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Sunday, January 13
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, January 10
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, January 13
Seeking Reality
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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Seeking Reality

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you… Do not fear for I am with you” (Isa. 43).

All of us here this morning differ in so many obvious ways. We are different ages and races. We speak dozens of languages and come from hundreds of places. We are messy and neat, rich and poor, exhausted and alert, trying to fit in or hoping to stand out. We have different dreams, desires and beliefs.

But below the surface we share in common something profound. We all are seeking what is real. We hunger for it. You know what I mean. We encounter some much superficiality, so many half-truths and lies. And so we understand what it feels like to come across someone who really gets us. We appreciate someone who can be true.[1]

Peter Haynes was my priest in college. He is one of the most real people I know. He chooses words cautiously. He respects me enough to care more about being honest than whether or not I feel comfortable. He doesn’t hesitate to correct me. When I became dean of the Cathedral he drove six hours from Orange County just to shake my hand after the service. Then he drove six hours back home. He said the look on my face made it all worth it.

Although he once was the physically strongest priest in the Diocese he is frail and weak now. Yesterday I asked him what baptism means. He said that we are body, mind and soul. He pointed out that bodies and minds get a lot of attention in our society. But the challenge of our time is the world of the spirit.

For instance, fear drives us in irrational ways. I’m not just talking about the border wall. You can see this everywhere. We simply don’t feel right. In one of the richest societies in human history we feel impoverished, hounded by scarcity. We face an epidemic of despair. We see it in various addictions, rising levels of depression, isolation and loneliness. It lies behind our rising suicide rates and broken politics.

Peter Haynes says that baptism is the beginning of a spiritual life. It is how we start to tend our spiritual nature, how we receive the Spirit. The Bible is a library of different books written by different authors for different times and places. But the idea of a beloved child is a recurring theme. Think of all those joyful announcements about long awaited children being born.

Isaiah gives us a love letter from God. Shut your eyes and really try to hear this. “[T]hus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob he formed you… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned… Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…” (Isa. 43).

God calls Jesus his “beloved Son” and through him we become God’s children too. We are spiritually healthy when God’s love for us is most real. Through baptism with water and the Holy Spirit we encounter this reality. The bread and wine we share every week remind us that God loves us too much to leave us on our own.

Today I offer three very simple observations from the story of Jesus’ baptism about spiritual healing and strength.

  1. Chaff. With so much fear all around it is sometimes hard not to read the Bible in a fearful way. Luke uses a metaphor that we find confusing. He reports a short speech by John in which he talks about a “winnowing fork” and clearing the “threshing floor,” gathering the wheat into the granary and burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3). The Greek word for unquenchable is asbesto, the root of our word asbestos.

I want to be very clear. This metaphor is not about good people going to heaven and bad ones being burned in hell. It is about repentance or more precisely it is about the primary spiritual task called metanoia. That’s the Greek word we translate as repentance. It means to transform your life and soul.

At harvest each grain of wheat has a husk. The goal is not to separate good wheat from bad wheat but to save every grain. This is not a metaphor of separation and judgment. It is a metaphor of preservation and purification. The grain and the husks are thrown together into the air and the wind disperses the lighter husks.

There are large parts of ourselves that we will have to let go of in order to be happy, and for that matter to be part of God’s Kingdom. It is as if we were carrying a huge backpack that extended high over our heads and around our sides. As we approach a narrow gate we realize that not everything we carry will fit through.

Envy, anxiety, gossip, insecurity, prejudice, greed, our sense of superiority, narcissism, a spirit of revenge, along with so much else these have to go. The spirit helps to sift through our lives to make us more perfect. In his book The Great Divorce C.S. Lewis writes about this process of letting go of what is false. He says, “heaven is reality.”[2]

  1. Humility. The second thing I want to point out about the reading involves two seemingly inconsequential words. The preacher Fred Craddock says these may be the most important words in the Bible.[3] They are “Jesus also.” The passage goes like this. After John’s speech about the chaff, “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also was baptized and was praying… the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form” (Lk. 3). “Jesus also.”

