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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.
When I say Alleluia, Christ is risen,
you say, The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.
This time, when I say
Alleluia, Christ is risen,
you say, Christ is rising in me right now, Alleluia.
Alleluia, Christ is risen;
Christ is rising in me right now, Alleluia.
There you are. That is what all this is about. That is what the Easter meaning is. Christ is rising in me right now. Christ is rising in you, right now. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not an event, it is a process that is as active and dynamic right now as it was on the day we hear about in the gospel. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an ongoing, eternal process that enlightens our existence and gives meaning to the reality of the struggle between good and evil that you and I are part of. It is a process that depends upon light and dark, upon life and death, upon righteousness and sin, on success and failure, on power and emptiness, on good and evil. The resurrection of Jesus creates the center point on which paradox becomes an indicator of divine presence, on which paradox becomes the way of salvation. We sing in full voice, “Earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne,” and that is true. We sing the canticle, “the one who is mighty has magnified me,” and that is true, too.
The gospel writers have given us such a gift in telling us, in every one of these resurrection encounters, that some of the witnesses did not believe, that some were afraid, that some were terrified, that some were unable to recognize Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is not an “aha” moment. It is, instead, the offer of a new reality into which we must move, and our movements will be fitful and uncertain. The resurrection of Jesus is an invitation to discover that in the unrecognizable one, that in the one we hear about but never see, there is such a deep blessing offered that in accepting it we will simultaneously die and rise to life beyond the broken imaginations we have been taught to settle for. The resurrection of Jesus invites us into a confrontation and conflict with all we have been taught to trust, because a truer and deeper reality is the only place where we will find our true worth, our abiding joy.
Let me bring you from the sublime to the commonplace, for we have to begin with an understanding of the resurrection as a reality that fits into everyday life. Think of all the resurrection appearance stories. Today we have the story of a group of friends fishing through the night. There are stories of Jesus asking a woman who is weeping what is troubling her. The disciples are told to return to Galilee, the district of jobs and marriages and aging parents and needy children. There is an evening meal, in which the new reality becomes clear just as the friends begin to pass the bread. There are breakfast encounters, and encounters in the midst of traveling along a road on the way to the next stop on a business trip.
All the resurrection encounters are set in the midst of mundane, everyday life events. We have been taught to see them, perhaps, through the wondrous awe depicted by Titian and Caravaggio and Giotto, but the descriptions in the words of the gospels are simple, straightforward and free of drama. In the barely receding darkness of an early morning, Jesus has built a small fire on which to cook some fish. The campfire is a flickering beacon in the dimness of dawn. There is a request to get some of the freshly caught fish; there is an invitation to eat, and then an invitation to take a walk together. In this simple encounter we see Peter drawn out from life encaged by guilty remorse for having denied Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard, set free through a reaffirmation of love that will enable him to become the great leader of the Jesus movement.
In these simple encounters there is a personal confrontation which, if we can accept how intimately aware it is, creates transformation and new life. In the garden Jesus speaks to the weeping woman, “Mary.” In the upper room Jesus speaks to the ashamed disciple, “Place your finger in my wounds; place your hand into my side.” In a walk along the beach Jesus speaks to his close friend, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” letting his friend exclaim with a sob, “Lord, you know I love you.” In the midst of a caravan trek across the desert Jesus calls an enemy by name, “Saul, Saul why do you hate me?”
The resurrection of Jesus, in a rather remarkable way, requires some level of participation from each one of us as individuals in order to be true. The resurrection does not reveal some lofty standard toward which we must strive, but it is about bringing life into the midst of death, about bringing holiness into the midst of the common, about bringing righteousness into the midst of sin. Not only does Jesus of Nazareth enter into the fullness of suffering and the death of the tomb, but the risen Christ enters into the sorrow of Mary, the grief of Thomas, the shame of Peter and the animosity of Paul.
It is this gritty, human, broken reality that is where the life giving power of God’s intervention takes hold. It is in the midst of what is lost and enslaved that the liberating gift of redemption brings new possibility and genuine freedom.
It is in the most honest assessment of who you and I are as individuals, that the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes transformative and even world changing. We as unique and entirely distinct individuals must each wrestle the reality of our own stories into some kind of relationship with the story of Jesus Christ so that we are able to see the unique and life defining truth that we hold onto as individuals. Only when we are able to appreciate that the resurrection gives the fullness of life to who each of us is as individuals, in whom the divine truth is expressed in us and in our unique voices, can the power of Christ be released and the fullness of life be received. Alleluia, Christ is risen. Christ is rising in me right now, Alleluia.
Your unique story — in which the brokenness and wounds, in which the triumphs and failures, in which the doubt and skepticism are embraced as part of your own beauty, as part of the image of God in you – is the true page on which the gospel of Jesus Christ is written.
Carl Jung, near the end of his life, began to assert that it will be the willingness on the part of enough individuals to enter into the deep and demanding effort to bring forth the truth of who we are that is the only thing that can save us from the abandonment of the spirit and the loss of beauty in the world. The over-reliance on interpreting everything through analysis, through assumptions that see everything as cause and effect will create an aridity of feeling and a failure of compassion. Only the deep work of integrating the great stories and the great symbols into the fullness of our unique selves will enable the beauty of the image of God to be seen in the midst of human endeavor too easily limited by shallow assessments of value and profit and measured success.
We can only do this work by feeding on Christ. There is the image of that feeding in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. There is feeding in the stories and teachings of Christ in the scripture. There is the feeding that we do in prayer and conversation with others. We feed on Christ to bring the fullness of his being into our deepest imagination, so that it can connect with our self-examination, our self-imagination. We feed on Christ in order that what is full of death within can be buried with Christ in his death, only to rise with him into that new life which can never be lost.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Christ is rising in me right now, Alleluia.
Text and PDF for this sermon are not available.
Text and PDF for this sermon are not available.