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The Rev. Yolanda Norton’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Truth about God
“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29).
What is the truth about God?  Our 2018 Cathedral theme is truth and this seems like a good place to begin. Eleven years ago our family found ourselves behind a square iron fence at a fairground with perhaps a hundred thousand people outside. The electricity generated by all those souls felt tangible. I remember the beautiful young dancers, old men in bright robes carrying holy objects and prayers chanted so loudly over loudspeakers that you could almost think of nothing else.
We were celebrating Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany, in Addis Ababa as the special guests of the Abuna, a kind of pope for forty million Ethiopians. I will never forget the feeling I had when the people threw thousands of plastic bottles over the fence to be filled with blessed holy water.
In Greek, the word epiphany means to shine upon or to reveal. We associate this season with three images. First, it reminds us of the light present from the beginning of our world which is Christ. Second, we remember the magi, the three wise men, visitors to the baby Jesus, who some regard as representatives of, “the exotic, the secular, and the scientific world.” The other guiding story for this time tells about the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were torn apart and God’s spirit came to rest on him.
My old teacher Peter Gomes used to say that Epiphany, “is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see.” He told us that what begins as a very private message to Mary and Joseph comes to be shared with, “an ever-expanding audience of witnesses.” He compares it to the ripples formed when you drop a pebble into a smooth pond (until the entire surface is witness to the initial movement of that one stone).
That Ethiopian day in the midst of the largest crowd I had ever seen we lost our five-year-old daughter. So much was happening, I took a photograph, and in a heart stopping instant she was gone. Then we noticed all the television cameras moving to a place where there was a commotion. There was our daughter sitting on the Abuna’s lap as he presided from his throne over the largest religious ritual I will ever see.
My wife picked her up and the two of them were on every television station and the front page of every newspaper. Wherever we went in Ethiopia after that people recognized them and gave them special gifts. This event led to an amazing sense of connection to others.
We long to be known, and during that time we were. It was as if the special admiration that we have for our own children, the way they seem so beautiful to us, was suddenly shared by a whole country of people. For those weeks it felt like all of humanity was our family.
All of us know about the opposite experience too, when instead of a person we become “traffic” to others, that is an inconveniently placed object for them. We also know what it feels like to be isolated and lonely. This week I read an article sent to me by a friend called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
The argument may be familiar to you already. It holds that the smartphones, which didn’t even exist when we went to Ethiopia, have disrupted a whole generation’s experience of childhood. They are guinea pigs measuring the effects of colossal social changes. According to the author today’s young people are far less likely to use drugs and alcohol, to have sex or even to go out with their friends. They spend about the same amount of time doing homework as earlier generations.
The difference is that young people today spend a massive amount of time on smartphones and social media. This leads to loneliness, a feeling of being left out, depression and suicide. The author writes that girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by fifty percent. Three times as many 12 to 14 year old girls kill themselves today than did in 2007. She also writes that those who attend religious services have a much lower risk for depression.
This is a time when we really need God to be revealed to our children, and to us. Yet sometimes it seems as if even devout Christians are strangely uninterested in coming to know God. Many people seem satisfied to say simply that “God is love” without caring much about the details, without learning what the Bible and tradition teaches about God’s nature.
This puzzles me. Imagine if we were having a conversation and I told you that I love my wife. What if you asked where she grew up and I said, “I don’t know.” You might say, “Well what kind of music does she listen to?“ or “what does she look like?” “is she shy or gregarious?” If I told you that I didn’t know, you’d probably think there was something seriously wrong with our relationship. One of the most upsetting realizations we can have about someone we love is that they do not really know us.
Loving someone means trying to learn about that person. We find out about God through prayer and worship, in studying scripture and the tradition, by talking to each other and by trying to follow God’s teaching in how we live (by the way this includes everything from how we drive to how we talk about other people).
In baptism we promise to learn more about God and to help our children to do the same. In baptism we renew a relationship that God first began at creation. In baptism we say, “I belong no longer to myself, to my parents, my work, to the Internet or the world; I belong to God.”
Some of you may know that I am on a quest to understand God through the eyes of the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Last year I read 2,000 pages of Church Dogmatics his 9,000 page systematic theology. He asserts that we can know something about God because God cares enough about us to show himself in the Bible, in preaching and the person of Jesus himself. For Barth, this God of the scriptures is above all the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the Epiphany story of Jesus’ baptism shows us each aspect of who God is.
