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Thursday, December 13
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, December 9
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, December 2
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
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Thursday, December 13
Bending the Map
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Thursday's 5:15pm Evensong Service
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“To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (John 1).

You can’t help but sympathize with the title character in the musical Dear Evan Hanson. Evan is so socially awkward. He has enormous difficulty making friends. Evan’s therapist requires him to write an encouraging letter to himself every day. One day at school he is printing out one of these letters to himself when the school bully snatches the paper and puts it in his pocket.

It seems like a total disaster. But then in a bizarre turn of events the bully takes his own life. When the parents find Evan’s letter in their son’s pocket, they assume that the two boys had been friends and reach out to him.

This story concerns a new reality in our society. Today young people have two separate lives in a way that they never quite did before. Often what happens to them and how they look online matters just as much as real life. Parents who did not grow up with these technologies don’t know what to do. Young people are just as much at a loss. For that matter everyone is.

Technology has changed. This affects our jobs, elections, what we read, listen to and buy. It changes our identity, politics, international relations, our sense of satisfaction, who we choose as our friends and pretty much everything else.

Search and rescue experts use an expression to describe the early stages of being lost. They call it “bending the map.” At first a person may not even believe that they are lost. Reality doesn’t exactly match the map but they don’t really notice it yet. They make excuses for how a mountain or a lake on the map doesn’t match the actual landscape.[1]

I think as a civilization we are bending the map when it comes to technology. We keep talking and acting as if we were in the old world even though so much has changed. We never seem to be honest about what is happening.

The Prologue to the Gospel of John addresses us. It says, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him… But to all who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God” (John 1).

Jesus is this light. In the simplest terms he knew God so intimately that he realized something that changed all history. Every person is a child of God. Every person has infinite dignity and value. No one like you has existed from the beginning of the world until now. This is bedrock truth, no matter how much technology changes.

At any moment of the day you will see people in this Cathedral. Some are tourists, others are Anglicans from distant places, some are our neighbors looking for quiet and beauty. Many come because they carry burdens. Our Cathedral chaplains and greeters meet them and care for them. They share the good news that nothing needs to stand between God and us.

Let me read the second part of a poem about Jerusalem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “Tourists.”[2]

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

There is such a great power that comes from really seeing someone. It is true of Evan Hanson, the poet with the baskets and everyone in a world convulsed by technological change. Thank you for letting the light of Christ shine in your words and actions.

[1] John Edward Huth, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) 30=1.

[2] Yehuda Amichai, “Tourists”

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Sunday, December 9
Prophets of the Silences
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine…” (Phil. 1).

Let this Advent be for listening. In the silence above the static hear the voice of God and repent. I offer you three short chapters on silence, static and wholeheartedness.

  1. Silence. On a clear October night in 2003 Gordon Hempton awoke to a deep thumping noise. An auditory ecologist who makes his living by recording sounds ranging from the flutter of butterfly wings to coyote pups and waterfalls, he thought he was hearing a new class of supertanker offshore from his home on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It turned out that although Hempton’s consuming passion was listening to the world, he was losing his hearing.

Hempton’s life went into a nosedive. Suddenly he was cut off from what he loved most. He couldn’t work and fell into debt. But then after many months his hearing miraculously returned to normal. When it did he knew that nothing would ever be quite the same. He dedicated his life to protecting the natural soundscape or, more precisely, what he calls silence.

Hempton writes that, “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything… Silence can be found and silence can find you.”[1] We will never experience silence in the world if we cannot hear it within ourselves. There is a reason that we never evolved earlids and that the audio cortex never sleeps. A deep connection exists between silence and a creature’s feeling of safety. That is the reason wild animals do not linger long at a river whose sound masks the approach of predators.

Furthermore Hempton points out that just as species are rapidly going extinct, places of natural silence are too. A silence of longer than fifteen minutes has become incredibly rare in North America and is entirely gone in Europe. Mostly because of air traffic, there are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the U.S. And so his dream is that by preserving silence around a single square inch in Olympic National Park a new respect for silence might be introduced into human life again.

