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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, July 3
Grace: The Real Revolution, a Sermon for Independence Day
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
"I have given you authority to tread on serpents, and over all the power of the enemy." Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
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Grace: The Real Revolution, a Sermon for Independence Day

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“I have given you authority to tread on serpents, and over all the power of the enemy.”

  1. Don’t Tread on Me – An American Tradition

I grew up in a small town along the Connecticut coast, steeped in references to its colonial past, and keenly self-aware two hundred plus years later, of its role in the American Revolution. In second grade, we toured the Georgian style William Hart House on Main Street, marveling over the tiny uncomfortable beds, and the hobbit-like scale of the spaces. We learned about the settlers lives, and even how to make the candles they would have used, successively dipping the taper into a cauldron of melted wax till a candlestick began to emerge. Fourth of July was a really big deal in our town, with a grand parade in the afternoon; at night parents and children flocked to the shore waiting expectantly to watch the fireworks go off over Long Island Sound. Around this time of year, I’d see this strange flag emerge with a yellow field, and the image of a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, with the words, “Don’t Tread on Me” beneath it.

I was intrigued by the flag from an early age – it was so defiant, so bold. What society would have need for such a severe warning, to enshrine it on a flag? Later I’d learn it was called the Gadsden flag, and you can see it right here in the north transept among the flags relating to our nation’s rise and development. It was named after the statesman and military officer who designed it to be a standard for the American Revolution in 1775, and especially of the Continental Marines. To this day, the oldest active vessel in the U.S. Navy has the right to fly it.

Along with the stars and bars, and the bald eagle, the timber rattlesnake represented an early icon of the nascent republic.

Benjamin Franklin praised the snake as “an emblem” of America’s vigilance, “magnanimity and true courage.” He writes that though the snake appears defenseless to the unschooled, and its fangs unimpressive to the uninitiated, “their wounds however small are decisive and fatal.” If you look closely you’ll see the rattle is formed of 13 sections, standing for the 13 original colonies. Franklin notes with a tone of pride and warmth, “she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.” The flag has made a resurgence in recent years as the standard for the Tea Party, who interpret it as the ultimate symbolic expression of individual rights and protections from the government, rather than as a nationalist expression of collective defiance against the British imperial antagonist.

This serpentine image for the state was not new. You’ll recall that 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes’s supremely influential political treatise on the nation-state was titled “Leviathan.” Propounding views of material humanism, representative government, social contract theory, and individual rights, he laid the foundations for liberal political philosophy in the West. However, writing in the desolation and division of the English Civil War, he was sharply critical of any government that did not invest a single sovereign entity with absolute power.

 

  1. Rise of the Leviathan – The Legacy of the Nation State’s Sovereignty

Human life, Hobbes surmised, was “nasty, brutish and short,” and human social order was not directed by a concern for the summum bonum – the greatest good – as the Scholastics maintained but the summum malum – the greatest evil, which he believed was “violent death.” Now, he believed this because he saw it first-hand, but his belief constituted a radical rupture with a thousand years of political theology undergirding the Christendom that came before the advent of the modern era.

Hobbes saw Christianity become a source of violent division and looked to another power to secure the human future. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom had given way to a fractious Christendom, with Catholics and Protestants at war with each other. So the ancient, tyrannical sea-serpent, the Leviathan of biblical lore, became the driving image for the nation-state that ruled with uncompromising force to keep these groups in line. (With this in mind, it’s easy to see how America’s timber rattlesnake would have been a kind of visual dig at the very image that justified the crown’s oppression of the colonies. The Leviathan would be slain by a mere rattler in a classic David and Goliath story. That’s the American Revolution in short.)

Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke were the philosophical architects of a revolution in human history that would sweep aside millennia of dynastic tradition in favor of newly emerging nation states. The masses hoped that government elected by the people would be better, and by many measures it has been. Public education, social and economic mobility, personal freedom and the extensive development of the common law tradition: all of these are massive advantages to the modern age. But, Jesus warns us in the gospels that we reap what we sow. Revolutions sown in violence, eventually gave way to the most violent century the world has ever known.

