Listen to the Latest Services

Sunday, December 9
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
Download service leaflet
Thursday, December 6
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
Download service leaflet
Sunday, December 2
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
Download service leaflet

Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, December 9
Prophets of the Silences
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine…” (Phil. 1).

Let this Advent be for listening. In the silence above the static hear the voice of God and repent. I offer you three short chapters on silence, static and wholeheartedness.

  1. Silence. On a clear October night in 2003 Gordon Hempton awoke to a deep thumping noise. An auditory ecologist who makes his living by recording sounds ranging from the flutter of butterfly wings to coyote pups and waterfalls, he thought he was hearing a new class of supertanker offshore from his home on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It turned out that although Hempton’s consuming passion was listening to the world, he was losing his hearing.

Hempton’s life went into a nosedive. Suddenly he was cut off from what he loved most. He couldn’t work and fell into debt. But then after many months his hearing miraculously returned to normal. When it did he knew that nothing would ever be quite the same. He dedicated his life to protecting the natural soundscape or, more precisely, what he calls silence.

Hempton writes that, “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything… Silence can be found and silence can find you.”[1] We will never experience silence in the world if we cannot hear it within ourselves. There is a reason that we never evolved earlids and that the audio cortex never sleeps. A deep connection exists between silence and a creature’s feeling of safety. That is the reason wild animals do not linger long at a river whose sound masks the approach of predators.

Furthermore Hempton points out that just as species are rapidly going extinct, places of natural silence are too. A silence of longer than fifteen minutes has become incredibly rare in North America and is entirely gone in Europe. Mostly because of air traffic, there are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the U.S. And so his dream is that by preserving silence around a single square inch in Olympic National Park a new respect for silence might be introduced into human life again.

I want to say one last thing about this. Hempton thinks of silence in two ways. First, there is what he calls inner silence. This is a feeling that we carry with us wherever we go. It is a kind of sacred silence that orients us and reminds us of the difference between right and wrong. Second, there is outer silence. This happens in a naturally quiet place that invites us to open our senses and to feel our connection to everything. Outer silence replenishes our inner silence. It fills us “with gratitude and patience.”[2]

  1. Static. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Lk. 3). In the wilderness, in the presence of a silence we no longer experience, God speaks. My daughter teaches Sunday school here at Grace Cathedral. She says that prophets are people who come so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know what is most important. They know what to do. John the Baptist is a prophet of the silences.[3]

This was the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Mitch McConnell was senate majority leader and Jerry Brown was governor of California, when Joel Osteen and Franklin Graham were high priests of American religion. To us these might seem to be the most important facts of our time. But for God this is just static.

This week I made a new friend. Nathan’s father was a Lutheran pastor who moved his family to Addis Ababa Ethiopia a few days after the communist Derg took power. Nathan remembers driving to school and seeing corpses along the side of the road with signs around their necks. Thousands of people were simply executed in the night.

These same communists were the ones who chose the man who became be the Ethiopian pope. As a result for years many people believed that the government and the church were irreparably compromised. This was also the situation in ancient Palestine and its whole chain of command from the Roman emperor to the local high priest who collaborated with his officials.

The situation seemed hopeless. Where was the word of God to go? To describe this Luke uses the Greek word egeneto. It is related to our words beget, gene, generate. As in those times, today the word comes into being, it is begotten, in the same places where it always has been, in the silences removed from the places of power.

Last week on the First Sunday of Advent we celebrated the beginning of a new church year. For the next twelve months we will be closely following the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Gospel of Luke. The word gospel means good news. These poetic and practical stories were meant to be read aloud. Their purpose is to provoke hearers to re-examine their lives, to repent and believe, and ultimately to change the world.[4]

The gospel is a kind of story-telling technology for transforming the self. The problem is that we have such strong expectations for what these stories mean that we too easily miss the point. Furthermore, the words have gotten worn out in the retelling.

Everything we need to hear today is in one line. John “went into all the region about the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3). The word we translate as repentance is really metanoia it is a transformation of heart, mind and soul. The word for forgiveness is aphesis; it means to be released from captivity or slavery. The word sin is hamartia and means to miss the mark as an archer might miss the target.

 

This whole story is about how you can be released from what constrains, dehumanizes and destroys you and how you can help others to become free too. In the Book of Exodus the Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means literally the narrow place. Do you remember this summer when the Thai youth soccer team spent weeks trapped in a cave that was filling up with water? You can imagine how terrifying it would be to come to a narrow place and not know if you can make it through.

That is mitzrayim. For us the narrow place might be despair at our politics, fear of deportation, racism, homophobia, mental illness, addiction, job and housing insecurity or family conflict. Whatever might be holding you back right now, Jesus brings us the New Exodus, the real freedom to flourish in the way that God created us to.

  1. Wholeheartedness. My last point is that seeing the world in terms of sin and repentance is a kind of technique for breaking the forces that hold us captive. Brené Brown is an Episcopalian and a university professor in Texas. She began her career by studying how people derive meaning from their relationships. The more she talked to people about connection and love the more she heard about alienation and heartbreak. This led to a huge breakthrough.[5]

Brown defines shame as the fear of being disconnected from others. Every person experiences this. It is the voice inside us that says, “if they knew what I have done, they would never speak to me again,” or, “I don’t deserve to be loved,” “they prefer her to me.” The more we deny our shame or ignore it, the more powerful its hold on us. It leads us to view vulnerability as weakness and to hide who we really are.

When we hate our self it is hard not to constantly despise others. Shame isolates and brings out the worst in us. Just think of the most upsetting things you have seen on Twitter. This week in our discussion of the book White Fragility we talked about how white shame makes it difficult to have racial reconciliation in our country.[6]

Brown contrasts shame and guilt. Shame is a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that says, “I am bad.” Guilt on the other hand means doing something bad. It leads us to say, “I made a mistake.” These are really two different ways of being. On the one hand there is blame, defensiveness and denial. On the other hand there is what Brown calls wholeheartedness. Although most people associate vulnerability with weakness, vulnerability is key to this way of living. It is how we love with our whole heart.