The writers of the Bible all agree that baptism is for repentance or metanoia. It exists to transform our souls. Although Jesus does not need repentance, although God does not need to change anything about himself, God comes among us in this startling way. If God can join humanity in this ritual of renewal, we too can live humbly. We need to reject all forms of arrogance and not put ourselves above others. Christians should always be seeking forgiveness, focusing on what we need to change about ourselves rather than on how others could be better.

  1. Prayer. The last simple thing you might have noticed in the Gospel has to do with prayer. The people have been baptized. Jesus himself has been baptized. Then Jesus prays and the Holy Spirit comes to him. And God’s voice announces, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Lk. 3).

Our bodies require nutrition and exercise. Our minds need ideas, language and connections to other people. Prayer is the most important action for our spiritual life. We must have both what we call common prayer, that is prayer with other people in church, and individual prayer. In the New York Times this week Farhad Manjoo wrote an article called “You should Meditate Every Day.” It is about how meditation has completely improved his life.[4] It can help you too.

Prayer is the way we overcome the destructive fantasies we constantly generate and come to know something greater. It is the way we stop being a stranger to our self. It needs to be part of every day. We should set aside regular times for prayer and pray spontaneously too. As parents we should spend over ten years reading every night to our children. After you read tell your children what you are praying for and ask what they would like to pray for. Then say the Lord’s Prayer together. Pray at meals. Pray in the morning when you wake up, as you travel and as you prepare to sleep.

The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth writes, “And faith as the work of the Holy Spirit is not a magical transformation. It is not a higher endowment with divine powers. It is simply that we acquire what we so much need… a teacher of truth within ourselves.”[5] That teacher is Christ. This is the way we realize that because we are God’s children we have nothing to fear.

I vividly remember the day when I became a parent. I was standing at the hospital window, watching commuters on their way home as the sun was setting after a long summer day. I remember the light. It felt like such a contrast. The drivers were engaged in such an ordinary activity while for me the world seemed miraculous and utterly transformed. In that moment I knew everything had changed. I came closer to reality and to God.

We long for what is real. We won’t be satisfied by anything else. So cultivate your spiritual life. Purify yourself of the anxiety, fear and selfishness that diminishes you. Be humble and don’t regard yourself as better than anyone else. Persist in prayer so that Christ might shine more completely in your life. Never forget that you are “precious in [God’s] sight, and honored” and God loves you.

[1] It might even be bad news but we want to know the truth.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (NY: Macmillan, 1946) 69.

[3] This particular example and much else in this sermon is inspired by Matt and Liz Boulton, “Jesus Also: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two,” 7 January 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/1/7/jesus-also-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-two.

[4] Farhad Manjoo, “You Should Meditate Every Day,” The New York Times, 9 January 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/opinion/meditation-internet.html

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. T. Thomson, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 242.

Thursday, January 10
The Star at its Rising
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Thursday's 5:15pm Evensong Service
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The Star at its Rising

“There ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising” (Mt. 2).

Nothing stays the same. No matter who you are, life is a pilgrimage. In body or spirit we either adapt to change or we die.

Last night at dinner Sarah Kay the poet and our former Artist in Residence told me about a college party at Brown University called Sex Power God. In short it is famous for having students dancing around in their underwear. The year before she arrived there the Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly sent an undercover reporter to video the event. Sarah described in detail how friends suddenly saw themselves half naked on television and worried about whether this would affect their careers.[i]

For years she forgot about the whole thing. Then last summer Sarah met a new friend who we will call Janet. They instantly recognized each other as soul mate. Janet is a filmmaker and a woman of color. When Sarah told her that she had gone to Brown, her friend said, “Oh” in the way people usually do when they had applied and not been accepted.

