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Sunday, January 13
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, January 17
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, January 13
Seeking Reality
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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Seeking Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, December 2
The Curse and Blessing of Our Expectations
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3).
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“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3).

 

The thirty-nine year old man at the L’Enfant Metro subway station in Washington D.C. wore a Nationals baseball hat, a long-sleeved t-shirt and blue jeans.[1] He set up his violin, threw a few dollars into the case as seed money and at 7:51 a.m. on a cold winter day he began to play six pieces of classical music. Two things were remarkable about the next forty-three minutes.

First, was his seemingly perfect invisibility to nearly everyone. The musician remarked, “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all… Because you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!” Of the 1,097 people who passed only seven stopped for more than a minute. Twenty-seven gave a total of $32.17. He was universally ignored by every demographic category, by men and women, workers and retired people, rich and poor, Asian, white and African-American – with the one exception of children. They tried to stop and listen but their parents always hurried them on.

People lined up at a nearby lottery machine and didn’t even turn around. A deafening silence followed the end of each piece. Only once was there more than one person listening. Of the 1,097 people only one person recognized who he was and only one other person really stopped to listen.

Yes the second remarkable fact was that this was Joshua Bell who later that year won the Avery Fisher Prize as the best classical musician in America. He was playing some of the most powerful and difficult music ever written, on a Stradivarius violin built in 1713 which last sold for $3.5 million. The night before he had filled Symphony Hall in Boston with people paying about $100 per ticket.

The woman who recognized him said, “people were not stopping, and not even looking… I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”

Why were so few people able to receive this gift? Quite simply it was because they were not expecting it. To use Jesus’ words, “their hearts were weighed down with… the worries of life” so that this moment of grace caught them “unexpectedly” (Lk. 21). Expectations matter. They constantly give form to the reality that we experience.

Have any of you ever watched the sardines that circle around the entryway to the Outer Bay exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium? All these shining fish go clockwise around the light blue top of the circular room together as a school. But one sardine swims above all the others and goes the opposite way. Being a Christian in Advent is a little like this. The Christian in December is the same kind of creature, doing the same kind of thing in the same kind of environment but differently.

Welcome to the season of Advent, a time of expectations, the church’s new year observance when the world around us seems both strangely near to and oddly distant from our hopes. It is a time of imperfect harmony. The world waits for Christmas and expects to experience a little more generosity and kindness than we see at other times of the year. We as Christians participate in this too. We might even recognize some of our hymns played in shopping malls, but we also have much higher expectations. We expect the coming of the Holy One. We await the advent of the Christ. We hope that Jesus will be born in our hearts.

For every human being what we hope will happen is a vital part of our experience of what already is and who we are. Today I am wondering about the difference between expectations that deceive and damage us, and expectations that save us and show us the way into new life?

A few years ago I went to a dinner banquet for alumni from Bowles Hall, the last all male residence in the University of California system. Some men there had distinguished careers and one of us even has an airport named after him. But the group who had been in college with me seemed weighed down with the heaviness of failure. One friend had lost a fortune in the last year and was working at a job that he considered below his capabilities. Another just never felt like he lived up to his potential. I had known these gray-haired men when they were goofy freshmen and the sadness of these unfulfilled expectations moves me.

We talked about the 2008 movie The Wrestler as a kind of symbol for our experience. The wrestler played by Mickey Rourke is about a man in his forties who had been a celebrity professional wrestler back in the 1980’s. Despite his now painfully ruined body he tries to make a comeback until a heart attack forces him to reevaluate his life. He reaches out to his estranged daughter, becomes close to a stripper with whom he has fallen in love. But he cannot change. He cannot free himself from the expectations that have motivated his life for twenty-five years. He seems bent on his own destruction. His dreams are literally killing him.

Tragedy could be defined as suffering for who we are. The pain is magnified by the feeling that we cannot in any meaningful way change. But all of us can change our expectations, not only of our circumstances, but of other people and even of ourselves.

The nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was famous for his pessimism. He believed in a fatalism that makes us victims of a malicious universe which controls our happiness through our circumstances in life. He wrote that, “Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.”[2] What I mean by our expectations is not merely fantasizing that good things will happen to us. I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking.

I’m just saying that our well-being includes a subjective element. How we respond to what happens to us is a more important determinant of our happiness than our situation. When we regard ourselves as mere responders, when we think that quality of our life comes from our health, wealth, position, power, experience or good fortune, we tend to ignore the good things we already have. Expectations that lead us to disapprove of or condemn others diminish us right now. This way of experiencing other people will keep us from growing into our fullness as children of God.

You may be surprised to hear it, but despite his reputation John Calvin (1509-1564) has done more than almost any other person to influence my faith. He points out that one of the most deeply rooted human beliefs is our expectation that God will not take care of us. Most of our behavior having to do with the future rests on this assumption. Because of this, for Calvin faith is not merely believing that God exists, but believing that God loves and cares for us.[3]

We see this in Jesus’ sacrifice for us. We understand its implications through the inspiration of the spirit. Becoming a Christian means beginning to live as people who know that they depend on God.