I want to say one last thing about this. Hempton thinks of silence in two ways. First, there is what he calls inner silence. This is a feeling that we carry with us wherever we go. It is a kind of sacred silence that orients us and reminds us of the difference between right and wrong. Second, there is outer silence. This happens in a naturally quiet place that invites us to open our senses and to feel our connection to everything. Outer silence replenishes our inner silence. It fills us “with gratitude and patience.”[2]

  1. Static. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Lk. 3). In the wilderness, in the presence of a silence we no longer experience, God speaks. My daughter teaches Sunday school here at Grace Cathedral. She says that prophets are people who come so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know what is most important. They know what to do. John the Baptist is a prophet of the silences.[3]

This was the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Mitch McConnell was senate majority leader and Jerry Brown was governor of California, when Joel Osteen and Franklin Graham were high priests of American religion. To us these might seem to be the most important facts of our time. But for God this is just static.

This week I made a new friend. Nathan’s father was a Lutheran pastor who moved his family to Addis Ababa Ethiopia a few days after the communist Derg took power. Nathan remembers driving to school and seeing corpses along the side of the road with signs around their necks. Thousands of people were simply executed in the night.

These same communists were the ones who chose the man who became be the Ethiopian pope. As a result for years many people believed that the government and the church were irreparably compromised. This was also the situation in ancient Palestine and its whole chain of command from the Roman emperor to the local high priest who collaborated with his officials.

The situation seemed hopeless. Where was the word of God to go? To describe this Luke uses the Greek word egeneto. It is related to our words beget, gene, generate. As in those times, today the word comes into being, it is begotten, in the same places where it always has been, in the silences removed from the places of power.

Last week on the First Sunday of Advent we celebrated the beginning of a new church year. For the next twelve months we will be closely following the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Gospel of Luke. The word gospel means good news. These poetic and practical stories were meant to be read aloud. Their purpose is to provoke hearers to re-examine their lives, to repent and believe, and ultimately to change the world.[4]

The gospel is a kind of story-telling technology for transforming the self. The problem is that we have such strong expectations for what these stories mean that we too easily miss the point. Furthermore, the words have gotten worn out in the retelling.

Everything we need to hear today is in one line. John “went into all the region about the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3). The word we translate as repentance is really metanoia it is a transformation of heart, mind and soul. The word for forgiveness is aphesis; it means to be released from captivity or slavery. The word sin is hamartia and means to miss the mark as an archer might miss the target.


This whole story is about how you can be released from what constrains, dehumanizes and destroys you and how you can help others to become free too. In the Book of Exodus the Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means literally the narrow place. Do you remember this summer when the Thai youth soccer team spent weeks trapped in a cave that was filling up with water? You can imagine how terrifying it would be to come to a narrow place and not know if you can make it through.

That is mitzrayim. For us the narrow place might be despair at our politics, fear of deportation, racism, homophobia, mental illness, addiction, job and housing insecurity or family conflict. Whatever might be holding you back right now, Jesus brings us the New Exodus, the real freedom to flourish in the way that God created us to.

  1. Wholeheartedness. My last point is that seeing the world in terms of sin and repentance is a kind of technique for breaking the forces that hold us captive. Brené Brown is an Episcopalian and a university professor in Texas. She began her career by studying how people derive meaning from their relationships. The more she talked to people about connection and love the more she heard about alienation and heartbreak. This led to a huge breakthrough.[5]

Brown defines shame as the fear of being disconnected from others. Every person experiences this. It is the voice inside us that says, “if they knew what I have done, they would never speak to me again,” or, “I don’t deserve to be loved,” “they prefer her to me.” The more we deny our shame or ignore it, the more powerful its hold on us. It leads us to view vulnerability as weakness and to hide who we really are.

