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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.
Alan Jones taught me that, “The universe is not so much made up of atoms as it is of stories.”
Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman” (Lk. 7)? In one sense, of course, Simon does. But the whole point of this story concerns his failure to really understand.
I have very fond high school memories of our local Episcopal church’s midnight Christmas service. I usually cut the fragrant greens for the wreaths with an old botany professor. Singing familiar carols, the softness of the luminaria candle light, so many friends, the taste of the bread and wine, and afterwards the cold midnight sky filled with lights from distant worlds made me feel so near to God.
One midnight at Christmas in our packed church during the prayer of consecration a man in a black trench coat strode up the center aisle to the altar where he interrupted the priest. His anger and the tension it created felt almost unbearable. For a half second it almost seemed like he might kill our rector.
Everyone there that night saw him, but not many knew his story in the way that I did. The man’s name was David and I knew him as a gentle person from a church lecture series on C.S. Lewis. He had wanted to be ordained but had been rejected by our priest. He believed that it was because he was gay. He felt so much pain that he almost didn’t care what it would take to feel better. I often wonder if he is still alive and how he remembers that night. Henry David Thoreau writes, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
The story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair begins like this. It begins with someone with such a powerful story that it leads her to radically break social conventions.
Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman.” We already know that Simon and Jesus see her in completely different ways. Simon understands her exclusively in terms of what she has done in the past. Everyone in town knows she is a sinner from the city. This woman has no existence in her own right for him. For Simon she only confirms his pre-existent sense of superiority over Jesus.
Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known… what kind of woman who is touching him – that she is sinner” (Lk. 7). The irony is that Jesus does know. Jesus knows not only what kind of woman this is, but what kind of judgment Simon has formed of him.
Jesus understands the woman’s pain, along with Simon’s testing and insecure sense of his own superiority. And so Jesus asks, “Simon do you see this woman?”
Probably the most important philosopher in modern European history is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He cared intensely about human freedom. In a short essay called “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) Kant defines enlightenment as courageously emerging from immaturity and learning to make use of our minds without direction from others. It means living by the Latin motto “Sapere Aude” or “have the courage to use your own reason.”
You might remember Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) third law of motion from your physics class. He wrote that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Kant worried that this picture of the universe would make it hard for people to believe in their own freedom. He thought we might be tempted to see ourselves as billiard balls on the table simply knocked out of place by forces beyond us, compelled by desires that we did not choose.
To solve this problem Kant proposes that there is a difference between what he called the noumena which is how the world is in itself and the phenomena which is how we perceive the world. Our senses, our faculties contribute to how the world in Werner Erhard’s language, “shows up for us.” For Kant, the seemingly unbreakable laws of physics and causation are not how the universe itself is but how we perceive it.
What this ultimately means is that how we see the world cannot be disentangled from our experience of our own selves. Our self will not get out of the way when it comes to perceiving the world. We experience a bit of ourselves in everything we see.
Kant believed that in our heart we possess an extraordinary freedom to act even against our own instincts for selfishness. For him, the primary way we experience holiness lies in this freedom. It is how we come close to understanding God. Kant writes, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Our very existence in this universe and our innermost freedom remind us that we are children of God.
To Simon Jesus says, “do you see this woman.” And all Simon can see is himself. Jesus tries to help him experience something more. He tells a story about a creditor who forgave one person $8,000 and another whom he forgave $80,000. Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replies, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Jesus says, “You have judged rightly.”
Turning toward the woman he says to Simon, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven…” (Lk 7).
Jesus is not laying down a judgment. He is not condemning Simon. Jesus merely points out what is true. In a different way than Kant, Jesus teaches that what is inside us will determine how we experience the world.
Some say, “I can’t believe in God because the world is so terrible.” Indeed often the universe does not always live up to our expectations. Sometimes on days like this when so many of our brothers were killed in Orlando, I am tempted to despair. But is the world objectively speaking tragic… or is our very existence a gift? This depends on our story.
Jesus tries to plant in us a new way of being, a new way of experiencing the world and acting in it. Quite simply Jesus presents us with two pictures for how we might go through our life. Every day we choose between them.
We can see the world in Simon’s way as a battle for scarce resources in which we will only succeed through the failure or diminishment of others, or we can see with gratitude and hope as this woman does. In this miraculous moment she has come to recognize that God’s goodness eclipses every terrible thing that she has done in the past.
For Simon there is no such thing as grace. We receive nothing that we did not earn. Our past determines the future. He never even glimpses the gift of life, the savior, the one who is present in every moment. And so he offers to Jesus no water, no kiss, no oil. The universe will always, in a sense, be dead to him.
This woman lives in a universe alive with possibility. Free from the past, she experiences the perfect gift of every moment. She participates in a life far greater than her self, far larger than Simon even sees. In short, she can love. Her faith has saved her and she can go in peace.
