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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.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…” (Isa. 9).
Sometimes it is hard to say “I love you.” Perhaps this is because walking in darkness may seem like the most obvious thing about us as human beings. Darkness means that no one can see really well – either themselves or each other. It is why we do not really know where we are going, or what will happen to us, or for that matter were we stand right now. We experience darkness in every kind and level of conflict.
Because understanding this darkness matters to me, this fall I read a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It is a collection of advice columns by Cheryl Strayed whose pen name is simply “Sugar.” People who usually write this kind of thing for newspapers sound official. They seem detached and in full control. They speak with a definitive, often judgmental voice. They call in expert advisors, use civil language and say almost nothing about themselves.
Sugar does just the opposite of this. Most shockingly she writes vividly about absolutely awful things that have happened in her life including her experience of sexual abuse, addiction, infidelity, divorce, stealing and promiscuity. Like the waitresses I used to know at Denny’s Restaurant she expresses her affection for these desperate letter writers and calls them “sweat pea,” “darling,” and “honey bunch.”
Let me read a quick example of a question that Johnny asked her. He writes, “Dear Sugar, My twenty-year marriage fell apart. Whose fault? Mine? My wife’s? Society’s? I don’t know. We were both too immature to get married… and we both worked hard to avoid dealing with the unhappiness that was hanging over us.”
Since the divorce and after dating a few other women Johnny has found someone whom he “click[s] with very nicely.” But he goes on, “I’m afraid to say it out loud, as my experience shows that the word “love” comes loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken. My question to you is, when is it right to take that big step and say I love you?”Yes, Johnny knows about darkness.
I do not know where and from what directions you face darkness in your life right now. But let me share a summary of Sugar’s advice to all those who contact her in case it might be useful. First, seek out that friend who shows you some affection and sympathy – you may find that just being called “sweat pea” changes the whole picture. Next, recognize that a sense of entitlement, and the implied superiority behind it, makes us weak and dependent. It cuts us off from the resources that could help us to weather the storm. Chief among these is an extraordinary inner strength that most of us fail to see in ourselves. Finally, recognize that you cannot change other people. The best you can do is to set up healthy boundaries that show you love yourself too.
Sugar points out that two kinds of people write to her: those who have the answer already and those who are genuinely lost. Incidentally, most of us fall into the first category although we do not realize it or are afraid to act on what we do know.
You may be wondering why I am bringing this up on one of the holiest nights of the year. The reason is that in your hearts I want you to touch something real tonight and this doesn’t happen when we deny the dark parts in our life, or only bring our best selves to church.
After the emperor’s decree, after the journey to Bethlehem, after the baby, the angels, the shepherds, the fear, exhaustion, amazement, and joy – there is a quiet moment I especially appreciate. Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2). Although I love this translation it conceals something that you might not otherwise notice. More literally one might say instead, “Mary preserved these words.” Then for the word ponder the Greek is sumballousa. It means meeting, comparing, considering, bringing together. Mary brought these things together in her heart.”
Sumballousa is also the Greek word for symbol. Mary is the only adult from the stories of Jesus’ birth to have a role in the rest of his life. She puts things together. Most importantly she possesses the special gift of holding on to the meaning of things as others just go back to business as usual.
The linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have a particular interest in symbol and language. They point out that we live according to expressions, symbols and ideas that lie beneath our conscious awareness. This is the reason we act (to use their words) automatically in so many situations.Our feelings and emotional life are so much more powerful in relation to our rationality than we recognize. We are metaphors that we have not always consciously chosen.
The biggest problem with this is that the meanings of these symbols will not stay fixed. I remember first hearing Adele sing “Chasing Pavements.” Her voice sounded so fresh and different. It seemed like I would never get tired of those songs, but I did. When my mother was in college she listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so many times that it completely lost its magic.
This is the same problem that we have with Christmas and Christianity in general. We are creatures in time, and meaning will not stay still. Perhaps that’s part of Johnny’s problem with saying, “I love you” to someone he cares so much about. I do not want you to miss Christmas so let me tell you about two symbols in particular that have lost their meaning and make this sacred night confusing to us.
