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Sunday, November 11
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, November 11
Becoming Visible
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (Wisdom 3:1).

 

Being human involves constantly passing in and out of visibility. Most of us, most of the time, are invisible – simply a means to someone else’s end. We’re the car that stands between the person behind us and catching the next green light. People regard us as the way some kind of work gets done or even as an inconvenience to be overcome.[1]

Children can become invisible to their parents. They can be merely a source of pride or embarrassment. Parents can treat their child as a task, as something to be perfected rather than a person to be loved. Even our friends can treat us primarily as a way of fulfilling some purpose in their life that has little to do with who we really are.

We experience this invisibility from strangers and even people who are supposed to love us. But at the same time we long to be noticed, to be seen as we really are. One of the greatest joys in life happens when someone really recognizes us or when we experience the humanity of another person.

On a hot midsummer day I experienced this in a very strange way. I did the early stages of my dissertation research in the Harvard Law School Library. I remember taking a quick break from my work and discovering a special archive exhibit on Ruhleben.

Walking around the room I gradually learned more about this German concentration camp. The inmates were British men unlucky enough to find themselves in the German Empire at the outset of World War One. I saw the map of this former horse racing track in the Berlin suburb of Spandau and read how prisoners slept on the hard floors of un-insulated horse stalls during the freezing winter.

Two layers of security kept the prisoners behind wooden and wire fences. The rules printed in German and English effectively showed that every aspect of life was absolutely regulated by the clock. Prisoners only received one meal of vegetable soup and bread each day with an ounce of meat on Sundays.[2]

The exhibit had photos of black sailors who had been working on British merchant ships when they were captured, and of other prisoners standing in endless lines out in the snow. I saw chits from the laundry service and the barber. There was a model of the living quarters, playbills from prisoner theater performances, pictures of incarcerated musicians, examples from art exhibits and everyday objects like cups and uniforms.

Other than their identity as Englishmen, these prisoners had became invisible to the Germans. But through the objects in the glass display cases they were becoming more real to me. I wondered what visits were like with their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. What did it feel like to be caught in a struggle between empires and confined in this cold place.

It was a remarkable coincidence really. It even took me a while to understand. My great-grandfather was one of those prisoners. I looked for his name in the registers. I tried to spot his face in the crowd photos, but there is no one alive to tell me what happened. Looking back at my family’s history, I know that he bore the marks of that invisibility for the rest of his life. The inherited trauma still affects my family.

Today we remember, we strain to see again in our imagination, all the ones whom we have lost. We also recall that on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 an Armistice was signed ending World War I. The word Armistice comes from the Latin words arma (or “arms”) and sistere (“to stand still”). You can imagine the stillness and quiet when both sides in that conflict laid down their arms, emerged from the trenches and began to really see each other for the first time and when the gates of Ruheleben were opened.

The historian Barbara Tuchman opens her book The Guns of August with nine kings riding in the funeral procession for King Edward the VII of England in 1910. They are followed by a list of the princes and emperors who were present. These included, “five heirs apparent, forty imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens” and more. “Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place.” [3]

Despite the fact that the sovereigns of Europe were siblings and cousins they still managed to plunge the entire world into a war of poison gas, aerial bombing and trench warfare that killed nine million combatants and seven million civilians.[4] It is important to remember that the war arose out of a complex system of alliances and a kind of paranoia about being invaded.

It was also the culmination of an arm’s race, that with the new pervasiveness of mass shootings, should remind us that having weapons makes us more likely to use them.[5]

The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were swept away. The punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles led directly into the fascism that only twenty years later resulted in World War II. While the “war to end all wars” erased the lives of millions it also led us to new ways of seeing each other.

At the end of hostilities the scholar W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) pointed out the sacrifices made by African American soldiers who still were not free in their own land. He writes, “This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land. It lynches.”[6]

In the United Kingdom “the slaughter-bench that birthed the 20th century,” also led to the legalization of voting for women who were over thirty and qualified as householders (or were married to a householder).[7] Accompanying the horrors of this last century were global movements toward liberation and the recognition of every person’s dignity. In our own day we continue this work.

At school chapel on Friday Kevin Fox spoke about the Fauré Requiem that we are hearing today. He said that in contrast to the drama of other requiems Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) hoped to compose something peaceful, consoling and quiet. He wanted to evoke the comfort of resting fully in God.

