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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.
What could possibly have been in the minds of my French and English ancestors to think that they had the right to claim any land to which they could sail as their land, that they had the right to slaughter so many hundreds of thousands who lived in those lands, that they had the right to capture the people of those lands for slaves? These were Christian nations, acting as if they could not possibly have heard the teaching of Christ.
If, like me, you are repulsed by our national history of slavery, cruel racism, murder and oppression of others based on race, you are probably not a racist. If you look for ways to deepen relationships and move beyond ignorance with people of other races, you are not a racist. That is the good news. There is no need for private and neurotic guilt about our racially oppressive past.
But the deeper work requires moving beyond what any of us can do individually, so that we join in taking part in a struggle against a set of cultural biases toward whiteness that are so deeply ingrained in our nation’s history that we cannot even recognize them. There are biases so deeply embedded in who we are as a nation that they have become as pervasive and unseen as the air we breathe.
Kelly Brown Douglas, Professor of Religion at Goucher College and an Episcopal Priest, describes a history of white assumptions in her book, Stand Your Ground, Black Bodies and the Justice of God. The claim of white superiority has its roots in a mindset shaped in early Europe. Anglo-Saxon culture and history asserted the claim of white supremacy over all other peoples of the earth, and those assumptions were built into our nation’s founding. Slavery was certainly a manifestation of that sense, but so too were laws passed in the 1700’s which defined whiteness as an essential characteristic for citizenship in the United States. So, too, were laws and practices that embedded discrimination into our history, whether in the Jim Crow laws of the south or the subtle suppression of wages and opportunities in the north.
Douglas’s book, in a review of the thinking behind Stand Your Ground laws and the killing of Trayvon Martin, uncovers this complex but persistent history in great detail. Stand Your Ground is derived from a deeply ingrained belief that for a black or brownperson to approach a white person without an invitation and appropriate deference is in itself a criminal act. She argues that the black body engenders an assumption of criminality, so that any further perception of misbehavior by a black bodied person amplifies or confirms criminality. Stand Your Ground permits white anxiety to manifest in violence against black and brown people, simply because their blackness and brownness implies trouble,
implies criminality. It is difficult to imagine that Trayvon Martin would have been acquitted for killing George Zimmerman simply because he felt threatened and needed to stand his own ground. Standing one’s ground is an historically and deeply seated bias within the cultural assumptions of whiteness.
Even if we do not personally practice racist language or behavior, we are all part of a system in which people of black and brown skin live with a sense of fear and cautiousness that I almost never feel as a white man. I trace a series of benefits that I have received as a white man that would probably not have come so easily to me if I were a black or Hispanic or Asian man – from access to a college that honored diversity but where nearly all of us who attended were white, to relatively easy access to mortgages and the selection of my homes, to the occasions when I have been stopped by police officers who treated me with respectful deference and have always called me Sir.
We have to be willing to consider that we, who are not inclined to be racists, are still involved in a systematic racism in our nation and in our culture. Who can save us from this morass of history and assumption that persists in oppression and racist reality? Thanks be to God, it is Jesus Christ!
For at the center of the Way of Jesus Christ has been a remarkable practice of reconciliation and mutuality, produced not only by a conversion of the mind but also by a healing of the heart. Our ancient ancestors were not persecuted for believing in Jesus or the resurrection. They were persecuted because they demonstrated a new way of being a society that contradicted and contrasted the oppressive societies in which they gathered. They were persecuted precisely because they did create harmonious accord between races and classes, precisely because they conveyed worth and dignity to the oppressed poor and outcast, precisely because they conveyed authority and power to those who had been powerless and voiceless. They were persecuted because they empowered Greeks to be church leaders in the midst of Jerusalem, because they ordained slaves to be bishops, because they defended the rights of women to own property and wealth. Few expressions were more threatening to the society of the day than Paul’s proclamation that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.
Our work within the struggle against racist systems is significantly through prayer, in which we seek God’s help for deep healing in our churches, so that our churches can once again stand for a contradiction and contrast to the societies in which we sit, so that once again the church may be seen in the midst of the society as gathering in which there is truly a sweet spirit of accord, in which the notion of brotherhood and sisterhood is not a bible quote but is an authentic expression of the reality at the core of who we are.
