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The Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
Beloved, we are God’s children now.
On All Saints Sunday we celebrate all God’s beloved children. We celebrate the saints you see in the stained glass windows – our family picture album of the great and glorious and frankly somewhat weird characters who are heroes of our faith. This year we remember those we see in the other family album of the AIDS quilts – mainly young men, mainly gay, who allowed us to share in their hard journey of suffering, allowed us to embrace them as brothers and sisters. And every year we give thanks for all the unsung saints of our own lives who have brought God’s love a little closer to us.
For this isn’t primarily a day for the Shakespeares and Einsteins or even the Kardashians of the kingdom of God. It’s a day for the everyday Janes and Joes whose names are not remembered by the church but who are equally precious in the sight of God. This is not a day when we celebrate the shining accomplishments of the few but the blessed loveliness of the many.
Beloved, we are God’s children now.
Let me tell you of one of my own saints, my oldest brother – Geoffrey. His life was desperately short – he was just three years old when he died from the multiple disabilities that had been with him since birth. I was only born a few weeks before Geoffrey died so I never got to know him. But I lived in the gift of his legacy. In one way Geoffrey could not be said to have achieved anything in his short life – he was never even able to walk or speak or feed himself. But in another way he achieved so much. His birth began my mum and dad’s journey as parents, while his total dependence gave them and his other carers an opportunity to offer unconditional love. He opened the hearts of those around him by his need and vulnerability and so made the world a more loving, God-filled place.
There is no life which is too restricted, too little, to be a beacon of God’s love. To be a saint in someone’s life. This is one of the ways that our faith is so stunningly counter-cultural. We don’t place premium value on doing and accomplishment, we place it on being and on loving. These 13 young lives who are being welcomed into the cathedral family today are all equally beloved by God. They will continue to be equally beloved and equally valued whatever they achieve or fail to achieve in their lives. There is no competition here – no way to gain more of God’s love or to lose even a drop of it – we are God’s beloved children now.
And this takes us some of the way but not quite all the way into the story of All Saints Day. For it’s impossible to think about All Saints without thinking about death as well as life. All these people remembered around us in the windows and the quilts are dead. They haven’t ‘passed’ – after all no one gets to fail the test of death – they died. And death is scary, let’s not pretend otherwise. That’s why we all dress up in silly costumes and go out in the dark on hallowe’en – to scare away the monsters and bogeymen that hide in the dark of death. Getting some life-giving sweetness along the way from the candy given by the kindness of strangers.
Death is scary partly because it brings with it the heartbreaking pain of loss for those left behind. And it is also deeply scary because we don’t know what happens to us next. But our readings today give us some hints if we are willing to accept them. There is the reassurance of Revelation’s promise that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Then there is the letter of John admitting we don’t know exactly what we will become, but also saying: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him”. We will be like Christ, like God. We will be like our heavenly parent.
We – us everyday and extraordinary Janes and Joes – will be like the one who loves all of us intimately, individually and equally. We will be like the one who defeated death. We will be like the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness and who longs for all her children to be peacemakers. We will be part of a whole ginormous shining crowd of people who are like God. Part of the crowd with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Francis, with Gary and Andrew named on the quilts, with my brother Geoffrey, with your own beloved dead.
Beloved we are God’s children now. This is the identity we celebrate and claim for our own in baptism. This is the identity we live into together as a community of faith, a family of spiritual seekers. This is the identity we share with the whole communion of saints, living and dead. And this is the identity that awaits us all on the far side of death as we are transformed to an even closer resemblance to our heavenly mother.
Beloved we are God’s children now. How will you live into that identity? What legacy will your life leave for God’s children who are being baptized today and those yet unborn? How will you have touched the world with God’s gentleness? Where will you have sown seeds that bear fruit in the future? What will you have given time, talents and treasure to in order to build a hope-filled world?
My closing prayer is very short and comes through words by Michael Leunig:
“Let us live in such a way
That when we die
Our love will survive
And continue to grow. Amen.”
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
The Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist.
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Lk. 4).
In our recent move we threw away stacks of children’s art projects (cards that said “Daddy I Love You”!), letters and photographs from friends who have died, old toys, clothes, and picture books. It hurt to leave things that represented our kids’ childhood at the curb. We held tightly to those objects. They tenuously connected us to a whole stage of life that is now gone.
In a sense, our material things come to own us, but our opinions and thoughts, they seem like they are us. How much harder it is to leave these at the curb. So often we act as if the spiritual life consists primarily in adding new disciplines, and responsibilities when what we most need to learn is to let go, to give over our life to God. What do we need to let go in order to find our home in God? What do we leave behind when we live in Christ?