Janet explained that she loved Brown. The college had heavily recruited her in high school. Each week during the track season, Brown had called her coach to find out her times. In fact, Janet was not just accepted as an undergraduate but also into a special program that guaranteed her admission to medical school. It all seemed settled.

Then one day she came home as her father was turning off the television. He had been watching the Bill O’Reilly show. He had seen the episode about the party and told her that she was not allowed to go to Brown. Sarah feels convinced that the two would have been close friends in college and couldn’t help but wonder how this event changed the course of Janet’s life.

Change lies at the heart of all things. We are always accepting invitations or turning them down, embracing new possibilities or trying to shelter ourselves from change. During the Season of Epiphany we look for the light. We also listen for how God calls us out of our old habits and into a new relationship of love and gratitude with the world. We recognize that what we do and how we live matters for people who we haven’t even met.

In our Lessons and Carols service tonight we have three stories about invitation and persistence. The Magi leave everything behind to follow a star. At first they meet an insecure tyrant whose fear leads him to kill children. They persist in seeking. Ultimately they are, “overwhelmed with joy” when they encounter the baby Jesus (Mt. 2).

In the wilderness John thought that he understood what it would be like when the Messiah came. But he had to change. He had to accept the idea that he would baptize the Messiah. And when he did he saw, “the Spirit of God descending like a dove” (Mt. 3).

Finally at first Jesus himself seemed to imagine that his first miracle would involve a more weighty matter than providing wine for a wedding party. But his mother invited him to help and something moved him to begin his public ministry at that party.

Maybe you will be at a party when God calls you. Perhaps you will be at a track meet or in a newsroom or sitting watching television or in the wilderness or at Grace Cathedral.

Nothing stays the same. No matter who you are, life is a pilgrimage. In body or spirit we either adapt to change or we die. Listen for God. Persist in your calling. Do not be afraid to change your plans. Allow Jesus to transform the ordinary water of your life into something more. Let the star of God’s grace guide you.

[i] Meryl Rothstein, “Fox News airs footage of Sex Power God,” The Brown Daily Herald, 15 November 2005. http://www.browndailyherald.com/2005/11/15/fox-news-airs-footage-of-sex-power-god/

Past Sermons

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

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!

[1] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/hallelujah.html

[2] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/anthem.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/opinion/a-wave-of-harassment-after-trumps-victory.html?emc=edit_tnt_20161118&nlid=16061526&tntemail0=y&_r=0

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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VETERANS DAY AND THE AFTERMATH OF THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: SOME THOUGHTS FOR THE ROYAL BRITISH LEGION.

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
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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.

Amen.

Sunday, November 13
People of Faith and the Kingdom of God
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 8:30 a.m. service
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Years ago, the Simpsons ran an episode titled “Bart the Lover.” Bart learns that his teacher, the single and lonely Mrs. Krabappel, has posted an ad in the personal want ads inviting single men to contact her – have in mind that this was so long ago that online dating was not a thing. So, Bart posts a letter to her from a made-up character named Woodrow, to which she replies. Their letters back and forth grow increasingly romantic and affectionate, and Mrs. Krabappel falls in love with her pen pal. Finally, Woodrow invites her to meet him in a restaurant, and Bart watches through the window to see her suffer the humiliation of being stood up. As Mrs. Krabappel breaks down and begins to cry, Bart feels guilty and says to himself, “I feel partly responsible for this.”

It was definitely a laugh out loud moment – the irony of seeing a little boy so completely unaware of the consequences his behavior might have. The irony of his surprise at feeling guilty for having engineered the very torment he intended.

It is hardly ironical, though, to be surrounded with a political system so invested in cynicism, so willing to rationalize and overlook conflicts of interest, so willing to demean others for the sake of stirring up chauvinism. It is hardly ironical to be so haplessly governed within a system where blocking and impeding are regarded as victory, in which undermining is used as a strategy for success.