Our work within the struggle against the racist systems requires that we, the faithful, play our part as leaders and conscientious citizens speaking up for justice, speaking up for what is right. We have a part to play in asking for a serious, thoughtful and open-minded
conversation about redressing past wrongs through economic justice. We have a part to play in having open hearts, open minds, and courageous speaking to invite a serious conversation in this country about economic reparations, about being fair with those whose labor and lives have enriched so many, about how those who enriched others have a claim on back wages and an expectation that the ground needs to be leveled for all, not just for white people.
I cannot say to you that I hope you can forgive me for stealing your car, so long as your car is still parked in my driveway. Some repentance requires restitution to become authentic. We, who believe in Jesus Christ, are the people who can lead the nation into that level of seriousness about justice.
In the midst of our cathedral’s observance of black history month we look back at our history, listening to what our African American brothers and a sister had to say about this new nation, founded on an imagination of all men being created equal and yet built around laws that specifically limited the benefits of this new nation for white males.
Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were born into slavery in Delaware before the Revolutionary War, and both were eventually able to purchase their freedom. They were deeply convinced in their faith in Jesus Christ and began to carry out ministry and preaching among other slaves and freed blacks. Their effectiveness as ministers in their church in Philadelphia led to such dramatic church growth that one Sunday they were met at the door and told that black members would need to sit in the balcony from now on.
Leaving that church they developed their own congregation and were faithful and effective ministers. Absalom Jones sought to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, where he became the first priest of African descent in our Anglican church’s history. Richard Allen would not trust that a white church would ever truly welcome the African American people, and he founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, becoming its first bishop.
Born in West Africa at about the same time as Allen and Jones, Phillis Wheatley was taken from her parents as a little girl for slavery in the United States. She became widely acclaimed and admired for her poetry even as her words undermined the assumptions that made slaveholding possible. Referred to as the delicate revolutionary, she discloses the pain and trauma of her removal from her home, the hypocrisy of ignoring the humanity of the African people. Wheatley was set free by her master upon his death.
Listen to their words as Richard Compean reads from Richard Allen’s essay, “An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves, and Approve the Practice;” as Deacon Doe Yates reads from Phillis Wheatley’s poem, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth;” and as Ron Johnson invites us into a prayer of Absalom Jones from “A Thanksgiving Sermon,” preached in thanks for the ending of slave imports into the United States.
I pray that what I have offered today has been faithful and true to the spirit of Jesus.
The words of Richard Allen in his essay, “An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves, and Approve the Practice”
“That God who knows the hearts of all men, and the propensity of a slave to hate his oppressor, hath strictly forbidden it to his chosen people, “Thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land.” Deut. 23. 7.
The meek and humble Jesus, the great pattern of humanity, and every other virtue that can adorn and dignify men, hath commanded to love our enemies, to do good to them that hate and despitefully use us. I feel the obligations, I wish to impress them on the minds of our colored brethren, and that we may all forgive you, as we wish to be forgiven, we think it a great mercy to have all anger and bitterness removed from our minds; I appeal to your own feelings, if it is not very disquieting to feel yourselves under dominion of wrathful disposition.”
“If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slavery, burden not your children or your country with slavery, my heart has been sorry for the blood shed of the oppressors, as well as the oppressed, both appear guilty of each other’s blood, in the sight of Him who hath said, He that sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”
“[ Slaves] appear contented as they can in your sight, but the dreadful insurrections they have made when opportunity has offered, is enough to convince a reasonable man, that great uneasiness and not contentment, is the inhabitant of their hearts. God Himself hath pleaded their cause… Many [enslavers] have been convinced of their error, condemned their former conduct, and become zealous advocates for the cause.”
A reading from a poem by Phillis Wheatley, entitled “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth”
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood, I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat: What pangs excruciating must molest, What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case.
And can I then but pray Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
A reading of a prayer from a sermon by Absalom Jones, called “A Thanksgiving Sermon”
Let us pray.
Oh thou God of all the nations upon the earth!
