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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, July 10
Powerless in the World; Powerful in Love
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Sermon
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Dr. Gardner used the downloadable PDF outline for his Sermon

Thursday, July 7
Thursday Evensong Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Thursday's 5:15pm Evensong
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Sunday, July 3
Grace: The Real Revolution, a Sermon for Independence Day
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
"I have given you authority to tread on serpents, and over all the power of the enemy." Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
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Grace: The Real Revolution, a Sermon for Independence Day

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“I have given you authority to tread on serpents, and over all the power of the enemy.”

  1. Don’t Tread on Me – An American Tradition

I grew up in a small town along the Connecticut coast, steeped in references to its colonial past, and keenly self-aware two hundred plus years later, of its role in the American Revolution. In second grade, we toured the Georgian style William Hart House on Main Street, marveling over the tiny uncomfortable beds, and the hobbit-like scale of the spaces. We learned about the settlers lives, and even how to make the candles they would have used, successively dipping the taper into a cauldron of melted wax till a candlestick began to emerge. Fourth of July was a really big deal in our town, with a grand parade in the afternoon; at night parents and children flocked to the shore waiting expectantly to watch the fireworks go off over Long Island Sound. Around this time of year, I’d see this strange flag emerge with a yellow field, and the image of a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, with the words, “Don’t Tread on Me” beneath it.

I was intrigued by the flag from an early age – it was so defiant, so bold. What society would have need for such a severe warning, to enshrine it on a flag? Later I’d learn it was called the Gadsden flag, and you can see it right here in the north transept among the flags relating to our nation’s rise and development. It was named after the statesman and military officer who designed it to be a standard for the American Revolution in 1775, and especially of the Continental Marines. To this day, the oldest active vessel in the U.S. Navy has the right to fly it.

Along with the stars and bars, and the bald eagle, the timber rattlesnake represented an early icon of the nascent republic.

Benjamin Franklin praised the snake as “an emblem” of America’s vigilance, “magnanimity and true courage.” He writes that though the snake appears defenseless to the unschooled, and its fangs unimpressive to the uninitiated, “their wounds however small are decisive and fatal.” If you look closely you’ll see the rattle is formed of 13 sections, standing for the 13 original colonies. Franklin notes with a tone of pride and warmth, “she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.” The flag has made a resurgence in recent years as the standard for the Tea Party, who interpret it as the ultimate symbolic expression of individual rights and protections from the government, rather than as a nationalist expression of collective defiance against the British imperial antagonist.

This serpentine image for the state was not new. You’ll recall that 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes’s supremely influential political treatise on the nation-state was titled “Leviathan.” Propounding views of material humanism, representative government, social contract theory, and individual rights, he laid the foundations for liberal political philosophy in the West. However, writing in the desolation and division of the English Civil War, he was sharply critical of any government that did not invest a single sovereign entity with absolute power.

 

  1. Rise of the Leviathan – The Legacy of the Nation State’s Sovereignty

Human life, Hobbes surmised, was “nasty, brutish and short,” and human social order was not directed by a concern for the summum bonum – the greatest good – as the Scholastics maintained but the summum malum – the greatest evil, which he believed was “violent death.” Now, he believed this because he saw it first-hand, but his belief constituted a radical rupture with a thousand years of political theology undergirding the Christendom that came before the advent of the modern era.

Hobbes saw Christianity become a source of violent division and looked to another power to secure the human future. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom had given way to a fractious Christendom, with Catholics and Protestants at war with each other. So the ancient, tyrannical sea-serpent, the Leviathan of biblical lore, became the driving image for the nation-state that ruled with uncompromising force to keep these groups in line. (With this in mind, it’s easy to see how America’s timber rattlesnake would have been a kind of visual dig at the very image that justified the crown’s oppression of the colonies. The Leviathan would be slain by a mere rattler in a classic David and Goliath story. That’s the American Revolution in short.)

Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke were the philosophical architects of a revolution in human history that would sweep aside millennia of dynastic tradition in favor of newly emerging nation states. The masses hoped that government elected by the people would be better, and by many measures it has been. Public education, social and economic mobility, personal freedom and the extensive development of the common law tradition: all of these are massive advantages to the modern age. But, Jesus warns us in the gospels that we reap what we sow. Revolutions sown in violence, eventually gave way to the most violent century the world has ever known.

Twentieth century advances in science, technology, philosophy and the arts stand under the long shadow of two world wars, mass genocides, Vietnam, nuclear weapons, global warming, and the post-colonial impoverization of the Global South. Hobbes’s philosophy, carried to its logical end gave us fascism, Stalinism, and Nazism. Elie Wiesel, who died this weekend, contended against a Leviathan that would have left even Hobbes shocked and horrified. But the human spirit springs eternal with hope. In the ashes of these tragedies, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union were born with the hope that together we could find new, creative solution to build a better world.

We live in an age when the pressures of globalization are forcing us to reevaluate our basic premises, the very foundations upon which the global political and financial orders rest: uneven benefits of a global economy; booming black markets in drugs, weapons, and human trafficking; the ever-widening technology gap; terrorism; and an ecological crisis that threatens planetary collapse. The unfettered positivism of the Enlightened West is not working. Our world is literally starving for a model of global justice that transcends the narrow self-interests of entities defined solely by their own sovereignty, and designed to perpetuate that sovereignty at all costs.

Lacking a proper telos, an end resting not only on measurable, sensory facts but also the immeasurable and immutable demands of divine justice, the world of competing nation-states seems trapped forever in a ceaseless game of thrones. And that world is becoming smaller every day. We see it the face of families evicted without a care as to where they will go; we hear it in the voices of migrant peoples pleading for a place to call home amidst dangerous politics and unimaginable economic privation; we read about it in nations electing to withdraw from international cooperation for fear of eroding privilege; and we experience it as our own nation flirts with xenophobic authoritarianism.

  • Our Work and Witness – Globalizing the Grace Revolution

Who are we in the midst of these things? “I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.” We need to hear that. The Church needs to hear that. Take it in. He’s speaking to me and you. We are the 70. Every time we approach this table we recommit to His revolution. The Kingdom of God is the closest thing to an anti-state that the world will ever know. It exists not to serve itself, but to serve others; it does not conquer through violence or coercion, but multiplies by the force of love’s invitation.

We reap what we sow. Jesus sowed a revolution not in others’ blood, but in his own, and for our sake. He sent out the 70 not with guns, tanks or swords; indeed, not even with a purse, bag or sandals. (I guess that means Luis Vuitton is not a thing in the Kingdom of God. Sorry lol.) With barely a tunic to their name, the 70 are sent out not as mercenaries to convert others at the edge of a sword, but as people totally at the mercy of those who would receive them. Even to those who would not receive them, they declared that the Kingdom had come near, leaving in peace, returning their peace to them.

The Kingdom comes near to us, too. When we approach this table, Jesus gives himself to us so that we may give ourselves to others. Have you ever noticed that Jesus chooses the path of relationship over the path of structural power to change the world around him? We have those huge banners out front that declare, “Grace is Love.” I love that. It’s such a powerful message – one that’s urgently needed for our world. If justice is what love looks like in public, then grace is what love looks like in person. Grace is our answer to the power of the enemy.

When we take Christ into our bodies, we affirm a mystery that unites heaven and earth, the material and the spiritual – that vastly exceeds the limits of mere positivism. We all know the bread and wine nourish parts of our body we cannot see. Do we also know that His Substance and Spirit nourish parts of our soul we cannot see? He’s planting seeds in dark and fallow places that may not bear fruit for years to come, and yet always and already working within us. Where is the harvest ripe in your life, and our life collectively as a church, to reap something great for God’s Kingdom? Where has God given you, and given us, grace upon grace to bless those are around us?