Trinity means that we experience God as three persons who have one being or essence. In an analogous way you might experience me as a husband on a double date, as a parent coaching rugby, or as a priest here at Grace Cathedral. You will see a different aspect of me in each of those settings but the being behind all of those experiences, that is me, is the same.
Barth points out that there is within us a kind of enmity toward God. We are kind of like frenemies (friend-enemies) with God. This isn’t just about us as individuals. We learn how to be with God in large part from our culture, which in Western Europe and North America has begun to bend further away from God.
In a recent article the actor Russell Brand who plays the rock star in the old movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall writes about what he is learning in overcoming his addiction to drugs. In a 12-step program Brand recognized his powerlessness over drugs and turned his life over to God, the only one who could save him. It made him realize that all of us live by an unconscious myth that in his words, “we can make ourselves feel better with external stuff, be it behavior or chemicals.”
With our lives we may often miss the mark but Jesus shows that we do not have to be lost in our misplaced efforts to find security and love by putting ourselves above others.
Over time this Spirit changes us so that gratitude is no longer just the way we think or even behave. Gratitude becomes our very essence. For Barth, in the end this is all about joy. God’s joy leads to the creation of the world. In this same joy God invites us into the Divine life and through the Spirit gives us the ability to say “yes” to God with our whole being. It was this joy that I sensed on that day as the Ethiopians threw their water bottles over the fence.
Brothers and sisters welcome to the Year of Truth at Grace Cathedral. We all long to know and to be known. Like those exotic, secular and scientific Magi let us follow the star of wisdom and come to know the One we love. In the face of all that threatens this generation let the light of Epiphany, the person of Jesus become ever clearer to us. As the ripples of the waters at Jesus’ baptism reach the shores of our time let us find our own way to say, “I belong to God.” Imagine the truth about God we are about to discover.
 Our Cathedral’s 2018 theme is truth. I hope that we will learn new truth about our own lives, and our relation to others. We will explore the truth in journalism, ethics, politics, the economy, sociology, the natural and biological sciences and technology. This week our federal government opened up the process to begin selling offshore oil drilling leases. In our time we need to especially open our eyes to the truth about nature and our planet. Associated Press, “Alaska May Open Up Again for Oil Leasing, but Risks Linger,” The New York Times, 5 January 2018.
 Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 31.
 Ibid., 30-6.
 Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017. David Smith sent the article. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
 “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.” Ibid.
 This reminds me of the sense of misplaced attention in the billboards that say that we spend more time reading billboards than planning for our retirement.
 Ethan Renoe, “The Tragedy of Dumbing Down Christianity,” Relevant, 22 December 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/article/the-tragedy-of-dumbing-down-christianity/
 Paraphrase of Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 33.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clarke, 1936), 88-120.
 Ibid., 444ff.
 Jesse Carey, “The Second Coming of Russell Brand,” Relevant, 8 October 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/feature/the-second-coming-of-russell-brand/
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.T. Thomposon, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clarke, 1956) 371
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 669.
 Ibid., 647.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
Beloved, we are God’s children now.
On All Saints Sunday we celebrate all God’s beloved children. We celebrate the saints you see in the stained glass windows – our family picture album of the great and glorious and frankly somewhat weird characters who are heroes of our faith. This year we remember those we see in the other family album of the AIDS quilts – mainly young men, mainly gay, who allowed us to share in their hard journey of suffering, allowed us to embrace them as brothers and sisters. And every year we give thanks for all the unsung saints of our own lives who have brought God’s love a little closer to us.
For this isn’t primarily a day for the Shakespeares and Einsteins or even the Kardashians of the kingdom of God. It’s a day for the everyday Janes and Joes whose names are not remembered by the church but who are equally precious in the sight of God. This is not a day when we celebrate the shining accomplishments of the few but the blessed loveliness of the many.
Beloved, we are God’s children now.
Let me tell you of one of my own saints, my oldest brother – Geoffrey. His life was desperately short – he was just three years old when he died from the multiple disabilities that had been with him since birth. I was only born a few weeks before Geoffrey died so I never got to know him. But I lived in the gift of his legacy. In one way Geoffrey could not be said to have achieved anything in his short life – he was never even able to walk or speak or feed himself. But in another way he achieved so much. His birth began my mum and dad’s journey as parents, while his total dependence gave them and his other carers an opportunity to offer unconditional love. He opened the hearts of those around him by his need and vulnerability and so made the world a more loving, God-filled place.
