes, “[a]ll spoke well of him” (Lk. 4). Luke wants us to see that what really angers the crowd is Jesus’ rejection of a special obligation to his own people. Jesus refers to Old Testament stories in which God heals gentiles (non-Jewish people) and points out that during those times faithful Jews were allowed to die. This infuriated his hometown.
At the center of Luke’s faith lies the impossible idea that God’s love is for all people regardless of kinship, nationality, religion, social status or any other claim that we might make for special treatment. According to Luke we have to give up our tribe when we follow Jesus.
The Apostle Paul deeply believes this too. The most important fact for people living in the Roman Empire must have been its rigid social stratification. And yet Paul writes, “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free… we were made to drink of the same spirit” (1 Cor. 12). He calls those who follow Jesus one body. Some Romans thought that Christians drank blood and sacrificed children. But what really shocked them most was that a man and a woman, a senator and a slave could treat each other as equals.
2. Doctrine. The twentieth century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) has helped me to understand the meaning of Luke’s teaching for our own time. Growing up as a Jew in the Russian Empire in what is now Lithuania, Levinas experienced the 300th anniversary celebration of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian revolutions of 1917. He began an academic career in the French-speaking world going on to serve in the French army during World War Two. After his unit was captured in 1940, he spent the rest of the war reading and writing in a prisoner of war camp. Although his wife and daughter were safely hidden in a monastery, the Nazis killed most of his family.
Levinas’ philosophy may be difficult to understand. Let me begin with the context. In the twentieth century philosophers called positivists believed that the only kind of knowledge that really counts is what can be proven by science. You may be one step ahead of me in wondering if science can prove that science is the only reliable knowledge, but that is roughly what they believed. In contrast to this kind of approach, Emmanuel Levinas believed that there is far more to experience than thinking (“cogito”).
Instead of beginning with a theory about how the world is (ontology), or what we know about the world (epistemology), we need to start with our experience (or how the “world shows up for us” to use an expression from Werner Erhard). According to Levinas, the idea that we need to throw out is that we can have more confidence about abstract notions of logic or reason than in the simple experience of another person’s need. For this reason he calls ethics “first philosophy.”
Levinas writes that we try to think beyond what can be thought. But that does not mean it has to remain completely inaccessible. “[T]he idea of the infinite or my relation to God, comes to me in the concreteness of my relation to the other [person]… [in my} responsibility for the neighbor.”We experience this infinite, this connection to God, through another person’s face. It makes a demand on us. It creates an obligation that we cannot ignore.
We make constant judgments based on other people’s faces, we respond with unconscious prejudices. But for Levinas, another person’s face reveals infinitely more than we are able to take in.He calls this an epiphany, our only chance to grasp the infinite. It is the way that the holy presents itself to us.
For this reason Levinas frequently quotes Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov who says, “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.”All thought, all experience, all goodness and holiness begins in our obligation to the other person. Let me move on to one way that Levinas’ philosophy changes how I experience the world.
3. Application. The struggle to realize Luke and Paul’s ideal continues today. The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian body in the world. Grace Cathedral participates in this fellowship. We Anglicans do not have an international hierarchy or a pope. Each national church chooses its own leaders, makes its own decisions and prays in its own way. No foreign bishop, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, has any jurisdiction in America at all.
For ten years, some of the other Anglican churches have felt alarmed by our new policies supporting gay marriage. Last week the primates, that is, the heads of the various churches chose to exclude the American branch from participating on high level Anglican committees for three years. I do not completely understand the politics of the whole decision, but I do know that Americans feel hurt and excluded.
For Levinas each vulnerable face reveals far more than I can ever take in and becomes my chance to experience God. Praying about this has changed my understanding of the Anglican infighting. These days I have been wondering about what has led other Anglicans to condemn our church. I have asked myself what pain and fear oppresses their souls.
But even more importantly, Levinas has helped me to see the most defenseless faces, to hear the powerless voices who hardly seem to be part of this conversation. GLBT people suffer terribly around the world. Their love is criminalized. They are beaten, imprisoned and persecuted. They are forbidden from being themselves. Yes, the American church will not be allowed to participate in meetings, but these children of God are losing their lives.
I began by talking about how hard it is to throw away the extra things that our family has accumulated over the years. Although so many of these objects seem to preserve our connection to the past, they are no longer useful today. Just as with those things, we also carry ideas and opinions that no longer serve us.