Fear of being ridiculed, dismissed or ignored does not stop wholehearted people like this from seeking connection to others. They take risks. They are not afraid to say, “I love you,” or, “I’m sorry,” or, “forgive me.” Wholehearted people embrace the idea that what makes them vulnerable or imperfect is also what makes them beautiful.

The language of Jesus enables us to live in this better, more silent place. Sin as missing the mark, repentance as the constant process of changing our hearts, and, forgiveness as release from captivity – these basic ideas help us to see ourselves as children of God. They give us the confidence of someone who believes that nothing can irrevocably alienate us from God.

This week at George H.W. Bush’s funeral Alan Simpson talked about his friend’s wholeheartedness. He said, “George… never hated anyone…. Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”[7] This week for homework I invite you to drain your container of hatred. Try forgiving someone – it could be someone in public life like the president, or the person who lives next door to you.

In the presence of everything, discover the Holy Spirit that penetrates the static. Let repentance be your path out of shame. Enter into a wholehearted life in Christ. Come close to God so that you will know what is most important, so that you will know what to do. Let this Advent be for listening. Let silence find you.

[1] Gordon Hempton with John Grossmann, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Silence in a Noisy World (NY: Free Press, 2009) 2

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Melia taught the Godly Play lesson on the prophets for 1 Advent last week.

[4] This paragraph and next from: Matt and Liz Boulton, “Peace & Freedom: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two,” SALT, 5 December 2018.

[5] 3 Epiphany (1-26-14) A. See “The Courage to Be Vulnerable,” On Being, 21 November 2012. Also her TED talks:

Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability TEDxHouston,” December 2010,

Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/4932

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html

[6] Robin DiAngelo  White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

[7] Alan Simpson, “Eulogy for George H.W. Bush,” National Cathedral, Wednesday 5 December 2018. https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a25412509/alan-simpson-george-hw-bush-funeral-eulogy-transcript/

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).
Read sermon

“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.

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, August 28
Humble Again
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker” (Sirach 10).
Read sermon

 

“The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker” (Sirach 10).

 

When Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), the Secretary-General of the United Nations, died in a plane crash in Zambia, the discovered the following passage in his diary.

“At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the [chosen and the chooser]. Only one – which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.”[1]

For me, this means that every moment through our thoughts, words and actions we choose who we will be. We draw closer to God or stray further away. This work never happens in a vacuum. Sometimes I wonder if modern life makes this even more difficult.

Sarah Bakewell in a biography of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) complains, “The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, [YouTube videos, Facebook pages, etc.]… brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do…”[2]

Personally, I cannot say for sure whether we are more self-absorbed than people in earlier generations. Technology and culture both have changed. We express ourselves differently. But our political discourse especially seems to lack humility. Perhaps it can be measured by how often the word “great” appears in advertisements, speeches, debates and tweets (for instance in the campaign slogan “Make America great again.”).[3]

Paul Samuelson author of my first economics textbook wrote, “Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.” Indeed we are not the best judges of our own abilities. Surveys show that 90 percent of us describe ourselves as above-average drivers. It is astonishing how resistant to reality we can be. When asked the same question of drivers who were in the hospital recovering from accidents, 80 percent said they were above average.[4]

Humility makes anthropological sense. At some point, experience teaches every wise person that he or she is not as clever, attractive, kind, realistic, creative, loyal, reasonable, or just plain good, as we thought before. The motto of the Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BCE) is “Know thyself.” But this is hard. His student Plato writes that Socrates’ exceptional wisdom came from understanding how little he knew. He was right to regard humility as the foundation for all knowledge.

But the Christian tradition values humility even more highly. Today I want to explore what humility means and why it has such importance for people of faith today.

In his life, Jesus exemplified extraordinary humility. He loved the people who came to him. His heart ached for the rich young ruler. He sympathized with the Roman centurion. He sought out foreigners, prostitutes and occupying army collaborators. His enemies chiefly criticized him for sharing meals with anyone – the most impure, immoral and outlandish, the freaks and the weirdo’s. Today we believe that the presence of sinful people here this morning, praying together, sharing bread and wine, is one of the most powerful signs of God’s kingdom.

At a chief religious leaders’ house Jesus saw people scrambling for the best seats. He gives what sounds like practical advice. Sit in the lower seat and wait to be invited up. Don’t get singled out for sitting above your station. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 13).

But the point of this teaching extends far beyond seating arrangements. Jesus completely reverses everything we know about human interactions. He teaches that the future reward of dining with someone who could repay you later, is entirely eclipsed by the present delight of simply being with someone for their own sake.

The value of people is not what they might do for you some time off in the future. They are a gift just in themselves. The philosopher Immanuel Kant puts this in another way when he says that we need to treat others as ends in themselves rather than as a means to an end. The twentieth century thinker Martin Buber encourages to have “I-Thou” relationships “I-It” relations with other people.

This principle lies at the heart of our life together at Grace Cathedral. We deeply desire to be a house of prayer for all peoples. This week I spent an hour with Stuart, one of our yoga volunteers. We had a bond because at one time we had both worked for the same company. I have no idea what his experience of religion has been.

But I know a lot about his wonderful passion for Grace Cathedral. He said, “Malcolm, have you been to a meeting with our volunteer crew? They are the most amazingly diverse group. One clean shaven white guy is changing out of a business suit, talking to an Asian woman who has green hair and tattoos. They are young, old, straight, gay, African American, Korean, Buddhist, atheist, Christian, etc., …” You get the idea.

Stuart told me about the best part of his week. Six hundred people practice yoga here and many start arriving early to get the best spots. But every day the team puts out a number of mats in the best location in the Cathedral at the very center of the labyrinth. As people come in it is obvious if they have never been here before. Stuart takes these newcomers, arriving late, and he puts them in the best spot in the house. He smiled at me and said, “imagine going to a rock concert and having them tear up your tickets to put you in the very first row.”

