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Sunday 14 May 2017 Mother’s Day
The Way, the Truth and the Life
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (Jn. 14).
This morning in three parts I want to consider the gift of Jesus. What does it mean for him to tell his closest friends that he is the way, the truth and the life.
1. The Way. In Marilynne Robinson’s early novel Housekeeping a mother drops off her two young daughters Ruth and Lucille with graham crackers on their grandmother’s front porch. Then she deliberately drives her car off a cliff. At first the grandmother takes care of them then, after she dies, two great aunts do. They in turn are glad to hand off this responsibility to the girl’s formerly homeless aunt.
As the girls grow up they feel such a deep longing for their mother. At first, it pulls them together but eventually they become completely estranged. In their last summer together the two find themselves lost overnight, in the moonless wilderness by a lake. This becomes a kind of metaphor for their whole childhood. “It seemed that we were bewilderingly lost in a landscape, that with any light at all would be wholly familiar.”
Near the end Ruth writes, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell… [Jesus] was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be him…”
Ruth goes on in a way that might sound like the way you feel about your mother or your childhood. “There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and that the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting so long.”
This longing, this loneliness, this sense of loss, sometimes may be how we feel about God. Perhaps the biggest problem of religion is that we all have such different experiences of the same events. For some the abiding presence of God is the most obvious thing about our life. Others search and never even find a trace of the Divine.
The twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that we can never experience God, the creator and ground of worlds, as God truly is. We would not expect a housefly landing on a page of my son’s calculus textbook to learn the quadratic formula. But comprehending God is more impossible for us than this.
We are thoroughly physical creatures and, according to Barth, God must become a concrete thing for us to understand. But as soon as this happens, what we are experiencing is not quite the same thing as God.
As a result, every experience of God’s Word both reveals and conceals something at the same time. When God speaks to us it can never be set apart from the other events in our lives. We experience God only in what Barth calls, “the garment of creaturely reality.” He writes, “[God] will not and cannot unveil himself except by veiling Himself… the divine givenness of the Word of God… also fixes our own limits.”
This is the mystery of God and the mystery of who we are to ourselves. We are like children lost in the dark and that is the reason we rely on Jesus as the way to God.
2. The Truth. But this brings us to the second part – the truth. John 14:6 may be one of the most misunderstood sentences in human history. At the last meal that Jesus shares with his very closest friends he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14).
We have been told countless times this means that unless you believe in Jesus, you will not go to heaven. I disagree completely with this interpretation. On Friday morning at Archbishop Neiderauer’s funeral in St. Mary’s Cathedral I sat between two friends who are rabbis. Before the gospel this line was read and I wondered what they were thinking. I wanted so badly to have the chance to tell them what I believe this means.
Let me explain my reasoning because ultimately we all have to draw our own conclusions about this issue. Let’s begin with the context. Jesus and his friends are not talking about people of other religions or even no religion. Jesus is not answering the question, “who can go to heaven.”
Instead, he is talking to friends with “troubled hearts.” They aren’t asking if there are Hindus in heaven, they are saying, “will I be okay?” And so Jesus reassures them about the many dwelling places for them in God, that he is preparing the way for them.
Thomas and Philip clearly feel troubled and ask him pointed questions. Thomas says, “How can we know the way?” Philip implores Jesus saying, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (Jn. 14). These are questions that come from their fear and doubt. I think they have in mind some kind of secret knowledge, like a password, as if “the way” is a kind of road map or written plan.
Jesus feels frustrated with them because knowing the truth about God is more like the way that we know a person than it is how we might know a map, a plan or a fact. In effect Jesus says, “you are asking for a fact but what matters most is our relationship, that I am standing right here with you.”
The twentieth century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) distinguishes between an “I-It” relationship between us and objects in the world and I-Thou relationships that we have with other people and with God. Jesus calls us to be his friends, to have a continuing relationship with him through prayer.
For me, the irony is that so many people today have read this in exactly the opposite way. In place of seeing Jesus himself as the way for his disciples to reunite with the Father, they have substituted a statement about believing in Jesus. They make everything contingent upon a dogma rather than the freedom of God. Jesus and the disciples are not just talking about heaven. It is about wholeness and health right now. This comes from directing our life towards God and feels like the difference between life and death.