Last night the actor Anna Deavere Smith explained that when she was a child her father told her that if you say a word often enough – you become that word. This week allow yourself to be the debtor who owes everything to God. Let your word be “forgive us.”
The universe is not so much made up of atoms as it is of stories. Every day these stories and the very presence of Jesus refine our perceptions and change the way that this holy world appears to us.
How about you? What will the starry heavens above and the mysterious freedom within mean to you? Will you allow the story of Jesus to draw you closer to God? Do you see this woman?
 Alan told me this line comes from a conversation about John Adam’s opera Doctor Atomic (2005). “The universe is made up of stories not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser, The Speed of Darkness (1968)
 Henry David Thoreau, The Illustrated Walden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 10.
 Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” (“Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?”) http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kant-whatis.asp.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 3rd Edition, Tr. Lewis White Beck (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993),169.
Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost: Prophetic Voices Inside a Drought
We have come through our first el Niño winter and spring in over a decade, and it has done us some good. Rainfall was slightly above average, and most of the reservoirs in our region are brim full. Even Shasta Lake has recovered to the point that the water was being released in early spring.
We are enjoying a brief rest in our time of anxiety about the drought, but we might be better off thinking of this as a timeout rather than the end of the game. Snow packs are only at about 25% of normal, and the early approach of high temperatures is diminishing the mountain snows we do have rapidly. The Western USA continues to face the prospect of water shortages for our homes and epic wildfires on the edges of our cities. A predictable return of below average rainfall as the new normal means we are going to continue to live with drought conditions for a very long time.
I mention the drought because drought creates the context for the story we have just heard from the Book of the Kings. Elijah was living in the home of the widow and her son, living in the pagan district of Sidon along the seacoast of Lebanon, because a severe drought had dried up that entire region. Elijah had fled from Israel and journeyed north to the region called Phoenicia in his day, Lebanon in our day, because there was no rain falling in Israel or anywhere in the region.
A good question might be, why would Elijah flee his home in a drought? Especially why would he flee to a district that was also affected by the same drought? Well, Elijah actually caused the drought. The great prophet of the Lord, he had chastised Ahab, King of Israel, for adopting paganism as part of the cult of Israel. And part of his reproach to Ahab was to declare that no rain would fall for three years. So Elijah was not running from the drought so much as he was fleeing from King Ahab, who had sworn to kill him for his opposition.
Ahab had been guilty of dishonoring God by introducing competitor gods from pagan temples, guilty of dishonoring the covenant of Israel by murdering a neighbor in order to steal his family’s heritage property, guilty of dishonoring the religious life of Israel by slaughtering the prophets of the Lord, and guilty of dishonoring nature by deforesting the hillsides for the lumber to build his palaces. Elijah confronts these dishonors, and in the name of the Lord invokes the drought as a way for God to demonstrate that God would be the ruler of Israel in the end, not a human and self-centered king.
And so Elijah flees and takes up residence in the home of a widow who had offered him the hospitality of a little food, even as she and her son were starving to death.
I have come to believe that everything about life is interconnected. I believe that there is a God. I believe that prayer works. I believe that the earth and its living beings create a kind of energy for connectedness. I believe in a greater consciousness. I believe that what I have done in the past and what I do today matters far into the future. I think all these things are true. It is part of the reason I admire what George Lucas created in his myth of the Force in the Star Wars stories — I think that this belief in connectedness and mutuality is well expressed in the metaphor of the Force.
So I wonder this: As the prophet of the Lord Elijah could invoke a drought as a means to correct and reprove the behavior of a selfish and disrespectful king 2,800 years ago; is the drought we live with today also a prophetic message, chastising us for our ways of dishonoring God, our neighbor and the realm of nature? Is this drought also a reproach to our disregard of life as a matter of stewardship, our disregard for treating everything we can control as a matter of accountability to others, especially to God?
Our faith teaches us a certain perspective about life — that everything about who we are is a gift from God. That life is from God, that awareness is a participation in God’s essence, that love and laughter are expressions of God’s character, that creativity and procreativity are connections with the divine. While it may not be appropriate or fair for us to expect that all people with embrace this faith held by Jews and Christians and Muslims, it is our task and right to uphold these perspectives as true, true for all.
If we hold these perspectives as true for the whole of creation, then we must also teach them, encourage them, promote them, and if necessary defend them from those who distort the reality of life into the narrow realm of selfishness and intentional deception. We believe life is a continual growth into the perspective of reverence and awe, a continual growth into a perspective of thankfulness and wonder. It is not a matter of indifference for us to see that there are many around us who see the world as a personal playground, who dismiss reverence and wonder as foolish and childish. It is not a matter of indifference for us to recognize that there are those who intentionally dishonor the world by refusing to be responsible for any consequence, any outcome.