Stuart’s self totally disappeared. This is humility. When you are in the presence of someone with true humility you know it. The monk Curtis Almquist calls it, “a gift.” It is, “the secret everyone knows about you but from which you are kept in the dark.”[5]

For the opposite of humility Christians use the word pride. This is confusing because the word pride has other more common meanings. The word pride can describe the good feeling that we have when someone recognizes that we have done good work. We also use this word to express affection like when we say we are proud of our daughter, or proud to be a Golden Bear. These are not sins!

The sin of Pride means caring only about our own ego. It involves feeling better about ourselves at the expense of other people. Pride means having no room in our conscious life for anything but our own well-being. C. S. Lewis writes, “There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others… Pride is essentially competitive… As long as you are proud you cannot know God… Pride eats up the very possibility of love.”[6]

According to much of Christian tradition pride is not merely a serious sin, but the most serious sin, the one that leads to other cruelty, betrayals, and lies that damage other people and the world. The great Sufi mystical poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) writes, “The lovers of God have no religion but God alone.”[7] To be a lover of God our ego needs to stop being our religion. We have to learn to love ourselves and others in a new way.

Life has taught each of us to be an expert in forming judgments of other people. We have a sense for who we should trust, for when someone is not telling the truth, for boundaries that constrain what we do for each other. We have needed this skill to survive. But as a result we have also become quite judgmental of others. We can “see through” those who mean to do us harm.

But Jesus also invites us into a realm where we can “see into” those who cross our path. We can choose to see them as God does and to imagine their fears and dreams, the past that plagues them and the future they long for. This is the gift into which humility leads us.[8] This is the grace of hospitality. Humility and hospitality are related.

I began with a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld. Let me conclude with another.
“To have humility is to experience reality, not in relation to ourselves, but in its sacred independence. It is to see, judge, and act from a point of rest in ourselves… In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each [person] a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity… opens us to a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.”[9]

Over and over Jesus teaches that humility means making room for other people so that they can be themselves and not just what you want them to be. Humilty is making room for God in your life.

What self will we choose? Will we become “great” scrambling for the best seat, so above average and full of ourselves that everyone around us cannot help but notice? Or like our brother Jesus will we delight in the presence of the person right in front of us.

Let’s make America humble again.

 

[1] Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings tr. Leif Sjöberg & W.H. Auden (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 19.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Questions and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (NY: Other Press, 2010), 1.

[3] As an experiment try opening up a candidate’s Twitter page and searching for the word “great.” It comes up a lot.

[4] Robert H. Frank, “Just Deserts: Why We Tend to Exaggerate Merit – and Pay for Doing So,” The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2016, 54.

[5] Curtis G. Almquist, Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 59.

[6] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (NY: Macmillan, 1943) 109-111.

[7] Quoted in Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings tr. Leif Sjöberg & W.H. Auden (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 103.

[8] I used to live near the Society of St. John the Evangelist monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was often inspired by the monks there. This comes from Curtis Almquist, one of the Cowley Fathers there. Curtis G. Almquist, Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 62.

[9] Henry Pitney Van Dusen, Hammarskjöld: A Biographical Interpretation of ‘Markings’ (London: Faber, 1967), 161.

Sunday, August 14
Fire upon the Earth: Renewing Church and World by Spiritual Mission and Innovative Ministry
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
“I have come to hurl fire upon the earth! And how I wish it were already burning” -Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 12:49
Read sermon

“I have come to hurl fire upon the earth! And how I wish it were already burning”

-Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 12:49

 

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Psalm 82

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

 

Fire: it churns relentlessly, licking and devouring, mercilessly, straw and hillside and home in many parts of the West Coast; it dances lyrically in the great Olympic cauldron down in Rio; it crackles in the coals we use to cense the altar, and, of course, ourselves; it bursts with explosive force taking the lives of innocent people in marketplaces across the Middle East. Fire, mesmerizing and dangerous, has stirred the human imagination for millions of years, since we first saw lightning fall from the sky with its blue and beautiful fury. We cook with it, and it may cook us, too. The source of life and of death not only here in some narrow way, but cosmically as all life on the planet’s surface takes its strength from the sun. The ancients intuited this; ancient Greek philosophers believed that the world was made of fire because when something is lit on fire it becomes fire until all that’s left is this inchoate stuff.

A little known fact: one of the many threads of continuity running from ancient Greece to the Olympics in our own time is the insistence that the Olympic flame be kindled not by any human artifice of combustion, but by the sun’s own natural heat. Gathered and focused by mirrors a flame appears, and that’s actually when the Olympics officially begin. Muscles contract and pull ligament and bone at fire’s command. Our bodies nerves depend on the successful transfer of energy along the axon, like a fuse hissing and spitting, till it explodes with force in a single visible movement: a swing of the arm, a flexing of the thigh, the sudden freeze of fluent action across a beam or rings as the body appears to be suspended mid-air, turgid and taut, and our own attention completely rapt and suspended. Our own cathedral was born from a fire that destroyed most of San Francisco in 1906, including the Crocker mansions that use to stand on this site. We come from fire.

Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews had a bone to pick with that community. The author saw within that community a terrible disease; they had become spiritually sick, and we hear part of the diagnosis today. They were supposed to pay attention, to fix their eyes on Christ – like a good athlete they needed to keep their head in the game so that they could attain the prize. But somewhere along the way, they lost their way. They grew slack. They stopped believing. Sure, they kept going to church, but they had lost their fire. But who can blame them? I know I don’t. I don’t sit here in judgement of them. It’s easy to lose our fire: there are countless reasons to become discouraged, to give up, or even just to settle. In many ways, settling is actually the most dangerous because we don’t even notice when it happens. It just happens.

I read the Letter to the Hebrews, and I can’t help but hear in it a word for our Church, for the Episcopal Church. And I can’t help but think about the important role our cathedral has played in the life of that Church. Grace Cathedral has played a pivotal part in keeping our collective fire alive, in challenging and inviting the wider Church into a dynamic vision of what it means to follow this Jesus who came to bring fire to the world, who encouraged us to read the signs of the times at any given moment and to take those signs seriously. Actually that word isn’t “bring” – that’s a bad translation of the Greek word there, “βαλεῖν,” which actually means here “to throw, to hurl or to cast.” I suspect the translators chose “to bring,” βαλεῖν’s weaker sense, in order to temper the incendiary tone of the passage. But as I’ve said before, there’s something wild in God that will not be contained, and His Christ comes to us as One who is consumed with zeal for his Father’s House, his whole life is like Holy Mount Zion wreathed in flame as the Holy One visits His people to set them on a course that would change the whole world. Fire. Revolution. Change.

