Listen to the Latest Services

Sunday, September 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
Download service leaflet
Thursday, September 20
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
Download service leaflet

Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, September 16
The Tongue Is a Fire: The Truth of Grace
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3).

  1. Nothing is older or newer than grace. There was never a time before grace existed and yet, if we pay attention, grace will surprise us every day.

The Buddha warns his disciples that grasping his teaching can be like picking up a poisonous snake in the wilderness. Even well-meaning students may take hold of his words and draw the wrong conclusions. Furthermore they can be off not just by a little, but interpret them to mean the exact opposite of what he intended.[1]

The events in today’s gospel occur at a decisive moment in the center of the book and at a crossroads. Jesus and the disciples travel first through mostly Jewish territory and then through the Gentile lands on their way to Jerusalem. As hearers of this story we know who Jesus is, that at his baptism God called Jesus his beloved son. We watch the disciples learn this for themselves.

As they walk Jesus asks them “Who do people say I am?” And they respond, “John the Baptist… Elijah… one of the prophets” (Mk. 8). When he says, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers perfectly and calls him the Christ or the Anointed One. Jesus asks them to keep silent about this and goes on plainly to explain what this will mean. The Son of Man will suffer, be rejected by the chief priests and killed.

But Peter has been bitten by the proverbial Buddhist snake. He heard the teaching and knows the right words but interprets them in the opposite way. He rebukes Jesus and tries to convince him to turn aside from accepting suffering at the hands of the authorities. You might think that Jesus may be over exaggerating when he says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

But picture the scene. Jesus and his friends are walking the road toward Caesarea Philippi and the temple that Herod the Great constructed which Philip II dedicated it to Augustus (63 BC – 44AD) the first Roman Emperor. The Emperor’s title is “Divi Filius” or “Son of the Divine.”[2] The Gospels contrast Jesus and the emperor.

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is an entirely new picture of what the word “Messiah” means. Jesus is not merely a stronger version of the dictators that we are all familiar with. He does not defeat bullying, abuse, and terror with more of the same. He does not simply replace the current king with a more powerful version. Instead Jesus subverts the whole idea that we should dedicate our lives to gaining power by manipulating and terrorizing over others.

He outlines the paradox of our existence as complex primates when he says that we will not thrive unless we deny ourselves, unless we live for something great even if it means taking up our cross. “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk. 8).

  1. The other night I asked my family for examples of people we knew who had gained the world but in the process lost their lives. In the San Francisco of 2018 this is a common occurrence. Our friends, neighbors, even we ourselves have so much and yet somehow it isn’t enough.

Robert Sapolsky writes about the biology of pleasure in his book Behave. He points out that the more often our bodies are exposed to a positive stimulus, the less we experience satisfaction from it. Biologists call this habitation and it is the phenomena that, “nothing is ever as good as that first time.”

This is made more complicated because modern people have invented “pleasures far more intense than anything offered by the natural world.” This is true of food, sex, comfort, novel experiences, arresting images, vivid music, etc. He writes, “Once, we had lives that, amid considerable privation, also offered numerous subtle, hard-won pleasures. And now we have drugs that cause spasms of pleasure and dopamine release a thousandfold higher than anything stimulated in our old drug-free world.”

As a result Sapolsky claims that we experience a kind of emptiness arising out of, “this combination of over-the-top non-natural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation.” Now we “barely notice the fleeting whisper of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn or the lingering glance of the right person… our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get.”[3]

 

And so I guess there is a biological sense in which, “whoever would save his life will lose it.” One can also come at this from a social perspective too. The Process Theologian Bernard Loomer (1912-1985) writes about two kinds of power.[4]

First there is what he calls unilateral power. This is all too familiar in the rhetoric of our time. It builds walls, makes threats, and deploys overwhelming force to intimidate and demean. It is a sneering “us versus them” picture of the world, which forces others to submit rather than making decisions in consultation with them. This is the way of Caesar, or the Emperor.

Loomer contrasts this with relational power. This involves working cooperatively through inclusion, empathy and listening. It means learning from people who differ from us. Relational power respects the interests and experiences of others in the way that good couples and parents do. This is the way of Jesus who sees the blessedness in the meek and the extraordinary value of peacemakers as children of God (Mk. 5).

  1. Last night the Hawaiian activist Nainoa Thompson told some stories that give me a picture of what it looks like to lose your life and end up saving it. When my wife’s grandmother was a child it became illegal to speak the Hawaiian language in school. By law teachers had the right to beat Hawaiian children for simply communicating with each other. The flourishing Hawaiian culture of the nineteenth century with its high rates of literacy and large number of Hawaiian language newspapers was devastatingly suppressed.

