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Sunday, September 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, September 20
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, September 16
The Tongue Is a Fire: The Truth of Grace
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3).

  1. Nothing is older or newer than grace. There was never a time before grace existed and yet, if we pay attention, grace will surprise us every day.

The Buddha warns his disciples that grasping his teaching can be like picking up a poisonous snake in the wilderness. Even well-meaning students may take hold of his words and draw the wrong conclusions. Furthermore they can be off not just by a little, but interpret them to mean the exact opposite of what he intended.[1]

The events in today’s gospel occur at a decisive moment in the center of the book and at a crossroads. Jesus and the disciples travel first through mostly Jewish territory and then through the Gentile lands on their way to Jerusalem. As hearers of this story we know who Jesus is, that at his baptism God called Jesus his beloved son. We watch the disciples learn this for themselves.

As they walk Jesus asks them “Who do people say I am?” And they respond, “John the Baptist… Elijah… one of the prophets” (Mk. 8). When he says, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers perfectly and calls him the Christ or the Anointed One. Jesus asks them to keep silent about this and goes on plainly to explain what this will mean. The Son of Man will suffer, be rejected by the chief priests and killed.

But Peter has been bitten by the proverbial Buddhist snake. He heard the teaching and knows the right words but interprets them in the opposite way. He rebukes Jesus and tries to convince him to turn aside from accepting suffering at the hands of the authorities. You might think that Jesus may be over exaggerating when he says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

But picture the scene. Jesus and his friends are walking the road toward Caesarea Philippi and the temple that Herod the Great constructed which Philip II dedicated it to Augustus (63 BC – 44AD) the first Roman Emperor. The Emperor’s title is “Divi Filius” or “Son of the Divine.”[2] The Gospels contrast Jesus and the emperor.

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is an entirely new picture of what the word “Messiah” means. Jesus is not merely a stronger version of the dictators that we are all familiar with. He does not defeat bullying, abuse, and terror with more of the same. He does not simply replace the current king with a more powerful version. Instead Jesus subverts the whole idea that we should dedicate our lives to gaining power by manipulating and terrorizing over others.

He outlines the paradox of our existence as complex primates when he says that we will not thrive unless we deny ourselves, unless we live for something great even if it means taking up our cross. “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk. 8).

  1. The other night I asked my family for examples of people we knew who had gained the world but in the process lost their lives. In the San Francisco of 2018 this is a common occurrence. Our friends, neighbors, even we ourselves have so much and yet somehow it isn’t enough.

Robert Sapolsky writes about the biology of pleasure in his book Behave. He points out that the more often our bodies are exposed to a positive stimulus, the less we experience satisfaction from it. Biologists call this habitation and it is the phenomena that, “nothing is ever as good as that first time.”

This is made more complicated because modern people have invented “pleasures far more intense than anything offered by the natural world.” This is true of food, sex, comfort, novel experiences, arresting images, vivid music, etc. He writes, “Once, we had lives that, amid considerable privation, also offered numerous subtle, hard-won pleasures. And now we have drugs that cause spasms of pleasure and dopamine release a thousandfold higher than anything stimulated in our old drug-free world.”

As a result Sapolsky claims that we experience a kind of emptiness arising out of, “this combination of over-the-top non-natural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation.” Now we “barely notice the fleeting whisper of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn or the lingering glance of the right person… our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get.”[3]

 

And so I guess there is a biological sense in which, “whoever would save his life will lose it.” One can also come at this from a social perspective too. The Process Theologian Bernard Loomer (1912-1985) writes about two kinds of power.[4]

First there is what he calls unilateral power. This is all too familiar in the rhetoric of our time. It builds walls, makes threats, and deploys overwhelming force to intimidate and demean. It is a sneering “us versus them” picture of the world, which forces others to submit rather than making decisions in consultation with them. This is the way of Caesar, or the Emperor.

Loomer contrasts this with relational power. This involves working cooperatively through inclusion, empathy and listening. It means learning from people who differ from us. Relational power respects the interests and experiences of others in the way that good couples and parents do. This is the way of Jesus who sees the blessedness in the meek and the extraordinary value of peacemakers as children of God (Mk. 5).

  1. Last night the Hawaiian activist Nainoa Thompson told some stories that give me a picture of what it looks like to lose your life and end up saving it. When my wife’s grandmother was a child it became illegal to speak the Hawaiian language in school. By law teachers had the right to beat Hawaiian children for simply communicating with each other. The flourishing Hawaiian culture of the nineteenth century with its high rates of literacy and large number of Hawaiian language newspapers was devastatingly suppressed.

Nainoa Thompson said that as a result of this, “Hawaiians were conditioned to fail. The pain of failure felt so severe that it meant that you just never tried as a result.”[5]

You might remember Thor Heyerdahl’s book Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific on a Raft (1950). Heyrdahl built and sailed a raft to test his hypothesis that the Polynesian Islands were settled by people who basically just floated there from the Americas.[6] Remarkably no one in those days seemed able to believe that the ancient Hawaiians were capable of getting there themselves. In fact they were the greatest navigators in human history and had the technology to sail against prevailing winds and currents.

So in 1973 the Polynesian Voyaging Society was established to try to recover the art and technology of long-distance canoe travel along with the culture that had been lost.[7] They built the Hōkūle’a and with the help of a Micronesian teacher they sailed to Tahiti and back. I saw the picture of the Hōkūle’a’s arrival in Papeete. It seemed as if half the population greeted them on the beach. The Hawaiians realized that this was more than just a Hawaiian project.

On the second voyage a huge storm with stacked waves flipped the canoe. It could not be righted. In the thunderous gale the thirteen person crew was sitting on the top of one hull periodically getting tossed into the sea and somehow managing to crawl back up again. Eddie Aikau the heroic lifeguard who made 600 rescues at Waimea Bay set off on his surfboard to get help.

Nainoa Thompson swam out to talk to Eddie and was the last person to see or touch him before he paddled over mountains of water. The rest of the crew was miraculously rescued by helicopter in the middle of the night. With tears in his eyes Thompson describes the terrible sorrow that he saw in Eddie’s mother when they arrived at the airport.

Eddie gave his life that day for the sake of the Hōkūle’a and its crew. But since then Nainoa Thompson also has given his life for this project too. Through his father’s inspiration the demoralized voyagers decided to not give up. In 2013 the ship circumnavigated the world. Hawaiians have a new sense of pride in their heritage as wayfinders and navigators. But his mission is not just about Hawaiians. He has dedicated his whole life to also helping us to take better care of the vast Pacific Ocean and the whole earth. The sister vessel Hikianalia arrives today. You can see it at Aquatic Park.

St. Augustine talks about a life that is “incurvatus se” or curved in on itself. Instead of living like a tightly closed fist Jesus invites us to open ourselves. Today at Grace Cathedral we celebrate 169 years of just this kind of openness as a congregation. The first rector John Leonard ver Mehr (1809-1886) arrived in 1849. He worried about whether the congregation understood his preaching But most of all he cared for everyone who crossed his path not just Episcopalians. He ministered to sailors who had been convicted of mutiny and were about to be hanged on their ship. He founded schools because he cared so much about children

From that first Sunday when miners slipped an envelope of gold dust into the church collection plate to today we have been gathered as a people losing our lives with each other, for each other and for the world. We have boldly courageous heroes like Eddie Aikau and humble ones who set the world on fire with their stories like Nainoa Thompson. In this world of people who are unable to really feel because they have been saturated and numbed by pleasure we find new life in Jesus. We call it grace. God’s grace is the ship that carries us. God’s grace always surprises us.

 

#RobertSapolsky, #EddieAikau,

[1] The Buddhist story and more coms from, Liz and Matt Boulton, “Crossroads: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Seventeenth Week after Pentecost,” SALT, 11 September 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/9/11/crossroads-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-seventeenth-week-after-pentecost

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarea_Philippi

[3] Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 69.

