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Sunday, September 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, September 13
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, September 16
The Tongue Is a Fire: The Truth of Grace
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#RobertSapolsky, #EddieAikau,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mk. 7).

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, June 5
Prophetic Voices Inside a Drought
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 11am Eucarist
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Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost: Prophetic Voices Inside a Drought

 

We have come through our first el Niño winter and spring in over a decade, and it has done us some good. Rainfall was slightly above average, and most of the reservoirs in our region are brim full. Even Shasta Lake has recovered to the point that the water was being released in early spring.

We are enjoying a brief rest in our time of anxiety about the drought, but we might be better off thinking of this as a timeout rather than the end of the game. Snow packs are only at about 25% of normal, and the early approach of high temperatures is diminishing the mountain snows we do have rapidly. The Western USA continues to face the prospect of water shortages for our homes and epic wildfires on the edges of our cities. A predictable return of below average rainfall as the new normal means we are going to continue to live with drought conditions for a very long time.

I mention the drought because drought creates the context for the story we have just heard from the Book of the Kings. Elijah was living in the home of the widow and her son, living in the pagan district of Sidon along the seacoast of Lebanon, because a severe drought had dried up that entire region. Elijah had fled from Israel and journeyed north to the region called Phoenicia in his day, Lebanon in our day, because there was no rain falling in Israel or anywhere in the region.

A good question might be, why would Elijah flee his home in a drought? Especially why would he flee to a district that was also affected by the same drought? Well, Elijah actually caused the drought. The great prophet of the Lord, he had chastised Ahab, King of Israel, for adopting paganism as part of the cult of Israel. And part of his reproach to Ahab was to declare that no rain would fall for three years. So Elijah was not running from the drought so much as he was fleeing from King Ahab, who had sworn to kill him for his opposition.

Ahab had been guilty of dishonoring God by introducing competitor gods from pagan temples, guilty of dishonoring the covenant of Israel by murdering a neighbor in order to steal his family’s heritage property, guilty of dishonoring the religious life of Israel by slaughtering the prophets of the Lord, and guilty of dishonoring nature by deforesting the hillsides for the lumber to build his palaces. Elijah confronts these dishonors, and in the name of the Lord invokes the drought as a way for God to demonstrate that God would be the ruler of Israel in the end, not a human and self-centered king.

And so Elijah flees and takes up residence in the home of a widow who had offered him the hospitality of a little food, even as she and her son were starving to death.

I have come to believe that everything about life is interconnected. I believe that there is a God. I believe that prayer works. I believe that the earth and its living beings create a kind of energy for connectedness. I believe in a greater consciousness. I believe that what I have done in the past and what I do today matters far into the future. I think all these things are true. It is part of the reason I admire what George Lucas created in his myth of the Force in the Star Wars stories — I think that this belief in connectedness and mutuality is well expressed in the metaphor of the Force.

So I wonder this: As the prophet of the Lord Elijah could invoke a drought as a means to correct and reprove the behavior of a selfish and disrespectful king 2,800 years ago; is the drought we live with today also a prophetic message, chastising us for our ways of dishonoring God, our neighbor and the realm of nature? Is this drought also a reproach to our disregard of life as a matter of stewardship, our disregard for treating everything we can control as a matter of accountability to others, especially to God?

Our faith teaches us a certain perspective about life — that everything about who we are is a gift from God. That life is from God, that awareness is a participation in God’s essence, that love and laughter are expressions of God’s character, that creativity and procreativity are connections with the divine. While it may not be appropriate or fair for us to expect that all people with embrace this faith held by Jews and Christians and Muslims, it is our task and right to uphold these perspectives as true, true for all.

If we hold these perspectives as true for the whole of creation, then we must also teach them, encourage them, promote them, and if necessary defend them from those who distort the reality of life into the narrow realm of selfishness and intentional deception. We believe life is a continual growth into the perspective of reverence and awe, a continual growth into a perspective of thankfulness and wonder. It is not a matter of indifference for us to see that there are many around us who see the world as a personal playground, who dismiss reverence and wonder as foolish and childish. It is not a matter of indifference for us to recognize that there are those who intentionally dishonor the world by refusing to be responsible for any consequence, any outcome.

As Elijah recognized the wickedness of King Ahab, we too can recognize the wickedness of corporations and landowners and investors whose only question is whether there can be extra money gotten for me, no matter what it may cost others. We can recognize the wickedness of those who practice deceit and fraud as normal operating procedure, whether it is to falsify public reports or deny the known harm their product does or claim ignorance in the face of overwhelming data and evidence. Those who still claim that climate change science has not offered any real evidence are being false. I give some of them the benefit of the doubt that they are so afraid of the truth they cannot help themselves and they do not intend to be dishonest, but they are in serious need of an Elijah to teach them to face the truth.

I invite us back into today’s scripture, where we here two, very similar stories of the compassion of God to raise the sons of widows from death to life. It may help to know that in the biblical world all title, all ownership was passed from one male to another. Women had no right to property, no right to an inheritance. These two widows were actually living on the property that belonged to their sons, and when those sons died the property would have gone to some other male in the family tree. No matter how distant. (We learn about this from watching Downton Abbey.)