When we hate our self it is hard not to constantly despise others. Shame isolates and brings out the worst in us. Just think of the most upsetting things you have seen on Twitter. This week in our discussion of the book White Fragility we talked about how white shame makes it difficult to have racial reconciliation in our country.[6]

Brown contrasts shame and guilt. Shame is a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that says, “I am bad.” Guilt on the other hand means doing something bad. It leads us to say, “I made a mistake.” These are really two different ways of being. On the one hand there is blame, defensiveness and denial. On the other hand there is what Brown calls wholeheartedness. Although most people associate vulnerability with weakness, vulnerability is key to this way of living. It is how we love with our whole heart.

Fear of being ridiculed, dismissed or ignored does not stop wholehearted people like this from seeking connection to others. They take risks. They are not afraid to say, “I love you,” or, “I’m sorry,” or, “forgive me.” Wholehearted people embrace the idea that what makes them vulnerable or imperfect is also what makes them beautiful.

The language of Jesus enables us to live in this better, more silent place. Sin as missing the mark, repentance as the constant process of changing our hearts, and, forgiveness as release from captivity – these basic ideas help us to see ourselves as children of God. They give us the confidence of someone who believes that nothing can irrevocably alienate us from God.

This week at George H.W. Bush’s funeral Alan Simpson talked about his friend’s wholeheartedness. He said, “George… never hated anyone…. Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”[7] This week for homework I invite you to drain your container of hatred. Try forgiving someone – it could be someone in public life like the president, or the person who lives next door to you.

In the presence of everything, discover the Holy Spirit that penetrates the static. Let repentance be your path out of shame. Enter into a wholehearted life in Christ. Come close to God so that you will know what is most important, so that you will know what to do. Let this Advent be for listening. Let silence find you.

[1] Gordon Hempton with John Grossmann, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Silence in a Noisy World (NY: Free Press, 2009) 2

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Melia taught the Godly Play lesson on the prophets for 1 Advent last week.

[4] This paragraph and next from: Matt and Liz Boulton, “Peace & Freedom: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two,” SALT, 5 December 2018.

[5] 3 Epiphany (1-26-14) A. See “The Courage to Be Vulnerable,” On Being, 21 November 2012. Also her TED talks:

Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability TEDxHouston,” December 2010,

Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012.

[6] Robin DiAngelo  White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

[7] Alan Simpson, “Eulogy for George H.W. Bush,” National Cathedral, Wednesday 5 December 2018.

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, November 27
Sunday 11 a.m Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones’ sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, November 20
Remembering Christ and Each Other
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from Sunday's 6pm Service
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Sunday, November 20
Christ the King
Preacher: Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sign seen recently outside a bookstore:

Post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to our current affairs section…


It certainly feels that way to a lot of people, and not just on the left coast. Many are concerned that it’s not fiction – the end times are here, and judgment is raining down. Fear and violence and evil behavior are evident in abundance. It just might be less stressful to know that an asteroid was likely to strike the earth a month from now than it will be to sort out what kind of government and public policy we’re likely to see in 2017.

It may not be coincidence that our lectionary always brings us grim words of judgment and warning in election season. Jeremiah’s challenge to shepherds is hardly timid: “YOU’VE scattered my sheep and you’ve failed to attend to them – so now I’m going to attend to YOU!” says the Lord. It reminds me of what my mother used to tell us about her father warning his children, “we’re going to have words, and you’re not going to get to use any of yours!” Jeremiah speaks to all of us shepherds, as keepers of our brothers and sisters.