For the past forty years we have seen the politics of fear and division work effectively, and with each election cycle the boundaries that set limits on how far one can take such cynical behavior seemed to be pushed farther out. As a result the extremes become more influential and the center gets more alienated. The good old days of statesmanship, when conservatives like Henry Jackson and Sam Nunn could be highly regarded in the Democratic Party, and liberals like Nelson Rockefeller and Mark Hatfield could be leading Republicans, are historical memories.

No matter which way it turned out, this election was going to leave hurt and dismay in its wake. I think there would have been people in the streets on Wednesday no matter what, although maybe in Oklahoma City and Jacksonville instead of San Francisco and New York. After so many months of accusations and predictions of doom, half the population was likely to feel dismay, discouragement and even betrayal. After so many months of rancor — fear, suspicion and alienation were predictable.

People of faith, though, have a higher calling and clearer purpose than a single election or even a political system. Our scriptures, and the meditative reflections of generations of saints, teach us about the predictable realities in which we live and in which we must each confront set-backs, dismay and even horrifying outcomes. For everything we know about this life teaches us that there is nothing permanent, nothing secure. Everything about living faithfully, living prayerfully, prepares us for the moment when our earthly security fails us and our earthly stability crumbles. Everything about living biblically anticipates the discovery that the systems of this world are, at their core, corrupt and unreliable.

For those of you who feel discouraged and even hopeless after the election, today’s scriptures give us some helpful reminders, and I touch on these scriptural fragments as if they are shells along the seashore, washed ashore as hints of greater beauty, collected because they can inspire. Just like admiring a seashell is not the same as being an oceanographer, picking up these nuggets of scripture are not the same as good exegetical scholarship.

First, there is the foretelling admonition not to get distracted by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, for it will one day come to ruin. Nothing lasts forever, neither grand palaces nor grand nations. We live for a better imagination than for anything that humankind can contrive.

Second, when the inevitable time of trial comes, when the inevitable failure of worldly security takes place, do not lose hope or heart. Endurance matters. By endurance the durable beauty of the soul is crafted.

Senator Barbara Boxer shared her own story about understanding politics as a long game, as a committed endeavor in which wounding and setback are inevitable. One cannot get discouraged and give up with a loss, or even with a betrayal, she counseled. One must keep in mind the bigger picture and renew the effort toward the better way that one believes in.

Third, Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to be stern about the requirement for all the believers to work and hold a job. The kingdom of God has never been offered as a gift to be delivered while the faithful sit back and wait. The kingdom of God is a combination of faith, attitude and effort. It will never fully be a kingdom of this earth; for, again, all the kingdoms of this earth will become corrupt and fail. But the kingdom of God comes as an interruption of normal human experience. It comes with compassion, beauty, hope and justice; and these interruptions happen all the time. They happen when in faith people act for the greater glory of God.

Politics is work. It is no good sitting around and begging for better days. Get involved. Volunteer. Learn. Risk. Speak up. Stand up. Brothers and sisters, Paul says, do not grow weary doing what is right.

Finally, as Jesus teaches, in whatever time of trouble or loss we find ourselves, this is our time to testify. This is our time to bring to voice our faith – our faith in a God of love, of compassion, of Justice – our faith in a God who brings the lost to salvation and turns the hearts of the sorrowful to joy.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, so many people are hurting and confused by what has happened. So many are hopeful that they may be heard. Help your faithful people to first of all trust in you, and then to work together for the openings through which your kingdom might flow. Help us to keep in mind your commandment not to judge others, but also help us to work for justice and peace for all people.

Bless all those elected to serve with wisdom, generosity, and care for the future. Bless those who were not elected with the resolve to find the ways to serve that give honor to your ways and give hope to those who often find themselves defeated in life.

Bless your faithful people with the grace to overcome fear, the hope to overcome discouragement, and the compassion to see beyond cynicism and presumption. Bless your children with the energy to work for what is good and right, to suffer setback without resentment, and the courage to testify and remind their neighbors of the love of God and the salvation that is at hand.