3. The Life. This brings me to my last section. Jesus says, “I am the life.” The Greek word is zoē like our word for zoology. In 1995 the MIT professor Nicholoas Negroponte predicted how the Internet would soon transform humanity by matching news articles and videos with our tastes and personality. He called this “The Daily Me.” Today every time we click or share something online we communicate what we like, and restrict what we will see in the future.
It is human nature to want to surround ourselves with people who share our perspective, just as it is to avoid those who disagree with or upset us. Today technology vastly amplifies that impulse. We know what a bubble is. We see its effects playing out in our political life.
The life Jesus promises is not The Daily Me, not isolation from the world. Jesus calls us to know and to love our neighbors, to open ourselves to the unexpected and new for the sake of others. Jesus shows us how we can be the way that God blesses the world, just as he did, in forgiving the very people who were putting him to death.
This week at the San Francisco Interfaith Council monthly breakfast John Trasviña the Dean of USF Law School spoke about his fear that beloved traditions and practices of our democracy are under attack. He cited the firing of the Director of the FBI, executive orders on immigration, attacks on the judiciary, scientists and the press. This might be the time when Jesus’ life becomes even more evident.
The theologian David Bently Hart (1965-) writes, “Christ’s… is a truth that is only made manifest in being suppressed; its gesture is that of the gift, which is given even in being rejected; and so, on the cross, Christ makes the sheer violence that underlies the economies of a worldly truth transparent to itself, and opens up a different order of truth…”
Last week at the Forum a gentle ethicist from Santa Clara named Tom Plante described life as a potluck. Each of us has a completely unique gift to contribute to it (mine is marshmallow yams). For this week’s homework ask yourself two questions: what is my unique contribution and how can I deliver it in a way that it can be received?
In this world in which there is so little to remember of those who we have lost and God can seem hidden from our sight, Jesus is the way. When we take false comfort in tribalism and manipulate facts to realize our longing for control, Jesus introduces us to the truth. As modern life with its Daily Me presents a greater proliferation of ways to drown in narcissism Jesus shows us the way of life.
Brothers and sisters the gift of Christ is intimacy with God. Let me close with a final quote from David Bentley Hart.
“We are music moved to music… Creation is… a partaking in the inexhaustible goodness of God… its ceaseless flow of light and shadow, constancy and change, mirrors both the “music” of God’s ordering words and the incomprehensibility of his changeless nature, while the restless soul, immersed in the spectacle of God’s glory, is drawn without break beyond the world to the source of its beauty, to embrace the infinite.”
 Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (NY: Picador, 1980), 130
 Ibid., 194-5.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Vol. I.1 tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: Continuum, 1936), 165.
 D. Mark Davis, “Incarnational Truth vs. Propositional Truth,” Left Behind and Loving It, 8 May 2017. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com
 Martin Buber, Ich und Du (1923).
 “Salvation is not to be construed as going to heaven after physical death; it is recovering human health and wholeness by exiting from the cave of non-being at Jesus call and being unbound by one’s bystanders.” Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 339n.
 Dan Heischmann, “The Daily Me,” The National Association of Episcopal Schools Weekly Meditation, 8 May 2017.
 John Trasviña, San Francisco Interfaith Breakfast, 11 May 2017.
 “… a different story, one told anew and with ever greater power every time violence is employed to silence it.” David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s, 2003), 333.
 Ibid., 195.
Older than the Cross
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10).
The Sarvāstivāda School is a form of Buddhist philosophy. It’s name means literally the “Everything Exists at the Same Time” School. They believe that the past, present and future live in every moment. This perfectly describes my experience last week going back to Cambridge, Massachusetts for an alumni reunion.
I always hesitate a little when someone asks me where I’m from. In short, I think that you are from the place where you learn to drive. For me that’s the great central valley of California. But before then and after then I lived in Massachusetts.
When my great Aunt Fran’s husband died from appendicitis at the age of twenty-nine, my grandmother Ruth and her sister Louise came down to Cambridge to help raise my Aunt Jessie Lou. For seventy years some combination of them lived in a brick apartment building close to Harvard Square.
