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Sunday, July 15
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, July 15
King Philosopher Television Celebrity
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become known” (Mk. 6).

I remember endless summer days as a four-year sitting in my plastic wheelbarrow on the grass. I pretended that it was my boat, safe on a vast green sea. On this magnificent day imagine this great cathedral with its redwood-like columns and stained-glass filtered light similarly as your haven of safety. No matter what storms may be gathering in your life, or in the society that surrounds us, we have found a joyful, beautiful place of peace.

What a blessing it is for us to be here! For twenty years I have been away on vacation during this week of the church year.[1] Today’s stories feel so fresh and vivid to me. It’s almost as if someone had discovered new passages from the Bible.

In this year of reading Mark’s Gospel together we thought we knew what to expect – concise, compact, abrupt, simple – the unembellished skeleton of God’s good news for us. And then today suddenly Mark stops being like Mark. Instead of being the writer who leaves the most up to our imagination, without warning he becomes the one to give us the overlooked details of a compelling story.

I think he does this to show our whole human predicament in a miniature form. In a single tragic story Mark brings us back to first principles, to the basic facts of existence, so that we can understand what we need to do in our complicated lives.

Mark tells us that Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs. They travel light through all the cities of the region. They ask people to repent. They cast out demons and heal those who are sick. They meet with such extraordinary success that even King Herod hears about their adventures. But just before they get back home to Jesus, before they can tell him what they have learned, Mark interjects what might seem like a parenthetical story about something that happened earlier (Mk. 6:30). It is the story of John the Baptist.

My dictionary says that the word apostle can mean Jesus’ disciples, or important leaders of the early church, or the first missionaries in a new land. It comes from the Greek word apostello or “to send.” Mark tells this story about two ways of being sent, about the two paths that constantly open up in the journey of our own lives: the way of Herod and the way of Jesus.

Mark’s story feels so contemporary. More than at any other time in my life we are entranced by the personalities of wealthy, powerful celebrities. We have been getting used to the experience of the personal suddenly breaking in to public life with enormous consequences.

To choose just one example it seems as if decisions about who gets pardoned and who stays condemned seem more arbitrary, more political than ever.[2] What could be more relevant today than a swaggering, bragging king delighted by his daughter’s performance and distanced from his wife, making promises with life and death consequences, which he does not want to keep.

In the Cathedral’s year of truth we notice that the ball starts rolling when John the Baptist speaks the truth. He points out that King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife is illegal. This offends Herod’s wife who holds a grudge against him. She wants to kill him but has no power to do so. Herod sends (apostello) his henchmen to overpower John and put him in prison.

Herod comes to respect John’s holiness, righteousness and goodness. He takes pleasure in hearing John talk even though he cannot always follow what John is saying.[3]

At his birthday banquet Herod’s daughter dances so beautifully that he repeats his oath that he will give her anything even up to half his kingdom.[4] Filled with hate the girl’s mother asks her for John the Baptist’s head on a plate. Herod feels “deeply grieved” but everything happens quickly as he sends (apostello) his men to behead John in prison. This week I kept thinking about the shock John must have felt at this moment when the executioner arrived on the instruction of the king who felt connected to him.

The Greek word Mark uses for Herodias’s grudge also means “entangled” (enexō) and that image defines this dysfunctional family.[5] Mark contrasts them with healthy families like Jairus who seeks healing for his daughter (Mk. 5:22).

And here we see how this story summarizes our human predicament. Each person in Herod’s family wants to be loved but tragically cannot get what he or she really needs. Herod’s wife wants to be valued and loved as queen and to not have anyone questioning the legitimacy of her position. At the same time she seems to have little power to satisfy her desire. She can only try to persuade, to use love to manipulate others. But even this is not enough to compel her husband to love her.

Their daughter did not ask for her parents to be at odds and yet she is forced to choose between them. She will always have the murder of a holy person on her conscience and the image of John’s head on a platter in her memory.

Herod too cares about the respect of his guests and the love of a daughter who chose his wife over him. He cares about John and is forced into a situation in which he has to kill someone he likes. In the face of this tragedy I have two questions. First, what is the difference between Herod’s way of sending and that of Jesus? And second, what does it feel like to be sent by God?

The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) believed that the holiest thing that you will ever encounter is also one of the most common. It is another person’s face. Behind the face lies a mystery that we can never completely understand but which is at the same time so close to us. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. We have the chance to recognize God every time we encounter another person.