Nainoa Thompson said that as a result of this, “Hawaiians were conditioned to fail. The pain of failure felt so severe that it meant that you just never tried as a result.”[5]

You might remember Thor Heyerdahl’s book Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific on a Raft (1950). Heyrdahl built and sailed a raft to test his hypothesis that the Polynesian Islands were settled by people who basically just floated there from the Americas.[6] Remarkably no one in those days seemed able to believe that the ancient Hawaiians were capable of getting there themselves. In fact they were the greatest navigators in human history and had the technology to sail against prevailing winds and currents.

So in 1973 the Polynesian Voyaging Society was established to try to recover the art and technology of long-distance canoe travel along with the culture that had been lost.[7] They built the Hōkūle’a and with the help of a Micronesian teacher they sailed to Tahiti and back. I saw the picture of the Hōkūle’a’s arrival in Papeete. It seemed as if half the population greeted them on the beach. The Hawaiians realized that this was more than just a Hawaiian project.

On the second voyage a huge storm with stacked waves flipped the canoe. It could not be righted. In the thunderous gale the thirteen person crew was sitting on the top of one hull periodically getting tossed into the sea and somehow managing to crawl back up again. Eddie Aikau the heroic lifeguard who made 600 rescues at Waimea Bay set off on his surfboard to get help.

Nainoa Thompson swam out to talk to Eddie and was the last person to see or touch him before he paddled over mountains of water. The rest of the crew was miraculously rescued by helicopter in the middle of the night. With tears in his eyes Thompson describes the terrible sorrow that he saw in Eddie’s mother when they arrived at the airport.

Eddie gave his life that day for the sake of the Hōkūle’a and its crew. But since then Nainoa Thompson also has given his life for this project too. Through his father’s inspiration the demoralized voyagers decided to not give up. In 2013 the ship circumnavigated the world. Hawaiians have a new sense of pride in their heritage as wayfinders and navigators. But his mission is not just about Hawaiians. He has dedicated his whole life to also helping us to take better care of the vast Pacific Ocean and the whole earth. The sister vessel Hikianalia arrives today. You can see it at Aquatic Park.

St. Augustine talks about a life that is “incurvatus se” or curved in on itself. Instead of living like a tightly closed fist Jesus invites us to open ourselves. Today at Grace Cathedral we celebrate 169 years of just this kind of openness as a congregation. The first rector John Leonard ver Mehr (1809-1886) arrived in 1849. He worried about whether the congregation understood his preaching But most of all he cared for everyone who crossed his path not just Episcopalians. He ministered to sailors who had been convicted of mutiny and were about to be hanged on their ship. He founded schools because he cared so much about children

From that first Sunday when miners slipped an envelope of gold dust into the church collection plate to today we have been gathered as a people losing our lives with each other, for each other and for the world. We have boldly courageous heroes like Eddie Aikau and humble ones who set the world on fire with their stories like Nainoa Thompson. In this world of people who are unable to really feel because they have been saturated and numbed by pleasure we find new life in Jesus. We call it grace. God’s grace is the ship that carries us. God’s grace always surprises us.

 

#RobertSapolsky, #EddieAikau,

[1] The Buddhist story and more coms from, Liz and Matt Boulton, “Crossroads: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Seventeenth Week after Pentecost,” SALT, 11 September 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/9/11/crossroads-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-seventeenth-week-after-pentecost

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarea_Philippi

[3] Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 69.

[4] Bruce G. Epperly, “Jesus’ Lesson in Large Hearted Theology,” The Christian Century, 14 August 2018. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/september-16-ordinary-24b-mark-827-38

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Loomer

[5] Nainoa Thompson, “An Afternoon with Wayfinder and Master Navigator Nainoa Thompson,” lecture at Capachino High School, San Bruno, California, 15 September 2018.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kon-Tiki_expedition

[7] http://www.hokulea.com/vision-mission/

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

The Audacity of Faith, The Destruction of Nature

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

(Mk. 7).

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Sermons

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

Thursday, July 19
Why a Rugby Evensong?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Read sermon

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10).

A year ago when Ellen Clark King, the Cathedral’s Executive Pastor, and I heard that the World Seven’s would be in San Francisco this summer we instantly knew what we had to do. We felt compelled to host a Rugby Evensong. Since then dozens of people have asked us “What is a rugby evensong?”