We thank thee, that thou art no respecter of persons, and that thou hast made of one bloodall nations of men. We thank thee, that thou hast appeared, in the fullness of time, in behalf of the nation from which most of the worshipping people, now before thee, are descended. We thank thee, that the sun of righteousness has at last shed his morning beams upon them.
Rend thy heavens, O Lord, and come down upon the earth; and grant that the mountains, which now obstruct the perfect day of thy goodness and mercy towards them, may flow down at thy presence. Send thy gospel; we beseech thee, among them. May the nations, which now sit in darkness, behold and rejoice in its light. May Ethiopia soon stretch out her hands unto thee, and lay hold of the gracious promise of thy everlasting covenant.
Destroy, we beseech thee, all the false religions which now prevail among them; and grant, that they may soon cast their idols, to the moles and the bats of the wilderness. O, hasten that glorious time, when the knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea; when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them; and, when, instead of the thorn, shall come up the fir tree, and, instead of the brier, shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name and for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
We pray, O God, for all our friends and benefactors, in Great Britain, as well as in the United States: reward them, we beseech thee, with blessings upon earth, and prepare them to enjoy the fruits of their kindness to us, in thy everlasting kingdom in heaven: and dispose us, who are assembled in thy presence, to be always thankful for thy mercies, and to act as becomes a people who owe so much to thy goodness.
We implore thy blessing, O God, upon the President, and all who are in authority in the United States. Direct them by thy wisdom, in all their deliberations, and O save thy people from the calamities of war. Give peace in our day, we beseech thee, O thou God of peace! and grant, that this highly favoured country may continue to afford a safe and peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery, for ages yet to come.
We implore all these blessings and mercies, only in the name of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And now, O Lord, we desire, with angels and arch-angels, and all the company of heaven, ever more to praise thee, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty: the whole earth is full of thy glory. Amen.
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“If you are the Son of God throw yourself down from here” (Lk. 4).
I spent twenty-four hours on retreat at my friends’ cabin in Big Sur yesterday. Writing outside in the mottled light of a small lichen-covered tan oak forest I could see stretched out below a basin of meadows, redwood trees and a sycamore creek bed meandering toward the vast Pacific Ocean as fog gathered in the far distance. With the smell of madrone, chaparral and fresh earth along with the sound of the distant ocean I fell asleep and then decided to go for a walk.
Wandering across the hillsides through fresh green grass, I knew that I should not be cutting across the top of the earth dam but I did it anyway. As I went, what at first looked like concrete, responded to my footsteps more like diatomaceous earth. Looking back I realized that by walking on the dam I had inadvertently destroyed it. A few people came to see what happened and I tried to hide. I didn’t want them to see what I had done. At this point I realize that I am naked. Earlier I had taken off all my clothes to feel the warm sun on my body and now I can’t find my pants. I have no idea how my subconscious mind wove these fears and worries into this unlikely dream.
This kind of experience happens in my waking life too. Last week at sunrise I ran across the Golden Gate Bridge. I must have frustrated the bike riders because I kept veering toward the center of the path. The rail is so low and it kept occurring to me that, in less time than it takes to think, I could leap over it into oblivion. I do not think I am crazy. I have never considered taking my own life, but there is a kind of voice that I do not choose but which is part of my inner life.
You might hear something like this too. The voice might say, “You’re not good enough.” “You should have tried harder.” “You are too old to do this now.” “What you are doing won’t make a difference.” “You’ll never be as good as your brother.” “People will discover the truth about you.” “You are making a terrible mistake.” “You always disappoint everyone.”
On Valentine’s Day especially you might hear that voice say, “You’ll always be alone.” “No one will ever love you.” “You will never be happy.” “Everyone else is having more fun than you.” “You are nothing special.”
The nineteenth century poet and philosopher of religion Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) writes that we confuse biblical inerrancy for biblical authority. Christians can focus so much on a theory about the Bible that they neglect to actually hear what it says. In other words God did not write the Bible. The power of scripture comes out of its humanity. It has authority because these authors, writing about their spiritual experiences, end up helping us interpret how the spirit speaks in our lives.