Twentieth century advances in science, technology, philosophy and the arts stand under the long shadow of two world wars, mass genocides, Vietnam, nuclear weapons, global warming, and the post-colonial impoverization of the Global South. Hobbes’s philosophy, carried to its logical end gave us fascism, Stalinism, and Nazism. Elie Wiesel, who died this weekend, contended against a Leviathan that would have left even Hobbes shocked and horrified. But the human spirit springs eternal with hope. In the ashes of these tragedies, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union were born with the hope that together we could find new, creative solution to build a better world.

We live in an age when the pressures of globalization are forcing us to reevaluate our basic premises, the very foundations upon which the global political and financial orders rest: uneven benefits of a global economy; booming black markets in drugs, weapons, and human trafficking; the ever-widening technology gap; terrorism; and an ecological crisis that threatens planetary collapse. The unfettered positivism of the Enlightened West is not working. Our world is literally starving for a model of global justice that transcends the narrow self-interests of entities defined solely by their own sovereignty, and designed to perpetuate that sovereignty at all costs.

Lacking a proper telos, an end resting not only on measurable, sensory facts but also the immeasurable and immutable demands of divine justice, the world of competing nation-states seems trapped forever in a ceaseless game of thrones. And that world is becoming smaller every day. We see it the face of families evicted without a care as to where they will go; we hear it in the voices of migrant peoples pleading for a place to call home amidst dangerous politics and unimaginable economic privation; we read about it in nations electing to withdraw from international cooperation for fear of eroding privilege; and we experience it as our own nation flirts with xenophobic authoritarianism.

  • Our Work and Witness – Globalizing the Grace Revolution

Who are we in the midst of these things? “I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.” We need to hear that. The Church needs to hear that. Take it in. He’s speaking to me and you. We are the 70. Every time we approach this table we recommit to His revolution. The Kingdom of God is the closest thing to an anti-state that the world will ever know. It exists not to serve itself, but to serve others; it does not conquer through violence or coercion, but multiplies by the force of love’s invitation.

We reap what we sow. Jesus sowed a revolution not in others’ blood, but in his own, and for our sake. He sent out the 70 not with guns, tanks or swords; indeed, not even with a purse, bag or sandals. (I guess that means Luis Vuitton is not a thing in the Kingdom of God. Sorry lol.) With barely a tunic to their name, the 70 are sent out not as mercenaries to convert others at the edge of a sword, but as people totally at the mercy of those who would receive them. Even to those who would not receive them, they declared that the Kingdom had come near, leaving in peace, returning their peace to them.

The Kingdom comes near to us, too. When we approach this table, Jesus gives himself to us so that we may give ourselves to others. Have you ever noticed that Jesus chooses the path of relationship over the path of structural power to change the world around him? We have those huge banners out front that declare, “Grace is Love.” I love that. It’s such a powerful message – one that’s urgently needed for our world. If justice is what love looks like in public, then grace is what love looks like in person. Grace is our answer to the power of the enemy.

When we take Christ into our bodies, we affirm a mystery that unites heaven and earth, the material and the spiritual – that vastly exceeds the limits of mere positivism. We all know the bread and wine nourish parts of our body we cannot see. Do we also know that His Substance and Spirit nourish parts of our soul we cannot see? He’s planting seeds in dark and fallow places that may not bear fruit for years to come, and yet always and already working within us. Where is the harvest ripe in your life, and our life collectively as a church, to reap something great for God’s Kingdom? Where has God given you, and given us, grace upon grace to bless those are around us?

At the beginning of the sermon I painted an idyllic image of my childhood home in Connecticut. Beneath the patina of apparent privilege all around us, the story of my particular household was quite different. With two parents whose sole income was social security disability, with a father wrestling with the demons of narcotics abuse and domestic violence, my household was a very difficult place to grow up and mature. My life would have had a very different trajectory if it had not been for one single person, my 7th grade French teacher, Pat Perry.