1. Sin. Today when you see the word sin it almost always refers to something like chocolate. For us, sin means indulgence in a harmless pleasure – lingerie or ice cream or a cocktail. The only dimly remembered ancient associations of Adam and Eve, the idea that we are doing something that we shouldn’t, only makes it more fun. This is what sin means in our consumer society. That is why normal people find it impossible to understand why Christians would care much at all about sin.
When Christians use the word sin it means to screw things up, to break what we really care about, often for the sake of some far less important and more temporary feeling. It might mean anything from saying something clever at the expense of someone’s feelings to Johnny’s experience with his twenty year marriage. We are the people who walk in darkness. Sin is another word for that darkness, that world of addiction, abuse, broken relationships, hurt feelings, self-defeating behaviors, thoughtless remarks. Self-reflective adults recognize the way that we come up short, that contradictions lie at the very heart of our thoughts and behavior. But we no longer have as rich a vocabulary for recognizing this darkness.
2. Another word that we do not understand today is Christianity. I think that those who never moved beyond a child’s faith and those who never had it at all regard Christianity as a kind of theory about the universe, a child’s story of something that could never happen. Christians might seem like a club of self-righteous people forcing themselves to believe something that is obviously unbelievable.
Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic writes about a sign that atheists put on London buses a few years ago. It read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”You see what the problem with this is don’t you? Think of how that sign sounds to my friend whose barely surviving as he takes care of his mentally ill wife, or my other friend who never knows where her homeless and addicted son is sleeping that night, or yet another friend whose partners summarily fired him and took his shares after he put years of his life into the company. Really – just enjoy yourself. What that bus sign says is that if you are in darkness there is no hope.
My point is that the normal state of things is not peace but a surprising amount of darkness. This is why John Lennon’s song “Imagine” has always bugged me. You remember the song, “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try…” He makes it sound as if without religions and countries and possessions everything would be perfectly peaceful. Nothing in my experience confirms this. Living together in peace is not our default condition. Peace is an achievement attained when people are at their wisest and inspired by something great.
For me, church is a bunch of people just like this. We are the ones who screw up. We gather together try to repair what is broken. We depend for help on something beautiful and mysterious lying beyond ourselves. This is what gets us through the darkness. This is the light of Christ, the one whose birth we celebrate tonight.
Luke constantly describes Jesus as a kind of alternative to the Roman emperor, as someone who would risk everything for the sake of love, who would change what it means for all of us to be human.
You may be wondering how Sugar responded to Johnny’s question about when to tell someone that you love them. Sugar said that “love” was the last word that her mother had said to her before dying. She writes, “Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about… It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor, and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want to keep.”
In short Sugar tells Johnny to say, “I love you” and then talk about what it means. Don’t try to protect yourself from the junk that comes with love by withholding or avoiding.
This is my first Christmas at Grace Cathedral and it has been magical, like the most extraordinary dream. Today the baby Jesus was fussing in her manger and so I got to hold her for the whole Christmas pageant. She called me off the script and that little baby made time stand completely still. And there I was with light streaming through these stained glass windows, with thousand of others standing simply in the presence of holiness. It was the perfect symbol for how Jesus has interrupted my life.
In the darkness of this night as the symbols around you constantly change, as you mess things up and then try to set the world right, remember Mary’s gift of holding on to meaning over time. Hold on to the hope that Jesus is always with you, then say it, say I love you with your life.
 If you are a person who prays, darkness is what you pray about. If you are a person who does not pray, you probably stopped for that same reason. This paragraph is a paraphrases from Frederick Buechner, “Come and See,” The Hungering Dark (NY: Harper, 1969) 50.
 Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 13-18.
 Others write to her with agonizing questions: Should I break up with my spouse? What do I do about my “icky” sexual fantasies? Should I continue to support the adult children who live with me? How do I handle parents who reject me because of my sexual orientation? How can I ever by okay after the death of my child?
 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980).
 Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2013), 7.
 Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 15.
Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say Rejoice!… The Lord is near” (Phil. 4).
These are the days. These are the days of fear and blame. Many Americans live in fear of terrorists, that the next victims of a mass shooting will be someone they know or love. This week one of our presidential candidates proposed that we should refuse to let Muslims into the country. As a result, he immediately surged forward in the polls. This in turn led to even more fear, that our country would lose sight of its most central values, that we would become like the Nazi state or revert to the racist policies of the Japanese internment camp era.