When my father was a child, and when I was, we visited these aunts. We would bake peanut butter cookies as we played gin rummy. We would ride the subway for fun, go to the natural history museum and run across Cambridge Common. This week I walked by the places where my grandparents and parents met and were married.
I passed the cooperative gardens my uncle farmed, the computer labs where my dad worked in his twenties, the 75 bus stop where I would go to visit my grandparents after they retired and my grandfather had had a stroke.
The memories felt so tangible, as if they were somehow still happening right now – it was as if while walking in springtime as a middle-aged priest I was also just leaving the American Repertory Theater with my parents in a snowstorm. At the same time, I could smell spring mulch, the summer rains on the pavement and autumn leaves in the Yard. I felt an intense sadness on the sidewalk where I said goodbye to my grandparents for the last time when we moved west.
When I moved back to Cambridge in my twenties I added whole new layers of memory. Last week in my mind’s eye so many of my old teachers and friends came so close to me. I would turn a corner and suddenly experience the rush of feelings I had when my Hawaiian wife Heidi made her first snowman, when I preached for the first time, the place I proposed to her, our first apartment above the P & K Deli. Somewhere in my heart are all the feelings I had learning to row a single shell, becoming a father, taking long walks with the baby backpack and graduation.
Everywhere I could feel the presence of these ghosts. They must be with me all of the time, just beyond my awareness. But for one week I let them lead me.
The church has memories like this of Jesus. Jesus is with us today and has always been with the church. In the beginning Christianity was illegal. Followers of Jesus’ way met secretly in catacombs and private houses. Today archeologists know how the first Christians pictured their savior. The earliest drawings and symbols never include any kind of cross or suffering. They are pictures mostly of the Good Shepherd, images of loaves, fishes, grape vines and symbols of abundance. They imagined the church as the experience of being safely on board a boat with Jesus.
Those were times of terrible persecution and fear. The authorities could kill you for having found new life in Jesus. Today we still experience doubt, incompleteness and anxiety. Sometimes our life seems empty of meaning, a kind of broken dream. We feel unmoored, as if we have lost something that really matters. We feel distant from people who are supposed to love us.
You probably have an idea of what brought you here, but what if the real reason is that your shepherd has called you here by name? What if Jesus invited you here to fill you with what you need, to bring you home to your true self? In the place where our oldest memories abide, at the deepest level of our self, we recognize Jesus as our shepherd, as the one willing to die for us.
Make no mistake when Jesus talks to his friends about being the good shepherd, he is angry. After healing a man born blind, the authorities cannot decide what to do about Jesus. Some of the leaders conclude that since the healing happened on a Sabbath he must be dangerous. They have threatened to excommunicate, or put out of the synagogue, the formerly blind man, his family and anyone else who suggests that Jesus might be the messiah.
The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE – 50 CE) was a contemporary of Jesus and also contrasted good and bad shepherds. He uses the two names of Moses’ father-in-law to illustrate his point. The bad shepherd (Jethro) chooses human things over divine things and gives instructions to the wise. The good shepherd (Raguel) reveres authority, seeks the divine herd and brings forth justice and good judgment.
Jesus talks about the “thief and the bandit” who climb the wall of the sheepfold rather than entering through the gate (Jn. 10). My friend the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen believes that Jesus is referring to local religious leaders like Yochanon ben Zakkai. On the one hand ben Zakkai is like a thief (kleptēs) for ingratiating himself to the Roman leaders and in a sense stealing the authority they bestow on him. On the other, he is like a bandit or outlaw (lēstēs) by being willing to use violence against God’s people to maintain order.
Jesus says that in contrast the Good Shepherd calls the sheep by name. When they are confused Jesus tries another (paroimia) figure of speech. He says, “I am the gate of the sheep” (Jn. 10). I am like the one who lies down in the entryway in order to protect the sheep. We experience Jesus as the way we come into God’s presence. The Greek word for sheepfold, aulē also means courtyard and connects Jesus again to the temple. John through his gospel leads his readers to regard the temple not just as a stone building in Jerusalem, but as the living human body of Jesus.
In this chapter Jesus speaks for the first time about the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people as, “other sheep not from this fold.” He says, “I will bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (Jn. 10:16).