At the beginning of the sermon I painted an idyllic image of my childhood home in Connecticut. Beneath the patina of apparent privilege all around us, the story of my particular household was quite different. With two parents whose sole income was social security disability, with a father wrestling with the demons of narcotics abuse and domestic violence, my household was a very difficult place to grow up and mature. My life would have had a very different trajectory if it had not been for one single person, my 7th grade French teacher, Pat Perry.

Having witnessed my capacities, Pat decided she was going to do something to change my life. She personally contributed over $20,000 from her own resources to send me to a premier boarding school, paving my way to attend Haverford, then Harvard, to have a completely different life than the one I would have had apart from her generosity. Every day I think about Pat. Every day I wonder what our world would be like if more of us had her imagination. The thing about grace, this unexpected generosity, is that it opens our hearts, and reorients us to hope.

The thing about the Kingdom is that the establishment doesn’t see it coming. They can’t anticipate it because they can’t imagine a world where sovereignty is exercised apart from self-interest. Jesus intends for us to reign by abdicating all claim to our own honor, wealth, power and glory. That’s a tough sell. It’s a tough sell for me – because in the end, the nation-state isn’t the enemy at all: I am. The Gospel confronts us with this challenge: the only way to change the world around us is first to change the world within us. The only revolution that is the true revolution – effecting true, lasting and durable change – is the revolution inside. We need to learn to slay the Leviathans of selfishness and cowardice that keep us from knowing true freedom, the liberty of the children of God. On this 4th of July, as we remember the birth of our nation, let’s also remember Jesus’ words to us:

“I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.”

Sunday, June 26
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
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Sunday, June 19
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Elizabeth Grundy
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, June 12
Noumena and Phenomena: The Story of Gratitude and Forgiveness
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Alan Jones taught me that, “The universe is not so much made up of atoms as it is of stories.”[1]

Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman” (Lk. 7)? In one sense, of course, Simon does. But the whole point of this story concerns his failure to really understand.

I have very fond high school memories of our local Episcopal church’s midnight Christmas service. I usually cut the fragrant greens for the wreaths with an old botany professor. Singing familiar carols, the softness of the luminaria candle light, so many friends, the taste of the bread and wine, and afterwards the cold midnight sky filled with lights from distant worlds made me feel so near to God.

One midnight at Christmas in our packed church during the prayer of consecration a man in a black trench coat strode up the center aisle to the altar where he interrupted the priest. His anger and the tension it created felt almost unbearable. For a half second it almost seemed like he might kill our rector.

Everyone there that night saw him, but not many knew his story in the way that I did. The man’s name was David and I knew him as a gentle person from a church lecture series on C.S. Lewis. He had wanted to be ordained but had been rejected by our priest. He believed that it was because he was gay. He felt so much pain that he almost didn’t care what it would take to feel better. I often wonder if he is still alive and how he remembers that night. Henry David Thoreau writes, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”[2]

The story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair begins like this. It begins with someone with such a powerful story that it leads her to radically break social conventions.

Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman.” We already know that Simon and Jesus see her in completely different ways. Simon understands her exclusively in terms of what she has done in the past. Everyone in town knows she is a sinner from the city. This woman has no existence in her own right for him. For Simon she only confirms his pre-existent sense of superiority over Jesus.

Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known… what kind of woman who is touching him – that she is sinner” (Lk. 7). The irony is that Jesus does know. Jesus knows not only what kind of woman this is, but what kind of judgment Simon has formed of him.

Jesus understands the woman’s pain, along with Simon’s testing and insecure sense of his own superiority. And so Jesus asks, “Simon do you see this woman?”

Probably the most important philosopher in modern European history is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He cared intensely about human freedom. In a short essay called “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) Kant defines enlightenment as courageously emerging from immaturity and learning to make use of our minds without direction from others. It means living by the Latin motto “Sapere Aude” or “have the courage to use your own reason.”[3]

You might remember Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) third law of motion from your physics class. He wrote that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Kant worried that this picture of the universe would make it hard for people to believe in their own freedom. He thought we might be tempted to see ourselves as billiard balls on the table simply knocked out of place by forces beyond us, compelled by desires that we did not choose.