And so Levinas translates the word “philosophy” not as love of wisdom, but as the wisdom of love. He writes about “the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.”[6] He describes ethics as “first philosophy.” He asserts that love comes before every instance of knowing.[7]

The difference between the mission of Herod and that of Jesus is the difference between the impossible task of satisfying our ego and actively seeking the divine mystery in another person. It is the difference between going into the world to control other people (perhaps even ultimately imprisoning and beheading them) versus being sent to cast out demons and heal our universal sickness.

What does this feel like? The children’s television show creator and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers often sounds a lot like Levinas. He says, “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”[8] Last week my wife and I saw the Mister Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It may have a lot to do with the important role the show had in my life, but I have never seen a film before that touched me in quite this way.

It brought about a collision between my childhood and adult selves. It made me understand both how little I knew then, and yet how much I understood. I watched a lot of Mister Rogers as a child but experienced the characters in the Neighborhood of Make Believe so much on their own terms that it didn’t occur to me that Mister Rogers was the main puppeteer.

Mister Rogers felt appalled by children’s television with its cheap violence, clowning and the humiliation of throwing pies in people’s faces. He felt acutely conscious of the vulnerability of children, that their feelings are just as real and intense as ours are. So he dedicated his life to creating a world where children really are treated with respect and cared for, where their fears and concerns are taken seriously.

During the show’s first week on air in 1968 Daniel Tiger asks, “What is assassination?” On the show Rogers talked about war, death, divorce, the painfulness of change. During a time when whites refused to even integrate swimming pools Rogers famously invited Officer François Clemmons, an African American, to share his footbath. At some point in the series someone called the producers of the show to say that Clemmons was visiting a local gay bar. Mister Rogers told him not to go back there.

Still, in an interview you can see how just much Clemmons respected and loved Fred Rogers. He recalls a time when Mister Rogers said, “You are special and I love you just the way you are.” Clemmons joked, “Are you talking to me?” And Mister Rogers said, “I have been for two years, but you are only just now hearing me.” Clemmons went on choking back tears to say that neither his stepfather nor his birth father, no one, had told him that they loved him like that.

In the 1990’s commentators on Fox News asserted that not everyone was special and that Mister Rogers encouraged the sense of entitlement which epitomized exactly what was wrong with America. But in his testimony to Congress twenty years before then Mister Rogers spoke the truth. “You don’t have to do something really outstanding in order to be loved, or to love.”[9]

I talked about playing in my wheelbarrow boat on a grassy sea and about this cathedral as a great harbor of peace and hope. Soon God will feed us a holy meal. And then God will send us back out into the storms of our daily life.

We thought we knew what to expect but in the face of the human predicament we too need to decide on our basic first principles. We have to choose between the path of trying to satisfy the relentless demands of our hungry egos, or the humble way of Jesus, between the fruitless effort to force people to respect us, and the challenge to love others more deeply just the way they are.

Every face presents us with a holy mystery that is so near and yet utterly unfathomable. In this scary world every child gives us another chance to share respect, comfort and wisdom. Brothers and sisters you are special. You are loved. May God bless you – sweet apostles of grace.

#EmmanuelLevinas, #MisterRogers, #Herod

[1] In a phone conversation this week Cynthia Kittridge the President of the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas pointed out that this Gospel does not appear in the old prayerbook lectionary but was introduced with the Revised Common Lectionary. Noël Coward said somewhere that work is more fun than fun. I guess that’s true for me too.

[2] https://www.outsideonline.com/2326556/trumps-pardon-hammond-bundy-family?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=WYM-07132018&utm_content=WYM-07132018+CID_84e8f04b8cd3fdac78c49c88f0a820fc&utm_source=campaignmonitor%20outsidemagazine&utm_term=pardoning%20the%20Hammonds

[3] The word aporew in Greek is a conjunction of apo and poreuomai. Bluntly it means “can’t go.” In the world of thought Herod cannot go with John but he delights in hearing him (Mk 6:20).

[4] Biblical scholars guess at the age of Herod’s daughter. One believes she is twenty on the basis of historical evidence about when this happened in Herod’s court. Mann, C.S.  Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1986) 293-298.