[4] Bruce G. Epperly, “Jesus’ Lesson in Large Hearted Theology,” The Christian Century, 14 August 2018. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/september-16-ordinary-24b-mark-827-38

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Loomer

[5] Nainoa Thompson, “An Afternoon with Wayfinder and Master Navigator Nainoa Thompson,” lecture at Capachino High School, San Bruno, California, 15 September 2018.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kon-Tiki_expedition

[7] http://www.hokulea.com/vision-mission/

Sunday, September 9
The Audacity of Faith, The Destruction of Nature
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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The Audacity of Faith, The Destruction of Nature

“Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened”

(Mk. 7).

  1. Sometimes in an otherwise ordinary moment God just opens us. You may remember the story. I’m visiting Jeannie Taylor on Pacific Avenue. I quickly go out to re-park the car. Rushing back through her apartment door I take a few steps before I feel an odd, unsettling sensation. The furniture and art seem vaguely different. I turn to go upstairs, and there are no stairs.

A total stranger walks down the hallway toward me with a completely puzzled look on her face and her husband just behind her. Suddenly, I experience the flash of recognition. I am in the wrong apartment. Panicking I blurt out the only thing that comes to mind. “I’m the dean of Grace Cathedral!” And somehow I make two fabulous new friends.

 

The story could have turned out differently. This week a white off duty police officer returned to what she thought was her home. In her confusion she shot an extraordinary and promising twenty-six year old man named Botham Shem Jean in his own apartment. It broke my heart to hear this young man’s family talk about his character and personality.[1] Before that moment his life seemed like an incredible gift of hope. And perhaps it would have been if he had not been black. Racial fear and the sheer number of guns in our society insure that tragedies like this will keep recurring.

But imagine a different version of this story. Imagine that my new friend on Pacific Avenue has just worked a twelve-hour shift as a surgeon at UCSF Medical Center and finally has the chance to relax with her husband at their home. Suddenly unannounced at 9:30 p.m. a woman walks into her kitchen to beg her to heal her sick daughter. What would happen?[2]

Hold this feeling of discomfort, violation and danger in your heart this morning as we step into the world of the Bible.

  1. Mark writes the simplest, most immediate, most abrupt gospel we have. He does this to open us up, to shock us into recognizing God. In chapters 5 and 6 Jesus goes through Jewish territory where he heals a suffering woman (5:24-34) saying, “daughter your faith has made you well” (Mk. 5:34) and feeds 5,000 people (Mk. 6:30-52).

Then in chapters 7 (7:24ff) and 8 Jesus ventures out into the world of the gentiles. Tyre and Sidon are not just foreign places. This is hostile territory.[3] The first century Roman Jewish historian Josephus (37-100) calls the Tyrians, “the most inveterate and implacable enemies of the Jewish name and nation.”[4]

Mark’s truth is simple in theory and terribly demanding in practice. He shows us how God’s love transcends all boundaries. It is like a pebble hitting the smooth surface of a lake with energy rippling to the edges. The gifts of healing, love, forgiveness and faith that Jesus brings first to his own people become available to all creation in ever-expanding circles. We are tempted to only care for our own. God constantly invites us to open up to others.[5]

This brings us to a difficult question of interpretation. Jesus does not want anyone to know he is there but he is unable to hide (this word also means forgotten). That has turned out to be so true. Jesus cannot be hidden or forgotten. Uninvited, a Greek (not Gentile) mother from a hostile people bursts into the house asking Jesus to heal her daughter.

Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, it is not fair to take the children’s bread (not food) and throw it to the dogs.” With wisdom and audacity she replies, “Lord (not “Sir” as it says in the NRSV), even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus then grants her wish, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (Mk. 7).

The question that no preacher seems capable of leaving alone concerns Jesus’ mental state. People usually offer one of two interpretations. The first group regards this story as tremendously out of character. Jesus famously tells an approving story about “the Good Samaritan” and seems remarkably open to talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman Centurion and other foreigners.

So these interpreters can imagine Jesus saying this perhaps with a twinkle in his eye or in a sardonic way. He knows that God’s love is for all people and he is allowing the Syro-Phoenician woman to make this important point. When it comes to God there is enough for all.

The second group regards Jesus as blinded by the conventional thinking of his culture and time. The Bible has a long tradition of prophets like Abraham (Gen. 18:16-33) and Moses (Ex. 32:14) arguing with God and even changing God’s mind. We cannot imagine a human being who does not evolve and learn. Jesus does this too.

Where do I stand in this perennial debate? Mark is open to both interpretations. We don’t know Jesus’ tone of voice or details that would make the meaning of this encounter clear. And for that reason, I don’t think Jesus’ attitude is what this story is principally about.

To me what matters most is that this story offers us a different definition, a biblical definition, of faith. And it is different than the way we use the word in everyday life. The spotlight of the story should be on the woman. For her faith is not defined as certainty (as opposed to doubt). Instead she shows that real faith is audacious. It is courage (rather than irresoluteness).[6]

In short she shatters rules of decorum with a shocking action that even today could get you shot. She is with James who writes, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you” (Jas. 2)? Faith is living, active and surprising. It always opens us up more – to God and to others.

And that is the greatest challenge of our time, isn’t it? If you wanted to sum up the spirit of our age, you would say that we are closed off. We are closed off from each other by politics, media exposure, geography, race, religion, social class, etc. We are so closed off that we are shooting each other. So this morning I ask what are you closed off from? How is God trying to open you up?

Perhaps I am stating the obvious but we as a people are closed off from the natural world. Scholars say we are entering a new geological era called the Anthropocene as human beings alter the environment for every other being on the planet.[7]

In the year I was born Davis, California had 45 days that were 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above. According to the climate model recently published by the New York Times the year my daughter turns 80 there will be 85 days above 90 degrees. According to one estimate it could be ninety degrees or above for 30 percent of the year. In short, Davis will have the climate of Palm Springs.[8]

Again faith is not some magical form of certainty, it is bold action. These enormous oak tree columns, the earth superimposed on our rose window, the images of breaking ocean waves in the north transept, these were created for you – to open you up. What can you do? You can participate with the governor, lieutenant governor, interfaith leaders in the service of wondering this Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. You can attend the events around the Global Climate Action Summit this week here at the Cathedral. We are going to roll out a carbon-tracking app for you and our whole community. You can volunteer here to do something about this.

 

In this year of truth we invited the neuroscientist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky to be our St. Francis Day Forum guest and preacher. In his memoir he describes his childhood dream of joining the gorillas in a diorama at the New York Natural History museum. Instead he ended up joining a baboon troop as a researcher in East Africa at age 21. He gave them Old Testament names, he noted their every social connection. When the time came he even risked his life to save one who he had accidentally endangered.

At the end of his book he describes how unscrupulous neighbors began selling meat tainted with tuberculosis to a nearby tourist resort. He saw that the baboons foraging in their trash were dying. He tried nearly everything he could to stop them, but ultimately he failed.

He writes that as a young man, “I had an infinity of love to expend on a troop of baboons.”[9] Sapolsky does not believe in God, but he sees that these beings deserve his prayers. He writes, “I still have not found a Prayer for the Dead for the baboons… In a world filled with so many words of lamentation, no words have come to me.” Something opened his heart to those beings. With the Syro-Phoenician woman he shares an audacious generosity in reaching beyond the boundaries that most others accept.

Ultimately, though I do believe in God and this changes everything. In 1935 after the death of his nine year old son the composer Herbert Howells wrote the music for a hymn that describes my experience in the face of hopelessness and grief.

It is Hymn 665 and it goes like this, “All my hope on God is founded; he doth still my trust renew, me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true, God unknown, he alone calls my heart to be his own.”

We are still in the world of the Bible. Jesus cannot be hidden or forgotten. His energy continues to ripple through the universe. We are not working on this alone. We also have others. And sometimes in an otherwise ordinary moment God just opens us.

[1] Matthew Haag, “Dallas Police Officer Kills Her Neighbor in His Apartment, Saying She Mistook It for Her Own,” The New York Times, 7 September 2018.