The compassionate intervention of Elijah to pray the son back to life has all kinds of layers to it. First among them is that at the point of the boy’s death the mother assumes it is because of her sins, that to have housed a holy man would have brought her own paganism, her own sins to the attention of God, who punished her by killing her son. Second is that the boy’s death would have been the ruin of her life, as everything she held as home and property would have gone to the hands of a brother-in-law or uncle or distant male cousin. Finally, and most importantly, while the King of Israel would not honor God or God’s holy man, she is able to set aside the culture of her beliefs and the cult of her people to declare, ‘Now I know you are a man of God and the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth itself.’

It can feel impossibly demanding, discouragingly impossible for us to make a difference in the drought we endure, in overcoming the damage we have done to the earth. Yet, we have faith that our success does not depend on us alone, that in some way God’s own energy and creative expression will raise our efforts in the way that the prophet raised the boy from the pit of death. This drought is one of many signs I see that we have been out of step with the harmony God has in mind for the earth. Yet it is not our sinfulness that God sees as our most important feature. It is our desire to be saved, our desire to be redeemed, our willingness to turn from things that are destructive and disrespectful.

As Elijah restored the harmony of the house where the widow showed him kindness, I believe God will assist us to restore the harmony of the house in which we live. I say that in faith, I say that in hope. Overcoming our past is not something we have to manage entirely by ourselves. We have to take the steps that are ours to take, but I pray that we will look back some day to say, “Thanks be to God, who has shown love and mercy to us yet again.”

Sunday, May 29
Recasting the Centurion’s Story
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, May 22
The Spirit in the World, Society and the Self
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16).
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“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16).

What would your life look like as a movie?[1] This week I found out the answer to that question. Back when I lived in Boston I had a friend named Rick who longed to be a better surfer. On car rides we would talk about storms thousands of miles off the coast, the physics of breaking waves, our equipment, the history, art and culture of surfing. We also shared our selves.

After not hearing from him for fifteen years, this week he reached out to tell me that he had won an award as a screenwriter. He also said that he had recently written a movie script with a character based on me.[2] Immediately I worried whether he would get it right. After the Gidget movies, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Point Break, etc. most people I know who really take surfing seriously despise the way surfers are depicted in popular culture. The stereotypes, language, even the style and the way the ocean looks almost always seems completely wrong.

Much of the movie refers back to a scene in which a surfing priest and a surfing atheist talk about “the afterlife.” The surfing priest in Rick’s movie is Episcopalian. Strangely enough he is writing a doctoral thesis on Thoreau. He constantly smiles and seems to exist in a constant state of total bliss.

In reading the manuscript I can see why. My friend manages to a half dozen different scenes from places we used to surf in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. I have such beautiful memories of those days – gentle breezes floating through green forests, the summertime sounds of cicadas as perfect little waves roll in, laughing with friends while looking out to the infinite sea.

Although for me, Rick mostly gets the surfing right he has a harder time with religion. He makes some obvious and unimportant little mistakes like confusing an Epistle and a Gospel. The sermon in the screenplay doesn’t quite sound right. I think that the hard part for him is really imagining what it might feel like to be a person of faith.

This year at the White House Correspondents Dinner (2016) President Barack Obama teased Senator Ted Cruz. Apparently Cruz was standing on a court in Indiana and referred to the basketball hoop as a “basketball ring.” Obama’s punch line is “what else is in his lexicon? Baseball sticks. Football hats. But sure, I’m the foreign one.”[3]

Getting religion right is even more difficult than using the correct sports terminology. My nonreligious friends think that following Jesus mostly means trying to believe the right things, to have the correct thoughts, so that God will reward you with what they call “life after death.” They think that I spend my days wondering if God really exists. They act as if I was convinced that dogma matters more than how you treat the people in your life. And these are the friends I have who feel vaguely sympathetic to religion.

For me faith is not about life after death, it is about really living before we die. It means being unconstrained by the persistent illusions of our time so that we can freely experience holiness. Faith is not primarily about believing in the existence of God. It is living in the spirit, it is existing in the fullest possible relationship with God. We encounter the spirit of God in the world, society and our innermost self.

  1. The Spirit of the World.[4] In the Book of Proverbs we hear about how Wisdom (in Greek Sophia) or the Spirit of God exists in the very bones of the world. Wisdom speaks, “When God established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep… when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight… rejoicing…” (Prov. 8). In a world of such astonishing beauty we spend far too little time rejoicing.

Yesterday I gave a surfing lesson to a young couple in Bolinas. The fog hovered over the steep wooded hillsides. The sunlight reflection with blue patterns of sky and cloud in the wet sand was breathtaking. Ten feet away a sea lion surfed right up to us on a wave. We so rarely even see what is right in front of us.