Another believes she is twelve on the basis of the word tō korasiō. Liz and Matthew Boulton, “The Powers that Be: Eighth Week of Pentecost,” SALT, 10 July 2018.

[5] Enexo.

[6] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Tr. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969) 150.

[7] This is why Montaigne will always be a better philosopher than Descartes and a better person too.

[8] Won’t You Be My Neighbor Official Trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhwktRDG_aQ

[9] This is a paraphrase of what I could remember from the film.

Sunday, July 8
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
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Pentecost 7 2018

Do you remember the first forms of politeness your parents taught you? In our home they were: Say please. Say thank you. Don’t tease your little sister. Don’t hit your big brother. Share your toys. And, whenever you go to someone else’s house, say ‘thank you for having me’ as you leave. Even if you hated the bony fish they gave you for dinner. Even if their child was mean to you, their cat scratched you and their dog growled at you. Whatever. Still say ‘thank you for having me’ before bolting for the safety of home.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sends them out to other people’s houses sound a little less civil. Far from saying ‘thank you for having me’ they are to shake the dust from their feet when they leave houses that have made them feel unwelcome. They are not to offer a pretence of gratitude just to be polite. The work they have to do – casting out unclean spirits, calling people to repent – to change their ways of being with each other – is too important to be hindered by good manners.

Which brings us to where we’re at today in our own civic life as we try to work out how far civility should stretch. Is it ever ok to be less than polite with one another? Does our call to love always include a call to respect the person, or the office, to be nice, to be meek? I’m asking these questions not because I have a pre-packaged answer to put before you today but because I’m wrestling with them myself. I want to make sure that my faith is part of any answer I come up with. That, as Grace Cathedral, our faith is part of the answer we come up with.

It’s interesting that these first disciples are being sent out right after an encounter in which Jesus faces rejection. His hometown refuses to see him as more than the craftsman they have known him to be – his hands are supposed to be shaping wood not healing people. And Jesus’ reaction is twofold. He doesn’t stay to argue with them but neither does he accept their judgment. He walks away and focuses his mission on the villages outside. He is amazed at their unbelief so sure he is of who he is and what he is called to do.

There are some things I am also sure about in who we are and what we are called to do. I am sure that we are called to cast out the unclean spirits of racism, misogyny, trans and homophobia, white privilege, Islamophobia, antisemitism – all those forms of hate and fear that oppress God’s children. I am sure that we are to call the powerful to repent and change their ways whenever we see them acting out of these forms of hate and fear. I am sure we are to protect the little ones, the orphans, the weak and the vulnerable. I don’t think there is anything in life I feel surer about than this.

But how do we do this? How do we do this without creating deeper divisions? Without forgetting that every human being, even those whose opinions we loathe, is a beloved child of God? How do we do this and remain kind, remain nice? Where in all this does civility help and where in all this does civility hinder?

For remember that civility is not the same for all people, and nor are we all held to the same standards of civility. For Canadian First Nations, for example, civility includes letting elders speak as long as they feel moved to rather than respecting the time limit set for a meeting. The western need to ‘keep to time’ feels to them like extreme rudeness. Telling someone to ‘be civil’ can be a way of telling them to stick to the white male middle-class norms – not to laugh too loudly, not to express valid anger at unjust treatment, not to call out the privileged elite, not to rock the boat or upset the apple-cart.

But sometimes the boat needs rocking and the apple-cart needs to be upset. Remember when wondering what would Jesus do that flipping tables and chasing people with a whip is one of the options! Being Christian doesn’t always mean being nice. While the world, and our own nation, remains a place where refugee children can be caged away from their parents and the needs of the poor ignored by the greed of the powerful then nice doesn’t cut it as a form of opposition. Telling the truth to power is a higher Christian virtue than being sweet and polite.

But while we may not be called to be nice we can’t duck the fact that we are called to be loving. That one of the most radical, and difficult, of Jesus’ teachings is that we should love our enemies as well as our neighbours. Unlike private citizens and business owners, the Church must never shut its doors to those we consider egregious sinners or refuse to share its table with those whose actions we despise. We are always called to teach repentance, always called to believe that forgiveness and change are possible for anyone – remembering how much we need them ourselves.