So here we stand. The false and the good shepherds take sheep to green pastures and streams for drinking. Both kinds of shepherds bring them back home to the sheepfold and in many respects may seem almost identical. But when the wolf comes the false shepherd flees and the good shepherd risks his life for the sheep he knows by name. What do false shepherds look like today?
I’m sure that many of the people around secular San Francisco might be tempted to believe that they don’t have a shepherd, or perhaps that they are their own shepherd. I often here people say, “I don’t believe in anything.”
But it is impossible to be human and to not believe. Some of us believe in saving and good accounting systems, others in having a good time. Almost all of us believe in money and power. I have friends who believe that their workout gym body will protect them from death. At times we believe most strongly in our own anger, in withholding forgiveness and nursing our grievances. We need a good shepherd.
During Easter we revisit the very earliest recollections of Jesus. We remember Mary Magdalene unhinged by grief at the tomb, Peter and John racing to tell their friends what they saw, Thomas’ feelings of being left out of the most important moment in history and his friend’s life, Paul’s shocking encounter on the road to Damascus. We remember that Jesus did not just leave them to their own devices.
In the middle of their fear and doubt, their guilt for abandoning him, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I stand between you and the way of death and sorrow. I am watching for you, helping you to find your true path.”
It is easy to feel demoralized this week with all the news we hear. In the midst of our breakups, fears for the future, the damage we do intentionally and unintentionally, the ethical compromises of daily life, the pain we bear – when we persistently choose death, Jesus blocks that way. Jesus says to us, “I love you no matter what you’ve done. You will be part of my family.”
In Jesus we are never abandoned, or overlooked, or alone. Our life is precious in his eyes. And so this good shepherd constantly invites us into a new beginning, to become a new person in a new tomorrow. Isn’t this what abundant life means? As God’s children we can experience, happiness, peace and full participation in the Kingdom right now.
I began by talking about the uncanny contemporaneity of past, present and future, how people and places and feelings from different times are with us always. On Thursday members of my old churches surprised me at Evensong for my birthday. As I looked across at all my old friends I saw Alice. I instantly had a vivid memory of being with her as her husband declined with dementia. After his death she reassured me! She said I know that Jesus is with me and that I’ll get through this.
Maybe the Sarvāstivāda School is onto something. Perhaps in the world of spirit everything does exist in the same time. This week in Cambridge and at Grace, Fran, Ruth, Louise, Elmore, Alice and George felt so near. Jesus is with us in the same way. With our life we can cultivate a spirit of invitation. We can walk away from the false shepherds and turn to the one who stands between us and death. We can say yes to the real reason we are here. We can have life and have it abundantly.
 Charles Hallisey, Lecture: “The Presence of Buddhism in Our Public Life,” Harvard Divinity School Bicentennial, 28 April 2017. See also, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_philosophy.
 Paul Scott Wilson, “No Dead End in Christ,” Preaching John’s Gospel: The World it Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008) 157ff.
 “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (Jn. 9:23).
 Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 260.
 Ibid., 262.
 Paul Scott Wilson, “No Dead End in Christ,” Preaching John’s Gospel: The World it Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008) 157ff.
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.
It is hard. It is hard to understand what happened in Baghdad, Beirut and Paris this week. Ordinary people like you and I casually went to see friends at a stadium, at a funeral, in a concert hall, cafes, restaurants and streets.Total strangers indiscriminately killed them. I guess that is the point of this kind of violence. One person shows how intensely he cares about politics by murdering someone who has almost nothing to do with his grievances. The very arbitrariness of the act is intended to strike fear in the hearts of whole groups of people.
Do not forget that each of the ones we lost was a perfectly unique child of God. Each was filled with beauty, grace, goodness and potential that came into being just once in the history of the whole universe. Their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children and friends will never forget Friday. They will never be quite okay ever again.
We find ourselves in that moment when we have to choose what events like this will mean to us. Again we have to decide what we will do, how we will live and who we will be.
Twenty years before the birth of Jesus, King Herod the Great began reconstructing the Temple in Jerusalem. It cost many fortunes and became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Temple stood on a great platform of more than 900 by 1,500 feet. This made it twice as large as the Roman Forum with all its temples. It was four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis and its Parthenon. The retaining walls included forty foot long white stones the remains of which you can still see today.
