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Thursday, December 13
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, December 9
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, December 2
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
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Thursday, December 13
Bending the Map
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Thursday's 5:15pm Evensong Service
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“To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (John 1).

You can’t help but sympathize with the title character in the musical Dear Evan Hanson. Evan is so socially awkward. He has enormous difficulty making friends. Evan’s therapist requires him to write an encouraging letter to himself every day. One day at school he is printing out one of these letters to himself when the school bully snatches the paper and puts it in his pocket.

It seems like a total disaster. But then in a bizarre turn of events the bully takes his own life. When the parents find Evan’s letter in their son’s pocket, they assume that the two boys had been friends and reach out to him.

This story concerns a new reality in our society. Today young people have two separate lives in a way that they never quite did before. Often what happens to them and how they look online matters just as much as real life. Parents who did not grow up with these technologies don’t know what to do. Young people are just as much at a loss. For that matter everyone is.

Technology has changed. This affects our jobs, elections, what we read, listen to and buy. It changes our identity, politics, international relations, our sense of satisfaction, who we choose as our friends and pretty much everything else.

Search and rescue experts use an expression to describe the early stages of being lost. They call it “bending the map.” At first a person may not even believe that they are lost. Reality doesn’t exactly match the map but they don’t really notice it yet. They make excuses for how a mountain or a lake on the map doesn’t match the actual landscape.[1]

I think as a civilization we are bending the map when it comes to technology. We keep talking and acting as if we were in the old world even though so much has changed. We never seem to be honest about what is happening.

The Prologue to the Gospel of John addresses us. It says, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him… But to all who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God” (John 1).

Jesus is this light. In the simplest terms he knew God so intimately that he realized something that changed all history. Every person is a child of God. Every person has infinite dignity and value. No one like you has existed from the beginning of the world until now. This is bedrock truth, no matter how much technology changes.

At any moment of the day you will see people in this Cathedral. Some are tourists, others are Anglicans from distant places, some are our neighbors looking for quiet and beauty. Many come because they carry burdens. Our Cathedral chaplains and greeters meet them and care for them. They share the good news that nothing needs to stand between God and us.

Let me read the second part of a poem about Jerusalem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “Tourists.”[2]

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

There is such a great power that comes from really seeing someone. It is true of Evan Hanson, the poet with the baskets and everyone in a world convulsed by technological change. Thank you for letting the light of Christ shine in your words and actions.

[1] John Edward Huth, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) 30=1.

[2] Yehuda Amichai, “Tourists”

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

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

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, September 4
Choosing Life: Worth the Price
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity:

choose life.”

 

Last week Jesus was around the dinner table and reminded both his inner circle and his prickly adversaries that humility not status,

vulnerability and not comfort,

would be the best ways to really enjoy the banquet,

to enjoy the new life, the full life,

the deep freedom and satisfaction God desires for us.

 

Today, Jesus opens up the discussion to the crowds who are glomming onto to him on his journey toward Jerusalem.

He says what no Hillary or Donald advisor would ever recommend:

Jesus says that the full enjoyment of the real life, the real happiness,

the real deal and the real meal, the banquet of kingdom,

living whole and free and fully alive,

is completely available and at hand:

but … it’s gonna cost you.

Count on it,

expect it,

plan for it.

It’s gonna cost you.

 

Not because the odds are against us,

not because God and universe are perverse score-keepers,

waiting to catch us up in a merciless game of “gotcha”,

but simply because if we are going to enjoy a life

of deep happiness and freedom and integrity,

our values, our choices, our actions really matter.

And the consequence of our choices and actions really matter.

And they usually are not what the culture is asking for,

not what the powers that be, then or now, need and want,

not what even our families are used to hearing about and doing.

Jesus tells us today to grab hold of this new way of feeling and seeing and responding,

start walking with this cross,

and then follow him.

It’s the way to deep freedom and calm

but it’s not free.

 

They might pull out the pepper spray, tear gas, and the water cannons,

they will set the dogs on you,

they will accuse you of not being a patriot,

of being ungrateful,

but you will be free, alive, already feasting at the table of the kingdom.

 

If the whole world or the entire nation or whole family

is charging toward something that just doesn’t feel right,

that’s not quite complete, that isn’t delivering what it promises,

and you say, “I’m going to sit this one out,”

––it’s gonna cost you.

Not because you’ve suddenly become Mother Teresa

but because, by God’s grace, in your own clumsy, awkward, imperfect way,

in that moment, you simply decide, you choose not to stand for it.

I won’t stand for it. I won’t laugh at the harmless joke at work,

I won’t grab all I can even as others can’t even reach the table,

and, even if I am in a place of great privilege and gratitude,

I will sometimes choose to ally myself with those who are not,

who cannot.

Jesus says that the joyful, clear, bright path to the deepest kind of

freedom and integrity and wholeness

is…the way of the cross,

that hard, heavy, costly path of

discerning what we really, really believe in our heart of hearts,

of knowing what has real value,

of sensing what is vital, life-affirming, and life-giving

and grabbing hold of it,

even if the rest of the team, the rest of the crowds,

even if your family and Facebook friends

don’t understand or are offended.

 

Today, while he’s in prison, St. Paul meets the escaped slave Onesimus.

Probably the only chance Onesimus has to stay alive is to go back to Philemon; under Roman law he’s a marked man.

Paul sends the letter we heard today:

“Philemon, we both know this isn’t the way things are done,

but I’m warning you: When your servant Onesimus returns don’t even think of exercising your legal options.

I’m alongside him and I’m fully allied with him.

Remember, you owe me, Philemon.

In this kingdom to which we really belong,

there is only mercy and forgiveness,

and you’d better be alongside him, too.”

Paul tells him: “So get my nice guest room ready pronto, Philemon.

But know that Onesimus will be taking it––permanently.

He’s no longer your slave: he’s your brother.

End of discussion.”

 

After the narrow escape from Egypt and that life of slavery and humiliation and the years of hopeful travel,

Now gathered on the plains of Moab looking across the waters toward the Promised Land,

Moses tells the Hebrew sons and daughters

sure, they’ve escaped, but they’re not really free yet,

not free unless and until

they choose what is deeply right in every single decision,

what is morally acceptable in every human interaction,

no matter what is going on around them.

And it’s really not that strange or hard to figure out:

actually it’s not even on those stone tablets or in the pages

of the bible. Remember the part just before today’s?

The word is near you…stop and listen.

Your heart will tell you:

“No, that’s not quite right.”

“No, that’s really mean.”

“No, we shouldn’t be doing this.”

“No, that’s not going to advance our shared human project.”

“Yes, that is the right thing to say, the right thing to do.”

“Yes, I can try to do this by God’s help.”

“Yes, it’s going to make waves but it’s the only life I have

and right now is the only chance I have to make a small difference.”

 

In Jesus, that word of life comes to us even more closely,

because in Jesus, the Divine will and power and gifts

are fully allied to our human lives and hearts and choices and actions.

By baptism, we are immersed into his life and actions

and we are drenched in his life-giving presence and power.

Every action and choice of our lives has life or death consequences

which are felt here and in the hereafter.

What will you give up?

What will you risk?

What will you stand up for and when will you choose to sit it out?

Not sure?

Do the kind thing,

ally yourself with those who are invisible or without a voice,

choose what might be generative and life-giving.

Come into our real life in God while in this world.

Come into freedom and delight.

Friend, come up higher, the banquet awaits.

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

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