So how can we chase out the unclean spirits of racism and nationalism and all the other ‘isms’ that keep oppressed people oppressed while still holding out the hand of love. We can’t do this (hands pushing away) to any child of God. But we can’t do this (hands open in acceptance) to any teaching or practice that harms other children of God. So we have to do this (one hand open, one pushing back). A complete no to any ideology or practice that oppresses others. A complete yes to the humanity of the person oppressing. But, when I’m weary with marching and heart-broken over crying children, this (hands pushing away) would be so, so much easier!

So, as a Church, here are ways we will be civil and we will be loving. We will remain open to all people, whatever their political persuasions and ideological attitudes. We will listen to hear the ways in which God lives in them, knowing that they are God’s beloved just as we are. We will look for the light in them not just focus on the dark, and we will remember the darkness that inhabits our own hearts too. And we will accept that this is sometimes hard but that this is always essential to our faith.

And, as a Church, here are ways we will be prophetic and we will be loving. We will be a voice for those who have been silenced by detention or by any form of oppression. We will listen to God’s call for justice and we will put that justice ahead of our own self-interest and our own comfort. We will put our obedience to God before our obedience to any earthly authority, never resorting to violence but never being afraid to stand for the right. And we will accept that this is sometimes hard but that this is always essential to our faith.

Jesus sends us out today as he sent the 12 so many years ago. He sends us out together so that we can support and encourage one another. He sends us out with no signs of privilege and no promise of being welcomed. He sends us out to cast out demons and to call for people’s hearts to change. He sends us out to be God’s presence in the world; to say an endless ‘yes’ to all her beloved people and an endless ‘no’ to all evil and oppression. Let us say yes to being sent!

Past Sermons

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

Thursday, May 3
The First Gentile Christian
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord.” (Acts. 11).

What does it take for a Bible passage to really come alive for us? So much of what we hear every day fails to really penetrate our hearts. Often it is even more difficult to imagine someone like Peter or Cornelius as a real person caught up in the tragedy of real life.

This morning I received a voicemail message from a very old friend named Janet. We first met in church and I’ve known her for maybe thirty years. We studied the Bible together and shared our lives. In fact, for a while, I was even the executor of Janet’s estate. Her voice was so full of pain. She felt embarrassed that people are laughing about the Episcopal Church because of last week’s Beyoncé service. She said, “How could you do this in that beautiful Cathedral?”

The writer Rebecca Solnit points out that we use the word “lost” in two disparate ways. On the one hand we all have the experience of losing our keys, a homework assignment, a book or an article of clothing. When this happens we still know where we are. Everything is familiar except that one element.

But then there is the experience of losing oneself. You may have been lost in the woods or a strange city. Solnit describes this as the moment when the world becomes larger than our knowledge of it.[1] In both the ways that we use the word “lost” the striking feeling involves a loss of control.

This was how Janet sounded in her message. It is the way that “the circumcised believers criticized” Peter when they said, “Why did you go to uncircumscribed men and eat with them” (Acts 11)? Religious rules of the time did not permit faithful Jewish men to share meals with outsiders. I can imagine Peter’s discomfort in this confrontation.

Change is difficult for all of us, for Janet and me, for Peter and his friends. Peter offers two responses one from a dream in which he met God and the other from his personal experience.

Peter was praying when he had a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven with different kinds of animals on it. A voice told him to eat and he refused because according to his faith these animals were unclean. God told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

The Spirit then told Peter to go with some non-Jewish people who appeared and “not to make a distinction between them and us.” When he arrived at their house he began to speak. He describes it to his angry friends, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us in the beginning.” Finally to his questioners Peter says, “If then God gave them the same spirit that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

At Grace Cathedral these days we too have a dream. It comes from a deep desire to reach out into the world, to allow God to draw us into new relationships with others. In the same spirit as Peter, we want to meet new people and to hear what God is saying to them. Although this may at times leave us feeling lost, we do not always have to be the ones in control. God is in charge. God will always draw us into a world that is larger than our knowledge of it.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (NY: Penguin, 2005) 22-3.

Sunday, April 29
Truth about Fear
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… We love because he loved us first” (1 Jn. 4).

What does it mean to say that perfect love casts out fear?

Over a hundred years ago G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote, “There are some people – and I am one of them – who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy…”

“We think for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.”[1]

All these years later I think that the most striking thing for Chesterton about our implied individual and collective philosophy would be our fear. On the one hand we live in one of the safest, healthiest and wealthiest societies in all history, and at the same time we are obsessed by unlikely threats and a false sense of scarcity.