In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town Emily dies in childbirth. She asks to go back to one day of her life, her twelfth birthday. She discovers that no one is really noticing the world or each other. Emily implores, “Mama look at me.” She breaks down sobbing. “We don’t have time to look at one another.”[5]

She asks to be taken back to the cemetery. “Goodbye Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” She asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

  1. The Spirit in society. I definitely don’t blame my friend Rick for not understanding the spirit. Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it either. In his last dinner with his friends Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Jn. 16). The Greek word bastazein means to give birth to a child. The disciples are not ready to give birth to this truth. It has to become revealed over time

The Greek word hodos means the way or the road. Hodegessei is to guide. Jesus says, “I am the way.” Jesus calls his guiding spirit, “the Advocate” (the Paraclete) or the Defense Attorney.

The Stanford philosopher René Girard (1923-2015) believed that so much of our society is based on violence and that it remains invisible to us. It is like water to a fish. Scapegoating whether it is of immigrants, the police chief, your ex-wife, mother-in-law or boss lies at the heart of so many human interactions. We do not need the defense attorney to make our case to God. We need the defense attorney to help us respond to the prevailing injustice and violence of the world.[6]

For Girard Jesus introduces something completely different into history – a way of seeing persecution from a perspective beyond that of the persecutor. This is not merely for Christians. Every person alive in some way carries this wisdom from Jesus. This is the impulse behind the civil rights movement. It is the revolutionary idea that ethics is far more important than belief. How you treat another person matters more than how you think the world is. At the end of his article on the Advocate Girard begs his readers, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer, there will no longer be any time.”[7]

  1. The Spirit Within. Christians like C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Søren Kierkegaard have all pointed out that the spirit which animates a person of faith, the “passion for the eternal” can be almost invisible to other people. And yet a tremendous strength comes from this inner spirit.[8]

This week my friend Patrick Thompson and I talked about a mutual friend. He went to a great college, a stellar graduate program. He holds a prestigious position. According to all the ways the world measures it he has succeeded – and yet we wondered if he does not really know who he is apart from this.

The Apostle Paul writes, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5). This is the peace that passes understanding. We mostly recognize it in those we know best. We feel it as we persist in prayer, as our connections with the spiritual world grow deeper.

I do not know what more to say about this spirit of God beyond how I have met this holiness in the world, society and my own heart. Perhaps another voice might help. I leave you with a poem about forgiveness by Keetje Kuipers (KAY-tchah KAI-purrs). It is called “Prayer.” I hope that that it helps you to recognize the spirit in your own life.[9]

“Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox / and your mother, to soothe you in your fever / or to help you fall asleep, came into your room / and read to you from some favorite book, / Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie, / a long story that she quietly took you through / until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering / lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then”

“she read on, this time silently and to herself, / not because she didn’t know the story, it seemed to her that there had never been a time / when she didn’t know this story – the young girl / and her benevolence, the young girl in her sod house – / but because she did not yet want to leave your side / though she knew there was nothing more / she could do for you. And you, not asleep but simply weak, / listened to her turn the pages, still feeling / the lamp warm against one cheek, knowing the shape / of the rocking chair’s shadow as it slid across / your chest so that now, these many years later,”

“when you are clenched in the damp fist of a hospital bed, / or signing the papers that say you won’t love him anymore, / when you are bent at your son’s gravesite or haunted / by a war that makes you wake with the gun / cocked in your hand, you would like to believe / that such generosity comes from God, too, / who now, when you have the strength to ask, might begin / the story again, just as your mother would, / from the place where you have both left off.”

By the end of the week I realized what I liked about Rick’s movie script. The important part of a priest and an atheist surfing together is not a debate about what happens when we die. What matters is their friendship and the way that, for a believer, God’s spirit permeates all good things.

What would your life look like as a movie? Would someone watching it recognize the animating spirit of Jesus?

[1] Would it be a tragedy, a drama, a fluffy romantic comedy, a short cartoon or a long documentary? What actor would play you? The lyric from the 1974 Eagles song “James Dean” says, “I know my life would look alright if I could see it on the silver screen.” As I’m getting older though I know this isn’t necessarily true.

[2] Rick Groleau, The Tides of Fundy 11 May 2016.

[3] Barack Obama, “Remarks at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner 1 May 2016,” The Washington Post, 1 May 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2016/05/01/the-complete-transcript-of-president-obamas-2016-white-house-correspondents-dinner-speech/

[4] In the twentieth century we became much less confident about our understanding of the physical universe. We experience mystery at the very heart of this world of dark matter, particles, waves, forces and our observations.

[5] Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts, 95-96.

[6] René Girard, “History and the Paraclete,’ The Ecumenical Review, Volume 35, Issue 1, January 1983, pages 3-16. http://poenitzmentoring.com/uploads/History_and_the_Paraclete.pdf

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1933), 149.

[9] Keetje Kuipers, Beautiful in the Mouth (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2010). http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160516/

Sunday, May 15
Pentecostal Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from The Day of Pentecost
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Tuesday, May 10
Yoga Introduction
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Introduction from the May 10th Yoga class
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Sunday, May 8
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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