[2] To complicate things imagine that the doctor and her husband grew up in Vietnam and the woman is from a white California family. What would you expect the doctor to say?

[3] This section and the material including the two interpretations of Jesus and so much else in here comes from Liz and Matt Boulton’s SALT Commentary for 16 Pentecost, 4 September 2018.

http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/9/4/be-opened-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-sixteenth-week-after-pentecost

[4] The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, Chapter 9, tr. George Henry Maynard. “The royal Psalmist reckons the Tyrians among the most inveterate and implacable enemies of the Jewish name and nation.”

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=evans;cc=evans;rgn=div3;view=text;idno=N18799.0001.001;node=N18799.0001.001%3A99.1.9

[5] The American Puritan Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) wrote a book called The Nature of True Virtue. Ultimately human beings can only be good in what he calls private systems. We are good and someone within our group is obligated to look after us. God alone is capable of true virtue, of real disinterested love that is not bounded by personal identity.

[6] Again, grateful for this insight to Liz and Matt Boulton’s SALT Commentary for 16 Pentecost, 4 September 2018.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene

[8] I calculated the 30% by taking the highest number of days in the range as the basis for my estimate. Nadja Popovich, Blacki Migliozzi, Rumsey Taylor, Josh Williams and Derek Watkins, “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?” The New York Times, 30 August 2018.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/30/climate/how-much-hotter-is-your-hometown.html

[9] Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 303, 301.

Past Sermons

Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.

Sunday, September 18
The Unthinkable Debt
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16:1-13).
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The Unthinkable Debt

“No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16:1-13).

Imagine that this is the last day of your life. Are you ready to die? What if this was your last moment. What are you feeling? What do you wish you had done differently? Have you really lived? Or have you wasted your time with unimportant things, with worry, blame, denial and false regrets. What do you wish you did more of… or less of?[1]

Ancient Greek philosophers used thought experiments like this to remind themselves that we will not live forever. They believed that this kind of exercise could help us understand what really matters and that this could change us for the better.

Let me introduce three Greek important words from these ancient teachers. To describe the goal of human life ancient they used the word eudaimonia. Literally it means “good spirit” but most often it is translated as happiness, welfare, joy, human flourishing. It means living well in every sense: being successful, enjoying pleasure, making a difference. Aristotle called this happiness (eudaimonia) the highest good.

Although they disagreed about so much, ancient Greek philosophical schools including: the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics agreed that the best way to achieve eudaimonia was through ataraxia which we could define as tranquility or imperturbability, a kind of freedom from worry. Ataraxia means to keep an even keel, to not be swept away by either good fortune or disaster. It means to have control over our feelings and the way we respond to the world. For Aristotle phroneisis is practical wisdom and the way in which among other things we recognize the importance of this control.[2]

I’m grateful for their reflections on how to live but Jesus offers us so much more. The gospel uses this same word for wisdom but Jesus teaches that life can be more than just a struggle to control our emotions. Like a blue whale ranging across the vast Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Tern, a bird that migrates between the Arctic breeding grounds and the Antarctic each year, we have a homing instinct.

Hidden within every person lies an equally mysterious and reliable map for finding our way home to God. It shows where we came from and how to return. Through his parables Jesus teaches that God’s kingdom is already breaking into this world and that if we learn to pay attention we can be part of it.

Like the ancient Greek philosophers Jesus gives us thought experiments, stories to help us understand the meaning of God’s kingdom. We call them parables. They help us to think the unthinkable. Jesus probably meant them to be jarring, to disorient us and make us question what is reliable and stable. Parables upend the world because the good news of Jesus changes the meaning of everything for us.

Unlike most other parables, today’s appears only in the Gospel of Luke. Many people find it difficult and deeply unsatisfying. I have read over a dozen commentaries and sermons on it. The only easy way to interpret it is to make unwarranted assumptions about the context.

After addressing the religious leaders Jesus turns to speak to his disciples. He tells them the story of a manager for a rich absentee landlord. A crisis occurs when the manager hears that he is going to be charged with squandering the wealthy man’s property. Too weak for labor and too ashamed to beg he anticipates being let go and decides on a plan. He goes to each person who owes his employer and reduces the debt on the account books: from one hundred jugs of olive oil to fifty, from one hundred sheaves of wheat to eighty.

The story takes a perplexing turn when the rich man commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Jesus adds on several sayings that leave us unsure just where we stand. He says that the children of the age are more shrewd than the children of light, that we should make friends with dishonest wealth, that whoever is faithful in small matters is likely to be faithful in larger ones. Jesus concludes saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk. 16).

Some interpreters simplify the problem this raises and argue that the manager only gave away his own commission but this is not at all clear from the text. Others point out that foreign absentee landlords had a terrible reputation for cruelty. On Thursday night the reading from 2 Kings (4:1-7) was about a widow whose creditors were about to sell her children into slavery. The word Luke uses for the “charges” against the manager is diaballow. It means accusation and is related to the word accuser which is also the name for the devil.

Furthermore it is not completely clear that this is a dishonest manager. The word in Geek is not “dishonest” it is adikias or unrighteous. Because the genitive case is tricky one cannot quite say if he himself is unrighteous or simply a manager of unrighteous things. Perhaps forgiving debts is the right thing to do even if the manager does it for the wrong reasons.

In any event preachers assure their congregations that the point of the story is not for us to act dishonestly. Just as the manager faces a crisis in his life and must act intelligently, people of faith need practical wisdom as we face the crisis of God’s kingdom. What matters is the contrast Jesus draws between faithfulness and unrighteousness. His point is that our use of wealth has serious spiritual implications.

You know the parable is beginning to do its work when you find your world turned upside down. This week after studying this parable for twenty hours the effect it had on me was to unsettle my understanding of money and debt.
In our time, the market, our economic system, functions as a kind of unacknowledged religion. Our religious language carries within it economic metaphors of sin, debt, forgiveness, freedom and redemption. But our economic ideas also include assumptions about value and morality.[3] Jesus’ parable confuses us partly because of our deep sense that debts must be paid. A manager who dissolves these obligations troubles us because we tend to treat money and credit as our gods.

The anthropologist and activist David Graeber tells the following story about the Third World debt crisis. In the 1970’s OPEC countries began investing their large oil profits in western banks. These banks made loans to small, poor countries, or rather to their dictators and politicians who then deposited large sums of this money into their private Swiss bank accounts. Although interest rates were initially lower, tight monetary policies in the United States during the 1980’s and 1990’s drove these rates much higher and the loans began to fail.[4]

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in and, as a condition of refinancing, forced poor countries to abandon price supports for food, to deplete strategic food reserves and to abandon free healthcare and free education for some of the poorest people on earth. This had many terrible effects including taking food from children who need it. One concrete example of this suffering involves the way that these IMF policies led to the abandonment of a relatively cheap anti-Malaria program in Madagascar. Ten thousand people died there as a result. This all happened so that Citibank didn’t have to cut its losses on an irresponsible loan.[5]

Whether we are creditors We assume that loans are entered into freely and arranged on a fair basis when that might be an exception in history. Jesus’ parable points to a kind of invisible and implicit violence in the way that loans can function. Loans can keep people permanently in poverty. Our bias that indebted people deserve some kind of punishment make it hard for us to notice the signs of God’s kingdom in which there is enough for all.

You may not understand it but this is how Jesus’ parable has turned my world upside down. What is fair, who is good, what are our responsibilities to each other, seem less clear than when I started the week. Money, our systems of debt and credit, feel less reliable and real to me now in the face of God’s generous love.

Earlier I mentioned the thought experiments that Greek philosophers used to communicate practical wisdom (phroneisis) and to control their feelings (ataraxia). They did this to attain the happiness (eudaimoniea) that they describe as the highest good. This story of Jesus does not create in us the sense of the disinterestedness (ataraxia) which Greek philosophers believed would lead us on to happiness (eudaimonia). The story Jesus offers this morning involves finding our way back home by removing the barriers that stand between us and God.