In the last presidential election unemployment was at 5%, there had been six years of steady economic progress, our country was developing the technologies of the future, and our military power was unrivalled. And yet many Americans seemed irrationally afraid – of immigrants, terrorists, people of color, government officials, etc.

In these early days of the vast social experiment which we call the Internet, sometimes it seems like people just want to be offended and angry. Fear generates fear and since then we have become even more afraid. We worry about the viability of our democracy itself, environmental degradation, trade wars and actual wars.

Sasha Abramsky my forum guest today points out that our smartphones are “changing our physiology” through stress. He also claims that we are afraid of the wrong things. We worry about Ebola, terrorists, plane crashes, violent immigrants, when we should be worrying about traffic. In ten years 400,000 vehicular passengers and another 45,000 pedestrians were killed on American roads. In 2015 thirty-eight thousand people were killed by cars in the US, an increase of 8 percent probably the result of distracted driving.[2]

Fear makes Americans more dangerous. It leads to policies like the “Stand Your Ground” laws, mass incarceration, overzealous policing, the legitimation of torture and reckless foreign interventions. Because tens of millions of Americans believe they need guns to protect themselves we live with higher rates of suicide and accidental death. In 2014 Gun War News reported that for every American soldier killed in Afghanistan over the previous eleven years, thirteen American children had died from being shot.[3]

  1. This morning we have two readings that particularly address the universal human challenge of overcoming fear. John dedicates a large portion of his Gospel to what scholars call “The Farewell Discourse.” At his last meal Jesus washes the feet of his friends. He inaugurates the tradition of a holy meal that we will experience this morning. He tells his friends what is about to happen, that he will be betrayed and delivered to the authorities and humiliated.[4]

You might imagine how horrifying this would sound to someone who had given up everything to follow Jesus. They loved him and believed so deeply in his message. They couldn’t help but think that his disgrace would be theirs too. You can almost imagine the desperation and fear Thomas feels when he says, “How can we know the way.” So Jesus explains. He’s not delivering a social science lecture. He is trying to comfort his friends.

In the Gospel of John Jesus offers seven “I Am” statements to help us to understand God. He says, “I am the bread of life… the light of the world… the door… the Good Shepherd… the resurrection… the way, the truth and the life…” Finally, Jesus gets to the last image that he hopes. Each of these pictures has been leading to this.

Jesus says, “I am the true vine and my father is the farmer” (Jn. 15). The scriptures often used this image of God as the farmer and the people of Israel as a kind of grapevine. In those contexts God condemns the whole nation for bearing poor fruit and threatens to uproot the vines. Jeremiah complains about the bitterness of this fruit and God’s righteousness in destroying it (2:21).[5]

But in this context with his very dear friends, Jesus is not so much threatening them with death, as a consequence of choosing to be cut off (as I imagine some might read this passage). Instead he says, “You have already been cleansed (or pruned) by the word I have spoken to you” (Jn. 15). He is promising a whole new kind of intimacy and connection. He is saying, “Don’t be afraid, we will always be together. Your life and all of its fruits will be signs of our ongoing intimacy. I will be with you and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side but in the days to come, I will live in you.”[6]

  1. The second reading comes from the First Letter of John. The Biblical scholar Ray Brown believes that this letter was written during a time of struggle within the early Christian community by a person who was concerned about Gnosticism. John wrote this epistle in the face of a religious movement that emphasized secret knowledge about a war between spirit and the physical world.[7]

For John faith is public and visible. Over and over he repeats his conviction that belief and knowledge are always secondary to love. Or to put it more accurately, we recognize the truth by the fruit it bears. Especially when Christians disagree we have to always keep this message in mind.

John writes that, “We love because [God] first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn. 4).

John encourages us to show our faithfulness to God through our kindness to each other. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 Jn. 4).

This week again the news has been full of reminders about the severity of racial injustice in America where unarmed African Americans are five times as likely to be killed by police as white people.[8] You may have read about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice dedicated to people who were terrorized by the lynching of African Americans.[9] Perhaps you heard about the African American women golfers who were playing at their own club when the police were called to escort them off the grounds.[10] You could have seen the video of Desmond Marrow a former NFL player who was thrown to the ground and choked by police officers in Atlanta, Georgia.[11]

We have reached a horrible place in our society when significant numbers of people believe that calling the police puts African American people at risk of being humiliated or killed.