In this process the Buddhist teacher Timber Hawkeye encourages us to keep asking ourselves which of our thoughts arise out of fear and which come from love. He quotes the eighth century Buddhist monk Shantideva who says, “All happiness in the world stems from wanting others to be happy, and all suffering in the world stems from wanting the self to be happy.”
The theology of Luke and Paul that God loves every creature does not come easy to us. It is hard to let go of the thought that we need to help ourselves first and then the people who are most like us. It is difficult to imagine that what really matters in life might not be scarce after all. I do not expect that we will always recognize another person’s face as an epiphany, but we can begin to look more closely in each other for the infinite, for the holy, for the meaning that will always exc
[i] This experience of the Other is more central than Rene Descartes’ question about what knowledge can we regard as reliable.
[ii] Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind. Tr. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), xiv.
[iii] The word “face” refers to, “the way in which the presentation of the other to me exceeds all idea of the other in me Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader. Tr. Seán Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 5.
[iv] Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader. Tr. Seán Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 1.
[v] Timber Hawkeye, Buddhist Boot Camp (NY: HarperOne, 2013), 4.
Sermon from the Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“Do not fear… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa. 43).
What does it mean to be blessed or to bless?
Beth, of my old neighbors, left her job as a law professor to work for the Obama administration in the State Department as a human rights expert. She once told me how much energy it takes to establish and maintain the rule of law. Since 1789 the average life expectancy of national constitutions is only 17 years. In human history our 218-year-old national constitution represents a remarkable accomplishment.
What makes this kind of social stability possible? I know that it has something to do with resources, economics and good luck, but it also concerns a kind of underlying philosophy. Behind a society’s outward way of doing things lies an idea of what it means to be human, how we are connected to others. A system of values, myths and symbols fund every social interaction.
The current film The Big Short tells the story of investors who predicted the 2008 global financial meltdown. It heavy-handedly repeats that values like honesty, integrity, fair play, reasonable reward for socially productive work, refraining from exploiting poor or ignorant people, even acting against one’s own interest when justice requires it – these are all that stand between us and terrible human suffering.
Still it can happen. Through cataclysmic disaster, through plagues, environmental collapse, enemy invasion or just the erosion of values like love and justice, the stories about how to be human can cease to make sense to us. They can die.
The prophet Isaiah faced exactly this situation. After his people had been utterly defeated, the leaders had been exported as slaves to the enemy’s capital, after the crops failed because no one was left to tend them – the people came home. After they had lost everything Isaiah tries to give life to an ancient idea that had been forgotten. The idea is that God has called us by name and redeemed us. When we pass through the waters and through the fire, God will be with us. Nothing shall overwhelm us. The word for this is “blessing.”
I want the idea of blessing to fully belong to you. I want it to become part of your inner emotional landscape, to be a word that you speak out loud and use to understand what the philosopher William James calls, the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of reality.
Blessing is the assurance that we exist as God’s beloved children. The Old Testament word for it is b’rah-chah (berek). It was originally connected to the fertility of crops, livestock and human beings. Blessing refers to the bridge between human life and the mysterious beauty that lies beyond it. It is God’s voice that says to every faithful person, “You are my child, my beloved.” Through baptism we recognize that our identity comes from our relation to others. Baptism is central to the Christian experience of God’s blessing and how we become a blessing to others.
So my message this morning has three parts: Finding Blessing, Being Blessed and Becoming a Blessing.
1. Finding Blessing. We have to find blessing because quite often we cannot see it. Luke’s account of Jesus baptism differs most starkly in two ways from the others. First, unlike Mathew, Mark and John, the spirit does not descend on Jesus while he is being baptized but afterwards as he is praying. Setting aside time and space matters when it comes to experiencing the holy. You can make yourself too busy to see almost anything of consequence.
Second, Luke differs from the others when he writes that the Holy Spirit came down “somtatiko eidei” or, “in bodily form like a dove” (Lk. 3). Luke writes this because although in some very rare occasions human beings unequivocally hear God or see Christ, we usually experience the spirit in more subtle ways.
Most people have difficulty hearing God. Why is this? The former Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts says that each one of us is like a hole in a vast sheet of fabric through which the light of God shines.Despite this we do not often experience much of our life as a blessing. This morning I brought with me a cowry shell. Its smooth curves and the color and spacing of its spots could not be more beautiful. You might even say it is perfect.