I need to begin by saying something about what evensong and rugby are. Evensong has a special meaning to the global English-speaking church. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) and the other originators of this tradition imagined that profound daily worship should not just be for monks and nuns. They took the monastic service and shared it with everyone.

We love how Evensong especially values harmony, beauty, simplicity and humility. It is about the daily rhythm of our life, the movement from light and security into the perils of the dark. It is about the way God blesses every moment of our day, and our life, and even our death.

At first, rugby might seem like just a game that began around the time this Cathedral was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century. At Rugby School in England William Webb Ellis famously broke the rules and picked up the ball and started running. The game that grew from that act, involves moving an oblong ball up field by passing it backwards or laterally to your teammates as opponents try to stop the ball by tackling you.

Of course there is so much more to it than this. Rugby also includes kickoffs, rucks, line outs, scrums, kicking to touch, etc. The sport involves far less individual specialization than American football or baseball. As a result its players exhibit an impressive overall athleticism that makes it unique. Everyone on the field plays defense and can score. Every player has a high level of stamina, strength, speed and agility.

Rugby is a dangerous activity. It requires physical courage. This week we will be praying for players in the tournament and around the world. We will pray that all players will use the courage they learned on the field to make our world better.

This all brings us back to our original question. Why would Grace Cathedral host what might be the world’s first Rugby Evensong? I have two answers.

First, in our mostly automated world rugby is one of the human endeavors that requires a total commitment of one’s whole self. Every player on the pitch needs to maintain complete focus physically, emotionally and mentally. This makes it a kind of metaphor for the spiritual life. At no moment do we cease to be spiritual beings. To use a phrase from William James there are no moral holidays, our actions matter.

In our gospel reading tonight Jesus asks a young man to answer his own question about inheriting eternal life. To do this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10). Just as William Webb Ellis broke the rules to create something new and beautiful Jesus asks us to do the same. We are called to love our neighbors in ways that might upset how things are usually done.

Second, rugby in my experience is unique in its culture of fellowship and unity. In our society winning has become everything. Yesterday a New York Times reporter pointed out that this naturally leads to “toxic hostility” even toward youth game referees.[1] In rugby excellence matters but there is always a higher value.

I’m grateful to have been introduced into adulthood by older rugby players and coaches who understood how important this spirit of fellowship is. In my days as a player and coach we always hosted opposing teams for meals after the game. It was a chance to celebrate and socialize. After the best game of my life I remember meeting the player who had just broken my finger. His family owned a restaurant along Highway 80 and I always think of him when I drive past there.

This week Barak Obama gave a lecture on the centenary celebration of Nelson Mandela’s birth.[2] He talked about the long road from colonialism and racism to a new world of democracy and human dignity. In these times of polarization and distrust rugby is part of how we overcome the greatest challenges of our time.

In the rhythm of my life I have become old enough so that I will probably never charge down the rugby pitch to make a tackle, or leap into the air to catch a lineout or kickoff, or bury my head in the scrum. But I still dream of these things. More than ever before I have come to understand the darkness and perils of this life.

But I also have a greater appreciation for the power of humble people, for the way that simple human fellowship can drive away despair. And with every year, I grow in gratitude that through each moment God continues to preserve and nurture us.

[1] Bill Penningnton, “Parents Behaving Badly: A Youth Sports Crisis Caught on Video,” The New York Times, 18 July 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/18/sports/referee-parents-abuse-videos.html?emc=edit_sp_20180719&nl=sports&nlid=1350863320180719&te=1

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/17/world/africa/obama-speech-south-africa-transcript.html

Sunday, July 15
King Philosopher Television Celebrity
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Read sermon

“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 1
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Mary Carter Greene
Read sermon

The Rev Mary-Carter Greene’s sermon will be available soon.

Sunday, June 24
And They Said To Jesus, “Don’t You Care?”
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Read sermon

Proper 7B – 24 June 2018

I Samuel 17:57––18:5, 10-16; Psalm 133; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

 

“He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ’Peace! Be still!’”

The noise and storms in our country’s life

continued at gale force this week as we were unable to turn away

from the faces and voices of families from other countries and cultures seeking refuge from places of violence and want,

desiring a new life of productivity, safety and freedom.

Fears and passions all around about security, resources, fairness,

rule of law, basic humanity, care for the most vulnerable,

fear about “what we’ve become.”