In the film I Am not Your Negro, we hear the writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) reminiscences of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know if you have ever had a friend who was murdered, but it makes a difference in how the world looks to you. Despite this Baldwin can say, “I refuse to hate you. In fact you and I are one. The great lie is that we are two people. I’m your cousin. I can’t hate you because we’re family.”[12]

So much about fear is mysterious. What feels terrifying to me could seem totally irrational to you, in fact it could be even exhilarating to you. Chapman University charts American’s top fears every year.[13] You can see the trends. Fear is a social phenomenon.

When I first arrived at Grace Cathedral riding my bicycle down California Street seemed terrifying. Like an old style roller coaster you come up to Jones from the Taylor Street steps with the wind howling over the top of Nob Hill. Then you launch yourself downhill. Car doors swing open. Uber drivers pass you within inches as you go almost thirty miles per hour trying to avoid cable cars and their accident-causing rails.

It’s dangerous because you are exposed. You have a different kind of vehicle and so the people around you don’t understand (maybe that makes it a little bit like other ways of being different in our society). Over these years I have come to love what I previously feared. Now I see that every day in that place is wonderfully different and I’m filled with joy. I’m enjoying the ride more than the destination.

I began with the idea that your philosophy of life matters to hundreds of small and large decisions in our life. The life of faith is like riding down that hill. To others we might seem vulnerable and a little reckless, as too quick to forgive. We look more exposed to suffering because of our commitment to love. But we have something that cannot be seen. We are part of the true vine. Jesus lives through us. God’s fruits are being born in us. We experience the love that casts out fear.

Let us pray: May all that is unforgiven in us / Be released. / May our fears yield / Their deepest tranquilities. // May all that is unlived in us / Blossom into a future / Graced with love.[14]

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics quoted in William James, Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) 9.

[2] Sasha Abramsky, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (NY: Nation Books, 2017) 95.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] The discussion below comes from Liz and Matt Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT Commentary for Easter 5,” Salt, April 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

[5] Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 225-352.

[6]Liz and Matt Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT Commentary for Easter 5,” Salt, April 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

[7] Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Epistles of John, Volume 30 (NY: Doubleday, 1982).

[8] Sasha Abramsky, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (NY: Nation Books, 2017) 146, 159-60.

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/04/26/the-lynching-memorial-ends-our-national-silence-on-racial-terrorism/?utm_term=.863fff961c74&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1 and https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2018/04/24/white-golf-course-owners-said-five-african-american-women-were-playing-too-slow-then-they-called-the-police/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f113bf7ddaf6

[11] http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/news/state/georgia/article209961214.html

[12] Donald Schell conversation 25 April 2018.

[13] https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2017/10/11/americas-top-fears-2017/

[14] John O’ Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (NY: Doubleday, 2008) 97.

Wednesday, April 25
Beyoncé Mass Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Yolanda Norton, Professor of Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary
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Sunday, April 22
The Still Waters of Psalm 23 and Beyoncé
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me…” (Ps. 23).

  1. This weekend my twenty-eight year old nephew took me aside and in a serious tone of voice he asked, “Uncle Malcolm I’ve watched you for my whole life. Why you are so joyful?” I fumbled for words. I don’t know if I’m any more joyful than the next person, but the first thing that occurred to me was that I pray a lot. My heart longs for and constantly reaches toward God. I pray for my family and you, for strangers, for sufferers and leaders, for our shared human project and for all creation.

Most of all I just give thanks, and in doing this I become more attuned to the blessings available to us in every moment. I certainly experience stress and despair, feelings of failure and inadequacy. I feel sadness in the face of persistent suffering, but these all happen in the context of a much deeper sense that before anything else I am a child of God.

A Hindu teacher named Eknath Easwaran taught me to meditate and encouraged me to memorize Psalm 23. Since then, I have repeated it silently thousands of times. It sums up my piety. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake” (Ps. 23).

When we really listen, God does bring us to a spiritual state that you could compare to a green pasture with still waters. God directs our lives, “along right pathways.” And then an extraordinary thing happens in this psalm. The God of the third person, “the Lord,” “the He” comes nearer and becomes… a “you.” In grammar we call it the second person. Listen to how in the presence of our suffering God comes even nearer. This experience lies at the heart of my faith.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you [you] are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…” (Ps. 23). I believe that this personal experience of God, especially as we gather in worship around this table, lies at the heart of abiding joy. Today I am going to talk about two teachers who were good shepherds bringing me to green pastures, and about an experience of God spreading a table in the presence of those who trouble me.