In so many ways people sit in judgment of God.[4] They have their own idea of justice which is biased deeply in their own favor. They think that they could run the universe better than God does. They easily become angry with God about what happened to us in the past.

What is it that sets Christians apart – I believe it is the expectation that God will be good to us in the future. My college friends have a faith that rests in their individual accomplishments, in the respect that other people have for them and in the wealth that they believe will protect them. Everything in their life depends on what happens to be given to them on the outside.

But we are like that sardine swimming above it all. The world is baffled by Christian faith because it comes from the inside. This trust in God’s goodness leads to a new experience of reality based on gratitude and love.

It is the expectation that the most powerful change we witness in our life will be the change in our own hearts as we turn our life to God.[5] The experience of being God’s children makes us more accepting of other people’s faults. It changes our expectations of what God should be doing for us, so that we can receive the gifts that God is actually giving us.

One of my favorite lines in scripture comes from Paul’s letter to his friends in distant Thessalonica. Scholars believe that these are the oldest words in the New Testament. He writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3:9). Paul loved those imperfect people in the way that we love each other here at Grace Cathedral. This attitude of joy and gratitude arises naturally out of our faithful expectations.

Literally one person in a thousand recognized Joshua Bell as he played the violin in the subway station. Only one other person really heard him, John Picarello, a short man with a baldish head who works as a supervisor for the postal service. He told a reporter what he heard. “It was a treat, just brilliant, an incredible way to start the day.”

In this winter time when the hills surrounding us become green with new life, we too can choose to be like children and receive God’s gift. How will you change your expectations this Advent? How will you let God change you?

[1] My summary cannot come close to doing justice to my excellent source. See Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can One of the Nations Great Musicians Cut Through the Fog of a D.C. Rush Hour? Let’s Find Out,” The Washington Post, 8 April 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721_pf.html

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Tr. R.J. Hollingdale (NY: Penguin, 1970), 168.

[3] Faith is knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the promise in Christ revealed by the Holy Spirit (Inst. 1:551).

[4] One of the most vivid scenes in William Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack happens when the main character, a man named Mack, encounters the spirit of God’s wisdom in a cave. In the center of the room stands the judgment seat. Mack worries that he will not be able to stand this scrutiny over his sins. He is then surprised to learn that instead this is the place where he sits to judge God. Sophia points out that judging requires us to believe that we are superior over the one being judged. William P. Young, The Shack,(Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007) 159.

[5] Calvin writes that the heart is more difficult to convert than the mind.

Sunday, November 25
Christ the King? Choosing Love over Fear
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, November 18
Getting Disillusioned
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Beware that no one leads you astray” (Mk. 13).

 

It hurts. It hurts so much that for two years I just tried not to think or talk about it. All my life I have cherished places of beauty, faith, tradition, and learning – places like the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My grandfather who, was an Episcopal priest, studied at that seminary in the 1930’s. He married my grandmother in St. John’s Chapel on campus. Then in retirement they lived around the corner from its grassy lawns and stone buildings. As a child I used to ride the bus to visit them and they often took me there.

The location in Harvard Square with all the resources of the university was perfect for world-class scholarship. As a young man I took classes at EDS. I even asked Heidi to marry me in that same chapel. I associate that beautiful place with clergy and teachers who had the deepest influence on my thought and faith.

Then in midsummer of 2016 the trustees voted to close the school, sell the campus and transfer the endowment to Union Seminary in New York City. The library, chapel, the teachers and that precious green space at the heart of the city will be gone and no one will ever be able to have it back again. No stone will be left standing on stone.

There was no other place like this in my life. Mark evokes this same feeling of loss and disillusionment in today’s gospel when he talks about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

We chose our Cathedral’s theme of truth, knowing that we would be reading through Mark this year. Of all the gospels this is the most direct, undistracted and paired down. Mark uses the simplest vocabulary and sentence structure. He desperately longs for us to see past our illusions and to know the truth.

The liturgical year started with the second half of this reading and finishes today with the first half. In Chapter 13 Mark employs an ancient literary form called apocalypse. It means to uncover or reveal, to literally pull back the veil so that we can see reality. Other examples of this genre appear in the Books of Daniel and Revelation.

Apocalyptic often employs vivid, poetic, even cryptic language to describe the current political situation and what will happen when God comes in glory. It describes a future when the stars fall to the “earth as the fig tree drops its fruit when shaken by a gale,” It tells of the day when everything will be finished and God will roll up the sky like a parchment (Rev. 6:13-14).

One hundred years ago W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) captured this spirit in his World War I poem “The Second Coming.” “Turning and turning in widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”[1]

Ultimately Apocalyptic as a genre is entirely about the hope that God will set things right. No matter how off kilter the world becomes God will repair all that is broken.

Some people dismiss the disciple’s amazement at the size of the Temple as the naiveté of country people who find themselves in the big city. For me what they are really saying is, “Really Jesus? This is what we are taking on?” The temple is not just about piety. It is about power.[2] For faithful people it was the sacred heart of the entire world.