1. Text. We follow a three-year cycle in our Sunday readings. This year we focus on the theology of Luke. Luke uses the most complex Greek vocabulary and syntax of the Gospel writers. He feels at home in the cosmopolitan world of the Roman Empire. He also has a very clear idea about what it means to follow Jesus. The theology that lies at the heart of his Gospel is exemplified in Jesus’ first public act of ministry.
After being baptized and then tempted in the wilderness Jesus returns to the area around his home. Through his teachings he becomes “doxazomenous upo panton.” This word doxa is related to our word doxology. It means praise and at first Jesus is praised by all. But then he returns to Nazareth, where he was “tethrammenos” we would translate it as “where he was raised,” or where he grew up. The Greek word trepho literally means where he was fed or nurtured. The very cells and physical material of his body came from the food grown on the hills outside of town. Luke emphasizes that these are his people.
By this point Jesus has established his routine. He reads scripture to the congregation and then in accordance with the ancient teaching practice he sits to explain what it means. He chooses to read the prophet Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk. 4). We have only half the story this week with the rest next coming next Sunday. I’m going to spoil next week’s surprise.
After his reading, after his teaching, the crowds try to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff. Why do they become so angry? Let me suggest three possibilities. First, you might think that the idea that he has a special mission to the poor and oppressed was controversial. In response, I would say that his audience would have been familiar with this theme from the ancient prophets. Furthermore, they were likely to regard themselves as the poor whom God favors. Second, the crowd could have been angry over the suggestion that he is the anointed one or the messiah. However, directly after making this statement, Luke writes, “[a]ll spoke well of him” (Lk. 4). Luke wants us to see that what really angers the crowd is Jesus’ rejection of a special obligation to his own people. Jesus refers to Old Testament stories in which God heals gentiles (non-Jewish people) and points out that during those times faithful Jews were allowed to die. This infuriated his hometown.
At the center of Luke’s faith lies the impossible idea that God’s love is for all people regardless of kinship, nationality, religion, social status or any other claim that we might make for special treatment. According to Luke we have to give up our tribe when we follow Jesus.
The Apostle Paul deeply believes this too. The most important fact for people living in the Roman Empire must have been its rigid social stratification. And yet Paul writes, “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free… we were made to drink of the same spirit” (1 Cor. 12). He calls those who follow Jesus one body. Some Romans thought that Christians drank blood and sacrificed children. But what really shocked them most was that a man and a woman, a senator and a slave could treat each other as equals.
2. Doctrine. The twentieth century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) has helped me to understand the meaning of Luke’s teaching for our own time. Growing up as a Jew in the Russian Empire in what is now Lithuania, Levinas experienced the 300th anniversary celebration of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian revolutions of 1917. He began an academic career in the French-speaking world going on to serve in the French army during World War Two. After his unit was captured in 1940, he spent the rest of the war reading and writing in a prisoner of war camp. Although his wife and daughter were safely hidden in a monastery, the Nazis killed most of his family.
Levinas’ philosophy may be difficult to understand. Let me begin with the context. In the twentieth century philosophers called positivists believed that the only kind of knowledge that really counts is what can be proven by science. You may be one step ahead of me in wondering if science can prove that science is the only reliable knowledge, but that is roughly what they believed. In contrast to this kind of approach, Emmanuel Levinas believed that there is far more to experience than thinking (“cogito”).
Instead of beginning with a theory about how the world is (ontology), or what we know about the world (epistemology), we need to start with our experience (or how the “world shows up for us” to use an expression from Werner Erhard). According to Levinas, the idea that we need to throw out is that we can have more confidence about abstract notions of logic or reason than in the simple experience of another person’s need. For this reason he calls ethics “first philosophy.”
Levinas writes that we try to think beyond what can be thought. But that does not mean it has to remain completely inaccessible. “[T]he idea of the infinite or my relation to God, comes to me in the concreteness of my relation to the other [person]… [in my} responsibility for the neighbor.”We experience this infinite, this connection to God, through another person’s face. It makes a demand on us. It creates an obligation that we cannot ignore.
We make constant judgments based on other people’s faces, we respond with unconscious prejudices. But for Levinas, another person’s face reveals infinitely more than we are able to take in.He calls this an epiphany, our only chance to grasp the infinite. It is the way that the holy presents itself to us.
For this reason Levinas frequently quotes Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov who says, “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.”All thought, all experience, all goodness and holiness begins in our obligation to the other person. Let me move on to one way that Levinas’ philosophy changes how I experience the world.
3. Application. The struggle to realize Luke and Paul’s ideal continues today. The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian body in the world. Grace Cathedral participates in this fellowship. We Anglicans do not have an international hierarchy or a pope. Each national church chooses its own leaders, makes its own decisions and prays in its own way. No foreign bishop, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, has any jurisdiction in America at all.
For ten years, some of the other Anglican churches have felt alarmed by our new policies supporting gay marriage. Last week the primates, that is, the heads of the various churches chose to exclude the American branch from participating on high level Anglican committees for three years. I do not completely understand the politics of the whole decision, but I do know that Americans feel hurt and excluded.