To solve this problem Kant proposes that there is a difference between what he called the noumena which is how the world is in itself and the phenomena which is how we perceive the world. Our senses, our faculties contribute to how the world in Werner Erhard’s language, “shows up for us.” For Kant, the seemingly unbreakable laws of physics and causation are not how the universe itself is but how we perceive it.

What this ultimately means is that how we see the world cannot be disentangled from our experience of our own selves. Our self will not get out of the way when it comes to perceiving the world. We experience a bit of ourselves in everything we see.

Kant believed that in our heart we possess an extraordinary freedom to act even against our own instincts for selfishness. For him, the primary way we experience holiness lies in this freedom. It is how we come close to understanding God. Kant writes, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”[4] Our very existence in this universe and our innermost freedom remind us that we are children of God.

To Simon Jesus says, “do you see this woman.” And all Simon can see is himself. Jesus tries to help him experience something more. He tells a story about a creditor who forgave one person $8,000 and another whom he forgave $80,000. Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replies, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Jesus says, “You have judged rightly.”

Turning toward the woman he says to Simon, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven…” (Lk 7).

Jesus is not laying down a judgment. He is not condemning Simon. Jesus merely points out what is true. In a different way than Kant, Jesus teaches that what is inside us will determine how we experience the world.

Some say, “I can’t believe in God because the world is so terrible.” Indeed often the universe does not always live up to our expectations. Sometimes on days like this when so many of our brothers were killed in Orlando, I am tempted to despair. But is the world objectively speaking tragic… or is our very existence a gift? This depends on our story.

Jesus tries to plant in us a new way of being, a new way of experiencing the world and acting in it. Quite simply Jesus presents us with two pictures for how we might go through our life. Every day we choose between them.

We can see the world in Simon’s way as a battle for scarce resources in which we will only succeed through the failure or diminishment of others, or we can see with gratitude and hope as this woman does. In this miraculous moment she has come to recognize that God’s goodness eclipses every terrible thing that she has done in the past.

  1. Simon thrives on feeling superior to other people. He feels satisfaction through the subtle ways he reminds others of their lower status. For him, being religious means putting arbitrary rules over how we treat other people. To Simon what we seem like to others, is more important than who we really are. He represents that part of us that wants so badly to be admired. He constantly compares what everyone else receives with what he has. He cannot entertain the thought that he might not be right. He never really gives himself.

For Simon there is no such thing as grace. We receive nothing that we did not earn. Our past determines the future. He never even glimpses the gift of life, the savior, the one who is present in every moment. And so he offers to Jesus no water, no kiss, no oil. The universe will always, in a sense, be dead to him.

  1. On our good days however we have more in common with this woman’s experience. She teaches us that who we really are is not determined by other people’s judgments. She shows what might happen when we let go of shame. She does not always need to be perfect or right. She does not always have to win. She believes with all her heart in forgiveness. She is ready to grow and change. She is vulnerable, authentic and generous.

This woman lives in a universe alive with possibility. Free from the past, she experiences the perfect gift of every moment. She participates in a life far greater than her self, far larger than Simon even sees. In short, she can love. Her faith has saved her and she can go in peace.

Last night the actor Anna Deavere Smith explained that when she was a child her father told her that if you say a word often enough – you become that word. This week allow yourself to be the debtor who owes everything to God. Let your word be “forgive us.”

The universe is not so much made up of atoms as it is of stories. Every day these stories and the very presence of Jesus refine our perceptions and change the way that this holy world appears to us.

How about you? What will the starry heavens above and the mysterious freedom within mean to you? Will you allow the story of Jesus to draw you closer to God? Do you see this woman?

[1] Alan told me this line comes from a conversation about John Adam’s opera Doctor Atomic (2005). “The universe is made up of stories not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser, The Speed of Darkness (1968)

[2] Henry David Thoreau, The Illustrated Walden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 10.

[3] Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” (“Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?”) http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kant-whatis.asp.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 3rd Edition, Tr. Lewis White Beck (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993),169.

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