Herod the Great began building this, the third temple, in 20 BC. It took 80 years to be completed. That was in the year 63, only seven years before its destruction by the Romans. The stones were 35 feet long, 18 feet wide and 12 feet high. It seemed like they would be there forever. Jesus warns that it will all be completely swept away.

Scholars believe that Mark wrote his Gospel in the immediate aftermath of the Temple’s destruction. The Roman troops had killed thousands, refugees flooded into other lands, the temple lay desecrated and in ruins. These are the ones Mark addresses.

He speaks to people in chaos and catastrophe. He stands beside the soldier damaged from the wars, the refugee with only two shirts in a smoky Wal-Mart parking lot or the one walking in an interminable caravan toward a closed distant border. He stands with the pregnant teenager, the addict, the hurt, the despairing, the ignored and left out.[3] He stands with you and me.

He gives very simple advice, “Beware that no one leads you astray” (Mk. 13). He also shares with his friends the gift of disillusionment.No one enjoys being disillusioned. We do not wake up and think, “I really hope to be disillusioned today.” We do not want to give up our false images of God, of who we are and what we deserve. We like being the center of our world. We fight against a fresh picture that reminds us just how much we depend on God.[4]

Of course the problem with fighting against our own disillusionment is that we never change. We remain stuck, remote from the truth, from the reality we crave. God disillusions us so that we might reconfigure our life, so that we might serve God in a way we had never imagined before.

We live in the time of disillusionment. This week the New York Times ran articles about Facebook’s strategy to delay, deny and deflect. These actions amounted to a refusal to take responsibility or change even as it was being manipulated by foreign spies to disrupt American life.[5]

Another three part series described the vast extent of Russian disinformation campaigns such as the false story that the American government made the AIDS virus and the one about Hilary Clinton that we call Pizzagate. The authors point out that all of us should be actively disillusioning ourselves. At every level of society we need to constantly be alert for false stories and stamp them out in the way that Eastern European countries have learned to do.[6]

Marion Nestle our Forum guest today makes a well-argued case that what we think of as healthy food has been utterly distorted by corporate interests who dominate nutrition science.[7] Over the last two years we have been taking an unasked for crash course in disillusionment. We see how much more deeply racism, sexism and homophobia infect us.

For our Advent book group we are reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. She points out that white people have a huge tendency to ignore race altogether. Then when the subject is brought up we white people become so upset that we are distracted from ever really doing something to correct this vast problem.

I pray that these last ten days of unbreathable air, the destruction of a whole town, California environmental refugees, and a still rising death toll will be enough to wake us up. We have to stop believing the illusion that the natural world is unaffected by human activity. We urgently need to do something about climate change.

It hurts doesn’t it? It hurts to become disillusioned. But that is the story of our time. Perhaps we have to become disillusioned about church too. I began by telling you how much pain I feel about the closing of Episcopal Divinity School. I wasn’t as forthcoming about another strong emotion that I associate with this – my sense of regret. Every time the matter comes up I think of the ways that I could have helped and didn’t.

These days I often remember the times when I didn’t respond to a request for feedback on a faculty tenure decision, or when I just threw the fundraising appeal away. I could have tried harder to participate in the governance of the school. In short I didn’t always act with the energy of someone who intensely cared about the school’s mission.

When our society had more people who participated in religious life, it more easily supported a larger number and variety of religious institutions. Fewer people today identify themselves as religious and frankly this means we have to change.

On Wednesday our Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed a new mission statement for Grace Cathedral. It is “Reimagining church with courage, joy and wonder.” As society changes radically, we cannot simply be satisfied to do exactly the same things in the same way. We need to see ourselves in God’s hands, changing what we do in response to the Holy Spirit.

Today on Stewardship Sunday you have the opportunity to participate in the life of the church, to be part of this reimagining. Beware that no one leads you astray. If you love what Grace Cathedral stands for, now is the moment to step up and help.

Jesus gives the gift of disillusionment. Sometimes that hurts. But he also offers hope in the middle of disaster. He gives us the chance to change our life, to serve in ways we never imagined.

In Romans the Apostle Paul writes that, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Jesus says that, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away” (Mk. 13:31). Elsewhere he says, “my peace I give to you” (Jn. 14:27). In the good times and the bad times, in catastrophe and ruin, God’s grace will always be with us. Christ perpetually present moves us faithfully nearer to the God who calls us each by name.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(poem)

[2] D. Mark Davis, “Things that Are Pangs in the Birth,” Left Behind and Loving It, 11 November 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com

[3] Matt and Liz Boulton, “Birthpangs,” SALT 14 November 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-twenty-sixth-week-after-pentecost

[4] Brad Roth, “Living By the Word: November 18, Ordinary 33B,” The Christian Century, 16 October 2018.

[5] Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg and Jack Nicas, “Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis,” The New York Times, 14 November 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/technology/facebook-data-russia-election-racism.html

[6] Adam B. Ellick, Adam Westbrook and Jonah M. Kessel, “Operation InfeKtion: The Worldwide War on Truth,” The New York Times, 13 November 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000006188105/countering-disinformation-active-measures.html?auth=login-email

[7] Marion Nestle, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat (NY: Basic Books, 2018).

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).

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 4
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
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