 

I believe we need this kind of peace and sanctuaries like this cathedral to experience others and ourselves as we really are. For me Jesus is the ultimate example of someone who really sees every person he encounters. He constantly reminds us that no one is ever invisible to God and that, “there is no situation in which God’s presence  doesn’t make a difference.”[8]

Being human involves constantly passing in and out of visibility. Today in this place of stillness and quiet let us remember the joy of laying down our arms. Let us accept the challenge of seeing the people who are invisible to the world. May those who sacrificed and our beloved dead be seen again as we become visible to each other through God’s grace.

[1] For other people we are the subject of entertaining gossip. At some point we also have been used to make someone else feel superior.

[2] “Tells of Suffering as German Prisoner: No Medical Attention for the Sick and Impossible Food – An Ounce of Meat a Week” New York Times, 28 June 1918.

[3] Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (NY: Random House, 1962) 1.

[4] The “World War I” Wikipedia article notes that between 50-100 million lives were lost as a result of the war if you include genocides and the Spanish Influenza epidemic.

[5] Between 1870 and 1914 military spending in Germany increased by 73% and in Russia by 39%. Wikipedia article “World War I” accessed 10 November 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I

[6] W.E.B. DuBois, “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), p. 13.

[7] Susan Pedersen, “A Knife to the Heart,” London Review of Books 30 August 2018.

[8] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 156.

Sunday, November 11
We are not made for war
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from The Service of Remembrance
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Remembrance Day Service

I never knew one of my uncles. Bernard was my mother’s favourite brother, just a few years older than her. He died when he was a teenager, old enough to vote – just – but not yet old enough to drink. His plane was shot down over the English Channel in the second world war. Three of the crew survived, including Bernard. They had two life rafts, which could take 2 men each. One was fully functional, the other was damaged. Bernard volunteered to go in the damaged one. The other two crew members were rescued. Bernard was never seen again.

There’s a line from a Siegfried Sassoon poem that has been on my mind as we prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice, the end of World War 1. He was a poet and a soldier who lived through the hell of the trenches and saw the peace that followed. He writes words about his generation’s attitude to soldiers and veterans that challenge us still: “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave… You believe That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”[i]

‘You believe that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.’ I do believe in chivalry – in the virtue of courage offered in defense of other people and of values that matter to us. I am deeply proud of my unknown uncle for putting other lives ahead of his own. I greatly respect all those who fought against Nazism – the allies from the United States, from Great Britain and the commonwealth, from Scandinavia and Europe – including Germans who tried to bring down Hitler from within. This was an evil that had to be opposed – just as we must oppose the antisemitism and racism we see today.

But I also believe in the second part of Sassoon’s line – that war is a disgrace. That there is nothing glorious about human beings settling their disputes by killing one another. That there is nothing heroic in nation states unable to build peace with justice except through sending their young men – and now young women also – to die at one anothers’ hands. I’m with that other great poet of the first world war, Wilfred Owen, when he says we should ‘not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’[ii] It may sometimes be necessary but it is always tragic never sweet and fitting.

This beautiful cathedral in which we meet today is here for a very simple reason. It is to help us try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. The one who taught us to love our enemies. The one who revealed a God who calls us to turn weapons into farm implements and promises a time when no-one shall make us afraid. And so all worship which happens within these walls is to a God who chooses peace over war, who chooses forgiveness over revenge, who chooses love over hatred. And who calls us to make these very same choices in our own lives.

God’s vision for us and for our world is one in which we no longer have to fight against injustice or for the rights of the oppressed because all people will be loved, respected and able to flourish. God’s vision is of a world where divine love is fully known and every child of every race and nation is safe and fed. Where no-one shoots Jewish seniors as they worship together or college students as they relax together. Where no leaders threaten each other’s people with mass destruction and put the profits of conglomerates over the future of the planet. Where we no longer fear those who are different from ourselves but love to learn from them and to share our own truths with them.

But we know we have not yet achieved that vision. Not even our own country, let alone our world, embodies peace and justice for all. And some of those who have paid the dearest price for this are our veterans. Remember that line from Sassoon began ‘you love us when we’re heroes home on leave’. We are not actually very good at loving our veterans. Honouring them, maybe, on days like this. But not offering them the practical love that would make dealing with the stress of moving back into civilian life, let alone the torment of PTSD, easier to bear. Our veterans and their families carry the wounds of humanity’s aggression and imperfection and deserve the care and support of us all.