What we pray, we pray in the name of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, November 10
Politics Upside Down
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Thursday's Evensong
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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt. 5).

Having children has been a blessing to me in so many ways. It has brought back experiences that I had in childhood but had completely forgotten about. For instance, before having children I was always too busy with my job to just lie down and look at the sky. I encourage you to do this. See the beauty, the way the vast blueness breaks down into tiny dots, all the fantastic variations of clouds and fog.

Practicing yoga as an adult similarly gave me an experience that I had forgotten about over the years. In yoga I learned to stand on my head. During little league games all the other dads were coaching their kids while I inadvertently embarrassed my own children by standing on my head in left field.

The world looks so different upside down. You notice details in the most ordinary things. The grass looks like a fringe connected to your head. Houses have their doors and windows in all the wrong places. The redwood trees seem to be falling into heaven.

When Jesus teaches his friends. It sometimes feels as if he has put them all on their heads. Jesus’ Beatitudes are especially like this. In Jesus’ time beatitudes were common. But they sounded very different, like for instance “Blessed is the strong man, for he shall command armies… blessed is the man of wisdom for he shall accumulate great wealth.”


The Greek word makarioi means blessed or happy or lucky or fortunate. Jesus gives us an upside down world. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in spirit… the peacemakers” (Mt. 5). Most often, in real life this is a list of things that people try to avoid.

We are afraid of being these things because we do not want to be vulnerable. We want to be strong, to be admired. I want to point out that Jesus does not use transactional language. He does not say “ought” “should” or “shalt.” This is not a list of what you need to do. Instead it is a description of who these people, who God regards as blessed, are and what the future holds for them.

Jesus met with extraordinary success in communicating this difficult message. Alongside the Roman Emperor’s kingdom he planted the seed for the Kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom everyone is treated equally, everyone is loved, no one is cast out. Today we exist partly in each kingdom. Caesar’s empire and God’s Kingdom are woven into everything we experience.

And that is part of our shock after the election on Tuesday. The election turns the world around again. What was up is down and what was down is up.

I received an angry note today from someone who objected to us having a special service after the election. She pointed out that we did not have such services after President Obama was elected. I invite her to think about what was different in all these elections.

People are in pain today. If you haven’t heard from people who felt it then you need to talk to more people. My wife Heidi is a law professor who works especially closely with people of color and those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

She has undocumented students who are so afraid of being deported that they have resolved not to answer any knocks at the door. They have wondered if we need some kind of twenty-first century Underground Railroad. She has fully grown African American men staring at her in disbelief having concluded that half of the country believes overt racism is totally acceptable.


Mark Stanger heard from a Muslim friend who said he feels safer in Gaza than Florida. Women with tears in their eyes have told me how unsettling it is to have someone who sexually assaults women in the White House. As a parent I am especially appalled by the bullying and unkind language that is becoming our new standard.

Brothers and sisters the Beatitudes remind us of another path that is neither acquiescence to the might makes right of power politics and the fear that threatens to cause us to retreat from public life.

How the Beatitudes sound depends partly on where you are. They are the same words to every generation. They may shock us or we may have heard them so many times that we no longer hear them. But today I ask you to let them stand you on your head.

See the world from another perspective, have the vision of a child of God. See the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourning not just as people you can help, but as people who can help you. When you see the world from upside down, you begin to recognize that those who have suffered for their faith and for goodness are not the ones to feel sorry for. These are the happy ones who have found something worth suffering for.

Let me close with three suggestions to you the sometimes upside down people of God.

First, be compassionate. Find someone tomorrow who might need you. Care for them, pray for them. Second, remember in the words you use to describe what happened this week that every human being has inherent worth as a child of God. Jesus says we need to love even our enemies. Finally remember that God is ultimately the one in charge. In the larger scheme of things Caesar’s empire is retreating before the advance of the Kingdom of God.

Brothers and sisters linger a while longer with me in the upside down world of Christ. Let us not let years go by again without looking into the sky.

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