As Elijah recognized the wickedness of King Ahab, we too can recognize the wickedness of corporations and landowners and investors whose only question is whether there can be extra money gotten for me, no matter what it may cost others. We can recognize the wickedness of those who practice deceit and fraud as normal operating procedure, whether it is to falsify public reports or deny the known harm their product does or claim ignorance in the face of overwhelming data and evidence. Those who still claim that climate change science has not offered any real evidence are being false. I give some of them the benefit of the doubt that they are so afraid of the truth they cannot help themselves and they do not intend to be dishonest, but they are in serious need of an Elijah to teach them to face the truth.
I invite us back into today’s scripture, where we here two, very similar stories of the compassion of God to raise the sons of widows from death to life. It may help to know that in the biblical world all title, all ownership was passed from one male to another. Women had no right to property, no right to an inheritance. These two widows were actually living on the property that belonged to their sons, and when those sons died the property would have gone to some other male in the family tree. No matter how distant. (We learn about this from watching Downton Abbey.)
The compassionate intervention of Elijah to pray the son back to life has all kinds of layers to it. First among them is that at the point of the boy’s death the mother assumes it is because of her sins, that to have housed a holy man would have brought her own paganism, her own sins to the attention of God, who punished her by killing her son. Second is that the boy’s death would have been the ruin of her life, as everything she held as home and property would have gone to the hands of a brother-in-law or uncle or distant male cousin. Finally, and most importantly, while the King of Israel would not honor God or God’s holy man, she is able to set aside the culture of her beliefs and the cult of her people to declare, ‘Now I know you are a man of God and the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth itself.’
It can feel impossibly demanding, discouragingly impossible for us to make a difference in the drought we endure, in overcoming the damage we have done to the earth. Yet, we have faith that our success does not depend on us alone, that in some way God’s own energy and creative expression will raise our efforts in the way that the prophet raised the boy from the pit of death. This drought is one of many signs I see that we have been out of step with the harmony God has in mind for the earth. Yet it is not our sinfulness that God sees as our most important feature. It is our desire to be saved, our desire to be redeemed, our willingness to turn from things that are destructive and disrespectful.
As Elijah restored the harmony of the house where the widow showed him kindness, I believe God will assist us to restore the harmony of the house in which we live. I say that in faith, I say that in hope. Overcoming our past is not something we have to manage entirely by ourselves. We have to take the steps that are ours to take, but I pray that we will look back some day to say, “Thanks be to God, who has shown love and mercy to us yet again.”
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16).
What would your life look like as a movie? This week I found out the answer to that question. Back when I lived in Boston I had a friend named Rick who longed to be a better surfer. On car rides we would talk about storms thousands of miles off the coast, the physics of breaking waves, our equipment, the history, art and culture of surfing. We also shared our selves.
After not hearing from him for fifteen years, this week he reached out to tell me that he had won an award as a screenwriter. He also said that he had recently written a movie script with a character based on me. Immediately I worried whether he would get it right. After the Gidget movies, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Point Break, etc. most people I know who really take surfing seriously despise the way surfers are depicted in popular culture. The stereotypes, language, even the style and the way the ocean looks almost always seems completely wrong.
Much of the movie refers back to a scene in which a surfing priest and a surfing atheist talk about “the afterlife.” The surfing priest in Rick’s movie is Episcopalian. Strangely enough he is writing a doctoral thesis on Thoreau. He constantly smiles and seems to exist in a constant state of total bliss.
In reading the manuscript I can see why. My friend manages to a half dozen different scenes from places we used to surf in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. I have such beautiful memories of those days – gentle breezes floating through green forests, the summertime sounds of cicadas as perfect little waves roll in, laughing with friends while looking out to the infinite sea.
Although for me, Rick mostly gets the surfing right he has a harder time with religion. He makes some obvious and unimportant little mistakes like confusing an Epistle and a Gospel. The sermon in the screenplay doesn’t quite sound right. I think that the hard part for him is really imagining what it might feel like to be a person of faith.
This year at the White House Correspondents Dinner (2016) President Barack Obama teased Senator Ted Cruz. Apparently Cruz was standing on a court in Indiana and referred to the basketball hoop as a “basketball ring.” Obama’s punch line is “what else is in his lexicon? Baseball sticks. Football hats. But sure, I’m the foreign one.”
Getting religion right is even more difficult than using the correct sports terminology. My nonreligious friends think that following Jesus mostly means trying to believe the right things, to have the correct thoughts, so that God will reward you with what they call “life after death.” They think that I spend my days wondering if God really exists. They act as if I was convinced that dogma matters more than how you treat the people in your life. And these are the friends I have who feel vaguely sympathetic to religion.
For me faith is not about life after death, it is about really living before we die. It means being unconstrained by the persistent illusions of our time so that we can freely experience holiness. Faith is not primarily about believing in the existence of God. It is living in the spirit, it is existing in the fullest possible relationship with God. We encounter the spirit of God in the world, society and our innermost self.