Let me tell you another family war story. My dad was in Germany in the last weeks of the second world war. At one point he stepped into an opening in the woods at the same moment as a German soldier. They looked at one another across the clearing and then each turned their back and walked away. We are not made for war. We are not made to kill. We are made for peace. We are made for mutuality and shared delight. It is up to us in our generation to do all we can to build peace in our homes, our cities, our country and our world.

There are moments when God’s vision of peace for the world feels a little closer to us. One of those moments was the one that we commemorate today – armistice, the end of the years of brutal death that made up the first world war. And I want to finish with another poem of Siegfried Sassoon. One that speaks to the hope for peace and the joyful fulfilment of God’s love made real on earth. It’s called ‘Everyone Sang’

 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

 

[i] From the poem ‘Glory of Women’ in Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918).

[ii] From the poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ in Poems (Viking Press, 1921).

Past Sermons

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

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

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

(Mk. 7).

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 9
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
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The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, September 2
Crafting a Balanced Spiritual Cocktail
Preacher: Anna E. Rossi
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Nearly ten years ago, I took a professional detour: I became a beverage director. I could abide its 2 a.m. accounting for the delight of crafting a cocktail program. I shaved freshly foraged fungi on shaken quinoa vodka and honey, and played with the viscosity of a syrup so the swirled mix traced the interior of the glass like the legs of a well-aged Bordeaux. I reduced berries, balsamic and herbs to offer the equal and attractive alternative.  Spirits were designed to be medicinal, even a little playful, to pique the palate, ease digestion, lubricate social exchanges.  Crafting and mixing beverages is variation on that fairytale Goldilocks theme: not too boozy, not too sweet, not too much… but just right.  My professional life’s moved on, but the art of the cocktail still serves as a favorite metaphor for the spiritual life. What is the cocktail that piques our palate for God’s presence, makes us ready to feast and vibrant as social body?  The flavor of this lived out, balanced spiritual life or “true religion” is the subject of today’s readings, and its multiple opinions.

In the Gospel, the Pharisees and scribes, representatives of the Jerusalem Temple and the surrounding region, question Jesus about a violation of ritual purity: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” We might hear something like “You’re not following our rules.” But recall that many of these ‘rules’, more rightly, these teachings, are explicit in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, Tradition with a capital-T.

By contrast, Mark’s Jesus has only been in the Galilee, away from the Jerusalem Temple and its power. So, Jesus appeals to the prophet Isaiah, who in his own day challenged Jerusalem. Quoting from a text that was common to Jews who stayed abroad after the exile Jesus says: “in vain do they worship me, they abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

At first blush, Jesus seems to deal a mortal blow to ritual purity or observance As if to say to modern Orthodox Jews: “Have a bacon cheeseburger, God doesn’t care.” Or to us: “Do whatever feels right if and when you come to church; the ‘rules’ that make your prayer common don’t really matter.”  Except we know our common prayer is more than instructions.  Like the Judean’s ritual washing, it is a source of our identity, a bond of affection among us, and before God. Like the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs, used in the Jewish Sabbath liturgy, our worship life is one human tradition’s faithful response, to the call to arise, to be swept up in the song of God’s love, to blossom in God’s embrace.

Where is God’s call in today’s Gospel? First, God’s call is to order our spiritual life. Roman Catholic New Testament Scholar John Meier[1] investigates the history of this passage, and surmises that if the historical Jesus had actually dismissed the whole foundation of Judaism, the Scribes and Pharisees would have responded. Instead, they simply vanish from the scene. It’s more likely that Jesus was interpreting the priorities of the tradition: Prioritize virtue —habits of the heart then ritual observance.

Second, God’s call is to a community of wholeness, for everyone, religious insiders and outsiders, without exception. We are marred only by the ways we degrade or dehumanize one another. Theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman writes: “[Jesus] recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them.”[2]

Out of the heart are the issues of life. We may be thoroughly overwhelmed by what James’ Epistle terms the “rank growth of wickedness” that pervades our public life. We may feel ill-equipped to effect real or lasting social change. But we, as God’s people in this place, can be stewards and growers of that spirit against which wickedness will not prevail.  Not by lashing out, but looking in, and doing “true religion” from the heart.

True religion is curious, it expects the unexpected from God. It pushes the ritual life to wonder and wander, and the bounds of the community to include. It listens for the heart of faithfulness, and like Jesus, knows that practice on the margins is at least as true and God-revealing as that from the center.