We’ve known that Jesus, and in many ways we’ve followed the Pillar of Fire ahead of the rest of own Church to places we didn’t know we’d go: long before they were popular, we pioneered the way on labor justice and civil rights and women’s leadership; we faced into the homelessness crisis and started the Episcopal Community Services, which to this day offers the most shelter of any organization in the city; we insisted on the full dignity of the LGBT members of our community and our world, and when much of the Church turned away from the AIDS crisis either in scorn or fear, we doubled down on welcome, paving the way for new relationship by offering an example that would become to norm for the wider Church in time. After the AIDS crisis left Lauren Artress and much of our cathedral staff at that time spiritually exhausted – and witnessing the profound need men and their families had to be in their bodies, to pray with their bodies, to seek and find center in a world that felt like it had spun out of control – Lauren, true to her call as a pastor, sought out and discovered a tool to help them and to help us: the labyrinth. Igniting a spiritual movement that has taken the Church and the world by storm, in only twenty years there are literally thousands of labyrinths all over the world in nearly every conceivable location, but especially in places of distress and crisis: in hospitals, in prisons, in schools, in places like South Africa where Reconciliation Labyrinths are used to bring together former enemies. Nina Pickerel began Bayview mission from her own home! Today it serves thousands of families every single year in one of the most underserved and under-resourced parts of the city, and is a cause of pride for this cathedral. Under Darren Main’s visionary leadership, our yoga practice has ballooned like a fireball, causing not a little bit of heat among those who think that maybe it’s not proper for a church to offer a yoga class, much less to treat it as a spiritual community on par with our Sunday congregation.

Many quarters of the Church have a very limited vision of what Christian mission means: it’s offering some kind of Christian experience for people to ether accept or reject, or else they focus exclusively on the vital work of social mission. Social Mission or Social Outreach is hugely important – no authentic spiritual community is complete without it, and in many ways it expresses our entire raison d’êtres. But many have forgotten the equally important work of Spiritual Mission, or Spiritual Outreach. They’ve forgotten that the Temple in Jerusalem included the Court of the Gentiles, an outer court where the nations could be present in the holy precincts without fully entering in. I believe Jesus the pioneer of our faith, who blazes the trail before us, smiles upon our yoga community that gathers on Tuesdays nights, and walks with everyone who steps foot on a labyrinth whether they ever know or acknowledge it. Because that’s who God is. Grace Cathedral shows forth the character of God in a splendidly generous way that can be an example for the whole Church.

One of the great gifts, and I believe our high calling as a cathedral uniquely positioned at an urban crossroads of east and west, of wealth and poverty, of technology and nature, land and sea is that we can continue this tradition of leading the wider Church into the kind of innovation that we need to get back into the game. We must do so leading from a vision of what it means to take both social and spiritual mission seriously. Already, and I know that for generations to come, we will continue to guard the venerable flame of our glorious Anglican tradition so tenderly held in this particular service, which warms and illuminates with intellectual teaching and a classical choral tradition that truly expresses the discipline of worshipping God in the beauty of holiness. It is so powerful and so compelling for so many of us. And I also believe that we are at a new crossroads, that Jesus is calling us to interpret the signs of our times, of this time, and to rekindle that fire of vision once again that sees sometime extending from that tradition, and even beyond it to a place we don’t yet see or know. A Land of Promise to which we are called, but which we do not yet inhabit.

The religious landscape of our city is rapidly changing, and its following a trend that we see in the wider culture and even globally. Pentecostalism is on the rise. This movement that began here in the United States, just south of us in LA at the famous Azusa Street revivals, which looks to that moment when tongues of fire descended on the first apostles, filling them with power, and setting them on fire for God, this movement continues to sweep over our world, spreading like a wildfire. Whether under the banner of the new charismatic evangelicalism that has become the dominant face of Christianity in our nation, or one of its many expressions in Central and South America and Africa rapidly displacing Roman Catholicism, the Christianity of our day is marked out in profound way by this fire. In our own city, many churches following on this momentum are flourishing, attracting thousands of young people from every conceivable part of the Bay Area and every walk of life. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And I take it as an invitation to follow the smoke to the fire. And it’s my particular gift that that is my work here.

God has lit our world on fire. God has lit us, and so many other churches around us, with passion and determination and fervent devotion for the Christian vision. And all of us collectively, and each in very different ways face this question: “will we as an institution, as a Church, be willing to lay aside the weights that encumber us, to embrace the profound change that may be necessary to meet people where they are rather than insisting that come to us on our terms. I believe Grace Cathedral has answered that question before with a resounding “yes,” and I believe we’re called to answer it again. Last week our dean preached an inspiring sermon about God’s desire to give us the Kingdom. I can’t tell you what a gift it is to serve with a leader who deeply believes that in his heart, and who at every turn has supported my work and vision for spiritual mission in this place, whether it’s yoga or fresh forms of gathering and worship. What a blessing it’s been to visit sister churches in the Bay Area with him and some of you, and to see his own passion for our future as we look to examples of the Spirit’s fire alive and well in other parts of the Church. It is such a blessing to be part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

We have that wonderful phrase in Hebrews, “so great a cloud of witnesses,” and it’s set in the context of an encouragement: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight…and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” In Bible study, we learn that word “witness (μαρτύριον)”, refers in the biblical context to the martyrs, who by offering a legal testimony to their Christian faith were often landed in jail, and killed in the very same stadiums where athletic and gladiatorial contests like the Olympic games were held. We have an image here, then, not only of legal witnesses, but also of spectators in the stands.