  1. The eleventh century thinker Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) defined theology as faith seeking understanding. He says that our active love of God naturally seeks a deeper knowledge of God.[1] To understand this faith in God’s daily ongoing presence I spent seven years of work as a more than fulltime graduate student. In that time I felt God leading me into some of the greenest pastures of my life.

Two theology professors particularly influenced me. Richard R. Niebuhr (1925-2017) served as one of my three dissertation advisors. His father (H. Richard Niebuhr) and uncle (Reinhold Niebuhr) were two of the most famous twentieth century theologians. Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011) supervised my Master’s thesis. Although I have not often spoken to you explicitly about them they have deeply shaped my thought.

Professor Niebuhr taught me that above all we are symbol-generating creatures. We never make contact with anything as it is in itself. Every experience is filtered through stories and the symbols that support them. It is impossible to get to the unmediated bottom of reality in any sense.

For instance, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger points out we don’t just hear raw sounds and then figure out what they are.[2] When we hear the bell of the cable car or the carillon, they already mean something to us. And this meaning depends on the stories we tell about life. A cathedral bell might be uplifting to a person of faith and oppressive to someone who has been persecuted by the church. We don’t experience the sound without that sort of interpretation.

Niebuhr believed deeply in the power of feeling which connects us to God and each other. He writes about our situation in modern times with communications technologies like the Internet constantly impinging on us and directing our inner life. Our identities are constantly being rearranged by the latest tragedy broadcasted to us through our cell phones. He asks, “is it not possible that [the modern person] is experiencing the terrible joy of being made and remade again by a ruling power that [she] knows but does not know [she] knows?”[3]

He says, “human faith is not so much a sum of answers as it is a way of seeing and acting and books about faith have first of all to describe what faithful [people] see and believe is real.”

Although the two of them had the same advisor in graduate school together, Professor Kaufman could hardly have been more different that Niebuhr. While Niebuhr emphasized art and feeling, Kaufman worked to describe the place of faith in the world of science.

After writing an influential theology textbook Kaufman had a change of heart. He came to the deep conviction that theology is not about recovering a tradition or interpreting holy texts. Instead he emphasized that theology is what he calls “imaginative construction.” Human beings have responsibility for the symbols that they make for describing God.

Kaufman believed that human beings have a tremendously strong tendency to treat the wrong things as if they were God. Our idols may be personal like money, our appearance or being liked, or they may be our collective experience of the country or the economy. For him above all the symbol God helps us to commit ourselves to the right things.

On this Earth Day Kaufman would probably say that the symbol of God may be the only thing that could save nature, perhaps even the planet, from our worship of wealth, technology and power. The idea of God shows us that with our lives we worship the wrong things.

Most of all Kaufman had a heart for modern people who simply could not believe what a lot of churches say about God. He writes, “Faith in God has become impossible for many now, not so much because of stiffnecked sinfulness and rebellion against God as because talk about God… seems to have little to do with their actual lives. Unless… God can be seen once again to be the God of this world and our God, it is not possible… to have faith in him.”[4]

Kaufman taught about the importance of resisting our tendencies toward tribalism. For the sake of the world, he believed that every one of us, every Christian in every generation, must constantly seek new ways to understand and talk about God.

  1. At Grace Cathedral we worry that some churches may be making faith impossible for many people today. Churches do this through outright bigotry, by refusing to see that every person is made in God’s image. We do this through an attitude of fear toward outsiders, as if God cannot be found outside of a church. We do this through a kind of attachment to interpretations of stories that makes it hard to see how God is doing a new thing right now.

This week has not been easy. We received a lot of angry letters from our Christian brothers and sisters. News reports led some to conclude that the Cathedral is worshiping the pop music star Beyoncé. Some friends who are closer feel like what we are doing is in bad taste and maybe worse. I need to give you some background and share what I have been telling people about this issue.