Here in the city at the center of the modern gold rush people worry about losing their homes as landlords look for opportunities to evict low-rent tenants. We worry about the big companies that bring so much money to the Bay Area. We feel anxious that San Francisco will lose the diversity we love because of income inequality.
I had another conversation with a friend who worries about the economy in the rest of the country. She points out that large numbers of relatively young unskilled laborers are on permanent disability. As people who are likely to never hold a regular job again, they face a terrible crisis of meaning. In Hale County, Alabama one in four working-age adults is on disability.My friend worries about the dangers to family life and our democratic republic of having large regions of the country with this kind of chronic unemployment. Perhaps fears about politics and the economy are merely a relief from our more personal anxieties.
As people of faith how do we move beyond fear, and fearful reactions to fear? How do we step out of the polarization, the blaming, the unkind ways we ridicule and shame each other? How do we move decisively into the presence of God?
To the church at Philippi which he loves so deeply, the Apostle Paul writes very simply. “Rejoice!… The Lord is near. Do not be anxious” (Phil. 4). But practically speaking how can we do this? This morning I offer three different but related answers from a mystic, a philosopher and a poet.
1. The twentieth century Episcopal priest and spiritual teacher Alan Watts (1915-1973) liked to talk about ways that we could imagine the nearness of God. He points out that human beings are stuck. Our ability to think about the world, to use the symbols that make reasoning possible, also leaves us distant from the world and from ourselves.
Rationality bestows on us enormous power over our situation but it naturally leads to a kind of anxiety. It gives rise to the question, “Have I thought enough?” or “How do I know that I know?” “Who is the “I” lying behind all of our observations? Who is this silent witness, this unamed namer of reality?
Trying to understand ourself and the world sometimes feels a little like looking at a mirror reflected in a mirror. The line of our increasingly smaller selves stretches out into infinity.
This leads to a persistent illusion, a kind of alienation from the world that at times seems impossible to overcome. And so we act like powerless victims, as if the world merely happens to us. We come to think of ourselves as not belonging in the world, as if we were some kind of cosmic accident, when we should be experiencing the cosmos as the drama of God.
Yoga classes in my old church begin with an invocation. “Om namah shivaya gurave. Saccidanda murtaye…” It means “I open my heart to the power of God who lives in, and around us, as being – consciousness and joy.”Saccidananda comes from Sat or that which is. Chit means that which has consciousness. Andanda is joy or bliss. For a devout Hindu, at the very structure of the world and consciousness is joy. Jews and Christians believe this too. In the Book of Genesis after each act of creation God calls what was made good.
Alan Watts proposes a little thought experiment.Imagine that in one night you were able to live every detail of a full seventy year life with complete control. In your first night you would fulfill all your wishes. It would not take many nights of this kind of dreaming to experience every pleasure, every possible desire that you could envisage. So to have new pleasures and new experiences you would relinquish control.
As a result some mornings you would wake up and think, “that was horrible! I’m so glad that one is over.” But having variety would be worth it. We are deeply drawn to what is new. And so you would cycle through every life, every possible event, every action and reaction, until… you would dream that you were sitting in Grace Cathedral on the third Sunday of Advent in the year of our Lord 2015 experiencing what your life is right now.
You would be sitting there pretending to yourself that you are not intimately connected to God. Alan Watts suggests that it might even be the nature of God to pretend to not be God. God is love. The goal and fulfillment of love is to give itself away, not to hold on to or protect it.
The word person comes from Graeco-Roman times. Per means through. Sonna is sound. The personna is the mask actors speak through on the stage. The Dramatis Personae is the list of masks in the front of the program. We’ve forgotten this. Person, that is what we once recognized as “the mask,” is now simply what we genuinely believe ourselves to be.
This is one account of how we might be so very near to God and still not know it. We do not have to take this as our life’s philosophy. The point is that we also do not have to believe all those voices that tell us to be afraid. We do not have to believe that the goal of our life should be to protect our masks. We do not have to accept the theory that we are an inconsequential and accidental speck in an immense universe, or for that matter that we are terrible dirty sinners at the foot of an old man’s throne. We are not marionettes whose happiness depends on what appears on the front page of The New York Times.