In ancient Olympia forty thousand pilgrims from all the great city states of the Panhellenic world – from Delphi and Rhodes, from Athens and Sparta, and from the colonies in southern Sicily – would all gather and converge on this incredible site for about five days, huddled around a much more intimate stadium than our massive colosseums and stadiums, watching and scrutinizing every movement of these athletes. We have here an image of spectators, spectators in stands cheering us on by their example, by their self-giving which made a way when it seemed no way could be made. These were they who believed in God’s promises, and who in every generation bore the flame in order to pass it on to future generations. The Olympics begin each year with the famous lighting of the cauldron, but weeks before that happens a flame is lit in Greece at the Temple of Zeus and Hera, and carried over many countries and continents, and passed on by literally thousands of people, young and old.

We, too, are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses enshrined in stained glass, evoked by paint, or brought to life in stone. The cathedral’s beautiful interior isn’t just decoration; it’s a story of those who have passed the torch in ages past, who have run with perseverance keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus. These are they who, by rights, should have packed up and gone back east after the earthquake and fire leveled their city in 1906, but they didn’t. Instead they doubled down, building bigger and higher and grander than anyone could ever imagine. If our presiding bishop were here, he’d say they were some crazy Christians, and I would have to agree. If you listen through the stone and stained glass and paint, you can still hear them cheering us on; you can see them holding out the torch, and they’re urging us to take it up again.

Sunday, August 7
The Existentialist and the Christ
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12).
Read sermon

“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12).

Above my desk I have a photograph. It is a selfie from the days before phones were cameras and before we called them selfies. On this first day of kindergarten my five year old daughter has a proud smile. I’m trying to smile. My lips are bending upward. But you can see a sadness in my eyes, that I do not really have my heart in it.

Lately, I have been trying to prepare myself for the last first day of school before our son leaves for college next year. I am getting ready for that aching feeling of separation as he goes. When we became new parents roughly eighty percent of our friends gave us the same advice. You can probably guess what they said. “Enjoy this time because their childhood will pass incredibly quickly.” And it has.

This advice holds true for everyone. “Life is short, so really live.” We know from experience that we can waste our lives. We choose to be petty, to let little things bother us. We are irritable. We despair and let the newspaper tell us who we are. We hold grudges and complain. We resent others and wonder if we are successful. We live in the past. We worry about the future. We work for the wrong things and in a thousand other ways we refuse to live.

This morning I want to consider two ways of understanding how short life is. The first view comes from the twentieth century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and the second from Jesus.

  1. Sartre’s existentialism grew out of a German philosophical movement called phenomenology. Early philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650) asked how we can really have confidence that what we believe is true. He tried doubting everything and realized he had to begin by trusting our shared rationality. This is what he means in writing, “I think, therefore I am.” Later, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) tried to clarify the boundary between what we can know with confidence and what is beyond our powers of reason.

In contrast to starting with the question of what is true, phenomenologists begin with experience. They try to offer the richest possible description and reflection on how the world shows up for us (to use an expression by Werner Erhard). The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) writes that primarily we notice what is useful to us.

Suppose on a Sunday morning as I am running a little late for church I discover that my bicycle has a flat tire. Although I had not thought of my bike pump all summer, suddenly nothing in the world is more important. This is particularly true if you cannot find the bike pump. Of every object in the world it has the most urgent reality.

Heidegger makes up a whole vocabulary to alienate us from our ordinary perceptions.[1] He does this to point out how experience begins with what is useful to us not with what we define as “the Truth” in the abstract. At some point we realize that we ourselves have usefulness, or are obstructions to other people. To them we are in a sense like the bike pump when we are helpful or “traffic,” when we get in their way.

In contrast with those earlier philosophers, Heidegger also believes that everything is particular, no one is a person “in general.” He writes that we are thrown into a world that always already exists. We always already have an identity, a way that others perceive us. Nothing is value neutral – you are perceived as a person of a certain class and race (even if that is ambiguous), your clothes, your gestures, how you talk and dress communicates something to others.

When existentialists said “existence precedes essence” they are emphasizing the importance of this particularity, that human values and history shape what we notice and who we are. During World War I, a young man famously asked Jean-Paul Sartre if he should care for his invalid mother or join the French resistance. Sartre basically said that the man should decide based on what kind of person he wanted to become. Do you want to be someone who looks after a sick mother or someone who defends France.

Sartre calls this “the burden of freedom.” In choosing, you choose who you will be. You cannot change the historical context but you can in a sense make yourself up as you go along within it. The problem though is that it is not entirely up to us.

Suppose you are at a hotel in Lake Tahoe with your four year old. You walk out the door without your keys and somehow it closes. In the hallway you look through the keyhole at the child and try to figure out what to do. Suddenly you realize that someone sees you looking. At that point you cannot choose who you are. You see yourself the way that they do. To that person you are a peeping tom. Fortunately you can try to explain yourself.[2]

The end of Sartre’s play No Exit (1944) contains probably his most misunderstood statement. He writes, “hell is other people.” This is not a way of saying that he hates people. What he means is that after we die we no longer have any control in determining how others perceive us. We become frozen in time unable to explain what we are doing at the keyhole.

For Sartre, life is short the world is strange and often seems to be against us, so we have reason to live in fear of the nothingness. For Sartre, life is short; we are thrown into a world in which our limited freedom is a burden. For Sartre life is short so we must be careful and realize that who we are is mostly what others perceive us to be.

  1. Jesus has the simplest response to Sartre’s picture of our existence. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12). This week for homework I want you to write this down and put it somewhere you will see it, like that picture of my daughter and me. Do not forget this, that God longs to give you everything, everything that will free you and give you joy.

Jesus also sees that life is short, but it leads him to a completely different set of conclusions. Often his disciples seem to talk and act as if they had forever. They worry. They devote themselves to things that are not really important, like who is should receive the highest honor. The crowds gathering in Jerusalem, the officials of the Roman Empire, terrify them.
And in dozens of ways Jesus repeats a simple message, “Do not be afraid. You have the kingdom. You do not have to hoard your power, your attention, your love, your energy, your possessions. God is giving you what really matters, so you can be generous.” Jesus goes on, “by the way, the place where your treasure is, you know the place where you most want to be – that is actually where you will end up.”[3] If material things are what you long for, that will be what you get. But we are spiritual beings and cannot be satisfied by material things.