Yet there is always a promise of healing and hope, and never-ending reminders that the current travail is never the last word. All may not be right with the world, but God is at work, especially in the brokenness. Leonard Cohen’s death brought reminders aplenty. In a life haunted by depression and darkness, he gave us the great affirmation of Hallelujah[1] as well as the poignant and pointed Anthem of a prophet:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.[2]

It’s time to ring the bells: bells of alarm, like those that rang here in 1906, demanding response to earthquake, fire, and disaster; church bells calling us to prayer for a divided and warring nation, or tolling the death of precious human beings – and their hopes; even the quiet tinkling as doors open to announce unexpected visitors. The bells draw attention to cracks gaping wide with pain and yearning, inviting us to enter and keep them open – toes stuffed in doorways, bodies levered into gaps in the seismic rubble, hearts offered for healing wounded and despairing souls – like the hearts of today’s ingathering.

We don’t have to look very far to discover the pain. It’s sitting here this morning – hopes dashed, fears for the future, anger at unholy words and actions. There is a lot more in the city outside these doors, and in the nation east of here.

Human pain and despair generate familiar responses – like those of Jesus’ companions on Golgotha. Some lash out with hateful mocking or vengeance, attempting to mask their own pain. Some see their own failings and believe disaster is well-deserved judgment. Others simply stand in solidarity, like the weeping women keeping vigil at the foot of the cross. And some run and hide, trying to avoid or ignore the suffering. Most of us have played all those parts at one time or another. The hardest may be finding some hope in the promise Jesus makes to his fellow felon — that before the light fades they’ll both be in paradise.

There are different ways to hear that promise – it isn’t only an assurance of heaven after they die. Might it be an ironic claim of solidarity, a tiny community of resistance in the face of the worst the world can muster? ‘Brother, we’re in this together.’ There’s a tiny crack in the doom descending, and companionship offers glimmers of hope.

What’s your version of hope for the future? When Congress meets? In four more years? Right here, right now?

I think it always comes back to solidarity. However deep the despair, hope emerges in insisting that we make this journey together, whatever comes. Jesus offers abundant witness. He may go apart to pray and sleep peacefully in a stormy boat, but he’s always there when the chips are down. He goes looking for underdogs and outsiders, offering food, healing, friendship, and hope in the face of every kind of abuse, exclusion, and injustice. Even in his own extremis, he confronts the gaping hole of despair with a spark of hope.

Christians have been mocked for worshiping a ‘god of the gaps,’ as though God’s role were to do the magical stuff that we don’t yet understand. Jesus does something far more radical, choosing to be present in the gaps and in the cracks and brokenness of existence: even there in the valley of the shadow of death we are beloved, befriended, accompanied, and never abandoned.

We’re meant to be similar shepherds, and all we really need is to claim our own belovedness, and know we’re made in the image of God. We discover more about belovedness in the diverse images of God around us, all of them (and us) yearning for somebody who dares to stick his foot in the crack, or insert her shoulder to stop a closing door, or offer a heart and ear to the suffering.

The fissures in our communities are deepening and darkening. Reports tell of more hate speech and violence than after 9/11.[3] When a BART passenger can scream at another for speaking a foreign language on her phone, when houses of worship are tagged with words of hate and exclusion, when fear abounds in the hearts of those who don’t fit some putative norm as a “real American,” we should be ringing the bells. The fear is real, and it is rampant in this land. Yet the unholy and unlovely behavior being unleashed is itself often driven by fear – fear of displacement, unemployment, and being disregarded. The great tragedy around us is that fear has pitted people and groups with profoundly similar yearnings against one another. Who doesn’t long for meaningful employment and the dignity of being recognized as a valued member of the community? Who doesn’t want to build close and loving relationships, and live in harmony? We all yearn for enough to satisfy the most essential human needs and longings, and enough more for a feast. At some level, most of us recognize that variety and diversity is essential, for living in an echo chamber is ultimately sterile – what does it generate but boredom, psychosis, and deeper fear? Together we CAN transform disaster into communities that care for the fearful, and attend to those fears in life-giving ways.

Life in Christ, life in a community of hope, is never a zero-sum game, and the kind of love that casts out fear only creates more abundant life and possibility.