The German mystical teacher Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) understood this acutely.[6] He writes that all things owe their being to God, and that it is, “God’s endeavor to give himself to us entirely.” In response to God’s love we are, “becoming as we were before we were born.”[7] We do this by abandoning our attachment to worldly things so that we can direct our lives back toward God. Eckhart says, “we come alive when we give away what [we have] received.”[8]

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda writes about a moment in his childhood when an unknown neighborhood boy left a toy (a wholly white sheep) for him at a hole in his back fence. He then left a toy for him in return. He writes, “To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something greater and more beautiful because it widens the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things… That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together. This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood in the backyard of a lonely house.”[9]

Let us pray: God of Mystery, you find grace even in the devious and compromised.[10] We thank you that today is not our last day and that you have walked so far with us to bring us to this holy place. Inspire our hearts to make good use of what you have given us as we rejoice in your unfolding kingdom. Amen.

[1] When I tried this thought experiment myself I felt a wave of gratitude for this year at Grace Cathedral, for these amazing experiences of beauty in worship, for new friends, the choirs, the breathtaking space, Easter and Christmas, quiet foggy mornings as tourists discover our art, etc.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Attempts at an Answer (NY: Other Press, 2010), 109-110.

[3] Introductory economics textbooks even have the equivalent of origin narratives. Like the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden they speculate about a time when people bartered for everything they had and the way that this system grew into the invention of money. This story and others like it are not based on anthropological evidence but have been a central part of how we pass economic ideas from one generation to the next.

[4] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (NY: Melville Publishing, 2011) 2-4.

[5] Perhaps even more damning Graeber writes about the United States as an empire with hundreds of overseas military bases. He describes the loan costs as a kind of tribute paid by client states.

[6] Once someone came to Meister Eckhart and complained that no one could understand his sermons. He said, “To understand my preaching, five things are needed. The hearer must have conquered strife; he must be contemplating his highest good; he must be satisfied to do God’s bidding; he must be a beginner among beginners; and denying himself, he must be so a master of himself as to be incapable of anger.” Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 194.

[7] Edward F. Mooney, “A Lyric Philosophy of Place,” Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (NY: Continuum, 2009) 31, 48.

[8] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (NY: Vintage Books, 1979) 54-55.

[9] Ibid., 282.

[10] This line comes from Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church (NY: Church Publishing, 2009) 105.

Sunday, September 11
My Weight Is My Love
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“… I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15).
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What is worth dying for?[1] This question might help us decide how to live. Our job at Salesforce or Google or Facebook, our iPhones, the San Francisco 49ers or our success or good looks obviously are not worth it. Not too many of our neighbors would die for their religion or for their country any more. Twenty-first century America may be defined by no longer having anything worth dying for.

On Friday I was having lunch at the elegant apartment of a fashion designer and former Grace Cathedral trustee. It is a beautiful bright space with an interior staircase up to a solarium on the top floor. After delivering the other guests and visiting for five minutes I went down to re-park the car. This took longer than I expected. So I ran upstairs, went in, shut the door and then realized that there was a lot of Asian art that I hadn’t noticed the first time.

I turned to the staircase, and there was no staircase. Just as I began to feel completely disoriented, a woman came down the hallway with a puzzled look on her face asking if I was someone who I had never heard of. In that instant her husband walked into the room, and I realized it. I was in the wrong apartment. I had no idea what to do so I simply explained that I was the dean of Grace Cathedral and that I was visiting her neighbor upstairs. We talked about all the people we know in common and I left feeling like I had made two new friends.

All of us at some point have experienced the sinking feeling of realizing we are lost. I have felt it in a New England forest at dusk, in the High Sierras and distant cities, and most of all as a child in a crowd of unfamiliar faces. Perhaps we are lost too when we have not found what is worth living or dying for.

There is a wonderful parallel between the first two sentences of today’s gospel highlighted by Luke’s use of alliteration. All of the sinners and tax collectors engizontes which means to come near to Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and scribes diagonguzon or grumble that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. These are the people who are lost and know they are lost, and the people who are lost but have not discovered it yet. They are you and me.

We use the word repentance to describe what is at stake but I sometimes wonder if that word has been worn out in the way that a lot of religious words have been. The Greek word is metanoia and means literally a changed soul. You might call this ecstatic transformation. Jesus explains with two examples. A shepherd leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find the one who is lost. He rejoices as he hoists it on his shoulders and then again as he calls friends and neighbors to tell them the news.

A woman takes all the furniture out of her house to find a lost coin and calls her neighbors to celebrate. Jesus is trying to express the impossible – the joy God feels when we are no longer lost. Jesus wants you to know how deeply and irrationally God loves you.

Let me offer another example. Imagine that my wife Heidi as a law professor discovered that one of her undocumented immigrant law students was in danger of flunking out. What if she immediately cleared her schedule, stopped showing up to committee meetings and class so that she could spend more time tutoring this person. Imagine she worked with her every night until 11:30 p.m. in the library going over hypothetical cases and the law. Then when the student successfully graduated suppose Heidi exhausted all of our savings renting out the Fairmont Hotel so that the entire law school community could celebrate this one student’s accomplishment?

On the one hand you might be irritated and identify with people Heidi neglected, but you cannot get away from the fact that she deeply loved this one student. Jesus wants us to feel the weight of this, not so that we grudgingly go around feeling indebted, but so that we fully experience God’s love and rejoice in a life of purpose.

Today we are celebrating Homecoming Sunday. Our theme this year is home. It has given us a chance to learn more both about what home means in general and our own home. From a team of doctors who greet Middle Eastern refugees on the shores of Europe we heard that according to the United Nations there are 65 million refugees in our world today. That is one out of every 113 people on the planet.[2]

At our first Forum on September 25 we will continue our discussion on homeless with San Francisco’s Jeff Kositsky first Director of Homelessness, Audrey Cooper the Editor-in-Chief of the Chronicle and Ken Reggio. We have talked about the earth as our home, gentrification and racism in San Francisco and the unique cultural contributions of this region.

This week I have been reading Harvard Government professor Nancy Rosenblum’s book Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America (2016). It makes me realize that the words home and neighbor exist in relation to and define each other. You simply cannot have one without the other. Rosenblum writes that neighbors are our environment. She describes home as a “fragile refuge” “where we are uniquely vulnerable and retreat is impossible.”[3] In a way home is a gift that we are always receiving, or failing to receive, from our neighbors.

Rosenblum writes about the most horrifying violations of our expectations concerning neighborliness. When Japanese Americans were moved to internment camps in World War II many of their neighbors did not even wave goodbye. Instead they looted and stole from them before they had even left town.

She quotes James Cameron an African American man who survived a mob’s attempt to lynch him. The most upsetting part was that these were people he knew in town. He writes, “It is impossible to explain the impending crisis of sudden and terrifying death at the hands of people I had grown to love and respect as friends and neighbors.” “I recognized… customers whose shoes I had shined many times… boys and girls I had gone to school with were among the mob and neighbors whose lawns I had mowed and whose cars I had washed and polished.”[4] Rosenblum also writes about people who behave in a truly heroic manner and risk their lives to save others.

For me what is most missing from Rosenblum’s world of terrible and good neighbors is any experience of the holy or the transcendent. It is as if she regards our neighbors as a small, unimportant distraction from the real business of living, which might involve for instance, working one’s way up to partner in the law firm, or getting tenure at Harvard. According to her we refrain from bothering our neighbors so that we can all accomplish great successes. But what if our neighbors, this area of our life that we regard as peripheral, really is the main thing?

Of all the writers in the first five centuries of Christianity St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) sounds most contemporary with our time. In his autobiography he writes about being utterly lost. He says that as a young man, “I was in love with the idea of a happy life.”[5] And yet everything he did to satisfy this desire ended up making himself miserable.