Do you think that the creature living in it looks at its cowry neighbors and thinks to itself, “I have way too many dark spots” or “I wonder if this shell make me look fat?” A beautiful creature worrying about being uglier than the others sounds ludicrous but this is what human beings do this all the time. An enormous amount of our conscious life is dedicated to feeling anxious about how we look – gaining weight, losing hair, turning gray, getting wrinkles, growing into a different body shape. This is not restricted just to our appearance. We want others to think we’re successful, confident, attractive, capable, thoughtful, kind, strong, a winner…. We have strong feelings about how others perceive us.
But you are even more beautiful, more intricately constructed, more wonderfully fashioned than the most exceptional shell. Realizing this is the beginning of experiencing blessing.
This morning I want you to ask yourself, how much pain in your life is caused by self-criticism or worse by those self-judging thoughts that have been directed outwardly and surface as criticism of other people.
Last week someone asked me to respond to a Facebook post from The Pew Research Group about why according to many measures millennials are not as religious as their forbears. So many people wrote that people are too smart for religion these days. Perhaps in order to understand religion people like this need to have blessing be more a part of their life. Maybe they just have unrealistic expectations about what it feels like to encounter the Living God.
Sometimes you might experience the Holy “in bodily form” but more often than not it happens through the words of a hymn, the smile of a child, the smell of incense, the Cathedral bells, a friend’s story, the unexpected smoothness of the Bay at sunrise, a connection between what you love and the world that you had never noticed before. On the outside, the discipline of church may seem empty: coming here faithfully in the rain even when you don’t feel like it, attending long meetings, giving money, volunteering to help people who make us uncomfortable. Someone on the outside may not recognize it, they may not see God obviously there, but these ordinary things, this bread, wine, smoke, light and water create the path of perfect blessing that transforms us.
2. Being Blessed. When you believe, or at least are open enough to the possibility, you become a seeker of blessing. You will find it in the most surprising ways. Late on Monday night I was turning off the lamp in my study when my sixteen-year-old son hugged me from the side in the way that you might tackle a quarterback just after he released the ball. He had had such a hard day and he was seeking comfort and I felt this incredible depth of emotion, a huge shot of the feeling that I remembered from when I first became a father.
By Thursday night I thought that I had forgotten it. At Evensong the fading light outside shined so faintly and the stained glass window became an impossibly dark shade of blue. The choir sang right into my soul. Concentrating on that magnificent color I began to imagine myself sinking into sleep for the last time, into my own death. In that moment I felt so grateful for my life, all of this, all of you. It felt as if God were embracing me in precisely the way that I had held my son. The strength and presence and love of God overwhelmed me.
Being blessed is that simple and that profound. It arises out of an ordinary moment and it is the purpose of our life.
3. Becoming a Blessing. My last point is that we also are given the power to bless. We bless each other and we bless God. No matter how you may have come up short in the past, whatever terrible things you have done, how badly you think you compare with someone else – you can be someone who goes through life pronouncing blessings on what you experience. The theologian Martin Israel writes that there is nothing in the world that is unholy, only that which has not yet been blessed.”You can be that blessing.
This does not apply merely to the bright, shiny, happy parts of your life. You can also be a blessing because of what you have suffered. The tragic things that we have gone through can actually open new paths of grace for the people we encounter. This week I talked to a friend who as a priest went through a terrible time of conflict with his congregation. I don’t know if they fired him or if he just went off quietly into the night. But it was enough for me to feel like he would have been justified in quitting the church. Rather than just trying to forget about the whole thing he got a PhD in the study of conflict and has dedicated his life to helping people in similar circumstances.
My question for you this morning is this. Can the word blessing become such a deep part of your vocabulary that it comes to order your whole life? Can you receive these words: that you are a blessing to God? It is your essence to be a channel for the blessing of God’s light and love?
This week I offer you an optional homework assignment. It might be more challenging for some than others. First, try using the word blessing in public one time, that is, you might try telling someone that they are a blessing or sharing an experience of blessing that you have had. Second, do something just to be the kind of blessing that God loves.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you…” Amen.
 Joyce Shin, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, 6 January 2015, 20.
 This paragraph and the next come from Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).
 Curtis G. Almquist, The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 94.
 Ibid., 95.
Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist
Sermon from the Christmas morning Eucharist.
Sermon From the Christmas Eve 7:30 Eucharist.
Wednesday, June 28
Tuesday, July 4
Thursday, July 6
Sunday, July 9