Much of our information and emotion about these events

were carried in persistent sights and sounds: images:

 

  • a sea of crinkly, shiny blankets

which we first had always associated with space travel,

then as shoulder wraps for panting marathon runners,

and now, universally and finally,

with the shivering refugee plucked from the cold sea

or their children,

laid down to rest on the concrete floor

of a sloughed-off shell of a dead Wal-Mart.

 

  • The stunning image of an alleged adult sporting a sloppy $39 jacket designed (what a word), no doubt,

for the constantly replenished worldwide market

of sullen pre-teens:

“I really don’t care, do u?”

 

  • And the audio image (can I say that?) of fearful and panicked cries

of kids, ordinary kids in extraordinarily terrifying circumstances.

 

  • And the noise and nonsense from other alleged adults ––news anchors and panelists and politicians––

shouting over each other to define what is true

about these events and their consequences.

“Peace! Be still!”

 

What image keeps returning to you

and how does it inform

what you think about, feel about, believe about, and

if your answer to the jacket’s question is, “Well, yes, actually I do care, ” what you intend to do about this particular crisis, moment of judgment.

 

Besides all these and others,

two other small images remain with me.

 

 

  • One commentator caught the frustrating absurdity of it for me,

marveling and lamenting

the impassioned “nitpicking about the precise meaning of a ‘cage.’”

This is the level of discourse, debate and discussion

to which we’ve descended.

 

  • The second abiding image I have is also of a “designed” piece of clothing, a t-shirt.

Six years ago the very talented 31 year-old American singer, songwriter, rapper, record producer and photographer

Frank Ocean

broke the rigid rules of Hip-Hop music culture

by revealing on his Tumblr blog

that his life’s first and most significant love

had been with another man.

A commentator in that field bypassed the old predictable knee-jerk response of disavowal and prediction of a career tanking.

Instead he wrote:

“Today is a big day for hip-hop.

It is a day that will define who we really are.

How compassionate will we be?

How loving can we be?

How inclusive are we?”

 

Frank Ocean showed up at a notable summer music festival a year ago

wearing a message on a t-shirt he had designed:

Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic

when you could just be quiet?

[“Peace! Be still!”]

Someone this week suggested adding, “Why be xenophobic,

or Islamophobic … when you could just be quiet?”

 

Followers of Jesus may be called to imitate him

and to silence destructive or false clamors and claims

and to call forth some peace:

 

No, it’s simply not true

that violent crime is increasing or even significant

in immigrant populations.

No, we will not be swayed by charged terms like “infest”

or disgraceful references to groups of people being called “animals.”

 

Because, yes, we really do care.

We will speak out, witness for, and engage in hard debate

about assessing challenging situations

and struggling for polices and practices

to resolve challenges in our shared life on this planet.

 

In this case, a recent study

(from the UN, six months ago, I have the reference)

there are now an estimated 258 million people living in a country

other than their country of birth —

3.4% of the world’s inhabitants today are international migrants.

Less than two years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted

the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants,

in which Member States agreed to implement

well-managed migration policies.

They also committed to sharing more equitably

the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting

the world’s refugees, protecting the human rights of all migrants, and countering xenophobia and intolerance directed towards migrants. …

“Reliable data and evidence are critical to combat misperceptions

about migration and to inform migration policies”

 

Reliable sources of our faith and hope and just what we stand for

are critical as well:

“They took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”

No armed king or superhero, no demagogue

but the good shepherd who would one day be the gentle lamb led to slaughter. Jesus, “just as he was,” accompanies us

through every dark storm or encounter with systemic evil fueled by fear.

 

His weapon and method are a creative, healing word: “Peace! Be still!”

St. Paul’s announces this morning:

“Now is the day of salvation

Now is the acceptable time.”

For what?

To define who we really are.

To ask: “How compassionate will we be?

How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?”

If Hip-Hop can do it,

maybe our citizenry, our press, and our leaders can do it.

Personal life circumstances, and the challenges facing

our city, our great nation, and the global community

are almost overwhelming.

“A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat,

so that the boat was already being swamped. …They woke him up…

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Yes, I do care.

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

Get to work.

Set sail, keep rowing,

silence the storms and the demons,

and bring some peace and decency and refreshment.

 

Wednesday, June 20
“Who do you think you are?” A Pride Message from The Vine SF
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
Read sermon
Sunday, June 17
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

The Very Rev. Alan Jones preached from notes rather than a prepared manuscript, so a text of the sermon is not available.

What's Happening at Grace Cathedral?

Connect with Us