In short, Augustine struggled deeply with lust. We all have our shortcomings perhaps you are greedy, have a bad temper, or you constantly compare yourself to other people, for Augustine it was sex. He believed that his worst fault was the way sex for him seemed completely out of control. Fifteen hundred years later he is still famous for praying, “God make me chaste… but not yet.”[6]

My friend, the history professor Margaret Miles says that Augustine experienced two conversions. In one he heard a child’s voice singing “Take and read.” When he opened the Bible to Romans 13:13-14, he read about abandoning drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy and putting on Jesus Christ. He writes, “my heart was filled with a light of confidence and the shadows of my doubts were swept away.”[7] But my friend Margaret says that Augustine experienced another even more powerful transformation.

Augustine realized that our shortcomings, our greed, envy, lust, sense of superiority, impatience and anger all arise out of the power that fear exercises in our lives. In his case lust came out of both his fear of missing out on something and his self-centeredness. His metanoia, his transformation, occurred when he realized that he could instead channel this energy into loving others. He could allow himself to be totally immersed in God. Augustine had a kind of mission statement for his life, “My weight is my love; by it I am carried wherever I am carried.” He began to allow God, and not his ego, to be the center of his life and to guide him.

For Augustine love is not a feeling. It is an action. He was not an expert at this right away but he realized that through daily decisions in each particular circumstance we can learn to participate in God’s love. We can love our neighbor. We can be part of how those around us find their home. This is how Augustine became a Christian, a follower of the God who is love. It is how he discovered what he would die for and what he would live for.

Rejoice. On this homecoming Sunday welcome sinners and eat with them. You are the one who chooses to draw near to Jesus and not to grumble about him. You are the coin that has been lost. You are the sheep that has been found again. Our weight is our love, by it we are carried home.

 

[1] This introduction and the material on St. Augustine comes from notes for a lecture called “To Die For: Bodies, Pleasures, and the Young Augustine,” that Margaret Ruth Miles intends to deliver at Villanova University 16 September 2016.

[2] These statistics are for the end of 2015 and come from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/20/world/unhcr-displaced-peoples-report/

[3] Nancy Rosenblum, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 12.

[4] Ibid., 181-182.

[5] Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine tr. Rex Warner (NY: Signet Classic, 2001), 188.

[6] Ibid., 164.

[7] Ibid., 174.

Sunday, September 4
Choosing Life: Worth the Price
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity:

choose life.”

 

Last week Jesus was around the dinner table and reminded both his inner circle and his prickly adversaries that humility not status,

vulnerability and not comfort,

would be the best ways to really enjoy the banquet,

to enjoy the new life, the full life,

the deep freedom and satisfaction God desires for us.

 

Today, Jesus opens up the discussion to the crowds who are glomming onto to him on his journey toward Jerusalem.

He says what no Hillary or Donald advisor would ever recommend:

Jesus says that the full enjoyment of the real life, the real happiness,

the real deal and the real meal, the banquet of kingdom,

living whole and free and fully alive,

is completely available and at hand:

but … it’s gonna cost you.

Count on it,

expect it,

plan for it.

It’s gonna cost you.

 

Not because the odds are against us,

not because God and universe are perverse score-keepers,

waiting to catch us up in a merciless game of “gotcha”,

but simply because if we are going to enjoy a life

of deep happiness and freedom and integrity,

our values, our choices, our actions really matter.

And the consequence of our choices and actions really matter.

And they usually are not what the culture is asking for,

not what the powers that be, then or now, need and want,

not what even our families are used to hearing about and doing.

Jesus tells us today to grab hold of this new way of feeling and seeing and responding,

start walking with this cross,

and then follow him.

It’s the way to deep freedom and calm

but it’s not free.

 

They might pull out the pepper spray, tear gas, and the water cannons,

they will set the dogs on you,

they will accuse you of not being a patriot,

of being ungrateful,

but you will be free, alive, already feasting at the table of the kingdom.

 

If the whole world or the entire nation or whole family

is charging toward something that just doesn’t feel right,

that’s not quite complete, that isn’t delivering what it promises,

and you say, “I’m going to sit this one out,”

––it’s gonna cost you.

Not because you’ve suddenly become Mother Teresa

but because, by God’s grace, in your own clumsy, awkward, imperfect way,

in that moment, you simply decide, you choose not to stand for it.

I won’t stand for it. I won’t laugh at the harmless joke at work,

I won’t grab all I can even as others can’t even reach the table,

and, even if I am in a place of great privilege and gratitude,

I will sometimes choose to ally myself with those who are not,

who cannot.

Jesus says that the joyful, clear, bright path to the deepest kind of

freedom and integrity and wholeness

is…the way of the cross,

that hard, heavy, costly path of

discerning what we really, really believe in our heart of hearts,

of knowing what has real value,

of sensing what is vital, life-affirming, and life-giving

and grabbing hold of it,

even if the rest of the team, the rest of the crowds,

even if your family and Facebook friends

don’t understand or are offended.

 

Today, while he’s in prison, St. Paul meets the escaped slave Onesimus.

Probably the only chance Onesimus has to stay alive is to go back to Philemon; under Roman law he’s a marked man.

Paul sends the letter we heard today:

“Philemon, we both know this isn’t the way things are done,

but I’m warning you: When your servant Onesimus returns don’t even think of exercising your legal options.

I’m alongside him and I’m fully allied with him.

Remember, you owe me, Philemon.

In this kingdom to which we really belong,

there is only mercy and forgiveness,

and you’d better be alongside him, too.”

Paul tells him: “So get my nice guest room ready pronto, Philemon.

But know that Onesimus will be taking it––permanently.

He’s no longer your slave: he’s your brother.

End of discussion.”

 

After the narrow escape from Egypt and that life of slavery and humiliation and the years of hopeful travel,

Now gathered on the plains of Moab looking across the waters toward the Promised Land,

Moses tells the Hebrew sons and daughters

sure, they’ve escaped, but they’re not really free yet,

not free unless and until

they choose what is deeply right in every single decision,

what is morally acceptable in every human interaction,

no matter what is going on around them.

And it’s really not that strange or hard to figure out:

actually it’s not even on those stone tablets or in the pages

of the bible. Remember the part just before today’s?

The word is near you…stop and listen.

Your heart will tell you:

“No, that’s not quite right.”

“No, that’s really mean.”

“No, we shouldn’t be doing this.”

“No, that’s not going to advance our shared human project.”

“Yes, that is the right thing to say, the right thing to do.”

“Yes, I can try to do this by God’s help.”

“Yes, it’s going to make waves but it’s the only life I have

and right now is the only chance I have to make a small difference.”

 

In Jesus, that word of life comes to us even more closely,

because in Jesus, the Divine will and power and gifts

are fully allied to our human lives and hearts and choices and actions.

By baptism, we are immersed into his life and actions

and we are drenched in his life-giving presence and power.

Every action and choice of our lives has life or death consequences

which are felt here and in the hereafter.

What will you give up?

What will you risk?

What will you stand up for and when will you choose to sit it out?

Not sure?

Do the kind thing,

ally yourself with those who are invisible or without a voice,

choose what might be generative and life-giving.

Come into our real life in God while in this world.

Come into freedom and delight.

Friend, come up higher, the banquet awaits.

Sunday, August 28
Humble Again
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker” (Sirach 10).
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“The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker” (Sirach 10).

 

When Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), the Secretary-General of the United Nations, died in a plane crash in Zambia, the discovered the following passage in his diary.

“At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the [chosen and the chooser]. Only one – which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.”[1]

For me, this means that every moment through our thoughts, words and actions we choose who we will be. We draw closer to God or stray further away. This work never happens in a vacuum. Sometimes I wonder if modern life makes this even more difficult.