The ancient historian Josephus writes that the 150 foot square front of the temple had so many gold and silver decorations that on sunny days it nearly blinded anyone who looked at it. Pilgrims approaching the temple could see it from miles and miles away.
You can imagine how this might strike one of Jesus’ disciples. A peasant from rural Galilee would have been amazed. He would regard the temple as God’s dwelling place at the center of the world, the very symbol of the Holy One’s connection to the people. How shocking it is for Jesus to respond to his awe saying, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13).
Later Jesus goes on to warn “Beware that no one leads you astray… When you hear wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place but the end is still to come.”
As Christians we have to decide what these words will mean to us. I think that there are three obvious options. First, one might interpret this passage simply as Jesus’ prediction about the Jewish Temple. In the beginning of August in the year 70 Titus conquered the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. We could regard Jesus simply as someone who understood human nature and groups well enough to make accurate predictions about the future.
Second, many other Christians believe that these statements are about the end of the world, when everything will be destroyed to make room for God’s new creation. Some American Christians make predictions about the end. They let their imaginations run wild taking them far beyond what the Bible actually says.
I do not know if the point is that Jesus accurately predicted the results of the First Jewish-Roman War or how the world will end. I do believe that there is a kind of ongoing destruction over time that happens as God’s Word continues to permeate human experience. God’s Kingdom breaks down every structure, every human institution, every form of oppression until we are free. Jesus unleashed a power into our world and we still can barely fathom all of its implications.
I wonder if you can answer this question: what was the most controversial Christian doctrine at the beginning of the church during the first centuries?From those years we have different historical accounts of what their Roman neighbors thought about Christian teachings. So what do you think offended them the most? You might be thinking about conflicts over whether Jesus was essentially divine or human, miracles, Mary, divine healing, the body and blood of Christ, infant baptism or bodily resurrection.
According to the Romans the most radical and controversial Christian doctrine was the idea that every person matters. Even after twenty centuries of proclaiming this truth it still is incredibly controversial. ISIS does not believe it. Our modern democracies only partly believe it. Even today the spirit unleashed by Jesus leads to surprising, radical revolutions.
This weekend Alan Jones and I were talking about the tendency to romanticize Greek and Roman culture. Alan cites a letter from Hilarion, an ancient Roman man who moved away from his wife and child for work. The author (a laborer at Oxyrhnychos) clearly cares about his wife. At the end of the letter he tenderly writes “You told Aphrodisias, ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.” But he also writes about what she should do if it turns out she is pregnant. He orders her, “If it is a boy let it live. If it is a girl expose it” (P.Oxy 4.744). There was no place in his heart for a girl, or for the idea that his wife could have any voice in this matter.
The Romans enjoyed watching people get torn apart by wild animals and gladiators. They owned slaves. The family patriarch had absolute control over those under his authority in matters of sex, life and death. The Romans would crucify hundreds of slaves along the road just to intimidate the others. But Alan pointed out that what most offended the Emperor Julian (331-363) was that in a Christian assembly a senator might find himself sitting next to a slave.
In this context the idea that who you are as citizen or foreigner, free or slave, male or female, rich or poor is of secondary importance to being a child of God – this idea is still revolutionary. Human beings have not completely discovered exactly what this means. We are not very attractive and certainly do not deserve it but God is madly in love with us. Alan said that the monks at The College of the Resurrection (Mirfield) talked about “how disgusting it is that God so lacks taste as to really love everyone.”
David Bentley Hart (1965-) is a contemporary theologian who writes about the contrast between Christian thought and modern atheist philosophers like Friedrich Nieztsche (1844-1900). Hart points out that in the modern postmodern world many sophisticated people believe that there is nothing more than power. When you probe how they think and talk you will discover that they believe that power is what we all long for, that power and those who have it write the stories that ultimately determines what is true. For them, beneath power, there is nothing more than power.
Hart writes, “the difference between two narratives: [is] one… finds the grammar of violence inscribed upon the foundation stone of every institution and hidden within the syntax of every rhetoric, and [the other] claims that within history a way of reconciliation has been opened that leads beyond, and ultimately overcomes, all violence.”