For Levinas each vulnerable face reveals far more than I can ever take in and becomes my chance to experience God. Praying about this has changed my understanding of the Anglican infighting. These days I have been wondering about what has led other Anglicans to condemn our church. I have asked myself what pain and fear oppresses their souls.
But even more importantly, Levinas has helped me to see the most defenseless faces, to hear the powerless voices who hardly seem to be part of this conversation. GLBT people suffer terribly around the world. Their love is criminalized. They are beaten, imprisoned and persecuted. They are forbidden from being themselves. Yes, the American church will not be allowed to participate in meetings, but these children of God are losing their lives.
I began by talking about how hard it is to throw away the extra things that our family has accumulated over the years. Although so many of these objects seem to preserve our connection to the past, they are no longer useful today. Just as with those things, we also carry ideas and opinions that no longer serve us.
In this process the Buddhist teacher Timber Hawkeye encourages us to keep asking ourselves which of our thoughts arise out of fear and which come from love. He quotes the eighth century Buddhist monk Shantideva who says, “All happiness in the world stems from wanting others to be happy, and all suffering in the world stems from wanting the self to be happy.”
The theology of Luke and Paul that God loves every creature does not come easy to us. It is hard to let go of the thought that we need to help ourselves first and then the people who are most like us. It is difficult to imagine that what really matters in life might not be scarce after all. I do not expect that we will always recognize another person’s face as an epiphany, but we can begin to look more closely in each other for the infinite, for the holy, for the meaning that will always exc
[i] This experience of the Other is more central than Rene Descartes’ question about what knowledge can we regard as reliable.
[ii] Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind. Tr. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), xiv.
[iii] The word “face” refers to, “the way in which the presentation of the other to me exceeds all idea of the other in me Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader. Tr. Seán Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 5.
[iv] Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader. Tr. Seán Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 1.
[v] Timber Hawkeye, Buddhist Boot Camp (NY: HarperOne, 2013), 4.
Sermon from the Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“Do not fear… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa. 43).
What does it mean to be blessed or to bless?
Beth, of my old neighbors, left her job as a law professor to work for the Obama administration in the State Department as a human rights expert. She once told me how much energy it takes to establish and maintain the rule of law. Since 1789 the average life expectancy of national constitutions is only 17 years. In human history our 218-year-old national constitution represents a remarkable accomplishment.
What makes this kind of social stability possible? I know that it has something to do with resources, economics and good luck, but it also concerns a kind of underlying philosophy. Behind a society’s outward way of doing things lies an idea of what it means to be human, how we are connected to others. A system of values, myths and symbols fund every social interaction.
The current film The Big Short tells the story of investors who predicted the 2008 global financial meltdown. It heavy-handedly repeats that values like honesty, integrity, fair play, reasonable reward for socially productive work, refraining from exploiting poor or ignorant people, even acting against one’s own interest when justice requires it – these are all that stand between us and terrible human suffering.
Still it can happen. Through cataclysmic disaster, through plagues, environmental collapse, enemy invasion or just the erosion of values like love and justice, the stories about how to be human can cease to make sense to us. They can die.
The prophet Isaiah faced exactly this situation. After his people had been utterly defeated, the leaders had been exported as slaves to the enemy’s capital, after the crops failed because no one was left to tend them – the people came home. After they had lost everything Isaiah tries to give life to an ancient idea that had been forgotten. The idea is that God has called us by name and redeemed us. When we pass through the waters and through the fire, God will be with us. Nothing shall overwhelm us. The word for this is “blessing.”
I want the idea of blessing to fully belong to you. I want it to become part of your inner emotional landscape, to be a word that you speak out loud and use to understand what the philosopher William James calls, the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of reality.
Blessing is the assurance that we exist as God’s beloved children. The Old Testament word for it is b’rah-chah (berek). It was originally connected to the fertility of crops, livestock and human beings. Blessing refers to the bridge between human life and the mysterious beauty that lies beyond it. It is God’s voice that says to every faithful person, “You are my child, my beloved.” Through baptism we recognize that our identity comes from our relation to others. Baptism is central to the Christian experience of God’s blessing and how we become a blessing to others.
So my message this morning has three parts: Finding Blessing, Being Blessed and Becoming a Blessing.
1. Finding Blessing. We have to find blessing because quite often we cannot see it. Luke’s account of Jesus baptism differs most starkly in two ways from the others. First, unlike Mathew, Mark and John, the spirit does not descend on Jesus while he is being baptized but afterwards as he is praying. Setting aside time and space matters when it comes to experiencing the holy. You can make yourself too busy to see almost anything of consequence.