Coleridge writes the Bible “finds me” only when these “heart awakening utterances of human hearts,” speak to our human condition.This morning I hope that this dreamlike experience of Jesus might be able to find you and heal you. After reminding you about this story I will talk first about Cathedrals and then about the Cathedral that is your self.
We use the expression “the devil” as a proper name. The Greek word ho diabolos also means “enemy” or “adversary.” After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus faces this adversary in a series of visions. The devil tells him to turn stones into bread. In the kind of instant (en stigma xronou) that we only know in dreams, the enemy takes Jesus to the top of the highest mountain and promises Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping him. Finally the devil brings Jesus to the top of the temple, a kind of Cathedral in ancient Jerusalem, and invites Jesus to throw himself down from that high place and that angels will save him. In each case Jesus will not be deterred from doing God’s will rather than choosing what might be most satisfying in the moment.
1. Cathedrals. My friend Margaret Miles taught Christian history for decades at Harvard. She writes that between the years 1170 and 1270 Western Europeans built 580 cathedrals. From their perspective they were not creating architecture, but new ways to worship and experience God. For believers in those days Jesus seemed mostly like a judge – just, impassable, pure and perfect. For them Mary felt more approachable and forgiving.
During that time Mary inspired artists to create thousands of songs, devotional manuals, dramas, sculptures, stained glass windows the Cathedrals (almost all of which were dedicated to her). In Chartres Cathedral alone there were 175 representations of Mary depicting her both as a reigning monarch and as a humble maiden. The three aisles in cathedrals symbolize the way that Mary contains the Trinity within her.
Even for those of us who remember the incredible coordination of research and activity involved in putting a person on the moon, it is almost impossible to comprehend how relatively simple societies could undertake such a large project as this system of cathedrals. We simply cannot imagine the energy, expense and organization required for this work.
As you might expect there were some controversies about cathedrals. St. Bernard (1090-1153) abbot of Clairvaux writes, “The church sparkles and gleams on every side, while the poor huddle in need; its stones are gilded while the children go unclad; in it the art lovers find enough to satisfy their curiosity, while the poor find nothing there to relieve their misery.”
But the majority of people then believed that beautiful objects lead us to a new experience of God. They designed cathedrals to mystically transport worshippers into the spiritual universe. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (1081-1151) writes about how material things make it possible to rise above the material. He describes the way beauty can trigger mystical experience. Suger quotes Dionysius saying, “every creature, visible and invisible, is a light brought into being by the Father of lights.” Cathedrals help us to see, “the goodness and beauty” of existing things that we might otherwise miss. In fact, Suger believes that cathedrals help make this mystical vision more democratically accessible to illiterate and uneducated people.
At the end of her reflections Margaret wonders how did the first worshippers experience the present moment in cathedrals like Chartes? Did they feel pressed between a painful past and a terrifying, unknowable future so that the present in effect disappeared? Or did this new way to pray and meet God cause them to realize the preciousness of what can only happen in this life?
I wonder about our cathedral today. What controversies and temptations do we face? Our Sunday readings follow a three-year cycle. This week I heard that Lent readings in Year A especially concern spiritual growth for new believers. Year B readings speak to people already at home in their faith. Year C in Lent focuses especially on those who feel “alienated from Christ and the church.”
You might think of these as the categories of people that the church has responsibility for serving. Year B people need to be especially conscious of making Grace Cathedral a place for entering into the Holy that also works for new believers and those who have lost their faith.
Some of our temptations include thinking that we can be a church that is just for adults, or people like us, or the sort of people we’ve always served, or those we used to call “cultured.” We may be tempted to believe that maintaining the high quality of what we do is enough. We may be tempted to think that we can just be faithful to tradition without worrying much about the way society is changing around us, and what people need today. Most of all like any institution or group of people we feel tempted to believe that we can function without God.
2. The Cathedral of the Self. You are a cathedral too. The divine light shines even more beautifully through your life than it does through these windows. But this brings us back to those voices that the Bible calls the enemy or the accuser or the devil. These voices try to convince us that we are less than we are, that we can be satisfied living only for ourselves. These voices invert the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, as if our daily bread comes from ourselves, as if we do not walk in need forgiveness. These voices say, “hallowed be my name, for mine is the kingdom, mine is the power and mine is the glory.” Living in Jesus shows us that this is not true.
We need to remember that the story goes on. Jesus accomplishes much greater miracles than those proposed by Satan. He feeds hungry people for generations. He proclaims and initiates a Kingdom of God that continues to alter the course of history. He does not throw himself down from the height of a cathedral but shows us what it could mean to live entirely in the confidence of God’s truth and grace.
I wonder what we will discover as we resist the voices of the accuser. What will happen as we continue to realize that we are not meant to live only for ourselves? Can new believers, the faithful and the alienated learn from each other here?
How will the story of Jesus find us? What will happen in this cathedral to help us enter into the beauty of the Holy One? How will these stained glass windows enable us to see the way God’s light shines through all things, especially our life?
 James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, Volume 1 (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 91.
 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 174-177.
 Ibid,, 176.
 Ibid., 179.
 Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, 3 February 2016.
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” (Mt. 6).
Here in San Francisco we have been living with Super Bowl controversies since before last summer when Mayor Ed Lee talked about homeless people making way as the city prepared to host the game.After taking down the advertisements on Embarcadero Center, after the protests, after the objections about traffic and what the city paid to have the Super Bowl here, the rest of the country has joined us in this spirit of dissension.
Cam Newton the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers at 6 feet 5 inches tall and 245 pounds is bigger than any player on the Green Bay Packer’s team that won the first Super Bowl fifty years ago. He could be one of the best athletes of our time. What he does on the field seems positively miraculous to me. It seems like he is capable of anything.
Since losing the Super Bowl on Sunday Newton has been widely criticized for his behavior at the post-game press conference. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, providing only monosyllabic answers, cutting the interview short and being generally moody led Michael Powell in The New York Times to write that he humiliated himself and acted “like a 13-year old.”
Almost right away social media began comparing footage from Newton’s interview with the gracious speech of Peyton Manning, this year’s winning quarterback, from the day Manning lost the Super Bowl two years ago. As always there are two sides to the story. The NFL has had a surprisingly small number of African American quarterbacks and Newton has certainly been caught up narratives that he did not choose. It also matters that Manning is almost forty and Newton is 26.
Still for people who criticize him, Newton seems pretty unrepentant. Cleaning out his locker room on Tuesday he said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”If this were not enough, many people cannot decide whether Beyoncé’s halftime Black Panther tribute was disrespectful of law enforcement or a prophetic message about racial injustice.
At Ash Wednesday how do Christians form moral judgments? How does faith inform our opinions about what is happening around us?
One of teenagers’ favorite expressions these days is simply “don’t judge.” Many young people may see “not judging” as a contrast with what they regard as judgmental institutional church, but I believe that the original impulse for this expression comes from Jesus himself. Jesus tells us not to worry about taking the tiny speck out of someone else’s eye until we take the log out of our own. He also says, “let the one without sin cast the first stone,” and, “judge not lest ye be judged.”
But this does not mean that we should stop caring about what is good and what is bad. At a dinner party a few months ago I met a high school student who couldn’t even bring himself to say that ISIS is wrong to enslave women or terrorize villages or behead journalists. He said that according to their worldview what they were doing is right. For him, not judging means becoming agnostic about the good, the true and the beautiful.
This is not at all what Jesus teaches. There is a spirit of Jesus that we can recognize in people who follow him. It is a way of looking at things and acting that comes out of his teaching.
I often think about how different my life would be and how my experience of the world would have changed if I had not struggled so hard to practice my faith for so many years. One of the most important ways that Christian faith has shaped me has to do with just this question – what is righteousness.
In this respect Christianity seems markedly different from our sister religions Judaism and Islam. I may be wrong about this but for Jews and Muslims it seems genuinely possible to be a righteous person. The laws of these two religions may be very demanding but it is possible to keep these commandments. Eating kosher or halal may be hard in a restaurant, getting up before dawn may seem inconvenient, keeping the Sabbath and refraining from work may mean you have to plan ahead more than you would like or miss certain things, but we can imagine being able to keep these commandments.