I love what Hart writes later. He says, “We are music moved to music… partaking in the inexhaustible goodness of God… the restless soul, immersed in the spectacle of God’s glory, is drawn without break beyond the world to the source of its beauty, to embrace the infinite.”The twentieth century writer Dorothy Sayers describes Dante’s Divine Comedy as the drama of the soul’s choice between good and evil. She writes that we put ourselves with God or far from God, and where we are tells us who we are. To quote Alan once again, “we become what we are by choosing and the Good News is that God chooses us.”
Mahatma Gandhi says my religion is kindness. The New Testament states that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Every moment we have the chance to choose love, to choose God.
So how will you live in that love? How will you prevent yourself from becoming another kind of terrorist, that is, a sort of mirror image of the terrorist – someone who merely differs in one’s belief about who needs to be protected and who is dispensable?
People who try to be citizens of God’s kingdom begin with humility, with letting God be God.
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) expresses this in his poem “The Place Where We Are Right.”
“From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be hear in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.”
It is hard. It is hard to understand what happened in Paris this week. It is difficult for us to move from the place where we are right, the place of easy answers, the place that is hard and trampled. It is hard when we feel like our world is being dug up, and not one stone will be left on another.
But a way of reconciliation has been opened. And we can hear the whisper in the place where the ruined house once stood.
Yes, we are music moved by music as the inexhaustible goodness of God draws us to embrace the infinite. So let us, by choosing, become what we are and live in God’s love.
 Adam Nossiter, Aurelien Breeden and Nicola Clark, “Paris Attacks Were an ‘Act of War’ by ISIS, Hollande Says,” The New York Times, 14 November 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/world/europe/paris-terrorist-attacks.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=span-abc-region®ion=span-abc-region&WT.nav=span-abc-region
 These three paragraphs from A. Katherine Grieb, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, 11 November 2015, 20.
 “[T]he sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” (Mk. 13).
 I’m very indebted to conversations with Alan Jones (November 12-14, 2015) for most of this sermon from Hilarion to Yehuda Amichai.
 David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2003), 2.
 Ibid., 195.
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12).
Your heart beats seventy-two times per minute for 1,440 minutes a day. That is 103,680 beats per day, 37,843,200 beats per year, 2,936,632,320 in the average person’s lifetime.This small part of your body, this fist sized piece of flesh, can never rest. Without it we quickly die. Life is precarious and fragile. Death lies so near to our bodies, and yet strangely, so far from our thoughts.
When the Buddha was born, prophets told his father that he would either be the world conqueror or the world savior. As a king himself the Buddha’s father longed for his son to be a conqueror. But he knew that this would only be possible if his son never awakened.
So the father gave his son everything – unimaginable wealth, palaces, music, art and luxury. But to prevent his son from waking up spiritually, the father hid from him all evidence of poverty, disease, old age and death. He knew that if his son never experienced suffering he would never gain spiritual insight.
In his secret visits to the town outside the palace walls the young Buddha saw a diseased person, a decaying corpse and a religious ascetic. These experiences in themselves were not enough to awaken him spiritually but they did provoke him to leave home and follow the spiritual path. This led ultimately to the bodhi tree under which he sat when he attained enlightenment. The Buddha discovered a new relation to suffering.
In many respects our culture functions much like the Buddha’s father. It hides death and suffering from us. Our hospitals have special corridors and elevators so that we do not ever have to encounter a dead body. Modern American life is so segregated by age that unless young people are part of a church they will not even know an old person who is not related to them. We hide death from ourselves and we are unenlightened.
This week I was talking about how sad it is to see severely mentally people on the streets in this city. It breaks my heart that we cannot do more to take care of them, to provide them with food, clothes, healthcare and safe shelter. At the same time I wonder if seeing them on the street in part upsets us because so much of the other suffering in life has been hidden.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) composed his requiem between 1887 and 1890. Someone has called it a “lullaby of death.” The beauty of this work allows us to hold death in a different way. It reminds us of those who went before us so that we can more honestly consider what it is that we are leaving behind.
Death reminds us that we have choices when it comes to deciding how to live. In the gospel Jesus compares two kinds of people. These are really two paths each of us take at different times.
On the one hand he warns, “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (Mk. 12). These are the people who crave attention and respect. They long to be regarded as superior to other. All of us have an ugly voice in our thoughts that looks for ways that we can feel offended.
