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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.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who… emptied himself” (Phil. 2).
What do you need to change in your life? It may be something that we all struggle with like what we eat or drink, how we care for our bodies, our tendency to be overly critical of our self or others. It might be our defensive attitude, something we know we need to do at work, a failure of courage in repairing a broken relationship, or just a general lack of resolve. It might be something spiritual, physical, financial, social or emotional. The voice inside your heart right now can tell you. It may say something that only you can do.
What stands in the way of making this change? My hunch is that knowing is not enough. I have many secular friends who fuss so much over belief. They say, “If only I really knew the truth about God – then everything would be different.” But I do not think it would be. We already know what we need to do.
One of the great mysteries of the human condition concerns this experience of getting in our own way. Sin is not simply evil. Sin is not about condemnation or feelings of guilt. It is not concerned primarily with what we have already done. Sin is the way that we and other people, and all of us acting together make our lives a mess.
In the Bible the Greek word for sin is hamartia. We have freighted this word with feelings of shame and inadequacy. But it refers to the bull’s eye in archery practice. It means literally missing the mark, the target, the goal of what we know our life could be as children of God. Often we miss the mark because who we are to our selves becomes so large that we cannot see in proportion other people or even this miraculous creation.
The Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki (1923-2008) captured my heart when I learned how much he loved forests. For a significant period of his life he vowed never to sleep in the same place twice so that he could take more nature into himself. He writes about this experience of self in a poem.
“In the morning /After taking cold shower/ – what a mistake – / I look at the mirror. // There, a funny guy. / Grey hair, white beard, wrinkled skin, / – what a pity -/ Poor dirty, old man, /He is not me, absolutely not.//”
“Land and life / Fishing in the ocean / Sleeping in the desert with stars / Building a shelter in the mountains / Farming the ancient way / Singing with coyotes / Singing against nuclear war –/ I’ll never be tired of life./Now I’m seventeen years old, /Very charming young man. //”
I sit quietly in lotus position, / Meditating, meditating for nothing./
Suddenly a voice comes to me: / “To stay young, /
To save the world, / Break the mirror.”
For me “breaking the mirror” does not mean living in a state of denial or refusing to face the facts of old age and death. It involves experiencing the world beyond our own ego. Our ego that is so compelling, so interesting to us that we would dwell on it every minute of our waking life if we could. Breaking the mirror is looking through death to the life happening around and beyond it.
During Palm Sunday we feel the tangible exuberance of the crowds as Jesus enters Jerusalem. In this chaos of “joyful praise” the offended Pharisees say, ““Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” [And Jesus] answers them saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Lk. 19).
The Pharisees have become so preoccupied with all this means for them, with their own images in the mirror, that they cannot see what is happening right before them. They cannot see what is in these disciples’ hearts. They cannot see the love of Jesus. They cannot see the stones, the wildflowers on the hills, the sky or any of God’s great creation.
Paul certainly did not realize it but in his Letter to the Philippians he makes what would become one of the most important theological statements in history about who Jesus is. Paul uses the Greek word “kenosis.” It means to empty out, to nullify. He writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who… emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave” (Phil. 2). In short, Jesus broke the mirror. But you know this. You know what Jesus did. But knowing is not enough.
An apocryphal story describes the moment when the traveler Marco Polo was captured and brought before the conqueror Genghis Khan. To occupy the emperor, he nervously told the story of Jesus right out of the gospel. He felt immediately relieved that the emperor seemed to be enjoying it. As he talked about Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and torture the great warrior became more and more agitated.
Finally, as Marco Polo read, “And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit,” the emperor exploded (Mt. 27:50). “What did the Christians’ God do then? Did he send the vast armies of heaven to destroy the people who killed his son? Did he lay the land to waste?”
Somewhere we learned that Jesus’ father does not quite work that way. We cannot hear it and experience the same shock that Genghis Khan did. Mostly, it lingers in the back of our thoughts protected by well-meaning preachers like me who do not want to turn up the heat of discomfort too high. Again, we know this but somehow we do not know it.
Because knowing is not enough, we have the Bible, the church, the rituals of this holy week. The purpose of all this, of all that we will see and do and say and sing and chant and eat as we stand, kneel and sit during the long hours in this holy temple is very simple. We are doing this to experience real change, to break the mirror, to empty out ourselves out, so that we can discover for the first time and again that we are children of God.
I feel so blessed by this community, so grateful for our first Holy Week together. At the same time as we seek our spiritual home we will be traveling to dangerous places. Indeed the Bible is often a terrifying book. Unlike twenty-first century self-help books the scriptures disturb, unsettle and even horrify us. The Methodist bishop William Willimon says that this is because it is a book, “about us – the people we are rather than the people we wish in our fantasies we were.”
Particularly after having my first child I remember the debilitating existential shock of the Genesis story when God asks Abraham to kill his only son and burn the body on an altar.
We will feel something like that together today and this week as God prepares his son for humiliation and death. We will be the ones who say together “Crucify, crucify him!” We will look again at how we have missed the mark, at our own complicity with evil. We will experience the strangeness of God, that God acts in ways that we cannot possibly understand. But I hope that we will also remember the proximity of God, that even in the valley of the shadow of death, God never abandons us.
What do you want to change when knowing is not enough? Will you instead allow yourself to be saved by Jesus? Hear the stones shout out. Sing with coyotes. Experience the joy. Experience the horror. Save the world. Break the mirror. And, “let the same mind be in you as Christ Jesus, who… emptied himself.”
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blood Kin,” Mixed Blessings (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1986), 62.
 William H. Willimon, “A Terrifying Tale,” The Collected Sermons of William H. Willimon (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 139.