Ring the bells! Hear their urgent warning and their profound hope. We can learn to put ourselves in the crack and find ourselves and others mended. Reach across some broken relationship in your life and ask to hear the lament or the fear behind it. The next time you witness a breach of human decency, step in and stand with the fearful. Remember that you don’t stand alone. Open your heart to see the humanity of those who frighten you, whether somebody asking for a handout or insisting you are wholly wrong. Each one bears the image of God, each one bears a potential blessing, each one deserves our regard and solidarity in the midst of brokenness. Remember that when we come to the Peace. Reach into the gap and offer the hope of presence, notice the beloved image of God, seek to heal the breach, and keep your foot in the door!

Is it easy? No, but it gets a bit easier with practice, and with solidarity. Notice the cracks, and walk into them looking for light. Demand light, and beat on the doors of heaven until you find it. It’s long past midnight, and the light is coming. Ring the bells!




Sunday, November 20
Searching for a sermon in troubled times
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 8:30 a.m. Service
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Canon Gardner preached this sermon without a manuscript to upload.

Sunday, November 13
Veterans Day and The Aftermath of the Presidential Election: Some Thoughts for The Royal British Legion
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from the Royal British Legion Service of Remembrance
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This is a service of remembrance. And remembering is a hazardous and unreliable business. It’s easy to edit things out and re-vision history. We can demonize the past or sentimentalize it.  We can edit out the nasty bits or concentrate on the awful bits. But the fact that it is hard doesn’t  let us off the hook of the necessity of remembering.

Laurence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, while sitting on the cliffs in north Cornwall, in 1914.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

So, what  do we think we’re doing when we remember our war dead? Whatever it is it’s not a trip down memory lane.  Novelist William Faulkner warns us “the past is never dead; it is not even past.” Another way of putting it is “The present is what the past is doing now!” On this solemn occasion, we are invited to interpret our present reality by remembering and honoring the past. So, what is there to remember?

In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the world rejoiced and celebrated. After four years of bitter war, an armistice was signed. The “war to end all wars” was over.  In 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation’s highest place of honor (in England, Westminster Abbey; in France, the Arc de Triomphe).

If the idealistic hope had been realized that World War I was “the War to end all Wars,” November 11 might still be called Armistice Day. But only a few years after the holiday was proclaimed, you remember,  war broke out again  in Europe. Eventually, congress was requested to make this day an occasion to honor those who have served America in all wars. In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day.

It would be easy to sentimentalize and/or demonize – the bravery and the courage, the idiocy and the cruelty of that war. All the war dead are all memorialized today; and, what is very painful is that what we remember  intensifies our fears and hopes about our present crises and miseries – the millions displaced and on the move in our own time. Aleppo – just to mention one place of horror.

Great and searing  poetry came out of that war to end all wars. Perhaps the most famous? In Flanders Fields by Major John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below

And there’s Wilfred Owen’s angry and heartfelt poem:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife,

And as they sojourned  both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven.

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in the thicket by the horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Owen also trained young men for the Front. To Osbert Sitwell – July 1918 — “ I see to it that he is dumb, and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him everyday, and with maps make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”

So, how do we honor the dead – especially in tense and divided times?  In three ways – by remembrance, by probing the past and, above all, by honoring and not wasting the sacrifice of the slaughtered and wounded. How should we interpret our own time? In the light of history, how should we live?

The best way we can honor the dead is to get back in touch with our deepest selves, with our souls. Tragedy ensues when human beings assume that a man, a woman, has no soul – that is to say, that life has no intrinsic meaning, no value. Human beings  become disposable – bodies on the rubbish heap of history. And that’s how many human beings on the planet feel today. The soul has gone out of their world. There is no justice, no peace, no food, no water, no health care, no schools, no common humanity.

George Orwell saw the absence of soul in himself and the people around him – writing at the end of the 1930s (another ominous time for the world).

“I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing hat had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that had been cut away is his soul, and there was a period – twenty years, perhaps – during which he did not notice it.” 