Second, Luke differs from the others when he writes that the Holy Spirit came down “somtatiko eidei” or, “in bodily form like a dove” (Lk. 3). Luke writes this because although in some very rare occasions human beings unequivocally hear God or see Christ, we usually experience the spirit in more subtle ways.
Most people have difficulty hearing God. Why is this? The former Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts says that each one of us is like a hole in a vast sheet of fabric through which the light of God shines.Despite this we do not often experience much of our life as a blessing. This morning I brought with me a cowry shell. Its smooth curves and the color and spacing of its spots could not be more beautiful. You might even say it is perfect.
Do you think that the creature living in it looks at its cowry neighbors and thinks to itself, “I have way too many dark spots” or “I wonder if this shell make me look fat?” A beautiful creature worrying about being uglier than the others sounds ludicrous but this is what human beings do this all the time. An enormous amount of our conscious life is dedicated to feeling anxious about how we look – gaining weight, losing hair, turning gray, getting wrinkles, growing into a different body shape. This is not restricted just to our appearance. We want others to think we’re successful, confident, attractive, capable, thoughtful, kind, strong, a winner…. We have strong feelings about how others perceive us.
But you are even more beautiful, more intricately constructed, more wonderfully fashioned than the most exceptional shell. Realizing this is the beginning of experiencing blessing.
This morning I want you to ask yourself, how much pain in your life is caused by self-criticism or worse by those self-judging thoughts that have been directed outwardly and surface as criticism of other people.
Last week someone asked me to respond to a Facebook post from The Pew Research Group about why according to many measures millennials are not as religious as their forbears. So many people wrote that people are too smart for religion these days. Perhaps in order to understand religion people like this need to have blessing be more a part of their life. Maybe they just have unrealistic expectations about what it feels like to encounter the Living God.
Sometimes you might experience the Holy “in bodily form” but more often than not it happens through the words of a hymn, the smile of a child, the smell of incense, the Cathedral bells, a friend’s story, the unexpected smoothness of the Bay at sunrise, a connection between what you love and the world that you had never noticed before. On the outside, the discipline of church may seem empty: coming here faithfully in the rain even when you don’t feel like it, attending long meetings, giving money, volunteering to help people who make us uncomfortable. Someone on the outside may not recognize it, they may not see God obviously there, but these ordinary things, this bread, wine, smoke, light and water create the path of perfect blessing that transforms us.
2. Being Blessed. When you believe, or at least are open enough to the possibility, you become a seeker of blessing. You will find it in the most surprising ways. Late on Monday night I was turning off the lamp in my study when my sixteen-year-old son hugged me from the side in the way that you might tackle a quarterback just after he released the ball. He had had such a hard day and he was seeking comfort and I felt this incredible depth of emotion, a huge shot of the feeling that I remembered from when I first became a father.
By Thursday night I thought that I had forgotten it. At Evensong the fading light outside shined so faintly and the stained glass window became an impossibly dark shade of blue. The choir sang right into my soul. Concentrating on that magnificent color I began to imagine myself sinking into sleep for the last time, into my own death. In that moment I felt so grateful for my life, all of this, all of you. It felt as if God were embracing me in precisely the way that I had held my son. The strength and presence and love of God overwhelmed me.
Being blessed is that simple and that profound. It arises out of an ordinary moment and it is the purpose of our life.
3. Becoming a Blessing. My last point is that we also are given the power to bless. We bless each other and we bless God. No matter how you may have come up short in the past, whatever terrible things you have done, how badly you think you compare with someone else – you can be someone who goes through life pronouncing blessings on what you experience. The theologian Martin Israel writes that there is nothing in the world that is unholy, only that which has not yet been blessed.”You can be that blessing.
This does not apply merely to the bright, shiny, happy parts of your life. You can also be a blessing because of what you have suffered. The tragic things that we have gone through can actually open new paths of grace for the people we encounter. This week I talked to a friend who as a priest went through a terrible time of conflict with his congregation. I don’t know if they fired him or if he just went off quietly into the night. But it was enough for me to feel like he would have been justified in quitting the church. Rather than just trying to forget about the whole thing he got a PhD in the study of conflict and has dedicated his life to helping people in similar circumstances.
My question for you this morning is this. Can the word blessing become such a deep part of your vocabulary that it comes to order your whole life? Can you receive these words: that you are a blessing to God? It is your essence to be a channel for the blessing of God’s light and love?
This week I offer you an optional homework assignment. It might be more challenging for some than others. First, try using the word blessing in public one time, that is, you might try telling someone that they are a blessing or sharing an experience of blessing that you have had. Second, do something just to be the kind of blessing that God loves.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you…” Amen.
 Joyce Shin, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, 6 January 2015, 20.
 This paragraph and the next come from Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).
 Curtis G. Almquist, The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 94.
 Ibid., 95.
Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist
Sermon from the Christmas morning Eucharist.