In the readings for Ash Wednesday Jesus emphtaically teaches us to do good things for their own sake and not “in order to be seen” by others (Mt. 6:1). We should linger a little over the Greek word for “best seats.” It is protokathedrias, literally the first chair. A cathedral is built around that first chair. This hierarchy is a pretty deep part of cathdral culture and we need to be especially conscious of it. We should not be mistake all human life has variations of the first class lounge.
In contrast to this Jesus commends a widow who puts a few pennies into the temple treasury. This woman does not care about looking good. She gives because it is the right thing to do and she gives generously. Jesus says, “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12). In Greek she gives “holon ton bion.” We know the word bios from our “biology.” This widow not holding back anything, gives her whole life.
In Jewish theology the word yetzer refers to two competing tendencies, inclinations or impulses. One yetzer, yetzer ra is to selfishness, pride, the desire to satisfy one’s own needs without thinking of others. This is not evil, It is merely the tendency that makes us long for special treatment and honors. The second yetzer is yetzer tov. It leads us to empathy, compassion and righteousness. The purpose of God’s law is to remind us which of these tendencies we should encourage.
I have a friend named Russ Toll who seems to always live out of his yetzer tov. Like the widow he does not hold anything back but shares his holon ton bion, his life, to every noble activity he undertakes. This hulking man who seems so gentle with his toddler and infant sons served as a tank commander in Iraq. He saw terrible things there and still feels haunted by the friends he lost.
He once talked about visiting the body of a fellow soldier in a funeral home. “The strangest part is, you’re looking at his face and thinking about all your memories, and a smell hits you. It’s not the burning grass, rain, livestock smell of Iraq, but old formaldehyde. It really blurs your memory and your reality.”
Russ rarely talks about this pain. These days he is a doctoral student in neuroscience at Stanford. God has done so much to heal him. Russ’s message now is simply, “If I were to give a recommendation for what people should do on Veteran’s Day, I would say to take five minutes to just sit on a bench somewhere and look around you.” See what God has made and what what those before have added to creation. Give thanks.
This week I hope that the fear of death will not prevent you from coming closer to enlightment, to knowing how blessed this life God gives is. I pray that in a moment of sanctity between you and God you discover something worth giving your life to. I pray that your yesher tov prevails over your yesher ra.
I pray that in the busyness of these days you have the chance to listen to your heart.
[i] Assuming a life expectancy of 77.6 years.
[ii] From Jack Crossley and http://www.jewfaq.org/human.htm
[iii] Niuniu Teo, “Veterans Day Vignettes,” The Stanford Daily, 11 November 2012.
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“See I am making all things new” (Rev. 21). “Unbind him and let him go” (Jn. 11). “Let us be glad and rejoice” (Isa. 25).
What does God want for you and for the children we baptize today? What stands in our way, how are we constrained or bound up, unable to be free?
My friend the Bible scholar Herman Waetjen has a wonderful interpretation of that moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”After Lazarus has been in the grave for four days, after he has been brought back to life, he still needs help from the community of people who care for him. He needs to be unbound. At many points in our life we do too.
For me religion is not so much about dogma or doctrine. It is not a requirement to think or believe certain things. It does not oblige you to feel sorry for what you have done in the past, nor is it mostly a promise to make better choices in the future. Instead, at its very heart, faith frees us. It is a gropu of people who help each other to become unbound. This happens in the experience of thankfulness to the Holy One, to the power which brings us into being and sustains us in love.
Religion at its best gives us both a direction to be thankful and practice in cultivating gratitude. In this way faith helps make it possible to receive the gifts that otherwise might be invisible to us.
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saint’s. We give thanks for all the people who came before us, for those who personally nurtured and sheltered us spiritually. We even bless God for those forgotten people who wrote scriptures, created art and built sacred spaces like this so that we would know God. We bless those who in their lives and words preserved the knowledge of God that enriches us.
So the short answer to my first question is that God wants us to be happy. Strangely enough we lay claim to this in our gratitude. I am not alone in this conviction.