Now,  we’re noticing the “absence of soul”.

Yet people long for soul, that is, for responsibility for their lives because they are of infinite worth, even if they daren’t believe it.  Even as they don’t know how to go about having a soul. Religion is vital because it provides the window of transcendence – in spite of its failures, it opens us up to a deeper reality.

Mary McCarthy’s reaction to Hannah Arendt’s  Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) is telling. She found it “morally exhilarating. I freely confess that it gave me joy and I too heard a paean in it – not a hate-paean to totalitarianism but a paean to transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah. As in those choruses, a pardon or redemption of some sort was taking place.” Evil cannot and must not be sentimentalized or whitewashed but  neither should it be thought of as inevitable.  To acknowledge that you have a soul is to know that compassion and forgiveness, love and  redemption have the last word. These are the values we need to inject into our political discourse.

Having a soul is a way of talking about call to be human. Being human isn’t simply a biological fact; it’s a vocation, a skill. It’s a question of how you see the world and interpret it. What’s happening to and in the world? It’s looking for its soul. We’re looking for ours! Looking for our common humanity. And war and violence – even in the midst of their horror – show up in stark detail  our common humanity.

        G.A. Studdert Kennedy – a great chaplain in WWI:

“On June 7th, 1917, I was running to our lines half mad with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had once been a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped to see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering, ‘You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? not much “great blonde Prussian” about you.’ Then there came light. It may have been pure imagination, but that does not mean it was not also reality, for what is called imagination is often the road to reality. It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place there lay Christ upon the cross, and cried, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones ye have done it unto me.’  From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything but a crucifix. From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a crucifix.”

This lens – the lens of the cross – the lens of sacrificial love –  is a way of looking at this day of remembrance. Its  stark realism promises hope not despair.

This month is the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It finally concluded in November 1916 (begun on July 1).  By the end (141 days), the British and French had advanced only 6 measly miles.  The final casualty count was a staggering 1.1 million:  420,000 British, 203,000 French, and 465,000 German. Britain’s most notorious military engagement – remembered as its greatest military disaster – the sacrifice of a generation – a bloody defeat in a futile war. Mythologized and overanalyzed  as well. A defining battle in European history – a clash of empires. Field Marshal Haig was subsequently nicknamed “The Butcher of the Somme” not by the Germans, but by his own men. That slaughter touches us today. And there’s a personal connection here – the thread of history. Remember: “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”

There’s one family, represented here today, by a good friend – the grandson/grandnephew of five brothers who fought in that terrible war (like my own grandfather). Dickie (one of the five brothers) was assigned to the Western Front where he was eventually promoted to Captain.  On the eve of the Battle of Poelcapelle October 1917, he sent this short letter home:

“This is just a short note in case of anything happening. But whatever does happen, it is all for the best and only what God wills for us… I am going in, putting all my trust in God, and may He do what he wills. I will try and do my bit and take things as they come … the one thing I am sorry for is that I have not had much chance of showing how grateful I am to you all for what you have done for me. I shall never be able to make up for all, but only hope you will take the wish for the deed. … You must try to take things as they come as well. Though I know how very much harder it will be for you all … Please don’t be too upset if I do go, as it really is all for the best. … I could go on writing forever, but just remember how proud I am to do my bit, and keep up the tradition of the family.”

In the following battle, Dickie was shot and fell in the mud.  His body was never discovered.

Here’s a very different experience. Lieutenant John Brande Trend wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement  from the Somme (published on  July 20, 1916) thanking the editors for an eloquent article on Mozart’s Magic Flute! It was as if to say, even from the depths of hell, no matter what happens, we still live in a world which plays the music of mozart! He wrote,  “in the middle of this bustle and clatter, and the revolting ugliness of the business  came una marcia per il fango (from The Marriage of Figaro) – one is inexpressibly revived and cheered at being reminded of anything so beautiful as one of Mozart’s operas . . . . “ Strange, elitist? Maybe, yet a reminder of the  beauty still present in the midst the horror. The longing for soul cannot be completely obliterated – even in these strange and trying times.