But when we realize that our life is in God’s hands, we dare to desire something so much greater. And we will receive it. Jesus tells the strangest story about servants whose master is away celebrating his own wedding. Some of his servants are so busy with unimportant tasks that they will miss his late night arrival. But for the others, when he comes home so filled with joy, he will seat them at his table. He will put on an apron and serve them the best food on the finest dishes. They will sing together and laugh and in their shared happiness they will remember why they serve their master. We do this still today, right here, singing holy songs around this table.

The point of our life, the whole goal of our existence is to share in the joy of the one who made us. We and all creation were made to rejoice in God’s love. Jesus wants us to have an extraordinary life. God wants us to have what really matters.

When things go wrong, when we are suffering, in those times when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus is with us. And we know that ultimately we are going to be all right. Even in the worst moments God does not refrain from blessing us with beauty and love.

Our life can not be measured by our net worth, or our appearance, or our individual style, or the degree to which others respect us, or our success as a parent. Our value is not even equivalent to the amount of good we do in the world. Despite what others think about us and even despite what we think ourselves, we are deeply loved by the one who created us.

The problem is that we need to wake up to what God offers us right now. We have to be alert to receive the joy that is breaking forth all around. So Jesus says in every way he knows how, “be prepared, be ready for God. Pray that when the holy Master appears you will be ready for the party.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) once described himself as a watchmen always seeking the glory of God. As he lay on his deathbed his good friend asked him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore might appear to you.” The dying Thoreau was still conscious of receiving God’s gift of life. He replied, “one world at a time.”[4]

I have been blessed by the existentialists and have learned a great deal from them. In fact I feel a little sheepish in making these comments about Jean-Paul Sartre since he can no longer defend himself. At the same time, I am convinced that we do not need to be afraid of nothingness or of what will happen to our reputation or when our good works fail.

Enjoy this time because your life will pass incredibly quickly. Life is short so really live. Notice the beauty and love that God is giving you in every moment. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

[1] In this case, the pump is ready-to-hand, the rest of the world is present-at-hand. This comes from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (NY: Harper and Row, 1962).

[2] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (NY: Other Press, 2016), 213-4.

[3] This and the next section is inspired by Brett Younger, “Life Is Short,” Day1, 7 August 2016. http://day1.org/7347-life_is_short

[4] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8.

Sunday, July 24
Teach Us to Pray
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and… one of his disciples asked him, ‘Lord teach us to pray’” (Lk. 11).
Read sermon

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and… one of his disciples asked him, ‘Lord teach us to pray’” (Lk. 11).

During vacation this summer on the island of Maui I was walking to church for the 7:00 a.m. Eucharist. My wife’s cousin Woozer was driving downhill toward the beach with a surfboard in his car. He stopped, one thing led to another and before I knew it we were surfing Ho’okipa together. As we came in I asked him, “You are a surf coach what suggestions do you have for me; how can I get better?”

At a deep level we hunger for learning. When someone excels at something that we care about, we ask that person how we might improve. The disciples see prayer at the center of everything Jesus does. Jesus prays alone in the desert, and in the midst of large crowds at the sea. In prayer he begins his public ministry. He prays as he heals people, chooses disciples and shares meals with them. He prays on ordinary days and as he dies. It is almost as if he is no longer praying but has himself become the prayer.

The disciples recognize prayer as the basis for his extraordinary peace and wisdom. They want this for themselves and say, “teach us to pray.” In response Jesus gives them two very different things. He provides them first with a model for how they should say their own prayers and then with help in forming the disposition or the heart for prayer.

  1. We live in a time of contradictions. Globally the number of Christians keeps expanding. At the same time old Christian institutions in Western Europe and America are shrinking. Almost everywhere religions that would in the past have nothing to do with each other are now rubbing up against each other and learning new vocabularies for the spiritual life.

These days we have begun to realize that prayer is good for us. Twenty years I felt mildly embarrassed when other people would learn that I had a meditation practice. Today most people I meet recognize that mindfulness, centering prayer, forms of breathing prayer and yoga reduce stress and lead to overall better health.[1]

Before going much further I need to be clear on the importance of prayer in my life. I pray at regular times of day, before meals and at bedtime. I pray for people and the world. I have a meditation practice which involves quietly repeating passages written by great saints. I say a kind of mantra repeating the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us”). My most frequent prayer though arises from my heart as spontaneous appreciation for all the blessings of this life – for the natural world, the beauty of this great city and her people.

You might have asked yourself the question, “Does prayer work?” And my answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Prayer has shifted my whole disposition. It has put joy at the center of my life as I grow to feel more and more like a child of God. Prayer continues to fundamentally change my relationships with other people.

We call Jesus’ model for prayer the Lord’s Prayer. Although I visit evangelical churches where they do not say the Lord’s Prayer, here at Grace Cathedral we repeat the prayer together at every public worship service. The version Christians use most often comes from the Gospel of Matthew. In today’s gospel from Luke Jesus gives us an even simpler version of the prayer.

My friend the biblical scholar Herman Waetjen has written a whole book on this subject. He believes that we misuse the prayer, that it becomes meaningless through mindless repetition. He admires a prayer inspired by the Lord’s Prayer in the New Zealand prayer book. It goes like this:

“Eternal Spirit! / Earthmaker, Painbearer, Lifegiver, / Source of all that is and that shall be, / Father and Mother of us all, / Loving God in whom is heaven: / The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! / The way of justice be followed by the peoples of the earth! / Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!”

“Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. / With the bread we need for today, feed us / In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. / In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. / From trials too great to endure, spare us. / From the grip of all that is evil, free us. / For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.[2]

This week for homework try praying the Lord’s Prayer in your own words. Keep in mind that the word that Jesus uses for father (abba) is intimate like daddy. The prayer addresses God’s hallowedness or holiness and we might think about how this becomes real for us. What do we depend on as our daily bread (is it coffee)? When we ask for God’s kingdom to come what does this mean?