There is no life which is too restricted, too little, to be a beacon of God’s love. To be a saint in someone’s life. This is one of the ways that our faith is so stunningly counter-cultural. We don’t place premium value on doing and accomplishment, we place it on being and on loving. These 13 young lives who are being welcomed into the cathedral family today are all equally beloved by God. They will continue to be equally beloved and equally valued whatever they achieve or fail to achieve in their lives. There is no competition here – no way to gain more of God’s love or to lose even a drop of it – we are God’s beloved children now.
And this takes us some of the way but not quite all the way into the story of All Saints Day. For it’s impossible to think about All Saints without thinking about death as well as life. All these people remembered around us in the windows and the quilts are dead. They haven’t ‘passed’ – after all no one gets to fail the test of death – they died. And death is scary, let’s not pretend otherwise. That’s why we all dress up in silly costumes and go out in the dark on hallowe’en – to scare away the monsters and bogeymen that hide in the dark of death. Getting some life-giving sweetness along the way from the candy given by the kindness of strangers.
Death is scary partly because it brings with it the heartbreaking pain of loss for those left behind. And it is also deeply scary because we don’t know what happens to us next. But our readings today give us some hints if we are willing to accept them. There is the reassurance of Revelation’s promise that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Then there is the letter of John admitting we don’t know exactly what we will become, but also saying: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him”. We will be like Christ, like God. We will be like our heavenly parent.
We – us everyday and extraordinary Janes and Joes – will be like the one who loves all of us intimately, individually and equally. We will be like the one who defeated death. We will be like the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness and who longs for all her children to be peacemakers. We will be part of a whole ginormous shining crowd of people who are like God. Part of the crowd with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Francis, with Gary and Andrew named on the quilts, with my brother Geoffrey, with your own beloved dead.
Beloved we are God’s children now. This is the identity we celebrate and claim for our own in baptism. This is the identity we live into together as a community of faith, a family of spiritual seekers. This is the identity we share with the whole communion of saints, living and dead. And this is the identity that awaits us all on the far side of death as we are transformed to an even closer resemblance to our heavenly mother.
Beloved we are God’s children now. How will you live into that identity? What legacy will your life leave for God’s children who are being baptized today and those yet unborn? How will you have touched the world with God’s gentleness? Where will you have sown seeds that bear fruit in the future? What will you have given time, talents and treasure to in order to build a hope-filled world?
My closing prayer is very short and comes through words by Michael Leunig:
“Let us live in such a way
That when we die
Our love will survive
And continue to grow. Amen.”
The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones preached from notes. No manuscript will be available.
“… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all” (Mark 10).
The film begins with an indistinct figure furtively pulling a chain across a country road. The next frame shows professional skateboarder Liam Morgan charging down hill. Watching him draws you to the edge of your seat – he seems so close to disaster. He shifts into a speed crouch accelerates and then carves through impossible turns. He slides into light and then shade, on a perfect afternoon.
A voice-over interviewer asks for his advice. “What would you say to kids who want to be pro downhill skaters?” As he answers you realize that the chain was to stop cars from coming up the road while he was bombing down it.
People often complain about getting older. They are right about your body not working as well. But one of the greatest blessings is that as you add more seasons to your life you encounter more people. You see how their stories develop and connect. There is a joy in watching time pass, in seeing the changes it brings. God blesses us with the gift of holding the past and the present simultaneously in our mind.
I have known Liam for his whole life. I think I baptized him. A third of the video shows him skateboarding the same street our old church is on and talking about how various friends were injured there.
He answers the question of how to become a pro skater. He says that the most important thing is not getting sponsored. It is not the free equipment, travel, fame and money. He says that you need to skate for the love of the activity itself. In fact, he says it will be more fun for you without the money and fame.
We have a hard time understanding this. In our society so much seems to be based on buying, selling and competing. We see so many advertisements that tell us that we will be happier with an upgrade to first class, an exclusive sports car or a beautiful house. We are more likely to be fooled into thinking that going to the best college or getting the most prestigious job will make us happy.
When James and John ask Jesus for the seat of honor it is like calling shotgun to claim the front passenger seat. They want to be upgraded, set above and apart from the other disciples. This makes their friends angry.