We can choose what person we are going to put on. We can decide which story we will bring to the table. And our story, according to our brother Jesus, is that we are intimately connected to the being, the consciousness, the mystery and the joy of the universe. Indeed we have reason to rejoice.
2. This morning, because we have moved so far in this direction I want to talk about a philosopher who means a great deal to me, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). In his early life Wittgenstein worked on the philosophy of mathematics. But as the twentieth century progressed he began to write arguments against the idea that science is the only real form of knowledge.
Wittgenstein believed that after the seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) we became tricked into believing that the world could be simply divided into things and thoughts, matter and ideas, objects and subjects. We act as if we have perfect knowledge of ourselves and need to be suspicious of what our physical senses say. In response, Wittgenstein writes that we cannot touch reality apart from our value systems and that the mind cannot be transparent to itself. We cannot step outside or rise above being human.
Wittgenstein rejects our modern individualistic ideas. For him thoughts do not so much occur in our minds as they do out in the world, in our communities of meaning. In being together we tacitly agree on what constitutes the truth, how we should take turns, when we are justified in feeling offended, the questions that are inappropriate for us to ask, and a thousand other values. Together we share a sense for what fun is or what loss feels like.
If meaning is not something that exists simply in our head, if what constitutes us as beings is our interaction with each other, then what really matters is how we act.When the people go out to see John the Baptist they ask quite simply, “what should we do (poieo)” (Lk. 3). He tells them share your clothing and your food. Begin with who you are. If you are a tax collector do not collect extra for yourself. If you are a soldier do not extort money from the people.
I do not know what this might mean in your life. The Cathedral priest Andy Lobhan found himself getting tangled up in the cycle of fear, hatred and shame. Rather than merely being a victim of the world or simply living in his own private universe, he changed his story, took matters into his own hands and wrote a letter of love and support to every muslim person he knows. Each of us can move beyond complaining about how the world is, to changing how the world will be.
3. Let me leave us with one more picture of what it means to rejoice and act in the knowledge that God is near. This comes from a poem by Wendell Berry called “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”
“Love the quick profit, the annual raise, / vacation with pay. Want more / of everything ready-made. Be afraid / to know your neighbors and to die. / And you will have a window in your head. / Not even your future will be a mystery / any more. Your mind will be punched in a card / and shut away in a little drawer. / When they want you to buy something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know.”
“So, friends, every day do something / that won’t compute. Love the Lord. / Love the world. Work for nothing. / Take all that you have and be poor. / Love someone who does not deserve it. / Denounce the government and embrace / the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. / Give your approval to all you cannot / understand. / Praise ignorance, for what man / has not encountered he has not destroyed.”
“Ask the questions that have no answers. / Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias… Expect the end of the world. Laugh. / Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful / though you have considered all of the facts…”
“Swear allegiance / to what is nighest your thoughts. / As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it. Leave it as a sign / to mark the false trail, the way / you didn’t go. Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.”
In conclusion my friends, you are not a cosmic accident or a victim of fear. In this beautiful, mysterious and surprising life you can choose your mask and your story. So move decisively into the presence of God. Be compassionate in your own way. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. Practice resurrection.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say Rejoice!… The Lord is near” (Phil. 4).
 In 2013, “Every month 14 million people [got] a disability check from the government.” “The federal government [spent] more on cash payments to disabled former workers than it [spent] on food stamps and welfare combined.” Chana Joffe-Walt, “Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America,” NPR Planet Money, 2013. http://apps.npr.org/unfit-for-work/
 Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives, Disc 2, (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).
 “Om namah shivaya gurave / Saccidananda murtaye / Nispraprancaya shantaya / Niralambya Tejase / Om.” Invocation from John Friend. Thanks for help from Darren Main.
Translated as “I open my heart to the power of Grace / That lives in us as goodness / That never is absent and radiates peace / And lights the way to transformation (by Denise Benitez). Or, “I bow to the presence of God within / Our true and highest teacher / That lives in and around us as / Being, consciousness and bliss. / It is ever-present and radiates peace / Lighting the way to transformation.”
 Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives, Disc 2, (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).