This might be a great opportunity for us to really think about temptations to deviate from the path of goodness. It gives rise to the question of how forgiveness can set us free from being enslaved to the past.

For me the precise words of the Lord’s Prayer have not devolved into meaninglessness through repetition. As I have said many times, there is far more to us than our conscious or rational thought. These words are among the last I say every night and they may be the last words I ever say. I have been with people near death whose minds were wasted with dementia. This prayer was the only thing they could say, all that was left.

 

  1. Unfortunately, having the most perfect form is not enough for prayer to help. Prayer requires a particular attitude of the heart, a kind of disposition toward God. What we think about the one to whom we pray matters.

Distrust has always been a fundamental feature of the human condition. Each of us in our past has trusted people. Each of us has been disappointed by them. But even beyond our individual experiences, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the modern age involves a kind of extreme cynicism. We are jaded. We don’t believe what we hear. We question the media, and educators. We distrust authorities and their motives. We believe we are being lied to even when we are not. So much of what we call news is the story of distrust. And all this has an influence on our spiritual life.

Distrust was the defining characteristic of the snake in the Garden of Eden. The one who tempted Adam and Eve did not doubt the existence of God. He raised the question of whether God would act in the best interests of human beings. We are still doing this. We worry about being duped. We do not trust God in part because we think we know better than God. It reminds me of the old one liner, “The difference between God and you is that God doesn’t think he’s you.”

Jesus tells the story about a man going to his neighbor for bread. Even if the neighbor won’t help for the sake of generosity, he will do it so that you will stop yelling in the middle of the night. Jesus’ point is that we need to persist in prayer, not that God will only answer our prayers to shut us up. When our children ask for a fish we do not give them a snake, or a scorpion instead of an egg. We know what is good for our children and God who loves us knows what is good for us. God answers our prayers so that anyone who seeks will receive the Holy Spirit.

People with experience in praying have asked God for what turned out to be the wrong thing. We have had our later prayers answered by having our earlier prayers refused. We have been surprised and had our deepest longings satisfied by God in completely unexpected ways.

In the fourth century St. Augustine wrote about the inner struggle each of us faces as we decide whether we are going to trust God or ourselves.[3] As Augustine came into manhood his mother Monica saw how tempted he was by sensuality and the paganism of his father and the greater Roman Empire. He wanted to be a great scholar, famous for his speeches, to study with the greatest minds in the world.

Monica believed so deeply that the only way for him to become a Christian would be for him to stay near her in North Africa. Monica prayed that he would stay. In fact she was praying in a chapel at the very moment that Augustine left North Africa. She thought she had lost her son, that God had not heard her prayer.

It happened that in Milan one of Augustine’s pagan teachers told him he should go to hear the sermons of Bishop Ambrose, not for their content but for the genius of their structure and expression. At that time Ambrose had perhaps the best education of any Christian and was deeply respected by intellectuals. Of everyone in the world Ambrose was the one person who had the best chance of reaching Augustine’s questioning heart. And he did.

Until that encounter Augustine writes, “I was not yet in love, but I loved the idea of love… I was starved for inner food (for you yourself my God).”[4] After this encounter he came to know the peace of Jesus. His teaching has shaped nearly every Christian’s experience of God since then.

The point of the story is that we have such deep longings for something more than the merely ordinary. We have ideas about how these desires might be satisfied but ultimately we have to trust God.[5]

Beyond our questions about how prayer works and how we ought to pray, beyond the struggles of our ego, beyond even the tragedies and joys of our life, we face a question. Are we going to live as if goodness and love lie at the heart of reality. But even beyond this, we encounter the living God who promises that when we ask for the Holy Spirit we will receive it.

[1] Larry Dossey, Prayer Is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits of Prayer (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996).

[2] I have read that Jim Cotter of the Church of England wrote this prayer. It appears in the “Night Prayers” section of: A New Zealand Prayer Book (He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa), The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (Christchurch: Genesis Publications, 1989), 180-1. http://anglicanprayerbook.nz

[3] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 71-2. John R. Claypool uses this story in “To Whom Do We Pray?” Day1 25 July 2004. http://day1.org/454-to_whom_do_we_pray

[4] Augustine, Confessions tr. Rex Warner (NY: Signet Classic, 2001), 38.

[5] These are the last days of my first year here and I have been praying a great deal. Sometimes I simply cannot believe that God gave me both such a deep desire to serve as a priest and teacher, and the perfect opportunity to exercise this ministry here.

Sunday, July 17
Sunday 6 p.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from Sunday's 6 p.m. Service
Read sermon

The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes preached without the use of a manuscript.

Sunday, July 17
Listen
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” (Luke 10).
Read sermon

 

Listen

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” (Luke 10).

 

Listen. Can you hear what God is saying to you? What seed is God trying to plant in your heart?

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the twentieth century monk and mystic, felt convinced that every moment and every event plants something in our soul. He writes that, “For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of [human beings]. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because [we] are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”

He goes on to explain that, “In all the situations of life the “will of God” comes to us not merely as an external dictate of impersonal law but above all as an interior invitation of personal love.” [1] I feel so excited to be here and to be speaking with you this morning because, today’s gospel about the sisters Martha and Mary, has changed my life. This story has become a deep part of how I respond to the world, how I understand God and to other people.

In church last week and this week we heard two stories that were always intended to be read together. Last week Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. A man is robbed and nearly beaten to death on the road to Jericho. As he lies there dying the greatest leaders of his people pass by on the other side without helping him. A Samaritan, one of his people’s enemies, saves his life and pays for an indefinitely long stay at an inn until he can recover (Lk 10).

The context of this story matters. It occurs in a discussion about the meaning of the primary two commandments: to love our neighbors and to love God. This first story is in particular about loving one’s neighbor. In fact, Jesus uses the Good Samaritan story to answer the question, “who is my neighbor?” The simple answer is that we become neighbors not by sharing an identity for instance as Americans, or immigrants from Mexico, or Christians, or Berkeley graduates. We become neighbors by actually helping each other.