Yesterday I gave a surfing lesson to a young couple in Bolinas. The fog hovered over the steep wooded hillsides. The sunlight reflection with blue patterns of sky and cloud in the wet sand was breathtaking. Ten feet away a sea lion surfed right up to us on a wave. We so rarely even see what is right in front of us.
In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town Emily dies in childbirth. She asks to go back to one day of her life, her twelfth birthday. She discovers that no one is really noticing the world or each other. Emily implores, “Mama look at me.” She breaks down sobbing. “We don’t have time to look at one another.”
She asks to be taken back to the cemetery. “Goodbye Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” She asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”
The Greek word hodos means the way or the road. Hodegessei is to guide. Jesus says, “I am the way.” Jesus calls his guiding spirit, “the Advocate” (the Paraclete) or the Defense Attorney.
The Stanford philosopher René Girard (1923-2015) believed that so much of our society is based on violence and that it remains invisible to us. It is like water to a fish. Scapegoating whether it is of immigrants, the police chief, your ex-wife, mother-in-law or boss lies at the heart of so many human interactions. We do not need the defense attorney to make our case to God. We need the defense attorney to help us respond to the prevailing injustice and violence of the world.
For Girard Jesus introduces something completely different into history – a way of seeing persecution from a perspective beyond that of the persecutor. This is not merely for Christians. Every person alive in some way carries this wisdom from Jesus. This is the impulse behind the civil rights movement. It is the revolutionary idea that ethics is far more important than belief. How you treat another person matters more than how you think the world is. At the end of his article on the Advocate Girard begs his readers, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer, there will no longer be any time.”
This week my friend Patrick Thompson and I talked about a mutual friend. He went to a great college, a stellar graduate program. He holds a prestigious position. According to all the ways the world measures it he has succeeded – and yet we wondered if he does not really know who he is apart from this.
The Apostle Paul writes, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5). This is the peace that passes understanding. We mostly recognize it in those we know best. We feel it as we persist in prayer, as our connections with the spiritual world grow deeper.
I do not know what more to say about this spirit of God beyond how I have met this holiness in the world, society and my own heart. Perhaps another voice might help. I leave you with a poem about forgiveness by Keetje Kuipers (KAY-tchah KAI-purrs). It is called “Prayer.” I hope that that it helps you to recognize the spirit in your own life.
“Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox / and your mother, to soothe you in your fever / or to help you fall asleep, came into your room / and read to you from some favorite book, / Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie, / a long story that she quietly took you through / until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering / lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then”
“she read on, this time silently and to herself, / not because she didn’t know the story, it seemed to her that there had never been a time / when she didn’t know this story – the young girl / and her benevolence, the young girl in her sod house – / but because she did not yet want to leave your side / though she knew there was nothing more / she could do for you. And you, not asleep but simply weak, / listened to her turn the pages, still feeling / the lamp warm against one cheek, knowing the shape / of the rocking chair’s shadow as it slid across / your chest so that now, these many years later,”
“when you are clenched in the damp fist of a hospital bed, / or signing the papers that say you won’t love him anymore, / when you are bent at your son’s gravesite or haunted / by a war that makes you wake with the gun / cocked in your hand, you would like to believe / that such generosity comes from God, too, / who now, when you have the strength to ask, might begin / the story again, just as your mother would, / from the place where you have both left off.”
By the end of the week I realized what I liked about Rick’s movie script. The important part of a priest and an atheist surfing together is not a debate about what happens when we die. What matters is their friendship and the way that, for a believer, God’s spirit permeates all good things.
What would your life look like as a movie? Would someone watching it recognize the animating spirit of Jesus?
 Would it be a tragedy, a drama, a fluffy romantic comedy, a short cartoon or a long documentary? What actor would play you? The lyric from the 1974 Eagles song “James Dean” says, “I know my life would look alright if I could see it on the silver screen.” As I’m getting older though I know this isn’t necessarily true.
 Rick Groleau, The Tides of Fundy 11 May 2016.
 Barack Obama, “Remarks at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner 1 May 2016,” The Washington Post, 1 May 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2016/05/01/the-complete-transcript-of-president-obamas-2016-white-house-correspondents-dinner-speech/
 In the twentieth century we became much less confident about our understanding of the physical universe. We experience mystery at the very heart of this world of dark matter, particles, waves, forces and our observations.
 Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts, 95-96.
 René Girard, “History and the Paraclete,’ The Ecumenical Review, Volume 35, Issue 1, January 1983, pages 3-16. http://poenitzmentoring.com/uploads/History_and_the_Paraclete.pdf
 Ibid., 16.
 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1933), 149.
 Keetje Kuipers, Beautiful in the Mouth (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2010). http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160516/