Having witnessed my capacities, Pat decided she was going to do something to change my life. She personally contributed over $20,000 from her own resources to send me to a premier boarding school, paving my way to attend Haverford, then Harvard, to have a completely different life than the one I would have had apart from her generosity. Every day I think about Pat. Every day I wonder what our world would be like if more of us had her imagination. The thing about grace, this unexpected generosity, is that it opens our hearts, and reorients us to hope.

The thing about the Kingdom is that the establishment doesn’t see it coming. They can’t anticipate it because they can’t imagine a world where sovereignty is exercised apart from self-interest. Jesus intends for us to reign by abdicating all claim to our own honor, wealth, power and glory. That’s a tough sell. It’s a tough sell for me – because in the end, the nation-state isn’t the enemy at all: I am. The Gospel confronts us with this challenge: the only way to change the world around us is first to change the world within us. The only revolution that is the true revolution – effecting true, lasting and durable change – is the revolution inside. We need to learn to slay the Leviathans of selfishness and cowardice that keep us from knowing true freedom, the liberty of the children of God. On this 4th of July, as we remember the birth of our nation, let’s also remember Jesus’ words to us:

“I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and over all the power of the enemy.”

Sunday, June 26
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
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Sunday, June 19
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Elizabeth Grundy
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, June 12
Noumena and Phenomena: The Story of Gratitude and Forgiveness
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Alan Jones taught me that, “The universe is not so much made up of atoms as it is of stories.”[1]

Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman” (Lk. 7)? In one sense, of course, Simon does. But the whole point of this story concerns his failure to really understand.

I have very fond high school memories of our local Episcopal church’s midnight Christmas service. I usually cut the fragrant greens for the wreaths with an old botany professor. Singing familiar carols, the softness of the luminaria candle light, so many friends, the taste of the bread and wine, and afterwards the cold midnight sky filled with lights from distant worlds made me feel so near to God.

One midnight at Christmas in our packed church during the prayer of consecration a man in a black trench coat strode up the center aisle to the altar where he interrupted the priest. His anger and the tension it created felt almost unbearable. For a half second it almost seemed like he might kill our rector.

Everyone there that night saw him, but not many knew his story in the way that I did. The man’s name was David and I knew him as a gentle person from a church lecture series on C.S. Lewis. He had wanted to be ordained but had been rejected by our priest. He believed that it was because he was gay. He felt so much pain that he almost didn’t care what it would take to feel better. I often wonder if he is still alive and how he remembers that night. Henry David Thoreau writes, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”[2]

The story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair begins like this. It begins with someone with such a powerful story that it leads her to radically break social conventions.

Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman.” We already know that Simon and Jesus see her in completely different ways. Simon understands her exclusively in terms of what she has done in the past. Everyone in town knows she is a sinner from the city. This woman has no existence in her own right for him. For Simon she only confirms his pre-existent sense of superiority over Jesus.

Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known… what kind of woman who is touching him – that she is sinner” (Lk. 7). The irony is that Jesus does know. Jesus knows not only what kind of woman this is, but what kind of judgment Simon has formed of him.

Jesus understands the woman’s pain, along with Simon’s testing and insecure sense of his own superiority. And so Jesus asks, “Simon do you see this woman?”

Probably the most important philosopher in modern European history is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He cared intensely about human freedom. In a short essay called “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) Kant defines enlightenment as courageously emerging from immaturity and learning to make use of our minds without direction from others. It means living by the Latin motto “Sapere Aude” or “have the courage to use your own reason.”[3]

You might remember Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) third law of motion from your physics class. He wrote that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Kant worried that this picture of the universe would make it hard for people to believe in their own freedom. He thought we might be tempted to see ourselves as billiard balls on the table simply knocked out of place by forces beyond us, compelled by desires that we did not choose.