 Stanley Cavell, Themes out of School, 223-4 cited in Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, Second Edition (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1986, 1997), 75.
 Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, Second Edition (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1986, 1997), 65.
 Wendell Berry, Collected Poems 1957-1982 (Berkeley, California: North Point Press, 1984), 151-2.
Sermon from Sunday’s 6pm Eucharist.
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…” (Lk. 3).
After college I worked in Santa Monica at the GTE Building right where Wilshire Boulevard meets the vast Pacific Ocean. I will never forget winter sunsets from that corner conference room, the dark looming mountains in the north and the brilliant reds and oranges of the sky reflected in the smooth bay waters.
Renee Labran, our managing director insisted that whether we were leaving for a month long assignment in London or just overnight, our desks should be neatly ordered. Although clients only rarely visited, she wanted us to be prepared for anyone who might arrive. It is still my habit here at Grace Cathedral. I try to leave everything so that if someone were to need a space to work, there would be plenty of room for them at my desk or table.
This week a few staff members and I visited the corporate offices of Airbnb. The motto for those who work there and for the people who rent out their homes is simple: “be a host.” You could see this culture everywhere. People practically tripped over themselves to hold doors open for us (to remain cheery when we were blocking the halls or spilling our tea). Most employees there have no regular workspace and so they constantly meet new colleagues when they sit down in different places with their laptop computers.
Conference rooms look like kitchens, basements, living rooms, libraries, and playgrounds. You can have a meeting in a little airstream trailer, a kind of yurt, an alpine ski cabin, a camping tent, a ball pit, or my favorite, an exact replica of the founders’ apartment where the company began. Meeting spaces are named after the most beautiful and distinctive places in the world: Paris, Barcelona, Bali, Reykjavik and Berlin.
The way a place looks matters to what happens there. And it takes time to prepare. I think of this when I make the bed, do the dishes, put away books or generally clean up. You have heard me say that our reasoning, logical mind is only a tiny part of who we are. What a place looks and feels like speaks to a deep part within us. A place can give rise to thoughts, dreams and experiences that would otherwise be impossible. It can make it possible to welcome someone (either a relative from out of town or a new friend) and to form the kind of connection that is one of the greatest joys of this life.
As crowds come out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness he says the same thing. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Lk. 3:1-6). We pay special attention to this work during the church season of Advent. In John’s case the places we are to prepare include our selves. You might think of it as spring cleaning for your soul. During Advent we varnish the floors of our heart, dust the shelves of our memories and clean the windows through which we see God and each other. We make ready that house which we are always building, that is, our life.
Brothers and sisters we have been through so much this week. As often seems to be the case I feel stunned by the way scripture seems to speak to our very situation. On Wednesday Syed Rizwan Farook (28) and Tashfeen Malik (29) killed fourteen and injured twenty-one people at the San Bernadino Health Department where Farook was employed.
Two elements in particular stood out. First, for a couple of days the public hovered in an odd state of limbo. No one knew quite what to think about these events. Was this the case of a disgruntled employee? Were these “anti-government activists?” What did this case share in common with the boys who had been bullied at Columbine or the racist who killed the African American Christians who were praying with him in Charlotte? Were the shooters simply insane or was this planned from abroad like 9/11? What exactly is a terrorist anyway – aren’t all shooters terrorists? Does it matter whether someone is a domestic or foreign terrorist when you are dead?
The New York Times pointed out that if you define a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed or injured, then in the last 336 days we have had 209 mass shootings in this country.It took no time for the gun control and immigration debates to ramp into high gear. It makes me wonder if there is some other way to talk about this beyond the language of fear, anger and blame.
The second thing that seemed particularly strange was that after the FBI investigation landlord Doyle Miller allowed journalists to poke through the couple’s home. Because the way a place looks matters to what happens there we were fascinated to look over their shoulders. News articles mentioned social security cards out in plain sight, dishes piled in the sink as if someone would soon be home to clean up. We saw their family photos, images of the infant’s crib. The wall calendar had nothing special written on it for the day of the tragedy. We debated about whether reporters had violated the family’s privacy.