This Friday, I visited Oakland’s  Qal’bu Maryam, the second women’s mosque to open in the U.S. The mosque’s founding Imam, Rabi’a Keeble departs from the prevailing wisdom that the community should be women-only, women-led. Her concern is that all people, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or gender identity, learn to pray and lead as equals together.  I visited for the inauguration of their new space, as a non-Muslim and a woman, I naturally lingered toward the back of the prayer rugs. The imam turned and invited me to step forward. I was deeply touched by her gesture because I knew it broke all manner of norms. It was virtue first, then ritual observance.  Who can you, who can we invite forward, into our center today? And whose foreign faithfulness will reveal something of God to us?

If true religion is curious, true virtue is practical. It knows that perfection belongs to God, and persistence to human kind. Virtue knows that its aim is a character of love. True virtue does not blossom in an idea, but in doable actions.  One weeknight dinner in July, our household was enjoying unusual fare, as everyone was eating meat. The older son, temporarily omnivorous, set the date when he would revert to being pescatarian. I was struck by his clarity and wondered aloud, “Why eat meat just for the summer?” He replied with a careful account of balancing the energy required to be a counselor in training biking five miles per day to camp, and chasing after seven-year-olds; with his distress at how factory farming harms animals and the environment.

This account has stuck with me in my own practical balance-seeking. I’m reminded that virtue isn’t our ‘perfection.’ Virtue is God’s gift received and ours given again in response: the implanted word blossoming and our conscious craft of our best selves.

The implanted word, God’s gift is blossoming. How do you craft your spiritual cocktail  for balanced response? This week, how can you keep the ingredients fresh, the flavors complementary, the volume fitting the glass?  True virtue and true religion, that balanced spiritual cocktail, prime us to love better: God, one another, the whole creation.

Today, may our palates be primed to feast on the Word Made Flesh, who nurtures our social body, who heals and eases and delights.

Today, may our faithful practices prime us for the voice of the beloved, that upon hearing, together, we arise.

[1] John P Meier, “The Historical Jesus and Purity,” Joint Sessions of the “Historical Jesus” and “Jewish-Christian Relations” Task Forces, Catholic Biblical Association of America. St. John, MN: August, 2005, sec. 8 and 11.

[2] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Reprint edition (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996), 11.

Thursday, August 30
Sticking to the Rules
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman you are set free…’” (Luke 13)

How do you know when to stick to the rules and when to break them? It surprises me how often this question comes up.

This fall Robert Sapolsky a neuro-scientist from Stanford will be visiting for the Forum. As a young boy he dreamed of living with the Mountain Gorillas in one of the dioramas in New York City’s Museum of Natural History. But instead during his twenty-first year he joined a baboon troop in Kenya.[1]

During his time as a researcher there Sapolsky came to love the strategies involved in using a dart gun to sedate male baboons. Even to this day he imagines darting the people around him.

He tells the story of his “most disastrous darting ever.” At first everything went according to plan. He shot a baboon named Uriah in the rump. Uriah jumped up ran ten steps and sat down again. But then it happened. Another baboon took down a small impala. Uriah ran over and stole the impala.

The others chased after him until finally, still with the impala Uriah took refuge in a kind of cave of thorn bushes beside the river. The problem was that if the other baboons went in to that small space while Uriah was half-conscious, they would rip him apart.

So Sapolsky did something crazy. He jumped up and down yelling to scare everyone away from the opening. And then he slowly slid on his back through the one foot high entrance. The thorn cave is about three feet high and Sapolsky is so relieved to see that Uriah is asleep that he begins to draw his blood, entirely forgetting that there is a live impala in the cave also.

The animal starts going crazy. Sapolsky somehow kills it. Then realizing that the other baboons are about to enter he pushes the dead weight toward the entrance until it starts to move on its own as a baboon hand grabs its shoulder. The baboons are yelling, snarling and fighting right outside as Sapolsky worries that another might take refuge in the cave. Finally they are gone and he wrestles Uriah’s sleeping body into his jeep.

On that crazy day in East Africa Sapolsky broke the rule about not putting yourself in danger. He did to save another being who he had inadvertently put in danger.

One Sabbath day Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and a woman appears with a spirit that had, “crippled her for eighteen years” (Lk. 13). Luke writes, “Kai idou” which means “look” or “pay attention.” Jesus heals the woman and she immediately stands up straight and begins praising God.