Six years ago I first met Christine Carter a sociologist at UC Berkeley.She taught me that for decades social scientists studied individual and social problems like mental illness and persistent poverty. For years they were so dedicated to solving questions about how to heal suffering that they did not ask about what conditions make people thrive. Then they realized that not suffering is different than being happy. And so less than twenty years ago they began studying the causes of human happiness.
This research led them to the conclusion that less than half of our happiness comes from our individual genetic predisposition. In other words the the choices we make have a huge influence on our sense of satisfaction and joy. We can establish habits that bring out our better selves. We can live the stories that give meaning and help us to make the world better.
Christine claims that happiness is not an emotion but a skill that we can learn. Happiness is not something that simply happens to us when we are lucky. It is more like a muscle that we keep strong through exercise. It is a learned behavior, that arises out of habits we decide to cultivate.
The practice of gratitude – to family, strangers and God – lies at the heart of happiness. I do not know how she measures these things but Christine claims that people actively practicing gratitude feel better than others. They are 20% happier. They exercise more, sleep better, and are more likeable. They are more supportive, attentive, persistent, stronger, and socially intelligent. They have a higher sense of self worth.
Christine has very practical suggestions for how to cultivate gratitude. For instance, she says that having meals together as a family is more important than reading to your child. If you are a single person, look for ways to break bread with other people, maybe even those who you meet here. Over meals we weave the stories that make sense of our lives. These can be gripes about minor ways that others have inadvertently offended us or life giving accounts about how God continues to bless us.
For entirely secular reasons Christine recommends that people say grace together before meals. Our brains are giant filters of the world and saying out loud what we are thankful for helps us to attend to blessings that we might easily overlook. When we thank God our blessings become more real to us.
We live in a crazy time and place. Sometimes it feels like we are trapped in the abundance paradox. That is when the more you have, the more disappointment you feel when you don’t get what you want. In many respects gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. It leads to the kind of compassion that social scientists say is so close to happiness that your body reacts to it in almost exactly the same way.
Even more important, gratitude is the way we live in the presence and reality of God. I’m new here and received very stern instructions that with all the baptisms I should preach for only half as long as I usually do.
But before closing I want to tell you about my favorite film. It is called Here and Now. The trailer says, “The average wave lasts six seconds. The rest of the day is spent getting there. This is that day.” The producer Taylor Steele enlisted more than 25 surfers and photographers to record a single twenty-four hour period on May 2, 2012. In hundreds of of seconds long clips we see the surfers sleeping, waking, eating, training, making music, laughing with friends in places around the world.
Two of them arrive by boat at a remore location on the south shore of Maui to find almost no waves but good fishing. Others compete in a Southern California contest. Another surfs barreling, left-breaking waves alone just beyond the woods in British Columbia. I love the idea that at every moment somewhere someone is riding a wave.
It took me a long time to realize it but surfing is not even about the waves.On one day it might be a line of pelicans coming through the fog, or the light on the water at dawn or a dolphin in the coolness of the water at the beginning of a hot summer day, or the way a million rain drops can seem suspended above the ocean in the semi-darkness of a December day.
People ask me if I write sermons out there. I don’t. All I think about is getting into position for the next wave. The most important thing in surfing is the present moment. It is being able to see and receive the gift that God is giving you right then. It is the practice of gratitude that opens the door to the mystery of our being.
I want to conclude with a quote from the theologian Kallistos Ware. He says, “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
“Let us be glad and rejoice” (Isa. 25)!
 “Lazarus has responded to Jesus’ bellowing summons, “Come forth.” But in order to be free he needs the gracious aid and helping hand of those around him. Jesus’ liberation from the death of the living and the death of the dying requires a two-fold response: the act of Lazarus himself to hear and exit, but also the caring involvement of his community.” Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 283.
 Christine Carter, “Raising Happiness,” Lecture at Christ Episcopal Church, Los Altos, California, 20 October 2009.
 I learned from Mike Lawler that surfing is not just about the physical act of riding waves. It is about history, culture, music, science, meteorology, art and style that surfers pass down between the generations.
 Cited in Donald Schell, “Treasures New and Old, Tradition and Gospel-Making: Reflections on Principles Learned at St. Gregory of Nyssa, and How These Principles Might Apply in Other Contexts,” Forthcoming lecture at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, November 2015, 8.
Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist.