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“I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17).
At the same time Mother’s Day raises unique spiritual challenges. In this great Cathedral some of us badly wanted to have children, or a different form of family life, but were unable to. Some are in the trenches with two year olds and may not be particularly enjoying motherhood right now. Others had adoptions fall through, miscarriages, or recently lost a child. Some of us have contentious or difficult relationships with our children or mothers. Some here are still mourning our mother’s death.
One Mother’s Day, I had a conversation with an extraordinary friend. She shared her agony over not knowing where her son was or where he would sleep that night because of his addictions.
These are the stories you may not think of or hear on Mother’s Day. I bring them up to remind us of the spiritual complexities that lie beneath the surface of every life. We will not all have the privilege and challenge of being mothers. But we do have the chance to care for, “to mother” if you will, another person. I do not know how God is calling us to do this but we might consider it as our homework.
Our gospel today comes from Jesus’ farewell address to his friends. He says goodbye as a kind of spiritual mother. He offers a word of hope, a reminder that God’s spirit protects us. But he also assigns us a responsibility for the world. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17).
Motherhood is not merely a personal matter. Mothering happens or fails to happen at a social level too. This week at a speech in Arizona, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that it is the official policy of our government to separate children from their families if they cross the border without papers. This is not the only sign of a tragic failure to care for children. On Tuesday the president’s office proposed cutting $7 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
A few years ago at Harvard Divinity School Banks gave the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality. He follows in the footsteps of the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce, the theologian Paul Tillich, the scientist Stephen Jay Gould and most recently the novelist Toni Morrison.
Banks is an atheist with a great heart for people’s suffering. For him the fundamentalist faith of his mother is merely a fantasy. The truth of the world lies in a struggle of all against all, as people who have been hurt unthinkingly lash out and harm others. He points out that at their heart all stories are about the present. Historical fiction is merely our code of values projected onto the past. Stories about the future really are about our present anxieties. For Banks death is like this too. He keeps it at arms length.
For Banks the only kind of immortality is one that we experience in the present. He opposes this to what he calls a Woody Allen kind of immortality. Woody Allen says, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”
In contrast to this, Banks refers to a thought experiment by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler. Imagine if you knew that within thirty years after your death the world and all of humanity were to be utterly destroyed. Scheffler points out that this would fundamentally change how we think and how we behave. For instance, would cancer researchers dedicate their lives to this task with the same enthusiasm? Would we have constructed the new Bay Bridge or this Cathedral? In this way Scheffler reminds us that we are working together on long term projects that we expect to bear fruit after we are gone.
For Russell Banks Scheffler’s story about the future has enormous meaning to the present. The only immortality for him is the way our genes, culture and stories live on in our children. For him children are the afterlife.
But instead of allowing children to flourish for their own purposes we persist on using children to serve our needs. Our culture depersonalizes, objectifies, and commodifies children. Comparing the ancient practice of child sacrifice to modern capitalism, Russell Banks solemnly quotes the Book of Leviticus. “You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech…” (Lev. 18:21).
Banks mentions changes in our court system that make children more likely to be treated as adults, that focus on retribution rather than rehabilitation. He also could have added the huge number of children in poverty with no access to good education.
Banks hardly mentioned the way teenagers have their childhoods snatched from them through adult expectations about college. Oddly enough learning and creativity are no longer the emphasis in our schools. Through standardized tests and curricula, relentless focus on competition, year-round sports, we communicate an unwavering message that children are made acceptable only by their accomplishments. In Palo Alto and across the country our children are dying metaphorically and literally because of the stories we are telling them, because it is not enough for them to simply be themselves.
Mostly though Banks refers to the deluge of advertising that colonizes our children’s consciousness. Banks calls the powerful force of materialism Moloch, after the idol in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In his poem “Howl” Alan Ginsberg says, “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!… Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!… Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!” Like the characters in the movie The Matrix we increasingly float through an unreal existence with our minds tethered to the machine.
At Grace Cathedral and Cathedral School we help children and their parents to resist Moloch. The openness and exploratory quality of childhood is very much alive here six days a week.
Russell Banks and I agree about the threat of Moloch to our children. But for me real life is not like one of his novels. We do not inhabit a bleak, dead world characterized chiefly by everyone exploiting everyone else. Although we fall short of our own expectations and we do not always take in its beauty, we inhabit a living universe in which all things declare the glory of God. Life is not merely a dead-end cul-de-sac in which we race toward certain destruction, but an existence in which we constantly move more deeply into the divine reality as we grow into our potential as children of God.
Russell Banks reminds me how hard it is to live without meaning. This is true not just from an individual psychological perspective. It is hard intellectually. Meaning, even a kind of hopefulness, is a gift we receive from God. For most people it does not make sense to regard ourselves merely as individuals interested only in our own survival, sensual pleasure and well-being. This is because we are fundamentally connected to all creation.
This world is our home. We are invested in it. We want it to flourish even long after we are gone. We might even imagine wanting to live forever in our own apartment. We care about species of animals that we will never see. Our minds reach into the farthest depths of the universe out of a longing that we hardly understand. Russell Banks feels disappointed because he too at some level of his being has an oddly persistent sense that the universe should be full of meaning. For me, this feeling is a kind of voice drawing us home to God.
This brings us back to Jesus’ last prayer. My friend, the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen says its purpose is to convey the “awesome intimacy” with God which Jesus gives to us. Jesus speaks in the second person singular to the creator of all things. He asks God to, “protect [us] from the evil one,” the one we know as Moloch. We are all God’s children. Jesus says we that do not “belong to the world” of exploitation and hatred. He prays that we will be sanctified in truth.
You and I face many choices about how to think and what to do. But we are not left alone or without hope. The love of Jesus brings us home to God. When we walk in Jesus’ path, we discover that the world is being healed by the creator of mothers and of all good things.
Let us pray: Gracious God, you formed us in the depths beneath our mother’s hearts. You know us from the inside out. Help us to care for the children and to fill the world with kindness and love. We ask this so that Jesus’ joy may be made complete in us. Amen.
 This morning we also have Jesus’ last words for his disciples in a prayer from the Gospel of John. The Bible actually has many farewell discourses like this from Jacob (Gen. 47:29-49:33), Joshua (Jos. 22-24), David (1 Chr. 27-29), Moses (Deut. 33), Tobit (Tob 14:3-11), and Paul (Acts 20:17-38). This biblical genre features an announcement about a person’s departure, a statement about God’s great works, a reminder of God’s commands, instructions to love each other and concludes with a prayer.
 He said, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks to the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies 2018 Spring Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, Monday, May 7, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-sessions-delivers-remarks-association- state-criminal-investigative
 Russell Banks, “Feeding Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism,” Harvard Divinity School Ingersoll Lecture, 5 November 2015. http://hds.harvard.edu/news/2014/11/05feeding-moloch-sacrifice-children-altar-capitalism
 Parenthetically he notes that there are two types of science fiction. Stories where they go here and ones where we go there. In either case these are stories about us right now. Banks seems to agree with the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) who uses the following logic to reason that death should mean nothing to us. When we are alive we cannot experience death and when we are dead we cannot experience anything.
 “A Philosopher’s Afterlife: We May Die But Others Live On,” National Public Radio, 9 October 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/10/09/230756192/a-philosophers-afterlife-we-may-die-but-others-live-on
 Any of the people… who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death…” Lev. 20:2.
 The way marketers treat children as the largest market category. Through television, Disney, Facebook, Twitter, EBay, Amazon, on cell phones and tablets the vast colossus reaches out and colonizes the consciousness of our children. Children become transformed into consumers.
 Tom Little and Katherine Ellison, Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools (NY: Norton, 2015).
 Alan Ginsberg, “Howl.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179381
 This is the impersonal force of greed that lead us to treat people as tools for our pleasure rather than as ends in themselves. We agree that this is most heartbreaking when it comes to the children of the world. Beneath Russell Banks’ words and thoughts lies a profound disappointment with the universe. His weak solution is that writers and musicians in each succeeding generation will reintroduce us to our true nature.
 Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T & T Clark, 2005) 367-77.
I have one of those unfortunate faces that lapses into a frown in repose. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy or disapproving but my mouth just naturally sits with a downward curve rather than an upward one. This meant that when I was younger I was subject more than most to shouts on the street of ‘smile, darling’ or ‘cheer up, love, it might never happen.’ I longed to have the chutzpah to come up with some wittier response than an ironic fake grin or a hard stare. But I would generally just blush and try hard to remember that ‘pleasing random men’ was not my life’s work.
These sexist, controlling and embarrassing comments were clearly inappropriate and are still a bane on many women’s life. What is more socially acceptable, but potentially no less damaging, are those modern cure-alls of ‘positive thinking’ or ‘being in the moment’. We are told that we only need the right mindset to rise above the sadness and strain of our lives. I’m not a naturally angry person, but this really angers me. No amount of positive thinking is going to lift a depressive illness or make a time of trauma bearable. No focus on being in the moment ever cured cancer or erased the pain of loss.
Which may be a strange way in to a sermon that is taking as its focus those words from the gospel ‘that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.’ But I want to make sure from the start that we find the right foundation for joy, the right focus for joy. A foundation and focus that do not rely on our own ability to think ourselves happy. A foundation and focus that pay attention both to the unhappiness in many of our lives and to the uncontrollability of many of our minds and moods.
There are few experiences lonelier than sitting in a large group of people thinking to yourself that you are the only one who is struggling. That you are the only one who lives with depression or struggles each day against anxiety or who has issues with addiction. That you are the only one who doesn’t have their life together, the only one not able to experience the joy that woman in the pulpit is going on about. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness you are very far from alone – mental illness affects 1 in 5 Americans every year, and 1 in 25 find their life severely impacted by it. I would think many more than half of us here have had our own lives or the lives of those we love touched by mental illness.
If our joy as Christians is to be real, to be more than a false smile pasted on because we think God is shouting at us ‘smile darling’, then it has to be a joy that can reach into this reality. There are a couple of theologians who have done some work that can help us here, both working in the field of trauma and faith – Serene Jones and Shelly Rambo. They have attended to the experience of those who have gone through great hardship – sexual abuse, the traumatic stress of warfare – and who have to live with the continuing ripples of this reality.
The reality they deal with is hard. It is the opposite of an easy, happy-clappy triumphalist Christianity. Rambo says: “Life, for many, does not triumph over death. Instead life persists in the midst of death, and death in the midst of life.”[i] Traumatic events do not find closure, they do not get left behind, they shadow us even as we move into a continuation of life. Yet also traumatic events are survivable – they do not end our capacity for living. And she also says: “Redemption is, in essence, a divine love story.”[ii] Somehow we need to locate joy in this mix of anguished survival and divine hopeful love.
Look what it says in the passage from John – Jesus tells us he says these things to us that his joy may be in us and our joy may be complete. So what is this joy of Jesus? It is not a joy that floats above suffering. Jesus’ whole ministry has been among people who are suffering – through the demons of their own illness or through the demons of an occupying empire. And Jesus speaks these words to his disciples during the gospel’s farewell discourse – when Jesus is himself preparing to face the trauma of betrayal, torture and death. This cannot be a heedless joy he promises us but something rooted in hard reality. A joy that walks hand in hand with the hard truths of life. A joy grounded in vulnerable love.
Jesus’ joy, and our own, is not a veneer covering over our pain but a life-giving energy in the midst of pain. This is how Serene Jones beautifully puts it: “to be saved is not to be taken elsewhere. It is to be awakened – to mourn and to wonder. And to stand courageously on the promise that grace is sturdy enough to hold it all – you, and me, and every broken, trauma-ridden soul that wanders through our history. To us all, love comes.”[iii]
Now it is only through this love that comes to us all that joy can come to us all. Not through our own efforts, not through cutting ourselves off from the rest of suffering humanity, not through the power of positive thinking. It is a joy that lives in the sudden wonder of connection, in relationship, in finding our identity as part of the whole glorious and wounded mass of creation. Joy is not the same as safety, nor is it the negation of negative emotions. It is the glimpse of a flowering cherry that reminds us beauty still lives in the world, it’s the touch of a human hand when we thought ourselves forgotten and alone, it’s the awareness that others struggle too and, even with our own woundedness, we can ease their pain.
And there is no ‘ought’ connected to joy. We should never beat ourselves up for not feeling joyful. The same Jesus who calls us to joy was the one who cried out with despair ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’. What we may be able to feel when joy is far away is its faint echo in hope. And when we can’t even feel that we may be able to hold on to the ‘promise that grace is sturdy enough to hold it all’. And when our grip weakens even on this then we can let our faith community hold us and hold this truth in safe keeping till we can open to it again.
And remember that even when we are in the abyss we are not alone. To quote Shelly Rambo again: “Divine and human meet in the middle, and there is an intermingling of breath in the abyss; it is the point at which the silent human cry meets the silent divine cry.”[iv] The God who calls us to joy is also present in its absence, loving us through everything and never abandoning her hurting children. Our most painful breath is breathed by God also.
Oh my dear fellow strugglers I pray that the joy of Jesus may be in you and that your joy may be complete. And I pray that when your joy is far from complete you can still know that grace is sturdy enough to hold you. And I pray that this community may help make real the truth that faith and Easter resurrection attests: “to us all, love comes.” For this is the truth: To us all, love comes.
[i] Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Louisville Kentucky: John Knox Westminster Press, 2010, p165.
[ii] Ibid, p153.
[iii] Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured Word, Louisville Kentucky: John Knox Press Westminster, 2009, final sentence.
[iv] Spirit and Trauma, p170.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young spoke without using a manuscript.
Bishop Marc preached without using a manuscript.
Dr. Gardner used the downloadable PDF outline for his Sermon
Grace: The Real Revolution, a Sermon for Independence Day
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
“I have given you authority to tread on serpents, and over all the power of the enemy.”
I grew up in a small town along the Connecticut coast, steeped in references to its colonial past, and keenly self-aware two hundred plus years later, of its role in the American Revolution. In second grade, we toured the Georgian style William Hart House on Main Street, marveling over the tiny uncomfortable beds, and the hobbit-like scale of the spaces. We learned about the settlers lives, and even how to make the candles they would have used, successively dipping the taper into a cauldron of melted wax till a candlestick began to emerge. Fourth of July was a really big deal in our town, with a grand parade in the afternoon; at night parents and children flocked to the shore waiting expectantly to watch the fireworks go off over Long Island Sound. Around this time of year, I’d see this strange flag emerge with a yellow field, and the image of a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, with the words, “Don’t Tread on Me” beneath it.
I was intrigued by the flag from an early age – it was so defiant, so bold. What society would have need for such a severe warning, to enshrine it on a flag? Later I’d learn it was called the Gadsden flag, and you can see it right here in the north transept among the flags relating to our nation’s rise and development. It was named after the statesman and military officer who designed it to be a standard for the American Revolution in 1775, and especially of the Continental Marines. To this day, the oldest active vessel in the U.S. Navy has the right to fly it.
Along with the stars and bars, and the bald eagle, the timber rattlesnake represented an early icon of the nascent republic.
Benjamin Franklin praised the snake as “an emblem” of America’s vigilance, “magnanimity and true courage.” He writes that though the snake appears defenseless to the unschooled, and its fangs unimpressive to the uninitiated, “their wounds however small are decisive and fatal.” If you look closely you’ll see the rattle is formed of 13 sections, standing for the 13 original colonies. Franklin notes with a tone of pride and warmth, “she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.” The flag has made a resurgence in recent years as the standard for the Tea Party, who interpret it as the ultimate symbolic expression of individual rights and protections from the government, rather than as a nationalist expression of collective defiance against the British imperial antagonist.
This serpentine image for the state was not new. You’ll recall that 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes’s supremely influential political treatise on the nation-state was titled “Leviathan.” Propounding views of material humanism, representative government, social contract theory, and individual rights, he laid the foundations for liberal political philosophy in the West. However, writing in the desolation and division of the English Civil War, he was sharply critical of any government that did not invest a single sovereign entity with absolute power.
Human life, Hobbes surmised, was “nasty, brutish and short,” and human social order was not directed by a concern for the summum bonum – the greatest good – as the Scholastics maintained but the summum malum – the greatest evil, which he believed was “violent death.” Now, he believed this because he saw it first-hand, but his belief constituted a radical rupture with a thousand years of political theology undergirding the Christendom that came before the advent of the modern era.
Hobbes saw Christianity become a source of violent division and looked to another power to secure the human future. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom had given way to a fractious Christendom, with Catholics and Protestants at war with each other. So the ancient, tyrannical sea-serpent, the Leviathan of biblical lore, became the driving image for the nation-state that ruled with uncompromising force to keep these groups in line. (With this in mind, it’s easy to see how America’s timber rattlesnake would have been a kind of visual dig at the very image that justified the crown’s oppression of the colonies. The Leviathan would be slain by a mere rattler in a classic David and Goliath story. That’s the American Revolution in short.)
Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke were the philosophical architects of a revolution in human history that would sweep aside millennia of dynastic tradition in favor of newly emerging nation states. The masses hoped that government elected by the people would be better, and by many measures it has been. Public education, social and economic mobility, personal freedom and the extensive development of the common law tradition: all of these are massive advantages to the modern age. But, Jesus warns us in the gospels that we reap what we sow. Revolutions sown in violence, eventually gave way to the most violent century the world has ever known.
Twentieth century advances in science, technology, philosophy and the arts stand under the long shadow of two world wars, mass genocides, Vietnam, nuclear weapons, global warming, and the post-colonial impoverization of the Global South. Hobbes’s philosophy, carried to its logical end gave us fascism, Stalinism, and Nazism. Elie Wiesel, who died this weekend, contended against a Leviathan that would have left even Hobbes shocked and horrified. But the human spirit springs eternal with hope. In the ashes of these tragedies, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union were born with the hope that together we could find new, creative solution to build a better world.
We live in an age when the pressures of globalization are forcing us to reevaluate our basic premises, the very foundations upon which the global political and financial orders rest: uneven benefits of a global economy; booming black markets in drugs, weapons, and human trafficking; the ever-widening technology gap; terrorism; and an ecological crisis that threatens planetary collapse. The unfettered positivism of the Enlightened West is not working. Our world is literally starving for a model of global justice that transcends the narrow self-interests of entities defined solely by their own sovereignty, and designed to perpetuate that sovereignty at all costs.
Lacking a proper telos, an end resting not only on measurable, sensory facts but also the immeasurable and immutable demands of divine justice, the world of competing nation-states seems trapped forever in a ceaseless game of thrones. And that world is becoming smaller every day. We see it the face of families evicted without a care as to where they will go; we hear it in the voices of migrant peoples pleading for a place to call home amidst dangerous politics and unimaginable economic privation; we read about it in nations electing to withdraw from international cooperation for fear of eroding privilege; and we experience it as our own nation flirts with xenophobic authoritarianism.
Who are we in the midst of these things? “I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.” We need to hear that. The Church needs to hear that. Take it in. He’s speaking to me and you. We are the 70. Every time we approach this table we recommit to His revolution. The Kingdom of God is the closest thing to an anti-state that the world will ever know. It exists not to serve itself, but to serve others; it does not conquer through violence or coercion, but multiplies by the force of love’s invitation.
We reap what we sow. Jesus sowed a revolution not in others’ blood, but in his own, and for our sake. He sent out the 70 not with guns, tanks or swords; indeed, not even with a purse, bag or sandals. (I guess that means Luis Vuitton is not a thing in the Kingdom of God. Sorry lol.) With barely a tunic to their name, the 70 are sent out not as mercenaries to convert others at the edge of a sword, but as people totally at the mercy of those who would receive them. Even to those who would not receive them, they declared that the Kingdom had come near, leaving in peace, returning their peace to them.
The Kingdom comes near to us, too. When we approach this table, Jesus gives himself to us so that we may give ourselves to others. Have you ever noticed that Jesus chooses the path of relationship over the path of structural power to change the world around him? We have those huge banners out front that declare, “Grace is Love.” I love that. It’s such a powerful message – one that’s urgently needed for our world. If justice is what love looks like in public, then grace is what love looks like in person. Grace is our answer to the power of the enemy.
When we take Christ into our bodies, we affirm a mystery that unites heaven and earth, the material and the spiritual – that vastly exceeds the limits of mere positivism. We all know the bread and wine nourish parts of our body we cannot see. Do we also know that His Substance and Spirit nourish parts of our soul we cannot see? He’s planting seeds in dark and fallow places that may not bear fruit for years to come, and yet always and already working within us. Where is the harvest ripe in your life, and our life collectively as a church, to reap something great for God’s Kingdom? Where has God given you, and given us, grace upon grace to bless those are around us?
At the beginning of the sermon I painted an idyllic image of my childhood home in Connecticut. Beneath the patina of apparent privilege all around us, the story of my particular household was quite different. With two parents whose sole income was social security disability, with a father wrestling with the demons of narcotics abuse and domestic violence, my household was a very difficult place to grow up and mature. My life would have had a very different trajectory if it had not been for one single person, my 7th grade French teacher, Pat Perry.
Having witnessed my capacities, Pat decided she was going to do something to change my life. She personally contributed over $20,000 from her own resources to send me to a premier boarding school, paving my way to attend Haverford, then Harvard, to have a completely different life than the one I would have had apart from her generosity. Every day I think about Pat. Every day I wonder what our world would be like if more of us had her imagination. The thing about grace, this unexpected generosity, is that it opens our hearts, and reorients us to hope.
The thing about the Kingdom is that the establishment doesn’t see it coming. They can’t anticipate it because they can’t imagine a world where sovereignty is exercised apart from self-interest. Jesus intends for us to reign by abdicating all claim to our own honor, wealth, power and glory. That’s a tough sell. It’s a tough sell for me – because in the end, the nation-state isn’t the enemy at all: I am. The Gospel confronts us with this challenge: the only way to change the world around us is first to change the world within us. The only revolution that is the true revolution – effecting true, lasting and durable change – is the revolution inside. We need to learn to slay the Leviathans of selfishness and cowardice that keep us from knowing true freedom, the liberty of the children of God. On this 4th of July, as we remember the birth of our nation, let’s also remember Jesus’ words to us:
“I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.”
Sunday, May 20
Tuesday, May 22
Wednesday, May 23