On the basis of this story it might be tempting for us to think that we should be constantly doing good works, that in every instance and opportunity we should be like that good Samaritan, that we should be perfect.

I believe that it is in response to this tendency that Luke tells the story of Martha and Mary. After hearing about how to love our neighbor this gives us a simple instruction on how we can love God too.

Jesus visits the house of two sisters: Martha who is anxious and worried and busy taking care of everyone, and Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens. Martha becomes angry but instead of talking directly to Mary she does what today we would call triangulating. She asks Jesus to straighten out her sister.

Instead, Jesus says to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Lk. 10).

Contemporary biblical scholars point out that Martha may have been angry with Mary for more than failing to share the work. By sitting at Jesus’ feet Mary makes herself equal to Jesus’ other disciples. In a commentary on scripture ancient rabbis wrote, “Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst… [but] do not talk much with womankind.”[2] By supporting Mary, Jesus defends her right to be a leader among the disciples. This value was what most set apart the early church from the rest of society. As Paul says, for followers of Jesus, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

At every church I’ve served people have found the story of Martha and Mary to be frustrating and unjust. Often it offends just the kind of people I appreciate the most, those who roll up their sleeves and get to work in helping out. Jesus’ stories have a vividness sometimes exacerbated by upsetting our understanding of what is fair.

Ancient Christians from the fourth century however point out that Jesus is not dismissing Mary or her important work. St. Ambrose (350-397) writes, “Virtue does not have a single form.” John Cassian (360-435) says, “To cling to God… this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly.” He says that we need to be careful of, “any diversion however impressive.” St. Augustine (354-430) writes that singing Alleluias, “is the delightful part that Mary chose for herself, as she sat doing nothing but learning and praising.”[3]

I do not know what seed God planted in you that brought you to this place but I pray that you experience holiness. Just by virtue of being here you have all chosen to be Mary’s for a while. And in our culture we need more of you. With foreign coups and continuing terror attacks. We need more people who have a deep foundation and are not merely swept here and there by the tidal wave of different events. We need people who respond to the world not out of fear, or a sense of scarcity, but with a heart of compassion.[4]

This is not just an individual project. The stories of the Good Samaritan and of Martha and Mary have special importance to us in these days of racial tension. Last week I came away from the story of the Good Samaritan with two convictions. The first is that people of color and white people will only become neighbors through actions. Our identity is of secondary importance to how we treat each other.

Second, our country is not defined by its geographical borders or by the peoples who have settled here but on principles of fairness, compassion, honesty and equality before the law. At this time of global conflict, African Americans and other people of color, immigrants, GLBTQ people, disabled people, and the elderly may be the ones to save us.

Last week we had further reminders of something that anyone over the age of thirty has known for a very long time. African Americans and white people have a fundamentally different experience of our justice system, our economy and our social life. It is almost as if we live on different planets.

We learned this after the beating of Rodney King, the OJ Simpson trial, 9/11, the Iraq War and all the way down to the tragic murders of Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice to Philando Castile last week. Each time the tensions seem unbearable and we think that something has to change… but it doesn’t.

That is why when a white person says to me, “well [while clearing their throat]… all lives matter,” I just have to object. For me, this is equivalent to saying, “I feel so defensive about being held responsible that I refuse to listen.”

My challenge for us this week is to resist the urge to defend ourselves or to jump to a conclusion and to instead try really listening, going beyond that moment when we feel the irresistible impulse to say something.

As a child I enjoyed the television show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. One Sunday at church Fred Rogers took the time to really listen. What he heard was the singing voice of an African American man named Francois Clemmons. In 1968 Rogers invited him to become the first African American cast member of an American Children’s television series.

Clemmons grew up in the ghetto and at first was not sure if he wanted to accept a role as the local police officer. Ultimately he did. He remembers two episodes in particular. In 1969 they where filming on a hot day and Fred Rogers had his feet in a little plastic children’s pool to cool off. He invited Clemmons to join him. Clemmons said, “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”[5]

Clemmons described Fred Rogers not primarily as a colleague but as a lifetime friend. One day as usual Mr. Rogers finished the program by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time as he said it Rogers seemed to be looking right at Clemmons. When the camera stopped he walked over to him. Clemons said, “Fred, were you talking to me?” “Yes, I have been talking to you for years,” Rogers said, “but you heard me today.”
Remembering it Clemmons said, “It was like telling me I’m okay as a human being. That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.”

Two commandments. Two stories. A world of complexity, tension and beauty. An interior invitation of personal love. A life of freedom and spontaneity. “You make every day special just by being you.”

Listen. Can you hear what God is saying to you? What seed is God trying to plant in your heart?

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (NY: New Directions, 1961), 14-15.

[2] This is from a third century written account of oral commentaries that were already centuries old. Behind this text I think is a fear of strong relationships between me and other men’s wives. M. Abot 1.45 See Herbert Danby, ed. and trans., The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 446. Reference from The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. IX, Luke, John (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995), 231.

[3] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke, Vol. 3, ed. Arthur Just, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 182-183.

[4] When you ask people how they are, most answer that they are busy. We have more to be distracted about than perhaps any other people in history. This week Pokemon Go arrived at Grace Cathedral. You can download the app and look through your phone to see both what really exists and the virtual monsters that computer programmers have stationed here. They call it “augmented reality.” Although I have been greatly enjoying all the extra guests who have come in and visited, it does make me wonder why ordinary unaugmented reality isn’t enough.

I am glad for the Pokemon hunters who have gotten out and explored parts of this city that they have not seen before. But I also beg all of you to seek out ways in your life to spend time listening to God. Nurture the seeds of goodness that God is planting in you.

[5] Clemmons was also a Grammy Award winning singer who performed in 70 musical and opera roles and founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. “Walking the Beat in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Where A New Day Began,” Story Corps, NPR Radio, 11 March 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/03/11/469846519/walking-the-beat-in-mr-rogers-neighborhood-where-a-new-day-began-together

What's Happening at Grace Cathedral?

Connect with Us