Judaism and Islam make it clear just what you need to do to be faithful and I imagine that it would be very comforting to know exactly what your religion demanded of you and probably even more satisfying when you accomplished this. These religions in many ways feel more humane to me by insisting on orthopraxy, that is doing the right thing rather than orthodoxy, which is a concern about right teaching or thinking.
In those religions it doesn’t matter if you are bored while you pray, or that you keep kosher to please your mother, or that you go on Hajj or pilgrimage to make important business connections. You just don’t have to second-guess it. In these religions what you do is what matters.
Perhaps it is because I know a lot more about it, but Christianity seems like a more complicated proposition. Our Ash Wednesday reading illustrates this. Jesus contrasts what we should do with those he calls hypocrites. The Greek word is hupocritai. It has the Greek word krisis or judgment in it and means the same thing that it does in English.
But plainly Jesus means that simply giving the right amount of alms or money to charity, praying the correct way and amount of time, and even fasting in the way that has been taught is quite simply not enough. We also need to not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. We have to pray in secret so that our father who sees in secret will reward us. We are required to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven away from the moths and rust (Mt. 6). In Christianity it is not enough to simply do the right thing. Jesus cares about the mental state with which do it.
It makes sense in a way. As human beings we can do terrible things without even seeming to cross a line. I think about married couples. You can say something that seems like nothing in public but which deeply betrays and hurts your spouse. You can kill your marriage with words that no one outside of the couple would recognize as dangerous. Intention matters. When the bully at school says sneeringly, “Nice hair!” we know she means just the opposite.
Let me be clear. Three things distinguish Jesus’ ethics. First, we must do the right thing – no hypocrisy or saying one thing and doing another. Second, we must do it with the right motive (and not for the approval of other people). Third, Jesus makes frankly extreme demands. He asks us to be perfect even as our father is perfect. He tells the rich young man to give away all that he has to follow him. Jesus asks us to love strangers the way we love our families, to not defend ourselves when we are attacked. Finally, Jesus also uses hyperbole. He famously says that if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
All this makes me long for a simple religious code with specific rules, a clearly defined way to be righteous. But that is the whole point. Jesus makes impossible demands. He does not give simple rules to follow but maddeningly general commands. He does not care about what you do but what you think, about how you meant what you did. He asks the impossible.
So what is the point of all this? Everyone fails this test without exception. There is no righteous person in the Christian universe. For Christians no set of rules will ever be enough. Jesus does not teach this to make you miserable or frustrated, but because how you feel about yourself is less important than how you care for other people
The direct result of Jesus’ teaching is that no line divides saints from sinners, the pure from the unclean, the justified from the unjustified. In fact, if we get right down to it Jesus throws out the whole idea that we really can be saintly, pure and justified.
Ta Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me he writes about the deep need that white people feel to be exonerated, to be let off the hook for the horrible things that have happened to African American people in the past and going into the future.Coates will not bend to this need and in many respects Jesus won’t either.
During Lent Christians remember that our time on this planet is finite, from dust we come and to dust we shall return. When the rest of the world points their fingers at the mayors, sports heroes and pop stars, we take this chance to look at our own lives. We celebrate the freedom from the rules that separate us from each other and the joy that arises in our hearts through Christ’s love and forgiveness.
Let us pray: Most gracious God, you show us a vision of what it might mean to be perfect, and you open our eyes to see the ways that we have come up short, so that we might be more understanding with each other. During these forty days of Lent bless us and draw us more closely to the home that we can only find in you. Amen.
 Matier & Ross, “Mayor: Homeless ‘have to leave the street’ for Super Bowl, The San Francisco Chronicle, 25 August 2015.
 Michael Powell, “Cam Newton, Sacked Six Times Brings Himself Down,” The New York Times, 8 February 2016.
 “Cam Newton Defends Postgame Behavior after the Super Bowl,” The Associated Press, 9 February 2016.
 Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2012), 44ff.
 Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (NY: Spiegel and Grau, 2015).
Text and PDF for this sermon are not available.
The upcoming season of Lent invites us to practice fasting, prayer, and giving. When we remember the underlying purpose of these disciplines, they can be to us vehicles for experiencing the joy of God in ways we have never yet known.
Malcolm’s introduction from Tuesday night’s Yoga class.