This infuriates the leader of the synagogue, the dean of that place if you will. He explodes with anger. He believes that Jesus has broken the rule that no work should be done on the Sabbath. He tells the people to be cured only on other days. In response Jesus points out that we take care of our animals on the Sabbath, we feed them and give them water. Certainly one should help a woman who has been suffering so long.

In our old church we had a woman named Jane Whitner who was completely bent over in pain for many years. In our visits she would tell me what her life had been like when she was young. She told me how just once she fell utterly in love. Other than that she had been terribly lonely and was so brave and faithful. If even for a second I had the chance to heal her nothing could have stopped me.

With all of our temptations to treat others as objects in our way, Jesus expands the circle of beings that we care about. Knowing someone, experiencing that person as a being in his or her own self and not just as an object, that is what Jesus invites us to do.

Let us pray:

Almighty God expand the circle of those who are dear to us entrusting them to your never-failing care and love, for this life and for the life to come, knowing that you are doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 13, 43-5.

Sunday, August 26
The Bread of Heaven and the Spiritual Forces of Evil
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but… against the cosmic forces of this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6).

What kind of person are you becoming? Who do you want to be? We might begin to answer this by considering what we really long for. Augustine (354-430), the fourth century North African saint says, “I desire to know two things only – God and the soul. And nothing more? No nothing at all.”[1] This is a sermon about God and our soul.

  1. God. In the Gospel of John, at several points Jesus encourages the people he encounters to look more deeply into the world. He warns that his words should not be taken too literally, that we should be less quick to believe that we understand everything. In short Jesus invites us to look below the surface of reality, past the way the world seems to be, and down to the truth of how it really is.[2]

In this Gospel Jesus often has to correct people who have taken his words too literally. The spiritual leader Nicodemus does this when he asks Jesus if being, “born again,” means to go back into our mother’s body (Jn. 3:4). The Samaritan woman does this too, when in response to his promise of “living water,” she points out that he seems to have “no bucket” (Jn. 4:11). This happens again when Jesus speaks in the synagogue at Capernaum.

For five weeks in church we have been reading through the sixth chapter of John. In it Jesus feeds 5,000 people and walks on water. But he also implores his hearers to move beyond signs and miracles to get to the real meaning of what he is trying to communicate. He wants us to grasp the idea that we can be closer to God than we have ever imagined. He promises that with our whole being we can have real life – authentic, courageous, true, joyful life.

John lets us in on a secret that few in this story can see. The crowds compare what happened in the feeding of 5,000 people to the exodus. When God’s people escaped from the Pharaoh in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, they grew hungry in the desert. They complained bitterly, “if only we had died by the fleshpots of Egypt… for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us with hunger.” In response the Lord says to Moses, “I am going to rain down bread from heaven for you” (Ex. 16).

Jesus uses the idea of manna, of food from heaven, to describe himself. Just as the Ancient Israelites were miraculously fed every morning, Jesus is the way that God feeds the world. Jesus says, “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Jn. 6:33). “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me” (Jn. 6:54). This profoundly shocked the people who were following him. The irony that no one in the story seems to appreciate concerns the completeness of the analogy.

Jesus is not just food for the world, but causes scandal by simply being himself. The Greek word gogguzō means to complain. In the same way that the people’s ancestors complained in the desert about being hungry, then complained about the manna, that is the food from heaven, they grumble about Jesus (Exodus 16, Numbers 11:6).[3] This is the story of how 5,000 disciples become so offended that they abandon Jesus.

What is their exact complaint? One could literally translate this Greek sentence as follows. Many disciples said that the teaching (logos) is so hard (sklēros, like our word sclerosis for hardened arteries) that they are, “unable to hear” (Jn. 6:60).

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) writes about the difference between the philosopher Socrates and Jesus. Socrates is a teacher. He tells us something that we already know deep inside. But Jesus is the savior, the one who makes it possible for us to understand.[4] That is what it means to say, “let anyone with ears to hear listen” (Mk. 4:23). Jesus gives us the way of hearing as well as what is communicated. For us this happens through the Holy Eucharist or communion.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:48). “The one who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn. 6:58). And so we have the irony of this story in which people by being unable to hear, actually make stronger the analogy between Jesus and manna. This account of disciples who abandon Jesus actually helps to deepen our own commitment to him.