It is easy for us to look down on them as if we were not trying in our own way to get seats of honor ourselves. Because we stand on this side of history we know that the people on Jesus’ right and left are the ones who are crucified with him.
Jesus says that being the winner, having that seat of honor or any other special privilege that sets us apart, is far less joyful than being the one who serves others. We were made to care for each other, to find fulfillment in our connections, even by our dependence on each other. The most complete person will be the one most fully committed to others.
So many times I have heard this story about the greatest one being servant of all. It is not wisdom that you hear once and then are immediately changed forever. We keep coming back to Jesus’ words because we need help with this. The presence of Jesus in stories like this transforms our life over time. We hear this story over and over and like a sunflower we turn our face to the light.
Last week I received a letter from a friend who used to surf with Liam’s dad and me. He wrote, “even more than the waves I remember our time together on our way to the ocean.”
I sometimes wonder how Liam will answer the sponsorship question twenty years from now. I wonder if he will say that even more important than skating itself are the friendships he has made through it.
Your life is an adventure. Take a risk to live for something other than getting ahead of everyone else. Launch yourself down hill. Feel the wind on your face. Enjoy every turn. Love this life for its own sake. Look for chances to take care of each other.
 Prism Skate Company, “FACES – Liam Morgan,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1X-BEz9suM&feature=youtu.be
“I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” (Isa. 45).
1. What is your brand, your style, your look? What values do you communicate in your gestures and talk, how you buy, eat, read and live? Young people today refer to their “brand” in a way that I would never have imagined a decade ago. In some ways we have become more aware of how companies and politicians manipulate and control us.
Today, “nearly two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media.”1 It seems as if mass communications cannot be separated from mass manipulation. Every day we make so many conscious and unconscious decisions about how to present ourselves online.
On Tuesday The New York Times had an article about a self-improvement course for women that devolved into a kind of cult. Attracted by the promise of personal empowerment, initiates were forced to provide compromising photos or stories about themselves. Leaders threatened that this “collateral” would be used against them if they tried to leave.2
The leaders called themselves “masters” and the newer women assigned to them “slaves.” In this pyramid scheme, every night and morning slaves are required to send text messages to their master. If their master sends them a message, they have sixty seconds to respond or to suffer consequences. The initiation ritual involves being stripped, held down and branded below the hip bone with a “cauterizing device.” The brand contains the initials of the male supreme leader (who is also known as “the Vanguard”).
No matter how badly we want to be empowered we cannot accomplish this without being dependent on something else. We bear the mark of that dependency. It is part of our brand.
In 1979 Bob Dylan released a song about this experience. He says, “You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride / You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side / You may be working in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair / You may be
somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir. / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody… / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”3
2. Most often we use the expression “rendering to Caesar” as if God deserves a little of this and the government is entitled to a little of that. Jesus has something far more compelling in mind than this. Jesus strikes at the heart of our identity, our brand.
After the people had thrown palms before his path and celebrated Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, Pharisees send their students along with the Herodians to trap him. Both groups wanted political independence for Israel and hoped to discredit Jesus, to dissipate his remarkable power.
They begin by flattering him. They say he is authentic, that he speaks the truth. In the Bob Dylan sense they say that he does not serve anyone, that he is independent and impartial (the Greek expression literally means to decide without seeing a person’s face).
These religious leaders put Jesus in a double bind. They ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not” (Mt. 22). Jesus fully understands the stakes. Our translation says Jesus is, “aware of their malice,” and calls them hypocrites. He knows that if he says the tax is lawful he will be discredited among the people. And if he says it is unlawful he knows that the Imperial authorities will arrest him.
Instead Jesus says, “show me the coin used for the tax.” He then asks them whose eikon or image and inscription are on the coin. The students of the Pharisees and the Herodians answer “the Emperor.” And Jesus famously replies “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Except that’s not quite right the word. Didomi means to give, paradidomi means to pay back. More literally “pay back what belongs to the emperor and pay back what belongs to God.”
Some argue that in providing the denarius, the coin, the religious leaders have violated the first two commandments against having other gods and making images of god. In any event they are amazed and leave him.
What astonishes me about this exchange is that today the whole structure of Roman society with its emperor, slaves, centurions, temples, and coliseums, all that everyone in this story took for granted and seemed everlasting, is gone. And these simple words of Jesus are still with us. What would have been obvious to the first hearers of this gospel needs careful explanation in our time.