Sarah Bakewell in a biography of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) complains, “The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, [YouTube videos, Facebook pages, etc.]… brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do…”[2]

Personally, I cannot say for sure whether we are more self-absorbed than people in earlier generations. Technology and culture both have changed. We express ourselves differently. But our political discourse especially seems to lack humility. Perhaps it can be measured by how often the word “great” appears in advertisements, speeches, debates and tweets (for instance in the campaign slogan “Make America great again.”).[3]

Paul Samuelson author of my first economics textbook wrote, “Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.” Indeed we are not the best judges of our own abilities. Surveys show that 90 percent of us describe ourselves as above-average drivers. It is astonishing how resistant to reality we can be. When asked the same question of drivers who were in the hospital recovering from accidents, 80 percent said they were above average.[4]

Humility makes anthropological sense. At some point, experience teaches every wise person that he or she is not as clever, attractive, kind, realistic, creative, loyal, reasonable, or just plain good, as we thought before. The motto of the Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BCE) is “Know thyself.” But this is hard. His student Plato writes that Socrates’ exceptional wisdom came from understanding how little he knew. He was right to regard humility as the foundation for all knowledge.

But the Christian tradition values humility even more highly. Today I want to explore what humility means and why it has such importance for people of faith today.

In his life, Jesus exemplified extraordinary humility. He loved the people who came to him. His heart ached for the rich young ruler. He sympathized with the Roman centurion. He sought out foreigners, prostitutes and occupying army collaborators. His enemies chiefly criticized him for sharing meals with anyone – the most impure, immoral and outlandish, the freaks and the weirdo’s. Today we believe that the presence of sinful people here this morning, praying together, sharing bread and wine, is one of the most powerful signs of God’s kingdom.

At a chief religious leaders’ house Jesus saw people scrambling for the best seats. He gives what sounds like practical advice. Sit in the lower seat and wait to be invited up. Don’t get singled out for sitting above your station. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 13).

But the point of this teaching extends far beyond seating arrangements. Jesus completely reverses everything we know about human interactions. He teaches that the future reward of dining with someone who could repay you later, is entirely eclipsed by the present delight of simply being with someone for their own sake.

The value of people is not what they might do for you some time off in the future. They are a gift just in themselves. The philosopher Immanuel Kant puts this in another way when he says that we need to treat others as ends in themselves rather than as a means to an end. The twentieth century thinker Martin Buber encourages to have “I-Thou” relationships “I-It” relations with other people.

This principle lies at the heart of our life together at Grace Cathedral. We deeply desire to be a house of prayer for all peoples. This week I spent an hour with Stuart, one of our yoga volunteers. We had a bond because at one time we had both worked for the same company. I have no idea what his experience of religion has been.

But I know a lot about his wonderful passion for Grace Cathedral. He said, “Malcolm, have you been to a meeting with our volunteer crew? They are the most amazingly diverse group. One clean shaven white guy is changing out of a business suit, talking to an Asian woman who has green hair and tattoos. They are young, old, straight, gay, African American, Korean, Buddhist, atheist, Christian, etc., …” You get the idea.

Stuart told me about the best part of his week. Six hundred people practice yoga here and many start arriving early to get the best spots. But every day the team puts out a number of mats in the best location in the Cathedral at the very center of the labyrinth. As people come in it is obvious if they have never been here before. Stuart takes these newcomers, arriving late, and he puts them in the best spot in the house. He smiled at me and said, “imagine going to a rock concert and having them tear up your tickets to put you in the very first row.”

Stuart’s self totally disappeared. This is humility. When you are in the presence of someone with true humility you know it. The monk Curtis Almquist calls it, “a gift.” It is, “the secret everyone knows about you but from which you are kept in the dark.”[5]

For the opposite of humility Christians use the word pride. This is confusing because the word pride has other more common meanings. The word pride can describe the good feeling that we have when someone recognizes that we have done good work. We also use this word to express affection like when we say we are proud of our daughter, or proud to be a Golden Bear. These are not sins!

The sin of Pride means caring only about our own ego. It involves feeling better about ourselves at the expense of other people. Pride means having no room in our conscious life for anything but our own well-being. C. S. Lewis writes, “There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others… Pride is essentially competitive… As long as you are proud you cannot know God… Pride eats up the very possibility of love.”[6]

According to much of Christian tradition pride is not merely a serious sin, but the most serious sin, the one that leads to other cruelty, betrayals, and lies that damage other people and the world. The great Sufi mystical poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) writes, “The lovers of God have no religion but God alone.”[7] To be a lover of God our ego needs to stop being our religion. We have to learn to love ourselves and others in a new way.

Life has taught each of us to be an expert in forming judgments of other people. We have a sense for who we should trust, for when someone is not telling the truth, for boundaries that constrain what we do for each other. We have needed this skill to survive. But as a result we have also become quite judgmental of others. We can “see through” those who mean to do us harm.

But Jesus also invites us into a realm where we can “see into” those who cross our path. We can choose to see them as God does and to imagine their fears and dreams, the past that plagues them and the future they long for. This is the gift into which humility leads us.[8] This is the grace of hospitality. Humility and hospitality are related.

I began with a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld. Let me conclude with another.
“To have humility is to experience reality, not in relation to ourselves, but in its sacred independence. It is to see, judge, and act from a point of rest in ourselves… In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each [person] a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity… opens us to a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.”[9]

Over and over Jesus teaches that humility means making room for other people so that they can be themselves and not just what you want them to be. Humilty is making room for God in your life.

What self will we choose? Will we become “great” scrambling for the best seat, so above average and full of ourselves that everyone around us cannot help but notice? Or like our brother Jesus will we delight in the presence of the person right in front of us.

Let’s make America humble again.

 

[1] Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings tr. Leif Sjöberg & W.H. Auden (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 19.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Questions and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (NY: Other Press, 2010), 1.

[3] As an experiment try opening up a candidate’s Twitter page and searching for the word “great.” It comes up a lot.

[4] Robert H. Frank, “Just Deserts: Why We Tend to Exaggerate Merit – and Pay for Doing So,” The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2016, 54.

[5] Curtis G. Almquist, Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 59.

[6] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (NY: Macmillan, 1943) 109-111.

[7] Quoted in Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings tr. Leif Sjöberg & W.H. Auden (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 103.

[8] I used to live near the Society of St. John the Evangelist monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was often inspired by the monks there. This comes from Curtis Almquist, one of the Cowley Fathers there. Curtis G. Almquist, Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 62.

[9] Henry Pitney Van Dusen, Hammarskjöld: A Biographical Interpretation of ‘Markings’ (London: Faber, 1967), 161.

Sunday, August 14
Fire upon the Earth: Renewing Church and World by Spiritual Mission and Innovative Ministry
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
“I have come to hurl fire upon the earth! And how I wish it were already burning” -Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 12:49
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“I have come to hurl fire upon the earth! And how I wish it were already burning”

-Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 12:49

 

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Psalm 82

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

 

Fire: it churns relentlessly, licking and devouring, mercilessly, straw and hillside and home in many parts of the West Coast; it dances lyrically in the great Olympic cauldron down in Rio; it crackles in the coals we use to cense the altar, and, of course, ourselves; it bursts with explosive force taking the lives of innocent people in marketplaces across the Middle East. Fire, mesmerizing and dangerous, has stirred the human imagination for millions of years, since we first saw lightning fall from the sky with its blue and beautiful fury. We cook with it, and it may cook us, too. The source of life and of death not only here in some narrow way, but cosmically as all life on the planet’s surface takes its strength from the sun. The ancients intuited this; ancient Greek philosophers believed that the world was made of fire because when something is lit on fire it becomes fire until all that’s left is this inchoate stuff.

A little known fact: one of the many threads of continuity running from ancient Greece to the Olympics in our own time is the insistence that the Olympic flame be kindled not by any human artifice of combustion, but by the sun’s own natural heat. Gathered and focused by mirrors a flame appears, and that’s actually when the Olympics officially begin. Muscles contract and pull ligament and bone at fire’s command. Our bodies nerves depend on the successful transfer of energy along the axon, like a fuse hissing and spitting, till it explodes with force in a single visible movement: a swing of the arm, a flexing of the thigh, the sudden freeze of fluent action across a beam or rings as the body appears to be suspended mid-air, turgid and taut, and our own attention completely rapt and suspended. Our own cathedral was born from a fire that destroyed most of San Francisco in 1906, including the Crocker mansions that use to stand on this site. We come from fire.

Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews had a bone to pick with that community. The author saw within that community a terrible disease; they had become spiritually sick, and we hear part of the diagnosis today. They were supposed to pay attention, to fix their eyes on Christ – like a good athlete they needed to keep their head in the game so that they could attain the prize. But somewhere along the way, they lost their way. They grew slack. They stopped believing. Sure, they kept going to church, but they had lost their fire. But who can blame them? I know I don’t. I don’t sit here in judgement of them. It’s easy to lose our fire: there are countless reasons to become discouraged, to give up, or even just to settle. In many ways, settling is actually the most dangerous because we don’t even notice when it happens. It just happens.

I read the Letter to the Hebrews, and I can’t help but hear in it a word for our Church, for the Episcopal Church. And I can’t help but think about the important role our cathedral has played in the life of that Church. Grace Cathedral has played a pivotal part in keeping our collective fire alive, in challenging and inviting the wider Church into a dynamic vision of what it means to follow this Jesus who came to bring fire to the world, who encouraged us to read the signs of the times at any given moment and to take those signs seriously. Actually that word isn’t “bring” – that’s a bad translation of the Greek word there, “βαλεῖν,” which actually means here “to throw, to hurl or to cast.” I suspect the translators chose “to bring,” βαλεῖν’s weaker sense, in order to temper the incendiary tone of the passage. But as I’ve said before, there’s something wild in God that will not be contained, and His Christ comes to us as One who is consumed with zeal for his Father’s House, his whole life is like Holy Mount Zion wreathed in flame as the Holy One visits His people to set them on a course that would change the whole world. Fire. Revolution. Change.

We’ve known that Jesus, and in many ways we’ve followed the Pillar of Fire ahead of the rest of own Church to places we didn’t know we’d go: long before they were popular, we pioneered the way on labor justice and civil rights and women’s leadership; we faced into the homelessness crisis and started the Episcopal Community Services, which to this day offers the most shelter of any organization in the city; we insisted on the full dignity of the LGBT members of our community and our world, and when much of the Church turned away from the AIDS crisis either in scorn or fear, we doubled down on welcome, paving the way for new relationship by offering an example that would become to norm for the wider Church in time. After the AIDS crisis left Lauren Artress and much of our cathedral staff at that time spiritually exhausted – and witnessing the profound need men and their families had to be in their bodies, to pray with their bodies, to seek and find center in a world that felt like it had spun out of control – Lauren, true to her call as a pastor, sought out and discovered a tool to help them and to help us: the labyrinth. Igniting a spiritual movement that has taken the Church and the world by storm, in only twenty years there are literally thousands of labyrinths all over the world in nearly every conceivable location, but especially in places of distress and crisis: in hospitals, in prisons, in schools, in places like South Africa where Reconciliation Labyrinths are used to bring together former enemies. Nina Pickerel began Bayview mission from her own home! Today it serves thousands of families every single year in one of the most underserved and under-resourced parts of the city, and is a cause of pride for this cathedral. Under Darren Main’s visionary leadership, our yoga practice has ballooned like a fireball, causing not a little bit of heat among those who think that maybe it’s not proper for a church to offer a yoga class, much less to treat it as a spiritual community on par with our Sunday congregation.

Many quarters of the Church have a very limited vision of what Christian mission means: it’s offering some kind of Christian experience for people to ether accept or reject, or else they focus exclusively on the vital work of social mission. Social Mission or Social Outreach is hugely important – no authentic spiritual community is complete without it, and in many ways it expresses our entire raison d’êtres. But many have forgotten the equally important work of Spiritual Mission, or Spiritual Outreach. They’ve forgotten that the Temple in Jerusalem included the Court of the Gentiles, an outer court where the nations could be present in the holy precincts without fully entering in. I believe Jesus the pioneer of our faith, who blazes the trail before us, smiles upon our yoga community that gathers on Tuesdays nights, and walks with everyone who steps foot on a labyrinth whether they ever know or acknowledge it. Because that’s who God is. Grace Cathedral shows forth the character of God in a splendidly generous way that can be an example for the whole Church.

One of the great gifts, and I believe our high calling as a cathedral uniquely positioned at an urban crossroads of east and west, of wealth and poverty, of technology and nature, land and sea is that we can continue this tradition of leading the wider Church into the kind of innovation that we need to get back into the game. We must do so leading from a vision of what it means to take both social and spiritual mission seriously. Already, and I know that for generations to come, we will continue to guard the venerable flame of our glorious Anglican tradition so tenderly held in this particular service, which warms and illuminates with intellectual teaching and a classical choral tradition that truly expresses the discipline of worshipping God in the beauty of holiness. It is so powerful and so compelling for so many of us. And I also believe that we are at a new crossroads, that Jesus is calling us to interpret the signs of our times, of this time, and to rekindle that fire of vision once again that sees sometime extending from that tradition, and even beyond it to a place we don’t yet see or know. A Land of Promise to which we are called, but which we do not yet inhabit.

The religious landscape of our city is rapidly changing, and its following a trend that we see in the wider culture and even globally. Pentecostalism is on the rise. This movement that began here in the United States, just south of us in LA at the famous Azusa Street revivals, which looks to that moment when tongues of fire descended on the first apostles, filling them with power, and setting them on fire for God, this movement continues to sweep over our world, spreading like a wildfire. Whether under the banner of the new charismatic evangelicalism that has become the dominant face of Christianity in our nation, or one of its many expressions in Central and South America and Africa rapidly displacing Roman Catholicism, the Christianity of our day is marked out in profound way by this fire. In our own city, many churches following on this momentum are flourishing, attracting thousands of young people from every conceivable part of the Bay Area and every walk of life. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And I take it as an invitation to follow the smoke to the fire. And it’s my particular gift that that is my work here.

God has lit our world on fire. God has lit us, and so many other churches around us, with passion and determination and fervent devotion for the Christian vision. And all of us collectively, and each in very different ways face this question: “will we as an institution, as a Church, be willing to lay aside the weights that encumber us, to embrace the profound change that may be necessary to meet people where they are rather than insisting that come to us on our terms. I believe Grace Cathedral has answered that question before with a resounding “yes,” and I believe we’re called to answer it again. Last week our dean preached an inspiring sermon about God’s desire to give us the Kingdom. I can’t tell you what a gift it is to serve with a leader who deeply believes that in his heart, and who at every turn has supported my work and vision for spiritual mission in this place, whether it’s yoga or fresh forms of gathering and worship. What a blessing it’s been to visit sister churches in the Bay Area with him and some of you, and to see his own passion for our future as we look to examples of the Spirit’s fire alive and well in other parts of the Church. It is such a blessing to be part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

We have that wonderful phrase in Hebrews, “so great a cloud of witnesses,” and it’s set in the context of an encouragement: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight…and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” In Bible study, we learn that word “witness (μαρτύριον)”, refers in the biblical context to the martyrs, who by offering a legal testimony to their Christian faith were often landed in jail, and killed in the very same stadiums where athletic and gladiatorial contests like the Olympic games were held. We have an image here, then, not only of legal witnesses, but also of spectators in the stands.

In ancient Olympia forty thousand pilgrims from all the great city states of the Panhellenic world – from Delphi and Rhodes, from Athens and Sparta, and from the colonies in southern Sicily – would all gather and converge on this incredible site for about five days, huddled around a much more intimate stadium than our massive colosseums and stadiums, watching and scrutinizing every movement of these athletes. We have here an image of spectators, spectators in stands cheering us on by their example, by their self-giving which made a way when it seemed no way could be made. These were they who believed in God’s promises, and who in every generation bore the flame in order to pass it on to future generations. The Olympics begin each year with the famous lighting of the cauldron, but weeks before that happens a flame is lit in Greece at the Temple of Zeus and Hera, and carried over many countries and continents, and passed on by literally thousands of people, young and old.