Every Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. we offer a contemporary worship service called The Vine. Our 2018 Cathedral theme of “truth” inspired its leaders to create a three part sermon series called “Speaking Truth: The Power of Story.” On the last day of the series we wanted to especially raise up the voices of women of color so we invited Yolanda Norton to preach. You may remember Yolanda from her January sermon here. At San Francisco Theological Seminary she teaches a course called “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible.”

Leaders of our small thirty-person Vine community decided to offer a “Beyoncé Mass” to celebrate in a Christian context what they see as the singer’s message of empowerment for women of color. From my perspective it is not entirely unlike the spirit animating the Duke Ellington Sacred Music concert in 1965.

We have been surprised by how much attention this service has generated. Over a thousand people could conceivably come here for it on Wednesday night. On balance although a small number of our community think that it’s not a good idea, we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from faithful people who recognize that we need to reach out to the world.

We have also received letters that have made me even more aware of virulent racism and homophobia among our fellow Christians. Certainly not everyone who hates the service is a racist. I’m just been surprised by what I have heard.

My heart definitely goes out to Episcopalians who feel embarrassed by the service and I know we have made mistakes in how we have handled various aspects of it. At the same time over the last few days I have learned a lot from Beyoncé. It has been emotionally exhausting just being modestly connected to her for a week. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be her all the time.

Above all I’ve learned how important it is to connect. God’s spirit is moving through the world and I believe that not doing anything to reach out to the next generation of San Franciscans is a betrayal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So in short brothers and sisters this may not have been my most joyful week. It has not been as calm as those years of theological study with teachers I love. But you know what? My heart still rejoices. Whether we are in the green pastures beside still waters, or in the valley of the shadow of death, even when we are in the presence of those who trouble us – we shall not be in want. God revives our souls. Indeed we thank you God, that you, you are with us.

[1] Anselm, Proslogion.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.

[3] Richard R. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion (NY: Harper and Row, 1972) 140.

[4] Gordon D. Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method, 3rd Edition (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1995) 74.

Tuesday, April 17
The Voice Behind All Things
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Tuesday April 17th Yoga Introduction
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The Voice Behind All Things

We have all heard a voice. It offers us guidance and direction, and sometimes even warns us. It is so ubiquitous that, when we know where we are going, it just fades quietly into the background and we cease to notice it at all.

We hear it in hospitals, subway systems and 250 airports around the world. It may be one of the most frequently heard voices in all history. Although you may have doubted whether this public address system voice belongs to a real person, it does.

Her name is Carolyn Hopkins. She lives in Northern Maine. She makes the recordings in her own house and emails them to the public address company. When asked about what makes people around the world prefer her voice she guesses that they might hear the smile behind it.

In the 1980’s Wim Wenders film Der Himmel Über Berlin (The Wings of Desire) invisible angels can hear the thoughts of people as they go past. In one scene the angel walks through a library hearing what is in every person’s heart.

In our heads we all carry voices that we recognize. Some of these may be disapproving voices that point out our failures and our limitations. They say things like “You can’t do this!” or, “they never loved you,” or, “you’re just like your father” or, “your brother was always better than you.”

Sometimes I think those voices of our thoughts become so dominant, so loud or constant, that we cannot really hear what is happening. This cathedral has different sounds. The woosh of the cable cars, the rain against the stained glass windows, the wind blowing over Nob Hill. One of the most beautiful sounds to me is that of preparation as people get ready for Yoga. A kind of spirit speaks to us in these moments that we often don’t recognize.

Eknath Easwaran started an ashram in Petaluma and was the one who taught me to meditate. He introduced me to the idea that if we can learn to lay our busy thoughts to the side, we might experience more moments of divinity, the holy.

He taught a form of passage meditation. I want to share one of my favorite passages with you tonight. It comes from St. Augustine’s autobiography Confessions.[1]

“Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with our busy thoughts about earth, sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind cease thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still; if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:”

“Imagine if all things that are perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever – imagine, then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of him who made them and not to that of his creation;”

“So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of [people], nor the voice of angels, nor the cloud’s thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things.”

“And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but this one vision which ravishes and absorbs and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination which leaves us breathless:”

“Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, Enter thou into the joy of the Lord?”

When I am with you on Tuesday nights I hear this voice. When we are together I can hear the smile behind all creation.

Darren’s theme – The Earth as a Temple

[1] Translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Michael N. Nagler in Eknath Easwaran, God Makes the Rivers to Flow (Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1991) 171.

Sunday, April 15
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

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