There was also an article from October 5, 1916 about war and art – reminding readers never to lose sight of our common humanity. “We have seen the German prisoner in the Somme films —  what a pathetic and helpless human being he is . . . [but] then he comes to life, and in his loneliness and helplessness [his humanity shines through]. One of these prisoners, sitting dazed among his enemies, a mere lost part of a broken machine, is offered a cigarette  by an English soldier. In a moment his face is beautifully lit, lit with the sudden glory of the truth that [we are all human] and our humanity is triumphant over any process that would make us less than human.”

So we honor the dead, we acknowledge the sacrifice but we do not glorify war and, above all, we dare to celebrate our shared and common humanity. We honor that longing for soul!  We honor their sacrifice by honoring the deepest part of ourselves. We resist amnesia!

One of the five brothers I mentioned, — Dickie’s brother —  Dom Ambrose, served as a chaplain on the western front.  After the war he returned to England and eventually became Abbott of a Benedictine Abbey in south London. This poem is one that Dom Ambrose wrote for his brother Dickie’s eulogy:

The legions start with rhythmic gait

To claim their meed of victory.

Through Flanders, home of memories,

they pass. No clink of hoof or chain,

nor echo of sharp-voiced command

attends their coming home again.

But home again they march today

In serried ranks through London streets,

And we shall stand in awe and see

The faces that we knew so gay

Look out to us, as who should say:

“Is it so long that we are dead,

That ye could not remember us?

Ye live and love and laugh: oh see

Our lonely, our forgotten bed

Of clay. We won the Victory

That ye enjoy. At least this day

We claim  no thing that gold can buy,

But memory, your memory!”

Don’t let us forget! Memory! Amnesia is bad for the soul and our world is in danger of the violence and terror that comes from the loss of memory. We need to learn from history how to live now because “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”

What about the chaos of world politics? Religion – spaces like a great cathedral —  raise one important question – that of the call to sacrifice and a rejection of the current consumer culture, which understands itself only through the lens of economics. Remember George Orwell writing in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): the weakness of a Socialism, committed, as it claimed, to justice and liberty but also to seeing the world only through the eyes of economics and the hope of a materialistic Utopia, “proceeded on the assumption that man has no soul.” On the other side, we see the weakness and terror of Fascism coming from the Right, which offers tyranny is exchange for safety – it plays  upon our need for authoritarian nationalism.

SO, don’t let’s waste this vital day, which helps us not only to get in touch with our souls but get in touch with each other and re-imagine a world of justice and peace ! In the light of all we are called to remember today, how should we live now?  Today is a great gift. A time to reconnect with each other, to reconnect with our souls.  Remember: “the past is never dead; it is not even past.”

At least this day

We claim . . no thing that gold can buy,

But memory, your memory!”

May they rest in peace.

In gratitude to them, may we rise with grace and courage to meet the present challenges, to fight for justice and peace and for the common good.

May it be so!

The Very Reverend Alan Jones, PhD, OBE, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. A sermon preach at the Royal British Legion Remembrance Day Service, November 13, 2016.

Sunday, November 13
What Will Be Your Witness?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Lk. 21).

“Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction.” Do you believe this is true? The Russian Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980) wrote these words as part of her project to keep alive her husband Osip’s poetic legacy after he was killed by the Communists.

There is a story about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). As an internationally recognized twenty-nine year old he seemed to have everything. Then on January 2, 1936 the Communist Party officially instructed him to attend his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. The country’s dictator Joseph Stalin himself was in attendance but invisible behind a curtain. Stalin left before the end and although the audience seemed beside themselves with enthusiasm, Shostakovich felt “sick at heart.”