We, too, are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses enshrined in stained glass, evoked by paint, or brought to life in stone. The cathedral’s beautiful interior isn’t just decoration; it’s a story of those who have passed the torch in ages past, who have run with perseverance keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus. These are they who, by rights, should have packed up and gone back east after the earthquake and fire leveled their city in 1906, but they didn’t. Instead they doubled down, building bigger and higher and grander than anyone could ever imagine. If our presiding bishop were here, he’d say they were some crazy Christians, and I would have to agree. If you listen through the stone and stained glass and paint, you can still hear them cheering us on; you can see them holding out the torch, and they’re urging us to take it up again.

Sunday, August 7
The Existentialist and the Christ
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12).
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“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12).

Above my desk I have a photograph. It is a selfie from the days before phones were cameras and before we called them selfies. On this first day of kindergarten my five year old daughter has a proud smile. I’m trying to smile. My lips are bending upward. But you can see a sadness in my eyes, that I do not really have my heart in it.

Lately, I have been trying to prepare myself for the last first day of school before our son leaves for college next year. I am getting ready for that aching feeling of separation as he goes. When we became new parents roughly eighty percent of our friends gave us the same advice. You can probably guess what they said. “Enjoy this time because their childhood will pass incredibly quickly.” And it has.

This advice holds true for everyone. “Life is short, so really live.” We know from experience that we can waste our lives. We choose to be petty, to let little things bother us. We are irritable. We despair and let the newspaper tell us who we are. We hold grudges and complain. We resent others and wonder if we are successful. We live in the past. We worry about the future. We work for the wrong things and in a thousand other ways we refuse to live.

This morning I want to consider two ways of understanding how short life is. The first view comes from the twentieth century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and the second from Jesus.

  1. Sartre’s existentialism grew out of a German philosophical movement called phenomenology. Early philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650) asked how we can really have confidence that what we believe is true. He tried doubting everything and realized he had to begin by trusting our shared rationality. This is what he means in writing, “I think, therefore I am.” Later, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) tried to clarify the boundary between what we can know with confidence and what is beyond our powers of reason.

In contrast to starting with the question of what is true, phenomenologists begin with experience. They try to offer the richest possible description and reflection on how the world shows up for us (to use an expression by Werner Erhard). The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) writes that primarily we notice what is useful to us.

Suppose on a Sunday morning as I am running a little late for church I discover that my bicycle has a flat tire. Although I had not thought of my bike pump all summer, suddenly nothing in the world is more important. This is particularly true if you cannot find the bike pump. Of every object in the world it has the most urgent reality.

Heidegger makes up a whole vocabulary to alienate us from our ordinary perceptions.[1] He does this to point out how experience begins with what is useful to us not with what we define as “the Truth” in the abstract. At some point we realize that we ourselves have usefulness, or are obstructions to other people. To them we are in a sense like the bike pump when we are helpful or “traffic,” when we get in their way.

In contrast with those earlier philosophers, Heidegger also believes that everything is particular, no one is a person “in general.” He writes that we are thrown into a world that always already exists. We always already have an identity, a way that others perceive us. Nothing is value neutral – you are perceived as a person of a certain class and race (even if that is ambiguous), your clothes, your gestures, how you talk and dress communicates something to others.

When existentialists said “existence precedes essence” they are emphasizing the importance of this particularity, that human values and history shape what we notice and who we are. During World War I, a young man famously asked Jean-Paul Sartre if he should care for his invalid mother or join the French resistance. Sartre basically said that the man should decide based on what kind of person he wanted to become. Do you want to be someone who looks after a sick mother or someone who defends France.

Sartre calls this “the burden of freedom.” In choosing, you choose who you will be. You cannot change the historical context but you can in a sense make yourself up as you go along within it. The problem though is that it is not entirely up to us.

Suppose you are at a hotel in Lake Tahoe with your four year old. You walk out the door without your keys and somehow it closes. In the hallway you look through the keyhole at the child and try to figure out what to do. Suddenly you realize that someone sees you looking. At that point you cannot choose who you are. You see yourself the way that they do. To that person you are a peeping tom. Fortunately you can try to explain yourself.[2]

The end of Sartre’s play No Exit (1944) contains probably his most misunderstood statement. He writes, “hell is other people.” This is not a way of saying that he hates people. What he means is that after we die we no longer have any control in determining how others perceive us. We become frozen in time unable to explain what we are doing at the keyhole.

For Sartre, life is short the world is strange and often seems to be against us, so we have reason to live in fear of the nothingness. For Sartre, life is short; we are thrown into a world in which our limited freedom is a burden. For Sartre life is short so we must be careful and realize that who we are is mostly what others perceive us to be.

  1. Jesus has the simplest response to Sartre’s picture of our existence. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12). This week for homework I want you to write this down and put it somewhere you will see it, like that picture of my daughter and me. Do not forget this, that God longs to give you everything, everything that will free you and give you joy.

Jesus also sees that life is short, but it leads him to a completely different set of conclusions. Often his disciples seem to talk and act as if they had forever. They worry. They devote themselves to things that are not really important, like who is should receive the highest honor. The crowds gathering in Jerusalem, the officials of the Roman Empire, terrify them.
And in dozens of ways Jesus repeats a simple message, “Do not be afraid. You have the kingdom. You do not have to hoard your power, your attention, your love, your energy, your possessions. God is giving you what really matters, so you can be generous.” Jesus goes on, “by the way, the place where your treasure is, you know the place where you most want to be – that is actually where you will end up.”[3] If material things are what you long for, that will be what you get. But we are spiritual beings and cannot be satisfied by material things.

But when we realize that our life is in God’s hands, we dare to desire something so much greater. And we will receive it. Jesus tells the strangest story about servants whose master is away celebrating his own wedding. Some of his servants are so busy with unimportant tasks that they will miss his late night arrival. But for the others, when he comes home so filled with joy, he will seat them at his table. He will put on an apron and serve them the best food on the finest dishes. They will sing together and laugh and in their shared happiness they will remember why they serve their master. We do this still today, right here, singing holy songs around this table.

The point of our life, the whole goal of our existence is to share in the joy of the one who made us. We and all creation were made to rejoice in God’s love. Jesus wants us to have an extraordinary life. God wants us to have what really matters.

When things go wrong, when we are suffering, in those times when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus is with us. And we know that ultimately we are going to be all right. Even in the worst moments God does not refrain from blessing us with beauty and love.

Our life can not be measured by our net worth, or our appearance, or our individual style, or the degree to which others respect us, or our success as a parent. Our value is not even equivalent to the amount of good we do in the world. Despite what others think about us and even despite what we think ourselves, we are deeply loved by the one who created us.

The problem is that we need to wake up to what God offers us right now. We have to be alert to receive the joy that is breaking forth all around. So Jesus says in every way he knows how, “be prepared, be ready for God. Pray that when the holy Master appears you will be ready for the party.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) once described himself as a watchmen always seeking the glory of God. As he lay on his deathbed his good friend asked him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore might appear to you.” The dying Thoreau was still conscious of receiving God’s gift of life. He replied, “one world at a time.”[4]

I have been blessed by the existentialists and have learned a great deal from them. In fact I feel a little sheepish in making these comments about Jean-Paul Sartre since he can no longer defend himself. At the same time, I am convinced that we do not need to be afraid of nothingness or of what will happen to our reputation or when our good works fail.

Enjoy this time because your life will pass incredibly quickly. Life is short so really live. Notice the beauty and love that God is giving you in every moment. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

[1] In this case, the pump is ready-to-hand, the rest of the world is present-at-hand. This comes from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (NY: Harper and Row, 1962).

[2] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (NY: Other Press, 2016), 213-4.

[3] This and the next section is inspired by Brett Younger, “Life Is Short,” Day1, 7 August 2016. http://day1.org/7347-life_is_short

[4] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8.

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