So let’s begin at home with the family. In Roman times, the pater familias had absolute authority over the family to the point where he could take the lives of anyone in the household with impunity. The pater patriae, literally the father of the fatherland, or the emperor, had the same power over everything and everyone in the empire. The emperor, the Caesar, is an image of god. In the same way the coin is an image of the emperor.4
Jesus says that rather than worship an image of a false image of god, dedicate yourself to the true God. He goes beyond that. Every person bears the stamp of God from the moment of our creation. Each person is a true image of God. Jude Harmon points out the perverse irony that the Emperor does not even understand his own real value.
This is partly because in Rome, by senatorial decree or self-proclamation, the Emperor was a god. This false reality was backed up by the full power of the state’s propaganda. The image of the emperor was ever-present on coins, statues, and military insignia. Authorities forced people to worship the Emperor.
In Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel Memoirs of Hadrian she tries to imagine what this felt like. In this fictional letter to Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian says, “I began to feel divine… as near perfection as my nature would permit, in fact, eternal.”5 According to this imagined Hadrian, love was a kind of control over others and in his life only perfectly achieved at one time, in one person – Antinoös (an exception to Bob Dylan’s rule).
When his lover Antinoös drowned in the Nile River in 130 AD, the Emperor Hadrian built a whole city in his memory along with twenty-eight temples throughout the Empire. He made two thousand sculptures so that we have more statues (115) of Antinoös than any other classical figure with the exception of Augustus and Hadrian. The practical effect of this state propaganda is to always remind you that you owe your very life to the emperor. What the emperor loves, you must love, because the emperor is always there.
3. At this point we have reached what Puritan sermons called “the Application.” What I said might sound like ancient history, but rulers still strain to be everywhere at all times. Visiting Kenya in the 1980’s I remember the ubiquitous official portrait of President Daniel T. arap Moi (1924-). You could find it even in the smallest most remote tea shop. A friend joked about it until we heard that people were beaten for disrespecting the image.
This brings us to an issue that has been especially troubling for me. At the end of last summer San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (1987-) began protesting police brutality against people of color by sitting during the national anthem. Since then
other players have joined this protest. Recently the president has repeatedly condemned these players and called for owners to fire them. He has ignored their complaint about racial injustice and has said that this action showed a lack of respect for people who serve in the military.
With so many issues and other injustices in the world I have been surprised by how much this upset me. Although I have not heard anyone describe it in this way, for me this is a religious issue. The president of the United States and owners of professional football teams should not compel anyone when it comes to patriotic displays – especially when this is a matter of moral conscience. The whole point of our national anthem should involve the freedom of choosing how and whether to participate. For me it feels like an empire forcing someone to pray. It is treating the nation and its leader as a god.
But this is only one of many possible examples that we see today as humans usurp the reverence that should belong only to God. Through social media, through the invocations of those who either revere or hate him, we have given the president a power over our conscious thoughts that no person has had in history.
So let me ask again knowing that you gotta serve somebody. In this world where power comes from dependence and everything comes from God – what is your brand? Around you some might have it seared on their hip, or bestowed on them through text messages. It may be part of their pride in belonging to a secret society. For others it is instantiated by statues, political parties and social media.
In this vast and beautiful and sometimes cruel world love is not control over others. We will never be satisfied by worshiping the father of the Fatherland. You and the emperor and everyone you meet shine with God’s glory. Through our actions and words let us help others to see the stamp of our maker. Let our god be God. Let our image be the image of the true God.
1 Social Media companies are not benevolent “curators” of information but have a direct stake in keeping you in their particular ecosystem even if that is accomplished by falsehoods. Benedict Carey, “How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media,” The New York Times, 20 October 2017.
2 Barry Meier, “Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded,” The New York Times, 17 October 2017. Barry Meier, “Complaints About Branding Inside Secretive Group Are Under Review,” The New York Times, 19 October 2017.
3 Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Slow Train Coming, 1979. “You may be an ambassador to England or France / You may like to gamble, you might like to dance / You may be the heavyweight champion of the world / You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls. // But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed / You’re gonna have to serve somebody, / It may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Thanks for Eric Shafer “You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody,” Day1 22 October 2017.
4 These three paragraphs come from my conversation with Jude Harmon 19 October 2017.
5 Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian tr. Grace Frick (NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1974) 144, 155.