Two days later the official Communist Party newspaper Pravda wrote an editorial about Lady Macbeth entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” It condemned his work as “artistically obscure and morally obscene.” It went on to say that Shostakovich was playing a game that “may end very badly.” In hindsight we know what ending badly meant in Soviet Russia. One could be declared an enemy of the people, publicly humiliated, privately tortured and then executed. Others were sent to prison camps and many more simply disappeared.

Alex Ross writes that, “Shostakovich never shook off the pall of fear that those six hundred words in Pravda cast on him.” Sadly, while he agonized over whether his compositions would cause offense, this had nothing to do with the music. The same editor of Pravda later said privately about this incident. “We had to begin with somebody… Shostakovich was the most famous, and a blow against him would create immediate repercussions…”

How do you respond to the “primitive fear of violence,” “the pall of fear?” That is the question that lies behind our readings, our remembrance of those killed in war and Maurice Duruflé’s (1902-1986) Requiem. Together this week we have looked into the face of fear. Fear was a deciding factor in the Presidential campaign and it certainly has been a large part of many people’s experience since then.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus talks about a time of far greater disruption when false leaders will come in his name and everything dear to his people will be destroyed. Jesus describes wars, terrifying earthquakes, famines and plagues accompanied by signs from heaven. He says that his followers will be arrested and persecuted because of him.

Then strangely enough Jesus sees a kind of sliver lining, or maybe to put it in another way, he sees a hidden truth that was present all along. He says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Lk. 21).

Brothers and sisters in the face of fear you too have been given a gift. At any point in your life, to the extent that you feel oppressed by circumstances or people, these words are for you. You have been given the presence of Christ. You have faith and an opportunity to help others. Instead of being swept along in fear you too can be how God makes the world holy. Let me share two pictures of what this faith might look like.

1. The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) wrote his three volume Systematic Theology (1951-1963) using the language of existentialist philosophy so that people could hear about the ideas of Christianity in a fresh way. Instead of using the name God, he refers to “the ground of being.” Instead of saying our heavenly Father, he writes about our “ultimate concern.”

Tillich points out that in every moment we stand in the face of the eternal. In this way the end of history is always present to us. In the final pages of this work Tillich writes about what divine judgment means. “… [H]ere and now, in the permanent transition of the temporal to the eternal, the negative is defeated in its claim to be positive, a claim it supports by using the positive and mixing ambiguously with it. In this way it produces the appearance of being positive itself… The appearance of evil as positive vanishes in the face of the eternal.”

2. Tillich offers an image of God untangling the ambiguity as we draw more deeply into the eternal and good prevails. Frederich Buechner shares a more personal picture of how God’s presence sustains us. In 1963 when Buchner was ten years old, his father looked in on him playing with his brother and then went down to the garage, turned on the family car and let the exhaust kill him.

It was a secular household and there was no funeral. The family was not present at the burial. No one talked about what happened, or for that matter about his father, ever again. He writes, “I can’t even remember remembering him.” The family’s unwritten law was, “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” became their unwritten law.

Years later Buchner writes about how despite this God was with them, even with his father. He says that, “God is present in [events] not as their cause but as the one who even in the hardest and most hair-raising of them offers us a possibility of that new life and healing which I believe salvation is…”

“God acts… not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate cases us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial part in it.”

I understand why Nadezsda Mandelstam wrote that “Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction.” I can see why Dmitri Shostakovich constantly looked over his shoulder.

But I do not believe that fear always has the last word.

I have chosen to put my faith in Jesus, in his teaching and his own response to suffering. As the ground of our being unravels evil from good in the permanent transition of the temporal to the eternal, as the great director conveys love from the wings I trust in Jesus. I have faith in his promise that in our time we will find that, “wisdom that none of [our] opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Let us pray:

Living God, burning wild and unconfined,

You call us to a new being,

free from the fear of death:

take away the limits

that bind our imagination

and choke our compassion

so that we may feel your pleasure

in all that brings us life;

through Jesus Christ, risen and ascended.


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