Perhaps we were shocked by the juxtaposition between how ordinary their life seemed and the terrible preparation involved in building bombs and amassing weapons and ammunition to kill people who have nothing to do with their cause. Honestly this tragic act of murdering colleagues and neighbors is a message that I do not understand. I wish that they had left behind a statement beyond the vague reference to a Facebook message supporting ISIS.
My hunch is that their reasons would be deeply connected to our gospel this morning. Luke tells us exactly when John the Baptist began his ministry. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” (Lk. 3). He then lists the kings: Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanius, in the order of the size of their various jurisdictions. In English we use different translations for one repeated Greek word, “hegemonias.” It means ruler or to rule. It is also the origin of our English word “hegemony.” The dictionary defines hegemony as dominance especially by one country or social group over others over others.
In the twenty first century the rule of the emperor or making paths straight for the coming king may sound quaint to us. The metaphor no longer has the power that it once did. In Roman times this was serious business. During the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-77 CE) roads and ramparts were built for 60,000 invading Roman troops. They massacred whole populations.
The Books of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are about a simple contrast between two different sons of God. The “Son of God” was another name for Julius Caesar and all the Roman Emperors who followed him. Luke asserts that the real Son of God is Mary’s son, Jesus of Nazareth. We all face this stark choice between hegemony and love, between the emperor’s kind of power to compel through force and Jesus’ power to inspire through empathy and compassion. We can fight power with more power or we can look for other solutions that begin by seeing with the eyes of love. In San Bernadino we saw a couple who chose the way of the Roman Empire.
Because we spend so much time living in the world of the Empire’s values, we ourselves constantly fall back on this way of thinking. That is why John the Baptist proclaims the baptism of repentance. For many Christians the word repentance feels worn out. We mistakenly regard repentance as the process of listing the things we did wrong and then feeling sorry about them. Repentance too often becomes self-flagellation, a mere intellectual exercise or a vague plan to become nicer or more spiritual.
The Greek word for repentance means something altogether different than this. It is metanoia Meta is change, nous is soul and it means to change your soul in the sort of way that everything around you becomes transformed. You see the same things but in a totally different light. Often it feels more like something that happens to you than something you completely chose for yourself.
You might be like my friend, Nick who came back from serving with the Peace Corps in Kenya and found himself paralyzed by all the choices in his local supermarket. As a result of this metanoia Nick spent the next twenty years living and working in Africa. You might be like my neighbor Sally whose life as a lawyer dissolved when she began caring for her elderly mother, or my friend Lena who gave up a very real chance to be a Silicon Valley CEO in order to raise her children. Maybe also like them you might discover a whole new intimacy relationships that at first seem like burdens. You might even find that in some sense or other you were born to do this.
We live so deeply immersed in media that we almost need to be reminded that reality isn’t terrorism or the triumph of empire. Reality is what happens in ordinary moments and ordinary places when the spirit invites us into the profound mystery at the heart of our existence.
In these words I have brought you to lovely places, sinister places and wacky places. Let me tell you about one more. Yesterday at Fort Mason our family experienced Janet Cardiff’s art installation “The Forty Part Motet.” In a large oval she arranged forty sound speakers (five groups of eight) at ear height. Each speaker plays a single voice from the men and boy’s choir at Salisbury Cathedral as they sing Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium nunquam habui (I have never put my hope in any other).
After watching the sun set and the lights come out on the Golden Gate bridge I shut my eyes. It felt like I stood at the very threshold of heaven, as if God were the only other presence in this world. In that moment I experienced such deep gratitude for our own Cathedral choirs. They prepare every week for us. They make great sacrifices to bring beauty alive so that we will be prepared to receive God.
In this Advent season I pray for a revolutionary change that leads us not to dwell on the past but to live in the gift of this moment. I ask that we will have the wisdom to think and engage with what is good and not with what destroys. I pray we receive God and transmit holiness through our life, that over and over we choose to be a host rather than a conqueror.
 The New York Times also claimed that while Islamic Jihadists have killed 45 people in America since September 12, 2001, during the same period “Anti-government, racist and non-jihadist extremists have killed 48.
 The next few paragraphs are inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “Living Between Steps.” https://www.goodpreacher.com/backissuesread.php?file=4283
Wednesday, June 28
Tuesday, July 4
Thursday, July 6
Sunday, July 9