To solve this problem Kant proposes that there is a difference between what he called the noumena which is how the world is in itself and the phenomena which is how we perceive the world. Our senses, our faculties contribute to how the world in Werner Erhard’s language, “shows up for us.” For Kant, the seemingly unbreakable laws of physics and causation are not how the universe itself is but how we perceive it.

What this ultimately means is that how we see the world cannot be disentangled from our experience of our own selves. Our self will not get out of the way when it comes to perceiving the world. We experience a bit of ourselves in everything we see.

Kant believed that in our heart we possess an extraordinary freedom to act even against our own instincts for selfishness. For him, the primary way we experience holiness lies in this freedom. It is how we come close to understanding God. Kant writes, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”[4] Our very existence in this universe and our innermost freedom remind us that we are children of God.

To Simon Jesus says, “do you see this woman.” And all Simon can see is himself. Jesus tries to help him experience something more. He tells a story about a creditor who forgave one person $8,000 and another whom he forgave $80,000. Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replies, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Jesus says, “You have judged rightly.”

Turning toward the woman he says to Simon, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven…” (Lk 7).

Jesus is not laying down a judgment. He is not condemning Simon. Jesus merely points out what is true. In a different way than Kant, Jesus teaches that what is inside us will determine how we experience the world.

Some say, “I can’t believe in God because the world is so terrible.” Indeed often the universe does not always live up to our expectations. Sometimes on days like this when so many of our brothers were killed in Orlando, I am tempted to despair. But is the world objectively speaking tragic… or is our very existence a gift? This depends on our story.

Jesus tries to plant in us a new way of being, a new way of experiencing the world and acting in it. Quite simply Jesus presents us with two pictures for how we might go through our life. Every day we choose between them.

We can see the world in Simon’s way as a battle for scarce resources in which we will only succeed through the failure or diminishment of others, or we can see with gratitude and hope as this woman does. In this miraculous moment she has come to recognize that God’s goodness eclipses every terrible thing that she has done in the past.

  1. Simon thrives on feeling superior to other people. He feels satisfaction through the subtle ways he reminds others of their lower status. For him, being religious means putting arbitrary rules over how we treat other people. To Simon what we seem like to others, is more important than who we really are. He represents that part of us that wants so badly to be admired. He constantly compares what everyone else receives with what he has. He cannot entertain the thought that he might not be right. He never really gives himself.

For Simon there is no such thing as grace. We receive nothing that we did not earn. Our past determines the future. He never even glimpses the gift of life, the savior, the one who is present in every moment. And so he offers to Jesus no water, no kiss, no oil. The universe will always, in a sense, be dead to him.

  1. On our good days however we have more in common with this woman’s experience. She teaches us that who we really are is not determined by other people’s judgments. She shows what might happen when we let go of shame. She does not always need to be perfect or right. She does not always have to win. She believes with all her heart in forgiveness. She is ready to grow and change. She is vulnerable, authentic and generous.

This woman lives in a universe alive with possibility. Free from the past, she experiences the perfect gift of every moment. She participates in a life far greater than her self, far larger than Simon even sees. In short, she can love. Her faith has saved her and she can go in peace.

Last night the actor Anna Deavere Smith explained that when she was a child her father told her that if you say a word often enough – you become that word. This week allow yourself to be the debtor who owes everything to God. Let your word be “forgive us.”

The universe is not so much made up of atoms as it is of stories. Every day these stories and the very presence of Jesus refine our perceptions and change the way that this holy world appears to us.

How about you? What will the starry heavens above and the mysterious freedom within mean to you? Will you allow the story of Jesus to draw you closer to God? Do you see this woman?

[1] Alan told me this line comes from a conversation about John Adam’s opera Doctor Atomic (2005). “The universe is made up of stories not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser, The Speed of Darkness (1968)

[2] Henry David Thoreau, The Illustrated Walden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 10.

[3] Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” (“Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?”) http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kant-whatis.asp.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 3rd Edition, Tr. Lewis White Beck (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993),169.

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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