Jesus is not merely a great teacher or a prophet. That is not what’s at stake. Jesus is the Son of God, the source of every life, the sustainer of all the worlds. This morning Jesus asks us to put aside whatever offends us and to hear a deeper truth. He wants us to realize that just as food sustains our body, “it is the spirit that gives life” (Jn. 6:63).

He uses this language for us to conceive of a mystery, that in the most intimate way God can dwell within us. When we open our minds, listen more deeply, when we share spiritual mysteries like this bread, Jesus is in our midst.

  1. Soul. The whole purpose of these readings, of the Bible, is not to definitively establish something that happened in a long ago past. The goal is for us, in our own time, to draw nearer to God. It is to change the trajectory of our life toward holiness, to become God’s children by loving what God loves. We need this so badly right now.

This week I tried to talk to my teenaged daughter about what the prayerbook calls, “the evil powers of the world that corrupt and destroy God’s creatures.”[5] All of us know about sin as a kind of autonomous decision that individuals make to go astray. We do not often talk so frankly about the forces that direct us away from the good.

I am so glad that social justice advocates have introduced us to the idea of implicit bias against people of color. These always present, unconscious prejudices are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to spiritual powers. Fear, bigotry, addiction, misogyny, lust, a sense of inadequacy, a craving for power, rage, violence, insecurity, desire for revenge – all these set off chain reactions that distort human life and cause suffering.

Whatever you think about the convictions of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, you must recognize that the current situation has put us on edge. And that is not all. This week I was walking around Grace Cathedral and for the first time none of the people here would look me in the eye or exchange a greeting. It was as if I had committed the worst possible sin. And in their eyes perhaps I had.

It was Tuesday night with our 700 person yoga community and I was a priest who some probably associated with the new sexual abuse crimes that surfaced last week in Pennsylvania churches. These terrible crimes against children and their perpetuation by a warped bureaucracy are the kind of evil that I’m talking about. Perhaps I am just projecting my own sorrow onto others, but we all have stories about undercurrents of irrationality and hatred that cause terrible harm.[6]

Paul’s encouragement to put on the “whole armor of Christ” has been deeply moving to me for almost my whole life. We read this every three years and I remember it coming up during my ninth and twelfth grade years. I wore armor myself in those days and I could vividly imagine stepping onto the football field without the protection of my helmet, shoulder pads and cleats.

This image may not work for you at all. It makes physical danger a kind of symbol for our spiritual dangers and you might not easily imagine what it is feels like to be in physical danger anymore. But we still need spiritual protection.

Paul advises us to constantly move away from our egotism and to make God the center of our life. Putting on the belt of truth means not being ashamed of how you appear to others in your speech. The shield of faith is the way that the arrows of fear and anger can be deflected when we trust entirely in God.

For me the sword of the spirit is the practice of prayer which helps us to determine what really is from God. The helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness are the acts of goodness that arise out of a confidence that God is the one who is in charge. Imagine how much more free and confident Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen and Donald Trump would be feeling they had told the truth and done what is right.

Finally Paul refers to shoes as a way of considering where we put ourselves in the world to share good news of peace. It is the realization that we can bring God’s peace with us everywhere.

What kind of person are you becoming? What do we know about God and our self? Because we stand here we can see more than that crowd moving away from Jesus.

We recognize his invitation to be the sort of person who sees below the surface. Like Jesus we will always cause scandal for others simply by being ourselves.

Not simply as a teacher but as a savior Jesus welcomes us to this table where we feel God’s deepest presence in our lives. And the faith he gives us will protect us. Our deepest longing is for God. Let the bread rain down from heaven. Let us learn to trust God completely. Is there nothing more? No nothing more.

[1] Leszek Kolakowski, Why Is There Something Instead of Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers tr. Agnieszka Kolakowska (NY: Penguin, 2007) 54.

[2] The first half of this sermon is deeply indebted to Liz and Matt Boulton’s analysis of this pericope in “Real Life: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Fourteenth Week after Pentecost,” SALT, 21 August 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-fourteenth-week-after-pentecost

[3] “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5-6, NRSV).

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments or a Fragment of Philosophy tr. David F. Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942).

[5] The Examination of Candidates in the Baptism Service. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 302.

[6] At the turn of the millennium I remember a surfer yelling at me about sexual abuse in the line up at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. He was angry about something that happened in his past or something he knew about. He knew I was a priest and it came out explicitly in our confrontation.

Sunday, August 19
Sunday 11 a.m. sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
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